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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Technology overload vs. the world in a cup

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I've been trying to read books and printed articles as a balance to online surfing. The nagging voice to "read more books" (sometimes through friends in kind and subtle ways) is finally taking hold. The excuse that my eyes are too sleepy at the end of the day is getting ignored as long as it's before 8:30.

So it was great to find an interview with Nicholas Carr (author of Does IT Matter?) in The Sun (see Carr's blog and home page too), titled "Computing the Cost." It's about how the Internet is rewiring our brains. (The entire March 2009 issue of The Sun is about technology and its effects on us.) By the way, I read the print version.

Apparently we use different parts of our brains for reading a book or other print materials than for reading online. Carr refers to the book iBrain, by Gary Small who studied two dozen people, half of whom had little Internet experience, and half of whom had a lot. Dr. Small and his colleague scanned their brains while they searched the Internet, resulting in different patterns of brain activity. The subjects with little Internet experience showed activity in language, memory and visual centers, typical of someone reading. The experienced Internet users had more activity in the decision-making areas of the brain. Disturbingly, within a few days of surfing, the previously non-users' brain activity resembled that of the frequent users. I haven't read Small's book, but Carr questions whether we are losing a vital part of our brain function that thinks and synthesizes information.

While reading the interview, first off, I felt pretty good about myself for trudging through The Ambassadors week after week, because I have felt, decisively, that on p. 144 I am more easily grasping content than I did at p. 1 or 10 or even 80. It doesn't really bother me that it's taking so long to get through James' novel, because I'm getting through it. And I am finding it possible to sit for longer periods reading it too. Thirty minutes is longer than 15. And 60 is longer than 30. That's about what I'm up to, 30-60.

Second, I recognized that when it comes to information, more is not necessarily better. While access to oceans of information is great on one hand, on the other, a) it is overwhelming and b), as Carr says, we are becoming big flat pancakes with lots and lots of facts in our heads and at our fingertips, but losing deeper thinking skills. If I read a political story, then read four blogs about it, did I give myself a chance to reflect on the event? And what influence will government or other agencies use to control me one day, if I am too reliant on this medium?

Clearly, the Internet's value to become more informed about current affairs, geography, history, literature, the environment, ways to help and not least, meeting friends around the world, is vast. And by limiting information intake I don't mean I want to close my eyes to the world's problems.

I'd like to contain the world in a cup, which of course isn't possible. But I don't mind keeping my world smaller than the Internet and its Googles and Wikis want to pull me into. I think a deeper, more focused world is a richer one.


79 comments:

Peter said...

Is a compromise combination of google reading and real reading possible ? I consider google to rather replace the encyclopaedia but I still try to read some books. As I usually do my reading late and in bed, I must though admit some concentration problems. :-) Is it because of changed brain functionality or just because of time to get asleep? I should start reading a bit earlier in the day to try to better analyse.

kanmuri said...

Maybe it's because I've loved reading since I was in grade school, but I always manage to find a goof balance between the internet and reading. I do spend a lot of time online, but I have special times during the that that are reserved for reading: in the bath and before I go to bed. I can't imagine my life without books.

Bel.Ishtar said...

It hurts my eyes, my head to read too much on the net. I usually print and then read. I love the picture of the egg.

Ruth said...

Welcome back, Peter, I hope you had a good trip. I'll check in on Paris in a bit.

I am one who could not give up the Internet, or would not want to. But I see my university students try to research a topic for a paper using Wiki, and they think they have found enough to cover it. Wiki is brilliant, and so is Google, for the quick references on a daily basis. But I want to find the smaller Web sites and also articles and books on the topics that matter to me.

Butler and Bagman said...

I always knew computers and the internet were changing my brain. For good or bad, I think the human race is entering an accelerated new stage of evolution. Already I have started looking at printed pages like some artifacts of a prehistoric race. Sad in a way. Exciting in another way. Yes, the egg pictures are wonderful.

Ruth said...

That's good, Kanmuri, everyone has to figure it out for themselves. I realized recently that I didn't want to go to an all-day conclave because I would be away from my gmail, blogging and online news so long. I thought that was a pretty pathetic realization. Since then I've challenged myself to stay away for half a day at a time, just to prove to myself that I can do it of my own free will.

Ruth said...

Oh, and Kanmuri, your kimono avatar is lovely!

Ruth said...

I know, Bel.Ishtar, me too. My eyes burn when I leave the office, because I am online all day for work. Online student records at the university are one excellent benefit of the Internet. I am amazed how much is at my fingertips. But I have to remember to rest and stretch my shoulders, wrists, arms and back every hour or so.

Susan said...

So that's what has happened to my brain! I figured it had something to do with my spending more and more time on this machine, but I didn't know why. Like you Ruth, I won't give it up because I have learned so much and it has opened up new and creative worlds for me, but I do need to cut back a lot.

Thanks, Ruthie, for waking my brain.

shicat said...

Hi Ruth, does this mean no more blog? Oh no..:( Maybe the internet is bad for the visual and memory parts of the brain but terrific for the writing portion ? I have been concerned about the use of video games, television, and computers on young children's brains for a long time. In fact, there is a lot of new brain research about the impact of technology on the developing brain.Probelms? What else could explain the legions of new special ed. children we are seeing with processing,sensory, and attention disorders that are difficult if not impossible to program for.These are kids with normal IQ's that don't understand oral language and have a host of other problems.
Too scarey,but I love my blog friends. I usually try to read in the morning before school and after school too.

Ruth said...

B & B, I am no Luddite. I also welcome innovations that open up the world. The possibilities are mind boggling.

I recently heard a discussion among English professors about students. One said, "they don't read any more!" Another one said, "oh yes, they read a lot." Then the discussion continued, recognizing that what students read is different (text messages and IM for two), but does that mean it isn't reading? As much as we value literature, I don't want to judge new media just because they're new. Even the novel was considered appalling at the end of the 18th century.

Ruth said...

Susie Q! You are a sensitive, curious person. You always want to improve your life and of those you love. I don't think you need to worry too much. You sew, and cook, and go to home and garden shows. You observe the world around you. You spend hours and hours with your grandchildren making their lives better, sewing clothes for them. The Internet has given you a place to express yourself creatively, and I'm sooo glad to have met you here.

Ruth said...

Cathy, I would die. Please don't take blogging away from me. I suppose I would adjust, not die. But I don't think there's any need to give it up.

What you write is something I've suspected too, about developing brains. Have you seen "Wall*E"? I love it for how it addresses this.

What parts of our brains have we not even learned to develop yet? My point is, I don't want to lose something I value in how my brain functions, and this was a wake-up call. There is way too much literature I want to read, and I was letting it slip by. I'm 52, what am I waiting for?

Susan said...

Ruthie, you're so sweet and you have such a lovely talent of making everyone feel good about themselves. Thanks for reminding me that I do accomplish a few other things.

I'm very, very glad, too! XOXO

shicat said...

Read baby read. At the end of the day I always wish I would have used my time more wisely. Chose to read or paint instead of ... Is it to Be in the moment instead of the Zone. Of course I need to zone out too.

♥ Kathy said...

I am in the group of frequent users...as in every day almost all day. I still enjoy a good book too :) Very interesting Ruth. Thank you for sharing it.

laura said...

I've never gotten the hang of reading online; I'll never read more than a paragraph or two (being self-employed I can't surf the Internet at work). I always feel I'm missing out on a lot of information, but reading is still a leisure activity, a pleasure.
Carr's study is very interesting, but I think we probably began losing deeper thinking pre-Internet. My college students in the mid-80s couldn't grasp cause-and-effect, among other things.
I'm glad you're getting the rhythm of HJ; starting with one of the late novels makes it extra challenging!

ds said...

Great post, Ruth! Provocative and thoughtful; must check out Mr. Carr. I, too, am of two minds when it comes to this whole Internet thing. On the one hand, email is about the only way these days to reach friends & family in the 'real' world; bloghopping is the way to stay connected to my new friends in this world. I know that since i started doing this, I have become more visual; have expanded my vocabulary ('skype', 'immiscible' and 'skry' come to mind, along with some techie words, if not ability); and paradoxically seem to be reading more in preparation for a post, but in shorter bits. Wikipedia is getting quite a workout, but so is the dictionary. And yet, it feels as though something is missing...

"to keep the world in a cup"--great thought, great photos.
And I love Anna Quindlen!

Moannie said...

Well, I came rather late in life to the computor and even later to the internet [I only used my PC to write, letters, essays, and then Mss] so I cannot truly say that Mr.Carr is talking about me. I do know, without a doubt that blogging has become a Magnificent Obsession and I would be very unhappy without my daily dose of reading the many and varied writers who have become as dear to me as friends I have known forever.

One thing though, that I have learned, and to paraphrase: Life is too short to read a book that is a 'struggle' unless it is for an essay due in last week.

ds said...

Hi!
I'm back again. Here's a link to a bookish site that is addressing, slantwise, some of your--and Mr. Carr's--issues on the nature of reading: http://www.incurablelogophilia.wordpress.com

I tried to link her to you, but am too technologically inept...

Ruth said...

XOXO, Susie Q! I thought about what you said. I honestly take tremendous pleasure in people and wonder at their talents and other qualities. It's just a privilege to observe humanity.

Ruth said...

Cathy, you inspired me that you read before going to school. That's when I blog, but maybe I could give a few minutes to reading a book too.

Zoning out is something I am quite adept at. I am soooo good at staring out windows. No one is better at it than me.

Ruth said...

♥ Kathy, I can tell you read. It is apparent in your comments. Don't ask me how I can tell.

Ruth said...

Hi, Laura! I'll bet you're right, that many things are driving, and have been, young people away from thinking, understanding consequences, paying attention to something for longer than a few minutes. Maybe it started with Sesame Street.

Thank you for that about James' late novels being more challenging!

delphine said...

When I was a child I read compulsively, when I was a teenager and young adult, I read hardly at all,being a career woman with four children-- in my older phase of life I try to mix the reading with the increasing attraction of the internet. Holidays ( just got back from one )are the best times for me with books,when I am at home its either housework, gardening or internet, then the day has vanished. delphine.

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Wandering Alice said...

It's an interesting problem, trying to find that balance. I teach teens, and my school has a half hour of silent reading each day(which is REALLY rare around here) So many of students seem calmer and more focused after that half hour of uninterrupted silence. Is it the silence itself, or the fact that they have only one kind of input for that set period of time? And yet, their exposure to mass media and technology has made them very sophisticated problem solvers in many respects (though we are still working on their media literacy skills and how to tell the validity of what they read.) This is such a fascinating subject, and I could think about it for days...

Cori said...

Well, I will use this information to justify all the time I spend reading in the bath and turning into a prune.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Charles Darwin on your sidebar... yes indeed... This man knew a few things... if only we all had 20/20 hindsight concerning most everything in life...

humanobserver said...

Extreme macro shots. Lovely.

Deslilas said...

Thanks for your invitation for reading books (paper ones).
Do you know the French writers François Jullien and Miguel Benassayag ( he writes in French and comes ferom Argentina).
Conduire sa vie à l'écart du bonheur et Eloge du conflit are interesting and disturbing books especially if you want to change the world.

rauf said...

internet has very clearly ruined my reading Ruth, besides damaging my eyes. Now i can't hold on to a book for more than half an hour, where as i can be on the net for hours. So i stay away from home and carry a book. The net has not affected my thinking, nor it has given any new ideas, but confirmed my old ones.
i mean my stupid conspiracy theories.

Ruth said...

Hi, DS! I'm into a busy time at work, have to slow down a bit, sorry for the delay responding to your good comments.

If I tried to sit down and enumerate all the things I've learned through blogging - let alone the Internet at large - I would never remember everything. My mind has been expanded, and that is something you can't really quantify too.

I would like to look at your bookish site in the next couple days. Thank you so much!

Ruth said...

Hi, Moannie, what a gift this blogworld is, you are so right. We each have to keep it in balance as we find meaningful.

I totally agree that life is too short to read a book that is a struggle - unless there is value in the book that outweighs the struggle. I have decided that in the case of The Ambassadors it is a worthwhile struggle. I'm so glad I stuck with it, because of how I have found my mind sharpen. But yes, you can't even imagine how many books I've shelved for many, many reasons, never to open them again.

nathalie in avignon said...

I read your many exchanges with Rauf in his blog and how not to love the internet and blogging for the worldwide contacts it offers us?
I don't think any book however well written could have given you that.

So yes, it's a balance. Deeper research and book reading are important if we want to be citizens who are able to think for themselves. But it would be unthinkable now to chuck the variety of sources the internet offers.

Ruth said...

Delphine, even with my love of the Internet and blog stories like yours at les chateaux, I don't have enough time. I am dying to catch up on your story since you returned from vacation. And I saw that you had a bad cold. I'm so sorry. But yes, we have to make time for what we value. What I am also talking about here is reassessing what I value.

My mom always said what you feed yourself you get hungry for.

dutchbaby said...

If it wasn't for my book club I wonder how many books I would actually end up reading.

The internet is a mile wide and an inch deep, but with books you can delve as deep as you desire.

Your images are beautifully paired with your words.

Hildegarde said...

Well, I read all your text and now I will reflect on it :-) Also a very pleasant comparison with the egg in the (cozy and beautiful) cup.

Ruth said...

Wandering Alice, you've made it more fascinating.

Yes, more sophisticated problem solvers, good point. Also though, the multi-tasking they do almost constantly (when not in silence at school, or in a classroom discussing a subject) also means they're being distracted constantly. I'll bet they can focus way better than I can on multiple tasks, but how deep does their thinking on any subject go? I'd be curious about specific problem solving skills.

Ruth said...

Cori, that sounds so nice, but I could never figure out how to read in a bath and not get my book wet. You must have one of those trays that goes across the tub.

Ruth said...

Gwen, in my second half of life I'm wishing I knew more science.

Ruth said...

Thank you so much, Deepak.

Ruth said...

Hi there, Daniel! No, I don't know those writers. I'm ashamed I don't know another language well enough to read a book in it. I barely read books in English.

Ruth said...

rauf, I on the other hand became more awake after reading online. It's only the last few years I would say I've been thinking for myself, although sometimes I wonder what are my own ideas. I am not an original thinker, but I'm working on developing that. I've gained a lot of confidence by interacting with people like you, responding to my own blog posts, and to yours and others.

Ruth said...

Hello there, dear Nathalie! So nice to see you.

I can't argue with you, and I wouldn't wish to. What I have gained from interactions with rauf has changed my perspective on a few very important topics. When I first went to his blog Daylight Again, my mouth hung open, and I started to open my eyelids. Well he helped me do that. And others by conversing here and at theirs.

To validate your point about resources online, I watched on the news tonight a woman who was laid off and has to do things for herself now around the house rather than hire them done. She had to Google how to fix a shower head, for instance. How fantastic all this free information is!

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Dutchbaby. The thing is that you have given yourself the book club to keep you reading. I wonder if that is one reason they have taken hold as strongly as they have.

Ruth said...

Hello, Hildegarde, how nice to have you visit from Flanders. You are an artist, and you are busy doing many things besides browsing the Internet. I would be much poorer if I had never seen your gorgeous paintings and photographs - and collages.

Wandering Alice said...

Ruth, You bring up an important point that I often wonder about with these kids- whether it is possible for them to be so adept at multi-tasking and still maintain the ability to focus on one thing. I wonder if they end up training their brains in one direction or another, or if our species can be flexible enough to learn how to master both types of thought. I'm doing some research into how these kids teach themselves to do things in their out-of-school time, hoping to get some insight into the question of some of their problem-solving skills.

I could use a little less multi-tasking in my own world though, I think...

Barry said...

I'm currently reading ibrain. Now I can't wait to read what Nicholas Carr has to say!

Anna said...

Ruth my dear this is very interesting read. I am the same, I have a book to read and by the end of the day, I am sleepy, lol, but for some reason I am not when I am front of the computer. The studies are interesting, I wonder if they took into consideration that while reading front of the computer, an electrical device, does it cause any disturbance to our brain. If you think our body is chemistry, and there are ions + and -. Therefore I always thought that reading front of the computer would have different effect on the brain. Excellent reading Ruth as always. Anna :)

Loring Wirbel said...

I have spent two months on 2666 , interspersing it with some nonfiction books, and taking the time to read some sections out loud. (I did that with Joyce a lot.) I couldn't imagine going all online and Kindle, yuck. Like having a conversation via Twitter. It's not just that I'm old school, it's that aspects of the new school are creepy.

Gwen Buchanan said...

I agree with Loring!!! (except I haven't been reading 2666)

Christina said...

I find that balance difficult. I love visiting on the web and stay up way too late reading books. Oh my, I'm drawn to that egg.
xo

Cherie Burbach said...

I love this post. I spend a lot of time online but can't image a world without books. Who wants to read something on a screen when you can hold a genuine book in your hands? The experience of reading is so different when you read a book versus something online. I hope books never go away... I wouldn't read have as much if they did.

Ruth said...

Wandering Alice, I don't know, but I think our brains are capable of a lot more than we use them for yet.

I try not to multi-task too much. I do the 'ruthie' method, which is to blog a little, do some work for 30-60 minutes, blog a little, read an article or book chapter, surf a little, do some laundry, etc. - on weekends.

Ruth said...

Hi, Barry, I remember you noted iBrain when I went to the bookstore and had a photo of it here, then I saw it listed on your sidebar that you were reading.

Ruth said...

Hello there, Anna. In some of the reading I've done, people have questioned just what you did, whether it's unhealthy either physically or even other-dimensionally (some spiritual teachers stay away from computers).

For me, it's easier to stay awake online because of all the pretty colors and pictures! And multimedia too.

Ruth said...

Loring, I'm glad to hear you are doing that with 2666 since you had said it is stiff reading. Now I can say "even Loring needs breaks from heavy reading."

My boss just got his Kindle in the mail, I haven't asked him yet how he likes it. I would rather feel the paper in my hands and turn the pages.

Ruth said...

Gwen, agreed, because not to box you in or anything, but I just can't picture you snuggling next to the window that overlooks the Bay, table lamp on with low light, and a Kindle in your hand.

Ruth said...

Christina, good for you, my dear, for staying up way too late reading.

As for the egg, I wished I could actually get closer and show you the pock marks in more detail.

Ruth said...

Hi there, Cherie, I looked for a blog for you, but I guess you don't have one.

It seems that maybe there are enough of us who won't relinquish books, which will prevent them disappearing. But when you go to the bookstores, and hear about bookstores closing, you see that sales are dwindling, and that was happening way before the downturn. What will happen?

Montag said...

Nicely done.
I think you did get the world into that cup, and the universe into our hearts.

(are you still doing the Zimbabwe fast?")

Ruth said...

Thanks, Montag.

No, that was a one-time solidarity fast when a delegation of folks went before the Southern Africa congress to plead for Mugabe to be removed.

mystic rose said...

Quite a thoughtful post, Ruth. I agree with Peter, about a combination of using the net for information, like an encyclopedia, and reading books.

I, on the other hand find it harder to assimilate more than a few sentences at a time when I see them on the screen. I prefer books, to hold, there's more time to reflect, be quieter, my brain works on what I am reading, goes off in tangents, creates other ideas bouncing off what I am reading. And I can definitely see there's a difference within me, emotionally as well as mentally when I spend an hour on the internet versus reading a book :)

shoreacres said...

And the corollary, of course, is the tendency for quantity over quality to become the norm for writing on the web.

From the beginning, I had an almost reflexive resistance to those who told me I "must" post every day to be successful. I took for my mantra blogger Boblet's words: "If I don't have anything to say, I won't say it."

Without allowing time to take in the world and reflect on it in a thoughtful manner, we risk our writing becoming nothing more than more mind-numbing filler for cyber-pages.

Whether anyone else agrees, I can't say. But I've come to draw a real distinction between blogging as a genre, and writing which makes use of a blogging platform.

As always, beautiful and thought-provoking.

CottageGirl said...

You.... are.... um....right.... Ruth?!

I know that my age has something to do with my being able to concentrate and remember things...

but..

What was I saying? ...

I think after I make my rounds through my favorite on line sites...

What was that?

Oh yeah!

I'll start reading one of the 7 or so books that I've have for the last year and have yet to.....

What did you say?

What was I saying?

Anyway, have a great...

.....

....

Oh you know! ;)

shoreacres said...

Just a little p.s., after reflecting on the comment by Mystic Rose:

"...And I can definitely see there's a difference within me, emotionally as well as mentally when I spend an hour on the internet versus reading a book..."

I do wonder how much of that is the medium, and how much is content. I'll agree that the phrase "curling up with a good computer" makes no sense! But so much of the writing on the web is disjointed, marked by shallow thought and poor grammar.

I can get "lost" in good web writing in precisely the same way I get lost in my favorite fiction.
My suspicion is that we haven't learned enough about visual rhetoric yet to frame our words properly, and make the experience of reading them a pleasant one.

Bob Johnson said...

Very interesting Ruth, explains why I'm having trouble trying to get through a real book right now, like you said totally different thought processes being used.

I find myself on the net more then ever before, since I started my blog, I am learning lots of things, just not in the depth I used to.

ps, I love your images and the symbolism.

Montag said...

Thanks.
My post "Universe" on Saturday March 7 popped out of thinking about your egg within a teacup.
So thanks again.

(At first, I thought it was a "Botanica" tea cup, but now it seems some other pattern.)

Ruth said...

Mystic, I've been resisting reading on the couch, where the laptop is sitting on the ottoman, because whenever I did, I wanted to look a word up on dictionary.com, or wiki something, or Google something as I read along. At first I felt it was a fine way to grab a "learning moment." And I'm still fine with it. But when I began reading James, I knew I couldn't allow any distractions. So I sit in the chair across the room from the computer.

Ruth said...

Shoreacres, you make an excellent point. This blogging is so incredibly easy and narcissistic, we can all publish our thoughts instantly at any hour of the day. I find it does take a certain amount of reflection to avoid doing what you call "mind-numbing filler." It will be fascinating to see where it goes in the years ahead.

I ran across a guy the other day who had a bloglist - his own - so long it took more than one page. I think he misunderstood and thought you were supposed to start a new blog for every post.

Ruth said...

Haha, CottageGirl! So many things contribute to that distractability, right? I find that I can't work very long any more. Like when I cleaned out the fridge the other day, I found myself getting very impatient, wanting it just to be over. I have to constantly say the mantra to myself: Live in the moment. And that means being present in this moment.

Recently a student came in for an advising appointment, and I realized she was texting on her phone behind the table!

Ruth said...

Shoreacres, I really appreciate what you wrote. Now my mind is really going with that. Like when I go to The Huffington Post, which I love, I might be reading an interesting article by one of the writers there, but I get distracted by the sidebar of most popular articles, like Beyonce's exposed breast in the musical number at the Oscars with Hugh Jackman!

I think you are insightful to talk about our not really knowing what to do with visual rhetoric yet. It has already evolved since a few years ago, when not much online was reliable for good solid information or research.

Ruth said...

Hey, Bob, we'll each do with this whatever we will, but I like to be more conscious of it. If I want to keep reading books, I just have to make an effort, because it doesn't come as easily as these bright, pretty screen images I can flip through. Like Shoreacres said, after a while it isn't all that satisfying to do nothing but that.

Ruth said...

Montag, what you wrote about the universe being something you want to be with was provocative. It is not here for us to live for ourselves alone. Thank you.

The egg cup is from my Grandma Olive's Spode buttercup set.

Oliag said...

Once again you have given me something to think about - I have certainly been reading a lot less print since I started a blog...and this bothers me...somewhere there must be a middle ground...

Love the egg photos!

Ruth said...

Oliag, I think there is a balance, we each have to figure it out for ourselves - no right or wrong.

Glad you like the photos.

Jan said...

Reading like writing is a solitary enterprise. People who prize the solitude of reading books would find going back to reading books seamless. It's like what athletes call muscle memory.

But for new converts such as blog readers - there's no looking back for them generally. They have instant companionship in the blogs they read or social networks they visit. Interaction online somehow soothes our deep need for connecting with another human being. Perhaps they're into the social aspect on online reading - it's a quick fix, fun, and addictive. I've had a taste of it myself.

But I'm an old school book lover. It's my thing. Although I look at my online reading as largely complementary and necessary pursuit, I'm just worried for the new kids who go straight from the cradle to suckle at the new wet nurse of this generation - the internet. The old school type of readers have it safe - we know the best of both worlds. But the new generation of readers. I don't know - maybe I'm just too alarmist. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Jan, for your thoughtful comment.

I think you're right! Those who already read books know the value, and it's the next generation that presents the opportunity to see the challenges of technology.