Christmas Eve, a train that wouldn’t run, and a happy ending

It was Christmas Eve. I finished playing Santa, then I plopped down in front of the computer to unwind and signed into Facebook. Internet pal John Dominik posted a status update about buying a Bachmann N-scale train set and it not working, and how he knew he should have tried it out before Christmas Eve. I offered to help. He related the epic troubleshooting he went through–OK, perhaps it wasn’t epic, but his account of the things he tried was longer than the Book of Jude and several other books of the Bible–and, frankly, there wasn’t anything I would have thought of that he hadn’t already tried. He went beyond that and even tried things I wouldn’t have tried. Or recommend, for that matter, but that’s OK. He mentioned he’d had a set of HO trains when he was younger, and that gave me an idea. I asked if he still had that power pack, because, if he was willing to do a little creative and sloppy wiring, he’d be able to get that new Bachmann set working with it. He said he did.

The temporary fix worked, and Christmas Eve was salvaged. John said he hoped Bachmann would be cooperative about the bad power pack.

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Whatever happened to risk-takers?

I love Disney like I love the Soviet Union. Mainly it’s because the company clawed its way to the top by taking advantage of obscure aspects of copyright law, and then the company bought enough Congressmen to close up the doors they used to get where they are today.

But I read something today about Disney that I found interesting.Ward Kimball was a high-up at Disney. He was one of Disney’s primary animators and had almost a son-father relationship with Disney himself. He wrote a memoir some years back (the link takes you to some excerpts), and it gives me some idea what’s wrong with Disney and, frankly, what’s wrong with us.

Some poignant sections:

Walter Lantz, who made Woody Woodpecker, never gave a damn about quality a day in his life. He always wanted the quick buck.

If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.

It goes against our instincts to do anything like that today. Today, everything’s about the bottom line. If you can save half a cent, you do it. If it comes at the expense of quality, so be it.

He felt that if you put your heart into a project and if you were a perfectionist, people would automatically like it. They would appreciate the quality.

I was going to say I don’t think that’s true anymore, but maybe that’s just because I thought only of the computer industry when I read that. In the automotive industry, part of the reason Toyota is now the second largest carmaker in the world is because of its quality. Twenty years ago Toyota and Honda were two of the least imaginative companies in the industry (and frequently the butt of jokes) but the quality was there almost from the start. So maybe this does still work, provided you manage to not run out of money.

Artists are pretty touchy individuals; they aren’t brick layers. It takes very little to hurt their feelings. Walt was never quite aware of that.

Neither are most people. I guess that gives me more insight into myself than it does into the world, but I found it interesting.

Walt was a rugged individualist. He admired Henry Ford… Maybe Ford and Walt were the last of the great ones, the last of the great rugged individuals. Maybe that was why they were impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes.

Nah, there are plenty of rugged individualists. The problem is they don’t do well when they’re stuck under people with less talent than them. Billy Mitchell is a notorious example. Rugged individualists often aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. I don’t know if I have all of the attributes of one, but “impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes” fits me to a tee. I wish I had some insight in how to deal with that attribute.

Guys like L.B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn were despots. They were untouchables. You would have to speak to a guy who would speak to a guy who would speak to their secretaries in order to see them. Walt wasn’t like that. He mixed with everybody. You didn’t say Mr. Disney like you said Mr. Mayer or Mr. Warner. [I]f you called Jack Warner by his first name, he’d fire you. Walt didn’t want anybody to call him anything but Walt.

There are a lot more untouchables at the top today than there are approachables. I quickly tire of higher-ups who refuse to call me “Dave.” You’re not my mother! Why not just go all the way and make it “Mr. Farquhar” if that’s the way you’re going to be!

I read a story a while ago about Louis Marx. For much of the 20th century, Marx was the owner of the largest toy company in the world. Somehow he managed to figure out how to consistently produce cheap toys that didn’t break. And when they did break, he usually fixed them for free. Send the broken toy to the factory and they’d fix it for the price of postage, or bring it in person to the headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and they’d fix it free if they could. Well, I read a story about someone who brought a toy in to be fixed. He had no idea where to go, but he saw a kind-looking old man, so he walked up to him and held up his broken toy. He smiled and asked the child to follow him. The child noticed that everyone treated this man with the utmost respect. He took him to an office where a repairman fixed toys. Well, a few years later this child saw a picture of Louis Marx and he believes the kind old man who helped him was Lou Marx himself.

[Walt Disney] was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable. That’s why so many of his pictures were set in the harmless period of American history, the Gay Nineties or the early 1900’s – because that was when he was a kid.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that you’re the most honest and your work is the most appealing when it harkens back to your childhood. So I guess the money I spent back in 1998 learning how to un-grow up was a wise investment. Not that I needed Ward Kimball or Kurt Vonnegut to tell me that, of course…

He came from a pretty… poor family. He had four brothers and a sister. There wasn’t any extra money to spend… He loved having that soda fountain because as a kid, he couldn’t spend money for ice cream. His youth was scratching for pennies and nickels and tossing whatever he earned into the kitty at home.

I think you appreciate you have a lot more when you’ve had to struggle for a while. That definitely explains the difference between my Dad and his brother. I won’t elaborate on that any more other than to say I learned a little about how not to live by watching Dad, but I learned a lot more of what not to do by watching his sorry excuse for a brother.

Now the Disney operation is a corporation with many, many bosses and committees. The people who run the place don’t have any personal relationships with the creative people. The thing that made Walt great was that he was a creative himself and he recognized creativity in others.

Mega-success stories often begin with the person at the top being the prototype for the type of person the company needs to succeed. At the very least it makes the person at the top able to recognize the people who do the work.

Marx’s ultimate downfall was that he wouldn’t hire anyone too much like him, because he was afraid of someone usurping him. He didn’t get usurped, but without someone to replace him, his company died a very quick death. He was 76 when he finally retired, and he lived to see his company’s assets auctioned off at bankruptcy.

I suspect a second coming of Walt Disney probably wouldn’t last all that long at Disney now.

There’s no longer any innovation or excitement. The new regime just sits around trying to guess how Walt might have done it. That’s quicksand… So it’s boring. It’s a corporation where they play it safe. You copy yourself copying yourself. Walt would never stand for that. He never repeated himself.

If you have to guess how someone else would have done it, you’re much better off just walking up to someone else and asking, “How would you do it?” You’ll get better ideas that way.

He’d frighten everybody half to death by challenging them that way. But then you’d get with it, and new ideas would come. Walt kept everyone on pins and needles. Everybody getting [angry] at him was very healthy. See, you had a guy steering you all the time, and that made you work to capacity. It pulled the best out of you.

I guess I’m just really reflective right now. I don’t ever want to be out of work again, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I’m looking for. I know there has to be a better way to say it, but I think what I’m looking for is someone who takes risks and is usually right.

I don’t believe in rule by committees. I don’t think anything can be done well through group action. This is another thing that made Walt great, because all the decisions on a picture were checked by him, down to the last detail.

Agreed. What else do I need to say?

Lionel bankruptcy

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

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Wikipedia hits 200,000

Over the weekend, Wikipedia reached the milestone of 200,000 entries in its free encyclopedia. Dan Gillmor praised it in his syndicated column.As usual, Slashdot got wind of it, and as usual, people who’ve never even seen the thing started spouting off about how something that anyone can change can’t possibly be accurate or useful. (Wonder how many of those people run Linux?) At least one person ran over there and vandalized some pages to demonstrate his point. And I’m sure the edit got reversed within a few minutes when someone noticed a change in a watchlist. I, for one, visit occasionally and whenever a change pops up in my watchlist, I look at it out of curiosity. Sometimes I learn something and sometimes I find defacement, which I can then fix.

But I guess if Slashdot discussions were the only thing I ever read, then I wouldn’t have that high of an opinion of something written by random people at will, either.

A more valid criticism is that Wikipedia, by its very nature, can never be accepted as a source for scholarly work. But then I thought back to the papers I wrote in college, and I don’t believe I ever used an entry out of any encyclopedia as a source in any paper that I wrote. And being a journalism major who was 3 credit hours away from a history minor and who filled most of his electives with English and political science classes, I wrote a lot of papers in college. When I wrote my paper on the influence of William Randolph Hearst on the William McKinley administration, I may have looked up both Hearst and McKinley in an encyclopedia to get background information, but I doubt it. Why use an encyclopedia when there are so many good, specialized texts available?

There is still valid use for questionable sources in scholarly work anyway. One professor actually encouraged us to look in Mother Jones and American Spectator when possible, just to get the views from two extremes on the topic at hand. And Wikipedia can give you leads to follow, even if you don’t end up citing it in your bibliography. The material in Wikipedia came from somewhere, after all.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia for the past year or so. I left it entirely when I got tired of an overzealous editor deleting my additions. I guess I wasn’t the only one who complained about her; she’s since disappeared. I used to look at the day in history and try to fill in the gaps; for example, I noticed on one of Jesse James’ anniversaries that he didn’t have an entry, so I put one together. Unfortunately, high-profile stuff seems to be what attracts both vandals and overzealous editors.

So when I came back, I decided to concentrate on things like baseball, obscure old computers, and things that have connections to Missouri, particularly Kansas City and St. Louis. Those are more my areas of expertise anyway, which makes writing them a lot less work, and the topics are obscure enough that I’ve been mostly left alone. Those edits that do pop up usually are true improvements, rather than someone going on a power trip. My entries get linked much less frequently on the front page now, but I’m happier.

Another thing that I’ve taken to doing is to always check Wikipedia whenever I’m researching something. Sometimes Wikipedia has good information, but may be missing some detail I found elsewhere. Sometimes it has very little information. In either case, I try to enter the information I found. I recently created entries for Lionel Corporation, American Flyer, and Louis Marx and Company. Of course I got interested in them because of my recent renewed interest in toy trains, and during the time period I’m interested in, those companies were the big three in the United States. Some of the information about those companies is difficult to find online. Or it was. Now it’s in Wikipedia, which makes it easier to track down.

According to Wikipedia’s records, I’ve contributed to 323 entries. Most of those are pretty minor. There are lots of people who’ve contributed a whole lot more than me.

But I often notice a domino effect on my entries. Soon after writing the Lionel entry, I wrote one for O gauge model railroading in particular, and made an addition or two to the main model railroading article. Soon, other people were making their additions to specific gauges and scales, or creating them when entries didn’t exist. Within a few days, Wikipedia had some good information on the topic. It’s anything but exhaustive, but I’ll put it up against any other encyclopedia’s offering.

One difference that I have definitely noticed about Wikipedia, as opposed to conventional encyclopedias: Wikipedia has a much better pulse on pop culture. I’ve often lamented that people who have entries in the more traditional encyclopedias don’t have entries in Wikipedia, but every teenybopper band that’s come along in the past couple of years has an entry. But I guess ultimately that’s going to prove to be Wikipedia’s strength. In 30 years, it’ll be possible to go to Wikipedia to find out what the hubbub about Justin Timberlake was about. And in 30 years it may be the only place. (One can only hope.)

And in 30 years, those people who deserve more attention undoubtedly will have gotten their entries as well.

I definitely encourage people to look up their topics of interest over there and think about adding some of their knowledge.

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