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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Immersed in Santa Cruz

by Steven K. Roberts
Santa Cruz, California — February 11, 1990

The photo above is by Maggie Victor, from post-earthquake Santa Cruz in 1990. Titled “Where old bicycles go to die,” it was published in the Nomadness journal as a sort of graphic counterpoint to the high-tech BEHEMOTH… though the project yet had so much uncertainty that the image elicited a deep twinge, like a joke that hits too close to the bone.

Ya know, it’s funny. Here I am in one of the world’s great destinations… a place known for its blend of 60’s flavor and new age consciousness… a sexy beach town perched perkily on sunny Monterey Bay… a wild escape only a half-hour from the techno-delights of Silicon Valley. Yep, here I am in Santa Cruz, a town that loomed larger than life as I pedaled slowly and eagerly up the coast so long ago. I can hardly believe it! Santa Cruz is a sort of paradise, despite the recent quake: twenty years of California mystique distilled into a single idyllic moment. Yet… I hardly notice.

And that’s the essential difference between movement and stasis.

When you travel, your eyes are open to every nuance, every quaint rural mailbox, every ripple in the cultural fabric. You thrill to the unfamiliar curves of new land: a feeling so like falling in love that words flow fast and passionate as your heart throbs with unspoken promise.

But when you stand still, the world fades to background — the magic that once enchanted you now frumpy and ordinary, hidden behind the old clothes of daily routine. Sometimes it emerges briefly to surprise and delight you, but whole weeks and months pass with numbing sameness…


There are endless challenges, of course — this is not (alas) a lazy oceanside layover of sunshine and frolicking (especially this time of year, when it’s cold even in California). For one thing, I’ve been delayed again by the old truth that there ain’t much between the couch circuit and the one-year lease. We found a good place to live — renting from the owner of a Szechuan restaurant — but the bike lab is another issue entirely.

When we arrived here in August, I worked in the dirty, unheated, leaking garage. The days were balmy and dry, evenings pleasantly cool. I put up a tangle of dipoles, installed a stereo, and puttered away the nights building the console. Progress was swift, especially as the COMDEX deadline neared: I displayed the bike in the Cirrus Logic booth with both built-in DOS systems purring away on graphics demos.

Then it got cold. A housemate conveniently moved out, so we doubled our rent and moved the lab inside — with the 12-foot bike diagonally bisecting a bedroom already overstuffed with workbenches and shelving. For a few days I bravely kept at it, climbing over the machine for scraps of wire, fighting clutter at every turn. No way. And besides, we could hardly afford three Santa Cruz rooms on the meager pickings of the Nomadness biz.

But have you ever explored an unfamiliar, overpopulated town with the intent of finding a few hundred square feet of free workspace? Even with a famous bike, it’s not easy. I called here and there, growing dispirited, watching the inexorable passage of time with something akin to rage. I had grim thoughts of the whole shtick falling apart — of losing momentum, running out of options, and joining the considerable homeless population of Santa Cruz… still hustling for bike parts and dreaming of a return to the Road, pulling out my faded photos to show anyone who would buy me a cup of coffee, hoarding once-glittering gewgaws in mildewed boxes stashed in sympathetic crawl spaces around town. Shivering, I’d wire-wrap on a heating vent, reduced to using small-scale integration for lack of a development system to support my precious but useless stash of programmable gate arrays. I would huddle in the Mission, coding FORTH on the backs of old religious tracts, eyes taking on that crazed gleam that keeps the others away. Technology would pass me by, but sometimes, driven by a confused tangle of memories and dreams, I would take to the streets, showing my tattered bike to likely looking passers-by and hitting them up for bits of stainless hardware or maybe a quarter for a 74HC04.

<shudder>

Fortunately, Borland International is just up the road in Scotts Valley, and even more fortunately, Philippe Kahn shares some of the same passions. He’s not a typical CEO at all — our last meeting was a brisk muddy walk in the hills, and his home is a playground of music and technotoys. And best of all, I have just moved the entire project into comfortable donated lab space, spacious and secure enough to remove all remaining excuses for not pouring my entire being into getting this damn project finished!

So how IS the project, you ask? You… DID ask, didn’t you? Good. It’s actually getting pretty interesting, though not moving as fast as I’d like. A recent story explained the grand concept, but there are a few updates… but first, I’d like to relate a new observation which that is a direct result of this project:

“If you take an infinite number of very light things and put them together, they become infinitely heavy.”
— the Roberts Law of Applied Mobile Gizmology

Anyway…

A Macintosh Portable is now completely disassembled and built into the console. (It, and a companion SE/30 for my office, have completely changed my perception of computers, my attitude about work, my approach to programming, my relationship with the computer industry, and my life in general.) A machining and custom car wizard named Ron Covell made a flip-down enclosure for the machine’s justly famous active-matrix LCD, and it can be lifted on Delrin hinges to reveal the VGA display for the DOS system (I call it mechanical display paging). I’m now haunting trade shows and Mac online discussion groups, collecting software and learning, learning…

The Mac was originally intended for biketop publishing, but is now the primary user interface for the whole system — with HyperTalk the development language. Individual cards will present slices of the bike, with the Mac interpreting high-level commands and communicating via XCMDs with the quartet of FORTH systems that do all the crank-turning (except for those big aluminum cranks up front — I’m still stuck with the ever more intimidating task of turning those). I’m now up to 80 meg of local hard disk, somewhere around 10-12 meg of total RAM, high-density floppies for both Mac and DOS environments, and a Jasmine 150 megabyte file server in the trailer. ¿Por Qué No? We need data!

The console is mechanically done, and unfolds completely for service. It’s covered with a sleek, beautiful fairing made by Zzip Designs, painted white internally to minimize solar heat gain. The trailer is essentially complete as well and a fold-down door in the very rear exposes the ham and satellite station, still under construction. And the antenna farm is getting completely out of hand, as expected, with stacked J-poles for the Microsats, whips for HF, and various other strange things sticking skyward or huddling under radomes.

The lab is full of wondrous devices that have yet to be integrated — the heads-up display, the microwave doppler motion sensor, the TV station, and all sorts of other nifty components. It all looks terribly intimidating, but as mechanical, power, and conceptual substrates near completion, the addition of peripherals becomes easier and easier. The whole system is completely bus structured, and the intent is to handle everything with software once all the interfaces are in place.

And then it will finally be rideable, at which point I can hit the road, pedal slowly through the hot boring central valley for a few days, and start wondering how I could have spent so much time in idyllic Santa Cruz without ever really getting to know the place.


Yah, this is quite a place alright. It’s still reeling from the quake, which ripped out much of the town’s visible heart, but it’s vibrant, feisty, and full of people who care passionately about all sorts of issues.

One way to glimpse past the physical reality of a town is to read the personal ads. Here’s a group that would make for a spirited dinner party…

    • Yoga priestess seeking monogamous non-attachment. Into vegetables, cotton, confusion, sitting, knowing and not-knowing. Commitment to nothingness a must.
    • Unemployed? On welfare? Homeless? Suicidal? Addicted? Like to spend my money and consume my goodies? In your 20s/30s? You’re my kind of woman. I’m 44, prosperous, and well out of normal society.
    • Luscious lesbian in search of a lovely woman wanting to be cherished and adored. We share being unabashed and unafraid of fun, frolic, adventure. I am a professional 35 year old into spirituality, quiet reflection, sports.
    • Free spirited couple would like to meet affectionate, open-minded SWM for friendship & frolicking. Endless possibilities. Please include photo and phone.
    • Santoria priestess, favors red decor, currently at liberty but has references. Seeks new relationship. Interests include poultry, photography, video, Brazilian necromancy, fancy dress, decorating, candlemaking, and running on the beach. Last relationship experienced religious conversion. Will re-locate. No hangups.

Culturally, Santa Cruz seems (especially in off-season, when the hordes of visitors don’t obscure its true nature) to be exactly what you would expect if you extrapolated liberally from the West Coast 60’s. The people cover the whole range from social parasites to Highly Evolved Beings, with every political, intellectual, and sexual variant not only represented but vociferously defended by specialized media and political factions. There’s a predominantly leftist flavor that supports all sorts of alternatives while unwittingly rendering certain classes of humor socially suicidal, largely due to the massive influence of UCSC. And, given the proximity of Silicon Valley, there are all sorts of brilliant techies, startups, consulting firms, and refugees from over the hill who are busily importing mega-traffic and various other population-related problems. I can’t blame them at all: I’m one of them.

The beaches are spectacular — it’s hard to imagine a more optimal setting for a town. The sunsets along the cliffs bring even the most jaded locals to a stumbling, gaping halt; while on balmy days (I seem to recall) the sands are strewn with well-oiled Beauty. There are even a couple of nude beaches in town, much safer and more convenient than the wild windswept ones up the coast where cars are sometimes vandalized while their owners frolic carefree in the surf.

One perfect warm day at the end of tourist season a few months back, Maggie and I spent the afternoon at a favorite local beach. Naked, we lounged about in a sheltered cove with a dozen or so other people, relaxed, non-sexual, at peace with the world. A small group conjured music from a kalimba, bongos, voices, and bamboo flutes; a woman nursed her child. A tan, muscled yogi danced alone, moved tai-chi-like and dove into the surf; a few people read or conversed quietly; I pattered for a few seconds on a laptop before sensing the absurdity and moving on to something more reasonable: dozing in the sun.

As the chill shadows of the cliff walls gobbled more and more of the beach, most of us dressed and drifted away. We were among the last to go, and arrived panting at the top of the rocky path to find two young cleancut tourist couples hanging around the precipice in obvious agitation. “Shall we call the police?” one woman asked, as her fella stared down at the cove with a pointed look of disgust pasted on his face.

I followed his gaze — the bronzed yogi lay alone on his blanket, naked and unmoving. The woman prattled on. “I mean like, what if a little kid comes by or something? That is really disgusting. I think we better go call the cops, guys.”

I turned to her. “It’s OK… that’s a nude beach.”

“Oh my God, I thought he was like being a pervert or something!” Her hand flew to her mouth, and I hope she felt as foolish as she looked.

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?


Ah, life is crazy. The other big project these days, besides my perennial bike-obsession, is Nomadness, a sort of print edition of these stories augmented by graphics, photos, and submissions from other writers. It’s a time-consuming but exciting venture.

But still, it all sometimes seems insane. It has now been two years since we’ve lived full-time on the bikes, yet we still do interviews (British and Australian TV coming up) on the electrifying, exuberant themes of freedom and high-tech adventure. The Independent of London called the whole venture “stupefyingly surreal” in a teaser to this delightful article.  Our image has more inertia than our reality: in the public mind, we’re still out there, camping, roughing it, clipping battered laptops to hostel phone jacks and sweating slowly across America in a succession of wild adventures. The reality is more like being in charge of an interminable engineering project with a dizzying array of vendors and subcontractors, along with an ongoing PR and publishing venture.

But the results are becoming tangible at last… the bike, though far from done, is flickering to life and is starting to look pretty much like it will when we get back on the road. In the meantime, Maggie and I continue one of our perennial arguments, reflected by the growing difference between our bicycles….

Steve: “More is better!”

Maggie: “Less is more!”

And that’s about it, more or less.