Tag Archives: Opinion

No evidence children harmed by greater variety in LEGO minifig facial expressions

Mr. HydeWe’ve been studiously ignoring the rather ridiculous press coverage of a study published last month in the Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction. The study itself is simply a numerical analysis of minifig facial expressions from 1975 to 2010, concluding that facial expressions perceived by adults as “happy” have decreased over time in favor of “angry” faces and other emotions. It’s actually a rather interesting study, if you bother to read it.

But the media frenzy surrounding the study has been silly at best and consistently inaccurate — not necessarily about the trend toward more variety in minifig facial expressions but about the substance and conclusions of the study. One of the more moronic trends among the articles — or at least their headlines, which many people probably don’t read past — is claiming that the study says that the greater diversity in minifigure facial expressions is somehow harmful to children.

Conan O’Brian did a bit last night that is representative of the misunderstanding many people have about the issue. While Conan and his writers put the material to good comedic use, it reminded me that we might still want to post something about the study and the press coverage surrounding it. The story just doesn’t want to die!

Thankfully, not all the coverage is as idiotic as what you’ve probably seen on your local news. Scientific American editorial intern Arielle Duhaime-Ross has written an excellent blog post about the study and its media coverage, with insights into why people have been so attracted to the story.

She quotes one of the New Zealand researches as saying, “Our little LEGO study was never intended to give scientific evidence of the minifigures’ harmful effects — it cannot even give a hint.” Christoph Bartneck continues, “The media fights for our attention and one mechanism they use is to invoke fear.”

It’s this fear-mongering that I find so distasteful (and consistent with the controversy surrounding LEGO Friends). I’m no defender of the LEGO brand or corporation, nor do I always agree with the decisions they make — I’ve been advocating for more ethnic and gender diversity in minifigs for years, in fact — but I do take issue with bad journalism.

Head on over to ScientificAmerican.com to read Arielle’s post, and let us know what you think yourself in the comments.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Sen. Daniel Inouye in LEGO

This post isn’t about politics. Well, mostly. On Monday, I expressed some anger about the way Memorial Day has become increasingly trivialized here in the United States, but I didn’t apply the nuance I usually expect from myself, even when writing about the intersection of our LEGO hobby and the real world — of which complex political issues (including my pacifist viewpoint) are most certainly a part. I’ll try to do better as I explore an issue that I think lies a bit closer to home for LEGO fans reading this blog.

Why is it that ethnic minorities are so under-represented in our LEGO depictions of military history — World War II in particular? Why are the LEGO minifigs storming beaches and liberating France presumably all white? Where are the Tuskegee Airmen, the Nisei soldiers, the Filipino sailors, the Navajo Code Talkers, and many more?

I realized recently that I was guilty of this oversight myself, as illustrated amply in the links to my own models above. I’m correcting this today with a rather simple photograph depicting 2nd Lt. Daniel K. Inouye as he marches with his platoon toward the ridge in Tuscany where he would single-handedly take out three German machine gun nests, losing his arm — and earning a Medal of Honor — in the process.

The 442nd Moves Out (B&W)

Daniel Inouye went on to become a US Representative and Senator from Hawaii, serving his state from the first day of statehood in 1959 through his death at the end of 2012.

(Frustratingly, I also realized that I don’t have the LEGO landscaping talent to attempt the ridge scene itself. And as an infantry regiment, the 442nd wasn’t equipped with the “interesting” tanks and other armor I’ve been building.)

There are historical reasons that answer my questions, of course. The United States military was officially segregated until after World War II ended, and most non-white units did not serve in front-line combat roles. Thus, the ever-popular and exciting scenes depicting the first moments of D-Day, for example, sadly but accurately exclude minorities like African-Americans and Japanese-Americans.

It’s also challenging to use LEGO as a medium to reflect real-world diversity. With LEGO Friends as a welcome exception — Heartlake City is certainly a multi-ethnic LEGO society — theoretically, only LEGO sets from licensed themes like Star Wars and the Lone Ranger include explicitly non-white characters. Why is it that a person of color has to be in a movie in order to be included accurately in a LEGO set? (Try asking LEGO that the next time you call Customer Service.) LEGO has claimed in the past that yellow minifigs are somehow race-neutral. Rubbish — tell that to a 9-year-old African-American girl wondering why people like her are so grossly under-represented in LEGO minifigs. And yes, LEGO is a Danish company, but that’s no excuse either.

Thanks to LEGO, we builders don’t actually have too many “non-white” minifigs to work with. For my Nisei soldiers of the 442nd, I had to dig up LEGO Ninjas minifigs from the 1990s, along with a few Ninjago minifigs. I shouldn’t need to go to themes with stereotypical ninjas in their name to find Asian minifigs. And for my African-American tank crew from the 761st Tank Battalion (below), my choices were even more restricted.

M4A3E2 Sherman "Jumbo" of the 761st (1)

But I can’t give us WW2 LEGO builders a pass for focusing so obsessively on Normandy (with a bit of North Africa or Stalingrad thrown in from time to time) at the expense of the much-larger historical context, which did indeed include people from every thread of the vast tapestry of American society. Nor is the “limited LEGO palette” an excuse. What’s a bit sad about our collective obsession with D-Day is that we’re overlooking heroism and drama that is just as interesting and just as “buildable” in LEGO. By starting with the question “What can I build?” I’ve learned about people and events I’d never have learned in my high school American history classes (and certainly not in the Japanese history classes during elementary school earlier in my life).

Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered darker obsessions among some LEGO World War II builders. I can’t count the number of teens (apparently) who’ve included references to the Third Reich in their Flickr screen names — some going as far as to include the SS lightning bolts or even swastikas. I’ve also seen casual use of dated and hateful terms like “Jap” and “Kraut.” It makes me angry, but it also makes me very sad. Such behavior is unacceptable, and flies in the face of the very values that the Allies fought to defend in World War II. These are the kinds of actions I was alluding to with my “trite hand-wringing about ‘kids these days'” in my Memorial Day post. It’s hard to believe such attitudes toward fellow human beings don’t color what these builders choose to create with LEGO (or how they treat their fellow human beings in real life).

Whatever the reasons, we can and must do better.

The LEGO Military Annual Build Competition is happening now through July 10. With that in mind, I’d like to issue a challenge to those of us who are building something in the numerous contest categories: Build your models and minifigs in ways that reflect the true diversity of the men and women in the armed forces — whether you’re building something historical from World War II, Vietnam, or more-recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, or whether you’re creating something from an alternate or future timeline.

African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, and other minorities fought racism and prejudice during World War II even as they battled the Axis Powers in the war itself. When they arrived home, they built on that experience to begin the Civil Rights movement, as well as the drive toward Hawaiian statehood and an independent Philippines. Those of us building LEGO creations based on historical conflicts like World War II owe it to the men and women who served to accurately reflect their experience.

Only the monstrous anger of the guns / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

I get angrier and angrier with each passing Memorial Day here in the United States. Baseball announcers blithely wish each other “Happy Memorial Day!”, car companies attempt to entice me with “low, low APR”, and everyone celebrates the service of active-duty and surviving military personnel. No, Memorial Day is a day of somber remembrance, not to be confused with Veterans Day, and it’s a day — like Remembrance Day in other parts of the world — to honor those murdered by their governments in defense of long-forgotten political agendas. It’s a day that should remind us just how evil and unnecessary war is — not how cool it is.

And yet, there is real heroism in what many men and women in the armed forces accomplish in the face of such horror. I’ve mentioned before how much World War II fascinates me, not least because I grew up surrounded by abandoned bomb shelters in Japan and because my American grandfather served as a medic during the war.

One way I explore that fascination — and learn quite a bit of history in the process — is to research the people, places, and equipment of World War II. This year, I’ve been building for more than a month leading up to Memorial Day, and I have quite a few new builds to share.

The M7 Priest was self-propelled artillery (a “Howitzer Motor Carriage” in WW2 parlance) based on the chassis of the M3 Lee/Grant series of medium tanks.

M7 Priest (1)

My M7 Priest incorporates a 105mm gun that I reverse-engineered from the Brickmania M2A1 Howitzer kit (since I’d built a complete one to tow behind my GMC CCKW).

The Priest has an open top, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the interior right. I built ammunition stowage (by inverting 1×1 bricks and attaching them with the One Ring) and gave the floor corrugated steel plating with printed tiles from Citizen Brick.

M7 Priest (5)

See more photos in my M7 Priest photoset on Flickr.

The GMC CCKW 2.5-ton truck, or “Deuce and a Half,” served in many roles during and after World War II, with numerous variants to support all those roles. Even though I’m quite happy with the other models I’m unveiling in this post, my favorite is definitely this maintenance/recovery version of the CCKW.

GMC CCKW Maintenance/Recovery Truck (1)

The details are all modular, and I can quickly convert this rather complex truck into a number of other variants, including this one with a towable M45 Quadmount anti-aircraft gun.

GMC CCKW Truck with M45 Quadmount (1) GMC CCKW Truck with M45 Quadmount (2)

My Willys MB Jeeps also got an upgrade, with two new variants — both with Bantam trailers.

Willys MB Jeep with Bantam Trailer Willys MB Jeep Ambulance with Bantam Trailer

All these non-combat vehicles were making my minifig soldiers feel a little under-powered, so I built them an M5A1 Stuart light tank and an M8 Greyhound armored car.

M5A1 Stuart Light Tank (1) M8 Greyhound Armored Car (1)

Finally, it occurred to me recently just how little the average World War II LEGO model reflects the real-world diversity of the men and women who served in the United States armed forces during World War II. The segregated U.S. Army resisted placing African-Americans in front-line combat roles until fairly late in the war, but the all-black 761st Tank Battalion served with distinction in major engagements like the Battle of the Bulge. I made some minor modifications to my M4A3 Sherman tank, including the addition of a lip that overhangs the wider tracks, thus making this the M4A3E2 variant. While I was at it, I replaced my crew with members of the 761st.

M4A3E2 Sherman "Jumbo" of the 761st (1)

I’m currently working on something for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, or “Nisei Soldiers.” In the meantime, you can see more photos of everything I’ve posted here in my photostream on Flickr.

The title of the post is an excerpt from “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who died in combat one week before the end of World War I. It seems doubtful that I can convince a generation of youth who’ve learned more about war from the “Medal of Honor” video games than from challenging poetry to read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but it’s worth a try…

Whoa! Slow down there big rig...

Disclaimer – mildly sappy post to follow…

Remember this post I did a few months back? Well, I still feel the same about the online community, however, I now have some very serious concerns on where this community is headed…yes, and it is all due to the recent changes to Flickr.

I felt that these concerns were serious enough that it justified a separate post, as opposed to me simply commenting on Andrew’s again.

Really this is a personal plea to all those that feel it necessary to leave Flickr. I know many are very upset about the new format, have issues with the new pricing structure, and take offence to how Yahoo handled the system rollout. But at the end of the day is it worth the fragmentation of our community? Personally I don’t think it is. Honestly, I am not entirely happy with the new system, but I also don’t hate it to the extent that I want to see the history of what we have on Flickr lost.

At the end of the day there are no perfect solutions. I don’t think we can expect Yahoo! to go back to the old system, but I don’t think it is realistic to expect/hope for every contributing member of the current community to seamlessly move to an alternate site. Therefore I think that the only ‘solution’ is to wait it out and see what happens over the coming weeks.

This is about more than just Flickr and it’s individual users, this is about a thriving community of friends spread across the globe with years of history. The site may look vastly different, but as of right now the people are exactly the same. So before anyone rage quits, may I ask that you first stop, take a deep breath and think about our wonderful COMMUNITAY!

Most sincerely,

TR

Big group hug!

It’s exactly what she wants it to be

A few years ago, while I was still living in the UK, my neighbour Jon and I took Becca, his six-year old daughter, to see LEGOLAND Windsor. I had spent way too much money at their shop during their Christmas shopping a few months before and had ended up getting two annual passes, as well as several discount vouchers through shopping at LEGO on-line. Furthermore, while I had been to the park several times before, this was never when it was actually open to the general public.

It was fun to see the park in operation and all the children and parents enjoying themselves, but two things stood out to me: girls like pink (and Dora the Explorer) and girls do get what LEGO is about if they are presented with it. The former was driven home to me when we were in an outdoor play area. Becca ran off to play with the other kids. I said to Jon: `don’t worry, we’ll find her. We’ll just have to keep an eye out for a little girl wearing a pink coat and a Dora the Explorer backpack’. We looked around, somewhat oafishly. Almost all the little girls were wearing pink coats and Dora the Explorer backpacks! The latter became clear in one of the indoor play areas, where parents and their children could build small cars and race them down wooden slopes. After having retrieved Becca, we spent at least an hour there. She loved every minute of it and so did we.

As I’m sure many of you know, LEGO’s girl-friendly Friends-line has been very successful, despite the toy being criticised for supposedly reinforcing girly stereotypes. Yes, the sets have pink and purple elements (girls like pink) and it does have cutesy figures, but ultimately it’s about getting girls to build and play with LEGO (and girls do get LEGO if they are presented with it). I think LEGO has expressed this very well in a new magazine ad, posted on flickr recently by LegoMyMamma.

LEGO Friends magazine ad 2013

I love how the ad captures the spirit of the old advertisement of a girl holding up her LEGO model and clearly makes the point: critics be damned, it’s exactly what she wants it to be.

I realise, of course, that the quality of the MOC and photography may not be quite up to our usual standards and that not all girls like pink.

The first year of LEGO Friends – worst toy of the year?

LEGO Friends logoA year ago today, we shared LEGO’s official announcement about their new Friends line. You may recall that images had leaked a few days earlier, and there was already massive controversy swirling all over the web.

The hubbub centered around the very idea (the nerve!) of “pink LEGO” or “LEGO for girls.” Critics suggested that LEGO was reinforcing gender stereotypes and that the sets had been dumbed down for girls, lacking the normal construction-based play common to all other LEGO sets. After our initial shock at the new “mini-dolls,” adult fans of LEGO (AFOLs) generally responded positively, even if we haven’t embraced LEGO Friends as deeply as the latest UCS Star Wars or modular building sets.

The late Heather Braaten summarized the initial AFOL consensus nicely, in a comment on our original post:

I think this is as close as LEGO has ever been to getting it right when it comes to targeting the young female demographic. Appeal to the people who buy the toy for their little girls by making them appear girly and cute and then sneak in the universal appeal of being able to create whatever your imagination desires – whether it’s pink and frilly or a mecha robot that just happens to be purple. I’m not a big fan of the “doll” fig but I think that’s the sentimental side of me speaking. My little girl will probably adore it. Just as long as she builds, I’m a happy camper.

By now, multiple waves of the actual LEGO Friends sets have been out for nearly a year, but the controversy really hasn’t abated. One organization even included LEGO Friends in their list of worst toys of 2012. Really?

As infrequently as I bring up politics, long-time readers of this blog will already know that my personal politics lean rather far to the left. I’m not shy about calling social injustice when I see it, and I’ve posted about marriage equality, pacifism, racism, and so on. Whether you agree with my particular viewpoint or not, I suspect my “progressive credentials” here in the LEGO fan community are not really in question. But I also take issue with unthinking, reactionary opinions from either end of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, I think that much of the negative criticism surrounding LEGO Friends has been of the unthinking, reactionary sort, and it deserves a good debunking.

Parent and LEGO fan Ty Keltner responded to some of the criticism during a talk at BrickCon in October:

New York Times parenting blogger KJ Dell’Antonia responded specifically to the “worst toy” accusations, saying:

The Lego Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop … remains a noncommercial building toy that promotes an understanding of spatial relationships and calls into play fine motor skills, problem solving and creativity. The fact that it does so by providing the material to build a beauty shop (and then, once that’s done, any number of small square houses that differ from the ordinary Lego house only in their color) shouldn’t be any more “destructive and oppressive” to youth of either sex than the boxes upon boxes of Legos [sic] offering more stereotypically masculine battleships and superheroes.

David Pickett over at Thinking Brickly doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of the critics, but takes on the claims that LEGO Friends sets are dumbed-down (“juniorized” to use AFOL-speak) in terms of construction complexity, and that the women and girls of Heartlake City have been locked in gender stereotypes. David’s post is particularly interesting as it compares LEGO Friends to the new Barbie “construction” sets.

I’ll readily admit that LEGO Friends sets really aren’t my thing — I’ve bought a few to see what the fuss was about, and picked up a few more for parts in interesting colors. I’ll also agree with Ms. Dell’Antonia that these sets don’t do a whole lot to change existing gender roles among children. But is that really the LEGO Group’s responsibility? Like David, I have a lot more problem with LEGO’s marketing today than I do with their core set designs.

Remember this beautiful ad from 1981?

What it is is beautiful

This classic ad demonstrated a clear understanding of gender-neutral childhood development, and contrasts strongly with the gender-locked advertising for today’s play themes — Ninjago, Star Wars, and even LEGO City — that I encounter in LEGO’s TV commercials and in print. When was the last time you saw a girl playing with a LEGO bus or recycling truck in a LEGO ad? I certainly haven’t (though I’ll admit to being outside the target demographic, so it’s possible I may have missed it, and I do love the Build Together campaign).

Despite the advertising industry falling over itself praising LEGO’s latest “creative” ads (more often than not a leaked sample or test ad from an agency bidding on the LEGO Group’s business, and not an actual ad you’ll ever see LEGO use), I believe that the real advertising that children and parents see does reinforce gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. I’d love to see LEGO City and Creator in particular marketed as often to girls as to boys.

For example, 3368 Space Centericon includes a female astronaut, while the new 60003 Fire Emergency includes a female firefighter.

And yet, the female astronaut in Space Center is the one in all the pictures wearing the opaque helmet, so you’d never know — again, a distinction between a gender-balanced set design and the marketing for the set.

Do LEGO Friends sets include colors that many little girls are attracted to? Undoubtedly. Do the jobs that Mia, Olivia, Andrea, Emma, and the other LEGO Friends characters perform in Heartlake City reflect the wish-fulfillment of the average 8-year-old? Presumably (I wouldn’t know). Nevertheless, I believe that the actual set designs across the full range of the LEGO Friends line do no more and no less harm to the progress of the human race than any other LEGO sets.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments…

The roles of research, critique, and community in improving LEGO models

WW2 Medic (1)Like many LEGO builders, I spent the first decades of my life building in isolation, lucky to get suggestions or critique from a sibling or rare friend who also played with LEGO. But in the last 10 years — particularly the last 5 — the LEGO fan community has grown to include a critical mass of people who build in just about every possible genre.

People with shared interests who spend time together online will inevitably run out of solely positive things to say, and as a result, a culture of constructive criticism has emerged among LEGO fans. Balanced against this impetus to critique everything are the planning and research that individual builders put into what they create. In contrast to the solo building those of us in our 30s did 20 years ago, builders today have a wealth of sources right at our fingertips.

What effects do research, critique, and discussion among community members ultimately have on the quality of the LEGO creations we build and share? Since I’ve been on a bit of a building spree lately (amazing what you can do when your LEGO collection is sorted), I thought I’d step back and share my experience.

Read on, and share your own thoughts in the comments…

Before I set out to create a Dodge WC54 ambulance from World War II, I spent a couple hours finding the best pictures and determining where and when they were actually used during the war. Given that many World War II photos were taken by service personnel and are therefore in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons is a great place to find historical photos.

Historical re-enactors and scale modelers also run dozens of sites that pull together vast amounts of careful research. For both my ambulance and later battalion aid station diorama, I turned frequently to the WW2 US Medical Research Centre.

Originally planning to broaden my D-Day beachhead diorama, I confirmed that WC54s were used at Normandy, and even found a photo of WC54s sitting on Omaha Beach. Good enough to start building.

Targeting 1/35 scale, I translating the real vehicle’s length, height, and width into studs and bricks. Remembering what I’d learned from my wildland fire engine, I built from the top down. I struggled with the front, since I had to combine half-stud offset for the three/five-wide hood with SNOT for the grill and bumper, plus tiles (with no studs to sturdy connections on top) for the fenders.

I figured it out, though, and pleased with my results posted pictures to Flickr:

Dodge WC54 Ambulance (1)

Checking back a while later, I saw a stream of notes from our very own Tim, whose windscreen I’d reverse-engineered for the original ambulance. I gritted my teeth and clicked through. (Honestly, I hate taking criticism, especially when it’s wrong. I’d vented a week earlier that too many of the suggestions to “improve” my M4 Sherman tank took it in more interesting but less historically accurate directions. That’s just plain annoying.)

Tim had seen the mini-rant I’d posted in a Flickr group we both frequent, and his critique was spot on. He made specific suggestions based on the source material I’d used myself, providing solutions where I hadn’t thought the model could be improved. The result is the version I included in my diorama, posted separately below:

Dodge WC54 Ambulance - V2 (1)

The story arc (if you will) started with research, moved through community discussion and critique of the creation itself, and ended with a substantially improved LEGO model. This same story plays out every day in the LEGO fan community today — something that would have been nearly impossible 20 years ago and highly unlikely 10 years ago.

Side note: Looking to future World War II vehicles I might build, I’ll be relying on a copy of World War II AFV Plans: American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford. I was pleased to discover that I ended up almost 100% to scale (1/35) for my M3 Half-track, even without the book.

American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford (1) American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford (2)

Nearly all of the book’s schematics are printed at 1/35 scale, which avoids eyestrain from the WIP-held-against-computer-screen method I’d been using before the book arrived in the mail.

So, what’s your experience with the balance between research or sources of inspiration and constructive criticism?

No it is not *your* technique – credit is currency and should be paid [Editorial]

In what I believe is a first (apologies if I’m neglecting credit) for The Brothers Brick I’ve decided to write a somewhat counterpoint editorial to Andrew’s latest editorial.

Andrew argues, with merit, that demands for credit are excessive and potentially “stifling (of) others’ creativity”. While I don’t disagree with his major points I do feel that his post has risky consequences which I do disagree with: discouraging credit when it can and should be given.

As a medium with a finite parts pallette, building technique is not just a means of aiding the design process but an integral part of the design process. Technique is not just a tool but can be an inseparable part of a creation. This is, for me at least, one the most interesting aspects of building with LEGO (and/or other construction toys).

The LEGO fan community has developed in an environment of sharing, cooperation and mingling of ideas. From the earliest days of rec.toys.lego through to the diaspora of today one of the key elements of the online community has been the active sharing of the techniques that go into a model in addition to the sharing of the model itself.

However, this sharing is encouraged, at least in part, by the giving of credit where credit is due. If someone knows that a clever trick they’ve spent hours developing will be used by others without so much as a thank you they may not feel so compelled to spend the time to show a cutaway version.

Likewise if someone sees a neat idea they’d agonised over being used and lauded without acknowledgement a week later by a more experienced builder they may feel justifiably aggrieved. Credit isn’t just polite, it is a driver of the shared creativity that drives the hobby.

So no, it is not your technique. If you got it from someone else then give them the credit they deserve for their creativity so that they’ll feel happy sharing other techniques. Credit is a currency and if you don’t pay for the service you may find it goes away.

No, it is *not* your technique – it’s time for “open source” LEGO design [Editorial]

Merriam-Webster defines the act of plagiarism as:

to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : [to] use (another’s production) without crediting the source.

Unfortunately, plagiarism is something we LEGO fans witness all too often online. “Hey, some kid on LEGO.com stole my photo and entered it in a contest. And he won!” or “There’s this scumbag on eBay selling copies of a MOC that I designed!”

I think we can all agree that stealing photos or selling someone else’s design for profit are both damaging to the legitimacy of LEGO as an artform and to LEGO builders as a community.

(Some good news is that the Brick-Busters are doing a good job of dealing with the kids on LEGO.com, though the problem is much broader than their scope.)

However, accusations of plagiarism seem just as common between LEGO builders. “Dude, aren’t you going to credit me for combining these three pieces in this particular way?” or “Here’s a photo of an awesome technique I just thought up. I call it SNOT. Please credit me if you use it.”

I believe that claiming ownership or requesting credit for building techniques can have a stifling effect on the creativity we all value so much, and therefore doing so can be just as damaging — in different ways — as real plagiarism. I’m proposing that we embrace a more open approach to building techniques by abandoning the possessive attitude too many of us have about the way we’ve put a few LEGO bricks together.

copyleft symbolOf course, what I’m suggesting as it applies to LEGO isn’t unique either. Open source software has proved competitive with traditional boxed products. An increasing number of writers are embracing “copyleft” and open content philosophies as alternatives to traditional copyright.

Creative Commons logoBoing Boing contributor and science fiction author Cory Doctorow releases his work under a Creative Commons license — specifically, the same license under which The Brothers Brick releases our original content. (All of my own LEGO photos on Flickr are also posted with the same CC license.)

What I love about LEGO builders as a community is how collaborative we are. In most cases, someone who finds what they consider a new type of connection or an innovative use for a part shares it with their LEGO friends expecting nothing in return. It might be easy to dismiss my earlier examples as coming only from the sticky typing fingers of the pre-teens and early teens crawling all over Flickr these days, but I read those kinds of comments from adults all too frequently too.

This attitude is self-congratulatory at best, and has the danger of stifling others’ creativity. Before I had my “open LEGO” epiphany, there was more than one occasion when I paused while building to think whether I wanted to bother listing in my photo description later all the potential places where I might have first seen the technique I was using.

In a creative medium that values collaboration and innovation, I don’t believe claims of ownership for building techniques have any place.

What do you think? Are these claims just annoying, or worse? Sound off in the comments.

What it is ... is beautiful – LEGO ad from 1981

I’m not generally one to look to the past as somehow superior to the present or future. Nevertheless, seeing this LEGO ad from 1981 struck a nerve.

What it is is beautiful

Most LEGO ads today emphasize action and playability. Both wonderfully effective attributes to sell toys, I’m sure. It’s not so much that The LEGO Group has changed as much as LEGO has had to adapt to a different advertising climate. I get it, I really do.

Still, I miss the days when LEGO emphasized the basics: quality, creativity, and — as in this beautiful ad — pride in accomplishment. (There’s also something to be said about gender neutrality, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Hat-tip to Moose Greebles for the scan from the back of Decorating and Craft Idea magazine.

How to get blogged on The Brothers Brick, in 3 easy steps [Editorial]

The Brothers Brick vignetteOne of the most frequently asked questions we get here at The Brothers Brick is how to get your LEGO creation featured on the blog. We’ve answered this tangentially with Linus’s LEGO is communication series and Tim’s blogging standards, but I thought it was time we helped all of you out there understand a bit better what makes a LEGO creation “blogworthy” to us.

Now, in three easy steps, here’s how to get blogged on The Brothers Brick…

Step 1: Build something awesome

Arvo's LEGO ChestbursterAwesome is a fairly subjective word, but it’s a good word to encompass all the different types of cool LEGO creations we like to blog. Several factors can influence how awesome a LEGO creation is:

A few LEGO creations combine several of these factors to achieve a truly unique mashup, like these awesome examples:

Step 2: Take good pictures of your LEGO creation.

LEGO photography is hard. You can’t just use your mom’s low-resolution camera phone to take pictures of your MOC on your computer desk. Putting some effort into your LEGO photography will highlight your creations to their best advantage, and help get them noticed.

  • The right things in focus: If you’re taking a picture of a minifig, the minifig should be in focus. If you’re taking a picture of a diorama, the foreground (or whole scene) should be in focus. For close-up shots, make sure you turn on your camera’s macro setting.
  • Good lighting: A well-lit LEGO creation shows off all its great colors and intricate details.

    One Stormy Night in October by Alex Eylar on MOCPagesNatural daylight is perfect, though diffused daylight is even better. A full-spectrum fluorescent bulb can stand in for daylight, but they can be expensive and hard to find. If you’re like me and you live somewhere that gets 55 days of sunshine in a year, a combination of “warm” incandescent and “cool” fluorescent lighting can work.

    Very low or focused lighting can also complement a LEGO creation, giving it a cinematic feel, as Alex Eylar demonstrated in One stormy night.

  • Neutral or appropriate background: Take a look at the LEGO creations we blog. One thing you probably won’t notice is their background. Neutral backgrounds don’t distract from the LEGO creation. Many builders use a large piece of card stock paper, while others achieve some interesting effects with bedsheets or blankets.
  • Complementary or immersive camera angle: Take at least one vehicle photo from a three-quarters angle that showcases the top, front, and one side. For LEGO creations that depict a scene, like dioramas and vignettes, take photos from a “minifig’s-eye-view.” Bonus points for having minifigs looking into the camera.

If you don’t have a good camera or you live somewhere that doesn’t have good natural light, you can still make your LEGO photos presentable by post-processing the images through software like Adobe Photoshop, GIMP (free), and even the photo management suite that came with your computer. More specifically, you can improve the colors and exposure, enhance the contrast, and sharpen the focus a little bit.

Apocalypsis by Mark Kelso on MOCpagesOnce you’re familiar with these programs, you can even use them to combine elements from multiple photographs to create a single cohesive whole — a process called compositing. Mark Kelso used this technique for many of the images in his Apocalpysis: A Journey Inward (right).

There are a number of excellent resources in the LEGO fan community about improving your presentation skills:

Step 3: Help us find your LEGO creation.

If you want others to see your LEGO creations (and get them blogged here), there’s no point in hiding them away somewhere nobody will find them. Gone are the days of firing up a free Geocities home page, hand-coding a bunch of HTML pages, and waiting for people to find you when they search Alta Vista in their Netscape browsers. Seriously, personal websites are a thing of the past.

Instead, we recommend that you upload your LEGO creations to one of several specific photo-sharing sites active today:

  • Screen shot of MOCpages.comMOCpages: A dedicated (LEGO-only) photo sharing site maintained by LEGO Certified Professional Sean Kenney. Identify and befriend your favorite builders, get comments on your creations, and receive e-mail alerts when one of your favorite builders posts a new LEGO creation. The best LEGO photo sharing site on the Web today.
  • Flickr: A general (non-LEGO) photo-sharing community site owned and operated by Yahoo! With groups, tagging, contact management, and syndication (RSS and Atom feeds for just about everything), Flickr enables LEGO fans to stay connected and have a fairly LEGO-specific experience on an otherwise non-LEGO site. A free account is limited to 200 photos, while a Pro account costs 25 USD a year.
  • Brickshelf: The original LEGO image hosting site. The site lacks many features of the modern Web (such as feeds and support for apostrophes), and experienced a major outage in 2007 that caused a mass exodus to other image-hosting and photo-sharing sites. Lack of updates and intermittent minor outages since then make the future of this site unclear. Still, many builders choose to post their LEGO photos only on Brickshelf and many LEGO fans continue to check Brickshelf for new and updated creations.

Yes, we know that there are a whole bunch of other LEGO and non-LEGO photo sites on the Web. Given how much time we already spend finding the best LEGO creations to feature for our readers, we just don’t have the time to pay attention to sites like Photobucket, MOCshow, and YouBrick. If you run one of these sites, it’s truly nothing personal.

Once you’ve uploaded your photos, you can do a few more things to help us find them more easily:

  • Tag the photo “LEGO” (Flickr): Tagging your photo adds keywords that help us find it. The most important tag for a LEGO creation is, naturally, “LEGO”. You can also add other relevant keywords, including foitsop for your main “announcement” photo.
  • Add one or more Brothers Brick contributors as contacts (MOCpages & Flickr): Many of us rely on notifications and feeds from our contacts to know when they’ve uploaded something new. By adding us as a contact, we’ll take a look at your LEGO creations and might add you back.
  • Screen shot of LEGO group pool on FlickrAdd the photo to the LEGO pool (Flickr):
    The LEGO group pool on Flickr is one of the primary places where I personally look for new LEGO creations from previously undiscovered builders.
  • Use meaningful folder and file names (Brickshelf) or photo titles (Flickr): A series of DSC_0119.jpg photos in your Brickshelf folder or Flickr photostream doesn’t tell us anything about the creation, and it’s hard to tell which is your main “announcement” photo — the one we should blog.
  • When all else fails, send us a link: If you’ve built something that you really think is good enough to be highlighted on The Brothers Brick, you’ve done everything we’ve suggested here, and we still seem to have missed it, you just might be right. You can use the Contact Us page to send us a link to your LEGO creation. We get a lot of suggestions, so we can’t always reply individually, but we’ll try.

Conclusion

Okay, so not quite as easy as 1-2-3. ;-) Still:

  1. Build something cool.
  2. Take a few decent pictures.
  3. Put them somewhere we’ll find them.

…and you’ll be in pretty good shape to get yourself blogged on The Brothers Brick.

Questions? Ask away in the comments.

Breaking even: sustaining your LEGO-building hobby through selling on Bricklink [Essay]

LEGO is expensive; we all know it. For us builders, we always need more bricks to complete that big project sitting on our desk or in the back of our minds. More bricks cost more money, and that’s where the problem comes in. Luckily, we builders have an extremely valuable asset that only a few have begun to exploit. For the first time in the building community, I will show you the benefits of opening your own Bricklink store, turning that once cash-consumptive marketplace on its head to bring you a dependable supply of money and free bricks.

So what’s the trick? Sell minifigs. What if I told you that since December of just a month ago I’ve a grossed a revenue of $1,500? Would that be enough for you to buy every set on your holiday wish list and finally get the parts to complete those half-finished creations growing cobwebs on your desk? I would think so. I have operated a Bricklink store for a bit over a year now, and I have acquired the experience to confidently say to you that “yes, you could maintain your LEGO hobby at zero cost.”

Let’s get started. First and foremost, you are a builder who is interested in the noble effort of funding for your expensive hobby. If you’re not the aforementioned type, things could go very differently for you at suboptimal outcomes. Now that we’ve established our common grounds, you will need to let go of your sentiments for minifigures. See them as the livestock you must consume to fight off starvation. You can choose to remain a peaceful vegetarian, or you can start eating meat.

Why minifigs? Because they sell high and are easy and cheap to ship. Plus, you don’t need them to build a castle wall or the hull of a spaceship. Here are two enticing examples from my recent sales. 1). I purchased about 40 new 2009 Star Wars Battle Packs at $10 each, sold nearly all of the minifigures, made a $200 profit and kept all the bricks and accessories for free. 2). I also bought Count Dooku’s Solar Sailer for $50 (after coupons), had fun writing a review, and then sold the Count for $37 and put up the Magna Droids for sale at $10 each. In the end, you can see that I’m easily making a profit while keeping all the parts from sets for free.

At first, it’s hard to believe why minifigs fetch such high values, but if you think about it, it makes sense. In addition to the builders, there are also collectors – people who want to own their favorite minifigs but don’t want the building blocks. Thus, why should they buy whole sets when they can get the figs individually? Plus, LEGO costs a whole lot more outside the States as most of us know; thus buying minifigs makes perfect sense to collectors.

To start your Bricklink store, dig up your pre-existing minifigs and find their market values on Bricklink through the price guide for each fig. It is highly worthwhile to sell Star Wars figs and almost useless to sell your non-franchised Exo-Force or Power Miner dudes (Indiana Jones falls in between).

Next, and this is important, list your minifigs at the lowest prices! There is no shortage of competition on Bricklink from large scale sellers. If you don’t beat their prices, why should anyone buy from a small store like yours or mine? But do not despair, even at the lowest prices, your Darth Vader will still make you over ten bucks richer and Yoda can buy you a medium sized set. So how low should you go? Here’s what I learned from over the months: note the lowest sale price in the US (provided you live in the States), then note the quantity available and the store’s feedback count. If both are low, then you can price your minifig at near that price, but if both are high, you should start by pricing your fig at 50 cents cheaper. At the same time, you need to take concern the popularity of the minifig. Check the number of times the fig was sold recently; the lower the quantity sold, the cheaper you must go to tempt buyers to buy your unpopular figure.

Shipping – it’s not as hard as you think and definitely cheaper than you’d imagine. Minifigs ship in tiny bubble mailers, which cost you a little over $1 to ship in the US and around $2 to ship internationally. You can buy the smallest bubble envelopes from Walmart at $4.44 per 10-pack. However, I recommend buying 100 from Amazon for $16. When it comes to charging your customer, you will not receive complaints if you start your shipping rates at $2 for domestic and $3 for international orders. Find that balance and you’ll end up actually making a profit on shipping that will compensate for your 3% Paypal and 3% Bricklink fees.

Fortunately, time is not an issue. As a minifig seller, it takes no time to package an order of just a few figs in contrast to an order of hundreds of parts. And since you’re already sorting your pieces as a builder, taking out the minifigs from sets should be no problem. However, the largest time consuming factor is shipping; you must be willing to make trips to the post office unless you are adept with shipping from home.

Last and most importantly: be aggressive in buying sets to supply your inventory. Once you target a set with minifigs that sell well; don’t hesitate to get it. The worst that can happen is you end up selling the minifigs but still fall $20 short to fully pay off your 1000-piece set (for example the Republic Gunship around the time of its release). But “oh my god,” $20 for 1000 pieces, what a bummer!

There is one major caution to be on the lookout for. Minifig prices dip fast and then rise fast once the set is out of production. Thus, you should strive to be among the first to sell a minifig from a new set (that’s when no one in the world has it and everyone wants it). Once people have gotten their hands on new sets, prices for new minifigs drop significantly by up to 50%. If you have not sold your figs yet, you may consider holding onto them until the set goes out of production in a year or two (and that’s risking re-releases of the same minifig). Unless you’re very patient, your biggest bet is to sell fast, or you’ll send up selling low.

These should be the basics. It is now up to you to spend a few hours to open your store and get acquainted to the procedures of selling. At first, things may start low (especially when you have a feedback count of less than 30 and not much in your inventory), but be patient and invest when the next wave of Star Wars and Indy sets come out (yea Taun-Tauns!). Wait for it like your birthday, and then go all out on the party.

Here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s to wrap things up.

Do
• Sell low – or you’ll be driven into oblivion by large scale competitors.
• Sell minifigs – especially Star Wars and franchised ones.
• Sell fast – you have a small time frame when new minifigs are released until their prices drop.
• Sell internationally – approximately half of your buyers will come from outside the US.
• Sell new – new minifigs are more likely to be sold and fetch higher values. Displayed minifigs can pass as new, but played-with minifigs should be marked used.
• Become best friends with the price guide – although it’s not possible to actually do so, nevertheless you’ll be relying on the price guide for every minifig you plan on selling.
• Frequently adjust prices – market prices are dynamic, and you should keep up.
• Be kind to your customers – and grant their requests for small discounts if they ever contact you before ordering. A small bit of pocket change is worth an order and a satisfied customer.
• Buy now, think later – I have abided by this simple axiom on purchasing sets and it has paid off. I suggest you do the same because LEGO does not depreciate in value.

Don’t
• Don’t sell parts – there are plenty of large Bricklink stores that do that, and besides, you’re a builder, you need the parts.
• Don’t sell sets – they’re a hassle to ship and are also costly and space consuming. Shipping a large set outside the US will cost you nearly $50. Selling minifigs give you cheap or free leftover parts. Selling sets don’t.
• Don’t offer free shipping – buyer’s aren’t much more tempted to buy from you if you offer free shipping. I have done this for several months without increases in sales.
• Don’t sell if you’re underage – Bricklink requires you to be at least 18 years old to be a seller.
• Don’t worry – it takes time to build the experience from selling and gain the confidence to invest. I am just experiencing both after a whole year. Nevertheless, any income at all is better than no income.

With these tips and advices, you’re off to start a new adventure, one that will someday break even the income and expenditures on your LEGO hobby. I have almost reached that point, having sold $290 in the past week and $350 the week before. It is then that you truly appreciate your capability to buy bulk parts without damaging your wallet, to build large scale creations as a student or without upsetting your wife, and perhaps to have some leftover cash to go partying with friends.

See it like this: when you spend Paypal cash like Monopoly money and see Bricklink as just a board game, you have found your way to a self-sustaining hobby limited only by the breadth of your imagination.

Questions? You can contact me via Bricklink.