We Built Robots. That Battle. Out of Legos

The Story

Lego MotorIt all started with this. A single motor.

My six year old boy, Beck, was rummaging through his cousins’ old Legos and came across this motor.

“What’s this, dad?”

“Looks like a motor… Hmm…” I grumbled. “I didn’t know Lego made motors. They didn’t in my day.” I wish I had taken a picture. I have rarely seen his eyes so wide, and his eyes are always wide.

“You mean, I can motorize my Legos?!!!”

“Uh, no son, you don’t have any motors.”

Well… not yet…”, he said.

Now seemed like as good a time as any to finally dash those bright eyes and squash that relentless enthusiasm, once and for all – toughen him up for the real world ahead.

“Never. We will never have motors. Ever. Don’t ask again.”

So here we are, three years later, with not just motors, but color, infrared, gyroscopic, touch and ultrasonic sensors, all computer controlled. I could have purchased an entire car with the money this stuff cost, and I have Lego to thank for it (I may be exaggerating, I could only have purchased part of a new car, maybe the doors. Or, an entire old, rusted Yugo).

Lego Sumo Robot

Honestly, though, I can’t think of a better use for hard-earned money (except feeding the poor, and maybe not even that). I hope the Lego people are filthy rich and drive Jaguars (or whatever it is they drive in Denmark. Trains, maybe?) They deserve it.

Some may argue who was the greatest, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. About this, there is no argument: there is no better toy than Legos. Period.

To give you an idea of the capabilities of Lego’s robotics gear, a couple of years ago Beck built a machine using plans he downloaded from the web that solved a Rubik’s cube. Pretty impressive.

Even so, we felt we weren’t embracing the robotic’s full potential. It virtually cried out for combat and mayhem. So, we set about creating autonomous battlebots.

The Challenge

The format we decided upon was Sumo wrestling. Each robot must autonomously search within a ring drawn on the floor, find the opponent, and push it out of the ring. Easy enough.

Beck wanted to include flame throwers and buzz saws, but I convinced him that he wouldn’t enjoy being grounded, for life. He’s a smart kid. However, If one robot ‘accidentally’ smashed the other robot into its fundamental atomic elements, so be it. We could write that off as a chemistry lesson.

Lego Sumo Robot - Beck and TIm Bjella

Robot Design

To be fair, Beck and I used identical motors and sensors. Beyond that, any design features were allowable as long as they were built from Legos and didn’t remove skin, set hair on fire or result in profuse bleeding (all the good stuff, really).

The problem with both robots having identical motors was that they would have equal pushing power. Neither would have a mechanical advantage. I suggested that to be fair, the old guy should get an extra motor, which Beck agreed to, if I could find it. Sneaky kid. We may never find that motor.

To gain the upper hand, we both devised a lifting arm, an offensive weapon to reduce the traction of the opposing robot. Beck’s was more straightforward, while mine relied on gears and rubber bands. We are still not sure which had the greater power and leverage.

Lego Sumo Robot

Lego Sumo Robots
Here are the two designs. They are similar, but have some not-so-obvious distinctions.

Advantages of my design:

  • Wheels in back. If Beck’s robot lifts the front of my robot (most likely scenario), it will help my robot by putting more weight on its wheels, thus providing more traction (unless he flips over my robot, in which case he’s grounded for two lifetimes).
  • Pretty plume of feathers on top to appeal to the judges and possibly distract Beck’s robot (even robots have a softer side).

Advantages of Beck’s design:

  • Lower center of gravity and wider wheelbase
  • Direct lifter connection to motors. Possibly stronger lifting force. Mine relies on a rotating gear for leverage.
  • Looks meaner

Programming the Robots

Sumobot Programming - Beck Bjella 2016
Screenshot of Program

Both robots have the same basic programming. We programmed them together. My program includes an additional piece of code, however, that runs only at the beginning of the match. I call it the Sneak Attack.

Main Program:

  1. Search for opponent (repeat until ultrasonic sensor detects opponent, then proceed to Charge)
    1. Spin clockwise for 1 second
    2. Spin counterclockwise for 2 seconds
    3. Move forward for 1 second
  2. Charge opponent (continue until ultrasonic sensor loses sight of opponent, then return to Search)

Sensor Subroutines:

  1. Ultrasonic sensor: When the opponent is within range, raise lifting arm. Lower the arm if opponent moves out of range
  2. Color Sensor: Scan for out-of-bounds border. If detected, reverse robot then return to the start of the search program

Sneak Attack (the Feint):

If you watch the video closely, you may notice at the start of the match, my robot does not act exactly like Beck’s. While my robot spins and locates his, just like his does mine, instead of immediately charging, it stops and waits, facing Beck’s robot {insert wild west gunfight showdown music here}. It waits until it detects his robot moving toward it. Then it turns and races diagonally away from the other robot. Finally, it spins back toward it and charges. The idea is to catch the robot on its side, rather than the front, where (in theory) it is more vulnerable.

Skills for Life (or Twenty Years to Life)

Steel Mask Art by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Robyn and Tim BjellaRobyn and I attended a welding class at the local art center – because you never know when you might need to weld some steel. It was between that or a course on CPR. I think we made the right choice. I can’t tell you how many times we have been out for a nice dinner and regretted leaving our welding torch at home. Worse, not knowing how to use it.

But now…

  • If an axle breaks on our way to the bank heist, we’re covered.
  • If we have the wrong combination to the safe, no problem. That steel doesn’t look all that tough.
  • If law enforcement finally catches up with us, an arc welder baked into a cake and we’re outta there.

With my newly acquired skulduggery skills, some spare time and extra loot, I welded the metal mask shown in the photo below (ski masks are just so passe). I’m not as skinny as I used to be, and it didn’t fit. That sad fact somehow lessened the blow when I accidently left it out in the rain after a big job (Robyn usually reminds me to bring in my toys). Well, it rusted. The only thing it’s good for now is covering up the bullet holes in the wall.

Steel Mask Closeup Detail by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Masks and abstract faces have always fascinated me, and not just for their usefulness evading the law. I suspect it’s because I prefer art that’s relatable to people. People are interesting. Much pure abstract art isn’t (I’m thinking of you, Pollock). I also prefer art that requires skill and talent over shock and awe. Call me old fashioned. Now, where did I leave my Tommy gun?

Rugged Luxury – Mountain Timber House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana – Arteriors Architects

Modern Mountain House Yellowstone Club Montana Arteriors Architects

What was the driving factor in the design of this mountain home? Context.

I designed this modern, rustic mountain home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana with an aesthetic of rugged luxury specifically to integrate with the other mountain homes in the area. In many ways it is unique, but it has underlying characteristics that allow it to blend, to fit in, yet retain its own identity.

  • Heavy wood timbers
  • Rough textured, natural materials
  • Hand crafted details
  • Solid, heavy metal connections
  • Large windows comprised of many smaller windows
  • Strong connection to the earth via stone base and walls
Cotswolds, England
Cotswolds, England

Why was context the driving force behind this design? Because all communities, towns, and neighborhoods have a sense of place, sometimes distinctly good, sometimes awful, but most often unremarkable. Some, however, are extraordinary, like the Cotswolds, England. We cherish these places, and for good reason. They have a fabric that ties them together which is based in large part on architecture. Most are not the children of forethought and planning, but came into being spontaneously and were nurtured over many years.

While many are resilient, some are fragile. Sometimes one thoughtless building can rip the fabric. Imagine a modern, white building in the middle of the Cotswolds. I bet it wouldn’t last a week before an angry mob with pitchforks and torches descended upon it. I’d be the one carrying the gasoline.

See more of my work at Arteriors Architecture.

Sketched and Sketching in Firenze

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait
Robyn Bjella, Firenze, Italy

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a street artist in Firenze, Italy. And because of some warp in space-time, both “yes” and “no” mean “si” – and “si” means, “I’ll pay anything you ask, if you would only sketch me. Please, please sketch me.”

All the while, in the back of your mind you are thinking, “Is he going to draw a portrait or caricature? But, of course you do it anyway, knowing your loving and supportive husband will be watching in the background, along with hordes of passing strangers, definitely not pointing and sniggering.

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait

Twenty minutes of pretending to be whomever it is the artist is sketching, and it is fini.

As you can see, the portrait turned out not entirely unlike Robyn, but not quite like her either. The artist was very talented, but portraits are unforgiving. I believe ‘portrait’ in French means ‘perfect subtlety’. If a single line is slightly off or a curve is a bit pronounced, voila, the subject is someone else. I guess that explains all the hoopla over the Mona Lisa, a painting I never (gasp) really appreciated, even after seeing it in person.


Well, technically I saw it, about as well as Helen Keller. It’s a tiny painting, much smaller than you imagine. See if you can spot it in the photo above. The painting is shielded behind bulletproof glass, reflecting just enough glare to obscure the painting’s finer detail (all of its detail, really). No worries, though. You won’t be bothered by the glorious detail because you are kept back ten feet by a wood railing (undoubtedly to protect the bulletproof glass), and then another ten feet by stanchions that protect the wood railing that protects the bulletproof glass that protects the painting. I think Dr. Seuss wrote a book about that. Or was it a song?

But it doesn’t end there. There’s still the throng of tourists, likely paid by the museum to keep you away from the lovely stanchions. I think there are guard dogs and lasers, too, but I couldn’t get close enough to see. Remember to bring binoculars and a ladder. And, a sharp stick to prod the crowd.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre
Mona Lisa at the Louvre – Look ma, it’s so close I can almost touch it!

It goes to show the French have a sublime sense of humor. Notice in the photo above how they tease you with a beautiful lunch table right beneath the painting, but you can’t eat there. I bet when lunchtime rolls around, the curators plop their brown bags on the table and gaze into Mona’s eyes for an hour, to the melodious background music of “Down in front!” Incidentally, the designers of this display are also renowned for their abattoirs.

imageDon’t be dismayed, however. The louvre is filled with other great, yet more accessible, art. Quite frankly, the Mona Lisa is just not that much of a babe anyway (you know you were thinking it. I just said it). Some experts believe it’s a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, with longer hair. If you visit Paris, you could safely give her/him a miss. Spend an hour with a croissant and a Sports Illustrated outside a cafe instead. Time better spent.

If you disregard my advice, at least don’t miss my favorite painting. We stumbled upon it on our first trip to Paris. I have never been the same since. See kids, museums can be fun!

Louvre Painting

Sorry about the detour. This post was about Firenze, right? OK, back to Italy…

We thanked the nice artist for the future memory, more so than the portrait (somehow it got lost on the way home), and went off to do some sketching of our own. What better subject than the picturesque Ponte Vecchio – much easier than sketching portraits. It almost sketches itself. Robyn’s sketch turned out better than mine, but at least I didn’t have to sit for half an hour with good posture.

Robyn Bjella - Sketching Firenze

Robyn Bjella Sketch - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Robyn Bjella
Tim Bjella Sketches - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Tim Bjella

Less is more. More calm. More Serenity. Less clutter.

Minimal Bathroom Tub - Arteriors Architects - Tim Bjella
I restricted this home in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a simple color palette of greys and whites and introduced texture with striated porcelain tile. The emphasis is on romance and drama.

I sometimes daydream about the minimalist spaces I could create if my clients would do without furniture

Minimalism is about simplicity, stripping away ornamentation, leaving only the functional. Well, almost. It’s about much more than that. A space may be functional and simple, yet still not attain the moniker of minimal. Sometimes it’s just simplistic.

Think Goldilocks. Minimalism is all about finding the point of “just right.” It only succeeds via interesting spacial design (that’s spacial, not special, although I suppose special works, too), refined details, thoughtful lighting and sumptuous materials. Without these, it’s just blah.

Notice the linear shower drain along the wall that eliminates the inconvenient drain always under your feet while creating a minimal environment
Notice the linear shower drain along the wall that eliminates the inconvenient drain one normally is forced to stand upon in a shower

The key is restraint. Ironically, a whole lot of ‘design’ goes into creating a space that looks like it has less.

If it helps, recite my mantra: “If everything is special, nothing is.” (That’s special, not spacial.)

Minimalism doesn’t work for everybody, though. It is inherently antithetical to everyday life. The slightest bit of clutter destroys the aesthetic. Even furniture can get in the way of the ideal.

I sometimes daydream about the minimalist spaces I could create if my clients would do without furniture (we sit too much, anyway). If only they could learn to sleep standing, like horses. I suppose shipping off the children and their toys to live with their grandparents is out of the question? You can visit them on weekends… Someday, you know I’m going to suggest it. Keep your fingers crossed while I look for a new job.

The project shown here is a departure from much of my work, where my philosophy is to create spaces rich with color and detail – spaces that stand on their own even without furniture and furnishings, but are still accepting of them. It just goes to show, there is more than one way to skin a fish, or bake a cake, or design a home.

Minimal Bathroom Vanity - Arteriors Architects - Tim Bjella
Moody, concealed lighting contributes to a romantic, spa-like aesthetic

Whoops! No Pictures or Videos

No Picture

To those of you who have subscribed and read this blog via email (sorry, Mr. President), I regret to inform you that you only receive some of the images (at least I won’t get a call from the Secret Service. Again) and none of the videos.

There is some quirk in the blog hosting software that strips out multiple image galleries (the good stuff, really and video links). It doesn’t appear fixable. You will have to click your way to the blog page (www.arteriors.com/blog) to see them. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Reflections on My Saturday Morning Ride

A light snowfall on a Minnesota morning
A light snowfall on a crisp Minnesota morning

A typical Saturday morning conversation at the Bjella house goes something like this:

“I’m off to play with my racquetball friends, dear.”

[muffled sounds from under the covers]

I speak loudly in case she’s still asleep, because I am a good husband and know she wouldn’t want to waste a moment of her day, warm and cozy in bed, “WHAT DID YOU SAY, DEAR?”

“I SAID, If they are such good friends, why do you always come home covered with red welts?”

I tell her they aren’t welts, they are hickeys.

Without missing a beat she says, “shouldn’t you be spending more time with your Facebook friends?”

“My what?”

“You know, the people who don’t pelt you with racquetballs? The ones who ‘like’ you?”

My Saturday morning racquetball friends

Admittedly, I’m new to the whole social media thing, about six months since I lost my online virginity. So, I say, “but everyone is always so nice on Facebook, with their hundreds of friends, always so supportive…” It feels like the Stepford version of Disneyland, without the cartoon mice. Which is surprising, given all the cats on Facebook. Lots and lots of cats. 

She says, “Maybe that’s how people really are. Nice.” 

I let that slide with a mere cocking of an eyebrow.

“It’s all so… so make-believe. If our physical friends acted that polite around us, I’d probably call the police. Besides, it’s a veritable popularity contest for ‘likes’.” 

“Better not say that, or you won’t get any,” she says.

I reply, “We’re still talking about ‘likes’, right?” I have to tread very carefully here.

I tell her I don’t have to worry about ‘likes’. “First of all, nobody will ever read this far into my post. Second, I have you and your mom. You two are my groupies.” Sure, I have to ‘like’ some of my own posts on Robyn’s behalf using her computer, but still, it’s nice to have groupies. Even if they are sort of guilted into it. Forced, really (I know things about them).

“So why bother to post, then? You don’t post cats, and nobody has the attention span to read anymore, so why bother?”

That’s a good question. And, the second time someone has asked me that this week (so, if you are reading this, here’s your answer). Upon reflection today on my ride, I thought of many reasons, but these are the unexpected ones (and if I had time I could come up with more).

  1. Together with sketching/drawing, photography, and that brain sucking machine I saw on Star Trek, writing completes the panoply of tools at hand to capture thoughts and memories, and share them, too.
  2. It is a means to interact with friends, a way to talk about the things for which there is no time in the brief moments you have together, between cheers, while watching your kid’s basketball game. It is a way to ‘talk’ to busy friends on their schedule, those that have the time or inclination to read, anyway. It’s also a way to target those friends who are interested, without boring those who are not. As hard as it is for me to believe, there are actually people out there not consumed daily by architecture… well, we all have our passions (probably shoes).
  3. Most of my life is spent drawing and visualizing, which is about form and function. Writing has forced me to think. Actually think. To think deeper (but not quite Deepak Chopra deep) about just about everything, not just the visual. In fifty-one years I haven’t had to do much of that. Yes, of course I read and take in other people’s thoughts about life, but rarely have I reflected on my own. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself.
  4. It’s difficult. Easy things are boring. ’nuff said.
  5. It forces you to become a better writer. I look at each post and ask if I was you (were you?), would I read it. If it’s obviously boring, which it usually is, I ask how can I make it more interesting without including porn (if you follow this blog long enough, I may just get there). Turns out it’s much like architecture, which requires training yourself to approach things in new and hopefully interesting ways (come to think of it, maybe it is like porn).

By way of example, here’s my Facebook post as originally conceived during my morning ride. Nice and inoffensive (probably would have received a thousand ‘likes’ from Robyn and her mom):

My typical Saturday morning ride to the courts is an especially beautiful one today, because of a fresh snowfall… if you can get past the grey sky. The ride is an easy five miles, most of which is a mixture of trails and tracks. Happy to say no injuries today. Good thing, because my ribs are still recovering from a spill a few weeks ago.

It’s quite amazing to live 10 minutes from the heart of a big city (Minneapolis) and rarely have to ride on roads. I love this place. Except the cold. And the mosquitos. And the guys who hit me with racquetballs. Here are a few pictures from the ride this morning.

If you read another post from me like the one above one, you know I have given up and am spending the entire day in my bathrobe, talking to cats. And I don’t have cats.

Cute Cat
Cute Cat

May the Haiku be with You

Last night we took Beck to see Star Wars I, or IV (or was it VII?). It was the latest one, anyway, where they blow up the big planet-destroying, star of death. I think it was titled, “New Hope for a Big Explosion.” Or, “Search for the Phantom Jedi Tribbles.” Or, “Darth’s Revenge, This Time it’s Personal.” Something like that.

Grade School Drawings - Droid - Tim Bjella
To set the stage for this post, I wanted to include an image of something Star Warsy. But due to copyright laws and the hundreds of George Lucas attorneys no doubt watching every post I write, sadly I could not. So, instead, here is a droid I designed a long, long time ago, in a grade-school far, far away (thanks for keeping it, mom!). Any resemblance to a Star Wars character is entirely coincidental.

Bjella FamilyAfter the movie, like most of you, I naturally thought to commemorate the occasion by writing some haiku (Japanese poetry). So, while I’m waiting to read yours, here are a few of mine.

Please note, I have never written any poetry before, much less haiku. My formal training is limited to extensive inspections of toilet stalls. However, I understand it follows very strict rules (nothing at all like the limericks of which we are all so fond).

  1. It must be exactly three lines (don’t ask me why).
  2. The first and third line must contain five syllables, no more, no less (there’s probably a good reason).
  3. The second line must contain seven syllables (obviously).

So, here goes. Yes, this is what keeps me up at night. This, and world peace. And chocolate:

Lonely Skywalker,
Always looking to the sky,
Do. There is no try.

Love this new movie,
Go ahead, Luke, make my day,

Death Star exploded,
This time it’s even bigger,
Oops. Try, try again.

White plastic armor,
Fashionable uniform,
Can’t stop a damn thing.

Rebels are winning,
Except when they are losing,
Three films should do it.

If you strike me down,
I become more powerful,
Oh hell, I just died.

Black mask covering,
Black cape hanging to the floor,
Must be in Gotham.

Light sabres flashing,
I do not feel like dying,
Should have brought a gun.

Smuggled some cargo,
Kessel run in 12 parsecs,
‘course, I’ll pay you back.

Sweet princess Leia,
Love what you did with your hair,
Is that your Wookie?

The films keep coming,
How many more will there be?
It started with three.

And a few more drawings from the late seventies. Sorry, I digress…

Grade School Drawings - Another Droid Rip-off - Tim Bjella

Grade School Drawings - Life Before the Death Star - Tim Bjella
Before there was the Death Star, there was the Intergalactic Planet Peeler. Eat your heart out, Darth Vader (never mind. No heart).

Just Another Walk in the Desert…

Tim Bjella Sketches - Desert Southwest

Flipping through these old sketches reminded me of a night hike through the desert of Arizona (not to be confused with my once daily hikes through the desserts of Arizona. Those were more like pilgrimages, frankly).

Walking along a gravel road with a few friends on a dark, moonless night, mesmerized by the brilliant stars, I was startled by a sound behind me. What was that? Was that a rattle? What could possibly rattle in the middle of a desert? Did someone leave a small baby lying around? …Oh. Whipping around like Clint Eastwood without the chiseled chin, drawing my Colt 45 lookalike flashlight, I pulled the trigger and there in the beam, not five feet away, was a coiled rattlesnake – not just a rattlesnake, but the rattlesnake I had unknowingly stepped right over just moments before.

After the shock wore off and my eyeballs retracted back into their sockets, I slowly backed away, palms outstretched, saying, “Good doggie, gooooooood doggie” (because rattlesnakes are really just long, thin puppies). Go ahead and laugh. I’d like to know what you would do.

RattlesnakeThankfully, the snake had shown remarkable restraint, choosing not to strike at my exposed fleshy bits, and I returned the favor, not biting it, either. Fair’s fair.

However, what may have actually saved me (and it) was the cool fall weather. Apparently, snakes become sluggish when cold and slither onto warm roads to soak up the leftover heat of the day. I probably stepped over the snake before its delayed senses even knew I was there. Yet, I prefer to believe the snake sensed a kindred spirit and let me off with a warning. Goooooood snake.

Tim Bjella Sketch - Arizona Desert

Bathtub Surprise – Slow, but VERY Scary

Beck Bjella - Pinewood Derby Car - Bathtub Surprise 2016

Pinewood Derby 2016

As is our tradition, Team Bjella lost again, yet won again. Who would have thought it was possible to be less aerodynamic than last year’s car (for love of Pete, it was a crate! Literally, a crate.)? Well, Beck and I did it. So much for all those weeks spent in the wind tunnel testing, and testing, and testing. I guess we should have brought the car along with us and tested it, too. But, at least we got our cheeks to do that funny, warbly thing. And, our hair looks fantastic. Like Fabio. Except less.

Bathtub Surprise finished 18th out of 18, by a wide margin. Despite many creative suggestions from other parents (mass hypnosis, doctoring the video record, pulling the fire alarm, faking a heart attack), there was just no way to challenge the results.

I have a theory to explain the loss, however, one I think we can stick with: Bathtub Surprise wasn’t actually slow. It was SO scary that all the other cars drove crazy-fast to get away from it.

The Car:

The Construction:

The Race:

Beck Bjella - Pinewood Derby Race 2016
See the motion blur of Bathtub Surprise. That’s fast. Almost warp speed. Now, just imagine how fast the other cars were going to get out of its way!

Here’s a video of the final heat. You could smell the fear on the other cars as they ran away from Bathtub Surprise. Who could blame them. They probably hadn’t bathed since they were built.

So, there you go. Dead last in speed (participation trophy already in the trash), first for Best Design (real trophy on the shelf).

See prior years’ cars here.