Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Which Butterfly? Looking Ahead on Your Paths

This got long, so settle in...

If you're going to do magic, practicing some kind of divination is important for getting good results. Divination isn't a simple topic. There are many techniques and many different things it can be used for. So, let's take a step back and think about what divination is and how it works.

I need to get me one of these signs

First of all, and just as an arbitrary distinction that I've long used, the difference between divination and augury:

Divination is the act of tapping into occult (hidden) currents in order to discover information that you can't access through normal channels. It's an active practice.

Augury is the reading of omens -- signs that the universe sends in order to provide you with additional data you can use. It involves awareness and receptivity.

I don't want to diminish the importance of augury. Being able to read the subtle signs and extract useful information is an extremely valuable life skill. And it's irrelevant whether the source is "supernatural" or not. In truth, we have an amazing ability to record and synthesize tons of subtle data, in real-time, that never hits our conscious awareness. So when the elevator opens and you see that guy standing there, listen to the voice that says "don't get in the little metal box!" Whether it's a message from your spirit guide or your subconscious noticing his half-hidden prison tattoos could not be more irrelevant.

Our modern world has done a spectacular job of blunting our senses, compared to our survival-minded ancestors. But our instincts are still there, operating mostly outside our awareness. For more details, I recommend Blink and (particularly) The Gift of Fear.

But back to divination. Unlike reading the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) signs that the universe shows you, divination is an active practice. Something that you set out to do.

In the past, divination was more strictly considered 'communing with the divine' -- it's right there in the name. But just as the demons and spirits of magic now have to share the stage with ideas about probability distortions and quantum entanglement, divination has also expanded beyond just talking with god. Divination is what pierces the curtain between onstage knowledge and backstage knowledge -- and it's useful in both domains.

Psychology -- the most mundane, in terms of requiring belief in anything past the scientific-skeptical worldview that our culture seems to exclusively embrace. Basically, figuring out what's going on in your own subconscious. This can actually be really useful, considering that a) we don't do a very good job of tapping into our own instincts, b) our conscious drives are often in complete conflict with our subconscious desires (AKA why your love spells never work), and c) our own emotional and mental states are frequently surprisingly opaque. You won't find out anything that's not already in your own brain of course.

Data Gathering -- getting information about the present or the past. This includes lots of mind-reading and remote-viewing kinds of data: stuff you technically can't know through the normal channels but that divination can help you glimpse. Still, the answers you get will be technically knowable in the present time. The information must be accessible, even if it's not accessible to you through normal channels. I have to say that in a world where ground truth has become the most occult data of all, I don't think this kind of divination gets enough traction. Figuring out what's really going on can be extremely useful.

Spirit communication -- putting the "divine" back in divination. Messages from the dead, advice from your spirits, dictates from your gods. A lot of us have a really hard time with direct communication with the folks who live backstage and divination is one way to help with that process. All the usual advice and cautions still apply of course (entities are not always what they appear, just because someone's dead doesn't mean they're not a asshole, and your Catholic grandma may not actually appreciate your pagan ways). They can tell you stuff that you don't know and can also tell you stuff that isn't technically knowable (at least not onstage). They can make stuff happen by telling you (if your grandma says she wants you to be settled already, expect to meet a nice Catholic boy in short order).

Fortunetelling -- telling the future. This is the point where we pierce the curtain and get a peek backstage. There are basically two variants: What's gonna happen? (which is classic fortunetelling) and, more interestingly, what can I do now to make something happen? (probability manipulation). The second is where we get into the meat of using divination for magic. Because if you want to affect probabilities, you need to know where and how best to do that.

My focus here is going to be on the second kind of fortunetelling: what can I do now to make something different happen in the future? After all, what's going to happen to me is way less useful and interesting than what I can change about what's going to happen. This is odds prediction and the best way of thinking about it is, in my opinion, Everett's many worlds interpretation (MWI) of the multiverse hypothesis.

As an aside: there's a risk here of misusing physics in order to explain magical phenomenon and I admit to being no expert in physics. However I do think there's an argument to be made that all phenomena must be explainable, we simply haven't found a way of explaining it yet. Much quantum phenomena is explicitly magical by the classical definition... perhaps some effects do scale, but only under certain currently unknown conditions. And the idea of multiple universes could be leveraged to explain all kinds of "mysical" stuff from ghost sightings to precognition to spirits. But to be clear here, I don't claim that fortunetelling is explained by the Everett interpretation -- I do however think that concept is an extremely useful tool for thinking about and practicing divination. And usefulness is my primary metric here.

So, imagine there are infinite multiple realities moving through time, and every probability is another branch to a new universe. Your decisions, your actions, even random occurrences dictate the universe you end up in. Or as Wikipedia puts it: "one aspect of quantum mechanics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely. Instead, there is a range of possible observations, each with a different probability. According to the MWI, each of these possible observations corresponds to a different universe."

The interesting thing about this model is that it means that you can only find out things that are knowable by your future selves. That is, you can get data from the future, but only the futures you are most likely to end up in at the point at which you are reading. Do something different and you end up in a whole different universe. So you know how the further away you get in time, the less accurate the weather forecast? Same thing, only it's not just distance in time, but distance in universe. The universe where I get up tomorrow and go to work may be quite accessible (and probably not that interesting). The universe where I get up and find a bag of gold on my way to work (it could happen) not so much.
From Superflux -- a place I think I want to go work

When you ask "what's going to happen to me in the future?" you're asking about the most probable future. When you ask "what can I do to get to the future I want?" -- well, that's where things get really interesting.

Ever read The Dead Zone*? The premise is that this guy can tell the future through touch. Toward the end of the book, he shakes an aspiring politician's hand and realizes that this man will end up as president and will start a nuclear war. He decides to assassinate the man... but the assassination fails and our main character is fatally shot. Still, as he is dying, he manages to touch the politician again and realizes that somehow everything has changed. In fact, during the assassination attempt, the politician uses a young boy as a human shield, and a bystander gets photos of the cowardly act. This ruins the guy's political career and he never goes on to destroy civilization.
* Published in 1979, this book has exceeded the spoiler alert statute of limitations.

Fictional segue aside, this is what really interests me. Because if you want a hurricane, you have to figure out what butterfly to startle. If you want to use magic to shift the odds, you need to know exactly what to focus on for maximum impact for minimal effort. And this ties into Taleb's theories on the Black Swan as well. Normally unpredictable events with out-sized impacts can happen (and are indeed prone to happening in our "extremistan" society). Therefore trying to predict them in order to:
  1. avoid them (it's only a Black Swan if you don't see it coming) 
  2. be anti-fragile toward them, or 
  3. take advantage of them (in the case of positive Black Swans) 
is just a good survival tactic.

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

An Introduction to the Mystical Arte of the Project Manager

I'm a PM -- that's a Project or Program Manager -- and I have been for over a decade.

Project managers apply skills in:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Strategy and goal setting
  • Project planning
  • Motivation and direction of project teams
  • Risk and issue management
  • Problem solving
They are hired by companies to achieve corporate strategy through the successful completion of project goals. 


So, why is this interesting (unless you're considering a career in project management)?

The Project Management Institute is a global professional organization for project managers. I'll let them speak for themselves. They define a project as:

"...a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.

"A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.
"And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies."

Now, let's do a quick translation for the mage. A magical working is:

... a temporary activity designed to product a unique product, service, or result.

A working is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a working is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.

Back to the PMI:

"Project management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently. It’s a strategic competency for organizations, enabling them to tie project results to business goals — and thus, better compete in their markets."

Or for our purposes:

Practical magic management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute workings effectively and efficiently. It's a strategic competency for magicians, enabling them to tie working results to personal goals -- and thus, better realize results in their lives.

Language use aside ("thus," really?) I don't think it's any kind of stretch to see that a magical working to find love, make more money, or change your life in a fundamental way (the big three of practical magic) is little different from a professional project to create an app, build a bridge, or start a homeless shelter. 

The biggest difference is that corporate and nonprofit projects almost always involve groups while your working may not. Still, you may have unofficial team members (your family, your friends, servitors) and you will certainly have stakeholders (your ancestors, your gods/spirits/guides).

There's a reason that a skilled project manager can make a good living across a whole host of different domains (from building software to building skyscrapers). Having someone in charge of all the coordination and communication, someone who can make sure all the many moving parts work together and that the sponsor (with the money), the stakeholders (with the interest), and the team (who do the work) are all on the same page, greatly increases the chances that the project will be a success. If you work on any kind of project in any kind of job (from coding websites to stocking the shelves) you have a critical stake in how that project turns out. Do you really want to take your personal projects any less seriously?

If you're not familiar with project management, most of this stuff is invisible. A lot of my job is outside the scope of even the people who are on the project. As in any initiatory society, there's knowledge that's occult to the uninitiated (though for project managers it's hidden from people because they frankly aren't interested in it rather than because it's a secret). There's also the kind of complexity that's used for gatekeeping (the PMI's standards book is 589, 8.5 x 11 inch pages).

Without my professional experience, my magical self wouldn't know anything about these techniques. But there's a ton of useful stuff here that's directly applicable to magical work. Gordon over at Rune Soup has some stuff on this topic as well.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Black Swans on the Wing

So, once again I'm deviating from my planned postings and schedule to touch on something immediate. Now this gets into a bit of Secret Sun territory, starting as it does with a strange personal "sync," and for that I apologize. But it's also related to the Black Swan Theory as per Taleb.

They kind of always look pissed off to me

Last night before bed, I was rereading my digital copy of The Black Swan, reviewing bookmarks and highlights because I'm planning some posts here on the topic. Anyway, at the front of the book he presents a strange thought experiment. Suppose in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, a brave and driven senator battles to get legislation passed to require locks on all cockpit doors. The point of the thought experiment is that 9/11 would have never have happened and this guy would be a completely invisible hero (no one would know he'd averted disaster, airlines might be angry with the cost of the locks, maybe the guy doesn't get reelected, and he feels like a failure). This was literally the last thing I read before going to sleep last night.

This morning, the very first thing I saw when I picked up my phone was the disturbing news that the copilot of the Germanwings flight locked the pilot out and deliberately crashed the plane. My spouse's response was "this is the second time." Of course, he was thinking about MH370 (which just got mentioned in a XKCD comic like a week ago). No one knows what happened to that flight, but pilot suicide is one theory that also involves a locked cabin door. But he was also wrong, because there are other incidents where pilots have deliberately crashed aircraft. Mozambique Airlines flight 470 and EgyptAir flight 990 both have the same profile... one pilot leaves the cockpit and the other takes the plane down. Flight 470's voice recorded also includes the "pounding on the locked door" element that made the back of my hair stand up this morning.

OK, if you are unfamiliar with Taleb's Black Swan theory, it goes like this:

A black swan is an event that:
  1. Is a surprise (if it's not a surprise to you, it's not a black swan for you)
  2. Has a major effect (like completely disproportionate to what was considered possible)
  3. Is rationalized after the fact (we should have been able to predict this)

In fact, 9/11 is the textbook example of a black swan. It was a complete surprise to nearly everyone (maybe not John O'Neill, though his knowledge didn't keep him from dying during the attack). The effect was, well, you kind of can't overstate the impact. And we've spent the last 14 years trying to rationalize it.

I think you can see where this is going. The idea of a pilot taking a plane down is damn near unthinkable. Take another look at that list of other incidents I linked to above. And take a look at this list, which has a lot of overlap, but also additional examples. In nearly every case, there's some government, organization, or trade group making a case for a non-pilot cause. You can almost imagine them wringing their hands: "It couldn't be the pilot, it just couldn't be!" And from that same link:

"I should say that pilots are among the most scrutinized of all professionals, certainly more than medical professionals, and yet in very rare occasions something happens that's really out of the ordinary, out of character, and it's really difficult to predict in advance which person is going to act in an very bizarre and harmful way." -- CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger

So, we've got an unpredictable event with an outsized effect (one guy taking out 150 is a pretty over the top way to commit... well, whatever he was committing). And the rationalizing is on its way: this article notes that other countries enforce a "rule of two" for airlines.

We need to be more willing to admit that terrible things can happen. We need to try our best to think ahead to worst case scenarios and think past the current problem. The Germanwings airline doors have three settings: unlocked (when you're letting someone in), normal (when you need a keypad code to enter), and locked (which means even the emergency keypad code doesn't work). When the designers created this system and decided on the "locked" setting, I'm sure they were thinking about a pilot being taken hostage outside the cabin and forced to divulge the code or a leak of the code to a nefarious third party. But I'm sure they never considered (just as I never had) that the pilot him or herself might be the nefarious one.

I want to take this line of thinking back down to earth (sorry) because there's something else going on here. Our response to black swan events is, by necessity, reactive instead of proactive. If you can't predict them, you can't be proactive toward them. Terrorism is rife with examples: 9/11 = locking cockpits, underwear bomber = full body scan. I don't know who the hell Michael Husnik is, but I love his approach to security. If we want to mitigate risk (told you I'd be getting to that topic soon), you have to be proactive.

So, how do we predict the unpredictable in our own lives? And how do we mitigate risks proactively? Those are topics I will be diving into soon. 

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Food Susainability -- Efficiency and Fragility

3/26 -- Edited to correct a mistake below. Animals are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from getting infections. They are pumped full of hormones to make them grow freakishly fast.

So I have a long list of topics that I want to blog about (and a handful of upcoming posts already done) but I'm tossing those aside in order to talk about something from the news this morning. As you'll be able to tell from this rant, this is a topic I care deeply about.

With the help of everyone's favorite Billionaire Robin Hood, two giant "food product" conglomerates are merging into the 5th largest food company on the planet. Don't bother to watch the video on that link, there's nothing there that's not in the article and it's basically a fawning jerkoff to Buffett and a puff piece on how great this is for the shareholders in the two companies. Here's an even more nauseating article on the merger that includes the following execrable quote:

“Every time you put two major companies together, there are natural synergies and efficiency opportunities associated with those components,” said Alex Behring, Heinz chairman who’ll also chair Kraft Heinz. “We think there is an opportunity to leverage best practices and get the best of both worlds.”
OK, so first of all, that kind of corpo-speak should be punishable by public flogging. Second, what this guy is yammering on about is exactly my primary concern with this merger. As Taleb points out, there's a reason humans evolved to have two of many organs... it's because too much efficiency causes fragility. 

Funny that there's no actual food in this picture

Just look at the news coverage. Lots of talk about shareholders and value, less talk about jobs and employment (the biz journal piece does mention that "he and other executives from Heinz and Kraft said it was too early to comment when peppered with questions about potential employee cuts, divestitures and plant closingswhich would have me polishing my resume, if I worked for either company) -- and zero talk about how this merger, and the resulting monopoly, might impact food prices, safety, or stability.

First on food prices: The products that these companies sell aren't food so much as industrialized food products. The price is impacted not only the the cost of the commodities that go into their manufacture (a topic I'll be revisiting at some point), but also the food-additive and flavors industry, marketing, branding, and media tie-ins. That means, as a consumer (and since we're talking about food here, the term is particularly apt) the price holds zero connection to any understandable driver. Not to mention that the larger the company, the more it can pressure suppliers on price and the less is has to worry about competition. 

Yet this merger doesn't seem to have raised any antitrust concerns. I would be surprised if we didn't see price increases on these products as a result of the merger. On the bright side, most of their products are crap non-food that we shouldn't be eating anyway. But that won't help the family on the edge of poverty who is forced to rely on pre-packaged corn/soy food-like substances in order to survive.

Second, the issue of food safety: There is a firestorm debate going on re. the topic of whether industrial food is safer than local food or not. I think that in terms of factory farming of meat and eggs, there is no question. There's a reason, after all, that most industrial meat animals have to be pumped full of antibiotics -- it's to keep them from dying of infection long enough to bulk up for slaughter. But even in the case of your large versus small lettuce grower, the large grower should be held to a higher standard, because the capacity for harm is so much greater. Yes, you can get salmonella from a head of farmers market lettuce... you and five other people may get sick. But when Dole has a lettuce recall, it affects 15 different states. Besides, the individual farmer isn't profit driven the way say a peanut processing plant is -- being pushed to cut costs to improve profits and make the companies they do business with happy at the risk of making people ill.

Some argue that it's harder to trace food-born illness from local sources, but that's a strawman. Because Heintz and Kraft (Keintz? Hraft?) don't really sell lettuce... they mostly sell products, highly processed and with dozens of ingredients. During a recall, ConAgra had no idea what ingredient in their pot pies was making people sick. Just read this entire article for a good primer on food safety (but not while eating). It's perfectly logical that the more the food's been processed and handled, the more opportunities there are for food safety issues. 

Finally stability: This is the big one. Even without the other issues this would be a major concern for me because it impacts the sustainability of our entire food supply. Why? Because corporate efficiency requires input and output uniformity. You don't want your OrIda processed potato bits to taste different than last time. And Keintz certainly doesn't want that -- it's against the tenants of quality control. That means that each potato that enters the plant has to be the same -- same type, size, texture. There's not a lot of room for variation. So what? First of all this encourages monoculture, which not only makes our food crops more susceptible to disease and disaster but also encourages overuse of chemicals and depletes our soil

Second, it reduces the nutritional value of food. One of the things that really, really angers me is the occasional propaganda wave of news stories about "research" that proves that organic food is not healthier than non-organic. I hate these stories. First, because food in general is less nutritious than it was 50 years ago. Why? Soil depletion, which is the result of intensive modern agriculture methods. So organic food grown in depleted soil isn't going to magically be more nutritious. While small farmers can take the time to replenish their soil, organic agri-business often don't. Just because they don't use chemical pesticides and can afford certification doesn't mean they are about the quality of their land. Second -- and off topic for this point -- IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT US (but that's a rant for another day). 

There's a second reason that monoculture reduces the nutritional value of food -- its because food is bred to:
  • Have sweet, simple flavor profiles
  • Be complete uniformity in color, size, and shape
  • Be able to be transported long distances and stored for really long times
If any nutrition survives that breeding process, it's more accident than design. Sure, most of the nutrition left in Hraft's ingredients is going to get processed out anyway, but it leaves the typical consumer with fewer and fewer choices when it comes to vegetables, which means a less varied diet.

From National Geographic

The most amusing thing for me is that the news coverage of this merger mentions that both brands are a bit stodgy and not in tune with consumer's demands for more fresh and healthy options. So the fix is to merge into an even more giant, centralized behemoth? Let me make it clear that none of this is good news.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Sustainability

In order to get a solid grip on the work I'm doing now, I've had to find a way to describe things that I've been doing and thinking about for some time, but that didn't have a vocabulary in place that I could use.

The work I'm doing is highly magical, and pointedly liminal, but it's very much outside the realm of spirits, circles, and spells. Or rather, those things are still useful and a part of my practice... but they're, well, they're like walking or driving... stuff I do naturally to get where I'm going. But those techniques don't always inform where to go and how to get there.

It makes sense that I would use the language of my other areas of interest in order to frame my current magical and spiritual work. For example, I'm a PMP (that's Professional Project Manager) in my career, and find the tools of my trade extremely useful for magical work. I also have a strong interest in Taleb's ideas on Black Swans and Anti-fragility (though I'm sure he'd be absolutely horrified at my use of his work for divination -- and probably rebut with his cutting wit and some thick mathematics that I can't begin to understand). Finally, I've long been interested in sustainable systems, beyond the realm of 'green' technology.

So before we can dig in and get started, let's talk about some of the terms and techniques that I've going to be referencing frequently:

Sustainability

An interesting example of a word with a broader meaning that's been, in recent years, co-opted exclusively for a single domain. Sustainable has come to be a synonym for environmental, that is "good for the environment," "green," or "ecological." Not that this is bad or incorrect, but it's a somewhat limited application of an extremely useful paradigm. According to our friends at Merriam Webster, sustainable is:

: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
: able to last or continue for a long time

While the second definition is specifically related to natural resources, the first and third aren't necessarily so. Let's take a couple of examples:

Rob has been burning the midnight oil. He's a full-time university student, who also works part-time at a local gas station and fixes computers on the side for cash. He needs to have a 3.8 average to keep a small scholarship. He's also trying to get through school with minimal debt and therefore has three roommates and eats a lot of ramen. This summer he will take off to Alaska to work in a fish cannery for extra cash. Despite working at a gas station and for a fishery, Rob isn't particularly anti-environmental. He's happy to recycle and doesn't even own a car. What Rob is doing isn't wrong or bad. In fact Rob is making a major investment in his future. But it is not sustainable for the long run. He can do it for a little while, but not forever. The pace would just use him up. It's a good idea while he's young, but soon, he knows he will graduate and begin drawing salary. Then, he hopes, he'll be able to get some regular sleep and eat a salad from time to time.

Charles and David Koch are worth about $34 billion a piece. They come from a well-known oil family and inherited their money from their father. In addition to their planet destroying oil business, the brothers seem intent on using their wealth for evil. But while the oil business is in no way sustainable, their wealth certainly is. Like many in the 1%, they use their power and money specifically in order to sustain and grow that wealth over time and for their family, contributing to income inequality in the US. Their family estate will certainly continue over time.

Notice in these examples, I'm not trying to apply a value judgement. Rob may be a good guy and I'm pretty sure the Koch brothers are archons walking around in human douche suits. But the point is that they are both making choices to either foster or ignore sustainable systems for their lives.

This is the aspect of sustainability that interests me. And in fact, it does tie into the larger ecology (I'll talk about eating local at some point here I'm sure). If your life is sustainable, that means it can continue indefinitely without getting used up or destroying itself. Sounds obvious, but it's actually really hard to do in modern Western Society (tm). After all, the opposite of sustain (to not use up) is consume (to use up). And the thing that is most likely to be consumed in our consumer society is us.

Sustainability (of ecology, body, mind, and spirit) are important and relate closely to both risk mitigation and change management -- two topics that I'll be writing about a lot here.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Three Things Make a Blog

Starting is always the hardest part. Finishing can be equally difficult and, of course, hanging in there is always a challenge. But today I'm focused on starting, for obvious reasons.

When I published my book I started by listing all the things I wish I'd known when I was starting. It was like a treatise for my younger self, and for others who were just moving past the novice stage. In order to write that book, I had to know all the information in it, and more. Which meant that, after writing it, I was myself ready to focus forward again.

My path from that point took me in some very different directions, in my practice and my life.

I'm currently focused on three topics:

  • Sustainable sorcery -- the practice of using magic to create and support sustainable systems. This includes both practical methods as well as philosophical underpinnings to surviving in a fundamentally unsustainable world.
  • Black swan divination -- using the ideas outlined by Nassim Taleb in his books to create methods that can be used with various types of divination. Barbell investing, avoiding the Ludic fallacy, creating anti-fragility. Remember, Thanksgiving is only a black swan event to the turkey, not the farmer. My research uses tarot, but the ideas should be applicable to any "random placement" type of divination.
  • PMPractical magic -- project planning, risk mitigation, and agile methodologies for magicians. Let's put some practical back into our magic.

Unlike with my book, I don't feel like I know everything about these topics. Perhaps it's a sign of my own maturity. The more I know and the longer I practice, the less sure I feel. But each area has had a lot of both theory and practice over the years and, at this point, I see them starting to twine together into a system that's more pragmatic, more realistic, and at the same time more mystical and liminal than what I've worked with previously.

Starting is always the hardest part. Sometimes it's best to just jump in and tread water as best as you can.

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