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March 24th, 2017 (Permalink)

Wrong, Again

Last month, we learned that expertise is dead1, now we hear how it died: it was suicide!2 More accurately, it's the "experts" who have committed suicide, according to Glenn Harlan "Instapundit" Reynolds, and "expertise" that has died, that is, it's the "experts" and "expertise"―in scare quotes―that have perished. Good riddance!

There are experts, and then there are "experts". It would be good news if "expertise"―that is, the pretense at knowledge where there is none―died. However, the problem is not that expertise, or even "expertise", has died; both are alive and thriving. The problem is that people have difficulty telling the one from the other.

Reynolds is alluding to our New Book from last month, The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols; or, more precisely, to an excerpt from that book.3 The excerpt is useful because Nichols tells us there what the book's title means:

By the death of expertise, I do not mean the death of actual expert abilities, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors and lawyers and engineers and other specialists. And most sane people go straight to them if they break a bone or get arrested or need to build a bridge.3

Well, that's a relief; but that's what he does not mean. What does he mean?

…[I]ncreasingly, citizens…want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way. This is a very bad thing.3

So, Nichols seems to be worried mostly about the phenomenon of "instant expertise", that is, the notion that a layperson can become an expert by means of a few minutes spent at "the University of Google" or Wikipedia. I, too, worry about this "Jenny McCarthy Effect", but what can be done about it?

Reynolds, in contrast, seems to think that the "experts" have brought this sort of thing on themselves:

In the realm of foreign affairs, …recent history has been particularly dreadful. Experts failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, …and then failed to deal with the rise of Islamic terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Post 9/11, experts botched the reconstruction of Iraq, then botched it again with a premature pullout. On Syria, experts in Barack Obamaís administration produced a policy that led to countless deaths, millions of refugees flooding Europe, a new haven for Islamic terrorists, and the upending of established power relations in the mideast. In Libya, the experts urged a war, …only to see―again―countless deaths, huge numbers of refugees and another haven for Islamist terror.2

Contra Reynolds, I take this as evidence that there is no expertise on predicting the future, especially about such social and political events as "the fall of the Soviet Union" or "the rise of Islamic terrorism". To the extent to which foreign policy experts claim expertise in predicting such events in advance, to that extent they are pseudo-experts. It is not wrong to ignore the advice of people who don't know what they're talking about.

No doubt foreign affairs specialists, such as Nichols, know a lot more about a lot of things than do most of the rest of us, such as where the Ukraine is on a map4. About those things they are experts, but that doesn't make them prophets.5

All of this gives me a feeling of deja vu, for good reason: About seven years ago, we did a Book Club on David Freedman's book Wrong6, subtitled: "Why Experts Keep Failing Us…". So, apparently the experts have been dying off for at least seven years now, which may let Trump off the hook for having killed them.

However, as it turned out, the so-called experts who were "wrong" and kept failing us, according to Freedman, were the pseudo-experts who appear on television and are quoted by journalists in their articles. I don't find it a great revelation that such "experts" are wrong; in fact, it's exactly why they're not real experts. They don't know what they're talking about, and it's no mistake to ignore their advice.

The danger here comes from failing to separate the real experts from the pseudo-experts. If the prominent failures of the bogus experts lead people to reject all expert advice, then they're in for trouble.

I agree with Reynolds, to some extent at least, that the experts have brought some of this on themselves. How have they done this? By over-reaching―by exceeding the limits of their expertise, especially by getting political5―and by not being candid about those limits. They too often exaggerate the probability of their judgments being correct, and play down uncertainty. Nichols is certainly aware of this:

Experts can go wrong…when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. This is less a failure of expertise than a sort of minor fraud―somebody claiming the general mantle of authority even though he or she is not a real expert in the specific area under discussion―and it is frequent and pernicious and can undermine the credibility of an entire field.3

Nichols also addresses a question that I raised previously1, namely, what are his credentials for writing a book on expertise?

I recognize that I myself risk that transgression [i.e., the transgression mentioned in the previous quote]. But my observations and conclusions are informed not only by my experience of being an expert in my own area but also by the work of scholars who study the role of expertise in society and by discussions I have had with many other experts in a variety of fields.3

Reynolds has some good advice for the experts in his penultimate paragraph:

If experts want to reclaim a position of authority, they need to make a few changes. First, they should make sure they know what theyíre talking about, and they shouldnít talk about things where their knowledge isnít solid. Second, they should be appropriately modest in their claims of authority. And, third, they should check their egos. …[V]oters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.2

Sources & Resources:

  1. New Book: The Death of Expertise, 2/28/2017.
  2. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "The suicide of expertise", USA Today, 3/20/2017.
  3. Tom Nichols, "How America Lost Faith in Expertise", Foreign Affairs, March-April 2017.
  4. Nichols' example.
  5. See Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment (2005), or for a brief take: Louis Menand, "Everybody's an Expert", The New Yorker, 12/5/2005. The book seems to show that its title is an oxymoron.
  6. Book Club: Wrong, Introduction, 9/16/2010.

March 18th, 2017 (Permalink)

For Want of a Comma a Lawsuit was Lost

Note: This is a guest post from occasional Fallacy Files contributor Lawrence Mayes:

A court was asked to decide the meaning of a piece of Maine's employment legislation which determined which activities are liable to attract overtime pay. The legislation had been poorly drafted and there was ambiguity about its exact meaning, that is, whether a group of delivery drivers employed by a dairy were entitled to the extra pay or not.

The state's law says the following activities do not count for overtime pay: "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1. Agricultural produce; 2. Meat and fish products; and 3. Perishable foods."

The question to be answered boils down to: how many activities are listed in the first phrase (eight or nine)? And is "distribution" (what the drivers do) one of them?

Strangely, the drafter of the law chose to use a run-on list for the activities but a numbered list for the commodities. Had he used the numbered list instead of the first phrase then things would have been much clearer. So to get started, let's list the activities using two lists such that the two possible meanings are unambiguously clear:

List 1 List 2
  1. canning
  2. processing
  3. preserving
  4. freezing
  5. drying
  6. marketing
  7. storing
  8. packing for shipment or distribution of
  1. canning
  2. processing
  3. preserving
  4. freezing
  5. drying
  6. marketing
  7. storing
  8. packing for shipment
  9. distribution of

The drivers claimed that the meaning intended by the legislation was that implied by the first list and that therefore their activity of distribution did attract the overtime payments.

I would support the drivers; part of my argument would be that the meaning of the words "shipment" and "distribution" are so close in this context as to be inseparable and it could be argued that the drafter chose them for that very reason to cover all bases―they were intended to be used together to describe a single activity.

The moral of this tale (if there is one) has nothing to do with the rules of grammar (so called) but more to do with ensuring clarity in anything we write and the avoidance of ambiguity. Should we write something that's unclear then no amount of simply messing around with punctuation is likely to put it right. If the law drafter had used the simple list, as above, or just reordered the activities (i.e. "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, distribution or packing for shipment") then the lawyers would be poorer and the diary drivers richer (though probably not correspondingly so).


Fallacy: Amphiboly

March 15th, 2017 (Permalink)


The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by oneís willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge oneís beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

Thatís why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree…. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider―and not merely to tolerate grudgingly―points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. Whatís more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen oneís understanding of the truth and sharpen oneís ability to defend it.

None of us is infallible. … This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. …[S]omeone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations―evidence, reasons, arguments―led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing―even eager―to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engageóespecially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held…beliefs. …

Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.

Source: Robert P. George & Cornel West, "Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression", Princeton University, 3/14/2017

March 12th, 2017 (Permalink)

A Straw Ban

Some recent headlines:

Why Trump's travel ban is still a Muslim ban

Donít Be Fooled, Trumpís New Muslim Ban Is Still Illegal

Did President Trump sign an executive order (EO) banning Muslims from traveling to the United States? Well, no, but with headlines such as the ones above, you could be forgiven for thinking he did.

What does the EO do?1 It orders a 90-day moratorium on immigration to the U. S. from six majority Muslim nations. It does not ban Muslims from other majority Muslim countries from entering the U. S., nor does it ban Muslims from non-majority Muslim countries, nor does it allow non-Muslims to enter from the six banned nations. So, it's not a "muslim ban" in any normal sense of the English words.

The above headlines are both from articles arguing against the EO in the opinion pages of publications, as editors seem to be carefully avoiding the phrase in the headlines of news articles, as well they should. "Muslim ban" is a straw man argument2 wrapped up in two words, smuggling in the―at least―controversial claim that the EO represents a ban on Muslims entering the U. S.

Those advocates using the phrase are attempting to take advantage of widespread ignorance about what the EO actually does. Given the first amendment to the constitution, a ban on members of a specific religion would run contrary to a strong and long-held American tradition against religious discrimination. So, if the authors of the opinion pieces under the above headlines can just convince their readers that it really is a ban on Muslims, they will gain support for their opposition. After all, how many people will actually read the EO for themselves?3

I am not here defending the EO. There are other, better reasons to oppose it than the bogus claim that it bans Muslims4, but I'm not opposing it, either. I'm taking no position on whether it's a good idea or not. Rather, I'm pointing out that calling it a "Muslim ban" is misleading rhetoric intended to set up a straw man only to then knock it down.


  1. Laura Jarrett, "What Trump's travel ban does, and how it's changed", CNN, 3/7/2017
  2. Straw Man
  3. "Full Text: Trump's New Executive Order On Travel, Annotated", NPR, 3/6/2017
  4. Andrew Sutitollup, "Calling Donald Trumpís Travel Freeze a 'Muslim Ban' Is a Very Bad Idea", Medium, 2/2/2017. An interesting article arguing against the first, now-revoked executive order, without claiming it was a "Muslim ban"―indeed, arguing against doing so. Many of the reasons given for opposing the first EO apply equally to the second.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Phil Fassieux for bringing this issue to my attention. Of course, any opinions expressed above may not necessarily reflect Phil's views. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. No animals were harmed during the making of this post.

March 7th, 2017 (Permalink)

Using Venn Diagrams to Solve Puzzles, Part 2

In Part 11, you saw how to solve puzzles involving two classes using two-circle Venn diagrams. Also, in the last logic lesson you learned how to add a third circle to the Venn diagram2. Put these two things together and you should now be able to solve puzzles with three classes. The technique for solving such a puzzle is the same, so if you learned how to solve the two-class puzzles you should be able to solve the three-class ones without further ado. However, the three-class puzzles are more complicated and, thus, a little harder than the two-circle ones, but that's good! Here's one to try on for size:

Unlike some other ice cream shops, Harlequin's has only three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. A recent statistical study revealed the following facts about Harlequin's ice cream cone business:

  1. 94% of Harlequin's customers bought at least one ice cream cone.
  2. The percentage of customers who purchased just vanilla ice cream was two percentage points greater than the percentage who bought both chocolate and strawberry but no vanilla.
  3. Only 4% of the shop's customers purchased a triple-dip cone with all three types of ice cream.
  4. 33% of customers bought at least one scoop of strawberry ice cream, but only 6% bought no other flavor.
  5. The percentage of customers who bought both chocolate and strawberry (and possibly vanilla as well) was one percentage point greater than the percentage of those who purchased just strawberry.
  6. 57% of customers did not purchase a scoop of vanilla.

What percentage of Harlequin's customers bought both chocolate and vanilla but no strawberry ice cream?



  1. Using Venn Diagrams to Solve Puzzles, 1/18/2017
  2. Lesson in Logic 16: The Third Circle, 2/16/2017
February 28th, 2017 (Permalink)

New Book: The Death of Expertise

Thomas M. Nichols has a new book out with the above title, and the subtitle: "The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters". That sounds rather conspiracist: a "campaign"? As I've pointed out previously, sensationalistic titles and subtitles of books may well be provided by the publisher, so I wouldn't necessarily blame them on the author. In fact, he himself begins the Preface by partially retracting the title:

"The death of expertise" is one of those phrases that grandly announces its own self-importance. It's a title that risks alienating a lot of people before they even open the book… I understand that reaction because I feel much the same way about such sweeping pronouncements. Our cultural and literary life is full of premature burials of everything: shame, common sense, manliness, femininity, childhood, good taste, literacy, the Oxford comma, and so on. The last thing we all need is one more encomium for something we know isn't quite dead. While expertise isn't dead, however, it's in trouble. Something is going terribly wrong.

So, hopefully the book is not as alarmist or conspiracy-minded as its title suggests.

Who is Thomas M. Nichols, and what expertise does he have to write this book? According to the brief biography on Amazon, he is a professor of National Security Affairs, an expert on foreign policy, and an undefeated champion on "Jeopardy!". So, he is an expert, but not an expert on expertise itself. But then, who is?

February 21st, 2017 (Permalink)

A Puzzle in Memoriam

Here is a puzzle in memory of the late Raymond Smullyan. It comes from a book whose name I always forget (what is it!?). The puzzle, which comes "From the Files of Inspector Craig" of Scotland Yard, involves figuring out which of a group of suspects are guilty of a crime. Here it is, in Smullyan's words:

This case…involves four defendants, A, B, C, D. The following facts were established:
  1. If A is guilty, then B was an accomplice.
  2. If B is guilty then either C was an accomplice or A is innocent.
  3. If D is innocent then A is guilty and C is innocent.
  4. If D is guilty, so is A.

Which ones are innocent and which ones are guilty?


February 20th, 2017 (Permalink)

Obituary: Raymond Smullyan

I've just heard that logician and puzzlist Raymond Smullyan died earlier this month at the young age of 97. Smullyan was the master of the knights-and-knaves type of logic puzzle, of which he created many. He was also probably the only logician ever to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was unique and will be missed.

Resource: Richard Sandomir, "Raymond Smullyan, Puzzle-Creating Logician, Dies at 97", The New York Times, 2/11/2017

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Jim Z. for the notice.

February 17th, 2017 (Permalink)


…Milton Friedman, my hero, was quoted as finding in national service an "uncanny resemblance" to the Hitler Youth Corps. This…occasions only the reply that by that token, all youth programs, including the Boy Scouts, can be likened, in the sense that they have something in common, to the Hitler Youth program, plus the second comment, that because Hitler had an idea, it does not follow that that idea was bad.

Source: William F. Buckley, Jr., Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990), p. 49

February 16th, 2017 (Permalink)

Lesson in Logic 16: The Third Circle

These lessons on Venn diagrams started with a single circle (Lesson 11), then added a second, overlapping one (Lesson 12). As you saw, with a single circle you can only diagram simple statements about a single class, such as "There are no dodos" or "Black swans exist". By adding a second, overlapping circle, you can represent the four traditional categorical statements relating two classes: A, E, I, and O (Lesson 13). Two-circle diagrams can be used to show logical relations between two of these categorical statements, such as equivalence (Lesson 14) and contradiction (Lesson 15). However, arguments in which three classes play a role require the addition of a third circle overlapping the first two. In this lesson, you'll learn how to construct and understand such a diagram.

A single circle divides the universe up into two classes: those things inside the circle and those without; the two, overlapping circles of Venn's primary diagram divide the world into four classes: those things in the first but not the second circle, those in the second but not the first, those in both, and those in neither. You may notice a pattern here.

Q: How many classes will the diagram divide the world into if we add a third circle?

A: Eight. Each time a circle is added doubles the number of subclasses represented in the diagram.

So, look at the diagram; you've probably seen one like it before. It uses colors to represent the three classes and eight subclasses. The three classes represented by the circles are red, blue, and green. Where just two classes overlap the colors of the two circles blend together; for instance, where the red and blue circle overlap outside the green circle, is the color purple. Here is a list of all eight subclasses: 3-Circle Venn 

  1. Red: Those things in the red circle but outside of the blue and green circle.
  2. Blue: Those things in the blue circle but outside of the red and green circle.
  3. Green: Those things in the green circle but outside of the red and blue circle.
  4. Purple: Those things in both the red and blue circles but outside of the green circle.
  5. Blue-Green: Those things in both the blue and green circles but outside of the red circle.
  6. Brown: Those things in both the red and green circles but outside of the blue circle.
  7. Black: Those things inside all three circles.
  8. White: Those things outside all three circles.

The trick to interpreting a Venn diagram with three circles is to understand where in the diagram each subclass is found. For example, let's suppose that the universe of the diagram represents people, the red circle contains all red-haired people, the blue circle all those with blue eyes, and the green circle members of the Green Party.

Q: Where in the diagram would a member of the Green Party who has brown hair and green eyes be found?

A: In the green subsection at the bottom, outside of the red and blue circles.

Test and increase your understanding of the diagram with the following exercises.


  1. Where in the diagram would a blond, blue-eyed Democrat be found?
  2. Travis is a gray-haired, gray-eyed, Libertarian. Where in the diagram is he?
  3. Leif is a green-eyed redhead but I don't know what his politics are. Where would he be found in the diagram?
  4. Where in the diagram is Kathleen, a red-headed, blue-eyed woman who just joined the Green Party?
  5. Where are you in the diagram?

Answers to the Exercises

Next Lesson: Learn how to diagram categorical statements on a three-circle Venn diagram.

Previous Lessons:

February 13th, 2017 (Permalink)


How beer brewed 5,000 years ago in China tastes today

Kind of stale, I'm guessing.

February 4th, 2017 (Permalink)

Pretzel Logic Puzzle

Half of the customers at Pete's Gourmet Pretzel Palace prefer their pretzels with mustard. Half of those who use mustard don't also dip their pretzels in melted cheese, while one-fifth of those who don't put mustard on them also don't use cheese. What percentage of Pete's customers dip their pretzels in cheese but not in mustard? If you think you know the answer, click on "Solution", below.


Resource: Using Venn Diagrams to Solve Puzzles, 1/18/2017. This puzzle can be solved using the same techniques discussed in this entry.

February 2nd, 2017 (Permalink)

Book Club: Winning Arguments,
Introduction, Part Deux

In the first book club installment 1, I suggested as an exercise that you analyze the argumentative structure of a passage from the introduction to our book club book. My original intent was to do so at the beginning of this month's installment, then proceed to discuss the first chapter. However, the argument is so interesting and revealing that I think it's worth a separate entry. Also, the first chapter is fairly long, so I want to leave discussion of it to a separate entry. So, for now, we're still in the introduction.

So that you don't have to look back at the previous entry, here's the passage in question again. It contains a single argument, and by analyzing its structure I have in mind determining what its premises and conclusion are. If you haven't done so already, try it now:

Each of us occupies a partial, time-bound perspective and none of us has access to the God's-eye view from which the "big picture" might be seen at a glance. Therefore any statement any of us makes is an argument because, as an assertion that proceeds from an angle, it can always be, and almost always will be, challenged by those whose vision is also angled, but differently so.2

The first thing you should have noticed is the word "therefore" at the beginning of the second sentence. "Therefore" is the paradigm example of an argument-indicator word, that is, it indicates that it is part of an argument. Specifically, "therefore" is a conclusion indicator 3, which indicates that the sentence it begins is the conclusion of the argument and the sentence that it follows is a premise for that conclusion.

Less noticeable, but just as important, is the word "because", which is the other type of argument indicator, namely, a premise indicator 4, which indicates that the sentence that follows it is a premise of the argument. Sandwiched in between "therefore" and "because" is the conclusion of the argument; this is a common type of argumentative structure. Put all this together and you get the following structure:

First Premise: Each of us occupies a partial, time-bound perspective and none of us has access to the God's-eye view from which the "big picture" might be seen at a glance.
Second Premise: As an assertion that proceeds from an angle, any statement any of us makes can always be, and almost always will be, challenged by those whose vision is also angled, but differently so.
Conclusion: Any statement any of us makes is an argument.

Now that the argument's structure is clear, you can proceed to evaluate its cogency. How strong is the logical connection between the premises and the conclusion? Are the premises true?

Unfortunately, there is a confusing use of terminology in the conclusion: What does Fish mean by the word "argument"? This is not only a vital question to answer for evaluating this particular argument, it's an important question for understanding the book as a whole, given that its title is Winning Arguments.

In the usual logical sense of the words "argument" and "statement", the conclusion is false, since the classes of statements and arguments are disjoint, that is, no statements are arguments and no arguments are statements. An argument is a set of statements, rather than a single one.

An alternative meaning of "argument"―call this the "dialectical" sense―is a type of discussion between two or more people, usually based on a disagreement. However, this meaning won't make the argument's conclusion true, since it takes more than a single statement to make a discussion, though a single statement may form the basis for a disagreement that then leads to a dialectical argument.

So, reading the premises of the argument charitably, it seems that what Fish has in mind would be better stated as follows: Any statement any of us makes is arguable―rather than itself an argument. In other words, because none of us sees things from a God's-eye point of view, but from our own particular POV, any statement we make may be challenged, that is, it may form the seed of disagreement that sprouts into an argument, in the dialectical sense.

Is the (logical) argument with this revised conclusion cogent? Notice that this is an argument from analogy. Fish uses a familiar analogy between thought and vision, an analogy that is so common that it may not be immediately apparent that it is an analogy. He talks about "seeing" from different "points-of-view" and "angles", but he's really not concerned with eyesight, rather he's talking about how we think. Our beliefs about the world, and the statements we make about it, come from limited, individual POVs, and thus are always subject to disagreement.

However, if you take this analogy seriously, you'll see that it doesn't really support Fish's conclusion. The fact that we all see things from our own particular vantage point, and that we cannot see the world through another's eyes, does not mean that there isn't much that we all see and agree upon. We often see the same thing from different angles yet agree about what we see. So, Fish's argument is based on a rather weak analogy 5, but we probably shouldn't put too much weight on it at this point since we're still in the Introduction. Perhaps there are stronger arguments to come.

Moreover, I'm not sure why Fish thinks that he needs such a strong conclusion, namely, that every statement is arguable. Isn't it enough that many are? At this point, it seems that all he needs to do is convince us that argumentation is important, and I for one don't really need much convincing on that point. However, perhaps he has bigger fish to fry. 6

Sources & Resources:

  1. Book Club: Winning Arguments, Introduction, 1/21/2017
  2. Page 2 in the hardcover edition.
  3. Lesson in Logic 4: Conclusion Indicators, 4/11/2007
  4. Lesson in Logic 6: Premise Indicators, 6/12/2007
  5. Weak Analogy
  6. Sorry!

Next Installment: Chapter 1. Living in a World of Argument

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