Bus conversion trip – accessing the internet on the road in 1997

Some may remember stories of the bus conversion of a 1980s transit bus (Gillig Phantom, if you’re into that sort of thing) I did (with some help) and how our family (Geek was only a year old! my how time flies…) lived in it for about 8 months traveling about 25,000 miles around the continental United States.

During this period Dad worked remotely for a client programming a Mac application. But a bit of research will show you that while WiFi – which we all take for granted now – had been invented some 10 years earlier Lucent hadn’t been able to get anyone to adopt it and it wasn’t actually available on a consumer computer until Apple launched the iBook at NY MacWorld in 1999.

Oh, but WiFi is so passé now in the 2020s, we have 5G digital wireless on the cellular network! 🙂 Oh the dream of digital transmission on the cellular network was alive in 1997, but it was mostly just that a dream. Digital cell service was just starting to roll out and I think AT&T had 12 towers in big cities. I had to buy a special Nokia phone that was analog but also supported digital cellular connection. And a booster that had to be connected to the car to get enough power to push the signal. And the highest speed I ever got was 1200 baud despite the advertised 2400 maximum (pretty sure I’m remembering that right) – and that was parked directly under one of the few digital towers in the country 🙂

Here’s an excerpt I just found on my computer (which prompted this post) of a Bulletin Board System post I found on the “Bus Conversion News Board” from January 1999 which makes it clear that even nearly two years later it was still a challenge to get online from the road:

            Re: Wireless Internet, Cheap (relatively), nationwide

       [ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Bus Conversions News Board ]

Posted by Ed Carroll on January 17, 1999 at 18:22:25 PST:

In Reply to: Wireless Internet, Cheap (relatively), nationwide posted by Joe Solbrig on January 17, 1999 at 15:32:17 PST:

Thanks for the info Joe. Sounds like something a lot of us would be
interested in. A couple of questions though: 1. Do I understand you
correctly that if we connect up with this service then AT&T becomes our
regular ISP for unlimited connect time via wireless connection for only $60
per month regardless of our location? (Does that mean worldwide or just the
lower 48?) And 2. You mentioned a $100 "Pocketnet phone". Does that $60
monthly fee allow any voice communication from this "Pocketnet phone" to
friends on a regular land line phone?

: Hello again folks,

: I'm back, thanks to CDPD service from ATT wireless.

: There now is a way to connect to the internet wirelessly, nationwide and
for less than an arm and a leg.

: It takes a bit of looking around to actually get the information on this,

: "CDPD" and "Wireless" are data-broadcasting standards that uses the
cellular radio bands. ATT has used it for things like meter-reading and
stuff for a while. The problem is they traditionally charged per data
transmission and this made the service too expensive. However, recently,
they started a "nationwide unlimited" service which gives unlimited data at
a set price of $60/month. You have to buy a special connection equipment
also (request a "pocketnet phone" for $100 plus the connection kit for
another $100. The special CDPD moderm ).

: This is a business service, so it's best to say you're in business. Aren't we all ;). Also, you have to deal with the ATT office via phone and fax. But they're quite patient.
: They ran no credit check and started my service without my having paid for the equipment (which is good, given the delay my mail gets sometime).

: So all you full-timers, check it out!!

: Joe


Follow Ups:


Post a Followup

 Email Address

       [ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Bus Conversions News Board ]

Makes the kind of speed and service we can get now pretty amazing in contrast, eh?

So, how did I upload my source code, pull down shared source, get my email, and otherwise work remotely from a 40′ transit (city) bus as we drove around the country for 8 months?

Two techniques I figured out:

1. Most businesses have a fax machine and that’s often the only analog line in the office (the rest were part of the business PBX digital phone system). So I’d ask to borrow that line and since most didn’t need their fax machine online all the time, they’d often let me. Some hotels had a business communications area off the lobby that you could access without having a room if you acted confident and carried a laptop briefcase (and didn’t look too shaggy :)).

2. This gizmo:

A “fancy” for the time portable acoustic coupler.

What is this? How is it used? It’s an Acoustic Coupler and it’s used to connect to a POTS telephone, like this:

Yah, that’s an “antique” rotary phone and you can see the acoustic coupler held against the handset with the integrated velcro strap. This is literally a physical connection between the speaker on the acoustic coupler and the microphone on the phone handset and the microphone on the acoustic coupler and the speaker on the handset. So primitive!

And yet, it worked. Well, assuming I could find a payphone that hadn’t had beer poured on it and wasn’t trashed from being pounded against the side of the phone booth in frustration, etc.

My strategy was to find the largest bank of payphones – yah, they made them in rows, something like this:

“Toronto payphones covered with graffiti and notices. Telephone books are contained in weatherproof holders hanging from the bottom of each phone.” — wikipedia
Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

but I’d look for at least 5 and 8 or 10 was a better bet. I’d take my laptop and a folding camp chair and start at one end and work my way down the bank of pay phones until I found one that could connect at 9600 baud or better (14.4 was rarely possible, and 28.8 was a challenge) and hold the connection long enough to upload/download etc.

You’d use a calling card in case you had to call long-distance to get an access point (phone number that would answer and connect you to the internet) and you had to program all that stuff into modem dial string so it would call the calling card billing number, put in your calling card number and pin, and then dial the closest access point number.

Fun times!

Anyway, it was either this or the Iridium satellite phone service which was $25K for the antenna/phone unit and $4/minute for pretty slow data (I don’t remember but it wasn’t 9600 baud even, IIRC). My clients weren’t paying me that kind of money 😀

So, next time you open your smartphone and surf the web, or work remotely off of a wifi or you cellular hotspot – be thankful at the freedom we have now and laugh at how primitive working remotely was back in 1997. 🙃


Some funny finds from the previous millennium…

Looking for the exploded view of an electric saw I need to take apart and found some design sketches for a desk I made myself – has dimensions for a Macintosh IIci for the computer area 🙂

The other funny thing is the sketches are on the back of ImageWriter II (dot-matrix) printout of Pascal code from 1988 for an iChing app I did for a client 🙂

The Dissolve(…) routine call in it is calling out to a 68k asm routine I wrote to do a fast dissolve from an offscreen grafport to the screen – likely the first assembly language code I shipped in a commercial product 🙂

Anyway, likely only amusing to me as a reminder of a time in the past, but they were some good times so posting it here to save the smile they brought to my face.

Taking Mars Edit 4 for a spin!

So I was sad the WordPress macOS “app” is just an Electron app that wraps the website with a few macOS menu items to jump to specific pages on the site. 

Thought I’d give MarsEdit a try.  But the Mac App Store glitched 😦


AppStore download error for MarsEdit


Worked after I quit and restarted the App Store.

So one thing I’m not seeing is how to have it post to Twitter when I post to my blog.  Maybe that’ll happen inside of WordPress?

It DOES!   Ok, that’s pretty cool.  This might work after all.


Hmm.  So maybe I’ve been using Pages & Numbers too much lately, and the WordPress site, but I find myself looking to the right side “Options” pane for formatting commands.  I often want to format some content as code (go figure!) and having that very handy is nice.

OH MY WOWZA!  You can add your own formatting macros to the Format menu with key command shortcuts.  Ok.  That is slick.

let foo = 12

Little bit of trouble getting out of code mode.. but not terrible.


Wow. The feature where MarsEdit downloads my template from WordPress so that it can preview posts is very cool.


There are a few things that are tripping me up, but since I want to put more of the content I usually put on twitter onto a platform that I can keep if I bail on twitter, this seems like a good way to do it.  (I think about micro.blog also, but I just don’t ‘get’ it.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).

I do wish MarsEdit would save out static blog posts and use FTP to upload them to a statically hosted blog/site.  But a WPXML roc adaptor to Jekyll or something has been sketched out by two different friends so maybe that’ll materialize somehow.

Implanted Medical Devices, OSS, Open Hardware , Right to Repair, … and Electric vehicles.

Implanted medical devices from companies that go under or discontinue them have a major impact on the humans those devices have been implanted into. How do we mange this as a society in ways that doesn’t inhibit innovation and progress?

Imagine you’ve got a high-tech implant in your retina that gives you a crude but effective form of vision. Now imagine the company that produced the implant suddenly goes out of business, and will no longer service or fix your implant

Glenn Zorpette, on twitter

He’s referencing this article:

Second Sight left users of its retinal implants in the dark

spectrum.ieee.org, (article)

I read this article last night and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I don’t have an answer I’m convinced is complete yet, but it does seem like this situation represents a strong vote for FDA approval of medical implant requiring an implant meet the following standards:

  • Right to Repair requirements
  • Open Source Hardware
  • Open Source Software

But how do we do that in a way that doesn’t prevent companies making the massive R&D effort and incurring the corresponding expense to create these devices despite these requirements? Companies and investors will likely feel they’ll have insufficient time to earn back their investment, let alone the profit investors want, if their work can just be easily copied because it’s open source hardware/software.

I don’t have an answer, but the following come to mind as possibilities. I encourage you to add any practical ideas you have to the comments below.

  • Federal R&D grants for companies that are working on products that meet these guidelines (pre-launch funding).
  • R&D tax credits/incentives for companies that release products under this framework (pre- post-launch funding/incentives).
  • Have the technology held in an escrow system for hardware & software source that automatically becomes public 5 years (say) after shipping the approved device so companies have time to make their investment plus profit back.
  • Perhaps companies should be encouraged to patent what they create (discount the cost of that?) with a requirement that they also publish their hardware & software as open source restricted to non-commercial use only by others for as long as the company remain in business their patent is still in force (maybe limit patent duration to 10 years post product release or something)? They could still charge too much so as to make parts “available”, but not really available except to the super wealthy.
  • Maybe only non-profit entities can make implantable medical devices for approval and they will be required to follow the guidelines above. Investors don’t “invest” in these companies in a traditional sense, but perhaps they can ‘donate’ the loan of capital with a maximum interest return specified by statute (or something like that).

Curious what ideas others have.

Seems like something we need to solve – probably through legislation, but I’m open to other ideas. If done via legislation, we need that legislation crafted by people who actually understand the technological and business dynamics sufficiently well and who care about the people in whom these implants are placed sufficiently more than a desire for profit; we want good laws that actually work and don’t inhibit R&D and innovation so much we make no forward progress but also don’t risk leaving patients out in the cold, suddenly unable to see.


I did also think about how this isn’t the first such device – I have at least two friends/colleagues with pacemakers that have been surgically implanted into their bodies. So this isn’t an entirely new thing.

I’ve also been thinking about this in the context of electric vehicles – how many of the new electric vehicles / companies are going to go out of business or decide it’s not worth it for them to keep maintaining or supporting early models that didn’t sell well?

Do all those vehicles prematurely become garbage because the battery controller software is closed source and so can’t be updated to work with new battery technology? Or because the inverter goes bad and the specifications for it aren’t available any more and so no one can create an aftermarket replacement? Or vehicles that had too few for it to make financial sense for a third market parts manufacturer to bother? (See man blows up Tesla Model S because replacement battery is too expensive to justify).

I don’t think we can afford to be making so much garbage. There’s a lot of embodied energy in an EV and a massive level of promotion for people to switch to EVs from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Those ICE vehicles can be kept running for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years if they were popular when they were released and so third party parts manufacturers have figured out how to make parts for them.

Batteries in electric vehicles aren’t going to last even half the lower end of that spectrum.

This seems like an issue that needs to be addressed. Not as individually impactful as having your medical implant “End of Life’d”, but still.

Life planning circa early 2001

Old life-planning image that Jaimee Jaimee’s Coffee With Jaimee – getting unstuck radio show made me think of.

Just started listening to the first couple of episodes of Jaimee Finney’s new live radio show Coffee With Jaimee – A Show About Getting Unstuck and have been enjoying it quite a bit.

In these first two episodes Jaimee talked about writing down what’s most important to you in your life in episode one, and then talked about writing down your big bulky desires or goals in episode two. This reminded me of something along these lines I did in early 2001 (?). Sharing it not because the content is particularly interesting, but to illustrate that “write down” doesn’t necessarily mean making a list in the usual way. My thought was that perhaps this might help someone feel free to diagram these things out in a way that organizes them by modality, or topic, or location, or whatever works best for them and to remind people that it doesn’t have to be a linear list.

Circle in the center containing core goals/values (Be a good dad; be a good mate; be healthy) and with "rays" of text coming out for various projects (software products, technologies to learn, house projects, and so on) and things to learn and do.

I redid this later and it got a bit more concentric circle oriented, but the shape is just whatever way helps you evaluate the relative importance of things to you, your life, those you care about, and so on, so I’d recommend not letting yourself be constrained by what I or anyone else has done.

(slight redaction to remove names of products and people as appropriate)

Blast from the past: “Bedtime conversations tend to be a little goofy when Dad’s doing lights out….”

Cleaning up an old family website (pre blog) for sharing stories with out-of-town family and found this bit of goofy-dad nonsense that made me laugh so I thought I’d share it:


Bedtime conversations tend to be a little goofy when dad’s doing lights out….

A discussion of wavelengths of energy and radio astronomy leads to the following: 

Geek: How do you see things with xrays and radio waves?

Dad: Well you could look at the signals bouncing back. Where there is nothing you get no bounce-back, and where there’s a planets or moon or something you get a bounce back. How long it takes to bounce back tells you how far away it is. Longer wave lenghts show less detail than shorter wave lengths (long discussion of why).

One time there were these astronomers trying to discover new planets and they decided to create a gamma-wave telescope.

Geek: Did they find any?

Dad: Well, they thought they had, but things were kind of strange…. 

So then they sent gamma rays towards this one spot and they got ultraviolet waves back!

“That’s funny” the astronomers said to each other, “let’s try xrays.”

So they shot some xrays towards the same location… this time they got back radio waves! 

Geek: “They did?!”

Dad: “Yep!”

After trying to understand what kind of astronomical body could turn their xrays into radio waves of the frequency and waveforms they’d received back, someone got the idea to play the radio waves through a speaker. Boy were they surprised to hear “HEY! No Peeking!” coming out of the speaker!

(Geek breaks out in laughing!) 

“WHAT!??? said the astronomers. 

They sent back a radio signal on the same frequency saying, “Sorry, we didn’t know anyone was there!” 

They got a message back saying, “You didn’t? Didn’t you see my sign?”.

“What sign?” the astronomers sent back. 

“Check the ultraviolet signal we returned when you sent all those gamma rays,” was the reply. 

So the astronomers took the ultraviolet signal they’d gotten back and figured out it was a sign saying “Bob’s Spaceship Repair Shop.”


The next several nights we’d hear “HEY! No Peeking!” coming from Geek’s room followed by lots of laughter so I guess it was a lasting laughable ™. 🙂

Aug. 2004. (Geek was 8)

Looking back and wishing I’d stuck this regular practice…

Looking back at the drawings Geek & I were doing as a daily practice during the summer of 2009 and wishing I’d kept up with it. Imagining how much better I’d be at drawing now if I’d continued to do a drawing a day for the last nearly 9 years (wow! time flies!). That’s roughly 3200 drawings…!

Good reminder that many things take regular, consistent practice.

Resolving to decide which things to fold back into my regular practices and do so.

I think Craig is right on track with his wearables & Apple

I think Craig Hockenberry @chockenberry is right on track with his Wearing Apple post.

I’ve been thinking and talking about a “personal secure network” among a collection of devices you are wearing or carrying for a while now and it seems like a no-brainer to me.  Seems totally silly to put all the battery, radios, antennas, storage and whatnot in a single device (google glass for example).

You need less battery in what I call the ‘motes’ if the LTE/WiFi radios and antennas are in the ‘core’ (“hub” in Craig’s post). What are ‘motes’ ? Think rings, earrings, necklace, bracelet, phone in pocket, flexible battery in belt, piezo generator in shoes, motion generator in umbrella/walking stick, bluetooth earpiece, display in glasses and/or contacts, high performance computing cube in our backpack, and sure, even a watch 🙂

What’s the problem with this vision? Lots really 🙂  Charging all these devices will be a pain.  Clearly you need something like a flat pad you set ‘motes’ on while you sleep and they charge inductively.  Better yet would be if they had small energy harvester chips with fractal antennas that harvested ambient energy (microwaves, cellular signals, AM, FM, etc) to extend their battery life.  Oh, yah, better batteries would be a big win and this may not get cool until that happens.

Want to get even more “out there?” Check this out:  Sugar-powered biobattery has 10 times the energy storage of lithium.  Pretty cool but one of the implications of this might be devices that could be powered from our body’s internal processes directly.  So to charge your devices you just eat more.  Be a boon for obesity.  Need to lose weight? Play more flappy birds!  😛

This then lets us surgically implant devices so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it at home.  You may think I’m being silly, but the convenience will win people over.  Also, note the long-time existence and surgical implantation of pacemakers & defibrillators.  Then look at how common tattoos and body piercing are in youth today (in parts of the USA anyway).  We are not that far from this.

Ok Geek’s hungry so leaving it at this quick “jot this down” for now.

A Conversation with our Cat

On a cold snowy day in Corbett…

Me: walking by cat on way to the house for lunch…

Cat: “Meow. Meow, Meow. Meow! MEOW!”

Me: “What?”

Cat: “Brrrr.  Inside cat?”

Me: “no”

Cat: “29 degrees!”

Me: “Fur!”

Cat: “SNOW + 29 degrees!”

Me: “5x pissing on bed == OUTSIDE CAT!”

Cat: “Surgery! Ow!”

Me: “Let you back in 2 years later & you beeline for a bed.  No!”

Cat: “meanie…”

Me:  walks away to write guilty blog post


Snippy reply I made that I wanted to remember

Someone made a critical twitter statement that was based on a stereotype more than a cliche, but it was also kind of a cliche and couldn’t think of the word stereotype at that moment so I had to respond to the cliche aspect of it.  I kind of liked the way this came out so I’m saving it here in case I need it again 🙂

Enjoy that cliche all you want but only those with nothing better to say speak in cliche.