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Tomorrow I say goodbye to Belgium. 27 days, many cities, three countries, a few projects, and countless good beers after I arrived, I am getting on a train to the airport and flying home.

I have learned a lot in the last four weeks. AB InBev is the largest company I have ever worked within by far, and to see how materials innovation is handled within a company of its size helped me to understand innovation challenges in a new way. When you are this size, it stops being a resource problem and starts being a risk tolerance problem. I have a world of respect for the people that work there. They are coming up with really interesting solutions to really big problems. Most impressively, they actually deliver. At my startup, we talk a lot about not wanting to start “science projects” where we go off on a flight of non-product-related fancy. At ABI, the innovation team has this drilled in as second nature. A project is not done until it is killed or it is delivered to a customer. I hope to have this focus in the future.

Far more important than my experience with the company, though, is my experience with my team. Somehow, in the last four weeks, I was able to bond with them and become good friends with most of them. Maybe it was sharing laughs about how Manuel left me to my own devices in a train station and I ultimately ended up stranded in La Hulpe — agreed by all to be the middle of nowhere. Maybe it was the weekly happy hour — amazing at a beer company. Maybe it was a shared love of beer or a genuine interest to hear where I was coming from. No matter what it was, they could have let me flounder on my own, and they made me a part of the team in all the ways that matter.

I have had a great time here. I can’t thank my team enough for the opportunity.

With all that said, I am ready to go home. I am ready to visit my family and see my friends in Raleigh and return to CA for my second year. Goodbye Belgium, it’s been real.

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This was my last weekend in Belgium. In 6 days, I fly home to see my family, visit Raleigh, and finally head back to CA for school.

This weekend, Bryce came into town, and we went to explore Brussels and Ghent. In neither place did I take enough pictures.

Brussels
Brussels is a really nice city. It was quite clean, and the main square’s architectural beauty is overwhelming. Three generations of Flemish architecture surround Grand Place—ornately decorated and dwarfing the other buildings. Here is a picture of the square:

We walked to Mannekin Pis — the famous statue peeing into a fountain. It was uninspiring. Someone had dressed it in costume. I’m glad I saw it, but also glad we didn’t walk far to see it. We did travel far to see the Luxembourgplein, the home of European Parliament. What struck me the most was the number of languages on the buildings. It is incredible anything can happen when that many languages — and corresponding different cultures and people — come together.

Finally, we hopped on the metro to visit the Atomium. Originally built for the World’s Fair in 1958, it is a massive body-centered cubic iron molecule. We had some great views of Brussels from inside. It felt like a monument to materials science — despite some liberties the exhibit texts took with materials facts — and we were both pretty excited to see it.

Ghent
We returned to Leuven for the night and headed to Ghent in the morning. No one warned us that the train station in Ghent is the better part of 2 miles from city center. After we arrived, we struck out on foot to find the sights. On the road to the main historical square, we came across a Kouter street, and heard music. Naturally, we followed our ears and stumbled upon a Ghent tradition: a Sunday flower market. We were the youngest people there by about 30 years, but we stopped and took in some of the local civic orchestra’s music. The performance made Ghent feel like a very small town. After a few minutes, we walked to the main historical square. There was an enormous belfry, and on either end were churches (one was a cathedral) that rival the size and grandeur of any I have seen. We walked into the largest, and Mass was being said inside. It was fully lit, and the organ played at full volume. As we left, Bryce’s comment to me was “Wow.” It reminded me why I always tried to go to church at these places. You lose a lot when it is just a dark, austere, quiet, cavernous place. When it is in use, though, the building comes alive. I was sad I couldn’t stay longer, but I had a t-shirt on, so didn’t feel right being there.

After seeing the buildings, we found a cafe on the square and I had my first Belgian waffle (it is really a coastal thing, and the waffles in Leuven are really a tourist phenomenon). It was everything I hoped it would be: sweet, crispy, delicious. I don’t think it is possible for a human to run far enough to burn those calories off, but I’m not in Belgium all that often.

We then ventured to the Gravensteen — the old castle and keep in Ghent. It was torn down in parts and rebuilt over years, so it was a real blend of old and wannabe-old. With that said, most of it seemed really authentic, and the structures that were original were very obviously original. What I liked best, though, was the style of the castles. I think most Americans — I for one — had this impression that a castle is a castle. They are all the same. But they aren’t. Every country/king/division had a different style. Flemish castles are the ones that people think of most of the time. A high wall surrounding a higher keep. Sadly, this one did not have a moat, but it did give a very good view of what a castle actually looked like in the 1100s-1400s. Bryce pointed out that the oldest of the buildings there not only predated the discovery of North America by Europeans, but the Magna Carta, and were started only a few years after the Battle of Hastings. It really puts time into perspective to think about how long ago that was. Maybe more frightening, it makes me wonder how many things we build today will be around in 3100.

We headed to get some lunch, and started a walk back to the train station — Bryce had to get back to London. I would go back to Ghent. It feels like the right sized town — not a huge city, but not quiet and empty either.

Now that I am back in Leuven, I am getting ready for my last week here and a whirlwind after that until I start school again. I keep thinking that things will calm down one of these days, but I know that that isn’t likely for a while.

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Last night, I slept in a train station. By station, I mean platform in the middle of small-town Belgium.

I will start from the beginning. One of my coworkers, Manuel, invited me to come to Brussels, where he lives, for drinks. In Luxembourgplein, right in front of EU parliament, there is a big happy hour in the square every Thursday. It was packed. It seemed like everyone between the ages of 25 and 35 was in the square, drinking Belgian beers and socializing. Manuel and I had some beer, randomly ran into some of his friends from a previous job, and had a grand time.

One side note: they had kriek (cherry lambic (sour-ish fruit beer)) on tap. Where else in the world do people drink kriek in relatively large quantities at a party? In the States, this would have been a Bud Light event. Here, all bets are off.

Back to my story. Manuel and I hung around until about 10, when I knew I had to catch a train back home to have a conference call with my cofounders. Manuel walked me to Luxembourg train station, we bid our farewells, and I headed in to buy a ticket and catch my train, which I knew was likely going to take me to Brussels Nord station, and I would change trains to Leuven. In the station, I went to the electronic ticket machine, punched in my destination, and frustratingly had my non-chip-and-pin American credit card rejected repeatedly. None of the machines took coin or cash. It turns out you can buy tickets on the trains themselves — lesson learned. I finally decided to roll the dice and get on without a ticket.

I walked down to the platform and had a massive stroke of luck*! There was a train, clearly marked, destined for Louvain. Louvain is the French spelling of Leuven, so this train was taking me home directly. Perfect! I got on the train, it pulled away from the platform, and I was on my way. A few minutes into the journey, I took out my phone and checked my blue dot on the map. I was surprisingly far south, but maybe the train took a circuitous route. As the dot moved further and further in the wrong direction never making that left turn I was hoping for, I had a panicked sinking feeling that this was not my train to Leuven. I sunk even further when I saw the pinwheel of death as my phone’s battery called it quits. As the conductor walked by, I stopped him and confirmed my two worst fears: this was not going to Leuven, and this is the last train of the night. This train was going to Louvain La Neuve — and according to my coworkers and numerous internet postings, I am not the first to have this happen. I just happened to not have a way back.

My mind started racing, and I decided that I needed to get off the train. Now. I didn’t want to get any further from Brussels. So at the next stop, I hopped off. My logic was this: I wanted to be in bed, and the whole country is only a few hundred miles wide. Things just aren’t that far apart. I could just spend the 100 euros or whatever it would take get a taxi to compensate for my idiocy in getting on the wrong train.

As the train pulled away, I had a sinking feeling. It was awfully quiet around here. Not only was there not a taxi stand, there were no people. There were no sounds. I walked briefly into the nearby “town”, and the whole place appeared to be closed down. No hotels. No taxis. No way home.

I thought for sure that somehow this situation would fix itself. I don’t know why I thought that, but it didn’t. The one nice thing about no one being around (and I mean I did not see another human at any point from when I got off the train to when I finally escaped) is that there wasn’t any real danger. Belgium seems to be quite safe, at least in small towns, so I was lucky in that. I went and sat in the little glass windbreak where you wait for trains and realized that the next train would be there in the morning, so I curled up in the corner of the windbreak and fell asleep.

The cold woke me up. I was wearing my work clothes, so I wasn’t ready for a night in the 50s. It was about 3:45. I had gotten a bit more than 3 hours of fitful sleep. I took out my iPad, used the last 3% of its battery reading to kill time, then curled up again to try to stay warm. All the while I couldn’t help but feel like a big idiot. An hour later, at 5:02am, a glorious train pulled up. I was able to take it to Brussels Nord, change trains, and get to Leuven. On both trains, I confirmed with the conductor at least twice that the train was going to the correct place.

When I got to my hotel, I absolutely needed more sleep. I emailed my coworker and told him that I slept on a train platform in the middle of nowhere and that I would be in late. We would have to push our meeting to 10:30. It was one of the more awkward meeting reschedule emails I’ve ever had to write, and we all had many good hard laughs about it when I finally got into the office. I have no doubt that this story will come up in some AB InBev intern lore in the future. Apparently his response upon getting it was to go to Manuel and ask “What did you do to him?”

It was quite an experience. It was a miserable night. I was safe. I am fine. I was not happy during that time. But it was a funny life experience I guess. I am going to bed early tonight and going to savor sheets and warmth.

A few notes:
1. One of my coworkers is convinced that they mark the trains this way on purpose because it is the only reason someone would go to the “other Louvain”.
2. It is completely ridiculous that it is not more clearly marked.
3. Lesson learned — at least get off at a station where there is a roof and walls. That leaves a shred of hope that there might be actual services there.
4. Charge my phone.

*not a stroke of luck

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Last week, a coworker of mine told me about a small craft brewery run by a former professor of brewing science at KU Leuven (the university here) and his kids. He said the brewery had a great patio that he and his friends would visit after mountain biking. The only problem is that the brewery is about 12km from the Leuven.

I thought this would be the perfect evening run followed by some great beer and delicious food, so I left work a bit earlier than usual and started running south toward Brouwerij De Kroon.

My coworker gave me directions for the best running path there, so I had an idea of where I was going and only got lost once, finding myself in the woods. I headed out from the city, across the ring road, and down along the perimeter of the university. Then, I found my path and spent the next 5 miles running along the Dijle River through pastures and along farms. I stopped along the way and took pictures.

It reminded me a bit of England — endless pasture, few hills, and plenty of cows. It was truly peaceful. I ran into maybe 5 people on the whole 7 mile stretch and for the rest of the time, I just enjoyed peace and nature.

When I arrived at the brewery, I was a real sight: sweaty, stinky, American, non-Dutch speaking. But I sat down — luckily one of the waiters spoke pretty good English — and ordered a beer and food. I tried all three of their house beers. It was definitely worth the run just for that. Those beers were great. I also ate a delicious dinner of shrimp croquettes. Belgium might get a lot of credit for waffles, beer, and chocolate, but they know how to fry potatoes. From fries to croquettes, it is all delicious.

After dinner and beer tasting, I walked around the corner and caught a bus back to Leuven. It was a great evening for running, eating, and drinking.

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So today was my halfway+1 day mark. I’ve spent a full fortnight here. I still don’t speak Flemish. I have only begun to scratch the surface of Belgian beers. I have not had a Belgian waffle or Belgian chocolate yet.

I have excuses, though. Flemish is a lost cause — I can barely pronounce their diphthongs and remember their street names. There are about 10,000 amazing beers here, and I am making good progress (I’ve tried somewhere between 30 and 50). And the waffles and chocolate region is more on the coast, so I am saving that unhealthy experience for my visit there next weekend.

I have learned a heck of a lot. Before coming to AB InBev, I had never worked at a truly behemoth company before. Here, my team is small enough that I get to see both the benefits and challenges of trying to be innovative within a company focused on efficiency and execution. Sometimes it is just the simple things — seeing the planning meetings and project rationales — that help me to understand the company culture.

And culture is an important word. At Stanford, we talk a lot about culture. We talk about how to create it, how to change it, what it good, what is bad, what might matter and might not. Everywhere I have been has been small enough that the CEO could lead by example or explicitly state the culture of a place, and people would at least understand what he (in both cases it was a he) was looking for. Here, the culture must trickle down. People refer to “Brito” — Carlos Brito, the CEO of AB InBev based in NYC — and what he would think of an idea. But there are a few people between us and him, and they each influence culture in their own way.

What has amazed me is that everyone here is really passionate about what they do. It is not a question of whether an idea is good, it is how do they build the business case to support an innovative product. How do you build an alliance around a great idea? How do you get an idea far enough to demonstrate feasibility without costing the company a fortune — especially for a company that produces products like Bud Light, a super high volume product?

It makes me think of Google. 20% time is sort of brilliant. Sort of insane. It is brilliant in that it is a sunk cost — if something comes of it, it is pure bonus. It is insane in that everyone needs to earn their paycheck in 80% of the time. Honestly, this probably happens anyway, but to codify it is a bit uncomfortable to the manager in me. In the end, I fully support it, though. To hear rumors that it is going away at Google makes me sad, because search is great, but Gmail is vital. I just hope that more companies can embrace innovation like this — take the risk and see what incredible ideas pop up.

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In 2007 and 2008, I had the opportunity to spend a year in Cambridge earning my MPhil in Materials. I loved my time there. I made great friends, learned a lot, and came to love a place in a very short time.

This weekend, I had a chance to come back for a whirlwind 24 hours (I write this from a Eurostar train that just emerged from the Chunnel at Calais), and it reminded me how much I love the place.

I arrived on the King’s Lynn express train, passing all the stops that were so familiar: Hitchin, Letchworth Garden City, etc, finally finding my way to Cambridge Station. It was a sunny day and warm. But it had the coolness of an English summer. As soon as my feet hit the pavement, I felt transported back all those years to when I called Cambridge home. I was meeting my former research advisor for coffee at 11, and I only had 30 minutes to make it from the train station to the city center. On the walk to meet her, I had a new bounce in my step. God, I missed this place. Seeing all the old pubs, walking across parks and seeing all the changes that have come to the town in the 5 years since I last visited was incredible. It all made me want to return.

I arrived 1 minute late for coffee — acceptable, I guess — and sat to have a talk with my advisor. We covered all sorts of topics — career, science, scientific publishing, education — but what struck me was her willingness to sit with me after being out of touch for so long. It was one more reminder of the wonderful experience that I had in Cambridge. We parted ways kindly, with promises to better stay in touch in this five years than the last, promises I fully intend to keep.

After coffee, I went and found my hotel where Bryce, my cofounder and not-unexpectedly close friend in business school, was to meet me. He showed up and we had a beer at a pub and caught up (note: whenever Bryce and I “have a beer”, it almost always means that I am having a beer and he is drinking something remarkably healthier). We walked around Cambridge a bit, and he commented several times that my enthusiasm for the place was not so subtle.

We returned to another pub to meet a labmate of mine, Kevin Musselman, from my MPhil days and his wife (and baby). We sat on the river and enjoyed yet another real ale as the tourists swarmed around trying to figure out what this whole “punting” thing is and whether they should accept the relentless advances of the punt tour guides (advice: do the real tour at least once, it’s fun and a great way to hear some mostly true stories).

After a lovely hour with Kevin and Katie, Bryce and I headed across town and up Castle Hill — the only hill in Cambridge, where I lived — to my old local pub: the Castle Inn. It has a ridiculously good burger, and though I don’t eat much meat these days, a burger that good demands that I throw my eating habits to the wind. Bryce, burger connessieur, agreed.

The details of the rest of the trip are more of the same: up early to go punting from my college, Trinity Hall; giving Bryce a tour of Trinity Hall, Trinity, and King’s; coffee with a college-mate that I just randomly ran into on Hall grounds on Saturday; visiting my old department; beer at The Eagle, where Watson and Crick went to celebrate that they figured out the structure of DNA.

The whole time I was in Cambridge, I was happy. Perhaps it was because I lived the a great life there — interesting scientific research, a great group of friends, rowing, dining and drinking, and just generally enjoying a historic and fun culture. I think my friend, though, made my experience. Just being there brought back the memories of those people. It will not be 5 more years before I visit again. It will certainly not be 5 more years before I make real effort to see those people again.

Tonight, I return to Belgium. I am content. I love that place. Will I live there again one day? Only time will tell. Will I always feel as at home there as I did this weekend? I certainly hope so.

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I am in one of the best beer countries in the world; I am working at a beer company; I must have the occasional post about beer. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Trappist beers, they are beers that have been made the same way for hundreds of years at Trappist Abbeys. They come in three varieties: dubbel, tripel, and quadrupel. These names seem to imply that they just build on one another like a double IPA is really just a more hardcore IPA. My understanding is that it refers to the number of different grains used in the brewing of the beer. But other than going in order of alcohol concentration, they don’t (to the casual taster) have all that much in common.

More important than that is the relative rarity of these beers. Some of them, like Chimay and Duvel, you can find in Costco in the US. But there are some that you can only get by going to the abbey or finding someone who has gone in your stead. Westvletern is one of these. Like most abbeys, they have all three varieties, and their quad is one of the rarest and most sought after beers there is. It might not be the best — there is much debate around this — but it is definitely hard to try.

My first night here, I just went to the main square and got a gueze. My second night, I went back to my room and crashed from jetlag. Tonight, I looked up what the best beer. bars in Leuven are and picked one. I ended up at De Fiere Margrite. As I walked up, there was a sign out front advertising Westvleteren for 9.90€. I have spent more than $13 on a single drink on several occasions, (and in SF, it is the norm) so I didn’t feel that bad ordering it just this one time. I knew this was a good sign. I walked in, and like a real tourist, walked up to the bar and ordered the Westvleteren 12.

I can’t go on without mentioning the character of this bar. Walking in and looking at around reminds me of a generic pub: wood everywhere, a bit dark and stuffy. On closer inspection, this place has real character: taxidermy foxes, dear heads, and boar heads are on the wall. Filling in the rest of the space are posters from some of the best breweries in the world. Fake hop vines line the corners between the ceiling and wall. On the walls are hung signs that say

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy

and

24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case, coincidence? I think not.

and

Beer will change the world! I don’t know how, but it will.

and

Beer now cheaper than gas. Drink, don’t drive.

The best part is that every one of these is a wooden sign, not some scrawled poster. In the background plays varieties of (euro?) classic rock. I didn’t really take notice until the guy at the bar who was either the proprietor or a very regular customer started singing along with Freddie Mercury when Another One Bites the Dust came on. A very cool place, to say for certain.

So back to the beer. It came, as all Belgian beers should, in a matching glass. The bottle has no label, but a ridge around the neck that has Trappistbier embossed in it. The taste was not atypical for a quad. The taste started with vanilla up front, not like bourbon vanilla, but a softer, smoother vanilla with a touch of honey. It moved onto some citrus and floral notes, always staying smooth. At the end there is more alcohol bite than I expected.

I probably wouldn’t go after it again. It is delicious, but there are easier to find and less expensive beers that are just as delicious. I am really glad to have tried it. It is the perfect recover beverage after a Wednesday run.

Win, my oft-mentioned dear friend and beer connoisseur without match, told me that I have to try Westvlteren 12, but that Rochefort 10 was his preference (and that is available in the US relatively widely). So, against my better judgement (these beers are >10% ABV), I ordered a Rochefort 10 for comparison’s sake. It is a totally different beer. It is lighter and sweeter up front. Rather than a heavy vanilla and honey, it has a honeysuckle and floral taste up front with a sense of citrus all the way along. It has almost no alcoholic bite.

The only downside of being here is this: there is no one to share it with. I’m having beers with my coworkers tomorrow at a company happy hour, but many of them have families to see at night so can’t go out. That’s not to say I am not enjoying myself, simply that beer is a social drink. Sitting and writing this blog, or reading, or simply people watching can be very satisfying, but it is not the same a sharing a pint with my closest friends. So to those of you that I have shared those beers with over the last years — from Chesapeake, to Raleigh, to Cambridge, to the Bay Area — Cheers! I miss you all.

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I tweeted earlier that this was a day that @winbassett (Win, former roommate and one of my closest friends) would be proud of. By that I mean it was just about the perfect day, even with jet lag. I got up early — thanks to my PDT calibration, read, wrote, and beat the US to a productive day. I went to work and learned about beer, read about beer, thought about beer, then thought about science. I came home and went for a run, during which I got lost and ran 50% farther than I meant to, in the totally wrong direction. My route was supposed to take me to the city center, then south toward KU Leuven, the old university which is supposed to be amazingly beautiful. Instead, I ended up east, though city center nearly getting on the freeway (or whatever they call “roads you don’t want to run along” here). I did end up almost hitting 4.5 miles, which was pretty good for a first day in town. Check it out:

I did learn a few things. First, biking is extremely popular here, running is less so. I saw two other runners on my run, and they were probably being chased because they looked like they were in street clothes. My (quasi) short running shorts stood out a bit. I am pretty sure I heard some chuckles as I went by. Whatever, I am learning about their culture and they are learning about mine.

When I got back to the hotel, I got showered and changed, and went out for dinner. It was almost 8:15 at this point, and the person at the front desk assured me kitchens stay open until 10 around here. I wasn’t sure whether to expect the French/Italian/Spanish schedule of late night leisurely dinners or the British schedule of an earlier dinner followed by a heavy drinking sprint until the pubs buttoned up at 11. Luckily, it is roughly the former. The first place I sat down apparently didn’t really serve food, so I just had a nice beer: Geuze Lindemans (which only cost 3€, about $4 — in the US it would cost at least $8 if you could find it). For those who don’t know, Geuze is a sour beer. If you don’t know what you are getting, it is a surprise. The waitress didn’t ask me if I knew what I was ordering, but she did ask me to confirm that was what I wanted. I might not be up to speed on many things here, but I have been pleasantly surprised about my beer knowledge. Credit to Win for that one, too.

After my beer, I embarked on the quest for food. I found the street of restaurants — literally an alleyway that is more tables than walking space with nothing but restaurants on either side. The prices seemed a bit high — particularly building in the 30-50% conversion penalty. Tomorrow, I need to get the lowdown from locals about where to find reasonably priced eats. I see a grocery run in my future. Regardless, I walked down the same street three times in the same direction, so I finally circled back, gave up on my hope of finding traditional Belgian food (I still don’t know what that is, waffles covered in chocolate with a relatively sweet beer on the side?), and settled in at an italian place and ordered a pizza. When in Rome…, so I ordered the only Belgian beer they had on tap: Stella Artois. I saw the brewery that made it from the street, so I figured I would give it a try. Wowzers. Usually Stella is not one of my favorites. This beer, though, it totally different from Stella in the US. It is smoother, creamier, with more subtle character. Though my experience is limited to Guiness and Stella, I will suggest that some of these beers must be experienced near their birthplace, because they simply do not travel that well.

One downside to this place: smoking is still allowed at outside tables. I don’t love that.

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Written from an altitude of 35,000 feet somewhere between SFO and O’Hare.

One of the great things about business school is the flexibility I have to do really cool things. I am embarking on one of them today: a short, 4 week internship at AB InBev in Leuven Belgium. This program is called a GMIX and is a staple of GSB experience.

Over the next 4 weeks, I will be working with the packaging group at AB InBev on materials projects. On the weekends, I will seek out good Belgian beer, learn about the country, and perhaps make some short trips around Europe. I hope to write a series of short posts as I go — and I brought my camera along, so I will hopefully make some new photo albums.

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This is a short weekend post. Today, Julia and I and a few of her friends from college went hiking in Marin Headlands. It was a fairly short 6.4 miles in total, but it did have a ~1400′ elevation change. You can see the map here:

It was a fun day. One of Julia’s friends from New York was visiting, so it was great to catch up with her. So much has happened since I last saw her 12 short months ago. After the hike, we found the very hidden surf community of Bolinas where we had oysters and beer. All in all, a very nice day.

Below is a sample of a few photos I took on the hike. It is really obvious that the limited photo skill that I once had is now totally gone. I need to get back into practice. If you click on them, you can see the whole gallery.