Chapter 24: Taking Care of Business
© 1987 by Steven K. Roberts
Nomadic Research Labs
Palo Alto, California (1,687 miles)
Sitting at a desk in a cluttered room on a sunny California day is not
unlike being chronically married and walking past a nude beach. Through
this wide suburban window the sky is blue, the trees are green, and the
shadows are crisp. It’s breezy and warm. People are strolling by in shorts, fer chrissake, and some
even torture me by whizzing past on sleek 18-speeds—their buns shaped
by lycra tights, calves standing proud in that fine sheen of
early-season sweat. Sigh.
February 23, 1987
I suppose I always have the option; I could just pedal away. No court
restraining order has confined me to this Palo Alto house at the
hormone-happy onset of virtual springtime. But I’m trapped: the list of
things to do is so overwhelming that I spend most of my time poring
over it, abstracting it into categories and priorities. Suddenly the
journey is project instead of lifestyle—I’m spread over three desks
trying to start a mini-magazine, script a video, kick off a new column,
finish (well, um, start) some overdue articles, and dramatically
enhance the bike communication and control system. That’s the plan
But Time, as always, slips through my grasp, teasing me with its touch,
taunting me and torturing me as it dances just out of reach. (Yes...
you’re not the only one.) No matter how much I plan, it tricks me:
darkness before the afternoon, sleepytime before night, interruptions
from self, friends, or cosmos whenever a moment’s concentration
threatens to yield progress.
Procrastination followed by despair, that’s the freelance life. The list, that great overblown
impresario of personal time management, is at once refuge and tyrant,
comforter and accuser. I add to it with satisfaction, peruse it with
nervousness, and cross things out with malicious glee. (Sometimes, er,
I even add items for that purpose alone: Saturday I sent a card to
Emily, then wrote “card to Emily” on the TO-DO list, switched pens,
marked it off, and took a well-deserved break with a smug air of
This is highly pathological behavior, even for a high technomad.
It has been an interesting week, all the overhead of getting
pseudo-settled aside. Ray Rolls was here yesterday from Chico, bearing
an armload of Vacaville nut breads and urging me past the muddle of
startup on the magazine project. This publication-to-be, in short, is a
print version of these weekly tales for all those poor unfortunates out
there who don’t have online access. Tentatively called The Journal of High Treknowledgy,
it will be a monthly compilation of CAA highlights, feature articles,
guest editorials, and, for all I know, recipes and cartoons. You can
now turn your offline friends on to my ramblings by buying them gift
The danger, of course, is that I’ll let the bike grow dusty, becoming
so immersed in the business of writing stories that my stories will be
all about the business of writing stories—a sad fate that has befallen
many an otherwise excellent author. Wonder how long that would last...
But hey. This trip isn’t all adrenaline, torn ligaments, logging
trucks, whimsical host analysis, rubber-band wars, and loony street
people. It’s work, too, hard work—and I might as well share the reality
behind the fantasy. (After all, you might otherwise think I play for a
So. This and the journal are only part of it. I’m starting another
“profit center” that fits in perfectly: The Computing Across America Traveling
Circuits. That’s right—a road show. After a few years of
observing the near-obsessive fascination that my techno-bike spawns
across the land, it finally sunk in. Of course—charge admission! All I
have to do is show up in a strange town, roll the bike onto stage, tell
a few funny stories about life Out There, and answer questions. Sounds
easy... though the difficulties include timing, advance arrangement of
venue, advertising, and so on.
And there’s more (isn’t bicycle touring fun?). I’m trying to make a
regular column out of the myriad lessons of doing business on the road
(“Breaking the Chains”), and am still hustling random freelance
articles. And yes, I’m still grappling with a world-class publishing
nightmare on the book—oh, didn’t I tell you? No? Well, if you’re not
already cynical about the publishing industry, prepare to become so...
The Computing Across America
book, written about my first 10K miles, was begun back in 1984. It was
a major event: the contract with Simon & Schuster had carried a
hefty advance, far and away my biggest ever. But I got caught up in a
whirlwind of editorial musical chairs reminiscent of Westlake’s A Likely Story: Editor One, after 3
exuberant months of long phone conversations and dreams, jumped ship to
join an investment banking firm. I missed her. Editor Two didn’t seem
to know much about anything, but it didn’t matter—he disappeared soon
into another division of the company. Editor Three, a man with solid
industry experience, hung in there long enough to receive my manuscript.
“I love it!” he said. Releasing the third quarter of the advance, he
requested a general tightening of flabby passages and added, “It’s
going to be terrific!” Considering this tantamount to acceptance, I
went gleefully to work... while he left S&S to join a new
Editor Four received the manuscript and sat on it for two months. One
day in the summer of 1985, I called him. “Uh, Steve Roberts? Let’s
see... hmm... that’s the bicycle book, right? Ah, gee, Steve, I’m
probably not the best editor for this. I’m not really into travel
books.” A panicked phone survey revealed that there had been a complete
turnover since the original contract, and that nobody at Simon &
Schuster knew (or cared) who I was. They soon invoked the ubiquitous
“unsuitability clause,” a particularly nasty trick of
publisher-designed legalese that allows them, in effect, to
unilaterally kill a project anytime up to the moment of formal
acceptance. For no reason at all.
Oh, where was my agent through all this? Quiet and in the background,
that’s where. He didn’t want to make any enemies over there, since
there were several “important” projects of his under consideration. He
even chewed me out for making waves.
I fired the agent and licked my wounds—staring with increasing dismay
at the finished 620-page manuscript on my desk, the product of some
2,200 hours’ work.
Months passed. The book remained an irritant, a frequent source of
helpless rage. I began hearing other publishing industry horror stories
(many about S&S), but they failed to make me feel better. Finally,
in desperation, I turned to Learned Information—a small publisher in
New Jersey with which I had done some business over the years (articles
and speeches). Ahhh, now we’re talking: a company on a human scale.
Within a month I had a verbal agreement, a new and delightful editor,
and a much healthier outlook on life.
That was well over a year ago. The new typesetting machine took a few
months to arrive and a few more months to get working, other projects
take up most of their time, and there’s still no written contract. The
editing was fine and the book will actually happen (in June, they tell
me, only 8 months after their original predictions), but in the
meantime I’m out here doing a high-profile media tour for no reason
other than that it’s just... what I do.
The lesson in all this? No publishing venture is straightforward and
This could go on all day, but you probably didn’t come in here for a
lesson in nomadic business survival. I can hardly invent adventure,
however, when this week’s real
story has more to do with the architecture of the whole loony
enterprise. So where are we now? In a house in Palo Alto, owned by a
wizard in ultrasonic transducer design and signal analysis who also
shares space with a pretty blonde artist and a black lab named Maggie.
We’re actually “tenants,” bartering some carefully targeted marketing
copy for space, good music, and an occasional splash in the hot tub.
Oh yes, I did have one adventure this week—an intriguing glimpse into
another layer of Dataspace.
I entered through Portal, a new host system based in Cupertino. The
first delight was the cursor control: I cranked up the VT100 emulator
in my HP Portable PLUS and the whole experience of being online changed
completely. Screens were cleanly formatted, with minor changes in menus
and directories happening in a blink. I poked about happily, forgetting
I was on a dial-up service. Nothing like speed...
The system supports electronic mail and conferencing, with no services
like CAA or Reversi or Easy Saabre. But the architecture is elegant in
the extreme, including a sort of personalized electronic clipping
service that lets a user tailor the system to specific interests.
The real magic, though, comes from the gateways. Portal is one of
thousands of systems on the Internet—a
global network designed to link diverse “domains” into a dynamically
mapped, standardized meta-network. In other words, you can send mail
all over the place: into corporate or academic email systems, defense
establishments, private systems across the sea, and so on. Naturally,
this extends to conferencing, and the dialogues in progress on the
network are interesting enough for me to add this complex environment
to my growing Dataspace neighborhood.
What we need to do now <conspiratorial wink> is get Portal and
GEnie linked through a gateway. CompuServe made headlines with their
recent MCI hookup... here’s a chance to one-up the competition and
bring the world another step closer to the truly useful objective of
universally linked networks. The present condition—isolated communities
on competing monolithic systems—should eventually give way to complete
network freedom, wherein any modem owner could communicate with any
other. The various major hosts would continue to thrive, of course,
offering competing services with different features and flavors... but mail could go anywhere.
Push for it, friends—lest we end up with just as much electronic
nationalism as that of the geophysical variety. (It’s already starting,
Well, it’s been a strange column this week, but then, it’s been a
strange week. Good thing I have Maggie to keep me sane (not the lab,
the other one). And now... to the soldering iron!