Evidence that some have done well during COVID-19, many others have struggled

Socioeconomic data released recently highlights the ongoing bifurcated effects of COVID-19. Start with increasing levels of inequality as the wealthiest did well:

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According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation, billionaires including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla founder Elon Musk have seen their wealth soar during the COVID-19 pandemic while the world’s poor face years of hardship, charity Oxfam said on Monday as it demanded steps to tackle inequality…

It could take more than a decade to reduce the number of people living in poverty back to pre-crisis levels, Oxfam said. Meanwhile, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires rose $3.9 trillion between March and December 2020 to reach $11.95 trillion, the report calculated. The 10 richest men saw their net worth increase by $540 billion in the same period, Oxfam said.

The poverty rate in the United States had its highest annual increase with some groups more affected than others:

Economists Bruce Meyer, from the University of Chicago, and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame found that the poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points during the latter half of 2020 as the U.S. continued to suffer the economic impacts from Covid-19.

That percentage-point rise is nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s. This means an additional 8 million people nationwide are now considered poor. Moreover, the poverty rate for Black Americans is estimated to have jumped by 5.4 percentage points, or by 2.4 million individuals.

The impact of jobs lost globally during COVID-19 go far beyond the economic crisis of the late 2000s:

Four times as many jobs were lost last year due to the coronavirus pandemic as during the worst part of the global financial crisis in 2009, a U.N. report said Monday.

The International Labor Organization estimated that the restrictions on businesses and public life destroyed 8.8% of all work hours around the world last year. That is equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs – quadruple the impact of the financial crisis over a decade ago…

The drop in work translates to a loss of $3.7 trillion in income globally — what Ryder called an “extraordinary figure” — with women and young people taking the biggest hits.

And this is on top of the differential health impact of COVID-19.

It will both take some time to fully assess the effects of COVID-19 and then some time to interpret and act on the findings. As data and studies are released, as various parts of society reckon with the fallout, and people respond, themes and narratives will develop as to what happened and what it means.

Getting back to “normal” or pre-COVID conditions will surely be a goal. Yet, if COVID-19 did significantly alter economic and social conditions, will returning to “normal” be acceptable or will there be calls for a bigger response? It is not as if inequality was a non-issue before COVID-19.

All of this highlights that even with all the advances of the modern world, it is a struggle to keep up with the rapid social change and think about the future. This hints at the problems of complex systems and the ongoing human experience of living through difficult experiences.

Rent prices down in Chicago during 2020

Several sources suggest rent dropped in Chicago during this past year:

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And she’s not alone; in Chicago, rents dropped by almost 12% in December compared to December 2019, according to a new report from Apartment List, a website for apartment rentals. Average rent was $1,355 in Chicago a year ago; it fell to $1,193 in December.

Zillow data, too, marked the starkest plunge in year-over-year rental prices in the Chicago metropolitan area since it began analyzing national rents in 2014, with a decline starting in July and continuing through the latter half of the year.

Zillow reported a 2.2% decline in Chicago-area rents in November compared to a year earlier. When including the suburbs, Apartment List’s figures — which the service claims is more closely aligned to U.S. Census Bureau data — showed a similar decline of 6%, suggesting the suburban markets have not been as hard hit as the city.

Chicago was among the most severely impacted cities when it came to falling rents, said Rob Warnock, who co-authored the Apartment List study. Due to the pandemic, more expensive cities with competitive job markets saw rent decline — many for the first time in a decade.

It is good to see more data on the effects of COVID-19 on housing. As the article suggests, even a small drop in rents could be helpful for people in more uncertain economic times. This is not a big drop percentage-wise in Chicago, particularly compared to larger drops in Manhattan or San Francisco, but the Chicago market as not as overheated as some locations.

At the same time, it would be fascinating to see more detailed data addressing:

  1. Within cities and metropolitan regions, where have rents dropped, stayed about the same, or risen? And how does this line up with other social patterns?
  2. How much longer can renters and landlords continue on this path? How might this matter by location, different kinds of housing, and different landlords?
  3. Does this do anything to help address long-standing affordable housing issues in Chicago or is it a slight blip?

Some of these will take time to resolve as will the question of whether rents will go back at some point. In the meantime, many people in many communities are affected by these changes.

Slight uptick as nearly half of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town or a rural area

New data from Gallup suggests a slight shift among Americans toward a preference for moving away from suburbs and cities:

About half of Americans (48%) at the end of 2020 said that, if able to live anywhere they wished, they would choose a town (17%) or rural area (31%) rather than a city or suburb. This is a shift from 2018, when 39% thought a town or rural area would be ideal.

The recent increase in Americans’ penchant for country living — those choosing a town or rural area — has been accompanied by a decline in those preferring to live in a suburb, down six percentage points to 25%. The percentage favoring cities has been steadier, with 27% today — close to the 29% in 2018 — saying they would prefer living in a big (11%) or small (16%) city.

Current attitudes are similar to those recorded in October 2001, the only other time Gallup has asked Americans this question. That reading, like today’s but unlike the 2018 one, was taken during a time of great national upheaval — shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the public was still on edge about the potential for more terrorism occurring in densely populated areas…

The preference for cities is greatest among non-White Americans (34%), adults 18 to 34 (33%), residents of the West (32%) and Democrats (36%).

There is a lot to consider here and it is too bad Gallup has only asked this three times. Here are some thoughts as someone who studies suburbs, cities, and places:

  1. The shift from 2018 to 2020 is very interesting to consider in light of the shift in preferences away from small towns and rural locations between 2001 and 2018. What happened between 2018 and 2020? The analysis concludes by citing COVID-19 which likely plays a role. But, there could be other forces at work here including police brutality, protests, and depictions of particular locations or different factors could be at work with different groups who had larger shifts between 2018 and 2020.
  2. One reminder: this is about preferences, not about where people choose to live when they have options.
  3. Related to #2, Americans like the idea of small towns and there is a romantic ideal attached to such places. In contrast, there is a long history of anti-urbanism in the United States. But, people may not necessarily move to smaller communities when they have the opportunity.
  4. The distinction in the categories in the question – big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area – may not be as clear-cut as implied. From a researcher’s point of view, these are mutually exclusive categories of places. On the ground, some of these might blend together, particularly the distinction between suburbs and small towns. More toward the edge of metropolitan regions, do people think they live in the suburbs or a small town? Or, how many residents and leaders describe their suburb as a small town or as having small town charm (I have heard this in a suburb of over 140,000 people)? Can a small but exclusive suburb with big lots and quiet streets (say less than 5,000 people and median household incomes over $120,000) think of itself as a small town rather than a suburb? I say more about this in a 2016 article looking at how surveys involving religion measure place and a July 2020 post looking at responses when people were asked what kind of community they lived in.

86% of global respondents agree to quadruple-barreled question about the world after COVID-19

According to Ipsos, a significant majority of people around the world want life to be better in 2021:

Globally, 86% of all adults surveyed agree that, “I want the world to change significantly and become more sustainable and equitable rather than returning to how it was before the COVID-19 [crisis]”. More precisely, 46% strongly agree and 41% somewhat agree with that proposition, while 14% disagree (10% somewhat and 4% strongly).

Survey questions are supposed to address one issue per question. The question above is trying to get at a general question – do you want the world to be better after COVID-19 – but it adds several dimensions to this question. I count four:

  1. “change significantly”
  2. “become more sustainable”
  3. “become…more equitable”
  4. “rather than returning to how it was before the COVID-19.”

When people agree with this statement, which of these four or how many of these four are they agreeing to? One could want significant change but not care much about sustainability. Or, someone could be in favor of more equitable but not necessarily want much change.

With all of these issues conflated, the general question might be answered. Yes, citizens of the world want a better world in the future. See the summary statement within the report:

But, the question offers no insights and perhaps even muddles things more regarding which aspects of the world should be better. Do people care about equity? Sustainability? Change? A new start? This question does not help in this regard.

Selling the perfect bookshelf to Zoom users

With all the videoconferencing taking place during COVID-19, the business of selling books to people for their backdrop picked up:

Books by the Foot, a service run by the Maryland-based bookseller Wonder Book, has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves, offering precisely what its name sounds like it does. As retro as a shelf of books might seem in an era of flat-panel screens, Books by the Foot has thrived through Democratic and Republican administrations, including that of the book-averse Donald Trump. And this year, the company has seen a twist: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class.

The Wonder Book staff doesn’t pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book’s manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled “Politically Incorrect” (the name of Books by the Foot’s politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be “staged,” or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read)…

Located in Frederick, Wonder Book’s 3-acre warehouse full of 4 million books is a short jaunt from the nation‘s capital. While the company ships nationally, it gets a hefty portion of its business from major cities including Washington. And, over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they’re displayed or the people who own them…

Another force at work, however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another’s homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the “credibility bookcase” became the hot-ticket item. (“For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world,” she wrote.) And while Roberts makes an effort not to infer too much about his clients or ask too many questions about their intent, he did notice a very telling micro-trend in orders he was getting from all across the United States.

A lot could be said about books as status symbols. In certain circles, books imply a certain level of education, curiosity, and acquisition. Books and refinement and culture go together. Just having the books present is meant to impress in the same way a flashy car might be impressive driving down the street or the same way a McMansion looks to impress people passing by with its facade.

Think about the supply side of these books. There are companies that can acquire many many titles for relatively cheap. They can store all of these books until someone is willing to pay a decent price to put those books in their spaces. These books with all of their accumulated knowledge and status are simply another commodity that can be moved around to boost someone’s status when needed. And when COVID-19 ends or video conferencing slows down? The books can be discarded until needed again as a status symbol.

An interesting contrast would be between certain commentators and networks. I have seen at least a few bookshelves behind sports commentators. They often have a few books but also more prominently features sports equipment or trophies. The bookshelf is not just about education; the books are mixed with symbols of achievement or fandom.

Without asking how the books in the backdrop were acquired, viewers or other participants might ask about favorite books or how many books have been read. I have been asked this multiple times in the last few years, whether with bookshelves in my office and at home. It could be interpreted as an invasive question – taken as a challenge about whether the books are just there as status symbols – or provide an opening for the person to explain more about their reading (and the connected education and status) and/or share about books that really matter to them.

Major highway projects continue in the year of COVID-19

The old Chicago joke goes that there are two seasons each year: winter and construction. During COVID-19, road construction goes on even with less driving, limited budgets, and the potential for sickness to spread among workers. First, an editorial update from the Chicago Tribune on the long-lasting Jane Byrne Interchange work in Chicago:

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The arrival of 2021 means we’ll soon be in Construction Season Nine of a notorious project that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially said would take four and a half years to complete.

We refer of course to the glacially paced reconstruction of The Jane Byrne Construction Museum. We use that respectful moniker — always capitalize The, like The Ohio State University — for what old-time Chicagoans used to call the Jane Byrne Interchange…

Whatever the reason, drivers who didn’t abandon the interchange years ago have, in recent days, found the final four rebuilt ramps open. Museum work has shifted to the mainline Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways — although we trust that, somewhere, IDOT also is building a museum wing to house its excuses for the years of delays and cost overruns: poor soil conditions, unhelpful rules from Chicago’s City Hall, mistakes by engineering firms, utility rerouting, the diversion of resources to emergency repair projects elsewhere, and on and on…

Surely you aren’t surprised that the cost has grown by some 48%, from $535.5 million to $794 million. Most museums recruit donors to cover their big projects. The Jane Byrne Construction Museum instead gets public dollars. Which has us wondering how many gazillion gallons of amply taxed gasoline burned into the atmosphere as all those mummified motorists sat and sat.

Second, a group puts together an annual list of road construction boondoggles. About this year’s selections:

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns.

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.

There’s also the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, a $7.3 billion highway set to loop around the eastern side of Cincinnati. Originally proposed by a local homebuilder as a replacement (and then some) for the aging bridge that leads into downtown Cincinnati, the 75-mile, four-lane bypass is designed to divert trucks passing through the region on Interstate 75, easing congestion for local drivers, boosters claim. But the report’s authors state that the highway is projected to add thousands of new vehicle trips per day, encouraging sprawl and contradicting Cincinnati’s goals to increase “population density and transit-oriented development” and decrease fossil fuel use by 20%.

No highway policy critique would be complete without a contribution from Texas. The $1.36 billion Loop 1604 Expansion in San Antonio would add four to six additional lanes on 23 miles of an existing four-lane highway, as well as new frontage roads and a five-tier interchange with Interstate 10. Texas DOT says that the new lanes are needed to keep up with population growth, but transportation planners say that the principle of induced demand would cancel out the benefits while adding pollution. The PIRG report puts it this way: “Additional capacity causes more driving and congestion.”

These summaries of major highway projects provide good reminders of several features of such undertakings:

  1. They often require years of planning and years to complete. From start to finish, this could cover a decade-plus. They take a lot of effort to get going across numerous agencies, governments, and actors and have their own kind of inertia as they move toward completion.
  2. These projects are often intended to make driving easier. Adding lanes and capacity can also attract more drivers. In a country devoted to driving, these contradictory ideas can go together. And the roads and systems for driving keep expanding and evolving.
  3. The costs are huge and the efforts required massive. Yet, the average driver may think about nothing but the congestion caused by the construction.
  4. When completed, such roads (and other significant infrastructure projects) can be impressive in their scale. (Whether this is the best use of the land or moving people around leads to other arguments.)

While these articles do not address this, are there significant infrastructure projects that drivers and residents would be pleasantly surprised to find that had been completed during COVID-19?

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

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The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

“NYC isn’t dead”…for the wealthiest

A look at the ten most expensive properties sold in the United States in 2020 highlights the presence of New York City properties on the list:

Google Street View image of 220 Central Park South (September 2020)

By the end of September, the volume of Manhattan co-op and condo sales was down 43% year over year, according to a report by Douglas Elliman, as sellers held back from listing their apartments and buyers increasingly gravitated toward the suburbs

Of the top 10 national sales compiled by Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive officer of Miller Samuel appraisers, five were in 220 Central Park South, a new luxury tower on Central Park designed by architects at Robert A.M. Stern

Another trend from this year, namely rich people “fleeing” New York for Florida, didn’t manage to trickle up to the highest tier. Only two of this year’s top 10 sales were in Palm Beach; last year there were three…

Even the three Los Angeles entries diverge slightly from conventional 2020 narratives. Yes, the L.A. market is one of the few urban bright lights this year, with sales soaring and inventory hard to come by. But numbers at the very top are down from last year, when it notched four entries in the top 10, totaling $463 million. This year there were three, totaling $293 million.

The actions of the wealthiest homeowners matters not only because people often have an interest in what those who have lots of money do with all that money; it matters because these are people with clout and influence. If they are continuing to purchase in New York City – it is less clear how much time the owners would necessarily spend in the city – it is a sign of the importance of the city and the prospects for future development.

The optics of 2020 might not be favorable to the list above but the project and the trends were underway far ahead of COVID-19. In a very expensive land and housing market, purchasing a residence in one of the newest buildings and in such a location within Manhattan is an object of desire for some who have the resources to purchase such places. While a figure later in the article notes that the total price for the properties on this list is lower than the price for the properties the year before, this may only allow the wealthiest to get into hot markets even more.

It may (or may not) be worth noting that five of the ten properties are in a tower in New York City while the other five properties are large homes on some land. On the whole, Americans as a whole tend to prefer or idealize single-family homes but the wealthiest in the United States and elsewhere may be more inclined to purchase large units in multi-unit buildings.

The billions owed in back rent in the United States because of COVID-19

Estimates for how much Americans owe in rent because of COVID-19 are in the tens of billions:

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Estimates for the nation’s total rent shortfall on Jan. 1 range in the tens of billions of dollars, potentially exceeding the amount of emergency rental assistance that Congress may or may not deliver over the next few weeks. If lawmakers fail to act, the New Year could trigger a long-feared disaster — an avalanche of evictions during the dead of winter, as the pandemic rages.

Back rent owed by struggling U.S. households — about 11.4 million renters in all — averages about $6,000 per household, or around three-and-a-half months’ rent, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. Most of it has accrued since the expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act expired over the summer.

“These are low-income households,” he says. “They’ve probably already borrowed as much as they can from family or friends. They have no resources left.”…

The National Council of State Housing Agencies commissioned its own report on the nation’s overdue rent, arriving at a figure of $34 billion back in September. Stout, the global advisory firm that produced the report, has since issued a biweekly report on households facing eviction, drawing on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and its weekly Household Pulse Survey. Stout’s tracker currently estimates that 7–14 million households will face eviction for nonpayment in January, with rental arrears totaling between $13–24 billion.

Even if COVID-19 ended tomorrow or the vaccine is quickly distributed, administered, and effective, this is a lingering effect that will take a long time to work through. It will affect renters, landlords, other actors in the real estate market (including lenders and investors) as well as communities if there are unpaid bills and/or people left without housing.

Even as the media coverage of this issue might focus on certain housing markets, the effects could stretch across many markets. Imagine the priciest markets: with high rents to start, how can people make up the money if they do not have jobs or the same income or how could they easily find housing? But, the cheaper markets may run into similar problems: if you cannot afford to pay back rent, how many cheaper housing options or replacement housing options could people find? Given the possibility of regional differences, this might mean more local units of government – states, municipalities – could provide different options that better address local circumstances.

More broadly, this hints at ongoing housing issues that seem to get little attention. Housing is a foundational, daily issue for many and COVID-19 just exacerbates existing issues. Relief money from the federal government may provide temporary help but housing costs and quality need attention in many places.

Still looking for helpful numerical comparisons to make sense of COVID-19 deaths

A list of the most deaths on a single day has been making the social media rounds. Titled “The Deadliest Days in American History,” spots #4-7 are recent days with COVID-19 deaths following the Galveston Hurricane, the battle of Antietam, and September 11, 2001. But, the numbers on the list are not what they seem:

An infographic listing the "Deadliest Days in American History."
I first saw the image on Facebook.

For one thing, a list of the “deadliest days” in American history would include days with the most deaths, not the most deaths from one discrete event. On all of the days included, more people in the United States died than the numbers listed. According to Reuters, 2,861 COVID-19 deaths were indeed reported last Thursday. But that doesn’t account for the number of people who died from heart disease (last week’s daily average was 1,532 deaths), lung and tracheal cancer (last week’s daily average was about 560 deaths), or chronic kidney disease (last week’s daily average was about 290 deaths). Deaths from drug overdoses have also been reaching record highs this year, a trend that may have been worsened by the pandemic. (Obviously, more people died on the days of the Galveston hurricane, the Battle of Antietam, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor, too.)

By its own rules, the list is also incomplete. More than 3,000 people died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which isn’t mentioned, nor is the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane, which killed more than 3,300 people in Puerto Rico over the course of six to nine hours. While we’re at it, the population of the United States is much larger now. The U.S. was home to about one-tenth of the current population during the Battle of Antietam. Losing 3,600 people back then would be like losing 36,000 people now.

But yes, the general idea behind this list—and other attempts to communicate the horrors of the pandemic as a set of digestible facts—is worthwhile. It can be helpful to compare the number of deaths specifically from the coronavirus to other historical events in which there were huge losses of American life. More than 286,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 thus far. Compare that to the 116,000 Americans who died in World War I; 405,000 Americans who died in World War II; 37,000 Americans who died in the Korean War; and 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, the 1968 influenza A pandemic killed 100,000 Americans, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic killed 12,469 Americans.

The general idea may be a good one: similar numbers reported day after day lose their power. It can be hard for the general public to interpret large numbers in the abstract, as this earlier post about comparing an earlier death figure from COVID-19 to my community’s population. The list tries to place the daily death totals in historical context by noting that these are not just normal numbers; they are high numbers for any day in American history.

Yet, as noted above, the numbers do not quite work out. Perhaps the list should have a new title like “Days with the most deaths directly attributable to unusual causes” since it ignores all causes of death on particular days. And even then, other natural disasters are ignored and putting the numbers in a different context – as a percent of the population as a whole – also changes the list.

The list might still spur people to action, even if the list has flaws. And this was probably the goal of the list in the first place: it is not meant to be an academic study on the topic but a call to action. Like many statistics, these numbers are used in a way intended to nudge people toward different behavior.