How NOT to Write a Modular Standard

For the last two and one half years I was involved with a group that was trying to develop a standard for modules. The idea was simple, come up with a minimal set of standards that would allow the interconnection of modules based on that design. Since there were only a few modules in existence for this particular scale/gauge combination, a part of the design process was to make sure that the pre-existing modules could also interconnect.

The concept included the idea that individual groups would add restrictions to the standard for their group but that the core standards would stay intact. That way each group would have its own standards yet they would all still interconnect seamlessly at the mechanical and electrical levels. Even though the scenery, theme, even facia and dimension would vary from group to group, the interconnection points would remain constant.

It didn’t work. Well actually the standard did work, quite well in fact. Never the less the standard has been deleted and every group that used it as a starting point is changing their group’s name to avoid any connection with the standard.

What went wrong? Quite a lot. First the listowner (the standards group formed as a Yahoo! Group) had his own agenda. Second, over two hundred people joined the group to try to draft the standard. The listowner decided that the only way to come up with a “fair” standard was to have a poll for each decision point. Like all such endeavours about twenty percent of the group actually participated in the discussion, wrote text, voted in the polls, and formed the ideas. What about the other eighty percent? They just got angry whenever a point was settled in a fashion they did not like. Of course they never offered any input or feedback until well after the poll was closed. This was design by committee at its worst.

To make matters worse, those of us that did participate decided that we could add a few new ideas to the modules. Ideas that are not common with other modular systems.

So what we had was:

  • A dis-jointed set of rules because each point was voted on in isolation from the other rules.
  • A large percentage of silent but angry members that disagreed with some rule or other.
  • A minimal set of rules that did not include many of the “normal” standards rules like width of the module, length of the module, facia treatment, and, most incomprehensible to most readers, location of track at the interface plates. These were all considered local (or group) decisions.
  • A few difficult to understand (unless you participated in the discussions) rules that are not normally in a standard like DCC pass-through cable and adjustable height legs.

Even with all of these problems a workable, and actually quite good, set of standards was developed in about two months. The listowner set a deadline for the standards and thanks to the hard work of about a dozen people the deadline was met.

When the standard was ready it was voted on just like the individual rules. Just like the individual rules, less than twenty percent of the members even voted. The standard was ratified based on the Yes to No votes since a plurality was never going to happen. Members just plain did not participate. Who knew if they were even reading the posts or polls?

The standard, as ratified, was a little difficult to read because it had multiple authors and multiple text formats. One member took it upon himself to re-write the standard, and increment the revision history, to fix the formatting and differing writing syles. He did not change the content only the format. This revision was also voted on and even though an even smaller number of members voted, it also was ratified. We thought we were done.

After the final revision was ratified we got our first big surprise. The listowner opened a new Yahoo! Group for the new standard. The files, but not the messages, were copied there. The old group was left up but everyone was supposed to use the new group for all further discussions. Now we had two groups. One with a standard but no history and another with a similar description with a history but no standard.

Confused Yet? No, good because now the fun begins.

When we all moved to the new group, information was posted to tell people that they were supposed to form local groups and open a Yahoo! Group to decide on how they were going to implement the standard. No information was posted to tell them how to accomplish this and there were no documents that explained the process of restricting (versus revising) the standard for their own use.

So, we have new people that decide they want to build modules for this scale/gauge. First they go to the old site because its name implies it is where to go. They ask questions and get no answers because only a few people are even monitoring the old group. Some of them go away and just come up with their own standard. Some of them ask questions on the main Yahoo! Group for the scale/gauge and get lots of snide remarks because the group is notorious for not liking any kind of standards, even though they rely on them for everything they build. The few that are still persistant enough to continue to pursue an existing standard eventually find out the name of the group they SHOULD be using. It is far from intuitive because it is just an Acronym.

OK so now they’re all set right? Wrong. There is no history to help them learn. A large percentage of the members never voted for, or against, the standard and do not even understand it. The listowner doesn’t like the standard because the module he built during the standard definition is non-compliant. Instead of the group ratifying his idea of a module the group ratified a different design. Unfortunately for all concerned this was not his plan–although we did not know it.

A few of the members of the group quietly began to design modules based on the standard but didn’t have people in their area that were interested or able to form a group. None the less, they build a few modules.

Sometime later a few very enthusiastic modelers from one area of the country find the standard and start to build modules to the standard. Unfortunately they either did not understand the standard or just chose to ignore portions of it because even though they formed a local group for the standard and built quite a few modules, they were all non-compliant. They never asked questions, they never verified their ideas, they just built–incorrectly.

Now we have the standard, a couple of modules built to the standard, and we have a number of modules that say they are modules built to the standard but do not follow the standard. Effectively we now have two standards with the same name, and neither of them match the listowners module.

Still with me?

So now we have another small group of individuals that manage to weave their way through the jungle and find the standard.

By now the Yahoo! Group has factions available to help confuse you if you manage to find the group. You have the core group that represent “the one true standard”, you have the silent majority that for some reason still hang around but don’t really feel like it is their standard, you have the group that represents the “other standard of the same name”, and you have the new people that are trying to figure this all out.

What do they do? Some build to one standard and call it the standard. Some build to the other standard and call it the standard, Some hang around the Yahoo! Group either to try to figure it out or out of morbid curiosity. Most give up and take up a less confusing hobby like Nuclear Physics or being the target for the Sharpshooter at the local fair.

Things go along like this for quite a while with no real changes. Then the inevitable happens. A few people join the group that ask questions and don’t just go away either to build to the standard or the other standard or to find a more sane group. They continue to ask questions and expect answers. They question the validity of the standard and whether or not the standard does things the best possible way. This makes sense since they get conflicting answers from members of the group.

All of this could have kept working, disfunctional as it was, except for one small rip in the fabric. Remember the listowner? The listowner has been quiet for most of the two years that this dragged on. Now in the middle of debates and explanations back and forth the listowner decided to exert himself as the “owner of the list”. He declared that no standard had ever been ratified. The fact that he formed the new Yahoo! Group specifically to foster the development of local groups based on the standard somehow dematerialized.

Why? Only the listowner knows and I doubt that anyone including him even cares anymore. What I do know is that he promptly offered a NEW standard for ratification that was a bizarre mish-mash of “the standard”, “the other standard”, his module, and adapter interfaces.

Few liked his new standard and a number of people told him so very plainly. A few of us also questioned his motives for un-ratifying the standard. Several people offered to take over the list if he did not want to participate.

So what happened?

In what I consider one of the most juvenile and ego centric moves I believe a listowner could make, he deleted all of the messages from the group, turned off the ability to post new messages, and then announced the group would be closed within 48 hours. He showed one of the downsides of Yahoo! Groups and their ilk. At some point a group becomes the property of the members. They are the ones using the group. They are investing themselves in the group. However, the listowner is like the spoiled little boy that owns the baseball. If he doesn’t like the way he is treated, he takes his ball and goes home.

The standard has been deleted and the name has become a blight on the modular standards name.

All of this could have been avoided if the listowner had been honest up front about his motives. What were those motives? Only he knows for sure but on the current group (the one with history but no standards) there are now three pieces of permanent information in the file section. The standard that he proposed that few like, now listed as a standard, and two versions he built of a module before the now defunct standard was approved. Oh, and he goes out of his way to talk about the “standard” with no reference that no one ever voted for it and to denounce the approved standard as never having been approved. Bizarre behavour. Only time will tell what happens but this type of list-ownership should not be encouraged.

All I can do is not encourage people to participate not because there is anything necessarily wrong with his standard but rather because there is something wrong with this type of behavour. I have stayed a member of the group up until now but I am dropping out today. It won’t make any difference to him or to the group but it is the only type of protest I can lodge.

2 thoughts on “How NOT to Write a Modular Standard

  1. ChrisA

    You said a mouthful. We wanted something with more scope than was offered by the published standards. I know what we came up with works and works well. It’s too bad that what became obvious to us through our efforts was somehow occulted when presented to the general public.

  2. Ron Wm. Hurlbut

    It’s all about the interface. If they match, then it is quick and easy to hook up.

    If they don’t match, then you can still connect, with shoe-laces and paperclips; Chewing gum and Duct tape. Or dare I say VelCro. 😉

    What we developed was a Generic / Universal Module St@nd@rd that can be adapted to any scale / gauge combination…

    In fact, we may have influenced some of the established St@nd@rds to try some new things…

    We just happened to be working in a scale / gauge that is full of rugged in-duh-vidualists with the battle cry “St@nd@rds, we don’t need no stinkin’ St@nd@rds!”, but still need to have their noses plugged while being spoon fed.


    Happy Railroadin’

    The Tin Goat

    Ron Wm. Hurlbut (On30, Hn42 & UU)

    The West Toronto Junction

    Ontario, Dominion of Canada


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