The Science of Fun

Review a book on Lego? Seriously? Not that I would make a secret of my continuing fascination with those funky little pieces of plastic and all that you can do with them, but I am constantly amazed by the vast ecosystem that surrounds this Danish wonder. I use the term wonder quite deliberately…it is wonderment, it is wonderful and it is this innate sense of curiosity, of inventiveness, of creativity, yet in a structured, and deeply thoughtful, systematic engagement that Lego has uniquely tapped into.

What amazes, and continues to amaze, is where Lego pops up, both as the fun, physical doodle playlet, but in information systems as we explore open innovation, or when visiting a school of design and seeing the great collection of themed Lego sets of great architecture that have recently been marketed by the geniuses from Billund. Lego is everywhere and it should come us no surprise, but does, when I find O”Reilly offering a couple books on Lego techniques along the same shelf as Beginning Java or Enabling Mongo Db. The amazement arises from realising the vast armada of books and other support materials that are out there to stimulate the Lego practice.

Mind boggling, but testament to both the enduring fascination with the Lego system and with this tapping of something deep inside that compels one to start connecting bricks, and plates and all the other ever evolving bits into weird, wild and wonderful personal creations. Ahhh. So, to the matter at hand. The Unofficial Lego Builder’s Guide by Allan Bedford has just been released in its second iteration from No Starch Press. At just over 200 pages its is not a hefty volume – but this one is so chock full of great stuff that you’ll both feel full at the end and want more! I read this one in B&W on the Kindle and also on an iPad to truly appreciate the colour aspects. This is a foundational book that explores the nature of individual pieces in a systematic way  and then looks to the methods that can be employed to bring them together and includes as purely reference source the ‘Brickopedia’. All of this is truly approaching what many see as a child’s plaything from a very scientific / engineering perspective – quite rightly. Bedford is having fun when he writes the narrative accompanying the strategy and this is an easy read…directed clearly at an audience beyond the 4+ or 8+ age denoted on the retail boxes of this product. This is fascinating in itself. There must be such a mature audience out there – and I am definitely part of it. I now have license to come out of the Lego closet ;-) The interesting thing about writing to this mature audience is that it reinforces how Lego is in fact a toy for all ages. It can be appreciated at some many different levels and enjoyed in so many different ways. Very early on in the methodologies section, Bedford discusses how internal beams can be constructed and deployed and not visible to someone seeing the finished Lego product. Not necessary but all part of the thinking process behind the engagement with the bricks. He is tapping into something beyond the pure physically of the bricks themselves and into the nature of the psychological engagement with the process – something that is deeply individualistic and speaks to the beauty of the Lego concept. He touches briefly on the nature of the precision milling process of the bricks and emphasises how micromillimetre accuracy is delivered – if only because of how any slight anomalies in the production process could be easily amplifies due to the granular nature of the building and assembly process. Hopefully what you may take from this is that the author has given serious thought to the deeper aspects of the system and yet conceived it holistically. This book reflects this bringing together of the fun, playful, serious and engineered that all come together to make Lego, well, Lego.

One of the interesting and laudable aspects that I feel obliged to point out is that Bedford affirms the Lego belief that human lego figures are essential to the miniland world. This is an interesting one to me as it has emerged in many of the serious VR and AR academic modeling efforts in the past few years. Many projects have attempted to recreate past worlds for exploratory research purposes and they have oft lacked the human element that we are really attempting to model for. I think that this small section in Bedford’s book reaffirms the thoughtful approach that he has adopted to the Lego ecosystem.

The systematic nature of exploration and discovery in this volume proposes design strategies, not just from engineering principles, but also from representational principles. Bedford proposes ways to translate the creative vision into the built object by employing principles that bridge the physical limitations of the materials (and I see far fewer limitations after reading this book) with grandiose imagining. In his section on ‘micro scale building’ he outlines a thinking process that makes a direct scientific representation of the real world in a micro scale and then lends unique techniques and advice on how to start by ingnoring details in the initial conception, make the translation into pieces from the brickpile and then how to employ specialty pieces when necessary to recreate the real world object.

I had no idea that that funny looking piece of plastic was a brick separator Or that there was a burgeoning Lego mosaic world … these two little enlightenments alone leave me in the author’s debt, but it is much bigger than this. This super book re-ingnites my engagement with Lego on new levels that I hadn’t paused to consider. When you are engaged in construction, you are immersed. As I have said before it taps the innate. What this book does is extends then, by building (and reinforcing) in a very systematic way approaches to Lego construction. It takes you through the basics and gradually extends this through principled illustrations of how you might build better through mindfulness of engineering principles, through awareness of the way specific pieces interact and through great honest hands-on examples that you can play along with.

This wonderful book combines a theory of Lego building that is presented in satisfying detail and that I had never imagined, with well constructed and instructed hands-on exercises that will spark, re-ingnite and inspire a love for Lego. Bedford’s narrative speaks to his own love for his subject and creates an engaging and inspiring work. All in all a dangerous, dangerous book – one that will have you off adding to your Lego collection and spending an increasing amount of time in the virtual workshop, playing, tinkering, imaging, and building.

All said, this is as I said a book not intended for the lower age groups. They will just want to do. But at some stage, I can picture the precocious youngster that will voraciously consume the principles in this book (do I picture myself say around 9 or 10?) where this book will become bible. Beyond that it is really aimed to appeal to adult – those willing to admit to their own inner yearning to engage with those bricks that do transcend age and gender – wonder in themselves!

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