Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Straco Express and the Mystery Train

If you've ready my earlier post this 1960's Japanese tin toy train, the Straco Express, you'll know I was confronted with something of a mystery. This train set I purchased had the exact same section track as a set I owned in my childhood. And yet, when I put the two together, they couldn't be more different. (You can click on the images to enlarge them.)

The Straco Express had clear markings on it, which allowed me to find some background information about the toy. It also had fairly sophisticated metalwork. The engine required quite a bit of hand assembly, and each of the three cars were constructed in a different fashion, requiring mostly different tooling.

My childhood Santa Fe, however, was a different story. As near as I can recall, the set always only had three pieces -- the Santa Fe diesel, vaguely resembling an F3, and two box cars. No caboose.

The boxcars are slightly bigger than the Straco Express boxcar, and are much more cheaply made. The metal has no embossed details, and the roof is rounded rather than creased. Having two of the same car body with different graphics is a huge savings over having three different car designs.

I have yet to find anything about this set either online or in reference books available. Clearly it was made in Japan, most likely in the late 1950's-early 1960's. Did the FJ Strauss company (who had the Straco Express made for them) also make this set? There's no markings anywhere, save for a small marking on the back of the engine saying "Trade Mark Made in Japan."

If anyone has information about this set, I'd love to know more. Was it the same Japanese company making toys for two separate American importers? That's my guess, but I'd really like to know for sure.

 - Ralph


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, this is embarrassing (but not to me)

There's a huge controversy stirring at WTJU, the station I volunteer for (but this post isn't about that). The University wants to makeover the station, and listeners are understandably upset (OK, me too). The University hurriedly set up a forum for listeners and volunteers to share their thoughts.

They came up with a really nice header for the site. (Click to enlarge) This is the embarrassing part.

You see, I recognized the image -- because I took it. Here's the original. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Notice the computer screen -- it's showing the playlist blog for my show "Gamut" that I was updating at the time.

I didn't give the University permission to use this image, so where did it come from? Well, I posted it on my Facebook page, so it apparently was lifted from there. So here's the dilemma. Do I send a take-down notice to the University for the unauthorized use of my work? Or leave it alone?

The takeaway (as if I didn't already know it), is that anything online is fair game -- to anyone.
 - Ralph

Friday, June 25, 2010

Straco Express - A closer look

Here's a little bit more on this toy train I've been nattering on the last two posts.

The Straco Express was an HO-scale electric train imported by the FJ Strauss Company around 1960. The set consisted of a locomotive, a boxcar, a gondola car, and a caboose. It also included an oval of sectional track, three railroad signs, and a battery-operated transformer.

Below are photos of each of the cars (click on each image to enlarge), and a special bonus video!

The locomotive is the most detailed component, and -- as it's all embossed metal -- the most complex to assemble. It mostly resembles an EMD SW-1, a very popular switch engine (especially among toy train makers) at the time.

The boxcar is also embossed metal and shares the same frame as the gondola car. I'm not sure the U.S. Mail ever had boxcars painted red, white, and blue -- but Lionel did. Their 6428 U.S. Post Office boxcar was offered in the early and middle 1960's.

The gondola car shared the same frame as the box car. It had a lithographed floor -- an impressive amount of detail for such an inexpensive item. The edges of the body are curled in, giving the sides added strength. And although very hard to see the white letters against the pale yellow sides, the gondola is marked N.Y.C. (New York Central)

To me, it looks like the creative team ran out of gas when they got to the caboose. The locomotive and freight cars are fairly well proportioned, but the caboose is a little small. Nevertheless, it still has an impressive amount of detail, particularly the railings on the ends of the car.

Although I don't have a complete circle of track, I did have enough to do a test run. The battery-powered transformer's control isn't very subtle -- it's basically on or off. Here's the Straco Express, barreling down the track across the wasteland of my desk. All aboard!

 - Ralph

BTW - If anyone has an extra curved section of track from an FJ Strauss, MRK, or Americo tin toy train set, let me know!


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Straco Express - A Better Story

Last post I shared an Antiques Roadshow version of my purchase of a small, tin toy train. But there's an even odder story (and I think a more interesting one) associated with the Straco Express.

The train was offered for sale "as is." (There's a picture of the Straco Express I purchased at right). It was in a small cardboard box with the locomotive, two cars, and a caboose. Included was the battery-powered transformer, and some track. Not enough track to make a complete circle, but what survived from the original set.

One of the reasons I decided to purchase the set was because I recognized the sectional track in the box. It seemed to be a match to the ones that came with a small toy train set I had as a child (pictured at right).

When we got back to Dad's house, we pulled out the old set, and the sectional track matched! We had tested the Straco locomotive, and it worked, so I was excited to put all the track together and start running trains.

But when I combined the tracks from the Straco set and my old set, I was exactly one piece short. I couldn't complete the circle. The set was HO scale (sort of), so I invested in a circle of modern HO sectional track. No luck. The flanges on the wheels are wider than those of most HO-scale locomotives, which causes the engine to bounce up and down on the ties of the track, breaking the electrical connection.

So I'm stuck until I can find a curved piece of track.

But that's not the whole story. The train I bought was the Straco Express, a Japanese-made toy for the American-based Strauss Company (not the same ones who make the jeans). But the one I already owned, though also Japanese in origin, was not. And with the exception of the track, the trains have almost nothing in common.

In the photo below, the boxcar from the Straco Express (left) is next to one from my childhood Santa Fe set. The two boxcars have different frames, different body styles, different trucks (wheel assemblies) and different roofs (angled vs. rounded).  Click on images to enlarge.

Did two different companies sub-contract to the same source for the track? Did one Japanese company actually make both sets for different American firms based on client designs? I don't know -- but I'd sure like to find out. Internet searches have yielded almost no additional information about the train of my childhood.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Straco Express - The Antiques Roadshow Version

Even if you've never watched "Antiques Roadshow," you've heard this story before. Here's my version:

At a recent toy train show I spotted this 1960's Japanese toy train on a table. It was an HO gauge electric labeled the Straco Express. I'm not normally interested in such things, but there was something appealing about it (possibly the bright colors of the lithography). The set was priced at $25.00, but I was able to talk the guy down to $20.00. When I got back home and looked it up online, I saw that one had recently sold for $2,500! I'm rich!

(Sorry for the screen shot. I wasn't able to get the full entry before it was removed from the site. Click on the image to enlarge.)

Many people have a similar story in mind as they search out antiques and "collectibles" at yard sales and thrift shops. And many definitely have it in mind when they price their stuff!

But such situations are extremely rare. And often -- as in the case of my purchase, not quite true. I did indeed purchase a Straco Express tin toy train. And while it's identical to the one sold in Canada for $2,500, there are critical differences.

First, I don't have the original box, nor do I have any of the little railroad signs and accessories that came with the set. Especially for ephemeral items such as cheap Japanese toys, original packaging seldom survived. That makes it rare, and accounts for a large part of the value. Same with the small accessories, which often disappeared into the vacuum cleaner.

While my Straco Express does have the original transformer (operated by two D cell batteries), I don't have a complete circle of track. So even though the engine runs, I can't really run it -- if you know what I mean. And that also decreases value.

And there's something else. That sale took place on ebay. If I were to put mine up for auction, there's no guarantee I'd get anywhere close to that amount. In fact, there's currently a similar set for sale online, with the original box, and most of the accessories, for $26.00. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The short, Antiques Roadshow-style story is great, but I'm not really $2,500 to the good. But I am in possession of an item that I was happy to pay $20.00 for. And one that has an interesting story of it's own -- which I'll share next post.

- Ralph


Friday, June 18, 2010

The Golden Ticket and the NPR Time Delay

At this point I'm used to the time lag between when news breaks and when mainstream media gets around to reporting it. It's still a little disconcerting when I run across an specific example -- especially from a usually reliable source like National Public Radio.

On July 16, NPR reported on a new opera premiering in St. Louis. The article was a pretty good informative piece about The Golden Ticket, an opera based on Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But the date's important. According to the article,
The opera called The Golden Ticket seemed like just that — a natural way for opera companies to attract new audiences by bringing families into the opera house. But the world premiere under way now at Opera Theatre of St. Louis did not have a sweet ride from conception to opening night.
Felicity Dahl says that if sweets improve with age, then The Golden Ticket is ready to be tasted. 
"It naturally takes a long time, but this took far too long," she says. "I take my hat off to St. Louis for biting the bullet, and I don't think they'll live to regret it."
The story makes it all sound like no one knows yet how the work will be received.

But I already knew.

One of the cast members, Jennifer Rivera, wrote in her blog "Trying to Remain Opera-tional" on July 14,
So last night, at our opening of The Golden Ticket, something wonderful happened.

The real story is the World Premiere, and that it was a success. I can say that it felt from stage as if the audience was with us every step of the way. They laughed in all the right moments, and even in some new moments where we hadn't necessarily anticipated the laughs.
[Ms. Rivera's post tells of something else that happened at the world premiere -- I encourage you to read it].

And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote on the same day:

There aren’t that many new operas designed to make the audience laugh out loud. “Ticket,” which opened Sunday evening, does just that — and with honest, sweet humor — combining ingenious music that neatly parodies assorted operatic cliches and a clever libretto that has fun with Dahl’s delicious morality play. Add to that a nearly ideal cast, and you have something enjoyable for adults and children alike.

So let's review:

The evening of the premier Jennifer Rivera posts that the opera was a hit with the audience. The same night the St. Louis paper says the same thing. So the word's out to those following this story -- the opera's a success.

Two days later NPR reports on this new opera being staged in St. Louis. The basic thrust of their story:  How will the audience receive it? Only time will tell.

Time's already told.

Come on, even if the story was written before the premier, a quick check on the 15th would have pulled up those stories, and the article could have been made current before being released on the 16th.

Running out-of-date stories? Now that's lamestream media.

 - Ralph

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Medieval vs. Modern

I'm currently rereading Barbara W. Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century." Some people think that history is irrelevant -- and really old history is really irrelevant. I disagree. People don't really change that much over time, and seeing how others act in similar situations to ours can be illustrative (plus there's the added insight of understanding how we got to where we are).

Case in point: a passage from Tuchman's book talking about one of the few female practicing doctors of the age:
At the University of Bologna in the 1360s the faculty included Novella d'Andrea, a woman so renowned for her beauty that she lectured behind a veil lest her students be distracted. Nothing is said, however, of her professional capacity.
And then this news item from last week, where Debrahlee Lorenzana claims in court papers that she was forced out of her Manhattan Citibank job because she was too good looking. Her male managers found her appearance "too distracting."

Two women at work, separated by almost 900 years. So how much have we really progressed?

Monday, June 14, 2010

This Week in Law hosts an exception discussion of copyright

Although not a lawyer, I'm a big fan of This Week in Law. Program #62 was particularly outstanding, especially in providing real insight and practical, first-hand looks at the use and value of copyright in a file-sharing world. Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing editor and author, along with Mike Masnick of TechDirt discussed with host Denise Howell and regular Evan Brown how files haring and "piracy" hasn't hurt or devalued their creative content.

Many studies have shown that when it comes to music, a record label's best customers are those who share files. I encourage you to listen to this podcast episode even if you normally don't (or don't think a law-oriented discussion is your cup of tea).

Among other things, Doctorow presents an interesting concept; that the emotional investment companies have in their business models often trumps the practicality of said models. It certainly explains the continued efforts of the RIAA!

Doctorow tells the story of what happened when the E.U. considered changing database copyright laws. In Europe, database information can be copyrighted, giving each information company its own little monopoly. In America, this information can't be copyrighted. Result: In America the information industry grew 25 times over the same period the European information industry declined. Apparently, the only thing that prevented a sharper decline were the investments some European companies made in American firms.

So what happened when the E.U. looked into lifting the copyright restrictions on databases? In reality, everyone could see it was the way to go, but even the companies that invested in the U.S. firms weren't emotionally ready to give up their exclusive control. So the restrictions remain, to the benefit of the U.S. industry, and the detriment of the European.

There's more in this program, such as how the lack of copyright spurs fashion innovation and why link farms don't matter. This is important stuff, and something we should all be informed about. Because the laws being put on the books, and the draconian punishments that go with them, aren't being formed on the reality of the situation, but on the emotional investment of the major players -- and that affects all of us.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall of Comics

Last Thursday two cartoonists teamed up to create something unique. Each turned in their regular comic strip that with a gag. But if you were lucky enough to read them on the same comics page, both together created a third gag that perhaps was greater than the whole.

To start the process, look at Stephen Pastis' strip "Pearls Before Swine."

If you've follow "Pearls Before Swine," you know that Pastis has riffed on the squeaky-clean single-panel comic "Family Circus" before. And perhaps you might think it was Pastis just having fun at another strip's expense.

Now look at the Family Circus panel for the same day.

The "Not Me" gag is a well-established one, and there have been variants on this theme for years. The mother demands to know who spilled the milk, or broke the vase, or tracked mud into the house, and one or more of the children say "Not Me" as the aptly-named invisible character runs away.

If you saw the "Family Circus" without the "Pearls Before Swine" strip, you might think this was just another Not Me gag.

But it's not.

Usually Not Me runs away with a mischievous glance over its shoulder. Not this time. Note that Not Me walks away with a shrug -- not even it knows who threw the sunflower seeds on the floor.

And there in lies the genius of this collaboration. By breaking the fourth wall (in this case, the barrier between comics), Pastis and Keene have delivered a joke that is far funnier (in part because its unexpected) than either strip delivers individually.

Now that's comic genius.