QR Codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC Tags

The longest conversation ever to take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s LinkedIn page was about QR codes, Microsoft tags, and NFC tags. These are technologies used in magazine ads, on billboards and T-shirts, in murder investigations, and in many other media that can be scanned using a smart phone to provide a link to a website or other information. In interpretive settings, they can be used to provide access to information that augments the contents of signs or exhibits.

Here’s a quick breakdown of these technologies:

QR Codes
Based on my own unscientific observation, I feel like you see QR (“Quick Response”) codes more than the other two. About a year ago, I wrote a post about them, which, if it had been an interpretive presentation, would have had the following theme: “This is what QR codes are.” (Sam Ham would be proud.) Since then, I’ve heard from a handful of interpreters about how they’re using QR codes at their sites, including this example from Friend of IBD Bob Hinkle at Cleveland Metroparks.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Lake to Lake Trail features six signs similar to these, which are made of vinyl over aluminum, so they can be replaced quickly and easily for less than a dollar each, according to Bob.

You can read QR codes with the camera on your smart phone with an app called a “QR Reader.” I use an app on my iPhone called (wait for it) QR Reader. You can create QR codes extremely easily on a number of websites called “QR Code Generators,” like the one I use called Kaywa.

One criticism of QR codes is that they’re ugly and boring (also criticisms of the IBD blog authors), but Friend of IBD Phil Sexton shared this link to 15 Beautiful and Creative QR Codes, which shows that they don’t have to be. Above are examples from that article—tags for Fillmore Silver Spring, Louis Vuitton’s mobile site, and Corkbin. The article’s author, , points out that the QR code’s “30% tolerance in readability” allows this room for creativity. (Note that Cleveland Metroparks includes their logo in the middle of their QR code.)

Microsoft Tags
Terre Dunivant of Gaia Graphics and Associates wrote a post on her blog comparing the relative merits of Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes. Terre prefers Microsoft tags for several reasons, including that they offer even more flexibility and room for creativity than QR codes. The examples below (from Microsoft’s website) are tags for Iams, Loescher (a book publisher), and Ciara.

On the negative side, so far as I can tell, you can only create Microsoft tags by signing up for a free account on Microsoft’s website, which I assume will crash your computer. In terms of scanning Microsoft tags, I use an app called Microsoft Tag Reader on the iPhone.

NFC tags
I’ll admit that I have not used this technology. I researched NFC tags to learn more about the rumor that Brett Favre was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, and I was surprised to learn that NFC, in this instance, has nothing to do with the National Football Conference, but rather stands for “Near Field Communication.”

Near Field Communication tags are the relative new kid the block—the Joey McIntyre of mobile data-sharing technology, if you will. NFC tags are different from QR codes and Microsoft tags in that they are actual pieces of hardware rather than printed codes to be scanned. Basically, you purchase and write data to tiny electronic chips, which are then able to share that data with NFC-enabled devices (like some smart phones) that come close to them. The obvious disadvantages to this technology are that you have to create the tags, and not all smart phones are equipped to accept the information. The advantage is that the transfer of data is much easier on the user’s end, provided they have an NFC-enabled phone.

This is technology to watch, but the limited number of people able to take advantage of it at the moment, in my opinion, makes it not quite ready for prime time.

As more and more people have smart phones—including noted Apple critic and new iPhone owner Shea Lewis—interpretive sites are taking advantage of these technologies. But there are questions, of course: What are the best ways to make use of this new technology from a pragmatic standpoint? (Cleveland Metroparks’ easy-switch sign is a good solution.) How do you make information contained in the codes available to those who do not have smart phones? (Note that Cleveland Metroparks has provided a website for those with no smart phone.) How will this technology change in the next six months to 10 years? (If we knew that, we’d be filthy rich.) Can you really justify calling a designated hitter a baseball player? (Clearly not.)

I’m curious to know if you’ve been using any or all of these at your site, and what sort of success you’ve had.

Apps for Interpreters (That We Also Kind of Like)

Most of you know where I stand in the realm of Mac vs. PCs. That doesn’t mean that I have to be against every single product that Apple offers. (Though it is true that the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad are all the exact same product just offered in various sizes.) What I can’t really wrap my mind around is how it is possible for Paul to write a post about iPhone apps and not make fun of the fact that I now have one too. I expect those comments to come rolling in today. Paul did a nice job avoiding hyperbole but I’m here to say these apps will change your life.

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For the first time ever on a recent birding trip and guided birding boat tour that I led, I didn’t bring a field guide with me. With the Sibley Guide eGuide to Birds app it is not necessary. The app has amazing options for viewing maps, hearing various versions of calls, along with all of the other images and information that the actual field guide offers. There are many other types of bird guides out there that cost less but overall I was most impressed with this one. It is pricy for an app ($29.99) but it is all about priorities. There are also apps for other naturalists’ interests such as field guides for herps, mammals, fish, etc.

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Speaking of apps for naturalists, LeafSnap is pretty cool too. First, it is beautifully designed. You can look through the browsing section for hours at a time.The feature that has made this app so popular is that you can take a leaf, place it on a white sheet of paper and photograph it (or snap it) and it will provide you with a list of possible species that you can peruse based on your location.

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If you ever find yourself problem solving or brainstorming and struggling with conceptualizing the issues at hand, SimpleMindMapping is available to you when ever the ideas are flowing. The free version allows you to save and view your mind maps but the paid version allows you to email and share the maps. As with most free technology today, the basic options are free and you pay for advanced elements.

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Keeping the Star Wars streak alive (and an attempt to continue to isolate any readers we still have) I bring you my favorite Star Wars-related app. I have a demanding job and personal life where at any given moment I’m searching for wisdom and guidance. Where do I turn? Thanks for asking, I turn to the Star Wars Quotes app. If Yoda can’t help me solve a problem, no one can. I also have friends (which may surprise you) who are also Star Wars fans (no we don’t dress up; well, only on special occasions) who are sticklers for accuracy that this app provides.

I tell you that to tell you this: There are quote apps for almost all interest areas that allow you to access information quickly and easily to meet your needs.

Today’s random quote from Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

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Speaking of quotes you must have, Dragon Dictation allows you to make your own quotes. It allows you speak into your iPhone and will take your transcribed dictation straight into a text message, email, word processing file, Facebook status update, or Tweet. If you need to make a quick note while out on a tour, you need this app. (Also, it’s great if you ever need to tweet or text while driving.) It is amazingly seamless, but struggles with my southern accent at times.

For all of you interpretive naturalist types out there please share your favorites below in the comment section. In the meantime I’ll be listening to bird calls on my iPhone.

Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

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These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

Why Clip Art is Evil

Author’s note: One of the first pieces I ever wrote for NAI was a commentary in the July/August 2003 Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” For a long time, much as I am the guy who hates Comic Sans now, I was known as the guy who hates clip art. Not long ago, I received an email from Friend of IBD William Bevil, who said, “In much the same way that you tackle Comic Sans, I think it’s time to talk about the perils of clip art. I don’t think you guys have posted on this before?”

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything about clip art on this blog yet, so I thought I should. Then I thought, rather than try to recreate all those same arguments from 2003, I’d just share that article with you. You’ll see antiquated references to things like “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” CDs, and New Jersey, but the points remain. So with that, I give you this article from 2003:

Why Clip Art is Evil
I long for the days when an image was worth a thousand words. Now, with the advent of what is generously referred to as clip art, many pictures are barely worth the words it takes to name the digital files that describe them on the free CDs that show up every time you try to order an inkjet printer. In a world where there are synthetic, mass-produced solutions to nearly every question—from “What’s for dinner?” to “Who let the dogs out?”—it seems only natural that our options for visual expression are limited to a pre-established set of generic, soulless pseudo-cartoons.

Now, it’s important that I differentiate between clip art and illustration. Illustrators are talented, purposeful people who create artwork intended to speak to a specific audience. Frequently, illustrators specialize in a specific area of interest, a comforting notion to interpreters who rely on the accuracy of the information they put forward. Many of NAI’s members are illustrators, and not only is their artwork expertly produced, but its focus on specific subject areas (animals, plants, etc.) makes it meaningful.

Clip art, on the other hand, magically appears in the middle of a stack of CDs that you thought contained only software for the computer you threw away last year and, possibly, your missing “Best of Van Halen.” Your clip art CD proclaims—usually with several exclamation points—that it contains “over 3,000 images,” each evoking exactly the same emotive response: This image is free! It doesn’t have to be meaningful! This is how interpreters—people who devote their lives to conveying unique, relevant messages—end up creating newsletters and brochures peppered with cartoons created by robots in a New Jersey warehouse. (To be fair, no one actually knows where clip art comes from.)

Most interpretive sites do not enjoy the luxury of a budget that allows for paying illustrators or photographers. However, alternatives to clip art are not as elusive as one might think. First, many people do not consider themselves to be illustrators. But even a person with no artistic skill at all (if such a person truly exists) stands a better chance of effectively conveying the sense of a message or the attitude of an organization than does clip art.

Clip art appears everywhere. It was designed to be ambiguous and personality-free so that it might accidentally suit a wide range of unforeseen purposes. Those individuals who venture to create their own illustrations will find that not only do they have access to any image they want (after a couple minutes with a pen and paper), but that their illustrations take on a certain style, giving their publications a personality that is unique.

Take, for example, the case of the disgruntled elf. In my search for artwork to accompany this article, I stumbled across “Elf–Disgruntled.EPS,” and placed him in my document. I then placed “Balloon07.EPS” right next to him and sat back to enjoy my creation. Then—perhaps after one too many Dr. Peppers—I wondered what NAI’s staff members might come up with if I asked each to draw a disgruntled elf. Several had actual work to do and declined, but to those who agreed, I stipulated that each artist should spend five minutes on his or her drawing. Five minutes later, I found myself in the possession of images that had personality, and more importantly, would never coincidentally show up in some other interpretive association’s magazine.

Note from 2011: Of the four NAIers who drew elves for this study, I am the only one still employed by NAI. That's likely not a coincidence.

In addition to having unique illustrations at my disposal, I discovered other possible resources. One staff member told me that both of her sons are terrific artists and would love to have work published. Another staff member once drew a weekly cartoon for a college newspaper, and assorted staff family members include two college art majors, an interior designer, and a high school art teacher. A simple decision to find an alternative to clip art turned up a variety of sources for free, high-quality artwork with a relative minimum of effort—all of this in an office of six full-time employees.

Because clip art appears everywhere—and because anyone who has ever been in a room that had a computer in it knows that it’s not that hard to place a clip-art file in a word processing document—it has the opposite effect of sprucing up a document. The only story it tells is that of someone who needs to get a newsletter to the printer sitting at a computer and scrolling through a list of 3,000(!) images, looking for the one that comes the closest to saying what he or she wants it to say.

Non-personal interpretive media frequently serve as the first contact a member of the public has with a site. If brochures, web sites, or magazine advertisements don’t effectively convey the mission of a site—or do so in a unique, creative manner—then the personal interpreters at the same site may never get the chance to tell their story. A good interpreter makes the most of the resources available to him or her, be it in person or through non-personal media. A good interpreter would not settle for a generic message created by someone who knew nothing about his or her site.

There is interesting, expressive artwork out there, and it’s not hard to find. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might surprise yourself when you sit down with a pen and paper. And if you don’t, someone else at your site surely will. So put the clip art CD back in the stack of old printer drivers and “Hits of the ’80s” and break out a pen. You’ll be glad you did.

Kodachrome’s Last Verse

I’m a somewhat skeptical (my wife says pessimistic) person, which often makes me respond slowly to change. I don’t know what it is about new technology that draws me in while at the same time making me want to run to the store to pick up and horde large amount of the outgoing technology so that I have a never-ending stockpile. Then when that new technology fails, I can sit back and laugh at my huge pile of floppy discs while listening to a mix tape (featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) on my boom box. I was reminded of this when I heard that Kodachrome Film was going to be pulled off the shelves last year and the developing of Kodachrome would be short lived as well. I had to fight the urge to fill my refrigerator with Kodachrome.

If you have some Kodachrome film waiting to be developed, the last day (for the last developer in the world) to drop it off is today. Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, is taking the classic film (and special developing process) for the last time. They have been receiving shipments from around the world. Over the last few weeks they have been processing 700 rolls a day of Kodachrome for procrastinators and/or film hoarders. Nothing captures color like Kodachrome.

Images such as this famous photograph of an Afghan girl, along with countless others, were possible because of the quality of the film, the chemicals used in development, and the skill of the photographer using the camera to maximize the potential of everything involved to create an interpretive piece that evokes an emotional response. The skill of the photographer along with the medium and media come together as well as a resource, theme, and interpreter.

Kodachrome also inspired the name of Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah and the Simon and Garfunkel song of that name. Though, I’m pretty sure the rendition sung by a vanload of Arkansas interpreters returning from an NAI workshop in Manhattan, Kansas (196.52 miles from Parsons), would have Simon and Garfunkel rethinking writing the song. Just as we killed the song (primarily because of a duet between friends of IBD Kelly Farrell and Don Simons) digital cameras have killed Kodachrome.

I’m about to make the most profound statement ever made on IBD; prepare yourself. I think it safe to assume that digital cameras are here to stay. And I still attest that stonewashed jeans will make a comeback.

One of my first duties as a fulltime interpreter was to use a copy stand to photograph (with a camera that opened up and you put slide film in) images and artifacts. This was an important job. I was documenting history for the preservation of future generations. I took it seriously since the tungsten film I was using was expensive and the process was a large investment of time. At the time I thought the work I was doing would be timeless. Also at the time I would have killed (not a human, but possibly a small mammal) for a preview image on a four-inch LCD display. I can only imagine the heartbreak it would have saved me when I got the slides back, a week later, and found over/under-exposed images, and some black slides where I’m not entirely sure what went wrong. Change was not far ahead. Digital cameras were available but no one could afford them at this point in time. Stonewashed jeans were affordable, though.

Several years later I was working at City of Rocks National Reserve, where one of my duties was to scan thousands of slides taken through the park’s history, and archive them in a database that was searchable. At four slides at a time (all the scanner tray would hold) this was another investment in preservation and time, especially since I was scanning them at the highest resolution possible. Those four-megabyte TIFF files may serve as great thumbnail images in today’s world. Digital cameras were more commonplace, but even just eight years ago we would have never guessed where they would go (prices down and performance up) or that Willow Smith would be the one rapping, making the Fresh Prince of Bellaire look like Carlton Banks.

Digital cameras have changed the way we do things, and software possibilities are endless. Much like the single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera in the hands of a photographer, the pixels in the hands of a designers/editors/interpreters create endless possibilities to many more. Part of me still thinks that photographs are meant to be seen in print and that’s where Kodachrome really shined. I’m just thankful that there are people more resistant to change than me. Even IBD’s own Paul was slower (much slower) about making the decision to get a Twitter account.

Sing with me (well, everyone but Kelly and Don)…

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of edu—cation
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

Kodachrome
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match
my sweet imagination
everything looks WORSE in black and white

Kodachrome
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Mama don’t take my Kodachrome
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Mama don’t take my Kodachrome
Leave your boy so far from home
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome

Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Seeing Red (and Some Green)

A few days ago Paul and I were talking. After several minutes of Paul taunting me about the Phillies’ acquisition of ace pitcher Cliff Lee (underbidding the Yankees), the conversation turned to IBD. I have mentioned before that as baseball fans we tend to get a bit competitive about numbers and statistics. Paul felt compelled to mention that two of his posts (Knowing Your Audience is Ill and Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry) held the single-day record for hits or visits to the website. He felt compelled to give me an honorable mention by saying that one of my posts (Momemts in Error) held the record for the number of comments made by readers. Paul went on to write a post about how those two posts of his were circulated through social media to audiences beyond interpreters and interpretive designers, and went viral (by our standards) online.

Because I’m competitive, I have decided to write this post on the colors of Christmas and why I feel “ill” when I see anything related to Philadelphia professional sports. It is my hope that I can tap into the same audiences that made Paul’s posts go viral, and that the fine folks at Colour Lovers will feel compelled to share my post with their huge following. Also, I hope that the fine folks (TBD) of Philavania will be filled with dismay at my post and therefore compelled to visit our site to badger me and defend their teams’ honor, while inadvertently giving my post a hit. This will pass the record baton to me and beat Paul at his own game [insert evil laugh].

Here’s the problem: My post hits two days before Christmas on a state and federal holiday for most, as well during a time when many have more important things to do, I hope, than reading or commenting on this blog. This is really no different from any other Thursday; I just have an excuse this time around.

Let’s start with the colors of Christmas, red and green. Most can’t help but recognize this complementary color pairing as being related to the holiday. In fact, when I see designers using green and red, it reminds me of Christmas (even when Paul used them on this promotional piece for the upcoming NAI International Conference in Panama). I also have a difficult separating David Lee Roth from the same piece, but that has more to do with Panama than Christmas. These two colors together do remind me of The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas album that just happens to have a moving rendition of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat.

If you are interested in looking at colors and Christmas in a new light, check out the website Christmas By Colour, which offers Christmas cards similar to Pantone color swatches with names like Quality Street, Sprouts, Yellow snow, Mulled wine, End of the Sellotape, Park Lane & Mayfair, Bank Balance, Granny’s Whiskers, After Eights, Bucks Fizz, Pigs in Blankets, and Walking in the Air.

When making design decisions, holiday color meanings should be taken into consideration. Just in case you were wondering, there are specific reasons why red and green are connected to the holiday. For a full description of the meanings behind red and green at Christmas, you can read these eHow articles on the subject. Some of the origins may surprise you.

If I wanted to steal Paul’s thunder for his upcoming post Get to Know a Color! Red and/or Green, I might write something like Wikipedia has on the colors:

The word red comes from the Old English rēad. Further back, the word can be traced to the Proto-Germanic rauthazand the Proto-Indo European root reudh-. In Sanskrit, the word rudhira means red or blood. In the English language, the word red is associated with the color of blood, certain flowers (e.g. roses), and ripe fruits (e.g. apples, cherries). Fire is also strongly connected, as is the sun and the sky at sunset. Healthy light-skinned people are sometimes said to have a “ruddy” complexion (as opposed to appearing pale). After the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century, red was used to describe revolutionary movements.

The word green is closely related to the Old English verb growan, “to grow”. It is used to describe plants or the ocean. Sometimes it can also describe someone who is inexperienced, jealous, or sick. In the United States of America, green is a slang term for money, among other things. Several colloquialisms have derived from these meanings, such as “green around the gills”, a phrase used to describe a person who looks ill.

Of course that really doesn’t help you that much, and Paul does a much better job of making the subjects of color interesting (and by much better I mean somewhat better), so I will leave it up to him. Okay now Colour Lovers is never going to pick up and share this post.

I did notice that the last line of the Wikipedia information mentioned the word ill. The primary colors of the two major Philadelphia teams happen to be red for the Phillies and green for the Eagles (photo courtesy www.the700level.com). This is no coincidence. There are two other professional teams there as well, but no one takes the 76ers or the NBA very seriously, and I can’t remember what that other ice-based professional sport is called. I guess there is no better time to be a Philadelphia sports fan with a felon quarterback leading an otherwise excellent team and a baseball team working hard to be considered a team not buying a World Championship, while buying a World Championship. Now that will make you ill and provides new meaning to those catchy shirts. Okay, that’s not even close enough to make Philavania get fired up. I should have used more curse words.

Okay, so maybe this post was a bit competitive and mildly bitter.

All kidding aside, Paul and I both hope you have a great holiday season. Thank you for being a part of our lives and making our year a memorable one, as well as helping me assume all IBD records.