Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nomadness, an interview with Steven K Roberts: Boats and Bikes part one.

Steven K Roberts

S/V Nomadness somewhere in Washington state.

S/V Nomadness

Pilothouse/control center

Not all of the on-board systems are electronic

This ER grade medical kit is the latest offering from Nomadic Research Labs. Steve is here addressing a perceived need.

Land based mobile laboratory. This is in the process of moving aboard.

Microship, in all her solar panel glory

Wordplay, predecessor to Microship

Steve's biotelemetrick helmet for his bike journeys, which included a head operated mouse.


Here is BEHEMOTH's new display in the Computer History Museum - it's part of the permanent exhibit that just opened this month: “Revolution: the first 2000 Years of Computing." I'm working on the combined book of my three bike epochs, and this might be the wrap-up image... it's a fitting long-term home for this machine that took me 17,000 miles. (Thanks to the museum for the photo!)
Many hobbyists used the newly introduced microprocessor to create their own personal computers. Steve Roberts’ microcomputer used the Intel 8008 chip. Roberts was known later for BEHEMOTH, a bicycle that was a portable computing platform.
1974-10-31 © Mark Richards

all photos courtesy Steven K Roberts unless otherwise noted

To say Steve Roberts is interesting is inadequate, he is astonishing. Steve first came to notice and notoriety during his 11 year sojourn across America aboard his computerized recumbent bicycles, pioneering a nomadic lifestyle. Sort of a modern day John Steinbeck traveling the countryside but also working as a technical writer and consultant, making a living while moving around the country aboard an innovative and outlandish series of sophisticated contraptions. Steve increasingly adapted his vehicular home with more and more technological innovations which eventually led to the establishing of his Nomadic Research Labs. Like many nomads, ancient and modern, Steve Roberts eventually heard the call of the sea and has been working toward transitioning his entire enterprise to a floating home and laboratory. There is a personal connection here. Steve grew up in suburban Louisville near my own homeplace. A close friend of his, Dave Wright has long been a friend of my brother, Rand Armstrong. Rand had met Steve during a visit to Dave on the west Coast and hearing about that I recalled reading about Steve , I think in a Whole Earth publication. I recently interviewed Steve by phone and email to get a check on his trajectory and recent activities. There are tons of information on Steve's websites and blogs to allow you to fill in the blanks in my overview. Steve is what I'd have to name a geek encrusted visionary renaissance man.

Here's the interview:

What is the significance of Homebrew? I have partially answered that question with the entry from the computer museum, but if you'd care to elaborate on that, please do.

I think that I recall from the phonecall that you're referring to my 8008 system (1974) not more recent homebrew projects. It was very early in the game and I was a lone wolf-geek and I didn't make any attempt to market it. In retrospect...Oh well.

How's the book doing?

Which one? The most recent is Reaching Escape Velocity, which folks really seem to enjoy...though it is a somewhat specialized market (people who want to create insanely audacious markets and need to leverage sponsors, media and teams of volunteers...sort of a Martial Arts Geek Expressionism). My better known book, Computing Across America, is in the process of being edited and folded into a large combined volume that includes it's unpublished sequel as well as a host of gizmological goodies (especially about BEHEMOTH)

Why the transition to sea?

Ah so many reasons. Freedom, self sufficiency, the noise of the road, open space, global range...and new conceptual territory. My Microship project was a direct human scale spin-off of BEHEMOTH and it kept evolving over a decade until I had to admit that I needed something bigger than a pedal /solar/sail micro trimaran.

I hope someone needs one, however. It's sitting here in my lab. Know any technomadlings with a yen for adventure and (access to) Deep Pockets?

Any cruises on the horizon? Would you say sail out to the Marshall's and spend a year or two? What areas interest you?

Initially my own waters; so far I've single-handed my previous boat (Corsair 36 tri) up to Desolation Sound, and the aboard Amazon 44' explored Puget Sound, San Juans and Gulf Islands with my ex. Now it's time to head further north...the boat can take it...and is perfect for this environment. Steel hull, stout rig, wood stove and lots of self sufficiency tools.

Anyway, once I've had some larger adventure on this coast, it will be a natural thing to head out the Strait and turn left. South Pacific, Aus/NZ and Europe including Scandinavia are all inviting.

Are you completely transitioned or or you still somewhat land based?

About 50/50 now, with the boat gradually becoming home. The weekly forays to the home base facilities gives me the space for business, working and spending time with my partner, and tonnage reduction...and boat projects are warming up with the weather and the completion of my mobile lab (now parked inside a building, about 2 blocks from Nomadness)

What is the next product project?

We've just started producing a much-needed line of "Expedition Medical Chests," with ER grade supplies in gasketed Lexan cases. See here.

I'm also starting a publication series ("design packages") that document various interesting boat projects, and not just geeky ones. All are detailed enough to serve as a full how-to, though of course boat contexts differ widely and they're probably more likely to be used as resources more than blueprints. Still, having a working system in hand is hugely helpful. Some will have associated kits.

You are consulting a bit, what is the nature of your consulting?

A very common problem in industry is a lack of writing skills...some amazing engineering comes with such unreadable documentation (or none) that companies stay busy with more hand holding than is necessary. I'm on the other side of this now, in fact.

Something I've been doing freelancer for about 30 years is acting as a's unglamorous but really necessary. It's also kind of fun, giving me a short but intense learning curve.

I'd like a statement of the big picture from you, what's this all about? I mean a lot of that is self evident from your material, but what's the vision, where are you going?

Well, I usually just quip, "It's fun", since that's such a big question. A somewhat more precise answer is that I find the most rewarding lifestyle to be one that incorporates all my passions into a self-sufficient enterprise...not with any emphasis on business, but with that as a sort of automatic nickel generating component that burbles along in the wake of whatever I find most interesting.

What I find interesting at the moment is a layer of intelligence on the boat that provides a deep situation awareness (both ship internals and the outside world). This should not be misunderstood as a complicated system that will lead to even more breakdowns, I would never trust a microprocessor to turn on my nav lights. But a toolset that allows me to observe trends, do failure analysis, and otherwise overlay a sort of industrial-control environment onto the that's fun stuff. It also creates a system context into which it is easy to integrate other things of interest: a piano studio, 3D printing capability for parts creation, video production, efficient power management, robust communication tools and so on.

Why a sailboat? A tug like Stewart Brand's might be easier to negotiate, what's the allure, statement made/goal. Non petroleum?

Heh...years ago when I did the Phil Donahue show, he asked me, "Why not a Harley?"

I'm not a purist, though of course the ability to move with a minimum of expensive fuel is increasingly worthwhile. A lot of it is just my personal sense of aesthetics, though I do sigh with envy at the space inside some trawlers. Really it goes back to my general desire to blend passions: interesting stuff happens at the boundaries between specialties, and if those a seemingly divergent (sailing vs distributed control networks...or bicycling vs on-board computers back in the '80s) then it's intrinsically entertaining and door opening.

I look forward to being the only guy in the anchorage who can crank out a toner-transfer printed circuit board or a custom 3D printed plastic part. Geek pleasures, mixed with the languid pace of the traditional nautical life and the time-honored practice of barter.

Personals/Dave Wright/College or self taught/How did you get here?

Self taught, which is really just another way to say that passion is a much stronger motivator than fear of tests. I've spent my life doing whatever is most interesting, and that automatically causes education. The more I learn the more I find things I would like to know...and the more I am attracted to people who have related and highly varied expertise (that's why I've always found Dave Wright so interesting). I used to have a vague sense that I had missed something by skipping out of engineering school, especially with the obvious holes in my education...but I got over that when I spent a couple of years teaching a senior projects course at a large university. I was glad not to have been defined by such an environment, though of course some folks can just extract the good bits and not be damaged by the process.

Being self employed is not easy, though-I have terrible work habits and only get away with it because my interests keep me moving in the same general direction for a long time. Sometimes interesting things emerge.

Please add anything I may have overlooked or that you feel is relevant.

The biggest challenge is that my fantasies of what can be done keep on evolving faster than my abilities to actually build the stuff...and that can be deadly. Dave once said, "You're staggered by your own imagination". That sounds like a compliment but it's actually a rather accurate assessment...I need to freeze a specification and get 'er done. Recently I've been getting a little better at that, since I am annoyingly aware of being finite. The average completion time of a homebuilt boat is 137 years, and even though my boat is already "built", it's easy to see how projects can just never end. Here there be see them all the time in the marinas.

Good project management skills help with this, keeping focus on what I call CDT's (Clearly Defined Tasks). When working on the boat, I try not to get lost in blue sky brainstorming, or the next version will seduce me long before the current one is done enough to enjoy.

You can access far more of Steve's technomadic brilliance at these sites:

Nomadic Research Labs

Nomadness weblog



And others pursuing a technomadic lifestyle here.


doryman said...

So much BS. Why not a Harley, indeed?
Not interesting, Tom. We expect more from you.

Steve Roberts said...

Some folks don't understand that I'm simply blending my own diverse passions into a lifestyle, not trying to make boats even more complicated. There is no way that I would give a pile of microprocessors control over sails, engine, navlights, or comms... but I see nothing wrong with building a system that I find personally fulfilling... and that many others find entertaining or a useful source of spin-off ideas.

It's quite a tradition, in fact, for people to add their own professions or hobbies to their boat... doing pretty much what I do but with music, crafts, writing, photography, nomadic business, environmental research, or whatever.

No Harley or powerboat because I don't like them. I prefer pedaling and sailing. If this is not interesting to you, it does not call for insult.

TSCA member

Steve Roberts said...

Oh, one other comment. I'm not sure if this is doryman's objection, since he didn't elaborate, but I have had people criticize complexity (and from a traditional small craft perspective, that would certainly be reasonable).

But oddly, I've even heard such comments from people carrying chartplotters, multiple GPS receivers, radar, Internet connectivity, smartphones, MP3 stereo, ham radio, boat monitoring systems, inverter/chargers, and other goodies. My own additions to my own boat, viewed in that light, are just another set of tools... specifically, a non-invasive overlay that provides me with more situation awareness and a context for adding stuff I find amusing.

Nomadness is an 18-ton steel boat, not a small classic wooden beauty. The Microship that preceded it was a high-tech amphibian trimaran with pedal/solar/sail propulsion. Although I launched these projects via a love for kayaking and small-craft purity, they have become complex... personally rewarding for other reasons.

I should note that some of my greatest sailing pleasure these days is not piloting the big girl, but gunkholing in my Gig Harbor 10' Navigator davit-mounted dink with oars and sail rig. No electronics at all... not even a motor.