He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins

This page written circa 17 March, 2006.

Kent recently bought me a copy of Sam Posey's book "Playing with Trains". The book contains some charming reminiscences but his mother's strength and character, not model trains, make them enjoyable. Posey concludes that train people come in two basic types, ones obsessed with the making of detailed models and ones who like to drive trains. This guy has a very narrow idea of what "playing with trains" can be. The train enthusiasts Posey discusses in his book are that one kind who spend years to build enormous, house-consuming, layouts. They make a fine subject for "a study of obsession", which would make a great subtitle for the book. There are those of us who simply like to watch trains running; some want the satisfaction of constructing something and it hardly matters whether it is a train layout or a garden shed; for some it is a vehicle for bonding with an offspring; I like the challenge of topological optimisation of layouts and the science of realistic control as well.

On the news front, we hope to sell our house to parents from our school. A private sale would feel mighty good, not giving over $40k to real estate agents, not to have to show the house or to have to leave it neat every morning. It was Kay's brilliant idea to mention it in the school news sheet.

On the work front, I strain to convince Agilent they would benefit from an ongoing relationship with me and Waikato, as they have with Roger Pollard and Leeds for many years: It is something of a no-brainer if the collaboration has supporters at both ends that keep it working, because universities in the British system get so much support from their governments and pay relatively low wages, so they do not drive nearly so hard a deal as places like Stanford and UCB. Yet there are so many managers in Agilent, per actual worker, they are consumed with coordinating the top-heavy structure and it is hard to reach a crucial ear, or find anyone free to make a decision that is out of the box.

Living in CA the Scott family have become astonishing consumers. Compared to how we lived in Sydney, we spend money like it was water. I have previously written disparagingly of the American preoccupation with shopping, yet I could be accused of it now. I have almost forgotten what I used to do for recreation before this high-income, nuclear-family lifestyle; things that did not involve buying so much stuff or spending so much money, for sure. New Zealand is going to refresh my memory with force, I predict. Considering our impending move to NZ, I have lately been stockpiling like a squirrel facing winter, computer stuff, tools, DVDs, future presents for the kids, and train stuff of course. (The NZ dollar is not scaled for the likes of Mercedes and Marklin.) Nevertheless, I still consider each purchase carefully. I may spend more on toys in a month than I once did in six, but I dwell over every purchase, shop around, let the idea sink in and see if it fades before I spend.

Recently it feels like everything has been about getting value for money.

A couple of years ago my friend Keith expounded the "a toy a month" rule. Most engineers around Agilent, he had observed, find that they can afford about one significant non-essential purchase per month; maybe it is a new camera, the latest tech gadget, home theatre, a baby, or a genuine toy like an RC helicopter or a brass locomotive, whatever your thing might be. I think the conversation had arisen because he had just converted his house to solar-electric to become a net producer of electricity, a purchase that was in the "investment" category not the "toy" category because it was expected to pay for itself. As I tell this story, I wonder what happened to me. What caused it? Being in California, having kids, relocating, having a decent income?

I do not want toys to be seen as the trophy of capitalism gone mad. Some toys turn out to be truly wonderful value, providing entertainment or exercising mind and creativity or being a vehicle for bonding with friends or family---way beyond their cost.

Nevertheless, he who dies with the most toys... still dies. The song from which I stole the title of this essay says "Maybe he who lives with the most love wins". Love is good, but real agape---the kind that makes you willing to risk life or limb for the person you love---is rarer than most people think, and delightful companionship does not cut it for winning the game of life. I figure it is he who dies after having had the most fun that wins. So, I am going to hold on to my best friends like hell, but I'm stockpiling toys too. Hornby's Live Steam looks good... what do you think, Edwin?

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