The infamous 580-pound, 105-speed BEHEMOTH, with Mac, SPARC, and DOS environments as well as satellite datacomm, HF/VHF/UHF ham radio, heads-up display, head mouse, handlebar keyboard, 6-level security system, speech synthesis, 72 watt solar array, and deployable landing gear to keep the monster upright on killer hills. The bike now resides in The Computer History Museum.
This is the fourth installment in a series of articles unlike anything we’ve ever published. Steven K. Roberts has figured out how to live passionately, pursuing crazy dreams and building fantastic machines (like BEHEMOTH and Microship, both of which are pictured and briefly described here) and going on amazing adventures. He calls what he does Gonzo Engineering, and in this series he tells you everything you need to know in order to pursue your own crazy gonzo engineering dream.
The Media Dance
I don’t think my projects would have survived without all the media coverage over the years. It has opened more doors than I probably even realize, led directly to writing and speaking gigs, smoothed the way to countless sponsorships, sparked friendly waves and warm hospitality offers, and probably even saved my life on narrow roads (“Goddamn, slow down a second, Bubba, there’s that computer dude I heard about on the TV!”) Though one could certainly make cynical observations about all this, it is true that in our media-centric culture a little fame goes a long way—although it does not, alas, automatically imply fortune. Trust me on this.
Like sponsorship, media presence is an essential component of a gonzo engineering project; it has a way of making everything else easier. But there is an art to it... don’t assume that just because you’re doing something original, reporters will flock to your lab and write gushing stories. Let’s explore this a bit.
The Digestive Tract of a Horse
One of the most important things to remember is that you have to somehow manage to be newsworthy without drifting too far into the domain of self-promotion: there is nothing more tedious than someone who is always tooting his own horn and viewing the world through the filter of his own personal obsession. Media professionals have a finely tuned radar for this sort of thing—as well as blatant product promotion. They know when they’re being manipulated, and it can backfire badly since they want to be in charge of the story and do not welcome attempts on the part of the subject to run the show.
But with a little care, you can use this to your advantage... just make sure that you’re providing a clear and consistent image rather than amorphous raw material that can be digested into a different story entirely. This happened to us one year at the Hackers Conference; a crew from CBS News showed up, took a few hours of footage, and produced a completely unrelated piece on computer crime illustrated with B-roll of some of the industry’s leading luminaries in the woods above Silicon Valley.
The media were never invited back, of course, but damage bordering on libel had already been done.
Admittedly, a whole conference is a bit hard to control, and the wide range of colorful personalities gave them enough material to support just about any fiction; they could have done a piece on the favorite hobbies of extra- terrestrials had they so desired, armed as they were with both a serious shortage of knowledge and extensive video of übergeeks at play.
Fortunately, as the brains behind a gonzo engineering project, you have the opportunity to keep a much tighter rein on the media beast... it can even be your friend.
I was lucky... my first lesson along these lines was delivered in a helpful and non-destructive way. I was doing an interview in 1984 with CBS Morning News, my first national television appearance. Unlike their evening-news counterparts, this team was professional, their production standards were high, and we got along beautifully. But still I was in for a shock: with the cameras rolling, the interviewer asked how the computer networks figured into my bicycle-touring life. I launched into a long and precise explanation, filled with rhapsodic asides and pithy anecdotes.
“Cut!” cried the producer. “I can’t use any of that. You’re referring forward to things you haven’t said yet and back to things you said five minutes ago—how am I supposed to edit? I want 20-second speech bites, ending on a downward inflection with your mouth closed.” This was delivered with a grin, so I knew he was yanking my chain a bit, but there was truth in his words. As painful as it is, you have to be able to package even the most abstract concepts in clear, memorable packets... pausing in between to suggest natural edit points. And you need to do it in a way that still sounds like natural speech, not like a rehearsed stand-up delivered by a news reporter. It’s a fine line, and takes practice.
The metaphor to remember is that the media is a big horse: if you stuff straw into one end, something remarkably unlike straw comes out the other. But if you insert bricks, you get bricks out the other end. You need to develop concise comments and colorful sayings that collectively define your work, then casually speak in those during interviews the way a Zen master speaks in koans.
We can extend the media-as-horse metaphor a bit further: it is always hungry, and this works to your advantage. Every minute of air time, every column-inch in the newspaper, and every page of editorial space in magazines has to be filled with content... day after day, month after month. Coupled with fierce competition at every level, this translates into a lot of media channels just aching to tell your story if it’s sufficiently interesting. The trick is giving them a heads-up without making it obvious that you want media coverage; as in the dating scene, there’s nothing like an air of desperation to send people scurrying in the opposite direction. I’ve had hundreds of articles and interviews, but have never called a station or publication to offer an interview—not once.
So what’s the trick?
Well, think about it from the reporter’s perspective. Deadline is approaching, and there’s a hole to fill. What’s hot, new, visual, funny, poignant, disturbing, or likely to yield a Pulitzer Prize? You develop a keen eye for fresh material: trolling the web, listening for scuttlebut, and scanning other publications in non-overlapping markets. Do you see the implications of this? Sometimes all it takes is one or two stories to trigger a whole series—I’ve had otherwise unremarkable local news items explode within days to a spot on CNN, calls from feature-writers for glossy trade magazines, requests for photos and interviews from international business publications, and an hour on the Donahue show. Starting the process can be as simple as having someone else call in a tip, or visibly doing what you do and letting them notice you. Occasionally, the symbiosis with sponsors can come into play here, as companies who actually sell things are less shy about initiating contact with the press and may welcome the news hook that you represent.
If you do need to draw attention to yourself, do it in the form of a low-key press release with an absolute minimum of hype and exaggeration. They’ve seen it all, believe me, and anything that looks blatantly self- promotional or less than professional goes straight to the recycling bin.
Basically, the only trick is getting started... and then keeping the story interesting. Let’s look at this a bit more closely.
The Microship, the result of an 8-year development project involving extensive sponsorship, students, and volunteer teams. This is an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran with retractable wheels, hydraulic systems, 480 watts of peak-power-tracked solar panels, and zippy performance under sail. BEHEMOTH, the Microship, and the later Nomadness project are all documented at microship.com.
The Project Moniker
Much of the art of being interesting to the media is simply having an image that can be grasped and communicated in a short news segment. Think about a spot on the evening news, or a 300-word “tight and bright” piece in the inside pages of USA Today: if it takes an hour to explain to a fellow geek what you’re doing, it might be impossible to get it across effectively to a bright-eyed reporter whose last assignment involved converting a consumer product press release into a photo/caption puff piece. In other words, those sound bites we talked about earlier aren’t just for use during the artificial reality of being on camera; you have to be able to convey the essence of your project in few words with startling clarity, tweak it in various compelling ways to appeal to different markets, then keep it dynamic as the years pass so it doesn’t fade into the static.
The entertainment industry has a name for this: the elevator pitch. If you can’t get the story idea across in the time it takes to ride the elevator, then it is too complicated.
An important component of this, as trivial as it may sound, is the project name. You need a memorable handle, and one unique enough that even the most watered-down article or happy-news blurb will leave people with a way to find out more by typing something into Google. Otherwise, you lose one of the most important side-effects of media coverage—the ability to attract volunteers, sponsors, and growing image recognition. Consider these two hypothetical spots about the same fictional project, delivered in the voice of an evening-news anchor:
“And finally this evening, there’s a man in the U district who’s been working for three years on a way to help people interact with computers using a whole variety of gestures, not just typing on a keyboard and manipulating a mouse. He uses cameras and sensors to keep track of the movements of a user’s hands, allowing the creation of a customized visual language to increase the efficiency of man-machine communication.”
“And finally this evening, meet the Gesturizer. This remarkable device was invented by a man in the U district, and it lets you interact with your computer the way the deaf communicate with sign language. He says it takes the average user only two days to double the efficiency of computer use.”
By coming up with a catchy name (even a silly one like “Gesturizer,” which does not exist at this writing) our subject has created a clear label that ensures every news story will unerringly point to his website, or at least be easily searchable. When you hear another story about this project six months later, it will sound familiar; with any luck, you’ve even bookmarked gesturizer.com in your browser or signed up for his occasional email updates. And something with a quirky and memorable name certainly makes for a more lively news story than the abstract explanation in the first example.
Notice also, in the second snippet, that there is something like a sound bite nestled in there. It’s a fair bet that the reporter scribbled “interact w/ comp like deaf w/ sign language” during the interview, knowing that a visual image would make a good story lead. There is even a startling statistic to further capture the imagination: wow, only a couple of days’ practice to double my efficiency? Where do I sign?
By maintaining steady media coverage for the Gesturizer over a few years, our fictional developer enjoys the luxury of growing image recognition, thus creating a context for new stories and updates:
“You may recall the amazing Gesturizer that we reported on last Spring. Well, the inventor now reports that his system can actually recognize sign language from across the room, no longer requiring a computer user to remain tethered to a keyboard and mouse—or even a desk! Our science reporter, Bob Archibald, has the story...”
Without a memorable name and a tasty sound bite, this follow-up story would have had a much less compelling introduction.
This sort of thing may be anathema to geeks who want to remain focused on system development, not activities that seem better suited to a marketing department. Clever names, websites, image-management, media spin, sound bites... what does all this have to do with gonzo engineering? Believe me, it pays off, even if you haven’t the slightest intention of ever selling anything—you can’t run a massive project in a vacuum, and the media is your best ticket to meme-propagation.
The Art of the Demo
If you thought that was bad, now I’m really going to make you gag. When you’re dealing with mainstream media instead of highly targeted journals in your native field, you have to allow for the possibility that they might not have the slightest clue what you’re talking about. I’ve actually been on the other side of this; the first time I covered an Artificial Intelligence conference for Byte, it took a while for me to see natural language systems as anything more than fancy incarnations of Eliza. (That particular subculture had a real PR problem—most of their publishing activities were incestuously contained within the AI community itself, and the general media was getting a distorted, hype-filled view of what was going on... creating inflated expectations that were destined to lead to disappointment.)
The problem here is that when the topic is a sufficiently interesting system, there is usually a rich shared context with the audience that you can normally just assume. This is why publishing technical articles is easy; you already know that your geek readers understand the prior art, and will thus get your clever hack or new paradigm if you explain it in that context. But now sit a writer for the Podunk Weekly News down at the console and perform your usual demo. Blank stares? Tentative mouse clicks on irrelevant objects? If you’re hearing questions like, “So, um, is this thing connected up to the Internet? Does it get TV? Who would actually use it?” then you need to create another class of demo.
This was easy and fun with Winnebiko and BEHEMOTH—showing the act of writing-while-riding was not particularly dramatic, though the more clever reporters identified with it immediately. (I am, after all, in their business... yet not enslaved to a desk.) But I needed a few cute things that would play well on camera while conveying the essence of the system—the operational equivalent of a sound bite. I coded up some simple scripts that could be remotely invoked with keypad commands via a hand-held ham-radio transceiver, and used those to orchestrate scenarios that worked particularly well with the TV news.
In North Carolina one afternoon, a reporter stepped in front of my bike and began his summarizing “stand-up.” As his shadow fell across the solar array, I surreptitiously sent a Touch-Tone command and the bike’s synthesizer sternly spoke: “Excuse me. You are blocking my sunlight.” It was priceless... still on camera, he quickly stepped away, saying, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
I had a canned collection of remotely triggerable speech strings, and in almost every interview they came in handy. There were also some large-font files (themselves serving as “text bites”) that I would pop up and edit when demonstrating the handlebar keyboard, eliminating the quick brown fox or worse, the fsdfsfdsfs syndrome. A couple of favorite CDs were always at hand to show off the music system; I became adept at popping the top off the Qualcomm OmniTRACS satellite terminal and demonstrating azimuthal tracking upon loss and reacquisition of signal; I would hand the reporter my sweaty helmet and let them see their own contact information in the heads-up display. Coupled with ongoing patter about the uses of the underlying technology while on a bicycle tour and its implications for future widespread nomadic connectivity, this sort of thing added visual appeal and contributed to my ability to drive the story with consistent content, rather than just answer the usual questions (What did that cost to build? Has anyone tried to steal it? Is it hard to pedal up hill? Have you had any accidents? Where do you sleep? What do you do in the rain?)
Leveraging the Media Portfolio
Over time, with a little care and luck, a sufficiently interesting project will begin to accumulate clips—newspaper articles, tear sheets from magazines, and a collection of video dubs. This stuff is gold, and can serve you well for years if you use it wisely.
First, keep good records, both in the form of a mailable document and a list on your website. Media coverage is one of those things, like credit, that exhibits positive feedback: the more you have, the easier it is to get more. Any doubts a reporter may have about your credibility will evaporate in the face of a good list of previous coverage, although there is a limiting factor in that some publications are sensitive about being “scooped.” When I first passed through Seattle on the bike in 1986, I interviewed with both of the daily papers... and the Post-Intelligencer dropped the story when they found out I had already been on the front page of the Times. (That was annoying, but not as bad as the New Orleans Times-Picayune that killed the story because I didn’t have a “handicap” that would make a cross-country bicycle trip newsworthy!) But in the larger world of magazines, this has rarely been a problem; there is always a different angle available, and the value of a story becomes amplified by the celebrity effect.
Another reason to keep these lists, of course, is to facilitate sponsorship proposals. Even if someone hasn’t already read about you somewhere, they are sure to be impressed by a long list of publication credits backed up with a few carefully selected photocopies. The collection becomes immensely valuable and will be important to you for most of your life, so put those articles in protective sleeves and keep them in binders! The best ones should even have backups.
Note how this keeps looking like a 3-way symbiosis: sponsors get media coverage, you get goodies, the media gets stories about interesting technology. All three components have to be carefully balanced, ultimately driven by the energy of the project itself. If you plan it well and keep it evolving in interesting directions, it can even become self-sustaining.
Three-way symbiosis of project, sponsors, and media. Everybody wins as long as the process keeps moving forward, and it is up to you to drive that. New toys are inspiring; build something amazing with them, and the press will tell your story. If you craft interviews to honestly underscore the role of your sponsor(s) without blatant flag-flying, then you can keep the outer loop going indefinitely. The hard part is the leap of faith on all sides necessary to get it started. Inner, direct connections are just as important, and the most productive relationships contain all the elements shown here.
A Public Presence
We have been talking about a public presence already, of course, but media coverage is a unique phenomenon: although you can increase the odds of accuracy and a positive spin with a good name and some clever sound bites, the published stories are out of your control. If some reporter thinks you’re a colorful nutcase and gives the story a snide “takes all kinds!” slant, there’s not really much you can do about it... and it certainly isn’t going to help build a positive project image. (Don’t believe the old nonsense about any publicity being good as long as they spell your name right!)
There is another aspect to the public face of the project, however, and over this you have complete control. Thanks to the Internet and common design tools, anybody can be a publisher these days. If you were born after 1980 or so, you may find it hard to believe that there was a time when every geek didn’t have a website with content-management software, mailing list, blog, and a portfolio of domain names reserving his or her pet neologisms. In the Olden Days, we actually typed things directly onto paper, character-by-character (sometimes even paying professional “typesetters” if something needed large fonts or right-justification), then produced expensive print runs of hardcopy publications. Distribution, in the pre-Net era, involved affixing colorful gummed receipts for the transportation charges, then handing over these “stamped” hardcopies, sorted by zip code, to uniformed workers who would transport them to their destinations in a sort of physical analogue of packet-switching. <creak> Am I dating myself? (No, but I am sitting by the phone waiting for me to call.)
It almost goes without saying that any gonzo engineering project should have a website, updated frequently with news, photos, downloadables, YouTube clips, bloggage, white papers, personnel sketches, public appearances, media coverage, sponsor lists with links, and related resources. I don’t really need to tell you how or why to do this. Just do it.
Beyond that, I highly recommend setting up a few email lists. Some members of “your public” will in fact be proactive enough to check your website regularly (or use RSS) to see what’s new, but there’s a lot of cool stuff out there competing for mind share and, at least in my own overloaded life, I find that I rarely have time to “web surf” anymore. If something is not immediately relevant or referred by a trusted source, I am not likely to stumble across it in the act of poking around... the thousands of bookmarks accumulated since the “Mosaic” era do me little good. If I have a question, I Google my way to the answer; I read a few regular news-aggregators and blogs of current interest; I scan the dozen or so forums that manage to hold my attention. This is probably typical.
But a mailing list is the original “push” technology. Once someone expresses interest in your project, you get to drive the update process. As long as your content is interesting and you don’t start spamming or posting too frequently, that person will probably stay on your list throughout the life of the project. Admin and bouncie-processing is a pain, but it’s worth it; my nomadness list, now over 15 years old, is one of my most important assets. Among the thousands of names are some amazing people: almost without fail, I can mention a conundrum in one of my updates and someone will provide the answer within hours. The list includes sponsors, writers, CEOs, friends, volunteers, engineers, marine architects, sailors, advisors, potential hospitality sites, the curious, the skeptical, and a few non-English speakers who probably thought they were signing up for information about Microchip Technologies PIC development tools and wonder why they occasionally get rambling email about some barco ridículo.
This list is transmit-only, meaning that I am the only person who can post. With thousands of names, the usual discussion and noise could easily get out of hand (“how do I get the *%$! off this list?” followed by a wave of flames), so I restrict this “channel” to pure publishing. But there are other needs as well...
I maintain active discussion lists for technomads in general, participants in the planned flotilla of boatlets, and developers working on the project. Multiple devlists come and go over time to segment the latter into more focused subgroups. (I should point out to the same youngsters who had to be told about paper mail that there was a time when, for practical reasons, volunteers for a project had to be in the same town—not scattered across the planet and unlikely to ever meet face-to-face.)
In addition to websites and mailing lists, it is advisable to have at least one reasonably well-produced print publication that describes the project. Over the years, I’ve tried to put out quarterly journals, but that’s too much like work (though I once told impatient readers that I actually meant “every quarter-decade”); more successful has been a small series of technical monographs whose flagship is a 110-page self-published book (From BEHEMOTH to Microship (ISBN 1-929470-00-2) that gives a light overview of the whole series of bikes and boats. It’s not highly technical, but it does generate a few nickels while doubling as a presentation piece for those who wander by the lab to help. It’s even a useful resource for reporters, letting them dig around for quotes at their leisure instead of recycling my comfy old sound bites again and again.
For a while, I ambitiously planned to expand the monograph series to a whole product line covering all aspects of the Microship project, but doing so is time-consuming and expensive (and it’s way too easy to end up with either a pile of obsolete inventory or a lot of wasted time designing “publishing on demand” documents that were never, um, demanded). The alternative is easy, fun, and has a “cost of goods sold” that is arbitrarily close to zero: a library of PDF documents tucked into a shopping cart that takes PayPal. These can be sold or given away, further spreading the memes of the project and maybe even generating another nickel or two.
Coupled with appearances in more traditional media, these various activities generate a rich flow of outgoing information that gives a project the appearance of healthy activity... an essential image to maintain. Next time out, we’ll look at one last component in the complex blend that is necessary to propel a dream past inertial effects and potential barriers, maximizing its chances of reaching escape velocity.
Steven Roberts was the original “technomad,” covering 17,000 miles around the US on a computerized recumbent bicycle from 1983-1991 while publishing tales via CompuServe and GEnie, then extending the same design objectives to water with an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran that consumed all available resources until 2002. As is typical of homebuilt boat projects, however, by the time it was finished he didn’t really want to do that anymore... so he has since made the transition to a full-time life aboard a 44-foot steel pilothouse sailboat, and is now based in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.
The ship is extensively networked with embedded data collection and control systems, streaming telemetry, and a user-interface layer reminiscent of the Enterprise... with a wrap-around console that includes communications, R&D lab, audio production studio, and a piano. Roberts has published six books ranging from travel and adventure to microprocessor design, and prior to becoming a technomad spent a decade developing custom industrial control systems, early home computers, and other paleo-geekery. More on his technomadic projects can be found at microship.com (with the new boat at nomadness.com). He is publishing the ongoing technical narrative of the new project as a monthly PDF “Nomadness Report,” as well as a series of Boat Hacking design packages detailing the subsystems.