August 18, 2017

6 comments


Community of Trains, Vol. 4

The thought-stream that underlies this blog series is that a community sits behind our thoughts more than we are capable of giving credit to. With respect to our hobby, what do we see when we focus on the larger group? It is a philosophical exegesis of sorts--you know, philosophy trains.

Real metaphysical train bullshit.

An idea was introduced in the previous blog that I would like to develop a little further. I proposed that the creative impulse that existed in John Allen's work is an undercurrent in the hobby today. Some people may find this assertion odd insofar as modeling tends to laud a different aesthetic (think Pelle Søeborg, again from my previous blog). However, I believe that a kind of baseline creative impulse is at play for a lot of what we do. And, it exists even among layouts that don't present themselves with Allen's fictional aesthetic.

Let me explain:

Consider the photo below.  It is from Rob Spangler's HO scale Western Pacific layout.

This scene depicts a Western Pacific freight train moving along the WP's 8th sub. On Spangler's layout, the 8th sub is a fictional subdivision that served the WP as an alternative route at the east end of the railroad. Where the prototype railroad operated into Salt Lake City via a route to the south of the Great Salt Lake, the 8th sub is a fictional route to the north of the Great Salt Lake. It is reasonable that the WP could have built a line as depicted by Spangler's layout. The terminal city, Odgen, is a de-facto railroad hub in the state of Utah, and by using this route, the 8th sub. would have followed the original transcontinental line. So, it is all in the fabric--so to speak.

Where Allen created a fictional universe, Spangler has created a fictional narrative that intelligently coheres with the real universe. It is so well placed that, in fact, one would have to know a fair amount about the WP to be confident that it is actually a fiction. And, one would have to know an awful lot about railroads generally, history, and geography to appreciate just how well the 8th Sub. narrative is at rest within the actual universe. (Hint: it is not unlike how well he blends the back drop with the background scenery in the photograph above.) The impulse to create--to tell the story--is still at play with Spangler as it is with Allen, and it is at play for a lot of people who participate in this hobby.

Spangler is proto-lancing. And for what it is worth, I think that Spangler's layout can serve as a thought exercise to beg questions about how we conceptualize "prototype modeling" and more fictional modeling as dichotomous. Differences exist, for sure. And these differences are the result of different ideological persuasions, for sure. But, I think what proto-lance teases out is the degree to which there is overlap in these ideologies. it is not the case that "prototype modelers" are individuals who give deference to outcomes that are only faithful to the prototype-which, by the way, is what the meaning of the words "prototype modeler" suggests. (And it is sometimes how we like to represent ourselves.) My experience is that many people who refer to themselves as prototype modelers accept fictions in their modeling all the time. And so, it seems to me that the difference between prototype modeling and other kinds of participation has more to do with what fictions are permissible for each of these two ideologies.

Let me explain:

In what now feels like another life, I once managed a group home for people with relatively severe mental disabilities. The primary interest of my employer was to create the highest quality of life for these individuals, and I can attest to the fact that, in many cases, we did. In this industry, documentation is important, and one method of documentation is the creation of scrapbooks. Scrapbooks tell a story, and from the point of view of this institution, these stories are important. They speak to its quality-of-life kinds of objectives in ways that other forms of documentation cannot.

And I learned something when scrapbooking for the business, a photograph from a camera is not objective. There were occasions where a particular event was a hot mess, literally diarrhea and fist fights and hurt feelings. And yet, a camera in the right location and at the moment time shows only social euphoria.   

Less the diarrhea and fist fights, prototype modeling can be a little bit this way.

Always in modeling, regardless of what is being modeled or how it is being modeled, there is always the question of where and when to place the camera. For model railroading, 'placing the camera' relates to how one represents a scene in an given space. What does one show and what does one exclude? How does one transition between scenes? A story is being told regardless of whether one is prototype modeling or proto-lancing or operating with upside-down trestles (does anyone else remember that article from Model Railroader?). Given that model railroads are mired in selective compression, subjectivity is always at play. It will always be the case that there is a subjective timbre to everything we do--even when we are prototype modelers.

Despite a fictitious route, Spangler has created a layout that captures the look and feel of the late Western Pacific as well as any other railroad of which I am aware. When you operate on it, you are there. Yet, there never was a "there." Meanwhile, I have visited other layouts that are more prototypically bent, and yet, they are far less persuasive. Shouldn't prototype modeling keep that from happening? 

And this is the point.

I think an ostensible response recognizes that there are a lot of ingredients to make a meal. And for a layout to be persuasive, good execution needs to happen on a number of levels. But, I think that there is something else going on too. When the term "prototype modeling" is used colloquially, the domain of things it refers to is narrow. We are comfortable describing ourselves as 'prototype modelers' pretty much if we don't accept fictions in our rolling stock and locomotives. When we use 'prototype modeling' in this way, it is as though we only to refer to the quality of the flour when baking. 'Prototype modeling' doesn't normally describe how well one represents a scene in an given space, what one shows and what does one excludes, or how one transitions between scenes. And like the scrapbook, this kind of "documentation" also contributes to the story, as Spangler's layout demonstrates.

So let me close by doubling back on something I said earlier.

We conceptualize "prototype modeling" and more fictional modeling as dichotomous. But, the difference between prototype modeling and other kinds of participation has more to do with what fictions are permissible for each of these two ideologies. They aren't diametric. The way we solve the problems of space and time allow for extraordinary creative latitude--even for the most rigid of prototype modelers.

So, where do you place your camera?

  

Blaine Hadfield

July 16, 2017

10 comments


Community of Trains, Vol. 3

There has been a gap (if a seven week hiatus can be called a gap) between blogs. The truth is, around here, we've got this thing called summer.

That said, because it has been awhile; so a brief update may be in order. Let's get started.

The thought in the Community of Trains series is that our ideas relate to the environments in which we reside. We are a thought community, even when we don't always see ourselves as such.

The last blog gave an account of the hobby's progress in terms of the interplay between the NMRA and new developments in the hobby, free-mo and RPM. The NMRA was a response to an environment that needed organization, and free-mo and RPM are responses by those who would say that the bureaucracy provided by the NMRA is too constrained. in some sense, they are the product of the communities and the times in which they reside.

Where this may be the case for organizations like the NMRA, RPM and Free-mo, can this also be true for things like how we model?  I think that it can, and this blog describes how. 

That said, before we travel the path, I portend the course risks being littered with potholes and hurt feelings. In an attempt to describe trends, some may mistake my descriptions as prescriptions for what modeling should be. Please don't; they aren't. A truth that I hold to be self-evident is the freedom to be one's own modeler. This is sacrosanct. Hobbies are hobbies because we find them fulfilling. I can't imagine trying to dictate to another what fulfilling is or needs to be. So before moving forward, this paragraph is a legally binding agreement where you, the reader, foregoes any normative judgments.  Are we straight?

Okay.

So, depending on which side of my age you are standing, I am either young enough or old enough to remember John Allen's Gorre & Daphetid (pronounced Gory & Defeated). The layout was partially destroyed in a fire in 1973, and that was a quite a few years before I was born. But the reputation of the layout influenced modelers for years thereafter--and that is what I remember. I remember articles entitled "remembering the Gorre & Daphetid," and I remember a great many people who were inspired to model according to a similar aesthetic. If you aren't familiar with the Gorre & Daphetid, it is more a reverie than otherwise. It has the quality of fanciful musing. It is almost a story as much as it is a layout. And, it is a layout that exemplifies a paradigm. It is to model railroading of this period what the Arthur B. Heurtley House is to Prairie architecture. What Eddie Merckx was to 1970s cycling, or what Creed was to butt-rock. But unlike Creed, the Gorre & Daphetid is magnificent.

 

 

As great as this layout was (or is! insofar as it lives on in the memory of enthusiasts), Allen's approach to model railroading isn't lauded in the same way today like it was then. Not because it isn't impressive, but because this particular aesthetic is not currently vogue. As of today, what is "fashionable" is photo-real interpretations; this paradigm is exemplified in the work of artists like Gary Christensen and Pelle Soeeborg. These individuals (and many others) are extraordinary artists who are revealing new stanzas in the house of model railroading. We see pictures, and we question whether we see a model or the prototype. We see their artisanship, and we are inspired.  For example, look at the Soeeborg scene on his new layout, shown below.

 

If one looks at the transformation of artistic styles of Allen to Soeeborg, they are actual paradigm shifts in this hobby. These layouts are not artistically commensurable; they are fundamentally different aesthetics within the domain of artistic expression. This aesthetic goes beyond materials and tools, static grass and laser etched corn fields. Where Allen's layout is a reverie with artistic accouterments to embellish the story, Soeeborg's layout uses big space and minimalism to portray the real. These layouts are about portraying different things. 

I think that most people can accept the proposition that, insofar as model railroading is an art, there are subjective values (per my disclaimer--see above). And, I think that most people can accept the proposition that these layouts are an expression of fundamentally different artistic objectives. But, I would expect that some people would object, or at least find odd, a particular proposition that this blog forwards, i.d. that one form of expression is currently fashionable while the other isn't. This statement may offend the sensibilities of some people--regardless of which artistic camp they place themselves.

One reason there may be objections is because to say that 'a particular aesthetic is fashionable' makes that aesthetic the product of a place and a time. And (and this next part is important), it doesn't feel that way. My interests and my modeling choices are an expression that is very authentic to me, and they are in a such a way that they don't feel given to trends. Do I have this wrong?

Another reason for why there may be objections to say that 'a particular aesthetic is fashionable' is because it suggests that at some future point the same aesthetic will be unfashionable. From where we are today, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the industry moves away from this kind of realism. Isn't this what the industry has been striving for? Isn't "innovation" measured by how we create more faithful replicas of the prototypes? It is for us as a manufacturer. It is hard to think of a scenario where this trend would reverse. It would seem as though the entire hobby would need to be turned on its head. So, how would this ever change?

For the record, I don't think it will. 

There is an immense history of art. It reveals that particular aesthetics are couched in a time and a place. Art is always in a state of becoming, and there are movements. But here is an important point: these movements don't destroy the past. They take inspiration from it, and they build on it. They re-articulate. Just like jazz and blues are still alive and amazing, today is not recognized as the era of jazz and blues. So why is the artistic expression in model railroading any different? Why are there not movements that relate to time and place in model railroading and that come into and fall out of fashion too?

Its not different, and Allen and Soeeborg illustrate my point.

When Led Zeppelin created its' brand of music, it was deeply influenced by the blues. But what it created wasn't blues; it was rock n' roll. And not that anyone here would need to be reminded, but Led Zeppelin neither created blues or rock n' roll. But the talent with which it drew from one (the blues), Zeppelin created among the other some of the best music of that genre that there ever was. 

When I meet new people, I have the inclination to ask what they model. I feel like it is an important question for me professionally, and if my blogs are any indication, I have a genuine interest in the second-order answers that follow these kinds of questions. The most common answer I receive relates to proto-lancing in some variation or another. (Can proto-lancing now be a verb? Or am I getting ahead of the neologistic curve on this?)  Proto-lance is a portmanteau word. It blends the words 'prototype modeling' with 'freelance modeling.' With proto-lance, one operates within the confines of the "real" world with the exception that some variable is tweaked to create a slightly different universe. It suggests taking creative license with some particular, and in doing so, it admits that one isn't given to a model railroading free-for-all.

"I model the Southern Pacific's Siskiyou Line as if the Coos Bay branch terminated in Roseburg as it was originally intended," Joe Fugate. "I model the Western Pacific's 8th sub. Where the WP only had 7 subdivisions, the 8th subdivision is a fictional subdivision on the eastern end of the railroad," Robbie Spangler.  "I model the Allagash, which is proto-feelanced railroad but one that is placed in geographically and historically accurate locations." Mike Confalone.

To me, what this reveals is that, amid a paradigm of extraordinary accuracy, there is a healthy creative impulse for what is being done in the hobby today. We are both rock and blues, and one day in the future, we will be something else too. This creative impulse is the latent energy to re-imagine and re-articulate; it allows us the hobby to be artistic and transformative.

And, it means that there is a little John Allen in us still. 

 Blaine Hadfield

May 29, 2017

2 comments


Community of Trains, Vol. 2

This series got rolling with comments in my previous blog from two cognitive scientists, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. In The Knowledge Illusion, they wrote that our minds are configured to assess and analyze information from our environment far more than they are configured to retain information. The result is that we are often unaware of the extent to which our environment influences our thought. I have the tendency to think of my participation in the hobby (personally, not professionally) as the kind of thing where I go down into the basement, and I work on a project, and the whole affair is disconnected from anything but me and that moment. Even though the instinct to like trains seems spontaneous and organic, are there specific trends about what and how we model that are influenced by environmental inputs more than what we give credit to?

Insofar as this may be the case, how? and in what ways?

In the nascent period of the hobby, models weren't readily available. The emphasis of one's modeling activity was focused on creation of the equipment itself, and the layout was about having the rail to see that equipment in action. Conceptions of scale were fluid and inchoate. Far more than otherwise, layouts weren't adorned in scenery. There wasn't the inclination to scenic layouts because hobbyists were operating by a different set of values and objectives. The principle of action was the mechanical challenge of creating dynamic models that resembled the prototype. This was model railroading. 

As the hobby grew, the will to establish systems of conformity grew. The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) was organized in 1935, it served the valuable role of making a set of recommended practices explicit. This is an extraordinary step forward for the hobby because these standards are the framework which set into play the conditions for the possibility of robust commercial enterprise. It also allowed people to collaborate on more than shared interest alone.

In 2017, the NMRA is an institution. It is comprised of a president, officers, and a board of directors. There are hundreds of volunteers that organize at a local level. As of January 2017, NMRA membership approached 18,000 people. Among other things, it hosts and organizes and provides insurance for the National Train Show and many regional meets. It makes significant contributions to the railroad libraries and other media. And, it established a national standard for modular layouts whereby people can collaborate in large, multi-person or group layouts.

In some sense, NMRA modular layouts are the material realization of the NMRA ideology. That is to say, by way of organization and through shared standards, communities of model railroaders result. These communities have the potential to be learning centers, engage in outreach, serve as community sites, and provide fellowship of other railroaders. And, this happens insofar as people buy into these shared standards. For many, this kind of organization serves their interests very well.

However, the NMRA is not without critics. There are some who would say that the impetus for inclusion is too strong and the recommended practices are too constrained to allow the kinds of expression that they are looking for in the hobby. In recent decades, the emergence of Free-mo and RPM meets are an alternative (and for some people and in some sense, a rejection) of what they may describe as bureaucracy.

The Free-mo organization is minimalist in its mentality.  Where NMRA modular layouts are highly constrained so to construct a loop of track, Free-mo operates on the premise that constraining module endplates is sufficient to allow for modular operations.  Free-mo layouts can take on irregular shapes, and they don't need to regulate the number and type of modules so to close a loop. Where the NMRA has governing body of officers, Free-mo is an affiliation of participants without the offices of a governing body whatsoever. The idea is that people come together out of a shared philosophy, and the outcomes are mediated democratically vis-a'-vis a flat organization.

RPM meets are similarly minimalistic. They grew out of round-table, show-and-tell dinners where modelers would meet and talk about recent projects. I have heard participants describe RPM meets as events framed specifically with the content to help modelers be better modelers. Although it should be recognized that NMRA events also have clinics and seminars, in my blog entitled 'Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 3', I wrote about how these meets represent different paradigms. I will only add to those comments with an additional thought: In my opinion and in some sense, RPM meets look like a return to the kind of modeling from where this story began, i.e., the emphasis of one's modeling activity is focused on creation of the equipment itself. Where the earliest layouts didn't have scenery, RPM meets often don't have display layouts or displays with scenery at all. In many cases, they consist only of display tables for equipment and break-out rooms for clinics.

This dialectic (i.e. the hobby being an affiliate of unorganized modelers, the hobby adopts robust standards through the NMRA and the NMRA institutes a system of governance, the emergence of new associations of people who want to operate outside of that system) is the interplay of ideas and environments such that ideas spring from the environment in which we reside. If you were involved in model railroading in 1930, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff.  I am working on some great stuff. It takes a long time to build this, and I would like to see a real train come together. You know what, it would be cool if..."  Or, for those who attended the first RPM round table dinners, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff.  I am working on some great stuff. For whatever reason, we don't feel like the de facto organization is a good home for what we are trying to do. You know what, it would be cool if..."  And the point is, if one views these developments in the context of their time, the environmental influences become more perspicuous. [insert saying here 'necessity is the mother of invention' or something like that.]

As cognitive scientists, I am confident that Sloman and Fernbach mean things that are more specific in a neurological/scientific sense than what this blog describes. But in terms of our question, how and in what ways is our modeling influenced by environmental inputs, these are my first thoughts.

For my next blog, I am going to apply a more forward-looking concept of the dialectic to current states of affairs, and I will share my thoughts on how, I think, these trends could be important to going forward. I hope it is a good ride.

Blaine Hadfield

May 22, 2017

13 comments


Community of Trains, vol. 1

I don't know why I like trains

I really don't know. It is just an interest that wells up from within.

And, I don't think that it is necessary to know why we participate in the hobby.  This blog isn't a call to circle the wagons and investigate inward, except that I have an observation:

I have noticed that my activity in model railroading looks similar to what friends articulate as their activity for participating in their hobbies--except that, their hobbies are not trains. They describe their interests in terms that apply to me ever so much as it applies to them--except for me its trains and for them its cars, or quilts, photography, or building furniture, or any number of other pastimes.     

It is as though the methods by which we express our interests are superficial (sanding, gluing, painting), but that thing to which our hobbies connect us to is something deep within us--an expression of our id. (Can I get a whoot, whoot from the Sigmund Freud fans out there!)

My point is not to try to make a serious connection with Freud, but rather to admit that it never felt like I chose my interest in trains. As though a part of my id, trains have always been there.  (As an aside, isn't Forbidden Planet, the 1956 sci-fi classic, a great movie!?) And, I don't know why trains are a part of this when there are dozens of other subjects that draw on similar sets of talents and skills, and they seem as though they could be a substitute for how some of those talents and skill are expressed. In other words, if it were about sanding, gluing and painting, then my father would have been more successful in his years long attempt to convert me to RC planes. But he wasn't, and I think that there is something interesting in this.

I recently started a book called The Knowledge Illusion. The authors, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, are cognitive scientists. They write about how cognitive science reveals that thought is not an exclusively an internal process in the way that we traditionally conceptualize it. We tend to think of thought as the machinations of our own mental labor, and that the ideas that result are exclusively our own. But, Sloman and Fernbach argue that cognitive science reveals that our minds are hardwired to mine for information outside of our own heads. We assess and evaluate in real time far more than we retain. And, our minds do this so efficiently that we are weak to understand (or attribute) the extent to which our thoughts and ideas are communal. The knowledge and ideas that we think reside within us are an extension of the information that buzzes about us. And, this has an upshot, they write,"Once we start appreciating that knowledge isn't all in the head, that it's shared within a community, our heroes change. Instead of focusing on the individual, we begin to focus on the larger group."

And this is the impetus of this blog series. I am interested to explore what community influences are in the air when new paradigms come about--either on the individual level or with the broader collective.

A word of caution for this blog, already there are words, like ontology, psychoanalysis, and cognition, that have never, or very likely never, been associated with model railroading conversation in times past. But as of this writing, its Thursday. And around here, Thursdays are for exploring deep shit. This might continue.

 

Blaine Hadfield 

May 08, 2017

2 comments


Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 5

Story 1:

I participate with a group in a movie club.  The other night, we watched Spike Jonze's Her. In a well composed scene, Joaquin Phoenix's character, Theodore, is walking among the trees and knee-deep snow. In the distant background (and not really intended for the viewer), one could make out structures on the far ridge line.

Snowsheds... My mind ticks over.

Intractably, "That's Donner," I wail.  A moment later, I turn to my brother and say, "in a theater full of people, only a railfan would place the snowsheds in the background."

To which my brother replies, "Yeah, only the railfans and the cannibals."

Story 2:

The etymology of the word 'hack/hacker' (as in, "Russia hacked my email!") can be traced through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) model railroad club. The Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) was organized in the 1946-1947 school year, and according to the groups website, it is one of the oldest clubs at MIT.

In a March 6, 2014 article in The New Yorker, the origins of the word 'hack' are first documented in the April 1955 TMRC meeting minutes. It says, "anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing." According to the president of the American Dialect Society, Jesse Sheidlower, the term held the more benign meaning of simply working on a tech problem. The club was composed of several sub-groups, and according to Ben Zimmer, a language columnist at The Wall Street Journal, the term took on more modern connotations as individuals from one group pranked the system-based telephone relays to mess with railroad operators. When this kind of ritualistic hazing occurred, members would have to "hack" the system in an attempt to solve the problem.  In time, the term became how it is known today.

Story 3: 

In early 1928, Charles Mintz, a film distributer associated with Universal Studios, demanded that a young Walt Disney take a budget cut for the production of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mintz positioned this conversation by informing Disney that most of his current staff were now on contract with him. Disney refused, and he walked away from the cartoon character that was a success in its time. This event catalyzed the creation of Disney studios. Following his meeting with Mintz, Disney boarded the train in California to return home. On this ride, Mickey Mouse was conceptualized.

In 1947, Disney built a model train in his Disney Studio's office--noteworthy because Disney was committed to his business in such a way that this seemed to surprise some people. By 1948, Disney was working long hours, seven days a week. The staff nurse insisted that he take break for the sake of his health. According to Ward Kimball, an associate in the Disney Studio, this gave rise to the first vacation Disney ever took. It was to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Thereafter, he set up a machine shop at the Disney studio for the explicit purpose of building a locomotive, where Disney himself would often work on the project. This locomotive became the well-known Lilly Belle. From there, it was the Carolwood Pacific, Disneyland Railroad, and then a mass-media empire. 

So, here is the question: What do cannibals, neo-computer hackers and great creative geniuses have in common?

Answer: one thing: railroads and model railroaders. (Mic drop!)  And with that, I rest my case: model railroading is sophisticated. 

Blaine Hadfield

May 01, 2017

2 comments


Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 4

Model railroading is sophisticated, and an increased appreciation for the breadth of the hobby helps us relate to those within it. These interests go beyond modeling in the literal sense, as evidenced by the fact that most people aren't "modeling" in the ways that are traditional to the term. This fact speaks to the numerous motivations that people actually have to participate. RPM meets have been a successful development in the hobby in the last decade, and in my last blog, I attribute their success to the fact that RPM meets are learning communities. I have attended RPM clinics that have the potential to speak to an array of our interests: photographic essays of railroads through a particular time, history of a particular town, overview of an organization (that is only loosely associated with the railroad), etc. RPM meets are clinic rich, and my point is that clinics cast a very broad net when getting at these other motivations. They help us integrate systems of interests. They are a departure from the kind of project-based thinking that characterizes much of the hobby.

For vol.1 to vol.3 of this blog series, this is the thought-stream that brings us to the present. Now, lets take it a step further:

The sophistication of the hobby may never be more evident then when an unaffiliated person is exposed to your interests for the first time. As one explains the how and the why of a layout, one realizes anew that a credible, coherent model railroad is a data rich and artistically complex medium... that operates. And if one asks why for every step in this process, the answers unfurl decades of accumulated knowledge.

"I bought an RC car in the morning, and I was driving it by that afternoon" never applies to model railroading.

Because the state of affairs for model railroading is more sophisticated than the average hobby, I posit that RPM meets and the clinics of traditional train shows should be viewed as the kinds of events that people should be born into--as opposed to the kinds of events that people graduate to. And in saying this, this is a call for consideration from the organizers of both types of meets, because 1) the clinics of traditional train meets are underneath the main space of commerce to such a degree that a person almost has to have a higher level of awareness to recognize and attend them. (See my previous blog.) And 2) RPM meets bear a reputation for being an association of "graduate level" hobbyists. This perception may intimidate other participants.  

I am writing this blog as I return from the Pacific Northwest RPM meet in Seattle. This year's clinics were on the Yellowstone Railway, Gunderson Wood Chip gondolas, Simpson logging operations, and Great Northern boxcars. Even though my personal layout is some distance from these specific topics, the way these clinics spoke to my other interests isn't. No doubt, I was enriched for having attended.

My compliments to the event organizers who assembled a very fine meet.

 

Blaine Hadfield

April 23, 2017

7 comments


Model Railroading is Sophisticated, vol. 3

A success in recent decades is the growth of railroad prototype modeling (RPM) meets. These are events where people display projects and promote better, more accurate modeling. In terms of being a project-rich environment, RPM events are Zion. And so, one may be inclined to view these meets as an outflow of the project-based thinking described in my last blog. But, against the observations of that blog, it may surprise you that I attribute the rise of these events to how they do the opposite. The success of these events is in relation to how they go beyond project-minded thinking and speak to our broader sensibilities as participants in the hobby.

The RPM meet to see the most growth in recent years is the St. Louis RPM meet.  Consider with me the introduction copy from the organization's homepage. It is:

"Connect with friends and fellow prototype modelers at the nation's largest Prototype Modeler's Meet. 28,000-sq.ft. of high-quality models, displays, visitng [sic] prototype layouts, hands-on workstations and more in the modern, professional Gateway Convention Center. Presentations by nationally-recognized historians and modelers. Railroad Historical Societies, scale model vendors and manufacturers will also be in attendance. Thousands of models brought by modelers on display. Home layout tours, Fellowship, Door Prizes and much, much more!"

 

The meet provides numerous touch points for connecting people vis-a'-vis relevant, content-driven interactions. The concept of RPM meets is that they are learning communities. Where one may characterize the floor space of traditional venues as lanes of traffic through rows of vendors, RPM meets are couches, break-out rooms, and the dinner thereafter. This difference is more than a facade (as if couches make that much of a difference). In a fundamental way, RPM meets are the product of different paradigms.

To finesse this distinction, please consider the following thought experiment:  

Imagine: how would an event would change if all vendors were removed from the venue? But, everything else about the event (venue, total floor space, floor plan, etc.) remains unchanged.

For traditional train shows under this experiment, I have thoughts of modular layouts separated by vast convention space. The majority of exhibitors at traditional shows are dealers of one kind or another. The largest model trains show by space is the Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield, MA; it has 8.5 acres (375,000 sq.ft.) of floor space! There are over 450 exhibitors, most of whom sell something. (Even if you would have to travel to do so, please attend this show! And when you do, go with money in hand, because you can find it at Amherst.)

For RPM meets, far less would change. For some events, there would no ostensible difference.  In fact, I have had to get directions to find I find the vendor room with many RPM meets, but all the while, I can stumble into a clinic room at will. The different outcomes from the thought experiment underscore a difference in mindset between these types of shows.

And this is the point. At the threshold of a traditional show, a person is met with the prospect of commerce. The clinician rooms generally need to be sought out from there. At the threshold of RPM meet, the learning community surrounds you, and you have to go in search of commerce.

I would argue that both have great value in this industry. Where the largest traditional train shows may draw attendance close to 25,000 people, the larger RPM meets may draw close to 500. But, they are growing. The purpose of this blog is to suggest that RPM meets are growing because they appeal to a different set of our motivations. I have attended clinics of photographic essays of railroads through a particular time, history of a particular town, overview of an organization (that is only loosely associated with the railroad), etc. If RPM meets are well organized, they have tremendous value to get at other motivations for our participation in his hobby.

I will be speaking at the Pacific Northwest RPM meet in Seattle, WA on April 29., and the St. Louis RPM Meet in June. I will also be giving clinics at the National Train Show in August, and the Missouri Pacific Historical Society Convention in October.  If you have the opportunity to attend any of these events, please do. It would be great to meet you there.

Blaine Hadfield

 

April 19, 2017

6 comments


An Announcement That an All-new Product Announcement Will Soon Happen!

In June of 2014, ExactRail "previewed" our all-new Southern Pacific G-100-22 gondola at the Bay Area Prototype Modelers meet!  But lets not kid ourselves, a preview is effectively an announcement for an upcoming announcement.

Now, we are pleased to announce that the previous announcement for an upcoming announcement will soon be announced!

In May, ExactRail will announce the HO Scale Southern Pacific G-100-22 Gondola!

In 1974, the Southern Pacific received 100-ton, 65' mill gondolas from Thrall Car Manufacturing. The railroad classified these cars as the G-100-22. They were among the first 100-ton, 65' gondolas acquired by the railroad. The G-100-22 is a distinctive car. Like all modern gondolas, the stature of this car gives it presence. Yet, the modern "facade" is betrayed by terminating dreadnaught ends and trucks that are well inset. This car is distinctive--for sure, and that is why we love it.

The Southern Pacific G-100-22 will be offered in the "1974 As Delivered" paint scheme in 9 road numbers. The model is a Platinum Series replica and features:

  • Wire grab irons, brake rods, tie downs
  • Etched top chord tie-downs and brake step
  • Kadee #158 Coupler
  • CNC-machined wheels and axels
  • Accurate print and colors
Please watch our website for an actual announcement with photographs, prices and availability!
Blaine Hadfield   
April 16, 2017

8 comments


Model Railroading is Sophisticated, vol. 2

The breadth of interests expressed through model railroading is vast, and they often go beyond modeling in the literal sense. If you think that model railroading is just about modeling, then please consider the answer to the following question:

Of people who self-identify as current or "active" participants in the hobby, how many presently have a layout?  How many have engaged in a specific modeling project within the last year?

If my experience can stand as a litmus test, I would suggest that a number of people who self-identify as "active" participants and who have a layout or who have engaged in a specific modeling project within the last year is less than 50%. Granted, this is an estimate, and it is given in broad terms. But, it does accord with the opinions of others in the industry. Regardless of what the actual number is precisely, all accounts indicate that it is sufficiently low so to enable an observation:

The majority of "model railroaders" neither have railroads nor do they model.

Take a moment and let that sink in...

At this juncture, it may be worth noting that the estimate above is descriptive. It is a metric for how people are actually participating in the hobby. It is not a suggestion for how people should participate in the hobby. If it needs to be said, I think that hobbies are the kinds of things where people work out for themselves how they want to participate. In fact, the whole point of this blog series is to draw attention to model railroading as a hobby rich with options, and this is another reason for why model railroading is great.

That said, the observation is a little provocative; is it not? 

I have framed the observation in this way because, I believe, it exposes a particular conceptual framework at play in our industry. And, I am going to argue that an upshot of this framework is also at play in the minds of manufacturers, and this can be detrimental to the hobby.

Let me explain:

If we are looking for an answer to why it may seem awkward that many "active" model railroaders may not be modeling and may not have railroads, I am stricken with the thought that it only feels odd because of culture.

To illustrate the point, consider the following: imagine you are introduced to another model railroader for the first time. The thrust to ask the following question is almost compulsive, "What do you model?" And more likely than not, you ask in precisely those words. From here, this person goes on to describe in great detail how he "models" [name a railroad, region and era]. Then, as the conversation rolls forward, you are made to know that the railroad, region and era is not actually a model railroad, but the concept around which his specific interests rally. The equipment he collects is in the closet; the layout is sketches, and the basement will be converted to a railroad room when the children move, but only in time, and so on. 

In other words, we bill our activity in the hobby in project-based terms. And this isn't unusual. We are cultured to think in project-based terms. We frame our progress by what is done on the workbench, and we talk about our interests by way of what we model--even though we are not using that term in quite so literal a sense. And as a group, we do so to such an extent that, when our actual practices met the more literal use of the term, "modeling", there is a mismatch that feels provocative. When someone asks me "what do you I model", I tell them about the Union Pacific's Caliente Subdivision--even when there is no layout in my basement. And I don't feel like less of a participant in the hobby for doing so. I am working on it--believe me, and because the steps that I am taking are a part of process in the largest possible sense (acquiring a place to build the layout, finding the income to prepare the space, creating an operational schema to drive layout design, acquiring the equipment, etc.), it is easy to conceptualize them in project-based terms--or "modeling." 

So, there is a mismatch between the colloquial use of the term "modeling" and the literal use (this blog is riffing on that difference). However, this difference isn't just philosophical word play. I think that this is relevant because, as these words get conflated, we get confused about what is at the heart of our participation in the hobby. In my opinion, it is a problem that manufacturers provide input into the industry in a way that is more in line with the literal use of the word--in other words, we can be too "project-minded". But, enthusiasts are engaged in the hobby in a way more in line with the colloquial use. And, I think that the quality of our hobby will improve when manufacturers do a better job of dealing with this difference.

Let me explain:

There is a sense in which any manufacturer is project-minded. The model train business is not complex in that the relationship between the revenues and projects is relatively straight-forward. As a result, there is (and always will be) an impetus to announce and create. However, when I use the term "project-minded" for manufacturers for this blog, I intend a slightly different use. Project-minded manufacturers are ones where the race to announce and create supersedes other elements of good business practice.  What does this look like in our industry?

It is making announcements with only line-art or prototype photos.

It is making a pre-order announcements on products that won't deliver for a six months or more.

It is doing these things, and then bringing the product to market with quantities so close to the actual pre-order amount that chance of acquiring the car without a pre-order is scant.

It is having websites that don't allow for the proper exploration of product so that a customer can make an informed decision.

(It is many other things to, but this blog is not intended to be a diatribe.)

This style of business is project-minded because manufacturers are operating is such a way to neglect aspects of the business that are important from the consumer's point of view. The only thing that "really" matters is getting the project out there. Manufacturers are solely focused on what the manufacturer needs to create another turn of the wheel. This is an extraordinary disservice to the industry in that it deprives the customer from value that enriches the buying experience. And ultimately, I would argue, it has an attenuating effect on the industry.

There is a development in the last decades that is seeing rising success, precisely because, at the conceptual level, it understands what I am to speaking to. Railroad prototype modelers (RPM) meets are events where people display projects and promote better, more accurate modeling. In terms of being a project-rich environment, RPM events are Zion. And so against this, it may surprise you that I attribute the success of these events to their ability to offer something more than just projects alone.

Please look for this in my next blog.

 

 Blaine Hadfield

March 31, 2017

2 comments


Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 1

Model railroading is among the most sophisticated of hobbies, and if you find this to be an odd statement, then by all means, please read on.

So that we are all operating with the same sense of the word, 'sophisticated' means, "having a refined knowledge of the ways of the world cultivated especially through wide experience" (Merriam-Webster)

To help explicate what I mean, answer to the following question; what does it take to execute a model railroad at a high level?

I have embedded a Model Railroad Hobbyist video of Mike Confalone's Allagash railroad. The Allagash is a premier layout. It breaks from the familiar to model Maine in late winter, and it does so spectacularly.

What does it take to execute at this level? 

 

Whatever the answers are, they relate to knowledge and talent in a very diverse set of domains. This includes knowledge of history, railroad prototypes, rail operations, model train operations (because they are different), and talent in construction (as it differs from modeling), and modeling (as it differs from construction), electronics, painting and astute conceptions of layout, space and color, and the list is far from complete. So incomplete, but an attempt to compile an exhaustive list becomes tedious.

The point is this: in what other hobbies is the confluence of such a diverse set of talents required? Model railroading is unique in that it ranks among an exclusive set of pastimes in this regard.  In fact, in this moment, I am at a loss to think of any that cast a net quite as broad as model railroading.

As I write, the voices of past professors ring in my head.  "Blaine," they say. "You are making a facile argument; you are preaching to the choir."  Besides, it is flattering to be told that our hobby is sophisticated. There will be no voice of dissent here.

But, the purpose of my blog is not to entitle us for the favor of those outside of our community, but rather, to speak to those within it. Renewed appreciation for the breadth of our hobby helps us relate to those within it. This is where the blog is going.

But for now, let us rest on 'model railroading is spectacular.'

 

Blaine Hadfield

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