Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Gambling, Gadgets, and God

by Steven K. Roberts
Louisville, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Columbus, Dayton, Atlanta…
May 19, 1988

An unreal sense of detachment strikes me now, after a half-decade of visceral struggle against wind, gravity, motivation, and (most recently) bus-mechanics. It’s confusing, oddly serene: the sweat on my forehead is an abstract brew of managerial stress and poor ventilation, not the healthy coolant of a bio-engine at cruising speed. The air, touched with pre-ban cigarette stench, whistles down at me through a nozzle. I need nitrous… or perhaps a martini. Flying is at once a celebration of technology and a descent into madness.

What else? Cars, like a queue of orderly comets, follow their own incandescent tails. Dallas, jewel-like, is incomprehensibly lovely despite the frenzy of its reality. An old man beside me mutters about airline food, psychiatry, dog-eat-dog, attorneys, and San Diego. I pass, data-like, through a giant multiplexer-demultiplexer, otherwise known as DFW. Odd commentary crackles through the PA system: “Please don’t leave carrion baggage in the aisles… please remain seated while we prepare for a rival.”

Much has changed since the advent of the mothership. The business structure — the very notion of a “universe interface” under remote network/laptop control — has given way to a communications-concentrator near Louisville (CAABASE online, Ric Manning in person) and a busload of business trappings. And the Wondrous Winnebiko — once the very infrastructure of my dreams — is now the showpiece of our act… trucked from show to show, ramped out the rusty old emergency exit at the whim of reporters, wheeled a few miles a week (if that) through crowds, before cameras, and across floodlit stages. A sellout? Moi?

Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually… the nomadic life exhausts, torments, teases with delights just out of reach and comforts unrealized. Yet always I default to a life of change, dreading commitments to place, person, style, culture, career. I have wandered, inhaled the vapors of beginnings, and frolicked in a world of technology and magic, sweat and ecstasy — knowing that always, somewhere ahead, has been THE BOOK, a seeming fantasy when viewed from the dimly understood trenches of the publishing wars.

Well, now it’s real. Suddenly, “Computing Across America” is not just an adventure — it’s a job. It takes many forms: Marketing. Hustling for PR (and PR agents). Restructuring a business flawed by skewed expectations. Consulting. Flirting with joint-venture opportunities. Flying to Vegas to share a trade show with a client — only to fly back in day, write two articles, dash to the Dayton Hamfest for a speech and a display, drive to Louisville to address a computer club, share a booth at Spring COMDEX in Atlanta… well, you get the idea. It’s been crazy like this since my last update, with a whole new kind of overload the norm and the cycling life a sort of gauzy Harlequin memory of new romances and sunsets.

In a sense, especially compared to the American Dream, this bus life (complete with bus-cat Venus Biscuit Snow) is still a wild life of nomadness…. of strange excesses and uncertain futures. Yet it now has the tame flavor of stability — a regimented diet of freeway foods after years of eccentric back-roads cuisine. This is as close to settling down as I can get without recoiling in panic and hitting the road all over again. But I feel on the edge nevertheless… the bike looks more and more inviting… and change is in the air.

(photo by Michael A. Banks – April 1988)

Culture shock. I wake, too early, stretch and reach for the phone in my 14th-floor Las Vegas suite, larger than many houses. Maggie’s 2,500 miles away, on an Ohio farm. Stumbling to the window, I gaze over a city already teeming at 6:30 —  and beyond it, snow-dusted peaks ablaze in morning sun. The mountains… I stare at them in shock, recalling in a sudden rush the violent speed, the granny grades, the kind of experiences that led me to comment in the book: “This is bicycle touring at its best. Sweat your ass off for hours in rugged alpine beauty, then give it all back in one glorious, insane orgasm of speed and ecstasy.” There’s a tear in my eye.

But not today. Today I’m in a renegade variant of yuppie-garb, not a sweat-soaked T-shirt. I WUSSSEL, lift downstairs, and blink bedazzled through a gaudy forest of slot machines toward the coffee shop. I stop, obbligato, and discard my pocket change; I pause to marvel at the hopefuls already encamped with bins of clinking quarters while most of the world commutes.

I move on. The trade show that drew me here is the annual Expo of the land mobile radio industry, including everything from pocket cellular phones to radio tower flashers. Footpounding, arms leaden with literature, I trudge the exhibits, probing for clues to the components of a client’s future product. Where’s my bike? I fight to keep it out of conversation as I interview manufacturers about radio interfacing and battery characteristics.

Vegas night. The colors on all levels are dazzling, from a cream-blazing sky of backlit thunderheads and complex reflections to the frenetic madness of the casinos. My companions and I find our way to Caesar’s Palace, buy rolls of quarters, and begin the statistically inevitable slide to zero, punctuated by moments of anomalous fortune recognized as peaks only in depressed retrospect. Expensive dinner. The heart-pounding sight of an elevator-borne miniskirt. Opulence to the point of absurdity. The humbling presence of hundred-dollar slot machines, roped-off from us penny-ante riffraff. Smoky tables of green felt, hundreds of them, fortunes riding on roulette wheels, cards, and the random fall of dice. A vast room of sports video screens and computer-generated displays where you can bet your net worth (and then some) on anything from tennis to dog races. And strangest of all, the serious faces of those who aren’t, like us, just dropping in for a night of weirdness: a man, unsmiling, raking in $800 in chips only to slide them back onto the table a moment later; another, unperturbed, losing $300 at the turn of a card only to light another cigarette and hand over his credit card for more chances. At the slots, the serious players show no emotion at a triple-bar — they just pause while coins cascade noisily into a stainless-steel bin, ignore the stares of the tourists, and resume their rhythm in the hope that tonight will be the night of the million-dollar jackpot.

Three A.M. Street life has thinned, but in the casinos the din continues. I walk into a smut store — all garbage, quarter admission, a seedy employee swabbing down the movie booths with antiseptic. I gag, turn down a side street, and sense the change in clientele by the ratio of nickel, quarter, and dollar slots. My $16 investment in Lady Luck, at one point hitting over $40, is now down to a single quarter. I save it for a phone call and trudge to the hotel.

From my 14th-floor window, the desert night seems poignant — silent and vast above the stragglers stumbling home in numb drunken regret, the megawatts of animated signage, the 24-hour “adult” book store inviting the sleazy from the shadows. Heavy-lidded, I stare out the window till 5 — staying up far too late for a jet-lagged 35-year-old with a 7 A.M. flight…


…which they oversold. I sit jammed in the American Airlines waiting lounge and watch the ticket agent grow more and more stressed by the reactions of would-be passengers (you know the scene: grumbles, moans, pleas, rolled eyes, threats, righteous indignation, confusion, curses, protestations about stupid goddamn airline policies, and the slumped shoulders of total defeat). I have a confirmed seat, but catch her eye. “Hey, I’m on a flexible schedule today. Need a volunteer?”

“Oh yes, yes!” she cries — and within a half hour I find myself with a first-class ticket to Ohio as well as a $300 “travel voucher” good for any American flight in the next year. Feeling lucky and tired at the same time, I take my leftover quarter over to a slot machine and receive 24 in return. Ah.

I wander to the airport coffee shop for an overpriced, hyper-sweet cinnamon roll and a liter of coffee… and feel a chin on my shoulder and breath in my ear as I try to write. “Hey, what kind of laptop is that?” The guy wants to carry a searchable 11-megabyte concordance of the Bible for easy reference, so I put him in touch with some vendors and sell him a copy of Computing Across America as an antidote to theology. He will be shocked.

But now I have both time and caffeine to kill. I haul the 24 quarters back over to the bandits and lose them all so quickly that I hardly feel the pain… but the very last one gets stuck in the slot. I almost write it off, but welcoming the excuse to talk to Kathy the adorable attendant I casually mention the problem. She hands me a quarter. “This is lucky,” she says with a wink.

“Then I’ll let you tell me where to insert it,” I reply with a smile, looking her up and down with obvious appreciation. “Here?”

“No! Not this one… that one over there. I think it’s ready to pay off — a woman just lost about $50 in it.”

I drop the lucky coin into the indicated machine and immediately receive 20 in return. “Should I quit now?”

“I wouldn’t. It’s ready…” (This in a sort of cooing voice that has me doing lightning calculations about departure times, just out of old habit.)

I drop in three quarters and am rewarded with a shower of silver, clattering into the stainless steel bin with an industrial din. Short-lived, but sweet: I cash in $16 worth, realizing that with the exception of odd bits of pocket change I am exactly where I started the night before.

I hand her a book, suitably inscribed, and sit back with my $300 airline winnings to await first-class passage on the great silver slot machine in the sky. I feel better already.


Back east. The Las Vegas trip stands out as a sort of mini-adventure against a uniform backdrop of bus travel. We’ve fallen into the rhythm now, hassling with places to park, dealing with mechanics of varying skill, acquiring far too much junk and spending hours figuring out where in the bus to cram it. If anything, 3,000 miles of motorized movement has convinced me that this is not the way to do it — despite the smooth allure of that seductive $225,000 Custom Coach I test-drove a few weeks ago in Ohio…

Yes, it’s been over 3,000 miles since my last update. This is embarrassing. From Key West we returned to Orlando for the “Hamcation” and some visiting—then drove to Tallahassee to demo the bike for the capitol press corps and flirt with a PBS crew. In Valdosta, we slept in SAFT’s backyard and toured their NiCad battery plant — then a hard drive landed us in Charlotte for another hamfest, as well as a consulting gig. Then off to Greensboro and Raleigh, up to Richmond, across hilly West Virginia to Louisville — doing shows, media, visits at every stop. Frenzy! We camped in my parents’ field for a while, then rolled up to Columbus to dismantle the incompetent accounting office and relax on a farm east of Marion. Then a big one: the Dayton Hamvention. After that: Louisville again for a computer club (KIPCUG) talk on May 4… then Atlanta for a week of hardcore COMDEX burnout (exhausting, but worth it). You get the idea. At this moment, we’re taking a deep breath in Norcross and getting ready, after new kingpins and a front-end alignment, to hit the road to Charlotte, then to Richmond for a month of consulting, down to New Orleans for a library conference, then out to the west coast to find a Winnebiko III staging area…

But you see the problem. On the bike, all this mileage would have spawned a dozen spirited chapters — not to mention a convoluted trail of new friends and old tires. We have traded adventure for business, passion for frenzy, hearth for fire. As such, I’ve opened a new subdirectory and a notebook entitled “CAA-3.”

Yup, I think it was the back-to-back combination of Dayton and COMDEX that triggered it. New technology… new sponsors… new ideas… it all leads inevitably to a serious lust for the road.

Norcross nights. Vibrant Magneplanars and games of rotation atop scarred green felt, white cat-walks and Aquavit-lubed strategizing, new friends Jim and Irish Ellie. What’s the restlessness all about? With the myriad temptations of professional lucrativity confronting me in every upscale American suburb, why this continuing obsession with huffing a fragile, expensive contraption along glass-strewn concrete in the company of drunks and myopic Olds ladies?

Must be a blend of technoid addiction, love of change, and the pure selfish desire to enjoy life. Think about it: how much human energy is really dedicated to happiness? How many decisions are guided by intuition… and how many are driven by obligation, rationalization, and the countless “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that accompany everything from family birthdays to religion?

Living selfishly is not a bad thing, of course, and if you cringe at the thought, note that doing something special for someone you love can be just as much of a healthy selfish act as curling up pseudo-sick with a book and a brandy when the rest of your family is involved in some kind of ghastly smoke-filled obbligato social event. The point is that YOU are the bottom line… it’s YOUR life… it’s YOUR happiness at stake. If you don’t make it work, nobody will! If adventure calls, go do it; if you lust for a darkroom, clear out the guest room and get busy.

The hard part is sorting out all the choices, for there are a lot of things that make us technoid Americans happy. A killer stereo system or a new motorcycle? A state-of-the art laboratory or a TVRO-equipped cabin in the mountains? A serious library or a starlight-aided Celestron in a leased Ft. Lauderdale high-rise? A Mac II or a closet full of Uzis and FNs? A high-tech big-bucks career… or life on a computerized bicycle?

The emotional choices are even more subtle: Do you do what you want, or sublimate the whole panoply of sweet expensive lusts by dedicating your passing life to a set of commitments… some foisted upon you by circumstance, some expected by society, others made decades before you knew better?

More and more, we are being taught that personal gratification is wrong — that learning exotic ways to satisfy human desires amounts to a renunciation of Faith, an affront against the Lord, and is antisocial to boot. Ignorance has been canonized, formalized, and packaged with marketing brilliance worthy of Madison Ave, with the result that few people in this otherwise advanced culture can deny the existence of an external God without a twinge of guilt and fear. This is effective programming, for it’s not just a product they’re selling, it’s a world-view — a set of protocols, a firmware package designed for involuntary implantation prior to the development of self-awareness. By the time a human reaches some measure of sentience, perception has been thoroughly colored by Christian myth and guilt-motivation. Intelligence (which should flourish as naturally as a healthy jungle) appears in neat cultivated rows — shaped, pruned, protected from reality, monitored too closely, weeded mercilessly, and rendered quite incapable of brilliance and surprise.

If this sort of behavior were part of a commercial enterprise (like selling a brand of beer subliminally), the lawsuits would fly. But it is our very context that is being manipulated, the frame of reference with which we view the world. This is below the level of choice. If you feel guilty about not attending Sunday rituals, close your eyes when others pray over dinner, or feel that sex outside the sacred rite of marriage is fundamentally wrong, then your kernel and BIOS have been corrupted by a cultural virus — a self-replicating piece of code that defends itself with guilt and propagates itself via the most innocent of psychological downloading sessions (conversation, TV, Reader’s Digest, school, church, etcetera).

So what’s it all about, anyway? Why this universal hunger for an obsessive-compulsive neurosis (easily misread as a demonstration of its truth)? There are three simple reasons:

  • First, we don’t know it all, the universe is incomprehensibly complex, and it’s very comforting to believe that Someone Is In Charge and It All Means Something. Science chips away at ignorance, but it has a long way to go.
  • Second, there’s a strong need for a behavioral code — for there are still many in this society too primitive to notice that such things are self-evident. Most of the Ten Commandments make perfect sense, of course, as do the golden rule and various other tenets of good, moral behavior. Easterners add a neat twist with the notion of “karma,” which — unlike the sin-and-do-penance approach of Christianity — implies that if you’re nasty to someone, it’s going to come around and whack you up ‘side the head someday. (My karma ran over my dogma.)
  • Third, we social humans thrive on mutual support. We like clubs, and we like to feel more advanced than beginners (hence the popularity of ranking and scoring systems). Churches offer a powerful sense of belonging with no demands on skill or intelligence, yielding a stronger community force than anything else in America. They even have a built-in advantage over family, since there is the implication of being nearer to Him… a vague objective which is never seriously questioned.

Given all this, we have a staggering task ahead of us if we’re to work on evolving ourselves into an aware, intuitive post-Christian society.


None of which has much to do with a bicycle trip, except for this: it has everything to do with a bicycle trip. Back when I designed industrial control systems, I worked just as hard for creative solutions but only communicated with one client and a few local friends at a time. Over 16,000 pedaling miles, however, the greatest reward of all has been the dazzling variety of human brains with whom I’ve come in contact. I have no choice but to be in constant learn-and-teach mode, for you can’t roll into town on a blinking Winnebiko and act like an antisocial sonofabitch when almost everyone looks, smiles, waves, asks questions, shares their dreams, and invites you home for dinner. What better way to stay open to the pulse of humanity — to learn about the world and do what we can to nudge it along? Sure beats the hell out of working in a lab all day and then turning on the evening news…

And besides, it’s fun. COMDEX and the Dayton hamfest gave me that old excited kid-in-a-candy-store feeling, and I now lie awake nights fantasizing about the Geovision CDROM disk, the bike-borne LAN of robust processors, the OSCAR satellite station, the Oki cellular phone with fax and voicemail links, the computer-controlled automatic transmission… ah, the toys, the tools, the tales.

And so the point of this whole convoluted story, from Las Vegas to Paradise, is that despite the sluggishness of these recent stories, our travels shall resume. Bear with me a few months as I kick-start the marketing of the Computing Across America book (somebody’s gotta do it — and it sure ain’t the publisher), finish my consulting gig in the east, and build the Winnebiko III. There’s a long, long road ahead.

Venus Biscuit Snow with her humans (photo by Michael A Banks, April 1988)