Early next month, a villager in the mountainous jungles of northern Laos will climb onto a stationary bicycle hooked to a handmade, wireless computer and pedal his people into the digital age.

It will be the first time a human-powered computer has ever linked a Third World village to the Internet by wireless remote. And the two Americans who will make this possible -- one a Navy veteran who became a leader in the Vietnam anti-war movement two generations ago, the other a founding pioneer of Silicon Valley -- plan to be at his side as he pedals.

Long ago, when their hair was jet-black and the '60s were hot, these two graying Boomers -- Lee Thorn of San Francisco and Lee Felsenstein of Palo Alto -- were in the forefront of the raucous Berkeley left. Today, they still want to change the world.

But this time, it will be in the middle of a jungle 7,500 miles from home in a tiny village called Phon Kham -- with a computer they specially created to help some of the neediest people on earth.

So why are they doing this?

"It will be like Alexander Graham Bell, in the jungle," Thorn said. "It's groundbreaking and new.

"Right now, the villagers have no way of telling what the market is like in the big towns they sell their stuff to, telling what the weather report is for their crops, things like that. This will absolutely change that. Plus, they will be able to talk to relatives in America some of them haven't seen in decades."

Technological projects have been slowly hooking remote villages in places such as India and Africa to the computer age for several years. But not in this way. They either involve cell phones, which need high-tech transmitter towers, or computers hooked into electricity and cable phone lines -- not foot pedals and wireless antennas nailed to trees.

This new computer also has another element not common to Third World tech projects: The input of villagers who wouldn't normally know a megabyte from a mosquito bite, but who are helping install it and who will be trained by Thorn's group. Word has already spread so far and wide that 40 countries, including South Africa and Peru, are interested in it.

"This will change everyone's lives in Phon Kham," Vorasone Denkayaphichitch,

who is coordinating the project in Laos and has relatives in the village area,

said from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. "The important thing is for them to have communication, because every day they sell their ducks, rice, weaving and chickens, and every day they have to sell for less money than they should because they can't know what the real price is down in the towns."

All 200 residents of Phon Kham live in bamboo houses with thatch roofs. There is no electricity. No telephone. If you want to go to the next tiny village a few miles away, you walk a dirt road that will probably wash out when the monsoons come.

It's about what you'd expect in the 10th-poorest nation on earth -- which during the Vietnam War had 2 million tons of bombs dropped on it by the United States, more than was dumped on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.

On its face, it could sound crazy to try to hook Laos up to a microchip world that its villagers would seem incapable of understanding, let alone using.

But nobody had counted on the 59-year-old Thorn.

During the Vietnam War, he was a Navy bomb loader on an aircraft carrier that was among those that launched devastating air strikes against Laos and Cambodia in the then-secret U.S. "shadow war." Decades later, racked with a need for penance, Thorn created the Jhai Foundation, a nonprofit that works to rebuild rural Laos -- and which will launch this new computer.

His partner in the computer venture has an equally dynamic background, albeit more pacific. Felsenstein, 57, invented the Osborne 1, the world's first portable computer, and in the 1970s he kick-started the home computer revolution with his fellow nerds in the Homebrew Computer Club, Apple creators Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

His latest invention, created specially for Thorn's group, is the bike- pedaled computer.

The two have assembled a team of a dozen wireless-technology and personal computer hotshots from the Bay Area and around the world, and they will tromp into the land mine-, snake-infested Laotian jungles over the next few weeks. There, with the help of the Phon Kham villagers, they will install the computer Felsenstein created out of off-the-shelf odds and bits -- and on Feb. 12, they intend to fire the machine up and hook into the Internet.

They call the invention the Jhai Computer, Jhai meaning "hearts and minds working together" in Laotian. It was built because the villagers asked Thorn for a way, any way, they could better tap into their country's economy and have contact with the outside world.

The bike-pedaled generator will power a battery that in turn runs the computer, which sits in an 8-by-10-inch box and has the power of a pre-Pentium,

486-type computer. Felsenstein designed it to run on only 12 watts -- compared to a typical computer's 90 watts -- so the bike power would be up to the task.

"It has no moving parts, the lid seals up tight, and you can dunk it in water and it will still run," Felsenstein said. "The idea is to be rugged, last at least 10 years and run in both the monsoon season and the dry season."

The computer will hook up with a wireless card -- an 802.11b, the current industry standard -- to an antenna bolted on the roof of a bamboo house, and the signal will be beamed from there to an antenna nailed to a tree on top of a mountain. There the signal will be bounced to Phon Hong, which sits 25 miles from Phon Kham and is the nearest big village with phone lines. The phone lines then hook to an Internet service provider.

Felsenstein crafted the Jhai to run on Linux software, a system which, unlike some other software, will not be obsolete in 18 months. Then he recruited a Laotian IBM engineer in New York to customize it to the Lao language. Mark Summer, a leader among San Francisco wireless aficionados, designed the connections and tested them last summer on the city's hills.

Through the Internet connection, the Jhai Computer will be able to not only do e-mail, but also run a two-way telephone system through Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP.

If the first Jhai Computer works as planned, Thorn's group will hook up four nearby villages and start an institute to train the residents. Eventually,

they may mass-produce it for other countries.

"I've never heard of anything exactly like this being done, in this way," said Dennis Allison, the noted Stanford University electrical engineering lecturer and co-founder of the groundbreaking People's Computer Co. in the 1970s. After seeing a recent presentation by Felsenstein on the invention, he concluded: "From a social impact point of view, it's a big deal. A very big deal."

What impelled Thorn to recruit Felsenstein and the rest of his team is the same thing that motivated him to create the Jhai Foundation in 1998. He wants to repair the damage wreaked by a war nobody acknowledged at the time -- officially, the United States never laid a hand, let alone a bomb, on Laos -- and in doing so repair some of the pain he feels at having been part of that war.

"This is all about Jhai, the hearts and minds together, about doing what is right," Thorn said. "This is what the Phon Kham people asked for, and this is the most reasonable response to their request. It's simple."

It's the same straightforward style he used three decades ago when he co- founded the national Veterans for Peace at UC Berkeley. And five years ago as well, when he loaded up a backpack of surplus medical supplies and flew to Laos with the simple aim of doing some good, and wound up creating his foundation.

"I go back again and again out of gratitude," Thorn said. "The last five years I've been able to heal myself in ways I never thought would be possible, and that's because of the relationships I've built in Laos."

Operating on a shoestring budget of donations from contacts Thorn made as a peace activist, Jhai has built wells, installed computer learning labs for children, helped clear unexploded bombs and started importing coffee to America.

The most powerful factor on Thorn's side these days is the genius he knew from the old radical times and whom he recruited to get the computer project going -- Felsenstein.

For Felsenstein, the idea of making a computer "for the people" has driven him since the 1960s, when he wrote for the Berkeley Barb and was tech whiz for the Free Speech Movement. The zeal never faded as Felsenstein's career carried on through the years to his current job at a Mountain View medical instruments company.

"The human situation fit very well to what could be done with the technology we had available," he said in his characteristic dead-pan, engineer's earnestness. "What's incredible is that we couldn't just go to the store and buy this already, that it had to be invented."

Neither of the two Lees, both not as svelte as they used to be, is looking forward to schlepping the computer and its clunky antennas through the jungle. But neither is complaining.

People scoffed at Thorn years ago when he wanted to band veterans together to make a peace movement, and they scoffed at Felsenstein when he said he could make a portable computer. And today, they are just as determined to beat the odds.

Some whom they have consulted for advice on where to buy batteries and the like have, just at the mention of the project, laughed skeptically. That just makes the two Lees smile.

"When someone says to me, 'I don't understand what you're doing, you must be crazy,' I know I'm on the right track," Felsenstein said.

Pedal-powered PC zapped -- villagers wait to go wireless
Despite delay, Laotians delighted by invention of Bay Area team

Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, February 14, 2003


Phon Kham, Laos -- They still killed a water buffalo, cooked it in chunks Thursday and had a big party with plenty of local dignitaries and Beer Lao to go around. And the villagers still crowded around the little computer they believe will change their lives, punched buttons and laughed as they pumped the bicycle pedals that charge its battery.

"Ohhh! Ahhh! This is such fun!" cried Phonsi Thanavong, watching a rice farmer throw back his head and guffaw while he pedaled and meter lights blinked in the humid 90-degree heat. "It is an amazing thing!"

Amazing, except for one crucial aspect.

The computer didn't work. And it won't work for a couple more months.

The idea was to fire up the world's first bicycle-powered wireless computer in this bamboo-and-wood village deep in the Laotian jungle. Just two days before this signal event, the team of cyber whizzes led by the Bay Area's Lee Thorn and Lee Felsenstein were pulling an all-nighter to work out final programming details.

And then two hard drives crashed, bringing the whole venture to a screeching halt. In a sense, it wasn't unexpected -- this sort of thing happens in Third World high-tech projects -- but it was still a crushing blow.

A power surge at 3 a.m. Tuesday in the team's makeshift lab in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, did in the drives that were being used to program the little Jhai Computer. It trashed an entire week's worth of programming and corrupted the computer itself.

If this were Sunnyvale, someone could grab parts at the local Fry's and solve the problem in a day. But this is Laos, where nobody dashes anywhere because many of the roads are twisty jungle tracks with cows wandering across, and people are still marveling over that recent high-tech wonder called television.

The bike-computer crew needed time to get parts shipped in, to take things to labs, to think. They didn't have any.

And with that, the great launch date for the Jhai Computer, Vietnam War veteran Thorn's dream of doing good for the country he helped bomb to kindling 30 years ago, was officially postponed. Until April, at least, the team decided.

Looking as haggard as they felt, Thorn, Jhai inventor Felsenstein and their band of a dozen programmers and engineers made the long trek across tortuous, skinny roads on Tuesday to give the villagers the bad news. To their delight, and surprise, it was taken for just what it was: word of a delay.

"We're very happy, very excited," village chief Vy Phoulamchith told the crew. "We have sorrow that this will not happen right now, but we have hope."

He looked over at Thorn, who was off from the crowd quietly staring at his toes. "Mr. Lee Thorn -- we believe in him, in his organization," Phoulamchith said. "We believe because of the past, because we have known him for years.

"He is an honorable man."

So on Thursday, after everyone had filled their bellies, about 200 Phone Kham women, men and children -- more than half the entire village -- jammed in and around the special room they helped build for this project.

Monkeys chattered in the trees, water buffaloes looked up curiously from the dry rice paddy outside the window, and Laotian soldiers with AK-47s walked the perimeter to guard against guerrilla bands that have gone on the latest of their occasional rampages near here. It was the first time the village had ever seen the computer -- and they may as well have been trying to fathom the infield fly rule.

The Jhai system consists of an 8-by-10-inch computer in a metal box, a keyboard, a dot matrix printer and a bicycle generator with an amp meter to show the power created. There are also wireless antennas, nailed to the roof and a mountaintop tree so the computer can broadcast to a phone line 20 miles away on rough road.

Seventeen-year-old Umpai Khamsin was the first to try the keyboard, which wasn't plugged into anything, and she poked as if it were a live snake. "What does it do?" she said, giggling.

Felsenstein explained that it makes the computer do things. She smiled sweetly.

Asked where she would like to surf to first on the Internet, Khamsin said, "I don't know. I've never seen an Internet."

The big hit was the bicycle -- a purple 10-speed the crew picked up locally for $25 -- and its little Japanese-made generator. One by one, dozens of villagers worked the pedals while the others laughed, cheered and pointed at flashing numbers on the amp meter.

"I look at this, I see the relationship we have with this village and I know it will all work out all right," said Thorn, 59, his eyes misting. He turned to village chief Phoulamchith and drew close, looking him straight in the face.

"This will happen, I promise you," Thorn said, putting a hand on the wiry rice farmer's shoulder.

Thirty-five years ago, Phoulamchith might have hated this tall American who, as a Navy bomb loader, helped turn the Laotian's former villages into smoking craters. Instead, he smiled and clasped his hands together respectfully and bowed.

"I know," Phoulamchith said.

The saga of trying to wire up this dusty little village to the modern age began two years ago when Thorn asked the people here what they needed to improve their lives. They told him they need a way to check the prices in Vientiane for their rice, chickens and silk, so they won't get ripped off by traders who come through the village.

So Thorn went straight to the tech-smartest guy he knew -- 57-year-old Felsenstein, who in the '60s was tech-whiz to the Free Speech Movement around the time Thorn was co-founding Veterans for Peace. Felsenstein, who had gone on to invent the Osborne 1, the world's first portable computer, delighted in the challenge.

He came up with the Jhai Computer, which needs only 6 watts to run, uses a wireless card and can do e-mail, surf Web sites and make telephone calls over the Internet.

The only reason the villagers were even talking to Thorn at all is that for five years he has been coming to this country to try to heal the pain that he helped create three decades ago when he was loading U.S. bombers that rained hell on Laos during the Vietnam War. Thorn, together with Laotians he met, has created the Jhai Foundation to build wells, import coffee, create Internet learning centers -- and now, to hook up Phon Kham with the Jhai Computer.

"Jhai" is Laotian for "hearts and minds working together."

The computer will still work, just as it did months ago in San Francisco, once the techies go home to arrange more vacation time from their jobs and fix the broken system. And the wireless network it will hook into has already been tested successfully with charged-up laptops.

But that will be then. This is now.

It took so much heart just to get to this point that having to put off the startup was emotionally flattening to the do-good nerds who flew in from Canada, San Francisco, New York and other places to take on this challenge. They spent weeks lugging heavy computer parts through nearly impenetrable stands of bamboo and teakwood, dodging snakes, bouncing down moonscape-looking dirt roads for hundreds of miles and keeping a careful eye out for marauding guerrillas.

But in the end, it was that one simple power surge that foiled them.

"This is just the stuff that happens," said team member Ed Gaible of Oakland, who has worked with the World Bank on tech projects in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. "Any time you try to do this sort of thing in this sort of environment, you take a risk things won't come through exactly on time."

Like a lot of Laos, where most people live outside the cities and make $250 a year, Phon Kham is a hand-built outpost dotted by rice paddies. Getting to the nearest asphalt is a five-mile trek on a pot-holed dirt road that washes out in monsoons.

There are a few stucco-sided houses owned by relatively prosperous villagers who own businesses far away, but they are the exception. The very idea of wiring up little Phon Kham to computers is little short of a miracle to its residents.

There are no phones here, and no electricity -- although, ironically, given the timing, the government is now planning to hook the village up to power by summertime.

This is perhaps to show that the government, too, can help its poor villages, local leaders said -- but this doesn't mean Phon Kham won't want its Jhai. They will still need the bike generator as backup power.

"With this new, big thing in our village, we will have more opportunity," said Vandy Lavongham, a rice farmer who is also principal at the village school. "But most important, our children will have more of a chance compared to children in the city."

Until this week, everything had actually gone swimmingly for a chaotic, ambitious project that involved flying in parts from all over the world and assembling them in the Jhai Foundation's hallway. Before the hard drive flameout, there had been so many times when components didn't show up, or programs didn't load correctly, that Thorn and Felsenstein had become numb to the glitches.

Even the just-plain bizarre threw curves. Programmer Liam Helmer, a Canadian, made the four-mile hike nearly straight up through tunnel-like bamboo to check the mountaintop wireless station last week and found that someone had set a giant stump on fire six feet from the base of the tree holding the antennas. It seems villagers had been hunting mice to eat, so they lit the stump to smoke out the critters -- and it was full of white-hot embers.

"This could light the whole forest on fire and take down our tree!" Helmer sputtered. Boun Mai, the villager who built the ladder (actually, a bunch of tree limbs nailed to the trunk) up the tree, leaped atop the smoking stump in his flip-flops and grinned.

"No problem," he said. "This happens all the time." On Thursday, the stump was just as hot. Nobody had figured out how to snuff it.

And then there was the massacre of a dozen people last week about 20 miles north of the village. Hmong guerrillas mowed down a busload of locals and a pair of bicycling tourists, so the Jhai team hired the Laotian army to guard everything.

On the day of the computer's unveiling, the soldiers kept their fingers near their AK-47 triggers while everyone admired the shiny new computer parts.

"The first thing I will do when the Jhai Computer comes is call my daughter in Ohio over the Internet," 78-year-old Pane Vongsenthong said, grinning hugely at the children who were jostling for turns on the bicycle. "I never get to call her now, and I miss her voice.

"Oh, this will make me so happy," he sighed.