Tag Archives: lego

Winner of the Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award, 2018

The winner, hands down, of the GLB Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award for 2018 is The LEGO BOOST Activity Book by Daniele Benedettelli, and published by No Starch Press. This is the book that makes last year’s coolest STEM toy ever, the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , come to life in a way that will truly advance a child’s learning and enjoyment of robotics.

In my household, we have certain carefully designed rules. The rules are invariant, but the implementation is collaborative and open. For example, Huxley must always be engaged in some sort of out-of-school and out-of-home learning activity. The most obvious way to do this is a class somewhere (which can, actually, be in school as an ECA). The decision of what that activity should be, however, is his. During part of the summer he typically chooses etiquette class or an art class. During the rest of the year, he takes a STEM class at our local Stem Builders Learning Center. Stem Builders does all sorts of things, like computer coding, cloud computing, robotics, etc. and Huxley mainly engages in engineering and robotics classes. Over the last two years I’ve observed what is taught in intro and mid level robotics, and how it is taught. I’ve also seen how two other programs that teach robotics, both in our school system, work. So I have a good idea of what a good robotics course looks like.

The robotic raw material used in most of these classes is LEGO based, similar to (but not the same as) the material provided with the recently invented and marketed LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , which is basically a big fancy LEGO kit that is also a robot, and a few other things. The programming learning associated with these classes is absent, however, from that project. LEGO offers some additional computer programming information, but very limited, on its web site. Earlier in the year, I reviewed another No Starch Press book, The LEGO BOOST Idea Book: 95 Simple Robots and Hints for Making More! by Yoshihito Isogawa, which is a great book that allows you to take the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox to the next level with a plethora of projects you can build using only parts that come in that kit. The objective of Isogawa’s book is to provide a diverse array of suggestions for robotic LEGO builds.

But again, the home version of STEM learning that combines the pragmatic goal of learning to build (and thus, in the future, fight, I assume) robots, and the other pragmatic goal of learning to program stuff, is not the goal of that book.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book does fill this need. It is the book that should have come with the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox. The toolbox does not have a programming manual, and there is nothing that comes with it, or that is available in parallel that I know of from LEGO, that hints at the power and potential of the programming interface.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book starts out with instructions to build a basic robotic car called “Mario,” that looks enough like a Kart from Mario Kart to suggest a lawsuit. Mario is then used, again and again, in project after project, as the platform to explore dozens of robotic techniques, including diverse approaches to programming, the use of sensors, and various other moving parts.

That sequence, which takes up the majority of the book, looks a lot like a full semester class in robotics, spanning introductory to intermediate and early advanced techniques.

Following that there is a chapter on building BrickPecker, which is a robotic bird that sorts LEGO bricks by color. Unfortunately, it only sorts certain size and shape bricks and it will not rifle through your closet finding all the LEGO bricks and putting them in different containers.

Don’t believe the BrickPecker can be real? It has been captured of film:

After BrickPecker, there is a final chapter on CYBOT, a bipedal robot with the ability to talk, move its arms and fingers (all four of them on two hands), and fire a weapon. Once you’ve got the robot that can do those things, well, it is all over.

There is a massive section within the guts of the book that puts in one place the building techniques and principles needed to make things that do not fall apart easily, that move properly, and so on.

It is hard to believe there is so much stuff in this one book, but there is. One way that happens is the subtle but measurable increase in format for this volume compared to other coding and STEM books by this and other publishers.

This book came to me just in time to fill our holiday vacation. Huxley is going to return to his Stem Builder’s class in advanced mode in two weeks!

Even though the The LEGO BOOST Activity Book uses only bricks that are to be found in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , there is a parts list Supp_LegoBoost_PartList in case you’d rather get the parts that way. However, this list does NOT contain the and seemingly unavailable as separate parts motor and brain elements in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox . This list will probably be of greatest use to identify and then order parts that went down the heating vent or up the vacuum cleaner tube, or if you want to get extra creative and expand on the ideas in The LEGO BOOST Activity Book.

Daniele Benedettelli is known worldwide for his original LEGO robots, including his Rubik’s Cube solvers and his humanoid robots. As a LEGO MINDSTORMS Community Partner (MCP), he helps to test and develop new MINDSTORMS products. He gives educational presentations and workshops on Information and Communications Technology around the world and teaches robotics at the high school level. Benedettelli holds a master’s degree in Robotics and Automation from the University of Siena in Italy.

Deck the halls with boughs of LEGOs!

You may have heard of the famous The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book: 15 Designs to Spread Holiday Cheer. Now, there is a new edition out with all new ideas: The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book, Volume 2: 16 Designs to Spread Holiday Cheer!!!!

The book does not come with LEGO bricks, so you’ll have to use your own, or order them. But the idea of a book like this is not to give precise instructions of what to do, but rather, theory, ideas, methods, to create your own. Continue reading Deck the halls with boughs of LEGOs!

Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

LEGO Micro Cities: Build Your Own Mini Metropolis! is a LEGO building idea book that provides a macro number of examples of building buildings, or other structures using a very small number of bricks. It is like the N-guage of LEGO. This is sort of the opposite of the LEGO idea book I recently reviewed, The LEGO Architecture Idea Book, because the latter is for large scale, and the former for very tiny scale.

Author Jeff Friesen is a famous LEGO builder, and a photographer, who tweets at @jeff_works.

You get an idea of how to build skyscraper, bridges, public transit elements, and tightly packed downtown zones. There are suggestions for how to build the geology that underlies the buildings and other infrastructure. And the subways. Continue reading Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

How to be a better LEGO architect in 1001 easy lessons

Some of the earliest LEGO sets were for buildings or some sort of structure, and to this day architecture forms a core part of the LEGO panoply. If you build an architecture project from a kit, you’ll see that they are highly engineered. In order to make a LEGO project look like something other than a concoction of random bricks made by some kids having fun (which is, of course, just fine), serious planning has to have happened.

Most of the LEGO books I’ve seen are pure idea books. If you wanted to build a project based on what you see in the books, you have to either have a huge collection of LEGO parts very well organized, or you have to be prepared to order several specific bricks that are called for in the books.

But that is the wrong way to play with LEGOs. The books demonstrate concepts, give you ideas, guide you to become a better LEGOer.

Very few LEGO books that I’ve seen are clearly this, clearly about methods and techniques, as The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More by Alice Finch.

How does this work? Let me give you an example. Say you want to build a building with nice columns. There are many different kinds of columns out there in architecture land, and you can imagine that there are different ways to build each one, and which method you use depends, in turn, on the scale you are working on. Say you want to build columns that would go with a building that would work well with the assumption that the building will be used by minifigs (the small LEGO people that come with many kits). Finch gives you sixteen pages of ideas for columns, starting out with these two:

Or maybe you are in need of some curved walls:

Or stained glass:

Or towers:

You get the point.

LEGOs are bricks, and bricks are used to build buildings, and The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More is a really helpful guide to developing the methods and techniques for doing that.

The wizzard behind the book, Alice Finch, is one of the top LEGO builders in the world, famous for her extensive renditions of Harry Potter’s world and other major projects (see below). This is a great book for the aspiring LEGO builder, and an excellent choice as a holiday gift for your LEGO-loving offspring.

Tiny Lego Wonders: Art you can make and break

I remember watching, decades ago, a short film with Picasso. There was a glass wall that you could not see, and Picasso was standing behind it, dressed like a French Artist and holding painting equipment. He then proceeded to draw lines on the glass. Each line had a particular orientation and shape. He put just a couple of lines on the glass, and in so doing, created a great work of art. If I recall correctly, he made a few of them. Years later, visiting Picasso’s home in Paris, I saw a bicycle handlebar thad had been broken and welded roughly back together again. Two pieces of metal, each with a particular size and shape, made into a great work of art.

Just a few pieces make three different cars, with a fair amount of detail.
Just a few pieces make three different cars, with a fair amount of detail.

Anybody can do that, right? Draw a couple of lines and call it art? Stick a couple of pieces of metal together and call it art? Or like those modern artists, spill some paint on the floor, frame it, and call it art?

Well, yes. You can call it art. But it won’t be art. It will be drek.

Track not included in design.  A minimal brick interurban commuter system.
Track not included in design. A minimal brick interurban commuter system.

And, sadly, that is also what happens when the average person takes four or five pieces of LEGO and sticks them together. You get drek. Nothing. Nada.

But, if you are an artist, you may have a sense of form, color, shape, etc. and when you stick a few pieces of LEGO together, you might get a form that is arguably artistic. Many artists are quite capable of working in a media unfamiliar, in this case LEGO bricks, to produce something, maybe something quite nice. Try it. If you know any artists, give them a handful of LEGO bricks and see what they can do.

Instructions are as detailed as needed to get the job done, as per usual.
Instructions are as detailed as needed to get the job done, as per usual.

And, it turns out there is a subset of artists who are experts on LEGO — this is their medium — and who can take a handful of LEGO bricks and put them together, and get …. Tiny LEGO Wonders: Build 40 Surprisingly Realistic Mini-Models!.

Tiny LEGO Wonders: Build 40 Surprisingly Realistic Mini-Models! demonstrates 40 different minature models.

TinyLEGOWonders_coverThere are cars, planes, ships, trains, etc. There is a Space Shuttle, and France’s TGV train. There is even a cement mixer.

The models and designs are very generalizable, so if you have a reasonable collection of LEGO bricks, you can use that collection and this book to construct quite a few miniature models of your own, even if you don’t have the exact pieces.

The author is Mattia Zamboni, who has written other books on LEGO, and has been a “LEGO Ambassador” since 2015. His day job is to build robots at the University of Applied Science and Arts of Souther Switzerland.

Here is the table of contents of this fine book:

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 12.58.01 PM


Steampunk LEGO

You know Guy Himber’s work. He worked on special effects for Aien 3, Underworld, Independence Day, Edward Scissorhands, I, Robot, lots of other productions. And now, he is playing around with LEGO.

Steampunk Lego by Guy Himber is subtitled “The illustrated researches of various fantastical devices by Dr. Herbert Jabson, with epistles to the Crown, Her Majesty Queen Victoria; A travelogue in 11 chapters.” The book itself is all steampunky, in fact heavily steampunky, with brown colors, gears and wheels as background images, and victorian techno-objects decorating a faux photographic album motif. Meaning, Himber did not really write a travelogue in 11 chapters because, I assume, a true Victorian Travelogue would be mind numbingly boring. Everything is taped, glued, or in some cases, riveted onto the pages (no actual rivets were used in making this book).

Guy_Himber_Author_of_Steampunk_LegoIt may not be a Travelogue but it is very Travelish.

By my estimation about half the book involves depictions of things that travel. Lots of trains, boats, some bikes, Zeppelins, other lighter than air craft, other things that fly, and more. There are numerous robots, and a variety of other things. There is even a LEGO moon. All the contrivances are LEGO constructed and then photographed usually but not always using a victorian looking technology.

There is some background on what Steampunk is, which may be necessary for the LEGO-crazed who don’t happen to now much about this genre. Then there is background on the key players in the story, Sir Herbert Jobson and Lt. Penfold.

Then it is trains, monowheels, horseless carriages, automatons, weapons, a “cabinet of Curiosities”, boats, things that fly, clockwork animals, and floating islands. Then there is Space, the final frontier. I mean chapter. The final chapter.

The book is so visual, I think the best way to indicate its qualities is to show a number of spreads from within. With no particular introduction, these (click to see a larger version of the image):





This is a great coffee table present for the holidays. It is not a huge coffee table format, more like 10.5 by 8.5 inches, but somehow it looks bigger.

The Cult of Lego

IMG_0052The Cult of Lego is a thing … a cult … a past time, a cultural phenomenon. But it is also a book called, as you might guess, The Cult of LEGO.

The book is written by John Baichtal, of Make Magazine and Wired GeekDad blog and Joe Meno, the founder of Brick Journal. The publishers describe the book thusly: “The Cult of LEGOยฎ takes you on a thrilling illustrated tour of the LEGO community and its creations. You’ll meet LEGO fans from all walks of life, like professional artist Nathan Sawaya, brick filmmaker David Pagano, the enigmatic Ego Leonard, and the many devoted AFOLs (adult fans of LEGO) who spend countless hours building their masterpieces.” And that is pretty accurate.

IMG_0057Lego has an interesting history. The company Lego Group is Danish and was founded in 1932, an early on made a variety of toys. “LEGO” comes from Leg godt” which is danish for “Play Well.”

The company survived, perhaps even thrived ruing, Nazi occupation of Denmark. They company started making injection molded toys after WW II, and began production of the Lego blocks we are familiar with today in 1947.

IMG_0058We learn from The Cult of LEGO that at present there are about 62 LEGO bricks or parts for every person on the planet earth, though obviously they are rather unevenly distributed. In total there are 2,400 different “elements” (kinds of bricks and such) that have been produced in 53 different colors. I’m not sure if that includes Duplo or not.

Also, there are about 200,000 Youtube Videos that address LEGO. However, if you search for “lego” on Youtube there are over 13 million entries. That exceeds the 9.5 million entries one finds in searching the word “Evolution.” (Presumably both search terms find many entries that are not specifically about the building bricks or Darwin’s famous theory.)

IMG_0061The book is totally pro-LEGO, almost jingoistically so, but if you are a LEGO cultist, you will not mind. The Cult of LEGO covers all aspects of LEGO cultism, and provides a wide ranging survey of LEGO life, with these chapters:

Chapter 1: The History of LEGO
Chapter 2: Building Again
Chapter 3: Minifig Mania
Chapter 4: (Re)creating Icons
Chapter 5: Building from Imagination
Chapter 6: LEGO Art
Chapter 7: Telling Stories
Chapter 8: Micro/Macro
Chapter 9: Digital Brickage
Chapter 10: LEGO Robotics: Building Smart Models
Chapter 11: Gatherings
Chapter 12: Serious LEGO

I’ve covered a lot of LEGO related books on this blog. This book is different from all the others in that it is not a “how to” book. Rather, it is a guide to the bigger picture of LEGO world, a coffee table book to place right next to your latest LEGO creation or perhaps, on the coffee table you’ve made out of LEGOs. In your room made of LEGOs, in your house made of LEGOs, where you live along side various LEGO people you have made.

No other book I’ve seen says “I welcome our new LEGO overlords” better than this one.


Lego Adventure

The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 1: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More! by Megan Rothrock is primarily for people who have been messing around with LEG for, say, less than 10 years or so, especially those who are new at it and seek both inspiration and guidance in such daunting tasks as making a scale two engine turboprop airplane or an entire Lego town.

The book guides the reader step by step through 25 exemplar models, each of which is fairly elaborate, and demonstrated with more basic information close to 200 other models to illustrate variation. Despite the name of the book and a fairly high degree of silliness in some parts (the Lego figures have a few things to say) the 200 page volume actually has a lot of information in it. The copy I have is hard cover and has thick glossy paper which means that when I open it to a certain page it stays open at that page. That may seem like a small thing but for a guide book for something you need both hands to do, that is a key feature.

To give you an idea of what the book covers, Iโ€™ve copied the table of contents:

  • Chapter 1: Building the Idea Lab
  • Chapter 2: A LEGO Town
  • Chapter 3: Hot Rods and Cool Rides
  • Chapter 4: From Below!
  • Chapter 5: The Sky’s the Limit
  • Chapter 6: The Turtle Factory
  • Chapter 7: Starfighters
  • Chapter 8: Mighty Mecha
  • Chapter 9: Medieval Village
  • Chapter 10: Triassic Park
  • Chapter 11: Making New Friends
  • Chapter 12: Full Steam Ahead
  • Chapter 13: Steampunk
  • Chapter 14: A LEGO Legend

The author, Megan Rothrock, was a set designer for Lego, and her displays have been see at ComicCon and other places. Rumors that she is a member of The Cult of LEGO are unfounded. Well, probably not.

Be a Lego Stud: The Unofficial Lego Builder's Guide (new edition)

The other day I reviewed a guide to using the very high end Lego Technic system. Here, I’ve got a book that addresses the needs of those at the other end of the Lego Spectrum: The Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guide

By “other end of the spectrum” I do not mean unsophisticated or easy, I simply mean no electrical gizmos and not too many gears and things. For example, you might use this guide to build a very realistic scale model of the Space Shuttle or a cool Train Station with People waiting for the Train model. Or, perhaps, a house with a chimney. But a really cool one. Continue reading Be a Lego Stud: The Unofficial Lego Builder's Guide (new edition)

Tinkering with Lego Technic

Lego Technic is a Lego based technology that includes a combination of totally new kinds of Lego pieces and fancy technology that lets you build some amazing things. You can get kits that range in cost and sophistication from the LEGO 8514 Technic Power Roboriders a sort of motorcycle for robots that costs tens of dollars to a Motorized Bulldozer that will set you back nearly $700. Actually, I think there may be Techno kits that cost way over $1000.

The modified Lego pieces include the techno “brick” which comes in many forms that have holes in them through which specially shaped parts can be inserted, to have an armature that does not rotate, an axel, or some sort of pivot. Some of the tecno Lego parts seem to converge on Erector Set pieces, but without the annoying little nuts and bolts. Then there are gears and pullies and all that stuff, and on top of that, electronic doohinkeys. You can get electric motors, you can get a differential, and clutches. You can get lights. There is even a pneumatic system. Actually, there’s two different ones, a legacy system and an updated system.

With enough parts and some good design, you might actually be able to design a Lego Technic machine that does something useful. Like one that brings you a beer or scares away solicitors at the front door.

I’ve got this book that seems to be the book to have if you are going to start messing around with this Robotic Technology: The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide. If you know someone who is planning to play around, er, I mean engage in DIY hobbyist activities, with this form of Lego, do them a favor and get them this book so they can mix and match and design their own stuff rather than buying those expensive kits. Some details from the publisher:

The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide is filled with building tips for creating strong yet elegant machines and mechanisms with the Technic system. Author Pawel “Sairel” Kmiec will teach you the foundations of LEGO Technic building, from simple machines to advanced mechanics, even explaining how to create realistic to-scale models. Sariel, a world-renowned LEGO Technic expert, offers unique insight into mechanical principles like torque, power translation, and gear ratios, all using Technic bricks. You’ll learn how to:

  • Create sturdy connections that can withstand serious stress
  • Re-create specialized LEGO pieces like casings and u-joints, and build solutions like Schmidt and Oldham couplings, when no standard piece will do
  • Build custom differentials, suspensions, transmissions, and steering systems
  • Pick the right motor for the jobโ€”and transform its properties to suit your needs
  • Combine studfull and studless building styles for a stunning look
  • Create remote-controlled vehicles, lighting systems, motorized compressors, and pneumatic engines

The The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide, being unofficial, is not a catalog or sales pitch, but rather, a very well organized and clear guide to getting the most out of your new toy, er, hobby. Start at the beginning, work towards the end, and you’ll be an expert modeler and maker of things Lego-Technic. Nothing that flies, though. But a lot of stuff that drives.

Taking Lego to the Max

Huxley’s Aunt and Uncle have given him, as Christmas and Birthday presents, various kits to make Imaginarium style train setups. Imaginarium is like Brio and Thomas the Tank Engine, but generally available as a Toys R Us Brand. He has enough cool bits and pieces to make a kind of double figure eight layout, but the ends can’t ever be closed into a continuous loop because we don’t have enough pieces of track. Or maybe we do. We keep trying different configurations but it never works. It also may be the case that while Huxley, Amanda and I make great Train Engineers once the tracks are set up, we make lousy Civil Engineers when laying them out. We need to hire a consultant.

This is the same problem with Lego. You see all these amazing Lego things people put together … especially if you go to Lego Land at the Mall of America across town from here. But, when you start putting this stuff together, at first, it is hard to do because everything really has to be just right to make it work, especially if electronic motors and gears and stuff are involved.

You can learn to make great Lego thingies through extensive trial and error, or you can hire a Lego consultant, or you can just get these books by Yoshihito Isogawa. I’ve got two of them (I think there may be three or four in total): The LEGO Technic Idea Book: Simple Machines and The LEGO Technic Idea Book: Wheeled Wonders.

These are very smart books. There are no words in them, just a few on the cover and in the very beginning. It is all pictures, some of which I’ve pasted here to give you an idea.

The different types of blocks in a given picture are always different colors so you can easily see what is what. There are icons that tell you what kind of assembly you are looking at, and what principle is being illustrated, such as “turning” or “a door” or “putting something in or on something” and that sort of thing. As far as I can tell, it is pretty much one assembly per layout (two pages facing each other) with several angles and other helpful illustrations on each layout. The idea is that you can build the thing that is depicted by looking at what the illustrations (mainly photographs) show, and when you do so, you learn something about how Lego assemblies are made.

The books are divided into parts and chapters. So for the Wheeled Wonders book, Part 1 has Motorcars, Cars that Spin Something, Cars that Move something … Part 2 has Differential Gears, Steering, Suspension … Part 3 has Combining Vehicles with Different Bases, Reversing After bumping a Wall, Using Pullback and Windup Springs … Part 4 has Transmission and a special section called Cool Cars. Clearly, you can see the pattern: Increasing complexity as you move through the book, with later chapters building on earlier ones.

The Simple Machines book has too many chapters for me to name them all, but it starts wiht basics (Gears, Shafts, Turntable, Angled Gears, Womr Drives, etc.) then covers power and motion (Chains and Treads, Rubber Bands, Rack and Pinion, etc.), then motors, more complicated chassis, doors, pulley systems, and eventually, amazingly, provided diagrams with instructions to make a couple of musical instruments.

The author, Yoshihito Isogawa, of Tokyo, is a Lego master and has written a whole bunch of books like this. Imagine having that job!

I think the idea here is that you build from the examples, mainly working from simple to complex, until you find yourself anticipating what the instructions would say, and eventually getting to the point where you don’t need them at all. Thereafter you’d probably find these volumes handy as references in your Ultimate. Geek. Library.