Sunday, January 27, 2008

Death of Discourse

For years, I was part of a thoughtful on-line forum. The conversation and some of the participants went way back, even before the Internet was available commercially … to bulletin boards on AOL and Compuserve when the latter offered only numerical email addresses. Then the discussion moved to a private email server and then to the series of commercial start-ups that were eventually swallowed whole by an Internet giant.

At first, it was a great place to talk about model railroad layout design and operations. There were many knowledgeable practitioners on the list. Some of these were authors in the commercial press, some were real-life railroaders, many were less-known but thoughtful and eloquent modelers. Most contributed meaningful ideas and respectful points to the discussion. The forum was not widely known, so it was a layout design and ops discussion on the Internet rather than just another Internet forum nominally about model railroading.

Over time that changed, partly owing to its growing popularity. It started to take on all the familiar unpleasant aspects of an Internet forum, equal parts boorishness and banality. The snipers came first … boosting their own petty egos by taking shots at better-known modelers and hobby institutions. They pontificated and postured and




… away at the more thoughtful posters, until many of these reasonable participants departed.

Next came the bullies and the blowhards. They raged and ridiculed, posting incessantly about trivial typos and perceived slights. The empty-headed self-proclaimed experts came next, churning out scores of wildly impractical suggestions that drowned out the thoughtful and experienced ideas by sheer number of posts -- never mind the fact that these savants had no actual experience with anything they were recommending. Finally the size of the audience attracted the peddlers and shills, hawking their products at every opportunity. Although there are still short-lived bursts of thoughtful discussion, sadly this forum sometimes seems only to be



Bon Mots

... and the persistent



… on the reader's shoulder by the peddlers with their wares.

When I worked at an Internet company, people talked about how the Internet was just like real life, but with the volume turned up to eleven and running at septuple-speed. If that's true, perhaps this once-thoughtful discussion has simply been undone by the egos and ill tempers that eventually destroy discourse in other arenas. Still, it's a shame.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One Lost Weekend Redeemed

I wrote a while back about some of the "lost weekends" I have spent with different layout concepts, prototypes, scales, and gauges before returning to my Oakland Harbor Belt. Usually, there's not much to show for the effort except some increased knowledge, though that in itself is not a bad outcome.

One of the more feverish lost weekends was spent trying to coil a Hawaiian-themed HOn3 model railroad into my garage. This had been inspired by learning some history and seeing some remnants of Maui's Kahului Railroad while on a family vacation, followed hard on the heels by the publication of Jim Chiddix' and MacKinnon Simpson's Next Stop Honolulu! about the Oahu Railway and Land Company. (Great book, by the way.)

For the most part, this Island (Railroad) Fever passed quickly, although I have had a couple of brief relapses. But I wanted to do something with the background I had learned and the enthusiasm I felt about these Hawaiian prototypes. So I proposed an article to Model Railroad Planning magazine about the Oahu Railway. It's been a couple of years in the making, but that effort has finally borne fruit in MRP 2008.

As usual, the Kalmbach editors and artists did a great job with my material. I chose the roughly 12-foot-square "MRP bedroom" and employed non-connected staging- and ops-linked decks to get the most out of that space in HOn3.

Based on early feedback, some readers are still having trouble grasping the idea of decks that are not physically connected, but are related to one another through the movements of trains on each deck. The concept doesn't work for everyone, but I find it's often a neat way to employ multiple decks without losing valuable layout space and running time to a helix or 'round-the-room ramp. I wrote in detail about the idea in Layout Design Journal #28 (Spring 2003), published by the Layout Design SIG.

All in all, I'm pleased with the MRP article and especially happy that one of my formerly "lost weekends" has found some expression.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Marketing Math

What kind of a bizarre parallel universe is it where 7 is greater than 117? 23 greater than 1500? 7 months longer than 10 years? Wherever that strange universe may be, it's apparently where model railroad product managers dwell. How else to explain the recent decisions by Athearn and Atlas to develop new HO scale models of the GP‑40X and RS‑36 respectively, but not to offer the Alco S‑2/4 in N scale?

For those trying to keep score at home, here's how it breaks down. A mere seven railroads purchased RS‑36s new, compared with 117 who bought S‑2s. And with the resale market, there might be another 100 or more prototypes that rostered S‑2s at some time.

The GP‑40X sold even more poorly in the real world -- a mere 23 units vs. over 1500 S‑2s. And the GP‑40X's ephemeral production span of seven months does not compare favorably with the S‑2's ten-year production run. (Throw in the similar S‑4 and that expands to 21 years -- about 36 times longer than the GP-40X!)

So how can tooling-up and producing these new HO models of pretty rare prototypes be seen as a better business decision than releasing a quality S‑2 in N scale*? HO chauvinists will point to the smaller market for N scale. OK, maybe … but here's where the math gets interesting. If a recent survey by a model railroading market participant is correct, there are about 2.79 times more HO scale buyers than N scale buyers. Let's give HO'ers the benefit of the doubt and round up to three.

OK, now let's apply this to the numbers above. If there were 1500 real-life S‑2s produced versus 23 GP‑40Xs (and we apply the 3X HO vs. N ratio), the market for N scale S-2s is a whopping 2000%+ larger. But maybe numbers produced isn't the best measure. OK, let's take number of road names for the marginally more successful of the two prototypes, the RS‑36. If 117 prototype railroads bought S‑2s new and just 7 bought RS‑36s (and remembering to apply the 3-to-1 HO market size advantage), the N scale S‑2 market size is still more than 500% greater than is the HO scale RS‑36 market size. That's even before considering the many hand-me-down owners of S‑2s over the years.

Yes, I understand that bringing out a new model requires more than just the tooling for a new body shell: the availability of an appropriate drive train and chassis is also a factor. And the S‑2 is a physically small model in N scale (though not smaller than Kato's recent successful N scale NW‑2), increasing the design challenge.

Estimating market sizes is difficult. I often make market estimates for my technology marketing consulting clients and there are always uncertainties. But a 500% to 2000% larger market potential seems like a pretty straightforward decision to me. Why do model railroad manufacturers stubbornly leave this money on the table? You'll have to ask them -- and I hope that you do.

*No, I haven’t forgotten about the old Arnold S‑2 (although I'd like to). But these are of very old design, suffer from cracked gears, and most samples run like rusty meat-grinders. No offense to the meat-grinders. I have one of these in custom SP paint that has had hours of custom care and rebuilding by an expert. It still runs like a train-set Tyco. And even that's a huge improvement over the out-of-the-box performance.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Purple Mountain Majesties

When poet Katharine Lee Bates penned these descriptive words after a rugged trip to the summit of Pikes Peak in 1893*, I'm pretty sure that she was not thinking about model railroading. But this phrase from the anthem America the Beautiful came to my mind recently while reading Bruce Petty's interesting article about backdrop painting in the January '08 issue of Model Railroader.

Bruce was inspired by the idealized illustrative style of fruit crate label art. Bruce (and the crate label artists) noticed that distant hills take on a blue or purple tinge (which happens due to the differential scattering of light through the atmosphere). I've always enjoyed fruit crate art and have a number of examples hanging in my home. The art is highly stylized and very effective in evoking a mood of a time and place for me.

Bruce's backdrops work especially well for me, then, at least partly because they tap in to my own feelings and visualizations of southern California. It helps that he has a talent for rendering these backgrounds with "just enough" detail and takes the additional step of blending the shelf scenery colors with the lowest edge of the backdrop. But fundamentally, one of the reasons I respond so positively to these scenes is my own experience from living in the area and the memories and feelings inspired by the fruit label art.

Bruce also shows how a minimal palette can be shaded and mixed to create very effective distant mountains and valleys. The interplay of light and shadow give a real feeling of depth, but without overpowering the relatively simple modeling in the foreground. Bruce's narrow shelf layout is greatly expanded through his very fitting backdrop painting.

The article has me wondering if other shared memories and experiences might be the basis for experiments in backdrop art. For World War II era layouts, would backdrop painting techniques that subtly echo those used in WWII home front posters help to set the mood? For pre-war years, would Edward Hopper's impressionistic style help create a feeling of time and place?

[John Armstrong's Canandaigua Southern layout included a model scene that replicated the moody impressionistic café in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (c. 1942). In turn, the Layout Design SIG and others in 1995 commissioned railroad artist Ted Rose to create a painting commemorating John that included the scene (MR, August 1996). Art imitating modeling imitating art imitating life?]

Obviously, it would be easy to go too far and create a backdrop that is too detailed (or too poorly-rendered) so that it becomes a distraction to the modeled scene. But Bruce's article shows us that backdrops can be more than attempts at pure realism -- they can help create an atmosphere that enhances the modeled layout.

* Some sources indicate that Ms. Bates was in fact inspired by her railroad trip from the east coast to Colorado Springs to accept a teaching position (e.g., the "Alabaster City" of Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the wheat fields of Kansas, etc.). And although she had to travel in horse-drawn wagon and atop a mule to get to the top of Pikes Peak for her view of the "fruited plain", today a cog wheel railway climbs to the top. Even America the Beautiful is train-related if you look hard enough!

Although it sounds at first like mixing oil and water, Raising Sand by Robert Plant (yeah, the Zep' dude) and Alison Krauss is in fact a great listen. Producer/guitarist T Bone Burnett (of Brother, Where art Thou, among many others) creates an eclectic mix that sounds at various times like a 1920s speakeasy, a 1950s sock hop, and a soundscape from a troubled dream. Plant's celebrated vocal quirks rarely go over-the-top and Krauss provides a steadying melodic foundation with both her voice and fiddle playing. This release doesn't fit in any genre pigeonholes, but I think a wide variety of listeners would enjoy it.