Jacob has a new computer — and a favorite shell

April 9th, 2010

Earlier today, I wrote about building a computer with Jacob, our 3.5-year-old, and setting him up with a Linux shell.

We did that this evening, and wow — he loves it. While the Debian Installer was running, he kept begging to type, so I taught him how to hit Alt-F2 and fired up cat for him. That was a lot of fun. But even more fun was had once the system was set up. I installed bsdgames and taught him how to use worm. worm is a simple snake-like game where you use the arrow keys to “eat” the numbers. That was a big hit, as Jacob likes numbers right now. He watched me play it a time or two, then tried it himself. Of course he crashed into the wall pretty quickly, which exits the game.

I taught him how to type “worm” at the computer, then press Enter to start it again. Suffice it to say he now knows how to spell worm very well. Yes, that’s right: Jacob’s first ever Unix command was…. worm.

He’d play the game, and cackle if he managed to eat a number. If he crashed into a wall, he’d laugh much harder and run over to the other side of the room.

Much as worm was a hit, the Linux shell was even more fun. He sometimes has a problem with the keyboard repeat, and one time typed “worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm”. I tried to pronounce that for him, which he thought was hilarious. He was about to backspace to fix it, when I asked, “Jacob, what will happen if you press Enter without fixing it?” He looked at me with this look of wonder and excitement, as if to say, “Hey, I never thought of that. Let’s see!” And a second later, he pressed Enter.

The result, of course, was:

-bash: worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm: command not found

“Dad, what did it do?”

I read the text back, and told him it means that the computer doesn’t know what worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm means. Much laughter. At that point, it became a game. He’d bang at random letters, and finally press Enter. I’d read what it said. Pretty soon he was recognizing the word “bash”, and I heard one time, “Dad, it said BASH again!!!” Sometimes if he’d get semicolons at the right place, he’d get two or three “bashes”. That was always an exciting surprise. He had more fun at the command line than he did with worm, and I think at least half of it was because the shell was called bash.

He took somewhat of an interest in the hardware part earlier in the evening, though not quite as much. He was interested in opening up other computers to take parts out of them, but bored quickly. The fact that Terah was cooking supper probably had something to do with that. He really enjoyed the motherboard (and learned that word), and especially the CPU fan. He loved to spin it with his finger. He thought it interesting that there would be a fan inside his computer.

When it came time to assign a hostname, I told Jacob he could name his computer. Initially he was confused. Terah suggested he could name it “kitty”, but he didn’t go for it. After a minute’s thought, he said, “I will name it ‘Grandma Marla.'” Confusion from us — did he really understand what he was saying? “You want to name your computer ‘Grandma Marla?'” “Yep. That will be silly!” “Sure you don’t want to name it Thomas?” “That would be silly! No. I will name my computer ‘Grandma Marla.”” OK then. My DNS now has an entry for grandma-marla. I had wondered what he would come up with. You never know with a 3-year-old!

It was a lot of fun to see that sense of wonder and experimentation at work. I remember it from the TRS-80 and DOS machine, when I would just try random things to see what they would do. It is lots of fun to watch it in Jacob too, and hear the laughter as he discovers something amusing.

We let Jacob stay up 2 hours past his bedtime to enjoy all the excitement. Tomorrow the computer moves to his room. Should be loads of excitement then too.

Categories: Children & Computing, Debian, Family, Linux

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Comments Feed41 Comments

  1. Clint

    A shell with spelling correction can make typos or random gibberish into a way of learning about other commands available on the system.

    Reply

  2. Eric Bostrom

    That’s hilarious! Need any other hardware?

    Reply

  3. Branden Robinson

    That’s a beautiful story.

    Reply

  4. Christian Perrier

    Great story, as Branden wrote (hey, Branden, nice to see you around). John, keep on with such stories: you have many readers as it seems, who enjoys stories from the Goerzen’s

    Reply

  5. Anonymous

    As Branden said, a beautiful story.

    One thought: does the system have sound? If so, you could install flite or espeak, and let Jacob make the computer talk to him. :)

    Reply

  6. Chris

    Wonderful! Maybe the command line is difficult to people because of their preconceptions about computers?

    Reply

  7. sirjoebob

    Great story. I have a 3 year old and she loves to tinker with a busted computer. She takes all the screws out and holds up a piece and says “Daddy? What’s this?” and I get to try to explain a CMOS battery to a 3 year old. Being a geek/parent is the coolest thing I have ever done. Your kid will be better off because of the interest you show in him- and he may write some awesome bash scripts.

    Reply

  8. morgan

    That story reminds me of myself.

    I was 4 years old when I got my first computer – a rare one too, A British designed Dragon32 which had a basic language : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_32/64

    The genius was that most games you could actually see the code and edit it…(only machine code games you couldn’t)

    I went from that to a spectrum to an Amiga (the best machine I have ever owned) then the horror of windows… Then I found Linux!

    If you teach him at an early age (or rather let him teach himself) to use a system you can completely control it is likely he won’t settle for a closed OS when he is older.

    Reply

  9. John Goerzen

    I forgot to add: Jacob’s second Unix command was w. He started to type worm, then — you could really see this thought process — lifted his hand up and decided to bash on the keyboard again instead, and happened to hit the spacebar first. I don’t think he noticed what had happened; only that he needed to try again to get it to say “bash”. Terah, on the other hand, asked “what did he just do?”

    Reply

  10. Bo

    This is excellent. Now you should teach him to say “sudo” instead of “please” in real life :)

    Reply

  11. rchase

    You should install cowsay!

    Reply

  12. brian herman

    You should post the history of his prompt.

    Reply

  13. Sarah

    I also vote for installing cowsay and posting some of his .bash_history. :) I shared this with my dad, a fellow Linux/FLOSS enthusiast.

    Reply

  14. grouch

    I suggest you save that history file. It’s almost as good as a patchwork quilt for sparking nostalgic conversations. Jacob will be graduating in a few blinks and you can replay that history to surprise him. You will remember this as if yesterday; he will discover it through your memory.

    I have the first words my son hesitantly pecked out on a CP/M computer as well as the first off-line HTML page created by my daughter. These files take up less space than bronzed baby shoes.

    Reply

  15. ubuntard

    Thank you for introducing me to bsdgames!

    Reply

  16. Anonimo

    A beatiful history, Good for jacob!

    Reply

  17. vvill

    I think sometimes it’s just better not to know.
    In response to the second command..

    Reply

  18. Allison

    This is awesome! A totally different kind of baby book. Daddy, what happens when I type “rm -rf /”?

    Reply

  19. Carmen Tourney

    Teaching a 3-1/2 year old how to use a computer AND operating system. OMG. Sounds silly to me. But then again, at least he won’t turn out like me – a 41 year old who doesn’t even copy and paste or bookmark! LOL. I guess I’m just jealous. Maybe in a 1/2 year he could teach me how to better use my computer. :)

    Reply

  20. Midnite Kommando

    I’ll never let my kid have a computer in the room. With the cyber bullying that’s happening in schools — no way. It has to be in the common area.
    But good on you for starting him young.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Jacob’s computer has no network connection. So I’m not worried.

    Reply

    Emil Reply:

    Congratulations, I just named you the father of the year!

    Really, so awesome of you, wish I would grow up with a father like you.

    When are you teaching him programming a.s.o?

    Seems to be you have a little collage guy to raise my friend!

    Reply

    Emil Reply:

    Typo: Seems to me* ;)

  21. nlr

    as other suggested (and if you have some speakers attached): a speech synthesizer.

    i once hacked something together for someone new to the comandline, so that you can run:
    $ say my computer can talk!

    http://pastebin.com/4iHBPf0N

    Reply

  22. Jerry McBride

    What a GREAT way to teach… I had similar good times with my son. I never thought I would hear him ask… dad, what are you doing… And he hasn’t stopped learning since.

    God bless and enjoy!

    Reply

  23. Chris

    As a public high school teacher, let me say that it’s wonderful to see people still instilling a love of learning in their children! Keep it up, and please continue to post these stories so that other parents can learn from them!

    Reply

  24. Kirklin

    Okay. It is clear to us that Jacob will be raised with a “techy” advantage over most of his peers. I will not speak for the real Grandma Marla here, however, we plan to offer some “balancers” to this little guy. He is very interested in food-as are we…am thinking Amtrak Chef!! ; )

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m afraid this was my idea, but Jacob has taken to calling our kitchen the “dining car” in the last couple of days. You may be on to something…

    Reply

  25. Andy Baio

    He’ll be posting on 4chan in no time!

    Reply

  26. vvill

    I think Jacob may like the game numptyphyics
    http://debian.org/squeeze/numptyphyics
    in sid as well…
    Terah and Oliver might even get find this intriguing….
    warning: the physic engine is not intuitive… but it’s fun anyway…. :-)

    Reply

    vvill Reply:

    fix typos
    http://packages.debian.org/squeeze/numptyphysics
    http://packages.debian.org/sid/numptyphysics
    Terah and Oliver might even find this game intriguing….

    Reply

  27. Perfect use for broken technology: Give it to a 3-year-old | The Changelog

    […] last wrote about Jacob’s new computer back in April. He has had fun with it, but is still a little young to appreciate it a whole lot. […]

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  29. Andrew Ruthven

    Hey John,

    Interesting read. It seems that an old defunct Apple PowerBook 100 is no longer acceptable with my 3.5 daughter. She has just declared that she wants a working computer. And we’ve been told that having a login on my workstation isn’t acceptable.

    Good to hear that Jacob has been able to handle the command line okay. I’ll try Brooke out on it, currently her favourite game is making ice in Frozen Bubble.

    Cheers!

    Reply

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  34. Teknoloji

    That’s a beautiful story.

    Reply

  35. Bryce

    Inspired by these blog posts, I introduced my 3.25 yr old to the commandline yesterday.

    He’s had a toy laptop computer since he was an infant, but lately his 1.4 yr old baby sister has taken a fondness to it. I told him he could have a real computer if he gave his toy one to his sister. He thought that was an excellent trade.

    Following your approach, I used a desktop machine. We “built” it (ahead of time I opened it up and removed the HD, RAM, video card, and unplugged various wires). This gave ample opportunity to explain all the pieces, and he enjoyed helping me seat the RAM and plug in various cords.

    I tried worm, but he didn’t find it interesting. He did love pounding on the keyboard writing pretend emails to grandpa. He enjoyed plugging in the ethernet cable in order to install worm though, and loved plugging in anything via USB. Perhaps he’s more of the telcom geek?

    When I was a young ‘un I remember my dad taking me to work and playing with the mainframes. Where he worked they had dumb terminal client consoles, which only displayed green on black ASCII text. He set me up with an ASCII drawing program which I’d poke at.

    On Linux, the closest thing I’ve found to that old drawing program is aewan. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to come with much example ascii art, but maybe I can cobble something together.

    Reply

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