Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Radiologist Monkey Brains Segway Through DC

Oh, for the rock-star lifestyle of the academic radiologist.

It's not all about collating ARRS Attendee Course Evaluation Forms and other tedious paperwork. While collating said forms, one of us recalled hearing about an evening tour through the Capital on Segways, the two-wheeled, self-balancing vehicle. A quick googling of "segway tour Washington DC" led us to all sorts of options, including one that had 5 slots left for yesterday at 6:30 pm.

This was enough to send five torpid academic radiologists scrambling like a SWAT team to get over to Capital Segway in time for the evening tour.

We were given a quick safety briefing, which included all sorts of animated Segway disasters, usually involving a stick figure flying off the device and hitting something. In some scenarios, the figure got run over by his own Segway. Aha, we thought. Even if we don't finish the tour physically intact, we'll have the world's largest series of Segway injuries -- grist for our academic publication mills.


The initial meeting of the cool mechanical mind of the Segway with a fearful monkey brain is usually pretty comical. The monkey brain shrieks, gibbers and flails around, while the Segway calmly corrects for this.

When the wild oscillations finally die down, the next surprise unfolds. As our instructors suggest, merely thinking about moving forward causes the device to roll slowly forward. This is deeply creepy to the monkey brain, even though it knows intellectually that the Segway is merely responding to a subliminal forward shift in weight.

A group of chastened and apprehensive primates then rolls out of the store, survives its first crossing of a downtown D.C. street, and spends 15 minutes in the park across the street getting their sea legs. This is all it takes before we're all zooming around, turning on a dime, and most importantly, stopping at will.

I've spent the past few decades learning a variety of physical skills, including playing the fiddle, telemark skiing, martial arts, juggling and riding a unicycle. I'm therefore quite familiar with the amount of time it can take to cram a complex motor skill into an unwilling cerebellum. It is thence a bit humbling to experience how quickly the Segway bypasses the usual cerebellar learning curve, and compresses months or years of practice down into a few minutes.

Now that we can stop and turn reliably, we then head out for 2 hours of enormous fun. The White House is only about 3 blocks away, and Pennsylvania Ave NW behind it is large, flat, and blocked off from traffic. At this time of day, it is also largely deserted. It is time now for multiple photo ops, and zooming back and forth at speeds up to 12 mph.

After this we spend the next 1.5 hours whizzing around the following sights:
White House / Blair House / Lafayette Square / US Capitol / World War II Memorial / Washington Monument / National Archives / Smithsonian Castle / Air and Space Museum / Museum of the American Indian / National Gallery of Art / FBI Building / Navy Memorial / Newseum / Canadian Embassy / Bureau of Engraving and Printing / Hirshorn Gallery of Modern Art / Willard Intercontinental Hotel / Freedom Plaza / Botanical Gardens
After all of my prior trips to Washington D.C., I am surprised at how deserted the Mall gets after the museums close. Other than a few pedestrians, we largely have the place to ourselves. Since even the most fanatical photo buffs amongst us have left our large cameras safely in our hotels, we are recording this adventure with our iPhones alone.

By 8:30 pm, we are tired and cold, but exhilarated. We roll back to Capital Segway, drop off our machines, and head off to the nearby Les Halles for some hot French onion soup and other yummies.

Tours like this have got to be the world's greatest advertisement for actually buying a Segway. After this adventure, I feel like I finally get the Segway, in a way that a 10 minute demo could never achieve. One groks the Segway the same way one groks the iPhone, Mac Air or Tivo. Intellectual appreciation from afar is one thing, but pales extremely next to a few intensive hours of actual hands-on experience.

The machines currently still cost about $5000, and I've got a lot of other priorities for that much cash. However, for the first time, I am deeply intrigued by this device, and am eager for my next chance to ride one.


Unknown said...

Very cool! The pictures look awesome...were they all from your iPhone? I had a great time on the Segway tour with you and our other colleagues! :)


The Samurai Radiologist said...

@ mahesh:

Yep, they're all from the iPhone. Not the world's finest camera, but amazingly ample for most of my needs.