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Drones at the New School

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting Perkūnas at the New School tomorrow during the Sonic Pharmakon conference put together by Ed Keller for the Center for Transformational Media (I am a fellow with CTM this year). See the schedule here. As a modular synthesist and with a sound sensitivity disorder, I am committed to the possibilities of drone and am fascinated to see Sunday’s events (alas, I am on a plane back from Kauai today so will miss the day).

Aleksandra Kasuba, 1926-2019

Artist and designer Aleksandra Kasuba passed away on March 5. Kasuba was a brilliant force and I knew her throughout my life. Among my earliest memories is crawling around in her Lived-In Environment, a radical transformation of the first floor of the Upper Western Side brownstone that she and her husband owned through tensile constructions. My parents were friends with her and her husband, the sculptor Vytautas Kasuba and we would see each other periodically.

 

Although I lost touch with her after I went to graduate school and then moved to Los Angeles, we reconnected on the occasion of my giving a lecture on her work at the National Gallery of Art in Lithuania to accompany the exhibition of Spectrum: An Afterthought. During those 25 years she had kept tabs on me and agreed that I could give the lecture—apparently other historians had failed to understand her work properly—and I took copious notes on our discussions. Last week I wrote her obituary for the Architects’ Newspaper. See it here. I am revising my talk for the catalog of the retrospective of her work to take place there in 2020.

Year in Review 2018

The Year in Review 2018

I let six years go by without a Year in Review post, restarting the tradition last year. Not this time, although, with the frenetic pace of news this year, it seems like we have all aged six years in 2018.

Things are in a profound state of in-between. On the one hand, the Trumpian kleptocracy is accelerating. With Kelly and Mattis leaving in December, the “adult day care center” has closed, leaving only a pre-school version of Lord of the Flies in the White House. And yet, the end seems to draw near for this vexed time. Voters gave a resounding rebuke to Republicans in Congress, one that may ultimately be generational in nature and that gives Democrats subpoena power. Expect action soon. What’s in those tax returns? How much crony capital have Jared and Donald received over the years? By this time next year, we should know. Moreover, the Mueller investigation is accelerating, drawing closer and closer to the great kleptocrat’s inner circles even as we are left guessing at what sort of revelations we will learn in the months to come.

But that said, massive global instability is the price we pay for Trump. Authoritarian forces are on the rise throughout the world. It would be easy enough to say that these forces have been there all long, but its more accurate to say that the actions of individual players still matter. Trump was a colossal misfire, an eruption of senile admirers of fascism who think that a country of coal miners, machine guns in every classroom, and Christian sharia law will bring Jesus back, no doubt riding on a dinosaur. But with the markets on a rolled coaster ride that ultimately ended down in almost all sectors worldwide, we have to wonder how long business will find the radical Right palatable. Constant turmoil and increased tariffs are making CEOs wonder how useful Trump really is. It’s time to take gramps out of the White House and put him in a nursing home.

Beyond the rise of authoritarian power, 2018 was the year in which the rapid pace of climate change became obvious to anyone with a pulse. I am not a big fan of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (democratic socialism is a ticket to another right-wing victory), but her Green New Deal just makes sense. The US has spent trillions upon trillions subsidizing oil in various ways (from outright subsidies to the construction of roads which are, of course, paved in oil) and fighting wars in the Middle East to safeguard fossil matter, why shouldn’t we treat this as energy independence as matter of national security? There are 50,000 coal miners in the United States, less than the 89,000 employees of Sears who will lose their jobs this year’s and far less than the 1.6 million university faculty in the USve. If the Democrats want to win in 2020, running of a platform of stopping the rise in temperatures worldwide and the ballooning national debt while restoring basic rights and freedoms taken away during the Trumpic regime would be a good place to start (given that the GOP has forgotten about the deficit now).

As for architecture. What is there left to say about it anymore? Starchitecture has faded, nobody gets excited about cool forms anymore. How can we be surprised? No starchitect is making interesting buildings, in fact the whole movement has been something of a bust. Second, architecture is no longer the profession that shapes space, digital technology is. Failing to recognize this dooms the profession to irrelevance, like heraldry in the days of mustard gas.

But architecture isn’t the only institution without purpose. Silicon Valley, it seems, has finally met a time in which nobody cares about what it makes or promises. People are not only tired of big tech, they are tired of startups that promise the world when their only business plan is to be acquired as soon and possible. In fact, for all its promises,startup culture was a bust and it is far smaller than it was two decades ago. Apple made its best products ever (I am typing this on one of the amazing third generation iPad Pros that I bought), and was punished for it by a massive drop in its stock price.

If any tech became widely accepted by the mainstream in 2018, it was the Internet of Things and the Smart Home. Amazon’s Alexa, Nest and Ring’s video doorbell, and Lutron’s Caseta system were among the winners in this transformation of our interior lives. There is nothing terribly radical about the smart home and, frankly, a lot of the panic about surveillance with the hardware is silly (as if smart phones don’t already do this). But embedded technology is everywhere now.

Still, it’s odd how art (and architecture) misses this change. For want of anything else, we are still in the era of post-Internet art, an idea which, unfortunately, I am somewhat to blame for. If there was some merit to thinking about how network culture permeated art in 2011, talking about “post-Internet art” now simply is about as useful as talking about Abstract Expressionism as “post-automobile” art. Art, like architecture, has lost any purpose or drive forward. Technology and art have drifted apart again and only a few of us hack away at the intersection of the two. Still, art and architecture are always falling into ruin and being reborn. Perhaps this time will be no different and the work we are doing will lead to a rebirth?

The academy is sick as well. Years of poor management practices and bloated administrations have gutted the arts and humanities as faculty were forced to take on heavy teaching loads and real research has been eliminated (in case you wondered, I left Columbia when the new Dean did away with the entire research arm of the school to appease the finance office). Two decades ago, I decried “staff-ism” in schools, but now that is all that’s left.

I left teaching completely this year, resigning from my position at University of Limerick, Ireland after thirteen years and bringing nearly thirty years of teaching to end. In large part, it was the basic inability of universities to function that drove me away. What good is it for me to waste my time trying to jump through hoops to get paid when there are people in finance offices whose job literally is to ensure that faculty don’t get paid (I’ve been told this point blank)? And teaching itself isn’t much fun anymore. Students, for their part, are more interested in looking at their instagram feeds than in listening to what I have to say. It’s the opposite of the 1960s when students proclaimed the irrelevance of their teachers. Now, faculty proclaim the irrelevance of their students. Bah. It’s not worth it. It was a mistake to keep going over the last couple of years. I may come back to education one day—I have many great memories that come from my students and many of them remain my friends to this day—but now is a time when the university is very much irrelevant. Independence is what we need, not sick institutions.

Speaking of sick institutions, there is welcome news this year regarding Facebook: we saw the first signs of that hated enterprise starting to implode. Zuckerberg’s pathetic attempt to get a date by building a Web site has wound up doing tremendous damage to the Internet with its reduction of all content to a general level of idiocracy. Older forms of Internet communication such as blogs, email-mailing lists and Internet forums are dying and since nobody reads books or magazines anymore, we communicate less than we did thirty years ago. Instead, we don’t even get FarmVille, we get social diarrhea. Nobody likes Facebook. Independent voices are needed on the net again. It’s not up to someone else to provide them, it’s up to us.

I rebuilt my Web site last week in hopes of returning to being an independent voice in the field. I finished the last year in review with a similar resolution, maybe this year, I’m getting cranky enough that’ll actually happen.

I am trying to break the Internet

I don’t see how we can remain enthusiastic about network culture. In the decade since the release of the iPhone, the Internet has gone from being a playpen for geeks and outsiders to the primary theater for politics and culture. Even three years ago the thought that a major global leader would use Twitter to announce major policy initiatives would have seemed futuristic and a little naïve. Now we have it and it’s the darkest time most America has collectively experienced in memory. We lurch headlong into a future, but it’s a new bad future.

And, as we seem to be drowning in information, we seem to have lost our ability to communicate and absorb knowledge. Almost nobody reads and writes blogs anymore (please don’t get me started about Medium and the final, thorough destruction of independent content its startup model is premised on). Magazines and journals are well and truly dead. Most books by theorists and academics are soundly ignored too, which is probably a good thing given that theory has become permeated by a neo-fascist identity politics. Outside of the telecocoon of our partners, children, closest friend or two, and immediate work associates, we no longer call each other, we no longer e-mail each other, and we ghost each other as much as we text each other. Earlier forms of Internet culture are also on the rocks: listservs have become replaced by Facebook groups that produce no thought or discussion of any substance whatsoever, and most online forums have died as well. The aforementioned Twitter should be dead, but is kept alive by our desire to see what the lunatic in the White House will say next, and otherwise serves as home to a few misfits and general oddballs. Facebook absorbs everything, reducing all human communication to nothing and algorithmically directs us to only see those posts that give us a fleeting satisfaction. It’s more imagistic spawn, Instagram, is the model of the new Internet, driving us to constantly one up each other with a lifestyle pornography. There are, of course, exceptions—I actually like Reddit and there are some niche online forums that have moments of productivity—but it’s bad out there. I have played my own part in migrating to these awful commercial platforms and regret it. Something must be done. Endless promises and little delivery.

In the case of this site, I’ve resolved to fix matters over and over again, but each time was undone by the content management system, Drupal. Drupal is awful. Way back in 2005, Drupal seemed like a good choice, with its module-based open architecture, and the promise of a content management system that could go far beyond a blog. At the time, I was fascinated with the idea of the networked book and Drupal seemed to offer such functionality built in. Unfortunately, Drupal long ago began to resemble a 1980s American car company, suffering from over-complexity, putting design and user interface last, and unable to got basic features working. A critical flaw is that the development team long ago decided that “the drop is always moving”: each major version of Drupal breaks all the existing plug-ins and themes without which a site is ugly and limited. And therein lies the rub. I should have updated my site eight years ago when Drupal 7 was released, but the horribly botched release of that version would have broken my site thoroughly if it had been possible to update it at all (I am now forgetting if it was Drupal 7 or 8 that did not have upgrade capabilities when first released and the upgrade cycle to Drupal 6 cost me over a month of work). Add to that constant trouble with excessive memory overhead, the obliteration of comments by spambots, together with a general feeling that the whole creaking mess was going to explode like a steam-powered Soviet tractor meant that I knew I’d never be upgrading Drupal. But where to go?

A New Year’s resolution for 2017 had been to redo my site in a new content management system and I upgraded the front end of my site to Kirby. Kirby is fantastic. It took me an afternoon to build the site (I am still running Kirby over at the network architecture lab. In Drupal it would have taken a week. Still, although now I had a decent portfolio together, the blog languished and I made a handful in 2017 and only one post in 2018. In part, this was due to life: I am still cleaning up after the decades of neglect that our house suffered before we bought it, I am spend more time with my family, and I am working on my conceptual art and sound practices. Still, doing anything in Drupal was a nightmare and I stayed away from any substantive blogging.

So it happens that we were away skiing at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont this week and, as so often happens, we had freezing rain all day. So I decided to finally upgrade this blog and move it to WordPress. I had used WordPress before in Jo-Anne Green’s Networked book project and that had pushed the platform beyond what it was capable of at that time, leaving me with a bad opinion of the platform, but during the intervening years, WordPress has matured into a capable platform (even with the recent growing pains caused by the Gutenberg blogging interface).

Frédéric Gilles’s amazing Drupal to WordPress plugin imported all of the data from Drupal—even comments!—better than I had ever dreamed was possible, better than I would have expected from an upgrade within Drupal. I’ve long loved Indexhibit and use it on AUDC’s site so I was glad to base the new site on Leanda Ryan’s Inxhibit theme (much as  I love Indexhibit, it simply isn’t designed for blogging). A day of work later and, although there are some bugs here and there, I am confident enough to replace Varnelis.net with WordPress.

One of the major impediments to blogging that I faced with Drupal is that inputting text on the Web is a nightmare (I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve lost by accidentally hitting the wrong key on Drupal) and uploading text inevitably seemed to introduce formatting issues, no matter how hard I tried. In the case of WordPress, I knew that there were many more tools available at my disposal so I decided to try iAWriter and found it worked flawlessly. I started writing this post on my Mac, seamlessly picked it to my iPad Pro and posted this entry. This is simple, the way Content Management Systems were supposed to be, without losing the independence that blogs make possible.

I’ve also put Feedly front and center for daily reading on my iPad. There are plenty of great blogs out there are acting as a resistance to the managed content of Facebook, Twitter, and Medium and I am setting out to rediscover them. With these changes to my blog, maybe, just maybe, I may once again join them as well.

 

Network Histories at Michigan, 3/8/18

I am delighted to be delivering the keynote address at the P+ARG Conference at the University of Michigan on March 8, 2018, at 6pm. More details here

My talk is titled "Network Histories: Baran and Milgram in Perspective" and the abstract reads roughly … 

The foundational work done by social psychologist Stanley Milgram and telecommunications researcher Paul Baran on networks in the 1960s remains profoundly influential today, establishing the basis of network theory. But both projects are more complicated than they seem: Milgram’s famous “Six Degrees of Separation” appears to have been largely fabricated while Baran’s plan for a “Distributed Network” is inevitably read within a retrospective mythography. This talk sets out to uncover not so much a theory of networks as an ideology of networks, seeking not a celebration but rather an understanding.

Continue reading “Network Histories at Michigan, 3/8/18”

2017 in Review (and more)

I begin writing this post to usher in 2018 with a large purring cat on my lap, glad that we are home from skiing in Vermont and doing her best to prevent me from typing. Until 2012 it was a yearly tradition for me to take stock of the state of things, personally, professionally, and in the world at large. The last five years have been something of a whirlwind and even though I have tried, I haven’t returned to this tradition.

Looking back at the last entry, from January 2013, I began with the words:

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys’ club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy’s Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration, backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

Well, those seemed like pretty good times, all things considered. This inauguration was met with shock and dismay by anyone with any wit whatsoever as we start with a President mired in dementia and crippled by narcissistic personality disorder, surrounded by glad-handers, hangers-on and family members more concerned with convincing him into doing their bidding than governing. The bane of the academy, neoliberalism, is gone for now, replaced by outright kleptocracy.

The core of this dysfunction, ultimately, is the infrastructural stalemate of government. By this, I am referring to the condition that I outlined in the introduction to the Infrastructural City, in which competing infrastructures and groups of stakeholders face off against each other, rabidly defending their turf even at the risk of the collapse of the system as a whole. Systems that cannot survive it (for example, AT&T and the Bell System) die or are radically restructured (in that case, the development of competing infrastructures of telematics), even if that process can take decades. By 2012, we could see infrastructural stalemate permeate Congress. Even as the Republican majority not only refused to work with the Democrats, it was internally hamstrung by the uncompromising demands of the Tea Party movement. The ensuing deadlock over budget priorities and the threat of repeated government shutdowns over rising debt led Congress to institute budget sequestration, a series of automatic spending cuts that, once set in motion, operated without the need for direct intervention. Sequestration was the sort of solution that managers of infrastructure often resort to: a jury-rigged system that everyone hates, but that everyone hates less than what competing stakeholders might propose.

In this light, the Republican victory of 2016 could be seen as infrastructural. Recall that in 2008 Obama had promised he would be known as “the Infrastructure President” only to quickly swerve away from these promises in favor of propping up big banks and the financial system. Two terms later, not only had the more familiar infrastructures of roads, bridges, rail, and air continued marching toward collapse, the same sicknesses that affect them had infected government. But, you may ask what about the blatant racism, calls to violence, and other horrors of the 2016 election? What do those have to do with infrastructure? Simple: fascism. The strong man comes in and promises that all that needs to be done is grab the lazy sods by the ears and bash their heads until they listen. Recall that Mussolini bragged he got the trains to run on time while Hitler’s great pride was the world’s first integrated highway system, the autobahn. Similarly, in Turkey Erdogan is undertaking a series of “crazy projects” such as a tunnel under the Bosporus, a new canal connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara to minimize traffic in the Istanbul Strait, a massive new airport in Istanbul, and so on. It’s this identical impetus that animates our current President as he claims he will impose order to the government one way or another.

Apart from his own failings, most notably the collusion with the Russian government during his election campaign, a crime already sinking his presidency, as well as his utter inability to focus or process information, the President faces challenges from the checks and balances that the founding fathers built into the US system; infrastructural stalemate as a Constitutional strategy. Unlikely to be able to turn it into the outright authoritarian rule that he desperately craves, the President faces a political dead end. In the meantime, he and those closest to him have turned to the best option they have: kleptocracy. In the name of infrastructure, the administration does what it can to remove regulations on pet industries (fossil fuel, mining, big manufacturing, e.g. all the old industries that find it difficult to be viable today) and while we hear constant promises about a big infrastructure act coming, I am convinced that it will largely be yet more concessions to specific supporters and, whenever possible, his own failing business ventures.

The one saving grace is that so far, I don’t see an asset bubble of the sort that crippled the markets in 2008. Certainly, some stocks, such as Facebook, are worth far more than they should be, but if on the whole assets are high, liquidity is as well. As markets crashed overnight following Brexit and the 2016 election, banks and other investors bought up the temporarily devalued assets to make a healthy profit. From the perspective of the markets, this is a good thing, as one danger to the Federal Reserve’s timidity about raising interest rates is that it leaves them with precious margin to restart the economy during a correction. Still, there is some likelihood that by increasing corporate profits, the Tax Reform plan (read: redistribution of wealth to benefit the oligarchs plan) will keep the economy going longer without a correction and overheat it, thus leading to Stagflation MK 2, but for now, I am thinking we will be in a similar economic condition a year from now. The markets may be up or down a bit, but likely no great change. Unless, of course, some very bad decision is made about North Korea or Iran or …

Throughout it, the importance of network culture becomes clearer and clearer. If YouTube made ISIS, Twitter (with a little help from Russians running bots and hacking into DNC servers) elected this President. The last two years are entirely unimagineable without social media and e-mail. But alas, any dreams of an online Jeffersonian democracy are long gone. How we will dig ourselves out of this hole is beyond me.

Worse yet, the US retreat from the Paris Accords, the attacks on Affordable Health Care, and the spread of oligarchy suggest that we are now firmly in the early phases of what William Gibson terms “the Jackpot.” Dark Accelerationism is here, with Steve Bannon (Steve Bannon! I mean think about it!) still guiding nihilistic forces in the White House from behind the scenes. Still, humans do have a funny capacity to make do and maybe the orange skies of Blade Runner 2049 will remain confined to that alternate time-line.

I finished my last year in review with the words:

So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn’t stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It’s up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013.

Let’s hope for more in 2018 then.

Blogging is an enterprise without hope these days, a dead medium, but in that, it remains something of a form of resistance, hosted on my own server, outside of the censoring eye of any institution. I won’t make any promises about whether I will blog more or not it the next year, but it remains part of my practice. As most of my readers know, in the five years since the end of 2012, I left GSAPP after a new Dean shut down Mark Wigley’s labs project and I recognized that, at least for the time being, universities were too big and dinosaur-like to host the kind of work I am pursuing. That isn’t to say that I might continue with some teaching here and there. Maybe I will even go back to teaching full time, but for now it seems like it’s time to side with nocturnal mammals scampering around furtively as dinosaurs lumber around in their last days (last days take a while, and meteorites don’t always come so don’t hold your breath for that one).

Back in 1980, Robert Fripp posted a manifesto on the back of his album “Let the Power Fall.” It has been reposted on the Discipline Global Mobile site although I had to laugh when my first attempt to find it again led to this post, made just as I was transitioning to Columbia and launching the Netlab. Over the two years since I have left full time teaching, I have found much more time and space to pursue the sort of projects that drive me, not only critical writing, but also exhibitions. If there will be some a few more projects involving my father’s work like the exhibit this year, I am hardly his keeper and can only set that research in motion so that others can take it on to give different insights. More important is my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and on my own. Different versions of these institutions will rise and recede, some may vanish and new ones may take the place. Throughout it, however, I set my intention for the next year and next five years to be a time for deepening my own research, radically interrogating the boundaries of space so as to help us come to an understanding of what this thing called network culture really is.

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London and Paris—Midsummer 1939

In today's entry of Philip Johnson's fascist writings, we have his first piece as "foreign correspondent" for Todayʼs Challenge, written in summer of 1939 in London and Paris and published in the August-September issue. This completes my upload of the three pieces Johnson writes for the magazine. Worse is to come.  

This piece puts down the French and English as weak and ineffectual, drawing the implicit conclusion that it will be the Americans who will have to bail them out if their foreign policy leads to war. Nothing too bad, you say? Alright, well here is the conclusion, which hints at what we are going to see in his writing for Social Justice.

"Another serious split in French opinion is that caused by the Jewish question, a problem much aggravated just at present by the multitude of émigrés in Paris. Even I, as a stranger in the city, could not help noticing how much German was being spoken, especially in the better restaurants. Such an influx naturally makes the French wonder, not only about these incoming Jews, but also about their co-religionists who live and work here and call themselves French. The facts that [former Prime Minister and Popular Front leader Léon] Blum and the men around him are Jews, that there are two Jews in the present cabinet, Messrs. Zay and Mandel and that the Jewish bankers Mannheimer, de Rothschild and Lazard Freres are known to stand behind the present government all complicate the situation. 

The position taken by the Daladier government on this question is an interesting commentary on its policies in general. There are two decree laws which concern the press, one against publishing propaganda paid for by a foreign government. Under these laws, the patriotic weeklies Le Defi and La France Enchainee were just recently uppressed, presumably for getting money from Hitler; but LʼHumanité, which no one doubts gives out Russian propaganda, paid for by Russia, has been left alone. What is freedom of the press and for whom is it done, the French ask."

Read it here.

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Inside War-Time Germany

Today's entry from amongst Philip Johnson's fascist writings is "Inside War-Time Germany," published in the November-December 1939 issue of Today's Challenge. Unlike the previous piece, then, this one is written after the outbreak of war, on which we will hear much more from Johnson later.

The essay begins with a reverse echo of the present day, with Johnson condemning the main stream media: "The American newspapers have done their job of indoctrination well…" The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote one section to introduce you to the sort of mental gymnastics that Johnson makes:

"none of those opposed to Hitler that I know would prefer the liberalism of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism as a system of government. They remember too well the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, the misery of inflation and the later miseries of mass unemployment. They remember that the Weimar Republic brought civil strife, battles of brother against brother; and such civil war to them was more hateful than the World War. They do not like Hitler, but they feel that if Hitler were not Hitler but some imaginary person that would be nice in their own particular way, then National Socialism or rather national socialism, would be a good idea. Such thoughts are not the stuff of revolutions. 

Also, no matter what the objections they have to Hitler, close to 100% of the Germans appear to approve of one particular part of Hitlerʼs work — his foreign policy. … since 1911, Germany has been growing rapidly. Even the bitterest foes of the National Socialist ideology are proud of German greatness. This natural pride in their power and success stultifies foreign criticism of their methods or their morals. Similarly, we Americans would not have brooked any criticism of our doctrine of ʻmanifest destinyʼ in the 19th century when we were busy conquering our empire in the west. So today the Germans are impervious to the moral admonishment that they ought not to conquer their neighbors. Conquest is good or bad, depending on who does it, you yourself or somebody you donʼt like."

Where the Jews are in all this is rather unclear (actually it is perfectly clear… they are suppressed or deemed unfit to testify) although at one point Johnson uses well-known code language, referring to the common "anti-international banker" stance between the Nazis and the Soviets. 

Read for yourself here.

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