Maia Weinstock is the creator of LEGO Women of NASA, a kit she proposed on the LEGO Ideas site that won approval to be made into a real product. Now she’s pitching the Women of Computing, a set that pays homage to Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and other women who were instrumental in the early days of computers.
In this podcast, Maia and I talk about how she got into LEGO as an adult; the value of representation in LEGO; how the brick manufacturer itself has come around to including different skin tones; the opportunities Maia’s had to meet her heroes, including the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and present them with custom minifigs; the lessons Maia learned from previous pitches to promote judges and bioengineers with LEGO; her work by day at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and her upcoming book about Mildred Dresselhaus.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Maia Weinstock
- LEGO Women of NASA
- @LegoNASAWomen on Twitter
- LEGO Women of Computing
- @LegoCSWomen on Twitter
- MIT News: Scientists make first direct detection of gravitational waves
- AFOL: Adult Fans of LEGO subreddit
- Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist
- Remembering Justice Ginsburg
- LEGO Friends
- LEGO Ideas (formerly CUUSOO)
- LEGO Bioneers
- LEGO Legal Justice League
- LEGO Apollo Saturn V
- Obituary for Nancy Grace Roman
- Mae Jemison on Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Ken donates his LEGO Women of NASA to the Strong Museum of Play
- Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus (MIT Press)
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 113, for Wednesday, May 19th, 2021. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. This podcast is primarily about diversity in video games, but diversity exists in a lot of other forms of interactive entertainment, including toys. The original Nintendo released back in the mid 80s was originally marketed as a toy. And around the time that I was playing with that, I was also playing with another very popular toy, those being LEGO. A lot of us grew up with the building blocks. I primarily used them to build medieval sets and the pneumatic kits, but there are a lot of other different kinds of kits out there.
Ken: Today, I’m very excited to talk with the creator of several modern LEGO sets, specifically the LEGO Women of NASA, which came out a few years ago, and now currently being voted on is the LEGO Women of Computing. Join me in welcoming LEGO fan creator, Maia Weinstock. Hello Maia.
Maia Weinstock: Hey, Ken, how are you?
Ken: Good. How are you?
Maia: I’m doing great. Thank you so much for having me.
Ken: My pleasure. It’s a joy to speak with you. I’m a fan of your kits. I have the women of NASA set, I bought it for my niece and another one for myself, which is now with the Strong Museum of Play in New York. I have voted for the Women of Computing set. I love the work you do, I’m eager to talk to you about it. But first, let’s introduce you to our audience. So, who are you and what is it that you do by day? Are you a professional LEGOist?
Maia: No, not quite. I do enjoy LEGO in my free time, but during the day, I am a science communicator. So I’m the deputy editorial director at MIT news, which is the official news office of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In my capacity there, I edit articles about MIT peer reviewed research, about profiles, about students and faculty members, and things like that. I also produce the MIT daily and weekly email newsletters. So I do wear quite a few hats. I’m a science writer by training, I guess, I have long been either writing or editing for both adults and children audiences. And I do have a background in biology. So I’ve been doing quite a few things over my career but LEGO is definitely something that is more of a hobby. So, yes.
Ken: Awesome. That sounds like exhausting and exciting amount of work you do at MIT because, of course, the research that’s done there is cutting edge, so you’re not just putting out a student newsletter, you’re talking about things that will impact society at large years in the future.
Maia: I mean, certainly, we have quite a lot of high impact research. I mean, as with any research institute, not everything ends up being world changing but that is how science and engineering progress. So, absolutely, there’s a ton of news that comes out. And of course, MIT is not only science and engineering, we have a fantastic humanities school, we are constantly bombarded in a good way with updates from around the institute and it’s really an exciting place to be. But certainly, I mean, when you talk about our scientists who helped basically establish the LIGO and the discovery of gravitational waves, I mean, certainly that was, for example, one monumental discovery that was very exciting to be a part of.
Maia: And we have lots of other engineering feats that maybe smaller scale in terms of the publicity but are similarly very important for their fields. And so, as I said, is an exciting place to be if you’re a science writer or science editor.
Ken: That’s fantastic. And I only scratched a small amount of all the things that happen at MIT in the years that I worked there. But fortunately, that is how you and I met, we were both part of the social media working group trying to figure out the best ways to share all of these things that happen at MIT through various online outlets. And I’m glad that introduced me to your work, not only at MIT, but also with LEGO which you’ve been doing for years now. What is your background with LEGO, did you grew up playing with it like I did?
Maia: Absolutely, I did grew up playing with LEGO. And I didn’t continue through my adolescence and then early high school playing with LEGO, I stopped after a while. I think a lot of people do run that route where, when they’re kids they are introduced to LEGO, but then they grow out of it or just move their attentions elsewhere, and that certainly was actually me as well. I re-picked it up right around 2009, I believe it was, I had actually seen somebody else’s Ada Lovelace LEGO, they had a collection of historic figures on Flickr I think, and I had seen that and I thought, wow, that is an interesting way to potentially celebrate people who are in science and engineering.
Maia: And at that time I thought, I would like to try to do that. I knew absolutely nothing about how to find the individual parts because I really hadn’t played with them since I was a kid. I mean, I really enjoyed some of the old space sets and the castle sets from the 80s when I was growing up, but I didn’t have any of those anymore, and I certainly had not had any introduction to the AFAL which is, adult fans of LEGO community. And so I had to learn on the go and just pick things up slowly.
Maia: But from there I decided to try to make, as a prototype, a minifigure of a friend of mine who is a longtime planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco. And I had been in touch with her about a number of projects at that time and so I figured out how to make a minifigure that looked quite like her, including recreating this vest that she used to wear quite a bit, and especially she gave a TED talk and she was wearing this vest and just happened to look like the Han Solo LEGO vest, so I grabbed that.
Maia: So from there, it was a lot of fun putting that together, and she really liked it when I gave it to her. And I made a few more, I made a handful of other scientists and science communicators at the time who were on Twitter. I was fairly new to Twitter and thought that, that was an interesting way to increase people’s awareness of the fact that scientists were actually out on Twitter and you could get to know them as real people and also get to know their process of discovery, sometimes they talk about that. So I thought, well, this might be a nice way to popularize some folks just by making little LEGOs out of them and just putting them on Twitter and seeing what people thought about it. So that’s how I got back into it originally.
Ken: That’s amazing. You mentioned the Han Solo coat, and I’ve always been curious, are you taking off the shelf parts and assembling them in new ways or are you somehow creating original designs that look like the people you’re emulating?
Maia: Definitely taking parts that are already made. I have looked into and maybe someday when I retire or hit the jackpot would love to have a basement big enough to be able to buy the machinery to make my own pad printing, that would be fun. But for now, I definitely rely on parts that have been either sold officially with LEGO sets, and I would say, 95% of the pieces that I use in my projects are official LEGO pieces. And there are quite a few third party sellers that design LEGO elements that, many of the times, are based on LEGOs that were produced by LEGO but were either scraped of their design or were just empty, they were just plain and then they were added with some printing process, there are various processes you can do, designs that other people have come up with. So it’s definitely been a combination, but for the most part, I find pieces that are original LEGO.
Ken: And there are websites, almost like an eBay, for LEGO bricks, isn’t there?
Maia: Yes, absolutely. I mean, there are a few but, I mean, the most popular I would say is BrickLink. And there are hundreds if not thousands of individual sellers. Some people, it’s their job, they’ve made a, I don’t know if you want to say a full career out of it, I guess they probably have, I would guess that there are some very high volume sellers that, that’s all they do. But I would say, for the most part, the sellers on BrickLink are just everyday fans, collectors, people who have extra spare parts that they just want to get rid of and it’s just a hobby to have the parts out there and available for people to purchase.
Maia: Sometimes you happen to have a rare part and you can charge more for those. And you set your prices, so it’s an interesting process of trying to find the pieces that you’re wanting at the lowest price but also bundling them into bundles so that you’re paying as few shipping costs as possible. So, it is a process to try to find things on there when you’re doing a larger project, but it’s a lot of fun especially when you’ve made your selections, you’ve ordered all the parts, and then you’re like, all right, I have 10 bags coming in the next two weeks, and then the mail person comes and it’s exciting to get your little LEGOs bundled all up.
Ken: Yes, of course.
Ken: So you said that you not only share these on Twitter, but you’ve also had the opportunity to give these creations to the people they’re modeled after, can you tell us what that’s been like?
Maia: Yes, that’s been a lot of fun. And I haven’t done it in a while, I mean, in part because of the pandemic. And at MIT, we sometimes get people to give talks at MIT who I might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. But I’ve also just had the opportunity to meet people through other venues and brought the minifigs there. And I mean, that’s been a lot of fun. I remember when I still lived in New York City, Jane Goodall gave a talk at NYU and afterwards she was just, I don’t remember if she was signing autographs or just saying hello, and I got in line, and I gave her the little minifigure I made her of her. And that was thrilling to just be able to say something more than you’re amazing. You could say, you’re amazing, and by the way, I made you this minifigure. And so she got a little smile out of that. So that’s always fun.
Maia: But again, certainly having people come to MIT has been great. I’ve also made some minifigures of people who are not necessarily in science, and that has been interesting as well. So, I got to meet, for instance, I had written about this not long ago on Twitter, but when the late Justice Ginsburg passed, I remember it a little bit this fantastic day that I had an opportunity to sit in a car with her for half an hour with her marshals, and it’s a long story of how that happened but I was able to explain to her how I made my LEGOs, and I had made a bunch of LEGOs that were figures that looked like the first four women of the Supreme Court at the time. And so that was, I mean, obviously fantastic and just, I’ll never forget that day. And she wrote me later saying, Thank you, and I had given her a framed version of those four minifigures, and she said that it was in her chambers for everyone to see.
Maia: So, never would I have ever imagined doing anything like that, both with LEGO but especially just the fact that LEGO has given me that opportunity to be out there with some creative works like that. It’s been really fun.
Ken: Yes. And it’s not only that LEGO gave you that opportunity, but also that you took the opportunity. So, in this podcast, we talk a lot about diversity in video games and how it’s important to be able to see yourself in a game, and that’s hard to do if you’re not a straight white Cis man, because that’s so many protagonists. LEGO characters though, they’re small, yellow, rather generic individuals. So is the motivation similar, where it’s important for people to see themselves in LEGO, is that one of the reasons why you do this?
Maia: Yes, I think that is definitely one of the motivations. And I mean, my early, if you’re going to say activist, leanings in terms of trying to get projects on the LEGO Ideas site has certainly been to increase the representation of women and girls among LEGO characters, official LEGO characters. I will say, since I started writing about gender in LEGO back in 2012, I think, I started writing about this around the time when the friends line came out and there was a bit of a hubbub about the fact that they were creating this separate line for girls, that was concerning on a number of fronts.
Maia: I have since changed a little bit of how I think about that. But at the end of the day, the reality is, at that time, there were extremely few women characters in just everyday sets that you could buy from LEGO and I am happy to say that, that has changed very significantly in just a matter of five to seven years. It is still not equal, it is still not even in terms of numbers, but it is by far just vastly better. If you go to any Target or any just mass market store, and you look at the the options there, many of the sets that you never would have even thought would have another character, for instance, it was impossible back then to find a set that would only have a female character. You could not buy a set that was not in the friend’s line that had just a female minifig, whether it was a car racer or anything like that, and now you can. And it’s not super common, but it’s definitely possible and that was not the case back when I started talking about this stuff.
Maia: So I know that the people at LEGO are taking this in stride for sure. Somebody actually did a really nice study of the number, in fact a number of people have done a studies of this, the number of female characters in the various sets. There’s a great initiative called the Women’s Brick Initiative, they’re doing a really great job at looking at the numbers. And something that they’re doing right now that I have been talking about also since about 2015, I wrote about this and there’s still a lot of work to go is, the question you raised about minifigures being yellow.
Maia: Originally LEGO had said, “Well, we want to be raceless essentially.” And they picked yellow as the default color. And that has really proved to be problematic, I think. And WBI recently did this poll last year that looked at, not only women, but people of color and how they respond to whether or not LEGO parts that are yellow, for human type figures, represent them. And it seemed pretty clear that, if you have dark skin, you’re not thinking that yellow minifigures represent you. And that’s a problem, and that’s something that I’m definitely, especially in the sets that I have done previously, I’ve wanted to include people of color showing their skin color rather than just yellow. I have actually recently completely stopped using yellow.
Maia: I will not be using yellow minifigures anymore. I don’t know if I’ve never said this publicly, but that is just my thing now. And I do plan to write more about this, I just haven’t had the time to fully write that out. But yes, I mean, it’s been an ongoing evolution I think in terms of representation. And I do feel confident that LEGO is listening to these conversations from many people and many avenues. But I still think there is work to be done, I definitely do.
Ken: That’s amazing. And I applaud you for not using yellow minifigs anymore. I didn’t know that not using yellow wasn’t even an option.
Maia: Yes, I mean, they’ve been making realistic colors for skin for some time, it’s just that they hardly ever use them. And they tend to only use them for intellectual property combinations, like sets that are based on real actual people. So, for instance, the Harry Potter line, the Star Wars line, those are based on films that show actual people and so they use real people colors there. But if you look at the city line, which is their default, just generic daily life characters, those are all still yellow. There are others character lines that are all yellow.
Maia: I actually did a very unscientific review of the available sets last summer. And again, I just haven’t had time to put this into a larger post, but it was extremely clear that the number of non-light colored skin, meaning either a peach color for a Caucasian type of color skin or yellow, because yellow is a light color, is extremely small. So again, I do think they are changing it a little bit by partnering with IPs that are including a little bit more inclusive, but again, there is a lot of work to be done.
Ken: And some of that work is being done by fan creators such as yourself who are proposing kits. And before we speak about your specific kits, can tell us a little bit about how one goes about proposing an original design to LEGO? I suspect a lot of people don’t even know that’s an option.
Maia: Sure. So, sorry, the LEGO Ideas site has been up for a while. I don’t remember exactly when its predecessor, CUUSOO, started, I want to say it was maybe 2011, something like that or around that. So but ever since then, fans have been able to sign up to this site and upload their ideas, they can be either physically built out with parts that you take a picture of, or you can use a CAD style system where it’s just a computer process that you can use the catalog of available parts, and you have a little bit more flexibility there because you can actually propose parts, or not parts necessarily, but you can propose colors and things that maybe don’t exist.
Maia: But in any case, you can just upload your ideas, and provide a description, and then people upload it. And this is how you can have crowdsourcing of ideas. The LEGO Ideas process has become super popular and in the last couple of years, they’ve had a record number of, I don’t know of submissions, but certainly they’ve had a record number of people who have gotten to the requisite 10,000 vote level. And at 10,000 votes, all sets that get to that point are guaranteed a official review by this review board at LEGO. And from those, I think, three times a year they will select usually one or two produce around the world. So it is an exciting process and your odds are fairly low compared to the number of submissions. However, if your idea is unique enough, and enough people vote for it, and there’s a clear marketing interest, then it can happen.
Maia: I mean, there have been, I don’t know how many sets at this point, probably around 30 maybe, I have to double check that. But yes, it’s a great opportunity. And I don’t remember how old do you have to be to submit but, I mean, honestly, anybody can submit one and it’s great. You don’t have to be the super fan. Yes, so it’s been a wonderful process and that’s how both of my … actually I’ve had four different projects, but yes, that’s how the Women of Computing, the one that’s currently on there got started.
Ken: That’s awesome. And you’ve had some success yourself with the LEGO Ideas website. You’re here today to talk about the Women of Computing set. Previously, you submitted Women of NASA, which got accepted and built into an actual kit, was that your first submission to LEGO Ideas?
Maia: My first one was actually this revised, it was called the Legal Justice Team, which was a revised version of the Legal Justice League which I had created featuring the four women of the US Supreme Court. And as you know, that one was not allowed to compete in the contest due to the rules about politics. But I basically rearranged it so that the minifigures were no longer representing real people, and I did submit that set revised in that way, and it did a pretty well considering it was my first set, it got about 4,000 votes. Which most sets, at least at that time, that was actually a fair number, but it didn’t get to 10,000. But I did learn a lot from that process.
Maia: And then I actually did have another set that totally, I don’t want to use the word bombed, but did not do well at all, and it got only got 400 total votes. And granted I was not promoting it very much. But also, it taught me a little bit about what kinds of people in a set, like the ones that I do, are more important to make sure that you include just because name recognition is super important. So that second one was called LEGO Bioneers, and it was bio engineers in one way or another. Some of them are chemical engineers, some of them are chemists who work in the bio area, some of them are just straight up medical engineers. And since then, two of them have actually won a Nobel Prize, so I did pick important people, but I think at that time they weren’t as well known, I guess.
Maia: But again, those helped me figure out how to process and package the one that would become LEGO Women of NASA. And that was my third set, it wasn’t just my first set. And I think it’s important just to say because your first set that you put on LEGO Ideas might not make it, and it’s likely that it won’t make it to 10,000 on your first go. But that’s okay and you have other ideas, or you iterate on the first idea, and your next step might be fine. So anyway.
Ken: That is an important lesson. And I’m glad you had those experiences, even if they didn’t produce the outcomes you were hoping for, that allowed you to learn and iterate and thus proceed with your Women of NASA set. How did you decide on NASA for your next attempt? Which I now realize part of the answer is name recognition.
Maia: Right. So actually, my original idea was that this was going to be the Women of Apollo, that was actually my original idea for this, for the one that ultimately became Women of NASA. However, another set on LEGO Ideas came out shortly after I started thinking about it, and it was the Saturn five rocket set that I correctly predicted would not only get 10,000 votes but would be produced. And I thought at the time, there’s no way that they’re going to pick two LEGO Ideas sets in a row that are both Apollo themed.
Maia: I mean, as much as it was amazing to have, there was a ton of publicity around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, I still thought, they’re just not going to do that because there are so many different ideas that are completely unrelated to Apollo, they just, from a marketing standpoint, would probably not do that. So that made me switch to a more generic set idea. And granted, I was thinking of some of the people maybe that I might show, but I didn’t have any concrete ideas as far as … I probably thought that Margaret Hamilton would be in it just because she’s someone I knew I wanted to have in there. But that’s how that evolved.
Maia: And then it became Women of NASA just because I am a longtime space fan, I used to be an Astronomy reporter for a long time and that’s just has been my interest in science writing and science communication for a long time. And so, when I had decided to switch it from Apollo to more generic NASA, then I thought, okay, well, let’s think of some famous people who will bring in votes and who deserve and should rightly be recognized, and celebrated, and then also maybe bring in a couple of people who maybe are not quite as well known, not quite as much of household names. So that’s how that got started.
Ken: And it got you the opportunity to meet several of the people that you were including in the kit as well.
Maia: That is true. I mentioned Margaret Hamilton, I won’t go into the long background of this, but basically, Margaret Hamilton and I both at the time lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I had read an article about her and was like, I want to write about her. Yes, I read something small about her and then I saw a longer profile about her and I was like, dang, somebody scooped me, but I said, I still want to meet her. We’re neighbors, she has this amazing history, why do people not know about her? Her picture with, the iconic picture of her sitting next to the code that her team worked on, the Apollo Guidance System Code, it was going around social media and I was like, people don’t know her history, what is the deal? She needs to be better known.
Maia: And so, I did meet her after I made the set go live and it was really fun. She came over to MIT and we just sat in the front, right on 77 Mass Ave, we sat on the steps. And she didn’t really understand what the contest was, but honestly, most people don’t get that, so that was fine. But she was just thrilled that I had made this minifigure of her and we have become friends. I mean, we write each other Christmas cards, and before the pandemic I would go have tea with her every now and then, and so that has been great.
Maia: I did actually work previously with Sally Ride and she has long been an inspiration of mine. I mean, I jumped at the chance to go work with her at space.com when I was a Young Cub science writer. And she only stayed for a little while and she went to go start another company, Sally Ride Science, which still exists today as part of UC San Diego. But she is super iconic and probably the best known of the women of the NASA group, so I knew I wanted to include her.
Maia: And Nancy Grace Roman is probably the one that had been the least known at the time. I had known her through a mutual friend, former teacher of mine, and she was the one who I really was like, nobody’s going to know who she is outside of NASA administration history and some of the people who were working in the Hubble. And that’s true but I visited her a couple times during the process, and she got a huge kick out of it, and unfortunately, she passed away shortly after the set launched within a year. But she actually, in at least one history that I had seen her write out or an oral history had said, “I’ve had many awards throughout my life but probably the most fun has been being made into this LEGO.” So I felt really honored to have given her that opportunity to really be recognized for her important work.
Maia: And did I meet the others? Let’s see, I had not met Mae Jemison, although she was very gracious in being excited to be part of the set. And I did not get a chance to meet Katherine Johnson, who as you know, did not ultimately participate in the set. The people who appear in these sets, their families have to come to the agreement with LEGO and LEGO and their family, for whatever reason, I actually do not know, decided to not be part of it. And I think that’s it, right. Am I missing anybody? No.
Ken: No. I think that’s it. Although since the other podcast I host is all about Star Trek I do need to mention that Mae Jemison was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, she is the first real life astronaut to ever be on Star Trek.
Maia: Yes, she’s awesome in that way. She’s such an eclectic. She has so many things that she’s done in her career and I mean, it’s I do hope to meet her at one point. I was hoping to go out and meet her for this event in California, and long story short, I had to miss it. So someday I would love to meet her, she’s just wonderful and fantastic. So, yes.
Ken: That’s awesome. It sounds like this kit had a wonderful reception, especially given that it got all 10,000 votes at a minimum. What did you do to promote it to get to that level?
Maia: So the Women of NASA set, basically, it just was a stroke of magic of how that whole process went. There was a lot going on among other things, NASA itself tweeted about the set, so that really got some attention. And there’s not a similar clearinghouse for computing, right, so for my current set, so it’s just not the same. So NASA tweeting about it. Also, it was around the same time as the Hidden Figures movie. The Hidden Figures movie had actually not come out yet by the time my set was being proposed, but people were talking about the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and were talking about the film coming out soon, and so that really helped as well because literally some of the stars of the movie, like Taraji Henson, and I mean, I had Pharrell Williams tweeting about the set, I mean, that was just amazing and obviously got eyeballs on this set that just never would have happened otherwise.
Maia: It was like lightning in a bottle. It was one of the most quick set turnarounds in terms of getting to 10,000 votes. I had planned all these posts for social media for a year because you have a year to get 10,000 votes. And so, I mean, I didn’t have that many, but I had quite a few posts ready to go for coinciding with various anniversaries, and birthdays, and things of this nature, and I just didn’t have to use any of them. I did almost nothing compared to what I’m doing for other sets. And so I really just got extremely lucky.
Maia: Also, I mean, I knew that NASA was very popular and women in science is also very popular, so it was just a confluence of a lot of popular issues that people were just eager to see this product and I could sense that, and I was trying to promote that, and I did also get a little lucky with just the timing of some of the other things that were going on media wise. So, yes.
Ken: That’s perfect. And you said that you were promoting this on Twitter. Twitter is not always the most positive of places, did you get any pushback? Did people get angry that you were “injecting politics into toys”?
Maia: No and no. I mean, there are certainly a few people who were like, well, where’s the men of NASA set? And I get that, I understand that reaction. I think that’s just people being uneducated about the fact that 95% of the sets previous to that, that were featuring astronauts, did only feature male characters. So this is taking one little step in the right direction in terms of equality. So, I mean, yes, you definitely had a few people who were not crazy about it. And also from some of the LEGO super fans, it was a relatively simple set.
Maia: A lot of the people who submit things on LEGO Ideas are serious LEGO artists and they do these 2,000 piece builds that are just fantastic, and amazing, and they’re works of art, they really are works of art. And I think there might have been a little resentment at the fact that my set was relatively simple, it was not big, and it wasn’t super complex in terms of building design. I think there was, again, some resentment from some people who felt like it wasn’t worthy of what they thought was a good set. But at the end of the day, LEGO Ideas is about bringing about new ideas, not just about beautiful art, which, I mean, some of them are both and many of them are both. But sometimes you’re thinking outside of the box is one way to grab new audiences and think of new ways of marketing what LEGO is trying to do so.
Ken: So you had one year to get those 10,000 votes. From when you submitted the idea to the end of the journey, when it was a finished product that people could buy, how long was that?
Maia: Okay, good question. It’s an interesting question. But I submitted it for the very first time in March of 2016, and then I changed my mind about a couple of things, including the fact that I wasn’t happy with some of the photographs. And I was like, you know what, I had submitted it toward the end of Women’s History Month and I just was like, I’m going to just take it back and really polish it. So you have a couple of days when you submit it to change your mind and say, nevermind, and so I did that.
Maia: And so I was very eager to get it out there but I was like, you know what, it’s better to be good and just wait and perfect it. So I ultimately decided to launch it on July, right around July 20th, which is the anniversary of the Apollo landing. And so, from that point, it took just over two weeks to get the votes to get the 10,000. And then you have to wait until that current batch of, they collect the 10,000 vote getters in three months batches roughly, or maybe four months, I can’t remember, and so you have to wait until that period is over. So I think it was around September before they had stopped collecting sets for that review period.
Maia: And then from that time until I knew that the set was going to be selected for production was a little more than six months I would say, maybe six months. And I don’t think it’s revealing too, too much to say that, because I became friendly with Margaret Hamilton and as I said, each of the people in the set have to basically work with LEGO to ensure that they are in agreement with how the set looks. And at a certain point, Margaret was like, “Well, what do you know?” And well, here’s what I heard. And she’d be like, “Well, here’s what I heard.” So we were comparing notes. And I think she spilled the beans a little bit early and so I had a sense that it was going to be picked before I should have known. I remember this one night in particular, she emailed me at 10:30 at night, she was like, “Maia, you have to call me.” She’s like 80 years old, and I’m like, this is awesome. She was like a kid in a candy store, just like I was. So that was fun.
Maia: But I think the official day that I found out was in late January or early, I guess it must have been late January, they gave me a Skype call, this is before zoom. And they had said something like, “We have a couple of questions to ask you.” And I was like, oh, boy, I hope I didn’t screw something up, because there had been some questions earlier on and I was just a little concerned about the whole process with dealing with actual people, actual personalities. So I really wasn’t sure what this Skype call was going to be. And as soon as I got on it, they were like, “Just kidding, we just wanted to tell you that you’re getting it.” So that was cool.
Maia: So it was February of 2017 that the news came out. And then the set reveal, the actual design happened in the early fall. And then so the final set became on sale November of 2017. So, when all is said and done, it took almost two years from this time that I really started working on the set to really tinkering and making it, to the day that it went on sale was almost two years.
Ken: Wow. And I got to be at the release party, and I got to meet Nancy Grace Roman and Margaret Hamilton. And it was such a wonderful event to conclude this journey, or so I thought. If some people had made their own LEGO set and got on store shelves, they would be happy to check out that bucket list item, but you have more ambition than can be contained in a single kit because you’re now back on the LEGO Ideas website with the Women of Computing. So what can you tell us about this new project of yours?
Maia: Sure. So this is actually a set that I had thought about doing quite a while ago, actually, really shortly after the women of NASA one came out. Well, first of all, I had known that Ada Lovelace was a popular figure among other things, she was literally the first character that I had ever seen in LEGO in this way that you’re popularizing real people. But then also, I had made a minifigure of Grace Hopper back in, I don’t remember if it was 2014 or 2015, so even before the Women of NASA set, and it had gotten lots of attention and lots of people loved it. And from that, I knew that I wanted to do something about women in computing in some way. And it was very nebulous, but I just had it on the back burner.
Maia: And then after the Women of NASA came out, I actually was approached about writing a book, and I was very excited about that opportunity, and I did take it, and my book is coming out next year. But so, that was a huge, huge project, and just took a ton of my time, and I’m very, very happy with it. It’s a biography of physicist and engineer, Mildred Dresselhaus, and the book is called, Carbon Queen. So that’s going to come out next year.
Maia: But I basically said to myself, Maia, you only have so many hours in the day, you need to prioritize. So at that time, I decided, I’m going to focus all of my extracurricular attention on this book until it’s ready. And so I just did not even let myself, I didn’t touch my LEGOs, I forbade myself from going near my LEGOs really, until the book was essentially done, and that did not happen. And let me tell you, I got the final basic, not the final edits, but when I sent in the first round of revisions, I basically was like, okay, there are going to be more revisions still, but I’m basically done with the hard lift. And that didn’t happen until this past December, December of 2020. And seriously, two weeks later, I was like, okay, let’s go.
Ken: No rest for the weary.
Maia: No rest. No, because I really wanted to do it but I was just like, nope, got to finish the book, got to finish the book. And I needed that because I needed to finish the book, it was a long slog. And I’m excited for the book to come out, and all that’s going to be next year. So I gave myself a little time to just be like, all right, let’s do the LEGOs.
Maia: So I basically decided to focus on who I was going to make the set about. That was a bit of a process because obviously, you’re talking about so many women who are, and is same with the Women of NASA too, but so many women who have contributed to computing history. And there are some big names, but it’s a little bit more international, I would say, than the NASA project just because NASA’s most of people are American born. And I ultimately only went with one non-American, but I consider a lot of people. And I’m not going to go too in depth with the people that I picked, but I certainly wanted to go with Grace Hopper, she was the one that I knew for a fact that I was going to go with just because I had this experience with people really enjoying the minifigure I had made.
Maia: And I went from there, and I just was super excited about it, and just try to figure out which machines to show and which things, which builds to show was considerable, took a considerable amount of time and thinking. It probably took a lot more time to consider than the NASA one. But anyway, so here we are and it’s been fun so far. I mean, it definitely was not quite as fast in terms of the votes, but we’re almost at 8,000 votes right now. So, I’m very confident at this point, I’m pretty confident. I have another two years, I want to say a year and a half certainly, I forget how many days left I have to get those votes. And we’ve been fortunate to get, I haven’t had any day with fewer than 60 or so votes. At the beginning there were quite a few, but now it’s at a steady drumbeat and we’re getting there. So crossing fingers, you never know, but I’m hopeful.
Ken: So looking at this set on the Ideas website, you have six women in here so far. So with so many wonderful, famous, powerful, talented women in the history of computing, which six did you choose for this set?
Maia: It’s Grace Hopper, and it’s Annie Easley, who was a pioneering computer scientist and actually she did so many things with NASA, I mean, she said so many things, but probably the best known for her work on the Centaur rockets and her coding of those, which led to some of the outer solar system, actually Mars but also outer solar system exploration probes, including Cassini and the Voyagers, so she is fantastic. And then there’s also Gladys West, who some people may know of her as one of the architects of GPS. I mean, her coding work directly led to the development of Global Positioning System, which is ubiquitous in our world today. I heard her vignette’s awesome because it has a little globe on it with GPS, and yes.
Maia: And then so the two ENIAC women who actually represent these six women, who are these leading programmers, and so there’s Jean Jennings Bartik and Betty Holberton, who were actually the leaders among those six, and they were with the ENIAC computer, which is one of the very first digital, all electronic lightning speed computers. And then finally, there’s one more, yes, Ada Lovelace, of course. And there’s a model of Ada with her analytical engine.
Ken: And they seem to be mostly focused on, would you say, the early history of computing.
Maia: Yes. And part of that, again, is credit where credit’s due in the beginning. And there’s a number of factors, one, there’s, the machines are easier to show. The build aspect of LEGO Ideas projects is significant. And one of the problems that I faced in the selection process was, a lot of the women who have made their names, and made amazing careers, and made amazing advances in computing, have done so in realms that are very hard to illustrate, just literally illustrate on 2d paper, but then also trying to make it into a 3d model is even harder.
Maia: So they are Turing Award winners that I obviously would have loved to include or to consider anyway, but it just didn’t work out that way because you really need to have a significant build, and something that is recognizable and not so esoteric that people are going to be like, I’m not voting for this. So it’s tough because a lot of people have come out and said, “Well, why hasn’t so and so been part of this set?” But I’m really happy with the people I selected. The people I selected are all hugely important to our computing infrastructure in one way or another, and, I think, I’m excited about showing them to a broader audience.
Ken: Of the six women you’ve chosen, only one is still alive, so what does that mean for permission should this progress beyond the idea stage?
Maia: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, LEGO really ultimately, their lawyers would have to answer that question. I don’t really know what their process is. I mean, we dealt with a mix of people who were both living and deceased last time, and I’m guessing that maybe someone like Ada Lovelace, there might be a statute of limitations on needing to get permissions. I don’t know how that works. I mean, certainly with copyright, for instance, there are limits to how that works. But I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know.
Maia: And that is actually one of the reasons why I ultimately ended up with slightly more vignettes this time, because as last time, you guys probably realized, we did have one of my vignettes have to drop out for IP reasons, essentially. And I am certainly aware that, that could happen again here, and so that is one of the main reasons why I decided to make more vignettes and have more people, because it is certainly possible that, if we get to 10,000, and if LEGO decides that this is something they want to pursue, it could be the case that it’s just too much to expect that all of the people and all of the machines … I mean, that’s the other thing, each of the machines, presumably, is an IP as well. So you not only, for instance, with the UNIVAC would have to get permission from the Grace Hopper family or whomever is the estate on that. But also you have the UNIVAC, so whoever owns that IP would have to okay it too.
Maia: So, I mean, I am cognizant of that, it might be a lot harder actually to actually get this project over the finish line because of that. But I decided to go for it anyway and I’m hopeful that with enough creativity and I have heard from a few family members actually of people that are in the set, just having seen it on social. One of the son, I don’t know if she has any other sons, but one of the children of Jean Jennings Bartik from the ENIAC project had tweeted me about it and said that he thought his mom would like this that also a nephew of Betty Holberton, also of the ENIAC, had seen it and was super excited. So I’m hopeful that, that aspect is not going to be a problem, but you never know, you never know.
Ken: In terms of complexity or number of bricks, is this similar to the Women of NASA set?
Maia: That’s a really good question and I keep meaning to count the parts, I have not done that yet, a couple of people have asked me. It is definitely more complex, I for a fact to know that, but I don’t remember exactly how many parts, how many elements are being used. On the one hand, people probably forget this, but my original Women of NASA set had a frame which was showing the women in a posable frame that you could also put them with their little vignettes, and now you can actually buy LEGO dots sets that have frames. And there’s a new LEGO art realm that you can buy framed artwork. So I feel like, okay, well they decided, I mean, I don’t know if I was the only inspiration, but they decided not to do the frame thing and so that that added to the part count on my old set.
Maia: But this set just each of the individual vignettes definitely has more parts. I mean, a lot of them are just more detailed and they have lots more little tiny parts, so I don’t know the exact number but, yes.
Ken: This project is on an excellent trajectory. It already has, as you said, almost 8,000 votes, it has to get 10,000 it says in the next 738 days, so you have two years to meet that goal.
Maia: Yes, exactly. That’s why I’m feeling fairly confident about it because even if I … I mean, at a certain point, if you just get a handful every day, you’ll get it. But as I said, I’ve been averaging, I don’t have the exact average, but I mean, I haven’t gotten less than, like I said, 60, ever. Every day that this set has been up there, there’s been at least 60 new votes a day, and some days more. So with that, hopefully, we could be able to get it within the next few weeks or months.
Ken: But with the women of NASA, as you said, it was lightning in a bottle where it was just the perfect storm of all these other events, a perfect confluence. With the Women of computing, you can’t necessarily rely on that same playbook, so how are you advertising this set?
Maia: Well, I have to say, I mean, there are different ways that I’ve thought about doing it but I also I’m definitely limited in the time that I can spend on this project. So, I mean, I have mostly been focused on Twitter, I’ve put it on Facebook, in a couple LinkedIn and stuff, and Instagram, but I haven’t really promoted it hardcore there. There are events that will be coming up, like the Grace Hopper conference that happens every year, and you can glom onto that hashtag or whatever. So that’s certainly something. I have just been in touch with some people who really want this set to happen and, I mean, I haven’t pressed it because I haven’t felt the need to, but I feel like asking some of those folks to help me promote it again, they absolutely will, but I just haven’t felt like I’ve needed to do that yet.
Maia: And let me tell you, again, I’ve had four sets and I’ve also just seen many sets go through social media and on the LEGO Idea site, and when people use the word, I need this set, the word need, it’s just there’s something about the identification that people have with some of these sets, certainly the the NASA one, but also Ellen Kooijman’s earlier, women minifigures set which ultimately became the Research Institute, I mean, people were saying, I need this set in my life because it represents me in a way that nothing else, no other toy really does. And when I start seeing that, and when I start seeing those Futurama gifts of shut up and take my money, you know that you have a popular set and something that really resonates with people, and that makes me really happy to see those. And I’ve seen enough of them now that I feel like there’s enough people out there who will vote for it, it’s just a matter of getting the information out there that this is available or that this is potentially available.
Maia: I feel like, ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re going to get the 10,000 votes, and my limited time has basically focused on Twitter so that’s where I’m at right now. But this Polygamer podcast will hopefully have a little bit, but honestly, I’ve just enjoyed talking to you, Ken, about this project because a lot of people only see the finished product and they don’t really know what goes into a project like this.
Ken: Yes, I’m sure there are a lot of things that I didn’t know, I didn’t realize just how long it takes and all the different permissions that are involved. For those listeners who are excited about this project and do need it in their lives, what’s the best way for them to help?
Maia: Well, the best way is to go onto LEGO Ideas website, and find the set, and vote for it. Now you do have to sign up for a LEGO account, they won’t spam you is what I keep hearing from people saying, you will get updates if you sign up for that. And it is fun to be part of the community. I mean, even in the off years, when I was really working on my book only, I still would go on there and see what was up and up vote things that I thought were really interesting and would make a fun product. So but yes, you have to go onto the LEGO Ideas site, if you don’t have an account already, start one up and then just press that support button, and that’s pretty much it. And obviously, it really is great if you can put it out there on your social media so other people can hear about it.
Ken: And for those who are inspired by everything you do and by the potential of the LEGO Ideas set, how do they move forward with their own ideas?
Maia: Yes. If you want to build your own and if you want to do anything like that, you go to LEGO Ideas, and you can just upload your idea. Again, I don’t remember how old you need to be, I think you might need to be 13, but I have to double check that. And you can just go on there and just put your idea out there. And obviously, I wish you all luck in getting support for your sets. LEGO Ideas actually has other projects and activities beyond just product ideas, they have activities, they have prizes that they’ll put out a call for, okay, I think the current one is, show us a beach scene or show us by the sea. And so you can put out fun ideas that are based on prompts and LEGO will give prizes, and I don’t think they’ll produce the sets, but it’s a really fun community, so I do encourage people to get involved.
Ken: Awesome. And LEGO is so popular right now, there have been so many video games, LEGO City Undercover, LEGO Star Wars, and of course, LEGO Movie, LEGO Batman Movie. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of your Supreme Court Justices from your original Justice League set, was in one of the movies, that must have been very gratifying to finally see her as a LEGO character.
Maia: Well, yes, I mean, I’ve had mixed feelings about that, I got to say, because big to-do was made about, that’s not allowed, we can’t possibly honor someone who is currently in government. And then seeing it in the movie when I was like had a big slap on the wrist, that stung a little bit. I’m not going to lie, I was certainly happy that she was getting the recognition, that’s great. And I know she was happy about it, I think I saw something that she got a chuckle out of it. And so, ultimately, at the end of the day, yes, of course, of course, but personally, I’m not going to lie, I was like, now it’s okay.
Ken: Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating.
Maia: Yes. Any chance, any opportunity to bring people who have done amazing things into the limelight, whether it’s women or men, but I am really a proponent of just giving credit where it’s due in terms of people who have advanced science and engineering, as well as giving opportunities to people. Justice Ginsburg was a champion of equal rights for women, and yes, so I think that was wonderful.
Ken: That’s fantastic. And for those who want to do more than just up vote your idea, if they want to follow you on Twitter, where you’ve been talking about this project, where would they go for that?
Maia: Sure. Well, the LEGO handle for this specific set, which has been tweeting things specifically about the set, including little known facts and pictures about some of the women in the set, the Twitter is LEGOCSwomen on Twitter, and just my regular handle is the number 20, two, zero, T-A-U-R-I, Tauri, 20tauri.
Ken: And is that a constellation?
Maia: It is. Well, it’s the Pleiades cluster, and 20tauri is the one that’s called Maia, which is my name. So that’s why I picked it.
Ken: All the years I’ve known you, and I never knew that!
Ken: Well thank you, Maia, so much for your time. I have voted for your LEGO Idea project and I’m looking forward to buying it when it’s on store shelves.
Maia: Awesome. Thank you, Ken, so much. It was great talking with you.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at Polygamer.net.