Nobody respects craftsmanship anymore

The New York Times laments the decline of craftsmanship and its side effects in the United States.

A generation ago, it wasn’t terribly uncommon for men to make their own kitchen cabinets. And those cabinets, if built correctly, would last several lifetimes. The cabinets my great-great grandfather built before the turn of the previous century survived just fine into my lifetime. A year ago, a prospective tenant took me to task for having such handbuilt cabinets in a rental house, and pointed to a couple of other rental houses–with particle-board Home Depot junk in them–as having “better updates.”

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Model Railroad Hobbyist

Model Railroad Hobbyist is a monthly online-only magazine about, as the title suggests, model railroading. The quality of the content is very high–I’ll argue the writing, editing and photography give Model Railroader and/or Railroad Model Craftsman a run for the money. I really think which is best in any given month has more to do with the reader’s interests than anything else.

If you’re interested in model railroading or any other hobby that involves trains, dioramas, or both, it’s worth bookmarking and visiting every month. Perhaps more frequently, as you peruse back issues for gems you missed in the past.

E.R. Johnston, the train dealer, the myth, the legend

Something today made me think of Johnston Electric, a legendary, long-gone train store in St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood that sold Lionel, American Flyer, and HO scale trains.

I was in the old Marty’s Model Railroads store in Affton one afternoon several years ago while Marty was going through a box of trains he had bought earlier in the day. He found some manuals, catalogs, and other paperwork, which he set aside. Then he pulled out an old newspaper page. “I wonder why he saved that?” he asked. He set the paper down, then something caught his eye. “Oh, that’s why,” he said, and pointed at an ad on the page.

An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948
An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948

“Johnston’s,” it read at the bottom. “3118 Chippewa Street.”

“I spent many, many hours at that place when I was younger,” Marty said.
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If you think you can do it so much better, then do it yourself

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the Classic Toy Trains forums. It seems like every time a new issue hits the street, someone has to find an article that has something wrong with it and point it out.It started a few months ago when my friend and mentor Joe Rampolla published an article about adding a capacitor to a toy train to make it stall less often and run more smoothly. The claims, as far as I can tell, were false (I had my longtime friend Steve DeLassus, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Washington University, check them out).

But practically every month since then, someone’s publicly taken issue with something in the magazine.

It’s not about a vendetta against a single author. One issue it was Joe. But last issue it was repair expert Ray Plummer’s advice on repairing a Lionel 2037. This issue it’s the legendary Peter Riddle’s article about getting Lionel’s TMCC and MTH’s DCS (two rival control systems) working together on the same layout.

In the case of each of these articles, the things the author said to do work. There might be an alternative way to do them. But that’s the nature of the hobby. Doesn’t it seem like Model Railroader publishes an article at least once a year about making trees, and not one of those articles has been a repeat since at least 1972 (and possibly 1942)? And if you were to read a complete run of Railroad Model Craftsman, you could probably find another 50 different ways to make trees.

Fifty or a hundred people having different ways to do it doesn’t make the guy who wrote the first article about making trees wrong.

In the case of Ray Plummer, what Plummer said matches what my local repair guy said and did when my Lionel 2037 had problems. When the pilot truck is adjusted within specifications, the 2037 and its many cousins run just fine. Plummer’s critic said the pilot truck is a poor design, and when you lengthen the truck to change its pivot point, it works more reliably.

That’s possible. I don’t know the theory behind pivot points. One of my best friends happens to be a mechanical engineer and maybe he could confirm that for me.

What I can say is that Plummer’s advice preserves the historical integrity and collector value of the locomotive. While modifying the pivot point probably wouldn’t make the locomotive worth any less to someone who just wants to run it, it would make it worth less to a collector.

I can also confirm that Plummer’s advice worked just fine on the locomotive that once belonged to my Dad. It’s almost as dependable as my Honda now.

As far as this month’s article to hit the avalanche of criticism, I don’t use any command control system on my layout and I have no interest in doing so. So I don’t have any experience that would back him up, and neither do either of my engineer buddies.

But I trust Peter Riddle. Riddle has written more than a dozen excellent books about trains. Wiring is a subject that confuses almost everyone, but I’m confident that a fifth grader could read one of Riddle’s books on wiring and understand it, then proceed to wire a Lionel layout effectively. Seriously.

I’ve heard the argument presented in these arguments that if an author is wrong about one thing, the reader loses confidence in everything he says. I don’t buy that argument. Riddle’s advice that the Lionel 1121 switch is a good match for early Marx locomotives isn’t entirely correct. From my own experience I know a Marx locomotive will bounce if it enters the switch from a particular direction.

So do I doubt what Riddle says on the other 95 pages of the same book? No. I also know from experience that the things he says on the other 95 pages work. And I know that even though that Marx locomotive bounces through the switch 33% of the time, it doesn’t derail every time it bounces. So maybe he’s never seen the problem I observed.

I’ll daresay there’s at least one mistake in every computer book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean I stop reading computer books. I’ve been wrong once or twice before too. Just ask my boss.

Actually, come to think of it I’d really rather you just took my word on that one.

This criticism bothers me on another level too. Writing an article and getting it published isn’t an easy task. For most people it probably takes about 40 hours’ worth of work. CTT pays $70 per page, and a typical article is 3-4 pages long, so you do the math.

How many people want to spend a week of their lives writing an article only to have some self-styled expert rip it apart in five minutes? Is it worth putting your neck on the line for $300?

Most reasonable people would say no.

I’m sure this is largely an ego thing. Most people regard published authors as special people. So when someone knows something that a published author doesn’t, it must make for some kind of a high.

But the price is also high. How many great ideas languish in the mind of a would-be author, never to see the light of day, because the benefits just don’t outweigh that onslaught of criticism if it happens?

So the next time you catch a mistake in print, that’s great. It means you know enough to be an author. So think of something you know better than anyone else and go write an article and advance the hobby.

Of course, criticism is easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis made that observation 2400 years ago, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately.

Another take on Google’s digital library

CNN has an interesting analysis of Google’s attempts to digitize millions of books.

I still argue this project can only be a good thing.The article quotes Tim O’Reilly, and while anyone who knows me knows O’Reilly and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, he’s right when he says the biggest problem an author faces, by far, is obscurity.

I have a real-world example that I’ve seen firsthand. About 18 months ago, I was introduced to a pair of obscure books written by master modeler Wayne Wesolowski. Today, Wesolowski is best known for hand-building a huge model of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, but an earlier generation knew him as someone who published articles in magazines like Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman on an almost monthly basis.

In the early 1980s, Wesolowski wrote a couple of books. Both were printed twice under different titles, but one dealt with building model railroad cars from scratch and the other dealt with buildings. At the time I was introduced to them, the books were believed to be rare, and it was impossible to find a copy of either of them for any less than $125.

Today, it’s still possible to buy used copies of the books for $125, but if you shop around, you can get them for a lot less. I found a copy of Wesolowski’s ABCs of Building Model Railroad Cars for less than $12 earlier this month. It sold before I could click on the link, but I found another copy for $18. I snapped it up immediately.

Wesolowski’s books may not always be possible to find for less than $30, but it’s pretty easy to find them at or around that price with just a little bit of patience. I believe what’s happening is that people who otherwise would have never known the book existed started looking for it, which in turn caused used booksellers to look for it. In the meantime, the sale of used books online has drummed up a lot of press, including in the New York Times, causing still more copies of the book to come off dusty shelves and into circulation, driving down prices and possibly driving up sales.

If snippets of text from this book were searchable online, as opposed to vague mentions on an obscure Yahoo discussion group, who knows what would happen to these books’ sales? Maybe it still wouldn’t be enough critical mass to ramp up publication again, but it’s possible. At the very least, it’d be a bonanza for used booksellers, whether it’s people who do it for a living or people who are thinning out their personal book collections.

In turn, that extra commerce can only help the economy.

Drag racing!

My friend Sean is getting married. His fiancee, Brenna (it annoys her when you call her “Brenda,” but it’s funny, she reminds me of another cool person I know named Brenda) has already taken over.
I was over at Sean’s last night when he showed me. It was Sean, our buddies Jon and Wayne, and me, standing in Sean’s bedroom, doing our best to ignore the girly lavender curtains. I think the color’s called lavender. Whatever it is, it’s a girly shade of light purple.

Jon’s married, so Jon understands. I’m not married, or engaged, or even seeing anyone at the moment, so I haven’t had to cave yet on such things, but I know my day will come. Still, whenever I see it happen, a little piece of me feels bad.

So I suggested Sean needed something manly for his bedroom. Get a lawnmower engine, or a motorcycle engine, and start rebuilding it in there. Brenna shot me a dirty look. Sean liked the idea. So after we talked about it in the kitchen with the women around, we went back in and sketched it all out.

Sean actually has more than enough room in the corner for a big-block V8 on an engine mount. Jon and I started tossing ideas around. A big, rolling Craftsman toolbox where his dresser is now, a nail where he can hang his oily apron (he’ll wear an apron while working on the engine so that if Brenna comes over, he can just wipe his hands on the apron and go straight to the kitchen to make her something to eat), and…

“Right up there, over the bed, you can put a [turning to the other room and raising his voice] DRAG RACING poster,” Jon said.

Jon and Bethany are pregnant. Well, actually, Bethany’s pregnant. Jon, being Bethany’s husband, is just responsible. Whenever people ask what the theme of the baby room is going to be, Jon deadpans, “Drag racing.” Keep in mind they don’t know the baby’s gender yet. I can tell Jon’s rooting for a son, so he’ll have someone to play with again (most men never really grow up, you know).

Then we talked about interior decorating theory. Jon used to use a tire as a coffee table. No, this wasn’t a worn-out tire from a Honda; it was a racing slick. Jon and a friend drove up to a Trans-Am race in Iowa when he was in college, and someone said something about how you can go buy a tire for something like three bucks. Jon’s eyes got huge. “No WAY!” So they walked over to this fenced-off area, where a guy asked if he can help them. Jon asked if it was true they could buy a tire. The guy said sure. Jon asked how much. “Three bucks. What size do you want?” Jon said what any true male would say. “I want the biggest tire you’ve got!”

Later on, Jon also acquired a tire off one of Bill Elliott’s cars.

Years later, when Jon was dating Bethany, he put the tires away. (It was probably the night of their first date that he put them away. At least I hope so.) And one day, Bethany was helping Jon move, along with some of his other friends. Jon went down to the basement with one of his friends, got a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Watch this.”

He put a tire under each arm, then waltzed upstairs, right past Bethany, without a word, and put the tires in the back of the truck. Then he walked back in the house and walked past the bemused Bethany.

“Wha-What were those two black things?” Bethany asked.

“Tires,” Jon said matter-of-factly.

They talked about the tires later. Jon eventually gave the Bill Elliott tire to a coworker. But after driving the Trans-Am tire all the way back from Iowa in a Honda Civic (and there isn’t enough room in a Honda Civic for Jon’s 6’2″ frame, let alone Jon, a friend, a cooler, and two racing slicks), Jon swears up and down that he’s keeping that tire forever.

I know what room it would look great in, even though it’s not really a drag racing tire.

Mac data recovery

Interesting day yesterday. I talked with my agent about where I’ll be writing next. There’s a UK magazine editor who is expressing interest in my work. We’ll see where that goes. My college degree is in journalism, and my field of emphasis was in magazine editing and publishing, so writing for computer magazines doesn’t seem foreign to me at all. I actually have been published before in computer magazines, but the last time was in 1997, and the time before that was in 1991. And I think the UK attitude towards technology is a bit more sensible than the US attitude–the UK seems more interested in making the most of what they have, as opposed to the US philosophy of replacing right away. (My English, Scottish and Irish ancestry must be showing through right about now.) So I like the idea of writing for magazines in the UK.
Due to my weak wrists, magazine writing is probably better suited for me at this point anyway.

Just don’t expect me to move to Manchester, England right away. (Of course I’d choose Manchester. That’s where the good music comes from. Joy Division, New Order, Joy Division, The Smiths, Joy Division, Crispy Ambulance, Joy Division…)

More emergency Mac procedures. It should be noted that what I stated about dual G4s not booting off the current utilities CDs also applies to other new models, such as the iMac DV and the G4 Cube (assuming you’re one of the 12 people who bought one).

Unfortunately, my tip for yesterday won’t help you if the machine is already in service and you can’t take it down for a reformat and reinstall. What to do then? Go ahead and copy (once again, DO NOT INSTALL) the contents of your utilities CDs to the hard drive. When you need to run them, boot off your MacOS 9 installation CD. Assuming your drive isn’t damaged to the point of being unreadable by the OS, you can then launch and run the full battery of utilities programs to get the machine back up and running.

If your filesystem is damaged to the point of being unreadable, your best resort is to take out the hard drive, put it in a Mac that is working, and run DiskWarrior, then if that doesn’t bring it back from the dead, run Tech Tool Pro’s volume recover. (Unfortunately, I’ve had to do this before–good thing for me that I’m not uncomfortable ripping into the innards of a computer and transplanting pieces into another.) Of course, this trick works better for G4 towers than it does for iMacs.

If it happens to a PowerBook, your best bet is to put the machine into SCSI dock mode (where the machine just emulates an external SCSI hard drive), connect it to a SCSI-equipped Mac, and run repair tools from there. This is also a great way to transport large numbers of files in a pinch. This is much nicer than taking out a PowerBook hard drive.

Ahem. I see Dan Bowman has introduced me as the Daynotes’ “Resident Expert on Macs.” I suppose I qualify as that. But I’m not a Mac zealot. There are things about every computer architecture that drive me up the wall. I’ve had fully multithreaded, pre-emptive multitasking systems since I bought an Amiga in 1991, and frankly ever since then I’ve found it very difficult to live without that. I’m always doing more than one thing at a time, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to expect my computer to juggle a few things. (For a few blissful days in 1992 I had two Amigas, which let me really juggle a lot of things. These days I normally work with at least two networked PCs going, and sometimes as many as six.)

So while I’m no friend of Microsoft, I’ve probably said more critical things of Apple in these pages than I have of Microsoft.

The only computer that I was ever religious about was the Amiga, and to a certain degree I probably still am. That got me absolutely nowhere. Microsoft zealots drive me up the wall. Linux zealots drive me nuts. Anti-Linux zealots drive me even battier. I sympathize with OS/2 zealots, when I run across them, but I won’t join them. They’re machines. Tools. Do you expect me to sing the praises of Craftsman screwdrivers while I’m at it? They’re nice screwdrivers, but hey, I can get work done with a Stanley too…

So… Thanks for the kind introduction, Dan. I guess I just finished it. So if you’re here courtesy of Dan, welcome aboard. I hope you’re not too offended. (Don’t feel bad. I offend everyone at one point or another.)

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