Saturday, January 23, 2010

A model railroad is one big thought experiment!

Today, I visited the WGH model railroad show at the Dulles Conference Center near the Dulles Airport (link for show).

The best exhibit was a complicated layout by National Capital Trackers on O Gauge, with a curious feature. It seemed to comprise two layouts, appearing to join in parallel tracks in one stretch, but with no topological crossover. Using the language of Clive Barker’s 1991 novel “Imajica”, the two “dominions” remain “unreconciled.” There lots of interesting things in the layouts, such as a steel mill and a carnival with roller coaster. There were about ten other model railroads, including a Standard, an an N-gauge layout with a long coal train and a simulation of “mountaintop removal”, and an Acela model of Wilmington, DE (in the Blue Hen State). Most of them seemed to invoke worlds that existed more or less in the 1950s.

In a screenplay that I submitted to Project Greenlight in 2004 (“Baltimore Is Missing”), the protagonist wakes up after a bizarre “abduction” (of sorts), to find that he lives as a toy figure in a model railroad “dominion” owned by an old nemesis. (It would be especially horrible if the dominion were a model of Wilmington or, as in in screenplay in one scene, Grand Rapids MI). It does sound a bit like “Outer Limits” or “Twilight Zone.” He has a “wife”, and he is charged with the idea of rebuilding a new world by joining with people in other “dominions.” Now this could tie into (Jan. 2010) Discover 's recent treatise on multiverses: maybe when you tweak the physical constants in pairs, you get other universes compatible with life. For example, you could have a “weakless” universe (without the “weak force”) without elements heavier than iron – which might mean no nuclear weapons, and maybe world peace. It might be a “simpler” universe in some other ways, and smaller. Maybe Heaven lies in a “weakless” Universe. Maybe some of Clive Barker’s dominions have other physical constants, although some of the characters have learned to move back and forth between the “reconciled” dominions. (When will “Imajica” be a movie? It sounds like a great project for Lionsgate to me. And there is a great little train in the Third Dominion -- a great idea for a model railroad, as would be a railroad on a terraformed Mars.)

Ii got my one model train at the age of 3, in 1946, at Christmas. That is my first memory. I remember building little layouts with it, with one track to my grandparents, another to my aunt and uncle, before I started to realize that life was much more than blood relations – such a politically and socially controversial point today. We used to build toy cities in Ohio on the concrete sidewalk to the privy behind grandma’s house – recreation that my mother once thought was “baby play.” But now, model railroad layouts strike me as Thought Experiments: kingdoms, of limited horizons, where people can start over as characters in someone else’s world.

A few years ago Dulles had another model railroad show that simulated 60 miles of track to scale. Pennsylvania has a couple of large layouts, including Choo-Choo Barn in Starsburg, and Roadside America up on I-78.

As for the Dulles Exposition, it could have been better managed. The parking situation at the Dulles Expo Center is atrocious, as I wound up in a dirt lot changed to mud by the melted snow from before Christmas, and some cars were getting stuck in the mud. The directions were wrong: you turn right when you reach Willard, not left. The whole facility needs much more management and infrastructure, and probably a for-pay commercial parking garage. I was almost struck by the overhang of an oversized truck trailer (huge momentum) passing me as I walked out. Narrow miss! Remember Oprah’s recent show on cell phone and text free driving.

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