Category Archives: Uncategorized

They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace

Well, I’m back from my trip back to Dear Old Blighty, and in celebration of the event I’ve built a royal guardsman.

Complete with bearskin hat, red coat and trousers with the stripe down the sides, he doesn’t look all that happy about the prospect of guarding Her Majesty.  Maybe he’a a closet republican.

The hands would be better in either white, for white gloves, or tan for flesh tone.  But I’ve ended up with dark grey, which is buildable and can stand in for gloves.  Likewise, the sword’s a little wonky-looking; maybe one of those long sword blades with the bar attachment point would look better, but I think this works well enough.

I think my favourite part is managing to approximate the red and white cockade on the side of the hat.

 

Advertisements

Recombination

LEGO isn’t just a construction toy. In a sense, it’s a mode of thought.

The particular genius of LEGO bricks, of course, is that they can be anything. The model on the box is a starting-point, but any kid will tell you it’s after that model gets broken up that things get interesting.

Now, I know that there are apparently people (even kids) who build what’s on the box, play with that (or display it) and never ever break it up, but to me, this has always been incomprehensible and missing the point. I’m sorry, people, but you’re doing it wrong…

The whole genius (in its original sense of “presiding spirit”) of LEGO is that any and all bricks can be put together in any and all ways to build (almost) anything you can conceive of.

Part of this among the various FOL (Fan Of LEGO) communities is the urge to use different elements in unique and interesting ways. Banana elements become claws, ninja swords find new use as windscreen wipers, people make mechs piloted by a frog, a monkey, a roast chicken…

I personally have a long-standing ambition and intention to somehow use the horse element in a spaceship model. Whenever I finally build my SHIP (Seriously Huge Investment in Pieces), don’t be surprised if it’s in there somewhere. If I can make it work. And I’m probably not building a farming colony ship transporting livestock.

It’s not just individual elements, though. Whole official themes have partaken of this recombinant spirit, melding different genres together to come up with something new and exciting. Nexo Knights is the most recent example (though I still think the fusion of Castle and high technology could have been handled much, much better), but the old TimeCruisers theme did it to the max.

As a kid on the cusp of TFOLhood at the time, I always thought TimeCruisers was a bizarre theme. I was always fanatical to the point of OCD about colour matching and making things look right in my creations, and the TimeCruisers sets were the weirdest hodgepodge of elements and building styles imaginable, with Town and Castle paraphernalia jammed into some kind of not-sure-what-it’s-supposed-to-be vehicle with Pirate and Spaceship features and a semi-randomised near-Rainbow Warrior colour scheme my admittedly OCD colour sense thought was vile.

But if any theme before the LEGO Movie truly expressed the genius of what LEGO is, TimeCruisers was it. It’s the same sort of wacky laser-armed icecreamtruckplane or chomping trashcompactorspaceship idea, only perhaps even more so. It’s like the Master Builders’ submarine from the movie, with different sections of the vessel expressing the different personalities involved.

Recombination. Combining various diverse elements into a new unified whole. Isn’t this what LEGO is all about?

The recombinant mode of thought that LEGO building encourages and promotes is highly sought after in some careers. Enough that the LEGO Group developed the “Serious Play” concept using LEGO building to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in office and career environments.

For a lifelong builder, Serious Play is probably superfluous. Anyone who spent the bulk of their childhood with a carpet of plastic bricks on their floor has probably been marinated long and deeply in the central concept: things don’t have to go together any one way.

While for me, TimeCruisers still pushes things a little further than I really like (too many styles and elements mashed together and not enough finished unity of the final model), I do like to fuse genres together in new and interesting ways.

As an AFOL re-entering the world of LEGO building and discovering LDD and other digital building programs, one of the first things I built digitally was a series of Classic Space dinosaur-inspired vehicles (They look primitive and studdy compared to more recent creations, but I’ve grown considerably as a builder over the last two or three years). My username on the old LEGO Message Boards, Saurianspacer, reflected this fusion: dinosaurs (saurian) and Classic Space (spacer).

More recently, there have been the spacedozer, the Elemental Dragon of Classic Space, the Constructodragon, and my forthcoming project, the Mechnotaur.

Then, too, as an aspiring writer the impulse to take two or more genres and see what happens when we insert Tab A into Slot Þ307ð serves for a lot of inspiration, and it’s something I usually enjoy reading as well. Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Boundary series is a sort of answer to the question “how can we get dinosaurs and the planet Mars into the same story without rewiring the universe’s fundamental workings?”; Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos dyad does the same for space robots and Greek mythology.

Part of me wonders whether these authors were LEGO builders as kids; it’s a very LEGO thing to do.

For me as an aspiring writer, the part I have the most fun doing is the worldbuilding. Again, that’s very LEGO, and very old-school 1980s-theme LEGO too. The long-running Classic Space theme had no stories or characters or very much definition of any sort. You built a world; what the LEGO people were doing in it was up to whatever you wanted at the time. It wasn’t like it is now where there are plotlines everywhere and named characters and TV shows and story. It was building worlds first, then deciding what the story was.

Take my current building project, the forthcoming Mechnotaur. Building a giant steampunk mech shaped like a minotaur is a classic example of my LEGOlike tendency to recombine genres. But then my love of worldbuilding kicks in and I get inspired by my own creation for the background for a tale. Or at least, a story-world; I’m currently in-progress on a story attempting to fuse steampunk with ice-age beasts and Russian Central Asia and I really don’t need to get into another complex story at this time.

What kind of world could make a steampunk mecha-minotaur reasonable? Well…

I’m tentatively calling it “Labyrinth World”. A place in which a race of self-appointed “Gods” use a combination of immortality/longevity treatment (“ambrosia”?) and high steampunk technology to keep the mortals in forced ignorance and slavery.

Though united in their oppression of the rest of humanity, the gods bicker and fight among themselves and against the remnants of their predecessor Titans, near-gods who also kept the mortals in forced technological ignorance but did not claim godhood or desire to be worshipped. These struggles provide openings for the Prometheus, a struggling band of mortal technologists who oppose the tyranny of the so-called gods using the left-over mechanical constructs of the Titan War and their own engineering…

It sounds like a cool story. In fact, it sounds like a story much cooler than I can actually write; I’m sure I’d ruin such a high concept with mediocre characters and crappy dialogue and a wandering plot. Like I said, the worldbuilding is the part I most enjoy; I write because I get to develop a world, and I write sci-fi/fantasy because it gives me the most scope for doing so.

And so I come around to the realisation that what I really want to do is not so much write stories as it is build worlds. I want to play at being the Creator. I want to create the story-universe, the milieu, the Wookiepedia of the fusile interior of my brain… And I think I’m pretty good at it, too.

There’s got to be a way to make money off this weird skill I seem to have, but I’m blowed if I can tell you what it is. Author might be a fairly good match if I can develop the rest of the craft, but what really springs to mind is “LEGO theme designer”.

In the meantime, here I sit in the real world with a heavy-construction day job and a strange mind…

Double Whammy

My son’s been building again.

In fairly typical six-year-old mode, this is his super-turret, with every different kind of fireable LEGO weapon we have except for the 2×2 disc shooter on it somewhere.

I’m blogging this as an addendum because I was really impressed that he managed to re-invent the bar-with-clips-on-both-sides form of LEGO hinge all by himself.

Talented guy.

A Sort of a Problem

I need to face the facts. The LEGO brick collection of our household is now at the point at which some sort of order and organisation is a necessity, not just a helpful aid to building.

I’ve tried before to impose some order on the collection with a system of Ziploc bags, but that didn’t work. The LEGO bricks are a household collection played with by not only me but two and sometimes all three of my children, the youngest of whom is six and who, when encountering a Ziploc bag full of windscreen elements, immediately tips it out to find the piece he needs. And then doesn’t put the rest back.

We have a limited system of the three drawers in one of these small plastic chests of drawers, one of which contains minifigures and accessories plus animals and plant parts, one of which contains wheels and things that go round, and one of which contains bar elements plus all the really tiny giblets and greebles that are smaller than a 1×2 tile. But those drawers are really the wrong shape for LEGO. They’re too deep to make good contained spaces in which you can really hunt down a particular element in that mixed a bag, and too mixed to make finding elements instantaneous even so, and they don’t make enough of a dent in the rest of the collection to achieve very much. We still spend far too long hunting down particular elements, and the noise of LEGO bricks tumbling against one another is one that punches my wife’s “something is breaking” button. And stands on it, usually.

I love my wife and I’d like to minimise her exposure to sounds that she finds grating while I pursue an activity I love and find relaxing. But I’m stumped. How can I organise our bricks, preferably without spending a fortune and acquiring DIY skills I don’t have making some sort of custom shelving?

I don’t mean what sorting system should we use. I’ll find a system that works for all of us and we’ll roll with it. Something based on element type and connectivity, I think. That’s the easy part.

I mean practically, what can I buy to serve as an organised repository of bricks that will make a dent in the mountain of unorganised elements, be accessible to a bright six-year-old, and cut down searching and clinking times to something a six-year-old can have patience with?

Oh, and preferably not break the bank.

LEGO-brand storage bins are too highly-priced and small to deal with the scale of the collection. They’re also designed mostly to help parents regain enough floor space to get around and clean; they support the “big jumble of bricks” system of LEGO filing.

I’ve toyed with (and am still considering) the idea of one of those bolt organiser things that DIY enthusiasts use to sort their myriads of screws and nails and whatnot. It has quite a few advantages: small, transparent drawers designed to hold small items, readily expandable simply by buying another section, drawers rather than bags, which we’ve proved doesn’t work. But I look at some of the larger element types, especially rubber tyres, shell or windscreen elements and ship parts, and I have to wonder whether they make screw organisers with drawers big enough. The one example I have access to is my father-in-law’s screw and bolt tidy, and it only has drawers designed for screw-sized things.

Also, how expensive are these things? I need to look that up, because it’s looking like it’s a present for all of us. I get my bricks organised. My son and daughters get to find the brick they’re looking for easily. And my wife gets the endless noise of brick clattering against brick to cease for a bit.

I’m willing to spend some money in order to avoid carpentry, but I’m not in a high income bracket and I don’t have masses to spend. I need an off-the-shelf sorting system that has drawers rather than bags or boxes, is accessible to a six-year-old (nothing too tall, bulky or awkward), has visibility into the drawers from the exterior (my son is still learning to read, so written labels aren’t going to help him find things), has drawers that can be removed and put back by a bright but impatient six-year-old, and ideally can handle tiny elements like 1×1 round tiles and large elements like Star Wars planet sections with equal ease.

Really, a bolt tidy is the only option, isn’t it?

Or is it? Those things don’t come cheap, if I remember right, and they’re far more robust than I actually need. Is there another option? One that isn’t going to mean spending money on a huge markup generated by faddish hobbies like scrapbooking or cardmaking?

A Ghostly Vessel

Ghosts… ghosts everywhere. What can I do with all these ghosts?

Too many ghosts!

Too many ghosts!

I’m not really into ghosts per se, but with my kids’ love of Ninjago (and my own liking for the sets as cost-effective MOCfodder) we’ve managed to acquire quite a number of the blasted things. As ghosts go, they’re well-designed, I suppose, with the trans neon green and glow-in-the-dark elements combining well with the blacks and dark blues and purples, but spooky and eldritch aren’t really my thing as building goes.

Still, there’s got to be something I could do with these things.

The words “ghost ship” floated through the aether like an unquiet spirit, looking for a place to lodge.

Solution: Ghost Ship

Solution: Ghost Ship

A ghost ship doesn’t have to have anything to do with Ninjago’s ghosts or the Cursed Realm. There are plenty of maritime tales of ghost ships encountered in the fog or by night, apparently hundreds of years out of time, lost on an endless murky sea… We can do that.

100_5681

100_5684

I’ve gone with a Ninjago ghost colour scheme, because the idea was to use all of these wretched ghosts and I wanted them to match. Besides, it’s a nicely dark, ethereal look and works well. The flag is technically Ninjago Sky Pirates, but it fits the look I wanted better than any other flag I’ve got. There are white bone elements here and there to add to the postmortem look, and I think one of my favourite parts is the bowsprit area with that jewel up ahead and the glow-in-the-dark skeletal spider legs.

100_5685

100_5683

My favourite piece of building is the sails. I’ve used some of those 3x8x2 shell elements in dark blue, with clips to attach them to the long rigid hose element serving as the spar. They both fit the colour scheme and look suitably ragged.

100_5690

100_5689

100_5688

100_5687

Out of the Kiddie Pool

As some of you will be aware, I’ve been on the LEGO Group’s site for a while now (as well as here), posting creations on their galleries and writing stories on their Message Boards.

It’s a great community in a lot of ways, and I’ve made some good friends there. Yet it’s not without its downsides.

One of the big ones is the amount of control you agree to cede to the LEGO Group when you post something. If you post a creation on their galleries, for instance, the fine print says that they have arrogated to themselves the right to use that creation however they wish, up to and including basically copying it wholesale in a new set without any recompense for the creator at all.

I’m not sure I like this very much. I build primarily for my own amusement rather than trying to make the next Ideas set, but this seems a little extreme. I guess it’s there so that they aren’t subject to intellectual property disputes if someone builds a similar model or uses a similar technique to one they have in the pipeline. Still, it’s a little scary to consider how many rights you don’t have if you use their site.

The other main downsides mostly concern being an AFOL (Adult Fan OLEGO, for the less-informed) in a forum full of kids.

Don’t get me wrong; I said it’s a great community and I mean it. I’ve got some very good friends on the Message Boards, mostly among the TFOL community, though it’s absolutely forbidden to let out anyone’s real age so I can’t be sure. It’s mostly a pretty good place, all things considered.

But the LEGO Group’s site is designed to be child-friendly and there is no lower age limit on getting an account and starting posting, and this can cause friction for an AFOL like me.

On the galleries, this is one sort of issue. There’s an awful lot of stuff that gets posted that’s, for want of a better word, crude. Not crude in the sense of indecent potty-mouthedness or Donald Trump, but unrefined. Primitive. “Spaceships” that consist of six plates stuck together with a minifigure perched on top, or LEGO-themed drawings that look like the sort of thing my art teacher always handed back and said “now finish it”.

Of course, there’s also stuff that isn’t, but you do have to wade through the primitive to find the exquisite. And I don’t actually mind most of the time. Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and genius master-builders don’t spring fully-formed ex nihilo overnight. A six-year-old making “cool spaceships” that look like something an eight-year-old would do is remarkable rather than rancorous; besides, if they’re having fun, who am I to tell them they can’t?

No, it’s the Message Boards where the fact that it’s a kid-friendly place has bitten me on the butt a few times.

See, I couldn’t say that on there, because it’s heavily moderated and they’d reject it out of hand. And probably rightly so. As a parent, I approve of the desire of the LEGO Group to maintain a site that’s a safe haven for children where they aren’t going to be exposed to anything objectionable. But as a writer and AFOL, it does have a tendency to bite me in the arse.

It’s never because I’m intentionally putting out “mature content”; it’s always because something I said that I considered basically innocent triggered a Mod rejection.

The classic one for gathering rejections for me personally has been killing off characters in my stories. I was quite disconcerted in my first story when I had an episode rejected with the abrupt and slightly unhelpful message “No killing and death in your stories”.

The issue was not that I vaporised a minor character’s spaceship with an alien death ray; it was twelve episodes or more later when I mentioned in passing that he had been killed.

“What?” I exclaimed. “I already killed him on-camera, as it were! You’ll watch while I do it without saying a thing, but then balk at me mentioning that he didn’t walk away when his ship became a cloud of atoms? Absurd!”

The arbitrary nature of the rejection and the disconnect between what fan users are allowed to post and what the LEGO Group themselves will endorse by making a theme out of might have turned me off of the whole Message Boards if I hadn’t been in the middle of a story. I mean, Jurassic World has people being eaten alive. Star Wars has armies of people being mown down with laser beams and entire inhabited planets blowing up. Harry Potter has a strong “death” subtheme with the Philosophers’ Stone, the Horcruxes, the Deathly Hallows. And yet “No killing and death in your stories”. 😛

After I calmed down again, I realised that if they’re going to have the Boards be safe for all ages of kid and maintain their traditional nonwarlike stance, they have to be a bit arbitrary and blanket about it. Not everyone’s going to be able to off a character gracefully and in a more-or-less kid-appropriate way, and if they let me get away with it, they have to let everyone. Otherwise JediMasterWicket (or insert other crazy made-up username) is going to justifiably complain that “You let him do it!”

But still, it’s illustrative of the hoops you have to jump through. “Kill” is automatically disallowed, except for a very few minor uses like “kill the lights”, but “smash” is acceptable instead, despite how much messier it sounds. “Stab in the back” as a way of saying “betray” is unacceptable, and the mods suggest the completely illogical “stab at” as an alternative despite it not meaning the same thing at all. I’ve since developed ways of saying “we’re all gonna die” without using “kill” or “die”, but the very fact that I have to is rather artificial. I’m doing an end-run around the rule, because the way it’s written and enforced is arbitrary to the point of silly, but I am disobeying the spirit of it, and I will continue to do so. It’s hard not to. Without conflict, there is no story.

For all that, though, I am a parent, and I do wholeheartedly approve from that perspective.

Actually, it’s the presence of so many kids on the galleries that’s getting to me right now.

As I said, objectively I don’t mind at all. I’m glad there’s a place where any kid of any age can post their creations. I’ve told my five-year-old son that as soon as he can read and write he can get his own account, and then you’ll see some cool primitive models!

But as an AFOL, is it really the best thing for the LEGO galleries to be my primary, near-sole creation-posting forum?

Perhaps not.

I’ve been toying with the idea of joining MOCPages for a while now. Technically I have an account, if I can remember the login, but I’ve always held off from posting anything, partly from nerves and partly from logistical reasons, so the account has languished unused and even unvisited for months.

Nerves, because MOCPages is a much more capable and adult forum, and when you’ve been a big shark in a kiddie pool, it’s a little nerve-wracking to venture into the deep ocean and swim with the fishies that are even bigger and much more badass at building than you. (Yes, there are plenty of people on the LEGO Galleries who I consider equal or superior builders, but they are a minority of the whole, not the majority of the community).

And logistical reasons because I don’t have a lot of time. Ten-hour work days six days a week are pretty normal for me, especially in the summer, and that leaves me with a lot less time than I’d like for getting on and off of multiple websites in the 30ish minutes of online time I have in the morning before I have to go to work.

(I can write during work hours, in the five-minutes-here, couple-minutes-there sort of way that my day runs between checks of the ground elevations for excavation machinery, but I have limited posting time because I’m marginally tech-averse and I have the dumbest dumbphone on the planet).

I can cope with one posting site, semi-intermittant blogging and my minimalist relationship with Facebook. I have not been confident I can do the same if I add in other sites.

Recently, though, I’ve been getting less and less contented on the LEGO website.

I plan to continue posting, particularly stories, but there’s been a lot of, without trying to be insulting, fairly juvenile-type posting topics, and I’m becoming less and less inclined to comment on the majority of it. There’s apparently only so many times my patience will put up with the same “We need LEGO <insert TV show or computer game I’ve never heard of>!!!!!” or “Who’s your favourite <fill in the blank>?” or misspelled or badly punctuated or whiny or gushy topics before I’ve had enough.

I’m feeling increasingly like both the galleries and the Message Boards are becoming a case of, well, an adult in a room full of kids. I’m doing something that a lot of kids do, so in some ways it’s inevitable, but I’m choosing to do it on the site set up most especially to cater to the kids that do it, and that’s less comfortable. I’m beginning to crave more adult interaction, the company of builders of greater ability who can actually critique my models, offer tips and spur me on to new heights.

MOCPages looks like it might be a solution, but I’m still somewhat hesitant. If anyone has any advice, I’d appreciate it. If you’re actually on MOCPages, what’s it really like? Should I take the plunge, knowing that it might well mean eventually letting my LEGO website account languish if I can’t logistically keep up with both?

Help me, all ye Obi-Wans. You’re my only hope.

The Shades

The Shades

The Shades

Well, I decided to follow up my Discworld steam engine with a small slice of Ankh-Morpork.

There’s plenty in that bustling city that could be modeled.  The Tower of Art.  The Patrician’s Palace.  Pseudopolis Yard.

But the Shades seemed initially most promising.

Fans of Discworld will know the ramshackle, shabby district well from the books.  It is, famously, the sort of place where, when they decide to name the inn “The Troll’s Head”, they don’t mess about with the signage.

In the earlier books, it’s the sort of place the Watch avoid, and even in the later books it’s not somewhere they can venture without caution.

Modelling that tumbledown and unsavoury area in LEGO seemed like a lot of fun.

A different angle on the model showing the Tudor-style overhanging buildings

A different angle on the model showing the Tudor-style overhanging buildings

It was quite a challenge, though, to balance the dictates of visibility with the enclosed nature of the place; I hope I did it ok, though it’s still not that easy to see everything that’s going on.  The Tudor-style buildings with the overhanging upper stories helped to give the right sense of oppressive narrowness, and I’m quite pleased with how it all worked out.

Sgt. Colon and Cpl. Nobbs proceed cautiously

Sgt. Colon and Cpl. Nobbs proceed cautiously

Two Watchmen – the inestimable Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs – are proceeding cautiously through the streets.  Sgt. Colon is the one with the shiny helmet; Nobby Nobbs, of course, corrodes everything he touches.

They are watched nervously by a couple of dwarfs, who are themselves being watched from above by the Watch’s gargoyle member, Constable Downspout.

A pair of the City's dwarfs watch them nervously

A pair of the City’s dwarfs watch them nervously

Downspout’s head isn’t ideal for a gargoyle, but at least it has an open mouth.  That was the eventual deciding factor in which head to use.

Inside the tumbledown disused city gate tower, a goblin peers out, while elsewhere on the rooftops a younger member of the Assassins’ Guild is practicing his rooftop sneaking while trying to avoid the gaze of the gargoyle constable.

Bird's-eye view.  The young Assassin is in black, obviously.  Constable Downspout is standing on the tower

Bird’s-eye view. The young Assassin is in black, obviously. Constable Downspout is standing on the tower

It was fun to build all the shabby details like the floors at uneven heights and all the discoloured random bricks, and I’m extremely pleased with how it’s all turned out.