I Am a Model Railroader, Like My Father Before Me

Kids and trains, man, they’re like kids and dinosaurs.

My father was an avid model railroader and built a sprawling empire in the basement of our home. Trains in some form were a constant in my life as long as I can remember. I have memories of standing by train tracks in all sorts of weather waiting to see one; me running his trains too fast on his home layout. “Faster, Daddy, Faster,” I would shout as a five-year old.

Dad grew up on the Erie Lackawanna main line in New York. He modeled that railroad for nostalgia purposes, I imagine. When I got into the hobby as a young adult, I also favored the Erie Lackawanna. I’m not sure why I did. It would be on brand for me to model the more modern railroads with the wide cab locomotives and double-stack container trains, as well as to buck my dad’s influence. Maybe it was as simple as I liked the paint scheme and wanted to be able to borrow his trains to run with mine. We were both members of the North Shore Model Railroad club, and enjoyed running our trains on the massive layout. Life got in the way and we had to resign our membership 20 years ago.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. In 2011 he succumbed.

During the years he was fighting the disease he wanted to build a small switching layout in a spare bedroom. He bought some locomotives and rolling stock, replacing what he didn’t want any more from the earlier layout. I also never got rid of my collection. It sat in Rubbermaid bins for almost 20 years following me from apartment to apartment and to my current house. After he died, his Rubbermaid bins sat next to mine. It was a crowded closet.

Three years ago I was feeling creatively restless. I was still in contact with my friend Jeff and we had tried forming a few bands to keep in music. He was still a member of the North Shore train club and I decided to rejoin the club. I was struggling with writing and drawing as creative outlets. Working on trains felt like a way to be creative but engaging a different part of my brain.

This is when I became thankful that I modeled the same railroad as Dad. It was easy to mix-and-match the trains. At first I tried to keep the collections separate and sometimes just run Dad’s trains. About a year ago, I merged the train collections fully. I store complete trains sets in plastic bins to run at the club. One bin is mostly Dad’s trains with a handful of mine mixed in. It wasn’t intentional; it just worked out that a lot of his cars looked good together. I was up at the club Father’s Day weekend. I didn’t give it much thought as I grabbed “Dad’s Bin” on the way out the door. It was more a case of thinking, I haven’t run those cars in a while. I wonder if everything is adjusted properly? During a pass on the layout it hit me: These are Dad’s cars, and it is Father’s Day. I had a tear in my eye, but a smile on my face. I felt his presence strongly, happy that his trains were being run.

Working with trains still helps me feel close to my Dad. It would be the same even if I modeled a different railroad, or a different era1. I know the reason he wanted to build a model railroad was his way of fighting the disease. He was still active in the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society’s mailing list and would ask questions about the layout he had in mind.

This past weekend, a lot of my feelings about Dad, trains, and his influence on me all came to a head. We held the annual open house for my train club. It is one of the few times a year we are truly open to the public and it’s the model railroader’s version of a fancy dress ball. A lot of members bring out their best trains — the trains that a lot of work and effort went into. I ran a train that had one of Dad’s locomotives and a baggage car he had been working on. My claustrophobia tends to act up during the show when the small aisles of the layout get crowded, so I usually stay in the back working one of the staging yards to help members get trains on, and off, the layout. I was at my post when I saw Dad’s train go by. I mentioned to the gentleman running the train it was mine, and it turns out he had also grown up on the Lackawanna main line. He mentioned the train was getting a lot of nice compliments as he ran it.

On a later pass I mentioned how the engine and the car were Dad’s and how he bought the engine when he was sick hoping he would be able to run it before he died. He never got the chance. My new friend mentioned that he was sure Dad would be smiling right now seeing it run. I told him I knew he was.

On the second day of the show, I brought one of Dad’s favorite engines — a brass Erie Berkshire — with the hopes of running during the open house. Sadly, the steam engine and a key turnout on the layout didn’t get along so I didn’t run it during the event. At the end of the day, when I had the layout to myself, I ran it around the layout with a cut of cars that were all Dad’s. This is the one train I haven’t cross populated with any of my stuff. The label on the bin just says 1950, the name I gave the train, but it’s really Dad’s Train.

I don’t run that train often. The story I was telling myself is the engine is older than I am. That one day it will stop running and why hasten it? But, I can fix it if that happens. Running it this time, I knew why I don’t run that train often: that is the train that Dad should be running. Running his new engine and the baggage car, I can celebrate his spirit and optimism in trying to defeat a terminal illness.

Running the Erie Berkshire, though, I feel his absence.

  1. I also model the modern day Union Pacific, but the bulk of my collection is 1970s-era Erie Lackawanna.

On Minimalism and Model Trains

I am both a minimalist and a model trains enthusiast. The two are sometimes at odds. Model trains are not an interest that embraces minimalism. Sure, I can have one set of locomotives and cars that I run, but much like eating the same thing every day it gets boring fast.

My minimalism theory is pretty much Marie Kondo’s sparks joy approach. When my dad died in 2011, his train collection merged with mine. This was a little untenable. When I rejoined my train club, I did a purge of both collections. Cars that required to much work to repair were thrown away.

To further make things challenging, earlier this year I switched eras I modeled. My dad and I both modeled the Erie Lackawanna railroad which merged with Conrail in 1976. I couldn’t run any of the modern intermodal trains, or the newer wide cab locomotives. So, I switched to modeling the Union Pacific railroad. I didn’t get rid of my Erie Lackawanna-era stuff since it sparks joy to run it.

However, a lot of the older stuff I have isn’t appropriate for the modern era. In the 70s, 40-foot box cars were often used. Most of the 40’ cars were retired around the turn of the century. This necessitated buying some modern rolling stock. I am intentional with it, though. I have a list of items I look for at a good price: 89’ flat cars, 50-60’ box cars; center beam flat cars; and modern tank cars.

I do hyper-organize my collection. I bought a bunch of clear plastic bins and each bin contains a train, sans caboose and locomotives. They are labeled, so when I head to the club I can just grab the bin with the train I want to run. Every now and then I may move cars from one bin to another, but my overall goal isn’t to load up one train with my favorite cars. Instead, each bin has a collection of cars I enjoy. It is also fun coming up with a story for the train. What is it carrying? Where is coming from?

The bins are also labeled with the name of the train. Not a fancy name like The Lake Shore Limited1, but something like Intermodal, or EL Freight, mostly covered hoppers. When I go up to the club, I just scan the labels for what I am in the mood to run.

The one change I did make to my philosophy is to not toss cars beyond repair. I find I need test subjects for weathering techniques so I keep a bin of bad order cars to experiment on.

  1. Although, if I did model that train, the bin would be labeled as such.

Digital Minimalism: Sorting out Cloud Storage

One of the digital minimalism tenets I use is online (and removable) storage is akin to paying for a storage locker for your physical goods. It is easy to just shove files online or to a USB drive without questioning whether you really need all of those files. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. It ignores prudent backup strategies. We live in a world where we have multiple devices and we want our stuff on all of those devices.

So while I still pay for cloud storage (iCloud and Dropbox), I do try and be mindful of the shit I throw up there.

iCloud, iOS 13, and Catalina

The simplest solution would be to just use iCloud. I pay for the 256gb option mainly for photo storage, backups, and PDFs in iBooks. There are two main reasons I can’t go all-in on iCloud: Scrivener, and lack of selective/smart sync. Now, selective sync is one of those gray areas for my digital minimalism tenet. After all, if the storage of the files exceeds the storage space on my devices, well, why do I keep it? Honestly, it’s a valid question I don’t have the answer to. It is something I think about often, but for now there are things I don’t need replicated all of my devices.

Scrivener only uses Dropbox for syncing projects between Mac and iOS. This sync method is something that I am factoring in to my pros and cons between Scrivener and Ulysses.

A lot of this changes with the next versions of iOS and macOS. While there isn’t true selective/smart sync, both OSs let me pin a folder to ensure its contents stay downloaded. My limited tests show that a pinned folder will automatically download a newly-added file without any prompting.

Dropbox

Dropbox has a few things going for it. Scrivener works with it. It has true selective/smart sync. It also retains versions and deletion history better than iCloud. Dropbox recently raised its prices from $9.99 to $11.99 a month. This price includes smart sync, which lets you choose a folder to always remain offline. This is handy for my large archive of PDFs. I don’t usually need to have them when I’m not online and can save some disk space.

The Road Forward

I am willing to take the hit on Scrivener at this point if it means moving off Dropbox. Of the apps I use, it is the only one that solely syncs with Dropbox1. I have given myself a few action items before the new OSs are are released this fall.

  • Continue to work and see if pinning continues to work to keep files synced for offline access;
  • Work on moving writing away from Scrivener and into Pages/Ulysses;
  • Take a hard look at that large PDF archive and see if it needs to reside in the cloud.
  1. AutoCAD is the other app that doesn’t use iCloud, but I don’t use the iPad app much.

iPad Life: On a Keyboard Failure Making Me Rethink an Entire Workflow

I have used the Apple Smart Keyboard as my main keyboard for my 12.9” iPad Pro since I bought the device in January 2016. Unfortunately, they are not reliable as I have gone through two of them in that period. I went to Apple to try and plead for swapping out the second carcass but failed.

I love creating on my iPad. It is perfect for writing and drawing with. The Smart Keyboard worked well for me as it was easy to flip around from writing mode to drawing mode and it didn’t add too much weight to the device. It also charged from the iPad and I didn’t need to worry about pairing with Bluetooth.

The Smart Keyboard’s death, however, triggered a long tail of analysis.

The first thought is iOS 13 stands a chance at being a sea change for iPad productivity. I am not sure of two things: whether those changes will make a meaningful difference to how I use iOS; and if those changes work on my iPad Pro. If the answers to both of those are yes, I will likely get something like the Brydge keyboard1 for my iPad and call it a day. If the changes are amazing but don’t work on my iPad, later this year I will look at getting a new iPad Pro2. If the changes don’t improve my use if the iPad, I will take a long look at what the iPad means to my creative life.

There is always a lot of discussion about iPads as laptop replacements, but to get a new iPad Pro setup that mimics what I use now costs about $1,600. That is well towards 13” MacBook Pro prices. If you take out the Pencil, it’s pretty close since the 256GB MacBook Pro is $1,500. At that point, if I drop that kind of money I simply want my iPad to do more than it can now. Little things, like use a mouse and keyboard3, and access data on USB drives. Right now, the new iPad Pros don’t solve $1,600’s worth of problems.

All of the keyboard cases — save the Smart Keyboard — are a form factor that make the iPad more laptop-like, but at the sacrifice of the flexibility of quickly switching to tablet mode. The closest I have seen is the Brydge keyboard, but that one still requires you to remove the iPad from the keyboard to use it in tablet mode. If I am just going to jam the iPad into that style of encasement I wonder if just using my actual laptop is a better option.

Until the WWDC keynote I am not buying another keyboard for my iPad, which means until then I am trying to work off the virtual keyboard as much as possible. Right now it is a tough slog but we will see how that goes. I have a spare Bluetooth keyboard I could use, but I prefer to keep my keyboard and iPad as a singular unit. One thing I do like about the virtual keyboard is just having the tablet flat on the table and not reaching up to use the interface is amazing.

  1. Or, yes, another Smart Keyboard. They aren’t reliable but they work best for the way I use my iPad.
  2. The biggest disappointment would be if USB-drives are only available on USB-c iPads.
  3. The main use case is using our Virtual Desktop system at work.

iPad Life: Update to Playing D&D on the iPad

For reasons I can’t even begin to understand, an almost two-year-old post about how I play Pen and Paper Dungeons and Dragons on my iPad is the top hit page on this site. A lot has changed in my workflow, so I am providing an updated post.

MANAGING MY CHARACTERS

With the release of D&DBeyond, Wizard’s online compendium, they also issued Cease and Desist orders to a lot of the sites that provided character builder services. While it was possible to upload configuration files that had D&D source material, it became too much of a pain in the ass for me to manage. Instead, I figured for short money I could buy direct from Wizard the material I needed and just manage my characters on their web page.

I have been very impressed with the online portal. It’s damn easy to quickly create and update a character. A few times I have been at a con and suddenly needed a level one character in about 5-10 minutes had a workable character for the play session. Updating them when I get new gear or a new level is also very easy.

USING THE IPAD IN PLAY SESSIONS

Gone, obviously, is the Numbers sheet I was using as a hacked-together character sheet. Also the 3rd-party PDFs are gone. I instead use the portal manage my character.

Luckily, the places I play D&D have decent WiFi. With the 12.9” iPad I can view the entire web page for the character manager. From there I can adjust hit points and check off used abilities. It’s also easy to invoke mechanisms like short and long rests and the web page will automatically reset used abilities. There is also an added bonus that having the iPad laying flat on the table lets other players see I am actually using it to play the game, and not Minecraft. I also makes seeing dice rolls easy without a laptop screen in front of me.

The one area I am not thrilled with is the PDF export. For non-spell casting characters it’s fine. However, the amount of information it exports about spells is lacking. It doesn’t tell me that effects, damage, and other crucial information. This isn’t the end of the world since I just keep that PDFs in case the WiFi is crappy. There is a companion app that I can use to look up information. Unfortunately it doesn’t handle characters yet. The PDF is just a backup in case the WiFi craps out. I sync them to my iPad but I have’t needed to use them in a session yet.

I have used this system in roughly 6 games, mostly at conventions. It is working well and for about $30 I solved a lot of character management problems. Hopefully they will implement a character manager to the iPad app. The only issue I have is battery life since I am hammering the WiFi connection. I do keep a small battery charger in my bag, though.

On Apple’s Earning Adjustment and Upgrade Cycles

Apple today announced expected revenue for the holiday quarter would fall short of expectations. They didn’t miss by much, only by about $5-7 billion1. Tim Cook blamed a lot of things: China’s slow growth, longer upgrade cycles due to the elimination of cellular subsidies, and that people paying $29 to replace old batteries allowed them to keep their iPhones longer2.

What he didn’t mention was Apple raised the prices on everything over the last few years.

Now, some of the complaining about prices wasn’t justified. The new MacBook Air starts at $1,199, up $200 from the old-model’s $999 price tag. That old Air, however, was outdated. No Retina screen. Old internals. It did have MagSafe and USB-A ports, so for a lot of people it was still worth it.

The price increase on a lot of other items, yeah. I bought my 2016 15” MacBook Pro in March 2017. It replaced as my main Mac a 2011 15” MacBook Pro, and an 11” MacBook Air I bought in early 2015 right before Apple released new upgrades. The 2011 I farmed off to a co-worker; the 11” I still have3. While performance was a driver for the upgrade, a large part of it was getting a Retina screen. The 12.9” iPad Pro really made the older screens hard for me to use. I sometimes wonder if I got a 2014 13” Pro instead if it would still be my main Mac. The dual core processor would likely show its age by now. I still use the Air though, when I need MacOS and an ultra-portable computer.

My theme for 2019 Evaluation. For the record, I’m not looking at making major life changes. I am, however, evaluating the devices, apps, and services I use. For now, it’s a lot of data collection. What do I use my Mac and iPad for? I say I want to use x app more, but over the year I use y app instead. I promised myself it was unlikely I was going to upgrade any of my devices. Some of this is price. The increased price of the new iPad Pro may not have completely turned me away, but also needing to buy a new Smart Keyboard and Pencil (also at a roughly 20% price premium) surely did. The same with my iPhone. I used my 6 for three years, and I expect to get 4-5 out of my 8 Plus. New iPhones are more expensive and my existing one works just fine. For me to upgrade I need to see real-world improvement; not just benchmarked improvement.

As Patrick Rhone would say, a lot of people are finding out their current phones and devices are enough.

  1. Since this is the internet, I feel I need to mention I am being sarcastic.
  2. I am not making that one up.
  3. It’s on my desk next to me, actually.

iPad Life: Moving the Goalposts

Any discussion of using the iPad as productivity tool — be it a primary or secondary device ends up with: “Until x application is on the iPad, it can’t be a ‘real device.’” Said application is usually Photoshop. Adobe recently announced plans to bring Photoshop to the iPad. Naturally, the anti-iPad crowd folded their tents, admitted you can now do “real work” on an iPad and the argument ended.

I will give you a few moments to catch your breath from laughing so hard. The MacRumors forums — where most of the arguments I see take place — the big discussion point is that clearly it’s not the real full version of Photoshop, and here are all the reasons it will fail without even looking at the app.

This is the problem I have with people saying you can’t do “real work” on an iPad. Most of the arguments are from people who have never used the iPad for such tasks. They immediately dismiss the idea, and insist until the iPad is exactly like a Mac, it is but a child’s toy. Maybe they feel threatened that Apple will one day stop making the Mac. Maybe their fears will come true. My own issues going to an iPad-only life are well-documented. Which is why the only opinions in these arguments that matter to me are the people who have attempted to use the iPad for more than surfing the web.

Photoshop coming to the iPad is a big deal. While apps like Affinity Photo & Designer, Procreate, and Pixelmator are quality apps, Photoshop is the standard for any photo editing. It’s great to see Adobe finally realize they need to bring their apps to the iPad.