Book Review: “Steampunk LEGO”

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Steampunk LEGO

by Guy Himber

Published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/steampunk

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from its publisher, No Starch Press.

The central conceit of the book is that it is the journal of the Queen’s Chronicler of Technology, who “…ventures around the world and reports on exciting developments in the Sciences and their potential for civilian and military applications” (p. viii). This provides an excuse for the book to jump between many different themes of models.

I am not an enormous steampunk fan, but I do like the art style and admire the craft and artistry that goes into these LEGO creations. I was afraid that the models would all be drab brown and grey, with some copper tubes and gears shoved on almost as an afterthought, but I was pleasantly surprised. There is a huge variety in the models, both in the subject matter (the book ranges from trains and tanks, to bicycles, to robots, to mechanical animals, and even to space ships) and building technique.

While many of the models do stick to the standard color palette of grey, brown and copper, there are some great splashes of color throughout. For instance, Machine No. 1 by Vincent Gachod on p.44 is a beautiful green and grey steam powered automobile; Kaptain Kazoodle and the Travelling Circus of Doom by Nathan Proudlove (p. 61) is a strange insect like train with brown and teal and stark white. A robotic butler (p. 72) has a nice splash of purple.

The section on the Seven Seas, featuring many ships and submarines, illustrates how different builders approach their subject matter. The contrast between Ruben Ras’ studs-out submarine (“Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I”) built using the Lowell Sphere technique on p. 123 and the completely hidden stud technique using tiles and barrels (“O’Neill’s Mini Submarine” by Rod Gillies) on p. 124 is striking.

Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I

O’Neill’s Mini Submarine by Rod Gillies

Many of the models in this book are references to something else, or recreations of something famous in the steampunk style. For instance, the submarine I just mentioned, “Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I” is actually an allusion to a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), as I discovered when trying to search for a picture of the model. Other examples are much more obvious, such as J. Abba’s Luxury Air Barge, by Amado C. Pinlac (p. 142), which is a clear recreation of Jabba the Hutt’s ship in Return of the Jedi, or Baron Von Batten’s Train by Lazlo Kissimon (p. 7), which is a take on the Batmobile from the Batman universe.

preferred when these little references and nods were sprinkled throughout the book; when we get to the section on space, virtually every model is a recreation of a Star Wars vehicle (i.e. the Letter-Wing Fighter by Larry Lars, p. 180 is a recreation of the Y-Wing) or some other popular sci-fi show (Steam Viper, p. 183 looks to me like a take on the Vipers from Battlestar Galactica). That section felt a little weak to me as a result.

The other low point for me is the section entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities”. The fictional journalist details finding an ark containing “a wonderful collection of photographs depicting a great many items both mysterious and fabulous, but no description or mention of how the strange cabinet had functioned or what arcane magicks had powered it and its thirst for artifacts.” (p. 103). That whole section is full of various artifacts throughout history, such as a joystick, a child’s wagon, a microscope, and a micro-scale Hogwart’s castle. I felt that there was little rhyme or reason to this section, and that it did not fit at all with the theme of the rest of the book.

Other than these minor complaints, there is a lot to like. The section on robots and automatons is wonderful. Many of these models break far out of the staid grey/brown/copper color scheme. For instance, Sir Biggles by Théo Bonner (p. 72) is a model of a robot butler which uses inverted tires wrapped around parts of the model to form striking contrast with the metal colors underneath. The Queen’s Hammer by Hammerstein NWC (p. 73) is a great mech with brilliant red and gold pieces and a bright green face plate. Steam rises from the boiler on its back, as it does in many of the models. A cannon forms the weapon on one arm, where a laser rifle would normally be expected from such a model.

In addition to the great models, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the author’s prose. I’ve complained about lackluster story and writing in such other LEGO books as LEGO Space: Building the Future, so I was happy to see the quality in this one.

I heartily recommend this book to LEGO fans, even those without a passion for steampunk.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , ,

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 1 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 1 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.