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Life

Scarred for Life

scarred for life

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

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It Happened to Me Life Play

Taking Montreal’s Bixi for a Spin

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.

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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

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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.

Categories
Life Work

Dan Pink on What Motivates Us

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.

Categories
Geek Life

The “Social Media Revolution 2” Video

It’s Mesh week here in Toronto! Today, the developer-and-creative-focused MeshU conference takes place, followed tomorrow and Wednesday by the social-media-and-marketing focused Mesh conference. I’ll be in the audience at MeshU, and tending the Microsoft lounge (and the cocktail parties) at Mesh. If you’re attending, please say “hi!”

In the spirit of Mesh, I present Social Media Revolution 2, the follow-up to last year’s Social Media Revolution video, produced by the people behind the book Socialnomics (written by Erik Qualman, who blogs here). Whether you’re looking for little facts and statistics for a presentation, need some infotainment to get the week started or both, this video is for you!

(Want to feel old? The music track for the video is Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now, which is from the album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, which is 12 years old. Yowch.)

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

Categories
Life

Hot Dog Bubble Gum

Package: "Fruit Flavored Hot Dogs Bubble Gum. BLOW YOUR LUNCH!"

As Andy Ihnatko (the guy who took this photo) says: “It would take a while to clearly diagram out why I find this product and its packaging so disturbing.”

Categories
Life

Happiness is Like Peeing in Your Pants

Sign: "Happiness is like peeing in your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you can feel its warmth."Image from Saying Images.

Everyone can smell it, too.

Categories
Life

When Muhammad Ali Met The Beatles

beatles and ali

It made for a nice picture, but a less-than-nice story.

Here’s an excerpt from Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World describing the meeting:

Cassius Clay and The Beatles climbed into the ring and, as if they just hadn’t met each other, they went through what seemed like a total choreographed routine. There are wonderful photographs of this, in which he pretends to hit the first Beatle and they all fall down like dominoes and scamper about the ring. Then they go off to their history and he goes off to his. Then, a few minutes later, he called me over and said, “So who were those little [anti-gay slur beginning with “f”]?”