The Curious Case of Dave Prochnow's New NXT Book

Dave Prochnow has a new book out entitled, "Lego Mindstorms NXT: Hacker's Guide".

Unfortunately, the book has very little about the NXT within it. Most of the book is devoted to a history of LEGO and the old RCX robotics system.

Prochnow's book criticizes Jim Kelly's new NXT book, "Lego Mindstorms NXT: The Mayan Adventure". He calls Kelly's book "belittling, silly and mindless" (page xi).

I'd like to weigh in on Prochnow's comments.

Jim Kelly's book is 300 pages about the NXT--programming, theory and design. Young people, the target audience for the book, will find it a helpful guide for learning all of the basics about NXT robotics. Kelly's book has complete programming and building instructions for five robots, plus a helpful guide for building your own NXT creations.

I invite all of you to head to your local bookstore for a head-to-head comparison of these two books. I know which one I would buy.


Thank you, Rick... for the support and kind words.

I was at Borders bookstore today and had a chance to sit down with Prochnow's book. I almost hate to comment on it because I don't want to be accused of pettiness for one author to criticize another's NXT book... but then I thought about it and decided to write my thoughts anyway...

First, Prochnow did NOT get an advanced copy of my book, so he had absolutely no way of knowing what was in it. So his comment about the book being "silly" and "mindless" are confusing, because I don't know how you can make that kind of accusation without seeing the book first. This makes it so easy for me to respond about his book because I actually sat down and looked it over for a while.

I should add that I didn't buy the book. After viewing it today, quite honestly, I'm not impressed. The coverage of NXT is very little, even though the title seems to imply a focus on the NXT kit. What did I see? Nothing memorable - what I can remember is that I saw a 2 page spread on the "One Laptop Per Child" project (a great project, mind you) and a blueprint of sorts (??) for the Apple Store! There's some chapters devoted to the RCX but they appeared to me to be dated material - by that, I mean these chapters could have been written some time ago and "updated" with a few edits to bring it to 2006. There's an NXT project in it to make a "Ferris Wheel"-like device that was completely disappointing. Finally, yes, hacking is covered, but parents be warned: the level of technical difficulty is probably going to be beyond most of the younger readers and not sufficiently technical enough for the hardware hackers. Even then, the hacking projects are ho-hum.

I'm going to write a review on Amazon for 3 stars - I won't give the book 1 star because the book does have some merits. Yes, the new NXT is covered and there are some hacking projects that do revolve around some (very simplistic) NXT robots. The historical 4-5 pages that cover old-school programming was an interesting bit to see in the book's first few pages, but I'm still scratching my head about it. Prochnow also spends quite a few pages covering the LEGO Factory and software which might interest some readers, but to me seemed like "filler" and a waste of space. He also includes a lot of black-and-white cartoons of LEGO figures telling jokes to one another - again, total "filler" in my opinion that makes the book seem longer.

This book is totally unappealing to me. Sorry. And it obviously isn't written for kids. I looked over every chapter and I'm simply confused about what the book is trying to accomplish. Its subjects are all over the map and the NXT isn't used to pull them together.

I hate posting bad reviews of book. But I don't think my review will be alone.

If you like the book, great. One thing I can promise is you won't find one negative word in my book about anybody else's work. The comment Prochnow gives is a low-blow, but he's welcome to his opinion. Mine is clearly stated above.

And for anyone who might suggest that I'm giving his book a bad review because of his comment about my book, I assure you that if his book was useful to me and worthy of purchase, I would have bought it, bad comment or not. I was unaware of his comment about my book until Rick emailed me about it - my opinion of the book had already been made - the only difference is that I wouldn't have posted a negative review on Amazon, which I am only happy to do if it saves one person the money and disappointment.

I spent a lot of time and energy on my book and I stand behind it - I'm proud of what I've created and I wrote for a very specific audience that I hope will enjoy the book. It does bother me that Prochnow chose to add the little snippey comment, but I just keep in mind that he hasn't even read the book yet.

As for pettiness - forgive me one small bit of it here: I've provided 5 robot projects, complete with step-by-step building instructions and complete programming instructions with screenshots. Take a look at his book and what it covers and please let me know which book you believe does a better job of covering NXT, demonstrating building and programming techniques, and is fun to read. I'm biased, obviously, so I welcome some good discussion and comparisons.

Wow, those are some pretty strong words he used. I wonder if he gives, like, any information to back them up?

Rick Rhodes said…

Unfortunately, Dave P. gives no rationale for his comments about Jim's book.

I think Dave was trying to differentiate his book from others. But, in my opinion, he picked a poor way to do it.
Anonymous said…

Whats funny is I got your book in themail a few days ago and already read most of it. I bought Dave's book last weekend and glad I actually saved the receipt because I'm returning it. Its awful. I missed the comment about your book completely but its there I looked. Don't sweat this and take the high road. You said your opinion so let it go and start on another book. You did a good job.


P.S. out of your robots I like the grabbot the best.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the info here - I've been umming and aahing over the various soon-to-be-released Mindstorms books and as an adult geek/tinkerer-type, the "hacking" book appealed to me on title alone.

I'll be re-thinking that decision now - no matter what useful content is in the book, criticising someone else's work, sight unseen is unforgiveable.

Jon (UK).
Anonymous said…
my only complaint about your book and you'll hear it from others is that I wish the isntructions were not photos. But I was able to build 2 of the robots so far with no problem so I guess it's not that big of a deal. I'll let you know if I have trouble with the other 3 robots. I'm 28 and I like the story so kids will probably love it. Very creative and I wish I had thought of it. Are you doign another story in the new book?

Seth Bradley
Salt Lake City, Utah
Anonymous said…
I ahven't gotten a chance to acutaly read either of the books yet. However as I have previoulsy said in my preview, considering how open the NXT is, any book claim to "hack" the NXT is most likely going to be full of crap. Seems like a really cheap shot to talk about any other book in a negative sense in your book. While I think Jim's comment here was quite well thought out and wasn't biased in anyway, I do think that providing any negative comment about a competing book is bad form. Its better to let independant folks (like me!) write reviews and make comments instead. I hand't planned on even looking at this book, however now my intrest is piqued and I will have to check it out at the store, (or perhaps the library) I ceritnly don't plan on buying it though.
Anonymous said…
I happened to be in Barnes & Noble today and saw the book. I briefly thumbed through it, but could immediately tell it was a poorly put together project with mostly bad pictures. It was definitely an attempt to get something quick out and make a buck, but anyone who actually looks at it before buying will not waste their buck on this one.

I haven't seen Jim's book, but I'm sure it beats this one hands down.
Brian Davis said…
Hmm, I might weigh in on this as well. Disclaimer: I *was* involved in Jim's book. Specificly, I was asked to be the technical reviewer, so in a sense it was my job to find the technical holes (to put it another way, i was a pain in the butt - and I was getting paid to be so). So I have read the book, line by line, and studied the programming examples and instructions. And there were some things I had trouble with, some stylistic, some more significant, but both Jim and the publisher were very open about it, and responded quickly. As to the book itself...

I liked it.

No, it's not the sort of book I would buy for myself, but then again, that's why I was tapped to be a technical reviewer (I had, at the time, more knowledge than the average reviewer). But more than that, I was really impressed with the style or theme of the book, particularly for young readers. It's not a "how to" book with cookbook instructions on building some models, but the book tries to lead the reader through the *process* of solving problems - and that in itself is probably a much more valuable skill than any NXT tidbits that are in there.

Just my two cents. From someone who had read the book, at a detailed (very detailed) level. And who was paid to pick on it.

Brian Davis
Anonymous said…
Robot Wars?
Rick Rhodes said…

Remember the old Hollywood adage: all publicity--even bad publicity--is good publicity. :)
Thanks, all of you, for your comments and support. A couple comments and answers before I move on in life:

1. I've removed my negative review from Amazon. It doesn't change my opinion that the book is of very poor quality - I believe it's a collection of other writings that Prochnow has done for other books (and didn't make the cut or didn't quite fit in) with some NXT stuff thrown in to get a book sold.

2. I can accept the comment he wrote about my book now because I realized that very few people will ever read it :)

3. Jeffrey - thank you for reminding me to take the high road. You and a fellow blogger convinced me to remove my Amazon review and let consumers write the reviews (but don't be surprised if Dave does a review of my book!) And I'm glad you like the GrabberBot - it was fun to design.

4. Seth - the photos (at the time) were the only method I had available at the time to meet my deadlines. CAD drawings were beyond my skill level and would have taken too long for me to learn the program and then design the images. As for the new book - no, no story. The NXT Step book will have its own style and format and I'm sure you'll like it because the group putting it together is doing some great stuff.

5. Jim German - again, I've removed my Amazon review - thank you for reminding me its the customer that should make the final review.

6. David, thanks for backing up my thoughts on the book with your own examination.

7. Finally, Brian Davis did a great job as tech reviewer - he caught a lot of small errors and one HUGE one (involving the LOOP block) and made many textual changes that were accepted by editor and myself. Thanks for your compliments on the book, Brian.

Now... on to new and better things!

Anonymous said…
I purchased the book by Prochnow because Jim Kelly's book was not available. It is very dissapointing. I have Kelly's book on order and will exchange Prochnow's book on arrival.
Anonymous said…
Taking down your review was a good thing, Jim. YOur book stands on its own. I'm an AFOL and I'm not embarassed to say that this 46 year old enjoyed reading your book. I've not seen or read anything like this before; I believe you have a unique tool here for teaching not only robot design but other topics. Using a fictional character and story to introduce legitimate reasons to experiment and build robots is "way cool"! I hope you have the opportunity to write another one. Good luck with it.

Anonymous said…
I bought Prochnow's book yesterday, and have read most of it. I find the content generally pointless, and way too much focus on other stuff. No where near enough on the NXT. I think I understood more of the NXT from the tutorial on the Labview website.

If I need to read a history of Lego, stories of RIS and details on GPS, then I'll go elsewhere. But I do expect a book on NXT hacks to talk about hacking in great detail.

Even the secret game in every NXT kit is a joke.
Anonymous said…
I can't return my copy of the book because it was a gift but I wish I could!!!!!!!

I'd liek to add a few of my problems to this list.

* One of the hacks is amazing. It is a picture of 2 bionicle figurines posing with the NXT brick. Wow. I'm not sure if I have the L33T Skillz to do this.

* One of the hacks involves using the MEGA BLOCK product. Hello????? Is this a Lego book???? Do the MEGA BLOCKs even work with Lego blocks????

* But my overall AWARD OF DISAPPOINTMENT goes to the detailed instructions for building a cargo container out of regular Lego bricks. YES!!!!!!!! A cargo container like they put on ships. Maybe you've seen them???? Rectangular. Hollow. 6 sides. Very difficult to build. NOT!!!!!!

* One project that did stand out was the wrist watch. It is made of NXT parts and does include the brick and a motor and some gears and is huge on your arm and hand. I don't think it qualifies as a hacker project but at least he tried.

I know you guys don't like bad language and stuff on your website so I won't say what I think this book is but I think you can read my mind!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anonymous said…
Take look at the reviews on for the NXT Hacker book. Bad bad bad.
Anonymous said…
I remember when Dave posted a message on the MDP forum about his intent to write this book. This was maybe a couple of weeks after we had received our sets and several of us wondered who this guy was and how did he qualify as a NXT hacker. I thought him pretty bold to present himself as an "NXT hacker" among that group (the original MUP's and several well known members of the Mindstorms community).

About Jim's book, I really like it. It's particularly amazing given how little time he had to write it. I've seen some complaints about the visual quality of the building instructions, but we didn't have CAD models for the NXT parts until just recently, and LEGO is notoriously difficult to photograph.

I've had my set for almost a year now and I'm still learning. I'm hoping to master the material enough to update my "Building Robots for FIRST LEGO League" before the start of the next FLL season.
Anonymous said…
I'm mentioned in Dave's Book?

What's it say?
Maybe he would have liked to let me know before hand? I got some emails about it after the fact.

I mean, that's nice and all, but I *just* posted my Red (NXT) Quad and the Robo Rocks NXT Bot was built a few weeks ago only.

Just curious, any body?

Eric Sophie
I don't know, Eric... where are you referenced in the book?

Anonymous said…
Ok, my GF got me the book for reference. I see what is written now, and it is very complimenting!

Other than that, I have not fully read the book.

I look foward to seeing other NXT MINDSTORMS Books by different authors.

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