Forbidden Lego

Title: Forbidden LegoForbidden Lego
Author(s): Ulrik Pilegaard, and Mike Dooley.
ISBN10: 1593271379
ISBN13: 978-1593271374
Publisher: No Starch Press
Cost: $24.95
Format: Paperback, 192 pages.
Published: July 2007
Reviewed by: ArsGeek

Here’s a book that I’ve been waiting to review for some time now. The folks at No Starch Press were kind enough to offer me an advanced copy and I eagerly dug into it.

This is not your typical Lego book, as if there were anything as a typical Lego book. Here’s a well illustrated and funny guide to building five projects that actively break a number of Lego rules (such as involving parts that aren’t manufactured by Lego, launching projectiles and modifying Lego bricks by cutting or gluing).

Not only do the authors go far beyond the design scopes of your typical Lego project but they are themselves former Lego designers and builders who worked at the sacred facility in Denmark. Pilegaard and Dooley have a unique and fascinating insight when it comes to designing Lego projects and they’ve brought this to us in the form of this book.

The book contains an Introduction where we meet the authors and learn a bit about them and their Lego experiences. Next comes How to Build Great Things, a chapter devoted to describing the process of designing a project at Lego from start to finish. I found this chapter fascinating as I’d not had a ton of exposure to just how Lego engineers create their version of the Millennium Falcon or a new Technics set. Fans of Lego in general will enjoy this chapter for it’s descriptions of the build process and the tantalizing tidbits given about the Lego facilities themselves.

Following the Introduction and How to Build Great Things we get into the meat of the book. Five forbidden Lego projects. Each project is laid out in an easy to understand manner with an introduction to what it is that’s about to be built and a short history on how the idea came about. When we reach the instructions for building the project the authors have given us a gorgeous full color image of the finished project along with schematics showing how the contraption itself works. Following this is a well organized full color list of all the parts, Lego and otherwise that will need to be obtained to build the project.

Next come the instructions for building. They’re very well laid out, easy to follow and look much like a standard instruction booklet that comes with any new Lego set purchased, with the obvious exception of showing where the occasional part needs to be glued or modified.

The Paper Plane Launcher (PPL) is the first project in the book. Here is an amazing contraption used for launching paper airplanes at great speed which is sure to impress your friends and overawe any children you may have. Elegant in appearance and not terribly hard to construct, the PPL can be made in 47 steps with no modifications to any parts and no parts foreign to Lego (with the exception of the paper airplane). Plus you’ve got a gun-like contraption that can send your paper creations soaring into the sky. How cool is that?

Next we have the Candy Coated Catapult. A unique piece of artillery designed to launch edible bliss into your lap from a good distance that would be sure to make any good Roman cry with delight. With the inception of a plastic spoon (or in a pinch a spork) and a piece of cardboard as the non Lego parts in this build, the CCC resembles nothing so much as a geometrical tank from Battlezone stripped of it’s locomotion. Perhaps a touch more complex than the PPL and driven by a 9v battery powered engine, the CCC can be build in 65 steps. Alternately for those of us concerned more with the environment and less with hurling candy via batteries, there’s an alternate hand crank design provided by the authors.

The Ping Pong Canon looks to break just as many Lego rules and is also something that I would classify under “intensely cool”. Ping pong balls are the only non Lego part used in this project, which ends up looking like some sort of mildly intimidating home defense system. The firing system is quite ingenious and will have 5 ping pong balls bouncing around the place in no time. This is a 70 step project.

Project #4 is the All Terrain Lego. A chassis system that will require you to modify some of the Lego parts and also get more power out of your dual 9v engines by ramping them up to 18v each. Here you’ll find a chassis that can handle your shag carpet with ease, and plow through a Lego wall like an angry Hulk. It will take you 56 steps to complete this build.

The last project is undoubtedly my favorite (although the PPL comes in a close second). Meet the High Velocity Automatic Lego Plate Dispenser or HVALPD! Looking like a cross between a high tech pistol and a very fancy water faucet the HVALPD can dispense 14 Lego roof plates in 8 seconds. Using two motors and taking some 93 steps to complete this is certainly the most advanced project in the book and also certainly the most likely to be built. Who wouldn’t want a fully automatic Lego gun?

Of course, no book about making projectile shooters out of Lego would be complete without a warning. While the authors bring up the point that probably the most harmful thing you could do with this book is throw it at someone, caution should be used whenever you’re making a project that involves projectiles. Don’t shoot them at yourself, your friends, your pets, the authors, this reviewer or anyone else.

This book will not go on my bookshelf. No, this book will go on a specially constructed (out of Lego, of course) pedestal at the center of my living room. I love the design, I love the subject matter and I know that my friends and family will pick it up and thumb through it before even saying hello. It’s that much fun. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself and be sure to have a bunch of Lego bricks hanging around because you’ll want to dive right in.

Linux Appliance Design: A Hands-on Guide to Building Linux Appliances

Title: Linux Appliance Design: A Hands-on Guide to Building Linux AppliancesLinux Appliance Design
Authors: Bob Smith, John Hardin, Graham Phillips and Bill Pierce
ISBN10: 1593271409
ISBN13: 978-1593271404
Publisher: No Starch Press
Cost: $59.95
Format: Paperback, 356 pages, CD Included

Linux Appliance Design may be the only book around right now that deals exclusively with building a true Linux appliance – that is an embedded computer running Linux and built to perform a specific primary purpose. We’ve all seen Linux appliances in the forms of TiVo, Linux powered phones and such. This is the guidebook that will assist people familiar with Linux and programming in building their own Linux Appliances. As a guide, the authors have created an event triggered alarm system called Laddie which they use as an example in how to build Linux appliances.

Linux Appliance Design is divided into an introduction, 15 chapters, 5 appendices and an index.

The first four chapters are dedicated to a high level overview of Linux appliances, from basic architecture through daemons that control the system, run time access and actually constructing secure daemons.

Chapters 5 through 15 use Laddie as an example to walk the reader through the actual building of a Linux based alarm system. With an introduction to Laddie, through event handling, designing various User Interfaces (UI) including web based, CLI, front panel (LCD) and frame buffer (think tiny screen) UI. The use of infrared remote controls, and SNMP to poll and control your appliance are also covered.

The five appendices include a real time access reference guide, a review of SNMP, guides to installing a frame buffer device, a DBI-to-file utility and a guide to the CD. The CD itself is a bootable instance of Linux which contains everything about Laddie, including the source code and a compiled version of the appliance’s software.

While certainly not for everyone, if you’ve ever had the desire to construct a Linux appliance of your own, whether it’s for your own personal use to as a device you’re going to market, this book is a must have.

You’ll need to have a solid understanding of Linux and coding (C, PHP, HTML) and at least a basic understanding of MySQL before you get very far but if you’ve got the knowledge and the desire this book is a great high level overview of appliance design along with a hands on tutorial which will bring you through the process from start to finish.

The authors have access to a great amount of experience, including successes and mistakes from which they offer the reader a comprehensive overview along with insight as to why they’ve opted to design Laddie (or other appliances) as they’ve done. They’ve covered everything from planning the architecture of a Linux appliance through coordinating the daemons used to run, control and log and the various choices of UI available.

Scattered throughout the book are other useful tips as well. For instance, did you know that an Infrared remote, if tested in front of most camera phones will display (on the camera phone’s screen) a visible beam of light? This can be incredibly helpful in troubleshooting IR issues. It’s also lots of fun to show people.

The code examples that are provided along with the basic electronic schema and the hands on guides to the physical construction of Laddie will certainly prove invaluable to anyone who’s not yet constructed their own appliance. This is learning through doing at it’s best. The authors guide the readers through the process which will result not just in a functioning device but also in the reader gaining both broad and practical understanding of Linux powered devices. There’s a lot of time spent on the process of interacting with daemons through various UI for very good reason as this is where the authors have made many of their previous mistakes and have learned from them. They’re attempting to spare the reader this pain and the knowledge gained here can be applied to any project featuring multiple means of users control with ease.

If you’re truly curious about what’s under the hood of your TiVo or have been engaged in the process of building embedded computers or other Linux devices this book will be a great resource for you. If you’re moderately curious you’ll pick up both a high level and a low level understanding of what goes into designing and building an appliance.

The Computer: An Illustrated History

c.jpgTitle: The Computer: An Illustrated History
Author: Mark Frauenfelder
ISBN10: 1847320139
ISBN13: 978-1847320131
Publisher: Carlton Publishing Group
Cost: $35.00
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages – Coffee Table Size.
Published: May 1, 2007
Reviewed by: ArsGeek

When I first opened the package that contained this book, I was absolutely amazed. I knew the book would be fairly big and that it was a hardcover. I knew it was about computers. I didn’t expect it to be so artfully done. The cover is immediately striking and at about 4 lbs., this is a lot of book!

The Computer is an overview of the history of computing, from tabulation sticks which appeared 35,000 years ago straight through to a few years in the future. Mark Frauenfelder has compiled a massive collection of interesting pictures, wonderful historical tidbits and a solid background in what makes computers what they are – from ancient, gear driven devices to the dense microprocessors of today.

The Computer is comprised of a four page introduction and 10 chapters, concluding with an index.

Digital Dawn looks at the rise of computation, from ancient man to the counting machines of the 19th century.

Machines Learn to Remember looks at the genesis of computer memory, from external devices to punch cards.

Sparks of an Idea shows the beginning of vacuum tube technology, IBM and other binary processors.

Computers go to War
looks at the Enigma Machine, Turing and others who helped to break codes, guide artillery and eventually track satellites.

Getting Down to Business starts with the invention of the transistor and ends with the first commercial leases of computers to corporations.

Getting Personal, as you might guess, covers the birth of the personal computer. The electronics clubs of the late 60’s and early 70’s give way to Xerox fumbling the ball which Apple and later Microsoft picked up and ran with.

Game On
traces the history of computer gaming from the earliest mainframe games to home gaming consoles and persistent, massive multiplayer role playing games.

Jacking In brings us through the birth of the Internet and the World Wide Web with stops for email and cybersex. Also featured are a few other start ups you may have heard about, from Linux to Google.

Let me Entertain You shows us the computer’s effect on the silver screen – for better and for worse, as well as the rise of the digital music player and peer to peer sharing.

The World of Tomorrow looks towards the future, focusing on robotics, personal computing shrinking to wearable levels and of course, nanotech.

This book is the kind of book I love to get my hands on. Give me a good technology book or a good history book and I’m happy. Chock it full of amazing and hard to find pictures, bits of trivia and quotes from the great minds featured in the book and I’m in heaven.

Even though this book is heavy, I took it to bed with me the first night I had gotten it just to finish it. My arms were tired but my mind was happy by the time I finally hit the index, sometime early yesterday morning.

The early mechanical computation devices are fascinating to look at, whether in plans like Davinci’s or constructed like Babbage’s machines, they invoke a sort of post-modern, steam punk feel. Except these were the real deal and not a SciFi author’s fancy. I was fascinated pouring over the pictures and descriptions of differential machines and tabulators.

I really perked up however once the book hit the early 40’s. Seeing over the course of a few hours reading how technology changed so rapidly over such a short amount of time – pretty much from the day my Dad was born until this moment, it’s amazing. In less than one lifetime we’ve gone from clunky, vacuum tube driven behemoths to the razor sharp, tiny computers of today. If you’ve read any of my previous thoughts on where we’re headed, you’ll know I think that this is just the beginning! To see this all in detailed photos and descriptions. To live through the heady days of Apple, Atari, IBM PCs and Microsoft once again is very cool.

It’s easy to tell that Frauenfelder loves this stuff even more than I do. He’s put a lot of time and effort into crafting a book that I’m eagerly putting on my coffee table. I know that my friends and colleagues will head right for it when they come over!

If you’re into big, artsy books about the history of computing, well you won’t find one much better than The Computer. Cover to cover it is a fascinating read full of wonderful pictures. Even if this isn’t your thing, if you know someone who adores the history of computers as much as the computers themselves, this book will be a welcome addition to their collection.