Machine Cycle – Ask Mr. Protocol
I simply love this article. The author’s combination of deep technical perspective and delightfully quirky sense of humor makes an ideal combination for discussing computerized bicycles in the pages of an information-dense industry trade journal. I’ve always looked at this as one of the BEHEMOTH’s journalistic highlights.
A little more context on the Grey Poupon quote (and the artwork above by Tom Barrett): during RAGBRAI 1991, with ten thousand cyclists pedaling across Iowa, I was pretty much trailing the pack as usual. In my rearview mirror, I saw someone rapidly gaining on me… and within moments he had decelerated to match my slow uphill trundling. Sleek and slick, his bike outfitted with aero components, he was at the other end of the cycling power-to-weight spectrum.
Without breaking a smile, he spoke in a suave upper-crust British accent: “Pardon me. Do you have any Grey Poupon?”
After that, I carried a small packet of the stuff, but nobody ever asked that question again. The artwork takes a few liberties with the story, but somehow it just fits. Anyway, on with this exquisite “Ask Mr. Protocol” column…
by Michael O’Brien
Q: What the heck is that thing Mr. Protocol is sitting on?
A: Probably the only thing on Earth that could possibly tempt him into working off all those Big Stuf Ding-Dongs. It’s a bicycle. (*WHAP!*) Ow! Put that down! What do you think this is, Punch and Judy? This is a serious technical column-we don’t aspire to the true classics here. And it is too a bicycle. I don’t care if it’s 12 feet long, weighs 450 pounds, is covered with solar cells and has more antennas on it than the Johnson Space Center. It’s still a bicycle.
We shouldn’t even be surprised at it, in these days when the McMurdo South Polar Station is on the Internet. If McMurdo can be on the Internet, why not a bicycle? What’s more interesting is the story or how one man’s irritation with his life style can result in what is certainly one of the greatest toys ever built, or one of the truly great technological excesses of the Western World, or quite possibly both.
What can possess a man to cease worrying about refinancing his house and start worrying instead about how to construct a taillight out of LEDs? Mr. Protocol is glad you asked.
Presented for your consideration: Mr. Steven K. Roberts, programmer, designer, bachelor. He sits in front of a screen all day, programming computers owned by other people for other people’s purposes, like tens of thousands of others like him. But Mr. Roberts has decided to strike out on his own, live his own life, be a free man. Mr. Roberts has decided to become a Writer. Mr. Roberts is not about to enter the pages of American literature, however. Mr. Roberts is about to enter the Twilight Zone.
Steve Roberts found that being a writer was startlingly like what he was doing before. He was still sitting in front of a screen all day. The only two differences he could see were that this time he owned the screen and the paycheck had stopped.
At this point Mr. Roberts had the inspiration that was to change his life and give rise to a movement of which he is (of course) the chief exemplar: High-tech Nomadness. He decided that the only two things a writer really needed were a brain and fingers and that both of those were portable. He decided to hit the road.
Jack Kerouac had already pretty much staked out the territory of seeing America by car while writing like a son-of-a-gun, so Mr. Roberts decided to go with another hobby of his and do his writing from a bicycle. He fitted out a bike with a laptop, batteries to run it and solar cells to charge the batteries. He threw in a CB for good measure and thus was born the first Winnebiko.
This machine went through another incarnation, with rather more doodads on it, and many thousands of road miles went by. The final incarnation is the BEHEMOTH (Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine… Only Too Heavy). BEHEMOTH is mostly complete-complete enough for road trips, anyway-but is still being finished. Given that it is a work-in-progress, then, let’s see what we’re dealing with here.
BEHEMOTH is a recliner bicycle. Like most recliners, it’s longer than a typical bike, but in this case it extends to 12 feet or so. This is due not only to the extended front wheel typical of recliners (to make room for the rider’s legs) but because behind the seat is a boxy bunch of electronics topped by an aluminum-case detachable manpack and behind that is a detachable two-wheeled trailer. The entire bike has radios on every conceivable band, and the computers are…well, let’s just leave it at “numerous” for now. The bike comprises a single system, and it’s the architecture of that system that Mr. Protocol would like to explore today. He assures you that protocols do enter into it, though perhaps not in the way one would think.
Well, what’s the point of it all? Mr. Protocol is glad you asked.
The point is to package the sort of computational environment to which most of us are now accustomed and take it on the road. This means assembling the computers into a road-worthy package that can be used from a bicycle and providing a mechanical and electrical support system to allow them to run, and to provide a link or links to the outside world.
The front wheel of the bicycle is covered by a streamlined fairing, underneath which are most of the computational electronics of the bike. The front of the fairing contains a single headlight, and a bump on the fairing covers the antenna of a GPS receiver. On the flat rear of the fairing, facing the rider at a convenient distance, is the main display console of the bike. It appears that Mr. Roberts does not play favorites: There are separate screens for a SPARCstation, a Mac and a DOS machine. The SPARC display is a reworked display from a Britelite, chosen because it’s one of the few flat-panel displays that can be read in full daylight. The Mac display sits in front of this on a hinged flip-up panel — “mechanical display paging” as Mr. Roberts puts it. Below these is a slightly smaller display used for general status information on the bike. To one side is an even lower-resolution display, but a very clever one. This is an array of about eight by 10 LEDs, unlabeled, which display a pattern representing status information about one or another of the bike’s subsystems. The resulting pattern can be recognized as “good” or “bad” by the rider on the basis of experience, without a complicated labeling scheme.
The rest of the console display is taken up with smaller, special-purpose displays, as well as a set of power switches. Since the bike’s power distribution is under computer control, there must be a bootstrapping method to get enough of the bike powered up to allow power control to become automatic. These switches allow a sequence of power-up events to occur under manual control, to avoid deadlock.
The rider, then, has a full (some would say overfull) computational environment in front of him, but is busy riding a bicycle at the time. How can he interact with the display? Mr. Protocol is fond of the answer to this one, as it involves a fair amount of ancient history. The rider uses a mouse and a keyboard, just as any right-thinking individual would. But how? Well, this is a bicycle, so of course the rider is wearing a helmet. The mouse is a 6D Logitech unit built into the console and the helmet, with three transmitters and three receivers. This gives the three angular rotations plus the three spatial dimensions. The keyboard is a real piece of history.
The mouse was first developed for the NLS (On-Line System, don’t ask why it’s NLS instead of OLS), built at SRI by a whole bunch of people of whom only Doug Engelbart is generally credited today. The mouse was designed to be used in conjunction with another device that has apparently been relegated to the dustheap of history: the chord keyboard. This little wonder looks like a five-key piece of a piano keyboard. With his right hand on the mouse, the user rests his left hand on the chord keyboard and drives the NLS like a piece of machinery with a series of mouse clicks and two-letter commands issued from the chord keyboard. Letters are formed by typing their five-bit binary equivalents on the chord keyboard.
And that’s what the bike’s computer systems have: two chord keyboards, one built into each handlebar of the bike. Of course, the user is not exactly using NLS.
There is one more display available to the user. The bike’s helmet does not stop at a built-in mouse. There are dual-channel headphones built in, as well as a couple of very bright lights, a rear-view mirror (looks like a normal cyclists dental-mirror rear view mirror, which makes it look out of place on this bike), a boom mike (rainproof of course)…and a Private Eye heads-up display. This little gem sits about an inch and a half in front of one eye and uses a vibrating mirror to provide a variable focus point, which since the display is being viewed only by one eye, makes the 720-by-280 bitmap appear to be floating in space some feet in front of the rider. Mr. Protocol has tried this out and uncharacteristically refers to it as “way cool.”
This gives us the computational environment as seen by the user. It is possible to pedal along while composing the Great American Novel or (more typically) working on a CAD drawing of what to do next to the bicycle.
What is the computational arrangement as seen by the bicycle? This is closer to the world Mr. P. deals with, after all. This turns out to be disarmingly simple.
There is a Bicycle Control Processor or BCP, which consists of several Motorola 68HC11 processors running FORTH. The BCP is responsible for all of the low-level control processes on the bike. The most important of these is power regulation. Power is the limiting resource on the bicycle. It is possible to get around almost everything else, but it has been true since the days of Thomas Edison that anything that stores decent amounts of power can also be used as a boat anchor. Technology has progressed faster in almost every other area of human endeavor. There are a few lighter solutions around these days, but in the first place they cost enough to put a lump in the national debt and in the second place they have a charming tendency to blow up spectacularly if you whack them hard enough. Suffice it to say that the batteries on BEHEMOTH make up a significant fraction of the overall 450-pound weight of the fully loaded bike, and they have to be babied at that. That’s the job of the BCP. (Yes, 450 pounds. The bike has 105 speeds, three derailleurs and a “granny gear” that will push the thing up a phone pole if you’re willing to spend a week pedaling to do it.)
Consider the braking system, for example. The main brakes are hydraulic disk brakes and work well at converting laboriously pedaled energy into heat. To buy back at least a fraction of the human-provided power, the front wheel is fitted with a half-horsepower variable-reluctance motor-generator (and that’s used up the hyphen budget for this week). The handlebar brake grips have some dead space in their action before the hydraulic brakes are engaged, and this space is used to increase the resistance of the motor-generator, which dumps the generated power onto the bike’s power bus to recharge the batteries.
It should be noted here that the motor-generator is used only as a generator. One might expect the motor section to help out with the next hill—half a horsepower is nothing to sneeze at in bike terms—but it turns out that it just isn’t practical to do so. The bike’s power budget is 45 amp-hours, and a half-horsepower motor would suck the batteries dry in no time. Similarly, a mechanical flywheel would add too much to the weight of the bike, plus there’s nowhere to put it. This results in an extremely high-tech bicycle that still leaves the rider entirely on his own on those miserable uphill grinds.
Two other functions of the BCP have to do with routing signals around the bike. One of the primary design criteria for this whole monstrosity is that new devices should be able to replace old ones trivially, with a minimum of fuss and bother in the control department. To this end, the main control structure of the bike at the link level is a cross-point switch. There is a cross-point switch for serial TTY lines, which are the standard method for device interconnection on the bike, and one for audio.
For example, let us assume that some miscreant is attempting to do something unpleasant to the bicycle in the rider’s absence. The BCP will connect itself to the business-band radio to page the rider and will also make an audio connection to the radio to allow the rider to listen to local audio around the bike. If things become more serious, the BCP will connect the Audaptor text-to-speech board to the cellular phone, so the bike can call the police on its own. The BCP will make another audio connection to the cellular phone to generate the tones for dialing. Furthermore, if the bike is actually moved, the GPS receiver will be able to broadcast the bike’s whereabouts.
As one might imagine, there are bound to be unexpected complications. In the first go-round, the bike was programmed to page the rider over the amateur two-meter band if the bike was being stolen. The rider could then send a signal back to the bike causing it to send local audio from around the bike over two meters for 15 seconds. Now, one of the strictest regulations in amateur radio is one prohibiting profanity over the air. Naturally, the very first time this burglar system was activated and Mr. Roberts turned on the local audio, a very thick blue haze came over the airwaves as some gentlemen of the motorcycle-and-leather persuasion were heard commenting on the strangeness of the bicycle in a vocabulary of startling sweep and power. Naturally, no provisions had been made for commanding the audio to turn itself off before the full 15-second timer had elapsed. Mr. Roberts was left to the poor expedient of attempting to jam his own signal. The bike now does its paging and local audio over business-band radio, which has no such prohibitions on content, probably on the basis that business is already pretty profane.
The typical mode of operation of the bike, then, is one of riding, writing, designing and camping by the wayside. The removable man-pack allows the bike’s computer systems to be used by radio from one camping tent while the hike resides in another, all on its own. The cellular phone sports a Telebit CellBlazer modem, which allows the SPARCstation on the bike to call the SPARCstation back at the home base for UUCP transfers. This beats the old expedient of pulling the bike up to a pay phone to send material back home, which is what the Winnebiko did.
There are other means of communication, too. In addition to the business-band radio and a two-meter amateur transceiver built into the console, there is a full amateur station in the trailer, controlled via the same serial line and audio cross-point switches that control everything else: The radios can be tuned via the serial lines.
There is one more neat trick, however, with which Mr. Protocol is extremely pleased. He would be. The bike is on the Internet. This miracle is accomplished by satellite link (one is tempted to say, “Of course.”). The mechanism used is an odd one. It turns out that Qualcomm Corp. markets a system for keeping track of truck fleets nationwide. This system involves the installation of a simple keypad and display terminal in each truck, connected to a small dome on top of the cab (about a foot across and six inches high) that contains what has to be the world’s smallest satellite ground station. We’re talking uplink here, not just reception. Inside the dome is a stepper motor driving a horizontal slot antenna with a 40-degree angle of reception centered 40 degrees above the horizon. Such a station is clamped to the rear of the BEHEMOTH trailer. At Qualcomm is a SPARCstation, one side of which is connected to the Qualcomm satellite system and the other side of which is connected to the Internet. Since the small size of the uplink antenna combined with the total number of stations sharing the satellite transponder limit the throughput per station to something like 165 b/s, Telnet and FTP service are out. However, the SPARCstation’s job in life is actually to pass mail. It rewrites the headers of the incoming and outgoing mail messages and encapsulates them in the Qualcomm protocol. When they reach the bike they are routed to the Eudora mailer running on the Mac. The result is a full Internet mail connection, in real time, albeit slow, even when the bike is hundreds of miles from the nearest cell site. Mr. Protocol could use one of these little jobs. One should never be without one’s mail connection, he feels.
What does all this prove? Certainly this is a proof of concept, not a current product. While it would be possible to recreate BEHEMOTH, the lessons learned in its construction would result in a considerably different machine. Also, its various body parts are custom fiberglass, several hundred sponsors donated money, space and time, and one wonders whether Qualcomm would really like to consider itself in the business of providing traveling Internet mail. However, it does serve to show the possibilities of current technology. Perhaps a product or two will come out of it yet. Mr. Protocol hopes so.
Mike O’Brien has been noodling around the UNIX world for far too long a time. He knows he started out with UNIX Research Version 5 (not System V, he hastens to point out), but forgets the year. He thinks it was around 1975 or so.
He founded and ran the first nationwide UNIX Users Group Software Distribution Center. He worked at Rand during the glory days of the Rand editor and the MH mail system, helped build CSNET (first at Rand and later at BBN Labs Inc.) and is now at an aerospace research corporation.
Mr. Protocol refuses to divulge his qualifications and may, in fact, have none whatsoever.
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