It all starts with LEGO

When I was a little kid my great passion was building things (usually spacecraft) out of LEGO. When I was 10 I learned about computer programming thanks to the Commodore PET computers at my school. I really think that the mental process is much the same, and that my experience with LEGO led directly to my ability to pick up computer programming skills.

The basic idea is that with LEGO bricks, they fit together to build some kind of creation. And they can only fit together in certain ways and not in others. For example you can’t fit two bricks together stud-to-stud, or bottom-to-bottom (at least, not without other pieces to hold them in that position). Similarly, there are syntax rules with software that limit the ways you can put statements and expressions together. And just as you can create a given shape using a wide number of possible arrangements of various LEGO bricks, you can implement a particular software feature using any number of different combinations of statements and expressions. So if a LEGO creation is like a software program, a LEGO element is like a variable or an operator.

For years when I have talked to parents at train shows and BayLUG meetings, I have been telling them that all the years I spent building LEGO etched certain pathways into my brain which prepared me for computer programming, and that’s a reason they should encourage their kids to do LEGO. And I think the fact that we’re based in Silicon Valley is not the only reason that many of our BayLUG members come from software, engineering, or other technical backgrounds.

Today, I came across a link to an interesting article by one of the foundes of Macromedia Flash on Jake McKee’s blog. His story is basically identical to mine through his childhood years – except that he got into Apple ][ and Mac computers and I was a Commodore guy.

Kellogg’s LEGO Sculptures at Williamsport Airport

My wife and I visited her family in Williamsport, PA last September. There is a very small airport there which just has one gate, served by US Airways Express turboprop planes. So imagine my surprise when I saw LEGO on display there! They had a glass display case with LEGO sculptures of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam characters, along with some of the Kellogg’s product boxes.

I don’t know why these were there, or if any other airports were included in this program, but I was very impressed with the models and very surprised to see them in such an unexpected location. As far as I know, neither LEGO nor Kellogg’s have any particular connection to Williamsport.

Display case at Williamsport Airport

LEGO models at Williamsport Airport

Bay Area LEGO Train Club at San Jose Train Show in Sep. 2005

Bay Area LEGO Train Club at San Jose Train Show in Sep. 2005

Another long-delayed set of photos from a club event. This time, the BayLTC layout from the Great Western & Atlantic Train Show is featured. The show was held at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San José, CA. View the pictures on Flickr or on Brickshelf (once moderated).

Our next show will be at the TCA Cal-Stewart Meet in Santa Clara. Perhaps you can come see us there! That show is open to the public on Sunday, March 12 only.
[tags]LEGO, BayLUG, BayLTC, Train Show[/tags]

Bay Area LEGO Users’ Group Meeting on Sep. 11, 2005

BayLUG Meeting on Sep. 11, 2005

I am finally getting around to posting pictures from this meeting. We met at the Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto, CA on September 11, 2005. The meeting featured models on display and a lot of buying, selling, and trading of parts. See the rest of my pictures on Flickr or on Brickshelf (once moderated).

We hope to continue meeting there in 2006 and you are welcome to come! Monitor the BayLUG Web site to keep up with announcements of upcoming events (and join the announce mailing list) if you’re interested.
[tags]LEGO, BayLUG[/tags]

BayLUG exhibit at MoAH

For the past few weeks (starting just before Christmas), we have been running a display at the Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto. It has been insanely popular, with more people coming to see the exhibit than the room could even hold at once.

This is the second year that we’ve had a show there over the holidays, and I think it’s fair to say we’ll be doing this every year for some time to come.

If you missed this exhibit, don’t fret – check the BayLUG Web site for information about upcoming events or how you can join the club.

I took photos of the layout yesterday afternoon just prior to teardown of the display. You can see the photos on Flickr or on Brickshelf (once moderated).
[tags]LEGO, BayLUG, MoAH, LEGO Trains[/tags]

Hot Mindstorms NXT News from MacWorld

At MacWorld I was talking to the LEGO Education (Dacta) guy there and he told me some interesting things about [tag]Mindstorms[/tag] NXT that I hadn’t heard anywhere else.

I already knew that the [tag]FIRST LEGO League[/tag] would be allowing use of both the old style Mindstorms RCX and the new NXT in the coming season. But since the NXT uses different sensors and motors, the question of backward compatibility has been an area of much speculation in the online [tag]LEGO[/tag] forums such as the LUGNET Robotics group. According to my source, LEGO Education will offer a cable that can connect legacy Mindstorms sensors and motors to the new NXT. He didn’t have specifics about the electrical connections, but it would be a cable that had the 2×2 brick connector used by the current Mindstorms on one end, and the offset RJ12 connector used by NXT on the other.

Also I was wondering about the ongoing life of the original Mindstorms once NXT is available. He was surprised when I told him that LEGO Shop-at-Home has already discontinued their Mindstorms Robotics Invention System kits (which include the 2.0 version of the RCX) but he assured me that [tag]LEGO Education[/tag] will continue to sell their Mindstorms sets (which use the 1.0 version that has a 9V DC power port), even after the NXT becomes available. I believe this is to avoid forcing teachers to replace their entire inventory with NXT sets.

Also, I asked about the power adapters for the NXT bricks. He said that there will not be a power adapter port in the NXT sold by LEGO Education, but that they would offer a special rechargeable battery pack which can be used instead of the usual 6 AA cell batteries. Teachers and AFOL’s who love the power port will be disappointed by this news, but at least the battery pack may have better life than the equivalent set of AA batteries would.

Finally, he confirmed that the NXT units can talk to one another using Bluetooth (but not using USB, as the NXT’s USB port is “slave only”), and that they will have a single address space rather than the current RCX design which segments the memory into five partitions for different programs.

Mindstorms strikes again

A little over a week ago I finally got around to ordering a [tag]LEGO[/tag] [tag]Mindstorms[/tag] set for the first time. I’ve been a LEGO fan for years but never got around to trying Mindstorms, LEGO’s [tag]robotics[/tag] kit that has been around since 1998. One big reason was that I usually buy LEGO in increments of $10-100 at a time, not the $200 that the Mindstorms Robotics Invention System would have cost. When I did get around to buying it, I chose the educational version from LEGO Education (aka Pitsco aka [tag]Dacta[/tag]). I got the ROBO Technology Set for $159 which should arrive in a few days.

Just a day or so after that, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, LEGO announced their next-generation Mindstorms kit, the Mindstorms NXT. Boasting a new 32-bit processor, Bluetooth, built-in USB 2.0, and a whole new set of motors and sensors, the new system promises to bring LEGO robotics to a whole new level. An article in Wired magazine shows how they involved adult LEGO fans to help design the new product, which was a great move by LEGO. They’re finally starting to realize that adults are a significant part of their customer base – and 50% of their robotics customer base, according to their own numbers. Hopefully they will be as accepting of “hacking” the new kit as they were of the original one. I bet someone gets Linux running on it by year’s end!

I’m looking forward to getting my new old Mindstorms set, but I’ll still be counting the days until I can get the new version in the fall when it comes out…

Keeping Bricks Together

I recently got an email from someone out of the blue who said that her son was having trouble with his [tag]LEGO[/tag] models falling apart, and asking about using glue. This entry is based on my reply to her, since I figured that others might have the same concern…

LEGO brand models don’t usually have that problem, but the other brands like Mega Blox often do. Of course since they are only held together by friction it is possible for them to fall apart. When that happens there are two choices: put them back together, or take them completely apart and build something else.

Some people view LEGO as just a model you can build from the instructions. But it can be so much more than that. Ever since I was your son’s age, I have always taken the attitude that LEGO’s instructions are a good way to get started, and that you can learn good techniques from them, but the true power of LEGO comes when you design your own things.

Now a seven-year-old can’t be expected to build the kinds of sophisticated models that adults make, but there’s a lot he can do if he’s encouraged to invent his own spacecraft, houses, animals, or whatever. So rather than thinking of a broken LEGO model as a source of frustration, try to think of it as an opportunity to create
something new and different!

But if you really want to glue them, there are certain types of glue that work better than others. I’ve never done it (in fact, most LEGO fans that I know would never glue, paint, or cut their bricks), but another adult LEGO sculptor I know has: Eric Harshbarger. According to his FAQ he uses “Oatey, All Purpose” glue. If you try it, be sure to use good ventilation!!!

BayLUG display at Stoneridge LEGO Store

Today I met with other members of [tag]BayLUG[/tag] to set up a new display at the Stoneridge mall [tag]LEGO[/tag] store in Pleasanton, CA. We had a display there for the past month with a Christmas theme, but I wasn’t involved in that. The new theme is miniature models of [tag]San Francisco landmarks[/tag]: I made [tag]Transamerica Pyramid[/tag] and [tag]Lombard Street[/tag] models, which are now on display along with a Coit Tower model from Russell Clark and a waterfront scene by Paul Sinasohn that included a tall ship and the car ferry Sausalito.

My wife Holly took photos of the event and put them on Flickr. UPDATE 21-Feb-2006: Photos also now available on Brickshelf.

Lombard Street

Transamerica Pyramid