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JP Brown. Born 1964. Resident Chicago, IL.

One of the great strengths of LEGO Mindstorms is...

In real life I work as...

If I wanted to code my work life in NQC...

Before I moved to the US...

Other hobbies...

I've been around computers so long that I can remember...

I can sort of speak...

Personal Mindstorms robot chronology...

On Anker Stein...

Things people from the UK always notice about the US...

One of the great strengths of LEGO Mindstorms is how many people not only build with their sets, but also share their ideas on the Web -- it really is a fantastic online community. If you don't already know about the online discussion sites at LUGNET and the LEGO Mindstorms forums then you should check them out.

I've made several very good friends this way who I've never met in person. In particular, I've spent a lot of time chatting back and forth with my sensei, Hideaki Yabuki from Tokyo, Japan. His Mindstorms username is Joda (Japanese transliteration of 'Yoda') -- there's a profile of him here. Hideaki is a brilliant designer -- I still haven't seen a grabber I like as much as Cyber Arm II. He's even tried to teach me Japanese so that I could understand the Japanese Mindstorms fan sites. Alas, at this writing the only written Japanese I have completely mastered is the katakana for 'rego' (Japanese transliteration of 'LEGO'), but that's my fault for not paying better attention to Hideaki's instructions.

In real life I work as...

an archaeological conservator at the Field Museum in Chicago, conserving the archaeological metals in the Anthropology collections. I do a fair amount of programming (Visual Basic, Java, C++, C#) for custom data analysis and also act as the (FileMaker) database expert for the conservation section.

Prior to this I worked as a consultant Environmental Conservator (nothing to do with saving the whales) -- I spend largish chunks of other people's money designing and installing real-time data acquisition systems to figure out why a historic building is falling apart, or whether it's going to fall apart in the near future, and, if so, what to do about it. This was a great way to get to see the best of US architecture up close and personal. Projects in the US include: Independence Hall, Philadelphia PA (ironic, since I'm British) and George Washington's mansion, Mount Vernon, VA (also pretty ironic), and Minnesota State Capitol (no detectable irony here).

If I wanted to code my work life in NQC...

*and* RCX timers counted in days rather than 1/100 sec., it would go something like this.

#define boredom_threshold 1
#define client_lag 35
#define work OUT_A
#define alive true
int crisis_level;
task main()
   while( alive ) {
       crisis_level = Random( client_lag );
       Wait( boredom_threshold + crisis_level );
       do {
            Wait( Random( client_lag ) );
            } while( crisis_level > 0 );
       Off( work );
The RCX helps ward off the boredom. [BTW, LEGO should be down on their knees thanking God for Dave Baum and the other grown-ups who wrote useful programming languages for the RCX -- without NQC I'd definitely have left the RCX in the closet back in North Carolina.]

Before I moved to the US...

I took archaeological conservation with subsid.s in computer science and metallurgy at university, played rhythm guitar for the Splott Blues Co-op, managed a bar, designed theatre and concert lighting, co-wrote and performed a couple of comedy revues and the first stage adaptation of George Orwell's "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" at the Edinburgh Fringe, opened twice for Julian Clary, and taught on the BSc Archaeological Conservation course at University of Cardiff for five years.


Online go (wei chi), libraries, kite flying, stand-up poetry (and parentheses).

I've been around computers so long that I can remember...

my first experience of computer programming was an early version of BASIC on a Commodore Pet which my uncle had assembled from a kit (it was the low-end version with 4k of RAM -- for half as much money again you could get the high-end machine with 8k)... "how-to" books with example code to cope with pre-decimal British coinage... submitting Pascal programs using punch cards on the DEC/VAX mainframe when was I was an undergraduate. (The cards were punched at 5p a card by little old ladies, who could never make out my handwriting -- that's when I learned to type)... 80?86 ASM from the days when it was cool to be able to use INT14 for serial communications... wondering what the "MS" in "MSDOS" stood for... meaning to learn Forth for a decade before pbForth came out... when only people who taught in universities (and not may of them) had e-mail, and when a 9600 baud modem was an object of envy... using telex rather than fax to communicate with people in other countries because no one had a fax machine... when "online help" meant dialing up a BBS... MS Windows 2... WordPerfect being the word-processing package of choice (the main program fit on one 720k 3.5" floppy disk and, if you had a real cool machine with *two* floppy drives, you could load the other disk with the spell-checker at the same time)... thinking 640k was an awful lot of RAM... computer games supplied only on 10" floppy... using a portable tape recorder as my main backup device... wondering if opting for a 400MB hard disk on the departmental server was a waste of money since we'd *never* use all that space... using "luggable" rather than "laptop" as a category for discussing portable computers.

I can sort of speak... (in order of decreasing proficiency):

Personal Mindstorms robot chronology...

  • Jun 1999

  • Jul 1999
    • Got first Mindstorms set (I now have 4), made robots from standard LEGO instructions.
    • Put Mindstorms set back in the closet.

  • Oct 1999
    • Back in Chicago. Found Dave Baum's 'Not Quite C' (NQC) programming environment for the RCX on the Web. Retrieved Mindstorms set from the closet, dusted it off, and started some serious building.

  • Nov 1999
    • Made GliderPilot robot-controlled 'hang-glider'.
    • Invited to become moderator on Mindstorms forums (username envcons). Other moderators are from US, Canada, Belgium, France, Denmark, and Switzerland.

  • Jan 2000
    • Finished the original HanoiSolver. Very busy moderating Mindstorms forums.

  • Apr 2000
    • Built 'Boat_I' and 'Boat_II' (remote-controlled catamarans).

  • Jun 2000
    • Selected by LEGO as preview builder for the Mindstorms Vision Command system (others were Soren Rolighed in Denmark, Kris Wauters in the Netherlands, Yoshihito Isogawa in Japan, and Jon Nellis in the US).

  • Jul 2000
    • Built K9, Aegis and Xilo -- robots that responded to video input from the Mindstorms Vision Command system.
    • Started fiddling with walker mechanisms.
    • Saw Rubik's Cube kicking around neighbour's apartment. Posted the idea of building a Rubik's Cube solver in the Mindstorms forums.

  • Jan 2001
    • Mindstorms user 'agiecco' (Adrian Giecco) starts discussion in Mindstorms forums about solving the Rubik's Cube.

  • Feb 2001
  • Mar 2001
    • Rubik's Cubes start to accumulate my office as word goes round and people pass their old cubes to me.

  • Apr 2001
    • Finished CubeSolver beta mechanical system and solution software for CubeSolver. Initial cube positions must be input manually which was tedious and prone to user error (imagine dialing a 3-dimensional, 54-digit telephone number to get the idea). The beta mechanical system still needed a little manual tweaking during a solution to keep everything working. Tell everyone I'll have the video software finished in 'a week or so.'

  • May 2001
    • Finish the improved mechanical system for CubeSolver.
    • Still working the finalizing the video color-recognition software.

  • Jun 2001
    • LEGO get in touch from Denmark and ask if I will make copies of CubeSolver for them and promise to send me the pieces I need (nifty, because I can have any piece in any color I want -- a brickhead's dream).

  • Jul 2001
    • Denmark goes on holiday, so no pieces arrive.
    • Finish up the color recognition software to input the initial position of the cubelets automatically.

  • Aug 2001
    • Finish Boatman.
    • Denmark stops being on holiday. Pieces arrive, I make three copies for LEGO and ship them back to Denmark at the end of Aug.

  • Sept 2001
  • Oct 2001
  • Nov 2001
  • Dec 2001
  • Jan 2002
  • May 2003
  • Dec 2003


On Anker Stein...

'Anchor Stones' are my wife Rachel's favorite construction toy and I must admit they are very nifty.

The following para is from www.ankerstein.org ...

"Richter's Anchor Stone Building Sets (Richters Anker Steinbaukasten) were the world's most popular construction toy from the early 1880s through W.W .I. These building stones were made in Rudolstadt, Thuringia, Germany, (and at the company's branches in Vienna, New York)" A late 19th century German 'toy' (actually produced as educational sets for schools to teach construction/plan-reading skills), the 'stones' are made from crushed stone mixed with (I believe) linseed oil and then allowed to dry. They stopped production after WWII because the factory was in East Germany, but resumed manufacture some time after 1989 and became available in the US in 1997 or so. The building sets have won two Best Toy awards in the US since then (1997 Parents' Choice Gold Medal and 1999 National Parenting Publications Award) -- not too shabby for a 100-year-old product. Here are pictures of models built by Rachel.

The 'stones' feel like real stone -- heavy and slightly gritty -- and make very nifty buildings. The sets are also astonishingly expensive which is *great* since Rachel can't complain about my LEGO habit. Price the sets at The Construction Site.

Things people from the UK always notice about the US...

  1. The refrigerators and washing machines are so *big*.
  2. All the buildings are named after people you've never heard of.
  3. Orange juice isn't a luxury item in the US. (If you've ever stayed in a provincial hotel in the UK, you'll know that orange juice is often listed as an hors d'oevre on the dinner menu -- a lingering hold-over from WWII rationing).
  4. Tea made with properly boiling water *is* a luxury item in the US (in fact, it's practically unobtainable).

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