Unexpected Connectivity

Last Friday was my birthday, and I got LEGO, which automatically means it was excellent.

This is probably going to be another LEGO-nerdy post, so if you’re not interested, feel free to stop reading now.


Still here? Great!

In terms of sets, I got only one, but it’s an awesome one that I’ve wanted ever since I discovered it: the LEGO Ideas Exo-Suit originally designed by the amazing Peter Reid.

Building has certainly come a long way from the days of the original 1979 Space Cruiser and Moonbase. In those days, the 338 pieces of the Space Cruiser made it a huge set; now you get almost that many in a low-end to midrange model.

What’s the difference? In a word, greebles.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “greebles” is a sci-fi modelmakers’ term for all of the pipes and flanges and nodules and things that contribute to the illusion of functionality. In LEGO terms, I’m using it to refer to all the tiny bits and pieces of clips, pipes, connectors, robot arms and other elements that not only make wonderful meaningless detail but also offer new and unique construction possibilities.

The Exo-Suit, for instance, is assembled almost entirely from the things. In the entire model there are maybe ten or twelve bricks that would have been familiar to me as a child; the rest is all new pieces. And even what would have been familiar is used in unfamiliar ways: 1×1 “eyehole” plates fuse with old-style robot arms, bricks stand on their sides or upside-down, minifigure tools get new life as structural connectors…

It’s going to revolutionise my building.

The other things that are going to revolutionise my LEGO building are the two LEGO books I got for my birthday. The first, Brick Wonders, details various “wonders of the world” built in LEGO. Beginning with the Classical seven Wonders, it goes on to detail other ancient wonders including Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge, modern wonders including the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam, and natural wonders including the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.

Along the way, there are lots of instructions for building several mini-models, such as triremes, fountains, wind turbines and Mediæval houses, and it’s these that are going to contribute to revolutionising my building, as well as one crucial piece of information concerning relative LEGO geometry.

Any LEGO builder knows that one standard brick is exactly three of the flat “plates” high. This is basic building geometry and lets you combine plate elements alongside brick elements for different effects.

But what I didn’t know was that two studs’ width is exactly the same as five plates’ height.

Oh, I knew that you could pin a Technic 1×4 brick’s 3 holes vertically to 2 horizontal Technic bricks by sandwiching 2 plates between them, but I hadn’t calculated out the implications of that. Specifically, I hadn’t worked out what that meant in terms of the new-style bricks with studs on the sides: that you could combine vertical and horizontal bricks into a single shape without gaps.

The other book that’s going to revolutionise my building techniques is Peter Reid and Tim Goddard’s LEGO Space: Building the Future.

Yep, this is the same Peter Reid that designed the original Exo-Suit mech, and it tells the story of the exploration of the Solar System and beyond through those early LEGO Space sets, or more precisely, from new creations derived from that unique visual style but making full use of the building capabilities of new bricks.

His vision of the Classic Space LEGO universe is vastly different from my own – I always pictured the action happening on far more distant worlds orbiting other stars – but it might be truer to the LEGO Group’s original concept; after all, it was the “Space Cruiser and Moonbase”. But this is not really going to affect how I perceive the old Classic Space sets. Peter Reid’s LEGO creations are awesomely cool, but his near-space vision is only one possibility among many. Yes, the crater baseplates they used to sell were grey. But all that meant to me was that it probably wasn’t Mars (I did, however, consider spray-painting my crater baseplates orange to make Martian terrain, but I wasn’t sure I wanted anything that permanent).

No, what’s going to change is my whole style of building.

This book, too, has instructions for a number of the models, usually the simpler and less cool ones. But it also serves as a massive visual reference for what might unexpectedly connect to what.

Already my LDD (LEGO Digital Designer – a computer program for building things in LEGO) modeling is changing. Witness the hoverbikes I produced before the revolution (very much in the style of the ones I made as a child) and after (my own unique design, but definitely drawing on Peter Reid’s creations for inspiration):

Hoverbike from before my birthday

Hoverbike from before my birthday

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

I haven’t had much time around my paid employment to put the new techniques to work in a model using real bricks, but I have several ideas Stay posted on my LEGO blog Square Feet.

If I want to draw a serious lesson from all this, I guess it’s how things can unexpectedly fit together. I often get comments from people wondering how on earth my wife and I are together. Apparently there’s something about the way our relationship works that completely baffles many Americans’ expectations.

Now I have a new metaphor for why it works. It’s like LEGO. You see a modern Master Builder creation with pieces used upside-down and on their sides and in , and it looks like “how on earth did those fit together?”

And then you put on your own Master Builder glasses and begin to trace out the shapes of the pieces, and you go from “what on earth…?” to “Aha! I could do that!”

Maybe that’s the point. Stop freaking out about how it’s so unnatural or bizarre that it works, and maybe learn something you can replicate in your own situation. God, the One true Master Builder, put us together. I guess I should be thankful you weren’t in charge.

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