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Pet peeve – useless error messages

November 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s one from Github:

Screenshot 2014-11-02 14.28.51

Clearly I have entered a URL in the text field. I assume what Github is trying to say is that this doesn’t adhere to whatever client side validation logic they’re using. Since I’m relatively tech savvy I can assume that maybe they want the http:// prefix. Sure enough that fixes the problem, but why could the error message not tell me that? Or even better, why not assume that if I don’t specify the scheme, it should use http or https?

In the words of Steve Krug, “Don’t make me think.”

Book Review: “LEGO Space: Building the Future”

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

LEGO Space: Building the Future
by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard
published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/legospace

Book cover

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press.

I was very excited to read this book because space has always been one of my favorite LEGO themes. In some ways this book exceeded my expectations, particularly in the way that it pays homage to the old LEGO themes of classic space, ice planet, Blacktron, and Space Police, while creating things that are new and different.

The book is different from most LEGO books I can think of in that it tells a fictional story, starting from the US space program in the 1960s (Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon on p.7 is particularly nice) through to the distant future. It uses photographs of LEGO to illustrate this science fiction, as well as 3d renderings of the step-by-step instructions on how to build some of the models. These instructions are the only real ways in which the ‘fourth wall’ of the fictional universe is broken.

The story is a neat excuse for the authors to bring in elements from the various themes that I mentioned, starting with classic space (“The Federation” – pp. 20-59). If you’re unfamiliar with this theme, see http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Classic_Space?file=Classic_Space_1979.jpg. The models that they show for this do a great job of keeping the color scheme (yellow, blue, grey) of the builds, while adding much more sophistication and detail than were ever present in the original sets.

Small scale classic space creation – notice the inventive manner of orienting the cockpit

The story continues on to Ice planet (see e.g. http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Ice_Planet_2002), which this story renames as “Inhospitable Climate Engineers (ICE)” (pp.62-85). This was one of my favorite themes growing up, and I love how the authors have retained the blue, white, and orange color scheme in their builds, while introducing entirely new concepts, such as the ICE robots (pp. 76-77). The snowmobile build on p. 75 is also impressive.

An update on the classic space planet wheel design

Blacktron is up next (http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Blacktron) starting around p. 116. One of my favorite two page spreads in the book is on pp. 122-123, in which these Blacktron lookalikes are attacking the Octania refueling ship. Fans of LEGO will instantly recognize that the name and color scheme (red, white, and green) of the Octania are a reference to Octan, the gas station in the town sets. (See http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Octan)

The last main theme covered by the book is Space Police I (http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Space_Police_I), whose ships are often black and blue, with distinctive transparent red canopies. The authors bring these into a more modern palette by changing the shade of blue and using many pieces which were not yet manufactured during the Space Police I theme (1989-1991).

Overall this book is amazing. My only problem with it is the story and prose. Here is one short excerpt:

“In the medical bay, the doctor was able to realize his increasingly bizarre dreams. His ambition reached new heights, and he went about his work with newfound passion. His scientific breakthroughs were as terrible as they were incredible” (p. 125)

I find that the writing is cliched and lackluster. The story is completely forgettable (I am struggling to remember one aspect of it after having read it about 2 weeks ago). I don’t think you would miss much just by looking at the pictures and admiring the models and skipping the story entirely.

The models are incredible in this book, and so too are the lighting and photography. This is an extremely well produced book, and some of the two page spreads could have come straight out of a movie. For instance, see pp. 154-155 which shows 3 soldiers in exoskeletons fighting off a mass of incoming aliens. The scene is shot from an overhead perspective, and you can see that the three soldiers are about to back right into each other, with no hope of escape.

LEGO barrel using elastic bands

If you are a fan of the LEGO space themes that I mentioned, then you will enjoy this book. It is full of fan service (e.g. the Octania ship I mentioned earlier), and all of the models are top notch. They manage to evoke the original theme without just copying directly. They bring the old styles into the modern day, using updated colors and pieces, and taking advantage of the roughly 20 years of progress between these early sets and today.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , , ,

“Error 418 (I’m a teapot)!?” – A cute Easter egg from Google

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Teapot - pre-pour
Pouring

If you develop for the web, chances are you know some of the HTTP status codes, numerical values that the server returns to the client to tell it whether its request was successful or not. Statuses in the 400 range indicate a client error; for instance 400 indicates a “Bad Request”. One of the lesser known error codes is 418. From the Wikipedia article on List of HTTP status codes:

418 I’m a teapot (RFC 2324)
This code was defined in 1998 as one of the traditional IETF April Fools’ jokes, in RFC 2324, Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol, and is not expected to be implemented by actual HTTP servers.

Well, Google likes Easter eggs and jokes more than just about any company I can think of. If you go to google.com/teapot you’ll see an adorable robot teapot, just waiting for you to tip it over and pour it out. (Click on web version, or even cooler, tip your phone on its side!)

Animated gif

Disclaimer: I work at Google but have nothing at all to do with this feature. The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer

Categories: photo, video Tags: , , , ,

Book Review: “The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!”

October 6, 2014 Leave a comment

The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!
by Brian Lyles and Jason Lyles
published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/legoneighborhood

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press

If you have ever gone to a convention where there is a LEGO exhibit, then you have probably seen elaborate displays of city life. Skyscrapers soar to the rafters, cars wind their way through the streets, minifigures enter and leave the various shops and establishments. They represent a moment in time in a city, either real or imagined.

A LEGO neighborhood display from Maker Faire

A LEGO neighborhood display from Maker Faire

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea how these feats of creativity and engineering were accomplished. Due to the scale and complexity, I imagined that there must be multiple builders involved. I wondered how each builder ensured that his or her creation would fit with the rest of the city. Were there elaborate blueprints drawn up and exchanged among all of the crew?

Brian Lyles and Jason Lyles, two brothers who build models for such displays, answer these questions and more in The LEGO Neighborhood Book. The first chapter details a standard of building sizes and part placement that allow the city to be constructed plate by plate and later joined together. This standard, known as the “Café Corner”, is a natural scale at which to build as it allows minifigures to be the inhabitants of the city; windows, doorframes, and other elements look an appropriate size next to them. While cityscapes could be built at much different scales (the displays in LEGOLand in California, for instance, use a much larger scale to show even more detail), the book focuses almost exclusively on this minifigure scale world.

The rest of the book concerns the design of these buildings, including such topics as choosing which buildings to build, how to incorporate color and contrast into the models, the importance of symmetry in brick placement to more closely approximate how real buildings are built, and most importantly, how to approximate details in the real world with the imperfect assortment of LEGO pieces that have been manufactured.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the Bricks Everywhere chapter which shows photographs of buildings or building details like moulding or awnings and the pieces that the authors would use to represent them. It showcases the authors’ talent and expertise – I would not have thought of many of these solutions.

Other sections of the book include adding details to the buildings through elements like columns and railing, windows and shutters, plant life, benches, scaffolding, stop lights, and various pieces of furniture that belong in different areas of a house.

Most of the LEGO images are computer renderings rather than photographs. In my opinion this was a good choice as it more easily allows the reader to see small details in how they were built; these details are often lost when photographed. There are a few examples of their final creations which are photographed; the Chili’s example on p. 69 is particularly impressive.

Chili's Restaurant built out of LEGO

“Chili’s Restaurant – Cafe Corner modular building”

A large portion of the book is spent on step-by-step instructions for building two large buildings – one being a corner drugstore, and one being a home. The interesting part to me was that the last build is itself modular – the authors shows how the same base house can be transformed into a Parisian apartment, a Colonial Row House,and a Canal Ring House, merely by attaching different windows shutters, door frames, walkways and other elements to the front of the house.

Conclusion

This books does a great job of explaining the basics of modular LEGO neighborhood construction. It provides dozens of examples of details and techniques that transform what could be a lifeless building into one that appears lived in and part of a real time and place.

I have a few complaints about the book. One, I would have preferred if there were more text and meat to the book. Since it is comprised of so many pictures, it is a very fast read. I would love if there were interviews with other builders of this same style, particularly if they had different ideas than the two authors.

The second complaint is that the book does not make clear who its audience is. It mentions topics like SNOT (Studs not on top) but then doesn’t really explain how that technique works or how it could be used to good effect within these LEGO houses. This shows me that the authors expect their audience to be at least intermediate to advanced builders, which does not always match the tone and content of the rest of the book.

“Parkour Cars” – real-time autonomous vehicular acrobatics

September 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Nima Keivan’s research project is incredible. It involves an autonomous toy car that navigates through an array of obstacles, including loops and enormous jumps. It uses an open-source physics engine (Bullet) to project forward in time the result of taking multiple actions and uses the results to make the optimal move (e.g. what will happen if I turn left .5 degrees, or stay straight, or turn right by .5 degrees).

Learn more on the project page or check out the PDF for more details. Thanks to Jack Morrison of Replica Labs for the link.

“Change aversion” and Amazon’s solution to the renaming problem

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

If you’re like many people, you hate it when the user interface of a site changes. You’re accustomed to one thing when suddenly it switches.

Some people in the tech industry shrug off users’ complaints about this as “change aversion”. Christina Wodtke’s article,”User’s don’t hate change. They hate you“, refutes this belief and explains why users are justified in their frustration. Here’s a choice quote:

Users don’t hate change. Users hate change that doesn’t make their life better, but makes them have to relearn everything they knew.

I urge you to read the rest of the article as well; it lays out a compelling case for restraint on the part of developers, and sets a high bar for the benefit that a change should bring.

Still, sites will keep changing and some do a better job than others at informing you. Unlike the gratuitous tours and full screen popups that the article calls out, I found Amazon’s solution tasteful. They renamed a few items in their navigation bar, but rather than making the change wholesale, they left behind the old labels underneath the new ones. This allows you to find what you’re looking for more easily. Until you become accustomed to the new label and that one changes too.  Ahh, software.

Book review: “The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models”

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models

by Jordan Schwartz

No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/legodesign

The Art of LEGO Design cover

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of the book from No Starch Press.

While there are many books that feature amazing works of art using LEGO as a medium, few delve into the techniques and thought processes used by the builders. Jordan Schwartz’s “The Art of LEGO Design” tackles this subject in a remarkably successful way. Mr. Schwartz’s background as a designer employed by LEGO make him an authority on the subject. His work has been featured in some of the books I alluded to, including Beautiful LEGO.

The book starts with the assumption that you will not be building enormous models like those featured in a LEGOLAND park, and that the standard size 2×4 bricks are far too large to use as the basis of your models. He shows how there are some tremendously versatile, smaller pieces that allow you to create amazingly intricate scenes, and illustrates the use of pieces in unconventional ways. A few examples spring to mind:

  • p. 25 (Minifigure chapter): by using a Technic ball rather than a minifigure’s head under a helmet, the head can be posed at many more angles than would otherwise be possible.
  • p. 60 (Patterns & Motifs chapter): by arranging so-called “cheese slopes” in various configurations, you can create amazing mosaics and stained glass windows using shapes and angles that are very different from the standard blocky LEGO mosaic; see for instance Katie Walker’s “Flower Petal Study”
  • p. 85 (Texture chapter): by turning rubber tires inside out, you get a much different look and feel, which in some cases is more appropriate for the era being modeled
  • p. 249 (Science fiction chapter): in “The Paradise Syndrome“, the designer Keith Goldman uses minifigure hands stuck through the holes in the plant pieces to form yellow flowers. It’s a beautiful technique and one I never would have thought of.

Another valuable section in the book is that of composition. LEGO is an interesting medium in which to work because of its dual nature. On the one hand it is a physical medium, having depth, volume, and weight. On the other hand, it is primarily presented to the audience through photography. As such you can use the tricks of photography and cinematography to create stunning scenes that wouldn’t actually work or hold up if viewed in person. There are two striking examples of this in this chapter.

The first is the use of perspective in “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us“, by Tyler Clites. The scene is built at different scales to suggest an enormous sense of depth. In the image we are looking through the legs of one figure and see a confident man ready to duel. The legs through which we view the scene are built at a large scale. The figure is a standard minifigure. A few studs behind him is a house that is rendered only three studs wide, suggesting instead that it is many hundreds of feet away. In the far distance are objects made of just a few pieces, showing mountains and other landmarks. It is a brilliant composition, and Mr. Schwartz’s analysis of the scene goes into more depth on things that aspiring builder should learn from it. I’ve since found that there are groups on Flickr devoted to this technique, such as “LEGO Forced Perspective“.

The second example is David and Goliath by Nick Vás, which positions the Goliath character closer to the camera in order to make him appear enormous compared to David. This technique was used in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the hobbits appear tiny in some scenes; see TXFilmProfessor’s video for more details.

The “Art of LEGO Design” has some great practical advice for those looking to model creatures that exist in the real world – don’t start with the head or you’ll end up making the model far too large for minifigure scale. Conversely, for fantastical creatures that could exist at any scale like dragons, he recommends starting with the head before moving on to the rest of the body. He also shows clever ways of blending fabric elements from various LEGO sets in with the plastic bricks to create intriguing textures and styles. For instance, the model of Maleficent (p.147) uses capes to form the sides of the dragon’s mouth, and some sort of fabric for the wings. It’s a technique I would not have considered before reading this book.

The book covers some topics which I haven’t seen addressed before, namely how to create realistic (or fantastical) trees and foliage. He shows how one can interlock the prefabricated leaf pieces to form much lusher and more realistic trees, and how to use non-traditional pieces like Technic connectors and levers to form realistic trunks and branches.

I found this book a pleasure to read. The prose is well written, and the illustrations are of high quality and well chosen. The topics follow a logical progression from conception through implementation to photography and publicity. The interviews with various master builders are insightful and informative. If you are a fan of LEGO and aspire to improve your building skills, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.