Monthly Archives: February 2012

Timelessness of an Old Pickup

Our society is one that is pretty well defined by timeliness. TV programs start at a precise time, down to the second. Schools have elaborate timekeeping systems. Even church services are carefully timed. We know how fast we’re going, and our GPS or phones tell us when we’ll get there. And we’re pretty confident that we will, in fact, get there.

Somehow this doesn’t apply to our pickup.

This pickup, in case you’re wondering, is a thing of… stories, shall we say. After a particularly frustrating experience with it one week (oh yes, the battle extended several days), I likened it to the Greek gods. And Terah had a good laughing fit when I began a sentence with “The reason there’s a towel connecting the brake pedal to the steering wheel…”

But I guess the thrifty side of me won out, and somewhere along the line, I relented. My brother fixed up the carburetor. I got it a new battery. The flat tire is repaired. The starter broke, and I got it replaced. And I even got an oil change. Fancy, I know.

So today, when I needed to take some backbreaking junk off the yard, I was hoping the pickup would work. I hadn’t driven it in months, and any manner of catastrophe could have struck it in that time. So I was mildly relieved when it started on the 6th try. That is, quite seriously, quite the improvement, and shows how skilled a mechanic my brother is.

The speedometer, of course, isn’t working. The odometer stupidly reads “21531” or something like that (it was only a 5-digit odometer, broke long ago, so who knows how many miles it really has.) And I like to keep things like grease and heavy ancient air conditioners (one of the things I was hauling) away from my watch, so I wasn’t wearing it.

The result: I have no idea what time it is, how fast I’m going, when I’ll get there, IF I’ll get there, or all those things.

I set out, and made it a good half mile before it died as I was rounding a corner at the bottom of the hill. Always a great place for a finicky old stick-shift vehicle to die, right? Anyhow, a few random adjustments to the choke later, and the thing sputtered then roared (and I do mean roared) back to life. A little lurching up the hill and I was back on my way. Now, I was stuck there in the middle of the road, but it was a country road, so I’d have probably had a good hour to get it fixed before worrying about blocking anybody’s way.

My first stop: my great uncle’s place. He has a “scrap metal for charity” project going on. He is looking for old motors, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, etc. He takes them apart, separates out the metals, sells them, and donates the result to MCC, a world relief agency. I knew I had an old dehumidifier in the basement, and thought I remembered seeing an old window air conditioner in the elevator. That thing is probably the single heaviest object I have ever moved without help. I have a bandaid to prove it. It was way too heavy to carry, so I kind of rolled it, side to side, from the side of the elevator on to the pickup. If you were watching, you’d have heard me making struggling noises, followed by “BANG rattle rattle rattle… pause… struggling noises…. BANG rattle rattle rattle” as I “rolled” it along the ground, and waited for the internal bits to settle after each quarter turn. So anyway, eventually I got it to the pickup, and then had the sickening realization: I have no way to get this thing up there. Oops.

I eventually placed it on top of an old tire rim, balanced it there as I knelt down, and somehow — still not quite sure how — managed to lift the entire thing a few feet until I could get some leverage to shove it onto the pickup. I later commented to my dad that it was a Chrysler brand air conditioner, somewhat to my surprise, and he said that it was probably my great-grandpa’s. That was a surprise.

Anyhow, back to the pickup. I drove down the few miles to my great grandpa’s place, not really knowing how fast I was going. I smelled the familiar smells of the old pickup: exhaust fumes, oil on hot surfaces it shouldn’t be on, a touch of hot antifreeze. You never have any doubt about whether the engine is running.

It was sort of nice to not know, or particularly care, how fast I was going, or what time it was. Sometimes I’d idly wonder, but you know, it didn’t really matter and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it anyhow.

I got to uncle’s place, unloaded the junk — sorta dropped the air conditioner off the back of the pickup with a terrific BANG, then rolled it all the way to his trailer — and got back in. On to town. I hadn’t put gas in the pickup in a few years, and I suspected it was getting low. (The gas gauge, you guessed it, doesn’t work right either.) Plus we had some large recyclables built up and it was time to get rid of them. And for that, I had to drive on the highway a ways. The speed limit there is 65MPH. I have no idea how fast I was going, but it wasn’t 65. Maybe it was 45. I got passed a lot, but nobody looked particularly surprised that a pickup that looks like mine wasn’t going 65.

Partway there, I smelled a different smoke smell. Not an oil smoke, but more of a grassy or wood smoke. Hmm, I thought. That’s odd. Hope it’s not coming from the pickup. I didn’t really see smoke anywhere else, so I just drove on until I couldn’t smell it anymore.

I unloaded the recyclables, then went to the gas station. As the pump readout neared $50, I decided: 1) the gas tank really was pretty empty, and 2) I just can’t put more gas in it anymore. That would be more than the truck’s worth. So I drove home.

The drive home was into the wind. My face got pretty cold – I always drive with the windows open to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning (remember the fumes?) I got home and prepared to pack up the pickup – close the windows, replace the bungee cord holding the brake pedal up, etc. I then thought I’d have a look under the hood to see if there was anything, well, on fire. Nope, but there was a packrat nest that fell down as soon as the wind hit it. Source of grassy-smelling smoke identified.

It’s amazing what difference simple lack of knowledge makes sometimes. Not knowing what time it is or how fast I’m going means I don’t have to worry about those things. I wonder how society has changed simply because accurate and cheap watches are available. I kind of like driving the old truck. It’s a bit of an adventure, a bit of a challenge, a bit of randomness, and a bit of an escape from the normal and predictable. Not a bad deal for a $75 vehicle.

XMPP for Children

When Jacob was just born, I wondered how I might introduce them to computing. I thought over various things, but that wasn’t really the most pressing thing right then.

I don’t suppose that I could have predicted installing an XMPP IM server (Prosody) for the boys. And I certainly couldn’t have predicted creating accounts named: jacob, oliver, butterfly, bear. Because, as Jacob pointed out to me, if (Jacob’s favorite toy) butterfly is typing with his wings, then he shouldn’t be logged in as Jacob. I admire my 5-year-old’s security consciousness…

Anyhow, as I mentioned yesterday, Jacob and Oliver enjoy “their” computer, which I recently put on the LAN. The firewall does not pass any of its traffic to the Internet, though, with very limited exceptions.

Jacob can read, and is starting to enjoy typing as well. So I thought he would enjoy sending IMs to me. As his computer has no GUI, I needed a text-mode client. Something with an IRC-like interface that could be scripted to open up a window with me directly sounded perfect. Initially I tried irssi’s XMPP plugin, but it proved to be too buggy (wanting to always latch on to a particular resource on the remote end, not having very predictable window behavior, etc.) So I switched to mcabber. With a couple of quick configuration bits to get him automatically logged in, remove superflous windows, and connect him directly to a chat with me, it was set. And well-loved. He sent me a mix of real words and random things he created by replacing letters in “Jacob” or by holding down keys.

In the mcabberrc, besides the obvious setting of username and password, there is:

set log_win_height = 1
set hook-post-connect = source ~/.mcabber/post-connect.rc

The hook is simply:

roster search Dad
roster hide

After awhile, Jacob wanted to switch computers. He wanted to use my laptop, and me use his computer. He refused to switch back. I asked him why. “Because on your computer, my name is red.” I should have known. I set it to bright white on his computer, but I think tomorrow we may need to upgrade him to the color monitor I’ve been saving for just such an occasion… It will be a whole new set of discoveries, I’m sure.

Update: I also tried out freetalk, which looked like it would meet my goals nicely. The problem was it didn’t have a dedicated “everything typed goes to this person” mode. It did have a mode where it put the person’s JID on the command line by default, but excessive use of backspace key by a 5-year-old could wipe that out and leave it in a state where he’d be confused.

Shell Scripts For Preschoolers

It probably comes as no surprise to anybody that Jacob has had a computer since he was 3. Jacob and I built it from spare parts, together.

It may come as something of a surprise that it has no graphical interface, and Jacob uses the command line and loves it — and did even before he could really read.

A few months ago, I wrote about the fun Jacob had with speakers and a microphone, and posted a copy of the cheat sheet he has with his computer. Lately, Jacob has really enjoyed playing with the speech synthesizer — both trying to make it say real words and nonsense words. Sometimes he does that for an hour.

I was asked for a copy of the scripts I wrote. They are really simple. I gave them names that would be easy for a preschooler to remember and spell, even if they conflicted with existing Unix/Linux commands. I put them in /usr/local/bin, which occurs first on the PATH, so it doesn’t matter if they conflict.

First, for speech systhesis, /usr/local/bin/talk:

echo "Press Ctrl-C to stop."
espeak -v en-us -s 150

espeak comes from the espeak package. It seemed to give the most consistenly useful response.

Now, on to the sound-related programs. Here’s /usr/local/bin/ssl, the “sound steam locomotive”. It starts playing a train sound if one isn’t already playing:

pgrep mpg321 > /dev/null || mpg321 -q /usr/local/trainsounds/main.mp3 &
sl "$@"

And then there’s /usr/local/bin/record:

cd $HOME/recordings
echo "Now recording. Press Ctrl-C to stop."
DATE=`date +%Y-%m-%dT%H-%M-%S`
chmod a-w *.wav
exec arecord -c 1 -f S16_LE -c 1 -r 44100 "$FILENAME"

This simply records in a timestamped file. Then, its companion, /usr/local/bin/play. Sorry about the indentation; for whatever reason, it is being destroyed by the blog, but you get the idea.

case "$1" in
mpg321 /usr/local/trainsounds/main.mp3
/usr/bin/play /usr/local/trainsounds/traindreams.flac
cd $HOME/recordings
exec aplay `ls -tr| tail -n 1`

So, Jacob can run just “play”, which will play back his most recent recording. As something of a bonus, the history of recordings is saved for us to listen to later. If he types “play train”, there is the sound of a train passing. And, finally, “play song” plays Always a Train in My Dreams by Steve Gillette (I heard it on the radio once and bought the CD).

Some of these commands kick off sound playing in the background, so here is /usr/local/bin/bequiet:

killall mpg321 &> /dev/null
killall play &> /dev/null
killall aplay &> /dev/null
killall cw &> /dev/null

Rain, A Funeral, and Excitement


Friday was something of a rare day for February in Kansas. Starting at about 2AM, the wind picked up, blowing so hard that our windows rattled. That part isn’t so rare. Then the cold rain started, dropping almost 2.5″ throughout the day.

As I worked, I had the blinds on the windows open, but they didn’t let in very much light. Still, the wind had calmed down, so the intermittent rain outside was peaceful. Jacob went out to play for a little while, so every so often I saw a warmly-dressed and excited-looking 5-year-old run past my window. A little while after he came in, I told Jacob, “I saw you playing outside.” His response: “Oh good! I got wet!” Which, despite the fact that it was about 50 degrees, seemed to excite him.

After the blustery start, the calm, slow, and peaceful rain was a pleasant thing to see throughout the day.


My great aunt Alice Goerzen passed away last Sunday. So today, for the third time in a little over a year, I was at the funeral of a Goerzen relative and neighbor. Alice’s husband, Milt, passed away in late 2010, and it was while I was at his funeral that Jacob got run over by a tractor. That memory certainly came back to me today.

But I think I should set the stage and explain what funerals are like in this small, rural Kansas community.

At the church, while people file in, family and close friends — generally defined as loosely as desired — meet in some other room before the funeral. Memories may be shared, or songs sung, or maybe just a brief meditation or prayer.

Then the man from the funeral home — there’s only one in town — will step in. Ivan Miller owned the business for decades, and although he’s now retired, his replacement seems pretty similar. Kindly, respectful, and pretty much unchanging. This group then files into the church sanctuary to sit up front, while the rest of the congregation is standing and music is played.

We typically sing some hymns, hear memories from the family, a message from a pastor, and then do downstairs for faspa: an light meal with coffee, zwieback, “funeral cheese”, and some relishes and dessert. You can, by the way, go to the local grocery store and find a product labeled “funeral cheese”. It’s a sharp cheddar, sliced thick and cut into pie piece-shaped wedges.

After everyone has picked up their food, microphones are passed around, and anybody that wants to can share memories and stories. These are often hilarious, or touching, and can be more random than anyone could expect.

Today we heard a lot about how Aunt Alice loved her flowers and garden. We even saw a video of her giving a tour of her garden, with Milt’s mower in the background occasionally accidentally causing a distraction (or maybe it wasn’t so accidental; he’d never miss an opportunity to cause some mischief…)

I tend to think of attending funerals around here as a good time. Sadness is inevitable, but there are so many amazing stories that it is hard to leave feeling sad.


This afternoon, Jacob found me in the office and as he often does, said, “Dad, I want to do something with you.” Usually I ask him what he’d like to do, but his first instinct is usually to ask for watching train videos on Youtube. So sometimes I make other suggestions. Today we played “hide and seek with radios,” in which the person that is counting is supposed to radio to the other person when they are done. Today was the first time that Jacob came up with the trick of talking into the radio while I was hiding so he could hear where I was. I was sort of proud of him, and he failed to completely hide his smile when I told him I had to turn off my radio or else he’d find me too fast.

Then later, we played with Jacob’s computer, a Linux-based command-line-only machine. I have set up a few shell scripts and aliases for him. Since it doesn’t play videos, he doesn’t use it as much as he does mine, but it is really fun to watch how his interaction with it changes as he gets older.

He can now read amazingly well for a 5-year-old, and is starting to learn how to spell. He loves word games, writing, and typing. I thought I would install an ASCII art program for him. I told Jacob I had some ideas for a new game, and he was irresistibly intrigued. I offered him a choice between figlet and toilet. And, as is probably no surprise to anyone with a 5-year-old, he chose toilet based on its name, Jacob and Oliver both loved typing things and seeing them displayed bigger. I showed Jacob how I could make a freight train by typing ,<@-[]-(*)-@> (that’s the comma-shaped snowplow, engine, boxcar [], tank car (*), and caboose @>). Then toilet drew them big, and though abstract, caused great excitement.

I hooked up one of the speech synthesizers in Debian to a simple shell script named “talk”, which is a huge hit with the boys. They enjoy typing in nonsense and hearing the funny result, or in typing in real words and hearing how the computer says them right (or doesn’t). All told, we had a good hour’s worth of excitement up there.