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ScienceWe are Mini and Gideon, wildlife biologists, who take our toddlers with us to work in remote rainforests: Ask Us Anything!

Oct 22nd 2017 by Miniwatsa • 7 Questions • 676 Points

Edit: Okay! Thanks r/IAmA for all your questions, it's now time for us to trudge home. Thank you for having us and we loved answering your questions.

Answering your questions today are senior reporters Shona Ghosh and Sam Shead, who have been following Transport for London’s surprise decision last month not to renew Uber’s license to operate in London. Catch up on all of our Uber coverage at uk.businessinsider.com. You can follow Business Insider UK on reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/iaylqcmp6ssz.jpg

Q:

Why not invest in an off-road RV and just become the Wild Thornberrys already?

A:

When talking to full-time Uber drivers (in a variety of different countries) the general consensus is that to earn a livable wage you've got to be putting in a minimum of 60 hours per week, if not more.

At what point does Uber cease to be a "technological breakthrough" and start to be more of a workaround to circumvent paying livable wages to its employees?

While taxi fares are certainly well above market rates in many places around the world, Uber seems to have gone the other way...instead of being unfair to consumers they are unfair to workers...What do you think ridesharing and the taxi industry will look like 5-10 years from now? There's no doubt that Uber has caused a disruption but how do you see the wage discrepancy correcting itself over time?

Also: Dude...if you want your AMA to take off you've got to be ready to answer the first dozen questions immediately. As in, immediately, as soon as they come in. In real time. The momentum you get (or don't get) in the first hour is crucial.


Q:

I've also got a real passion for rescues - so I would have to throw in a dog and 5 cats. Did the Thornberrys do that? Can any RV handle that? Can an RV even make it on some of the roads I've seen? Where would be park the RV while taking the boat up to our field site? So many questions, but worth looking into for sure:)

A:

That is definitely a common narrative, though there are also Uber drivers who will tell you quite spontaneously they love the extra money and flex. It's more difficult to earn a livable wage if you drive for something like Uber Exec though.

In the UK, there are MPs who already think Uber is effectively flouting regulation and worker rights to make money. I don't see the wage discrepancy correcting itself over time; I suspect politicians will step in to force some level of worker rights. That would probably result in Uber raising its prices and looking more like a traditional minicab company. — Shona


Q:

The thornberries' RV could turn INTO a boat.
It was frankly like the batsuit of RVs with all the stuff in it

A:

Uber drivers who will tell you quite spontaneously they love the extra money and flex

For sure...it's a great situation for those who drive for extra money on the side, in addition to their regular full-time job.

But I'd still argue that this fact further points to wages being low...in any other industry you wouldn't accept "Yeah, the pay is fine as long as you have another job and this one is extra."

In terms of government intervention...how do you see Uber evolving if they are forced to pay wages more on par with regular taxi cabs? (I fully recognize that if you had the right answer here you'd be working in a C-level position at Uber and not writing about them, haha, but for the sake of conversation...)


Q:

Oh my God. I want one now.

A:

Interestingly, they have (briefly) talked about how their model would need to change with government intervention, at least in the UK. It would look much more like existing private taxi operators, with set shifts (as opposed to the current model where drivers can log in and accept rides at any time) and salaries.

It would also cost them millions of pounds in additional costs though at no point did they say this would force them out of business.

So, I could see a more restricted, more expensive Uber in the not too distant future. It depends on whether new legislation gets passed here or not though. - Shona


Q:

What is your plan for when they need to start school? Are they currently able to interact with other kids?

A:

Hey Sam and Shona, do you think black cabs are free of the safety issues of which they accused Uber, or are they just less transparent?


Q:

Absolutely, they are actually quite a bit more friendly with others than a lot of kids their age. They got used to being at a field station with about 20-30 researchers around, and made friends with a lot of them. So that actually helped with their socialisation. When they begin school, I think it would depend how our field seasons are planned: I think so long as they remain primarily in the winter and summer school breaks, we won't have to disrupt school too much. But if that changes for some really good reason, they might spend some semesters out of school in the early years, with us covering their education ourselves.

A:

Hey! Definitely not. Uber drivers have to go through all the same TfL background checks that black cab drivers go through, including a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

Uber also gives passengers a more direct place to complain.

A lot of women say they feel safer using Uber because there's a digital record of who picked them up, where from, and at what time. That said, there's always a risk that a random Uber driver with a great rating could one day decide to behave inappropriately. — Sam


Q:

How does a 1 year old make friends with adults? It seems awfully selfish of both of you to put your own interests ahead of that of your children. I can understand doing this until they're about 3 but anything after that is detrimental to children. I've seem many kids who grow up in this type of atmosphere and they usually have some kind of social deficiency

Edit: i was under the notion you planned to raise your children through adulthood in the rain forest. I was wrong and now don't see anything wrong with having them there until they start school

A:

Hi Shona and Sam, what's the reaction been among commuters? Are their local ride-share competitors that benefit from this? Thanks!


Q:

Let's check back in a few years to see then shall we? It seems to be your experience vs. mine, so we'll have to see. Incidentally, all parents who work and thus put their children in a day care are also being selfish by your definition. Everyone's job causes them to make some sacrifices - I try to enrich my child's life with my job, which is the most any parent can do.

How you know a 1 year old has adult friends: they know their name, they recognise them even on Facetime, they ask for them when they are not around, they run to them when they see them again, and they play and laugh around them a lot when they are together.

A:

Commuters were initially shocked by the "Uber has been banned in London" headlines but they've now realised that the taxi app might not disappear after all.

Uber has appealed Transport for London's (TfL) ruling and there's a good chance that it will be given an operating licence if it makes a few changes that satisfy the transport regulator.

Right now I don't think any competitors are benefiting. If anything, Uber is probably getting used more in London due to all the publicity. Of course, that could all change if Uber fails to turnover TfL's decision. — Sam


Q:

"If you're not to the point financially where this is possible, don't have children." Lol I don't think this is not how having kids or being a parent works at all - unfortunately some people can't afford having one parent stay at home, some parents are even single working parents without a spouse. All I'm saying is that I'm sure there's a few parents out there who are both working and would rather spend time their kids rather than leaving them at a daycare 8 hours a day.

A:

What is the most interesting thing you found in your research?


Q:

Again, we'll see. Children learn from adults and from other children. Thank you again for your comments!

A:

One of the most interesting things I've found is there are a number of other taxi app companies that are waiting for TfL to issue them with an operating licence.

Via — a startup that has raised $200 million from Mercedes-Daimler and other investors — is up and running in the US but it's been waiting almost half a year for its London licence.

If TfL doesn't issue companies like Via and rival Taxify with operating licences then these companies will turn their back on the city and set up in other European destinations. — Sam


Q:

I agree that it’s best to check back in a few years, but your logic for a 1 year old having adult friends is seriously flawed.

No 1 year old can gain the social interaction they need to grow by being around only adults.

A:

Are there any other really interesting stories you are working on?


Q:

Before everyone flies off on even more tangents - these kids are away in the rainforest for 4 months a year. Also, they are twins - so they do interact with each other. Keep it calm folks, it's ok. There are many ways to raise children - all ways are not for everyone. Thank you again for your comments.

A:

I won't go into great detail (...just in case our future stories don't work out) but the areas Sam, I, and our colleagues are looking into right now are issues around sexual harassment in the tech industry, the gig economy and treatment of workers in the UK, unethical behaviour/lies by some major startup names. Uber's fate in London and the UK generally obviously remains an interesting topic. — Shona


Q:

But from what op has said, when they become school aged they plan on mostly taking them in the field during school breaks. This seems like they're getting to go on kick ass vacations. It really seems that this wouldn't be something you'd enjoy so you're projecting it onto some infants that seem to have an interesting life ahead of them

A:

Is it true that uber isn't in london because of migrant violence on women taking uber or is it because of that lacking of quality which isn't comparable to official london cab drivers that have taken the knowledge?


Q:

Thank you - that's exactly what this is.

A:

I think neither are correct. It's true that TfL is concerned about Uber's record on safety, but there's lots of questions about assault statistics reported about Uber. How many allegations against Uber drivers result in charges? How many perpetrators are misidentified as Uber drivers? But Uber should give better reassurances about keeping passengers safe.

I don't think the Knowledge was a factor in TfL's decision. — Shona


Q:

How do you keep all the bitey things off your kids?

What are your and their favorite wildlife (s)?

A:

Great questions! We actually didn't love using DEET based products but at a field station where leishmaniasis is present, it's far preferable to use DEET than to get the disease, specially from the perspective of a child. So we would spray car seats, shoes, and clothed areas with that kind of repellent, and use a citronella based spray for exposed areas. They still got a lot of bites - everybody did. The worst, of course, were the chiggers. Those really itch (the kids didn't really itch any of the mosquito bites), so at first we were really desperate about what to do - then we did what the locals do, which is to use a sulfa-based soap (which you can't find in the US!) and it was miraculous. We just soaped them at their evening baths and pretty much nixed all the chiggers after that point!


Q:

[deleted]

A:

Pretty much - the contrast to days without it was stark. Am so grateful to the person who recommended that. (Why do I get the feeling you think chiggers mean something quite different than the biting midges I'm talking about?)


Q:

Chiggers are biting mites. Flying midges are usually called noseeums in the US.

A:

Good to know!:) Thank you!


Q:

How do you deal with the times between expeditions? Is it hard to switch back to a more normal, maybe mundane life?

What do you do if one of your boys develops a serious medical condition while you're on your fieldwork?

A:

Ah, the most important question so far. It's frustrating, but our menagerie waiting for us at home always helps. I find that reading the news is possibly the most depressing thing about being back. But this is always enlivened by moments of which we know nothing about (for the last decade, we've skipped important events that have happened within a 4-5 month stretch of time) so in the middle of some conversation, we'll be like Kate Middleton had a BABY!? What?

Mostly though, the second we get back, we enjoy warm showers, ice cream and cold beers - preferably all at once;) and then we get down to planning the next adventure:)

As to your second question: That's any parent's nightmare. So what we have is a rapid exit strategy for anywhere that we go. We are by no means as remote as one can possibly be. The other thing I always think of is that we are really only sort of unusual in that we try to live in both these worlds at once. There are people who live, give birth, and raise their children in ALL of the sites we only visit. They aren't weird or remarkable for doing that - they are simply living their lives. They probably think that living in the US for 8 months a year with winters thrown in is MAD. So...keeping all of that in mind helps. Both of us have some medical training, both academically and through experience from being in the field, and we trust our gut - we now have a good sense for when something feels like it's really urgent, so we know exactly how to bolt and get help.


Q:

How did you two meet each other?

A:

We met in college in Grinnell, Iowa. I (Mini) had just finished cleaning out a bonobo enclosure when one of the bonobos, knowing of course that I had a big first date in a moment, decided to pee liberally all over me. With no spare clothes, I simply dried off as best as I could and went on the date. I don't think he even noticed! Or maybe he was just surprised at how different I smelled by the second date.


Q:

This is super cute damn i

A:

Thank you:)


Q:

Bonobos are the apes of love

A:

This is true. I suppose that might have had something to do with it. Pheromones?:)


Q:

I'm considering going into biology, and I'm currently researching different fields, but I know for sure I want to be in science and research. I'm more interested in evolutionary/molecular biology, but the idea of working on the field as a large part of my job is attractive. What do you actually do as a wildlife biologist? What's your favorite and least favorite part of the job? What scientific acomplishment are you the most proud of?

A:

So my life at the moment is split between working on field courses and research programs with FPI (https://fieldprojects.org) and actually doing research in the field for them. So I spend my days helping to run this NPO, and getting to plan and conduct annual research programs with large teams of people (25 or so) each year. Our annual mark-recapture program with tamarins, for example, draws about 25 students each year who intern with us, many even leaving their home countries for the first time. I really love teaching in the field. I think that by combining teaching with field research, I pretty much have the best of both worlds.

What I do for research: Check it out here: https://fieldprojects.org/aboutus/research3/

My favourite part: The travel, being removed from politics/news/internet for 4 months a year, and teaching some of the most incredible students possible (from 11 countries and counting!)

My least favourite part: Politics at field stations. I guess you can't really escape that.

Scientific accomplishments?: Hands down, establishing and running a long-term health screening and life history monitoring project on wild tamarins.


Q:

The one gripe I have, making babysitters out of students who are there to learn, and are paying money for this. I think that takes advantage of students to benefit yourself

A:

No one was coerced into this. That student could never have afforded the flight ticket or the room and board - these field sites are pretty expensive to be at, since every single thing from TP to the wood used to make beds has to be laboriously brought up river to the site from towns quite far away. Since she had visited us often at our home, and we'd hosted her for an extended stay away from her folks while she did research in my lab, she knew the twins from when they were maybe 4 months old? She's basically one of their favourite people of all time. So when she expressed an interest to see the rainforest, we worked out a way for us to cover all her expenses, in return for the morning's help with the kids. Now no matter how crazy that might sound to you, or even if you never ever would do that, you cannot insult her intelligence and her choices. She is an incredible student, a close friend, and the closest thing to a godmother our kids have - we were very lucky to have her help us, but trust me, she was never taken advantage of. I know, because she's basically rearing to help over our winter field season and just texted me saying so:)


Q:

What would you do if your kids said they didn’t want to do this anymore? i mean a lifestyle like this must be tremendously stressful for a kid

A:

Do you really think so? I'm not sure I agree. They're learning to cope with plane rides at an early age, which basically now involves a lot of sleeping, book reading, stories and colouring. They're unafraid of domestic animals - dogs, cats, llamas, sheep. Eventually we'll teach them which things to be wary of, but for now, they are having a wonderful time exploring new places and new situations. I write this, mind you, knowing that they will read this some day:) If they really decided they never wanted to go to the field again, I'd consider that very seriously, but in my experience - most kids love the adventure of it all. I'm far more worried they will never want to go to school in a city than I am that they will hate their summers and winters. Here's the story of another primate researcher who has blended family and work life perfectly: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/26/postcards-from-borneo-my-rainforest-family/. Fingers crossed for us!


Q:

Serious question: Are you concerned about yourselves or your child contracting a rare and/or deadly disease from from rain forest? Do you get special innoculations to prevent that?

A:

Since one of the main areas of our research is conducting health screenings for wild primates, I am definitely very very cognizant of the fact that I do not want to be patient zero. We take a LOT of precautions though - lots of personal protective equipment during handling, things like that. I like to shower and scrub off after each day before meeting the kids again too. Unfortunately, rare and deadly diseases rarely have inoculations. All the diseases against which we inoculate today are actually fairly common, or once were. It is a sad and nasty truth that unless large populations of the "right" people are dying from something, pharmaceutical companies do not invest in producing inoculations to certain diseases. Case in point, Ebola (we have known about it for decades, but efforts to create an inoculation were only after the most recent large outbreak). So keeping that in mind, what we do is never ever ignore a symptom. You always talk about it to someone on site, and our collective knowledge is large, allowing us to know when you need to exit and find a doctor. Despite being remote and only accessible by boat, it is possible to find help quickly. I think I worry more about physical accidents than diseases...accidents that you would need an ambulance to come by for. For that we have some medical training, but it would be nice to have more for sure.


Q:

Since you worked in the Western Ghats, what's you assessment of the state of overall biodiversity in the Ghats? What do you see as the main threat to the environment besides population and urbanization?

A:

The Western Ghats are seriously an incredible place to work. Only for some taxonomic groups has biodiversity been assessed fully - people are still discovering new species there regularly. What is so remarkable to me about this place is how different it is compared to the Amazon, which is where my other field site is located. Even though there is plenty that threatens the Amazon, it has one giant advantage and that is, it's size. It can be resilient because we have not decimated it to the extent of so many other forests. The Ghats, on the other hand are boxed in, fragmented, and surrounded by some of the most population-dense places in the world. So that is what is terrifying when you think about protecting these incredible mountain ranges. That there is an unusually high level of biodiversity for the size of the area is unquestionable.

What I would be most worried about given the fragmented nature of the forests, and the way they are cut off on all sides by human encampments is disease. Many of the animals in the Ghats are endemic to the Ghats. Much of the Ghats are also traversable - by road. So that means that no matter what you do, you still see people stop to feed animals (specially the primates), and being close relatives of our own, they can catch diseases from us easily. From them, these could spread to other taxa and endemic species without a resilience to them can be entirely wiped out in one round of disease.

A secondary worry is about invasive species. Already lantana is completely changing successional forests in road and river-side areas. Animals can hardly even break through it.

This is a gloomy answer:(


Q:

This is a gloomy answer:(

So what, we need to hear the honest voice. Fragmentation is bad, perhaps the regional planners there can develop wildlife corridors connecting these fragments as part of their overall "world heritage" objectives for the region. For critical areas maybe even acquire land outright.

A:

2) At the moment, we have not split up yet for field work. But I expect it will happen in the future. It would probably mean that one of us goes, and the other one has both kids, but as the kids get older, perhaps we'll be more comfortable splitting up entirely. I'm not sure, they're pretty close to each other as twins at the moment, and I wouldn't want to disrupt that.


Q:

Do you ever feel like a live action version of The Wild Thornberrys?

A:

So not having grown up with Nickleodeon, I actually have never seen the Thornberrys. Eeeks. This is now a must-watch. I shall have to get back to you on this. Do we look like we might be?


Q:

Just in that they worked on site locations with animals and brought the whole family along.

A:

Sounds pretty wonderful:)


Q:

What did you study in college? Any advise for others following this career path? What are the pros and cons of this lifestyle?

A:

I got a liberal arts degree with biology as my major (Gideon had a sociology major at the same school). I then got a PhD in biological anthropology, while Gideon got one in ecology and evolution. So it doesn't really have to be an out-and-out biology major to do wildlife-based research. You can also come at it directly through willdife biology or zoology PhD programs. You can do research without a PhD of course, but I think that having one allows you to rise up the ladder in some cases where that is required. It also tests your limits a great deal. You are perpetually broke, always feel like an idiot, and can't believe why anyone would call you Dr. anything at the end.

Pros: Flexible timings, loving what you do, never stagnating, and travel+animals

Cons: Not really a money-heavy industry, missing your pets + plants, jet lag and some gastrointestinal issues that never might be resolved.


Q:

I'll look this up a little after, but thought I'd ask here anyways. Following your PhD education, how did get into field work like this? Was it through an existing research group? Did you have to secure your own funding (through what funding agencies?) Do you think there's any kind of fieldwork possible for a recently minted plant biochemistry PhD (hooray!)? Going off into wilds to do research is something I've always thought about, just not sure how to get to that point. Thanks!

A:

I got into field work because in the field of primatology, that's almost the norm. So I looked around for field sites, and I did have the option of joining people who were already working with these animals, but my advisor encouraged me to strike out on my own. His rationale was that there could never be too much replication of a study or a test of ideas. All data points are good data points. As a result, I found this field station and no one was really studying the tamarins there. My research questions were answerable at this site....so I kind of went for it. Boy did I have to secure my own funding! I wrote 29 grants over the space of about 15 months, winning 14 of them, which sounds really a LOT better than it was. My grant writing year coincided with the recession, yes, The Recession, so granting agencies were having palpitations all around. I'd apply for a $5000 grant and they'd say "hurrah, you won, but we are only able to spare $1500 this year." It was my least favourite thing about the PhD.

As a plant biochemist there's a LOT out there for you to do!My advice would be to reach out to botanists in biodiverse areas and look to see if their research overlaps with yours. I think we have mined a tiny fraction of the incredible compounds produced by plants in tropical rainforests...there's a lot of incredible science out there, just waiting to happen!

Other ways to get involved are really sort of basic, but effective. I used to read papers, not for their content but for their methods sections. Then I made a sort of geographical map of who was working where and on what. That helped me understand the field better, and know whom to reach out to with my ideas.

Good luck going forward! I wish you the very best!


Q:

How do they do in traveling? My daughter travels with me a lot and has always been patient with it, whether it be 4-5 hour plane rides or 18 hour drives. But I can’t imagine the distance and the fact that there are two!

A:

It's very random. Sometimes a 14 hour plane ride will be a breeze and then a 47 minute one to the next city over will feel like 20 in purgatory. Lately, I think it's all about whether one of them is teething or not, but honestly, just about when I think I've figured them out, they grow up. Two means we can't sit near each other in an airplane (since they are still lap infants) - so we get two aisle seats and basically try to help the other one, if our twin is asleep. I've poured what feels like a million milk bottles with one hand, while my husband assists across the aisle. I think we'd tear our hair out on an 18 hour car ride though - so kudos to you. That sounds like a miracle to me - your daughter must be wonderful!:) Or you have some kind of magical skills. In any case, teach me?


Q:

Don't indigenous tribes live in those forests and have for thousands of years? They would have to live with their children there all the time, right? I suppose it is mildly interesting you take your toddlers with you but it smacks of smugness to me.

A:

Please see my answer from above. Absolutely I agree. It's not remarkable that I live there with my toddlers. It's remarkable to do both (if it is remarkable at all). The goal with this AMA was to encourage people to normalise both behaviors and to NOT view this as something they couldn't possibly do, precisely for the reason that people are doing it all of the time. So I'm definitely not guilty of that smugness - I respect that I, untrained and inexperienced compared to any one who has lived in the area (indigenous or not), am trying to do something I really struggle a lot more to do than they would. Bridging the gap between the two groups of people by opening ourselves up to these questions was the goal here. Thank you for pointing this out - you are absolutely right. There's NOTHING special about it. Only perhaps that we're ill-equipped to do it, knowing so little of how to survive in a rainforest.


Q:

I meant no disrespect, although rereading my comment, it comes across that way. There is a group known as Wycliffe Bible Translators that has been sending inexperienced individuals into all sorts of remote environments for decades. No matter where you are on the religious spectrum, you have to respect some uninitiated couple moving to the jungle, or other similar austere places, and essentially trying to learn to live there. Of course their people have died, albeit infrequently. As a Mom, does that not scare the crap out of you?

A:

No, it doesn't. It's kind of a spectrum. Do I know everything about the rainforest, like someone who has lived there their whole life? No. But am I entirely uninitiated, no. I worked at these sites for about 8 years before having kids - so there's familiarity with the staff, the forest, the wildlife, everything. It's not perfect - and I wouldn't claim to know it all. But as I search myself for the honest answer, no, I'm generally not really afraid of dying out there more than I am afraid of dying in general. In fact, I know that piece of rainforest better than I know my home-city here in the States:) Life is...simpler.


Q:

Thanks for responding.

It makes sense and im not against you or your husband. Sorry if i implied that. I just question how its possible to do what you do and have toddler twin boys right there the whole time? I mean at some point it must become overwhelming? And is having someone watch them out of the question? A granny of someone? Since you asked :)

A:

It is sort of overwhelming. They both decided, for example, that they hated their pack and plays. So they wanted to sleep in bed with us, which was actually easier than it is in the US because the mosquito net sort of forms a kind of protective giant bouncy gym like thing with the bed. But we were severely lacking sleep. By the end of the stay, when we'd learned a lot more coping strategies, we had to leave to come back. I think we'll get better over time.

Sadly, our family (the older generation) isn't really in the right frame of health to help out. Also, most anyone finds twice as many babies at one time kind of a larger and more exhausting challenge. I'm always looking out for that distant cousin/aunt to help out. Or ways to blackmail my sisters into doing it. Thus far, no such luck:)


Q:

I understand where you're coming from. I have twin daughters that are 6 now. When they were toddlers? Omg they were impossible to deal with at times, nobody would babysit them. I appreciate you and your husbands dedication to your work and your family. You obviously are doing a great job! Just keep it up. Nobody helped me and my gf now wife. It kind of sucked. But now i couldnt happier because we as a family survived that.

A:

I kind of know what you mean really. You guys sound amazing! I can't imagine these guys even being six...that's SOOO far away!:) Thank you for the kind words - means a whole lot. With my family in India, and no other family really that close to us, we are pretty much doing it on our own too. So definitely some sucky moments, but it creates a bond and a shared experience that's pretty much unbreakable. Kudos to you guys!


Q:

Can you be our Unidan?

A:

Only for the months in the year when I have an internet connection. Honestly though, you are your own Unidan:)


Q:

I'm interested in ecology but I'm not sure which careers to pursue. What advice can you give me?

A:

Ooh, the world is your oyster! You can be a professor, a researcher, a teacher in high school, a conservation biologist, a wildlife biologist, an environmental policy analyst, an environmental impact assessment specialist, a consultant, park ranger - really - an interest in ecology sets you up for a lot of different things!


Q:

Not really related to your children, but what degrees did you both do that brought you to this kind of career?

I'm doing a bachelor's in wildlife conservation biology at the moment and considering whether post-graduate study or practical work/volunteer experience is best as my next course of action!

A:

Answered this one in detail earlier, if you don't mind checking those? Thank you for your comment though. It's a great one!