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”

Two for Tuesday: Shannon Young

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Good evening constant reader, its happy hour and our bartender Lloyd is setting them up neat, just the way you like it. Tonight’s V.I.P. in the Manifesto lounge is legendary curmudgeon and old-school MOCpages raconteur, Shannon Young.  I had the good fortune of meeting Shannon at Seattle’s Brickcon in 2007, where we hung out a bit and ventured forth on one of the best field trips I’ve ever experienced at a convention.  Most of it is not fit for publication, at least without getting some waivers signed, but it culminated with a pilgrimage to the grave of Jimi Hendrix, along with fellow AFOL’s Jon Palmer, Mark Neuman and a small group of complete strangers.  Of course we left a Jimi Minifig at the grave.  It was the second most fun I’ve ever had in a cemetery, and Shannon was a great tour-guide to the city, even if he drove like a maniac and his brakes were iffy at best.  We vowed to go to Bruce Lee’s grave at the following year’s convention but unfortunately that never worked out.  We were able to Collaborate for my Highway 44 diorama in 2009, it took some serious wrangling but it was worth the effort.  When I asked, Shannon used to always tell me: “I don’t dance to your music, Goldman”. Eventually though, he did, even if it was only payback for MOCtag, which we’ll talk about later.  I can certainly understand his hesitance though, it ain’t easy to dance to Rush.

Shannon was way more active on MOCpages and was one of those cats who never embraced Flickr or any other spot where builders gather.  He was one of the first builders I knew who combined a talent with the brick and an outspoken, sometimes controversial voice in public.  Every once in a while he would combine the two, like his wonderfully irreverent take on Christianity called “Pyramid Scheme”.  So let’s have a reminisce about one of the most infamous and celebrated characters of MOCpages, shall we, constant reader?

The first model we’ll be looking at tonight is “Shannonia”,one of the first examples of a micropolis I can remember seeing online.  I suppose it’s closer to nano-scale because at this resolution humans are too small to be represented with brick.  In traditional Micro-scale, humans are represented as 1×1 cylinders, or minifig-trophies.  Right away it reminded me of Sim City, one of my favorite games from back in the day and it had a big impact on me at the time.  Debuting in 2007, it was very impressive to see the mountains and coastline included alongside the typical urban layout.  Taking inspiration from his hometown of Seattle, Shannon began with a humble patch of buildings and expanded it into an award-winning sprawl.  If you like construction-journal style Lego writing, I can’t encourage you enough to take a trip through the City of Shannonia Visitors Center on MOCpages.  Not only is Shannon a skilled builder, but he also has a way with words and his account doubled as his own personal blog.  There are a lot of frustrated would-be novelists in our hobby, and he was one of them.  I had the good fortune to read a little of his work and it was clear he’s got some real talent.  The Shannonia series is nice because you can see the humble beginning stages of the project and take a tour of each individual point of interest on the map.  Each building has it’s own story, even if it’s a brief one, which is something that you can’t always say about more modern micropolis efforts. The greatest compliment I can give a builder is to let them know their model inspired me to build something, and Shannonia made me take a hard look at creating my own micro-city.

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The next shot probably doesn’t seem that impressive, and if I was going strictly by how pleasing the model it, it would have made the cut.  This humble diorama is the first installment in a hugely popular and unique community building project called MOCtag.  It is ironic that Shannon considered himself such a curmudgeon and yet he created something that was inherently positive and inclusive.  In Mr. Young’s own words:

To start the game, I am It. Below will be one line to open a story, accompanied by a MOC to illustrate it. I will then tag someone, who must continue that story with an appropriate MOC. They then tag someone, who continues the story with a MOC of their own and tags someone else. And we’re off and rolling.

So I’m not going to talk about the actual model, it’s the least interesting thing about MOCtag and at the time it was posted I found it down right irritating.  I was pre-selected by Shannon to be the first person tagged after his initial model got the ball rolling.  We talked about it having a minfig focus so the reveal was a big surprise.  Instead of adapting to the larger scale, I turned Rory the Chicken into and gave him a minifig girlfriend.  The entire project was pure chaos from the beginning, and it didn’t take long before the train went off the rails entirely.  It was simultaneously the beauty and the great flaw of the effort.  While the story made no sense at all, the subsequent builds were interesting to say the least.  It was like a great stream of consciousness experiment and it drew in some of the greatest builders on MOCpages,  people like Jordan Schwartz, Mark Kelso, Shannon Ocean, and Alex Eylar.  Unfortunately many of the participant’s don’t have MOCpages accounts any longer so a great deal of content was lost over time but MOCtag produced some entertaining and frequently bizarre work, along with some crap to be sure, but that’s the way of all popular fads.  And popular it was, MOCtag had a huge following of commenters, and it spawned a half a dozen copy-cats and a sequel somewhere along the line.  It remains to this day one of the most original and compelling community challenge ideas I’ve ever encountered and it was a blast to participate with Shannon and my fellow builders.  I do wish Shannon had tried to regulate things a bit more, I encouraged him to be the Rod Serling who edited the stories and introduced each one, to give the whole thing more direction and cohesion.  Shannon, however, would have none of that formalized structural bullshit, he just wanted to unleash the idea and revel in the chaos.  Mission accomplished, this is one idea that I would like to see get an updated treatment, if the old curmudgeon ever comes out of his self-imposed exile, I’ll encourage him to do so.

Unfortunately, Shannon seems to have dropped off the radar entirely in the past few years, with his last post to Flickr dated 2012.  The last Lego-related image he posted was a thoughtfully depressing farewell to his good friend and fellow AFOL Heather Braaten.  I don’t want to read too much into that, I have no idea why Shannon left the scene, but I will say that her untimely death had an understandably huge impact on a large segment of the hobby and there are several prominent people who simply stopped posting new models after Heather’s passing.  Whatever the reason for his departure, I hope Shannon enjoys his break and gets back to building one of these years, because his creative mojo and smack-talk are greatly missed.  I reached out to the Shannon while writing this post a few weeks ago, but his old email address is no good and I have yet to get a response on Flickr.  If and when I do hear back, I’ll post an update to this story.

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For this particular feature on the Manifesto I like to conclude the proceedings with a photo of the builder in question. I do this to help you put a face to the name and sometimes with the express intent to take the piss out of the builder. This is one of those times. Please recall that a precedent has been set in this ongoing series that we will be reviewing the fashion choices of each builder.  This photo contains not one but two Shannons, the two most popular and well-regarded Shannon’s in the short history of this hobby. The Shannon on the left…the one who looks like a Russian gangster is constant reader Shannon Sproule AKA Shannon Ocean.  He’s dressed like he’s looking to push some product so we’ll leave him alone.

The Shannon in question is the Shannon on the right, so let’s focus on him.  The jacket is entirely unremarkable and forgettable, the perfect jacket to wear when you rob a liquor store because nobody will remember it in their description to the police.  Ditto the jeans, they are the definition of generic.  The necklace though…it’s a favorite accessory because he’s wearing it in just about every photo that exists of him online.  At least it’s not gold, and at least it doesn’t have an embarrassing dongle of some kind hanging from it.  It seems very Seattle, so I guess he’s fits in well with his fellow citizens.  The T-shirt is a Grateful Dead number, which I’m going to count as a negative because to me they are the quintessentially overrated American band.  I like none of their songs, I’ve seen them live once and I remember nothing except the smell of patchouli and the hippy chick dancing in the row in front of me.  So reluctantly we say….

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Constructive Criticism: Why not?

What do you call a person who refuses to title their models or offer a description of any kind?  A true artiste?  A lazy minimalist?  A pretentious contrarian?  Or is it evidence of pseudonym standing in for a more famous builder who doesn’t want to be recognized?  Today on the Manifesto we will be discussing the collected works of Why not?, the mysterious MOCpages builder who steadfastly refuses to engage with his or her fellow hobbyists and is content to let the building do all the talking.

Let’s begin with Why not’s most recent build, a suitably creepy monster with a large wingspan.  I was drawn in by the tilted head and skeletal wings and I lingered to examine the beautifully constructed rib cage and three-toed feet.  Although I enjoyed perusing the image it left me wanting more.  Mostly I wanted a better photo to examine, but MOCpages is notorious for butchering images and I could not find a Flickr account under the same name.  The proportions of the demon seem just a little bit off, especially the legs which  have stunted, insubstantial thighs.  I know the subject is not human and I should probably be careful applying human anatomy to a demon but it just doesn’t look right.  I also wish the wings were a little more developed, a little more bony structure would really provide additional visual impact to the model.  Likewise I think if the arms had been posed more effectively it might benefit the work as a whole and make it look a little less static.

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Why not’s back catalogue of models is strewn with very intriguing near-misses.  Take for example this  untitled cemetery scene from 2015, it’s a great concept with a unique perspective but too much of the image is dominated by the sloppy looking, studs-out walls of the grave.  My objections isn’t based on an anti-studs rant, I think studs have their place as a good contrast to the smoothness of man-made constructs like the stone cross, but I think all the studs detract from the power of the image.  Graves are not typically emblazoned with the LEGO logo everywhere and I think maybe some wedge-plates would have looked better or at least some smooth sections.  The all-black minifigs are a trademark of Why not, and they work great here to add mystery of the model, but the white sky behind them doesn’t do any favors for the presentation. I can’t help but wonder how the image would look with a gray or blue sky, either photographed outdoors or Photoshopped for that matter.

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Some of Why not’s work recall the early “artistic” offerings from Chairman Zhang, with careful and deliberate use of color (or lack thereof) to make a statement.  Take for example this vignette featuring a naked minifig on a colorful island, surrounded by a monochromatic city-scape and colorless watchers.  I’m not sure what the builder is trying to say here and that’s either the artistic strength of the model or a frustrating weakness where the viewer has to supply all the meaning without enough visual clues.  If I had to guess I’d say the vignette depicts the isolated existence of the creative individual amidst the cold gray society that watches but doesn’t understand the artistic life….but your mileage may vary.  For me, the nano-skyscrapers are not interesting enough in design and the borders where the water meets the city are clumsy.  Even if the purpose of a model is to make a larger statement, it still needs visual interest beyond iconic symbols.

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We conclude our examination of Why not, with a collection of his or her best pieces.  The more I delve into the unfortunately limited body of work by this mystery-builder, the more I appreciate it.  The subject matter is diverse and generally speaking I appreciate the minimalist presentation.  I’d rather have no written explanation than a tedious backstory any day.  Each one of these models has little details that bother me, like the low-res spider on the girl’s face and the thickness of the electric chair’s arms, but there is no denying the power of the images.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the persistent conspiracy theory on MOCpages that accuses the talented and somewhat infamous builder Deus Otiosus of being Why not. The evidence is scant and seems to rest mostly on the notion that Deus frequently comments on Why not’s models, offering an explanation for the action.  I do see some similarities in style between the two, mostly in the clever technique displayed like using wheels for restraints on the electric chair pictured above, but it’s just not enough to pin the pseudonym on Deus.  I reached out to “Big D” for a comment via Flickr and he unequivocally denied the charges.

Ultimately I don’t really care too much about the identity of “Why not?” Every builder is entitled to a pseudonym from time to time.  As long as he or she continues to build thought-provoking (if flawed) models for my consumption, I’m all in.