Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's it worth?

Those Mastercard commercials are so ubiquitous that they've become shorthand in our culture. You know, the "insect repellent, 5 dollars; allergy medicine, 6 dollars; not spending your vacation scratching and sniffing? Priceless" commercials?

I was reminded of that as I surveyed my not-very-quickly-building layout domain in the garage. Because I changed the plan significantly post-first sawdust, I had to change the staging yard from one side of the garage to the other, then change the location of the loop in staging from one end of the yard to the other.

Throughout, I was trying to keep the forlorn and lonely body tracks of the original staging shelf. This led to an increasingly challenging series of mental and ladder gymnastics to try to make everything line up, even though I had flipped the whole thing end-for-end and side-to-side.

Then I realized, what was I actually saving? A piece of homasote and some flex track. Now it's true I hate to waste ... growing up with two parents who lived through and remembered vividly the Great Depression will do that to you. Oh, and I am what you'd call ... er ... stubborn.

But this had gone past frugality to stupidity. So in one swift motion, before I could change my own mind, I backed out the handful of screws holding homasote to plywood, broke the thing into chunks, and stuffed it into the trash can.

Not having to live for years with an earlier mistake? Priceless.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

And now for something (not) completely different …

You know how sometimes friends who know of your interest in trains, but not the specifics, call you up about an article they've seen or an event that's happening in the area? That's always a kindness, but sometimes it's really tangential to my own hobby interests, like a display of a model of Lincoln's Funeral Train made entirely of Popsicle sticks or something. But once in a while an event that seems outside my main interests can still be engaging.

A non-model-railroading friend called to ask if I had heard about the EUROWEST 2007 train show at the Hiller Aviation Museum* in San Carlos, CA. Well, I've ridden trains in several European countries, but it's not a major point of my modeling interest. However, I did need a break from room (i.e., garage) prep and benchwork construction, so off we went.

I'm glad we did. Some neat modular layouts organized by members of the European Train Enthusiasts, including both Northern California and Southern California contingents.The photo is from last year's layout displayed by the So Cal group (Rick Anglin photo).

A local modeling acquaintance I happened to see there had his modules in the Nor Cal Meter-gauge HO layout, which had some neat features one does not often see in modular layouts. One of these was the ability to have a grade from one end of the layout to the other, facilitated by leg-height adjustment of up to a foot on each module and end loops. A couple of the modules had appealing curved track arrangements, and the group uses an interesting concept of "station" and "scenery" classes of modules. Station modules have sidings, industries, and local controls, while Scenery modules have only the main line passing through.

It was a refreshing inspiration to see trains running through nice scenery (even if the prototypes were a bit unfamiliar), especially since some of the tedious construction tasks I'm working on now seem far-removed from actually operating trains of my own. I'll never be one to say "trains are trains", but this slight departure from my norm was fun and motivating.

*The Hiller Aviation Museum was also interesting in its own right. I grew up in the center of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff test-pilot universe near Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California and my Father was in the aircraft industry, working on such famous planes as the A-1 Sky Raider, B-58 Hustler, F-104 Starfighter and the SR-71 Blackbird, among others. But I was surprised to find out how much aerospace history was also made in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


As my friend and modeling conscience Mike asked, "Was that loud thump I heard the sound of you falling off the 'No Forum' Wagon?" Yep, guilty as charged. But hey, in only a couple of days back I've already managed to:
A) Get in a ridiculous argument with a notorious provocateur (I won, by the way)
B) Provide some detailed advice and references on a track planning question that was answered with "oh, yeah, thanks anyway ... I decided to build some models instead ..."
C) Receive a couple of testy emails for my dislike of "sacred sheet" HO 4X8s
D) Fire off outraged email screeds to perfectly innocent volunteers about others' use of forums to promote for-profit endeavors in an unseemly manner
... and ...
E) Do a couple of other things that I'd rather not talk about.

Yessirree, it's just like riding a bike ... some skills you never lose ...

Once I figure out this moderation thing, I'll be right as rain, I just know it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Ignoring the log in one's own eye

A recent article hyping one of the computer-based operating programs slammed car cards and waybills as being a "model railroad thought". Meanwhile, the author of the article apparently sees no irony in the fact that in order for the computer-based system to work properly and still allow conductors and yard masters some autonomy, these operators must constantly be feeding their moves into a networked computer. Yep, just like the real railroads did back in the 1950s. No wait, real railroads didn't do that in the '50s … or the '60s … or even the '70s, in a lot of places.

I guess a 1950s conductor typing away at a computer keyboard while looking at a glowing LCD display doesn't qualify as a "model railroad thought" ...

Everyone has their own preferences, interests, and corresponding compromises. It's a shame when partisans of one scheme or another choose not to be even-handed in what is ostensibly a non-commercial article. What is there to fear?

"Every day, in every way ...

… I'm getting better and better." Interesting aphorism, huh? Has sort of a '60s-'70s vibe, like "Have a nice day" and "I'm OK, you're OK". But in fact the saying and the concept are quite old, as I learned while re-reading a favorite book, The Lying Stones of Marrakech by the late paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould*. This self-help concept was developed in the 1920s by French physician Emile Coué, who found that patients who repeated this positive phrase daily along with receiving medication did better than those who received only medication.

Gould contrasted Coué's idea of incremental day-to-day improvements with the history of science, which tends to develop in discontinuous "bursts". Interesting how model railroad projects seem to benefit from both types of development: the half-hour-a-day squeezed out of a busy schedule as well as the multi-day building binge. (The latter usually in response to some sort of external deadline.)

Hopefully you're doing better at both the "every day, in every way" projects and the "big burst" projects than I've been able to manage recently. But the decks are reasonably clear this weekend, so I hope to make some progress. I'll let you know.

*Besides being a ground-breaking scientist and one of the best essayists in history, Gould was also distantly related to the railroading Goulds, Jay and George Jay, whose robber-baron efforts helped shape the railroad landscape of the late 19th- and early 20th century. Arguably, it's train related.

While building benchwork in the garage I've been listening to some older CDs that provide the right kind of intensity for the task. A fun re-discovery was Living Colour's 1988 album Vivid. Heavy guitar riffs, powerful vocals, and a solid funk-infused rhythm section. The group disbanded in 1995, but apparently has reformed for some concerts recently. Always one of my favorite music videos, although the late-'80s fashions are a tad dated (who would have dreamed Body Glove shorty jumpsuits weren't going to take off in the mainstream?)