Friday 25 December 2015

The Nativity

You can't buy a nativity scene from Lego but you can make one.

(Thanks to Marlena for the photo).

I am not the first to make a Lego Nativity scene. Others have paved the way for me, in "minifig" scale (the ubiquitous smiling Lego men) and in the larger "miniland" scale that is used throughout the Legoland, and in other scales.

I didn't have time to present a new character every day throughout December. So I craftily arranged to bring out a few characters each Advent Sunday - starting with one sheep ... then a shepherd with some more sheep ... then the Wise Men, and finally the Holy Family. The picture above was taken on Christmas Eve, and the picture below was taken a few days before.

The idea for Joseph came from here:
Plans for making the camel, the wise men, sheep and shepherd came from here:
Inspiration for Mary and Baby Jesus came from here:
and I found an angel here:

Happy Christmas.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

The Christmas Delivery

There's a bit of a story here. My colleague had ordered for her boyfriend a Star Wars R2D2 alarm clock which projects the time onto the ceiling. There are a number of variants of this thing on the market, and she ordered the one with good reviews about 4 weeks ahead of Christmas so that it would arrive in time.

So yesterday (22nd December) when it hadn't arrived yet, she phoned up the supplier, who said that it must have got lost in the post (I've heard that excuse before, and I don't believe it). They also said they were out of stock and wouldn't be getting any in until January. My colleague was not happy.

Extremely "not happy".
In fact, proper British "not happy".

So I put this little vignette together to try and lighten her day today.

Which it did.  This is the droid you are looking for.
Happy Christmas.

Monday 14 December 2015

About Time

Once upon a time, nobody thought much about how to define time. We measured the passing of a day and a year and the cycles of life. History was written down with reference to important figures, usually the reign of kings or emperors, prophets or other very significant events. This has served us well for thousands of years … until now.

In the 1970s, a strange creature appeared, able to store knowledge in unprecedented ways. This creature had a curious notion of time, which it measured with reference to itself. It recorded time as the number of seconds since its official birthday, the start of the New Year 1970, according to the popular calendar in existence where it lived.

This new creature was expensive to feed. It didn’t have much space to remember all the dates and times that it needed to keep. The designers of this creature – for it was indeed a created being – could only get it to store numbers up to 2 billion and eight (note 1). That many seconds is 68 years, which surely must be enough for all practical purposes.

As the years rolled by, the creature stored more knowledge about real people. The designers realised they needed to refer to dates beyond those 68 years: pension payments, for example, for the younger designers, who were due to retire during or after 2038.

For a few years, the designers of a similar but older creature were distracted by another problem which recorded years differently. This creature stored date information with reference to the popular calendar in existence where it lived, but it only knew about years from zero to 99. So children due to be born a year hence were already 99 years old. And some people were due to retire in the past.

Once that creature had been tamed (at considerable expense, and not without controversy, for some people maintained that the creature was not wild at all) the designers were distracted with other creatures, mostly small pets that made interesting noises and played fun colourful games. Many of these pets died after a few short years, and were quickly replaced by newer pets. But whilst many designers were distracted by puppies and kittens, some had returned to the original problem.

One would imagine that something as universal as time would have a simple solution. Designers of the new generations of The Creature were not bound by the same restrictions as their predecessors were. They have argued long into many nights to find the right way getting the Creature to record time. Their answers are varied and beautiful, and yet there is not one universal answer to the question of time. Different Creatures measured time and dates from different starting points, and in different ways.

Fortunately, this situation meant there was plenty of work for the designers. They developed new design tools, new ways of communicating with the creature and new ways of making it do useful work, – and whole industries grew up converting from one set of tools to another. For most practical purposes, the Creature was now able to count far beyond a billion and six, and designers had a way of counting time so far into the future that the future of the future would called to account. (note 2).

(Note 1) Actually Four Billion and six: 4,294,967,296 which is 2 to the power of 32 (called a 32-bit Integer). But half of those numbers are negative numbers, so that computers could count from
-2147483648 (13th December 1901) to +2147483648 (19th January 2038).

(Note 2) Counting 2 to the power of 64 seconds allows us to measure time for the next 585 billion years. This must surely be enough for all practical purposes, for our own sun is not expected to last longer than about 5 billion years.

Saturday 12 December 2015


Brussels is supposed to have a rather good Christmas market. In Grand place was a grand Christmas tree and a rather good nativity with real sheep grazing inside. The Christmas market itself was in the streets between there and Bourse. Maybe it was the rain, maybe the curfew, but I found it underwhelming, especially compared to the markets in many provincial German towns.

On my way to visit a friend, I passed The European Commission building - large, glass, curved front  - where the wheels of democracy turn very slowly. Over the road, the Old Hack Pub, and near it Kitty o'Shea's, where the borderless lubricant of alcohol flows very smoothly. They serve Guinness.

Just look at 11 Square Ambiorix. Victor Horta in a building. Maison St. Cyr, built by Art Deco architect Gustav Strauven, for himself, stands as a brash statement of ├╝ber-art amid the merely interesting architecture around it. Apparently the building is renovated, but the mesh across the nain doora suggests a slightly different story. It isn't open to visitors though.

Brussels Midi/Zuid station: gateway to the world. Trains leave for France, Germany, the Netherlands, beyond, and to Britain, that Island people who refuse to understand what freedom of movement means. And whose borders remain guarded as the rest of Europe tries to live out its promise of freedom.

St Pancras.  We are sorry to announce that the 20.08 to West Hampstead has been cancelled. We apologise for the inconvenience caused.  Welcome to Britain.

Friday 30 October 2015


Recently, a sinkhole opened up in a residential street near where I live. Nobody was quite sure how deep it was. There were rumours that a postman had fallen into it, and couldn't get out unaided. Nobody was injured. The road was closed for a few days whilst they filled up the hole with concrete.

This reminded me of events earlier in the year, where I had skated around an emotional sinkhole, and had nearly fallen in.

The geological circumstances that lead up to the formation of a sinkhole are reasonably well understood. Rock or sand is eroded or dissolved by underground water flows. A cavern develops underground. Eventually, the land above has no support … and just caves in. There are rumours that this particular area was formerly a landfill site. The houses in that street are apparently underpinned, but that brings little comfort to those who live nearby. Sinkholes appear in residential areas quite suddenly, and the locals had no idea that there was a problem until the ground disappeared beneath their feet.

The situation is similar with emotional sinkholes.  I had moved sideways within the company, into a job that turned out to be a bad match with the things that I enjoy doing. Various aspects of the job were stressful. I had tried for over a year to make it work, hoping that it would get better, or that I would grow into it. And one day, I broke emotionally: something that my kids said tipped me over the edge, I snapped out verbally in anger, and stormed out of the room leaving those I love frightened and in tears.

I believe I was very lucky: this event made me realise that something wasn't right. My wife said she had been concerned about me for a few months. I didn't know what to do about it, but I knew I couldn't sweep it under the carpet.  I met up with a good friend a few days later, and opened up to him, not knowing what to do. "You're ill," he said. "Go and see your doctor urgently". My doctor was crystal clear about a diagnosis: "work-related stress, anxiety, and possibly depression". I was signed off for two weeks.

Sinkholes have a lot in common with emotional unhealth. My wife had seen the cracks in the tarmac, I had ignored the signs of ground-movement, and my family had watched the earth opening up around me. Without some dramatic changes, I knew I would fall into the sinkhole. I was lucky to have a good friend who grabbed me as the chasm opened up, and prevented me from falling. But I know that I stood on the edge of that pit of darkness, and I did not like what I saw.

Around me there are people - especially men - who see and ignore the cracks in the tarmac. Some deny that the ground is breaking up, that there is any kind of problem, despite the carnage around them. Others try desperately to pretend that everything is alright when it clearly isn't. Others have been there, in the pit of despair, and they are unable to get out. I also know people who have come out the other side. They give fleeting glimpses past the closed curtains of what it's like: a long, dark, painful journey. Some people have had to fight depression for many years.

When my doctor mentioned the D word, I knew that I must do whatever was necessary to avoid going there, regardless of the cost.  My doctor prescribed rest and exercise, and I made a decision that was to most of my friends irresponsible. I  knew I had to leave that job before it got the better of me. I resigned before I found another job to go to. In the minds of my friends were possibly the unspoken words "foolish", "stupid", "what about the family". Having seen what it has done to others, I would rather they brand me with these insults than I fall into the pit of depression.

I knew it was the right decision. Some understood. Many didn't. I gave up trying to explain it. I got through my notice period on adrenaline and hope. And as soon as I had left that office for the last time, my body made absolutely sure I got some rest - I spent the best part of two weeks in bed.

I shall leave for another time the story of how I found my new job, and why it is a god fit for me. I shall leave for another time the difference between passion and stress. Some day I might write about the difference between the stress of not knowing how to pay the mortgage compared to the stress of being in the wrong job. But let me finish today with this. Men, we need to talk more. We need to get our frustrations out into the open, and not bottle up our feelings. We probably need to slow down or do more exercise, but as soon as we see any kind of cracks in the tarmac of our lives, it's time to start talking.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Father's Day

It went like this: whilst I was at Halfords yesterday, Mum said to Daniel "It's Father's day tomorrow ... have you got something for Dad?"

Daniel gave that sheepish look that he does when he's forgotten something.

"Can you make something out of Jaffa Cakes"?

And so the Jaffa Mobile was born (wobbly spelling cos he made it at silly o'clock in the morning before I got up). Never let it be said that my family aren't creative. And like the best presents, I can share it with those around me, and I don't have to worry about where to store it.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Minecraft colours (dyes)

In the game Minecraft (official site here), it is possible to use dyes to colour various things, including wool, clay and glass. Some dyes are derived from plants, some are derived from other materials, and some dyes need to be mixed. All the information that anyone is ever likely to need concerning dyes is already available online but I wanted a handy reference in the game so I could quickly create a particular dye.

I put the "recipes" for each dye into a chest:

for "Crafted dyes", any item above the dye can be used to make that dye (note that there are three options for Rose Red and Light Gray, and only one for Light Blue and Orange). On the right, the furnace indicates that the cactus must be baked (in the furnace) to create Cactus Green.

for "Mixed dyes", the dye in the bottom row is made by combining the two items directly above it. The three on the right are the dyes that don't need to be crafted.

These two chests reside in a little shop in my town in the game - so if I need a dye, I can go there and grab one, and I have a handy in-game reminder of how the dye is made.

For reference, here is a bullet list, ordered depending on how the dye is made.

Crafted dyes (place the item on any cell of a crafting grid to make the dye)

  • Bonemeal (white dye) - from bones
  • Rose Red - from poppy, red tulip, or rose bush
  • Light Gray Dye - from an Azure Bluet, Oxeye daisy, or White Tulip
  • Pink Dye - from a Peony or Pink Tulip (also mixed)
  • Dandelion Yellow - from a Dandelion or Sunflower
  • Light Blue Dye - from a Blue Orchid
  • Magenta Dye - from a Lilac or Allium
  • Orange Dye - from an Orange Tulip (also mixed)

Baked dyes (cook in a furnace)

  • Cactus Green

Mixed dyes (place ingredients on the crafting grid to make the dye)

  • Purple Dye - Rose Red + Lapis Lazuli
  • Cyan Dye - Cactus Green + Lapis Lazuli
  • Gray Dye - Ink Sac + Bone Meal
  • Pink Dye - Rose Red + Bonemeal - also from peony or tulip
  • Magenta Dye - Pink Dye _ Purple Dye (or Bonemeal + Lapis Lazuli + 2x Rose Red)
  • Lime Dye - Cactus Green + Bone Meal
  • Orange Dye - Rose Red + Dandelion Yellow - also from tulip
Other dyes (no crafting needed)

  • Black - Ink Sac - kill a squid
  • Cocoa Beans - found in dungeons or on jungle trees
  • Lapis Lazuli - mined from Lapis Lazuli ore

Friday 12 June 2015

Investing money in the stock market

Before I begin, let me say loud and clear that I am not qualified to give financial advice. If you follow any of my suggestions, you do so at your own risk.

In recent years, I have been looking at ways of investing some savings. The interest rate in Britain has been 0.5% since 2009, which is fantastic for people with mortgages. But it's pretty rubbish for investors, even if you're prepared to lock away your money for five years. I wanted to know if there was a way of getting better returns.

I have done a lot of reading recently about financial investment. I read blogs by companies who sell financial services. I read news articles in a wide range of news-papers. I searched for stuff that famous investors like Warren Buffet have said, and I even went as far as purchasing some books. The main message that I learned was this:

Whilst the stock market is volatile, and goes up and down like a yo-yo, it consistently produces very good returns on investment in the long-term.

The best evidence for this is to look at how pensions companies behave. Every month, money goes into my pension pot, and the pension company buys investments with that money so that it grows over the decades until I retire. Where do they invest that money? They invest in the stock market. Why? because the stock market consistently produces very good returns on investments in the long term.

As an aside, perhaps the best advice that nobody ever gave me when I was young was to pump as much money into a pension as you possibly can before you're 30. The effects of compound interest are staggering if you can put 10% of your earnings aside for a very long time.

So I did some more research, and looked at companies that should perform well in the long term. I looked at their ability to make money, what dividends they return, and tried to find out how healthy these companies really are. I tried to imagine what their business will be like in 20 years. I bought shares in half a dozen companies in different industry sectors, and told myself not to panic if anything went wrong. Most of them were a good buy.

I use Yahoo Finance as a starting point for information about companies and shares. For example here is their page for Vodafone (I don't own any shares in Vodafone). All the numbers, graphs and news about that company are all in one convenient starting place.

The mechanics of buying shares is easy. I purchased mine through a Shares ISA so that any profit, interest or dividends are not liable to tax. MoneySavingExpert lists the details.

One of the shares I purchased didn't do so well. I thought that a large supermarket would be a safe company to invest in. People will always need to buy food, and they have a wide presence across the UK. I didn't foresee that they would be in the newspapers for the wrong reasons. In my haste, I overlooked the fact that many customers (including me, ironically) prefer a cheaper supermarket. The share price is still 13% below what I paid for it six months ago.

The final bit of advice I learned in my research (did I tell you, by the way, that you need to do lots of research?) was not to follow your feelings. Should I sell the shares and cut the losses? I have to remind myself that I'm in this for the long term, and not to be sidetracked by what I feel.  Warren Buffett again:

"Successful Investing takes time, discipline and patience. No matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time: You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant."

In closing, if you're considering investing in the stock market, there are three things that I think you should do. First, do as much research as you can. Second, look at the long term. Third, start investing now (as soon as you've done enough research) so you can take advantage of the long term.

Sunday 29 March 2015

The Cake

I don't do a lot of cooking. So it was quite a surprise when a friend commissioned me to produce their wedding cake. In a strange way I should have seen it coming.

To cut a long story short, the cake is not made of eggs butter and flour. It's made of Lego. And the first question everyone asks is "how long did it take you to make it?"

The bride gave me 15 months notice to make the cake. The actual building didn't take very long. It was the planning that took the time. Planning what it was going to look like. Researching what real wedding cakes look like. Finding out the right sizes of each tier so they look right. And working out how to make circular things with square bricks.

The end result was an amazing success. The bride and groom were very happy with it. From a distance it looked like an ordinary cake. but everyone wanted a closer look, and everyone was taking photos.

There are various ways of making round things out of square bricks. The bottom tier uses a "traditional" method, like "steps" on their side. Most of the models and giant statues at Legoland use this method. I used the Paint program on my PC to draw circles of various sizes, and zoomed in to get a blocky circle on the screen, showing me where the bricks should go relative to each other. Then I experimented to see which size circle looked right. I created a number of quarter-circles in various radii to work out how thick to make the side of the cake (it is actually hollow, but needs a certain thickness so it doesn't fall apart when you pick it up). This also helped me calculate how many more bricks I needed to buy.

The top tier uses a different method of construction. By alternating the 1x3 bricks and the round bricks, it is possible to create a wall which can be curved. It looks a bit like the Colosseum. My first attempts were very multi-coloured, but this also helped me work out how many more bricks I needed to buy.

The middle tier uses another technique again. The method of construction relies on a special Lego part that was used in a Star Wars set from 2003 and some Lego Technic parts.

This construction method has the studs arranged horizontally around the edge of the cake. This tier is made up of 40 "slices" internally held in place by Technic pins slotted into the wheel, and held in tension externally against the neighbouring slice. The last slice was rather difficult to get into place... especially as I had to rebuild it several times. I didn't have enough white 2x12 plates initially. Although the first attempt helped me work out how many more bricks I needed, I miscounted, and had to order some more with only a few weeks to go before the wedding. The overall effect is very different from the other two slices, because it creates a much smoother circumference. This tier of the cake is also surprisingly heavy.

The cake has a feature not seen on most wedding cakes - a garage door. Remember I said that the cake is hollow? Inside the bottom tier of the cake is a lorry (the bride has an HGV licence). The door mechanism was quite a challenge. It uses slotted bricks as guideways for the bottom and top of the door to follow. After much experimentation, I found it was necessary to have separate guideways for the bottom and the top of the doors. It's a bit fragile, and needed repairing several times on the day of the wedding, but it was a great success.

On the lorry's flatbed trailer are two slices of cake. I take absolutely no credit for this fourth cake design. These come from the genius of Chris McVeigh, who produces all kinds of other amazing things in Lego.

The lorry also helped us resolve a practical matter on the day of the wedding: how are the bride and groom going to cut the cake? About three weeks before the big day, I realised we also needed a knife...

Please leave comments below if you want me to go into more detail. For the record, the wedding was in March 2015, in England.

(This post also appears on my personal blog). 

Wednesday 4 March 2015

on Data

Data has always fascinated me. Not so much the actual names, numbers and dates - but the bigger picture of data. What are we storing (personal data, chatter, garbage?) Why are we keeping this information, and what do we intend to do with it?  The purpose of this blog is my attempt at getting these matters out my head and into the open for discussion.

A few years ago, I heard rumours that Amazon was working on a way of suggesting the perfect gift for your girlfriend. based on the information that Amazon held about you, her, and what you both liked. Different versions of the rumour also suggested that Amazon would automatically purchase the said item for you, avoiding the embarrassment of you forgetting her birthday. I haven't been able to find the rumours online, but it would appear that Amazon have a Facebook app to leverage the vast power of relationships defined that other platform.

It would appear from the same article that Facebook are also trying to do the same thing: leverage the vast amounts of data in their social media database in order to make money. And every other company who has ever heard about the Internet is also trying to jump on this bandwagon: "Big Data" is a fashionable thing at the moment. There is a theory  that, if you have enough data, and you know how to analyse it, you can use this information to commercial advantage. The really big players in this arena are Amazon (see above) and Google (whose aims seem altruistic , but they make wodges of cash by putting relevant adverts in front of us). Other big and small names are trying to do the same thing, and commentators  are  divided about  whether the investment will pay off.

Behind the "Big Data" question is another matter, that I don't think is been properly addressed. "What do we want to get out of our data?" De Facto, different groups will have different agendas. The big online merchants want to use our data (who we are, what we are interested in, and most important of all how we relate to other people) to get us to buy things. In return for shiny gadgets (including, ironically, my ability to blog, by the way), these trustworthy corporate multinational companies have persuaded us to upload for free information about us which can be marketed.

The NSA scandal (via Edward Snowden) has revealed that Governments are using data that we assumed was safely locked away to spy on people, in order to protect us. Do I want governments to have a master key to my home, and to search through my stuff whenever they please? The truth is that it isn't only governments who can do this: our emails, social media messages, purchasing history no longer belong to us.

Returning to the point, what DO we want to get out of our data? Can we use data in a positive way? Have we already signed over any rights to keep our data private? And if it is private, is it any use?

On the other hand, there is information out there which is freely available - for example the vast Wikipedia, which has been shown to have a level of accuracy like the mighty Britannica -  but we aren't benefiting from it. People are more interested in stalking celebrities (who have plenty of airtime to teach nonsense) or watching videos of cats, than discovering the world in which they actually live. The child of a friend of mine left school this year, and is asking questions like " Did the moon just move in the sky", and "I thought Amsterdam was in Leeds" - a disastrous question for someone interested in traveling the world.  (if you don't know where Amsterdam or Leeds are, here is a map)

So we have this dilemma - data that we would rather keep private is of great value to companies who want our money - or if we have something to hide, it may be that Governments  are justified in spying on us in the national interest. This is the subject of much debate.  Yet at the other end of the spectrum, data that is public and readily available is not being absorbed by the masses to make us "better people" (whatever that means), or to better our society.

I firmly believe in the creativity of humankind to resolve problems. With my Aspy Mr Spock pointy ears on, there must logically be a simple solution to this dilemma, and others that face us in the world of data, and to the related issues they raise: how can we best use this data; and how do we appropriately control all the technical and social issues that surround them ? I don't have the answers, but collectively we can - and we will - come up with a solution.