Sunday, January 30, 2011

Straco Tracks -- the mystery continues

I've written before about the adventures surrounding a vintage Japanese tin train I bought on a whim. In my last post, I debated whether or not to build a simple layout for the Straco Express set. Well, I decided to go ahead, and soon discovered another little puzzle.

As you may recall, I actually have three different HO gauge Japanese toy trains, all apparently from different manufacturers, yet all using the same track. At least, that's what I thought.

As I was looking through the track pieces to find the best ones to use for the layout (which will be a simple loop). In the process, I discovered that the track was made two different ways. What appears to be the earlier version has ties stamped out of fiberboard. The later version has beveled ties made from injection-molded plastic.

Here are some shots of the two types of track (click on the images to expand them to full size). From the top, both pieces look the same (although if you're observant, you'll see the ties have slightly different widths).

Turn them over, and the differences are a little more obvious. The rail construction seems to be the same for both (note the tab placement), but the plastic version (bottom in the image  below) is thinner than the fiberboard kind (top in the image below).

The image below provides a little more detail. The plastic version is on the left, and the fiberboard version on the right.

And more detail, still. Here are the fiberboard ties closeup.

And here are the plastic ties. Note how they're beveled. I suspect the reason was to make them easier to pull out of the mold.

Now here's the thing. I have three different trains by (supposedly) three different manufacturers. Which track goes with which? Since I didn't notice the difference right away, I'm not sure.

When I bought the original Straco Express, it came with some track. We dug up an old set I had at home -- the train was completely different, but the track seemed to be the same. When I purchased the third Bandai set, it came with some track, too. But I couldn't say which pieces came with which set.

The only clue is on the back of the fiberboard-tie track. On the straight pieces of track (not the curved) is embossed with the Bandai trademark in the middle of the phrase "Sign of Quality." (no comment)

So the mystery continues. I had originally assumed that -- because these three sets had the same track -- that either they were made by the same Japanese company for different companies stateside, or perhaps there was a Japanese subcontractor who was supplying the track.

Now I'm not so sure. Was the plastic tie track just an improvement by Bandai over their older design, or was this a knockoff by somebody else?

If anyone has answers, please let me know. In the meantime, I'll be cleaning track and checking connections (those closeups show just how badly rusted this track is).


Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading socially

I was never very concerned about the New York Times Best Seller lists and other such. I read books primarily because I want to, and discover them through a variety of ways (almost none of which involve popular book lists), such as reading authors cited by authors I like as influences, noting works referenced in articles, discovering books in thrift stores, etc.

But recently I discovered an advantage to keeping within the mainstream -- it can be another way to connect socially. I recently met with three other people for dinner/work meeting, and to get the conversation started, someone asked what we were reading or had just finished reading.

One person had finished Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth, a massive (and massively popular) bestseller. We were all more or less familiar with the book and/or the author, furthering the conversation. Another was reading the Molly Murphy mystery series by Rhy Bowen, light mystery stories set in turn-of-the-century New York. Which lead to more conversation.

Me? I had just finished reading Walter Gibson's The Shadow, the Hawk and the Skull
half of a Nostalgia Ventures reprint. Well, that killed the conversation dead. Because what I was reading was so esoteric, I had to quickly supply a lot of background just to provide some context to the book -- it was very much like explaining a joke. Here's what I had to do:

1) Explain that the 1930's were the heyday of fiction magazines. They were printed on cheap pulp paper, hence the term "pulp fiction" for over-the-top crime/adventure stories.

2) Explain that one of the greatest characters to come from the pulp era was the crime-fighter, the Shadow.

3) Explain that I had first discovered the character in a short-lived series of reprints done back in the 1970's and so was very excited to see Nostalgia Ventures attempt to reprint all 285 novels.

4) Explain that for me, the appeal was the inventiveness of the primary author of the series, Walter Gibson. Gibson turned out many different types of stories involving the Shadow -- who-done-its, straight-ahead action stories, science fiction, thrillers, stories where the main character was the Shadow, others where he only appears on the fringes, and so on.

I went into about the same amount of detail in the conversation that I did in the bullet points above, but it still brought everything to a screeching halt. My reading matter was so far out in left field, I wore everyone out trekking over to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. "The Shadow, the Hawk and the Skull" has two villains working at cross-purposes with the story's heroine (who soon falls in with the Shadow) being caught in the middle. It also has an ingenious plot twist at the very end that only works because Gibson very carefully chose every word in the last chapters to keep the reader from guessing the ending. But it took so long to lay the groundwork for what I was reading, I never got to share any of that with the group.

I now understand why some people pay attention to the NYT Best Seller list. Read books from the list and it sure keeps things simple in conversations!

I'm not going to change my reading habits -- I enjoy what I read too much. But maybe I need to check out a John Grisham tome or something. Just to be sociable.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Straco layout: A worthwhile project?

Over the past year I've written off and on about the Straco Express, the Japanese toy electric train I picked up on a whim. When the video below was taken, I didn't have enough track to complete the circle (which is why the train only makes one pass by the camera -- which it then crashes into).


I thought that if I could find enough track, I'd be able to reshoot the video.

Well, I did.

But we're not there yet. Most of the track in question is tarnished, and some rails are actually rusted. This prevents good electrical contact between the track (through which the controller's mighty "D" cell batteries are pumping micro-watts of power) and the contacts in the engine.

I've done a basic cleaning -- which helped -- but soon discovered another problem.

The track is too flimsy. Most of the pieces are slightly bent, and when connected the entire loop doesn't lay flat. Some of the curved sections have a slight twist in them, and so the loop has little rises and falls as well as a slight tendency for the inside rail to be higher than the outside.

If the entire train was the same weight as the engine, that wouldn't really be a problem. As the engine rolls along, it pushes the track flat against the table. But the cars are far to light to that. So after the engine passes, the track springs up, and the cars jump the rails.

If I mount the track to a flat surface (such as a piece of plywood), then that should solve the problem.

But do I really want to invest the time? Because I already know that if I do, I won't want to just affix the track to a piece of unfinished wood. I'd like to prime it and paint the platform first. And to ensure that it remains flat, probably reinforce the back with some kind of bracing. And maybe build a bracket for the power pack. And...

Well, you get the idea.

I'm not sure if it would be worth it.

But I would like to reshoot that video...

What do you think?


Thursday, January 13, 2011

CES &HD Radio -- reality check, please!

Last post I commented on the disconnect between radio industry magazines and general media coverage on the importance of HD Radio. A post today further reinforced that distinction. Their post What We Learned from CES: 5 Big Consumer Trends to Watch listed the following as said trends:
  1.  Dual-core smartphones
  2. Continued growth of Android OS
  3. New computing tablets to compete with the iPad
  4. The improved Internet connectivity of new TVs,( and speculation that consumers won't care)
  5. Apple's continued market dominance, and how they're responding to competition.
The article is definitely worth reading, but I invite you to do something else with it, too. Do a word search for "HD Radio" -- or even just "radio."

Then read HD Radio Technology at CES 2011... More Than Ever, iBiquity's press release. As my high school English teacher used to say, compare and contrast.

Monday, January 10, 2011

HD Radio's Rate of Decay

Obviously HD Radio's on my mind again. As expected, the news after the Consumer Electronics Show broke down along party lines. The magazines and websites such as Radio and Radio World that cater to radio industry professionals gushed about all the exciting new HD Radio products and features (many times pulling copy straight from the iBiquity press release).

Go to news sources outside of the industry, however, and HD Radio's barely mentioned. Inside the industry, HD Radio leads the list of new car features. Outside, smartphone connectivity and interactive software lead the list of new car features.

HD Radio's been an emerging technology since 2004. It did have a lot of potential (which public radio was quick to latch on to), but for the bulk of radio broadcasters, it's been treated and marketed as a haphazard answer to the threat of satellite radio. Since that time, we've seen the rise of the iPod, then the smart phone, and now the tablet, each providing more and more options for discovering music, enjoying favorite music, and -- most importantly -- sharing music socially. Yet HD Radio market copy still defines itself in terms of satellite radio.

It's marketing talks about having no subscription fees (unlike satellite radio), having specialized music channels (just like satellite radio, although not really as many stations simply simulcast their on-air signal), and great digital sound (just like satellite radio, although both HD Radio and SIRIUS/XM do compressed digital formats that are no great shakes sonically).

Is HD Radio really going to be the next big thing, or another grand failure? If the latter, it won't be the first. Player pianos really took off as a home entertainment system in the late 1800's. When phonographs came along in the early 20th century, player pianos were marketed as the smart choice. They sounded better, after all.

But better sound wasn't really what people were after. The phonograph took up less space than a player piano. It had a more varied sound. The player piano sounded like a piano. But depending on the record, the phonograph could sound like a piano, an orchestra, a bluegrass band, an opera singer, or anything. Manufacturers didn't give up. They kept improving the instruments, replacing foot pedals with electric mechanisms; adding more parameters to the hole-punch recorders to achieve a more natural sound and so on.

But despite these improvements, they couldn't overcome the biggest drawback -- people simply found the phonograph more convenient than a piano. And so all the improvements made in player pianos were in some sense for naught -- the battle had already been lost. What the public wanted in home entertainment had moved beyond the 19th century piano in the parlor.

Has the same thing happened to HD Radio? After seven years of continual marketing, there's still very little demand (or even awareness) of the technology among consumers -- consumers that very much want a smart phone or a tablet. Consumers that very much want an Internet connection in their car. Will all the vaunted improvements to HD Radio recently announced seem as quaint years from now as the electrification of the player piano?

I don't think we'll have to wait too long to find out.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Less Ambitious Operas -- Anatomy of a Twitter Meme

I'm not sure this is a benefit or a detriment to being on Twitter, but here goes:

Yesterday I spent an inordinate amount of time being entertained by, and hopefully entertaining in return, people from around the world in a vein of humor so tightly-focused that it required a world-wide audience just to take it to critical mass.

As near as I can determine, it started with a tweet from Jason Weinberger, conductor of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra in Ceder Falls, Iowa on January 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM. It read:

madame caterpillar #lessambitiousoperas

Now if you're not already laughing, or fully grasp everything that's going on in that tweet, then please read on. Maestro Weinberger was making a joke -- one that depended on three elements: the reader's knowledge of opera titles; the reader's understanding of hashtags; and the reader's ability to fit the tweet into the context of the hashtag to get the joke.

"Madame Caterpiller" is a reference to Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly." The hashtag (the letters following the # symbol) provide the context. Deciphered, it reads "less ambitious operas." The clue of opera gets one thinking about opera titles, and the joke is revealed. (If you're not familiar with how they work, hashtags can't have any spaces to function as an effective search term. If he had written #less ambitious operas, then the link generated would have pulled in only those tweets using the hashtag "#less."

The joke was retweeted throughout the system, first by followers of Weinberger, then their followers and so on. It's like forwarding a joke via email, but with a difference: unlike email forwards, which go out to lists of poeple that may or may not have any interest in the content, most of the people that follow a particular Twitter account do so because they're interested in some fashion in content of that particular person's tweets.

It's very likely that the majority of Weinburg's followers are also interested in, or professionally involved in the world of classical music -- the core audience for this type of joke And every follower who retweeted it in turn sent it to their followers, many of whom also were also probably conversant with classical music. And the ones that were (and thought it was funny), retweeted it to their followers and so on.

Within a very short time "Madame Caterpillar" was read by many of the classical music folks on Twitter.But that's just part of the story. The other difference between this tweet and an email joke is the ability for the reader to add to it and make it part of a conversation. The hashtag made that possible.

In Twitter, you can create a hashtag by simply putting "#" in front of a word or phrase without spaces, The hashtag can serve as a subject line for the tweet, and it does something else. Twitter automatically makes it a link. When you receive a tweet with a hashtag, you can click on the hashtag/link and immediately see all of the tweets that also have that hashtag in reverse chronological order.

The original tweet generated many responses, and some inspired takes on opera titles given the theme. Within a few hours opera lovers all over the world were chuckling. #lessambitiousopera tweets came in from Australia, Europe, Canada, and other parts of the world. They were generated by professional musicians, music critics, broadcasters, record label employees, writers, and just plain old music lovers.

To read the full list (or at least as far back as the search will take you), you can either search the hashtag through a search engine, or do a search through Twitter.

Here's a few of my favorite "less ambitious operas" (with the original titles) -- the ones that made me laugh are far too numerous to list here.

: Tales of The Hoff
(Offenbach: Tales of Hoffman)

Death in Vancouver
(Britten: Death in Venice)
: Dido and Enya
(Purcell: Dido and Aeneas)

: A Streetcar Named Whatever
(Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire)

And of course, I was inspired to contribute a few myself, such as:

Mishap in Venice
( Britten: Death in Venice)

The Telegraph
(Menotti: The Telephone)

(Hindemith: Cardillac)

(Wagner: Tannhauser)

(Verdi: Nabucco)

The Pot Shot
(Weber: Der Freischutz ["The Free Shot" in English])

The Broom's Progress
(Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress)

It was great fun. And a type of entertainment that was unique not just to social media, but to Twitter itself, I think. I must confess productivity lagged somewhat -- I eventually had to turn Twitter off in order to work. But some of those tweets definitely made my day.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

CES - HD Radio = CES + HD Radio?

Three news alerts hit my inbox almost at the same time, all talking about HD Radio in context with the 2011 Consumer Electronics (CES) show. The first comes from Jim Motavalli, blogging for Forbes Magazine. His post certainly had an engaging headline:

HD Radio: Is it the auto industry's next big thing?

I had to double-check the date. I could have sworn I saw that headline at least once in 2010, and 2009, and 2008, and each year back to 2004. But wait! There's more! Motavilli writes:

Is HD Radio the next big thing for in-car audio? Well, it’s not like the transition from AM to FM (that was a big leap), but it’s an interesting improvement. And it has a big advantage over satellite radio — it doesn’t cost anything. As long as you have an HD-equipped radio (three million have been sold by Ibiquity, which is owned by big-league radio chains) you can listen to the digital signal free, without a subscription, and at the same frequencies, too. [NOTE: It's taken seven years to move 3 million HD Radio units -- 10.3 million iPads were sold in 2010]
Classic 2004 talking points, playing off what the radio industry thought would pull listeners back from satellite radio subscriptions (better content is why they left in the first place -- content they were willing to pay for). I had to wonder where Mr. Motavilli's been for the last seven years if he thinks this is a startling new innovation.

The second piece is from Radio Survivor. Paul Riismandel writes about what he anticipates is the role of HD Radio at CES.

While all the biggest buzz around the show is in anticipation of new tablet competitors for Apple’s iPad, we can still expect to hear announcements of new radio gadgets across the spectrum, from analog broadcast and HD Radio to satellite and internet radio.
On the satellite radio and HD Radio front things have been quiet for the pre-show period. In fact, it doesn’t seem like iBiquity is even ready for CES this year, since their press release site is still touting a special section to highlight HD Radio at the 2010 CES from twelve months ago.

And finally, Mark Ramsey of Mark Ramsey Media weighs in on the subject, with his post-Toyota's Entune raises the stakes for Radio Online and on the Road.

Here’s a peek at Toyota’s new Entune in-dash entertainment system, which includes Pandora, iheartradio, local search, movie tickets, dinner reservations, and a whole lot more – all powered by an app you download to your mobile device and driven by your phone’s data plan.

Interestingly, Radio Ink reports that the system includes HD Radio and SiriusXM, too, but it’s telling that those assets are nowhere to be found in Toyota’s promotional video or on the Entune page of its website. Does that suggest that these assets are either too fuzzy or too non-compelling to merit a full frontal pitch?
You bet it does

That doesn’t mean they won’t be used, of course. Just that they won’t be used to sell cars.
That last sentence from Mr. Ramsey seems to neatly answer the question raised by Mr.Motavalli's headline. (And in case you're wondering, the algebraic expression in the title works if HD Radio = zero)