Flash fiction—At the Shop

“Look lady—“

I was furious, “Don’t look lady me! You’ve had my car all day you can’t say what’s making that damn noise?”

The mechanic took a breath, “I’m saying I can’t duplicate it. I can’t fix something I can’t find.”

I looked at him. He had a rag in his right hand and a flashlight in the left. His name patch said “Walt.” He eyed me carefully. I had the feeling he was trying to get me to leave. It was almost closing time, everyone in the building wanted to be somewhere else. Including myself. “Seriously? You just don’t want start on at this hour.”

He blinked, and I could see the tips of his ears starting to turn red. “What? No. I mean…finding a noise takes time. You could leave the car overnight.”

I rocked back on my heels. I needed my car. Leaving it overnight wasn’t an option. “Really? You’ve just had it all day. I want you find the noise. Something doesn’t sound right.”

“We could test drive it again. But you’ll have to go with me. I don’t hear it.” He shrugged.

I took a breath, “Okay. But I drive.” He rolled his eyes and handed me the keys. I opened the door as he came around with a paper floor mat for the passenger side I caught his eye, “Thanks Walt. I’m Sue.”

He nodded and pointed towards the street, “Take that exit, then go around by the mall, they got speed bumps over there.”

As we came up on the first speed bump, I angled the car to the left going over it. The front wheels went over with nothing but a little creak from the springs. As the right rear wheel started up the bump a muffled thud came from the rear of the car. I smacked the steering wheel, “See! There! That’s it.”

“Now I hear it. I didn’t go over at an angle. Sorry.” He looked genuinely embarrassed, and my anger evaporated.

“Go over the next one, but angle the other way,” he said, pointing at the next bump. We did, and the car stayed quiet. “Let’s go back to the shop and see I can find something before dinner. Otherwise you’ll have to bring it back.”

I got out on the service drive and let him take the car into the shop. I took his advice and got some coffee. It was a bitter, cheap brew, probably bought in bulk. But it had caffeine and that made it liquid gold. I sipped from the foam cup as I paced the waiting room.

About ten minutes later Walt stuck his head around the corner, “Hey Sue? Could you come look at this?”

“Um, okay.” He seemed concerned and I wondered why he wanted me to come in the shop.

The car was on a lift, the right-rear wheel off, and the trunk and doors were open. The rear seat cushion was lying across the roof. “We started with the easy stuff. The wheel and suspension look okay, and there’s nothing loose behind the trunk liner. My apprentice pulled the seat out. You recognize this?” He was pointing a black box the size of a DVD case. A single LED flashed red and green. There was a short rubber antenna attached to one corner. “The antenna is hitting the body. That’s your noise.”

I felt the color drain from my face. “Shit.”

Hometown Sports

This Sunday is Super Sunday in Phoenix. The 49th Super Bowl will be kicking off at 4 p.m. at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Which is in Glendale, Arizona. There are about a dozen cities that make up the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area. I think there are people who think there are differences. I would not be one of them. The only way to tell is occasionally you might see a “welcome to” sign. The pavement doesn’t change, it goes on until it doesn’t. Then you’re back in the dirt.

One of our nicknames for the Phoenix area is “The Slab.” This is a reference to the majority of this Sonoran desert valley being paved over. The weather people on TV call it a “heat island.” Once the summer starts around the middle of April, the Slab heats up. At night the stored heat is released. This keeps the temperature on the slab north of 90F throughout the evening.

But no national events happen during the time the heat island is doing its thing. We are just a red spot on the weather maps. Another high temperature to be noted. Another joke about being crazy to live here. We get a run of stupid politicians too. Stupid enough to make the national news. On a regular basis.

You get used to the heat. Or at least get used to staying out of it. With no snow and no natural disasters, we have a steady influx of new residents. Eventually the stupid laws get overturned too.

This Sunday, along with the Super Bowl, we’re also hosting the final day of the Phoenix Open. The Open is usually good for a half-million visitors on its own.

Now Phoenix has its chance to shine. To show off the mild winters; to show of the light rail; to show off the Tempe and Scottsdale nightlife; to show off the city-center urban living.

But the town lives in the shadow of L.A. and Las Vegas, like the forgotten middle child. The one with so much potential. The one who decides it’s better to screw up.

The one that decides two national events need four days of rain.

Writing with the AlphaSmart Neo2

This is a follow up to my distractions post. The Neo2 arrived today, and I’ve been testing it out. This post will be the first thing I’ve written on it.

Keyboard

The typing experience is good. The keys themselves are solid, and use a plastic spring mechanism. I like the feel. It’s somewhere between an old clicky-clack keyboard and the newer chiclet style found on MacBooks. It’s quiet and I’m not worried about the noise being a distraction in quiet places like a library.

Connectivity

There are two ways to get text out of the Neo2: direct connection and the file manager.

Direct connection is easy. Simply plug in an USB printer cable (A to B) open a document on the computer and press send. The Neo2 is recognized as USB keyboard and sends the text as if it were being typed. I can also be used as an USB keyboard directly.

With the file manager (a free download from the manufacturer) the files can be saved as individual documents. The most useful thing about the NeoManager software is controlling the settings on the Neo2.

Renaissance Learning no longer makes the Neo and Neo2; I bough mine second-hand from eBay. Having the software installed is the only way to reset the factory defaults. This includes the master password! Which is something not provided by an eBay seller.

Writing

This is the reason I bough the little keyboard computer. So far, I’m liking it. I can type at full-speed and it keeps up. Granted, my typing speed needs improvement. I can see this working well for me.

The size is good, and is easier to manage in my lap than a regular laptop.

The Neo2 in my lap.
The Neo2 in my lap.

It also has adjustable font sizes. There’s only one typeface which is for display only. The actual text is stored a regular old plain-text (.txt). The screen will show between two and six lines of text. I tried the two-line setting, and while bold, there wasn’t enough context with what I had just wrote. Three lines seems about right. I can see enough to keep at thought going. Six lines is just too small. I would only use that if I was going to edit on the Neo2.

Neo2 showing the small six-line font.
Neo2 showing the small six-line font.
Neo2 showing the extra-large two-line font.
Neo2 showing the extra-large two-line font.

Markdown

The Neo2 was made for markdown formatting. If you’ve used markdown, you know how easy it is to add headers/links/bold/italics to text with out lifting your fingers. It’s the same with the Neo2, but knowing I can add the formatting on the fly is a huge time-saver. There’s no need to spend time on the computer trying to remember where I wanted the italics and headings.

Sending the text into a specialized markdown app like Ulysses is even better. When I add the brackets around text for a link, Markdown XL will make an easy to find token. It’s the same for images. Simply typing (img) will give me a place hold to add an image later.

For links, I’m finding it easier to just put the link text in brackets and move on.1 There’s no point in looking up the actual URL to type in. That would force me to pick up the phone or laptop and switch out of writing mode.

Using markdown saves time, both in the typing and editing stages. I don’t have to worry about making sure the format stays consistent across file types. It’s baked into the text.

When editing, I can plainly see the formatting, and only have to make adjustment or add the actual links.

Overall impressions

I’m actually blown away at how fast the words come out. This obsolete single-purpose device might change my writing workflow for as long as it keeps chugging along.

Having nothing but an LCD and keyboard is a total context switch for me. If I want to check email/twitter/etc. I have to stop and pick up another device. The inertia of writing wants to keep going when that’s all I can do on the Neo2.

I might have even forced my inner-editor to quiet down. He2 can only see a few lines, and can’t call out mistakes from a hundred words ago. I like that.

Other things

There’s a few added features that make the Neo2 even more useful.

Word count

Pressing Ctrl-W shows a nice summary of words writing along with other stats.

Neo2 showing the word count screen.
Neo2 showing the word count screen.

Spell check

While not necessary when drafting, it’s good to have. I seem to use it when I take a break and want to clean up my text a bit.

File passwords

Each file can have a password, which if set, is needed to open a file. It’s not encryption, but it will keep the mischievous from deleting a file.

Conclusion

I’m keeping it. I might even buy another as a backup!


  1. One hint if you use Ulysses: when a closing “]” or “)” is found, it opens a text box to add link, image, or footnote information. Then the typing continues into that box. To avoid this add a backslash “\” before it, like this \[link text]. Then remove all the backslashes and edit the links and images normally.
  2. I imagine my inner-editor as a cigar chomping, newspaper man from the 1950s. I know its weird, but oh well.

A photographic history

Film isn’t cheap and won’t develop itself. That was the message I heard growing up. We had a family camera. First it was an old Exakta without an internal light meter.

An example of an old Exakta, via Flickr.
An example of an old Exakta, via Flickr.

This was the camera-not-to-be-touched. It was so truly awkward to use, photo-hipsters would love it today. Because of the time needed to get a photo “right” and that we shot slide film1 exclusively, I wasn’t allowed to touch the camera as a child.

Later, we upgraded to a Canon AE-1. Not only did it have a built-in light meter, it had auto-exposure. This was nearly a miracle of technology to us. Now the camera could be passed around, and there was a chance the pictures would come out. I was allowed to use this camera, but only for a shot or two.

An example of a Canon AE-1, via Flickr.
An example of a Canon AE-1, via Flickr.

I was given a few “throw-away2” cameras along the way. They used cartridge formats like 110 and 126. Ones that are now consigned to the film graveyard. These were snapshot cameras and the film would stay in them for sometimes a year. Because of the cost, it was “important” to get every shot right. I didn’t realize until much later that attitude greatly limited my enjoyment of photography.

In community college took a Photography 101 class. I learned the basics while getting my fingers wet in the darkroom. Then I took a photojournalism class, and our assignments were often used in the school newspaper. Now it was time to upgrade from the family Canon. One of my new friends had been shooting for years and had a nice collection of glass to go with his Nikon F3.

With lenses to borrow, it was easy to decide what kind of body to get. Not too much later I was the proud owner of a used Nikon FE-2. My photography also sped up. The FE-2 came with a motor drive!

An example of a Nikon FE-2 w/ MD-12, via Flickr.
An example of a Nikon FE-2 w/ MD-12, via Flickr.

I enjoyed shooting for the school newspaper. Sports was my niche. I also learned it was a good day to get two keepers from a roll. The machine-gun whir of a motor drive shot down the idea of making every frame perfect.

One of my few remaining sports photos from 1991. Fujifilm NeoPan ISO 1600, pushed to 6400.
One of my few remaining sports photos from 1991. Fujifilm NeoPan ISO 1600, pushed to 6400.
Another of my few remaining sports photos from 1991. Fujifilm NeoPan ISO 1600, pushed to 6400.
Another of my few remaining sports photos from 1991. Fujifilm NeoPan ISO 1600, pushed to 6400.

I moved on in school. I left the newspaper and chased a “real” career. I also left photography behind. The century turned over and digital became mainstream. I didn’t jump back in. The expense was too great for just a hobby, even with the added convenience. I knew the technology would continue to improve. One day the price-to-value ratio would be too tempting to ignore.

It wasn’t even a camera that became my first digital camera. One day I upgraded my flip-phone to a smartphone and had a surprising capable camera that was easy to carry.

The iPhone and its camera brought a lot of people into photography. It brought me back.


  1. The correct exposure is critical when shooting with slide film. There are fewer darkroom tricks you can do when enlarging, unlike negative film.
  2. I call them this just because they were fixed lens plastic film holders, more that actual cameras.

My father’s spaceship

Tell us a story about little known fact about yourself. §

A little known fact about me is: my father built spaceships.

Building spaceships takes a lot more than what’s shown in the movies and news. Today media focuses on the strong personalities that drive a space program. This is new.

In the recent past, before the NASA resurgence we’re seeing today. Before the ISS, even. Before the private investment in spaceflight we have. There was the Space Shuttle.

“Was he a rocket scientist? An engineer, maybe?”

No. People with those jobs don’t build spaceships. They might say they do, but they don’t. They design spaceships. My father was a union Toolmaker. He worked on the shop floor, and deciphered the blueprints handed down from on high.

As a toolmaker, he spent most of his life working in the Jig & Fixture devision of the major aerospace companies of the 1970s and 80s. Jobs moved with the government contracts, but most stayed in the Southern California “rocket belt.” A costal area that stretched from El Segundo to Long Beach did most of the country’s aerospace production. By the mid-90s the jobs and some of the companies had dried up. He retired in 1992, just before the crash happened.

The jigs and fixtures that he built were used to align parts on the production line. Suppose an airplane wing needs to be attached to its fuselage. On the assembly line the workers can’t just hold it up and bolt it on. Each part sits in its own fixture, and they are guided together with a jig that controls the when and where of the meeting. Then the assembly can continue.

The largest project he ever worked on was the Space Shuttle Orbiter. Rockwell International had the contract, and times were good. Everyone eats good when there’s government overtime on the menu. Before the shuttle, there was the Apollo missions to the moon.

Apollo crew capsule (top) and life-size mockup of space shuttle engines.
Apollo crew capsule (top) and life-size mockup of space shuttle engines.

I grew up hearing work stories around the dinner table. Not stories of space. Stories of metal. My father’s space program was steel, aluminum, and titanium. It was the metal that became the foundation of dreams for the future.

As the space program waned, defense work keep the factories churning. Rockwell’s signature project of the 1980s was the B-1B Bomber. Resurrected from the failed B-1A project and destined to replace the aging B-52, the B-1B became my father’s last great project. The overtime flowed, and I hardly saw him during daylight hours. The Air Force contract was for 100, and the tooling needed to be ready for the new assembly line.

Fixture for the B-1B cockpit.
Fixture for the B-1B cockpit.
Finished prototype B-1B wing waiting to be shipped.
Finished prototype B-1B wing waiting to be shipped.

Once the B1-B tooling was out the door, he worked on other contracts. Nothing ever came close to the heyday of the Space Race and Cold War.

The job of traditional toolmaker doesn’t exist today. It’s been replaced by computers and automation. CAD/CAM programs can solve a manufacturing problem on a screen. Robot arms act as both jig and fixture with a few lines of code.

It was a different time. There was no trade schools teaching the skills of the shop floor. The skills that turned a blueprint into finished tooling were learned on the job. It was a hard-knock apprenticeship on the government dime. He made his career on projects that defined two eras of American history. I don’t know if someone with a seventh-grade education could do that today.


Note: the photos in this post are original scans from my personal archive. This is the first time they’ve ever been online.

Word Count — Week 4

It’s time for my weekly word count check-in. At the end of every week, I post a screen shot from my writing results spreadsheet. This shows the current week and the three before.

This week was remarkable close to last week. I had two days this week that were completely wrecked for writing. Working on a longer landing page project on Sunday night saved the week’s productivity.

My week starts on Monday, the numbers are current through Sunday night.

Behold!

Week 4 results.
Week 4 results.
The year-to-date totals are:
Total words: 15,364
Total hours: 1d 20h 13m
Avg. words-per-hour: 351
Avg. words-per-day:  740
Avg. time-per-day:   2h 7m

My other posts tagged word count.

Syriza wins Greek election

This is the second popular revolt in Europe. The first was the Scotland vote. It failed due to massive propaganda and outright lies by the UK government. In Greece the people have now defied the money-men. It’s going to be an interesting few years.

The anti-austerity far left party Syriza has won the Greek election by a decisive margin, but just short of an outright majority. With more than three-quarters of the results in Syriza is projected to win 149 seats in the 300 seat parliament. §

Note: I’m going to start putting my comments over the quote.