LEGOs for Life

Grace and Hoan, with mom Poldi, after presenting me with this terrific gift.

I recently received a most unexpected gift, an extravagant thank-you gesture from newlyweds for being part of their marriage (as driver and other small supporting roles).  Somehow, they found something that would appeal to me on many levels, something I would never consider for myself:  a LEGO set!  And not just any LEGO set, a large and elaborate architectural depiction of an A-frame cabin, with thousands of parts.

It had been inspired by a LEGO enthusiast from Italy, who enjoyed creating Lego models of houses in his spare time.  Evidently, there is a large community of LEGO fans, large enough that there is a program for them to submit ideas and models for the pleasure and approval of other fans.  Those with the highest votes are selected to become an actual LEGO product.  How brilliant!  Let fans come up with cool ideas, and then manufacture the most popular, knowing that it has already passed the “will they like it?” test!  The A-Frame Cabin was the most recent of such crowd-sourced concepts, released just days earlier.

My step-son and his new wife did not know of my past LEGO history.  They did not know that I had been a member of the LEGO Builder’s Club with my son in the 1990s.  Or that his LEGO model of the Eiffel Tower had been featured in their newsletter.  They did not know that I had authored a software program, LegoShop, to create models on a computer screen in a time before computer graphics, video games and virtual reality had been fully invented.  They were unaware of how much time I had spent with a micrometer, reverse-engineering the basic LEGO brick and many other parts to make my virtual models.  They did not know, using that program, I had created a Christmas card featuring a LEGO ice castle with Santa and a reindeer.  They did not know that I had insisted on visiting LEGO Land during a visit to Malasia.  They knew none of this personal LEGO history.

Yet they somehow knew that I would fully appreciate this gift. I’m impressed.  

The LEGO Builder’s Club featured my son’s Eiffel Tower as a Member Masterpiece, circa 1992

LegoShop, an application that allowed the creation of LEGO models from a library of virtual parts.  Some older readers may recognize the window format of early Apple computers.

Our 1990 Christmas card, highlighted by virtual LEGOs

In LEGO-Land Malaysia, 2015

I have been a dormant LEGO builder for many years and have not kept up with the latest sets and themes.  But the skills to assemble LEGOs don’t go away, and even if they did, the remarkable instructions provided with the kits can be followed in any language, even by builders who, like some of my grandchildren, cannot yet read (but you DO need to know your numbers).

In the case of an enormous set like this one, the instructions run to 333 steps, requiring two books to contain all of the illustrations.  The thousands of parts are partitioned into 16 bags, opened one at a time while following the next series of steps to assemble them.  The process is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, finding the next target pieces, and mating them in correct position with the previous ones.  Eventually, the parts that tumble out of the bag are all in place, and I can take a moment to appreciate the growing model.

A view of the partially built cabin. The front door opens into an area with bookshelves, a guitar, and an umbrella stand. The owner appreciates rocks; a geode is prominently displayed next to the record player.

What a pleasure to receive a gift like this.  Something created by a LEGO fan and endorsed by a global LEGO community of enthusiasts!  I am savoring the construction steps as I go through them, but have recruited the assistance of other LEGO experts.  I plan to post photos of the completed project!

Grandsons Arthur and Teddy, reenacting the extinguishing of a dangerous fire with a LEGO firetruck.

Confronting Challenges

Cover art for “Vietnam 1970-71, Confronting Challenges” (click to enlarge)

I helped my uncle complete a memoir in his last weeks of fighting multiple myeloma. It is a collection of stories, told in his inimitable style, of the year he spent in Vietnam in 1970-71. My foreword for the book is below.

The book was self-published through my Blurb account for the benefit of close friends and family. There have been others that have expressed an interest in having a copy of the book. There are a few options. If you want a physical memento that you can hold and read and cherish, you can order one from its Blurb book page.

The listed price is the actual cost (there is no markup). Custom printed books are expensive, but you get a real hard-cover book! To reduce the expense slightly, there are a few discounts available. If you can pool orders with others, there are quantity discounts: 10% for ten, 20% for twenty (somebody would have to coordinate and distribute the bulk order). I also know that Blurb makes promotions from time to time with discount coupons. You can Google “Blurb coupons” to find them. I once encountered and used a 40% coupon.

If you do not need the artifact of a physical book, the content is available here in a (50MB) PDF file for free. Download and enjoy it. Maybe you will decide you need it in a form not requiring a machine to read. If so, go ahead and order the book.


Here is my introduction to Bob’s memoir:

Foreword

The author of this volume is Dr. Robert Olson, whom I know as my Uncle Bob. Over the years I heard him tell stories of when, fresh out of medical school, he served as a Navy doctor in Vietnam.  Now, over the last 12 years, he has worked at putting words to paper to capture the remarkable experiences of that life-changing year, and he has collected photographs of that time, taken by himself and others. 

It has been my privilege and honor to assist Uncle Bob in assembling this book. While he is a master storyteller, he is not a master of the modern tools of writers.  But as you will see as a recurring theme in so many of the stories that follow, he took on that challenge in his signature manner—head on, picking up what he needed, as he needed it, to accomplish the task.  Microsoft Word, hardly an intuitive editing tool, was Bob’s choice to render his material and turn it into text. 

Which he did. 

The modern tools of writing allow for easy revisions.  And he made many of them, carefully crafting each story for impact and detail, augmenting them with photographs to illustrate the locations, people and world context of the times.

When it became apparent that he would not be able to take on the final task of assembling the stories and photographs into a full book and actually publishing it, I offered to help.  I obtained his large “working folder” of the many files he had created over the course of a decade.  Despite failing strength and plummeting hemoglobin levels, he confirmed the titles of his stories, eventually to become chapters in the book, which I then used to locate their most recent versions.

As I performed my new role as copy editor and typesetter, I learned the backstories and more complete details of these events, many of which I had never heard before, and I was struck by a recurring theme.  It is hard to express succinctly, but it has to do with how we respond to events that are not under our control, not what we expect, not what we want, outside our experience or skill, and sometimes even frightening.

This sort of event happens to all of us: life is unpredictable, and stuff happens.  In these stories, we see a response that does not shy away, but rather, meets the challenge head-on.  It is more than just “making lemonade from lemons”; it goes beyond “rolling with the punches”.  It is a full embrace of these unexpected and undesired events; an acceptance and a firm resolve to do the best you can in a difficult situation. 

And in the end, two results obtain:  the outcomes are better, and you are better. 

I am struck, but not surprised, that Bob considers these difficult, challenging moments to be among the highlights of his life.  I hope that after reading this book, you will understand why.

Thor Olson

September 2022

Texas Road Trip: Reconnaissance Resumes

After the eclipse ended, I packed up my equipment again; this time I collapsed the tripod legs—I would need the space to pack up my campsite, which I did the next morning.  I heated the dregs of leftover coffee thinking I would be stopping soon for breakfast on the road, including fresh brewed coffee. 

I made the mistake of not stopping in Fort Davis for that breakfast. I thought it was too soon, it was only ten miles from the campground.  But I should have stopped there anyway, because the next towns were too small, or too run down to support a café.  I went all the way to Del Rio, which was too large to have the local flavor of a small down diner.

I did find one however—a Mexican restaurant operating out of a Victorian style hotel.  The staff spoke Spanish, as did the other guests.  It was now lunchtime and I ordered the Monday special:  chili relleno (stuffed chilis?) which were delicious, and with rice and beans, too much.

I continued on toward Eagle Pass, the next large city, but in between was “Radar Base”, which is an intersection of roads where the 2024 solar eclipse is said to be at or near maximum—4 minutes, 30 seconds.  It is a miserable spot however—hot, dusty, windy, with heavy highway traffic and not much shade.  I’m not sure why it has a town designation—a local airstrip and a radio/cell phone/radar tower?

Radar Base. I’m not sure where the radar is. Click to enlarge.

I had intended to stay in Eagle Pass, but on learning that the room rates were $250+, I continued on to Uvalde, a town larger than I expected, and whose notoriety to the world would be established a week later.  There was some conference/convention going on, so the rates were still high, but I had reached the end of my range and desperately needed a shower, so I sprang for the room.

The shower was great.


More Options
I wasn’t expecting to find an eclipse viewing site as I originally hoped—I was too late, all the prime locations had already been booked—or couldn’t be booked (the State Park reservation system only goes 5 months out).

But I felt obligated to document the candidates that I had looked up, as this was the purpose for traveling here.  I could at least take photos and maybe get contact info in case of cancellations.

I located a few more places along the Rio Frio, and the Lost Maples areas along the eclipse path.  There were various resorts and RV parks along a road east of the river, and I stopped at some and inquired.  Locals would stop and talk with me, just being friendly, and I learned a lot about the area. Here are my notes.

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Texas Road Trip: Lunar Eclipse

My cameras at work!

I started to set up for the lunar eclipse; it would occur tonight (this was not a drill)!  But by the time I had the tripods and mount in place, I realized that I had left a critical piece of equipment behind—my camp chair.  I left the stuff for a 10-minute trip back to the campsite to retrieve it.

On return, I found the other guy who had obtained a pass for the overlook (required if we wanted to stay past 10:00 pm).  He was an interesting person who was ok with my being focused on setting up rather than chatting. 

A few other visitors dropped by, including one who was on foot with some portable camera gear.  After a while he decided he wanted a different viewpoint and so he hiked away, disappearing below the crest. 

I was ready at moonrise.  This time I could see the moon as it appeared on the horizon.  I centered it in the cameras, started the tracking and started taking pictures.  The moon rose in a light orange color, brightening to white and then about one-half hour later, the eclipse began.

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AI for 3D

Rendering a photo in a particular artistic style with the help of artificial intelligence

New artificial intelligence (AI) portals such as DALL-E2 that can conjure an image to match a text description, DeepDream, that applies an artistic style to a photograph to turn it into a painting, and plenty of others, are changing the world; here is a fascinating survey

I recently stumbled upon an AI application that I would have loved to have been part of–  creating depth maps from standard, non-3D, non-stereo images.  Why didn’t I think of this?  What a brilliant idea!

A depth map of course, provides that third dimension of distance from the photographer.  And with that information, one can (almost) make a stereoscopic image, a scene in a virtual reality world.

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Building a “Dice Tower”

Parts for a dice tower, printed in blue PLA plastic

I had not heard this descriptor before, but when my son suggested it as a project to help his game-focused young family, I did some investigation.  A dice tower is a mechanism to manage the throw of dice in a way that is fun and relevant to the game being played.  Often the games are similar to Dungeons and Dragons.  And so, the theme of a medieval tower, where dice are dropped from the top and randomized by tumbling down to the bottom is a natural match for the theme of the game.

There are other benefits as well.  For my son’s young family, throwing dice is a haphazard and unpredictable experience.  Haphazard is a desired feature of a dice throwing outcome, but when the dice bounce beyond the table into the next room and have to be located and assessed, it slows down the game.  A more constrained way of throwing dice becomes desirable.  A dice tower, with an easily accessed upper deck to launch the dice, and a containment vessel to receive them below is the perfect solution.  

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Repair or Replace?

The underbelly of a Kenmore Elite model 665.1393xx dishwasher.

Well, I have to admit defeat in my attempt to repair our dishwasher.  I was confident that I could fix it, consistent with my philosophy that it is better maintaining and repairing, than discarding and replacing (a tenet of the “steady state economy”).  But after weeks in this broken condition, while ordering candidate replacement parts, watching dozens of YouTube repair videos, with hours on the floor trying to access, test and replace components, and after dozens of wash and diagnostic cycles, not to mention the dishes I broke while tipping the (still loaded) unit on its side, I am giving up.   

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Manitoba Nights

Aurora in the fog. Photo by Eric Persson.

I recently spent a week In our neighbor to the north, specifically the Canadian province of Manitoba.  We had booked a trip with friends to a remote lodge nearly a year prior, and we were finally there!  The travel brochures promised spectacular scenery and wildlife, interesting geology, world class fishing, and northern lights.  I wasn’t all that interested in fishing, but I’m always interested in the other items on that list. (And the fishing turned out to be a highlight!)

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An Anecdotal Tribute

Two pairs of brothers backpacking in 1987.  I’m on the left next to my younger brother Eric.  My dad, Tod, is on the right, next to his younger brother, my uncle Bob

Dr Robert Olson, 1940-2022

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my uncle, Dr. Robert Olson.  After a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma that included periods of remission, he succumbed on September 15, 2022.  He was a remarkable man, and there will be many tributes that capture his many talents, his professional contributions, his passion for gardening, and his strong friendships and family relations.  They will all be inadequate, as is any attempt to capture the essence of a person’s life.

But to the list of inadequate tributes, I would like to add mine, an anecdote that I wrote a few years ago following a Thanksgiving dinner, one of many large and boisterous holiday gatherings that he loved to host, with his daughters handling cooking and logistics.  I was able to share it with Bob in a letter, at a time of better health.  He was an important influence on me during a formative period of my life.

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Texas Road Trip: Driving Adventures, Mistakes Made

Looking over the (dry) Rio Grande to Mexico. The white canvas arch covers the US Border Station where I would soon be detained.

I intended to visit Big Bend Park and found it on my Texas road atlas southeast of Marfa—except that it was labelled “Big Bend Ranch State Park”.  It had what appeared to be a major route through it, Casa Piedra Road, that I could take and see the terrain and park facilities, then continue through to the town of Presidio, where I could find lunch, and then take another major road back home.

So that was the plan.  But it turns out that Big Bend Ranch State Park is entirely different from Big Bend National Park. I was confused but it didn’t matter. I missed the turnoff for the road through the park and stayed on US 67 to Presidio.

And I continued to follow US 67, thinking it would show me how to get to Big Bend Park.  Eventually I found myself approaching a major checkpoint—the customs and border inspections.

I looked for a way to turn around before actually getting there, but I saw no convenient way to do this and suddenly found myself going through a covered channel with many many speed bumps—aggressive and alternating sides of the lane, then full width and strategically placed.  There was no place to exit; the lane continued on and I thought maybe there would still be a turnaround opportunity.  But there wasn’t, and I was now passing a long line of cars headed in the other direction, nearly all with Texas plates, stopped, waiting their turn to be inspected and pass into the U.S.

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