Holy Crap! “Beautiful LEGO” Is a Hella Apt Title for this Book!

No Starch Press (my publisher) is releasing Beautiful LEGO this fall, and it’s shaping up to be a very aptly titled book. Check this out!

No Starch’s other coffee-table-ish books (like LEGO Adventure and CUlt of LEGO have been consistent crowd-pleasures in my family (and that’s across age groups, from my folks down to my seven-year-old), so I’m pretty excited to see what’s in this latest offering.

RECOMMENDED BUY: LEGO Brick Separator Tool

I don’t know how this ended up in our possession, but at some point on our Holiday Season Travels (which included many LEGO gifts for and purchases by our first-grader, and many hours of LEGO building for all, both in new sets and sifting through the decades-old bins of LEGO at various relatives homes) my son acquired one of these little guys:


That’s a “LEGO Brick Separator Tool” and it’s worth its weight in gold. I remember many a nail bent back and tooth chipped trying to separate bricks and plates when I was a boy–but such enhanced interrogation and freelance orthodontics are a thing of the past. Just attach this little fella to the pesky LEGO (either from above or below), and you can lever it off with ease–even if you are only endowed with the scrawny musculature and soft hands of an American first grader. The added bonus on this model LEGO tool is the little poky-axle on top, which helps dislodge short rods, axles, and pins from Technic wheels and gears. As soon as it entered our house this tool reduced the calls of “Daaaaaadeeeeee: I need help getting these LEGOs apart!” by a solid 90 percent. *Bliss!*
LEGO tools currently sell new at Amazon for about $7, although I’ve seen older style tools online (ones without the axle/pin pusher on top) for as little as $2–even at the higher price, this thing is *so worth it.*

GIFT RECOMMENDATION: The Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guides from No Starch Press

If there is an AFoL (“Adult Fan of LEGO”) in your life–or an über-nerdy LEGO kid–then No Starch Press’s two Unofficial Lego Builder’s Guides are must-buys.
I’ve lauded Allan Bedford’s UNOFFICIAL LEGO BUILDER’S GUIDE in the past; it’s an *exhaustive* treatment of all of the structural and design possibilities (both practical and theoretical) inherent to the LEGO System, as well as a handy reference work on parts, build techniques, and design styles.

This second edition offers a lightly revised text and a complete full-color makeover. It’s really, really pretty. My only beef is that it’s also almost 100 pages shorter than its predecessor, although I’m not sure how freak-out worthy that is: It’s pretty clear that the new tidier layout and slightly more compact typesetting is responsible for some of that shrink, and is balanced by the fact that No Starch has gone with a nicer semi-gloss paper stock, making this a more exciting gift item or coffee table book. That said, the second edition *did* loose several chapters–albeit ones that may have come off as filler to some readers (one was on brick storage and pre-build preparation, the other on crafting a few handy tools for building. I can see a lot of folks who aren’t sociologically interested in what’s happening in an AFoL’s head skipping these). The one omission that did bother me was the loss of the brief chapter on LEGO Technic. Fortunately, No Starch has compensated for that with:
THE UNOFFICIAL LEGO TECHNIC BUILDER’S GUIDE by Pawel Kmiec (whose name’s spelling I’ve had to approximate, as it calls for several letters I can’t readily located among the Special Characters).

Oh. My. GOD! This book is simply *incredible.* Like Bedford’s book it’s in beautiful full color, but where Bedford is chatty Kmiec is concise and textbookish (in a good way). Pages are dominated by excellent illustrations. It’s the engineering textbook Technic always needed, delving in to *how* Technic builds work and the intricacies of their designs (which are wholly unexplored in the Technic sets themselves, which include pictograph LEGO build instructions with no discussion of how a mechanism works or why a design decision was made). Kmiec offers some brilliant insights into, for example, the need for (and methods of) offsetting pieces by a half-stud, or the differing reinforcement methods available to modern LEGO Technic geeks. His discussion of mating traditional Technic bricks and the newer stud-less beams for sturdy, compact, and attractive builds is both an easy and informative read.
All told, this book is *beyond* exhaustive–at 320+ pages the damn think weighs in at over two-and-a-half pounds. Heck, there are *two* chapters dedicated solely to LEGO’s awesome pneumatic system, including several full BIs (build instructions) for pneumatic engines–and that’s just one facet of this gem. There are pages upon pages of BIs for linkages, differentials, couplings, transmissions (including one for a ten-speed transmission–it runs nearly 30 pages!) and more. If there’s a LEGO Technic fan in your life, this book is just about guaranteed to knock him or her out cold.

Continue reading “GIFT RECOMMENDATION: The Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guides from No Starch Press”

GIFT RECOMMENDATION: The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 1: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More! by Megan H. Rothrock

Throughout the year my publisher, No Starch Press, favors me with review copies of the new and interesting additions to their catalogues. So, between now and whatever-the-last-shipping-day-before-Xmas-is, you can expect a mess of gift suggestions to pop up here.
Incidentally, if you have a book or kit that bears reviewing, feel free to drop me a line; I’m not totally married to only reviewing books by my friends or publisher, those are just the ones that show up on my mailbox.
Kicking off this season of reviews is The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 1: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More! by Megan H. Rothrock. This is a really beautiful survey of the modern world of LEGO construction lead by our intrepid guide, minifig Megs. This hardcover (suitable for gift-giving!) is packed with glossy full-color photos, and follows Megs in comic-book style as she tours the works and worlds of a dozen top LEGO designers (both pro and hobbyist). The book includes at least 200(!) designs, with 25 full build instructions for planes, trains, dinosaurs, robots, mechs, medieval accouterments, and more. The designs themselves are brand-free (no Star Wars of Harry Potter), and focus on modularity, adaptability, and reusability. Megs highlights lots little aesthetic flourishes that go a long way (with great observations about medieval brickwork, modern commercial roofs, engines, etc.) and introduces many innovative techniques (including some neat SNOT–that’s “studs-not-on-top”–construction tricks). She’s always sure to flag how a construction can be adapted to new designs.
The book favors some pretty complex builds (the T. Rex has 75 steps!)–which would tend to put it into AFoL (“Adult Fan of LEGO”) territory–but the book design is super accessible to younger builders, making it something of an ideal “idea book” (where it’s fine to aspirational instead of actionable). I gave a copy to my six-year-old and he was *thrilled.* After a few days (during which he read it cover-to-cover each night), I checked in for a review:

Me: “Hey, kid, waddya think of this book?”
6-year-old: “It’s cool.”
Me: “What’s cool about it?”
6yo: “Megs goes everywhere and I find out new things about LEGOs that I like.”

So, there you have it.

ACT FAST and Save 40% on No Starch Press LEGO Books! #LEGO

My publisher, No Starch Press, is running a two-day promotion on *all* their LEGO books: Just shop through their site, use the coupon code BUILDIT during checkout, and save 40 percent: 40% Off All LEGO Books! | No Starch Press
No Starch has some *awesome* LEGO books, which I’ve talked about in the past (scroll down a bit to hit the LEGO book reviews). My top gift-giving picks are definitely Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guide and Cult of LEGO for AFoLs (“adult fans of LEGO”), and all of Yoshihito Isogawa’s LEGO Technic Idea Books for *everyone.*

M.C. Escher’s “Relativity” litho as a Star Wars LEGO diorama


I’m not just posting this because geeks and LEGO and Star Wars and nostalgia-singularity and *neat!* {*squeeee*} FREAKOUT! Yes, all that’s in the mix (plus, like most of you, I’m a depressingly unselfconscious Escher fanboy from small times), but I’m posting this because, simply as art in and of itself, this sculpture is lovely and worth meditating on. It is here to tell us something interesting about ourselves and our myths. For example, the artist’s blithely stated intention to *dismantle* this.
Take a second to click through and look at the detailed images. Please. Trust me:
Star Wars Relativity V2: A LEGO– creation by Paul Vermeesch : MOCpages.com

LEGO Stop-Motion Using Your iPhone!

(You can obviously shoot *any* subject in stop-motion, it’s just *really* pleasing to use LEGO.)
Great post from Will at Tested.com on shooting stop-motion films using the iPhone (which has native HD video–and, in fact, shoots pictures at such nice resolution that I’m doing all the pics for my next book using my damn phone. We’re living in the *FUTURE!*) The best part: These stop-motion apps–which are as good (or better!) than anything that was on the market five years ago–are under $3!!!
How To Turn Your iPhone Into a Stop Motion Camera – Tested
Here’s one of Will’s efforts:

(For a review of my previous efforts at stop-motion–and *acting*–from years passed, click for the “expanded view” of this post)

Continue reading “LEGO Stop-Motion Using Your iPhone!”

Recommended Buy: LEGO Heroica Game

For the first time since having kids I had a solid Toys R’ Us win on Saturday, and it’s this:

BACKSTORY: My five-year-old and I go to the same dentist. Because I’m an adult man and skipped going to the dentist for about a half decade when I had no dental insurance, my visits to the dentist are persuasively unpleasant (i.e., Guess who had six cavities and a 1.5 hour deep clean after his first return-visit to the dentist? Guess who flosses daily–or more–now?) But, this is a cunning dentist who works his *ass* off to make sure that kids *love* going to the dentist. In addition to the cheap-plastic-from-China toy bin and a big ole goody bag of flossers and colorful cartoon toothbrushes and *krazy flavvvvorz-funtime adventure toothpaste!!!* and whatever, he also gives every cavity-free child a $10 gift card to Toys R’ Us–which represents a huge portion of my son’s annual income. Coupled with his $1 per week allowance (he feeds the pets) and occasional boons on birthdays and holidays, he periodically has a fair amount of buying power–provided he goes to Toys R’ Us (which itself is sort of a *grrrrrr* situation but, you know, I’m not gonna look a gift-card in the mouth).
After many delays (we’ve got a new baby), the boy and I finally made it out to the store on Saturday. He had long planned to purchase “Sensei Wu” from LEGO’s Ninjago line. I *hate* this line, because it is a totally rip-off: The Ninjago packages are basically a fighting-tops/Pokemon hybrid, cost $15-ish, and include one (1) specialized LEGO minifig that stands on one (1) weighted dreidel and can hold his many little specialized (and easily lost) swords. There’s nothing to build, and they aren’t fun to play with, but they have excellent marketing (including trade-style comic books my son reads over and over and over), and all the kids talk about them, and thus all the kids want them–so goes the world.
Fortunately, my local Toys R’ Us was out of Sensei Wu (suck it, Sensei Wu!) Our 5yo brave-faced it, but was clearly bummed as he wandered the aisles looking for a stray Wu tucked among the Technics sets and Space Police (or whatever they call that line). Then, while looking for breast-pump parts, I stumbled across an ill-situated end-cap of LEGO games marked down 30%.

I’m on record as being more than a little disappointed in the LEGO corporate trajectory–with its growing reliance on marketing tie-ins, uselessly hyper-specialized bricks, gendering, and violence-based problem solving–but I *love* the games they’ve been producing. As build kits they’re at least moderately entertaining, and the games themselves are balanced and playable by a *wide* age-range. A few weeks ago we’d been introduced to these LEGO games at my sister’s house, where my 10-year-old nephew, 5-year-old son, 66-year-old mother, and I all happily played MINOTAURUS–and were evenly matched. CREATIONARY is likewise a delight (and, thank Gott in Himmel, bounced the curséd Candy Land from the mix).

Not only do these have the cachet of being for older kids, but my son has also recently gotten into D&D (in the form of DnDish–more on that in a future post), which made HEROICA: CAVERNS OF NATHUZ an especially easy sell. The HEROICA series (which includes four games, all under the same rule set, which can either be played independently or linked together into one epic campaign) is basically a boiled-down version of the movement/combat system from the old red-boxed Basic Dungeons & Dragons box from the 1980s.

The rules are simple enough that a precocious 5-year-old can grasp them (although the game is marketed for 7+), but complicated enough that it preserves that *lots can happen* and *many monkeywrenches* feel of dice-based RPGs. There isn’t really a narrative built-in–or mandated–but it’s easy to add a narrative layer (and, in our situation, kind of inevitable).
So, for the price of one goddamn Ninjago dude my kid got an entire game that he spent a happy hour *building*, and we then spent an enjoyable half-hour playing as a family (wife and new baby even enjoyed it, and neither of them are paper-and-pencil RPG people), and are already inventing new rules and scenarios for.
Plus Toys R’ Us actually had the breast-pump parts and organic diapers I needed. Critical hit!