Non-Denominational Holiday Gift Guide: LEGO for Grown-ups

I’m going to take it as given that if you’re interested in LEGO and you’re reading a blog mostly composed of swears, nerd-news, and left-wing propaganda, then you probably already *have* a big bin (or eight) of LEGO kicking around. So, I’m not advising you purchase *any* specific LEGO sets. (Also, the current generation of LEGO sets raise my hackles: They’re too conspicuously branded, too solution-via-force oriented, have too many specialized bricks, and are skewed too old for my kid; if he wants to play with guns, he can come shooting with us. Since he’s afraid of the racket of *real* guns, he shouldn’t be playing with fake guns. QED)
You’ve got plenty of bricks, poindexters; it’s time to meditate on new and interesting things to do with them.

This book comes at the top of my list because it is *gorgeous.* This is a big, thick, heavy coffee-table book full of great photos and short articles on every corner of the sprawling, weird LEGO universe (from official corporate history to rogue postmodern art projects). It’s a hardback with glossy, heavy paper stock and interesting internal layout–it’s an art book, perfect for the brainiac LEGO lover serving you nog or spinning your dreidel. As an added bonus, those lil articles aren’t all historical trivia or fluff: the authors, John Baichtal and Joe Meno, tackle the issue of LEGO ethnicity head-on (i.e., the fact that the LEGOverse seems to have roughly two gals and four black guys in residence, and the dark skinned folks are either whirling lightsabers or kicking balls), as well as the persistent problem LEGO has in connecting with girls, despite the fact that *from the start* the toy was aimed at being non-gender-specific. Baichtal/Meno also hit some of my favorite LEGO art projects (including Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp sets, which are a big part of what brought LEGO back into my forebrain in college), and introduced me to some really lovely new stuff. If you’re looking for a horizon-broadening nostalgia trip gift, this is your go-to LEGO book.

BADASS LEGO GUNS is exactly what it sounds like: build instructions for five incredibly badass working guns (!!!). Martin H├╝depohl’s book perfectly blends the nostalgia of spending an afternoon working through one of those wordless LEGO schematics with the specifically adult thrill of building something that can *really hurt* whoever is standing at the wrong end of its barrel. The designs themselves are really great: intricate, showcasing advanced building techniques (often called “SNOT,” that’s “studs-not-on-top,” builds in the adult-fans-of-LEGO–or “AFoL”–community), with really innovative firing mechanism and ammo designs. But, be warned: Unless you have an absolute crap-ton of Technic bricks, you probably aren’t going to be able to build the more impressively complex models (like the WARBEAST pictured on the cover). I have a big bin of mixed LEGO (mostly from the 1980s), and was able to squeeze out the first gun (a nifty lil rubber-band shooter called the PARABELLA) with only a few substitutions. Also, the more advanced guns call for modding some bricks (sanding them down, glueing several together into permanent sub-structures, etc.) At least in the edition I’ve got, a few pages were misprinted (including some of the parts lists, which was especially annoying to discover mid-build). These have since been corrected, and the new pages are posted in the publisher’s website.

If BADASS LEGO GUNS has you primed to rediscover your LEGO itch, then you really, really wanna check out THE UNOFFICIAL LEGO BUILDER’S GUIDE. At 300+ pages, this book is an *exhaustive* treatment of all of the structural and design possibilities (both practical and theoretical) offered by the LEGO System. There are a few specific projects buried in this tome, but they aren’t in traditional wordless LEGO “build instruction” format; these are chatty narrative walk-thrus, discussing design decisions and options, and really laying out the underlying mental framework that an adult LEGO builder applies to a project (in contrast to that free-range improvisational building that kids do with LEGO). The book, as a whole, is wordy and a good read, in addition to being a great reference resource. I know that sounds kinda silly–a LEGO reference book–but if you’re grown-up and getting into LEGO, you pretty quickly find yourself with questions like “OK, what they hell is the accepted nomenclature for that two-stud-hole skinny-slopey brick with the sorta scratchy textured angle part?” (Answer: As pg. 257 teaches us, this is a “2×1 45 degree slope brick”; it’s part #3040 and was first introduced in 1979.)

If you’re of voting age and just now making the big jump back into LEGO, you’re going stumble into the incredibly geeky LEGO-CAD software underground sooner or later. Yes, that’s computer-aided design software specifically for designing LEGO projects, and even producing your own LEGO-style build instructions. The entry-level on this is LEGO’s own LEGO Digital Designer software. This is free (!), dead-simple to use, can automatically generated rudimentary build instructions, and will even connect with the LEGO website and order all the bricks you need for your custom design (no shock there). Bonus: It makes a satisfying *click* sound when you connect bricks. But it’s also frustratingly limited software, and it won’t be long before you’re hankering for something more, something *way too much more*. Welcome to the brain-bendingly confusing world of LDraw!
On the up-side, you can do *anything* with the suites of free software this community has developed: Make photorealistic LEGO tableaux! Make spot-on LEGO-style build instructions! Make strictly physically impossible LEGO ships! Make up your own LEGO bricks and use them in models! Make LEGO minifigs do it in deeply disturbing Bible-themed porno shoots of your own devising! But this software is a far cry from the stupid-easy software LEGO has on their website; most of these programs are built on full-bore vector-based CAD software (e.g., the most popular LEGO ray-tracing software is actually built off of the 3D rendering software used by rocket scientists). Some of the software (like Bricksmith for Mac OS, which I *love*) is GUI and user-friendly and very approachable. Most of it is crazy opaque, with documentation that is equally obtuse and often simply incorrect. You need a good guide, and VIRTUAL LEGO FOR WINDOWS is it. The writing is crisp and clear, the book well organized, and authors Tim Courtney, Ahui Herrera, and Steve Bliss walk you through all of the software you need to build projects, render them, and produce great images and build instructions. You can really do *stunning* work with this powerful software, and Courtney/Herrera/Bliss totally bring that into reach for LEGO-CAD newbies. I’m a Mac-user, and still found this book *really* useful. Some of the software isn’t great on Mac but most of the actual nuts-and-bolts info translates. E.g., they favor MLCad as their LEGO editor, while I think Bricksmith is *much* slicker for Mac users. Similarly, they go into great depth with POV-ray, which doesn’t load on modern Mac OSes at all. But, MegaPOV (which they only treat lightly) works fine on Macs, and most of the details carry over, since MegaPOV is basically just a wrapper for running POV-ray. (Aside: I’ll be writing up a brief “Virtual LEGO on Mac” post over at the Snip, Burn, Solder Blog soonishly, which should help connect the dots for Mac users working with this book).
(DISCLOSURE: These titles are all from my publisher, No Starch Press, who sent me review copies of a mess of LEGO books; these are the stand-outs from the crop, in my humble. I was not otherwise compensated–except for that I got a mess of free books/ebooks.)

Amazon has sold out of my geeky DIY/craft book . . .

. . . but the publisher, No Starch Press, still has copies on hand. Order directly from them if you’d like a book in time for Chrismanukwanza (or Winter Solstice, Robanukah, Kristallmass, whatevs you’re in to). Use the coupon code “SHRED” and save 35% (!!!). Every order from No Starch includes *FREE* ebook editions (PDF, ePub, and Kindle-compatible mobi). Alternately, if you want an autographed copy, you can hit me over email (dave[at]davideriknelson[dot]com) and we’ll work something out (an especially attractive offer for folks living in Washtenaw County, MI, since I can just hand you your copy instead of straining the already overburden USPS).

Nice, Quick Overview on Making Your Own Printed Circuit Boards Using a Laserjet Printer

FYI, this is basically a standard etching method, it’s just that they transferr the layout to the copper using “toner transfer”–i.e., a laser-jet printed copy of the circuit layout and a hot iron–instead of mucking around with photo-emulsion or tracing or what have you. Nifty!
Make Your Own Printed Circuit Boards on a Laserjet! – YouTube

*thank trek!*

I am a professional “content creator” and I am against SOPA and PROTECT IP

If you, your family, or friends are having trouble groking why folks are up in arms about SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act, take 10 to watch these Colbert Report clips (posted with rights holders’ consent and encouragement–or, damn, at least I *hope* so; otherwise they’re going to shut down this entire site and lock me up for 5 years [not a joke!; those are actual provisions in SOPA]).
Just to reiterate: I’m a professional writer. This is how I make my living: I write things, I sell those things, people send me checks; those checks aren’t big. I have royalty agreements on some stuff, but have yet to ever see an actual royalty check. (I also write other things, for which I never expect fungible payment; this is one of those. Since I read lots of things that other folks write with no expectation of seeing a check, I’m eager to likewise contribute to the largest and most accessible lending library in human history. Let us call this process “dropping a dime in the heavenly jukebox.”)
SOPA and PROTECT-IP do *nothing* to help or protect “content creators” like me. In fact, almost *nothing* that’s happened in copyright law since the 1960s has done anything to benefit the vast bulk of all artists; it *has* done a great deal to enrich corporate rights holders (who were often robbing those artists you love. Please see the biography of *any* bluesman ever for details.)
Here’s the takeaway: These laws bludgeon regular citizens–like yourselves–with no corresponding benefit to the workers who did the heavy lifting (and when I say “workers” I don’t just mean the writers, musicians, actors, etc. My *publisher* doesn’t use DRM on their ebooks; user-level piracy isn’t a threat to their business, and they know it). This law is for 1%ers.
As an independent business person and content creator in the economically depressed state of Michigan, I’ve contacted my reps raising these very points; they’ve been at best ambivalent. So, if these laws sound like a bad idea, and you want to contact your reps, that’d be great. Tell them David Erik Nelson sent you; he’s a “content creator” and he’s against SOPA and PROTECT IP.
SOPA Censorship Bill on the Colbert Report

Happy Non-Denominational Gift Buying Season! SAVE 35% ON “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred”

. . . and get the ebooks (in PDF, mobi, and ePub formats) for *FREE*!

Order Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred directly from the publisher, use the coupon code SHRED, and save 35% (i.e., pay one fat quarter *less* than you would ordering from Amazon). And Amazon would nick you another $10 for the Kindle version, where-as No Starch tosses it in for free (along with a really slick PDF–pretty as hell on an iPad, if you’re an iPad person).
Buy a paper copy of my book for your cousin and keep the PDF for yourself–or, Hell, buy a dead-tree version for your cousin, give him the digital bundle on a thumb drive, and *keep a copy of the ebooks for yourself, just like Jake Sparrow would.* It’s fine by us! See if Amazon will give you *that* deal.
It’s about *sharing* the love is what we’re saying, and ’tis the season for that.

“Circuit Snippets” by T. Escobedo

If you have a little soldering experience–including building any of the electonics projects in Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred–then you’re ready for T. Escobedo’s “Circuit Snippets.” This document includes several dozen sound circuits (largely guitar effects, although they work with any sort of instrument you can plug into an amp), which range from the relatively common (e.g., distortion pedals, phasers, envelope followers, pre-amps, auto-wahs) to uncategorizable strangenesses. In terms of quality, many of these sound as good as mass-market stompboxes at one-tenth the price.
(The Synthstick entry has a bit more about Escobedo’s FolkUrban website, but the short story is that it was really cool, had lots of great designs for different instruments, and disappeared with GeoCities in October 2009. I saved PDFs of “Circuit Snippets” and the Synthstick, but many other Escobedo fans have done a much better job of archiving than I did, scooping up all of the audio samples, too. The “Circuit Snippets” mirror at Guitar HQ UK is one such faithful recreation of the old GeoCities page.)
“Circuit Snippets” by T. Escobedo

“The Synthstick” by T. Escobedo

For years, Tim Escobedo maintained the excellent FolkUrban website, which featured a wide array of instruments–both traditional and electronic–cunningly made from cheap, common supplies (lots of PVC and tupperware, grocery sacks, etc.) His projects were a huge influence, and served as invaluable templates to my tinkering; the synthstick was the first synth I ever built, and its VCO (the core noise-making circuit) found its way into many of my projects, as well as those built by my students (sharp eyes will see something very similar nestled at the heart of the Cigar Box Synth, Project 17).
GeoCities evaporated in October 2009, and Escobedo’s entire site with it. I archived the Synthstick and his collection of Circuit Snippets as PDFs, but these don’t include any of the audio examples. Happily, I’ve discovered that many other tinkerers loved Escobedo’s site as much as I did, and archived various chunks; Googling for “T. Escobedo” is a good place to start.
“The Synthstick” by T. Escobedo

“Making PVC Didgeridoos” by Steven L. Sachs

For years, Steven L. Sachs maintained a great page on didgeridoos. It largely concerned making PVC didges like the Electro-Didgeridoo (Project 11 in the book), but also offered info on modifying lower-cost store-bought bamboo and teak didges into instruments that, sonically, could often pass for their genuine (and expensive) eucalyptus cousins. When GeoCities folded in October 2009, it took Steven’s site with it. I’ve archived a PDF of his page, and humbly offer it here:
“Making PVC Didgeridoos” by Steven L. Sachs