reliable Lego interfaces
Friday, December 19 2003
Tonight was the first night of Chanukah, so Gretchen and I lit our biggest menorah, which is that first one I made from copper fittings, and then exchanged some presents. I gave Gretchen Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, one of several gifts I intended to give her over the course of Chanukah's eight days. For her part, Gretchen was acting as though there was to be only one day of gift-giving, and she gave me everything all at once. The gifts included a beautiful insulated stainless steel travel mug, a nosehair trimmer (every guy older than 30 needs one of these), and four different LegosTM sets. I'd be interested to see a photo album of the people throughout recorded history who got both a nosehair trimmer and LegosTM in the same holiday season.
In the past I'd expressed interest in Legos, particularly the newer kits featuring gears, motors, and even computer interfaces. Two years ago Gretchen interpreted my imprecise language to mean I wanted a computer program that allowed me to assemble an infinite number of LegosTM in a simulated universe. It's a great idea for a computer program, allowing LegoTM projects impossible in the real world, but what I'd really wanted was actual LegosTM to use for prototyping and artistic projects. I know this craving isn't a perversion of the sort found at Michæl Jackson's Neverland, because right on the LegosTM box it tells me they are for ages "7-99," even if that is just the language-transcendant way of saying "for children 7 and over."
In the past few years, whenever I explained what it was like to program, I always said it was like playing with magic LegosTM, ones whose assemblies could be endlessly replicated, no matter how complex they were. With real world LegosTM, you don't get the magic of the endless reproducibility feature, but you do get another advantage familiar from programming: predictable, reliable interfacing. LegosTM built in the early 1970s can still snap onto those built today. That's far more reliable than, say, the interfaces of Microsoft Word, the interfaces to which 90% of the World entrusts now entrusts its literature. In looking at the more advanced Legos pieces in the modern "Inventor" series, I see that some additional interfaces have been added over the ones familiar from my childhood. Now there are special pieces allowing bricks to be attached to the sides of boxes, something inconceivable in the 1970s. To allow motor boxes to turn wheels and gears, there's now a special interface just for drivetrains. These are based on the drivetrains' cross-section, which is that of a cross.
To get electricity from the battery pack to the motor, there's now a simple electrical interface in which the nipples at the top of certain LegosTM blocks attach to connectors in the underside of other blocks. But I could see this system being greatly expanded to allow linear electronic signals or even digital data to flow. Blocks could be translucent and contain LEDs, or they could contain everything from simple electronic components to computer subsystems and interfaces. LegosTM would make a good model for an infinitely-configurable modular universe, especially as electronic and mechanical devices continue to shrink under the continued effects of miniaturization.
The instruction manuals that come with each LegosTM kit are much more delightful and artistic than I could have expected. They have no text in them so as to avoid translating for all the languages of the nationalities who buy these things. Instead, we're shown a series of technical diagrams of steadily-increasingly complexity, each of them rendered in full-color against a grainy but muted digitized background. These illustrations are works of unexpected beauty and have a timeless, Leonardo da Vinci quality to them.
LegosTM aren't the only class of objects that impress me with their standard interfaces. Back when I was doing all the work on the house, I was similarly impressed with the long-established standardization of carpentry and plumbing (and, to a much lesser degree, electrical wiring). Once you've mastered the language of how these things fit together, it becomes a medium for any sort of expression, including artistic (if you keep your mind open to the possibilities). This was how I launched myself into the recent tangent wherein I use copper pipes and fittings as a sculptural medium.
Menorahs are perhaps the most obvious project suggested by copper pipes, but as I've worked on those, other projects have occurred to me. The first idea was for a swing lamp, which actually preceded the idea for making menorahs. More recently I had the idea to build a coffee cup rack near the sink. The rack would combine the function of drying rack and permanent storage, freeing-up space in both the dish rack and the cupboard. Tonight while watching Kissing Jessica Stein with Gretchen, I cut all the parts for the coffee cup rack project, and then (once the movie was over - it was too good to miss), I went into the laboratory and soldered it all together. In so doing, I delayed the soldering of certain joints until the end so as to maximize the geometry-stabilizing effects that come when you solder components laid out on a firm horizontal surface. The end result had nearly-perfect geometry (much better than the swing lamp and all but one of the menorahs). It featured an array of fifteen stubs (three across by five high) on which coffee cups could be hung. Each of the stubs was five inches long and projected out at a forty five degree angle, which I measured using a scrap piece of molding.
This was the biggest one-piece soldering job I've done since soldering the upstairs hydronic circuits a year ago, and the resulting smoke and fumes left me feeling kind of woozy. It's difficult to get good ventilation while undertaking such massive soldering projects indoors during the winter. The one good thing about this was that the solder is a lead-free alloy of copper and tin (which, by the way, means it isn't technically solder at all but bronze instead). But if I really want to do this seriously I'm going to have to put together some sort of ventilated soldering table. I'm also going to have to figure out a way to avoid getting acid flux on my fingers. That stuff temporarily ruined my fingers back when I was doing the hydronic work, but it has yet to catch up with me on these sculptural projects.
Oh look, here's a poll you can take, sponsored by a group called the American Family Association, "America's Pro-Family Online Activism Organization." The poll is about "homosexual marriage," and you don't have to wonder how they want you to vote. I'm sitll waiting for the "have you no shame" moment for dealing with these homophobic boneheads as they assemble to work their ignorant mischief on the American constitution. What's next, constitutional amendments declaring that pi is four, Jesus rose from the dead, and that "these colors" don't in fact run. One has to admire the simplicity of the American flag. It makes so much more sense than the Bill of Rights.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next