In my most recent posting I noted that I didn’t like the way that an image containing text was worded. That image was:
It struck me that it was awkwardly worded, and quite ungrammatical. So, to remove that irritant, I’ve replaced it with the following:
Whether this is any better, actually, I don’t know. But it doesn’t irritate me (much). So this version will stay for now. And of course, NOW I notice that I misspelled photograph in the new version. Blargh.
Running, maintaining and updating steamlocomotive.info has been a fascinating obsession these last twenty (20!) years. The site came on the air in September of 2001 in a very primitive form. We had about 1400 locomotives in the database, and pictures of about 800 of them. Initially we included just the United States. Since that inauspicious beginning, we’ve expanded to include the whole world with the help of an enormous list of contributors.
Let us take a look at what is currently on the website:
Complaint: You list scrapped locomotives. Why? You shouldn’t!
Yes, we list scrapped locomotives. These are almost universally locomotives whose scrapping was reported AFTER we started this website. So they were listed at one time, because they existed. Rather than have them vanish magically when scrapped we chose to simply change the locomotive’s status to Scrapped and retain whatever information and photos we had for the locomotive. This has the charming advantage of preventing a particularly annoying question: “You don’t list locomotive XYZ that was at Left Overshoe, West Dakota. Why?” Well because it was scrapped.
So to put this in short form. We list scrapped locomotives because we think it is the best way to record the pool of locomotives that existed when we started this project.
If this truly annoys you, click on the Custom View button on the website’s front page, change Show Scrapped Locomotives to ‘No’ and click Submit. Voila! Your problem is gone. Curiously in the seven years since I implemented that feature, not one single user (other than me) has used. it.
Complaint: You Don’t Have a Picture of Locomotive XYZ!
You are undoubtedly correct. But we do have pictures of 13466 locomotives. We are deeply saddened that we don’t have a picture of your favorite locomotive. If you have a photo of the locomotive it is extremely easy to submit it. If you’ve seen the image below:
Simply click there and follow the instructions. Of course that assumes that you actually have a photo of it yourself. And believe it or not, after 20 years I just noticed how idiotic the content of the image above actually is. Grammatically incorrect. Just added this to my list of things to fix. Sigh.
Biggest Complaint: You Never Update Anything!
Umm. Okay. Here’s a summary of what got changed each month in 2021:
Well, okay. So I didn’t include August. Through July, we’ve made 3,444 changes to the database as summarized above. If you’d like more information than I’ve presented here, click the ‘Change Report’ button on the site’s front page.
I think most site visitors are aware that some locomotives have a “Links” page providing links to other sites that have information about that particular locomotive. I am embarrassed to admit that, back in 2001 when this site was being created the liks pages were a bit of an afterthought.
I provided means for a site visitor to submit a link, and means for an editor to approve that submission. Though the Admin menu for Links had entries for Add, Edit and Delete, they were never written.
About three months ago, I took a long look at the site, what it could do and what it couldn’t. I used Google Analytics to delve into how visitors to the site used it, and what features were used most often. I was surprised to learn and the links we provide were clicked on an average of about 40 times a day, sitewide.
So I put it on my work list to improve the Admin interface so that our editors had tools to better maintain the database of links. And about 6 days ago, I dug into the problem. I was partly motivated by the discovery that there were a couple of “broken” links on the Milwaukee Road 261 page. It would have been easy enough to go into the database using a management tool and simply remove the defective entry, but that didn’t fit with my redesign philosophy. I’m trying to make the site completely maintainable by someone with now programming or database skills.
In any case, I went ahead and wrote the “Delete Link” functionality for our editors, and it worked nicely. Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder just how many broken links there are in database. I imagined that it would be an annoying experience for a site visitor to click on a link and end up going nowhere.
I wrote a tool to go through the database and attempt to read each and every link in the database, and record what happened. The program attempts to go to the website in the link and records what happens when it does. The following table shows the results: 3525 of the 4347 links in our database were definitely valid.
Page Successfully Retrieved
DNS Resolver Failure
Page Not Found
Request Timeout Error
Internal Server Error
Service Unavailable (Temporary)
I could probably bore you witless by explaining the various error codes, but insteal I will summarize: if the code isn’t 200, it didn’t work. I will be pruning the dead sites/links from the database today.
Hopefully this will make the site more useful and usable, and perhaps a bit less annoying.
The geographic browser function I’ve talked about elsewhere is coming along nicely. Based on visitor feedback, I want to provide additional information about the markers used on the maps. The red and green markers are pretty much self explanatory, but the blue ones have caused some confusion.
First of all, it is important to note that the markers on the geographic browser maps do not reflect a precise location for a locomotive. They are intended to show general locale, like city, state or village. If you zoom in far enough, you may notice this. The blue markers, designating multiple locomotives were added to reduce clutter on the display and to provide more information. Let’s consider Galveston, TX. The blue marker there replaces three green markers, all of which were in precisely the same location. Without the blue marker, you’d only see the information for whichever locomotive’s marker ended up on the top of the pile. Instead we have a blue marker, which, when clicked, gives you the following display:
Pretty simple, really. The top line of the little pop up window identifies the location within the city, the second line lists the city, state and country. What apparently confused some folk visiting the site is when you have a blue marker in a city like San Antonio, where there are multiple locations within the city which have locomotives. Then you get a display that looks like this:
In this case, the top line(s) look much different. Each of the places, separated by the / character have locomotives, all within the city of San Antonio.
These information windows are generated by a computer program and stored pending someone clicking on the appropriate marker. The program isn’t particularly bright, and doesn’t make value judgments about what it includes. If, during data entry those many years ago, I listed one locomotive as being at the Harlequin Railroad in Left Overshoe, Nebraska and another at the Harlequin Railway in Left Overshoe, Nebraska then the program would list both locations on the top line.
Many more features are planned (and being worked on). One will make the locomotives in those pop up windows clickable to get a screen with everything we know about the locomotive.
Still working on the Geographic Browser. Over the last two days I’ve improved the regional/state/province borders for Spain, Germany and Canada. This was somewhat time consuming, but they certainly look nicer.
Secondarily I’ve continued to work on the Admin interface tools for the Geographic Browser. I’m getting close to finishing the first (of many).
Our new Geographic Browser has been deployed for the whole world. And we really, really hope you’ll enjoy it. It currently exists in a fairly basic form. Many features are planned to be added to this new system. So let me explain what’s available.
The Browse button on the front page of the site is the gateway to the Geographic Browser. You can pick a continent, a country, and even a state, region or province. When you do, you’ll see a display that looks like this at the top:
Anywhere that you see a map or a flag in the upper left corner of a locomotive list, as above, it is clickable. Clicking it will get you a display that looks like this:
The markers indicate the locations of locomotives within the state or locale you’ve selected. Green markers indicate locomotives where we have sufficiently accurate location data to generate a map to the locomotive’s precise location. Red markers are used for locomotives where we know the location loosely (no more precisely than the city). Blue markers are an attempt to reduce the amount of clutter on the map. If you hover your mouse over a green or red marker, a flag will appear identifying the locomotive represented by the marker. For blue markers, if you’ll click the blue marker you’ll get a pop up window listing the locomotives at that location.
All About Borders
These maps are drawn by programmatic calls to the Google Maps API, as are the markers and country and regional borders. When I began this project, I hadn’t given a great deal of (or any) thought to country and regional borders. I assumed that they would be a part of any map drawn with the API, but they aren’t. And the API isn’t consistent about it. Generally country borders are visible at some zoom settings and faint or non-existent at others. Provincial, state and regional borders simply aren’t directly available.
There is a solution, of course. The programmer creating a page containing a map can add layers of information to a map. The borders you see around states, provinces and countries are created in this way. There is a programming language called KML (or Keyhole Markup Language) that can be used to draw the borders of almost anything.
We generated the KML files for each locale by extracting data from vastly more complex and comprehensive KML files available from gadm.org. There are several countries for which that approach wasn’t possible, and they will remain borderless or display a crude blue border for the near future was we work on fixing this problem in our data.
Multiple (or Blue Markers)
You’ve doubtless noticed that if you mouseover a green or red marker you get a flag that identifies the locomotive, and if you click on those markers, you get more information. The problem we’re trying to solve with the blue markers is this: If there are 20 locomotives in Left Overshoe, Nebraska, you’ll only see one marker, the last one created, as the other 19 are stacked beneath it, and cannot be separated. Thus was born the Multiple Marker. If you click a blue marker, you’ll get a list of every locomotive in that particular location. Not a perfect solution, I guess, but it’ll have to do until I come up with a better one.
And now for the bad news: I’ve only done the multiple markers for the 50 states, the Canadian provinces and about two dozen other countries. It is a clumsy, manual process. I am writing a tool for me (and the other editors) to use that does a reasonable job of automating this process.
There you will see the Novosibirsk Oblast of Russia, and a bunch of little red markers. Now zoom out, way, way out. And you’ll see that there are 3 locomotives that are identified as being in Novosibirsk (go ahead, click the markers, I’ll wait). But they are located elsewhere by latitude/longitude. One or the other is wrong, and somebody (me, I guess) will have to sit down and clean up this mess.
I have begun work on a new feature for the website that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. Initially, it will be deployed in the United States only, but will gradually be spread to the rest of the world.
If you use the Browse button from the front page, select North America and then the United States, you can then pick any US state. In the upper left corner of the list of locomotives in that state you’ll see a little map of the state. For years, that has been a decoration, only. I thought it looked nice. Now, it actually links to something. If you click it now, you’ll get a large map of the state you’ve selected. In another day or so that map will be populated with markers pointing to each locomotive in that state.
I’ll talk more about it as I get some of the features finished.
Finished the remainder of the code for the mapping module, and am quite pleased with it. Localization works nicely. Made some enhancements to the Change logging stuff, and fixed a couple of things I missed on the last pass through.
It’s hard to believe that the end of June is already upon us. Today, on the programming front, I resolved several issues surrounding the “localization” issue discussed elsewhere and am almost finished with it. I should be able to move on to other things tomorrow.
Steve Frost, our European editor contributed information and photos regarding several locomotives in the UK today, and I did some research and updated records (and photos) for a couple of locomotives in Canada.
As always, the daily change report is available from the front page of the site, or from the link below: