Sunday, October 25, 2009


This weekend I put more screws into the A&A frame and test-fit the A&A skins. I’m reluctant to permanently attach the skins, but from what I’ve read on the R2 Builders Group forum, it’s the best way to ensure a stable frame and to prevent warping of the skins themselves. I’m still not convinced ... but I suspect I will be soon.

The best suggestion seems to be to nail the inner skin to the frame and to glue the outer skin to the inner. This approach will ensure no screws or nails will be visible from the outside but still provide a secure fit. One poster said he still had plenty of access points, through the top front and the door A&A smartly provided in their design.

In any case, I won’t do anything with the skins until a shipment of resin parts from DarkJedi arrives. I’ve asked for resin center vent surrounds, utility arms, a restraining bolt, coin returns and for a radar eye. I’ll dry fit these and then decide what to do about skinning the droid.

I still need a set of legs and feet. Wood might indeed be the best choice for the price. After I figure out the skins, but before I sort out the legs, feet and dome, I’ll be able to work on some of the electronics that I know I’ll want to incorporate.

Baby steps, yes?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Droid building

My brother and I decided to build a droid in late 2006. I had doodled some robots during the past two years after I re-discovered David L. Heiserman’s 1970s book “How to Build Your Own Self-Programming Robot.” I say Heiserman’s book, but it also was very much a Tab book, one I had come across in a library in the 1980s. Tab books in both decades were filled with nourishment for hobbyists of all stripes.

I showed the book to my brother, an engineer, and asked whether he thought it was realistic to build Heiserman’s creation in the 21st century. He quickly pointed out that not only were many of the parts specified no longer manufactured and thus hard to find, but also that today’s microcontrollers could do more in much less space. Microcontrollers seemed to take away from the build-it-yourself aspect, but then Heiserman called for an 8085 chip (price from Jameco was about $5 in 2006) to be used as the core of his robot; manufactured parts of some kind would be required. The only question was what degree of manufactured parts would be acceptable.

I never did like, as a child, attending “make it yourself” projects such as “make paper” with instructions such as this, “First, take some paper. Then tear it up.” To a child interested in how things work, that sort of move is contrary to making paper. I wanted to know about pulp. But Heiserman’s use of an 8085 for processing power doesn’t really fall into the same category. And how far should one drill down to the essentials to be satisfied that one is truly creating something? If an 8085 is too much of a manufactured black box, imagine the cost and space of the equivalent discrete components. And why stop there? Should the purist assemble his own transistors? Buy raw silicon, dope it and cook it? Mine silicon and boron? Using an 8085 in a homebuilt robot is something better than tearing up manufactured paper to “make paper.” Perhaps microcontrollers should be treated the same way.

At any rate, I was doodling robot ideas through 2004, 2005 and 2006. Yet my sketches kept resembling R2-D2. At some point, I decided not to fight the urge.

But which R2 to build? There are two kinds: Real and ... something other than real. There are many real R2s, and not one of them is a robot. There are radio-controlled models, computer-generated models and the Kenny Baker model. The radio-controlled models aren’t real robots, either. A real robot is autonomous, independent of action from its human masters. Heiserman gave his creation what he called “machine intelligence,” a term he suggested had more legitimacy than “artificial intelligence,” which after all implies “fake” intelligence.

Yet the other R2 does a better job of capturing the imagination. It is the imagined version, the idea of R2-D2. The fake R2.

In the Jan. 8, 2009, posting to his blog The Technium, Kevin Kelly mentioned the subculture of movie prop copiers as part of a larger discussion of modern “as if” desires. Kelly, editor emeritus of Wired magazine, talked in the entry about the creation of things as imitations of other things but which gain so many layers of depth they become outright “things” in themselves:

I have a friend, Adam Savage, co-host of the Mythbusters, whose hobby is creating models of famous Hollywood props. (He is not alone in this obsession. There is an entire subculture of prop copiers.) Adam spent several years working on his off-hours to make an exact copy of the Maltese Falcon which starred in the movie of the same name. The prop in the movie is a contrived imaginary sculpture that looks nothing like the original gem, but Adam wanted to re-create the prop and not the original. So he spent an insane number of hours tracking down photographs of the prop, scanning them, sculpting, and eventually casting a duplicate of the "original" prop. He was obsessively making an original copy of a fake, because the fake (the movie prop) was itself hyper-real; it was no longer "as if" but something in itself.

In late 2004, ahead of the Celebration III convention planned for the following spring in Indianapolis, I found the R2-D2 Builders Group. It is a Yahoo group dedicated to building replicas of R2-D2 and similar astromechs. (There are several group related to droid-building, one of which is more general than R2-D2 and called, appropriately enough, Astromechs. Astromechs has an alternate Web site, The R2 group includes complete dimensions for all of R2’s visible parts, photos and hundreds of messages related to replica droid-building.

A replica R2 begins as an imitation of something that itself was never real but only a representation of reality. Yet a visit to a “Star Wars” convention’s droid room will show an array of real-fake droids that have become more than movie prop imitations. Hobbyist droid builders tend to add features to their replicas – radio control, moving periscopes, dome lights, robotic arms, moving periscopes and even projectors that stand in for holoprojectors. The features make each droid something more than a mere replica, often a robot (parabot actually) in its own right, with its resemblance to a movie prop ending past skin depth.

The add-ons, I think, are part of what give droid-builders so much enjoyment. Problem-solving is another. And seeing a piece of a much-loved movie in one's living room must be part of the equation. The builders have been active for a decade, and the Yahoo group has progressed from very educated, and sometimes laser-measurement-device-assisted, guesses about proper dimensions to actual dimensions taken from an Industrial Light & Magic droid, which some club members were allowed to measure after a sympathetic droid expert learned of the group. Club members have produced some remarkable units. Follow the links above to see.

As for my own real-fake R2, it now has a real beginning:

It is an A&A Frame (named for its designers) made of PVC. The PVC is lightweight but sturdy. It was designed to hold shoulder motors, a dome motor and more. It was designed to be a less expensive alternative to aluminum. The frame you see in the photograph was purchased a couple of years ago as part of a “parts run.” From time to time, club members will pool their resources and place a single order with a machine shop or other vendor to produce droid parts. A&A – Alex Kung and Andy Schwartz – designed this frame, took out bids and let members get in on the order. After a two-year delay, I took the frame pieces out of the basement and began fitting, gluing and screwing the pieces together.

Spaces for the horizontal utility arms are clearly visible in the photograph. Boxes for the vertical arms also are part of the design. The center vent ports are unmistakable, as is the power coupling space.

Next steps include sanding down the glued portions and attaching skins.

It’s a start. And whether I’m building a real-fake or something greater – I hope it is the latter – it is sure to be enjoyable.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

'Star Wars' on the Beach

Last year a friend asked me for some advice about where he might start if he were to begin reading “Star Wars” fiction. I had been describing Karen Traviss’ “Republic Commando” series and the then-ongoing “Legacy of the Force” series to him. He had grown up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and was interested in the possibilities of the “Star Wars” “Expanded Universe.”

This is an updated and revised version of what I e-mailed to him. Comments, constructive criticism and factual corrections (though I hope none of the last are needed) are welcome; everyone needs an editor, but bloggers, including yours truly usually don’t have them.

Since the first movie’s release in 1977, there have been more than 100 works of adult fiction set in the “Star Wars” universe. The amount of material available has exploded since the prequels’ release, and the trend has been toward producing series with multiple authors that carry one story arc from beginning to end, with book releases spaced several months apart. There have been so many “Star Wars” novels published that I haven’t read them all. This list is hardly comprehensive, then. I can offer only highlights of what I have read, though my choice of reading is certainly influenced by the promised contents of each book as well as time constraints, as well as, perhaps, the quality of cover.

My wife calls my “Star Wars” reading my version of “beach reading.” After listening to my summary of story lines, she remarked on the similarities in form to soap operas. Many of the “Star Wars” books, she notes, are essentially soap operas for men, or at least for “Star Wars” fans. They sometimes contain illustrations of deep truths in life and sometimes are written well enough to bring out the reader’s emotions, but for the most part they are true to the movies and so are in the category of fun, light reading, which is in keeping with George Lucas’ Saturday matinee style for the movies.

Beach reading.

That said, here are some ideas for light “Star Wars” reading.

Short stories

You might start with one or two of these books to get a feel for the “Star Wars” “Expanded Universe.” I still have the first two; feel free to borrow them. The rest of the books sold on almost as fast as I listed them:

“Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina”

Most of the “Tales” short-story collections are from the 1990s. Each book contains stories centered on one or more of the minor characters visible in the original movies. A common story thread is present in each, while the events of a scene or two in the movies are present in the background.

The “Cantina” book’s tales concern the Cantina creatures, including one of the band members, a Jawa, the Hammerhead and the horned Devil-liked creature. The bartender gets his own story, too.

My favorites, both for writing and plot are “We Don’t Do Weddings: The Band’s Tale” (Kathy Tyers), and “Empire Blues: The Devaronian’s Tale” (Daniel Keys Moran). The Devaronin happens to be a music fanatic, and the author does a fantastic job of illustrating his passion. Consider this passage about his collection of recordings:

I have everyone. Or, to be precise, I have something by everyone. I have music the Imperium banned a generation ago ... by musicians executed for singing the wrong lyric, in the wrong way, to the wrong person, by musicians who simply vanished. By musicians who had the good fortune to die before the Empire came to power.

I disliked only two or three stories in this book. Other favorite stories: “Play It Again, Figrin D'an: The Tale of Muftak and Kabe” (A.C. Crispin) and Nightlily: The Lovers' Tale”) (Barbara Hambly).

“Tales of the Bounty Hunters”

Same format as “Mos Eisley.” To my way of thinking, the best one by far is “Of Possible Futures: The Tale of Zuckuss and 4-LOM” (M. Shayne Bell). It is an emotionally moving story about how a being’s choices shape his place in the universe. Most “Star Wars” stories are not places to find deep thoughts. This one is.

“Tales From Jabba’s Palace”

Probably the funniest of the short-story collections. The chef’s tale (Barbara Hambly) is especially good, with the protagonist (he works for Jabba, of course, and could be thrown into the Rancor pit at a whim) fretting over his ladyfingers and other desserts. The Gamorrean’s story also is good – just what goes through the mind of a half-witted brute as he makes his rounds of the palace?

An important point I need to make about the short story collections is that all of them are loaded with humor. The novels offer more serious themes than most of the stories you’ll find in the collections.

Author quality is critical to the “Star Wars” books. “Star Wars” has much fan fiction (I suspect “Harry Potter” has more), but the books you can buy are the product of professional authors who are well-known for their own work and have been recruited to expand the “Star Wars” universe.

The books show the sort of evolution one often finds in individual authors. The early works tend to be tied closely – often to the point of being unimaginative – to the original movies’ content. Because they were written before the majority of fiction set in Lucas’ universe, the reader is often well aware that no history yet exists beyond the events in the movies and the limited material outside the movies. When I read these early stories, I have images of great unfilled holes in the universe and a sense that the authors are not fully comfortable in their settings. Indeed, the authors seem to be concerned to include as many connections to the original movies as possible, lest readers lose the feeling that they are reading “Star Wars” fiction. The approach might have had value at the time – and I cannot say much about it, because I had read only “The Han Solo Trilogy” before the prequels appeared – but today it gives me a feeling of reading about a small, constrained, forced universe.

An example of the sometimes irritating derivative nature of the early works can be found in K.W. Jeter’s three-book “Bounty Hunter Wars” series.

Jeter himself is a well-respected author (and the coiner of “Steampunk”). His “Bounty Hunter” series also contains engaging original ideas such as Kud'ar Mub'at, a space-dwelling spider-like creature that spins not only its own enormous spaceship/home from its guts but acts as a sentient computer capable of creating semi-intelligent nodes to help it function. The notion of a giant distributed processing machine is delightfully enforced with the names it gives its nodes, such as Lookout for a node whose sole task is to spot incoming spaceships and Balancesheet, its accountant node.

Jeter also cleverly writes a “Star Wars” book in which apparently no one is a “good guy.” Each character throughout most of the series is merely less or more sympathetic than the other characters. It is an interesting approach.

And yet the book also contains a painfully derivative idea of the sort common to so many books written before the prequels (The first in the series, “The Mandalorian Armor,” was released in 1998): Shell Hutts.

Shell Hutts are Hutts who adopted armored shells. What the author has done is take an idea from the original movies and put a new, irritating paint job on it. A new species could have been introduced, the old Hutts could have been used ... but instead the reader is given a cosmetic change to a familiar kind of character. It would have been better to use old Hutts; readers could have learned more about their nature. Instead ... Shell Hutts.

The later works exhibit the traits of established authors familiar with their craft, their setting and their characters. They have a confidence lacking in the first books that comes with their subjects having backgrounds. The authors are more playful, and they take more liberties with settings and the introduction of characters. In fairness – and I hope I have been fair – they have a key resource the early “Star Wars” fiction authors didn’t have: the knowledge that their readers probably are familiar with many of the other works of fiction available and thus willing to follow the author in directions away from the original movies. They do make reference from time to time to events in previous books, but usually to good rather than grating effect.

The three short-story collections, by the way, also are pre-prequel (published in 1995 and 1996) and depend on events in the movies. Yet they “work” and don’t seem derivative because they overtly use a few events in the movies as jumping-off points for expanded storylines. The whole point of “Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina,” for example, is to follow bit characters whose screen time lasts perhaps a few seconds and to tell their stories. It’s something like “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead” for the “Star Wars” set. “Eisley” also contains a loose familiarity in form to readers familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s “Tales from the White Hart.”


If you find the topics interesting enough to continue, you might want to check out some novels next. Bear in mind that in addition to the “adult novels,” there are quite a few “young adult” novels out there, too. Many are by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta as part of the “Young Jedi Series.” I can’t speak to their quality.

Here is a timeline of novels showing where they fall in relation to the movies:

These “adult novels” are pretty good (to me, of course):

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

By Matthew Stover. Exceptionally well-written. Stover turns a CG blockbuster and turns it into a psychological thriller and morality tale. For everything but special effects, it’s better than the movie. Seriously.

“Legacy of the Force” series.

The first of the nine novels takes place about 40 years after “Star Wars,” but Luke, Leia and Han are major, if aging, characters. The first is titled “Betrayal,” by Aaron Allston. “Bloodlines” is a good one, in that it is written by another good author, Karen Traviss, and deals with Boba Fett and his family problems – Beach reading-turned-soap opera for SF fans.

“Republic Commando” series.

Four books; the first is “Hard Contact.” Written by Karen Traviss. Deals with a squad of four clone troopers. Great adventure, and much of the gallows humor you can expect from pre-1965 war movies. A real sense of the troopers’ comraderie and science-fiction police work, But they also includes much about the commandos’ conflicted, tough sergeant, their (sometimes woefully inadequate) Jedi generals, the ethics of human cloning and more.

The Commando series is the first I noticed in which the ways of the Jedi are seriously questioned. The ethical problems makes for good reading in this series, but in the latest series, “The Fate of the Jedi,” I fear the writers have gone too far and removed much of the mysticism and mystery that makes “Star Wars” as a whole work.

Outbound Flight.”

Takes place between “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” Great introduction of an imperial military genius and his previously unknown race. Plot-powered by a Jedi of tall ego.

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction.”

Takes place a thousand years before the movies. The most important thing to know is that the protagonist is an evil Sith lord, and there is never any redemption of the sort Darth Vader receives. If you can accept that in novel, it is an interesting book. A sequel followed, and a third book is due next year.

Like it/dislike it:

“I, Jedi.”

The only “Star Wars” Jedi story written in first person. It’s convoluted, and I think the writer tries to force it sometimes, but it’s entertaining in some ways. This might be the first book that gives some detail about lightsaber construction.

Worth avoiding:

Death Star.”

Published late last year, it has a promising title, but it takes the idea of turning minor movie characters into protagonists in the wrong direction. The “Tales” short stories worked in part because they gave the minors their own story-worthy plotlines; their interaction with major characters was limited to what you saw on the screen and their influence on movie plotlines was usually negligible if at all present. “Death Star” gives the minor characters major influences on the plot. The approach might work in a parody, but it’s annoying in “Death Star.” The heroes aren’t allowed to do heroic things – they are “helped” by characters we might not even see in the original movie. One of the most grating scenes is of a Force-influenced stormtrooper who takes too many paragraphs to run down a corridor. The scene is a poorly executed attempt to explain why the stormtroopers chasing Han & Co. were such bad shots. But then, the entire book is a poorly executed attempt to explain such problems in the first movies (including why the gunner kept saying “Stand by” just before Luke blew up the Death Star).

Again, this is merely an introduction and hardly meant to be an exhaustive list or review. It can’t be, because I still have plenty of “Star Wars” books on my reading list. Happy reading.