Physical Graffiti ASCII

Click on the image to enlarge.
The adage states that 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' I'm not sure about that, but I can say one's worth about thirty thousand letters...

Question: What should one do with about a quarter million Modulex bricks?

This is not a question that most people will face in their lifetime. For that matter, few LEGO collectors will need to consider it. However, last fall I was sent a couple small Modulex bricks in the mail by a fellow, Ted, who had worked for LEGO some time ago. Ironically, my first thought when seeing the tiny bricks was, "these are so small, they're like toys!" -- as if the standard LEGO brick is not meant to be a toy.

Anyway, my interest was certainly piqued by these 'elfin sized' bricks, and I started doing some investigation. After a couple months of searching and researching, I stumbled into quite a find: for a (fairly reasonable) price I managed to put myself in half-ownership of approximately half a million Modulex bricks. Old, yes, but sealed in boxes and in mint condition.

So, I then had to ask myself what I would do with my new 'toys.'

What should one actually do with a quarter million Modulex bricks?

Some type of mosaic came to mind as the Modulex bricks are smaller than typical LEGO bricks, and the colors are different (more pastel).

What really intrigued me, though, was the fact that among the many, many bricks were some tiny 1x1 smooth bricks (tiles) that were white with black letters and numbers imprinted upon them.

What are "Modulex" bricks?

Modulex bricks are smaller 'cousins' of LEGO bricks. They were originally developed by the LEGO company (many decades ago) and marketed to professional architecture firms and such (not as a retail toy). Possibly to the surprise of many LEGO collectors, these bricks are still manufactured today (by the now independent, but LEGO-related, company Modulex).

Modulex bricks are not compatible with typical LEGO bricks. The standard 1x1 Modulex brick (or 'component' as the company refers to them) is 5mm cubed (yes, they are perfect cubes, unlike LEGO unit bricks which are taller than they are wide or deep).

The colors are also different than LEGO colors... much more in the 'pastel' frame of mind they are.

Buying new Modulex bricks is not cheap; piece by piece they would end up being more expensive than LEGO bricks on average.

There are Modulex collectors about, however, and if one searches hard enough, one can sometimes find old ones for sale. The eBay auction site can be quite handy in this instance.

People who are interested in contacting the U.S. Distributor of Modulex products should email Irving Simon at Visual Planning Systems.

I got my idea.

I'd do a mosaic, but instead of using colors, I'd use the letter and number tiles to create a picture reminiscent of the old 'ASCII art' one can find on the web (and which was certainly around long before the web).

Physical ASCII. How pseudo-retro-techno.

Okay then, a physical ASCII mosaic. But a mosaic of what?

I was sick of building LEGO cartoon/comic characters, so that was out.

I considered a picture from another fascination of mine: Alice in Wonderland (qq.v. Alice, White Rabbit Mosaic), but the original Tenniel drawings that I like are all pretty much black and white with little gray shading... not very conducive to ASCII art really.

So, with cartoon characters and Alice discarded, I decided to use a different Pop Culture reference: an actress.

I decided to use a picture of Calista Flockhart.

Okay, I had my picture. Next I downloaded a freely available software program: ASCII Generator.

This nifty tool did just about all that I needed. I could specify what letters to use (and which were 'darkest' and which 'lightest'). I could specify how many pixels of width to give each letter (when printed normally, most fonts have letters that are taller than they are wide; my bricks, however, were square, so I needed to be able to adjust accordingly). All in all, the program was invaluable.

I did run into one snag, however.

See, in all the little letter tiles I had obtained, the distribution of particular letters and numbers was far from equal. For example, I had over five thousand U's, but only twenty-four C's (not twenty-four thousand, just twenty-four... two dozen).

The ASCII Generator program did not care what my supply actually was, so it just used as many of each letter as it deemed necessary. As a result, the output (which was 140 letters wide and 240 letters high) did not come close to matching the letter supply I actually had.

I solved the problem by grouping certain letters together into groups based on their darkness (so, say, the W's and X's and H's were in one group at the dark end while the I's and L's and J's were in the lightest group). With about 6 groups formed using all the tiles I did have, I then wrote a Java program that analyzed the output from the ASCII program.

My program would look at the letter in each space as designated by the ASCII Generator and then see to which group it belonged. Next, it would randomly pick a letter from that group. This 'randomness' however was weighted so that the letters within the group of which I had the most would be most likely picked. Letters of which I had very few were proportionally less likely to be picked.

The picked letter from the group (which might, in fact, be the same as the original letter analyzed) was then substituted in the ASCII picture.

When the whole text file was thus filtered, I ended up with an ASCII image in which the darkness and lightness was pretty much the same as the original ASCII output, but I was guaranteed to have the necessary letters.


With all that done, I could then actually start building.

Oh wait. There was one more problem. I had about 60,000 letter tiles at my disposal, but I had no baseplates to which I could attach them.

I ended up ordering some from the U.S. importer of Modulex products. This was not particularly cheap or timely, but about five weeks later I managed to get the baseplates I needed.

And I began the actual building of the mosaic.

I have constructed plenty of LEGO mosaic in the past (qq.v. New York City, Mona Lisa, San Francisco), so I was almost prepared for this task. There are notable differences between Modulex mosaic building and LEGO mosaic building, however. Most noticable is the fact that the minute Modulex bricks are *that much harder* to pick up and maneuver. Nimble fingers are required.

Modulex bricks also seem to attach more securely to the baseplates (more securely than LEGO bricks do to LEGO baseplates), and this is nice. However, it also means that a bit more force is need to make each little click. Tough fingers are required.

And finally, since I was creating a mosaic with little letters and numbers, I had to be sure that each brick was positioned with the correct orientation (no upside down P's for me, buddy).

Anyway... in the end, I got the darn thing done. The final 'Calista mosaic' is currently hanging on a wall in my house, and I hope to transport it to the Brickswest (2002) convention.

The mosaic used about 30,000 pieces (the 140 by 240 area for the letters, with some of the white spaces filled by larger tiles, and finally a border).

This, of course, means that I have about 30,000 or so letter tiles remaining. Enough for another mosaic! Heh... not one for myself, but I'd could always do one on commission, by request. Such a commssion would not be cheap of course (for a similarly sized mosaic -- 30 inches by 50 inches -- you could expect a price tag of many, many thousands of dollars).

But if you're game, let me know... I obviously have a limited supply, so it'd be first come, first serve... requests from actresses would get preferential consideration, of course [grin].

What I'm going to do with the rest of my Modulex stash (the non-letter bricks)... well, I'm still trying to figure that out.

More pictures

Also, I should give thanks to Ted, Brad, Irving, Arne, and Henry for helping me get this crazy little project conceived and finsihed in about four months time.

Finally, for the trivia prone people, I'll toss out these little bits:

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