Category Archives: Family

The Big Green Weasel Song

One does not normally get into one’s car intending to sing about barfing green weasels to the tune of a Beethoven symphony for a quarter of an hour. And yet, somehow, that’s what I wound up doing today.

Little did I know that when Jacob started band last fall, it would inspire him to sing about weasels to the tune of Beethoven’s 9th. That may come as a surprise to his band teacher, too, who didn’t likely expect that having the kids learn the theme to the Ninth Symphony would inspire them to sing about large weasels.

But tonight, as we were driving, I mentioned that I knew the original German words. He asked me to sing. I did.

Then, of course, Jacob and Oliver tried to sing it back in German. This devolved into gibberish and a fit of laughter pretty quick, and ended with something sounding like “schneezel”. So of course, I had to be silly and added, “I have a big green weasel!”

From then on, they were singing about big green weasels. It wasn’t long before they decided they would sing “the chorus” and I was supposed to improvise verse after verse about these weasels. Improvising to the middle of the 9th Symphony isn’t the easiest thing, but I had verses about giving weasels a hug, about weasels smelling like a bug, about a green weasel on a chair, about a weasel barfing on the stair. And soon, Jacob wanted to record the weasel song to make a CD of it. So we did, before we even got to town. Here it is:

[Youtube link]

I love to hear children delight in making music. And I love to hear them enjoying Beethoven. Especially with weasels.

I just wonder what will happen when they learn about Mozart.

The Yellow House Phone Company (Featuring Asterisk and an 11-year-old)

“Well Jacob, do you think we should set up our own pretend phone company in the house?”

“We can DO THAT?”


“Then… yes. Yes! YES YES YESYESYESYES YES! Let’s do it, dad!”

Not long ago, my parents had dug up the old phone I used back in the day. We still have a landline, and Jacob was having fun discovering how an analog phone works. I told him about the special number he could call to get the time and temperature read out to him. He discovered what happens if you call your own number and hang up. He figured out how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using touchtone keys (after a slightly concerned lecture from me setting out some rules to make sure his “musical dialing” wouldn’t result in any, well, dialing.)

He was hooked. So I thought that taking it to the next level would be a good thing for a rainy day. I have run Asterisk before, though I had unfortunately gotten rid of most of my equipment some time back. But I found a great deal on a Cisco 186 ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter). It has two FXS lines (FXS ports simulate the phone company, and provide dialtone and ring voltage to a connected phone), and of course hooks up to the LAN.

We plugged that in, and Jacob was amazed to see its web interface come up. I had to figure out how to configure it (unfortunately, it uses SCCP rather than SIP, and figuring out Asterisk’s chan_skinny took some doing, but we got there.)

I set up voicemail. He loved it. He promptly figured out how to record his own greetings. We set up a second phone on the other line, so he could call between them. The cordless phones in our house support SIP, so I configured one of them as a third line. He spent a long time leaving himself messages.


Pretty soon we both started having ideas. I set up extension 777, where he could call for the time. Then he wanted a way to get the weather forecast. Well, weather-util generates a text-based report. With it, a little sed and grep tweaking, the espeak TTS engine, and a little help from sox, I had a shell script worked up that would read back a forecast whenever he called a certain extension. He was super excited! “That’s great, dad! Can it also read weather alerts too?” Sure! weather-util has a nice option just for that. Both boys cackled as the system tried to read out the NWS header (their timestamps like 201711031258 started with “two hundred one billion…”)

Then I found an online source for streaming NOAA Weather Radio feeds – Jacob enjoys listening to weather radio – and I set up another extension he could call to listen to that. More delight!

But it really took off when I asked him, “Would you like to record your own menu?” “You mean those things where it says press 1 or 2 for this or that?” “Yes.” “WE CAN DO THAT?” “Oh yes!” “YES, LET’S DO IT RIGHT NOW!”

So he recorded a menu, then came and hovered by me while I hacked up extensions.conf, then eagerly went back to the phone to try it. Oh the excitement of hearing hisown voice, and finding that it worked! Pretty soon he was designing sub-menus (“OK Dad, so we’ll set it up so people can press 2 for the weather, and then choose if they want weather radio or the weather report. I’m recording that now. Got it?”)

He has informed me that next Saturday we will build an intercom system “like we have at school.” I’m going to have to have some ideas on how to tie Squeezebox in with Asterisk to make that happen, I think. Maybe this will do.

The Joy of Exploring: Old Phone Systems, Pizza, and Discovery

This story involves boys pretending to be pizza deliverymen using a working automated Strowger telephone exchange demonstrator on display in a museum, which is very old and is, to my knowledge, the only such working exhibit in the world. (Yes, I have video.) But first, a thought on exploration.

There are those that would say that there is nothing left to explore anymore – that the whole earth is mapped, photographed by satellites, and, well, known.

I prefer to look at it a different way: the earth is full of places that billions of people will never see, and probably don’t even know about. Those places may be quiet country creeks, peaceful neighborhoods one block away from major tourist attractions, an MTA museum in Brooklyn, a state park in Arkansas, or a beautiful church in Germany.

Martha is not yet two months old, and last week she and I spent a surprisingly long amount of time just gazing at tree branches — she was mesmerized, and why not, because to her, everything is new.

As I was exploring in Portland two weeks ago, I happened to pick up a nearly-forgotten book by a nearly-forgotten person, Beryl Markham, a woman who was a pilot in Africa about 80 years ago. The passage that I happened to randomly flip to in the bookstore, which really grabbed my attention, was this:

The available aviation maps of Africa in use at that time all bore the cartographer’s scale mark, ‘1/2,000,000’ — one over two million. An inch on the map was about thitry-two miles in the air, as compared to the flying maps of Europe on which one inch represented no more than four air miles.

Moreover, it seemed that the printers of the African maps had a slightly malicious habit of including, in large letters, the names of towns, junctions, and villages which, while most of them did exist in fact, as a group of thatched huts may exist or a water hold, they were usually so inconsequential as completely to escape discovery from the cockpit.

Beyond this, it was even more disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED’.

It was as if the mapmakers had said, “We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle — and the chances are we won’t know then!”

— Beryl Markham, West With the Night

My aviation maps today have no such markings. The continent is covered with radio beacons, the world with GPS, the maps with precise elevations of the ground and everything from skyscrapers to antenna towers.

And yet, despite all we know, the world is still a breathtaking adventure.

Yesterday, the boys and I were going to fly to Abilene, KS, to see a museum (Seelye Mansion). Circumstances were such that we neither flew, nor saw that museum. But we still went to Abilene, and wound up at the Museum of Independent Telephony, a wondrous place for anyone interested in the history of technology. As it is one of those off-the-beaten-path sorts of places, the boys got 2.5 hours to use the hands-on exhibits of real old phones, switchboards, and also the schoolhouse out back. They decided — why not? — to use this historic equipment to pretend to order pizzas.

Jacob and Oliver proceeded to invent all sorts of things to use the phones for: ordering pizza, calling the cops to chase the pizza delivery guys, etc. They were so interested that by 2PM we still hadn’t had lunch and they claimed “we’re not hungry” despite the fact that we were going to get pizza for lunch. And I certainly enjoyed the exhibits on the evolution of telephones, switching (from manual plugboards to automated switchboards), and such.

This place was known – it even has a website, I had been there before, and in fact so had the boys (my parents took them there a couple of years ago). But yesterday, we discovered the Strowger switch had been repaired since the last visit, and that it, in fact, is great for conversations about pizza.

Whether it’s seeing an eclipse, discovering a fascination with tree branches, or historic telephones, a spirit of curiosity and exploration lets a person find fun adventures almost anywhere.

A new baby and deep smiles


A month ago, we were waiting for our new baby; time seemed to stand still. Now she is here! Martha Goerzen was born recently, and she is doing well and growing! Laura and I have enjoyed moments of cuddling her, watching her stare at our faces, hearing her (hopefully) soft sounds as she falls asleep in our arms. It is also heart-warming to see Martha’s older brothers take such an interest in her. Here is the first time Jacob got to hold her:


Oliver, who is a boy very much into sports, play involving police and firefighters, and such, has started adding “aww” and “she’s so cute!” to his common vocabulary. He can be very insistent about interrupting me to hold her, too.

Time, Frozen

We’re expecting a baby any time now. The last few days have had an odd quality of expectation: any time, our family will grow.

It makes time seem to freeze, to stand still.

We have Jacob, about to start fifth grade and middle school. But here he is, still a sweet and affectionate kid as ever. He loves to care for cats and seeks them out often. He still keeps an eye out for the stuffed butterfly he’s had since he was an infant, and will sometimes carry it and a favorite blanket around the house. He will also many days prepare the “Yellow House News” on his computer, with headlines about his day and some comics pasted in — before disappearing to play with Legos for awhile.

And Oliver, who will walk up to Laura and “give baby a hug” many times throughout the day — and sneak up to me, try to touch my arm, and say “doink” before running off before I can “doink” him back. It was Oliver that had asked for a baby sister for Christmas — before he knew he’d be getting one!

In the past week, we’ve had out the garden hose a couple of times. Both boys will enjoy sending mud down our slide, or getting out the “water slide” to play with, or just playing in mud. The rings of dirt in the bathtub testify to the fun that they had. One evening, I built a fire, we made brats and hot dogs, and then Laura and I sat visiting and watching their water antics for an hour after, laughter and cackles of delight filling the air, and cats resting on our laps.

These moments, or countless others like Oliver’s baseball games, flying the boys to a festival in Winfield, or their cuddles at bedtime, warm the heart. I remember their younger days too, with fond memories of taking them camping or building a computer with them. Sometimes a part of me wants to just keep soaking in things just as they are; being a parent means both taking pride in children’s accomplishments as they grow up, and sometimes also missing the quiet little voice that can be immensely excited by a caterpillar.

And yet, all four of us are so excited and eager to welcome a new life into our home. We are ready. I can’t wait to hold the baby, or to lay her to sleep, to see her loving and excited older brothers. We hope for a smooth birth, for mom and baby.

Here is the crib, ready, complete with a mobile with a cute bear (and even a plane). I can’t wait until there is a little person here to enjoy it.

Family Spring: A Story in Photos

This has been a spring with times to relax, times to be busy, times of anticipation of a new baby, and times of enjoying our family.

Rather than write a lot of words about it, I’m telling the story in photos.

To view, click here, then click Show Info in the upper right to see captions. You can pause it with the button in the lower left, and use arrow keys to advance.

Alternatively, there’s a captionless slideshow available here.

Here’s one photo to get you started:

Happy about the little sister on the way

Flying with my brothers

Picture one Sunday morning. Three guys are seemingly-randomly walking into a Mennonite church in rural Nebraska. One with long hair and well-maintained clothes from the 70s. Another dressed well enough to be preaching. And the third simply dressed to be comfortable, with short hair showing evidence of having worn a headset for a couple of hours that morning. This was the scene as we made a spur-of-the-moment visit to that church — which resulted in quite some surprise all around, since my brother knew a number of people there.

For instance:

Pastor: Peter! What are you doing here?

Peter: [jokingly] Is that how you greet visitors here?

And then, of course, Peter would say, “Well, we were flying home from South Dakota and figured we’d stop in at Beatrice for fuel. And drop in on you.” Followed by some surprise that we would stop at their little airport (which is quite a nice one).

This all happened because it was windy. This is the fun adventure of aviation. Sometimes you plan to go to Texas, but the weather there is terrible, so you discover a 100-year-old landmark in Indiana instead. Or sometimes, like a couple of weeks ago, we planned to fly straight home but spent a few hours exploring rural Nebraska.

The three of us flew to Sioux Falls, SD, in a little Cessna to visit my uncle and aunt up there. On our flight up, we stopped at the little airport in Seward, NE. It was complete with this unique elevated deck. In my imagination, this is used for people to drink beer while watching the planes land.


In South Dakota, we had a weekend full of card and board games, horseshoes, and Crokinole with my uncle and aunt, who are always fun to visit. We had many memories of visits up there as children — and the pleasant enjoyment of the fact that we didn’t need an 8-hour drive to get there. We flew back with a huge bag of large rhubarb from their garden (that too is something of a tradition!)

It was a fun weekend to spend with my brothers — first time we’d been able to do this in a long while. And it marked the 11th state I’ve flown into, and over 17,000 miles of flying.

Singing with Kids

For four years now, we’ve had a tradition: I go up to the attic one night, make a lot of noise, and pretend to be Santa. The boys don’t think Santa is real, but they get a huge kick out of this anyway.

The other day, this wound up with me singing a duet with my 7-year-old Oliver, and seeing a hugely delighted 10-year-old Jacob.

All last week, the boys had been lobbying for me to “be Santa”. They aren’t going to be able to be here on Christmas day this year, so I thought – why not let them have some fun. I chose one present to give them early too.

So, Saturday night, I said they could get ready for Santa. They found some cookies somewhere, got out some milk. And Oliver wrote this wonderful note to “Santa”:


That is a note I’m going to keep for a long time. He helpfully drew arrows pointing to the milk, cookies, and even the pen. He even started Santa’s reply at the bottom!

So, Saturday night, I snuck up to the attic, pretended to be Santa, and ate some cookies, drank some milk, and wrote Oliver a note. And I left a present.

Jacob has been really getting into music lately, and Laura suggested I find something for the boys. I went looking for something that could record also, and came up with what has got to be a kid’s dream: a karaoke machine.

The particular one I found came with two microphones, a CD player, audio recording onto SD card (though it’s a little dodgy), and a screen for showing words on any music that’s karaoke-enhanced.

Cue gasps of awe and excitement from the boys when we came down in our PJs and sweats at 6:45 Sunday morning to check it out.


Jacob excitedly began exploring all the knobs and options on it (they were particularly fond of the echo feature), while Oliver wanted to sing. So we found one of his favorite Christmas songs, and here he is singing it with me.


When you have a system with a line in, line out, and several microphone jacks, you can get creative. With a few bits of adapters from my attic, the headset I use for amateur radio worked with it perfectly. Add on a little mic extension cord, and pretty soon Oliver was pretending to be an announcer for a football game!


Then, Oliver decided he would act out a football game while Jacob and I were the announcers.

Something tells me there will be much fun had with this over the next while!

Just wait until I show them how to hook up a handheld radio to it in order to make a remotely-activated loudspeaker…

Giant Concrete Arrows, Old Maps, and Fascinated Kids

Let me set a scene for you. Two children, ages 7 and 10, are jostling for position. There’s a little pushing and shoving to get the best view.

This is pretty typical for siblings this age. But what, you may wonder, are they trying to see? A TV? Video game?

No. Jacob and Oliver were in a library, trying to see a 98-year-old map of the property owners in Township 23, range 1 East, Harvey County, Kansas. And they were super excited about it, somewhat to the astonishment of the research librarian, who I am sure is more used to children jostling for position over the DVDs in the youth section than poring over maps in the non-circulating historical archives!

All this started with giant concrete arrows in the middle of nowhere.

Nearly a century ago, the US government installed a series of arrows on the ground in Kansas. These were part of a primitive air navigation system that led to the first transcontinental airmail service.

Every so often, people stumble upon these abandoned arrows and there is a big discussion online. Even Snopes has had to verify their authenticity (verdict: true). Entire websites exist to tracking and locating the remnants of these arrows. And as one of the early air mail routes went through Kansas, every so often people find these arrows around here.

I got the idea that it would be fun to replicate a journey along the old routes. Maybe I’d spot a few old arrows and such. So I started collecting old maps: a Contract Airmail Route #34 (CAM 34) map from 1927, aviation sectionals from 1933 and 1946, etc.

I noticed an odd thing on these maps: the Newton, KS airport was on the other side of the city from its present location, sometimes even several miles outside the city. What was going on?

1927 Airway Map
(1927 Airway Map)

1946 Wichita Sectional
(1946 Wichita sectional)

So one foggy morning, I explained my puzzlement to the boys. I highlighted all the mysteries: were these maps correct? Were there really two Newton airports at one time? How many airports were there, and where were they? Why did they move? What was the story behind them?

And I offered them the chance to be history detectives with me. And oh my goodness, were they ever excited! We had some information from a very helpful person at the Harvey County Historical Museum (thanks Kris!) So we suspected one airport at least was established in 1927. We also had a description of its location, though given in terms of township maps.

So the boys and I made the short drive over to the museum. We reviewed their property maps, though they were all a little older than the time period we needed. We looked through books and at pictures. Oliver pored over a railroad map of Newton from a century ago, fascinated. Jacob was excited to discover on one map that there used to be a train track down the middle of Main Street! I was interested that the present Newton Airport was once known as Wirt Field, rather to my surprise. I somehow suspect most 2nd and 4th graders spend a lot less excited time on their research floor!

Then on to the Newton Public Library to see if they’d have anything more — and that’s when the map that produced all the excitement came out.

It, by itself, didn’t answer the question, but by piecing together a number of pieces of information — newspaper stories, information from the museum, and the maps — we were able to come up with a pretty good explanation, much to their excitement.

Apparently, a man named Tangeman owned a golf course (the “golf links” according to the paper), and around 1927 the city of Newton purchased it, because of all the planes that were landing there. They turned it into a real airport. Later, they bought land east of the city and moved the airport there. However, during World War II, the Navy took over that location, so they built a third airport a few miles west of the city — but moved back to the current east location after the Navy returned that field to them.

Of course, a project like this just opens up all sorts of extra questions: why isn’t it called Wirt Field anymore? What’s the story of Frank Wirt? What led the Navy to take over Newton’s airport? Why did planes start landing on the golf course? Where precisely was the west airport located? How long was it there? (I found an aerial photo from 1956 that looks like it may have a plane in that general area, but it seems later than I’d have expected)

So now I have the boys interested in going to the courthouse with me to research the property records out there. Jacob is continually astounded that we are discovering things that aren’t in Wikipedia, and also excited that he could be the one to add them. To be continued, apparently!

Two Boys, An Airplane, Plus Hundreds of Old Computers

“Was there anything you didn’t like about our trip?”

Jacob’s answer: “That we had to leave so soon!”

That’s always a good sign.

When I first heard about the Vintage Computer Festival Midwest, I almost immediately got the notion that I wanted to go. Besides the TRS-80 CoCo II up in my attic, I also have fond memories of an old IBM PC with CGA monitor, a 25MHz 486, an Alpha also in my attic, and a lot of other computers along the way. I didn’t really think my boys would be interested.

But I mentioned it to them, and they just lit up. They remembered the Youtube videos I’d shown them of old line printers and punch card readers, and thought it would be great fun. I thought it could be a great educational experience for them too — and it was.

It also turned into a trip that combined being a proud dad with so many of my other interests. Quite a fun time.


(Jacob modeling his new t-shirt)

Captain Jacob

Chicago being not all that close to Kansas, I planned to fly us there. If you’re flying yourself, solid flight planning is always important. I had already planned out my flight using electronic tools, but I always carry paper maps with me in the cockpit for backup. I got them out and the boys and I planned out the flight the old-fashioned way.

Here’s Oliver using a scale ruler (with markings for miles corresponding to the scale of the map) and Jacob doing calculating for us. We measured the entire route and came to within one mile of the computer’s calculation for each segment — those boys are precise!


We figured out how much fuel we’d use, where we’d make fuel stops, etc.

The day of our flight, we made it as far as Davenport, Iowa when a chance of bad weather en route to Chicago convinced me to land there and drive the rest of the way. The boys saw that as part of the exciting adventure!

Jacob is always interested in maps, and had kept wanting to use my map whenever we flew. So I dug an old Android tablet out of the attic, put Avare on it (which has aviation maps), and let him use that. He was always checking it while flying, sometimes saying this over his headset: “DING. Attention all passengers, this is Captain Jacob speaking. We are now 45 miles from St. Joseph. Our altitude is 6514 feet. Our speed is 115 knots. We will be on the ground shortly. Thank you. DING”

Here he is at the Davenport airport, still busy looking at his maps:


Every little airport we stopped at featured adults smiling at the boys. People enjoyed watching a dad and his kids flying somewhere together.

Oliver kept busy too. He loves to help me on my pre-flight inspections. He will report every little thing to me – a scratch, a fleck of paint missing on a wheel cover, etc. He takes it seriously. Both boys love to help get the plane ready or put it away.

The Computers

Jacob quickly gravitated towards a few interesting things. He sat for about half an hour watching this old Commodore plotter do its thing (click for video):


His other favorite thing was the phones. Several people had brought complete analog PBXs with them. They used them to demonstrate various old phone-related hardware; one had several BBSs running with actual modems, another had old answering machines and home-security devices. Jacob learned a lot about phones, including how to operate a rotary-dial phone, which he’d never used before!


Oliver was drawn more to the old computers. He was fascinated by the IBM PC XT, which I explained was just about like a model I used to get to use sometimes. They learned about floppy disks and how computers store information.


He hadn’t used joysticks much, and found Pong (“this is a soccer game!”) interesting. Somebody has also replaced the guts of a TRS-80 with a Raspberry Pi running a SNES emulator. This had thoroughly confused me for a little while, and excited Oliver.

Jacob enjoyed an old TRS-80, which, through a modern Ethernet interface and a little computation help in AWS, provided an interface to Wikipedia. Jacob figured out the text-mode interface quickly. Here he is reading up on trains.


I had no idea that Commodore made a lot of adding machines and calculators before they got into the home computer business. There was a vast table with that older Commodore hardware, too much to get on a single photo. But some of the adding machines had their covers off, so the boys got to see all the little gears and wheels and learn how an adding machine can do its printing.


And then we get to my favorite: the big iron. Here is a VAX — a working VAX. When you have a computer that huge, it’s easier for the kids to understand just what something is.


When we encountered the table from the Glenside Color Computer Club, featuring the good old CoCo IIs like what I used as a kid (and have up in my attic), I pointed out to the boys that “we have a computer just like this that can do these things” — and they responded “wow!” I think they are eager to try out floppy disks and disk BASIC now.

Some of my favorites were the old Unix systems, which are a direct ancestor to what I’ve been working with for decades now. Here’s AT&T System V release 3 running on its original hardware:


And there were a couple of Sun workstations there, making me nostalgic for my college days. If memory serves, this one is actually running on m68k in the pre-Sparc days:


Returning home

After all the excitement of the weekend, both boys zonked out for awhile on the flight back home. Here’s Jacob, sleeping with his maps still up.


As we were nearly home, we hit a pocket of turbulence, the kind that feels as if the plane is dropping a bit (it’s perfectly normal and safe; you’ve probably felt that on commercial flights too). I was a bit concerned about Oliver; he is known to get motion sick in cars (and even planes sometimes). But what did I hear from Oliver?

“Whee! That was fun! It felt like a roller coaster! Do it again, dad!”