by Steven K. Roberts
Bikelab Notes #16
May 10, 1992


  • Update from a Kentucky rainstorm
  • Donahue show and other plans
  • Antennas, PPP, SPARCbook, CDROM, and more magic

“Is that Evil Knievel?”
— overheard comment from a clueless passerby who, fortunately, didn’t stop to investigate further.

Ah, I love it. Despite cries of anguish from a few who see the mothership as a total sellout, this new twist in nomadness seems to be working. How else could I be parked in a lush Kentucky field in the rain, jamming to the Grateful Dead, watching email flow in from the ether while writing software and sipping tequila in comparative comfort? It ain’t all bad.

I’m sitting on the bike, writing with a Mac keyboard resting on a fold-down tabletop and connected to the console’s external ADB port. The music recalls fragrant California summer evenings at sunset, sharing the Shoreline Amphitheater with tens of thousands of happy Deadheads, crisp articulate guitar and playful rhythms setting a sea of bodies into synchronous motion, everything somehow right with the world, the optimistic culture of our youth still alive after all. It happens now in a mothership in the Kentucky rain, luring me away from software to capture a moment and fling it willy-nilly into the vapors of Dataspace. Such a strange world is emerging from our collective technological consciousness…

I’ve driven across America since I wrote you last, piloting the powerful new Ford 1-ton diesel truck with its towed cargo of mobile bikelab over the decaying interstate highway system, wondering with every bone-jarring shock if the delicate and heavy load will survive. California… Nevada…. Utah… Wyoming… Colorado… Kansas… Missouri… Illinois… Indiana… Ohio… a blur of highway lowlife and identical rest areas, motels and campgrounds, CB truckers and faraway hams, greasy food and potent coffee, recurring daydreams and sweaty T-shirts. I vowed to work my way alphabetically through the CD library and made it a third of the way through by the Dayton Hamvention, noting which ones really must go and which still touch me on some level, evoking overlaid images of distant road miles, lovers past, major phases, lifeshaking braindances, and sometimes nothing at all.

In a way it’s not like the Road, really — the Other Woman who for years has lured me endlessly onward hides from the growl of this 7.3-liter International diesel, her soft voice overpowered. She frowns slightly as I pass, an earthy woman annoyed by her man’s lust for the fast lane. “It’s not that,” I try to tell her. “This is business… marketing… I’m on my way to the East Coast for media and trade shows, then I’ll come back, you’ll see…”

No response.


My old home in Jeffersontown

Kentucky. Being here is an odd blend of deep familiarity and startling discovery — like rounding a curve on Six Mile Lane for the thousandth time to find a house gone and a new intersection in its place. You all know the feeling. I grew up in this old house, and there are objects that haven’t been moved since I was barely tall enough to be a threat to them. For a chronic nomad accustomed to unfamiliar beds and new faces, this is almost an adventure: walking around the property, mourning lost trees and admiring new ones; finding in the basement fragments of old projects; fighting the infernal footboard on my old bed (still trying to keep me from growing tall); slipping into habits of childhood; instinctively keeping a low profile by stepping lightly around creaky spots on the floor; catching up on 20 years while looking into the aging eyes of old friends, who somehow, incredibly, still live in J-town.

Spending 3.5 years in Silicon Valley does change your perception, though. I ain’t a midwest boy no more — this evening at a Shoney’s dinner, and later at the Kroger store, I was so startled by the near-100% caucasian population that I caught myself staring. And the language… people didn’t have accents like that when ah was a boy, no-siree. Shee-it, us folks from Kaintucky ain’t even GOT no accent; people just thinks we do cuz’ they’alls diff’rent, y’unnerstand…

(At the Dayton Hamvention, by the way, I received an interesting piece of advice. “Jes’ one thing missin’ on that crazy bike o’ yours… a shotgun. You pull into Hazard, Kentucky on a Saturday night, things liable to get a little LIVELY, dontcha know…”)

Lest I be guilty of promulgating a dated stereotype, I should hasten to add that, as I learned when bicycling through the South, “hick” accents are not evidence of slow thought or lack of education. Still, being freshly steeped in the cosmopolitan high-tech vapors of Silly Valley, this visit to my old hometown is a potent reminder that I am, indeed, back on the road. Despite the complete change of format, the 13,800 pounds of mobile possessions, and the smell of diesel, I still don’t know where I’m going to sleep tomorrow night… or where I’ll be next month.

I do know what I’m doing for the next three weeks, though, and it’s insane….

The bike is still the core of all this — without it, the resources I’m throwing at the mothership would be of dubious benefit. I’m even thinking about upgrading to a bigger trailer, but we’ll save those ruminations for a time when they’re realistic — a time that might be nearing if these next few weeks can help correlate the often inappropriately associated phenomena known as “fame” and “fortune.” The first is by now easy, but in no way does it guarantee the second.

The bike was featured in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on April 21, which is apparently read by a lot of people. I’ll be in People Magazine next week, and I’m on my way to New York City tomorrow to do a full hour on the Phil Donahue Show (cast aside those assumptions about the subject matter, oh ye of dirty mind! We’ll be discussing the encapsulation of IP packets within other protocol suites, as well as the daunting power management issues associated with distributed battery-based nomadic systems. Honest. He’s really into this. “Is the caller there?” “Yes. I’ve been watching your show here in Kansas and I want to know how Mr. Roberts deals with the phase distortion and dropouts associated with high-speed cellular data transmission. My husband is a realtor, and he complains about it all the time…”)

Working with a Donahue crew on May 6, 1992 at the old family home in Kentucky to get some B-Roll before going live on stage in New York.

After taping the Donahue show (I did the B-Roll last week), I spend a day with my agent and an editor or three, then emerge, hopefully unscathed, from the madness of Manhattan (yeah, you got it — I’m driving mothership and bike into Midtown…) and head for DC. There, I do an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, film with the French TF-1 network, and hang out at Interop for a week, doing show-n-tells and hopefully learning something about the infrastructure of this network that is fast becoming the basis of my information life. (There are people out there who think that simply because I’m a public net-proselytizer, I’m an expert. This is very scary. Someone might actually ask me to EXPLAIN how a piece of mail makes it from the SMTP client on my bike Mac to a PPP daemon in the sleek new Tadpole SPARCbook in my backpack, and thence through the ether to a Sun workstation at Qualcomm and off through CERFnet into the hard disks of machines around the globe — as if it’s not already tough enough to justify why I’d want to do such a thing while pedaling down a pretty country road in the first place.)

Anyway, after that’s over I give a talk at the National Science Foundation, spend a day or two with friends in Richmond, zoom off to York for a probable gig at the Harley-Davidson plant, motor over to Pittsburgh to discuss a movie deal and hang out at CMU, then rumble down to Austin just in time to hit Mad Dog ‘n Beans and suck down a few well-earned mugs of Tecate with lime in the June heat wave before visiting sponsors and dropping in on Usenix.

And after that, I swear, I want a break. I really do. Think I might follow the summer Texas horde to Colorado, lock up the mothership, and see if I remember how to pedal this thing that even now numbs my rump as I slowly rearrange bits on one of its disk drives. (The bicycle, by the way, now has 644 Megabytes of disk space, and somewhere around 34 Meg of RAM tucked away here and there. Some week when I’m surrounded by databooks and have absolutely nothing important to do, I really must figure out how many transistors are on board. Being in Kentucky reminds me of grade school, when you were pretty cool if you had one of the new 6-transistor radios, but REALLY cool if it was a 9-transistor or even a newfangled 12! This social scale persisted until manufacturers caught on and started using two legs of the little buggers as diodes just to crank up the advertised transistor count without lying TOO blatantly about it. I sunk all my savings into an exotic Mitsubishi ZX-505, which even had shortwave. I still remember huddling under the blankets and listening to Radio Havana at midnight… then sitting in the torpor of 3rd grade amidst buzzing flies and droning teacher, drawing secret pictures of it as well as my future fantasy laboratory. I did hang the ZX-505 on my bike one day, with a vague sense of prescience. It had 21 transistors, I seem to recall — though I wasn’t entirely sure what they all did. I’m afraid I can say the same thing about most of the ones in the bike I now ride, 30 years later. It’s humbling to realize that I need an on-site network administrator and tech support hotline to keep a bicycle running smoothly…)

Ahem. Asides aside (well, in a sense this is ALL an aside, but I’ll set that thought aside…), I suppose a brief technical update is in order, though I’m not really in the mood for that. If I don’t do this now, though, it won’t happen until June.


In the new toy category (which, if you haven’t long since observed from earlier reports, is what fuels this — much more than carbohydrates or even cash), we have a pair of ultralight Yagis from Mesa Antennas in Loveland, Colorado. The 4-element, 2-meter model is totally packed within its 1-inch-square aluminum boom — and the elements are aluminum arrow shafts with threaded inserts. All this, including the gamma match, weighs about a pound. The little 5-element Yagi is for UHF, and will become the ATV big-gun on the bike (my dual-band whip is good for about 5 miles before snow sets in).

The other way-cool piece of hardware from Dayton is the Digital Voice Module, which is essentially a digital speech recorder that can store just over 2 minutes of 32KHz sampled sound in its soft-partitioned DRAM. This will find a use in the bike’s HF station, as well as for demo and security applications in which people unfamiliar with speech synthesizers have a hard time understanding the bike’s present voice.

New CD-ROMS: Buckmaster’s call book database now includes international hams, and I just got the long-awaited Street Atlas USA from DeLorme — every street in the US on one disk, with address range data, zip codes, phone prefixes, towns, bodies of water, and more. I plan to try it first under Windows, running under DOS emulation on the SPARCbook. Unknown yet whether this disk will allow access via latitude/longitude: the Trimble GPS is up and magical, and I want to automate the mapping function ASAP (to cut weight, you understand. I hate all these paper maps, and I suffer from occasional bouts of origamicartophobia).

Berkeley Systems, the folks who brought you After Dark, now have a talking Macintosh interface for the visually impaired. Since I suffer from similar constraints while riding the bike, this might be interesting — an internal speech synthesizer vocalizes the entire screen environment, naming icons as you step between them with the numeric keypad, finding things by name, and so on. I’ll report on this when I get to know it better, but first impression is very favorable.

Steven Roberts and BEHEMOTH, circa 1992

I think I wrote in #15 about the bike SPARC — it’s continuing to dazzle with its Sharp TFT LCD, and has been working beautifully except for a power supply failure (a weird one at that — the aluminum case is 12V hot, dropping to 7.5 in operation, and nukes the switcher if I rest it on the solar panels and it contacts the antenna mount!)  I spent a whole week with the energetic folks at Morning Star Technologies in Columbus, Ohio — bringing up their PPP software that creates a virtual network connection via a phone line. If you’re used to dial-up access only, this may sound like coming full-circle, but there’s a lot going on here: PPP provides identical functionality (though slower) to a real network connection, supporting multiple telnet, FTP, mail, and all those other wondrous services over a completely resilient modem link. I’m using the FAST new Telebit QBlazer, and we can unplug it right in the middle of grabbing a GIF file via FTP, plug it back in, and after automatically re-establishing the link, PPP continues inhaling the same pixel it was working on before being so rudely interrupted.

It also means that the bike can live right there on the internet, not just send and receive mail through a gateway (which is still quicker and easier until the SPARC gets repackaged into the console instead of the case behind the seat — I’ve been using Eudora on the Macintosh as a POP client to a server running on a Sun 4/260 at Qualcomm… excellent audio description here). Given the right permissions at this end, you could finger the bike while it’s in motion — though needless to say I don’t allow this since I still have to pay the cellular phone bills…

The very latest addition is the Tadpole SPARCbook, a 7-pound 18 MIPS color laptop with 120-meg disk, 8-meg RAM, and internal fax-modem. I’ve had this for about 24 hours, so the learning curve is still steep — but it does seem rather incredible that something this little can run unix (Solaris) and Open Windows 3. It also emulates a 386, directly addressing the VGA, and is thus, presumably, sufficiently brisk for graphics-intensive applications like the mapping mentioned above. I hear tell it will emulate a Mac as well, which should be interesting. More on this as I get to know it….

The TO-DO list on the whiteboard beside me carries a frightening list of commandments that must be obeyed before I hit the road in the morning for the trek to New York, so I’ll only tease you with oblique references to online romance, high-tech kayaks, head-mounted gyroscopes and CCD cameras, a new video, and the dissemination of passion. <giggle> Seeya in Dataspace!