by Steven K. Roberts
Bainbridge Island, Washington
September 25, 1986
I suppose this machine really does look strange to people. I’ve been living with it for so long that I usually see only a list of uncompleted projects ranging from waterproofing to CMOS logic design. But when I ride down the street, people gape, and the local media are having a field day. Front page color in the Seattle Times; we’re filming with PM Magazine this week. Ah, this life of high-tech nomadics…
Of course, I deliberately frolic in that strange region where the distinctions between technology and magic blur — where anything you say will be believed because your looks alone overwhelm the senses. The other day I was at the Streamliner Diner, immersed happily in a flawless omelet and watching the crowd around the bike. A mother walked by with her 4-year-old boy.
“Hi there, sonny,” I said into the handheld transceiver. Through low-power 2-meter simplex, my voice was conveyed to the Winnebiko — where it crackled from the console speaker. The kid froze, uncertain. He stared at the machine, ready to cry if necessary. “What do you want for Christmas?” it asked him.
His eyes widened as his mother scanned the area to find the hidden camera. “I want a train, and a bicycle, and…”
“A bicycle like me?”
The boy’s face lit up in pure wonder. “Yes.”
“Well, we’ll see what we can do about that.” His mother began tugging him along the sidewalk. But he resisted long enough to gaze at the machine and wave solemnly.
“Bye-bye, Mr. Bicycle.”
Of course, such play is only the beginning. Since the bottom line of this venture is FUN, much of my development work centers upon system capabilities that are not entirely aligned with that steely-eyed business world that swallows up most otherwise well-intentioned computers. Today saw the 68HC11 and its custom interface logic spring to life — not all debugged yet, of course, but getting there. The bike can now make comments in its synthesized voice, from “please do not touch me” when it detects vibration, to “oh no… here he comes again,” when a radioed touch-tone command lets it know that I’ve finished lunch and am about to add my body to its 225-pound static load.
Hey, why not? Computers should be fun, shouldn’t they?
Speaking of fun, life on Bainbridge Island continues to be a mingling of obsessive design work and pure pleasure. A few days ago Maggie and I hopped on a couple of Octo Company’s resident mountain bikes — agile machines with automatic transmissions, quite unlike the lumbering megacycles we are about to call home. Off into the woods we went, into deep green antiquity, whispering through silence so deep that our clicking freewheels seemed as grating as chain saws. All around us were the projections of past and future: long-dead trees sinking into the forest floor below new growth sprouting green and perky into patches of flickering sunlight. Yeah, thanks for the reminder… we’re just passing through…
As a hint of approaching sunset pinked the sky, we emerged from the woods onto Manzanita Bay and found a spot by the clear water. A sky show was beginning, humbling us further, drawing us into a sweet melancholy touched with awe. Dancing gold on the watertop, clouds gilt-edged platinum, textures from the crystalline to the vaporous, moment-to-moment changes too subtle to notice and too powerful to ignore. This was a world-class light show, and I remember chuckling at the memory of those dancing lights that held me enraptured night after night, back in the strange 70’s. In this electric sky there was beauty profound enough to tickle our lachrymal ducts and elicit soft moans of sensual appreciation.
And there was more. We ferried to the City, upstream at rush hour, smiling our way through a flood of grim commuter faces racing the clock as always. We strolled to the Opera House and were suddenly surrounded by the expert musical caress of Andreas Vollenweider and friends — jazz harp, flutes, synthesizers and percussion. Perfect. The group explored acoustical textures as grand and delicate as that sunset, raising goose bumps, raising the roof, raising awareness. At the last standing ovation, Andreas quietly spoke, “thank you.”
“No, thank you!” someone cried out, and the applause swelled again like another onslaught of Olympic rain. This was not ordinary music, this extended orgasm of sound; this was exquisite proof that everything in music must be at once surprising and expected.
Ah, rhapsody, rhapsody. As the Road gets closer, I renew my resolve to spend my life meeting remarkable people, seeking the pleasures of growth and discovery, and smiling as much as possible. What an odd land this is, where a bicycle loaded with computer systems can be a ticket to exactly that. (As a British lady at Expo observed, while looking at my bike: “Only in America!”)
See you next week. We’ll be on the island a while longer, and will then pedal frantically south as winter begins its warning chill. I suppose everything in my life is surprising and expected, as well…