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!

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.

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

Project Nesso, Chapter 1: Backstory, Tests, Scans, and Drugs

“The basic quality that any great story must have is a story that illustrates the human condition.”  William Shatner (http://www.brainyquote.com)

Somewhere around 2003 it finally dawned on me that getting a headache every day wasn’t normal.  I asked my regular physician about it, and he suggested some common triggers to look for.  Over the next 10 years, most of those triggers would be removed from my environment one way or another – I stopped eating some specific foods, I changed jobs (and therefore my work environment), and so on.  The headaches only worsened.

Then during a 2013 vacation, I realized that my headaches had been progressively starting earlier and earlier in the day, until I found myself waking up with them.  For headaches, “chronic” is defined as having one 15 or more days per month.  I was now getting them every day, all day long.  I decided to get serious about finding out what was going on.

In September of that year, I started with my general physician again, who prescribed a few different drugs to try – Propranolol, Sumatriptan, and Topiramate.  Even after a couple of months, they didn’t seem to have any effect.

About the same time, I found out something new about my family history.  When I was a teen, my grandmother starting having seizures, and the doctors found that she was bleeding from the brain.  She was diagnosed with a stroke.  After her hospital stay, she returned home only to have another seizure.  The doctors looked again and found it was a tumor – not her brain, per se – that was bleeding.  Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy were unfortunately not enough to knock it out completely, and she eventually died.  What I found out in January of 2014 was that in the years leading up to her first seizure, my grandmother suffered from daily headaches.  My grandmother – never one to complain and always serving everyone else before herself – never saw a doctor about the headaches.  She simply endured them.

I became very worried about my own headaches.

My doctor then referred me to a neurologist, who first referred me to an ophthalmologist for an eye exam.  When that didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary, the neurologist ordered an MRI.   The MRI also turned up nothing – no tumors, growths, hemorrhaging, or signs of a stroke.  That was a huge weight off my chest.  We had just ruled out the “big” bad things.

The neurologist also took me off the initial drugs, and tried a couple of additional ones – Diclofenec and Amitriptylin.  Like before, those had no effect.  He then referred me to an ear-nose-and-throat, or ENT, doctor.  If my brain was fine, perhaps my sinuses or something else in my head was to blame.  My ENT ordered a CT scan and an X-ray.  Again – nothing.

My ENT ordered a series of sleep studies.  Perhaps I suffered from sleep apnea, or some other condition that was preventing me from getting a good night’s sleep.  Yet again – nothing.

By November of 2014, my ENT had decided that there wasn’t anything he could do for me.  At this point, having spent over a year being poked, prodded, scanned and drugged, I called a time-out.  I needed a new approach to this problem.

If I couldn’t find the cause of my headaches, could I identify things that made them better or worse?  Could I gain even a measure of control over them?  2015 would be the year that I would try to do just that.

Floating to Mars

Did you know that we sent a balloon to Mars, and it sent back some beautiful photos?

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Just kidding!  I was messing around with one of our stratoballoon pictures earlier this week, and accidentally reversed the colors.  All of the lovely blues turned to these tans and oranges, making our Terran shots look positively Martian.  Here they are again, side by side with the originals:

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