Sunday, 10 May 2020

Future Proofing

Future Proofing

Last weekend, Rod sent me a great picture of Wagga signal box, and the cottages beyond.  Rod knew that I was looking at modelling the cottages, and this was the first picture I had showing the roof pitch from side-on.  I was also excited, as the signalbox was painted in the colours I chose for my HO model, AND the heater had not been converted to gas.  
I dutifully saved the picture in my folders showing Wagga’s railway infrastructure.
<picture from Rod>

Picture of the Wagga Wagga Signal Box, date 1978.  Photographer Ken Lewis

On Monday, I powered on the laptop, and I had a totally blank screen.

My Acer Aspire 5542 laptop was probably at the end of its life, having bought it in January 2010, with the then new Windows 7 operating system.  In the intervening years, the only hardware problems it had was a dead CMOS battery in 2016, which also resulted in a dead screen.  So thinking that maybe the CMOS battery had again failed, I totally disassembled the laptop to gain access to the motherboard hidden within.  Unfortunately, the new CMOS battery failed to bring the screen back to life.
The only quick way forward was to acquire a new laptop.

Rebuilding the new laptop has been an adventure, and has made me think about the risks one has in technology, and how that could affect our model train hobby.

Fortunately, I had a recent backup of all my data files dated April 30, and whilst Rod’s supplied picture was not on the backup, I had not deleted his earlier email.   Some people have suggested that I store all my data in the “cloud” and allow another company to manage it.  This has the advantage of not worrying about backups, and being able to access the data/images on any PC or smart phone also connected to the cloud.  Let us hope the cloud continues to operate, the internet stays running, as you have no control if they don’t.

Things outside your control
Those who saw the “oval” pictures on my two more recent Blog posts from March,  will see that certain unexpected changes happen. I still do not know what caused the issue, although Google did say they were working on the problem, which affected quite a number of blogs.  Now it was “fixed” but there was no automatic restoration of my images.  This was a manual process for me. Fortunately, I had my original images

Software and Hardware compatibility. 
Over the years (I started my computing degree in 1978, and was very familiar with programs coded on punch cards), and many "dead" programming languages (like Cobol - although I hear that there are still active Cobol programs out there).  But, a lot of my electronic stored data,  has been lost in the intervening years, as well as the software to read the 5.25”, and 3.5” floppy disks have also become scarce.  This might be considered progress, as we moved onto CDs, USB Thumb drives, SD Cards, DVDs, high capacity Hard drives, and now solid state drives.  Each move forward has left some of the old hardware behind.  I wonder how many people had libraries of Beta, and VHS video tape (many containing Railway videos) that they cannot now view?

Companies going out of business.
 During the reconstruction of the files, I found that the company that supplied my Solar monitoring hardware, had gone out of business.  Finding the drivers, and software to reconnect my hardware was non trivial.  This leads to another  aspect that also affects the railway modeller.
In the last few years, we have had the retirement of the owners of the following companies (there are more)  Shinohara, Mashima, Grandt Line, PSC, NWSL.  Luckily, some of the product ranges have alternatives, or have been retained, either with a new owner, or by acquisition by another company.  Things we are so comfortable with, can suddenly change.   Anyone with Virgin Velocity points will know how quickly things can change in just a day.

But who is to say, our carefully selected train control systems, signalling, etc systems that we buy for the layout will be available if the company that makes them goes broke?  You can hope that by adoption of a common standard, such as DCC, and JMRI, will future proof things somewhat, although, if your layout was controlled by my laptop that just died, you are instantly out of the model train operation business until you can find a replacement, and reload all the software.

And do you have the expertise to diagnose, or repair what has been installed?  Reliance on a few talented  individuals for all the electronics black magic is also a recipe for disappointment when failures occur.  Overly complicating things, and almost full automation is probably not a suitable way to proceed with a layout, unless you are into such things. 

What can you do? 

Sure, keeping a supply of spares is mandatory, and I have duplicates of the NCE Power Cabs, CDUs, power supplies.  I would also suggest that you should test them every so often. 

We take everything for granted at our peril.

An update.  My "new" laptop failed last Thurs, and is back with the retailer for repair, replacement, or refund.  After spending a lot of time on preparing this blogpost on the "new" laptop, I have had to do it again on a borrowed computer  Fortunately, this was the only document affected, and I still have my 30 April backup.


  1. Things will always break at the worst time :( Hope its all up and running again soon.

  2. Technology is marvelous, but I quite often think that a philosophy of new is always better pervades our society. Change for changes sake is just dumb. I am finding over time that computer hardware is failing more often and after shorter timeframes. This is very frustrating as I only back up at irregular times, and have lost a lot of data and work over the years. I believe that not enough effort is put into supplying quality components and that there is a tendency towards planned obsolescence or a "use by date" for hardware, but definitely there is a one for software.

    As you observed there is also a tendency to overcomplicate systems with no planned backup system. This is a recipe for disaster. My philosophy is the KISS principle, but providing for later upgrading and additional feature in any systems I implement. Mechanical operation should always be considered as a system backup.

    A well thought out blog post and thanks for reinforcing my perceptions.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Many of the "features" that I will be including on the Wagga layout will be mechanical. I have already described my Tumbarumba turntable being totally manual, like the prototype. All of the turnouts/points on the branch will also be manual pushrod from the side fascia. The only area on the layout that will have electronic complexity will be the hidden staging sidings, where route selection will be used. Anyway, all this is in the future.