Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The First Geek House in Santa Cruz. Part 1: The Eudaemons.

Inspired by Chaos

Before everyone had a super-computer in their pocket, “computer geeks” had computers in their bedrooms. In the late Eighties and Nineties, college students who used computers for work—and more importantly, play— would pool their resources to support their online lifestyle. They purchased a relatively expensive service from the phone company that allowed them to connect to computers at universities continuously. Once a household had this “always on” network connection, they existed as a permanent place on the expanding global network, and could easily communicate with other households and virtual communities. These households later became known as “geek houses.”  In Santa Cruz, one of the earliest geek houses is known as The Armory, and it still has its webpage:

Ten years before those geek houses, a community of physicists, artists, musicians, and other creative young people lived at 707 Riverside, and formed what I will call an early Santa Cruz geek house. Although there must have been other households of scientists, it wasn’t until 1976 that a programmable microprocessor was available to enterprising students. Because of the technical nature of their project, and because their community was as much a part of the success of the project as the hardware and software that they created, it is reasonable to claim that 707 Riverside is the earliest documented “geek house” in Santa Cruz.  (If this claim prompts counter-claims, I couldn’t be more delighted.)

The best source for this period of 707 Riverside’s history is Eudaemonic Pie, by Thomas Bass. It was reviewed in the Sentinel when published in 1985.

"The book is about a group of UCSC students, mostly physicists and engineers, who came together in the late 1970s as a community. Their purpose was to "beat the game" of roulette in Las Vegas casinos, to do better than chance would normally allow.

"The purpose became a reality when the group did just that against a game long considered unbeatable. The story of how it was done, the mathematical equations, technology, and people involved form Eudaemonic Pie. ...

"The Eudaemonic community, usually seven or eight in a shifting cast, set up housekeeping at 707 Riverside. For five years, the group tested theories and equipment in its attempt to overcome the house advantage on roulette. While Nevada gaming laws forbid tampering with games of chance, predicting an outcome is perfectly legal. This is what the Santa Cruzans did. …

"The desire to beat roulette was born in the physicists' dread of finishing school and entering the not-so-shining path such wizards normally follow — working, usually in research, for the military or teaching at a university. ...

" "This is a book about Santa Cruz," Bass observed," about that special coalescence of talented energy in this town — and about its relationship to Silicon Valley and new technology. I think Santa Cruz is much more intricately linked to Silicon Valley than it thinks — not just economically, but in terms of ideas and a zany kind of inventiveness involved with computers.

"In this, the organic movement and high tech came together, with a social consciousness also found in Santa Cruz." (Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 12, 1985)

The excerpt below (by permission of the author) introduces 707 Riverside, which is as important character in the book as many of its humans. It not only describes the house, but gives a fairly accurate description of the town and neighborhood of the time.

After their summer at Professor Nauenberg's the Projectors moved that fall into a house of their own. Doyne, Norman, and Letty had searched the county for someplace large enough to hold the first Eudemonic household.  They finally found a rambling, wood frame structure at 707 Riverside Street, a few hundred yards from the beach and just back from the levees that keep the San Lorenzo River from flooding the town built along its banks. The house and its barn had once presided over this stretch of riverbank as their sole occupants. But the acreage had long since been sold off for beach bungalows and condominiums, the barn was sagging, and the house itself was in need of cosmetic, if not structural attention.

The Riverside neighborhood, in its democratic receptivity, held a smattering of every element found in this sun-drenched town of fifty thousand. Tourists unloaded children and baja chairs into cottages rented by the week. Retired couples turned their gardens into mini-citrus groves or Shangri-las overrun with bougainvillea and fuchsia. High-tech employees from Intel, after an hour's commute over the mountains, wheeled their Porsches into the front yards of otherwise unadorned condominiums. Other citizens, surviving somehow in an economy dependent on fish, Brussels sprouts, the university, a Wrigley's chewing gum factory, food stamps, silicon chips, and tourism, used their front lawns for planting snow peas, fitting skylights into Dodge vans, rigging Windsurfers, grilling vegetables over hibachis, or reading Good Times, the local newspaper whose masthead slogan is "Lighter than Air."

The flower-lined mall and cafes of Santa Cruz lay just across a bridge spanning the San Lorenzo, or one could stroll instead to the harbor, an expanse of blue water situated where Monterey Bay takes a final nip in the coastline before rejoining the Pacific at Lighthouse Point. Surfers off the Point shot the curl in Steamer Lane, one of the best surf breaks on the coast, while back in the quieter waters of the Bay one found a yacht harbor, a wharf with fishmongers selling the catch of the day, and a boardwalk complete with arcades and a roller coaster. The only incongruity in this pleasant neighborhood --which soon went unnoticed by its residents--was the screaming of riders on the roller coaster as they took the big plunge.

Besides its location, 707 Riverside had much to recommend it. A stone foundation, having already survived numerous earthquakes, supported a bank of stairs, a pillared porch, a clerestory gable whose eaves and upturned roof made the house look vaguely like a Chinese pagoda. Despite its loftiness, the structure contained only one habitable floor, although one so extensive that it contained along its perimeter six bedrooms, as well as a living room, dining room, and kitchen built on a grand scale. The basement held two more rooms, with windows, facing out onto a large backyard and the barn.

Then in her third year of law school at Stanford, Letty paid slightly over fifty-thousand dollars for the house. "Norman and I were considering buying it ourselves," said Doyne, "but no one at the bank would give us the time of day. They thought Letty was pretty suspicious too, until she produced her stock certificates. It was clear sailing from there."

Norman moved that fall from Portland to Santa Cruz and began his first year as a physics graduate student at the university. Letty came down from Palo Alto as often as possible. Juano, on being wiped out as a poker player in the card rooms of Montana, drifted back to town. The house filled up with other residents that included, over the years, scientists, teachers, lawyers, a pianist, a nurse, a volleyball coach, two Dutch film stars, and an Italian leftist from Milan. A way station for travelers and the headquarters of Eudemonic Enterprises, 707 Riverside acquired the air of a commune, a physics laboratory, and a casino all rolled into one.

The Eudemonic family fenced in the yard and planted a garden. They built tables and beds and bought other furniture at the Sky View Drive-in flea market. In a small white chamber off the front hall, Doyne set up the new computer in what come to be known as the Project Room. He lined the walls from floor to ceiling with shelves that he filled with shoe boxes containing electronic parts, technical manuals, spare chips, wiring diagrams, and other paraphernalia needed for assembling and programming the KIM. [Keyboard Input Module--a computer development kit which included an Intel 6502 microprocessor, the first programmable computer small enough to wear.]

After The Project ended, that’s where I came in. I was an undergraduate at the end of spring quarter of 1982, I answered the following advertisement in the Santa Cruz Express.

The physicists had graduated and were moving out. Lorna Lyons, the remaining housemate, told me it had been a boys’ house for five years, and it was time for the house to be there for women and support our lives, and our projects. While we lived together, Lorna introduced me to her friends from the earlier household. I was in the middle of my undergraduate scientific education, and the best lesson I learned from the Eudaemons was that scientists are also artists, and to cultivate passions separate from one’s field of study.

While we didn’t do anything as ambitious as building a computer in a shoe, in that house I became an adult, and learned that cheese can be sliced, women can be lovers, drugs can be illuminating, and careers don’t necessarily extend in a straight line from your major.

This statue of the Three Graces was purchased at a yard sale by one of those first housemates. They have been my household gods since. Though severely broken in the 1989 earthquake, they preside as ever.

I lived at 707 until June of 1984, and the next year Letty Belin sold the house to a family who raised their children there, and rented rooms to college students.

In 1993, myself and a friend who I had met in the dining room of 707 Riverside ten years earlier were looking for a house to buy. We wanted a property where unrelated adults could live together easily in community. We thought we might buy an old motel. She happened to drive by 707 Riverside and saw that it was for sale. We bought it, and celebrated the close of escrow on October 31, with a party we thought a worthy descendant of the Halloween parties we had read about in  Eudaemonic Pie. Since then many people have lived here, and most of them have been inspired by the Eudaemons to use the house to support our artistic and technical projects.

Thirty years have gone by. Unlike the familiar Victorian-era local history stories, the people who lived in the first geek house are still alive, and their accomplishments at 707 Riverside came at the beginning of long careers of scientific, technical, and artistic achievement; far more extraordinary than building a roulette-playing computer. While living at 707, Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, Rob Shaw, and Jim Crutchfield worked with Professors Ralph Abraham, Bruce Rosenblum, and Michael Nauenberg. on the very earliest groundbreaking foundations of chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics. They and other members of their household who are not public about their lives went on to adventures and innovations, in science, art, and politics. So many stories to tell.

Jim Crutchfield, Rob Shaw, and the late Bruce Rosenblum pose in front of the computers used for chaos simulations, 1978. Photo provided by Jim Crutchfield.

Photo of the exhibit at the UCSC Physics Department, provided by Jim Crutchfield via Eugene Miya. Original  photographer unknown. See The Eudaemons and The Shoe Computer. How it worked.  

In 2012, researchers published a paper on how to beat routlette using a similar physics model. Responding to this paper in New Scientist, Farmer commented publicly on his model for the first time,  “I kept silent because I did not want to communicate any information that might prevent anyone from taking the casinos’ money."

You can watch an hour-long History Channel documentary about the Eudaemons on YouTube called “Beat the Wheel." This documentary relies on reenactment to tell the story, but interviews several of the Eudaemons. A NOVA documentary about early chaos research, is available on YouTube: "The Strange New Science of Chaos." Rob Shaw, Peter Scott, and Ralph Abraham appear. A movie by Julia Landau called Strange Attractors featuring Rob Shaw was never made, but the trailer is on youtube. The world is worse for its absence.

Who lived here before 1977? I started my research with a chain-of-title search, as is suggested in Every Structure Tells a Story. In my obsession, I used vacation time from work to spend days at the County Recorder’s office. I learned that before Letty Belin owned it, the house had been a duplex through the Sixties, Fifties, and Forties, owned by investors. In 1931 it had been sold from the courthouse steps to pay the judgement on a $2500 loan. Then I spent days searching back through page after page, year after year, until I finally found the original deed, where a Mr. and Mrs. William P. Netherton bought a lot on Riverside avenue for $10 from Edwin G. Shafter on June 30, 1906. Who were they?


  1. Met the late Bruce Rosenblum through his wife in the 1990s when they were living in the Prospect Height neighborhood. No idea that they moved away to the west side, I think...

  2. Bruce was a familiar sight in Kerr Hall, where I worked for many years. I never got around to asking him about his connection to the Eudaemons though. Thanks for your comment.