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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Winnelife! – Interview with Steve Roberts – Mondo 2000

Mondo 2000 was a brilliant cyber-culture magazine that set the stage for the more tech-focused Wired… and nothing was off-limits. Issues would cover experimental music, smart drugs, body modification, and even a crazy guy prototyping the technomadic life aboard a geeked-out bicycle. Seventeen issues were published, with the last in 1998; this one was in the lively early days, the Spring of 1991. Here is a page with all the issue covers, and you can get a sense of the culture, somewhat, in this SF Weekly article. It was a treat to cavort though these pages… this is one of my favorites, and even though it’s pretty much all my writing, Gareth Branwyn gave me the stage, asked the right questions, and collected the appropriate sidebars.

An Interview with Steve Roberts
by Gareth Branwyn
Mondo 2000 – Issue 4 – Spring, 1991

Eight years ago, Steve Roberts hopped onto a computer- and radio-equipped bicycle and left suburbia in his dust. 16,000 miles later, he is about to finish building the third version of his high-tech bicycle. This one has enough hardware on it to satisfy the biggest techno-weenie, but “heartware,” not hardware, seems to keep this trail-blazing nomad on the road.


MONDO 2000: Steve, for starters, please give us some background on “high-tech nomadness” and how you got into it.

STEVE ROBERTS: Well, let’s see. Back in 1983, I was into something that probably sounds familiar to most people—that is, working harder and harder at something that I enjoyed less and less, trying to pay for something that I didn’t really want. I was doing freelance writing and consulting, trying to pay for a house in Midwest suburbia.

I started thinking about those great global questions that one thinks about—”what is success after all?” I concluded it’s the ratio of all you put out to all you get back. I decided that what I really wanted to do was build a lifestyle out of my passions. I listed them, and they were things like travel and adventure, falling in love, bicycles, computers, networking, ham radio, tinkering with electronics, and publishing. So, I just decided to weave them all into a lifestyle and leave out as many of the middlemen as possible.

M2: When did you actually hit the road?

SR: The fall of 1983. I traveled solo for about 10,000 miles in the original version of what was then called the Winnebiko. I carried a little Radio Shack model 100 laptop, and lived on CompuServe. I switched to a Hewlett-Packard Portable Plus somewhere around mile 7,000. And that’s what led to the Computing Across America book. It was one of those long boring west Texas days that decided me that I should be able to write while riding. So I started building the Winnebiko II, which hit the road about a year or so later, this time traveling with my friend Maggie Victor, who has her own recumbent bike.

M2: Did you totally cut out from your former life? Did you liquidate everything?

SR: Yeah, I started the whole thing with a big yard sale. I essentially sold everything I owned. I had some debts, but when my house finally sold, I had about $300 left. I was as happy as I’d ever been.

M2: Were you already into cycling?

SR: Not really. I had the basic ten-speed and would occasionally do a weekend ride or little afternoon tours around the local farmland.

M2: How long have you been off the road?

SR: A little over three years now. I’ve been living in various labs building the new bike, most recently in the lab sponsored by Sun Microsystems. In Mid-July I’m out of here—back on the road full time.

M2: Can you give us a thumbnail overview of the new bike?

SR: I’ll try to make this quick — it’s pretty complicated. I have some interesting toys, but I have some real objectives too, which mostly have to do with erasing the difference between moving and not moving. None of it is there just to be nifty.

I want to be able to do R&D work, writing, consulting without having to stop and set up an entire lifestyle someplace. Now, what that means in essence is that I want maximum autonomy in terms of computing power, electrical power generation, and communications capability and maintainability anywhere in the world. Power, for example, has to be autonomous. I have 82 watts of solar panels, regenerative braking, the ability to charge from any publicly available grid, or from somebody’s car. All of those things are integrated into a power management system with distributed batteries and redundant systems and so on, so I have a good chance of always having power.

Computing power is the most obvious component. The high-level graphic interface is a Mac portable. The screen is mounted on the console on the front of the bike, and there’s a cursor-positioning device on the helmet so I can move the mouse around while I’m traveling.

Hypertalk, running under Multifinder on the Mac, is sort of the control supervisor for the entire bike. The graphic user interface sits on top of a suite of embedded micros which handle network management, configuration of audio devices, data collection, etc. The Mac interface presents me with pretty pictures of all this stuff. The Mac also runs an X window server to the SPARCstation. Back behind the seat there is a Sun SPARCstation, an IPC, which I use as a mapping work station and a communications node, so I have a 24-hour-a-day Internet presence via a Cellblazer modem and the Qualcomm OmniTRACS satellite terminal mounted on the trailer.

I can use all this while mobile. Underneath the Mac screen there is also a VGA display in a DOS environment. I’m using that for CAD (both OrCAD and AUTOCAD), a lot of my mapping stuff, and satellite tracking for the ham radio satellites, and my big database, and so on. I don’t like to use that screen while I’m mobile because it washes out in the sun, so I use another DOS machine, a tiny one, right behind the seat, that runs a heads-up display from Reflection Technologies that’s mounted on my helmet.

M2: Is that a Private Eye?

SR: Yeah. So what that means is that, while mobile, I’ve still got access to DOS, Mac and SPARC environments, each of which has a large hard disk, and each of which is networked via cellular phone modems and packet radio to the rest of the world.

In terms of communications, the main business conduit is a cellular phone with 2 modems and a FAX. One is a Spectrum Cellular bridge which lets me connect to relatively traditional servers like calling up networks. GEnie, for example, is one of my home networks. I’m on it two or three times a day to communicate with my base offices. I now have this Cellblazer which will run at 10 kilobytes per second with a nifty protocol called NetBlazer. It can essentially put me on the Internet 24-hours a day but only turn on the cellular link when I have to move data.

I’m also a very active ham radio operator. I can be out in the middle of Asia and still send and receive E-mail. I have access to the new Microsats which are ham radio satellites, and to HF, VHF, UHF multimode. I can do this all while mobile, with my flip-up antennas. And there’s a small amateur televison station, too, that I use with my little Sony CCD camera.

M2: Wait, you’re now a TV station too? [laughs]

SR: I’m carrying a video camera because I’m doing a bi-weekly feed to Silicon Valley Report which is a cable show here. Every other week, I’ll feed a story back from someplace, usually about some interesting technology I’ve stumbled on. Having all that capability on the bike means that it’s simply a matter of adding one circuit board to have an amateur television station. So, it’ll have about a 40-50 mile range, something like that. Then, of course, the bike itself is an 8-foot recumbent with a four-foot trailer. The whole thing weighs about 350 pounds.

M2: 350 pounds! And that’s pedalable?

SR: Yeah, it’s got 54 speeds, which helps, and the granny gear is eight inches which is really, really low.

M2: Have you had people try to steal it?

SR: No, never. I’ve had drunks sit on it, and people mess with things. That doesn’t mean I’m blase about it though. When you wander around on a million dollar bicycle you get really paranoid. There’s a very robust security system with 6 levels of sensors.

It knows if anybody is within 15 feet, if it’s being touched, if any access panels are opened, if there is a body on the seat, if the wheels or steering are turning, or if its satellite navigation coordinates are changing. It uses its speech synthesizer to talk to whomever’s there, give alerts and so on. If it’s being moved without me it’ll start beaconing its latitude and longitude on all available packet radio frequencies—and it dials 911 on the cellular phone and reports its own theft to the police.

M2: So the current bike isn’t the Winnebiko III, it’s is called the Behemoth, right?

SR: Just BEHEMOTH: Big, Electronic, Human, Energized Machine, Only Too Heavy.

M2: How is the bike being paid for? Is it subsidized through sponsorship? Through hardware donations?

SR: Basically, about a quarter of the cost is actual components. And most of that is sponsored— I’d say 90%.

M2: In terms of sponsorship, what do corporations get out of their association with you? Do they just get a kick out of it, or do they get real research back?

SR: There are lots of times when I’ve provided hard engineering feedback to sponsors which leads to design revisions. I find lots of bugs—I’m using their equipment in a very high stress environment. And, there’s the publicity angle. This thing generates quite a bit of ink and I do lots of public appearances. Companies thrive on that.

M2: What sort of response do you get from people? Don’t people just think you’re nuts?

SR: Occasionally! [laughs] For the most part, it seems to trigger a kind of recognition of personal dreams. Basically, all I’m doing here is chasing a dream, living my passions. I believe that passion is one of the strongest motivators for doing anything, certainly for learning. A lot of the reactions I get from people are, “Hey, you know something I’ve always wanted to do…” Of course, my response is, well, go for it!

M2: What is your formal training? Are you an engineer?

SR: I’m an “ungineer.” I had a very brief flirtation with engineering school, but it felt like going to an art school and having to paint by numbers. They had a lot of good tools there, but I was afraid that I’d pick up so many bad habits that I’d never be a good designer. So, I decided to go off and be self-taught. Again passion—passion and curiosity are much better motivators than fear. Knowing there was a test Friday never motivated me to dive into the books, but wanting to build a nifty widget would keep me up all night.

M2: Have you traveled extensively with anybody else besides Maggie?

SR: Not fulltime. I do welcome people. In fact, I’m looking for more company.

M2: Let’s talk about that. You had an article in a recent issue of your High-Tech Nomadness proposing a nomadic community. Did anyone respond?

SR: Nobody said, “Yes, I want to trash my lifestyle and come live on the road with you,” but lots of people expressed strong interest. I would like to have a more stable mobile community where people are networked together with ham radio and packet.

M2: When you’re on the road do you do other than freelance writing for income?

SR: Well, my magazine High-Tech Nomadness is the thing I care most about right now.

M2: When I first saw it, I was skeptical that it could sustain my interest, being basically about you and your bike, but now I anxiously await each issue. What’s it mean to be a high-tech nomad?

SR: Well, the thing about all these communications tools is that they erase boundaries, it doesn’t really matter where I am. I have very little respect for national borders or other such political artifacts. I live in dataspace—dataspace is my real home.

The beauty is, I have these growing circles of friends who are just out there somewhere. I have no idea what they look like or anything else, but we all have this brain-to-brain contact. It’s a meta-community which is very alive and energetic and complex.

Sidebar:  Nomadness Motivations

by Steven K. Roberts

  • Lifestyle Prototype Future society will be virtually paperless, energy-efficient, dependent upon wide-bandwidth networking, and generally cognizant of global perspective through routine communication across decreasingly relevant borders. It is not too early to prepare for this: we need the ideas, the tools, and an awareness of the problems that accompany fundamental shifts in the meaning and delivery of information. The new bike, and the lifestyle that results, is a case study and feasibility test for much of this. I have already seen the effects of my earlier travels, especially back in 1983-4 when laptops, online services, solar panels, and recumbents were all so strange that people were startled into understanding. During the next trip, I will be appearing regularly at schools to help plant the seeds early (while reminding students that the obvious choices are not the only ones).
  • Consulting Business Industry is requiring increasing specialization of its workers, due to the overwhelming amount of expert knowledge associated with every technology. This yields positive results but at a severe cost — specialists inevitably lose sight of the big picture. There is thus a growing market for people who travel continuously among specialists, cross-fertilizing at every stop. No trade journal or annual conference can accomplish as much as a renegade cadre of curious technoid generalists on the loose in industry. The companies that recognize their own narrow focus and take steps to keep it in context gain a competitive edge, and my nomadic lifestyle and extensive support technology keep me in touch with a very wide range of pursuits… and marketable.
  • Product Potential The new system addresses a number of basic needs: autonomous power generation, global communication, soft-architecture real-time control, nomadic publishing, security… and more. These needs are by no means unique to me, and casual market research suggests that there could be a wealth of spinoffs with the right strategic partner. Sort of a mini-NASA…
  • Writing and Publishing People are endlessly fascinated by life on the edge, the adventures of travelers, and peeks through curtains into other lives. Travel and writing are thus inextricably linked, and by carrying the most sophisticated tools available for biketop publishing, communication, and information-gathering, I minimize the number of excuses for not being productive while raising reader curiosity in the process. For an author, this whole gambit is a gold mine: endless story material, superb tools, and easy marketing based on a recognizable image.
  • Adventure This goes without saying. High-tech nomadness is fun, and my travel style insures interesting contacts in strange places. Routine life is impossible on a computerized recumbent with solar panels and a thicket of antennas… and there’s a LOT of world to explore out there. Having had a taste of it, how could I spend my life in one place?
  • Security I once wrote that “the greatest risk of all is taking no risk.” While that may be true, it does not mean that I relish the idea of being robbed, run over, or left to die of thirst with a broken axle in the desert. The new bike is designed with enough different kinds of communication gear to virtually insure that I can get a message out if necessary. Usually help is only a push-button away, via ham repeater or cellular phone—in more remote areas, a few moments’ preparation puts me on the HF bands or into a communication satellite.
  • Community This may sound odd at first, given the classic “loneliness of the long-distance traveler.” But nomadness is the most social lifestyle imaginable for two reasons: global networking and the timeless energy of beginnings. The traditional concept of stability, normally restricted to neighbors, associates, and the familiar things that define “home,” is now distributed around the world and constantly refreshed by encounters on the road. Home is everywhere, and I am constantly amazed by the intelligence and imagination lurking in the most unlikely places. (The mainstream high-tech world is provincial and technocentric… seldom recognizing that wizardry can thrive in backwaters not steeped in the vapors of silicon. From unexpected quarters come new ideas.)
  • Technical challenge Finally,one of the most deeply alluring parts of this whole affair is the project itself. The engineering aspects of this, ranging from sophisticated CAD tools to fancy new adhesives, represent a seductive and multifaceted learning curve coupled with the pure joy of creating something exciting. And one of the best parts is that the media visibility keeps attracting new sponsors, allowing me to select the very best technology that industry has to offer without being stopped in my tracks by something so mundane as cost. How could a dedicated hacker/tinkerer ever abandon such a project?

Sidebar:  On The Road Scenario

by Steven K. Roberts

Hot sweat steams inside layers of polypropylene. The road, winding and narrow, is a relentless 9% grade stretching before you into the clouds. An occasional logging truck splashes past with a roar and the smell of chopped fir. Sounds: rain ticking ripstop, your own rhythmic panting, the soft clatter of chain and derailleur, an occasional muted birdsong, your mate’s voice breathless in your ear via 2-meter ham radio, the soft whir of a pump pushing coolant through the helmet heat exchanger, the bike’s speech synthesizer piping up to announce system events or incoming calls. The heads-up display shows a shimmering red scrolling map of Shasta County, your own location a centered blinking arrow derived from the GPS satnav system, tonight’s campsite a slowly nearing tent icon. You zoom out, and 32 miles ahead is a house; you double-click it with the thumb mouse and a window opens, showing the database record of an online friend you’ve never met. Too far… maybe tomorrow night.

The console in front of you carries both Mac and DOS environments, with the former able to open under Multifinder an X session to the SPARCstation (file server and CD-ROM mapping workstation) behind the seat. The main display is a HyperCard graphic user interface to the FORTH embedded control systems, and you see at a glance that the battery is at 68% with 23.4 hours to discharge predicted at the present sliding-average rate… no solar power today. You touch a thumb button to engage the head mouse, and with a subtle nod click on the ham radio icon. A virtual front panel pops up, looking remarkably like the Icom HF transceiver back in the trailer—with a click of another button it comes to life, while below your awareness a trio of FORTH processors in the bike’s major nodes set bits in their audio crosspoint switch matrices to establish a bidirectional audio link between radio and helmet. Your Ohio friend is still chatting away on 20 meters… you break in at a polite moment and let him know you’ll be on from the campground after dinner: will he have time to check some documentation for you? There’s a databook you never got around to adding to the bike’s microfiche library, and as Murphy would have it, that’s the one you need.

That issue shelved, you open a text window and add a few thoughts to your article about this remarkable mountain range, typing flute-like on the binary handlebar keyboard with barely perceptible movements of your fingertips. You are actually keying in macros, which are interpreted by PRD+ running in the background on the T1000 that occupies the lower third of the console. “otr,” you key, and “on the road” appears on the screen; continuing in this fashion, you appear to the system as a 100+ word-per-minute typist, blazing away through a FORTH-controlled matrix that masquerades as a standard Macintosh keyboard.

A synthesized voice in your ear: “Satellite pass complete; you have mail.” Speaking distinctly, you say “read it” into the boom microphone; the Covox interprets the command and the Audapter immediately reads you a friendly note from a woman in Australia, ported from Internet via a gateway in Silicon Valley.

Another logging truck, too close! You touch a red thumb button and the air horns blast — the driver swerves and toots back. Grrrr. The road levels, the rain finally stops, and it’s a downhill coast all the way to camp. Occasionally you squeeze the brakes, but never quite enough to engage the hydraulics—the bicycle control processor senses the pressure rise in the system and directs the regenerative braking controller to draw a proportional amount of power from the variable-reluctance front wheel hub. This satisfies your braking requests, and dumps a couple hundred watts into the power bus. Today it recharges the batteries… on a sunny day, the excess power would be passed to the solid-state refrigerator that cools the thermal mass of drinking water… providing a heat sink for your helmet cooler. It feels good to conserve scarce resources.

An hour later you are camping, smells from the stove intoxicating, the sweet buzz of healthy tired muscles retreating in the glow of firelight, Grand Marnier, and a smooth CD on the stereo. In its own tent, the bike waits, security system alert and watching for movement. You can’t relax yet, though—you have to consult an OrCAD file prior to the sked with the ham in Ohio… you climb into your tent, and under candlelight open an aluminum suitcase, flip up a small antenna, touch a key to awaken the laptop, and sign on to the bike via UHF business band packet datacomm. A few quick commands, and you hear the Ampro PC’s hard drive quietly spin up off in the trees—then the file enters your local system RAMdisk in short 4800-baud bursts. Ain’t technology wonderful? While munching linguini with clam sauce, you peruse the schematic and make a few notes.

Once you get the pinout data from Ohio and finish the changes to the CAD file, it’s time to ship it to your partner on the design project. The final version will go out machine readable direct to the printed-circuit fab house, of course, but this one is for comments… you extend the fiberglass BYP (big yellow pole) mounted on the back of the trailer, aim a 6-element 900 mHz yagi antenna in the general direction of Redding, and via the laptop RF link, direct the system to check for clear cellular phone service. That established, you pass a print capture of the schematic file to the fax software and let the bike handle the details of sending it to a fax machine in Boston.

While the cellular antenna is set up, you log in to your base SPARC to send a long-overdue column to the alias and browse a couple of newsgroups, then kick back with another little nip of Grand Marnier for a relaxed evening of staring into the fire and chatting with your sweetie. Ah, the outdoor life…

And you’re still wondering why I do this?

(The above originally appeared in Marlow Magazine)