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Monday, 15 September 2014

Is Crippling Inequality The Biggest Problem We Face?

If I were to ask you what city in the world had the most resident billionaires, what what you say? New York? Moscow? Los Angeles? All three of those answers would be incorrect. As a result of a study carried out earlier this year, London has been confirmed as the city with the most billionaires, with 72 living in the capital. The combined wealth of these 72 individuals is in excess of £200bn, a figure the average person can't even begin to put into perspective. However, it might be easier to think about it like this. £200bn could end world hunger for nearly 7 years, or fund the NHS for one and a half.

Whilst it is disturbing that such a small number of individuals can have such a large amount of wealth, the situation only gets worse when you look at the homeless population within London. Nearly 6500 people were seen spending nights on the street in 2012/13, up 13% on the previous year. Is it not a shocking realisation of the crippling inequality plaguing the United Kingdom when the wealth of the super-rich has doubled since 2008, yet more and more people are living rough on the streets?

Unfortunately, the problem of such extreme inequality extends beyond the billionaire individuals and onto the many multi-national corporations that perfectly represent the failures of our capitalist system. These companies make huge profits at the expense of the poorer majority, whilst failing to pay the amount of tax required of them. Although stories of these companies occasionally surface in the media, very little is every done to truly tackle what is quite clearly a serious problem.

Some of the biggest companies in the country (Amazon, Google,  Starbucks, Arcadia Group) pay little to no tax on UK sales, and instead share enormous profits between directors and shareholders, adding to their already extortionate wealth. The worst offender by far is Amazon, who reported sales of £3.35bn in 2011, but only paid £1.8m as a 'tax expense'.  Whilst naturally this is unacceptable business behaviour, the worst thing is that it is perfectly legal. Because these companies are registered in tax havens and send money offshore, it counts as tax avoidance rather than evasion, and there is no direct law to tackle that. Surely if it could lead to increased government revenue, there is a direct incentive for the government to try and get these corporations to pax tax, right? It would appear not. The problem is, the political parties in this country stand for everything these companies represent. Their bias is actually so strong that the government even give out 'tax credits' to these corporations, which allow them bring forward losses from previous years to the current year, in order to pay less tax.

So what can possibly be done about this? In terms of multi-national businesses, why not cap they amount of profit they're allowed to make? Or force them to lower prices? Surely we can't keep allowing corporations like the big 4 energy companies, who made nearly £16bn profit but still insisted on a price increase, to continue trading as they are. Surely we can't allow firms to have enough money offshore to eradicate world hunger? These firms need to be regulated and heavily taxed so the government can spend more money on the things that matter (education, health etc) whilst still being able to lower taxes for those who aren't lucky enough to be billionaires.

With regards to the individual, isn't it about time we implemented a progressive tax on wealth? Taxing income does generate some revenue for the government, but it is the individuals wealth that needs to be targeted. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, nobody needs billions of pounds to their name. Happiness does not proportionately increase with every pound you make, and it also doesn't mean that they have worked 1 billion times harder than somebody living in poverty.

To conclude, it's about time we truly accepted that the society we are part of is far from a meritocracy. The richer you get, the easier it it to get richer, and unfortunately the opposite is true when you are poor.  I simply can't accept that anybody needs so much money when there are so many diseases that need curing, people that need housing, and crucial services like the NHS that need funding.


Friday, 15 August 2014

Sitcoms - The True Cost Of Comedy

Elliot Rodger’s killing spree and the subsequent #YesAllWomen hashtag certainly shone some light on the type of society we live in. Combine that with the various racial scandals surrounding UKIP, and you start to wonder if modern society has become a place of equality and harmony, or whether we are simply stuck in reverse gear, and accelerating rapidly. Unfortunately, it is far from difficult to find evidence for proving the latter. The Sun still has its infamous page 3 feature, and an unsettling majority of the press publish stories riddled with racism. However, this problem extends far beyond the realms of the media, and right onto our television screens.

Ever since the 90s, sitcoms have been the ‘sliced bread’ of television. Programmes such as Seinfeld and Friends led the way in this genre, and soon became the pied pipers of comedy, tempting endless keen producers to follow in their footsteps. So what are today’s frivolous offerings? And what does this have to do with equality? Well, looking at one of the most recent American success stories, The Big Bang Theory, it isn’t long before blatant discrimination is thrust onto our screens for us to blindly accept and laugh at.
Think about the character setup. Raj seems to act as the token ethnic minority character, who is then used to build and develop a completely delusional stereotype of not only Indian people, but the Asian population as a whole. The discrimination sadly doesn’t stop there. The character of Penny, unarguably the show’s leading female character, is portrayed as a helpless blonde bimbo, desperately seeking help from the leading male protagonists. The characterisation alone is something that should seriously concern us as viewers, but does it? Considering The Big Bang Theory is America’s highest rated sitcom, the answer is likely a resounding no.
As if this level of prejudice wasn’t bad enough, it seems to have become the norm for modern day sitcoms. Another example is HBO’s latest comedy series, Silicon Valley, which follows a nerdy group of men as they attempt to start a new internet based company. Minutes into the pilot episode and we’re getting deja vu. Where have we seen this character structure before, a few nerdy white guys followed by a token Asian character? It’s like there are certain ‘golden rules’ for a successful sitcom. Whilst incorrect stereotypes provide the majority of the comedy, the complete overuse of the ‘I don’t understand women’ cliche provides the cherry on top of the cake of inequality.
One of the UK’s highest rated comedy programmes, The Office, featured even more blatant offensive remarks. However, there is a subtle difference between The Office and the aforementioned American sitcoms. While The Office may have been offensive, it was so deliberately through the scriptwriting, as opposed to reliance on basic character structure. This provokes a clear reaction from the audience, as opposed to subliminally informing us about the role of women and ethnic minorities in society.
For example, some of David Brent’s antics in The Office may depict sexism, but certainly don’t endorse it. The comedy arises from the viewers realising how offensive he is being, and therefore laughing at how outrageous his remarks and actions are. This differs from the other sitcoms subtly, but significantly. Shows like Silicon Valley aren’t depicting discrimination through the characters, but are instead building the entire programme around it. Objectified female characters and the stereotyping of ethnic minorities form the basis of modern sitcoms, and we should seriously be asking ourselves why.
The problem is, it’s a simple issue of supply and demand. The three shows mentioned are beacons of success in the sitcom world. As they rack up the high ratings and award nominations, the incentive for creating similar styled programmes increases. The more we blindly laud prejudice, the more frequently we will see it in television. The solution therefore seems rather simple: viewers shouldn’t boycott these programmes and sell their televisions, but watch their favourite shows with a more critical eye. Sure, there might be the occasional hilarious moment, but at what price? Perhaps before you give that episode 9/10 on IMDb, ask yourself “what am I really voting for?” The humorous comic timing? The ridiculous situations? Or maybe the advocation of misogyny and casual racism?
This article was original post here, on Screen Robot.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Are Windows Phones Finally Catching Up?

As a result of Windows taking over Nokia in the opening few months of this year, there is no doubt that they will be desperately seeking to close the gap between themselves and Apple/Android, who continue to dominate the market. With only 3.5% of the global market, Windows have a lot of ground to make up, and their first major effort comes from the release of the Lumia 930. The 930 is easily the best Lumia Phone that has ever been produced, with improved build quality and performance in relation to earlier models. However, will Windows ever reach that top spot?

Lumia 635 (left) and Lumia 930 (right)

The first thing to note is that as consumers, our requirements in a smartphone have sort of plateaued. Processors are so fast that we wouldn't notice an improvement, and screens are so high quality that we can barely make out the pixels. So what does this mean? Well for the top phone companies such as Apple and Samsung, it means developing unnecessary gimmicks and desperately trying to persuade us that they are revolutionary. Scrolling with your eyes, flicking through photos by waving your hand, that sort of thing. Windows hasn't really been doing this. Instead, it's been perfecting the features that actually matter and increasing the size of its app store.

The app store was always the Achilles heel of Windows Phone, and some will argue that it still is. However, the number of apps is increasing rapidly, with more than 300,000 now available. Naturally that is no match for Apple's 1,000,000, but it's still enough not to write it off for that reason. In addition to adding a large number of apps, Windows is also producing high quality handsets for the lower end of the market. Whilst budget Android phones give off a very cheap and tacky vibe, the Windows equivalents are virtually poles apart. Just look at the Nokia Lumia 635. For £140 you can have a high quality, well made handset that is 4G ready. You can't get much better than that.

Now let's look at the facts and figures. Research firm IDC have predicted the market share of smartphone companies in 2018, and how they relate to where they are now. Firstly, Blackberry are expected to move even closer to the edge of the radar, with a predicted 0.3% market share in 2018. Android is also expected to fall, but only by 2.8% (still leaving them with a very respectable 77.6%). Even Apple should expect to take a hit. According to IDC, the firm will fall 1.1% to hold only 13.7% of the market. So who is actually set to gain in the next 4 years? Windows Phone. The company is predicted to have 6.4% of the market in 2014. Still nowhere near Android, but starting to close the gap on Apple.

The truth is, Android will always dominate the market because an incredibly large number of phone manufacturers use it. However, There is no reason why Windows Phone won't claim the second spot in the years to come. Not only are Windows producing high quality, professional phones (without all the gimmicks), they are creating a wide range for all budgets. At the moment, consumers simply don't trust the brand, because it's different. But who knows, maybe next time you're offered an upgrade, take the Windows Phone plunge, and find out what all the fuss is about.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Should We Promote Competition?

Tesco, Royal Mail and BAA. These are just 3 of the many companies that have been the subject of scrutiny due to their alleged monopoly power. But are monopolies all that bad? The general consensus seems to be a resounding yes. So much so that the Competition Commission was created to investigate firms with monopoly power and take necessary action to reduce it. The key idea that lies at the crux of the Competition Commission is that more competition benefits consumers, but is that strictly true?

Benefits Of Competition

Let's look at the market for smartphones. As more and more companies enter the market, we say that the market is more competitive. The first (and perhaps most obvious) reason that this is beneficial is that we now have choice. Consumers like choice. After all, if only one phone existed it would basically be like smartphone communism, an nobody wants that. The second major argument in favour of competition is innovation. With more firms in a market, they will have to compete for market share. In order to do this, firms must innovate to create the best products, meaning consumers get higher quality goods. The same concept works with price. Firms will undercut each other to gain sales revenue and that means cheaper products as well as better ones. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well that leads nicely onto the next section.

Cons Of Competition

With each day that passes, we start to care more and more about social responsibility and ethics. An ethical business is far more desirable now than it was in the 80s, but competition does very little to promote that. As firms compete with each other, they have to find more and more ways to cut costs and increase productivity. Ways of doing this include wage cuts, division of labour (a production method that seriously demotivates workers) and maybe even replacing workers with machines. Unemployment is hardly a desirable outcome, and some would argue that competition is not worth the strains on the workforce. In addition to the negative effects on labour, firms may also engage in illegal activity such as tax evasion, in an attempt to still maintain a profit.

So those are a few reasons for and against competition in markets, now onto the case for monopolies.

Benefits Of Monopolies

There is really only one major advantage of a monopoly, and that's it's size. As a result of economies of scale, monopolies benefit greatly from their large size. The are able to make their products much cheaper than the average start up company. This cost saving can be passed onto consumers, which is obviously good news. In addition to that, monopoly firms are most likely to be more efficient because of their expertise in the industry. Let's take the example of the Royal Mail. They were the only company that had all the infrastructure and technology in place to provide their service, so it took a long time before other firms started to compete.

Cons Of Monopolies

There is however a rather big problem surrounding monopolies, and that is the abuse of power. When a firm is a monopoly, they control a large proportion of the market. This means that they can increase the price and people will still pay for their product because they have no choice. The abuse of power also works in the other direction, this time against suppliers. For example, Tesco is such a powerful organisation, that when they buy from farmers, the farmers can't afford to not have their business, and are therefore forced accept whatever price Tesco demand. 


You've probably come to your own conclusion at this point, but I'll try and wrap things up anyway. Personally, I don't consider competition to be all that great. In fact, I'd say the only reason the government are so in favour of it is because it's better than having monopolies. However, it doesn't have to be. There is no reason that a monopoly can't provide and efficient and fair service to consumers. It just depends on how it's run. In the hands of a socially responsible leader, a monopoly can be a strong pillar within an economy, using it's expertise and economies of scale to produce great products for an affordable price. Of course, some people will always back the idea of competition, but I can't help but think it creates irresponsible business practices and desperate cost cutting measures. So what is the solution? In my opinion, maybe it's time we focus on how monopolies are run and managed, as opposed to simply condemning their existence.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Why Your Exam Results Aren't Your Fault

In exactly one week, UK teenagers will be labelled as successes or failures, purely based on the contents of a big brown envelope. It sounds like an unfinished concept for an ITV game show, but it's a reality for over 300,000 teenagers throughout the country. However, should the lives of students be so heavily dependent on one set of results? Does the current education system provide an effective way of measuring academic achievement? I believe the answer to both of those questions is no, and here's why...

1) Knowledge Vs Understanding

It's very easy to know something. One simply has to find it out and then remember it. It takes far more time and effort to understand something. A fundamental problem with the current education system is that it tests knowledge, not understanding. Everybody has that one friend that doesn't appear to understand half of what they're studying, but uses their memory to attain a high grade. The truth is, whilst knowledge is useful for a pub quiz or a game of trivial pursuit, employers are going to be far more interested in an individuals understanding of a subject, and how it can be applied to their business.

So how can this issue be resolved? Let's start by taking out components that purely test memory. English exams should allow students to take in the necessary books, and science/maths exams should give students all the required formulae. The questions should then be harder but tailored to test how well a candidate can apply their knowledge, rather than just reproduce it.

2) Exam Conditions

All students have faced it. That horrible moment as you walk into the crowded exam room and realise that the next couple of hours are pivotal to your success in life. Hardly a relaxing atmosphere is it? Combine that with the fact that many candidates face exams within days of each other, and it almost seems as if 'exam conditions' is just a way of describing the worst possible working environment. With exams reportedly getting harder and harder, how can we possibly believe that the best way to aid teenagers success in school is by inducing an extremely tense high pressure atmosphere?

A rather obvious solution to this problem is by shifting to a heavily coursework based system. At least then students will be able to complete work to the best of their ability with minimal external factors influencing their performance. Now if you've already passed your A levels, you might be thinking, "it's always been like this, If I got through my exams, anyone can". Well, just because it's been like this for a while, it doesn't mean it's not a problem. Just imagine if you applied that logic to racism.

3) Exam Boards

This is arguably the biggest problem with the current education system here in the UK. AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC. All these exams boards offer A level qualifications, and that's a big problem. How can we possibly attach a credible value on a qualification when there a multiple different versions of it? If that wasn't bad enough, different exams boards don't only test different topics, but also range in difficulty. As a result of this, candidates that appear to be identically skilled may wildly vary in intellectual capacity and be of completely different use to employers.

This problem can perhaps be solved in the simplest way. Merge all of these qualifying boards into one, government controlled organisation. This way, the value of A-Levels will be restored, and candidates could be fairly compared when it comes to job interviews.

So there you go. If next week your brown envelope doesn't deliver the news you're looking for, then at least you have something to blame. After all, if anything has failed, it's the education system, not you.

As always, I don't expect everybody to agree with my opinions, so please leave a comment below telling me what you think about the current UK education system.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Egg - A Crucial Ingredient For Banking Reform?

What's the first thing that comes into your head when I said the word 'Egg'? A crucial part of a full english? Or the UK's first internet bank? The Derby based company was a refreshing addition to the UK banking sector, opening its doors in 1998. Of course, the company didn't actually open any doors, because the one thing that made Egg so special was that it was entirely based online. In 2014, the idea of online banking is perceived as a fundamental service, but back in 1998, the concept was revolutionary. This revolution however, became detrimental to the company, and it soon fizzled out of the public eye.

In 1998, the Nokia 3310 was still 2 years away from being invented, so it's not surprising that a company based purely on the internet wasn't an instant hit. Online security was not even close to where it is today and to put it simply, nobody was prepared to put there money where they couldn't see it. Not too long after it's launch, the company was up for sale, but can the 'Big Four' UK banks learn from its business model?

After all, with technology constantly advancing, businesses are going to have to evolve to keep up. The mobile phone contracts business has seen the introduction of giffgaff, the online low cost service that benefits from it's lack of physical stores. If it can be done with smartphones, can the same concept be applied to banking?

Let's analyse this a bit further. We all know that banks make a lot of money, and even after the global recession, the major UK banks made a combined £16.5bn profit in 2013. It's also common knowledge that banks make all this money by charging interest on credit cards, mortgages and loans. So what's this got to do with Egg? Being an online company carries significantly less overhead costs. In theory, this would mean that Egg could charge lower rates of interest and still maintain a high level of profit. This is the perfect win-win situation. The bank will still make enough profit to provide an incentive to stay in the market, and consumers will pay less interest on their loans and credit cards.

Now as previously mentioned, this didn't work out for Egg, but that was simply bad timing. What if the 'Big Four' were to adopt a similar model? What if more internet banks were to start up? The general public has virtually no problems with transferring money online anymore, and it could be just what the British public need to restore their faith in an industry now riddled with hate and resentment. To answer the latter question, there are a few internet banks in the UK, the most successful of which is 'Smile'. However, already there is a problem. Whilst the business model enables internet banks to charge lower interest rates, they are drastically limited by their small size. Simple economies of scale suggests that costs are much higher for smaller businesses, meaning despite having the better business model, they have to charge more (2% more to be exact) to make a profit.

To answer the first question, there is one major factor preventing the big banks from closing down shops and starting up online. Unemployment. At the end of the day, it's probably not worth making thousands of people redundant just so you can pay a little less in interest repayments.

So it stands to reason that although there is definitely a need to sort out the banking sector, there is almost no way that it will happen by shifting to internet banks. However, there is still a big problem that needs solving. Why is it that the people who need money the most, have to pay extortionate amounts of interest, whilst the already rich report billions of pounds in profits? With banks reporting such figures, it's no wonder that society is so unequal in terms of income. The only good news is, there could be a solution. Maybe the answer is to demand strict capping on interest rates and profits, in the hope that one day, the word 'banker' will not instantly be associated with its rhyming insult.   

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Legal Highs - What's The Plan?

Did you know that right now you could be mere minutes away from ordering drugs online? By drugs, I'm not referring to budget antibiotics from Superdrug, but the rapidly expanding industry that is 'Legal Highs'. Whilst at first glance the concept may appear slightly oxymoronic, this is a trend that's growing quickly throughout the UK, and it's not difficult to understand why. If you're wondering how it all works, the reality is like something from a poorly scripted television programme. To escape any liability, retailers simply have to label their drugs as products such as "plant-food" or "bath-salts" and add a "not fit for human consumption" warning.

So what actually are legal highs? The basic idea is that these drugs are substances that mimic the effects of common illegal drugs, whilst lacking the key chemicals that make them fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Now this may sound like a win-win situation for drug users around the country, but naturally there is more to it than that. The common argument in favour of legal highs is that the only reason they are legal is because they aren't actually that effective, and the lack of illegal ingredients makes for a relatively boring experience. There is most likely a lot of truth in this statement, but the problem is, the production of legal highs isn't regulated to an acceptable standard. As a result of selling the products as plant-food and baths salts, there is no need for thorough testing for what can happen if ingested. In addition to this, the ingredients used are far from standardised and an estimated 1 in 5 legal highs contain an illegal chemical.

In addition to the unknown ingredients of legal highs, the death toll speaks for itself. In 2012, 68 deaths were recorded as a direct result of taking legal highs, that is approximately 3 times the death rate of ecstasy in the same period. Whilst this may seem like a lot, a vast majority of the deaths are caused by unknown ingredients and lack of thorough testing,  both of which can be avoided.

So what are the solutions? A common opinion is that the government should impose a strict ban on the production and distribution of these substances, but there are definite concerns with this strategy. Personally, I feel the need to question a government that will spend a fortune after 68 deaths, but make no attempt to combat the 40,000 annual deaths that occur due to alcohol. I'm definitely not saying that we shouldn't care for users of legal highs, I just think that a ban is the wrong way to go about the problem. In my opinion, regulating the production process might be a better solution. Although it may cost the government more time and money, knowing that legal highs contain standardised ingredients may carry long term benefits.

To start with, if these drugs were regulated in a way that drastically reduces the danger, many drug users may switch to using them as a method of getting the experience of normal drugs, but without risking prosecution. In a way, surely this could actually reduce the number of users of illegal drugs? The argument for the legalisation of drugs is one that is always debated but never agreed, and I'll try not to go into it too much. However, I can't help but feel that by having legal highs on the market, with strict regulation on their ingredients and production, there will be fewer deaths relating to drug use as a whole. In addition to this, their is even a potential for a boost in government revenue, if they decide to adopt a 'regulate and tax' strategy.

If you're currently nodding along and agreeing with my opinion, I'm afraid I have to burst your bubble. The truth of the matter is, the government will never decide to implement a regulatory method as opposed to a ban. Governments will want to give off a tough exterior, presenting a 'zero tolerance' attitude to drug use. Therefore, to keep the voters on their side, they will most likely opt for a straight forward ban, which is probably much easier to implement than tight regulation.

To try and wrap things up, legal highs produce a multitude of opinions, and there are strong arguments for both sides. Personally, I think that regulation is the answer and that any ban on such products is merely a cosmetic one. After all, if you want to save lives, start restricting the sale of alcohol and tobacco, not bath salts.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Foreign Aid - Problem Or Solution?

Foreign aid. It's found in the budget of many western countries, and for years it's been the driving force behind economic growth and development in third world countries. However, like most things the government decide to spend their money on, Foreign Aid is the subject of controversy with many economists arguing that it actually makes the situation worse. Whilst this may at first seem like a ridiculous statement, it's not too difficult to find some evidence that supports it.

An arguably detrimental issue plaguing the third world is government corruption. This is a serious restriction to the success of foreign aid. For example, let's look at the current conflict in Gaza (which you can learn more about here). Israel, who continue to terrorise the Palestinian people with their extremely powerful military, are recipients of foreign aid. Since 2011, America have given Israel approximately $3bn per year in foreign aid, an extremely high percentage of which has gone towards funding their defense sector. Of course the case with Israel is rather anomalous as Israel aren't receiving aid to combat poverty. However, the idea of countries using the money for illegitimate reasons is a strong argument against its effectiveness, but what does that mean for other developing countries?

As a way of combating the corruption problem, aid has now taken many forms in recent years, and this is something that needs to continue. Third world countries are far more likely to benefit from $1bn of food donations than a $1bn cheque landing in the hands of a corrupt ruler. Better still, western countries can fund projects that directly improve infrastructure, such as the installation of water networks as well as healthcare and education services. This type of aid has significant added value when compared to a simple financial donation. So why don't all countries engage in this? A huge reason is that in developing countries, the exact needs of the poor don't get met because they have so little political power with which to make their needs known. It is therefore very difficult for developed countries to provide aid in the form that will be the most beneficial to the developing economy.

However, whilst the results of these methods may only be observed in the long run, so too will the second biggest problem of aid as a whole. Dependency. If you provide a country with a certain amount of food and infrastructure per year, there will naturally evolve a culture that depends on such generosity. The incentive for third world countries to then create their own infrastructure and produce their own food decreases. This leaves developed economies to pick up the bill for running their country, as well as leaving them vulnerable in the case of another global recession (foreign aid is one of the first areas to suffer from spending cuts).  

So are there any convincing alternatives? A common proposal to help to growth of developing countries is to establish trade agreements. Developed economies such as the UK agree to buy a set amount of produce from a developing country. This provides the country with a constant and reliable revenue stream that can then be used to fund development and create infrastructure and jobs. However, trade agreements could mean higher prices for domestic consumers (as a result of buying from more inefficient producers) as well as a worsening trade deficit. In addition to this, the long term problems of trade agreements are arguably not worth the short term gains. Countries will have little incentive to produce goods more efficiently, domestic producers may suffer from a  decrease in sales revenue and third world countries will find themselves still in a position of primary product dependency (which is a topic for another article).

To conclude, the solution seems rather simple. Developing countries need aid to grow effectively and it's simply humanitarian for western countries to do what they can. For example, in times of natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake, aid was almost the sole reason that recovery was even possible. However, it is incredibly important that in a world full of hostile international relationships and rising defense budgets, that the country giving the aid has direct involvement in the spending of any money given. In addition to this, when aid is given, it is given in the form that is optimally beneficial for the receiving country. As long as these criteria are met, there is little reason to suggest that aid will create anything other and growth and development.