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‘X-Men’ actor Shawn Ashmore sells Studio City home



The market was hot for Shawn Ashmore, the actor best known for playing Iceman in the “X-Men” film series. He just sold his Studio City home for $2.125 million, finding a buyer a week after listing and raking in $26,000 more than he was asking.

The deal caps a four-year stay for the Canada native, who paid $1.855 million for the place in 2016.

In Studio City’s Footbridge Square neighborhood, the two-story home draws the eye with a striking gray exterior offset by a bright blue double-door entry. The living spaces calm things down with tan walls and hardwood floors under recessed lighting.

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The exterior. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The entry. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The open floor plan. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The living room. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The kitchen. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The dining area. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The bedroom. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The bathroom. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The office. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The deck. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The patio. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The pool. 

(Jeff Elson)

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The backyard. 

(Jeff Elson)

On the main level, a living room with a fireplace steps down to a chef’s kitchen filled with marble, quartz and stainless steel. Two of the three bedrooms are upstairs, including an owner’s suite with a private deck.

Out back, the nearly 3,000-square-foot home opens to an entertainer’s backyard under string lights. There’s a swimming pool, spa, dining patio and grill all surrounded by grassy lawns.

Ashmore, 41, played Iceman in “X-Men,” “X2,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” His other credits include the horror film “The Ruins” and the shows “The Following,” “The Rookie” and “The Boys.”

Ingrid Sacerio of the Agency held the listing. Matthew Chang of Great Castle Properties represented the buyer.

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Business

Column: Did GM cry ‘uncle’ on emissions rules? Not really



General Motors is collecting kudos this week for abandoning its fight with California over auto emissions rules. Before joining in the chorus of applause, you should read the fine print.

The fine print says that GM isn’t actually abandoning its quest for a rollback of auto emissions standards imposed during the Obama administration. These were eviscerated by President Trump in a move that split the auto industry.

Trump’s related move to revoke the federal waiver allowing California to set its own emissions rules produced a pushback in federal court from California, 22 other states, and the cities of Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

They’re putting down the weapon aimed at California’s waiver. But they’re still pushing for lower emission standards.

Dan Becker, Center for Biological Diversity

GM was on the Trump side in that lawsuit, which is to say: the wrong side.

Now the big automaker is starting the process of making amends. But it’s only going partway.

The process began Monday with GM’s announcement that it is “immediately withdrawing” from the lawsuit over the California waiver and “inviting other automakers to join us.”

The announcement came in a letter from Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, to the heads of 11 environmental groups that have supported California in the lawsuit. As is often the case with corporate PR, however, what the letter doesn’t say is more important than what it does say.

Barra doesn’t say that GM is bailing on its quest for reduced auto emissions standards, or that it is withdrawing from support for the second lawsuit in the matter, which involves a challenge to Trump’s rollback of emissions rules.

Nor does her letter say that GM will join Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, BMW of North America, Audi and Volvo in reaching a deal with California to comply with the state’s emissions standards.

“They’re putting down the weapon aimed at California’s waiver,” says Dan Becker, a transportation expert at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that received Barra’s letter. “But they’re still pushing for lower emission standards.”

Gov. Newsom, whose call in September to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks in California by 2035 aimed to jump-start the building of EV-friendly infrastructure, also sounds a bit dubious about GM’s stance.

“GM’s acknowledgment of the reality that the future is zero emissions is further confirmation that it is time to move toward clean cars,” Newsom said after the GM letter was made public.

Newsom alluded to GM’s failure to join the automakers that cut their deal with California: “I hope that GM will join the ranks of other forward-looking carmakers who stand against President Trump’s attack on clean air through clean cars,” he said. “We urge them to stand with California on developing zero emission vehicles that are right for the health of our state, our economy and our communities.”

Barra’s letter indicates that GM’s change of heart over the California waiver case stems in part from the presidential election result. She refers to President-elect Biden’s commitment to a shift to electric vehicles — an evolutionary step that GM has bought into by moving toward an all-EV product line.

“We are inspired by the President-elect’s Build Back Better plan which outlines a clear intention to expand vehicle electrification in the United States,” Barra wrote.

That said, GM seems to be trying belatedly to make the best out of a mess of its own creation. By siding with Trump in his effort to roll back emissions and auto mileage rules, the company helped to sow chaos in the auto industry.

Automakers always claimed that they were merely seeking a consistent national rule. But if that were really the case, they would have thrown in their lot with California.

The state’s stringent emissions goals were supported by the Obama White House and adopted by 13 other states. That means they applied in about 36% of the U.S. auto market, making them a de facto national standard.

It was obvious, instead, that the industry’s quest was really for relaxed rules.

Until the election, GM could have convinced itself that in fighting California’s initiative and the Obama standard, it had a big bully protecting its back — Donald Trump, abetted by Trump’s team of environmental Visigoths at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation.

With the election over, GM looked around and discovered that its backup army had melted into the hills. So now it’s making nice.

GM needs something concrete from the Biden administration: an enhancement of the federal incentives for electric vehicles. As my colleague Russ Mitchell observes, the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 per electric vehicle phases out for automakers that have sold 200,000 eligible cars.

The subsidy for GM buyers expired entirely at the end of March. That means its Bolt EV, the only plug-in model in its product line right now, has effectively become more expensive.

Sales of its coming EVs, which include all-electric Hummers and Cadillacs coming as early as next year, will also become less competitive in what looks to be an EV market that is finally beginning to show some life.

GM’s partnership with Trump did a lot of damage to the fight against climate change, and will have lasting effects. Moreover, it damaged the company’s credibility with environmental advocates. “I don’t think they’re good faith negotiators we can trust,” Becker told me.

Because of Trump’s vandalism, restoring the Obama-era emissions rules will be unnecessarily complicated. Trump’s rollback was finalized by the EPA and Department of Transportation; it’s still facing a challenge in federal court, but unless the court rules that it was implemented improperly, the Biden administration will have to undertake a long and complicated administrative process to undo it.

California’s agreement with the six automakers was an end run around Trump’s rollback of the rules and his attack on the California waiver.

The rules established under the Obama administration called for average vehicular fuel efficiency to rise to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, applicable in model year 2017 and beyond.

The state’s agreement requires Ford and the other five signing companies to meet a standard of about 50 miles per gallon by 2026. That’s a modest relaxation of the rules, but still far more aggressive than the Trump administration’s plan, which freezes the auto mileage standard at the 2020 level, only 36.9 mpg.

A GM spokeswoman would say only that the California agreements “could possibly be a blueprint” for a GM deal. But the spokeswoman, Jeannine Ginivan, says the company would want to see “stronger support of electric vehicles” in any agreement.

This might include more subsidies for EV sales and an enhanced credit for all-electric vehicles that would allow GM to reach its emissions requirements emissions standards sooner.

What’s most important is that GM solidify its commitment to the environmental standards that it has tried to undermine. The 2026 goal set by California is only a start. Even tougher standards will be needed after that. GM should be leading the auto industry in supporting them. So far, it’s not there.

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Business

How did a three-year-old pizza get delivered by Instacart?



Like many of us, Agneta Yilmaz has turned to Instacart to handle her shopping during the pandemic. She’s trusted the company to deliver fresh groceries from a nearby Ralphs supermarket and, generally speaking, she’s been pleased with the service.

So when the Beverly Hills resident recently opened a box of Celeste frozen pepperoni pizza for her 4-year-old granddaughter, she was shocked to discover it was completely brown and smelled, as Yilmaz put it, “like when you go to the bathroom.”

Yilmaz, 78, told me she immediately checked the expiration date on the box. It said, “Recommended use by Dec-12-17.”

Which is to say, three years ago.

Which is to say, ew!

A Ralphs spokesman acknowledged the incident and said the company is stepping up efforts to ensure all food products on shelves are fresh.

This is an unusual situation. But it speaks to larger issues involving product safety and the food supply chain.

Earlier this year, CNBC found that Amazon was shipping expired food items from third-party sellers. Half of the top-selling companies in Amazon’s Grocery & Gourmet section had received complaints about selling outdated food products, according to a study commissioned by the network.

Generally speaking, reports of expired food being delivered to people’s homes are infrequent and there’s little evidence that the danger of tainted food has increased as a result of the pandemic.

But what happened to Yilmaz should, if nothing else, serve as a reminder that it’s important to check expiration dates on all food products.

“It is easier than you may think for a product to get lost in the store so that it lives there in hiding longer than we might like as consumers,” said John Aloysius, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas.

He and other supply-chain and food-safety experts I spoke with said no one should be freaking out about a single 3-year-old pizza somehow making its way to a consumer’s residence.

Still, each was troubled that a food product so obviously past its sell-by date could still be in circulation.

“Three years old?” said Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “That’s very odd. It really makes you wonder how it got there.”

Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, said the most likely explanation is that “this product got misplaced at some point and then, when found, it was added to a stack of newer product without anyone checking the date.”

Daniel Hare, a spokesman for Conagra Brands, maker of Celeste Pizza, said this is the first such incident he’s heard about.

“Food safety is a top priority and we discourage people from eating products that are past the ‘best by’ date printed on the package,” he said.

Since he brought it up, this aspect of food labeling — “best by,” “use by,” etc. — has long been a source of confusion for consumers.

If milk is past its “sell by” date, for example, can you still drink it?

That’s not an idle question. The Food and Drug Administration estimates Americans throw out about a third of their food supply annually — more than 130 billion pounds, or about $161 billion worth.

The FDA said last year that it supports abandoning “use by” and “sell by” labels. Instead, it prefers “best if used by.”

This conveys to shoppers that while a product may no longer be at peak freshness if purchased near the “best by” date, it’s still safe to consume for a reasonable period afterward.

The “recommended use” on the pizza package Yilmaz purchased highlights the issue. Does that mean you shouldn’t eat the pizza after the posted date? Is it still OK a week later? A month later?

For the record, Conagra’s Hare said the normal shelf life for his company’s frozen pizza is one year. Not three years.

Danko Turcic, an associate professor of operations and supply chain management at UC Riverside, said he doesn’t see Conagra being at fault in this case.

“There is no reason for the manufacturer to be sending out 3-year-old pizzas,” he observed.

Similarly, Turcic said that if a distribution center had received a large shipment of expired pizzas, “we would have seen many more cases of this because distribution centers sell to stores by the pallets.”

He laid the blame squarely on Ralphs, saying that “the store did not do a good enough job of monitoring its inventory and discarding expired items.”

“I think that this is a rare case,” Turcic added. “A pizza slipped through the cracks. That said, why do Instacart employees not check expiration dates before they purchase the items? I would say that this one is equally on Instacart and Ralphs.”

A spokeswoman for Instacart, who didn’t want her name used although she’s, you know, a spokeswoman, said the company’s shoppers are instructed to examine the expiration dates of products they select.

What she didn’t mention is that Instacart workers are also under intense time pressure imposed by the company, which might make it tough to spare a few seconds to check an expiration date.

“In the rare instance that a customer receives an item that is past its expiration date, they can reach out to our care team for a full refund,” the spokeswoman said.

Yilmaz told me she didn’t blame Instacart. She wanted to know how the West Hollywood Ralphs at Doheny and Beverly — her regular supermarket — could have overlooked a 2017 pizza sitting in its freezer for three years.

Yilmaz called the company. She said a Ralphs service rep seemed “arrogant” and uninterested in the problem. The rep offered a $2 store credit to make things right.

“I told her I wasn’t interested in a refund,” Yilmaz recalled. “I was more concerned about someone else buying one of these pizzas and serving it to their grandchild.”

A supervisor came on the line and, according to Yilmaz, was similarly unimpressed by the primitive pizza. Nobody got sick, the supervisor pointed out.

So Yilmaz reached out to me, and I reached out to Ralphs, which is owned by industry heavyweight Kroger.

A deeply apologetic company exec contacted Yilmaz the next day.

“She stated she was shocked to hear about my experience and that it should never have happened,” Yilmaz told me.

The exec said the manager of the West Hollywood store had been ordered to have everything removed from the freezers and for all expiration dates to be examined.

Yilmaz said she also was informed that the service rep and supervisor who initially handled her situation would receive some remedial training in playing well with others.

“Safety, quality and freshness are our top priorities,” John Votava, a Ralphs spokesman, told me.

“This isolated incident does not represent the best of Ralphs and our standards of being fresh for everyone,” he said. “We have redoubled our efforts with the store team and call center to ensure it does not happen again.”

There are two takeaways from all this. First and most important, grocery stores need to be vigilant in ensuring that the products they sell are fresh and safe. For the most part, I think they are.

Second, as Harvard’s Shih succinctly put it, “Always look at the date.” Before you buy or consume something, that is.

Unless you enjoy pizza with everything on it.

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Business

Can small businesses survive another COVID-19 surge?



For 27 years, along an industrial strip by the 405 Freeway, Go Kart World has offered family fun with six racetracks and an arcade. But as news of the coronavirus spread in February, customers fled. And in March, health officials shut down the business.

“I was freaking out,” said Cynde Harris, co-owner with her husband, John. “Our season runs February through September. We were losing like $1.4 million a month. There’s no way to recover from that.”

The Harrises furloughed 35 workers, and over the next few months, they managed to snag two federal loans totaling $270,000. In October, a $30,000 grant from Los Angeles County came through. Go Kart World reopened this month in Carson.

But Harris is worried. “You can only take on so much debt,” she said. “It’s bitter medicine to be told, ‘You can borrow the money,’ when a government closure just drove a truck through your business.”

When the coronavirus began its death march through the economy last spring, Congress’ $2.2-trillion CARES Act buoyed California’s small businesses like Go Kart World with billions of dollars in loans and grants. But rescue efforts are now faltering as the pandemic reaches catastrophic new heights.

After months of partisan wrangling and the presidential election of Joe Biden, Congress remains in a stalemate over new stimulus funding for struggling entrepreneurs, unemployed workers and strapped state and local governments.

Without an influx of new federal aid, tens of thousands of California’s 5 million small enterprises face a bleak winter of government restrictions, dwindling customers and closures amid a slowing economic recovery. Many may not survive.

“The loans they got gave many businesses some moments of respite,” said John Kabateck, California director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “But they were Band-Aids on a very big wound. Now they’re very, very terrified.”

Despite a partial rebound over the summer, California’s small business revenue was down by 29.3% this month, compared with January, according to Opportunity Insights, an economic indicators tracker based at Harvard University. The number of the state’s small businesses that remain open has dropped 31.8%.

With the possibility of a prolonged economic downturn, “many of these closures may be permanent because of the inability of owners to pay ongoing expenses,” said UC Santa Cruz economist Robert Fairlie, who tracks data for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Cynde Harris, co-owner of Go Kart World in Carson, said more federal aid is needed to cope with the economic effects of COVID-19.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

COVID-19 vaccines may be on the way, but it is unclear whether they will be widespread early enough to help many teetering businesses. In a national survey last month by the Small Business Majority, a network of 70,000 companies, more than a third of owners said their businesses would not survive past mid-January without additional funding. For Black-owned and Latino-owned enterprises, the portion was 41%.

Maricela Guerrero bought La Taverna Cubana, a money-losing Valley Village restaurant, three years ago and had begun to turn a profit when pandemic restrictions forced her to close in March. She laid off two of her four employees and reopened a week later for take-out and delivery only. Revenue is less than half of what it was, she said.

“We used to have lunchtime customers from the studios, but now they’re not making movies, so it is really slow,” said Guerrero, 48. “I don’t want to shut down. I’ve put my soul into this business.”

Thanks to the CARES Act, Guerrero got two federal loans, for $13,000 and $28,000. They helped with rent, supplies and payroll, but the money ran out in September.

A few weeks ago, she scored a $15,000 grant from the LA Regional COVID-19 Recovery Fund, a joint city-county program. But like many small eateries, La Taverna Cubana operates on a slim margin and Guerrero has racked up $40,000 in credit card debt.

Unless her restaurant can reopen fully, she says, she can’t survive past January without more help.

Full reopening is unlikely to happen soon. In the last week, California’s weekly coronavirus infections have more than doubled, with the state averaging more than 11,000 new cases a day. Hospitalizations rose 78% in the last two weeks. Businesses in most of the state, including all of Southern California, are operating under the state’s most restrictive capacity and reopening rules.

Serina Lim, owner of Phnom Pich Jewelry International in Long Beach, at her store with husband Tarith Tan. She said sales are only half what they were this time last year due to the coronavirus lockdowns.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Even if the state were to reopen soon, customers are likely to be wary of returning to malls, stadiums and other public places until transmission of the virus subsides.

Moreover, with the spring’s $1,200 federal stimulus checks now spent and the August expiration of a $600 weekly federal unemployment supplement, consumers have less money in their pockets to spend even if they do go out.

That’s a big worry for Serina Lim, 40, owner of Phnom Pich Jewelry International in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town district. Her store was shut in March and didn’t reopen until Oct. 1. She said sales have dropped to about half of what she saw this time last year.

“Jewelry isn’t on everyone’s list of necessities,” she said. And under county COVID-19 safety rules, the store can serve only one customer at a time.

Lim got two federal loans, for $50,000 and $27,500, as well as a $15,000 grant from the Los Angeles regional fund, but said her landlord refused to lower rent while her store was closed. And in late May, as protests erupted over police violence, her store suffered $80,000 in damage only partly covered by insurance, she said.

“We’ve depleted our savings trying to stay afloat,” Lim said. “But we’re still faced with the horrors of this pandemic. We need more aid to ride it out before the vaccine comes.”

To be sure, the pandemic’s effects are uneven. Restaurants, gyms, hair salons, movie theaters and other businesses involving close human contact are suffering far more than law practices, accountancy firms or technology companies whose workers can operate from home.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., which represents 400 San Fernando Valley companies, said “a lot of businesses, especially restaurants, have ceased to exist. It’s heartbreaking.”

Others are adapting, Waldman added, citing an actors’ studio that moved classes online. Small clothing shops and bookstores with loyal customers have brought back furloughed workers for online sales and curbside pickup. Santa Ana’s Blinking Owl Distillery began making hand sanitizer for hospitals. In Manhattan Beach, Kasih Co-op, a small company selling Indonesian-made pillows and cutting boards, pivoted to batik face coverings.

A sign at Go Kart World in Carson informs customers that face coverings are required. The company usually counts on money from the summer high season to get through the lean winter months, but this year, the pandemic deprived it of that cushion.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Survival often depends on landlords. Business operators “who own their own buildings are in a good position,” Waldman said. “And some landlords are giving rent discounts. But others force their tenants to even pay for parking spaces they can’t use.”

An October survey by the independent business federation found that sales were down by at least half for 1 in 5 small businesses in the U.S. as compared with before COVID-19. But 17% were doing better, with the rest somewhere in between.

Most small businesses that sought federal loans under two major CARES Act programs were able to get them, according to the federation. But the Paycheck Protection Program, which funneled $68.6 billion to 623,000 Golden State companies, stopped taking applications in August. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which has loaned $34 billion to 550,000 California businesses, expires in December.

Many local programs are running out of money too. The $108-million LA Regional COVID-19 Recovery Fund, using city and county CARES Act money, stopped accepting applications last month.

A new $25-million state-funded loan program, the California Rebuilding Fund, launched last week for pandemic-affected businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

Of California’s 1.59 million business establishments with employees, 1.16 million have fewer than five people on payroll, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many, like Guerrero’s restaurant and Lim’s jewelry store, qualified for federal loans.

But California has 3.4 million sole proprietors with no employees, and many have fallen through the cracks. Some couldn’t meet federal loan requirements or were flummoxed by paperwork. Others lacked a relationship with a bank to process a loan.

Romari Mallard, 10, in the Gamebox Mobile Video Gaming trailer. His parents’ small business in Paramount rents out the 20-foot trailer full of video games for parties and fundraisers — which have been scarce during the pandemic.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“The PPP required you to show you made a profit,” said Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, executive director of Los Angeles Local Initiatives Support Corp., a nonprofit distributing the regional funds. “Some people didn’t have that. And if you were a backup singer, a hairdresser or a street vendor and you didn’t have employees, you couldn’t get much money.”

One clue to the vast need: 140,000 small businesses have applied for the Los Angeles grants since July but only about 7,000 will be funded. Of the $108 million, which must be spent this year, $31 million was allocated as of mid-November.

“We have to wait for entities to provide their information,” Thrash-Ntuk said. “We have to verify it. We are communicating with them in 15 different languages.”

Ebony Lynk’s business consists of a 20-foot video game trailer for parties. Based at her Paramount apartment, Gamebox Mobile Video Gaming and Entertainment has no employees, but Lynk’s husband, Romel Mallard, who was laid off from his trucking job last year, helps with the driving. Their sons, ages 13 and 10, volunteer as game coaches on weekends.

“After COVID hit in March, revenue went from $4,000 a month to zero,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do. We just kept praying.”

Lynk, 38, cut back on loan payments for the trailer but had to cover storage, phone and website maintenance. Then, in early July, as customers began trickling back, expenses rose as she began providing sanitizer and masks. The number of gamers inside the trailer was cut by half for social distancing.

In August, the federal Small Business Administration turned Lynk down for a disaster loan. But in October, she got a $5,000 grant from the Los Angeles regional fund. “I was so ecstatic, I screamed and ran around like a 5-year-old,” she said.

The grant, Lynk said, enabled her to increase loan payments for the trailer and now, with business back to normal, she has begun a program that offers gift certificates for fundraisers and free sessions for nonprofits. Among the first recipients: Sisters of Watts, a South Los Angeles community group.

If the new COVID-19 wave shuts down the game business, Lynk has a plan B. She has applied for a city license to sell home-prepared treats such as Rice Krispie squares and chocolate-covered pretzels. She’s been studying videos on how to make decorations such as balloon towers.

“I want my children to know if you work hard, you can make it happen,” Lynk said.

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Business

Retailers plan for Black Friday with COVID-19 precautions



Those tightly packed Black Friday lines that snake through the mall parking lot in the dead of night, past tents and lawn chairs and coolers stacked with still-warm Thanksgiving leftovers, are not exactly conducive to social distancing.

That puts retailers in a difficult position ahead of a hyped shopping day typically marked by frenzied crowds and predawn doorbuster deals. With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country and public health officials urging Americans to stay home as much as possible — plus a new curfew covering 94% of Californians — in-store shopping on the day after Thanksgiving will be a subdued affair.

That’s leading to some mixed messaging from retailers: Come out on Black Friday, but not all at once. Consider just shopping online. Can’t get around to it this weekend? No problem — holiday discounts, which began earlier than ever, will continue for weeks.

“The power of Black Friday has been diminishing over the years and now, with COVID, is virtually nonexistent in stores and primarily moved to online,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. “What COVID did was it forced what the inevitable already was to speed up.”

Last year’s Black Friday pulled in record online sales of $7.4 billion, a 19.6% increase over the previous year, according to data from Adobe. If projections are accurate, this Black Friday will blow past that, with online sales expected to generate $10.3 billion.

“We’ve rarely seen that much growth, but it’s unsurprising given the pandemic-driven surge to online shopping,” Adobe spokesman Kevin Fu said.

With retailers hampered by temporary store closures, capacity limits and stay-at-home orders since March, many have been pointing shoppers online for months. They’ve also been spreading holiday deals out, starting as early as October and promising to keep them going well into December.

Retail watchers say that despite a challenging year, there are signs that pent-up demand and “guilt gifting” will boost sales during the all-important end-of-year period.

The National Retail Federation on Monday forecast that November-December holiday sales, which combine in-store and online activity, would total $755.3 billion to $766.7 billion. That would reflect a year-over-year increase of 3.6% to 5.2%, outpacing the average holiday sales increase of 3.5% over the last five years.

“There is uncertainty about consumers’ willingness to spend, but with the economy improving most have the ability to spend,” Jack Kleinhenz, the retail federation’s chief economist, said in a statement. “After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday.”

Hot gift categories include technology, small domestic appliances, housewares, toys and do-it-yourself auto projects, which Cohen summarized as things that help you “live a better life while you’re at home,” given that Americans will probably continue to spend a lot of their time there next year. Along those lines, apparel sales are expected to be weak — with the exception of sleepwear and slippers, he said.

Although the importance of Black Friday has been waning for years, it was still the top shopping day in 2019, according to the NPD Group.

How many shoppers will venture out is impossible to predict. But consumers have been conditioned to think of Black Friday as a day to shop, and stores have been carefully preparing to welcome those who do show up — albeit with a slew of rules and restrictions.

Westfield has been doing dry runs ahead of the big day, said Molly Unger, vice president of shopping center management. The company will have traffic counters at all of its 29 U.S. malls — those in Los Angeles County, such as Westfield Century City and Westfield Topanga, are currently limited to 25% capacity — and will restrict entry at the doors or at its garages, or block off parking spaces, if too many people arrive at once.

“They’re ready and they’ve been practicing,” she said. “It’s not about closing the centers down, it’s about slowing down the intake of people coming in.”

In-store and curbside pickup options will help customers get in and out quickly, and Unger doesn’t expect many to leisurely browse as in years past.

“We’ve seen customers’ behavior change,” she said. “It’s still a social experience to go to a mall, but they’re mission-oriented. They’re not just coming to hang out.”

That will almost certainly hurt in-store sales around the country by dramatically reducing impulse buying, Cohen said.

“Black Friday won’t be as big as what we’ve seen,” he said. “There will be plenty of people who will shop, don’t get me wrong, but you won’t see that mad dash, that mass hysteria that usually occurs. That’s gone.”

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Ousted Clippers coach Doc Rivers sells Malibu beach house for $12.25 million



It’s been a dramatic offseason for Doc Rivers. In September, the Clippers coach was fired after seven seasons with the team following a disappointing defeat in the NBA Western Conference semifinals, and he was hired as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers less than a week later.

The big move is accompanied by a big home sale, as the 59-year-old just unloaded his Malibu beach house for $12.25 million.

Spanish in style, the two-story home enjoys an oceanfront spot in Malibu Cove Colony, one of L.A. County’s most expensive enclaves, with owners over the years including “Brady Bunch” star Barry Williams and film producer Gianni Nunnari.

Rivers’ place takes advantage of the scenic setting with pocketing walls of glass and a massive deck that descends to the beach. The main level houses the owner’s suite, a large space with a private balcony, walk-in closet and steam shower.

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The outdoor lounge. 

(Neue Focus)

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The open floor plan. 

(Neue Focus)

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The living room. 

(Neue Focus)

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The kitchen. 

(Neue Focus)

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The primary bedroom. 

(Neue Focus)

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The deck. 

(Neue Focus)

Downstairs, an open floor plan combines a living room, dining room and chef’s kitchen topped by vaulted ceilings. In addition to the four-bedroom, five-bathroom home, there’s a courtyard with a bar and a detached spa with a sauna and Japanese soaking tub.

As a player, Rivers spent time with the Atlanta Hawks, Clippers, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs in a career that stretched from 1983 to 1996, including an All-Star game appearance in 1988. As a coach, he was named NBA coach of the year with the Orlando Magic in 2000 and won a championship with the Boston Celtics eight years later. During his seven seasons with the Clippers, the team posted a record of 356-208.

He’ll still have a place to stay when the Sixers visit L.A. Records show he owns a Hamptons-style mansion in Hollywood Hills that he listed for $11.25 million about a year ago.

According to the Multiple Listing Service, he was originally asking $13.25 million for the Malibu home late last year but trimmed the price to $13 million over the summer.

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Data sales by Muslim Pro app are ‘a betrayal,’ users say



Five times a day, tens of millions of phones buzz with notifications from an app called Muslim Pro, reminding users it’s time to pray. While Muslims in Los Angeles woke Thursday to a dawn notification that read, “Fajr at 5:17 AM,” users in Sri Lanka were minutes away from getting a ping telling them it was time for Isha, or the night prayer.

The app’s Qibla compass quickly orients devices toward the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia — which Muslims face when praying. When prayers are done, the in-app Quran lets users pick up reading exactly where they left off. A counter tallies the days of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Listings guide users to halal food in their area.

These features make it easier to practice the many daily rituals prescribed in Islam, turning Muslim Pro into the most popular Muslim app in the world, according to the app’s maker, Singapore-based BitsMedia.

But revelations about the app’s data collection and sales practices have left some users wondering if the convenience is worth the risk.

BitsMedia sells user location data to a broker called X Mode, which in turn sells that information to contractors. X Mode’s client list has included U.S. military contractors, the tech publication Motherboard first reported last week.

Mass calls to delete Muslim Pro and a separate Muslim matrimony app called Muslim Mingle have since echoed across social media, resonating among communities that have long been the target of government surveillance.

Majlis Ash-Shura, a leadership council that represents 90 New York state mosques, sent a notification urging people to delete Muslim Pro, citing “safety and data privacy.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, sent letters to three U.S. House committee chairs asking them to investigate the U.S. military’s purchase of location and movement data of users of Muslim-oriented apps. CAIR called for legislation prohibiting government agencies from purchasing user data that would otherwise require a warrant.

The prayer app MuslimPro has over 98million users. And, it’s been selling user data to U.S. military contractors. This is horrifying, violent and traumatic for so many reasons. This should concern EVERYONE, not just Muslims. Learn more 👇🏾 https://t.co/TWfcfKjthX

— Dr. Mama Kam (@KameelahRashad) November 20, 2020

In a statement, Muslim Pro denied that it sold user data directly to the U.S. military but confirmed that it had worked with X Mode. Muslim Pro said it always anonymized the user data it sold, and said that the company planned to terminate its relationship with X Mode and all other data brokers.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said an investigation into the data broker industry showed that as of September, X Mode was “selling data collected from phones in the United States to U.S. military customers, via defense contractors.”

“Every single American has the right to practice their religion without being spied on,” Wyden tweeted. “I will continue to watchdog this announcement and ensure Americans’ constitutional rights are protected.”

X Mode did not respond to requests for comment, but reportedly ceased working with two specific defense contractors named in the Motherboard report. Muslim Pro did not respond to questions about whether executives were aware of what X Mode did with user information after its purchase.

Muslim Pro is trying to win back users worried about their privacy. Upon downloading the app, users now see a pop-up that says, “media reports are circulating that Muslim Pro has been selling personal data of its users to the US Military. This is INCORRECT and UNTRUE. Muslim Pro is committed to protecting and securing our users’ privacy. This is a matter we take very seriously.”

Imam Omar Suleiman, a prominent Muslim scholar and the founder of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, felt the company’s statement was a deflection.

“There has to be some humility to accept their responsibility,” said Suleiman. “They should have said, ‘Look, we totally messed up. We should not have done that. We need to be more careful. And these are the steps that we’re going to take to remedy the situation.’ Instead, it seems like the response was just very defensive.”

BitsMedia was founded in 2009 by Erwan Mace — a Singapore-based iOS developer whose LinkedIn profile shows previous stints at major tech companies like Google, Akamai and Nokia-owned Alcatel. BitsMedia built and developed apps for corporate clients and an app-discovery service called Frenzapp, but Muslim Pro is far and away the company’s biggest success.

Mace told the site TechinAsia that he launched Muslim Pro in 2010 after noticing how his Muslim friends had to turn to the radio, the local mosque or the newspaper to find out what time to break their fast during Ramadan. By 2017, Muslim Pro had been downloaded 45 million times, piquing the interest of private equity firms Bintang Capital and CMIA Capital Partners. The firms acquired BitsMedia for an undisclosed amount and Mace left the company two years later.

Muslim Pro offers two versions of its product: a free app that is supported by advertisements and a paid subscription service for those who prefer to avoid seeing pop-ups for businesses such as Doordash and Western Union under verses for the Quran. The company says the app has been downloaded more than 90 million times on iOS devices, and it has tallied more than 50 million downloads on Android devices, according to the Google Play store.

In the world of free apps and internet services, the sale and exchange of personal information are not unusual. In fact, in most cases it’s what keeps free apps free. Facebook, Google, Twitter and practically every other company sell ads against personal user information in order to help advertisers better target potential customers.

But for many Muslims, the sale of personal information by an app that helps them interact with their faith in the privacy of their own homes feels like a greater personal violation.

“This is not taking place in a vacuum,” Suleiman said. “This is part of a wrong pattern of crackdowns and all sorts of violations of our civil liberties that have preyed on our most basic functions as Muslims.”

Muslims in the United States and abroad have been the subject of mass government surveillance for years, at times, for simply practicing their faith or participating in faith-based activities.

The New York Police Department demographics unit — a counter-terrorism group launched in response to 9/11 — surveilled Muslims in and around the state to weed out radicalization based on indicators that the ACLU said were “so broad that it seems to treat with suspicion anyone who identifies as Muslim, harbors Islamic beliefs, or engages in Islamic religious practices.”

Muslim community leaders point to the expansion of the U.S. drone program under President Obama, which used drones for surveillance and targeted killings in Muslim-majority countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.

That’s why it’s so troubling that data showing how often Muslims engage with their faith and where they are could end up in the hands of the U.S. military, said Zahra Billoo, a civil rights attorney and executive director of CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter.

“This feels like a betrayal from within our own community,” said Billoo. “People feel that they should have been able to trust a company that markets and serves specifically the Muslim community — a community that has been under incredible attack domestically and abroad — to keep that data private, to be incredibly diligent about who they were selling it to, if they would sell it at all.”

While Muslim Pro’s data policies are broadly in line with the rest of the tech industry, the use of the app is an indicator of faith and religiosity in ways that few others are, Billoo said.

“Our religion cannot be assumed from some of the other software,” she continued. “But if I’m checking Fajr everyday on Muslim Pro, then that tells the U.S. military something specific about me.”

Billoo said CAIR is asking for a congressional inquiry — one that might get answers from the U.S. military about why the data were acquired and how they are being used.

In New York, where NYPD surveillance remains top of mind in the Muslim community, members of the Majlis Ash-Shura, the Muslim leadership council in New York, say the app scandal has inspired them to begin discussing lobbying for statewide consumer privacy legislation, akin to California’s Consumer Privacy Act. Members of the leadership council are no strangers to the idea of government surveillance — the group’s former president, Imam Talib Abdur Rashid, sued the NYPD for surveillance records on himself — but this is the first time it has considered steps to curb potential government surveillance through private businesses.

In the last week, many Muslims have sought out more alternatives to Muslim Pro, but given the importance of geography in calculating prayer times, it’s hard to find apps that won’t need to access location information. Islamic prayer times hinge on the position of the sun, with each prayer corresponding with different positions. It’s why prayer times change throughout the year as days get shorter or longer and vary from location to location.

Calculating prayer times requires inputting the longitude and date into a formula called the equation of time, which determines solar time, according to Omar Al-Ejel, a computer science major at the University of Michigan who built a prayer time app in 2015 that he continues to update. For example, solar noon — which is when the sun is at its highest point — is not always at 12 p.m. Knowing exactly what time solar noon is helps Muslims know when to pray Dhuhr prayer. (In Los Angeles on Monday, Dhuhr or solar noon is at 11:46 a.m.)

However, Al-Ejel said while the security of the data is not guaranteed, apps that do on-device calculations tend to be more trustworthy because location data aren’t automatically being sent to a remote server where it would be impossible to tell whether the data are being sold or misused.

Some Muslim Pro competitors have been releasing statements indicating they do not store or sell personal data. Athan Pro parent company Quanticapps said the company does on-device calculations and never stores or sells any personal data to any server — though its free version is ad supported. Another company called Batoul Apps — which provides a suite of paid and free apps, some of which are geared toward Muslims, without ads — also said it doesn’t collect or sell personal information. The company’s prayer time app is free.

We are proud to say that we don’t collect or give your personal information to anyone. Our apps have no ads and no analytics expressly so that no one will have access to any user information.

— Batoul Apps (@batoulapps) November 16, 2020

“When it comes to anything religious,” Al-Ejel said, “I feel like it should just be implied that you’re not selling any kind of information.”

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Business

Seth Rogen sells West Hollywood home for $2.16 million



Comedy actor Seth Rogen has another hit on his hands in West Hollywood. A month after listing his Spanish-style retreat, the actor-director just sold it for $2.16 million — or $35,000 more than he was asking.

It’s not his main residence; that one spans 10 acres a few miles north in Hollywood Hills West, and he shelled out nearly $8 million for the nature-oriented retreat complete with streams, trees and trails in 2014, The Times previously reported.

Rogen bought this place for $1.65 million in 2006, and it centers on a 97-year-old hacienda shrouded in landscaping and tucked behind gates. There’s a courtyard in front, and out back, a lush space boasts multiple ponds, dramatic dining areas and fire features.

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The Spanish-style home. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The entry. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The living room. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The dining room. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The kitchen. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The built-ins. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The primary bedroom. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The bathroom. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The office. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The backyard. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The koi pond. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The dining patio. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The fireplace. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The fire pit. 

(Jeff Ong)

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The outdoor lounge. 

(Jeff Ong)

Inside, arched doorways, barrel ceilings and custom built-ins tie the home to its Spanish roots. French doors turn the living room into an indoor-outdoor space, and the dining area tacks on booth seating and a brick backsplash.

Four bedrooms and three bathrooms complete the 2,853-square-foot floor plan. The primary suite makes up the entire second story with vaulted ceilings, a spa bathroom and walk-in closet.

A native of Canada, Rogen appeared in the sitcoms “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” before pivoting to film, writing and starring in the movies “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express,” “This Is the End” and “The Interview.” More recently, he appeared in the HBO Max movie “An American Pickle” and served as an executive producer of the Prime Video series “The Boys.”

Jane Gavens and Mary Brill of Compass held the listing. Michael Fahimian of Coldwell Banker Realty represented the buyer.

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Business

Actor Josh Hutcherson sells Studio City home to songwriter



“Hunger Games” actor Josh Hutcherson wasted no time shedding his Studio City home, selling the place for $1.899 million and finding a buyer after about two weeks on the market. That’s just $900 shy of his asking price, records show.

The buyer is Billy Walsh, a songwriter who’s penned tracks for artists such as Post Malone and the Weeknd, The Times has confirmed.

The place is a bit more traditional than the home Hutcherson sold in February, a treehouse-style Midcentury perched in Hollywood Hills. This property features tiered gardens that approach the gray-colored home, ascending to a covered front porch with whitewashed beams and string lights.

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The living room. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The dining area. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The kitchen. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The bedroom. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The bathroom. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The brick walkway. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The swimming pool. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The entertainer’s backyard. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The covered front porch. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

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The exterior. 

(Adrian Van Anz)

The beams continue inside, topping a dramatic living room with a wall of built-ins. In 1,706 square feet, there’s also a center-island chef’s kitchen, an open-concept dining area with a wine cooler, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Covered in reclaimed wood, the owner’s suite features three closets and a remodeled bathroom.

Out back, a brick stairway climbs to an entertainer’s backyard perched above the property. It includes a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a pizza oven surrounded by a turf lawn and patio.

Besides the “Hunger Games” films, the 28-year-old Hutcherson is known for his film roles in “RV” and “Future Man.” Last year, he had a voice role in the Netflix animated series “Ultraman.”

Michael Bergin of Compass held the listing. Anthony Paradise of Sotheby’s International Realty represented Walsh.

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IBM apologizes for firing transgender pioneer Lynn Conway



On Oct. 14, some 1,200 IBM employees signed on remotely to a company website for what was billed as a celebration of the life and career of Lynn Conway, a “tech trailblazer and transgender pioneer,” as the event was titled.

Conway’s record as a computer science pioneer at IBM and subsequently at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, was undoubtedly well known to the attendees, as was the story of her gender transition in 1968.

What was unexpected was that IBM would take the occasion to confess that it had fired Conway in the midst of her transition, after promising to support her — or that it would formally apologize for how it had treated her 52 years earlier.

They thought they were doing the right thing.

Lynn Conway, on her firing by IBM in 1968

“I wanted to say to you here today, Lynn, for that experience in our company and all the hardships that followed, I am truly sorry,” said Diane Gherson, an IBM senior vice president of human affairs who was leading the event.

“Thanks to your courage, your example, and all the people who followed in your footsteps, as a society we are now in a better place,” Gherson continued. “But that doesn’t help you, Lynn, probably our very first employee to come out. And for that, we deeply regret what you went through — and know I speak for all of us.”

No one was more surprised at the apology than Conway herself, who long ago had shed any resentment about IBM’s actions in 1968.

“I didn’t know how to react,” Conway told me. “I started to tear up. I didn’t know when it started that Diane was going to apologize on IBM’s behalf.”

The event then continued along the lines Conway, 82, had expected — as a recognition not only of her work but the progress the company had made in supporting transgender employees.

“They are the leading company in this, which is amazing,” she says. She expected the company to merely “admit this happened and they know about my work, and then we would jointly celebrate how far we’ve come.”

To grasp the importance of IBM’s step, it helps to review Conway’s personal and professional journey.

Lynn Conway, at home in 2000

(Los Angeles Times)

I first met Conway when I was working on my 1999 book about Xerox PARC, “Dealers of Lightning,” for which she was a uniquely valuable source. In 2000, when she decided to come out as transgender, she allowed me to chronicle her life in a cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine titled “Through the Gender Labyrinth.”

Growing up male in New York’s strait-laced Westchester County, Conway struggled with an inner turmoil.

A natural engineer, Conway excelled academically and won a place at MIT, but wound up flunking out due to a lack of social or medical support. In 1961, however, Conway enrolled at Columbia University, acquiring bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in only two years.

Conway also impressed a Columbia instructor who was an executive at IBM. That led to a position on a team secretly designing the world’s fastest supercomputer, a pet project of IBM Chairman Thomas Watson Jr.

Conway moved with the team to Menlo Park, Calif., producing engineering innovations that would remain central to IBM’s most advanced computers for years.

In the meantime Conway had gotten married and began to raise two daughters. Family life only intensified that inner turmoil, and in 1968 Conway decided to undertake gender reassignment surgery.

As I wrote in 2000, Conway had visualized a nearly seamless transition. IBM would change the name on company records and execute a transfer to another lab, marking a fresh start.

It was not to be. IBM corporate management, unable to see how the secret could be kept from co-workers, feared disruption. Although Conway’s immediate superiors had said they would find room for her at another company lab, contrary orders came down from on high and Conway was quietly fired.

“They thought they were doing the right thing,” Conway told me. “I’m sure in his own mind, T.J. Watson Jr. thought so. He was responsible for a corporation.” Gender transition and sex reassignment surgery were alien concepts at the time.

“Christine Jorgensen was the last time anything had come out about stuff like this,” Conway recalls. Jorgensen’s transition, which had made front-page news in 1951, had been reduced to a historical curiosity nearly two decades later. “Watson was thinking there would be endless publicity, and I can understand that.”

In an era when there was no recourse for anyone fired for sex or gender discrimination, Conway’s job loss could not have come at a worse time.

Conway was living as a woman but the gender reassignment surgery was not scheduled to take place for a few months. It would cost about $4,000 — an enormous sum in 1968 — not including several thousand dollars in related costs: electrolysis, counseling, hormone therapy.

The family went on welfare for three months. Conway’s wife barred her from contact with her daughters. She would not see them again for 14 years.

Beyond the financial implications, the stigma of banishment from one of the world’s most respected corporations felt like an excommunication.

She sought jobs in the burgeoning electrical engineering community in what would soon become known as Silicon Valley, working her way up through startups, and eventually received an offer in 1973 from the research lab Xerox had just established in Palo Alto.

PARC has become famous for inventing the personal computer, but Conway’s work was on a different trajectory. In partnership with Caltech engineering professor Carver Mead, she codified the design rules for the new technology of “very large-scale integrated circuits” (or, in computer shorthand, VLSI). The pair laid down the rules in a 1979 textbook that a generation of engineering students knew as “Mead-Conway.”

VLSI fostered a revolution in computer microprocessor design that included the Pentium chip, which would power millions of PCs. Conway spread the VLSI gospel by creating a system in which students taking courses at MIT and other technical institutions could get their sample designs rendered in silicon.

Professional and academic accolades began to accumulate. In 1983, she was recruited to head a supercomputer program at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — sailing through her FBI background check so easily that she became convinced that the Pentagon must have already encountered transgender people in its workforce. A figure of undisputed authority in some of the most abstruse corners of computing, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989.

By then she had joined the University of Michigan as a professor and associate dean in the College of Engineering, where she is professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science. In 2002 she married a fellow engineer, Charles Rogers, and with him has nurtured a 24-acre homestead in a rural district not far from Ann Arbor.

She also became a mentor and model for generations following her path to gender transition. She also has written about how women and minorities can get written out of the histories of scientific and technical innovations — drawing from her own experience of fighting to be recognized for her role in developing VLSI technology.

Conway’s record of professional achievement and personal growth, along with her engineer’s clear-eyed contemplation of the world around her, helped her to look back on her experience at IBM without rancor — “I don’t go around holding grudges,” she says. “That’s just bad karma.”

She was aware, moreover, that IBM had become a leader in its support of transgender employees. But there was something missing in her relationship with IBM. The process of filling the vacuum started with Arvind Krishna, who learned the outlines of Conway’s story from a transgender employee shortly after become IBM’s CEO in April. He asked Gherson to look into the background.

Her research left her “stunned and heartbroken,” Gherson said at the Oct. 14 event, which incorporated the announcement that Conway had received IBM’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“While your experience wouldn’t happen today at IBM, there will always be challenges in today’s workplace that we just aren’t prepared for,” Gherson told Conway and the audience.

“One thing 2020 has taught all of us is that we have a lot to learn when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace in society,” Gherson said. “We know there is much work to be done. So we are here today not only to celebrate you as a world renowned innovator and IBM alum, but also to learn from you — and by so doing create a more inclusive workplace in society.”

For Conway, the event points to a way that society can redress historical wrongs without sweeping them under the rug.

As members of the audience related some of their own experiences of coming out, “the whole thing quickly turned away from recrimination and dissing people who did things in the past that by present standards don’t look very good,” Conway recalls.

“For me personally, it brings a lot of closure,” she says. “It ties things up so that all of that is now ancient history. And it shows a path forward for a lot of issues where there are regrets over past actions. People need resolution, but you can’t go back in space and time and judge those by the techno-social standards of today.

“There are ways of not carrying hate and vendettas, but to be able to historically recognize exactly what happened, and then take away the lessons that any one of us can share about how to avoid entrapping oneself in a similar situation that might be judged in the future. It isn’t really about me. I’m just a messenger.”