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OHGrady! Who needs this SHT?

I don't think necessity is the mother of invention -- invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble. -- Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. Pt. III, Growing Up. A multimillion-dollar feat of overengineering that dwarfs the best efforts of Microsoft, NASA and Rube Goldberg, inventor Dean Kamen has unveiled his Segway Human Transporter (SHT), a 65-pound, $3,000 "smart" scooter that can travel a dozen miles on a dime's worth of electricity. Drooling tweekers, geek-boys and pixel-twiddlers worldwide have eagerly awaited the

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Photo: Patrick O’Grady

I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention — invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. Pt. III, Growing Up. A multimillion-dollar feat of overengineering that dwarfs the best efforts of Microsoft, NASA and Rube Goldberg, inventor Dean Kamen has unveiled his Segway Human Transporter (SHT), a 65-pound, $3,000 “smart” scooter that can travel a dozen miles on a dime’s worth of electricity.

Drooling tweekers, geek-boys and pixel-twiddlers worldwide have eagerly awaited the unveiling of Kamen’s SHTheap, which he told The New York Times may answer our longing for “a transportation choice that fills the niche between walking and driving.”

Trouble is, notes Paul Saffo, director of California’s Institute for the Future, “it’s about $2,000 too expensive and 40 pounds too heavy.” And about 200 years too late. That’s how long the bicycle’s been around.

One wonders what sent Kamen careening off the tracks and deep into the SHT, seeking the answer to a question that no one was asking. A 49-year-old high-school dropout whose inventions brought him the National Medal of Technology from President Bubba, Kamen has cranked out a series of marvels, including the first insulin pump, the first portable kidney dialysis machine and a chair-climbing motorized wheelchair.

This last was the progenitor of the holy SHT, which Wired News says incorporates 10 microprocessors, custom software, two batteries and a SHTload of gyroscopes, all of them intended to work together to translate a rider’s body movements into motion and direction.

Ho, ho. Anyone who’s ever tried to program his first cell phone, recover data from a smoking hard drive or divine the significance of a “check engine” light without expensive professional assistance should be looking forward to the vicissitudes of owning one of these bad boys.

Imagine the joy of squatting on a San Francisco sidewalk in a driving rain, troubleshooting an extension conflict in your yuppiemobile’s software — call it the SHThead — that makes the damned thing spin in erratic circles like a fogbound wino cadging quarters.

Visualize the cardiac benefits of humping this 65-pound wheeled Delco up a flight of stairs (unlike its daddy the wheelchair, the SHT doesn’t do stairs).

Envision the thrill of dodging SUVs on a machine that takes its directional cues from your movements, whether inspired by reason or terror. Because while the SHT is intended for sidewalks, it seems sure to be exiled to the streets in those metro areas which bar all motorized vehicles — along with bicycles, scooters and skateboards — from what are, after all, intended to be walkways, for pedestrians.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. I find myself looking askance at many a notion held dear by mainstream America, which is said to adore both George Bush and John Ashcroft — the first a born-again towel-snapper who considers his popular-vote defeat a mandate for government by executive fiat, and the second a neo-Puritan who thinks the Constitution was only a series of suggestions, talking points jotted down by the Founding Fathers, and who couldn’t win a straight-up election against a dead guy.

After all, this electric horseSHT has the blessing of whiz kids like Apple’s Steve Jobs, whose own recent brainstorms include a $400 MP3 player, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, a company which considers a third-quarter loss of $170 million tremendous news, simply because it lost $241 million in Q3 2000. This is like trying to put a positive spin on getting your huevos cut off by announcing that you can still dream about getting laid.

More significantly, the SHT is not just so much cow pie in the sky — Kamen has accumulated $90 million in startup money from the likes of Credit Suisse First Boston Private Equity, which could have simply bought Schwinn/GT for $86 mil’ and spent the leftovers on public-service ads touting the bicycle as a “human transporter.” But they didn’t. And thus, any number of agencies and companies, from the U.S. Postal Service to Michelin North America, will be playing with their own SHT by early next year, according to The Times.

Jesus wept. What a long and winding road Americans will travel to avoid taking a little healthful exercise on an unpretentious mechanical device that has proven its utility and reliability over the better part of two centuries. The bicycle is a marvel of simplicity, inexpensive and long-lived, and most of its idiosyncrasies — flat tires, snapped cables, broken chains — can be resolved in minutes with a few simple tools. You can even spend $3,000 on one if you like, and the only way it will weigh 65 pounds is if you store your Krugerrands in the seat tube. But it doesn’t have an engine, and it requires your active participation, and thus we have a $90 million project to replace it with a device whose owner’s manual is certain to have a “Troubleshooting” section the size of the Beijing Yellow Pages.

Happily, if my own lamentable experience with high-tech devices is any guide, the popular enthusiasm for this scooter on steroids should dissipate once it makes its maiden voyage from Fantasyland into the real world.

And then, instead of the “oohs” and “ahhs” we’re hearing now, the chorus will be the one we’ve heard for years as frustrated consumers stared dumbly at balky microwave ovens, VCRs and laptops:

“Oh, man … I don’t need this SHT — Another screed from the keyboard of Patrick O’Grady

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