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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

El Camino Reality

Photo: The Computing Across America crew at the GEnie booth, 1987 West Coast Computer Faire. From upper left: Tom Hoobyar, Steven K. Roberts, Ray Rolls, Maggie Victor, GEnie booth personality, Kelly Monroe. 

by Steven K. Roberts
Palo Alto, California — April 5, 1987
11,870 miles

Ah, Stanford in the Spring. LCD characters wafting through a beery haze, articulate guitar riffs penetrating my head with exquisite pain, flawless legs in the early stages of seasonal tan splayed everywhere in sweet abundance. The first belly buttons of spring—and the flowers, those too. Outdoor jazz, a crowd around the bike, ragged student union coffee counteracting the excesses of a fraternity lawn party. This is a vicarious glimpse of college life: I wandered over here to meet the solar car folks and ended up staying all day, addicted to beauty and music and the whole hedonistic scene. People actually live like this!

(“What was your major?” students always want to know. They never seem to like it when I say I’m a dropout.)

It’s been a while, I know. What, three weeks since my last update? The prodding email messages have been increasing in frequency: “Hey, Wordy, you still alive out there?” Well, yes, but you wouldn’t want eight weekly chapters about life on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto…

Actually, though the layover continues, the journey’s as crazy as ever. The bike gets smarter by the week—packet data communication is working now, allowing on-the-road e-mail—and the business of this eccentric non-business continues to grow ever more stable (in a twisted parody of the MBA sensibilities being programmed all around me). The next haul will be a long one, you know, and pedaling away from these Silicon Valley resources isn’t going to be easy. So why hurry? Not only is the “wizard hematocrit” higher than anyplace else I’ve ever been, but there has developed a critical mass of brilliance that yields R&D facilities unmatched elsewhere. Toys, toys, ah, such exquisite toys…

But there’s a longing, a deep one. I walk into our host’s ping-pong room (now a Winnebiko shop), and see on my machine a layer of road dirt, the miles Out There still reflected in the digital odometer and the patina of loving use. It’s impossible to ignore, this tire itch of mine, but still there is the relentless allure of TechMecca. Conflicting addictions. I wire a 4-pole filter for the new speech synthesizer and fantasize about hearing it whisper in my ear as the Sierras drift slowly by…

There have been a number of specific treats worthy of mention since last I wrote, the kinds of things that have kept me from feeling too dangerously settled (despite being able to set the temperature of the shower without depending upon thermal feedback). Last weekend was a good one: the West Coast Computer Faire.

GEnie Information Services, my host company, really knows how to party! Rather than settle for the typical trade-show hospitality suite, the folks from Rockville chartered The City of San Francisco.

The CAA team—Ray Rolls, Kelly Monroe, Michael Wanger, Maggie, and I—boarded from Pier 33, instantly coming face-to-face with familiar name tags. It’s a sensation that always intrigues me: seeing for the first time someone I already know from brain-to-brain contact. There in the eyes: the spark I recognize from a year’s accumulation of words. There in the smile: something of the warmth that came across in all those electronic emotion tokens… 🙂 and <grin> and *>–.

Friday night on San Francisco Bay, there were a lot of exclamations. (“Wow! You’re Bonnie? I had no idea…”) I walked around the cruise ship, doubly wobbly from the waves and tequila mockingbirds, squinting past napkinfulls of bacon-wrapped scallops at adhesive tags bearing names I’ve known for years. Talk flowed; the night was breezy with the exchange of business cards and the energetic war stories of a new industry. Everybody seems to know, or know of, everybody else.

And ah, the night. Outside our floating bubble of gently inebriated tale-swapping there drifted the city of light: a hillside glittering with the sparkles of a partying populace, headlights prowling Mt. Tam, renegade nocturnal gulls soaring ghostly against crisp sky, The Bridge overhead at once as graceful and solid as the land itself, dark Alcatraz bursting larger than life from the cold swells. A sudden sense of silence. The captain turned his spotlight on the old prison, his beam lashing hot through the night as if from watchtowers of decades past, probing the craggy rock for the desperate furtive eyes of those with nothing left to lose.

Hours passed, afloat. Roundtables took on substance, the politics of the online world evident in the turnover of sysops and slow boil of schisms and alliances. I felt at once a native (with 7 years online) and a visitor (just passing through; wanna see my bike?). We are the rich protein stew of a growing network consciousness, the beginning of a whole new culture.

San Francisco itself, by contrast, was maddening. We wobbled happily off the boat with handshakes and hugs all around, and found our way back to the famed Regency Hyatt on Embarcadero Square. $184 for our CAA slumber party (about the size of a Motel 6 room), plus $57 for 24 hours’ worth of parking (two vans). Muffins and O.J. for two, twenty bucks. All this a few blocks from the birthplace of countless clichés about street poverty and public depravity. (“Are you dramatizing the plight of the homeless,” asks a high-class lady in a recent cartoon, heavy-laden with Fifth Avenue shopping bags, “or are you just another bum on a heating vent?”)

Anyway. The West Coast Computer Faire was delightful, once I maneuvered my odd exhibit past the suspicious guards and onto the carpet. I actually had my own booth, arranged through a PR swap, but it seemed much more interesting to join GEnie’s display. So…

There it sat. The doors opened, and in swarmed the computer aficionados of the Bay Area, a million of ‘em it seemed, slow-swirling like a viscous fluid through the miles of aisles, forming eddy currents and backwaters, torrents and blockages. I seemed to be responsible for one of the latter, as they passed en route from one row of screens to the next and suddenly found themselves staring at something that recalled the early days of this industry… you remember… back before power users and corporate volume buyers and IBM and hard disks and… right. That’s it. Fun!

All day we watched faces set in traditional trade-show stress patterns light up with various blends of delight, ridicule, humor, relief, astonishment, and inspiration. “This is the neatest thing here!” gushed one fellow, and I handed him a flyer. All day they came, and all day I explained. Ray, Maggie, and Kelly worked just as hard, describing the handlebar keyboard over and over, pointing out the information flow and the connection to GEnie. And time and again we watched it happen: that lovely transition from “what’s this crazy thing?” to “Ohhhhh, I see!” In that sea of technology, this was the one exhibit that expressed the freedom that can be had through portable computers and network communications.

GEnie loved it, of course, this unexpected addition to a booth whose theme, appropriately enough, was discovering new horizons. And I loved it as well—finding the company to be much more energetic and imaginative than the typical conservative “torporation.” I think this system will be around awhile.


So much for Saturday.

Sunday, did I rest? Ha. I got up at 4:15 and spent the entire day riding 33 miles through a 2-square-mile area in Marin County (Nicasio). Beside me rolled a Clean Slate Productions van with a platform-mounted Ikegami, 5 crew members, and 2-way radio. This is the start of a new project—a 10-minute network-quality video about my strange life, to be underwritten by the companies who have the most to gain from the association…

Being on camera, even on a bike, isn’t always easy. “OK, now ride out of frame,” crackled the voice in my ear as we started up hill. “I’m working on it,” I huffed, knowing they were looking for a smooth acceleration. An electronic sigh. “OK, OK, let’s go around and try that again.” I explained that my 1/5 horsepower body and 400-pound loaded weight are precisely equivalent to a 3-horse Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine pushing a 3-ton mini-motorhome… and they let up a bit.

We got some magnificent road shots, as well as a goosebump-raising sunset scene on a cliff over the Pacific. While the script read, “I can conjure a home anywhere at all,” I tugged on the end of my flattened porta-condo and it sprung to hangar-size, all 108 square feet of it. I hunkered down on the grass and pseudo-wrote in my pseudo-camp while the director shouted “QUIET ON THE SET!” and the producer made notes and the associate producer took production stills and the gaffer squinted at the sinking sun and the cameraman bent over the Big Eye… Through it all, Maggie looked on from the sidelines, thinking about her new unassembled DeFelice recumbent and her old Infinity lying in pieces, taking my spotlight very well—all things considered.

Oh yes, a bit of video-related humor. Friday night I rode to Menlo Park to address a local ham radio club, and arrived at the community center to find a swarm of dance-bound teenagers, junior-high age. Lost, stuck on a narrow sidewalk with no way to turn around, I was surrounded. The questions came rapid fire:

“Hey, you talking to the pigs on that radio, man?”

No, silly, I’m talking to my girlfriend.

“You are not!”

“Hey, weren’t you on TV?”

Yes. Evening Magazine.

“You were not!”

Yes, I was.

“Alright then, who was the host?”

I haven’t the slightest idea.

“You see! I told you.”

And so on. Rather exhausting. The hams, with a median age of about 50, were much more reasonable, and tended to elicit more detailed commentary. “Maggie here, KA8ZYW (Zesty Young Woman), also has an H-P Portable, and in the tent at night we interface our serial ports and download to each other…”

(By the way, I wanna toss in a plug for ham radio. Things are changing fast: new novice rules allow 10-meter voice as well as a host of other new privileges, and packet radio is reaching the appliance level—which means that anyone who’s into digital communications can now do it from a briefcase. Old hams, long the lifeblood of the hobby, are dying off, and if we don’t revitalize this thrilling endeavor it’s going to start losing spectrum space and degenerating. If you’re interested in tinkering, global communicating, public-service, datacomm, portable TV transmitters, bouncing signals off the moon, probing the limits of anything electronic, meeting people, or making phone calls from your jacket pocket, then check it out!)


Before I end this rambling, long-overdue article, I should make a bit of cultural commentary on life in California. It covers a huge spectrum, of course (imagine an amplified Gaussian distribution with hairy asymptotes… the Thing that ate San Francisco), and there seems to be quite a bit of new-age activity—including everything from simple vegetarianism to hard-core pseudoscience. I was poking fun at crystal-worshippers one day, and a friend sprung to their defense: “Just because it’s not part of our Western paradigm doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”

Yeah, but that doesn’t automatically mean it IS true, either.

One has to wonder. I met a beautiful lady this evening who made deep eye contact, explained that she is a nomad as well, and then noted that her travel style is by air. “Someone I’m meant to meet always sits next to me,” she explained. “Do you have an in with the ticket agents, or is it more cosmic than that?” I asked.

Everyone seems concerned with their energy, and not in the physical sense. People SEE something, and make it clear that they don’t just mean “see.” Amateur high-ticket self-psychology is as robust an industry as ever, with organizations like Lifespring charging big bucks to teach new meanings to old words and give your life perspective. Almost everybody seems to non-electronically network, channel, or interface. An eccentric blimp fanatic calls himself the “flavior savior.” Christianity is still miraculously alive, along with countless profitable variants. And the AIDS scare remains in the news enough to obscure it’s true proportions, so mixed in with all the rest is a new and strangely perverted morality—increasingly linked, almost defensively, to spiritual matters. Most disturbing.

But hey. That’s California. In this area, the multiplier of nonlinear terms is itself nonlinear; it’s a place where anything you want can not only be found, but expanded beyond all recognition. Therein lies the fun, and the energy <grin> that sparks all those new toys after which I habitually lust. Conservative attitudes do not heavy magic make.

And so the layover continues, about another month. Number 27 will be slow in coming, too, so we don’t have an overload of stories from one place. And then… east? Maybe. The options are many and confusing… so let us get these machines ready for the next phase and then figure out where they’ll roll.