The Brick Brothers

Almost exactly a year ago my sons asked me what “investing” was. A strange question from a 9- and 7-year-old, but I was impressed by the curiosity and it seemed timely given the banking implosion.

I lost the boys midway between arcane regulation and exotic financial instruments, but they were intrigued with the idea of a business more complex than a lemonade stand. And then they wouldn’t shut up about starting one, embarking on an entrepreneurial brainstorming session whose intensity would have made a venture capitalist smile. (Or back away slowly.)


The boys revisiting the site of their business founding, Gunnison Airport, Colorado

The idea, fairly speedily arrived at, was to build on something the kids had been staring at all their lives. In the days following the birth of each of the three kids I built grayscale mosaics of their birth photos out of 1×1 LEGO bricks. They’ve hung on the wall ever since. The business idea, quite simply, was to build these mosaics for others.

And so was born The Brick Brothers.

Billboard promotion grande

Marketing ideas are modeled first in bricks, naturally

Listen up, folks. Here’s where I divulge trade secrets.

We built the site on the superb Shopify platform. It accepts photos uploaded from customers who purchase a completed mosaic or just the raw materials.

We then use an open source application call PicToBrick to generate a number of gridded (48×48), reduced-color images. The image that comes closest to capturing the essence of the original photo is chosen and printed out as a guide for the assembly.

Then the boys snap the pieces onto the baseplate, following what is essentially a color-by-numbers schematic. Dangerously, this is mind-numbing (and finger-numbing) but also requires attention to detail: if you pop the wrong brick in place and only notice it several rows later it’s a huge effort to remove the studs. What makes this a less-than-rare occurrence is that you really only get a sense of the overall image by moving away from it. When you’re up close snapping away it is often impossible to notice an error.

The whole effort takes about 4-6 hours depending on distraction. Then we package up and ship out.

One hurdle — aside from child labor laws — has been finding the 1×1 bricks in bulk cheaply enough. LEGO doesn’t sell in bulk to mere mortals and those bins at their stores contain very specialized bricks. Luckily there’s a massive ecosystem of LEGO re-sellers online, centered on a marketplace called BrickLink. But there’s no single supplier. It’s a scramble to stay well-inventoried and not break the bank.


The boys' first investment in The Brick Brothers (from relative strangers at a Cubs game), July 24, 2011

It should be obvious we’re not in this little enterprise for profit, but I’d continue the business with the boys even at a financial loss given its many lessons: time-management, expenses vs. revenue, the importance of marketing, the concept of chiaroscuro, how easy it is to be driven insane by tiny LEGO blocks, etc. We’re having fun and not losing money. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Follow along via Twitter here.

Hack your children

Yesterday Parent Hacks featured my post on how to create a LEGO mosaic manually (or mostly manually). Asha Dornfest has created a really wondeful site applying the hacker mentality to parenting. The site has exploded in popularity, presumably because geeks can reproduce and even take an interest in what they spawn.

Parenting as a community of interest on the Internet has grown immensely in recent years (or maybe I am just paying better attention). Federated Media just created a metablog that combines parenting-related posts from many of their major properties.

In addition to straight tips and tricks, Baby Roadies and The Sneeze provide some hilarious dad perspectives on the parenting arts.

Birthin’, surfin’ … a perfect match. I mean, they’re both just a series of tubes.

How to create a LEGO mosaic

UPDATE: the kids have created a business based on this idea. If you’re interested in having a mosaic made from your photo, please visit

When my oldest son was born in 2001 LEGO offered a cool online “Brick-o-lizer” that would take an uploaded photo and turn it into a five-tone grayscale grid of 1×1 bricks from which you could create a wall-hanging mosaic. LEGO would send you the exact right amount of bricks in bulk. Putting it together was as easy as paint-by-numbers. I did this for him and for his little brother in 2003.

My daughter was born a few weeks ago and so naturally I went back to the Brick-o-lizer to create her mosaic. Imagine my horror to find out that it isn’t available anymore. How could I deprive my baby girl of her LEGO mosaic? Well. Obviously. I couldn’t.

So, here follows instructions for doing it manually in Photoshop. (But before we begin, let’s be sure to acknowledge the unbelievably talented people who create LEGO mosaics in full color without a grid at all. I bow to your supremacy.)


First, prep your shot as a square. For portraits, tight in is best. People will naturally view your mosaic from a distance or squinting to maximize contrast so details external to the person in the portrait will be lost (and a benefit-free pain in the ass to snap into the LEGO grid for you).

02_mosaiced.jpg In Photoshop, resize the image to 440 x 440 pixels and apply the Mosaic filter in Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic. Choose a cell size of 10. Then play with the brightness and contrast with an eye towards highlighting the most important details of the portrait.


Change the photo to Indexed Color, select a Custom palette, and choose six shades of gray. The easiest way is to click on the grid and then when the color palette comes up choose Web colors only. Select white, black, and then a light, medium, and dark gray.


In Preferences > Guides, Grids, & Slices set the Grid to a prominent color, gridline every 10 pixels, and subdivisions 1. Turn on a grid with View > Show > Grid.

You’ll need to do some manual computation. The grid is 44 x 44 which is 1,936 bricks. Eyeball or, if you prefer, count as many of each of the five colors you will need.

You’ll then need to go to the LEGO shop and order the bricks.

You’ll need one X-Large Gray Baseplate , one set of 2×4 Roof Tiles Steep Sloped Black, one set of Black Roof Tiles 25° (2×2, 2×4, Corner), and then as many 1×1 Studs in White, Light Grey, Medium Grey, Dark Grey, and Black as you need.

Once it all arrives, use your gridded Photoshop image or print it out and enjoy a few hours of mind-numbing bricklaying.


Such great heights

OK, so, we didn’t expect that to happen.

Today Planet Earth and two flabbergasted parents welcomed Charlotte Mae Tolva, a beautiful, healthy 7lb. baby girl. Robyn and I are still in a bit of shock. We felt nearly certain that this baby was a boy and that he’d join his brothers in a lifetime of mayhem and dastardliness. But no. Baby Charlotte skipped our anniversary last week in favor of a different holiday. She arrived just in time for most retail shops to be closed for the Memorial Day observance and so prevented us (or rather our families) from buying anything remotely girl-like that we can bring the little darling home in. You see, we own only boy-gear (most of it threadbare) and didn’t even bring a “safety” outfit to the hospital. But maybe closed baby shops is a good thing. I fear a crazed orgy of girl-stuff purchasing from relatives and friends.

Oh, and I suspect The Darnedest Things blog category is going to start filling up rapidly once we introduce the big bad brothers to Charlotte this evening. Check back for their trenchant insights into boy-girl relations and anatomical differences.

Welcome, sweet little baby. You’re the best kind of surprise.

Names and bein’ a kid

With thanks to Baby Roadies for the idea, here are the 10 worst names for our soon-to-arrive child based on Chicago streets:

  • Wacker Tolva
  • Hubbard Tolva
  • Elston Tolva
  • Irving Park Tolva
  • Lawrence Tolva
  • Damen Tolva
  • 31st Street Tolva
  • Randolph Tolva
  • Fairbanks Tolva
  • Sangamon Tolva

And the 10 best:

  • Superior Tolva
  • Sedgewick Tolva
  • Ogden Tolva
  • Locust Tolva
  • Balbo Tolva
  • Racine Tolva
  • Archer Tolva
  • Bryn Mawr Tolva
  • Grand Tolva
  • Weed Tolva

And with thanks to Solider Ant here are 10 things that “make me feel like a bright-eyed little kid again”:

Weakened warrior


I saw Curious George with my son this weekend. Of all the plush sleeping aids that I had as a child I now retain only two. The first is my original blanket, now ripped, fringeless, and still smelling of decades-old urine from a bit of a bedwetting problem. (I don’t want to talk about it, ‘kay?) The other is my Curious George doll. Oh how I love(d) that monkey. One of my favorite childhood memories was when my mom, a nurse, would perform surgery on his armpits when he’d fray. We were fully smocked in operating room fashions. But I digress. The movie stayed true to the George I grew up loving and it manages to weave in at least parts of most of the books. I loved the ending where a triumphant Man In The Yellow Hat saves his museum by transforming it from a dusty, dull repository to an interactive, lively experience through the power of, yes, curiosity. Oh, and he and George end the movie in a rocket ship. Museums and rocket ships, wow. Where’s my yellow hat?

Staying in the spirit, my son and I built a great fort in the basement last night for movie watching, goodie-eating, and hiding from mom. We slept in it. Wow, was this a mistake. Nostalgia gone too far. My son loved it, slept sound as a rock. I slept little, alternating between being frozen stiff and just stiff from the comforter-on-concrete amenities. No bedwetting, though.

As a sidenote and just to worry my readers a little more that this is becoming a parenting blog (it’s not), my old post on cyborgs and toddlers is on the front page of Parent Hacks today.


Like a zoologist giddy with insight after long weeks of observing primates in the jungle, I have had a breakthrough. I will now share with you one of the secrets of parenting.

  1. If the two-year-old is silent he is about to do something bad.
  2. If he is laughing he is currently doing something bad.
  3. If he is crying he just finished doing something bad.

Use these non-visual clues to establish your own timeline of wrongdoing and tailor your parental strategy accordingly.

Putting the kids to bed

Two tips.

  1. When exploring the novelty of bathing your children in the master bathroom tub — a novelty because it is a jacuzzi-style tub with jets — be sure to check the cleanliness of said jets before turning them on. After I had recently finished soaping the boys we thought it was time to churn the water a bit so … rumble rumble … up powered the jets. And out spewed chunks of mildew fragments, breaking the surface of the water like so many moldy sub-launched ICBM’s and leaving the boys looking like they’d just had a brussel sprouts fight.
  2. Check the fishtank in the child’s bedroom for dead/dying marine life before letting him approach for the nighly feeding. You never know when the mundane task of apathetically flushing another dead fishie down the toilet will become a moment of sobbing emotional catharsis. Enough Nemo- or Bambi-viewings and sooner or later the kid will understand that a dead pet is not coming back. My oldest son dropped to his knees, sopping, bawling, and covered in mildew spew, folded his hands heavenward and immediately began telling his recently-deceased great-grandfather how to take care of Fred the fish. (Who knew the kid had even named it?)

Thank me later.

Thrice blessed

Well, it looks like my youngest son was right when he assumed the West African stance that anticipates the coming of a new sibling. (Confused? Here’s the story on that.)

That’s right, we’re expecting a new baby. Number three. Due May 27, a mere two days after our 10th wedding anniversary, causing us to continue to wonder just what in the hell we did with all our time prior to the arrival of the midget squad. I seem to recall thinking I was busy back then. Ha.

There’s mixed opinion on the man-to-man parenting of two children versus the zone defense of three. I’m of the mind that it can’t be worse than having two kids to run after. The transition from one mostly risk-averse toddler to a sibling who’d rather be juggling knives as he sets flame to a puddle of paint thinner was rough. But now that we’ve mastered the art of not allowing them to kill themselves, us, or others we’re somewhat nonplussed by the challenge of a third. Can’t be that bad. Right? Right?

The kids don’t know yet. We can hardly announce an activity that is more than an hour in the future if we want any kind of peace from the is-it-time-yet questioning, so we’re deferring until Mommy’s rotundity is unavoidable. It’ll be interesting to see the reaction. Happiness, befuddlement, anger, fraternal plotting? I’m certain there’ll be plenty of post fodder from their commentary on the matter.

As an aside, I need better blog categories. Seems so cold to add this announcement to “Genealogy”.


Recently, coincidentally, I read two books with remarkable similarities. You’d not think there was much overlapping advice in How To Survive A Robot Uprising and Cheap Psychological Tricks for Parents, but the techniques for dealing with children and automata run amok are mostly interchangeable.

Test yourself. Which of these tactics refers to sugar-addled toddlers and which to killer cyborgs?

Stay out of sight
Individual ——– may be weak and dim-witted, but as word spreads the entire swarm will react as a single organism to engulf and destroy you. Kicking an anthill is no fun when the ants are the size of a pit bull.

Stay calm and seem uninterested
No matter how hard you try to make your point in your best stentorian English, no matter how emotional you get, ——– just looks at you with that “whatever” look.

To save a comrade: First merge, then separate
Run to a comrade, deliver a quick bear-hug, and then dive in a random direction. A ——– might temporarily lose track of your identity during the hug, especially if you are wearing similar clothing. You can gain precious seconds while the ——– reacquires its target.

Distance before familiarity
Brief exposures and slow movements toward the object reduce fear and create an atmosphere of familiarity.

Administer punishment within minutes of misbehavior
The ——– who sees the behavior should deliver the punishment immediately instead of waiting until the other ——– gets home to do it.

Memorize your lies, or be honest
A ——– has a stellar memory and laser-beam concentration. If ——– doubts your veracity, this menace may refuse to listen to any further emanations from your slobber hole.

Useful, eh? Doubly so for those of you who skipped the adoption route and built android children instead. Good luck out there.