LEGO Labs

(A guest post by CJ)

Several years ago, the Kalamazoo Public Library started a LEGO contest – what could you imagine and build with LEGOs inside a 12”x12” space?

The question stuck with me, and for the last couple years – whenever I was playing LEGOs with the girls – I’d also think about what I’d like to build. I imagined a sort of LEGO lab headquarters. It would be a place where mini-fig mad-scientists would work to create exciting new forms of mayhem, er, technology.

And for my birthday this year, I decided to take the time to build it.

I started the weekend before my birthday. I knew it was going to take me a full week to get it done since I was making it up as I went along. There was a fair amount of building, demolishing, and then re-building as I realized that I needed to add this or that brick in the middle of an already built wall or desk.

And I couldn’t have gotten it done without Mark and Lucy. Lucy was enthralled with the process – she helped make several of the desks and the more elaborate scientific consoles. She also handled the ‘casting’ – she made almost all of the mini-figures that occupy the lab. Mark offered himself up as my chief minion – I’d ask for this or that piece and he’d go find it for me while I kept building. And then he went above and beyond to create… well… you’ll see.

We had so much fun that we decided to take photos and share with all of you. So without further ado…

Welcome to my vision of LEGO labs!

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The first floor has a receptionist, waiting area, and café for both visitors and employees. When you first walk in the main entrance, you can see the LEGO mural by the café.

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The receptionist is a hardworking and friendly student from a local college.

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She oversees the waiting area, which is stocked with the local newspapers and pretty flowers.

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The café is small but serves a variety of hot and cold items.

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Here are a couple of hard-working lab assistants taking a lunch break together. Anyone can pull up a stool and chat!

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And yes, that is a restroom door behind them.

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You can’t see the sink, but it our staff clearly know the importance of washing their hands! (We’re especially proud of the grey hand-dryer over the counter and the toilet paper by the toilet!)

If you go up the stairs to the second floor, you’ll encounter the mechanical lab area first. They have a fully stocked tool bench (including a vise) and are working on creating a small robot that can help people during a natural disaster.

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Meanwhile, another scientist seems to be working on our more powerful computer. We’re don’t remember what he’s working on, but it seems to involve birds and the physics of flight perhaps?

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Over in the corner, it looks like our chemist is analyzing some compounds under the microscope. She’s a little short, so we built a step-stool for her.

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A short walk up the stairs, and then you’ll arrive at the third floor. (Uh-oh… it looks like this lab tech is busy looking at her tablet while she’s walking on the stairs! I hope she doesn’t get hurt!)

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Initially… I only had plans for half of the third floor. And Mark decided to take his minion-skills up a notch and build something to serve as his application for Chief Assistant Minion.

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WOW! Well, I couldn’t turn this down, so we immediately added it to the top floor. Rumor has that it may have initially been called a ‘death ray’ but since our LEGO Lab is one of scientific exploration (not bent on world domination), we adapted it into an especially powerful telescope. Right now I think they’re working on seeing Pluto.

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Lucy really outdid herself in building the consoles for the telescope and our next area. So many levers and lights!

And finally, the last area of our lab is where we are engaged in some exciting new research on humans, er, mini-figs:

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As you can see, this is some pretty complicated machinery with a very advanced control panel. We insist that all visitors stay behind the red line for both their safety and that of our test subject.

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As you can see, we have a special secure containment unit where we bombard the mini-fig subject with blue-purple lightning to see if we can stimulate the development of super-mini-fig powers. (Mark wants me to call it a transmogrification chamber, but really… we’re trying to sound scientific here)

Thank you for enjoying our tour of LEGO labs!

Gem Poetry

A poetry collection, by Lucy Gilbert.

Tiptoe Walk

Tiptoe walk, tiptoe walk.
I need to spell that out with some chalk!
No! No! Don’t do that!
She needs to learn to walk, flat!

 

 

New Shoes

Green, Red, Purple, Blue.
I need new shoes and it’s true.
Which should I pick and which should I choose?
I will go with the Red and Blue!

New Shoes

 

 

Tick, Tock

Tick, Tock,
It’s the clock.
Tick, Tock,
I think I’ll go.
Tick, Tock,
Stop clock!
Tick, Tock,
The clock is my foe.

Tick Tock

 

 

Star

Star, star, shine your light,
shine your light bright tonight.

Make it shine where everyone can see,
so we can make a wish upon thee.

So star, star, shine your light,
shine your light bright tonight.

Star

 

 

Friends

They are nice, kind, and fun
All the way ‘til the day is done.

Sometimes they can be mean,
but you can cheer them up with a jelly bean.

They are nice, kind, and fun
All the way ‘til the day is done.

Friends

Butterflies – 2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 5 years since we last tried to grow butterflies, but here we go again.  So far, this batch is doing better than the first.  The first time, one of the five caterpillars let all of his siblings go into chrysalis first, then he went around the top knocking them all down to the ground before going in himself.  Big bully.

For the 2017 batch, we got them in the mail last week, and they spent the first half in their cup, eating the food at the bottom and more than doubling in size.  About mid-week, they tucked themselves into their chrysalises – peacefully.  We had to give them 3 good days to let them harden, and then we could transfer them to the butterfly cage.  Yesterday was “Transfer Day”.

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Lucy took her responsibility VERY seriously.  Once she got them on the table, she assembled the box that would hold them upright at the bottom of the cage.  CJ carefully opened the cup – the chrysalises were on the underside of the cap:

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Gently pulled away the extra silk, and then set the cap into the box.

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CJ then set it gently down in the cage.

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Anywhere from 3-7 days from now, we should have winged insects, in my house.  Mostly-voluntarily, at that.

What is this world coming to?

Mummifying an Apple

As part of the spring book fair, Lucy got a book called “Monster Science”, and we’ve started working our way through it beginning with mummifying an apple.

“Today – produce.  Tomorrow, THE WORLD!  Muhahahahahaha!!”

Ahem.

We started by cutting the apply into two groups:

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One that would be mummified over the period of a week:

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And one that would be our control, and just sit out:

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Next, Lucy prepared a mixture of salt, baking powder, and the “mummifying powder”* from our kit:

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Which she then poured over the chunks of apple in the beaker:

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Next, we boxed up both containers of apples, taped it shut, and found the darkest part of our basement to keep them in for the week:

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That was last week Sunday.  Today, we unboxed them:

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As you can see in this shot, the control apples are quite recognizable.  The peel is still red, and the meat is still crunchy.  The mummified apples, though, turned a dark brown, and the meat felt more like a sponge than an apple:

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CJ commented that we should have cut both sets of apples up into the same size pieces, and then we could have compared the relative sizes.  That was a great idea, and we could have answered the question of “did the mummified apples shrink, get bigger, or stay the same?”  Oh well.  Next time, Igor.

Muhahaha.

 

 

* UPDATE 5/23/2017: I looked on the box, and they listed the contents of the “mummifying powder” – crosslinked acrylic acid and sodium acrylite copoloymer.

CJ & Katherine go to Shuto-Con 2017 (Part 1)

[A guest blog by CJ]

This past fall, Katherine discovered that one of her favorite online artists, Crayon Queen (a.k.a. Loverofpiggies), would be coming to Lansing’s Shuto-Con in March 2017. Shuto-Con is a convention celebrating anime, gaming and cosplay. When I asked her what she’d like for Christmas, Katherine answered that she’d REALLY like to be able to go to Shuto-Con and hear Crayon Queen (CQ) speak. Kat’s been a huge fan of all CQ’s online comics for years, and she’s learned a lot about the process of (and persistence needed for) online comics from CQ’s Tumblr/blog.

So for Christmas, Mark and I made Katherine a ‘gift certificate’ to attend the conference, and Lucy decided that she wanted to help Katherine create a cosplay for the conference. (For those who don’t know, cosplay is essentially dressing in costume as a character from a movie, book, game, or comic.)

Lucy hams it up as Kat opens her Harold Gloom cosplay gift and looks appropriately gloomy.

Katherine immediately recognized that we had given her the first few pieces of clothing needed to make her very own cosplay based on one of her favorite CQ characters: Harold Gloom, a hobo candy magician from CrayonQueen’s comic Gloomverse.

Here’s a fan-art picture that Katherine drew of Harold:

Kat's fan art of Harold Gloom of Gloomverse

Harold has the magical ability to make a seemingly infinite amount of candy, and he also has little talking pieces of candy (called Lemon Kids) that occasionally pop out from under his hat. So while Kat worked on the actual clothes for her cosplay, I worked on making a Lemon Kid purse that she could fill with candy canes to pass out at the convention. If she’s going as a gloomy hobo candy magician, she should be able to make candy appear on demand, right?

Plus, we made a Lemon Kid that could sit on her shoulder.

Katie looks down at the Lemon Kid on her shoulder

In the days leading up to the con, Katherine was filled with the kind of nervous excitement that typically accompanies weddings, spaceship launches, and fan-girls getting to meet their heroes. The morning of the con, we were on the road by 7 a.m. The Shuto-Con Facebook page warned us that they might sell out of Saturday passes, so we wanted to get there when they opened at 9 a.m.

We had a little adventure on the way to the con (which may be shared in a separate blog), but we finally arrived there just before 9:30 and soon had our day-passes in hand! We immediately went to a nearby bathroom so that Katie could get into her costume. (It was a busy place, as several women had the same idea. I actually helped a female Deadpool zip up the back of her hood so her hair wouldn’t get caught in the zipper.)

Eventually though… Harold Gloom was ready to enter Shuto-Con 2017!

Katherine stands by the Shuto-Con Photoshoot sign

[Full-disclosure – this pic is from later in the con, but it fits the story best here!]

The convention hall with the artists wasn’t scheduled to open until 11 a.m., so for the first hour we just walked around and enjoyed admiring everyone else’s cosplays.

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Lucy loves Pokémon, so I had to get a photo with Pikachu!

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Look – it’s Jack Frost and the Tooth Fairy (from Rise of the Guardians)!

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Say hi to Hiro and Baymax from Big Hero 6!

We had only been walking around for about 10 minutes when suddenly another teenage girl squealed and literally ran over to Katherine.

“Ohmigosh! I’ve never seen anyone dress up as Harold before! You look so awesome! Can I please get your photo?!?!”

Katherine briefly mimicked a deer in headlights, and then she said “Sure” and struck an appropriate gloomy-Harold-like pose. The girl briefly chatted with Katherine about how much she liked Gloomverse and asked if Katherine knew that Crayon Queen was at Shuto-Con. Yep – that’s why we’re here!

As we continued through the lobby, we saw several people dressed up as characters from RWBY (an American anime that we love), and we discovered that there would be a RWBY-themed photo-shoot at 11 a.m. We decided to wander down that way and found a LOT of people doing some pretty awesome RWBY cosplays.

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And that’s only about a quarter of the RWBY cosplayers! I’ll post more photos on the next blog post, but Katherine and I were both amused at this shot with several people dressed up as Qrow. He’s something of a black sheep character who is always drinking so we were amused to see that one of them actually brought a flask to use as a prop.

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By the time we were finished taking RWBY photos, the convention hall was finally open… which meant that Katherine could go meet Crayon Queen in person.

It turned out there was a line at CQ’s table, so Kat initially tried to hide behind me. It didn’t work very well because the other CQ fans in line saw Katherine and immediately began to exclaim and point: “Look, it’s Harold from Gloomverse!”

That, of course, caught Crayon Queen’s attention, and when she caught sight of Katherine, her whole face lit up. As we patiently waited for our turn at the table, Katherine picked out which poster and pins she wanted to buy with her own money, and I agreed to buy her a Gloomverse book as an early birthday present. Once we were at the table, there was some mutual fan-girling going on as Katherine shared how much she liked CQ’s work and CQ admired Katherine’s cosplay. Katie was too shy to ask, so I popped the question – could we get a picture?

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And the answer was yes!

Elated at having successfully spoken with CQ, Katherine decided to try visiting the table of another of her favorite online artists – Alexis Royce, who writes Evil Plan and Sire. We not only got to meet her, but when she found out that Katherine was a fan of Evil Plan, she gave Katie a button of Tal A. Kinesis from Evil Plan to go along side the Harold button we bought at CQ’s table.

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With the two ‘must-see’ artists checked off Katie’s list, we then browsed the rest of the artists’ hall, the gaming hall, and made a few more loops of the general convention center to check out more cosplays, the combat area, etc. etc.

When we got in line to eat lunch, Katherine suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed urgently at someone in the nearby crowd. At first she was so excited, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but then she slowed down her speech and explained that someone had decided to cosplay as another one of CQ’s characters, UnderFresh Sans. Katherine went over to her and the two girls had some mutual squeals over each other’s costumes and then we got a picture of the two of them:

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Later in the day, Katherine would also confront the great Papyrus from Undertale and they would engage in a brief battle of puns – a skele-TON of puns, as Katie would say

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After lunch, we attended a workshop on creating digital art. The speaker, Yhasmin Wilder of Boymonsta.com, was very informative and also quite hysterical to listen to. For part of the workshop, she showed us how she used digital layers upon layers (so many layers!) to create fan art for the characters Miraculous Ladybug and Cat Noir. Since Lucy is a big fan of Miraculous Ladybug, we stopped by Ms. Wilder’s artist booth afterwards and bought a poster for Lucy – and got it autographed on the back by the artist!

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(Check out our next post for photos of people cosplaying as these characters too!)

We did some more crowd-watching and then had some dinner. The big event for us, though, was CrayonQueen’s Q&A panel. After dinner, we went to sit outside the panel room about 45 minutes ahead of time to make sure we got in. Kat used the time to get in a little drawing.

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Yes, all those people are waiting for CQ’s panel! The crowd all clearly loved CQ – many of them were Patreons of her work – and CQ felt comfortable joking around with all of us. The questions ranged from silly to serious, from probing questions about backstories of characters to hypothetical “what if” questions that made the crowd gasp and/or break out in laughter.

CQ warned everyone that she wouldn’t spoil anything big in the stories to come, but she had lots of fun taunting the fans with hints and half-truths. And then to crown the night off, the crowd got to see the first few pages of her newest and latest comic, Lucidia.

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Katherine actually did ask a question of CQ – and so did I. Being a teacher, mine was fairly predictable – what advice would CQ have for young artists out there and the adults who are trying to support them? She shared a few tips, but the one that surprised me was that she encouraged all artists to learn to draw with good posture and to take care of their bodies (CQ shared that she learned that the hard way!). Katherine proved herself to be a true CQ fan because asked a hypothetical question about how one characters in her new comic, Lucidia, who had also been in one of CQ’s earliest comics, Mortifer would react to meeting some of his old companions from Mortifer while in the world of Lucidia. That made CQ stop and smile, but she wouldn’t reveal any spoilers!

The panel eventually came to an end, but before we could leave the con, another girl (who was cosplaying as Toriel from Undertale) shyly came up to Kat and asked for her photo. I offered to get a picture of the two of them together, and I swear Toriel almost did a happy dance right then. Over the course of the day, Kat had actually been recognized by quite a few people and had her picture taken at least 6 or 7 times.

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After that, we went home with sore feet and happy faces. It was a somewhat stressful drive back (yucky roads, no working shake machines at any McDonalds, and an apparently drunk or distracted semi-truck driver on I-94), but we made it THERE AND BACK AGAIN! (Not exactly a hobbit’s tale, but definitely an adventure nonetheless!)

Stay tuned for another post with just a bunch’o’fun pics.

A fresh start for Spring 2017

Over the last year, my thoughts have been increasingly limited to one of two subjects – my work, or my headache research.  Things have been getting more stressful at work, and my research has all but ground to a halt.  CJ made the comment a couple of weeks ago that I needed to pick up a hobby again, just so I would have SOMETHING else to think about.  The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced she was right.

These last few days, I’ve published a few blog posts I had planned, and am putting Project Nesso in cold storage until further notice.  In its place will be a project that CJ and I have been planning for a while – a math game that helps you learn and practice solving algebraic equations.  I’ll be building it on the Unity 3D framework, which means I’ll be playing with a very familiar programming language again – C#.  It also means I’ll be able to dust off my technical blog, and post some fresh content there.

And of course, starting a new project in spring just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Project Nesso, Chapter 3: Troubleshooting

“The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.”   Thomas à Kempis (http://www.brainyquote.com)

Some of what my doctors prescribed in 2014 made a lot of sense.  You’re having pain in your head – let’s take an MRI and see what’s going on in there.

But the approach to medication seemed very rudimentary.  Let’s try drug A and see if it helps.  No?  Let’s take you off of A and try drug B.  No?  On to drug C.  Trying every possible drug that has been shown to help a headache one by one seemed terribly inefficient.  It began to dawn on me that there is a parallel practice in software development, specifically in the area of troubleshooting.  I began to wonder if the lessons I’ve learned there could apply to medicine.

Troubleshooting bugs in software typically involves a few different tools in a developer’s toolkit:

Tool in the Toolkit What does it look like in practice?
Gathering Facts Step through the problem with the client.  Determine if I can reproduce it.
Analysis Can I find a pattern in when the issue occurs, and what the rest of the system was doing when it occurs?
Research Look online for other people who have had this issue, and what they did to solve it.
Experimentation The client did X, Y, then Z to get the issue.  What if I changed the order, or skipped Y – do I get the same error?
Collaboration Talk through the issue, my tests, and my theories with another developer.

When all of those techniques fail, I’m reduced to what I’ve termed “code roulette” where I just try changing things almost at random, and see what the outcome is.  It’s like Experimentation, but without a theory to guide it, which makes it the least scientific and least efficient way to fix a bug.  Historically, this approach is far less likely to lead to a solution to (or even insight into) the problem.  As a result I only pull it out of my toolbox when I’ve exhausted all of my other options.

How does the approach to troubleshooting recurring headaches stack up against troubleshooting a software bug?

Tool in the Toolkit Software Development In Practice Headache Treatment In Practice
Gathering Facts Step through the problem with the client.  Determine if I can reproduce it. Do the headaches occur every day?  Do you notice the headaches getting stronger as the day goes on?  Does your family have any history of headaches?  Let’s get you in for an MRI to see what’s going on in your head.
Analysis Can I find a pattern in when the issue occurs, and what the rest of the system was doing when it occurs? Can you keep a headache journal, to track when you get headaches, and how bad they are?  Is there a pattern to when they become more severe?
Research Look online for other people who have had this issue, and what they did to solve it. Read the medical literature to see what the research has to say about them.
Experimentation The client did X, Y, then Z to get the issue.  What if I changed the order, or skipped Y – do I get the same error? If you get more sleep, is your headache the next day better, worse, or unchanged?  Would cutting processed meats out of your diet affect them?
Collaboration Talk through the issue, my tests, and my theories with another developer. Let me refer to you to a specialist.
Roulette Let me change each setting, one by one, until we find one that fixes the problem. Let me prescribe each drug for you, one by one, until we find one that is effective.

Not only is the roulette approach inefficient, the feedback look with medication is a couple of orders of magnitude longer.  With code roulette, the time between trying something and seeing the effect is usually measured in seconds or minutes; with “drug roulette” it’s measured in weeks.

This analogy had been brewing two years, but it really solidified in February 2017.  It drove me to ask what I believe is a foundational question: is this really the state of the art for prescribing drugs, or was this just one patient’s experience?

Project Nesso, Chapter 2: Gathering Data

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (http://www.brainyquote.com)

During my office visits, my neurologist would ask me how bad my headache was, on a scale of 0-10.  Since I only saw him one every few weeks, I thought the answer to that question couldn’t possibly be giving him that much to go on.

What if I were to chart my headaches multiple times a day, every day?  Could I learn something about them?  Could I start asking some intelligent questions about them, like “do they tend to get worse in the early afternoons, right after lunch?” or “are they worse if I don’t get a good night’s sleep the night before?”

That led me down the road to all sorts of things that I thought could be contributing to them – how “stressed out” was I feeling, how much liquid had I consumed that day, had I eaten recently, and so on.

I built a custom wearable, wrote a survey app for my desktop and eventually my phone to collect this data.  While the wearable was short-lived, I collected more than a hundred thousand data points with the app over the course of a year, and tried to see if there was any correlation between the strength of my headaches and things going on around me.  There were some mild correlations, but I didn’t find anything like a smoking gun.

In April 2016, I decided to try to rule out any food-related triggers.  My family and I spent that month going through a program called “The Whole 30”.  The authors talk about various foods that cause inflammation – milk, grains, sugar, etc. – and how by abstaining from them for 30 days you can clean out and “reset” your system.  They don’t specifically talk about headaches, but I wanted to see if cutting those foods would result in any improvement.  It didn’t.  My headaches before, during and after the Whole-30 remained about the same.

In July 2016, I started what I thought was the next logical step – a massive research project.  I set out with the ambitious goal of reading every piece of headache research I could get my hands on.  I also started identifying the researchers doing the leading-edge work in this area.

That undertaking spun into what I believe will become a very interesting future software project.  However, after 8 months of pursuing that, it dawned on me that now I had two problems.*

I needed to get back to the real quest – my headaches.  I felt my best bet would be to go back to the experts – researchers and medical doctors – rather than try to become one myself, but something about my experience as a patient nagged me.

 

*Apologies to Jamie Zawinski