Category Archives: Thinking

Dealing with reality

Mike Cougill has made a more than usually thought-provoking post on his blog, on the need to persevere through the learning process.

Finding something not as easy as you thought it would be? Finding that you need to improve your skill as they are not as good as you thought they were? Don’t give up or lower your standards: keep going.

We learn through repetition. We get more skilled by regular practice.

Festina lente!

Wanting to be better

In 1980, the scientist and author Isaac Asimov memorably commented on ignorance:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Well, I am fairly sure that this isn’t restricted to the USA: my language skills are not sufficient for me to be able to comment on other cultures, but it seems fairly widespread in the anglophone world, and very much so in our hobby. This does not just apply to knowledge of the prototype – although that in itself is a big problem (witness the number of times you will see layouts praised  on forums [fora?]for being “operationally challenging”, when the prototype wants exactly the opposite) – but also to skills. I am all for encouraging people to post their efforts as they start to learn the craft, and there to be positive encouragement, but surely that also includes advice on how to redress such basics as learning to cut in a straight line, and how to make sure basic assemblies are square, rather than offering uncritical praise? We aren’t at pre-school: most of us are adults, and if not adults yet, then anyone reading this blog is possessed of enough self-awareness to realise that the drive to be better is a sign of a healthy human being.

Let me re-phrase the quote:

There is a cult of mediocrity in the hobby, and there has always been. The strain of anti-finescale has been a constant thread winding its way through our media and clubs, nurtured by the false notion that “fun” means that my “near enough is good enough” is just as good as your desire for accuracy.

 

Nothing new under the sun…

A lot of people seem to lay claim to the “less is more” concept: I see it frequently posted on the web along the lines of, “John Smith explains his ‘less is more’ concept” or even “I explain my ‘less is more’ concept”.

Anyway, I came across this wonderful quote from Seneca the Younger (5BCE-65CE):

It is quality rather than quantity that matters.

…and Standards

Engineers talk about tolerances, the degree to which a component can vary from a specification – and also whether that is plus, minus or ±. These two things, the specification and the tolerance, are the very definition of standards. The finer (smaller) the tolerances, the finer the standard and the greater the precision. Simple. But the standard is the standard, and the tolerance is the tolerance, regardless of the degree of precision.

And here, I think, lies the problem. When people hear or see the word “standards” they automatically add the qualification “high”, or even “very high” even if it isn’t there. But let’s be clear, even if you buy things off the shelf, they have been made to a standard: to ensure maximum sales potentials, track will have defined standards for gauge and flangeways, and wheels will have defined back to back and flange profiles. These can be defined in various ways, such as “track gauge equals check gauge plus flangeway” and “back to back equals check gauge minus glance width”, but the point is, by buying off the shelf, a modeller has already implicitly accepted these standards, albeit unknowingly in many cases.

Finescale is about accepting the degree to which perfection is unattainable. Whilst “exact scale” may be used to set an accurate track gauge, etc, the physical world of engineering tolerances means that is not fully achievable. This is liberating, as it points to the need to allow for a degree of imperfection. Finescale is therefore all about setting standards: not just for track and wheels, but about everything: level of detail, contemporaneously correct details, etc. It’s an attitude of mind. This acknowledgement and definition of standards is the definition of how we wish to achieve our aims. And the measure of success is gauged against these standards. And this is where the pitfalls lie and misunderstandings arise.

  • This is an entirely personal and individual choice: what works for me may not work for you.
  • Similarly, not consciously adopting or defining standards is a perfectly feasible alternative: if buying off the shelf works for you, then by all means do so, but please don’t think you have avoided having standards by accepting someone else’s.
  • The fact that I have defined my personal standards does not mean I think I am in any way “better” than anyone else. It’s just my way of doing my hobby. If you resent my active choice of standards, that’s says nothing about me but a lot about you.
  • Working to a tighter degree of tolerance takes more time. I might achieve “less” in terms of quantity, but that’s not what I want.
  • This in no way contradicts the “good enough” concept: it is entirely congruent with it.. I am not building an operationally-focused “basement empire”, so replacing cast details is fine by me: that’s how I enjoy my modelling. If I had the space and desire for a large operations oriented layout, I would be using RTR equipment, modified, repainted and weathered to be sure, but everything would be subordinate to the aim of creating that dream, which has to be balanced against the time I have available.
  • As a corollary to all the above, what works for you in your circumstances probably won’t work for me in mine, so please don’t force your secret of success on me, or tell me that it is the only way to happiness.

Fundamentally I get more from satisfaction than from fun. This takes more time, but is much more enjoyable.

This post, and the last two, was inspired by Mike Cougill’s recent post on inspiration, whose wonderful blog continues to a haven for the sane, rational and thoughtful amongst the hobby.

Personality

In a round-robin Email between a small group of friends (whom I like to think of as “The Unusual Suspects”) Matt LaChance, not even speaking in his mother tongue, came out with several superb insights, not least of which was this:

I’m still looking for my personal approach to this [for the] Temiscouata project even though I know deep inside all the key ingredients are there. Making a good layout right now would be easy, but making it a special layout with personality, that is something else. I have a blurry vision in my mind, I can almost feel on my neck the slightly chilly wind that sweep the St. John’s River valley, but have yet to translate it on the canvas.

Now, isn’t that a grand, poetic way to view the creation of a Model Railway?

That’s my emphasis, but what a great phrase, “a special layout with personality”.

When you think about it, isn’t that what precisely (and yet indefinably) defines a great layout?

Armchairs

That thorny perennial subject, “armchair modellers” (I have been here before!), has cropped up on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum. I have copied my response directly:

I watched a film recently. I felt that the script was weak, the direction poor and the acting wooden. I have never been involved in producing a film or video. Does that make my opinion invalid?

I have been involved in amateur theatre in various forms, although not for many years. Am I “allowed”, therefore, to comment on plays?

I used to play the guitar, and have even appeared on stage in a couple of bands, Does that qualify me to be a music critic? Does that make my opinions somehow more valid than a non-musician, but less valid that a professional musician?

Surely we don’t need to have “qualifications” to be able to express an opinion about our hobby? Yes, if one has never made anything, then it is hard to credibly tell someone else how to do it, but to comment on how good something is, or to suggest an idea of how a problem may be solved, surely that is nothing more than taking an active interest?

I’ll accept the opinion anyone who has an interest in the hobby, a brain, and thoughtful respect for the opinions of others. I might disagree with it. I might not even be interested in it. As long as it is clear whether it is the voice of personal experience, a reference to someone else’s successful technique, or an untried idea, then who cares whether it came from a workbench or an armchair?

There is enough division and bitterness in the world already. Do we really need to bring it into a hobby, our avenue of escape from the outside world?

But, horror of horrors, I am writing this on a tablet, sat in my armchair. Ah well, that at least qualifies me to comment on this topic…

Simon