Planet Goerzen

John's BlogBach, Dot Matrix Printers, and Dinner

Dinner last night started out all normal. Then Jacob and Oliver started asking me about printers. First they wanted to know how an ink jet printer works. Then they wanted to know how a laser printer works. Then they wanted to know what would happen if you’d put ink in a laser printer or toner in an ink jet. They were fascinated as I described the various kinds of clogging and ruining that would inevitably occur.

Then these words: “What other kinds of printers are there?”

So our dinner conversation started to resolve around printers. I talked about daisy wheel printers, line printers, dot matrix printers. I explained the type chain of line printers, the pins of dot matrix. “More printers!” I had to dig deeper into my memory: wax transfer printers, thermal printers, dye sublimation, always describing a bit about how each one worked — except for dye sublimation, which I couldn’t remember many details about. “More printers!” So we went onwards towards the printing press, offset printing, screen printing, mimeograph, and photocopiers. Although I could give them plenty of details about most of the printers, I also failed under their barrage of questions about offset printing. So I finally capitulated, and said “should I go get my phone and look it up while you finish eating?” “YEAH!”

So I looked up the misty details of dye sublimation and offset printing and described how they worked. That seemed to satisfy them. Then they asked me what my favorite kind of printer was. I said “dot matrix, because it makes the best sound.” That had their attention. They stopped eating to ask the vitally important question: “Dad, what sound does it make?” At this point, I did my best dot matrix impression at the dinner table, to much laughter and delight.

Before long, they wanted to see videos of dot matrix printers. They were fascinated by them. And then I found this gem of a dot matrix printer playing a famous Bach tune, which fascinated me also:

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I guess it must have all sunk in, because this morning before school Jacob all of a sudden begged to see the fuser in my laser printer. So we turned it around, opened up the back panel — to his obvious excitement — and then I pointed to the fuser, with its “hot” label. I even heard a breathy “wow” from him.

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Clover Cliff B&B, Elmdale

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John's BlogHiking a mountain with Ian Murdock

“Would you like to hike a mountain?” That question caught me by surprise. It was early in 2000, and I had flown to Tucson for a job interview. Ian Murdock was starting a new company, Progeny, and I was being interviewed for their first hire.

“Well,” I thought, “hiking will be fun.” So we rode a bus or something to the top of the mountain and then hiked down. Our hike was full of — well, everything. Ian talked about Tucson and the mountains, about his time as the Debian project leader, about his college days. I asked about the plants and such we were walking past. We talked about the plans for Progeny, my background, how I might fit in. It was part interview, part hike, part two geeks chatting. Ian had no HR telling him “you can’t go hiking down a mountain with a job candidate,” as I’m sure HR would have. And I am glad of it, because even 16 years later, that is still by far the best time I ever had at a job interview, despite the fact that it ruined the only pair of shoes I had brought along — I had foolishly brought dress shoes for a, well, job interview.

I guess it worked, too, because I was hired. Ian wanted to start up the company in Indianapolis, so over the next little while there was the busy work of moving myself and setting up an office. I remember those early days – Ian and I went computer shopping at a local shop more than once to get the first workstations and servers for the company. Somehow he had found a deal on some office space in a high-rent office building. I still remember the puzzlement on the faces of accountants and lawyers dressed up in suits riding in the elevators with us in our shorts and sandals, or tie-die, next to them.

Progeny’s story was to be a complicated one. We set out to rock the world. We didn’t. We didn’t set out to make lasting friendships, but we often did. We set out to accomplish great things, and we did some of that, too.

We experienced a full range of emotions there — elation when we got hardware auto-detection working well or when our downloads looked very popular, despair when our funding didn’t come through as we had hoped, being lost when our strategy had to change multiple times. And, as is the case everywhere, none of us were perfect.

I still remember the excitement after we published our first release on the Internet. Our little server that could got pegged at 100Mb of outbound bandwidth (that was something for a small company in those days.) The moment must have meant something, because I still have the mrtg chart from that day on my computer, 15 years later.

Progeny's Bandwidth Chart

We made a good Linux distribution, an excellent Debian derivative, but commercial success did not flow from it. In the succeeding months, Ian and the company tried hard to find a strategy that would stick and make our big break. But that never happened. We had several rounds of layoffs when hoped-for funding never materialized. Ian eventually lost control of the company, and despite a few years of Itanium contract work after I left, closed for good.

Looking back, Progeny was life — compressed. During the good times, we had joy, sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose at doing something well that was worth doing. I had what was my dream job back then: working on Debian as I loved to do, making the world a better place through Free Software, and getting paid to do it. And during the bad times, different people at Progeny experienced anger, cynicism, apathy, sorrow for the loss of our friends or plans, or simply a feeling to soldier on. All of the emotions, good or bad, were warranted in their own way.

Bruce Byfield, one of my co-workers at Progeny, recently wrote a wonderful memoriam of Ian. He wrote, “More than anything, he wanted to repeat his accomplishment with Debian, and, naturally he wondered if he could live up to his own expectations of himself. That, I think, was Ian’s personal tragedy — that he had succeeded early in life, and nothing else he did with his life could quite measure up to his expectations and memories.”

Ian was not the only one to have some guilt over Progeny. I, for years, wondered if I should have done more for the company, could have saved things by doing something more, or different. But I always came back to the conclusion I had at the time: that there was nothing I could do — a terribly sad realization.

In the years since, I watched Ubuntu take the mantle of easy-to-install Debian derivative. I saw them reprise some of the ideas we had, and even some of our mistakes. But by that time, Progeny was so thoroughly forgotten that I doubt they even realized they were doing it.

I had long looked at our work at Progeny as a failure. Our main goal was never accomplished, our big product never sold many copies, our company eventually shuttered, our rock-the-world plan crumpled and forgotten. And by those traditional measurements, you could say it was a failure.

But I have come to learn in the years since that success is a lot more that those things. Success is also about finding meaning and purpose through our work. As a programmer, success is nailing that algorithm that lets the application scale 10x more than before, or solving that difficult problem. As a manager, success is helping team members thrive, watching pieces come together on projects that no one person could ever do themselves. And as a person, success comes from learning from our experiences, and especially our mistakes. As J. Michael Straczynski wrote in a Babylon 5 episode, loosely paraphrased: “Maybe this experience will be a good lesson. Too bad it was so painful, but there ain’t no other kind.”

The thing about Progeny is this – Ian built a group of people that wanted to change the world for the better. We gave it our all. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Progeny did change the world. As us Progeny alumni have scattered around the country, we benefit from the lessons we learned there. And many of us were “different”, sort of out of place before Progeny, and there we found others that loved C compilers, bootloaders, and GPL licenses just as much as we did. We belonged, not just online but in life, and we went on to pull confidence and skill out of our experience at Progeny and use them in all sorts of ways over the years.

And so did Ian. Who could have imagined the founder of Debian and Progeny would one day lead the cause of an old-guard Unix turning Open Source? I run ZFS on my Debian system today, and Ian is partly responsible for that — and his time at Progeny is too.

So I can remember Ian, and Progeny, as a success. And I leave you with a photo of my best memento from the time there: an original unopened boxed copy of Progeny Linux.

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Progeny box

Flickr PhotosProgeny's Bandwidth Chart

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Progeny's Bandwidth Chart

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Scenic overlook south of Cottonwood Falls, KS

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Scenic overlook south of Cottonwood Falls, KS

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Chase County Courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, KS

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Abandoned Elk Schoolhouse, Chase Co, Kansas

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Clover Cliff Ranch/B&B, Elmdale, KS

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Harvey County East Lake

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John's BlogAmtrak Airlines

I came downstairs this morning and found a surprise waiting for me. Chairs from all over had been gathered up and arranged in rows, airline style. Taped to the wall was a “food court” sign. At the front was a picture of an airplane, decked out with the Amtrak logo of all things, and a timetable taped to our dining room table.

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Jacob soon got out string to be seatbelts, too. And, using his copy machine, printed out a picture of a wing to tape to the side of the “airplane”.

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And here is the “food court” sign Oliver made:

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This plane was, according to the boys, scheduled to leave at 9:30. It left a fashionable 2 hours late or so. They told me I would be the pilot, and had me find headphones to be my “headset”. (I didn’t wear my real headset on the grounds that then I wouldn’t be able to hear them.) Jacob decided he would be a flight attendant, his grandma would be the co-pilot, and Oliver would be the food court worker. The food court somehow seemed to travel with the plane.

Oliver made up a menu for the food court. It consisted of, and I quote: “trail mix, banana, trail mix, half banana, trail mix, trail mix, trail mix”. He’s already got the limited selection of airport food down pat, I can see.

Jacob said the flight would be from Chicago to Los Angeles, and so it was. Since it was Amtrak Airlines, we were supposed to pretend to fly over the train tracks the whole way.

If it’s not Christmas yet, we just invent some fun, eh? Pretty clever.

John's BlogWhere does a person have online discussions anymore?

Back in the day, way back in the day perhaps, there were interesting places to hang out online. FidoNet provided some discussion groups — some local, some more national or international. Then there was Usenet, with the same but on a more grand scale.

There were things I liked about both of them.

They fostered long-form, and long-term, discussion. Replies could be thoughtful, and a person could think about it for a day before replying.

Socially, you would actually get to know the people in the communities you participated in. There would be regulars, and on FidoNet at least, you might bump into them in different groups or even in real life. There was a sense of community. Moreover, there was a slight barrier to entry and that was, perhaps, a good thing; there were quite a lot of really interesting people and not so many people that just wanted answers to homework questions.

Technologically, you got to bring your own client. They were also decentralized, without any one single point of failure, and could be downloaded and used offline. You needed very little in terms of Internet connection.

They both had some downsides; Usenet, in particular, often lacked effective moderation. Not everyone wrote thoughtful posts.

Is there anything like it these days? I’ve sometimes heard people suggest Reddit. It shares some of those aspects, and even has some clients capable of offline operation. However, what it doesn’t really have is long-form discussion. I often find that if I am 6 hours late to a thread, nobody will bother to read my reply because it’s off their radar already. This happens so often that I rarely bother to participate anymore; I am not going to sit at reddit hitting refresh all day long.

There are a few web forums, but they suffer from all sorts of myriad problems; no cohesive community, the “hot topic” vanishing issue of Reddit, the single point of failure, etc.

For awhile, Google+ looked like it might head this way. But I don’t think it really has. I still feel as if there is a vacuum out there.

Any thoughts?

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John's BlogI do not fear

I am so saddened by the news this week. The attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. The reaction of fear, anger, and hate. Governors racing to claim they will keep out refugees, even though they lack the power to do so. Congress voting to keep out refugees.

Emotions are a powerful thing. They can cause people to rise up and accomplish stunning things that move humanity forward. And they can move us back. Fear, and the manipulation of it, is one of those.

What have I to fear?

Even if the United States accepted half a million Syrian refugees tomorrow, I would be far more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a Syrian terrorist. I am a careful and cautious person, but I understand that life is not lived unless risk is balanced. I know there is a risk of being in a car crash every time I drive somewhere — but if that kept me at home, I would never see my kids’ violin concert, the beautiful “painted” canyon of Texas, or the Flint Hills of Kansas. So I drive smart and carefully, but I still drive without fear. I accept this level of risk as necessary to have a life worth living in this area (where there are no public transit options and the nearest town is miles away).

I have had pain in my life. I’ve seen grandparents pass away, I’ve seen others with health scares. These things are hard to think about, but they happen to us all at some point.

What have I to fear?

I do not fear giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, comfort to those that have spent the last years being shot at. I do not fear helping someone that is different than me. If I fail to do these things for someone because of where they come from or what their holy book is, then I have become less human. I have become consumed by fear. I have let the terrorists have control over my life. And I refuse to do that.

If governors really wanted to save lives, they would support meaningful mass transit alternatives that would prevent tens of thousands of road deaths a year. They would support guaranteed health care for all. They would support good education, science-based climate change action, clean water and air, mental health services for all, and above all, compassion for everyone.

By supporting Muslim registries, we look like Hitler to them. By discriminating against refugees based on where they’re from or their religion, we support the terrorists, making it easy for them to win hearts and minds. By ignoring the fact that entering the country as a refugee takes years, as opposed to entering as a tourist taking only minutes, we willfully ignore the truth about where dangers lie.

So what do I have to fear?

Only, as the saying goes, fear. Fear is making this country turn its backs on the needy. Fear is making not just the US but much of Europe turn its backs on civil liberties and due process. Fear gives the terrorists control, and that helps them win.

I refuse. I simply refuse to play along. No terrorist, no politician, no bigot gets to steal MY humanity.

Ultimately, however, I know that the long game is not one of fear. The arc of the universe bends towards justice, and ultimately, love wins. It takes agonizingly long sometimes, but in the end, love wins.

So I do not fear.

John's BlogMemories of a printer

I have a friend who hates printers. I’ll call him “Mark”, because that, incidentally, is his name. His hatred for printers is partly my fault, but that is, ahem, a story for another time that involves him returning from a battle with a printer with a combination of weld dust, toner, and a deep scowl on his face.

I also tend to hate printers. Driver issues, crinkled paper, toner spilling all over the place…. everybody hates printers.

But there is exactly one printer that I have never hated. It’s almost 20 years old, and has some stories to tell.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was about to move out of my parents’ house, and I needed a printer. I bought a LaserJet 6MP. This printer ought to have been made by Nokia. It’s still running fine, 18 years later. It turned out to be one of the best investments in computing equipment I’ve ever made. Its operating costs, by now, are cheaper than just about any printer you can buy today — less than one cent per page. It has been supported by every major operating system for years.

PostScript was important, because back then running Ghostscript to convert to PCL was both slow and a little error-prone. PostScript meant I didn’t need a finicky lpr/lprng driver on my Linux workstation to print. It just… printed. (Hat tip to anyone else that remembers the trial and error of constructing an /etc/printcap that would print both ASCII and PostScript files correctly!)

Out of this printer have come plane and train tickets, taking me across the country to visit family and across the world to visit friends. It’s printed resumes and recipes, music and university papers. I even printed wedding invitations and envelopes on them two years ago, painstakingly typeset in LaTeX and TeXmacs. I remember standing at the printer in the basement one evening, feeding envelope after envelope into the manual feed slot. (OK, so it did choke on a couple of envelopes, but overall it all worked great.)

The problem, though, is that it needs a parallel port. I haven’t had a PC with one of those in a long while. A few years ago, in a moment of foresight, I bought a little converter box that has an Ethernet port and a parallel port, with the idea that it would be pay for itself by letting me not maintain some old PC just to print. Well, it did, but now the converter box is dying! And they don’t make them anymore. So I finally threw in the towel and bought a new LaserJet.

It cost a third of what the 6MP did, has a copier, scanner, prints in color, does duplexing, has wifi… and, yes, still supports PostScript — strangely enough, a deciding factor in going with HP over Brother once again. (The other was image quality)

We shall see if I am still using it when I’m 50.

John's BlogWow. I did that!

It’s now official: I’m a pilot. This has been one of the most challenging, and also most rewarding, journeys I’ve been on. It had its moments of struggle, moments of joy, moments of poetry. I wrote about the poetry of flying at night recently. Here is the story of my first landing on a grass runway, a few months ago.

Grass

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

– John A. Lomax

We are used to seeing planes in these massive palaces of infrastructure we call airports. We have huge parking garages, giant terminals, security lines hundreds of people deep, baggage carts, jetways, video screens, restaurants, and miles and miles of concrete.

But most of the world’s airports are not like that. A pilot of a small plane gets to see the big airports, sure, but we also get to use the smaller airports — hidden in plain sight to most.

Have you ever taken off from a strip of grass? As I told my flight instructor when I tried it for the first time, “I know this will work, but somehow I will still be amazed if it actually does.”

I took off from a strip of grass not long ago. The airport there had one paved runway, and the rest were grass. Short runways, narrow runways, grass runways. No lights. No paint. No signs. No trucks, no jetways, nothing massive. In fact, no people. Just a mowed path and a couple of yellow or white markers.

I taxied down the grass runway, being careful to never let the plane’s wheels stop moving lest the nose gear get stuck in a pothole. I felt all the bumps in the ground as we moved.

End of runway. Turn the plane around. A little bit of flap for more lift, full throttle, mind the centerline — imaginary centerline, this time. It starts picking up speed, slower than usual, bump bump bump. Those buildings at the end of the runway are staring me down. More speed, and suddenly the runway feels smooth; it has enough lift to keep from falling into every bump. Then we lift off just a touch; I carefully keep the plane down until we pick up enough speed to ascend farther, then up we go. I keep a watchful eye on those buildings straight ahead and that water tower just slightly off to the one side. We climb over a lake as I watch that water tower pass safely below and to the side of the plane. It had worked, and I had a smile of amazement.

With a half mile of grass, you really can go anywhere.

Many times I had driven within half a mile of that runway, but never seen it. Never wondered where people go after using it. Never realizing that, although it’s a 45-minute drive from my house, it’s really pretty close. Never understanding that “where people go” after taking off from that runway is “everywhere”.

John's BlogThe Train to Galesburg

Sometimes, children are so excited you just can’t resist. Jacob and Oliver have been begging for a train trip for awhile now, so Laura and I took advantage of a day off school to take them to the little town of Galesburg, IL for a couple days.

Galesburg is a special memory for me; nearly 5 years ago, it was the first time Jacob and I took an Amtrak trip somewhere, just the two of us. And, separately, Laura’s first-ever train trip had been to Galesburg to visit friends.

There was excitement in the air. I was asked to supply a bedtime story about trains — I did. On the way to the train station — in the middle of the night — there was excited jabbering about trains. Even when I woke them up, they lept out of bed and raced downstairs, saying, “Dad, why aren’t you ready yet?”

As the train was passing through here at around 4:45AM, and we left home with some time to spare, we did our usual train trip thing of stopping at the one place open at such a time: Druber’s Donuts.

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Much as Laura and I might have enjoyed some sleep once we got on the train, Jacob and Oliver weren’t having it. Way too much excitement was in the air. Jacob had his face pressed against the window much of the time, while Oliver was busy making “snake trains” from colored clay — complete with eyes.

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The boys were dressed up in their train hats and engineer overalls, and Jacob kept musing about what would happen if somebody got confused and thought that he was the real engineer. When an Amtrak employee played along with that later, he was quite thrilled!

We were late enough into Galesburg that we ate lunch in the dining car. A second meal there — what fun! Here they are anxiously awaiting the announcement that the noon reservations could make their way to the dining car. Oh, and jockeying for position to see who would be first and get to do the all-important job of pushing the button to open the doors between train cars.

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Even waiting for your food can be fun.

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Upon arriving, we certainly couldn’t leave the train station until our train did, even though it was raining.

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Right next to the train station is the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. It was a perfect way to spend a few hours. Jacob really enjoyed the building wall, where you can assemble systems that use gravity (really a kinetic/potential energy experiment wall) to funnel rubber balls all over the place. He sticks out his tongue when he’s really thinking. Fun to watch.

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Meanwhile, Oliver had a great time with the air-powered tube system, complete with several valves that can launch things through a complicated maze of transparent tubes.

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They both enjoyed pretending I was injured and giving me rides in the ambulance. I was diagnosed with all sorts of maladies — a broken leg, broken nose. One time Jacob held up the pretend stethoscope to me, and I said “ribbit.” He said, “Dad, you’ve got a bad case of frog! You will be in the hospital 190 days!” Later I would make up things like “I think my gezotnix is all froibled” and I was ordered to never leave the ambulance again. He told the story of this several times.

After the museum closed, we ate supper. Keep in mind the boys had been up since the middle of the night without sleeping and were still doing quite well! They did start to look a bit drowsy — I thought Oliver was about to fall asleep, but then their food came. And at the hotel, they were perfectly happy to invent games involving jumping off the bed.

Saturday, we rode over to Peck Park. We had heard about this park from members of our church in Kansas, but oddly even the taxi drivers hadn’t ever heard of it. It’s well known as a good place to watch trains, as it has two active lines that cross each other at a rail bridge. And sure enough, in only a little while, we took in several trains.

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The rest of that morning, we explored Galesburg. We visited an antique mall and museum, saw the square downtown, and checked out a few of the shops — my favorite was the Stray Cat, featuring sort of a storefront version of Etsy with people selling art from recycled objects. But that wasn’t really the boys’ thing, so we drifted out of there on our way to lunch at Baked, where we had some delicious deep-dish pizza.

After that, we still had some time to kill before getting back on the train. We discussed our options. And what do you know — we ended up back at the children’s museum. We stopped at a bakery to get the fixins for a light supper on the train, and ate a nice meal in the dining car once we got on. Then, this time, they actually slept.

Before long, it was 3AM again and time to get back off the train. Oliver was zonked out sleepy. Somehow I managed to get his coat and backpack on him despite him being totally limp, and carried him downstairs to get off the train. Pretty soon we walked to our car and drove home.

We tucked them in, and then finally tucked ourselves in. Sometimes being really tired is well worth it.

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Footnotes