Month: January 2015

You Must Be Willing To Do Something You’ve Never Done.

The Woodside ferry crosses the harbour from Halifax to Dartmouth on a cold January morning:

Happy Sunday!  This can be a time of year when most of us retreat inside from the cold (especially in Halifax, where it’s grey slush city), but don’t forget to look out your windows and venture out of doors to experience the occasionally awesome things that do happen in the cold, such as the sea fog in the sunrise of a chilly morning.  

In preparation for the beautiful sunrise shots I imagine myself taking someday, I’ve been working on my early morning photography.  Before you know it, I’ll be summiting Mt. Fuji like a boss and taking yellow-border-worthy cloud sunrise photos (or maybe I’ll just get better at waking up early).

p.s. This post is part of a weekly series I do of free wallpapers featuring one of my photos and a famous quote.  Click on the image above to download the full-sized wallpaper.  

How to Make Great Matcha

What is this mystical, green beverage?

Matcha (抹茶): It’s fun to prepare, has a cool history, tastes awesome and is also pretty healthy.

First off, what’s it made of?  Matcha is made from finely ground, high-quality green tea leaves.  The same stuff used to make gyokuro green tea.  A few weeks before harvesting the leaves,  the bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This causes an increase in chlorophyll levels and amino acids (where the green tea gets its taste from).

The finest buds are selected to become matcha, and are painstakingly ground up (a very slow process) until they’re a fine powder which resembles green flour.

Fun fact: even after grinding, matcha remains incredibly photosensitive as well as vulnerable to oxidation. It should be stored in a dark, airtight container.

The technique for making matcha was originally brought over to Japan from Chinese monks in the late 12th Century, but over time its use in China has diminished, while its importance and popular use for Japanese Tea Ceremony (sado/chado – 茶道 lit. ‘the way of the tea’) has made it flourish in Japan.

Luckily for photographers (and pop culture), Its beautiful green hue makes it a ridiculously photogenic beverage.

 

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Here is a small confession: I actually made this matcha ‘wrong’ in these two photos above, with too much water so that I could photograph the pretty transparent gradient colour that it makes.  Actually, this way, it almost resembles koicha (thick) matcha.

Next history lesson: there are two kinds of matcha.

The first is usucha (薄茶 lit. ‘thin tea’). This matcha is made from younger tea bushes. It’s what you see at most tea ceremonies, and is probably what you’ve had if you’ve ever tried matcha. It is by far the more popular and more consumed kind.  It forms a nice, light green froth at the top when you whisk it.  This is the kind of matcha I’ll be talking about making today.

The second, koicha (濃茶 lit. ‘thick tea’), is made form older tea bushes, and thus has a milder flavour. You mix it with much less water, and it kind of resembles a green face mask goo sludge (Google ‘koicha matcha’; you’ll see what I mean).  Pretty much the only place you will find this is at longer, traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

Now, to make up for my incorrectly made (but fun to photograph) matcha above, here is a picture of properly made matcha (drink it when it looks like this!) in the same cup:

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See the nice light green froth with tiny bubbles on the top? Mmmm.

Why Would You Drink This?

Other than being freaking delicious (the Japanese have EVERYTHING matcha flavoured), matcha is also just really good for you. Similar to regular green tea, it boosts your metabolism, contains antioxidants (I’ve been told), and it just makes you feel good. It contains all the same organic compounds as regular green tea, just a bit more intense. As with regular green tea, the concentration of the amino acid theanine counterbalances the caffeine, so you don’t get the same jittery feeling as with coffee.  It’s also widely known and used as a mood-booster.

If you Google ‘green tea health benefits’, you get all kinds of crazy buzzword-filled diet and healthy lifestyle website. I’d take it all with a grain of salt. I’m not a biochemist, but I do love the way tea makes me feel, which is pretty happy on the inside.

Partaking in tea ceremonies in Japan (as well as China and Korea) is also an important social event, and a community-builder. You share a bond with the people you share tea with.

Do you remember Plato’s Symposium, circa  370 B.C.?A bunch of dudes sitting around drinking wine and philosophizing? Japan was all over that same thing, just a bit later. Tea houses were originally places where men would go to talk of war, or philosophize on nature, life, and the like.  Sen no Rikyū is the most famous tea guy in Japanese history.  He was a huge political and cultural influencer in the late 16th century, and his tea houses were like war chambers- secret retreats for the elite to plot their next moves.  He’s also really cool, and I recommend you read up on him a bit, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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A little bit of water with the matcha powder in the mug so you can see the colour difference between the wet and dry powder.

Matcha tools! (What You Need to Make Matcha)

  • No. 1:  Matcha powder 
  • No. 2:  A Chawan (茶碗)
    • traditional Japanese tea drinking bowl. If you’re fresh out of chawans, a latte mug will do.
  • No. 3:  A Bamboo whisk (茶筅 – chasen)
    • This is actually pretty important. Regular whisks don’t do a very good job of blending up the superfine matcha powder. These bamboo ones cost $10-$20, and are well worth the investment. You can find them at David’s Tea, on Amazon, or just around. I’ve seen these at Winners.
  • No. 4:  A Measuring Utensil (optional)
    • I like my matcha pretty specific, but there’s no logical reason you can’t eyeball it. Traditionally, bamboo scoops are used in Japan.
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How To Make Matcha Tea (A Step-by-Step Guide):

  • No. 1:  Boil your water.
    • We don’t want to use super-hot water here.  We’re aiming more for like 70˚- 80˚C. The reason being is that the amino acids in green tea dissolve at 60˚C, and tannins dissolve at 80˚C. The tannins are the compounds that make tea taste bitter. Good tasting green tea should always taste slightly sweet, green, and  be made using water between 50˚– 80˚C (depending on which kind of green tea you’re making). Without going on too much of a scientific tangent, basically we aim for water in this range so that we don’t have too many tannins sneaking out and ruining the taste of our tea. It is also one of the many reasons why green tea made from instant-cup-type machines always tastes horrible.
  • No. 2:  Once your water boils, pour some of it into your  mug.
    • Fill it half way. We’re preheating our mug for the tea the same way you do when you’re making proper espresso.  I also sit my bamboo whisk in the warm water so it’s the same temperature as well.
  • No. 3:  Wait for your water cool down a bit. Listen to a song.
    • If you’re really fancy, you can stick a thermometer in your water to make sure you get the temperature exactly right.  I usually wait about 4-5 minutes after my water boils, and that seems to be just right.
    • If you’re looking for song recommendations, Spotify has this Indie Brunch playlist that I’m pretty into right now.
  • No. 4:  Dump the heating water out of your mug – dry it – SIFT in .5 TBSP of matcha.
    • Similar to icing sugar, matcha clumps together due to static electricity.  Sift that powder to break it up and deliver a smoother cup of matcha. Also, you get to feel like a wizard while you’re sifting green powder and little green poofs of smoke are drifting up over your mug.  I measure my matcha and dump it into the sieve, then jiggle it back and forth until all the matcha falls through.
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  • No. 5:  Add the hot water.
    • I’ve found that about 1/2 a cup of water per half tablespoon is the right ratio for me, but fool around until you find something that works for you.
  • No. 6:  Whisk!
    • Whisk in a “W” shape, up and down from left to right, quickly and lightly, using your wrist and not your whole arm.  You’ll know you’re done when a light green froth with tiny bubbles forms.
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  • No. 7:  Drink and enjoy <3
    • You did it! Drink up. Traditional Japanese wagashi (sweets) make a great compliment, but so do kit kat bars, gingerbread cookies, or bananas and peanut butter.

Matcha Troubleshooting Guide:

  • No froth formed? Or not enough?
    • Try adding less water. Or if you’re already invested, try adding more matcha.
  • Too bitter?
    • The water might have been too hot;
    • You might have used too much powder (if it’s kind of chalky tasting);
    • The matcha powder might be past its best before date, or lost its prime due to environmental factors.  You can tell when matcha has gone ‘bad’ because it’ll have a dull greenish/brown colour. Good, fresh matcha is bright, bright green.
  • Chunks of powder in your drink?
    • Try sifting it more beforehand, and making sure you whisk it thoroughly for an even blend.

So there you have it! I hope you found this useful and I hope you make lots of matcha! I spent some time gathering everything I thought was useful, but if you have something extra to share, or more questions, please do so in the comments!

If you have trouble finding any of the tools or matcha powder itself, shoot me a line in the comments and I’ll try to help you out.  I want this to be the best matcha guide ever, so if I think of things to add I’ll update them into post.

 

That Time I Met Margaret Atwood

Sometimes bad things can lead to wonderful things. 

August 27th, 2014, I came home from work and felt terrible.  I was lethargic, with a pounding headache, cramps, and the hormonal works. It hurt my eyes to look at a computer screen, or read a book, so I laid down and doodled aimlessly for a couple hours until I felt better.  One of the little doodles I made kind of looked like Margaret Atwood. I hadn’t Googled her in awhile, and it didn’t hurt as much to look at a screen anymore, so I popped her name into the trusty search bar and started scrolling through the results.

What did I come across? Only that Margaret was going to be coming out east in a couple months for a conference called “Discourse and Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals” at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick to act as a panelist on the topic of “Science and Art” with Canadian aerospace engineer Natalie Panek (who is a top-notch adventurer and genius to boot).

Seeing Margaret Atwood in person had been on my bucket list for a while, and I knew that I might not be so fortuitous that our paths crossed even remotely closely again (plus, neither of us was getting any younger. Time was working against me!). I decided to commit and bought a ticket to the conference.

I messaged my literary (award-winning, just saying) friend Shannon about it, and it turns out that she had been discussing the conference the night before over wine and cheese, but was unable to go as she didn’t have a ride. Now we both had someone to go with and I had a van to get us there.  Kismet.  Headache to roadtrip. Something awful turns into something great.

We packed our bags and drove from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Sackville, New Brunswick during a rainy grey weekend in mid-October.

Farmhouse? More like charmhouse.
Farmhouse? More like charmhouse.

We ended up being exceedingly fortunate in our lodgings, courtesy of my travel companion’s friends who were in the city and thus not using their farm house in Dorchester (a 10 minute drive from Mt. Allison). 

This is the farmhouse kitchen where we spent our evenings drinking wine and talking writerly thoughts through the deep hours of the night.

That’s the romantic version.

We spent the second evening of the conference getting drunk and daring each other to tweet @MargaretAtwood to invite her over for some blueberry scones we’d picked up at the Masstown Market the day before on our drive in.

As it turns out, we’re both cowards when it comes to approaching literary giants with the offer of biscuits.  Maybe next time. Margaret?

Peggy’s official panel wasn’t until day three of the conference, but she made an appearance at dinner on the second day. I was leaving the dining hall to go to the ATM downstairs to get some cash for the bar when she entered the building all nonchalant with her husband Graeme Gibson. I realized she was in front of me when I was about ten paces away, and I almost threw up when I looked up and saw her. My heart skipped a few beats (I have anxiety-induced arrhythmia, truth!).  

Logically, she shouldn’t have cut such an intimidating figure, what with her tiny stature and pink sketchers shoes. Despite logic, it felt akin to seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first time. 

I feel lucky I got to see her once at close quarters pre-book-signing, as I was able to develop some antibodies overnight to help me cope with the shock of seeing her face to face.  I managed to be slightly more pulled together at our next encounter.

The Science and Art panel on day three was a great watch.  Natalie and Margaret were very charming co-presenters.  They covered all sorts of interesting topics, (including climate change, generational differences, childhood influences, in-orbit satellite repair and purring cats!).  What’s even better, it was recorded so you can watch the whole thing here.  The quality is alright. Hold tight for the first minute or so until they’ve got their audio sorted out. I promise it gets better.

Here’s a teaser: Margaret Atwood is great at giving high-fives.

After the panel she held an impromptu book-signing. I was prepared.

Despite her well-known fiction writing, my favourite book of hers is currently  In Other Worlds: SF and The Human Imagination.  I like her fiction voice a lot; I like her non-fiction voice even better.

In our brief interaction, I told her I liked her comics, got up the chutzpah to ask for a photo (Why not? You’ll only regret it if you don’t, I reasoned) and thanked her for her time and talk.  What more can you do, really? 

While I passed someone my iPhone to grab the photo with, Margaret doodled this in the front of my book.
While I passed someone my iPhone to grab the photo with, Margaret doodled this in the front of my book.
On Writers and Writing is another great read of hers.
On Writers and Writing is another great read of hers.

Although my personal highlight was obviously seeing and hearing said famous author, there were other good points to the weekend: The Walrus Talks opener on Friday night on ‘The Art of Conversation’ got my brain going and featured some other really cool people, such as journalist Sally Armstrong who talked about her time interviewing women in Afghanistan, and novelist Lisa Moore who talked about family narratives.  

I didn’t go to any of the student academic papers, preferring to sleep in or explore the townships.  You can see where my priorities lie.

The majority of the crowd were academics and students. They spent a long time unpacking the title “public intellectual” and its symbolic consequences. “I don’t consider myself a public intellectual” was the most-heard expression of the weekend.  A few of the panels ended up circling the drain regarding how to make academia more accessible to “the Tim Horton’s crowd” 

I love literature and cultural analysis, but I’d rather watch Thug Notes than watch someone wax prosaic about the plight of getting the plebs to understand the old, institutional hierarchy of academia. Ask yourselves instead – what can you offer to the masses?  What does your privileged position enable you to offer? How are you going to do that? I heard a lot of problems, but not a lot of brainstorming for solutions.

Our weekend was brought to a spectacular close by checking out Mel’s Tea Room (perfect abode for me), a classic landmark of the town of Sackville. I fuelled myself for the 2.5 hour drive back to Halifax with Onion rings and a chocolate milkshake eaten on a swivel vinyl bar stool.

And that was the weekend.  Free accomodations and five hours’ worth of gas to check this box on the bucket list.

Thanks for reading; if there are any Margaret Atwood fans out there, post your favourite book in the comments!

Best,

Mel

 

Women are Like Tea Bags

I’d like to rephrase this to read ‘people are like tea bags’, but I can’t blame Eleanor since she was a badass feminist living in the early 20th Century, and you just know that she must have had to put up with some serious shit.  If she had said, “People are like tea bags” the public would have gone, “You mean men? Why are you comparing men to tea? That’s a comestible; therefore women’s work; therefore why are we even still listening to you?” 

The Roosevelts were a pretty cool bunch; they don’t fuck around.  Eleanor’s family had famous lawyers, socialites, athletes, politicians and generally plenty of money to go around. Despite hailing from an influential family, she didn’t have an easy life by any means.  Both her parents and one of her brothers died before she was 15, and her marriage was plagued by infidelity.

But more importantly, did you know she was the first first lady to hold press conferences, as well as give speeches on behalf of the president? She never quit, and after her white house time came to an end, she remained completely immersed in politics, working with the U.N. to oversee the declaration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, amongst other things. In the 30s, she was also very close buddies with Amelia Earhart.  They used to sneak out and go to parties together – I shit you not. That is some historical fanfiction that writes itself.

Left: Amelie Earhart; Right: Eleanor Roosevelt  - Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Left: Amelie Earhart; Right: Eleanor Roosevelt  – Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

As always, click the quote image for the high-res free download in Google Drive. Hopefully it will remind you when times are tough that you are strong as a hearty Scottish breakfast tea. 

All the love,

Mel

Inside Halifax’s New, Game-Changing Public Library

3 years, one month and 6 days after they first broke ground, Halifax Central Library finally opened its doors to the public on Saturday December 13, 2014.

Over 10,000 people visited during its grand opening.  It was a pretty proud and emotional day for a city that so rarely sees creative new architectural development. I saw a lot of people looking teary-eyed (myself included) as they gazed around the beautiful new beacon of Halifax. (Seriously, it’s the nicest thing we have).

IF you live in Halifax and you haven’t checked the new library out YET, get over there! Why are you still waiting? you can read this when you get back. GO!

If you live in Halifax you’ve probably already dropped in to check it out, try the espresso at one of the the two Pavia cafes located inside, and take a look at the new views of the skyline from the rooftop terrace or glass living room.

If you’re a tourist passing through Halifax, this place is definitely one to check out. It’s already been lauded as one of the coolest new pieces of architecture this year by CNN. Even if you’re not into books or architecture, it offers great views of the city, great espresso and Pavia’s daily specialty cupcakes are worth waiting in line for.  

These beautiful staircases make you feel like you’re in an M. C. Escher drawing, or Harry Potter! I bet you could recreate the Penrose staircase if you took a picture from directly above.

Self-automated machines located on each floor make it easy and quick for people of all ages to check out books.
Self-automated machines located on each floor make it easy and quick for people of all ages to check out books.
The beautiful 'living room' area provides a bright and warm space to read, work, or play games while showing off a beautiful view overlooking Spring Garden Road and the Citadel.
The beautiful ‘living room’ area provides a bright and warm space to read, work, or play games while showing off a beautiful view overlooking Spring Garden Road and the Citadel.
Bright and comfy chairs throughout the library provide places to read and work. Some like this green chair of the left include privacy walls, good for having discrete conversations about your favourite raunchy author, or tuning out the world to get some essay writing done. There are also a number of conference rooms you can sign out.
Bright and comfy chairs throughout the library provide places to read and work. Some like this green chair of the left include privacy walls, good for having discrete conversations about your favourite raunchy author, or tuning out the world to get some essay writing done. There are also a number of conference rooms you can sign out.

There are also a number of programs, classes and free lectures that are hosted by the library.  One cool series they’re currently doing is a number of free film screening on the theme of debt. I’m going to be there on February 9th when they show the documentary version of Margaret Atwood’s CBC Massey Lecture, “Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth” (2011).

Many people visited during the opening week just to enjoy the view.

Throughout the library, on signs and windows you'll see some nice graphic design choices.
Throughout the library, on signs and windows you’ll see some nice graphic design choices.
Artist Cliff Eyland grew up in Dartmouth, and went to NSCAD University. He made 5,000 tiny paintings to be installed in the library. They can be seen on the ground floor just the left of the Spring Garden entrance.
Artist Cliff Eyland grew up in Dartmouth, and went to NSCAD University. He made 5,000 tiny paintings to be installed in the library. They can be seen on the ground floor just the left of the Spring Garden entrance.

Don’t forget to try buying a caffé sospeso for good luck and good karma.  It’s a unique gesture of kindness amongst java drinkers and they’re the only place around the city I’ve seen who do it!

The sandwich belt rising up to the floor above in the mid ground of this shot takes books from the book drop and sorts them (and drops them off) at their respective floors.
The sandwich belt rising up to the floor above in the mid ground of this shot takes books from the book drop and sorts them (and drops them off) at their respective floors.

A Few More Cool Things:

  • The building uses 65% less energy than a regular building thanks to its rainwater collecting basement cistern (used for toilets) and green roof.
  • There is a large Local History section, including an aboriginal resource section.
  • Here’s a cool time lapse video of some early sketching a modelling of the building design.

I’m so proud of the city for undertaking and seeing this project through to completion. Hurrah H/LIF/X!

In the End, We’ll All Become Stories.

Do you ever think about how strange it would be if this T-Rex could have known where his bones would end up roughly sixty-five to eighty-five million years after his death? It would resemble the strangest fever dream and if he ever told his reptile friends, they’d think he was totally nuts (you’ve had too much bad steggo meat, man).

I had a really interesting time visiting the Museum of Natural History in NYC. This guy and a brontosaurus (I think) are the iconic guardians of the entrance. 

Anything can happen (such as the meteor that wiped these guys out) and after we’re gone all that’s left of us other than physical detritus is the narratives we’ve left behind, or the narratives that those left behind create for us. History is all tall tales, white lies and best guesses. Anyone who’s looking for some hard, definitive answers should put down the history textbook and maybe make their way into the physics section instead. Here’s a really interesting TED Talk about baby dinosaurs, where Jack Horner talks about how scientific ego got in the way of actual science, when it came to paleontological finds in the early days of unearthing dinosaurs.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re working on your story – make it a good one!

Also, Moral Disorder is a great book and I would recommend it. If you like Alice Munro’s stories about family, you’ll probably also enjoy this.

Auf Wiedersehen 2014; Hello, 2015!

Taking no prisoners at The Colo(u)r Run. A cross between Holi, Waterworld, and The Boston Marathon, this colourful 5k separates the weak from the fast and fluorescent. Maybe those legs behind me are rolling on the ground in ecstasy, maybe they belong to someone I took down on my quest for colourful glory. You'll never know.
Taking no prisoners at The Colo(u)r Run. A cross between Holi, Waterworld, and The Boston Marathon, this colourful 5k separates the weak from the fast and fluorescent. Maybe those legs behind me are rolling on the ground in ecstasy, maybe they belong to someone I took down on my quest for colourful glory. You’ll never know.

2014 was interesting. At times weird and full of thai express; at times wonderful and full of buddhists breakfasts; at times frustrating as hell and full of mediocre leftovers.

It was a big year for growth. There was a lot of self-reflection and thinking about what I want my life to look like.  This meant a lot of thinking in the vein of Uncle Ben from Spiderman, “these are the years when a [wo]man changes into the [wo]man [s]he’s going to be for the rest of h[er] life”. Too bad Uncle Ben never took a gender studies class. It would’ve saved me a lot of square brackets. 

Highlights of 2014:

  • Visiting new cities (New York, Washington, Seoul, Suncheon, Mokpo, Jeju Island);
  • Attending Blogcademy and realizing that unicorns are real. That you can be a total boss entrepreneur thanks to the magical internet. 
  • Being promoted at my job (woo!), as well as becoming the in-house photographer;

  • Spending the night at a Buddhist temple dressed in monk’s clothes;
  • Travelling through South Korea with great friends (who kept their cool when I left my cell phone/wallet in a taxi);
  • Volunteering as a photographer for TEDx, Lawn Summer Nights, and Me to We;
  • Meeting Margaret Atwood *** (she’s real!);
  • Getting involved with Ladies Learning Code (I mentored at the Photoshop class, attended National Learn to Code Day, and taught the Girls Learning Code Holiday Image Editing and Animation workshop). Their WordPress workshop is coming up in January;
  • Doing The Colo(u)r Run in P.E.I.
  • No longer ripping my nails (miraculous).
  • Taking more photos and writing more words than the year before.

I’m not a fan of the New Year’s Resolution. I think we should always be trying to better ourselves, no matter what time of year. I did get drunk and make one on NYE out of cultural necessity.  This was one that I had been trying to do anyway, so I like to think it wasn’t just the cocktails and anthropological pressure that made me resolution-ize it: 

Give More Gifts.

Presents for all! Here are some other things I’m looking forward to doing in 2015:

  • Going to the Women in Travel Summit, (“WITS”) in Boston in March. There are going to be some really awesome travel bloggers there. I’m pretty nervous and excited.

  • More travel! Near and far. I got a tent for Christmas and it needs wearing out.

  • More blog posts! (Trying to get better with daily writing practice).

  • Making how-to-do-photo-stuff blog posts.  

  • Running my first half-marathon (Registration is paid so I can’t back out now).
  • Printing more photos for my own home (I always print them for other people).
  • Checking out every new day in my Poladarium calendar.
  • Practicing dem languages. (Duolingo recently added Dutch to their array of languages for native English speakers to learn.  Het is geweldig. Mijn Opa is from Holland and I’ve been trying for ages to find an easy way to pick up Dutch on the side with very little time to actually devote to it. Duolingo is absolutely perfect for that – I play it  in the morning on the ferry on the way to work and I’m noticing huge results).
  • Drinking lots of tea.
  • Taking more photos.  Trying new techniques. Trying to get better.
  • Maybe finally buying snow pants? 

What are you looking forward to for 2015?