Travel Tips for Road Warriors – Part 1

As a frequent traveler, who travels mostly for work at least once or twice a month, I have over time assembled quite a list of little tricks and “best practices” to make life on the road easier and more bearable. Hopefully you’ll find some of these useful for your own travels:

Air Travel

  • Whatever airline you fly, either join their frequent flyer program or use one of your existing memberships (most airlines have several partner airlines). Miles can only help and rumor has it that people who are members of a frequent flyer program are less likely to get “bumped”.
  • Try to stick to one (or two) airlines and their partners, so you don’t spread your miles around too much. (If your miles are in a lot of different programs, check out points.com).
  • Keep an eye on expiring miles. If you approach expiration, use “dine for miles” or magazine subscriptions in exchange for miles to generate activity on your account to keep it active.
  • Whatever your primary airline is, seriously consider getting their rewards credit card. Usually signing up is rewarded by a healthy chunk of extra miles, early boarding privileges, free checked luggage, etc.
  • Once you’ve reached a higher level/status in your main frequent flyer program, take a look at the platinum level of whatever their program’s credit card is. That way you may get free companion tickets, (discounted) lounge access and qualifying miles which will make it easier to maintain your status.
  • That said, lounges sound exciting, but unless you have very long layovers, they’re often not practical because you won’t have time to use them in between flights. If you travel internationally a lot, they are more useful. LoungeBuddy is a useful app if you frequently use lounges.
  • Even if you reach higher status levels, don’t bet on getting upgraded. I found that despite high status I often ended up being #16 of 35 people fighting for 2 empty business class seats.
  • Nonetheless, check in as early as you can, in most cases 24 hrs before departure.
  • Always board early if you can, especially if you bring a roll-aboard. A higher level of status and/or the airline’s rewards credit card will help get priority boarding.
  • Install the airline’s iOS or Android mobile app. Easy online check in, notifications, gate info, and electronic boarding passes make life quite a bit easier.
  • Avoid connections. If you can’t help it, avoid connections with less than an hour in between. Any slight delay would leave you having to rebook because you’ll likely miss your next flight. Avoid itineraries with multiple connections. Try to stick to a single airline and its partners (each way), so you are less likely to miss connections or have to change terminals for connecting flights.
  • If you have connecting flight, get a seat in the first third of the aircraft to save time getting off the plane and to your next gate. Some apps even include airport maps or walking directions. Know your next gate and where you arrive before you step off the plane.
  • The later in the day your flight, the higher the chance it will be delayed.
  • Know when your departure airport will be busy (e.g. 6-8 AM in most cases) and plan extra time for security. I always try to be at least 1:15 hrs early for my flight (for domestic flights).
  • Sign up for TSA Pre – it’s worth it! Global Entry is a good idea of you fly a lot internationally. CLEAR is a nice idea, but a lot of airports don’t support it yet and if you have TSA Pre or Global Entry, it doesn’t save much time.
  • Go for aisle seats – the ability to get up and stretch or use the bathroom without asking your neighbor to get up is worth it. If you can’t get an aisle seat, go for middle. I found that while windows are nice, asking two people to get up when I needed to use the bathroom was not fun. More often than not, there’s not that much to see anyway.
  • Reserve seats as soon as you buy your ticket. Watch out for seats with limited recline. Check out the app SeatGuru.
  • If you get stranded or otherwise impacted by a significant delay, start with your airline’s mobile app to rebook yourself, which works surprisingly well and doesn’t require being on hold with the airline. If that doesn’t work, call the the airline immediately. It’s fine to let them know that you are significantly inconvenienced by the delay (e.g. missed meetings etc.). They may at least offer you extra miles, upgrades or a travel voucher. If they don’t offer, ask. The higher your status, the better they’ll treat you and you may have priority waitlist status etc.
  • Register your phone numbers with the airline’s frequent flyer program. When you have to call them, they may match your phone number with you automatically which expedites the process. If you have higher status, you will have special numbers to call with shorter wait times.
  • Get a nice backpack (not too large). Being able to carry things on your back may not always look fashionable, but it’s much easier, you’ll have both hands free and if needed, it’s possible to sprint through the terminal to catch your next flight. Some backpacks look sleek without outer pockets, but I’d argue they’re not very practical if you just want to reach in and find a charging cable. Outer pockets with separate zippers help.
  • Always pack your phone’s charging cable and charger in your carry-on luggage. I’d also recommend having a charged battery pack ready at all times. Don’t rely on chargers in the plane. Plus you’ll be able to charge your phone in your backpack while walking off the plane and through the airport if needed.

I hope you enjoyed this information. Check out Part 2 for rental cars/ground transportation, hotels and more!

MacOS App Store – Submit / Review / Reject / Repeat?

Let me start with: I like Apple, the company and its products. As a developer, I like the MacOS App Store and I appreciate Apple reviewing apps to ensure high quality as well as security. Hence I’m cool with app sandboxing even though that makes developing utilities pretty challenging. I get all that. But my experience with the reviewers has been “varied” – to say the least. One particulay case makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up:

app store screenshot with crazy faceIn 2014, I created a utility app that required a certain level of file access. I went through several rounds of submit / reject / re-submit / re-reject / etc. At one point, I actually got a phone call from a friendly Apple App Store reviewer. He wasn’t allowed to provide me with a solution, but he did strongly “hint” at what I was to do to make it through the review process. I did exactly that – and got rejected again. So I gave up.

Just now, 1.5 years later, I said “what the hell” and rewrote the very same app in Swift – just for fun – simplifying some of the functionality while adding a simple Downloads folder entitlement. And I got rejected again with somewhat cryptic (and to some extent nonsensical) comments, which reminded me of my first experience. When I replied and asked for clarification, they responsponded and suggested I approach it just like I had done in my first rejected Objective C version. Fine, so I basically implemented the exact functionalty of the old version, almost line by line. The resulting app did everything exactly like the old app, same logic, same flow, same UI, same approach to sandboxing. I re-submitted – and it got approved!!!

What am I supposed to make of that?! I know the Apple reviewers are human and make mistakes or at least have different views. Either way, it’s pretty ironic that the very same app that was repeatedly rejected now got approved. Are the guidelines that much open to interpretation?! Again, I’m all good with Apple reviewing submitted apps and everyting, but please don’t make it SO hard, Apple! Don’t make your developers waste so much of their lives trying to make it through the review process…!

 

What I learned from my Fitbit

For two and half months I have been equipped with a Fitbit (the Fitbit One, to be specific, which is is a clip-on device). It started with a series of step competitions with people from work. Previously, I had not carried or worn any kind of fitness tracker. I guess I was and still am holding out for the 2nd iteration of the Apple Watch, but this was a chance to experiment and learn ahead of the mystical Apple device appearing on the market.

The “One” keeps track of a number of metrics, including steps taken, number of flights of stairs climbed, “active minutes”, sleep duration & quality, etc. I wore the tracker 24 hours a day, even if that meant wearing a wrist sleeve at night that the tracker slips into.

The suggested/default goal is to take 10,000 steps per day, which I initially didn’t have a good wristsense for. Is this a lot – or not? Some interesting thoughts on that goal can be found in this article, so I’m not going to repeat it here.

These last few months have been enlightening. Here’s what I’ve taken away from this experience:

  • The “datafication” of the body is natural for me – a numbers guy. It certainly raises awareness and surfaces new information and helps validate/invalidate assumptions everyone is making about themselves.
  • 10,000 steps is actually quite a bit. Even though I work out 7 days a week, I practically never reached that mark without specific extra effort. Even with additional effort to take walks etc., 10,000 remained challenging on most days.
  • That means I’m really not moving all that much thanks to an office job that mostly glues me to my desk and phone. Even during fairly active weekends, this turned out to be a stretch goal. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of this and make an effort to walk more.
  • My biggest learning is this, well, it’s more of a theory: quantity is not quality. I think this is where the whole concept is a little off. Even people who do take 10,000 steps a day may not get enough exercise. And that’s where people get it wrong: It’s not just a matter of getting the steps in, it’s about getting your heart rate up for an extended period of time to somewhere close to your target range and keeping it there. That means you’ll have to actually sweat, feel the pain and huff and puff a little. Just taking steps via casual walking isn’t going to do it. Even the folks that beat me consistently with way more steps (from walking) every day I don’t think get that good a workout and aren’t as fit as me. I don’t think there’s a replacement for working hard and exercising beyond purely walking. When it comes down to it, I rather work out hard for 30 mins than walk for 60 mins. High intensity doesn’t always give you that many steps and that’s okay. 45 mins of Tae Kwon Do, which can be quite intense, netted only a modest amount of steps, but anybody who’s done it will tell you what an intense workout it is.
  • Even the venerable CDC recognizes that as it recommends “Adults need at least 2:30 hrs of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).” (1 of several variations of exercise they propose).
  • Not surprisingly, things like cycling, stretching or weight lifting basically don’t net any steps at all, but we all know that these are very valid forms of exercise.
  • I don’t sleep as much as I thought I did. On average 6:45 hours a day. Still, not bad. And I have confirmation that I fall asleep very quickly and sleep peacefully like a baby, without tossing and turning. They call it high sleep efficiency. 🙂

All in all, I’ve learned from this experience. Maybe similar to when I carefully tracked all my food intake and exercise through MyFitnessPal (see my diet journey), measuring this part of your life will create useful insight and dispel misconceptions. That said, always having he Fitbit One clip on 24 hours a day got old and I stopped, at least for now. But the knowledge it generated will certainly influence me going forward. Number of steps aside, I will certainly continue to focus on the quality and intensity of my exercise beyond just the number of steps.

The Connected Home – I’m starting to get it!

You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a gadget guy. Some might even call me an early adopter although I’d argue that I typically wait for version 2 of anything brand new before I entertain buying it, which technically disqualifies me as early adopter. The “connected home” is one of those things I really didn’t “get”. I didn’t see the point.

That changed recently. It started with the replacement of my A/C, which was a big (and unfortunately expensive) project. Looking at whiiPad main controlch thermostat to use, I ended upwith the ecobee3, which – similar to the Nest – has a touch screen, proximity sensor, etc. The cool thing is that it connects to a remote sensor which I placed upstairs. Both the thermostat and the sensor not only register temperature, but also whether that level of the house is occupied. The system can now automatically and intelligently turn itself on and off not only vis a schedule but also based on whether someone is in the house. I can also make it so that at niPad follow meight only the upstairs sensor is used for temperature regulation (who cares what temperature it is downstairs when all the bedrooms are upstairs?!). I can change temperatures and setting from my iPhone and iPad and see from anywhere what my the temperatures are upstairs and downstairs and even if these levels are occupied. This info is accessible from the ecobee app as well as from the iOS Notification Center. Moreover, I can use Siri to control iPad weather impacttemperature and switch to different modes. The iPad app offers various stats on what’s going on in the house. I was starting to get hooked…

Then I was rethinking home security. ADT is not only not exactly cheap, but the technology started to look a little long in the tooth. So I selected the Canary home security device. It constantly monitors the downstairs area with camera (it also has night vision), audio iOS Notification Centerand motion detection. It arms and disarms itself when registered users enter and exit the house. It records audio and video snippets and makes them available within a timeline for viewing from all iOS devices. It sends notifications if activity is detected while the device is armed and one can trigger a built-in audio alarm and call the police remotely. Canary is supposed to “learn” patterns in order to automatically distinguish suspicious from normal activity. Of course a live video feed is also available (great for checking in on the family when I’m traveling) as well as widgets for iOS’s Notification Center. Oh, did I mention it also measures air quality, temperature and humidity over time?

Now it’s starting to make sense to me. While I don’t care about turning on lights from my phone or changing their color hue “automagically” in my home, monitoring temperature and home security make a lot of sense. It’s amazing how all this information is put at one’s fingertips and how seamlessly these systems allow for monitoring and controlling the home, no matter if you’re at home or somewhere halfway around the world. I sense this may be the starting point for more in future. Now I’m also starting to wonder what our homes will be like 3-5 years from now.

Sonicare – Doesn’t Care?!

On 12/31/2015 I purchased a set of Sonicare electric toothbrushes at the local Costco store. When I prepared one of the brushes for use, I noticed a small amount of white deposit on the top. I didn’t think much of it and scraped it off with my fingernail. Maybe this was some kind of manufacturing residue. No big deal. We started using the toothbrushes.
A few days later I got around to unpacking the 2 charging units as well. At the bottom of one of them, I came across a dark grime that reminded me of what my old brushes had at the bottom. My spider sense went off! I turned the unit around and saw dried foam on the top as well (photos below). Clearly this unit had been used before and I’m sure so had the brush I had already been using for several days at that point! I realized that somehow a refurb/used toothbrush and charging unit had been re-packged and sold as new. Disgusting! (The package/box was clearly sealed and had not been opened!)
I immediately reached out to Sonicare customer service via chat and also Twitter in early January. The social media guys were somewhat responsive and kept promising I would be contacted by customer support, but nobody did.

Mid January I was finally asked for a proof of purchase, which I provided. I was then issued a return label for FedEx. I told them I had no intentions of returning the items because I had – unfortunately – already started using them. I asked for a refund instead. That was 1/18.
As of 1/31, I’ve heard nothing. I certainly would like a refund, but I’m mostly interested in is an apology and someone trying to explain how a used unit got resold (which is disgusting!) and what they will do to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But overall I’m very disappointed with the follow-up and lack of care. Obviously toothbrushes are personal care items requiring highest quality and hygienic standards from the manufacturer. Sonicare has obviously failed miserably and resold used units as new. From a consumer’s perspective, this is scandalous and their lack of apparent care extremely disappointing. I must conclude that Sonicare doesn’t care!

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Lone AFib – Exercise Cool Down and Swallowing as Trigger?

webmd_rf_photo_of_atrial_fibrillationI’m in my mid 40s and exercise very regularly. And when I say regularly, I mean very regularly… (see Working out 7 Days a Week?!). About 7 years ago (years before I started my more intense exercise routine), I had my first episode of atrial fibrillation (AFib), which feels somewhere between weird and scary. At the time, I started going through all kinds of EKGs, ultrasounds and other tests (you name it). The end result: my heart is healthy, I have no other risk factors and I don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. The official term for this is “Lone AFib” (LAF), which basically means nobody knows where it comes from or what causes it.

Since then, I’ve now had a total 4 episodes:

  • I ended up in the ER every time.
  • Gaps in between were 4 years, and roughly 21 months thereafter.
  • The first time I was admitted and converted back to normal sinus rhythm due to drugs overnight. The 2nd time I enjoyed a cardioversion (read: defibrillator & electroshock). The 3rd and 4th time I spontaneously converted while already in the ER but without clear reason – maybe it was the stress of the ER experience or that the Flecainide ended up working after all. (After the first incident, my doctor advised me to take Flecainide only in case I go into AFib, not as permanent treatment.)
  • I stayed in AFib between 8 and 23 hours during those episodes.

Coming back to the mysterious trigger, there seems to be a common pattern that emerges from the various circumstances when my AFib episodes started:

  • Walking off the mat after a Tae Kwon Do class on a Saturday morning and taking a swig from my water bottle (2 occasions, exact same situation and day and time of day!).
  • Coming home from a jog and getting something to drink.
  • Sitting down after a hike up a mountain and starting to sip water.

It seems obvious: the 2 factors that always appear to come together are 1) finishing cardio-intensive exercise (the heart going into recovery from high BPMs) and 2) swallowing liquid. I’m wondering if the nerves controlling the swallowing reflex/process (vagus nerve?) intersect with or related to the part of the nervous system controlling the heart rate or if there is another way these two bodily processes relate?

From what I’ve read and the doctors I’ve talked to, there is no clearly documented connection. And yet at least for me this pattern is obviously way too consistent to be coincidental.

I’d love to hear from others who’ve been diagnosed with “Lone AFib” as to whether they’ve experienced the same or similar patterns?


On a sidenote: has anyone found that Flecainide affects the blood sugar level (a maybe undocumented side effect)?

Please respond with comments.

The Force Awakens – Parallels

TheForceAwakensparallelsJust having watched The Force Awakens, I couldn’t help but notice the almost overwhelming number of parallels it had with previous Star Wars movies, which go beyond the recurrence of familiar characters, machinery and phrases (“I have a bad feeling about this!”. Here’s my initial list:

  • Bad guy in black with a mask in addition to emperor-like figure.
  • Desert/sand planet
  • A junker on a desert planet being called to a higher purpose (Anakin/Rey)
  • Old, bearded uber-Jedi in seclusion on a remote planet (Luke/Yoda)
  • Special light saber finding  its way down to off-spring
  • An old, greenish, tiny, wise creature as spiritual guide for the unexacting future Jedi.
  • Evil superpower is in search of droid(s) containing key information about their good opponents.
  • Breaking good guys out of a evil fortress.
  • Dark bar with riff-raff and music..
  • Kids being separated from parents and hidden away.
  • Han in trouble with other bad guys.
  • Rebel/resistance base is uncovered and attacked.
  • A person with the force in need of completing their training (Luke/Kylo)
  • The main bad guy’s struggle with the light side and being good.
  • Destruction of a death star by X-wing fighters via exploiting a design weakness.
  • The bad guy is punishing people (soldier types) who fail harshly.
  • Torture by the main bad guy.
  • The force awakening in someone who didn’t know about their origins/family tree (duh!)
  • Generational reversal (parent vs. offspring being either good or evil)

Thanks to JJ Abrams, there are also some interesting contrasts with the Force Awakens:

  • The  bad guy tends to take off his mask and show a human/good side early on.
  • Storm trooper defection.
  • The bad guy has a bad sidekick reporting to the uber villain.
  • The evil villain has a terrible temper.
  • And he gets pretty beat up already early in the course of the trilogy.
  • More obvious slapstick humor (“That’s not how the Force works!”)
  • Nobody’s hand has been chopped off yet… 🙂

To stretch this even further, JJ has even brought a little bit of LOST into Star Wars with Ken Leung making an appearance and a theme of “parent issues“.

 

Update 3/28/16: Apparently I’m not the only one noticing the parallels. Check out this UPROXX article!

Fear of Change

During a recent vacation, I was snorkeling, swimming through the shallow water of a beautiful lagoon with white sand at the bottom. The sun was up high and the sea floor  was bright. Then I approached a drop off where the shallow seafloor fell off to unknown depths. As I approached the edge, the scenery in front of me started to look a little scary and my heartbeat accelerated. Instead of bright sand right underneath me, I was now approaching a dark blue. My eyes, still460b3a6374b74b8d38a17f176892248a conditioned by the bright reflective sand, had trouble seeing any details in the deep, dark blue beyond the edge. Although I’m an experienced snorkeler and even scuba diver, I felt a little weary, not knowing what to expect. Then my eyes adjusted and I was able to see more of the details underneath me. As I held my breath and dove down to the seafloor 15-20 ft underneath me, I saw small blocks of coral and fish. While the deep blue initially created the illusion of a a lot of depth, I realized this areas wasn’t all that deep. After just a few minutes in this new environment, I felt very comfortable. This area was actually more exciting for snorkeling and looking back at the shallow lagoon, I almost felt silly for being weary about this deeper area.

Taking a step back, isn’t this how we all feel when it comes to dealing with change? We all have our home turf where we’re comfortable. We know our surroundings and are at ease. Then we head towards change. All off a sudden, things aren’t quite as clear any more and the unknown may make us weary and nervous. We don’t know what’s “out there” and we can’t discern the details yet of what we’re going to encounter. We react emotionally and with fear. But once we allow ourselves to be exposed to the new environment, we see it’s not all that scary and we may actually enjoy it. We get to see the details of our new surroundings and become comfortable. Looking back, we may feel silly about having reacted with so much unease. In the end, we extend our comfort zone and the formerly foreign territory ends up becoming part of our home turf.

So what can we take away from this? Fear of change is normal and some may argue even a hardwired response (think “fight or flight” reflex). But although in today’s world change may be unavoidable, there are a few things we can do to ease the transition:

  • Know that your response is “normal”.
  • Allow yourself to go through the readjustment process.
  • The more quickly you explore your new environment and become familiar with its particularities, the more quickly will you feel comfortable.

In the end, change is part of everyday life and we all have to deal with it. The more often we experience it, the sooner we realize frequent change is the new norm and while fear of the unknown is normal, going through it consciously and deliberately will hopefully take the edge off.

Why Your Photo Library is taking over your Computer

Like many of you have properly observed, your photo library is getting out of control. Every year, you seem to be taking more pictures than the one before and, oh by the way, the resolution of your cameras (point ’n shoot, cell phone, etc.) is getting higher and higher too.

As a little programming exercise, I analyzed my photo library going back to when I starting collecting digital pictures (for Mac users, check out your own photo library with this little program). Here’s what I found out:

  • Between 1996 and 2002, photo sizes were basically flat at 0.15 MB per picture.
  • Starting with 2003, the average image size increased by 58% on average annually (from 0.15 MB to ~3 MB per picture; and I’m not using super high-tech cameras, otherwise the sizes would be significantly higher)!
  • Over the last 10 years, the average count of pictures taken per year increased by 41% annually!
  • During the same time, the increase of total storage increased by 35% on average annually (without accounting for meta data, duplication due to editing, etc.)

 

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(The year 2005 is somewhat of an anomaly due to high-res, professional wedding pictures.)



Bottom line: total storage space required for pictures is growing exponentially. Although the number of pictures one can take per day is probably going to top out somewhere (hopefully somewhere below 1 picture for every minute of the day!), the resolution will keep climbing, at least for a while.
With the introduction of SSD drives, storage has become faster, but the cost per terabyte is still higher than for regular hard drives and capacity ultimately will have a hard time keeping up with the exploding demand, especially for the ubiquitous laptops. (If you’re working with a lot of videos in addition to images, all bets are off.)

Where does all this leave us? I believe that ultimately the solution will be to store all these pictures not on your hard drive, but in the cloud. Photo management software will eventually need to adjust and store only a subset of your library on your drive, maybe in the form of thumbnails and meta data (Apple’s new Photos app is already moving in this direction). For viewing and editing of your pictures, the originals would then have to be downloaded on the fly. All of this not only requires a fast internet connection, but also trustworthy, reliable and affordable online storage. At the end of the day, few us will be able to store our own photo libraries on our own systems any more. The software (and storage) vendors will have the challenge to make this experience seamless and reliable. But in the end, that’s probably the only way to make photo storage sustainable.

The Walking Dead and LOST

I’ve been watching The Walking Dead from day 1 and I’ve mostly liked it from the beginning, but starting with the latest season (5), especially since episode 10 (“Them”), I’ve been noticing echoes of and similarities with my all-time favorite show, Lost. The parallels are not too obvious or strong, but bear with me and tell me if you can’t see it as well.

WalkingdeadANDLOST

Here goes:

  • Rick, cop, versus, Jack, doctor. They lead the group and like to fix things. Both have a dark side and sometimes lose control.
  • Token Asian guy(s), Glenn and Jin (& Sun).
  • Black religious dude who’s a little cray cray: Gabriel and Mr. Ekko with a dark past.
  • Both groups are lost in their own way and it’s less about island mysteries and walking zombies, but about people, relationships and people finding themselves. Both are seeking redemption from past lives and deeds.
  • Carl ~ Walt?! And then there’s Rick’s baby and baby Aaron.
  • Aaron shows up who – without hiding it – happens to be an “other”, just like Ethan Rom.
  • Alexandria and “Otherville” – a bunch of dirty, raggedy survivors are shocked to find a seemingly quaint, normal, “modern” oasis with houses, running water, electricity and a community life that seems to defy the world around them.
  • Rick, now part of this community, is planning to challenge and maybe overthrow this new community. Isn’t that a little bit like Jack scheming against the Others while held on Hydra Island and later Otherville?
  • Like the outsiders live in Alexandria amongst the original inhabitants, the Losties lived amongst the Dharma initiative in the 70s during time travel days. Until certain evens bring about conflict and fighting.
  • Deanna, a smart, maybe deceitful, woman is leading the new community. The actress reminds me of Isabel, judge of the Others, although in a way she may otherwise compare more to Ben.
  • Darryl, a person at the edge of society, kind of an outlaw and very good with bow and arrow, may be a cross between Kate (on the run from the law) and knife man himself, Locke.
  • Episode titles, hello!? “Them” and “One of Them” (Lost season 2).
  • The show is an long, convoluted journey for a group of people with a lot of main characters losing their lives eventually.
We’ll see how The Walking Dead develops over time. Maybe the parallels are temporary right now, but at least for now I’m seeing them more than ever in the past.