Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dinobot?

This is one of the four Engino designs with full instruction requiring all four Mini-Packs or the Engino 60 set. I am usually not tempted to build dinosaurs (or is it a dinosaur-robot?) with technical sets, but I have been curious about the usefulness of Engino's adjustable components, and this obviously made use of them.

All in all, I would have to say that this model went together somewhat badly. The instructions were unclear, and in at least one area, a substructure simply will not fit in the manner the computer-generated instruction images depicted. For the final step of connecting the major subassemblies into the final beast, I had to study the diagram with a magnifying glass to work out where to connect what. I probably would have been happier if I had started using the magnifier earlier.

And once it is together, it turns out that when you raise the tail, the mouth closes.

The adjustable components? Not quite adjustable enough to avoid needing to warp some assemblies to make them fit. I had wondered how adjustability could be so valuable in over-nine-unit lengths, but unneeded in smaller lengths (where the percentage difference becomes much greater), and of course that turned out not to be the case: in several smaller assemblies, a half-unit adjustment would have been quite handy, perhaps even a quarter-unit.

Half unit length steps can be achieved with existing parts by using round red hub/pulley element as a beam extender, though a new part with square cross section to match the beams would be welcome. (Why does Engino call the common yellow structural elements rods? It is technically incorrect and tends to suggest a K'nex inspiration for development of the Engino system. They are more like box girders. I'll stick to calling them beams.)

The quarter-unit adjustability of the expandable component could be achieved more elegantly with a 3/4 unit beam, if it is actually necessary at all (it would violate the educationally sound length-doubling sequence of the other parts - which of course the adjustable component already does). There is enough clearance in the single unit beam to allow a shortened version, though providing enough flex for easy connecting and separation might require some creative modification of the slot - perhaps a lollipop shape?

Of course half-length and three-quarter-length pieces might more elegantly solve the engineering need, but they wouldn't look nearly so fun for marketing. The "expandable rods" may be gratuitous gimmicks from the versatility point of view, but they are cute and clever, and to be fair, they make great-looking simulations of hydraulic actuators. aLl in all, they may not live up to the hype, but they don't do much harm: Engino is still an attractive system.

And for all the shortcomings in this "dinobot," Engino is still good block play.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

K'nex

K'nex has been around just long enough - 15 years - that it may qualify as a classic, but if you haven't taken a look at it lately, you might be in for some surprises: Micro K'nex and K'nex bricks, for example. Also a new logo: bolder and more angular against a black background - not so interesting in itself perhaps, but in a store with a variety of K'nex sets, it can help steer you to the ones with micro & bricks.

The micro K'nex are 60%-size versions of classic K'nex parts. Since their first announcement, I have been hoping for a pure-micro set - a "pocket K'nex." But no such luck: so far they are just appearing as supplemental parts in regular sets, with bottle-shaped adapter rods to connect to micro to regular. In exchange for the special features they add to the models that use them, there is some cost in robustness. Smaller connections just can't be as sturdy as regular K'nex: The wind kept blowing over my windmill during my Gasworks Park photo expedition, and if the tumble was very far, I found reassembly required and occasionally had to search through the grass for tiny missing parts.

The K'nex bricks are compatible, brickwise, with the usual suspects, which provides some interesting combination options. Unlike most similar products though, K'nex bricks have rounded edges which provide easy fingernail purchase for separating connected bricks. All bricks (that I have seen so far) have holes for 5mm peg connectors, for either micro or regular K'nex. Which is just shy of being compatible with the similar holes and plug connectors of Lego Technic (and some regular Lego). Sigh.

The set I got to try out micro & bricks came in a new case design that was sufficiently warped that most micro pieces could conceivably find their way out the gap. Worse, it takes no advantage of the new brick connection options to provide a buildable surface. Sigh again.

However, there were more pleasures than disappointments. With or without the new parts types, K'nex remains Good Block Play.

Monday, May 28, 2007

fischertechnik Universal

From their introduction in 1965 until 1990, fischertechnik blocks were gray, with red supplemental parts, as is seen in the wrecker here. Gray was also used for the beams and strips, introduced in 1970. After 1990, blocks became black, beams and strips yellow, which combined with the red to be a little much for me. But after long resisting the gaudiness, I finally succumbed.

For a techno-geek, fischertechnik's Universal sets are almost irresistible. Well, maybe not "almost." The original Universal was introduced in 1994, with 450 parts of 119 different type, to make 24 different models. It was replaced in 2005 with the Universal II, which makes 48 models from 400 parts of 98 types. 21 of the models from the first set were carried over to the second, and it appears that none were "dumbed down " - instead, the designs are just that little bit cleverer at using common parts.

That original Universal was devoted to demonstrating how basic technologies work, such as in the garage door opener shown here, which works by turning a crank at the back - instructions are included for adding the optional motor. This model went together easily, works smoothly, and left me encouraged to try something more complicated. What more could one ask for? Ummm ... perhaps a little more glamor? The set was popular for classroom use, but may have lagged for home play. The new version adds vehicles and aircraft, and increases the number of fairground rides, for a bit more "wow factor," and perhaps more play value as well.

fischertechnik is sometimes described as "Lego for grownups," which isn't fair to fischertechnik's sets for five year olds, or nice range of products for seven and nine year olds. But they do make products for use in technical universities, their robotics sets have long been greatly admired both in schools and by advanced adult hobbyists, and their parts have been used for industrial prototyping since very early on. It's not that they aren't great for grownups, it's just that kids don't have to wait.

An excellent choice for a clever child, or for a child that might become clever with a little nudge and some Good Block Play.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ankerstein 6A

Anchor Block box 6A is the supplemental set to expand a set 6 into a set 8. From there, one would get an 8A to create a set 10. Only plans for structures using combined sets 6 and 6A are included with 6A, and only plans for combined 6, 6A, and 8A are included with 8A. The buildings just keep getting bigger and more complicated. My abilities, however, don't keep getting more advanced. I use set 6 much more often than I use set 8 (6 + 6A).

I have long wished for even a few plans that just use box 6A, without set 6. The number of stones would be more manageable for me, I would have more opportunity to enjoy the new and different stones introduced with set 6A, and I would have a new variety in play without making greater demands on my abilities.

My recent acquisition of the new pocket Ankerstein set brought this desire back to mind, and today I took out the 6A box, and built an ad hoc building using just stones from that box. It's not a great design, since I was working it out as I built, but it is not bad, and I am quite pleased. I know I will be doing this again in the future.

I'd still like to have a few plans though, so if anyone is up to the challenge of working some box-6A-only or box-8A-only designs up either in photos or in AnkerCAD, I would be hugely grateful, and I'm sure their are others who would be appreciative as well. I haven't used AnkerCAD for a while, but as I recall, it doesn't have an inventory feature, or at least doesn't have a function to restrict you to only the stones available in a given set, combination of boxes, or loose stones. I needed that badly.

It wouldn't take very many plans for box 8A for me to justify purchase of one - I couldn't justify it at all to just build set 10 (6 + 6A +8A) designs, I would do that so rarely.

In the meantime, I am rather pleased with what I have accomplished today, both in breaking new ground and in Good Block Play.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Odd Jobs

Usually I show current activity in my blog posts, but this is a bridge I designed and built a few years ago, from Eitech parts. It illustrates the use of adjustable length parts to solve a design problem, where using a standard length part would have severely disrupted the curve of the arch. Adjustable length parts in construction sets have been around at least since Richter's Anker bridge set of 1895, and are still a regular component in sets from Eitech and Merkur and perhaps others.

But in this bridge, as in the Engino bridge I built yesterday, I find the adjustable parts are not entirely satisfying.

First, the parts represent bridge members that would be under compression (forces push on the ends - the member must not collapse), but the parts have the appearance of tension members (forces pull on the ends - the load might instead have been handled by a cable). When you look at the tower crane in an image from the Engino box, the upper, diagonal usage of the expansion parts looks reasonable - a cable would work here; while the lower, vertical usage as a kingpost is more doubtful, though not as bad as the bridge. In the adjacent suspension cable car (have I identified this correctly?), the parts look fine to me - such vehicles typically use lightweight components where they can.

Second, I am not completely comfortable with the use of adjustable "building blocks." A good portion of what a construction set should provide is exercise in solving problems with standard elements. Deviating from this, whether by adjustable parts such as this or the provision of new ad hoc parts designs (Lego is especially egregious), reduces the "puzzle pleasure" and may also reduce the learning value.

If a child is playing with a set that has only limited positions for fastening parts together, meaning that only certain choices for two sides of a triangle can provide for an appropriate third side allowing for a right triangle, he or she may not rediscover the Pythagorean Theorem, but they will at least have some context for recognizing that the Pythagorean Theorem relates to the real world. Will they get this, if they have solved all their triangle problems by simply readjusting the expandable part?

Further, are we then teaching them how to create and adapt and problem solve within constraints, or are we teaching them that the world will adjust itself to their needs and expectations?

Block Play, at whatever level of literalness or metaphor, is importantly an exercise of balancing constraints with versatility.

A construction set, if it is to be both enjoyable and educational, needs to balance those demands of constraint and versatility. Each constraint can have both pros and cons, and each versatility can have both pros and cons.

The Eitech sets, the Merkur sets, and the Engino sets, with or without the expandable parts, provide a variety of trade offs of constraint and versatility. Each, I believe, provides more pros than cons, and each is a worthy candidate for good Block Play.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Engino 60

I surely made little happy noises when I first saw the Engino 60, while browsing the Internet. A construction set showing lots of different models is special. It was de rigueur in the classic era, but is rare now.

Most manufacturers now seem to want you to build just one or two models, then buy a new set from their line. Though it may actually be that the variety sets just don't sell well in the mass market. Fortunately there are exceptions available, like fischertechnik, K'nex, even Lego, at their low-end, though sadly not in Lego Technic.

The smaller Dual Mini-Packs from Engino each include instructions that show how to build two models from that set, plus a different large model by combining all four sets. The Engino 60 includes the part packages and instruction booklets from all four Duals combined in one box, in a sort of "buy three, get one free" deal.

That gives twelve step-by-step instructions total, plus 48 additional models shown assembled, to give the 60 model total. Confusingly, these are shown only on the box, and with a different color scheme for the parts. We must hope that the promised downloads from Engino Toy Systems will soon be available, with correct colors and clearer detail.

No parts lists are included. To tell whether I had the right parts, I kept the four bags of parts separate until I built models from each. You can compare your contents against my parts list. My totals differ from the prescribed counts only in one extra for the Arachnid, but my parts selection and count there seems correct, and that makes the total of Engino 60 come out correct at 221.

The parts image here is in roughly the same order as my list, top to bottom, left to right. The "beam8" is duplicated to show the two different socket faces; the sides have no sockets.

The parts go together well, with most connections form, robust, yet readily parted for disassembly. Some combinations between specific different types of connector are a little wobbly, and removing the pivot from a socket can be difficult - connecting or reconnecting the variable angle piece will aide in separation. For other difficult separations, a beam can be used as a tool, using the end socket since it is a side-slide connection, not a push-in.

Most connectors have an eight-point star shape to the base of the shaft, with a similar shape in the throat of the socket. This maintains alignment in 45 degree intervals, either solidly if the connector is connected in the flat face of a beam, or as a rotatable detent, for most other connections. The omission of the star on one side of the hubs allows wheels to rotate smoothly.

The connector head is 5 mm, halfway between fischertechnik's 4 mm and K'nex' 6 mm, and of similar shape, and indeed there are other similarities to those systems as well, though without seeming that Engino is a copy of either.

The models can be big, for a reasonably compact set - the scorpion is 31" long, and the robot is 13" high. This bridge, from a picture on the box, is 27". It was a bit challenging, since the image was small, in the wrong colors, and had some parts wrong, so that I had to do quite a bit of puzzling out. But I think it looks great.

All-in-all, I'd say Engino is good Block Play.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lil' Whippersnapper


For a long time I've wished for a miniature verson of an Anker Steinbaukasten - an Anchor Stone Building Set. Well, I finally have one: Der Kleine Gernegro├č - which probably best translates as "Lil' Whippersnapper," though I wonder how many people know what whippersnapper actually means (or meant). I certainly didn't.

The set is listed in Anker Steinbaukasten's puzzle series, since it is of that size range and uses that style of box. But some of the stones are actually "borrowed" from the regular stone series - e.g. regular stone #69 (aka "Pez") becomes a "#15" here, and a #31 becomes a "#4." That's a #69 from my set 6 next to the penny in the top image.

The stone packing arrangement I show in my set above deviates from the official layout as delivered and as shown on the inside of the lid (see The ToyHouse site, my source, for what that looks like) -- mine is closer to the style of traditional sets, and I greatly prefer it.

Tiny building block sets have occasionally been offered over the years, and still are offered, but usually with the parts made of wood, and too light and too slippery to very easily build with. Anchor Stones have enough extra weight, and enough tooth to their surface, that you can actually build with these quite well.

Even before my set arrived, I had prepared a substitute "#288" stone (steeple) from a pyramidal fishing weight with the attachment removed from what becomes the base, and with the lettering filed off the sides. It still needs to have about 1/8" taken off the bottom, but doesn't look bad even now (right) in a structure modified from a plan shown in an old post (which also shows the same structure, with different modifications, in Ankerstein Klein Kaliber and wooden Tabletop Unit Blocks). There are a couple more similar sheets, and more usable plans from sets 1 and 2, which can be downloaded here.

I expect I will be borrowing #69 and #31 stones from my set 6 to make even larger structures in the future, but it is the portability and usability of this set just as it is that will get it the most use (I will consider swapping out one of the yellow #31/"#4" blocks for two yellow #69/"#15" blocks though).

I recommend it.

It really is good block play.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Klikko

Klikko is made up of various colored geometric shapes, as are several similar systems, such as Polydron. The key difference is that Klikko connectors are separate little hinge pieces that create two-articulation joints. These hinge pieces look like little licorice candies that kept tempt one to taste.

Assembly was moderately irritating until I learned to connect pieces with both lying flat on the table. This is hinted at by diagrams in the manual showing partially assemblies laid flat like a cut-and-fold project, but I thought they were just showing off being "The Transforming Construction System."

Nope. The more of your model you connect flat, the happier you'll be, and I was messing up by lifting the pieces to connect them.

That still doesn't alleviate working in three dimensions during final assembly, where trying to connect one joint can cause several others to part. The little licorice pieces just didn't seem to have enough gumption.

But Klikko has too good a reputation for that, so I hoped to -- and did -- get better with experience.

I also learned something: Even a connected 3-D structure that is reasonably sturdy can have parts that can shift position. Yet making the final connections can drop that positional freedom dramatically.

The trick is to figure out how the pieces need to shift before making the last connections, rather than counting on the licorice to pull things into position. Trying to force things together just pulls other things apart.

Klikko is still isn't one of my favorites, but it might come to be.

Already, it has provided good block play.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ankerstein

Back to basics -- stone on stone. Anchor Blocks from Anker Steinbaukasten GmbH, Rudolstadt in Thuringia.

Outdoors on a sunny afternoon, with a breeze not quite strong enough to keep me from smelling the wonderful Ankerstein aroma. Linseed oil for sure ... chalk probably ... can one smell quartz?

I built this just outside our sliding glass back door, which I had left ajar a crack to ventilate the house a bit. Archie could hardly stand it, lying on his side and extending his paws as far as they could reach. Webster was calmer, though I suspect him of even greater hidden frustration. But they are indoor cats, and today was not a day for cats in harnesses, on leashes. Somehow I do not think that would mix well with block play.

It was good block play.
=-=-=
[Addendum -- I ran across this image of the Bremerhaven train station, and thought how my exposure to German architecture contributes to my appreciation of Ankerstein. One need not have gone so far afield -- many older American brewery structures are classics of the genre.]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Unblocked


My last post was largely about being blocked with fischertechnik, so that I couldn't use my older material at all.

I've been working on that, and have achieved a nontrivial breakthrough. The hand truck (right) was an intermediate step, built using an older set, a little more complicated than what I had been doing.

The airplane is the real thing: built with parts from the jumble, using a drawing (lower right) from an Internet download.

I tried to build the same airplane from a different image (below left) on Monday, but failed.

Late last night I built it successfully from the better image. The difference was not just the image quality, but perhaps more importantly, the parts list in that document ("fischertechnik classic" -- yes, the same set mentioned yesterday), which let me confirm that I did have the necessary parts, and helped identify the parts used.

For my tangled head, this was a very important step.

So sometimes good Block Play is actually "unblock play," and that can be important, not just for play, but in gaining insight into how to deal with blockages.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

fischertechnik

It's been a long time since I posted here. Mostly because I've simply come to enjoy the smaller constructions, and when revisiting what I already have posted about with larger projects, it seems redundant. But also partly because sometimes stuff gets tangled up in my head and I start avoiding it, be that specific block sets or posting in general.

I got my first fischertechnik stuff a few years ago, before I was blogging. I thought fischertechnik was great, and really enjoyed how the pieces went together. But I had gotten a used, "looks like it's all there," batch, and it turned out that even with a second lot I was missing just enough of the critical basic pieces to not be able to build even the simpler example designs.

That is one of the experiences that taught me that if I expected to build with something, I needed to start with a known complete starter set, and only use "not sure it's all there" lots for supplements. It seems like all too often, someone has built some small introductory model which has wandered off, and what is left is all the special and advanced pieces, but a gap in the basic pieces.

Unfortunately, that experience has sometimes "burned my fingers," and compounded with guilt-by-association with mental health crashes, I have trouble even getting that stuff back out.

But I've learned more about that process in the last year or two, and learned more about repeating the "stages of block building" after any sort of break - and having and using a reentry path.

So last August I got a fischertechnik "mini" set (all of my fischertechnik is from the 1970s -- while newer fischertechnik looks nice, it is the older -- or fischertechnik classic -- that grabs me), and proved the point about starting small and re-starting small. And that seems to have led to only making one more Block Play post. Oops.

Well shucks. Is it reasonable to have stopped posting just because everything I did that wasn't smaller constructions with sets for which I had already posted larger and more impressive projects, or else was "not really blocks"?

fischertechnik (not "Fischer Technik") has some block-like pieces, but the real reason it belongs here is simply that when I am playing with it, the activity is one of a constellation of similar activities that, for want of a better label, I have chosen to label block play. And it is good block play.