May 2010

Scarred for Life

by Joey deVilla on May 30, 2010

scarred for life

Titled as found – and it’s the perfect title too.

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Taking Montreal’s Bixi for a Spin

by Joey deVilla on May 30, 2010

What is Bixi?

If you walk around downtown Montreal, you’ll eventually run into one of these:

01 bixi

It’s one of 400 docking stations for Bixi, Montreal’s public bicycle sharing system. You shouldn’t think of Bixi as a bicycle rental service – instead, you should think of it more as self-powered public transit. With Bixi, you check out a bike at the Bixi station closest to your starting point, bike to the Bixi station closest to your destination, where you check it in.

In Montreal, there are 5,000 bikes in Bixi’s system, which was introduced last summer. Since then, a number of cities have signed up to purchase and install Bixi systems, including:

  • Boston (2010)
  • London (2010)
  • Melbourne (May 2010)
  • Minneapolis (June 2010)
  • Toronto (May 2011)
  • Washington DC/Arlington (Fall 2010)
  • Washington State University (Fall 2010)

Bixi Rental Rates

02 bixi

You can rent a bike in one of two ways:

You can purchase a subscription to the service online. This entitles you to unlimited rentals. Subscriptions are available at these rates:

  • $5 per day
  • $28 per month
  • $78 per year (a killer deal, if you do the math)

With a subscription, bike rental is free if each trip between docking stations is under 30 minutes (other than the number of hours in the day, there’s no limit to the number of trips you can make). Trips longer than 30 minutes are charged as follows:

  • $1.50 for the second 30-minute period
  • $3.00 for the third 30 minute period
  • $6.00 for subsequent 30-minute periods

You can pay at the docking station on a per-use basis. This is the pricier approach, aimed at tourists and people who cycle only occasionally. The rates are:

  • $5 for the rental fee, which includes 30 free minutes
  • $1.50 for the second 30-minute period
  • $3.00 for the third 30 minute period
  • $6.00 for subsequent 30-minute periods

The increasing prices are meant to discourage people from “hogging” the bikes; they’re meant to keep them in circulation.

Checking Out a Bike

04 bixi

While in Montreal this past weekend, I decided to take a Bixi bike for a spin. I went to the docking station closest to my hotel, at the corner of Rene-Levesque and Mansfield. It’s a popular station; there were only two bikes left on that Saturday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m..

Like all Bixi stations, it had a map showing the locations of the Bixi stations, with that particular station highlighted:

12 bixi

…as well as a control panel for renting a bike.

To rent a bike at the station, you touch the screen, which prompts you to swipe a credit card. Once your credit card has been authorized, you’re given a passcode which you use to unlock a bike. You can either have the passcode displayed onscreen (which means you have to memorize it) or have it printed out on a small ticket.

Although I have great faith in my memorization skills, I have even greater faith in Murphy’s Law. I opted for the printout.

11 bixi

Once you have your passcode, it’s time to unlock your bike. The passcode is a five-digit number using only the digits 1, 2 and 3. You unlock a bike by typing that passcode using the keypad on the bike dock. If you entered your passcode correctly, you’ll see a green light and the electronic lock will release the bike.

03 bixi

The first bike I checked seemed in good shape and had full tires, so I entered my code and undocked it. I quickly adjusted the seat to match my height:

06 bixi

…and it was time to hit the road!

The Bixi Bike Experience

Here’s a look at the handlebars of a Bixi bike. The plastic covering on the handlebars serves two purposes:

  • To provide a place for additional instructions
  • To cover the brake and gear cables, protecting them from the elements and meddlesome users

The “basket” and integrated bungee cord are good for holding small packages and bags.

08 bixi

Here’s a close-up of the plastic covering over the left handbrake. It explains the finer points of returning a bike to the dock once you’re done with it:

09 bixi

Here’s a close-up of the plastic covering over the right handbrake. It shows you how to report a damaged bike when returning it to the dock:

10 bixi

Here’s a shot of the rear wheel and pedals. Note that wherever possible, mechanical parts are sealed away out of view and harm’s way.

05 bixi

Bixi bikes are three-speed; they have a Shimano grip-shifter mounted on the right handle. You’re not going to win any races nor do any serious bike courier work on these gears, but it’s more than enough for city biking.

I didn’t have anywhere to be in a hurry, so I was using the bike like a velo-flaneur, doing a lot of looking around and just wandering where the road and the occasional whim took me. I kept a casual pace and stayed mostly in second and third gear, switching only to first gear for that hill going up St-Laurent from Ste-Catherine to Sherbrooke.

The bike has nice fat nitrogen-filled tires, and I found the ride to be pretty smooth. The gears shifted smoothly, although I noticed the occasional lag between gear changes as I shifted downwards – a mild annoyance rather than a serious problem. The chain was well lubed, and pedalling took very little effort. The brakes were nice and tight, requiring only a little squeeze before they engaged – they felt like my bike’s brakes just after a tune-up. The frame itself – a one-piece aluminum affair designed by Michel Dallaire with metal provided by Rio Tinto Alcan – was light (light for a “cruiser” style bike, anyway) and solid-feeling.

I made a quick jaunt from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (where I was staying) to Old Montreal, where I tooled about its winding streets and caught some kind of festival, through le Quartier Chinois to the shops on St-Laurent north of Sherbrooke. From there, I checked out some of my old haunts in the McGill “student ghetto”, and then it was back to the docking station where I’d checked out the bike because I had a dinner reservation to catch.

Returning the Bike

07 bixi

Returning the bike is easy – you find an empty dock and “plug” your bike into it. A green light confirms that you’ve locked the bike and that your rental session is over. If your bike is damaged in any way, you can report it by pressing the “report damage” button. I’d gone over a half-hour but was under an hour, so my total charge was $6.50.

Thoughts on Bixi

13 bixiPhoto by jonny.hunter.

Bixi is a Montreal-based company, and its bike sharing system seems to work well there. While walking about during my stay there over the past couple of days, I saw more than a dozen people on Bixi bikes, and saw even more during my Bixi bike jaunt on Saturday afternoon.

Montreal has a couple of advantages that make it suitable for a bike sharing system:

  • Dedicated two-lane bike lanes, which are separated from the street with actual physical barriers.
  • A strong attachment to public transit and cycling, which comes from its European “feel”, large student population and well-regarded public transit system.
  • Limited geography: the city is an island.

Will the Bixi experience in Montreal “translate” to Toronto? I don’t know.

Toronto is more “American” than Montreal, so many more people there perceive bikes as toys rather than serious vehicles. A number of Toronto politicians have know-nothingly painted bicycle activism as “the war on the car” and at least a couple of them have attempted to turn modest proposals to get more dedicated lanes on city streets into an issue for the upcoming mayoral election (with opposing them seen as a way of getting more votes).

There’s also the matter of city coverage. When the Bixi project launched in Montreal, they started with 300 stations and 3,000 bikes, which meant that a for a good part of the city, it was likely that there was a Bixi docking station nearby and it was likely that that station would have at least one bike available. Since then, those numbers have been boosted to 400 stations and 5,000 bikes. You see both stations and bikes (both docked and in use) everywhere.

Despite the fact that Toronto has a population larger than Montreal’s, we’re launching with 100 stations and 1,000 bikes. I assume that most of them will be in the core, with the concentrations heaviest around the streets with bike lanes or a high hipster quotient. Will it be enough stations and bikes? We’ll find out as the service launches.

Finally, there’s the question of whether the bikes will get used in the winter. One of the favourite arguments of opponents of bike lanes is that nobody bikes in the winter. While cycling is reduced, there are still many cyclists on the street of Toronto in the winter months. Toronto doesn’t get anywhere near as much snow or anywhere as cold as Montreal, and even they have a year-round biking culture. As a year-round cyclist who regularly shuttles between High Park and downtown Toronto on his bike, I can say with certainty that winter cycling in Toronto is no big deal.

I’m in Montreal every couple of months for conferences, so I think I’d end up using Bixi when visiting. These events often call for quick errands to be run, and being able to get a bike would come in handy.

Would I use Bixi in Toronto even though I live in the city and have my own bike? There are times that bike rental would come in handy. For the rare times when I drive downtown or the more frequent times when I take the subway downtown but have to run errands all over the place, Bixi would come in handy.

I’m looking forward to seeing Bixi in Toronto. We’ll have to see if it works out.

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My Photos from Make Web Not War 2010

by Joey deVilla on May 29, 2010

I’ll post a more detailed write-up of the Make Web Not War conference later, but I thought that those of you who were there (or wished they were there) would like to see some photos as soon as possible. I’ve posted my photos at full resolution to my Make Web Not War Flickr photoset, which you can view either on Flickr or the slideshow above. The photos all have titles, and I promise I’ll finished the remainder of the descriptions over the next couple of days.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Dan Pink on What Motivates Us

by Joey deVilla on May 25, 2010

I posted this article to the technical blogs I write – my own Global Nerdy and Microsoft’s Canadian Developer Connection – but the topic of what motivates people would be just as interesting to people outside the field of software. There’s no tech jargon here; if you do work that involves even a modicum of cognitive skill, this is for you!

Here’s a great movie which takes the audio from a presentation by Dan Pink based on the research for his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and augments it with video of a whiteboard cartoonist illustrating what Pink is talking about. I have no idea how long it took to film the illustration sequences, but I love the end result – I think it makes for better internet viewing of a presentation than simply watching a video of the presenter on the podium, even when accompanied by slides.

The movie covers the part of Pink’s presentation that talks about an experiment to determine whether higher pay led to better performance. The results:

  • For turnkey, mechanical, just-follow-the-instructions tasks, larger rewards do lead to better performance.
  • For tasks that call for cognitive skills, conceptual and creative thinking — even at a rudimentary level — larger rewards did the opposite: they led to poorer performance.

The sort of work we do calls for cognitive crunching certainly falls into the latter category – as Andy “Pragmatic Programmer” Hunt says, making software is one of the hardest thing humans do.

Money is a motivator, but when it comes to people who do the sort of work we do, it requires more than just money to motivation. Pink’s recommendation is to pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money, but thinking about their work instead. Once you’ve done that, there are three factors that lead to better satisfaction and performance:

  1. Autonomy: The desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery: The urge to get better at stuff
  3. Purpose: The reason we do something

In the end, what Pink suggests is that if we treat people not like “smaller, better-smelling horses” with carrot-and-stick incentives but like people and set up the appropriate motivations, we’ll make our work and the world a little bit better.

If you enjoyed this portion of Pink’s presentation and want to see the whole 40-ish minutes, I present it below. Enjoy!

If Pink’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve heard of his other books, A Whole New Mind and the manga career guide Johnny Bunko.

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I’m in Montreal This Week

by Joey deVilla on May 24, 2010

Montreal: photo of poutine

I’m headed to Montreal this week, where Microsoft Canada’s Developer and Platform Evangelism team (of which I am a member) will be getting together for our annual team meeting as well as to help run the Make Web Not War conference on Thursday. There’ll be a lot of crazy stuff going on, and whatever isn’t blackmail material will end up here on the Accordion Guy blog, so watch this space!

The first part of the trip is about getting there, and we’re not doing it in the usual way. We’ve hired out a VIA Rail car to take us and a lot of Make Web Not War attendees to Montreal in style. The car’s rigged with power, wifi, Xboxes, Rock Band, monitors and other goodies to make the five-ish-hour trip even more nerd-a-riffic. I’ll post photos from the train.

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Banner from the Hand Eye Society's blog: "The Hand Eye Society: Meshing Toronto's Videogame Communities"

The Hand Eye Society describes itself as a “not-for-profit coalition of people and projects in support of Toronto’s videogame communities”. Their goals are:

  1. To help people make games
  2. To connect game makers with each other and with an audience, offline
  3. To foster diversity in game creation and public perception of games

I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the people behind the Hand Eye Society is Jim Munroe. He’s a former Adbusters editor turned self-publishing author of a number of enjoyable science fiction books such Flyboy Action Hero Comes with Gasmask and Angry Young Spaceman, developer of indie games including the interactive fiction piece Punk Points (the online version requires Java), maker of movies and all-round Toronto DIY-espousing creative type.

Also connected with the Hand Eye Society are other indie videogame notables including:

Poster for Hand Eye Society's "social": "Free presentation and social event from the Hand Eye Society / May 27 2010 @ 19:30 EST / Unit Bar, 1198 Queen West / Featuring: Mr. Brandon Boyer, founder of Offworld, contributing editor of Boing Boing & IGF Chairman"

The Hand Eye Society is throwing a social this Thursday, May 27th in Toronto at Unit Bar (1198 Queen Street West, a shade east of Dufferin/Gladstone, halfway between the Drake and Gladstone hotels). The doors will open at 7:00 and there may be a set of curated videogames for you to check out.

At 8:00 p.m. special guest dignitary Brandon Boyer, Chairman of the Independent Games Festival and contributing editor for Boing Boing and Boing Boing’s games blog Offworld, will, as the Hand Eye Society’s blog puts it, “deliver some form of immensely significant communication to the assembled videogame creators, enthusiasts, organizers & slack-jawed onlookers.”

If I weren’t going to be in Montreal that evening for the Make Web Not War conference, I’d most certainly at this event (I’ll definitely catch the next social). If you’re in Toronto and love videogames (especially ones that break from the mainstream) and especially if you love making them, catch the Hand Eye Society’s social this Thursday!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart!

by Joey deVilla on May 20, 2010

jimmy stewart on accordion

He would’ve been 102 today. I’m celebrating his birthday because he’s a fellow accordion player, and like me, he’s played the accordion to make ends meet. When he graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture during the great depression, there wasn’t any work in his field. He took a job playing accordion with a summer stock troupe in Cape Code, where he met Henry Fonda, got a role on Broadway and eventually ended up in film.

For more on Jimmy Stewart, see his entries in Finding Dulcinea and Wikipedia.

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