Category Archives: Personal

Getting Started with Train Modeling: My first Hornby Train and Layout

Train modeling is one of those geeky things that I have long aspired, but have never gotten to primarily due to time constraints. Also, I’ve been waiting for Junior to grow up enough to be able to enjoy it too and also I can justify (to better half) buying these things in his name ;-).

Anyway, bought our first modeling train-set last couple of weeks back with a scheduled delivery for Saturday, perfect for an upcoming long weekend. Surprisingly it arrived on schedule on Saturday morning at the Collect Plus collection center and I sneaked it home while Junior was doing his math practice ! He got a real kick when he actually saw it.

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As pictured above, the Hornby Western Master consisted of :

  1. Steam Loco with GWR (Great Western Railway, England) Livery. The loco has a bare metal DCC controller built in. Bare metal as in, it goes forward and reverse, that’s it. Don’t expect sound, smoke etc. etc.

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  2. There are three carriages (1 low flat bed, one open carriage and one break van). The green cargo box on the flatbed is loose and can be replaced by other small toys. Son’s favorite cargo is one of his die-cast cars. image
  3. All the parts are reasonably high quality plastic. By high quality I mean not cheap looking, well finished paintwork, decent enough details and no jaggy/plasticky edges etc. Here is a closeup of the Break Van. 2014-05-10T17-47-20
  4. There is a ‘Track mat’ that accompanies the kit. It actually is a giant paper poster with a proposed layout. However, the quality of paper is again, rather good and it will rip only if you try very hard or poke it with sharp objects. Gently stepping on it (tested up to 70kgs Winking smile) or crawling on it, doesn’t rip it. It’s a massive poster 1.6 meters by 1.2 meters (massive as compared to space available in our living room Smile). I had originally hoped to put the track on an unused table but the ‘Track mat’ was exactly double the size of the table. The tracks that come with the kit have rather gentle curves so it will occupy the entire mat and you can’t make it smaller. This is what it looks like fully laid out. 2014-05-09T05-55-45_2
  5. Note the siding track provided on the top of the image, complete with a stop buffer. The track position can be changed between siding and main line manually. The inner tracks are actually printed on the mat, but Hornby sells each set separately. So eventually you could buy all the sets and complete the entire layout.

Setting up the layout

First thing we did was the setup the track. Each Track piece comes with fishplates at opposite ends. Initially I was surprised by the amount of pressure it took to join two together. But if you make sure you have aligned the track and the fishplates correctly the fit in rather smoothly. The reason they are so hard is because the track powers the Loco and without the fishplates pressing down hard the circuit won’t be complete.

One of the track straights has the power connector. It has two green push clamps. Green is supposedly digital and orange is ‘analogue’.

Next I installed the Railmaster software. Instead of using the CD I downloaded the software directly from Hornby’s site. Make sure you install it as Administrator. If you use the KEY that’s in the CD case it will register your computer and you won’t be able to use the key again. They do provide an ‘Unregister’ on uninstall, but I haven’t tried it out yet. I am still on the 30 days trial.

Controlling the train from your computer

After software installation, power up the Elite controller using the transformer that came with the kit. Connect it to the computer using the provided USB cable.

There is another 2-wire cable this is to connect the Elite controller to the track (and provide power to the track). Plug it into the ports on Elite called

Windows 7 will detect it as a RS232 emulation device. If you get a chance to cancel the automatic driver installation do it. Else, after it has installed, go to the Control Panel and update driver for the newly installed USB port device. When updating driver, select option of providing your own driver, select the C:\Program Files (x86)\Railmaster folder and pick the Vista driver (yeah Surprised smile)!!!

Once the driver has been updated, you are not off the hook yet. The Railmaster software can talk to the Elite device only if it’s port number is less than 12. I got a port assignment of 18 from Windows. I manually set it it to a used port 8. Windows gave a warning but continued to work. I think Windows 7 can reshuffle ports in these scenarios BUT it doesn’t remember the updated port assignments once you unplug Elite. So when you re-plug it later you have to reset the port number for the Elite again.

By default the application recognized the Loco and was able to connect to it and control it. Though it looks like it was built using Visual Basic 4, the basic functionality works fine. I was able to drive the train in reverse and forward without a glitch. The shunt and cruise speeds work fine as well.

Programming the Train

Here programming doesn’t mean writing code, but more like creating macros using a visual list designer. You can specify train speed, direction and duration for each step. Once you are done, you can run the ‘program’ for the train. I am still to figure out how to do run a program in a continuous loop. More as things happen.

Wrapping up for the day

In conclusion, train modeling is loads of fun but it’s not a cheap hobby. You need lots of space, time and patience to build your layout over time. Most people have dedicated garage/rooms for their layouts and put together parts painstakingly over a period of time.

I have to do some ‘jugaad’ (out of the box thinking) to work around to space constraint. Have some ideas in my head. Watch this space. Next step will involve giving the track a decent base and the ability to flip between siding and main tracks automatically. That requires another Digital decoder and a ‘Point motor’ (told you it isn’t cheap or a onetime thingy). More on what that means after I am done with it. Cheers!

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Whitewater rafting on river Kundalika, Maharashtra, India

I am not the typical adventure sports guy, but thanks to my better half, we have our fair share of outdoor adventures. Our last outing was a year ago when we went trekking 16 kms from Lonavala to Rajmachi a remote village tucked away in the Sahyadris. That was an embarrassing tale of unfit legs on my part. I never came around to finishing that post and a year has since passed.

This time, thankfully Praji decided to do something that had less than 16kms of trekking. So Rafting it was. We booked our trip through the same adventure sports group Trek’Di.

The Journey

Journey from Pune to Kolad via bus/taxi is extremely picturesque in the Monsoons. Road condition gets worse as Monsoon progresses. For us it was patches of bad roads, in the ~93 kms drive from Fergusson College’s main gate (our designated starting point) to the village Rawalje.

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(From: Fergusson College, Shivaji Nagar, Pune, Maharashtra, India To: Kundalika River Rafting Start Point, Raigad, Maharashtra, India) Map Courtesy – Google Maps.

Our journey was uneventful except for the sighting of this strange ‘bird’, locally known as Shahamurg (it belongs to Ostrich family I guess).

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It’s a big bridie, the gentleman (who was driving our car) in the picture is about 5’5” tall, so the bird is about 4 feet upto its back. Assuming it can crane it’s neck up add another feet or so to it. It small by Ostrich standards but anyways. On our way back we saw another one meandering by the roadside, probably slightly bigger.

Apart from this little event, it was green hills and beautiful waterfalls all the way.

It took us three hours including a ~30 minute stop for Breakfast and the 2 minute Shahamurg photo-shoot breaks, to get to the River rafting starting point.

Rafting

The River Kundalika is a tiny river that has multiple irrigation/hydro electric projects on it. One of these projects does a controlled release of water in the Monsoons resulting in enough volume of water on the river to do rafting. The 12kms odd stretch from Rawalje to Kamat has a few rapids a couple of which are rated Grade 3. There are a few more Grade 1 and Grade 2 as well.

The water release happens at about 10 am so rafting has to start around that time. We reached exactly at 10 and found loads of eager adventurers.

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We get a quick round of instructions from one of the organizing group members telling us how to use the gear. Then we get our life jacket, helmet and oars and are assigned a Team lead – the guy who knows what’s going on Smile. Including team lead we were 10 of us on the Raft.

We get to our raft on the shore and our team lead familiarizes us with the basic commands he’s going to issue:

All Forward: Team on left and right of raft paddle forward
Left/Right Forward: Team on left OR right of raft paddle forward
Left/Right Backward: Team on left OR right paddle backward
All Backwards: Everyone paddle backwards
Stop: Stop rowing, keep oar securely
Down: Duck on the inside and hold on to the safety rope for your lives Winking smile

After a round of shadow rowing practice, we haul up the raft and head for the river. We are off in less than a minute and soon loose track of time, with our ears keen and perked for instructions from Team Leader who is at the back of the boat.

The Level 1s and 2s are fine, little splashing and all wet in no time, around the midway comes the Level 3s, we row, we duck and row again, raft gets flooded but stays right side up, no one falls over. Woo hoo…

Only for once the ‘Left’ team forgot to stop paddling ‘Back’ led to the raft getting too close to the right bank and all of us getting whacked on the head by the tree branches. For a brief moment team lead got mad at us and a loud STOP! But we were soon in control again and off we went.

Things are spiced up along the way with a heavy downpour as well. Don’t attempt it if you don’t like getting soaked.

Floating in the water

Near the 3/4th mark river has quieted down and team lead suggests everyone jump off the boat and splash around! Knowing very well that we can’t swim, he seems to be calmly confident that nothing’s gonna go wrong. With faith in his calmness and my life jacket I jump in… Glup… gulp… after a few anxious moments I finally manage to get head up, feet down and I am walking in water. Having never been in water deep enough for my feet not touching the ground, this is a new experience. But the lifejacket makes it really easy. Hooking my hands in front of the jacket and pushing it down kind of guarantees I am in a vertical position, head up. Soon we are floating in the river’s current and have put some distance between ourselves and the raft. Time passes by idly and after what seems not enough idling, Team lead orders us in the boat.

We decide to spice things up by challenging one of our fellow rafts to a friendly race that we promptly loose because we get bumped by another raft and end up doing a 360 Smile. All in fun and games. But unfortunately fun time is soon over and lazily and reluctantly we head for our ‘station’.

We get off, drag the raft on-shore and after a few photo-ops haul the raft up the river bank ready to be transported back.

Pictures

Here are some random pictures taken through my Samsung Focus Windows Phone. It was duly water-proofed by a ‘hi-tech’ Tesco zip-lock and it amazingly remained dry all throughout the journey even though I was completely soaked. I didn’t jump into the river with it, it was left at the bottom of the raft while I was floating around.

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Change, Lunch and Drive back

There is a reasonably clean facility about a km from our landing location, Trek’D had the car ready for us, but we opt to burn out the rest of the adrenaline and walk to it. We changed into dry clothes before proceeding to a buffet lunch consisting of chicken gravy, rice, hand rolled bread (chappatis) and other local preparations. Lunch done, we head out.

The Beautiful Western Ghats

The return journey is all about soaking in the beauty of the Western Ghats. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

  • One of the many many waterfalls

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  • That’s us in front of the waterfall

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  • At Plus Valley – A junction of two valleys known as the plus valley presents a breathtaking view.

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  • Note how the waterfalls have golden glow. Behind the clouds the sun is shining on the waterfall

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  • More waterfalls along the route, with clouds kissing the hilltops

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  • Dark and beautiful

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  • Quick stop to grab coal-baked corn delicacy (Bhutta)

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After more un-captured but fully absorbed sights we reach Pune city (around 7pm). We disperse at the same location where we had met with fond memories of a nice little adventure trip.

Thank You dearest Praji for forcing me to move my lazy bum and come along on this wonderful trip!!! Cheers to our 9 years together!

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The Moonraker – Paper Modeling like never before

My 6yo has been asking for ‘Rocket’ projects (ever since he saw Tintin’s Moon adventure story), for a while now and we’ve staved it off with rockets like these

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Not that he didn’t enjoy them, he made one for his friend too.

But this weekend he wanted a space shuttle and he wanted it bad! He bugged his grandpa to lookup on the internet and surprise surprise, grandpa (my Dad) found this (PDF). 

Well, he was very excited and up early on Saturday morning, couldn’t wait for me to be done with my sleep, woke me up and chased me off to get the correct paper! Turns out you have the exact specs for the paper required, but here all I could ask for was ‘stiff A4 size sheet’ and I was given what the stationary shop refers to as ‘Drawing Sheet’. Well, with 10 drawing sheets we started our adventure.

The actual design was 5 pages long, we printed it out at home and the fun started. It took me and almost the whole of Saturday afternoon to cut up all the pieces and start with the work. It took me a major part of the evening to get the fuselage done. Later in the evening Praji took over the wings while I glued up the engine parts.

Finally on Sunday morning I was able finish everything off and we had our space shuttle Moonraker ready!

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This is the most breathtaking piece of craftwork I have done in a very very very long time and it reminded me of how much I loved craft when I was a kid.

Thank you http://axmpaperspacescalemodels.com. There are plenty of free models to download and build. If you have a kid half interested in rockets and spaceships, you MUST go there and try out some of the models. It costed a grand total of Rs. 5/- (INR) ($0.10) for the paper and some for the ink on your printer and provided nearly 8 hours of entertainment for the whole family!!! For folks in US, you can build the International Space Station (for crying out loud) for $25, just that it might take a couple of weekends if not more Smile.

Hopefully next week we can build another one. If we succeed, you’ll surely hear from me!!!

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Personal: Back to India

About four years ago I had written this post saying we had moved to USA for about a year!
Well a year turned into two, then three and finally with the fourth year running we finally managed to moved back to India again :).

In these 3+ years we had a fabulous adventure (there isn’t another word to describe it). Praji (my better half) was working in Nampa, Idaho initially and I was working in San Jose, CA and our little toddler was coming to grips with the big world at 2 years and few months. I could meet them only once every two weeks over weekends. From Nampa we moved to Boise and subsequently I was able to ‘afford’ thrice a month trips to Boise. This continued for a year and a half, till her project got over. It was tough all around specially not staying together. But we hung around (adventure remember!). At this point we almost decided to come back. As things would turn out this was only a pause in the adventure. After a month and a half break, Praji found a project in Sacramento, CA. I told myself, well 2 hours of traveling to work is rather common in India, heck I could do it in US. Thus began the next stage of our adventure.

For another year and a few months, we were all staying together in Sacramento, CA while I traveled 4-5 times a week to San Jose. Slowly I was able to work from home a little more and the trips went down to 2-3 times a week (thank you Boss). Even then it was tough. I loved my 2000 Camry for doing about 60K+ miles in little over a year!!!

Finally Praji’s Visa went up for renewal and eventually got rejected and she had to move back early December 2011. That set the countdown for me to come back. After hanging around for four more months doing a rather interesting project, I decided it was time to end this adventure. I left US on April 19, 2012 and now I am happily back in Pune, India.

In between this adventure we visited so many places in US and collected so many wonderful memories that will be with us forever.

I am starting on another interesting challenge here now (what’s life without adventure 😉 …), details of which will slowly come out as things happen. But it definitely does not involve living away from family for any prolonged duration for sure!!!

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