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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.

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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.

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.

Book Review: Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec, published by No Starch Press.
Cover

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book to review from O’Reilly.

I have a deep and abiding love for all things LEGO. Growing up, I assembled a few Technic sets but never really tried to make any creations on my own with that system. I received a great set last Christmas, the well-loved 8421 crane model.

Crane Model

I enjoyed the process of assembling it tremendously, as it had great small details like working doors on the cab and a brilliant modular design. I was eager to review this book because Technic interests me but I know so little about it.

Bottom line up front – this is one of the best, most informative books I have read. It exceeded my expectations in its breadth and depth of topics covered and its effective use of illustrations. It is divided into five sections – basics, mechanics, motors, advanced mechanics, and modeling.

I did not expect such a thorough explanation of all the physic and mechanical engineering principles that are necessary to make working models. The first Basics section covers such concepts as speed, torque, power, friction, traction, and backlash. The author proceeds to cover more specific concepts related to vehicles, such as drive trains, front wheel versus rear wheel drive, turning radius, and center of gravity. I was familiar with some of these terms but not others (for instance, “Backlash describes the gaps between mating components, such as two gears”).

Only after exhaustively covering these basic mechanical principles does the author tackle Technic specific elements, such as pins, axle holes, units of measure in the LEGO system, important ratios (for instance, 3 plates = 1 brick in height), and the difference between beams and bricks (studless vs studfull). This section was very interesting to me as it gives precise names to pieces that are hard to describe otherwise.

The second section of the book covers mechanics, with an in depth looks at gears, chains and pulleys, levers and linkages, pneumatics, and reinforcing models to avoid being pulled apart by the stresses of the system. Almost all of these concepts were new to me, with the exception of gear ratios. The author introduces real world mechanical devices/techniques (such as the Chebyshev linkage), describes what they are used for (converting rotational motion into a straight line), and includes a fully realized Technic version of each system. Some of the systems are laid out in multiple steps, while others have just a single image of the completed structure. Still images allow you to get a sense of how the systems work, but the author also includes links to videos of some of the systems, which are much easier for me to understand.

Chebyshev

Chebyshev linkage figure

The third section of the book is an exhaustive look at all of the LEGO motors and their stats (torque + speed), as well as examples of what each is particularly well suited for (or not, as he has clear disdain for some of the models).

Advanced mechanics covers steering, suspensions, tracked vehicles, transmissions, and the use of adders and subtractors. I found this section particularly interesting because I’ve never bothered to take the time to understand how a real world car works. After reading through the explanations and mentally visualizing how the gears would turn in each example, I have a much better understanding of what happens when gears shift in a car, or how suspensions help to keep vehicles in contact with the ground (not just to provide a smoother ride and act as shock absorbers, which I erroneously thought).

The book concludes with a section on creating models, and the tradeoffs involved with using Technic to mimic real life objects. There is a natural trade off between form vs function, and the author encourages prospective builders to decide which one they’re willing to sacrifice before beginning to build. He discusses how to use blueprints to determine at which scale the model should be built, based on the fact that certain Technic elements are only available in a small range of sizes. For instance, if you’re modeling a car, you are limited by the size of the wheels – you could not build a 1/4 scale model, for instance, with off the shelf Technic components.

Conclusion

As I said up front, this book blew me away with the amount of technical details it presented in a clear, easy to comprehend format. I found the figures in the book absolutely crucial to my understanding; I estimate that there are at least 200 such figures. Some are photographs (usually of his finished creations), but most are high quality 3D renders. The author makes consistent use of color throughout a section, and details what the color scheme means (for instance, a red axle might always be the one that is connected to the motor, while a green one is on the output side of the equation). My one nitpick is that it’s very hard to make out some of the figures on a monochrome display (i.e. the Kindle), but I was able to consult the beautiful PDF version if I needed clarification.

This could have been a dry textbook, but instead it’s fun and eminently readable. The author’s quirky sense of humor manifests itself in some of the photographs, in which a hamster appears, ostensibly for scale. I’m inspired to try my hand at building my own Technic creations, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay this book.

Book Review: Team Geek by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian W. Fitzpatrick

August 27, 2012 1 comment

Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others, by Ben Collins-Sussman, Brian W. Fitzpatrick
Team Geek cover image

Disclaimers: I received a free copy of this book to review from O’Reilly. I work at Google, as do the authors, but this review reflects my views only and not necessarily those of Google.

One thing I have learned over my three years of professional software development is that you really are writing code for other people to read, not for the compiler. This dual nature of programming, the precise, exacting specifications that run on the computer, and the imprecise, ambiguous human factor, is fascinating to me. Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian W. Fitzpatrick, two of the engineers behind the SVN version control system, currently working at Google, have written Team Geek, a book that aims to impart lessons learned in creating better software through better people skills and teamwork.

Programmers tend to lionize the lone programmer, like Linus Torvalds of Linux fame. In some rare cases, geniuses do manage to accomplish incredible things on their own. But in most cases, great software is a collaborative effort performed by a team of people of varying skills, backgrounds, and communication styles. There are many books which help improve your technical proficiency, but this is one of the few I’ve encountered that addresses the importance of working effectively with teammates.

I won’t reiterate all of the content of the book but there are a few themes that occur throughout that I’d like to touch on.

The first is that it is crucial to spread the knowledge throughout the team rather than keeping it siloed in the heads of a few people. They whimsically refer to this as the “bus factor” – how many people would it take to be hit by a bus (or be otherwise incapacitated) before the project would fall apart?

One way of increasing this shared knowledge is through the use of communication channels that are easily archivable and searchable rather than through point to point communication. For instance, it is better to ask questions of the team via an IRC channel or mailing list than to ask someone directly, because that exchange can be easily found in the future. It also gives other team members visibility and input into the decision making process.

The culture of the team is also frequently discussed. In the previous example, archiving technical discussions would do no good if no one bothers to search and try to find answers by themselves prior to asking someone for the answer. The shared values of the team are crucial to its effectiveness.

Another main theme of the book is focus, or “saying no to all the distractions.” Part of an effective team, the authors say, is a manager who can shield engineers from the chaos inherent in the organization. This is a form of avoiding distractions at a high level – working on things which do not actually matter for your project. One relevant quote I’ve found in this regard is

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all — Peter Drucker

One way the authors suggest to maintain focus is to decide on a mission statement. It might sound cheesy, but they offer a compelling argument as to its efficacy. They relate an example of how they used this technique on one of their projects and it became clear that many of the senior engineers had very different goals and ideas of what the product should do. Had they not forced the team to clearly specify what they were trying to accomplish and what the non-goals of the project were, there would have been significant wasted effort by people working at cross purposes. They use the analogy of a cart being pulled by different team members in different directions – by not working towards one goal, the cart will not move forward as quickly as it would if all were pulling together.

At a lower level, distractions abound as well. While programming, it takes significant concentration and effort to get engrossed in the task at hand and to ‘load’ the program structure into one’s head. Context switching is very bad for productivity because the cost of reloading this state is so high. Sometimes these context-switching distractions come from other team members, such as when someone interrupts to ask a question. The authors suggest that the team come up with a strategy for minimizing these disruptions, both to increase productivity and decrease frustration. For instance, in one team the authors led, any time Alice needs something from Bob, Alice would make her presence known, Bob would verbally acknowledge Bob but not stop what he was doing, finish what he was doing, and only then stop and talk to B.

While much of the book is generalizable to any sort of team environment, the authors do give some coding specific advice. There are discussions on handling code reviews effectively, dealing with people who constantly dig their heels in and criticize others’ technical solutions, and ways to avoid ego while coding.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, reading it cover to cover over two legs of an international flight. Much of the advice in the book is common sense but there are also many specific, concrete ideas that I had never considered before. I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone working on a team that writes software.