Christianity and democracy in Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, set in post-Napoleonic France, explores a broad range of political, philosophical and religious issues. Two of the novel’s major philosophical themes are Christianity, personified by Valjean, and democracy, personified by Marius. In my opinion, Les Misérables represents Hugo’s attempt to reconcile the two; he fails.

The entire first volume is devoted to the development of Valjean’s character, and Christianity is the driving theme. First we meet the Bishop of Digne, known to the people of his town as a “just man”, and Hugo reinforces this. The Bishop gives up his episcopal palace because it’s needed by the hospital. The largest item in his budget is “for the poor”. A sudden windfall goes to the soup kitchen and orphans. He spends all day with a condemned murderer before his death.

Yet all this is preparatory to the entrance of Valjean, an unredeemed convict and outcast taken in by the priest after being turned away from every inn. “This is not my house,” he tells the stunned man, “it is the house of Jesus Christ.” Valjean betrays the Bishop’s trust, steals his valuable silverware and sneaks out the back door. Captured by the police, he is returned to the priest, who not only covers up for him by claiming that he gave him the silverware, but insists that he take the silver candlesticks as well, exemplifying Jesus’ commandment that if a man should take your coat, give him your cloak as well. The Bishop then imposes a benediction on Valjean:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

The Bishop’s generosity triggers a profound spiritual crisis in Valjean, and he converts to Christianity. His is not an outward conversion of baptism or communion, but an deeper, inward conversion. Though he never sees the priest again, his life changes dramatically. Under an assumed name, he establishes himself in a small town, makes a clever invention which pulls the local industry out of recession, and in a few years is able to erect his own factory. With its proceeds, he improves the local hospital, builds two new schoolhouses, and funds a dispensary for the poor. In time, the King prevails upon him to become mayor. The bishop dies; Valjean wears black to mourn for him, symbolically taking the torch of Christianity, which he is to carry for the rest of the novel.

His willingness to restrain the police earns him the enmity of the town constable, Javert, destined to become his lifelong nemesis. Valjean once declared that there are no bad plants or bad men, only bad cultivators. Javert states that “these men are irremediably lost”. Javert, who knew Valjean in prison, suspects his true identity, and becomes more and more withdrawn from the mayor. The last straw comes when Valjean sides with a prostitute Javert is determined to imprison, invokes his powers as mayor, and frees her. He learns that she turned to prostitution to support her daughter. The woman dies, and Valjean promises on her deathbed to support her daughter, Cosette. Yet Valjean’s cover is soon blown, by his own refusal to let an innocent man, mistaken for him, go to the galleys for life, and he flees with Cosette. As the child grows into a young woman, Valjean lives in Paris, frequently changing identities to avoid the determined Javert.

Enter the last of the novel’s major characters – Marius, destined to fall in love with and marry Cosette. Like Valjean, he inherits a symbolic torch – the torch of revolution. His father was made a Baron by Napoleon on the battlefield of Waterloo, and passed the title to his son on his death. Marius has a hundred cards printed bearing the name “Le Baron Marius Pontmercy”, and fancies the restoration of the Napoleonic empire.

“Le Baron” is soon disowned by his maternal grandfather, and cast off into a life of poverty. He meets the Friends of the ABC, a revolutionary society of students, philosophers and poets led by the fiery Enjolras. While the Bishop of Digne converted Valjean through simple acts of generosity and mercy, Marius’ new friends resort to wit, philosophy, and a barrage of words to convince him to abandon Napoleon’s empire and adopt a new cause – republic and democracy – but the means remain the same: the sword, the cannon, the barricade.

Hugo goes to great length to present us Marius in the most sympathetic light. He gives his poor neighbor twenty-five francs for rent when he himself has only thirty. Yet he also appoints himself judge over his neighbors, declares “these wretches must be stamped upon,” when he realizes that a robbery is about to take place next door, and sends for the police. He regrets this judgment when he realizes that the ruffian about to commit the crime saved his father’s life at Waterloo, and begins fumbling for another way out, but ultimately it is Javert who bursts into the room and disrupts the crime. Hugo conveniently arranges for this act to save Valjean, but did the Bishop of Digne “stamp upon” Valjean after his crime? Wouldn’t it have been a simple rationalization for the Bishop to think he had to stop others from being victimized by Valjean? Let’s not forget Valjean’s original crime of stealing bread to feed his younger brothers, which lead him to the galleys and a life of crime. Marius has good intentions, but never adopts the Bishop’s willingness to turn away from a wrong, determined instead to fight his oppressors.

As revolutionary fervor again sweeps France, Enjolras rallies his secret society. Thirty years had passed since “Library, Fraternity, Equality” became the swish of the guillotine, the roar of cannon, the tramp of legions, and still they want more. The revolution comes, and Enjolras springs his plan into action, turning their favorite wine-shop into a fortress and erecting a barricade across the street. Valjean passes through the army lines wearing his National Guard uniform, enters the barricade, then gives up his uniform so a man with a family to support can slip away and be saved.

The government is determined to crush the uprising, and soldiers surround the barricade and storm it. Marius becomes the hero of the rebellion after winning the battle by threatening to blow up the barricade, himself, the soldiers, and all his friends. Now, if he could have blown up only the soldiers, would he have hesitated for a second? Moments earlier, Valjean was faking the death of his arch-nemesis Javert to free him on a side street. Would Marius fake the death of the soldiers? If the soldiers had not retreated, would Marius have carried out his threat of martyrdom? Probably. “Victory or death!” has been the rallying cry of radical patriots since day one.

Valjean, though present at the barricade, fires not a single shot. After freeing Javert, he turns his attention to Marius, determined to win his revolution or die fighting the soldiers. The government attacks again in force; the barricade falls. Marius, badly wounded with a broken collar bone and multiple head injuries, faints into the arms of Valjean, who lifts a sewer grate and drops in carrying the half-dead revolutionary. As he escapes through the sewer with the unconscious Marius, the wine-shop is taken, Enjolras is executed by firing squad, the ABC Society goes down fighting and Revolution of 1832 falls to pieces.

Marius recovers from his wounds to find much of his world collapsed around him. All his close friends are dead; what is left is his love for Cosette. They marry. Valjean confesses to Marius that he is a fugitive convict. Marius, not yet knowing that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, believing that Valjean shot Javert, and wondering if his six hundred thousand franc inheritance was stolen, gives Valjean the cold shoulder and gradually pushes him out of Cosette’s life. Valjean, believing that the girl has a husband and no longer needs a father, acquiesces.

Marius ultimately learns the truth – that the inheritance is legitimate, that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, that Javert’s murder was faked – and regrets having estranged Valjean. With Cosette in hand, he rushes to redeem himself with Valjean, only to find him on his deathbed. So Valjean dies, in the presence of his adopted daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps this is meant as another symbolic torch passing, but who will carry it on, and in what form? Will Marius “love his enemies”? Will his wife resist corruption by his hot-headed rebellion? Has the Bishop of Digne’s torch passed or finally died?

The failed 1832 uprising featured in Les Misérables was but one in a series of violent clashes spawned by the French Revolution. After declaring a constitutional monarchy in 1789, the French assembly within five years had executed its constitutional monarch. No provision for trying the king had been provided by the constitution; the national assembly simply tried him anyway. The masses packed into the Place de la Revolution and cheered as Louis XVI’s severed head was hoisted aloft. Of all the Marius’s leading the government, not one Valjean stepped forward to spirit the king away through the sewers under the city. After the king and the aristocrats went to the guillotine, next came the leaders of the revolution themselves. Robespierre, Saint-Just, Coulton – each got the six-inch haircut.

At last came Napoleon, who Marius once exulted as a “sun rising”. After leading the French to devastate Europe, he was finally defeated and exiled. Yet any doubt that his was anything but a popular dictatorship was put to rest following his escape from Elba, during the “100 Days”, after he landed on the French coast with 1200 men. Every town told to oppose him threw open its gates; every army unit sent to reverse him cried “Vive l’Empereur!” After being defeated in Russia, losing their entire army, and seeing their country in ruin, thousands still turned to the conquering general.

To this day, the masses insist on immolating themselves on the barricades in pursuit of truth, justice, and the French legions storming across Europe. How many millions of Germans cheered for Hitler as he proclaimed the Anschluss? How many millions “believed” in communism when Lenin proclaimed a worker’s state in Russia? How many millions today think that greed is the driving force behind all human progress? How many will surrender their prized silverware to a convict and a thief? Yes, Christianity can save democracy, but only by dragging it unconscious through the sewers of Paris.

Democracy is a system of government where the majority of people choose not only their own leaders, but everyone else’s. Democracy has little do to with right; nobody has the right to choose someone else’s leader. Democracy is primarily about responsibility; the majority has the responsibility to choose everyone’s leaders. If they choose wisely, it will succeed; if they choose poorly, it will fail.

On Napster, a website facilitating the on-line exchange of digital music, has been highly publicized by the mass media. The legal wrangling over copyright issues has overshadowed other, equally legitimate questions. Is Napster for real, or is it just hype? Are the issues it presents purely legal, or are there technical lessons to be learned, too? What does Napster reveal about the future of the Internet?

First, we need to recognize that Napster represents a real technological advance. It is one of the newest and most prominent examples of a directory service. Directory services are based on the realization that centralized data stores tend to generate performance bottlenecks. All the data being served to the clients has to come from a centralized server or a handful of centralized servers. Throwing bandwidth at the problem is sometimes realistic, but a better solution is to design more efficient networks. Distributing data sources across the network is a major, emerging technique for achieving greater efficiency.

For example, one of the reasons we currently lack decent video-on-demand services are the bandwidth requirements of video. It’s simply not feasible to construct a centralized server to feed two hour movies to a million people. The bandwidth requirements are too great; the centralized server becomes too much of a bottleneck. A Napster-esk solution would be to have thousands of video servers, each capable of serving perhaps a dozen video streams, spread all over the network. Due to the current bandwidth demands of video, this is still unrealistic, but similar schemes are immediately plausible for books, software, and websites in general.

In fact, it’s reasonable to suppose that at least 90% of the present Internet’s traffic is unnecessary. The net is young and rapidly evolving. The protocols currently in use are inefficient, some more so than others. As the network continues to mature, it will become more efficient, and the bandwidth requirements of particular applications will decrease. The present boom in bandwidth demand is driven by new users and new applications. At some point, most people will be “connected”, and the uses of the network will stabilize. From that point onward, improvements in network design will begin to drive bandwidth requirements downward. The network will be most inefficient while it is young, so we can expect bandwidth requirements to peak at some point, I’d estimate within the next two decades, and then begin heading down.

Directory services such as Napster will be instrumental in reducing demand for network bandwidth. Other keys to more effectively using bandwidth are compression, caching, and multicast, all of which are in their infancy. Many issues remain to be addressed, for example, server selection. Napster currently presents the user with a list of servers for each song, one of which is manually selected to download the song from. Developing automated techniques for server selection will be an important step forward in making this technology more seamless, and therefore more attractive for other applications.

Security deserves special mention, since distributing data across the net would seem to seriously compromise security, but this is probably not so. Encrypting the data allows it to be distributed even to insecure servers, which could serve the data, but couldn’t read it. Then, the centralized directory would provide a key that could be used to decrypt and read the data. Controlling access to the key would control access to the data. Typically block cipher keys are only a few dozen bytes long, so access to a 100KB file could be granted by a directory server in less than 1KB – a 100-to-1 savings in centralized bandwidth requirements. The authenticity of the data could be verified by X.509 certificates – placed in the directory, of course.

While Napster represents a real advance over older, more centralized, techniques, this doesn’t mean that the current protocol can’t be improved. Let me outline how I’d redesign Napster, if I were given the task:

  1. Use LDAP. The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) has become an accepted standard for directory service. Furthermore, a “pure” directory service, such as Napster, doesn’t require any special handling on the part of the directory server. All the server has to do is register directory entries, then fed them back out again in response to search requests. A standard LDAP server, such as OpenLDAP, could be used unmodified.
  2. Define and publish a standard schema. LDAP, and directory access protocols in general, use “schemas” to define the format of directory entries. In Napster’s case, a standard schema would probably include a “Song” class, defining artist, title, and year, and perhaps an “Album” class, listing all the tracks on a particular album. The “Song” class could then be extended (subclassed) into a “NetSong” class that would also include URLs where the song can be accessed. Using a standard, published schema would clearly define the directory structure, and make it easier to reuse the directory for new applications.
  3. Use HTTP or FTP. Just as there’s no need to create a custom directory service, there’s no need to invent new file transfer methods, either. Specifying a URL in the directory entry, using one of the standard methods, “http:” or “ftp:”, should suffice. Of course, most “clients” aren’t set up to be “servers”. In the present computing environment, Napster would be quite hard to configure if it relied on an external web or FTP server, and much more complex if it included an entire web server within it. The “peer-to-peer” paradigm ultimately implies that a machine can be simultaneously both a client and a server, and must be configured to act as both. This obviously contrasts with Microsoft’s policy of separate “client” and “server” operating system packages (the “server” usually being much more expensive), but free software hasn’t solved this problem completely, either. How exactly does an arbitrary software program go about registering itself with the local web server in order to share files?

Napster isn’t the first directory based system to be deployed on the Internet, but it is one of the newest and most exciting. If the government and economic leaders can be persuaded to surrender a measure of control, its decentralized nature may pave the way to a more distributed and more efficient network.

Wireless Internet

For a long time, conventional wisdom held that the telephone system was a natural monopoly, or at least a natural oligopoly, because of the need for a large physical infrastructure, namely, the telephone wires. In recent years, though, the widespread deployment of cellular telephones illustrates that this is not necessarily true. Clearly, cell phone networks are capable of handling significant traffic loads and delivering near-landline quality of service. The emergence of all-digital cellular telephones, such as PCS, shows that data can be effectively transferred using wireless, and leads me to wonder; could we build a totally wireless Internet?

I’m not the only person to ask this question. The Ricochet Network has been in operation for several years now, the PalmVII handheld offers wireless Internet access, and companies such as Intel are promoting the Mobile Data Initiative. Yet these efforts are largely technical in nature, while I perceive wireless as changing the fundamental rules of the game. Without dependence on a landline infrastructure, is telecommunications really a natural oligopoly anymore? Could we build a free wireless digital communications system?

Decentralization, not privatization,

should be the buzzword of freedom.

First, what do I mean by the term “free”? Primarily two things – first, the absence of recurring charges, such as monthly or per-minute fees, and second, an open, non-proprietary infrastructure free from patent or regulatory barriers to entry. The only fee I’m prepared to concede is the initial purchase price of the equipment itself. The telephone will ideally become like a computer or a microwave oven – once you purchase it, you can continue using it free of charge.

The capitalist model would be for the communication system to be controlled by companies, driven by competition to improve service, but with access limited by economic barriers, i.e, the phone gets switched off if you don’t pay your bill. The socialist model would ensure access by having the government control the phone system, as well everything else. A better solution than either would be to eliminate the large institutions entirely, by eliminating the centralized infrastructure. Decentralization, not privatization, should be the buzzword of freedom.

A decentralized communications infrastructure would have to be based primarily, if not totally, on wireless radio technology. Any non-wireless service, such as the existing telephone system, would require landlines connecting to a central office, implying right-of-ways, centralized ownership of the lines, and consequent dependence on large institutions, either governments or corporations. Only a wireless scheme would allow devices to communicate directly, without any centralized infrastructure.

Current wireless technology (i.e, cell phones) still rely on centralized infrastructure. Sadly, they’re designed to rely on it. A cell phone communicates exclusively with a radio tower, which then relays the call to its destination, typically over landlines. As the cell phone moves, it switches from one tower to another, but never communicates directly with another cell phone. I can’t make a phone call from one car to the next without going through a radio tower.

What’s needed is a new kind of wireless infrastructure – one where the telephones and computers are designed to communicate directly with each other, without relying on a phone company’s switches. Clearly, if I have such a wireless telephone, and my next door neighbor has such a telephone, they can directly connect and we can talk without any dependence on third parties, and consequently without any recuring charges.

Yet, the big question remains – can I call from Maryland to California with such a telephone? Hopefully, the answer is yes, and the key lies in the routing technology of the Internet. A typical Internet connection will be relayed through a dozen or more routers. No single connection exists between the source and the destination, but by patching together dozens of connections, a path can be traced through the network for the data to flow through. Network engineers have spent literally decades developing the software technology to find these paths quickly. Theoretically, there is no single point of failure in the system, since the routers can change the data paths on-the-fly if some part of the network fails. The keys to making it work are the adherence to open standards, such as TCP/IP, and the availability of multiple redundant paths through the network.

A wireless infrastructure can be built on similar technology. If I can call my neighbor’s telephone directly, and my neighbor’s telephone can reach the grocery store’s telephone directly, they I can call the grocery store by relaying the data through my neighbor’s telephone. If adequate bandwidth is designed into the system, my neighbor’s telephone can relay the data without any impairment to her service. She can be talking to her hairdresser without even knowing that her phone is relaying my conversation with the grocery clerk.

What stands in the way of building such a free, national digital communications infrastructure?

First, the presence of standards. Just as English is the standard used by the author and readers of this document, and TCP/IP is the standard used by the Internet devices that relay the document, standards are required for the wireless devices to communicate. IEEE recently standardized a wireless data LAN (802.11) capable of handling 1 to 2 Mbps. To put this into perspective, an uncompressed voice conversation requires 64 Kbps. Thus, a 1 Mbps circuit could handle 15 such conversations. Not only can I talk to the grocery store while my neighbor talks to the hairdresser, but a dozen other people can use the same circuit with any service impairment. Newer compression techniques can improve this performance by a factor of ten.

IEEE 802.11 is a good start, but the power limitations imposed by FCC regulations may impede its use for any but short-range applications. However, Metrocom’s Ricochet network demonstrates that this might not be a show stopper. Working in conjunction with power companies, Metrocom pioneered the novel approach of putting low-power radio repeaters on existing utility poles. The repeaters communicated directly with each other, eliminated the need for a landline data connection; only power was required, which was readily available on the pole. A similar approach could be used to build a network that would provide 802.11 coverage to an entire metropolitan area.

Also, the existing 802.11 devices aren’t very sophisticated in their design. They’re designed to be cheap, not effective. Their single most glaring problem is their antenna design. Existing 802.11 transceivers use mainly low-gain, omnidirectional antennas, although Raytheon recently announced the availability of an 802.11 PCMCIA card with a jack for connecting an external, hopeful better, antenna. Improved antennas will probably take one of two forms. Adaptive arrays are preferred by the military, and justly so, but are complex and expensive. Directional arrays, typified by TV aerials, are simpler and therefore cheaper, but must be physically pointed at their destination. One possible scenario would be for routers to use the more expensive adaptive arrays, and for end systems to use mechanically steered antennas. In my opinion, the development of improved 802.11 devices is the single most important advance needed today.

Second, an initial infrastructure is required. A 802.11 telephone would be a popular item if everyone else had one, but initially few people would possess such devices, making it difficult if not impossible to route a connection through such a sparse matrix. Philanthropies could be formed to build infrastructures. A Ricochet-type network could be deployed in cooperation with power companies, who might be persuaded to donate the relatively small amounts of electricity the routers would consume. After an initial investment in the (hopefully) rugged and scalable pole-top devices, the entire network could be managed from a central location. At this point, the network would provide 802.11 service to an entire metropolitan area, jump-starting the service. As more and more people bought these devices, each capable of relaying traffic on its own, the dependence on the initial infrastructure would diminish, hopefully to the point where the pole-top devices wouldn’t need replacement when they started to fail.

Furthermore, users would want to call telephones on the conventional phone network, requiring some sort of gateway. A solution to this chicken-and-egg problem would be to provide mechanisms for some fee-based services. Thus, a service provider could construct a network that would, for a monthly fee, interconnect its users and provide gateway service to the existing phone network. It’s possible that the only fee the provider would need to charge would be for the gateway service – initially, almost all connections would go through the gateway, since few people would have the new phones and most calls would be relayed onto the existing phone system. As the wireless network became more and more widely deployed, more and more destinations would go wireless, and the reliance on gateway systems would diminish.

In short, wireless is in its infancy. This exciting new technology offers great possibilities not just to expand existing phone and data networks, but to break down the old service models and replace them with newer, more decentralized designs. The oft-touted idea of the free phone call might even become a reality.

Smart Cars

Roughly 40,000 Americans die every year in automobile accidents. Thousands more are maimed and injured. Many of these accidents are not caused by alcohol, speed, or reckless driving, but by simple driver error. For example, even if drunk driving were totally eliminated, cutting car fatalities roughly in half, automobile accidents would still be the leading cause of accidental death in this country.

Let me illustrate this point by personal example. My two most serious car accidents both occured while I was stone cold sober. One accident happened because I was tired and fell asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, it was just after dawn, there were few cars on the highway, and though my car spun out of control at around 60 mph, it didn’t flip over and came to a stop in a drainage ditch without hitting anything or anyone. In the second accident, I was making a left turn at a traffic light with a green arrow. An elderly gentleman ran the opposing stop light and broadsided me. Though I was not at fault, I can honestly say that if I’d bothered to look around, I’d have seen the other car and been able to stop in time. Instead, I was coming home from work, doing the same thing I did every other day at 5 PM, probably more concerned about finding a decent song on the radio, so when the light turned green, I just hit the gas and went.

Automobiles are simply dangerous. Air bags, lower speed limits, and mandatory seatbelt laws have reduced the fatalities but do not offer any ultimate solutions. Undoubtedly, drivers need to constantly remind themselves how dangerous this everyday activity is, and reduce distractions such as fatigue, intoxication, and car phones. Operating an automobile requires long periods of boring, repetitive work, interrupted rarely by unannounced moments requiring instant, intensive concentration. Humans by nature are not well suited to this kind of task, but it’s just the kind of thing computers excel at, so to significantly reduce automobile fatalities, computerizing the operation of cars has to be seriously considered.

Proposals for computerized automobiles have been around for some time. TRW prepared an story imagining the possibility of a computerized automobile system by 2012. In 1997, a modified stretch of California’s Interstate 15 served as the testbed for a series of demonstrations with automated cars and buses. The U.S. Department of Transportation has an Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office that coordinates many of these efforts. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) organizes conferences, maintains a website, and publishes a regular newsletter. Unfortunately, the goal is still distant, and many current ITS efforts are focused on programs such as more sophisticated traffic signals and alleviating congestion with automatic toll collection. The DOT-funded National Automated Highway Systems Consortium, which oversaw the I-15 tests and intended to develop a prototype system by 2002, has been terminated.

The highway in California was modified by placing magnetics in the roadway, which the vehicles then followed. Much important work has also been done on vehicles operating on unmodified roadways. CMU’s Robotics Institute developed a series of vehicles (the Navlabs) which drove from Pittsburg, PA to San Diego, CA under computer control for 98% of the trip. Navlab would make an excellent starting point for a smart car of the future, since CMU has already developed a controller system to operate the car, a standard API for operating the controller, and a simulation environment for testing new controller programs.

Some look to large corporations like GM or Toyota to design the smart car of the future. Others expect the initiative to come from the U.S. federal government. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Vehicle Initiative Governance Structure, the Enabling R&D group is only open to “vehicle OEMs with a World Manufacturer Identifier… and will require contribution of substantial financial resources” As a free software aficionado, I’d rather see a initiative to build an open, co-operative system in which governments, large companies, small organizations, and individuals can all contribute. The ability of the Internet community to develop complex, open source software systems, such as Linux, demonstrates the feasibility of using the Internet as a basis for collaboration.

To minimize the infrastructure requirements, the system would have to interoperate with ordinary cars on unmodified highways, basically Navlab’s approach to the problem. Much of the hardware required to support an automated car is already available:

Computer platform. The modern laptop computer seems well-suited to support a future smart car. It offers ample processing power and disk space, can operate off 12 VDC power, and is well standardized. PCMCIA cards provide a convenient and standard hardware interface. Slight modifications, such as a detached display to be placed on the dashboard, wouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Radiolocation. GPS (Global Positioning System) can’t provide enough accuracy to locate a car within a lane, but can locate a car within a dozen meters or so. Furthermore, GPS technology is mature, readily available at low cost, and easily integrated with existing computer technology. For example, Premier Electronics markets the SatNav GPS Receiver, a PCMCIA GPS receiver.

Communications. For long range communications, cellular telephones and cellular modems are expensive, but well understood and widely deployed. Upon locating itself with GPS, the car’s computer could dial into a server and download a database for the surrounding area. For short range communications, between nearby vehicles and traffic signals, the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard is newer, but available as off-the-shelf, unlicensed products that work well within roughly a hundred meters.

Video capture. Small video cameras are commonly connected to video capture cards, providing a ready base for visual sensor systems. Navlab’s No Hands Across America demonstration relied heavily on their video-based RALPH system to follow highway markings. PCMCIA video capture cards can be connected to off-the-shelf miniature CCD cameras to provide a readily available video capability.

Radar. No really adequate automobile-based radar system exists today. Advances in microstrip fabrication technology, such as the ready, cheap availability of dielectric resonant oscillators, allows gigahertz-wavelength devices to be fabricated on a conventional PC board. It should now be possible to mass produce a low cost (sub $500) radar system to mount on an automobile and scan for other cars and pedestrians within a hundred meters. If you don’t believe this, check out my essay Guardian Alert: How it works for a description of a simple radar system and an outline of how it could be adapted for vehicular use.

Vehicle control. The development of Linux would have been impossible without the IBM PC – a standard, widely available hardware platform that software designers across the planet had ready access to. Likewise, to build an open source smart car, a standard software API needs to be developed for issuing commands like “drive forward at 20 mph”, “right turn 10 degrees”, “stop”. At least one model hardware implementation needs to be made readily available in kit form, probably using a USB serial interface, and simple enough that an average auto mechanic could install it on an automatic transmission car.

The most important thing now is to collect together the available technology, publish it on a website, and launch a collaborative effort to synergize the talents of the Internet community. An open-source version of CMU’s Navlab would make an excellent start.

Personal Robotics

We stand today at the culmination of the industrial revolution. For the last four centuries, rapid advances in science have fueled industrial society. In the twentieth century, industrialization found perhaps its greatest expression in Henry Ford’s assembly line. Mass production affects almost every facet of modern life. Our food is mass produced in meat plants, commercial bakeries, and canaries. Our clothing is shipped by the ton from factories in China and Taiwan. Certainly all the amenities of our lives – our stereos, TVs, and microwave ovens – roll off assembly lines by the truck load.

Yet we’ve paid a price for industrialization. Our entire society has become a giant assembly line. Each factory’s small assembly line is but one piece in a larger assembly line, interconnected by trucks and trains. Oil refineries feed chemical plants feeding ceramics factories feeding automobile plants. Most seriously of all, the individual has been reduced to a cog, and money is the oil that lubricates the machine. Introduce too much friction, and you’re removed, discarded, and replaced. Pop music reverberates with themes of alienation and depression. In the U.S., almost as many people kill themselves every year as die from automobile accidents. People feel overwhelmed by a mass society dominated by big business and cold economics.

These problems aren’t just the “way the world is”, either. They’re the way our world is; they’re the nature of our industrial civilization. Other civilizations granted more autonomy to the individual. American Indians raised their children to be self-sufficient by teaching them how to recognize wild edibles, how to build bows and arrows from saplings and sinew, how to fashion tepees from animal hides. By the time they were twenty, young Indians could literally walk out into the woods and take care of themselves. In feudal Europe, people may have been more dependent than the early Americans, but society was predominately rural, and the small towns that dotted the landscape were largely self-sufficient. I’m not suggesting we go back to living by bow and arrow, but by studying the nature of other civilizations, we can better understand the advantages and shortcomings of our own.

Over the course of the industrial revolution, many have noted these problems. The socialist solution was complete centralization in the hands of government, either voluntarily (the Utopian Socialists) or violently (the Communists). “Blow up the factories!” was the Luddite cry, and the transcendentalists urged us to return to nature. A few decades ago in this country, many people looked to a government welfare system that latter collapsed in a mass of red ink and red tape. In fact, for one reason or another, all these solutions failed. We may read Thoreau’s poetry, but few of us are ready to move to a pond and live in a log cabin.

Today, we’re presented with another solution, that hopefully will fare better than its predecessors. It goes by the name of post-industrialism, and is commonly associated with our computer technology. What is post-industrialism, and how can it solve our problems? Let me illustrate with an example.

Consider an author, who writes a book and then desires to publish it. In the industrial model, a printing factory is needed to mass produce the book. In fact, several factories are needed. The printing presses require paper, which is made in a paper mill (factory); inks, solvents and glues, made in chemical plants (factories); and an elaborate transportation system of trains, planes, and trucks to transport the raw materials to the presses and the finished books to distributors. Several hundred or even a few thousand people may be required, directly and indirectly, just to get a single book published. Of course, the only way to justify this much effort is to produce not just one book, but millions, the so-called “economics of scale”. Most authors are therefore dependent on a publisher, who is unlikely to go to all this trouble unless he thinks the author’s book can turn a profit. This is the industrial model.

In the post-industrial model, the author writes the book using a computer, prepares it in electronic form, and uploads it to a web site. Now anyone with an Internet connection can read the book. No factories required. The author is no longer dependent on a publisher, is much freer in what he can write, and has achieved a real degree of liberation. Economics of scale have been replaced with an economics of information, letting one individual reach an entire planet.

Of course, this is no panacea. For starters, the author is dependent on a new kind of infrastructure – the data network used to deliver the bits and bytes, and its routers, switches, and servers, all of which, incidentally, are still made in factories. The world may be going post-industrial, but is still heavily industrialized.

Furthermore, while the Internet may liberate the author, it’s hard to see how you can download a stereo, a bed, or a car. Yet consider how a car gets built, at least in Japan’s robot-dominated plants. The robots are operated by computers, which are controlled by software, which can be downloaded across a data network, even if the cars can’t be. The cars can’t be transported across fiber optics, but the “smarts” that drive their construction can be.

Robots are today where computers were 25 years ago. They’re huge, hulking machines that sit on factory floors, consume massive resources and can only be afforded by large corporations and governments. A former president of IBM once remarked that he foresaw a world market for five computers. Then came the PC revolution of the 1980s, when computers came out of the basements and landed on the desktops. So we’re on the verge of a “PR” revolution today – a Personal Robotics revolution, which will bring the robots off the factory floor and put them in our homes and on our desktops.

Ultimately, you might have small robots to perform tasks like cooking breakfast, larger robots that could construct a stereo or repair a microwave oven, and really big robots, perhaps one or two in a town, that could build an automobile. Specialized robots could perform tasks such as micro chip fabrication or casting industrial ceramics. The software needed to performs all of these tasks could be downloaded via data networks. Just as an author can write a book today, and with a few keystrokes make it available to the world, so tomorrow an engineer could design a better mousetrap and then “ship” it in a second to be replicated by robots in every time zone. Gardening robots could raise our food, letting us feed ourselves without being dependent on Safeway, and giving us the freedom Thoreau dreamed of, while our machines handle the hoes.

The combination of personal computers and personal robots offer an awesome potential to break down the assembly line and put the means of production into the hands of the individual. However, the computer industry has sadly demonstrated its ability to centralize and control technology through copyright restrictions and secret source code. Instead of downloading a motorcycle repair program with a few clicks, you may be presented with a e-commerce form requesting your credit card number first.

Fortunately, the free software community has demonstrated that determined individuals, through sacrifice and hard work, can build open systems to replace and improve on proprietary ones. Free software developers need to take the lead in advancing this new robotic technology, preventing it from becoming another weapon to control people’s lives, and instead fulfilling the promise of post-industrialism to liberate mankind from the assembly line.

How do we get there from here? Much of robotic hardware technology is commonly available today. Video capture cards, which can give a computer “eyes” when connected to a video camera, have been on the market for several years. While arms and grabber hands might not be as common, the mechanics behind their construction is fairly simple and well understood. Here’s a short list of major milestones:

  1. Standard robot manipulator arm. Just as a PC hardware standard was needed before Linux could be written, a standard robot arm is needed to facilitate cooperation between software developers. Arm must be able to perform a set of benchmark tasks under direct manual control. Mechanical design and construction details published on-line.
  2. Record-and-playback programming interface. Robot arm can repeat programmed tasks. Able to deal with slight variations in position and orientation of objects.
  3. Specialized robot work cells. Tasks such as micro chip fabrication will require specialized support hardware such as vacuum chambers. Other specialized tasks include chemical processing, and fabrication of plastics and ceramics. Other specialized work cells will be developed as needed to achieve later milestones.
  4. Self-replication. Robot arm can build a working duplicate of itself using specialized work cells. A major milestone, comparable to a compiler being able to compile itself.
  5. Work cell replication. Robot arm can build all specialized work cells needed for its self-replication.
  6. Computer replication. Robot arm can build a computer capable of controlling it.

Having achieved these milestones, we’ll have constructed a robotic system able to duplicate both itself and the computer needed to control it. Further refinement of this technology will allow ever simpler raw materials to be input into the construction process. A robot capable of building a duplicate of itself will no doubt be sophisticated enough to be used for many other tasks, and provide a starting point for tasks it’s yet incapable of doing.

Science fiction writers have imagined such possibilities for decades, just as they once imagined men flying to the moon. If the Apollo space program is any indication, we may only be waiting for a Jack Kennedy to lead us forward.

Bicycling Across America

The first three nights of the trip I camped out. Once in New Jersey State Park, twice in the Pine Barrens. On the third night I was north of an Air Force base and lay in my tent, listening to the jets roaring into the gathering darkness. I imagined myself as the pilot of each plane, banking over the wilderness away from the city lights. I realized that I wanted to see the country, and that meant seeing the people. That night, I abandoned my original plan of camping in the woods. I’d head into towns and find the people. The next morning I packed up and waded down the river I had camped by. Out west I would start camping again when towns became sparse, but for now I prepared for a new challenge – asking people to camp on their land.

Asking to camp out may seem a trivial challenge, but I wasn’t used to approaching strangers to ask favors. In fact, I wasn’t really good at approaching strangers to ask for anything! The next night I took the path of least resistance and asked at churches. Although I was sometimes turned down, more often a local pastor would put me up.

The day I crossed into Pennsylvania was one of the more stressful on the trip. I had tried to visit Tom Brown, the outdoorsman and survivalist. Although I had called ahead, I was discouraged from visiting his ranch in the New Jersey hills. All his classes were booked into ’94. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a try. Those other people had paid $600 to be in the course – but I had biked up the mountain.

I was turned away by two of his assistant instructors. Later I realized my error – I had come to see Tom Brown. I should have realized my goal, even if it meant getting brushed off with two words. I had set myself a goal and fallen short by my own fault. That disappointment would soon be compounded. The front rack and tire began to rub each other. I had had problems for several days with it. I pulled into a gas station, having become lost and ending up heading into the city instead of skirting it. I picked up a phone and started to call home, ready to call it quits. Crying, I realized that I’d have to get the bike fixed no matter what, so I might as well do it here. I asked the gas station mechanic – yes, there was a bike shop just down the road. This was the first of three stops I would make at bike shops – everytime I found respect for what I was doing. For the first time in my life, I felt I was respected not for what I knew, but for what I did. It felt good.

The bike shop owner helped me bend and reattach the rack. He asked no money either for his time or the few parts he had donated. I left in much better spirits. By now it was 3 p.m. I was in downtown Easton, PA, and didn’t feel like any more riding that day. I found a Masonic Temple, hoping to find a DeMolay Chapter. No such luck – in fact I never managed to actually find any chapters along the way. Those I saw listed on Temple directories never had contact people listed, and often I couldn’t even find a directory. Kansas City wasn’t much help – all they gave me was the Executive Officer’s name and number. I tried that in two or three states and could not quite find the people to work through state bureaucracies. It’s a sad comment on the state of our fraternity when we don’t even provide contact information at the temples.

The owner of the shop next door came out and introduced himself. We talked for a bit and I told him what I was doing and that I was looking for a place to stay that night. He asked me into the shop and started calling places – a bed and breakfast, a local college. Finally, he found a YMCA that had rooms for $12 a night. It was about 8 miles west in Bethlehem, PA. He gave me directions and I was on my way. Some nice people had helped me through one of my toughest days. I was through the day – and I was through New Jersey.

I stayed at the Y for two nights. Bethlehem is not what you’d expect from Steel Town, USA. It’s a college town with a historic downtown, pizza joints, bagel shops and a refurbished shopping area. When I left, I headed southwest in Lancaster County.

I stopped in a church near Blue Ball. No minister was around, but the people next door let me put a tent in their backyard. George had retired from sales and had gone back to farming, gardening a small plot behind his house. After my college course in crop production, I could at least have a conversation about fertilizers and plowing. Later, his daughter, who lived across the street called to ask why her dad was putting up a tent!

The early highlight of the trip came in Gettysburg, PA. It was getting dark and I wasn’t quite in town yet as I passed a Christian Rescue Mission. I stopped and asked if I could stay overnight. The night manager said I could, and I moved my bags inside. I met Wayne, about 7 years older than I, a college grad who had lost his job and gone hiking up the Appalachian Trail. When his money ran out, he wound up at the Adams Missions.

We talked a while, went into town together, and got along pretty well. There were some junk bikes behind the mission – we decided to use them for spare parts, get one running, and Wayne would travel with me for a while. I stayed an extra day to work on the bike. In the rush to get the bike running, I neglected to lock mine.

The next morning it was gone. At the time, I remember I felt relief, since each day had become a battle to keep going and not dwell on the enormous task ahead. Within a few days, I had gotten a lift home from my parents and realized that I had to finish the bike trip. While waiting for the insurance money, I visited a commune in Virginia that had been on my itinerary and did some work to get extra bucks. A month later, I would make a point to pass through Gettysburg on my new bicycle. Wayne would still be there.

During the month between these two stages in my trip, I visited Springtree Farm Community in the Virginia hills. I stayed a few nights and really enjoyed it. This commune got started in the early 70s and has gone through some ups and downs. They had 6 people there full-time, plus visitors. All the food (well, almost all) came from the garden and orchard. The fruit crop was really kicking during my visit – cherries and strawberries out the wazzo. I helped plant, harvest and cook. I enjoyed a solar shower and a swimming hole. The relaxed pace gave me a chance to reflect and recharge. I left with some new friends and a fresh commitment to my trip.

When I restarted the trip at the beginning of July, I was soon glad I had visited Springtree when I did. I hit the Pennsylvania mountains in the midst of a heat wave. Instead of turning south into West Virginia as planned, I decided to head into Ohio and get through with the hills. This cut out Virginia completely, so I would have missed Springtree.

I did cut off a small corner of West Virginia, hitting Morgantown and spending a few days visiting one of my brothers, a friend of a friend. It was nice to relax in a familiar college atmosphere for a bit. If you ever get to Morgantown, be sure to grab a meal at Maxwell’s, a nice little restaurant in “downtown”.

Next came Ohio. Riding down the highway one evening, I saw a man struggling to put up a sign – “Country Church”. I stopped, gave him a hand and wound up getting food, a place to put the tent for the night, and an enjoyable service the next morning (it was a Sunday).

In Kentucky I spent a day “on the job” helping a stonemason I had met at a church in a small town. Farther south I headed off the main road to visit the next community on my list. The hills got steep and the weather was hot, Hot, HOT! On one hill, I just collapsed and let the bike fall in the middle of the road. I vented my anger and frustration at an imaginary driver who ran over my bike. No drivers came along the remote road and gradually I calmed. I thought about heading back again, but that didn’t feel right. No – I had to finish the trip and that meant I had to finish the hill. I said a prayer for faith and strength, then got back on the bike. I didn’t stop until my destination.

New Age Community Land Trust is currently manned by two women. They practice permaculture, raising garden crops on raised beds (since the soil was so poor). They have no running water (except a gravity-drop cistern), relying on rainwater and a spring, no electricity, using kerosene lamps, and cook with a woodstove. I really enjoyed the “rustic” experience. Something about raising crops, harvesting them and cooking them appealed to me very deeply. Also, Joanie had spent 3 years in seminary. She finally dropped out after concluding that the church was more interested in managers than in spiritual leaders. She mentioned that they never had a discussion about “faith struggles”. This was certainly something I knew little about, but I would remember her words in Arizona.

I stayed two nights, then left in the morning, when it was cool and the hills were manageable. Heading into Tennessee, I turned south to visit The Farm, a famous commune in the 60s/70s. The Farm went through an economic crisis in the early 80s, emerging as a land trust more than a commune. The fields are no longer farmed seriously, camping fees are charged to visitors, and the Store, though maintaining a leftward bent, features your typical junk goods and high prices. Outside the store I met some teenagers who invited me over to their house. That turned out to be a much better call than staying at the Farm.

I have since been told that since these folks threw their beer cans in the back of the truck, instead of out the window, they were “Good Ole Boys” and not “Rednecks”. The first night I was there, we went to pick up some sand at their cousin Steve’s. Steve demonstrated the canon he had built in the back of his pickup truck. It ran off an acetylene torch rig mounted behind the cab. First Steve primed it with a small charge. Then he pumped gas into it for two or three seconds, as black smoke rose from the barrel from the primer. He lit the torch and touched the flame to the cannon. The bang would have made any rock band cringe. I was told he once fired a tennis ball half a mile.

Next, I swung back into northern Tennessee, to a visit a DeMolay friend from several years back. I had a fun weekend with Hart, his girlfriend and her 14-year-old brother, Brad. Both Hart and Brad have an interest in loud car stereo systems. Hart sells them and Brad plots to outdo Hart. “You get a ‘450’, I’ll get a ‘650’,” he says with a flick of the eyebrow. “You get a ‘650’, I’ll get a ‘750’.” Hart has a Bronco and Brad has a pickup truck which, err… sits in the driveway, since he, err… can’t drive yet.

Heading west again, I crossed the Mississippi at Dyersburg, but not before the first and worst crash of the trip. I was riding in the evening and wasn’t paying close attention to my riding. No cars were coming – I simply ran off the road. I ended up with a flat tire, a cut knee and a sprained wrist. The wrist caused enough pain that I stopped to have it X-rayed. Nothing was broken, but it bothered me the rest of the trip. I can still feel it if I bend my hand back.

I crossed into Missouri, the eastern part of which featured some of the worst drivers I encountered. These people just couldn’t slow down, even though I had no shoulder to ride on. I even had people blowing the horn at me when the left lane was completely clear for them to pass! I saw some people sand bagging, and thought to myself: These floods have a benefit. They bring the people down to size. My basic impression of eastern Missouri was that the people forgot how their forefathers struggled to farm the land. Now everything is pesticides, tractors, and futures quotes on the Chicago Board.

After leaving Missouri (and the Ozark Mountains – whew!) behind, I picked off a corner of Arkansas to visit Shiloh, a Christian Commune. It was here I felt most comfortable of all the places I visited. Shiloh is somewhat liberal as communes go – they let you keep private property, though any work you do while there is donated. They support themselves by running a bakery, which turn out the best commercial bread I’ve ever set my teeth into. The people were relaxed, welcoming and generally fun to be around. I hope I took some of Shiloh’s “state of mind” with me and look forward to visiting there again the next time I’m in Arkansas! It was during this time that my parents caught up to me with their motorhome. I traveled with them for a day or two, and was rather glad to part company. Though I miss my family and friends, I found the vehicle and campsite quite stifling after a month on the road. I slept outside at night, and marvelled at the other people packed into sites on the campground. Incidently, they had so much trouble with the motorhome that I made it to California before they were back in Maryland!

In central Missouri I visited East Wind, the largest commune I saw. The community had about 70 members who ran a hammock and sandal business, as well as a nut butter plant. Through these industries the commune funded itself. By commune standards, they were wealthy – a small library, a videotape collection, dozens of buildings, electricity and running water throughout. Most food was purchased from outside, unlike the homesteaders, who tried to grow almost all of their own. I stayed a couple days and decided that East Wind was neat to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A work quota of 40 hrs/wk was demanded of each member. Of course, this time including cooking, child care, and various clean-up chores, but still I would come to such a place to escape the pressures of a regular work week. Also, I saw some political actions that disturbed me. One of the kids had a squirt gun taken away after the commune passed a bill stating that members of a non-violent community had a right not to see “violent” toys. So is a football a violent toy? This struck too close to freedom of expression for me.

Now I began to ride across Oklahoma, where the land started to open up and I started to see serious head winds for the first time on the trip. In Stillwater, I passed a Catholic Church and stopped in to ask if any Monestaries were in the area. I hadn’t though of this before I began, but I figured since I was visiting communes, I should check out the oldest ones of all!

I was directed to St. Gregory’s, about a day’s ride south. I tried to call ahead but by the time I a got ahold of the Father I was to speak with, I was practically there, so I just rode over. I think my appearance with no advance notice hampered my welcome, but it was still a fascinating visit. St. Gregory’s monks run a small college to support the abbey. Mass is every morning at 6 a.m (I got up once), followed by a silent breakfast. The monk talk during lunch, and dinner is eaten while a selection is read from a book (I got English history while I was there). Two monks stick out in my mind – Br. Dominic, who was always ready to help me out or show me around, and Br. Benedict, who I didn’t talk to for long, but he impressed me with his spiritual commitment.

After Oklahoma, things started to spread out a bit. I slept in unlikely places like an airstrip, since towns spread farther apart. The highlight of Texas was a night spent on a “peace farm” across from Pantex, the U.S. nuclear weapons assembly facility. I learned some neat things about how H-bombs were moved around on tractor trailers, saw some pictures (“H-bombs in Rush Hour” sticks out) and came across a book called Peace Pilgrim. If you get a chance, check it out. It describes the life and teaching of a woman who spent much of her last 25 years walking across the country with God’s message of love. She stopped counting at 25,000 miles on foot!

In New Mexico I climbed to and crossed the continental divide. The mountains were actually easier than the Appalachians, since the younger Rockies don’t have the rolling hills that keep you climbing the same height over and over. But above 7000 feet it can get cold! I remember the last day of August. I rode about 20 miles after sunrise and my breath was freezing in front of me.

Arizona turned out to be the climax of the trip. My second day in the state brought me close to Winslow. It had been a tough and frustrating day, as I had fought a 20mph head wind all the way and didn’t make good time. By this point in the trip, I was looking forward to the end and starting to count miles and days. Also, insects came out at nightfall and I had to put up the tent on a quite interchange off I-40. I didn’t like putting up the tent, preferring to sleep outside. I wasn’t in a very good mood as I put up the tent, inflated the air mattress and lay down to pray. In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself saying to God, “just do whatever you want to me”.

In the next minute, I had what I would describe as a mental lightening bolt. I suddenly saw that my problems were of my own creation – I was relying on myself instead of on faith. I was going to ride the bike; I was going to put up the tent; I had the money to buy food. I saw that what I needed to do was get rid of all that. The next day was Labor Day and everything was closed, so I rode on the Flagstaff. Here my bike trip ended.

I agonized for a day or two, then committed myself. On Wednesday morning, crying, I took the bike for a last ride. Finding a local church, I gave the pastor the bike and most all the gear, telling him to do what he wanted with it. With my last money, I bought a pack to carry, and paid for postage to mail my wallet, contact lenses, and few other things home.

I hitchhiked 60 miles south to the last spot on my itinerary. Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert, is a design city being constructed by Italian architect Pavlo Solari and his colleagues. His basic idea is to abandon auto-centric design in favor of compact, dense structures that put people within walking distance of work and play. It’s on I-17, about halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Stop by if you’re in the area – take the hour tour. It’s worth it.

I got another ride west to Prescott, from where I started walking south. I got into a national forest and lay down under some pines. I slept several hours. I guess I awoke around 3 a.m, judging from the moon. A mosquito was bothering me, so I started walking again. The moon was half full, so I had plenty of light and the road wasn’t heavily traveled. I walked through sunrise, getting out of the hills and the national forest around 9 a.m. I napped a bit, then continued my walk across the mesa. The night had been only slightly cool, but the day was hot. I decided not to hitchhike, but to keep walking for a while, fasting. Foolishly, I had brought no water, so had to wait until I passed through towns.

By late afternoon, I was coming into a small town and stopped at a ranch to ask for water. I was also offered food, and that was the end of my fast. That night, I slept until dawn in an abandoned building that was once a shop or restaurant. Morning saw me facing a long downhill to the desert, so I hitchhiked down it and into the town of Wickenburg. I was depressed and upset. I felt disappointment at having broken my fast. I was afraid to keep walking across the mesa in the heat. More than anything, I was afraid that if I kept walking, I was afraid I would find my calling, and I was afraid of knowing what it might be.

That day, I broke down. I got money wired to me and was on a bus by that evening. I had discovered that a part of me, much stronger that I thought, wanted nothing to do with grand visions of any kind. I wanted my family and friends, didn’t want to be rich, but didn’t want to be poor, wanted to write software, play music, cook nice meals and certainly not wonder all over the country.

By the next day, I had made it to San Clemente, California, where a high school friend was living. Chris was gracious enough to put me up for a week I waited for my wallet to be mailed back to me. I don’t know what it was – the two months on the road, the two days on the Mesa, or just being around someone who loved what he was doing. I realized that the big reason I found computers unfulfilling was that the work didn’t challenge me physically. I saw that I had become much less assertive in groups than I used to be, more content to be with people just because I enjoyed their company. I found a deep respect for a young man I hardly knew, but who was ready to surf for the 20 years even though he could never make a penny doing it.

I left San Clemente after a week I really needed. It let me put my feet back on the ground. Right now, I’m in San Diego, toying with going to Mexico for the two weeks before a friend of mine comes out to visit. Then what? I don’t know. I love the land here, the surf crashing into the rocks, but am already tired of the congestion. I’ll see what happens after a week or two.

I realized something about friendship, too. Some people judge friends by their influence on you – “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” “Friends don’t use drugs.” “A friend would never tell you to drop out of school.” But it’s really much more than that. Just because someone may not be a fully wholesome influence, doesn’t mean that they don’t care. We’re all human – we all make mistakes. Friends introduce you to new ideas, new ways of life. It’s the prerogative of a friend.