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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