Independence Planet

A cross-post from my LEGO blog Square Feet today.  This seemed appropriate in both places.


It’s quite out-of-the-ordinary for me to be building a Fourth of July-themed LEGO model.

Although I live in the United States, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and American Independence Day is the single US public holiday I’ve had the hardest time getting my heart around.

In all honesty, Britain in 1776 doesn’t look to me like the “tyranny” of you Americans’ popular belief, based as it is on half-remembered childhood school lessons. We had pre-Revolutionary (and later post-Revolutionary) France sitting next door inviting comparison, and besides that the citizens of the American colonies seem to have had in large part a lighter burden than those of the mother country. “British tyranny”, as you so delightfully put it, hardly seems fair.

It’s taken most of a decade now to get past my offended national pride at this seemingly mentally-lazy accusation of “tyranny”, together with my secret fear that you Americans might be still holding a sort of grudge about it all with your closely-held popular memories of your Paul Reveres, your Boston Tea-Parties and your “rockets’ red glare” (from missiles fired by one of our warships, as I can’t quite ever forget).

Really, the Fourth of July is a weird time to be a Brit in America, if you have any sense or knowledge of history. I love America, but I love my homeland too, and it’s difficult to enter into the spirit of a holiday which persists in painting my home country as the villain.

For all that my country of birth and my country of residence are now staunch allies, such that your Red, White and Blue flies proudly beside ours, and the idea that we might be deadly enemies is frankly ridiculous; still, every Fourth of July I’m reminded that it was not always so.

However, in recent years I’ve been far better about not working myself into a frenzy over it in the run-up to the Day itself, finding ways to love America even on the Fourth of July that don’t feel like I’m being subtly asked to reject the land of my birth.

Really, it’s nothing anyone else has ever said or done. This is my own love of my homeland running headlong into the reality that it was that country that those early Americans had to fight to gain their independence. I’m quite happy to celebrate American independence; what I feel sometimes like I’m probably not going to be allowed is permission to love my other country too, even on the Fourth when you memorialise that former enmity.

Silly? Maybe. Weirdly insecure? For certain. Neurotic? Perhaps.

Rather English, though. We never want to impose on anyone; I wouldn’t dream of sounding a discordant note of Britannic pride in the midst of the United States’ birthday celebration. Hence my annual patriotic neurosis.

Really, though, I have been getting better. The War of Independence isn’t exactly current affairs even in the UK where it’s so much closer to 2017 than to 1066, and no-one is asking me to choose sides for battle. I’m gradually realising that it really is a free country (still); I don’t need the nation’s permission to be British even on the Fourth.

And there’s much to love about America, land of liberty, welcomer of those “huddled masses” and home of opportunity and an inventiveness that has blessed the world with so many wonderful devices.

America really is great, and not even Donald Trump can take away that proud legacy.

Hence this build.

A deliberate homage to that famous image of the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima, it uses some of my new red and white LEGO Classic Space astronauts, and my slightly older blue Classic astronaut.

Indeed, the whole build owes itself to the way I had my new astronauts arranged on my son’s LEGO display shelves. Independence Day rapidly approaching, it occurred to me that the visual combination of red, white and blue astronauts was very patriotic. “I’m sure I could do something with that, for this holiday I’m actually beginning to come to terms with”.

Thoughts turned to that famous USMC image, and the rest is as you see.

Have a happy Independence Day, everyone.

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.

Blog, son of Blog

I’ve been toying with the idea of a second blog for several months now, ever since I downloaded a free Lego CAD-type program and started building with it. Obviously, I’m going to keep building stuff with my digital Lego, as well as any actual bricks I can get my hands on, and equally obviously, this blog isn’t really set up as an appropriate place to showcase what I build.

But do I really want to get into having multiple blogs?

As it happens, yes.

It’s a new year. Time for new things. I don’t expect to be posting at anything like my normal rate over here on The Word Forge, but as a personal showcase for my Lego building, far better to give it its own forum than to try to do two vastly different things from a single platform. The Word Forge would lose its focus if I tried, and anyone actually interested in my Lego building would have to wade through all of my other content looking for it.

So enter Square Feet, the Lego adventures of a construction worker.

It’s a brand-new blog at the moment, so there’s not much on it as yet. That will change.

Go on, take a look. You know you want to.

Fun for all the Family

My wife got the Meccano (“Erector set” in American-speak) she deciced she wanted for Christmas. I got Lego. So did my kids, and since it’s all going to be pooled together I’ll get to play with that too 🙂

In some households, this would be how you spell “mid-life crisis”.

Around here, it’s just this branch of the Horswoods being themselves.

Some time in the last year or so I decided to stop being embarrassed about being a grown man that still wants to play with Lego. It is, after all, no greater a potential expenditure of money than football tickets, it lasts longer than a cricket test series, and is no sillier than painting your body in your team’s colours. And grown adults do all of these without shame or embarrassment. In the case of sports fandom, it’s culturally the done thing. You get respect for it.

If an adult admits to building things with Lego, though, we think they’re childish. Having a midlife crisis. Trying to avoid the reality that they’re getting old.

I guess I might be. But if so, I’m not going to be bothered by it.

I’m reminded of something CS Lewis wrote once:

“As a teenager I read fairy tales in secret and would have been embarrassed if anyone had discovered it. Now, as an adult, I put childish things behind me, including the fear of looking childish, and read fairy tales openly”.

So I’m going to take it as evidence of maturity, not childishness, that I can openly have a hobby of Lego building.

And given some of the creations that adult Lego builders make, is it really “just” a children’s toy?

I’ve often wondered why the Lego sets have an upper age limit on their “suitable for” age suggestion box. I suppose that it helps the non-builder relative of an avid Lego fan kid to avoid getting something overly simple. But even the simplest little car is still a good source of bricks that you can build into anything. Fun for all the family. In this case, with the probable exception of my wife, quite literally.

Though I still think that if I got Heather some Technic Lego she’d have a lot of fun. She has a mind of wheels and gears, like a sort of unfallen Saruman, and she wants to make something that really works. Hence the erector set.

Have Yourself A Merry Lego Christmas

Ok, this isn’t a normal post for this blog, but I couldn’t resist. I mentioned in passing a few months back that I’d downloaded a free Lego CAD program, and I’ve been playing around with it ever since. It’s not quite as easy or fun as real bricks, but on the other hand you always have enough of almost whatever brick you need in whatever colour you need it.

At the start of Advent I had the idea to try and make Father Christmas in Lego, complete with sleigh and reindeer.

This quickly grew into a whole Christmas-themed diorama, with Santa and his reindeer, snow-covered mailboxes, Christmas trees, houses, carollers and a miniature Nativity scene.  The Nativity scene proved too difficult to make tiny enough to work at minifigure scale and still be recogniseable, but I built the rest.  Incidentally, that’s a chestnut roasting pan with the carollers.

And here is the whole thing, completed. I’m particularly pleased with the snow-covered fir trees, but it’s all rather nice, actually. Fun to build, too.

Have yourselves a merry Lego Christmas.

My Christmas diorama

My Christmas diorama

Closer view of the carollers

Closer view of the carollers

Detail of the snowmen and mailboxes

Detail of the snowmen and mailboxes

Father Christmas in his sleigh

Father Christmas in his sleigh

I Will Build…

I Will Build…

Having recently watched The Lego Movie, Lego has been somewhat on my mind of late. Downloading a free Lego CAD program may have something to do with it, but while playing with it, a thought struck me that the Bible talks quite a lot about building, and we might conceivably see what happens when we throw Lego into that conceptual mix.

Something I built with my new Lego CAD program

Something I built with my new Lego CAD program

What might my favourite toy have to say about Christ building His Church, or us being built together into a spiritual house?

Lego bricks are all different

There are, or have been, literally thousands of different Lego bricks over the years. (Side note: the American habit of calling them “Legos” still sounds wrong to me. One Lego brick, two Lego bricks, a whole bucket full of Lego. No “s”). Some, like the old-style fences, doors and wheels, have been superseded and you never see them any more unless you have inherited Lego from a previous generation. Some, like the brick with “LL929” inscribed on it (from the new Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP!!! Set) only exist in a single set and are very specific. Some, like the 2×4 bricks, are as old as Lego itself. Some are brand new.

But there are thousands of different types, and they all have their role.

You can’t build a proper house out of Classic Space Lego robot arms or cruciform Technic axles, but each of these bricks is exactly right when you need it.

There’s an obvious Scriptural parallel here. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of smell be?” Each one of us has gifts. Some are more “unique” than others and considered “special”, yet it’s the “boring” 2×4 and 1×4 bricks that are the staples of almost all construction and often see most use. People aren’t Lego (not even the little mini-figures), but it’s a good lesson. You may be a “generic”, “boring” red 2×4 brick, but God made you just like that for a reason. You’re probably one of the mainstays of His building. Or you may be an esoteric, forgotten piece like an old-style 1×4 red crisscross fence. Be encouraged! He may not be making any more like you, but your very rarity makes you special. You’re not forgotten by Him, and He still has a purpose for you. Or you may be a brand-new Bilbo Baggins minifigure. You feel out of place in a Lego City environment, but you, too, have a purpose, and He may still have yet to reveal all of your uses.

Lego bricks are all the same

Despite their considerable diversity, all Lego bricks fit together. Each stud on the top of each brick is exactly the right size and shape to fit into the hole in the bottom of each other brick and hold the two together. This is what makes Lego such a genius toy. (Yes, some bricks don’t have studs but are flat on the top, and a few are flat on the bottom. But there’s no such thing as a Lego brick with neither studs nor holes nor any other way of connecting).

Even Duplo bricks are compatible with Lego bricks, and vice-versa. A 2×4 Lego brick will fit together with a 1×2 Duplo brick either on top or on the bottom, and one Duplo brick is exactly two Lego bricks high.

This, too, has obvious Scriptural parallels.

The Bible makes it clear that our different gifts are designed to fit together in His Kingdom. Indeed, our different gifts mean that we need each other: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’.”

You can’t build a Lego car without wheels, but neither can you build one with only wheels. You need something to attach the wheels to, and a windscreen, doors, steering wheel, all the other parts, as detailed as you want to go in the scale you’re working in.

In my opinion, sometimes we arrange things almost exactly opposite to this way. Instead of building different “bricks” together to make what the Master Builder is conceiving, we sort ourselves out as if for storage in some particularly anal-retentive kid’s playroom. Wheels go with wheels. All 1xwhatever bricks go together. All slopes go together, sorted by angle and by whether they are a regular or inverted slope. All mercy-oriented people go together over here, and they never impinge on the domain of the leadership types over there, or of the musicians over there.

Sometimes I think we’d do better to scatter the people with evident gifts in amongst others who aren’t of like gifting. A car is not just made of wheels, even a Lego space crawler with 18 axles, nor is the Body of Christ composed of all nerve cells over here, all muscle cells over there, all digestive tract cells over there and all sensory cells in a pile over here.

Lego comes in all different colours

This is especially true in recent years. I remember when you couldn’t find a green Lego brick that wasn’t a tree, flowers or a baseplate. Pink Lego did not exist, and the only brown was minifigure hair. My mother remembers when Lego came in red and white, and that was it.

I could talk about race and the Church here. It’s an interesting conversation to have, but I don’t think I’m the one to address it. Instead I’m going to build on what I’ve already said about Lego being all different.

A white 2×8 plate (flat brick) is manifestly not the same as a blue one or a red one. I was always pretty fanatical about colour matching in my creations; I hated to have to put in odd-coloured bricks just to make it work structurally. But you saw photos every so often of models that looked for all the world as if they were assembled by colourblind kids. For all I know, they might have been.

The point is, they may have offended my childhood sense of aesthetics, but they worked.

Sometimes we do need to change where we are or what we’re doing in order to fulfill your calling in God. But sometimes we need to stop moaning and whining about being a blue brick in amongst a jumble of red, black and yellow ones and knuckle down to using our Divinely-given gifts where He’s put us. Sometimes only one transparent neon orange brick on its own is all that’s needed right there. It can be uncomfortable having to rub shoulders with those so unlike ourselves, but if that’s where He’s put us, sometimes we just need to trust Him.

Lego doesn’t build itself

And my mother would no doubt add that it doesn’t clear itself up, either. Lego doesn’t decide for itself how it’s going to be put together, nor does one brick order another around. There’s typically one builder, and it’s not any of the bricks. The hand of one greater assembles the pieces just where she or he wants them, and the Lego bricks themselves have as much say in the matter as we do in who our parents are.

Playing with Lego with my kids, I’m aware that we are finite in wisdom and knowledge. Even as a child, I’d frequently try something one way, and decide that it wasn’t going to work, and try something else.

God is infinite in wisdom and knowledge. He doesn’t have to go through that process of trial and error. He gets it right, first time.

There are two errors we make in regard to Lego not building itself.

The first is to think that the Master Builder doesn’t know what He’s doing. We complain about the small stuff, we worry, we get afraid. No, He hasn’t abandoned you, and He hasn’t dropped the ball. His way may be dark to us, but that’s not the same as our way being dark to Him. He’s the Light. How can He not be able to see?

The second is to try to build our own model. This can take the form of human kingdom-building in what ought to be God’s One Kingdom, or trying to “help” God or manipulate Him into doing things our way.

Well, God will not be manipulated. He’s going to do what’s best, and He really does know better than we what that is. And He doesn’t share His glory. This, too, is for our good; human beings aren’t built for glorification by ourselves. It’s like trying to attach two Lego bricks together stud-to-stud (incidentally, I wish there was a way to do this, or the other way round). It’s not going to hold together unless you cheat and use glue, and then you can’t get it apart again afterwards.

There’s one Master Builder, and it isn’t you.

Following the Instructions

I recently finally saw The Lego Movie. I was quite sceptical when I first heard they were making a Lego film; I figured it would be a giant marketing ploy designed to showcase all the latest sets available.

Having seen it, yeah, it’s a giant marketing ploy, but it’s done right. As in, it has a plot, it’s funny, it works with the genius of what Lego is and it actually makes sense on its own terms.

And together with a family trip to the Lego Discovery Centre that’s close to where I live,it reignited the joy of Lego that never truly died but just didn’t have much of an outlet.

Of the various themes running through it, I think the one that stands out is the conflict between rules and instructions (personified in President Business and his minions) and unleashed creativity (exemplified by Cloud Cuckoo Land and the Master Builders).

Every Lego set, of course, has its set of step-by-step instructions. How to build the X-Wing Fighter or Seaside Cottage or Batcave or Pirate Ship or whatever. These are, of course, quite necessary, otherwise you wouldn’t have a clue how to put the bricks together to get what’s on the box.

But they’re a beginning.

For me, they always were. I seldom built the thing on the box more than once, and seldom kept it built the first time more than a couple of days. A new Lego set to me was primarily a source of bricks to be used in the various Lego projects I was forever building (massive spaceships, usually). The Lego Movie character Benny, the “1980-something space guy” definitely strikes a chord.

“Spaceship!!!” (Source: Lego Wiki @ Wikia.com)

Almost everything I ever built was an original creation. There were no instructions for what I did; Lego was about building something new. I had friends who would make the thing on the box and then set it on a shelf somewhere. I never understood that impulse. I was the opposite: “Right, built that now. Let’s see what we can do with all these cool bricks!”

I was never nearly as comfortable with the Technic stuff. I was far less interested in stuff that would really work, with their rack-and-pinion steering setups and motors and pneumatic levers and whatnot. I wanted an aesthetically finished spaceship, not a go-kart that had a proper piston engine and real steering and so on. The Technic Lego was far less conducive to my aversion to following the instructions.

I almost think there are too many different sets these days. It’s nice to be able to get a Darth Vader figure that looks like Vader, but having a kit to build an X-Wing out of Lego seems almost like a betrayal of the hours I spent as a child trying to make the old-style flat hinges cooperate for an X-Wing. The fun of Lego was always seeing if you could built the AT-AT walker from The Empire Strikes Back, just using the pictures in your Star Wars collectible sticker album for reference and without any instructions. You re-enacted the lightsaber duel using the transparent antenna bricks as lightsabers. It wasn’t perfect, but part of the game was getting as close as you could. It was a challenge; it gave you something to aim for.

These days, there’s a kit for that. It’s almost as bad as mobile phone apps. Movie tie-ins seem to be the rule. I guess it makes them more money, and Lego is a business, but it’s almost as though it strikes at the heart of what Lego is.

On the other hand, the tie-in sets open up new worlds of possibility for making something original. And I have to admit that my attitude is more than a little hypocritical, because if they had come out with an X-Wing set back then, I know that I would have killed small furry animals to get one.

On a slightly more serious and less reminicsent note, I’m wondering whether my aversion to following the instructions in Lego building has carried over at all into my adult life.

There’s that Christiany saying about how the Bible is “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. Even in secular terms, we talk about the definitive guide book for a certain area of work being that area’s “Bible”. We as Christians talk about Scripture being “the Maker’s instructions”. If it is, what does my Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo-esque desire to not follow the instructions say about my obedience to God?

Well, surprisingly I don’t think I have an issue with following the commands of God.

What I do have an issue with is the perspective that views the Scripture through the lens of a Lego instruction booklet.

The Bible is kind of like an instruction manual, but you have to use a broader definition of “instruction”. It’s for teaching, correcting, encouraging, and so on.

What it is categorically not is a step-by-step formula for How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life.

It’s full of narrative passages, and in many of them the moral lesson is not even clearly marked. It contains poetry, proverbs, prophecy, law codes for Bronze Age Israel, history and letters. Moreover, it was written in a completely different language and time period and culture, so to get from the Bible text to “what should I do about my son’s addiction to video games” takes quite a lot of interpretive stretching. We need to take on board the whole counsel of God, immerse ourselves in the thoughts of the Almighty, understand from the whole of Scripture what God is asking of us, rather than thumb through the index looking for the section on “help regarding addictions”.

I’m not saying anything that the vast majority of believers in Jesus would see as abnormal, but I do worry sometimes whether our simplified idea of “the-Bible-as-instruction-manual” isn’t overly simplistic and a promoter of sloppy thinking.

Yes, there are direct commands from God – Lego-style instructions, if you like – recorded in Scripture. But even some of these aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. The Deuteronomic command not to cook a young goat in it’s mother’s milk, from which our Jewish brothers and sisters get the kosher injunction to separate meat and dairy, turns out to be about a Canaanite fertility ritual. A more appropriate application may be to trust God with your fertility rather than trying to use the “magic” of Science to manipulate it. Or not; I leave it up to you.

The idea that the Bible is God’s Little Instruction Book is attractive, but only partially true. In reading it, yes you can find out How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life, but it’s not really laid out propositionally or in a step-by-step manner.

If it were, Christianity would be like Islam. Not that the Qur’an is laid out systematically like that either, but Islam at its root is a legal code. These are the instructions for How To Please God. Follow them and you’re righteous. The mindset is one of the Lego instruction booklet.

It’s worlds away from Biblical Christianity, which is not about doing stuff or following the instructions at all. As we like to say, it’s not about religion; it’s relationship. To quote from another kids’ movie, Toy Story 2, Biblical Christianity is living before God with a heart attitude of “You have saved our lives; we are eternally grateful”.

In essence: Don’t (merely) follow the instuctions; get to know the One who wrote the Book.