Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How it all works, and where it's taking us

I'm talking about the evolution of economics; how it started, where we were, and where it's all going. I found this article to be intelligent, stimulating and exciting:

Welcome to the Failure Age!
[...] An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less. (Schuetz receives tons of smartphones that are only a season or two old.)

The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives — of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers — that has shared in this process of failure.

Innovation is, after all, terrifying. Right now we’re going through changes that rip away the core logic of our economy. Will there be enough jobs to go around? Will they pay a living wage? Terror, however, can also be helpful. The only way to harness this new age of failure is to learn how to bounce back from disaster and create the societal institutions that help us do so. The real question is whether we’re up for the challenge.


The original age of innovation may have ushered in an era of unforeseen productivity, but it was, for millions of people, absolutely terrifying. Over a generation or two, however, our society responded by developing a new set of institutions to lessen the pain of this new volatility, including unions, Social Security and the single greatest risk-mitigating institution ever: the corporation. During the late 19th century, a series of experiments in organizational structure culminated, in the 1920s, with the birth of General Motors, the first modern corporation. Its basic characteristics soon became ubiquitous. Ownership, which was once a job passed from father to son, was now divided among countless shareholders. Management, too, was divided, among a large group of professionals who directed units, or “subdivisions,” within it. The corporation, in essence, acted as a giant risk-sharing machine, amassing millions of investors’ capital and spreading it among a large number of projects, then sharing the returns broadly too. The corporation managed the risk so well, in fact, that it created an innovation known as the steady job. For the first time in history, the risks of innovation were not borne by the poorest. This resulted in what economists call the Great Compression, when the gap between the income of the rich and poor rapidly fell to its lowest margin.


For American workers, the greatest challenge would come from computers. By the 1970s, the impact of computers was greatest in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs. Factory workers competed with computer-run machines; secretaries and bookkeepers saw their jobs eliminated by desktop software. Over the last two decades, the destabilizing forces of computers and the Internet has spread to even the highest-paid professions. Corporations “were created to coordinate and organize communication among lots of different people,” says Chris Dixon, a partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “A lot of those organizations are being replaced by computer networks.” Dixon says that start-ups like Uber and Kickstarter are harbingers of a much larger shift, in which loose groupings of individuals will perform functions that were once the domain of larger corporations. “If you had to know one thing that will explain the next 20 years, that’s the key idea: We are moving toward a period of decentralization,” Dixon says.

Were we simply enduring a one-time shift into an age of computers, the adjustment might just require us to retrain and move onward. Instead, in a time of constant change, it’s hard for us to predict the skills that we will need in the future. Whereas the corporate era created a virtuous cycle of growing companies, better-paid workers and richer consumers, we’re now suffering through a cycle of destabilization, whereby each new technology makes it ever easier and faster to create the next one, which, of course, leads to more and more failure. [...]
It's difficult to choose excerpts, because the whole thing is so good, and makes more sense read as a whole. Unlike the comments from the Davos forum, this goes into a lot more depth and demonstrates a greater understanding of the larger picture, the entire process. It's great to see that some people actually are paying attention. This is brilliant, a must read!

Hat Tip for the link above, from: You have to fail to move forward

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Business and Political Elite at Davos

Their opinions about high tech changes, and what they mean:

Internet will 'disappear', Google boss tells Davos
Google boss Eric Schmidt predicted on Thursday that the Internet will soon be so pervasive in every facet of our lives that it will effectively "disappear" into the background. Speaking to the business and political elite at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Schmidt said: "There will be so many sensors, so many devices, that you won't even sense it, it will be all around you."

"It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room and... you are interacting with all the things going on in that room." "A highly personalized, highly interactive and very interesting world emerges." On the sort of high-level panel only found among the ski slopes of Davos, a panel bringing together the heads of Google, Facebook and Microsoft and Vodafone sought to allay fears that the rapid pace of technological advance was killing jobs.

"Everyone's worried about jobs," admitted Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. With so many changes in the technology world, "the transformation is happening faster than ever before," she acknowledged. "But tech creates jobs not only in the tech space but outside," she insisted. Schmidt quoted statistics he said showed that every tech job created between five and seven jobs in a different area of the economy. "If there were a single digital market in Europe, 400 million new and important new jobs would be created in Europe," which is suffering from stubbornly high levels of unemployment. The debate about whether technology is destroying jobs "has been around for hundreds of years," said the Google boss. What is different is the speed of change.

"It's the same that happened to the people who lost their farming jobs when the tractor came... but ultimately a globalised solution means more equality for everyone." With one of the main topics at this year's World Economic Forum being how to share out the fruits of global growth, the tech barons stressed that the greater connectivity offered by their companies ultimately helps reduce inequalities. "Are the spoils of tech being evenly spread? That is an issue that we have to tackle head on," said Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft. [...]
They are entitled to their opinions as anyone else. But I don't necessarily believe them. The problem with "Elites" is, they don't live in the same world as the rest of us. They can think whatever they like, but it doesn't necessarily make it so. And some of their ideas are downright creepy. Is their vision the Brave New World we are headed for? Because if that is what they are aiming for, I would guess that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences that they have not anticipated.

More fun from the Davos Elites:

You’ve entered The Hypocrisy Zone: Billionaire Democrat wants YOU to downsize your lifestyle

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eydie Gorme Singing in Spanish

Why? Why not? It's beautiful. I'm studying Spanish, and her Spanish music is Fun! And she sings the words so clearly, it's easy to understand.

I did a post about her last year when she passed away. Her husband said her Spanish records sold a lot more than her English ones, and that she was a big name in the Spanish speaking world. I can see why.


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Monday, January 12, 2015

Skype, with a speech translator?

Supposedly. This was announced last month:

Skype Will Begin Translating Your Speech Today
¿Cómo estás?

Voice over IP communication is entering a new era, one that will hopefully help break down language barriers. Or so that's the plan. Using innovations from Microsoft Research, the first phase of the Skype Translator preview program is kicking off today with two spoken languages -- Spanish and English. It will also feature over 40 instant messaging languages for Skype customers who have signed up via the Skype Translator sign-up page and are using Windows 8.1.

It also works on preview copies of Windows 10. What it does is translate voice input from someone speaking English or Spanish into text or voice. The technology relies on machine learning, so the more it gets used, the better it will be at translating audio and text.

"This is just the beginning of a journey that will transform the way we communicate with people around the world. Our long-term goal for speech translation is to translate as many languages as possible on as many platforms as possible and deliver the best Skype Translator experience on each individual platform for our more than 300 million connected users," Skype stated in a blog post.

Translations occur in "near real-time," Microsoft says. In addition, there's an on-screen transcript of your call. Given the many nuances of various languages and the pace at which communication changes, this is a pretty remarkable feat that Microsoft's attempting to pull off. There's ton of upside as well, from the business world to use in classrooms.

If you want to test it out yourself -- and Microsoft hopes you do, as it's looking for feedback at this early stage -- you can register for the program by going here.
Follow the link to the original article for embedded links, and a video.

See how it works here:

Skype Translator is the most futuristic thing I’ve ever used
We have become blasé about technology.

The modern smartphone, for example, is in so many ways a remarkable feat of engineering: computing power that not so long ago would have cost millions of dollars and filled entire rooms is now available to fit in your hand for a few hundred bucks. But smartphones are so widespread and normal that they no longer have the power to astonish us. Of course they're tremendously powerful pocket computers. So what?

This phenomenon is perhaps even more acute for those of us who work in the field in some capacity. A steady stream of new gadgets and gizmos passes across our desks, we get briefed and pitched all manner of new "cutting edge" pieces of hardware and software, and they all start to seem a little bit the same and a little bit boring.

Even news that really might be the start of something remarkable, such as HP's plans to launch a computer using memristors for both longterm and working memory and silicon photonics interconnects, is viewed with a kind of weary cynicism. Yes, it might usher in a new generation of revolutionary products. But it probably won't.

But this week I've been using the preview version of Microsoft's Skype Translator. And it's breathtaking. It's like science fiction has come to life.

The experience wasn't always easy; this is preview software, and as luck would have it, my initial attempts to use it to talk to a colleague failed due to hitherto undiscovered bugs, so in the end, I had to talk to a Microsoft-supplied consultant living in Barranquilla, Colombia. But when we got the issues ironed out and made the thing work, it was magical. This thing really works. [...]
Follow the link for more, and enlargeable photos that shows what it looks like as it's working.

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Saturday, January 03, 2015

Would you live in a Yurt in Winter?

Off the grid, in Northern Minnesota? Apparently, it can be done:

Even in the frozen North, a yurt's so good
Grace Brogan and John Kamman live in a yurt.

It's a squat round structure with lattice walls, a dome skylight and a few layers of canvas over the whole thing — think of a tent with stiff walls. Tents are great in the summer, but this is winter. In northern Minnesota.

Why would two employed people with three master's degrees between them choose to live with only a quarter-inch of material between themselves and the elements? And how do they stay warm?

To find out, I drove a dozen miles north of Bemidji on a recent morning and hiked a quarter-mile across a snowy field. It was not yet dawn, and from the outside, the yurt's vinyl windows glowed with firelight.

Inside, a small home's worth of furnishings lined the circular wall. A calm mutt named Mabel loitered near the crackling wood stove. The yurt was actually a really nice place to be. [...]
They are young, so I'm sure it's an adventure. At first I thought, a grizzly bear could break in and eat them. But it says only that they live off the grid, a dozen miles North from Bemidji. They talk about "going into town", so I think they probably aren't in an extremely remote area.

The inside of the Yurt looks nice, very cozy. Do follow the link to see the other photos, and the interview with them answering questions. Be sure and click on the "gallery" link to see the extra photos.


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Watch out for the Quadrantids

If you are lucky enough to have a clear sky to see them:

First meteor shower of 2015 peaks Saturday night
Grab a coat and head outside: The first meteor shower of the new year is set to peak tonight.

The annual Quadrantid meteor shower is popular with star watchers, who can see up to 80 meteors an hour, NASA says. Plus, Quadrantids are known for their “fireball meteors,” which are brighter and last longer than an average meteor streak.

This year, however, a bright, near-full moon is complicating matters for those who would like to wish on a shooting star – as are forecasts of cloudy skies in the eastern United States. Central and Southwest stargazers should still have a clear view, The Washington Post reports.


The Quadrantids aren’t the only items of interest visible in the night sky this weekend. Comet Lovejoy, which was discovered in August, is visible with binoculars and, for those far away from city lights, the naked eye, the Monitor’s Pete Spotts reports. The comet, which is expected to make its closest approach to Earth on Jan. 7, is rising higher in the northern sky. By Jan. 7, it will be appearing to the right of the bottom half of Orion’s bow, above the constellation Eridanus.

To view Saturday night’s meteor shower, NASA suggests finding a spot away from street lights.

“Lay flat on your back with your feet facing northeast and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. In less than 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors,” NASA says. “Be patient – the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.” [...]
Looks like we'll have clouds moving in tonight, darn it. Maybe there will be some breaks in the clouds. And there will still be comet Lovejoy to look for in a few days.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

San Francisco Window Washer falls more than 10 stories, lands on car roof - and lives!

I used to work two blocks away on Montgomery Street, and I walked past this building very often. What a story. Imagine falling off of this roof:

SF window washer, motorist both survive brush with death
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- An unbelievable accident closed off parts of California and Montgomery streets in San Francisco's Financial District Friday morning. A window washer fell from an 11th story building, landing on a moving car below. The victim survived but is in critical condition. It's hard to believe the driver of that car was not hurt.

The window washer fell from the roof and landed on a Toyota Camry. All but the driver's area was caved in. The driver, Mohammad Al Cozai, narrowly escaped being critically injured.

"As soon as I made my left turn, then I saw something hit my car very hard. The impact was really hard. I didn't know what it is," said Mohammad Al Cozai of Dublin.

After landing on the car, the window washer fell onto the street. Witnesses ran to help. [...]

Window washer survives 11-story fall from S.F. building
[...] The driver of the car, Mohammad Alcozai of Dublin, got out almost immediately after the impact. The victim hit the roof and back window of the 2002 four-door Camry, totaling the car. A split-second difference in timing and the worker might have landed on the windshield, with potentially terrible consequences for Alcozai.

“It was a miracle,” Alcozai told The Chronicle.

A traveling tech specialist, Alcozai said he was supposed to go on a call to Walnut Creek on Friday morning, but after it was canceled he wound up in San Francisco. As he was about to turn onto California Street from Montgomery, his car’s navigation system went blank, so he slowed down.

As the system turned back on, he sped up — “and that’s when something hit my car with a terrible thump,” he said.

“With all the changes in where I went and how I was going this morning, I think God wanted me to be there just at the moment that poor man fell,” Alcozai said. “It was a miracle that he was able to fall in my car, and it was a miracle that I was OK.

“I just hope he comes through all right.” [...]

Follow the links for photos and video. Yikes. It's quite miraculous that he hit it the way he did, when he did. And it looks like he's going to survive:

Window washer who fell from downtown San Francisco building set to leave hospital
OAKLAND, Calif. – A window washer who fell 11 stories from a downtown San Francisco building onto a moving car last month is preparing to leave the hospital for a rehabilitation facility where he hopes to walk again.

Pedro Perez, 58, fractured his pelvis, broke an arm, ruptured an artery in his arm, and sustained severe brain trauma when he landed on the Toyota Camry after falling from the top of a bank building in San Francisco's financial district on Nov. 21. The car's driver was not injured.

Perez spent a week in a medically induced coma and still can't move his right arm and leg. But just a month after the fall, he has amazed doctors who originally said it would be months before he could leave the hospital, his wife, Maricela Perez told reporters on Monday.

"They are saying it's a miracle," she said through a translator.

Maricela Perez spoke in Spanish about her husband's recovery at his union shop in Oakland. She said he is in good spirits, complaining about the hospital food and even joking about returning to work down the line, although the couple has agreed it won't be as a window washer.

She said she thought he was dead for the first hour after she heard about the accident. At first, her husband could not recognize members of their extended family, but his memory is slowly improving, she said.

"As a wife, I am very grateful to have my husband for the holidays," she said. [...]
I read somewhere that he doesn't remember the accident. The shock must have been enormous. Lucky to be alive, and recovering. I wonder if one day he will remember what happened?

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Russian Economics in the Global Economy

It what's bad for Russia, bad for us too? In our global economy, we're all connected:

The ruble's collapse is disastrous for Putin - and bad for you too
[...] Given President Vladimir Putin’s status as the West’s new bogeyman, the temptation to rejoice in the abrupt collapse of his regime’s economic clout is acute. Many will want to congratulate themselves at the success of economic sanctions, the aim of which was to punish Putin for his annexation of Crimea and its covert sponsorship of a civil war there.

They shouldn’t get carried away.

For one thing, it doesn’t make Russian concessions on Ukraine any more likely: the worse the economic pressure, the more the Kremlin’s propaganda will drum home the message that it is the Evil West, denying Russia its holy Crimean birthright, that is to blame. Opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of Russians still accept this version of events.

As such, Ukraine will remain a running sore, infecting both the European economy and, through it, the world’s. Moreover, Ukraine itself is on the verge of a default that will send shock waves through European and global financial markets, amplifying the effect.

A financial crisis in Russia would have much larger negative consequences than a Ukrainian one: western banks (mainly European ones) will have to write off more loans, western companies will have to write off investments. And that’s even if contagion doesn’t spread to other vulnerable emerging markets such as Indonesia or Brazil, both big recipients of western investment.

For the moment, the signs are that Putin is gambling on the oil market turning round, trusting to the legendary endurance of the people while his government keeps the plates spinning as long as it can.

In the meantime, the loyal will be taken care of. Covert bailouts to the country’s biggest banks from the country’s rainy-day fund are already getting more frequent. VTB and Gazprombank, two lenders that are “too-big-to-fail”, have already had their capital levels topped up.

But that is nothing compared to the egregious piece of money-printing that was agreed last week, when the central bank agreed to lend money against 625 billion rubles (still over $10 billion, even after Monday’s mayhem) of bonds freshly printed by Rosneft, the oil company headed by Putin confidant Igor Sechin. The aim is to let Rosneft hoard its export dollars and meet a $10 billion loan repayment later this month (and another $4 billion in February).

The realization that Rosneft, one of the biggest players on the foreign exchange market, would be buying far fewer rubles with its export dollars appears to have been one of the reasons for the ruble’s drop Monday (the failure of the central bank’s half-hearted rate hike and intervention last week also being partly responsible).

If the central bank shows anything like the same generosity to other companies, then the ruble’s debasement will be complete. The central bank now estimates that the economy will shrink 4.5% next year if oil stays at $60/barrel, and that is something that would certainly trigger a wave of corporate defaults.

Unless the ruble bounces back sharply, inflation is heading much, much higher than the 10% the CBR is already forecasting. Specifically, food, which makes up over 30% of Russian disposable income, is going to get more expensive (Russia imports over 40% of its food and has made a rod for its own back by banning relatively cheap produce from the E.U.).

Moreover, since over 80% of retail deposits are now held in rubles, devaluation means that the savings that Putin’s voters have accumulated as they came to trust their own currency over the last 14 years will be devastated. Already Monday, the yield on the 10-year bonds of a government that hasn’t run a deficit in 14 years hit 13%–anything but an expression of trust.

This is a recipe for social instability far greater than the tame, middle-class, metropolitan protests at Putin’s tainted election victory in 2012.

But what does an authoritarian leader do in such a situation? Back down or crack down? There is no evidence from this year to suggest Putin has suddenly become the backing-down kind. Repression seems the likelier option. If that doesn’t work, then doubling-down with another foreign policy adventure to distract from domestic problems hardly seems fanciful any more: in the summer, Putin cast doubt on the statehood of neighboring Kazakhstan, which doesn’t have the NATO guarantee that the Baltic States enjoy.

Either way, the consequences are too miserable to contemplate, both for Russia and for the world in general. [...]
Something to look forward to in the New Year? See the original article for embedded links and more.


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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Mother, My Dear Mother...

1938 - 2014

Here is an excerpt from her eulogy:

Judy was born in Portland, ME [...]. Raised mostly in Hartford, CT, she spent a lot of time with relatives in Maine. She often spoke of her grandmothers, Nana Bea and Ma Curry. She lost her beloved brother, Jimmy when he was just 20 years old. They had a very special bond and throughout her life she shared her many memories of him.

She wed her truest friend and the love of her life, Quintin, in 1956. From 1958 to 1963 they had 3 children – James, Charles and Quinci. Judy always said she knew she wanted to have a family of her own.

Who She Was to Her Husband and Children

She was a survivor, of circumstances in her youth over which she had no control.  She took control of her life at an early age and created a life and family for herself.

She made our house feel like a real home.  She made curtains for our bedrooms, painted the rooms of the house vibrant colors, did paint-by-number paintings to decorate our walls.  When her kids were young, she would read magazines and get ideas for Christmas decorations. She could perfectly recreate anything she saw in those magazines, making glittery and colorful hanging mobiles above the stairs, decorations around door frames, wall hangings, paintings of Christmas scenes on the glass of the front storm door... she transformed our house into a magical Christmas Land!  We kids were “wowed” by her artistic talents; it seemed like she could do anything.

In the summer, she planted beautiful flowers, morning glories up the sides of the front porch, a rock garden with portulaca in the center of the lawn, Easter Lilies and Jack-in-the-Pulpit in front of the house, and she grew all sorts of indoor plants. She had a green thumb, and taught us kids how to grow things, too.  She and dad worked on the vegetable garden, giving us a bounty of vegetables in the summer, with enough to can for winter.

She always prepared delicious and balanced meals for us, and friends were always glad to stay for supper whenever they had the chance.  She also loved to bake.  As we got older, she insisted that we do our share of housework, such as showing us how to cook simple things, mend our clothes and do laundry. It wasn’t until we moved out that we realized she had taught us how to take care of ourselves, helping us to be self-sufficient and independent.

Judy had a rich sense of humor, even exchanging pranks with her kids and laughing when others may have scolded. Her love of animals and appreciation of nature have always been an important part of who she was.

She could be shy and retiring, a bit of a recluse, but when it was necessary to interact with a lot of people (as in the hospital), she would rise to the occasion, and be very sociable.  She used to knit afghans and sweaters for people, with bright colors and interesting patterns, and give them away.

She created a lot of beauty in our lives that we took for granted, thinking that's just how life was supposed to be. Then we went out into the world and found that it's not always that way. Someone has to be doing it, to be making that beauty.  And fortunately, we had a good example from our mother as to how that is done.

“She was my wife, and our mother, and we loved her, and to us the world was a better place just for her being in it.  Just knowing she was there was a great comfort, and her absence now is sorely felt.  We miss her, because she was a part of us, and still is, and always will be.”
She was suffering from pulmonary hyper-tension and a calcified heart valve. She underwent surgery to replace the heart valve, but her lungs were too compromised, and she did not recover from the surgery. She was removed from artificial life support on June 11th.

We had the funeral in September, and buried her remains in a family plot at a rural cemetery in Maine. I went back for the funeral, and haven't blogged much since. It's been a lot to take in. My sister read this poem at the burial ceremony:

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Of course, I cried when she read that poem. So did she. The service ended with a Baptist Minister reading a variation of the Consolation Prayer, which felt both devastating (as in "This is it") and comforting (even though I am not religious). Then the box of ashes was buried.

As much as we say things like "Mom will live on forever in our hearts", it's still not the same as having her here on earth with us. Getting used to that is the new reality.

The movie "Rabbit Hole" dealt with the topic of grief caused by the loss of a loved one. I remember one scene, where an adult daughter (Nichole Kiddman) who has lost her son, a small child, in a tragic accident, asks her own mother (Diane Weiss), who had also lost a son, if the pain ever goes away. Her mother says no, but...

That is perhaps what people mean by the phrase "time heals". I have a feeling that it's going to be a lot like that.

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