Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lessons from York - Integrated Knowledge

I've already talked about the trip my father and I made to York, Pennsylvania for the recent toy train meet. In addition to having a little insight into the problem of perspective, I also relearned the value of integrated knowledge.

With the explosive growth of Wikipedia, Google, and similar sites, there's been a corresponding rise in the assumption that one doesn't really have to remember anything. If all of the human knowledge is available online, one just has to call it up. And if it's there, why memorize it?

It makes sense if two things remain true. The first is that everything is available online. The second is that you'll always have access to it.

There's something else to consider. The information you internalize is information you can really use. Because all that data can be mentally combined many different ways to yield new truths and insights. And the more information (and the aforementioned insights) you have, the easier it is to make better decisions.

My real-world demonstration of this came at the train show.

Dad found a Lionel train set he was interested in (a standard gauge "baby state set" for those in the know). But was it worth the asking price?

Cell phones and other devices aren't allowed in the halls at the show -- we were offline. Dad had to rely on his own knowledge, based on years of research and first-hand experience. He talked me through his thought process as he considered the purchase.

He knew that this particular set was cataloged from 1930 to 1933 (he had helped fact-check the early editions of several Greenberg's Guides ).

Dad examined the locomotive, looking primarily at the motor. There were two different types in use at the time, but only one would be correct for this particular model (restorers often use the other). It was the correct model.

He pointed out that the engine had been run, and although it had some wear, was still in good shape. The "flip-flop" reverse unit was missing, which actually added to the authenticity.

As Dad explained, this kind of unit toggled back and forth, causing the engine to reverse direction. Unfortunately, the mechanism was a little too sensitive, and often changed direction on its own if the engine experienced any kind of minor bump -- such as going to a switch or a crossover. As a result, many frustrated operators simply removed them.

Dad further pointed out that the wear patterns on the car roofs were consistent with the age, and actually very good considering the paint method used. He explained that Lionel used to dip the car bodies and roofs in the paint until about 1933 when they went to spraying on the paint. Cars that were dipped sometimes showed evidence of running paint, and in this case further confirmed that the paint was original.

Dad also knew that the formula for the dark brown paint didn't let it adhere well to the metal, and so to find the roofs of all three cars with no metal showing helped determine the value of the set.

The couplers were original, and their 70-year-old springs still in good condition. To Dad, this suggested the train was probably only run on holidays and had relatively little active use. There were other indicators as well; the proper logo plate on the engine's motor, the consistent aging of the remaining window cellulose, and so on.

All of which told Dad this was an original set in good (but not great) condition, and it was priced fairly. He bought it.

Even if we had been able to access the web, it wouldn't have helped much. Notice the paucity of links in this post. After researching this for over a week, I still can't find most of this information anywhere online.

Sure, it's all available in various reference guides, but they were several hundred miles away when Dad saw that train.

But Dad had spent years accumulating the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision that day -- and he was ready.

And that's the point. The Internet isn't the be-all end-all. And just having a list of facts isn't the same as understanding the relationship between them.

Dad got the train. And I relearned a valuable lesson.

- Ralph

BTW - the picture is the type of train Dad bought, but not the actual set.

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