26 July 2019

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, Cardboard, and Other Modes of Communication

As long as there have been stories, there have been different ways to tell them.  It started with pictograms on rock walls, oral traditions, cuneiform on clay tablets and heiroglyphics on papyrus. Along came written alphabets, movable-type, postal services, telegraphs, telephones, radio, cinema, television, and mobile internet.  But the medium for storytelling has never just been a technological choice, but also an artistic one.  Stories have long been expressed in paint, sculpture, dance, and music, both instrumental and vocal.

Storytelling is an expression of a human need, and humans have always told stories using whatever tools, technologies, materials, and abilities were available to them.  So why not plastic?  Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), to be specific. ABS is of course the material of choice for the interlocking elements created by The LEGO Group.  Sure, there are a few minor exceptions.  Transparent parts are polycarbonate, a lot of tree an plant parts are made from polyethlyene (now sustainably sourced), and there are even a few rubber parts out there like tire treads and pointy bits that won't poke your eye out.  But for the most part, LEGO means ABS.  It's stong and shiny, it can be molded in huge gamut of colors, and it's durable enough to last generations and connect as well as ever.

Lego's ever-increasing range of shapes and colors for its ABS elements gives users the ability to connect and arrange those parts in new ways and make more detailed and accurate models, which can be reproductions of iconic objects in the real world, or physical manifestation of the figments of imagination.  Often, the plastic is all you need, and a model can speak for itself or be left open to interpretation.  But other times, you need words.

I like words, particularly written ones.  I enjoy reading well-crafted prose.  And I enjoy crafting phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. That's probably why it took me three paragraphs to get to the point of this post.  When you build LEGO, adding words allows you to shape the story that people see in your creations.  Words can develop a backstory in great detail or hint a vague outline.  Words can pull the viewer into the middle of the story, and a question can plant the story into their mind.  Words can blatantly point to what will happen next, or provide just enough hint for the viewer's imagination to write the next scene, act, or chapter.

The internet is a wonderful medium to attach written words to LEGO creations.  A LEGO convention or smaller public display is an opportunity to enhance a creation with spoken words as you interact with your audience.  But as I discovered at my first convention a few years ago, conventions can also offer a unique way to add written words to a LEGO creation.  At BrickFair, this is called the MOC card.  It's a physical piece of cardboard or paper, the same size as a business card, with a standard format and some basic information.  It has the builder's name and if they choose to share, their age and where they live.  And it gives you space for a title and a brief written description.  The same description ends up on the convention web page where other exhibitors can browse through summaries and photos and vote for their favorites.  It's not much space, but it's enough.

The first MOC I brought to BrickFair was a wrecked submarine on the bottom of the ocean, covering a single standard 32 x 32 stud baseplate.  Specifically, it was the Soviet submarine K-129.  It was also the first step in a multiyear plan to tell a bigger story about the submarine, and the CIA's partially-successful attempt to recover it.  On the MOC card, I wanted to hint at the larger story but I didn't want to give it all away, and certainly didn't have room to do so anyway.  So I whittled and honed the story down to it's bare essentials, printed it out, and set it on the table.

Some people walked by, some people slowed and skimmed my card, and some read every word.  Some asked questions, and some had their own stories to tell.  The convention was in Chantilly, Virginia, not terribly far from the actual home of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Maybe I shouldn't be too surprised to have met two different attendees with a personal connection to the historic events I depicted.  Nonetheless, it was an amazing and unexpected experience.

At the same convention, my wife built a small vignette of a control room for a nuclear power plant in the world of the Lego Friends theme.  We called it Heartlake Energy, after the colorful city the theme is based around.  It needed a description placed the vignette in its setting, highlighted the important technical duties of the characters, and reflected the overall positivity of all things Friends through a subject that not everyone has positive feelings about. On the MOC card, I gave this description:

"The women of Heartlake Nuclear Generation Station monitor the control room to keep the reactor operating smoothly, so the city is always bright and full of energy."

The following year, we expanded to include a lobby, reception area, and larger colorful reactor room.  I hope to build the rest of the plant eventually, including a large cooling tower.

Last year, I had fun describing the lunar arboretum and solar farm I built as part of a larger collaborative moon colony display. This year, I have an even bigger display with an even bigger story. Even without MOC cards, I'm pretty confident people would be able to figure out what I'm showing and some of the story I want to tell.  But I can't imagine missing the chance to add color and depth to the scene with a few short phrases.  And just as soon as I finish building, I'll share that story too, one card at a time.

24 July 2019

Into the Light

In a previous post, I mentioned what AFOLs call the Dark Ages.  It’s that time they set LEGO aside, or perhaps drifted away from it, because life filled up with other things that seemed more important. 

For many AFOLs, the Dark Ages end when they discover one particular LEGO set.  They call it the Conversion Set (because they apparently like drama).  Building that set, we remember everything we love about LEGO and more.  And sometimes, we realize that LEGO has grown up too, while still always being a kid inside.

My Dark Ages were more of a Dim Age.  I never lost the desire to build with LEGO, just the time.  I never completely stopped paying attention to what The LEGO Group was doing.  In 1999, I was pretty busy with my engineering education.  Before spring semester finals were over, I had an internship lined up with a mathematics software company called Wolfram Research.  Before it started, I took a road trip vacation with my brothers and sister.  The scheduling meant that I missed a fantastic introduction to my new employer.  As a release party for the new version of Wolfram's Mathematica software, they booked a private opening-night screening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Instead, I toured national parks of the southwest, indulged in the alien-themed tourist traps of Roswell, New Mexico, chased and photographed a few passing trains, and backpacked in the Gila Wilderness.  After a week of that, we all went to see Episode I at a theater in Phoenix.

Also in 1999, I noticed that the LEGO Group first started selling licensed Star Wars sets.  I digressed about the southwest adventure not just to tell a little about who I am, but also as context.  I was aware of this development, but was just a nudge along my journey to being an AFOL.  Then, in 2007, my brother and his wife were kind enough to provide me with a nephew and godson, and I immediately had the desire to buy him LEGO.  Rather than wait until he reached the recommended minimum age for LEGO Duplo blocks, I went to eBay to purchase a set of recently-discontinued Lego Quatro blocks (for ages 1-3).

I found my Conversion Set at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in MacArthur Mall of Norfolk, Virginia.  The 7051 Alien Conquest Tripod Invader was irresistible.  There had always been LEGO Town or LEGO City sets, and I fondly remembered the original LEGO Space theme, but now they were together at last.  Aliens were here, and in flying saucers, but with detachable tripod legs in a clever homage to War of the Worlds.  The set included an Alien Clinger which could wrap itself around the head of a hapless minifigure, somehow reminiscent of the Alien movie franchise while still also being adorable.  And it included an unfortunate bespectacled businessman with an expression on either side of his yellow head (one mild mannered, one distressed).  Prior to that moment, I didn’t know that LEGO did that.

Here and there, other Lego purchases nudged me towards the light.  I learned about Lego retail stores and Pick-A-Brick walls.  One Christmas, I scheduled an Amtrak trip from Virginia to visit family around Chicago partly as an excuse to stop at the Watertower Place Lego Store.  I bought a brick separator and the 4837 Mini Trains set.  The brick separator tool was a joyous discovery, as I recalled the frustration and eroded fingernails that resulted from trying to pull two stacked, equally-sized plate pieces apart again. 

My 4837 Mini Trains purchase recognized and placated that long-repressed desire for a LEGO train from my childhood.  It was a from the Creator 3-in-1 theme, which gives you full instructions to rebuild the parts into different models, and it came in a handy plastic storage box.

I kept buying Lego for my nephew, moving from Quatro to Duplo once he was 1-1/2 years old.  I started buying LEGO Friends sets for my niece, and I picked up a 7965 Millennium Falcon for myself.

I work as a nuclear engineer, and small LEGO sets began to populate my desk.  At some point, I learned about LEGO’s series of Collectible Minifigures, and someone told me there had been one of a radiation worker.  I tracked down the one LEGO called the HazMat Guy, with a torso and protective hood emblazoned with the trefoil symbol for radiation, and added him to the collection.  I swapped heads with the hapless abductee from the 7051 Alien Conquest set.

It took a few years to realize it, but one of my workplace aquaintances had the same HazMat Guy minifigure at her desk.  We started spending time together outside of work, dated, and got engaged.  We got married a few months later, joining our lives, hearts, and still relatively-modest LEGO collections.

We bought LEGO together, for ourselves, and for each other.  I entered a local LEGO shipbuilding contest  that co-workers told me about.  We learned about LEGO User Groups (LUGs) and LEGO fan conventions.  And in 2016, we went to our first LEGO convention together, BrickFair Virginia.  I realized that my Dark or maybe Dim Ages had ended, and we realized that we had become AFOLs.

18 July 2019


Collectors of all kinds face the challenge of completionism.  I suppose it falls on the mostly-harmless end of the spectrum of obsession, as the biggest risks are the thinner wallets, vanishing display and storage space, and the rolled eyes of those who don't understand.   And while Lego is the focus of my own completions tendencies, collections come in all types.  This can include anything from baseball cards to cast-iron cookware to tiny adorably plush caricatures of pop culture characters.

Either by design or by one's own interpretation, all variety of things come in sets, tied together on a common theme, and Lego has long been no exception.  The vast spectrum of hundreds of new Lego products each year is divided in themes and sub themes, linked together by style, size, or licensed intellectual property.  Some themes stick around for years and years, and others vanish after just a year or two.  From a small screenshot I took last year, can you spot the two that are effectively retired?

Some entire themes are clearly marketed as collectibles.  Last year saw the release of the 18th numbered series of Lego Collectible Minifigures (CMFs), which doesn't even count numerous additional rounds each of licensed minifigures for Disney, The Simpsons, and all four Lego movies to date. The fact that the CMFs are packaged in blind bags only increases the challenge, and the collectibility!

Entire themes like Mixels or Brickheads are themselves sets begging the completionist to collect them all.  You never even knew you needed a set of medically-themed googly-eyed crazy critters until you've already collected them from every other themed tribe created before.

Some collections occupy a small corner of a much larger theme, like Star Wars Microfighters and Star Wars Buildable Figures, or even Friends animal polybags sets.  The wacky Mighty Micros theme actually intersects two competing licensed themes, Marvel Superheroes and DC Superheroes.

Some series of sets span several years, like the Creator Expert Modular Buildings, the Creator vehicles (Mini Cooper, VW Van, London Bus, VW Beetle, etc) or even the promotional mini versions of the same.  Other themes like Castle and Pirates come and go in waves, spurring the urge to get them all while the getting is good, essentially stocking up for the next long drought.

Tie-ins with Lego video games have also created new categories of collections.  Lego Dimensions brought a wide variety of new licensed characters to the tangible Lego world, while the various Fun Packs, Team Packs, Level Packs, also provided in-game characters, vehicles, and tools helpful or even necessary to progressing through and even expanding the content of the game.  Likewise the Nexo-Knights theme was designed from the start with a strong connection to the corresponding game app, and most sets included power tiles which could be scanned and add powers to characters in the game.

Even outside of the app, the unique printed designs on the Nexo tiles call out to be collected.  After all, a pentagonal tile printed with an image of stinky cheese might just perfect sign for the cheese shop in your Lego village's business district!

The pieces themselves are the most obvious type of Lego collection.  Builders learn which shapes and colors of parts they need most for the models they want to build, but also want a wide variety of less common parts to use in unique and unexpected ways.  (Check out those hat hooks from the 10197 Modular Fire Brigade.)

Not every Lego part is made in every color, and the existing combinations run the gamut from commonplace to incredibly rare.  For an AFOL, it can be an exciting day when the Danish Powers That Be decide to run a new color of ABS plastic through a mold and release it to the world in sets.  Still, I never even considered trying to collect every color of some of the more interesting Lego part shapes until I saw them presented as simple but beautiful rainbows and fun, bright little MOCs by Elseph De Montes, frequent contributor to Lego fan blogs New Elementary and The Brothers Brick.

Elsie's Colourtastic Garden (1)

Just as collections come in all kinds, so does the call of completionism.  And sometimes the call is to fill in a perceived hole in an existing collection.

I mentioned Lego's line of detailed vehicle models. The Mini Cooper, VW Beetle, VW Van, and Double-Decker London Bus have all been released in recent years, as have promotional mini versions of the same.  Sadly, the Creator Ferrari F40 has no mini-me.  And other large vehicles outside the Creator line, like the Ideas Caterham 7 and the Technic Porsche 911 GT3 RS are similarly lacking.  While this gap is a bit of a relief for my Lego budget, it still bugs me a little and I've felt the urge to fill it with a MOC instead.  When BrickSet announced their recent microscale contest, challenging readers to create a mini version of any set Lego has ever made, the Caterham came to mind.  I pondered and considered this and several other ideas, and hemmed and hawed until the deadline had come and gone.  But not before I came across this masterpiece from a builder named Victor highlighted on Brothers Brick:

21307 Caterham Seven 620R - Microscale
It's a weird combination of awe, disappointment, and relief when you see someone else's rendition of something you were considering building, done far better than you probably could have yourself.  The awe is for the skill of the builder, disappointment over a fun project idea becoming moot, and a bit of relief that now it has been done so well, you can focus your attention on another dormant inkling of a idea.  Sometimes it's not always as important that I personally fill the gaps, as long as somebody does.  When the world is filled with so many incomplete collections demanding the completionist's attention, it can actually be a gift to have a reason to put a self-imposed challenge aside.