Virtual Micropolis: Progress and Upcoming Display!

I mentioned back in March that I had started working on a wiki to provide further information about our Micropolis modules and I am fairly proud to say that we’re definitely making progress on filling the site with content. It’s not complete yet, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s got a good base of content and the visual style is starting to come together as well.

If you haven’t had a chance to look at it, or you haven’t looked since last March, now is a great time to go take a peek at and you can get updates by subscribing to any of the RSS feeds on the site or by following the Mayor’s twitter feed @vmicropolis!

We have also been invited back to the Saint Anthony Park Library to display our layout as part of their post-renovation grand re-opening party! If you missed the display in March this is a great time to come out and have a look at our layout with some additional modules by Thomas Anderson. Plus Peter Hoh is returning with his educational models, the travelling DK Books display for their Star Wars LEGO books we be on hand, at least one stormtrooper from the local 501st, and refreshments provided by the little grocery store up the street! Mark your calendars for Wednesday August 14, 2013 from 6-8pm and be sure to tell anyone else who likes LEGO.

LibraryShowFlyer_August Saint Anthony Park Library Show - August 2013


(PDF Version of August Library Show Flyer)

Introducing Virtual Micropolis

Virtual Micrpolis Logo

After a few years of owning the domain name, I am finally getting off my proverbial butt and doing something with My original idea had been, as is somewhat usual for me, a bit grandiose. I was going to get the spec moved over there and make it a community for everyone who built Micropolis to come and post their stuff. Because there aren’t any other places on the Internet to build a community (like Flickr, MOCPages, Facebook, Google+, ad infinitum…), or something.

Anyway, the point really came home last weekend in Des Moines where we were displaying our little corner of Micropolis again and we also had the TwinLUG QR Code out on the table next to it. As usual we got several people who tried to use it, and mostly it worked (The lighting was a bit weird), but the overwhelming response to being sent to the TwinLUG site was one of disappointment. What people really wanted to see was lots of pictures and maybe some more stuff about what they were looking at right then. Obviously it was finally time to do something about it.

To get this really rolling though I was going to need to scale things back to just a place where we could put up information and pictures about just the modules that Jennifer and I own. Almost all of them are ones that we designed with the exceptions of some that I bought off a TwinLUG member before he moved out of the country a few years ago (Hi Gary!). Thanks to the wonderful photography skills of Alyska Bailey-Peterson we had a base of some excellent photos to go along with the drek that I manage to shoot so that we could at least get the site off the ground before having to figure out where we were going to get more good pictures.

For this project I think we really needed a Wiki. A blog or other groupware CMS system was just going to have too much overhead and complexity for the basic requirements of setting up easily linkable pages that could be simply protected from spam or other ne’er-do-wells with some file management capabilities. I finally settled on DokuWiki and I’m pretty happy with the results so far. My one small issue is that for some reason there are no simple methods of setting text alignment, but everything else is great so I’m ignoring that as much as possible. If you’re looking for a good Wiki platform you should definitely add them to your list of candidates.

As of right now I’ve got pages up for eight modules and material for a couple more before we start to run out of images, but I think it’s a decent start and hopefully we’ll be able to keep some momentum on the project for awhile.

While right now the site is all about our collection and the layouts that we have been part of but I think we would be glad to broaden the content in the not too distant future. I do have things locked down so that even if you register for an account you can not make any edits until I tweak the account so please contact me if that is your intent.

It was really all about Inara?

There was a minor kerfuffle this past week about LEGO declining to produce a model based on the Serenity spaceship from the TV series Firefly. I would link to the project page but it has already been removed from the site. Suffice it to say that the project did reach 10,000 supporting votes, the minimum required for The LEGO Group to officially consider the proposal for a production release. However LEGO declined to continue the project.

I will say that I am not particularly surprised that LEGO declined to produce the set. It was a long shot in the first place, especially given that they responded similarly for the Winchester building from Shaun of the Dead and later provided a clarification of their stance on incorporating other brands into their product line. From a corporate standard it actually does make some sense: LEGO is attempting to manage their image to affiliate it with childhood, toys, and to some extent naivete. That’s their choice and it’s not an unreasonable one even if I don’t always agree with all of their decisions.

However it was this morning on Twitter that I saw what is apparently the specific reason that the Serenity model was rejected: Sex. Here’s the relevant tweets.

So it wasn’t the violence, as should be fairly obvious given their enormously successful Star Wars line of products, it was all about the sex. That Inara is un-apologetically in the sex industry means that LEGO can not associate themselves with the entire brand. Well, at least those tweets were fairly honest.

BTW – Prostitution has been legal in Denmark for over a decade.

Thoughts on a new module base

Ri Co Le Go on Flickr has proposed a new module base for Micropolis. (Composite example and Building Instructions)

I started working on a comment on the image with my reactions and analysis and it got really big very quickly, so I decided to move it here instead. Please be sure to look at those links and the associated comments first for better context.

First off, I think it’s a really interesting idea and certainly deserves discussion.

I like that it remains compatible with the existing standard and doesn’t compromise the depth of the module. Additionally it seems like there would be a lot more possibility of being able to overcome table height differences with only some small modifications.

To elaborate on Dave DuJour’s observation about pin usage in TwinLUG, we’ve pretty much given up on pins in the big layouts for a few different reasons:

  1. Laziness. :-)
  2. The size of even our medium layouts means that we almost always run into weight limitations that result in cracked or sheared pins across table edges.
  3. These days we have quite a few modules that are larger then 1 block which makes managing the connections much more complicated.
  4. Probably most importantly, we find being able to make quick changes by simply lifting a module out to be incredibly useful, especially in convention layouts where people are dropping off new modules at random times and we want to make sure we get good placement for all modules so that you can still see everything.

The proposed change resolves being able to maintain a nice and even layout while still maintaining the ability to make easy changes. The implementation seems fairly straightforward as well since it can use pretty common parts.

However I think my biggest concern is about part count for the base modules. These days my quarter block bases use exactly 14 parts at an average cost of $2.72 per base. (LDD File for reference)

Minimal Quarter Block Base Cost Breakdown
qty Part $per cost
4 8×8 Plate $0.20 $0.80
2 1×16 Technic Brick $0.57 $1.14
2 1×14 Technic Brick $0.22 $0.44
4 2×2 Corner Plate $0.03 $0.12
1 2×16 Plate $0.19 $0.19
1 2×2 Brick $0.03 $0.03
Total $2.72

I went ahead and threw together a really quick minimal implementation of the proposed module base and came up with 28 parts at an average cost of $2.28 per base. (LDD File for reference)

Minimal Proposed Quarter Block Base Cost Breakdown
qty Part $per cost
4 8×8 Plate $0.20 $0.80
8 1×4 Brick $0.04 $0.32
4 1×6 Brick $0.05 $0.20
8 2×1 Inverted Slope 45 $0.04 $0.32
4 6×6 Plate $0.16 $0.64
Total $2.28

That did NOT include the cost of each of the H connectors which I came up with several different permutations for. The most sturdy using two 1×4 Technic Bricks ($0.04) and a 2×2 Modified Brick with 2 pins ($0.03), most common parts using two 1×4 Bricks ($0.04) and one 2×2 Brick ($0.03), and your proposal with four 2×2 Corner Bricks ($0.06). If we used 1×4 Tile ($0.07) on all three of those permutations the average cost comes out to $0.31 per connector. Supplying enough connectors for a large layout could become quite expensive and even for a medium layout could be slightly prohibitive. (LDD File for reference)

Still, if you figure an average of 2 H Connectors per module that does make the price difference $0.18, which isn’t huge for the possible increase in functionality.

However I think the best place that this will be useful, and the best reason for adoption, will be with Bluff modules. There is currently a big issue with assembling Bluff modules and keeping them together plus the common need for support structures underneath standard modules arranged behind Bluff modules. If we included the H Connector (or maybe “Rico Connector”?) in the Bluff standard on the high sides of the module that would go a long way towards resolving a lot of the problems I’ve had there though not entirely obviating the need for under structure. However since I am in the minority of people working with Bluff modules I doubt that will have much sway with the rest of the community.

As for concerns about this change causing difficulty for using the depth of the module, I do not find that to be a compelling argument. Most modules that make use of the depth of the module do so towards the middle of the module and not towards the edges. The exception I can think of would be Thomas Anderson’s Construction Site, but even in that case there is an intact road on one side. So if the implementation of this change involved requiring at least one (or possibly two) connection points I think that would probably be enough.

Pug ITTAR Vehicle

I saw a post on The Brothers Brick the other day with a new vehicle meme that looked pretty interesting and today I finally got the chance to sit down and build something and came up with “Pug”.


The cockpit for Pug is where my design diverges from the meme spec which calls for it to be sealed. I’ve been looking for a good way to use the angled trans-blue window parts from an airport set that J and I won a few years ago in a contest and finally figured out a good use for it. It took me quite awhile to figure out the SNOT techniques required to get it mounted properly, and honestly the parts are not as secure as I would normally like them to be in a MOC, but I think it looks damned good.

I’m also quite pleased at the track design. I’ve been playing around with interesting intersecting angles with Technic lift arms and was able to put it to very good use. The combination of angles on both the exterior and interior parts lends both stability and some neat lines to an otherwise somewhat boxy look. Having the third wheel mounted lower also makes for a cool raked angle for the vehicle as whole.

All in all it’s not perfect but was quite satisfying given that I was working with J’s enormous bin of parts rather than my own neatly organized collection.

My creative output in the wild

It is quite the coincidence that over the last week two of my creative projects have appeared in large public spaces. It’s a little weird honestly since unlike some of my friends pretty much I do almost nothing with the express purpose of getting broad public exposure and by and large it all hides in entirely deserved obscurity. The few times that I have attempted to elevate my work to more public status has failed entirely which only makes these next two items all the more strange.

The first, and strangest, is a project that I put together on a whim for a room party at Icon 27 in 2002. For some bizarre reason I had the thought that it would be cool to do Stonehenge, or at least standing stones, in rice krispie treats. The results were actually fairly good, though the photography of the project was only so-so. Fast forward to a couple of months ago and imagine my shock to have someone from The Smithsonian Channel contacting me about getting rights to include one or more photos in a small project they were putting together to highlight the various ways that people have payed homage to the best known standing stones in the world. Bring that forward to last week when they sent me a link to the finished segment and mentioned it was going to air this past Sunday (9/21/2008) and today, lo and behold, here it is:

The second project is one where there was expectation of public display, but I don’t think it ever really occurred to me quite how much fun it would be to see the completed work. If you have been hanging out with me recently or been following my Twitter stream you have probably heard me mention my resurgent interest in LEGO and starting to get involved with the local LEGO enthusiast community in the form of TwinLUG (Involved enough to volunteer to host and maintain the group’s website). At he August meeting one of the other members proposed that we work on a group project where we put together a city built entirely of LEGO parts. We eventually agreed on some basic common design specifications and the initial results were assembled at this month’s meeting and then taken to the LEGO Imagination Center at the Mall Of America and installed in one of the displays that is reserved for community projects. Yesterday evening J, S, M, K, and I headed down to take a look at the installation and I am really happy about how oddly proud I was to see my contributions sitting in that case among the other great models. One of the really great things about a group project like this is that it’s the perfect showcase for different building styles and techniques since a real city is so often such an eclectic agglomeration of materials and styles from the imaginations and influences of so many different people. If you do have a chance to go and see the display it is in the NE corner of the store on the outer wall of the Duplo section. Since it’s on an outer glass wall you can see pretty much everything even though it’s configured to be best viewed from inside. I built the dark gray memorial, construction site, and (mediocre) apartment building sections.

Hybrid Rescue Tank Cockpit Redesign

I have finished the first attempt at redesigning the cockpit of the tank vehicle of the LEGO Exo-Force 8118 Hybrid Rescue Tank. As I mentioned the other day, the existing cockpit design seemed pretty badly done and so I went ahead and tried to improve it. I’m still not entirely happy with the results yet, but I think it’s a fairly big improvement. There is now a rear wall behind the pilot, the canopy is more conventionally situated and provides actual protection for the pilot, there are actual control surfaces instead of a blank tile, and I think it just looks a bit better.

The mechanical linkage between the left upper track hub and the gatling gun is unfortunately still visible in the new design, but not nearly as much as it was in the original.

Here is the original design from the instructions:
Somewhat unfortunately designed cockpit

Here is my design:
2008-04-26 002

Close-up view:
2008-04-26 003

Front view:
2008-04-26 004

With the canopy opened:
2008-04-26 005

The thing I am least happy with currently is that the movement opening the canopy is fairly stiff and can only really be done by using the small clip to the right. Originally I had used two 1×2 free-spinning axle blocks but moved to fixed axle blocks when the canopy would flop open simply by looking at it. The fixed axle blocks mean that the rotation is happening in the pins used at the ends of the axles and aren’t really designed to turn easily. Ideally I want to put a control on the body opposite the turret spin control that will open and close the canopy. I’m going to have to rework the motion on that front axle before that will be really possible though.

Next step is to fill the gaping cavity behind the cockpit. The initial idea is to use the V6 motor parts from the LEGO Technic 8421 Mobile Crane that I got a few years ago but I will have to see how well it fits the space.

A tale of two LEGO models

This past weekend I splurged and got two new LEGO model kits.

LEGO Technic 8272 Snow MobileThe first kit is the Technic 8272 Snow Mobile and is a really fantastic little model. There are only a few really interesting pieces, two spring shocks and a really cool 28 piece track, but the thing I like most about Technic models really shines here and that is the engineering. The independently sprung front skis with the operational steering system along with a more simple but no less effective rear suspension for the track are simply top notch implementation of sound engineering principles. It looks also looks pretty cool. I suppose if I had to find some fault, it would probably be with the bulky fasteners used on the skis that somewhat ruin the line of the ski, but given the scale of the model I think I’d take the current solution over a likely more fragile joint. I haven’t built the secondary model yet, which is a small bulldozer, but it’s pretty obvious that while it is not as nice as the primary model it has it’s own fun touches.

The second kit is the Exo-Force 8118 Hybrid Rescue Tank. I had been thinking it would be fun to get some of the dual faced mini-figs along with some fun spiky anime hair and the model looked like fun one of my most favorite juvenile fantasy: The-fighter-space-ship-docked-with-a-tank-unstoppable-killing-force! Wait, it says “Rescue Tank” so this must be slightly different version of that fantasy: The-fighter-space-ship-docked-with-a-tank-bent-on-crushing-missions-of-mercy. Or something. It splits up into not one, not two, but three different self contained weapons of mass destru, er, mercy. I’m sure one of those 15 lasers (six in the front mounted gatling gun by itself) and two (non-firing) missiles is some sort of healing ray. Moving on, one of the first things that you notice about the model is that it has dual-front tracks along with a huge rear wheel (a 94.8×44 Balloon Tire and hub) on the tank part that really gives a nice 1970’s era Buck Rogers meets Mad Max coolness. There are a couple of neat features in this model, both built from the 80% Technic part design of the tank. The first is that the gatling gun rotates when the right front track is in motion. The second is that the top turret/fighter dock can be pivoted using a fairly subtly placed gear on the right side of the vehicle. Similarly, the use of Bionicle ball and socket joints for missile mounts on the fighter and lasers on the tank are a nice touch.

Unfortunately after those neat touches you start to notice some of the rather glaring flaws in the model. The first, and probably most minor, is that the “head” of the little flying droid comes off when looked at funny. I don’t know if it’s the parts that I got, or the implementation, or both but while the overall design of the droid is quite neat it’s far too fragile. The second, and probably easiest to fix, is the canopy for the fighter. For the most part the fighter has very clean lines and honestly, for LEGO, flowing curves. But the canopy, while clearly designed to fit tightly over the chin and curved slopping bricks, has huge gaping holes. I managed to get an okay shot of the model before my camera suddenly died. Close-up shot of the massive holes in the front of this \"space\" ship model. I think I finally figured out why they did it this way when I was taking the pictures: There is no canopy hinge so if it was flush with the chin and sides it would be really difficult to remove to get at the minifig. Still, it seems pretty sloppy.

Unfortunately the tank has the worst design issues. The most minor is that when playing with the vehicle it can almost not be turned. Really. It’s like it’s on a rail. I loosened up the nuts on the wheel hubs and it did not help at all. The second and most glaring of the issues becomes pretty clear as you build the model. When I think of a “tank” I think of a solid vehicle. Something that has mass and heft from armor and machinery. All of the box art for the model shows the tank from a single oblique angle from the upper left, and the reason for that is that if you look at it from any other angle you quickly realize that there is nothing else to this “tank” past what you can see right there. From the front, sides, rear, and especially the bottom the model is a vast and empty shell. I can somewhat look past the mostly exposed mechanical linkage between the gatling gun and track, but what really baffles me is the “cab” of the vehicle which consists of an oddly hinged canopy that drops straight onto an unmarked 1×2 flat tile intended to be the controls that unlike just about any other smooth surface on the model does not have a sticker intended for it. The minifig sits under this slightly odd canopy just fine and that’s when you notice that there is nothing else behind it, just empty space. I think it could be easy to blame this total lack of internal features on the use of Technic parts for most of the tank model since Technic models at best sketch the outline of a vehicle but compared even to the relatively simple Snow Mobile model assembled earlier that is a well fleshed toy the tank looks barely like a skeleton from any angle other than it’s single photogenic one. The design isn’t “spare”, it’s lazy.

All that said it is a fairly fun model and I have a few ideas about how to improve it, though I’m not sure I have all the right parts currently to do so. Comparing the two models directly though does really illustrate why I generally only skim the shelves until I get to the Technic section.

UPDATED: Adding more images after I got a new camera today.

LEGO Exo-Force 8118 Hybrid Rescue Tank

Somewhat unfortunately designed cockpit

Another view of the tank cockpit

LEGO Build: Technic Road Bike

So I was inspired to build a fairly neat looking bike this morning while playing with LEGOs with my girlfriend’s kids. There was a set of interesting balloon tires (43.2 x 28 Balloon Small according to the LDRAW parts list) near the top of the bin and they obviously needed to be put onto a motorcycle of some sort.

Technic Road Bike

The original intention had been to make the bike primarily out of Bionicle parts, but the scale just wasn’t working out. I might be able to pull it off with the much larger wheels I have in my Technic parts at home, but not with these. The build went relatively quickly, even with a couple of tricky angles and I decided to finally take a crack at one of the LEGO CAD systems to record the design for posterity. Or just in case one of the kids asked me to rebuild it again someday after they took it apart. Looking around it seemed that LeoCAD and MLCAD where the most recommended packages to sit on LDRAW, so I tried both of them out. Of the two I can say that for me LeoCAD is by far the superior package. Where I was was futzing with MLCAD for 45min just trying to locate the parts that I wanted and manage to get them put together, within 10min in LeoCAD I had found the first few parts I needed and had started to assemble the model. It’s hard to say for certain since I had so much trouble getting around in MLCAD, but it seems like it might have slightly more advanced features, but the interface is such that I doubt I’ll ever know that for certain.

If you’re interested in seeing the parts list you can get the LeoCAD file here.