Sunday, March 30, 2008

A raised planting bed in the garden

As planned I built a raised planting bed right after we came back from Germany. It came out really nice. I used an article from Sunset for the material and general idea. The bed is 8x4ft and a good 1 foot high. I used pressure-treated fir instead of redwood, since it's made for soil contact, and will last longer than redwood. It also was much cheaper. All that's missing now is the planting dirt.

Here are some more pictures

Where do I get 32 cubic feet of bulk dirt in the South Bay? And how do I get all that dirt to my house?

Home Depot is selling bulk material (rocks, soil, etc.) delivered to your door step, ... errm backyard. Pricing for soil is about 20% of what you pay for packaged soil at the store. The catch? They charge $60 for delivery, so my 32 cubic feet come out to ~$96 delivered, vs. $76 if I get the cheapest soil they have in the store. Nice idea, but I don't need enough that this is worthwhile.

In the end I got only 18 cuft of garden soil, and Patricia picked up some awesome compost at one of the mushroom farms in Morgan Hill for free.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Viva Die Bahn!

As I arrived at Stuttgart Hbf I went straight to "PresseCenter", got a little bit reading material, was minding my own business, not expecting anything bad to happen. My mom drove me to the station, and helped with the luggage.

As I got to the platform, however, they showed those beautiful notices on the destination signs: "Dieser Zug verkehrt heute nicht" This train is not in service today. ... uh ... huh? I have a ticket with reservation for that ICE 576 I even have a seat reservation!

German Bahn helpfully placed a little lady at the platform, "next connection to Mannheim 13:51 from track 9". But I want to go to Frankfurt Airport! "Frankfurt Airport 14:05, change trains in Frankfurt Hbf". Ugh. 2 large suitcases, one carry-on, and my laptop backpack. No way I'm going to change trains.
The information kiosk confirms that the ICE to Mannheim actually continues on to Frankfurt Airport. Good. Now I just need the ticket changed to the other train. Long lines at the "service point", only one guy behind the counter. I go down to the "ReiseCenter", get in another long line... at least it's serviced by 5 counters. 10 minutes later I'm back at the platform, and say Goodbye to my mom.

From talking to other passengers it appears that the tracks were closed. I'm guessing there was an accident, and the tracks were closed for the investigation.

I tried to see if T-Mobile hotspots on ICE actually work ... hmmm. doesn't look like it. I get an IP address, and can talk to the (squid) proxy on the train, but no connection to the outside world. Looks like either there is no connection, or their DNS server is borked.

United Airlines from Frankfurt

After a joyous 70 minutes in the vestibule of an ICE, sitting on top of my suitcase, I arrived at Frankfurt Airport. Frankfurt is hands down the world's worst airport when it comes to signage. It's not that they don't have signs. Actually, there are a lot. However, you need to know how to interpret them. It doesn't help that my United flight is leaving from a part of Hall C that is under re-construction.

Here is my route from the doors of the train to the seat in the waiting room:
- exit train, get luggage cart
- walk around the escalators
- get on long escalator to mezzanine level of the Fernbahnhof
- continue on short escalator to main level of Fernbahnhof [there is a nice glass roof construction here. Reminds me a little bit of the roof at Munich Olympic Stadium.
- enter Fernbahnhof main corridor
- head towards airport, do not stop at Rail&Fly Check-In counters [they are Lufthansa only, boy would *that* be convenient]
- continue through the corridor, avoid other passengers, various small and large booths along the way
- Be puzzled at the end of the corridor: Turn right to Terminal 1, Hall A, or left to Terminal 1, Halls B+C, and Terminal 2.
- Check poster on the wall. Aha! United is in Terminal 1, Hall B.
- Turn left, down the long escalator, cart nose down.
- Watch that carry-on bag! It might slide off the suitcases and hit someone!
- Continue straight ahead, ignore signs to Terminal 2, and continue on short escalator down to the dungeons [I think the reason why they didn't just extend the dungeons to the Fernbahnhof is that there is a large building in the way (parking?) ]
- Watch the really short end of that escalator, climb a few steps backwards on the escalator for more leverage to push the cart over the bump at the bottom of the escalator.
- Make a U-Turn to avoid hitting the wall right after the escalator [Be happy, that you didn't have to take the route in the opposite direction. That escalator was out of order... ]
- Hang left and navigate through cross-traffic of people leaving the airport for the regional train station, towards a rather narrow pair of doors back into the airport. Those folks show no apparent interest for someone trying feverishly to keep his luggage cart on track.
- Get on a long escalator up to Departures in Hall B. Where are the United counters. Good thing I remembered the counter numbers from earlier (501-507). Eventually, I found the United counters in a corner dominated by almost 50 Lufthansa counters.
- Be pleasantly surprised that there is absolutely no line at the United counters. The counter personnel was visibly bored when I arrived. My two suitcases weighted in with a total of 47kg. No complaint from behind the counter. Phew.
- Continue on to Hall C, hang left through a barely marked door into a hallway with a few stores.
- The end of the hallway is fenced off, turn left following signs to C2-26
- Finally, the security check ... uh, wait. All doors are closed? My face must have looked pretty dumb. So the security check is closed. What now?
- Eventually I see more signs to gates C2-26 that lead into departure hall C [huh???] , through the hall into a new hall that was apparently added later and is not in operation yet.
- I turn around head back to the departure hall and get a book and something to drink.
- Walking by finished but empty counters I continue through the new hall, hang right, past closed store fronts with workers still building the stores inside.
- Make a sharp left turn and hang right into a somewhat dimly lit corridor with open ceiling, past construction walls.
- The coolest part was a large tarp hanging under the ceiling with a drain pipe into a waste bin. Apparently water is leaking from the roof into the corridor.
- Continue to the end of that corridor and hang left into another smaller corridor, down a short escalator.
- Finally, the security check for gates C7-9.
- No-one in line, I'm through in no time and find myself a seat near C7.

Boarding starts in 20 minutes. Time to pack away the computer and get in line to the gate area.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's gone

The big layout of my childhood no longer exists. Here's how things went down...

Tuesday: 2h, most of catenary.

Wednesday: 2h, more catenary, the first sections of track on the upper level.

Thursday: 3h, bridge, most of the upper level, start with freight area.

Friday: 5h, ramps, main station, rest of freight area and remaining visible track.

Saturday: 3h, dismantle mountain to get to the tunnel tracks, remove tunnel tracks;
4h, box all material, and clean out parts from base plywood.

Sunday: 1h, removing cables from the underside of the layout

16 working hours to take this layout apart cleanly, and pack away salvageable pieces. The saying is true, it's much easier to destroy than to build...

Left to do is cleaning out some more of the electrical from the underside of the layout, as well as removing some control switch boxes for a temporary setup back home.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


In most of the forum posts and descriptions I read, people recommend converting Maerklin's "Allstrom" motors to a regular DC motor (e.g. using Maerklin's "Hochleistungsmotor" conversion kit), or replace the motor altogether, and then use a decoder for the Motorola format (such as Maerklins c90 or c91 decoders) to convert them for digital operation. The conversion kit comes with a decoder and seems to go for ~100 Euros.

While browsing Viessmann's catalog I found a decoder that's made specifically for Maerklin's "Allstrom" motors (Viessmann 5274). The decoder is actually made by Uhlenbrock with part number 72600, is functionally equivalent to Maerklin's c91 decoder, fully programmable using CVs, with speed regulation, and has 4 function outputs. The nice thing about this decoder is that apparently you don't need to do anything to the existing motor. Just replace the direction changer switch/solenoid with the decoder, re-solder a few wires and you're set, provided the loco runs fine mechanically. Sounds too easy to be true. The decoder runs on regular AC, and Maerklin Digital (Motorola format) tracks, and costs around 45 Euros.

I'll see if I can find that decoder around here and try it out with one of the Diesel or Electric locos we have.

And yes, this is a hobby that can get expensive very quickly ... sigh

Turns out is selling the 72600 decoder for $47.99. No point trying to get them in Germany. Their pricing on new Marklin K-track is also very competitive compared to German second hand retail, or online retailers in Germany, especially taking into account exchange rates. I see an order in the near future...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Starting to dismantle the old layout

It's strange to take apart something you spent months and years to build, and help to build, many, very many years ago. Last night I dismantled the catenary of the family layout. Next up are a few left-over catenary masts, and the semaphor-style signals. Then we'll move on to vacuuming the dust from the layout and brush off dirt from all tracks, followed by removing all the track. In parallel I'm surveying locos and will pick a few first victims to get a decoder.

In the ideal case this will all be done before I'm packing my suitcase again and I'll take enough material back home to start experimenting with running locos and trains using digital controls. I'm particularly interested in ways to control digital trains using analog signals, since I'm planning to only digitize operating trains, but leave controlling switches and signals manually. I might add computerized control later (particularly in my hidden staging area), but we'll see about that when it's time.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


It's nice to be in a European city again. There is a working public transit system that people actually use. In the evening there are regular people out on the streets, enjoying themselves while they are trying to decide which restaurant to go to. People walk to work (yes, I know, strange concept). But the thing that hit me the most:

The chime of church bells on Sunday morning. I don't know how to say this, but it makes me happy. The sound of the bells over the background noise of the city... it sounds right.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Layout Room Revisited

I guess it was hard to follow my explanation of what the layout room will look like. Tonight I spent some time with SketchUp to see if I could master the program at least to the level of getting an image of the layout room in our garage. After quite some swearing I produced this.

That came out quite nicely.

The image shows our garage with part of the side wall not modeled. The front of the garage is to the left. I marked the platform with the raised floor in green. The yellow beams are 2x4's that will keep the layout out of sight from the street. I'll mount regular drywall panels on both sides. The 2x4s don't connect to the surrounding walls at all. However, they do line up with the fairly massive beam supporting the upper story of the house. They are only screwed to the platform, so that I don't penetrate the garage firewall.
Just for fun I added washer and dryer, water heater, and the furnace on the left hand side of the garage, as well as my work-bench and various cabinets in the back of the garage.
The door to the inside of the house is between the platform and the large white cabinet.

The area marked in red is the space for the car.