LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

Scriptics Connect 1.1 "Ship It!" Award

What am I supposed to do with this?

When we wrapped up the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 release recently, I wanted to give my teammates something to commemorate the release. Traditionally these are called “Ship It!” awards, and they often take the form of a Lucite plaque or trophy, or even a physical copy of the product (on DVD or CD, for example) locked inside an acrylic block. I’ve gotten a couple of those over the years, and honestly I think they’re kind of a waste. The last one I got went on a shelf to collect dust for a few years before being relocated to the trash heap, which is a shame because those things are expensive. Really expensive. I can’t even imagine the cost of the monster awards that Microsoft gives out.

So I don’t really like the usual embodiment of the “Ship It” award, but I do really like the underlying idea. After all, shipping a software release is a significant accomplishment, the culmination of months or even years of effort by a team of smart individuals. And unlike many other human endeavors, there’s nothing tangible when you’re finished — no bridge spanning the bay nor tower reaching to the heavens. Having something to commemorate the accomplishment seems fitting, and it’s another small way that I can show my appreciation for everybody’s contributions.

The Ideal “Ship It!” Award

To me, the ideal “Ship It!” award has the following attributes:

  • Themeable: I wanted something I could customize for each release, while maintaining consistency across releases. I plan to make this a tradition.
  • Inexpensive: I wanted something I could bankroll myself, so I could retain complete creative control.
  • Compact: I wanted something that wouldn’t take up much space, so it would be portable and easy to display.
  • Geek appeal: I wanted something that my teammates would think is cool. Chunks of Lucite just don’t cut it.

LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

LEGO race car driver minifig

The winner!

After a few days of idle brainstorming and bouncing ideas off my manager and co-conspirator, I had what seemed like a great idea: LEGO minifigs. I could get a bunch of a specific LEGO minifig and give one to each person on the team. It fit all my criteria. There have been over 4,000 different minifigs released since 1978, according to The Cult of LEGO. In the last two years alone LEGO has release five minifig packs, each with 16 completely new figures, so I can count on having a unique character for every feature release for the next several years. Minifigs are cheap, too — the majority can be bought for as little as a couple dollars each on Amazon or ebay. They’re obviously small. And of course, minifigs are dripping with geek appeal. What techie doesn’t like LEGO?

There was just one small problem. Minifigs are a little bit too small. There’s nowhere to put the information that would identify what it represented — the product name, release version and date, and so on. A couple more days of brainstorming gave me the solution: custom baseball cards. There are several companies that will print custom baseball cards. These outfits are obviously intended for children’s sports teams, but they will happily print cards with whatever graphic you want. You just have to create images of the front and back of your card and upload to their website. And like the minifigs themselves, the cards are inexpensive, at about $1 per card.

The ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award

For the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, I chose the race car driver shown above (because Accelerator is all about performance, of course!). I bought the minifigs on ebay. I spent a couple hours designing the card, then ordered them from The front shows the minifig, the product name, version, and release date, and the major new features; the back lists the names of everybody on the team. Total cost for awards for the entire team was about $40 for materials — about the cost of just one traditional Lucite-based “Ship It” award.

I was a little nervous when I presented the awards to my team a couple weeks ago, but as it turns out I needn’t have been! The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Although I hadn’t explicitly planned it this way, the minifigs actually arrived unassembled, in individual pouches. Immediately upon getting theirs, each person dumped out the pieces and started assembly — it was practically instinctive! Several people commented out loud that the award was “Awesome!” or “Really cool,” and, of course, “Kinda nerdy, but cool!” With that kind of reaction, you can bet that I’m already planning for the next release.

And finally, here’s a picture of the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, as it is proudly displayed on my desk:

ElectricAccelerator 6.0 "Ship It!" Award

Who doesn't love LEGO?

Halloween 2011 Haunted Graveyard Post Mortem

Another year, another Halloween party. And another Halloween party means another Haunted Graveyard in the backyard! This year is my fourth attempt. You can see pictures of last year’s graveyard here. I got lots of compliments from the party guests for that effort, probably because it was a huge improvement over 2009 — of course, that just set the bar that much higher for this year!

The first step in setting up the graveyard was actually taken last year — the day after Halloween I hit the 50% off sale at the Spirit Halloween Superstore, so I picked up a few more characters and decorations at a huge discount. You’ll see pictures of the new guys below. One thing I was not able to find at the sale was a fog machine. In previous years I borrowed one from my sister-in-law, but I really wanted to have my own. So this year, a couple weeks before Halloween, I sucked it up and bought a few at regular price — expensive, but absolutely worth it!

So, once I had all my inventory assembled, the next step was to setup the perimeter. I used the same 2 foot fencing this year, as that seemed to work really well last year to direct traffic and avoid people tripping over cords. I think I ended up with a little bit more area inside the fence than I did last year (you can click on any of these pictures to see a larger version):

Next I started to populate the graveyard — these guys are just dying to get in there. First in was this great zombie. He lays flat on the ground, then pops up and makes creepy noises when people walk by. One thing I learned with this guy is that you have to put a heavy block on the front of the stand — otherwise he’ll catapult forward when the latch releases, because the spring is really powerful:

Next I added the mummy and the animated ghost guy, you probably recognize them from last year:

And of course my favorite space-filling decoration: Styrofoam tombstones:

OK, now things get interesting. Like I said, we had some trees trimmed back over the summer, so I didn’t have as many places to hang decorations. So this year I strung a rope from a hook screwed into the eaves of the house down to the fence on the other side of the yard. Then I positioned some of my characters on the rope. I tied knots in the rope to keep the characters from slipping down the line. The guy in the middle is the same ghost I used last year, but the guys on the the ends of the line are both new this year:

I brought back the plain white masks too, I really liked the look of those last year. I moved them to the other side of the yard though, so they had a more prominent display:

No graveyard is complete without cobwebs of course:

Here’s a close-up shot of one of the new characters. He’s some kind of scary-looking ghost thing. He’s actually really tall, six feet at least. He doesn’t do any but look spooky, though, which is a little disappointing. I set up a purple flood light to shine on him:

Here’s a close-up shot of the giant light-up, inflatable spider that I borrow from my sister-in-law every year. He sits in the back of the yard, so he’s hard to see in most of the pictures here:

And here’s the second new character this year. This guy is awesome! He’s labeled the “flying animated reaper” or something like that, and his eyes light up, his wings flap (!!), in a really creepy, unnatural way, and he makes spooky noises. I got him for only about $30 on sale, and everybody loved him — definitely my favorite character this year:

And of course I had to bring back the Zombie Barbies from last year. This time I made tiny nooses for them and hung them from the fence, instead of leaving them on the ground, so they’d be easier to see. I put a small red strobe on them too:

Finally, of course, here’s the obligatory “action shot”. I love how the colored lights make the bushes look like they’re on fire! I assure you that’s just an artifact of the color management in my camera — nothing was actually burning!

All in all, I think this year’s graveyard was a great success. There’s still a lot of room for improvement though, and the pressure is really on now — I think the kids that come to the party are getting braver faster than I am making the graveyard spookier at this point, so if I don’t step it up next year, they’re all just going to laugh at me!

A couple final thoughts and suggestions for those who might stumble across this page while planning their own Halloween decorations:

  • If you’re thinking about buying a fog machine, go big. The small machines are a waste of money. They just don’t generate much fog.
  • On the other hand, I highly recommend the Low Lying Fog Machine. This is a regular fog machine with an extra compartment for ice, which cools the fog as it comes out, so the fog stays low to the ground. It works like a champ! The only problem is the cycle time is pretty long — between 2 and 3 minutes — so you might want to get more than one machine and set them to fire at staggered intervals.
  • Make sure you take advantage of the “day after” sales! I picked up a huge new “zombie barrel” character for $75, and a second low fogger for just $35 this year.

I can’t wait for next year! I need to figure out a way to rig a zipline, so I can make that tall ghost guy come flying at my victims guests, and some kind of curtain to separate the graveyard, so you can’t see the whole thing at once. Hope to see you there!

Halloween 2010 Haunted Graveyard

Every Halloween, we host a party for family and close friends. This tradition was actually started by my mother-in-law many years ago; when we inherited her house a few years ago after her passing, we inherited the annual party too.

As the man of the house, it became my responsibility to setup the Haunted Graveyard in the backyard. 2010 is my third attempt. The first, in 2008, was an unmitigated disaster, although in my defense I only learned that I was responsible for it a few hours before the party, and since I had never done it before I had no supplies. I was spared utter humiliation only because the audience at the time was only 3-5 years old. Last year was much better and received many compliments, although in my opinion it still left much to be desired.

Here are some pictures of the construction of my 2010 Haunted Graveyard.

The grassy area in the backyard is about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. This year I decided to use some 2 foot tall fencing I have to mark out an inverted U-shaped pathway through the graveyard, with the characters and decorations inside the U, on the sides, and on the opposite side of the path past the end of the U. This worked better than the open area I had last year, because it kept people moving along, so more people could experience the graveyard more quickly, and it helped keep the kids from hitting the characters in the graveyard.

I bought the fencing at the hardware store a few years ago and store it in the side yard, so it has a great weathered, run-down look, with some of the fenceposts missing. It really helps set the tone.

With the fencing all laid out it was time to bring in the decorations. First was a hanging ghost guy. He’s supposed to light up and make weird noises, but after a year in storage he had stopped working. He still looks good though, so I decided to use him.

Next was a standing mummy with light-up eyes that makes creepy noises. I got him cheap the day after Halloween last year, but I hadn’t tried him out until now. I think he worked pretty well. He didn’t stay in that position though, as you can see in later pictures. I also brought out our collection of tombstones. These are great because they fill a lot of space, and with appropriate lighting on them they actually look pretty spooky at night. They’re just made of styrofoam, so I used tent stakes behind them, with the hook actually digging into the foam, to hold them up.

Then I put in an animated ghost guy with light-up eyes and, of course, creepy noises. He’s sitting down in this picture, between the mummy and the tombstones. Behind the far fence, past the mummy, you can just make out the yellow eyes of a giant inflatable spider that I borrow from my sister-in-law for the event.

My 16-year-old daughter helps me set up the graveyard. Here we’ve put some cobwebs on the fence, for ambiance.

We also put some plain white masks in the bushes on the left side. Those turned out really well, since they are just featureless, eyeless faces. With a blacklight behind them they glow in a very eerie way too. And, they were the cheapest item out there, at just a couple bucks each.

The next addition was a pop-up zombie character, on the right hand side. Hard to see since he’s laying down in this picture. You can see the mummy in a new position further back too. That’s still not his final resting place (ha!) though.

Everything’s in place here. The mummy has been moved, again, to the right side of the graveyard. The animated ghost is standing up in this picture so he’s easier to see.

Here’s a picture of the graveyard after dark. There’s a fog machine in the back, making the smoke you see. The yellow glow in back is from the giant spider. The blue glow on the left is from the masks in the bushes.

A couple details are hard to see in those pictures, but I was really pleased with how they turned out so I got close-up shots of them. First is a collection of zombie Barbies. I got the idea here, which I must have found via Reddit. It’s really easy to make zombie Barbies — just grab a bunch of old Barbie dolls (my 7 year old had about 50, so she was happy to sacrifice a few for the cause), spray paint them white, then use a Sharpie to blacken the eyes and make scars. Everybody agreed that the Barbies were super creepy:

Next are these little skulls. These were just some cheap styrofoam skulls that came in a multi-pack of “graveyard stuff” from the Halloween super store. Last year I just arranged them around the tombstones, but this time I got a little more creative.

I also really liked this flying ghost. He’s attached to a cord that’s stretched taut between a tree and our house. He moves back-and-forth along the cord, making weird noises as he goes.

Finally, here’s a shot of one of the creepy masks I mentioned. Remember, this is just a $3 mask and a black light. Hard to beat that bang-to-buck ratio!

Here’s the obligatory “action shot” of the graveyard from the party. You can just make out my daughter in the back. She likes to watch the kids go through the graveyard, and she makes loud noises now and then to trigger the sound-activated characters, if the kids aren’t noisy enough themselves.

If success is measured by the number of kids that are too scared to finish walking through the graveyard, or who refuse to go into the backyard afterwards, then this year’s graveyard was a smashing success. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Next year I need more lights, to better highlight some of the characters. And I need some kind of curtain or partition down the middle of the central area, so that you can’t see what’s on the right side of the graveyard as you’re walking on the left side, maybe something like this wall of fog. Last, I think I can do more with the zombie Barbies — perhaps a zombie Barbie mansion, complete with a partially eaten Ken?

Good thing I have a year to plan!