Visualizing Portus #UoSFLPortus

Right, I think I might have reached the limits of Lego Digital Designer.

And I’m only about a third of the way through visualizing the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo. I started with the excellent notes and drawings made by Grant Cox and Christina Triantafillou especially for as after a couple of us on the Portus MOOC started modelling building five. From that I created a Lego model of a single warehouse space – a guess a “Magazzino”. The drawings suggest that along one range, these were mostly of consistent shape and size, so having made one magazzino, it was quite easy to make two by stacking one on top of the other and then 22, by placing eleven stacks side my side. My fiddling with real Lego last earlier this week had prepared me with an idea about how I’d clip each unit to the next. Even with virtual Lego its important to make sure it all slots into space.

Then I created a staircase, which, according to the drawings, is a little narrower than a magazzino. THEN I created the entrance large tunnel, which on reflection, I think I should have incorporated into the construction of the staircase. But then that’s the beauty of modelling, trying it out helps you understand more about how it fits together.

Sometimes it also raises more questions while answering others. On Grant’s drawings, the front (courtyard) opening of the tunnel is depicted under and single arched opening for the upper story. But on the rear facade, the opening is depicted spanning two arches of the upper story. Is this an error? Given that Grant has been doing this stuff longer than me, I think not, but I’d love to have a look at the data upon which he based his drawings.

Anyway, though I’d like to work a bit more on that staircase/entrance arch conjunction, I’m ready to share where I’ve got to so far. And it might be as far as I’m able to go. LDD was getting very sticky as I attached the 22 magazzini to the staircase/arch model, and slow almost to to the point of unresponsive when I tried to put the other twenty units onto the other side of the arch. For the last few hours my poor computer has been trying to make a building guide, which would tell me how many real bricks I’d need, and also allow me to share the model, but its already fallen over once and started again. So I don’t hold out much hope!

Anyway, here are a few screen-grabs I made before I issued that fateful instruction.

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A Lego Magazzini #buildyourownportus

My post a couple of weeks back on the Portus MOOC, and trying to model Building Five in Lego aroused some visits from my fellow students, a few comments in the MOOC itself, and at least one other attempt to use Lego Digital Designer to as an archeological tool.

It so encouraged Graeme Earl that he wrote about it on Southampton’s MOOCs blog He also provides a link there to some plans and drawings of the Grandi Magazzini Di Settimio Severo that he persuaded Grant Cox (he of the astounding computer models) and Christina Triantafillou to create.

The challenge is evident. Can we, the MOOC’s students, rise to it and build our own models of this enormous building?

One could of course, use the drawings themselves as building blocks, reproducing them to the correct scale, sticking multiple copies to card, and assembling them with glue.

Or, of course, I could turn to Lego again.

This is another huge building. Bigger even than building five. In videos from Week one and week three of the MOOC, Simon Keay strides down the remains of the corridor as though it’s a street. (EDIT: or am I confusing that with the Portico di Claudio?) So in the end I’ll resort to digital designer again. But first let me get a feel for the shape by getting my hands around some real bricks.

Looking at the plans, it’s apparent that many of the storerooms are the same structure, repeated again and again across each wing and two floors. There are other spaces, stairwells etc that don’t conform to the pattern. But to begin with, I’m looking for a modular design for the storerooms.

First of all I lay out a simple version of the design on a baseboard:


Here, I’ve made a very unscientific decision about scale. After my attempt at building five, I’m less interested in building it to minifigure scale. I’m not sure even LDD has enough virtual bricks (!) and anyway I don’t want to place them all. So instead I’m experimenting with the smallest scale possible, and here I’ve decided I can get away with one stud = one meter. Of course the plans show varied decimal fractions of a meter in the metrics, so I’m rounding up and down arbitrarily. Romans – if you find this blog through some sort or temporal anomaly – do not scale up my Lego measurements. You’ll be very disappointed.


Even without the correct scale, the act of modelling makes one think about how the spaces go together, and really interrogate the plans. The picture above shows one of the arches which looked out over the Claudian Basin and the sea beyond. Now though I’m wondering – is it open to the floor? Or does it have a sill? For the time being I’m leaving it open to the floor.



Then there are decisions to make that aren’t about an absence of information, but rather the limitations of the Lego System. The plans show domed interior ceilings, almost like vaulted pillars in medieval cellars, but with Lego I can only have arches. So should I put them across the room, or down its length, because as the images above show, it could work both ways. In the end I decide to put them across the room, and fake the vaulting with some inverse roof tiles. Like so:


“Minifigure scale” is well known among adult fans of Lego, but there is a smaller scale, based on the pieces used in some of Lego’s board games such as Heroica. Sadly these “microfigures” are still too big to populate my building, so I resort to a minifigure film star’s Oscar statuette to give the building a sense of scale. Talking of which, I know the width of this interior doorway but the plans don’t show the height:


Finally, I want to get rid of the baseboard. Having got this far in plastic, and got an idea of the size of pieces I need, I’ll be moving onto virtual bricks. Then I’ll need to create repeatable module that clicks together, so I’m better off creating a “baseboard” that goes on top of the structure.



That’s enough for tonight. Next time, the virtual model.

(dis-)Connected Life?

Last week I attended Connected Life, a one day conference at Balliol College Oxford, the home of the Oxford Internet Institute.

There’s an extensive photo gallery of the event here, and I’m sure it will be joined by more content as time progresses.

One thing we’re promised is the transcript of Dr Nick Anstead’s keynote, which was a compelling challenge to the idea of Connectedness, asking whether we in fact find ourselves in an age of disconnect. Acknowledging that the recent success of “more right wing” parties across Europe isn’t necessarily about the rise of right wing voters, but more about disenfranchised voters across the political spectrum he didn’t paint an optimistic picture. The political class seek to be more nimble and responsive by leveraging “big data”, but won’t that make them appear more managerial? Will the connection between government and the the needs of the population be apparent? Do the disenfranchised contribute less data to the the Big Data, and so are we in danger of “data apartheid”? All of this resonated with my thoughts on the Playful Aristocracy and the trolling Leviathan last year.  He tried to end on a more optimistic note, but I share his fear that it may push politics and citizenship even further apart.

Then we split into smaller groups and I enjoyed  a session on Culture and Identity, which kicked off with Stephanie Duguay talking about how the dating app Tinder insists on using your Facebook profile to populate your tinder profile, as though Facebook is the most “authentic” on-line version of you. And for dating of course this policy is interesting, given Facebook’s recent move to 50-odd gender and sexuality descriptions, which Tinder currently parses into more binary “Male or Female interested in Males or Females” type classifications.

The Taiwanese student Chen-Ta Sung asked “Why do Asians take photos of food?” discussing geotagged selfies from restaurants, and Leo Mercer explored the internet at poetry, capturing my agreement when he said that a “a poem is a meme machine.” It sent me off looking for twitter poetry.

My own contribution was to kick off an “Un-conference” session on Virtual Economies and Virtual Selves,  by sharing the disappointing results of my geo-gaming survey.

The round-table discussion that followed touched upon (among many other things as you can see from the above tweet) location as an expression of self, which I though was a great concept that reflected what Chen-Ta Sung had presented and deserves further exploration.

Then a second Un-conference session looked at the Rise (and possible Fall) of MOOCs, during which I had a little epiphany (which may be more obvious to others) about how universities (and everyone in them) can sometimes forget that they are all about the network (in the old fashioned sense) and not about the buildings.

Even though Balliol does have some very nice buildings…


The Portus MOOC and modelling

Shipshed render - Grant Cox -

Having been focussing on my Symposium presentation, and then taking a week camping with the family in France, I’ve finally caught up with the other students on the Portus MOOC, which I’d had a sneak preview of some months back. We’re two thirds of the way through the course, which is a bit late for catching up, but never mind. The debate in the user forums below each activity has been better than I’ve seen in any other MOOC I’ve tried – rather than simple requests for help with an issue, the Portus learners have been contributing their own knowledge and experience and asking probing questions which have elicited very full and illuminating replies from the Project team.

This week, the course has turned to two aspects of the Portus Project which are of particular interest: the mysteries of “building five” and computer modelling. Building five is a large building almost 250 metres long, and (according to evidence which I won’t repeat here – if you want to know, do the course)  it may have been a boatbuilder’s shed, although no evidence has been found as to how exactly ships built in the shed might have been launched. The course also explored the activity of modelling the building, showing how computer models are used to hypothesize the shape of there is missing evidence for.

There was some debate in the forum comments about the power of CGI models of convince the viewer that this might be the ONLY truth, while the Portus team are using CGI to explore all the possibilities. There is an argument that the more sketchy archaeological drawing is inherently less “final” and more pregnant with possibilities, but I’m not sure I’m convinced by that argument. But I am convinced that the act of modelling is more informative than the finished model, whether its created by computer or pen and ink.

So how easy would it be to give all the MOOC learners an opportunity to get their hands dirty with modelling? The sort of software used by the Portus team comes with expensive licenses and a steep learning curve, which likely put it out of the reach of most home learners. But there alternative 3D modelling packages. My colleague, Javier Pereda suggests two on-line 3D modelling programs that come with their own tutorials: Tinkercad – a Web based 3D system which is a simplified version of 123D from Autodesk; or 3D Tin – also Web based, and a little bit more complex, but with the difference that this app can export the models to other sites like Thingverse, and from there, maybe 3D print their models.

Could the Portus team create 3D models of some of the actual finds from Portus, standing remains, and the other evidence they’ve discovered about the shape of the buildings’ footprint, and enable their on-line students to start creating their own 3D models? I must admit I took a more playful route, which resonates with my recent reblog.

After a discussion about trying to build Portus in Lego minifigure scale, I quickly worked out that even my son doesn’t have enough bricks for that. So I turned to Lego Digital Designer (which I guess is a 3d modelling package – but, for me at least , one which a less steep learning curve), and after spending a day and a half (!) creating one corner of  Building Five to virtual minifigure scale, I’ve produced this:


Not as impressive as Grant Cox’s render at the top of the post. But I’ve also learned two things: that the engagement of playing with the evidence and the Lego System to try and model Portus is a valid educational activity; and, that minifigure scale definitely does use too many bricks.

The Past in Pieces: Lego and Lost Civilisations

A great post and the second time this week that the Antikythera Mechanism has been brought to my attention

res gerendae

As I think I may have mentioned once or twice, I was a Lego-mad child. Of all the things under the tree on Christmas morning, Lego was always the most prized. Like many, I ‘grew out of’ Lego in my teens, only to come back to it as I’ve got older and had more disposable income. That distinctive rattle of a cardboard box full of little plastic bricks still has a Pavlovian effect on me, equal measures calming and relaxing. The cares of the world slip away and the inner ten-year-old is unleashed.

I’ve always concentrated my Legoine affections primarily on Space and Castle Lego, with occasional forays into Pirates. When I visited my mum last December, I dragged eight boxes of Lego from the shed and spent Christmas afternoon rebuilding a Space-themed Christmas present of 20 years earlier. By last week, the Castle itch was reasserting itself and…

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