Fire for Effect: Alas Alas That Great City LUGNET

This is the fifth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…

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The planet LUGNET… The Lego User Group Network… The Home World.  Once the undisputed hub of the entire AFOL sector, it was a powerful marketplace of ideas.  Almost 20 years later,  LUGNET hangs invisible from the ceiling of cyberspace… like a gigantic, arthritic bat… hidden from view in the darkness, but still clinging defiantly to life.  A desolate place… its once thronging multitudes are long gone, fled to the promise of a better life in the off-world colonies. Those few who remain on the Home World are merely stewards who live in the ruins, creatures of habit who hold out hope for better times and new track geometries.  The mighty stream of message traffic that once flowed in from every corner of the AFOL sector has now slowed to a trickle of Ones and Zeros… Occasionally, the dusty silence of litter strewn streets is broken by a distant sonic boom, a recon drone swooping down from orbit on a preprogrammed census sweep.

LUGNET was a good thing and nothing like it exists currently.  In its heyday, the site was a communications nexus, a cognitive disco and an atomic snow globe of creativity. Announcements of MOCs were the mainstay, but not the only commodity to be had. Ideas, conversations, debates, arguments, product news and other deliberations were all available in seemingly inexhaustible supply.  And links?  Links a go-go!  Links to LUGs. Links to images.  Links to other more specific groups.  Links to other blogs.  Links to contests.  Links to Keith’s mom…  It was the allure of this perpetual tumult that lured me into my first public utterance as an AFOL.  It was Sunday, the 24th of October, 2004… at exactly 04:14:42 GMT.  The transcript of this first transmission remain in the abandon archives even today!  Prepare yourself, it was both insightful and inspiring.

Rosco,
Nicely put.  Apparently I couldn't handle the dictionary after all.
Mike

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Yet for all this activity, LUGNET was swept from majestic cultural centrality into the margins of the AFOL world in the blink of an eye.  The thronging population crashed… seemingly overnight.  Historians would argue about the cause of LUGNETs collapse… if they cared.  But of course, historians, like most other people, could care less!  But trust me… if they did care… they would argue!

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What happened to LUGNET?

I think the AFOL race should ask itself, and perhaps ask beings from other races, this question.  The answer to the question may be an unpleasant but valuable cautionary tale.

Why is our home world all but dead?

Well for starters… I sure as hell don’t know!  I have deepened and broadened my ignorance by steadfastly refusing to do any serious historical research.  Further, I have carefully cultivated a massive cataract shaped exactly like modern consumer communications systems.  I don’t know an iPhone from a xylophone (Wait wait!  I know… the iPhone is the one you play with little mallets!) On the upside, failing to back your opinion with research means you don’t have to worry about the age-old question: APA or Turabian? So, in the unlikely event that you are STILL reading… know ye this: Every word of this article is based on the subjective opinion of an aging white man!  I’m also pretty sure my world view is mired in the Western tradition… and further tainted by years of work in the service of the state!  Also, my daughter says I’m a misogynist, but she is incorrect… silly girl!  So read on, only at the peril of your plaid wearing, Panini eating, Seattle’s Best drinking, hipster soul!  And get your rebuttal in gear… because I think I’m setting myself up for some rotten tomatoes here… Oh, Shush… here comes my thesis!

My best guess regarding the cause of the great population collapse on LUGNET is three-fold.  First, the rise of the specialized sites.  Second, the triumph of the visual over the verbal. And third, some technical stuff that I can neither comprehend nor articulate… but I’m pretty sure it’s in there some place.

The first horseman arrives.  Behold, the rise of the specialized sites!  And like so many catastrophes, it sounded like a good idea at the time… As I recall, it was the castle community that inadvertently broke the first seal in 2003.  The castle heads were the first sub-community to strike out from the home world, they were the first brave souls to seek a better life on a distant planet, which their wizards had named Classic Castle.

In the interest of clarity, I don’t mean to point an accusing finger here.  I think the castle heads, as a culture, have always been one of the more refined and dignified AFOL sub-cultures.  They embody a sort of renaissance ideal.  They strike a balance between the icy, unblinking technical competence of the Train Heads and the aggressive emotionalism of the Spacers.  The castle heads are a calm, restrained and tolerant people.  They are by and large a friendly lot and enjoy a culture of gentile artisans and hearty drinkers.  Always willing to make room at their table, always ready to laugh (Come to think of it… Castle Heads might actually be Halflings…).  No, my intent here is not to admonish.

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Photo Credit: “Very old Friends” by the always entertaining Pate-keetongu.

Continue reading “Fire for Effect: Alas Alas That Great City LUGNET”

Fire for Effect:”Give me the prize!”

This is the fourth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…

I’m trying to narrow my focus today.  I offer a very narrow thesis and I will endeavor to get straight to it.  But still… go get a beer… or two.  Oh, and before we start, I am curious: How many of you read this blog in the can?  A co-worker (and AFOL) told me that he habitually waits until he is in the can before he reads this blog.  Like he might have time when he isn’t in the can… but he waits until he is (is in the can)… and then he reads it.  I was sort of taken aback… but then I thought about it (yeah… I know.  Of all the things to think about, right?).  Is it a strange thing that only he does?  Or is it actually a new norm that I’m just not clutched into?  So, ummm… are “WE” in the can right now?  You, constant reader… and I?  Together, in the can?  For the record, I don’t read, or write for that matter… in the can.  Ever.  Just so you we’re clear.

Well, I guess that pretty much shot the notion of getting right to the point.  How about catching up by jumping straight to my point!

Thesis: Awards at Lego fests are good for the state of the hobby.

Supporting points:

Competition.  It is a culturally universal concept which, when controlled, can motivate innovation, improvement and excellence.

Limited competition focuses this potential but requires rules.  Rules equate to cooperation.  Obscure rules undermine cooperation.

Transparency prevents obscurity.

Transparency is lacking in Lego conventions.

Let’s get all Aristotelian!

  1. Competition fosters improvement.
  2. Awards are competitive.

ERGO

  1. Awards foster improvement.

Thesis clarification:

Competition.  An environment and an event wherein participants try to get or win something that someone else is also trying to win: to try to be better or more successful than someone or something else (Merriam Webster).   Competition is broader.  It exists in a natural state.  Trash the normal rhetoric about gazelles competing with cheetahs on the savanna.  They don’t compete… they mutually support one another by perusing separate but interrelated agendas.  Remember that it is not the cheetah with whom the gazelle competes, but rather the other gazelles.  The cheetah is relevant to the gazelle… but the cheetah wants neither the limited supply of grass, nor to mate with the limited supply of hot gazelles.  Yes, cheetahs and gazelles run together, at the same place and at the same time…but they are running for DIFFERENT REASONS… running DIFFERENT RACES… often right after dinner for the gazelle, and right before dinner for the cheetah.  But the gazelles all know their race is not against the cheetah.  It is against the next slowest gazelle (the one who the cheetah is going to actually catch).  For the gazelle, it’s all about the grass and the mating (So what you’re saying is… Keith is a Gazelle?).  Getting what the other gazelles want.  That is the competition.  Be a better gazelle, get more grass and more ass.  Competition incentivizes gazelle to be BETTER gazelles.  This is what I mean when I say: Competition fosters improvement.  Take a look at gazelles.  Most of them are pretty good at gazelling.  The not so good gazelles?  They are harder to spot…  Usually busy feeding the cheetahs.

So its clear then.  AFOLs should run across the savanna until we catch one another, and then kill and eat one another (frequently wedging our dead AFOL victim up in a tree to protect the body from other conniving AFOL rivals).  NO!  Don’t be silly!  Most of us would stroke out from the shock to our cardiovascular systems!   Duh!

Here I say only that competition is part of natural life (and yes, I have a bias towards artificial systems that “borrow” from natural systems because nature pretty consistently kicks ass!) and that it fosters improvement.

But there is more to the VALUE of COMPETITION.  It is CULTURALLY UNIVERSAL.  War is competition.  Religion is competition (lots of overlap with war).  Commerce is competition (again, with the overlap).  Exploration, science, agriculture… almost every field of human culture (non-natural) has a competitive aspect.  Yea rowntRee… Art as well.  Further, all these fields overlap and interconnect.  It’s quite a weave actually.  All humans from all cultures do this stuff.  You might even say it’s universal.  Makes for some tough problems.  COMPETITION CAN ALL BE HIGHLY DESTRUCTIVE!   I mean… I started the list with WAR for god’s sake!   Let’s review the concept of LIMITS… Yea?

Limited competition is all the competition that happens within agreed upon parameters.  Sometimes vague, as with underlying cultural assumptions, and sometimes specific, as with… wait for it… rules.  If ANY participant in a limited completion abandons these parameters, these rules… then the competition becomes unlimited again.

Continue reading “Fire for Effect:”Give me the prize!””

Fire for Effect: “Brace yourselves, the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive.”

This is the third salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect.  Take it away Mike…

Generalizations.  We love to use them and we chafe when we spot others using them.  We love the notions implied by the noun: AFOL.  I know, it’s actually an acronym… but an acronym is just a type of noun… so shut your grammar-nazi mouth already!  The notion AFOL, what does it suggest?  What do you think about when you hear it?  If you’re reading this text, the odds are that you self-identify as an AFOL.  The acronym suggests that AFOL is a thing.  If it is a thing, then it has traits that describe the thing, right? A denotative description would be a definition.   I’m not about that today, no definition is required.  No list of criteria which when applied to the subject, describe that subject in consistent and accurate detail.  Nope.  Today I’m feeling connotative.  I speak in terms of trends, norms and ambiguous suggestions that are often affiliated with the subject.

Water landing

WARNING!  We are now leaving the realm of absolutes and categoricals!  Variations, or even substantial deltas between my proffered connotations of the term AFOL and your personal traits are to be expected!  This does not indicate a catastrophic cognitive disconnect, or even that a water landing is imminent.   I do ask that you remain focused and keep your seat belt fastened while we pass through this turbulent airspace.   I’m talking about AFOLs as a population and offering some unflattering observations (Duh… Want a pat on the back?  You’ve come to the wrong shop brother!)  I’m not talking about you, or that guy next to you… or even old boy who lives way down town (on the other side of the tracks… yeah, not even that guy).  I’m talking population level generalities… and I challenge you all: Come back at me at the same level.  With counter observations (or arguments even!) that apply to the AFOL as a population.  Remember, if AFOL is a thing, then some generalizations should apply.

So let’s talk generalizations.  Here are TWO generalizations about AFOLs that I am pretty comfortable throwing out there for public consumption.  They may seem contradictory on first examination, but try these generalizations on for size:

AFOLs are sensitive people.

AFOLs are insensitive people.

Both?

Both.

How?

How:

SENSITIVE: AFOLs are quiet, introverted, creative people who persue a hobby that begins with a spark of inspiration and then takes form at a table, or a keyboard.  Usually in their home and often in hours of darkness.  Maybe with some music playing in the background or a favorite movie.  It’s an exercise in two parts: first in creativity and then in sharing.  Communication regarding their MOCs often take place in an on-line context and is often tumultuous and fraught with peril.  They often chafe at negative observations by fellow hobbyists regarding their MOCs, and they thrive on praise.  (STOP!  This is a description, not a value judgement!  Don’t be so sensitive!).  The AFOL is sensitive… to their own feelings.

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Continue reading “Fire for Effect: “Brace yourselves, the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive.””

Fire for Effect: Give Credit its Due

This is the second salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect.  Take it away Mike…

It is amazing what you can accomplish…

Harry S Truman did some pretty cool stuff.  He took the wheel during WWII and ended that mess in less than 4 months.  Old “Give ’em hell, Harry” checked the expansion of communism both at home and abroad and at the same time…championed the UN…helped rebuild Europe and the global economy… pulled off the Berlin Air Lift… racially integrated the U.S. military… started NATO… stopped the entire Chinese Army, in Asia, without WMDs (a cool trick in anybody’s book)…got General Douglas MacArthur under control (Almost as big a deal as that thing with the Chinese Army!) and he had a few other pots on the stove.  Somewhere in and amongst all those little distractions, he had time to utter a saying that has stuck with me since the first time I heard it.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”

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Credit.  Recognition.  Acknowledgment.  One of the sweetest nectars to be found in the garden of AFOL delights, as well as one of its most insidious toxins.

The Desire For Credit (DFC) is a classic motivator.  The idea that our peers will acknowledge our efforts as exemplary.  That some lasting accomplishment will be attributed specifically to us for a very long time.  We long to see our name and our contribution carved into the marble of history next to other reputable guys and their great achievements: Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Constant, the Van Allen Belt, the Pickard  Picard Maneuver

It’s an attractive notion that speaks directly to our self-worth.  It taps directly into our narcissistic tendencies, a sirens call both irresistible and destructive.  It might even be primal, this desire for the approval of the group.

And like most primitive urges, we often suppress and deny it, like our intense desire to stare at attractive people in public.  Like our deep-seated need to establish dominance in social situations, or our intense need to eat food from Chick Fill’A.  These are all very natural behaviors, and all suppressed (usually with only marginal levels of success).   We get busted checking people out, we get pissed off when slighted in public and we eat the hell out of those damn chicken sandwiches…just like we all know a Cro-Magnon would!  Many of us reject the notion that this desire exists at all, but this denial is of course false.  We want credit for our effort, but WE THINK IT IS BASE to want the credit, so we SAY that we don’t.  Only for a few, a very select few, is this rejection sincere.  In fact, recent satellite images of the Earth suggest that there are precisely FIVE people alive on Earth today who don’t care at all about getting credit for their work.  Oh shit… Mother Teresa is dead?  Make that FOUR people. Then again, even the beloved Mother Theresa had her issues with credit.

This Desire For Credit (DFC) is a pervasive element of the AFOLs life.  Isolating the DFC from everything else, for the purpose of discussion is largely artificial.  Like ethics, safety, respect, faith, trust…and bunch of other stuff…The DFC is part of everything we do.  Maybe a small part, maybe not so small, but it always OVERLAPS with a lot of other topics. A transition sentence is one that helps your reader move to the next concept smoothly (like my thesis for example), but I don’t have a good transition sentence, so…JUMP NOW!

THESIS: The desire for credit (DFC) can both motivate and prevent the artistic growth of AFOLs and the hobby, and acknowledging our DFC allows us to mitigate it’s destructive side.

We can see the impact of credit (or the Desire For Credit) in at least three areas of the hobby: Parts and Techniques, Building Efforts and Disputed Credit.

PARTS and TECHNIQUES.  From time to time, one of us will use a part effectively in a MOC and receive the curt but salutary accolade: “NPU!”  Ah yes…that use of the yellow minifig life jacket to capture the subtle curves of Hasselhoff’s ear lobe…that was quite clever wasn’t it?  You KNEW they would dig it, “But soft!  They speak!… NPU bro!”  Ah yes, time to smile and sip the sweet nectar of credit.  But once per era, one of us, usually the seventh son of a seventh son will use a part to devastating an affect and with such relentless frequency that the part becomes synonymous with that builder!  Or a mind will conceive of and execute a technique… teachable, learnable, re-producible on demand and guaranteed to increase crop yield by thirty percent!  Part and builder, part and technique… bonded forever in AFOL song and lore!   It’s a real hallmark.  No, really, it’s cool.  And chicks dig it too!  In fact, I hear it also reduces home mortgages by a quarter of a percent!  Examples of this rare CREDITUS MAXIMUS include:

Nnenn, a beloved and departed AFOL who brought us this enduring design criteria.  True, the Vic Viper is not called the Nnenn Viper, but the formal and recorded design criteria for the Vic Viper is synonymous with this artist.  His design remains an enduring challenge to our entire community.  Nnenns idea endures, an ongoing dialogue within the community about the tension that will always exist between conformity and creativity.  The below image conveys two messages.  First, Nnenns vital contribution to the greater Lego dialogue: conformity and creativity are NOT mutually exclusive.  Second, all of these MOCs were built by different AFOLs and brought to Brickworld Chicago in 2010 in order to commemorate Nnenns passing.

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The man had IMPACT on AFOLs and the Art of Lego.  He created and shared an idea that resulted in an explosion of creative effort, AFOL improvement, and vigorous dialogue.  I never saw or heard of him chasing credit… but we all know he earned it, and I for one will say without hesitation, that it is a good thing to recognize his contribution (by name).  Not base, not crude, but unambiguously inspiring.  Oh, and his influence is seen at the highest level an AFOL can achieve: Lego product design, as documented so excellently by TBB.  And of course… just to nail down the trifecta in a supernova of CREDITUS MAXIMUS, we all still call this part the Nnenn:

Other examples of CREDIT in the realm of Parts and Techniques include:

The Travis brick: Named for a remarkable AFOL who passed away too soon.

The Lowell sphere: Invented by a man questing for the perfect round cap on the end of the engine thingy on his Y-Wing…

The Bram sphere: As hydrogen warheads followed on the heels of atomic warheads, so the Bram sphere followed on the heels of the Lowell sphere…marvel at the vast and cool intellect of one of our greatest builders.

Reality check: I Can’t KNOW how or even IF the DFC effected the cognitive processes of these esteemed colleagues and I make no such claim.  What I do say is this: most of us would really dig achieving this level of notoriety.  STOP!  Yes you would!  Don’t deny!  Don’t succumb to the notion of what you THINK is more civilized and ignore the savage TRUTH!   Instead, I urge you to make peace with this base motive, acknowledge it and then having befriended it you must learn to tame it and always strive to keep it in check.  Again, I do NOT claim that the DFC motivated these builders.  Creative impulse.  The need to invent the technique in order to achieve some higher level effort.  Accident!  I declare that Keith should interview each of these cats and get their take on the whole business!  (Do it Keith… Do it!)  I’m just saying, it’s pretty cool that they have parts or techniques named after them and if I was ever able to achieve the same,  I would be pretty jazzed about it.  Because I’m base, crude and think like a Neanderthal?  Maybe.  Or maybe just because I have a rather pedestrian world view.

Continue reading “Fire for Effect: Give Credit its Due”

Fire for Effect: Unique is not Special

The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of a regular column by Michael Rutherford entitled Fire for Effect.  “Fire for Effect” is a military term used by spotters for indirect fire weapons. Examples of indirect fire weapons include cannons and mortars which are usually fired from a position from which the gunners cannot see the target because of terrain. To determine the proper aiming of the weapon, a spotter who can see the target relays basic coordinates to the gunners who then fire a few ranging rounds, allowing the spotter to see how far off target the guns are aimed. This process is sometimes referred to a “zeroing in.” When, by this trial and error procedure, a shot lands on the target, the instruction will be “fire for effect” telling the gun crew that they are on the target, and to fire one or more salvos of several rounds rapidly to blanket the target with the explosive projectiles…or in Rutherford’s case, explosive rhetoric.

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Without further preamble, please enjoy Fire for Effect: Unique is not Special.

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True or False: Every snowflake is special.

Answer: False.

Every snowflake is not SPECIAL… but rather UNIQUE… and unique is no big deal.

Now get up off your ass and start cataloguing snowflakes.  You will have UNIQUE coming out of your ears in no time.    After you have catalogued say… 15K individual snowflakes… photographed them, weighed them, inventoried their chemical components… you will see that while no two are exactly the same, they do start to fall into large categories pretty quickly.  Eventually, it will occur to you that most snowflakes are in fact… very similar… to many other snowflakes.   And what’s more… only a very small number of snowflakes will really stand out.  Keith… You jacked up your sample.  Go back outside and catalogue 15K more.

SPECIAL… (I looked it up just to be sure) means “BETTER, GREATER, or OTHERWISE DIFFERENT from what is normal.   Yep, DIFERENT is a part of the meaning… but don’t fixate on that small overlap.  BETTER and GREATER are right there up front, and the clause “from what is normal” nails down the ass end of this definition pretty tight.   SPECIAL = BETTER THAN NORMAL.  Embrace this truth now, or leave this essay at once!

Can every snowflake be BETTER and GREATER than the normal snowflake?  No it cannot.  Not mathematically, not empirically, and not operationally.  The assertion that every snowflake is SPECIAL is flat-out WRONG in every way, except from the cultural perspective (AKA the pretend perspective).

“Every snowflake is special” is a very powerful cultural metaphor.  It has its place, and does some good.  At its core, it contains some notions we would all do well to remember.

When applied correctly, the metaphor can re-enforce the notion that every person has some intrinsic worth.  It celebrates the inherent value of being unique.  The unspoken assertion is that this uniqueness is in and of itself a good thing, and that every variation is a potential benefit.   The metaphor is a tool.  But as with so many other valuable tools, like alcohol, duct tape, or spear guns… we seldom apply the metaphor correctly… and it is often used to suggest that every person’s contribution to every endeavor is superior and merits praise.  Perhaps MOST IMPORTANTLY, the myth contributes to a culture where CRITICAL FEEDBACK IS DISCOURAGED.  It is a tragic and dangerous self-delusion which often results in such dubious claims such as: Wearing pajamas at Wal-Mart is OK, or “If she is too dumb to see what a catch you are, then it’s her loss” or “Destroying the enemy force before it reaches the capital isn’t the most important thing… it only matters that you tried” This is destructive thinking.  Anybody who wants to do better… Athletic trainers, military commanders, lawyers, sales people and yes … wait for it… artists… They all understand that not every snowflake is special, and that honest critical feedback is essential for enhancing performance.

History, science, mythology, and often our own painful personal experience should tell us all… many snowflakes are not special… in fact, many snowflakes are trampled, defeated, destroyed, outclassed and/or never ever ever have dates on Saturday night.

So whats my point?  Why does this matter?  Am I ever going to connect this crap to our hobby, and will this essay EVER BECOME INTERESTING?  Well I’m glad you asked!  Spoiler: If you’re not interested yet, STOP READING… this essay doesn’t get any better!

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Now, if you would, I need you to re-read the paragraphs above, and every time you see the word snowflake, replace it with the acronym AFOL.  So for example, the first line of text becomes: “True or False: Every AFOL is special.”   I will now subtly introduce my thesis…

THESIS: AFOLs should abandon the SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE metaphor because it retards our individual improvement, and the improvement of Lego as an art form.

Continue reading “Fire for Effect: Unique is not Special”