Taking ownership at the dawn of the consumer age

Second in the series of forgotten blog posts I originally wrote for iFixit, here is the story of mrs, a-go-go's ancestor, a fine example of iFixit's manifesto.

Mary Anne Anderson (Busavage) 1913-2008. Tinkers Daughter
In 1920 Ignas Bucevicius (alternately Ignatz, Ignatius, Busavage, or Butsavich depending on one's distance from Lithuania) jumped head first into the consumer age and bought a Ford Model T with two months pay. Though the anecdote is fogged by three generations playing telephone one detail comes through loud and clear; Ignas was not about to welcome the new age without making that mass produced machine his own, right down to the last bolt. According to the iFixit Self-Repair Manifesto, "If you can't fix it, you don't own it." Ignas knew this instinctively and was driven to parse his new gadget in an old-school teardown.

The story as witnessed by a seven year old Mary Anne Bucevicius (my spouse's grandmother) took place in Rockford, Illinois during a sticky hot summer. Ignas, her father, had left home that morning to buy the long aspired to freedom machine, a Ford Model T. By 1920 due to increasing efficiency in production the Tin Lizzie was selling for $290, about $3,200 in today's bucks, and Ignas was eager to bring a bit of status to his growing family. Mary Anne and her two younger sisters had accompanied their mother, Mariona on errands while Ignas was away. They were eager to return home knowing Ignas would be there waiting with the new Ford. Little did they suspect that the inner workings of the Model T would be laid bare in such detail when they arrived. Ignas, a natural born tinker and engineer employed by the swelling auto industry, had taken it upon himself and his tool kit to know that Model T. In a matter of hours he had disassembled and distributed all the parts of that car in a real-life exploded view. Mariona nearly dropped on the spot. Ignas, realizing the spectacle he presented, quickly got to work reassembling, as much to have the car running again as to keep domestic peace. His nuts and bolts skills came through and the Ts chuff, chuff, chuff, was heard again before sundown.

The Ford Model T, manufactured for nearly twenty years, provided the first internal combustion engine power in rural areas all over North America, and many ingenious folks modified the Model T to suit their own purposes. They served as farm tractors, they powered diverse machines from buck saws to threshers, and their engines spun the propellers of home-built aircraft and motorboats. These Model T chimeras would make contemporary tinkers proud and the people who built them had certainly taken ownership of their Flivvers.

With Mariona recovered from her fever, everyone climbed in the reassembled Model T for a ride. As they bounced down the lumpy roads of Rockford, Ignas knew the source of every groan and rattle in that car. In the following years after miles of bumps, when this or that wore out, he could feel what part needed attention without even looking. He had done more than buy that Model T, after a complete teardown and rebuild, he owned it.


Pluck Badger Ticks: Or, the Black Stick Spudger

Having a full-time job has been a blessing and a curse. The income is swell but my time has been all gobbled up lately. A small part of my shinny new job at iFixit has been doing little bits of writing, a product description here, a customer service e-mail there. I was supposed to do some blogging for iFixit too, but most of the posts I have pitched have been on the shelf for a long while, all except the one about ESD. Eh... maybe my sense of humor just isn't cutting the mustard. So I figured I'd put some of those neglected posts to work here on Idiot Son. Even if it has little to do with my pop, it is engineering related. I hope you like this one and stay tuned for a couple more like it.

apologies to Ogdred Weary and Edward Gorey

Have you got a black stick? Is the drawer of your tool box littered with plastic pen-size things with a hook at one end? Some are odd bendy screw drivers, and others are kin to wood tinker toy rods... familiar? Then you are wise in the ways of electronics tinkering and know what a stick is good for (or you’re a manicurist and I’m way off target). Poking, prying, and pulling where your fingers can’t go, gentle yielding nature where a screwdriver would muck things up, and no conductivity when electric current is waiting to bite; these are the qualities of that good ol’ down home spudger.

To the novice, spudger is nonsense. Seeing it for the first time, spudger looks like a mistake, and the word never loses its quirk. Whimsy aside and facing all those tiny components connected by amber ribbons, even the electronics amateur makes fast friends with the spudger.

Apple calls it a Black Stick, while some spell it Spludger. Where did it come from and what’s in a word? One sort of spud peels bark from a log while the other sort digs weeds like a spade. We may fuss and spuddle about our trivial lives, or cut undersized things with short spuddle knives. These could be the root of the spudger, but with that nonsensical sound I wager someone simply liked having it around.

This special black nylon stick pops up in tool lists for countless guides, and no doubt it makes fiddling finicky electronics easier. There are substitutes - guitar picks, credit cards, whittled ink pens, and wood popsicle sticks - but who doesn’t like a thing with such a clear goal in life? The spudger just cries out, “give me something to pry!”

It’s not clear if the spudger was used in the age of the vacuum tube but a orange stick runs deep in the history of pushing cuticles and cleaning under nails. The manicurists pointy orangewood tool may have migrated right into the singed hands of the electrical engineer. Wood sticks with wedged and pokey ends still hold their own, but for that just right bendyness glass filled black nylon is hard to beat.

So don’t neglect that spudger the next time you pluck ticks off a badger, and thank your splendid asterisks for real words that read like blabber.


Ack! I've been so busy

I have been so silly busy with a new job and a new place to live and this and that. The result has been no posts for months. For anyone who is still wondering and waiting for more here is a link to the bolg for my new place of employment, iFixit, and my first post there. I hope it will be the first of many... and I hope I can talk them into letting me post some less technical things.

Until I get my mess in order the posts here will continue to be rather thin, but I'll be back at it soon... I hope.


wacky cars, in which mr. a-go-go finds his transportation animal spirit

A Garelli in action.
From 50ccs, a blog about small cycles.
Yet another fine example of the apple falling close to the tree: when I was fifteen I fantasized about having wheels that turned faster than 30mph downhill with a tail wind. That was about the upper limit of my first motorized vehicle, a Garelli moped that came to me as a gift, albeit a non-functioning one. Two-stroke engines dislike owners who neglect to mix oil in the gas, and it was left to me to undo the damage. Getting the little black Garelli back on the road required an oversize piston and rings, cylinder lapping, and new points. With guidance from dad and after lots of assistance from the Eagle Rock bike and moped mechanic, I was delighted when the new piston rings were broken in and the Garelli was making its loud smokey sputter again. Delight turned to frustration when I had to pedal like mad to get home. We lived at the top of a steep hill and getting back from anywhere required pedaling or pushing the surprisingly heavy Garelli up a grade for a mile or more. Phoo! This was worse than getting home on a bicycle, and I really didn’t need the tiny engine to get down the hill.

Felix Wankel
I lifted this image too, from here.
Clearly it was time to move beyond 46.5 cubic centimeters of displacement. A goofball engineer friend of my dad had a fine proposition for me. He had sitting in his driveway a ’66 Beetle and a ’73 Mazda RX3 pickup, neither in working condition (completing the quorum of sleeping vehicles was a Buick with fine cracklier in the vinyl top and a panel van). The Mazda truck was to be mine if I could get the Beetle to run. The Bug was easy, it just needed a tune up, new plugs, and a dose of fix-a-flat, but the truck was a nightmare (yes, the Bug should have had two new tires instead of some spray gunk, but like hell if I was going to go to that kind of expense for that miserable truck). The RX3 lived in our back yard for months while I cleaned out the bird nests, fixed the gaping rust holes left by the leaking battery, and fiddled and fussed trying to make it go. Felix Wankel’s marvelous rotary engine is a swell idea on paper and the clear plastic model of one I built as a kid was fascinating. In practice it’s a wicked nasty heartless beast and in Mazda’s RX3 version the thorns and pox still far outweighed the performance. The last I heard Mazda went as far as the RX7 version and was still putting it in a sports car in the 90s. Based on my little experience with the animal I’d steer clear of any rotary engine for the sake of your sanity. A new fully functioning rotary engine manages to get a whole lot of whollop out of a small chunk of engine block. This made for a lighter zippier car but the Wankel’s inherent flaws (leaky rotor seals and all sorts of details that I won’t bother going into) make the engine a maintenance headache. I learned scads about all this as I tore out my hair. Dad was a font of information. He was never short on tidbits of information about how anything mechanical worked but in this case the information was of little help in breathing life back into the sad RX3.

Mazda RX3 pickup
At one point my dad’s infinite wisdom led us to try locking the choke in a nearly closed position with a small Vise-Grip. Those rotors sucked gas like a lush and blew at least half of it out the exhaust system where it kept burning. I swear I saw a white flame from the tail pipe. Using bubble gum and bailing wire we managed to make the truck hold an idle just enough to convince someone else, who really needed a cheap pickup, to trade it for a wreck of a ’74 Honda Civic. This gem (no really, it was a gem) had lived in a garage or under a tarp for ten years just waiting for the right person to love it. The previous owner had dreamed of turning this…

into this…
resulting in all sorts of missing parts and stupid looking giant tires.

At last I had something I could really work with. Honda’s little 1150cc engine was a dream-boat for a novice mechanic; dirt simple, tough enough to take an over haul with out any sheered off head bolts, and fewer moving parts than I could count on all my fingers and toes. The old Civic made working on my sisters’ VW Beetles seem like a bad dream. The body was mottled with rust after living under a wet tarp, it needed a transfusion of junkyard parts, and the carburetor was full of dried out gasoline tartar, but it was mine. With more guidance from dad and lots of bloody knuckles I whipped that cat till it purred again. This time I had enough horsepower to get up the hill without pedaling. No kiddin’ that little four-banger engine had remarkable kick for its size. I suppose only having to drag my skinny carcass and a small sheet metal body up the hill helped keep the pep. With five people in the car (indeed!) the little Civic showed its weakness and I was introduced to going uphill in reverse.

And then the apple fell really close to the tree…

Here I had a working rattletrap of a car that ran like a top but it was ugly as sin. What to do, what to do…

the funky tail lights are just behind the rear side windows
Way back when my dad was a nincompoop youngster, he had a 1957 Porsche roadster, a swell car that he bought right off the boat from Germany when it arrived in Wilmington, California. Within the first year of the car’s life it received some serious dents and was finally rear-ended badly enough to really need some body work. And what do you suppose Mr. Stephens did with his zippy car that had lots of life left in the engine but was badly scared? Why naturally he went berserk and after fixing the dents, priming, and painting he made some kook modifications. Elephant tusks in front, shark tails in the rear, and new taillight pods on the tops of the fenders. The tusks and tails, by the way, were fabricated of tempered 6061 aluminum for low weight and superior strength. I’m not totally sure what he was after with all this. I suppose he hoped to scare off any potential new dent makers with stupefying weirdness. When the car was sold it left with out its glorious tusks and fins. Those parts lived in the garage storage space well into my teens. I wondered for years about those objects and my questions about them would result in cryptic riddles about big animals with threatening pointy parts.

tusks say Raaarr!
Until I saw these photos of the roadster chimera I never could get a grip on how these things would fit on a car. Eventually one of the shark fin plates became the head of a battle-axe I wanted to make. 6061 aluminum makes a swell shark fin, but it won’t keep an edge worth beans when an angry dwarf starts whacking things with it. This was years before the term LARP had made the rounds. Ah well.

So, how about that apple? My own ugly little car needed at the very least days of sanding out rust spots and a good dose of primer paint. Initially I figured it would end with the white primer, but that big white canvas just ached for something more. The elephant tusks and shark fins translated through some meiosis became non-zebra zebra stripes and a mysterious statement stenciled on the hood in reverse. This could only be read in the rearview mirror of another driver who would have to puzzle out why the little striped car “never needs ironing.” The little black and white civic has long since been recycled for scrap but its legacy and the memory of those weird tusks lives on. Now days they take the form of a rooster comb on my bike helmet.

P.S. Never you mind the little dog silhouettes. I never did run over any dogs let alone any Scotties. That was simply the most recognizable dog shape and I was too lazy to complete the gag by making a stencil of a tree, a mailbox, a chicken, an outhouse, and a fish. The pizza man at La Cañada Imports where we would buy extra greasy pizza slices never tired of greeting me with a hearty, “Hey, Safari Guy!” Now days the rooster comb on my helmet urges every shirtless goof to hollar, "Nice hat!" as though this apple hasn't heard that one before.


having a job is killing my writing

Goodness I have been short on posting for a long while. It's official, mr. a-go-go has a job. I have had it for about a month now and I hope that will explain my delinquency in posting. The only adventure I have to report is my purchase of a little telescope (that's the nephew a-go-go looking for "caves" on Bishop's Peak) as a I-have-a-job-at-last! gift. Getting in some amateur astronomy has been on my do-it-before-I-die list for a while. I have not had the chance to take the thing out to a really dark place yet but we have had fun looking at the crescent moon, a wobbly glimpse of Saturn, and some foggy peeps at the Orion Nebula. The sky here is a whole lot better than LA for looking at the night sky but there are still plenty of sodium vapor street lights spoiling things.

My dad was never into astronomy enough for us to have a telescope but we had some engineer nuts that filled in the gap here and there. I remember going out to the Mojave Desert to view Halley's Comet through a big clunky dobsonian telescope that one of dad's friends had built. What a let down that was. It still looked like a little white blur even with all that light gathering aperture. Still can't fathom why the guy with the scope didn't think to go looking for some nebulae or Jupiter or something. Some people just don't know how to wow the younguns.

Maybe when I get settled into this new job I'll be able to settle my mind and scribble out some new posts. Until then... anyone who is still paying attention here.... well, I thank you for your patience.


what are you going to do with your life?

Titanum Electron Gun is key to space simulator. Engineer, James Stephens, checks new Caltech gadget.
How did my dad know what he wanted to do with his life? How did he know that he wanted to be a mechanical engineer and build rockets? That question is an oversimplification. He didn’t really build whole rockets but he worked on bits and pieces of rockets and on the robots and astronomy satellites that rode up into the sky on those big tin cans. Still, he always made it sound like he knew exactly what he wanted to do in life and he went right down the mechanical engineer path through school, to work at Rocketdyne, and on to The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Caltech. I suppose that the glamour of things that are new, bold, and uncharted helped make it an easy decision to pursue rockets and space stuff.

I am in my forties now and I still don’t know what I want to do. I bought into in the whole do-what-you-love thing but it has never really gotten me anywhere that would look like success to most of the people walking around on this rock. I am happiest making things with my hands (the engineer homunculus in me throwing its weight around) but what things I get a kick out of making is always changing. So how does one get the $$ out of that? I’ve never really found the way to make my talents into cash. I suppose I should have gone to art school but I just didn’t want to jump the hoops. I suppose I should have followed the engineer path, but it seems to me that engineers don’t have the fun they did in the age before CAD/CAM and all the computer screens. Sitting in front of a glowing screen all day makes me cranky. It just doesn’t hold up to the tales of early rocket engineers tinkering with hydrazine and living on the edge.

This beats the heck out of an exploding rocket, no?
Digression Warning: skip this bit if you don’t get a thrill from tales of chemical stinks and medicinal serendipity. According to anecdote, use’ta be, in the early days of rocketry and super volatile liquid fuels there was no sophisticated way to check for leaks in the completed and fueled up rocket standing out on the launch rig. A tiny little leak would be a baaaaaad thing resulting in certain disaster. You want all the rumbling flame to shoot out of the nozzle on the tail of the rocket, you see. If anything is squirting out in the wrong place it tends to screw up the works and make everything into a big flame ball that goes nowhere fast. Fortunately the hydrazine in the liquid fuel smells like ammonia. (Don’t quote me on this. I’m running on anecdote and my cluttered and fogged memory here, not on any sort of expertise.) It’s toxic as all get out in larger doses but someone had to be the canary in the coalmine. One person with a good nose and the short straw would have to go out to the launch rig, climb a ladder, open a little door on the side of the rocket, and sniff. No ammonia stink? Thumbs up, it’s launch time! So tonight, let it be Löwenbraü. “Where’s the medicinal serendipity?” you ask. Guess what? Hydrazine is a chemical precursor to thorazine a.k.a. chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic drug sometimes used to reduce effects of a bad LSD trip. Better living through chemistry and the canary feels aaaall riiiight.

Dad was a thoroughly practical space engineer, a loud-mouthed critic of manned space flight, and the fly-in-the-ointment of every hair brained NASA pork barrel project. I don’t know for sure if his boosterism for robotic spacecraft and his practicality was something that grew in time or if he came right out of school swinging the fists of practical testing and fanatical belief in building spacecraft the way Ford cranked out Model Ts. It is telling, however, that one of his early big projects at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was building a testament to practicality, the Molesink, also known as The Molecular Sink Space Simulation Laboratory. That’s a mouthful. He kept the black sign that labeled one of the steel doors opening into the big room filled with huge vacuum pumps, tanks of liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, and pipes running every which way patched here and there with ape shit* (that one I’ll have to explain later). Long after it went out of use and was scrapped, dad was proud of the big space-making machine that gave him his hernia. We still have the sign. It makes the shop in the garage seem more important.

Galileo's broken umbrella
The nuts and bolts of basic mechanics are tweaked by the very low pressure, intense cold, and ionizing radiation of space. The simplest assumptions made about mechanical parts or electronic devices down here on the ground are often poor designs for spacecraft. Lubricants for moving parts turn into horrible glue or worse they disperse, coating everything with a nasty muck. Materials cold-weld together in unpredictable ways, and plastic polymers just plain freak out. Armed with the Molesink and its threatening almost-like-space torture chamber dad would tear gaping holes in the blueprints of impractical and poorly designed spacecraft long before they could get into space and fail where no one was watching or taking notes. What was so practical about that? The big idea was to make a little bit of space here on earth to find out what was going wrong and to learn how to do things right on the cheap. It costs a whole lot less to wreck your electronics in the Molesink than to send them into space and then sit and wonder what went wrong. This may seem obvious but lots of obvious things get buried in the clumsy machine of NASA. Pork projects get arbitrarily farmed out to companies with no practical experience in a particular field and the same old mistakes are made anew. When the Galileo spacecraft’s main antenna failed to unfold my dad lamented the loss of the Molesink shaking his head. Stuffing a prototype antenna in the Molsink and opening a can of space whup ass would have prevented the whole embarrassing mess by proving the design sucked rocks. Lots of dopey mistakes plagued NASA in the 80s and 90s. The Hubble Space Telescope went up with out anyone trying out the optics. There was a terrible lack of attention paid to proponents of practicality like Dr. Fly-In-The-Ointment Stephens.

Dad worked on lots and lots of projects in his time at JPL, but he was slowly moved out of the nuts and bolts stuff. Eventually he was part of the Technology Affiliates program. It was intended to take new technology and inventions produced by NASA folks and make them available to private companies in need of innovation. Dad criticized the Technology Affiliates program for trying to find a problem for a given solution when he should have been finding solutions for problems. In his own time dad had a little business doing just that. He called himself the technology pimp, hooking up hard-up companies with willing, able, and well-endowed engineers, chemists, and biologists. I think dad had more satisfaction in his pimping work outside of JPL where he could fit solutions and people to a particular problem rather than doing it all backwards at JPL.

I need to dig in the dad box and find the documents so I can get the details right but I think there is evidence that he wasn’t totally happy with his position at JPL in the later part of his career. I think he really liked being the technopimp but the Technology Affiliates program didn’t bear much of fruit. There are a few letters regarding dad being turned down for a promotion/raise in the last few years of his time at JPL. Maybe he was just trying to get a higher salary locked in for a better pension, but I wonder if he was just burned out by the bureaucracy and silliness. I wish I had had the mind to ask. There are lots of things I never thought to ask… like, “How in heaven’s name did you know what you wanted to do?!” Was it all just a ruse? Maybe he was just faking the whole time and he never was that confident of where he was going.

not the right shade of grey
*So, what the hell is ape shit? Nope, didn’t forget. It’s a really tenacious thick grey clay-like stuff used to patch up insulation on cryogenic plumbing. At least that is what my fogged brain remembers. It comes in a big rounded log like an ape pooped it out. We had one of those logs in a drawer in the garage up to just a few years ago. Maybe that was what made dad so sure about what he wanted to do… engineering was just an excuse to say things like, “Hey Joe, toss me another log of ape shit. There’s ice on this bitch kitty.” Don’t know what a bitch kitty is? That too will have to wait.


Oh Lego, what have they done to you?

chunky homestead
Lego. There was a long stretch of the seventies and a bit of the eighties when my birthday or Christmas wish list was headed up by that brand name, or more likely the incorrect term Legos or Leggos, both officially frowned upon. What a thing those plastic blocks have become. In my day Legoland was a far away enchanted place somewhere in Europe where every roof was topped with rows of squat cylindrical knobs and people had yellow heads. It would be decades before a graft of Denmark was stitched onto San Diego County and the minilands would grow in the Southern California haze.

I hope to avoid making this post a rant about how complicated the Lego sets have become, lousy with special parts and crazy directions, or how so many of the sets are based on one film franchise or another… but they have. The seed thought of this post was about creativity and open-ended construction toys. I wondered if Lego had become closed-ended. There are still clearly open-ended Lego sets available but they seem overshadowed by other sets with glossy photos promising one off models of a chunkified Millennium Falcon or Hogwarts Castle. Even Lego’s “systems” of sets that are designed as parts of imaginary worlds seem to want to be movie franchises. Each set primarily focuses on the construction of one fabulous backdrop or one weird machine. I wonder how many of these sets are used to build only the featured model and then sit on a shelf. I have witnessed kids rooms (and adults’ toy shelves) crowded with these finished models. I have heard tales of frustration when the awkward structure of a Millennium Falcon collapses and small grey blocks scatter under the couch requiring a return to the tedious construction directions. How often do the blocks get recycled into new creations these days? I wish I could make some sort of sociological survey of this. I would hope to find that the majority of Lego blocks in the world are in a perpetual cycle of building and tearing down for recycling… a circle of life kind of thing or one of those diagrams of schistosomiasis making its way from host to host.

My nephew has his collection of Lego blocks in a large storage bin filled mostly with a jumble of individual blocks. He always has one or two constructions that he wishes to save from being scattered into blocky bits, at least for the short term. These sit in the air space at the top of the jumble waiting for the next time the bin is opened. Sometimes these constructions are right out of the direction manuals for a particular model, but more often they are some alien battle cruiser of his design or a skyscraper waiting for the plastic Godzilla’s next attack. Is my nephew’s M.O. the exception or the rule? I hope his way is the rule. It makes me all frowny to think of the gobs of Lego potential going to waste on someone’s shelf. I see those models and struggle against the temptation to modify them… use Yoda as a figurehead on a swamp fan boat or turn Hogwarts into a Tudor cottage…

My second set circa 1975
See the Atari duck?
The conversion of things into Lego language still sort of pixilates them and squeezes details into the limits of small plastic blocks, but the chunkification was much more severe before the addition of wild new colors, slopey roof bits, and articulated figures. Once there were only a handful of block shapes in five colors excluding the wide green foundation platforms. Back then the sets didn’t come with much instruction beyond the pictures on the box and the only special pieces were doors, windows, and wheels with their black axle blocks they fit into one of two ways. Cleverly, these wheels had the standard Lego knobs on their hubs so they could carry a chunky propeller or windmill blade. Building a person or a duck with these early sets produced something akin to a Space Invaders alien or an Atari Adventure dragon. The blocky graphics at the dawn of computer games primed me to be more than happy with my chunkified Battlestar Galactica. It took all the white blocks I had, was devoid of tiny laser canons, and scale problems forced the Cylon Raiders to be represented by paper hole punch confetti, but it flew lots of successful missions none the less. The lack of directions in these early sets didn’t stop me from trying to mimic some of the things pictured on the box. I remember squinting for a long time at that funny looking boat while counting how many little knob-bumps there were from one end to the other. That was the only way to decipher its actual length in Lego world. My second and third Lego sets each had more specialized parts than the last and eventually I had some sets with gears, axles, and universal joints. These last ones indeed came with complex directions for a featured model, but there were always lots of extra blocks and tantalizing other options for building. Making just the one model would be a betrayal to the left over blocks. The bulldozer eventually became a forklift of my own ingenious design and the harvester tractor supplied parts for a dune buggy complete with rear differential and working suspension.

I had other construction toys when I was a kid but none of them had the longevity of the bumpy plastic blocks and the possibilities opened by collecting multiple sets. There was a hodgepodge of hand-me-down tinker toys. They tasted good but the chew marks made the stick-in-hole joints unreliable. There were some Lincoln Logs. These occasionally worked in concert with the Lego blocks for some rustic contrast, but the set was small enough to only make a simple cabin or a one-floor frontier cathouse. Cool stuff, each with merits as creative toys, but they didn’t fire my imagination enough to plead for more sets and an ever-expanding empire.

We never had a big set of the standard wood building blocks at our house, but pop kept me supplied with lots of splintery lumber scrap. I could spend hours bashing bent rusty nails into these struggling to build clumsy bird houses, dog houses, or bug houses. I adored my Lego pile but this didn’t soothe my envy of the smooth wood blocks that one of the neighbor kids had. Nicely made wood blocks still have a strong draw for me. My nephew has a set that is a pleasure to stack and restack. There is something special in the standard shapes with a few wedges and arches. The limitations set by the simple design of the blocks becomes an invitation to creativity, and the possibilities become infinite. It’s something akin to a low-budget black and white film creating dramatic effect using little more than simple lighting tricks.

The new age of Lego with maniacal model building instructions winding through hundreds of illustrated steps has wandered far away from the simple open ended magic of stacking wood blocks. The old sets certainly had a closer relationship to this magic, and they had the added delight of allowing a kid to pick up a creation and fly it around. A rocket made of stacked wood blocks has little option but to blow up on the launch pad. Build it out of Lego and it can go to the moon. The newer sets are exciting and flashy but they may have lost some of their connection to the simple learn-by-playing toys exemplified by Froebel’s Gifts of Kindergarten. These are a series of toys designed to offer children expanding opportunities to learn through physical manipulation of interesting objects. The series begins with a group of soft crocheted balls on strings and grows into sets of, what else, smooth wood blocks! I don’t want to get too far into the details but suffice to say The Gifts are all simple toys that encourage open-ended play manipulating shapes and colors. Back in 1958 when the standard Lego block was patented Froebel might have accepted the sets containing five colors and a few shapes as a logical continuation of The Gifts. The menagerie of special parts added since 1958 make for all sorts of new possibilities but they steal something away too. Still, the creativity that pours out of the Lego box can be wonderful.

I’m a dork for creativity. I get all excited some times just from seeing bursts of creativity in others, like when my nephew balled up tiny bits of a paper napkin for an action figure snow ball fight. My nephew and I will often have Lego sessions, typically ending in an arms race to destruction with layers of Calvin Ball style made-up-on-the-spot rules: “Oh yeah? Well my house has lasers on the roof, see?... and surveillance cameras, so you better keep your Dr. No doomsday juggernaut off the lawn… or else! Oh, by the way, see those little black blocks on the foredeck? That’s the poop your Predator alien left on my veranda last week. You better get that thing house broken or I’m calling animal control.”

If we are at my sister’s house these antics come out of my nephew’s Lego box, but I still have my own old collection of blocks. When my nephew is at our house the old chunky style blocks jumbled with their later cousins, the gears and axles, suffice for our neighborly squabbles. My nephew regularly questions why my blocks are so lacking in sophisticated parts and small articulated figures, but the mechanical and robotic possibilities of all the gears usually make up for the shortcomings of the regular red bricks. Besides, if he thinks too long about the lack of hinged pale green translucent alien space ship wing thingies then my extra chunky Battlestar Galactica will cruise by and drop a teraton nuke on his half completed Neptunian meat processing plant before he can even install the rotating knives. Hey, it’s all part of the circle of life, right?