Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 2nd, 2010

Watching a wonderful movie

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Kinky Boots, and to be accurate, I’m re-watching it. I just recently scored a copy of the soundtrack CD, which made me want to see it again.

In the books line, I’m now reading the 4th novel by Stella Rimington, who retired as DG of MI5 some years ago and has been writing busily ever since, mining the material of her experience. I enjoy the novels, but she writes in such a way that you pretty much have to read them from the beginning in sequence—not so much for allusions as to understand outright explicit references to people and incidents, doubtless written with an eye to forcing the entire series on you. As you might guess, fine writing is not her forte, but the novels are interesting as workmanlike mysteries with lots of authentic detail.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Books, Movies

More on the ADL

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It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the ADL’s mission is extremely narrow: To combat bias and discrimination directed against Jews, and to promote bias and discrimination when directed against Muslims. As you know, the ADL came out in strong opposition to the Muslim community center being constructed a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York. And now Andrew Sullivan points out:

Always a one-way street:

When it comes to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s building the Museum of Tolerance on the oldest and largest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, the ADL has no problem backing the legal rights of the Wiesenthal Center and turning a deaf ear to the sensitivities of the Palestinian Muslims.

Beinart unloads on another double-standard:

When Arizona passes a law that encourages police to harass Latinos, the ADL expresses outrage. But when Israel builds 170 kilometers of roads in the West Bank for the convenience of Jewish settlers, from which Palestinians are wholly or partially banned, the ADL takes out advertisements declaring, “The Problem Isn’t Settlements.”

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 11:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Law, Religion

The auto industry comeback

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Steve Benen again:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gets a lot of things wrong, for a lot of wrong reasons. But of particular interest today was Steven Pearlstein’s sweeping rejection of Chamber politics, most notably, how wrong it and its president, Tom Donahue, were about President Obama’s rescue of the U.S. auto industry.

Perhaps none was more controversial than the decision to rescue Chrysler and General Motors, using $86 billion in taxpayer funds and an expedited bankruptcy process that wiped out shareholders, brought in new executives and directors, forced creditors to take a financial haircut, closed dealerships and factories and imposed painful cuts in wages and benefits on unionized workers. It was an extraordinary and heavy-handed government intervention into the market economy that left the Treasury owning a majority of both companies. As one participant recalls, public opinion was divided among those who believed that the companies should have been allowed to die, those who believed they would never survive bankruptcy and those who believed the government would inevitably screw things up. Among the most vocal skeptics: the Chamber’s Donohue.

A year later, the auto bailout is an unqualified success. The government used its leverage to force the companies to make the painful changes they should have made years before, and then backed off and let the companies run themselves without any noticeable interference.

The results, which President Obama will tout on a visit to Michigan on Friday: For the first time since 2004, GM and Chrysler, along with Ford, all reported operating profits in their U.S. businesses last quarter. The domestic auto industry added 55,000 jobs last year, ending a decade-long string of declines. Auto sector exports are up 57 percent so far this year and, thanks largely to new government regulations, the industry is moving quickly to introduce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Most surprising of all, GM and Chrysler have already repaid more than $8 billion in government loans, while GM is preparing for an initial stock offering later this year that would allow the government to recoup most, if not all, of its investment.

There was a time, not long ago, when real business leaders encouraged these kind of public-private partnerships.

It’s worth noting that the administration’s auto industry bailout not only worked, it exceeded expectations. Just as importantly, it fit comfortably into an existing model — every time the federal government bails out key national industries, the results are encouraging.

A year ago, the Monthly‘s Phillip Longman argued that "any honest reading of history suggests that the federal government has quite an impressive record of rescuing institutions considered too big to fail." Quite right. When the government bailed out Lockheed in 1971, the company thrived and taxpayers profited. The government bailed out Chrysler in 1980, and saw similar results. The government bailed out the railroad industry, and saw it flourish.

In each case, the government spent lots of taxpayer money, used bureaucrats to engineer the revival of an industry, recouped the money, and produced a success story. Conservatives howled in every instance, but as is usually the case, their complaints and dire predictions were wrong.

After Obama intervened to rescue auto manufacturers a year ago, the right insisted it was an example of his purported desire to be a communist dictator. A year later, his efforts look pretty smart, and his detractors’ apoplexy looks pretty foolish.

For that matter, the conservative theme of the year is that government spending is the single most odious phenomenon in the known universe. And yet, it was government spending that prevented a depression, and it was government spending that rescued the American auto industry.
Maybe the right can pick something else to complain about? This talking point isn’t working out well for them.

When the president takes a victory lap (so to speak) at a GM plant this morning, it will be well deserved. We can all be very thankful Obama didn’t listen to conservatives, that there wasn’t a conservative in the Oval Office, and that this industry was spared a looming catastrophe.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:31 am

John Boehner: Unfit to lead?

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Steve Benen:

One of the uglier strains of modern conservative thought is pervasive anti-intellectualism. As Faiz Shakir noted today, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a rather classic example on "Fox News Sunday."

Host Chris Wallace noted that "a number of top economists" believe that the nation, right now, needs "more economic stimulus." Boehner replied, "Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists; all I need to do is listen to the American people."

That’s actually kind of crazy — the "American people," en masse, lack the qualifications and background needed to make sweeping decisions about complex economic policies. It’s why our system is built around the notion that voters will choose sensible representatives to do this work for us — evaluate a situation, consider the judgment of experts, and ideally reach a wise decision about the way forward.

If Boehner were facing a serious ailment, would he say, "Well, I don’t need to see lab results or to listen to medical professionals; all I need to do is listen to the American people"? Maybe so, but at this point, the serious ailment is our national economy, and it affects us all.

When Wallace pressed Boehner on how he’d pay for trillions of dollars in tax cuts, the would-be Speaker eventually concluded, "This is the whole Washington mindset, all these CBO numbers."

I don’t even know what this means. "All these CBO numbers"? Boehner loves those CBO numbers, when they’re telling him what he wants to hear. But when tax cuts for billionaires are on the line, suddenly objective, independent budget data is deemed useless.

There’s just no seriousness here. Boehner comes to the debate with all the sophistication of a drunk guy yelling at the TV from the end of a bar. He hasn’t thought any of this through, and seems prepared to argue that he shouldn’t think things though because forethought is part of "the whole Washington mindset."

If I thought Boehner was just playing for the cameras, throwing out garbage on Fox News, when in reality he actually takes reason, evidence, and arithmetic seriously, I wouldn’t be scared of his leadership role. But all available evidence suggests Boehner simply doesn’t know what he’s doing and he believes his own nonsense.

As political hackery goes, it’s the worst possible combination of traits.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:29 am

Speaking of end-of-life: Life insurance firms profiting from death benefits

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David Evans at the NPR site:

Life insurance companies delay issuing death benefits owed to families of service members and others by promising to hold the money in safekeeping, an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine found. Senior writer David Evans and Cindy Lohman, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, discuss the findings with NPR’s Robert Siegel. Below is a preview of Evans’ September 2010 magazine article. Read a transcript of the interview.

Millions of Americans are being duped by life insurance companies that have figured out a way to hold onto death benefits owed to families. MetLife and Prudential lead the way in making hundreds of millions of dollars in secret profits every year on money that belongs to relatives of those who die, an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine found. Among the people being tricked are parents and spouses of U.S. soldiers killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Update: New York Launches Probe Of Life Insurance Industry July 29, 2010)

Survivors of service men and women are told they’ll get a $400,000 life insurance payout. They don’t. Instead, Prudential — which has a government contract to provide life insurance for military families — keeps their money.

Families are surprised when they receive what looks like a checkbook. In documents, Prudential promises to hold the money in safekeeping for as long as families would like, saying it will pay them 0.5 percent interest. What Prudential doesn’t disclose is that it is keeping survivors’ money in Prudential’s own corporate investment account, where the company is earning five to 10 times as much as it pays to families. The so-called checks have JPMorgan Chase printed on them, but they cannot be used as regular checks. Instead, they are to be submitted back to Prudential to get any money

Heard On ‘Morning Edition’, July 29, 2010: Expert Blasts Insurance Practice As Deceptive  [4 min 53 sec]

But the money isn’t in a bank, and it’s not protected by FDIC insurance. None of these facts are spelled out to the survivors; the details are often hidden in fine print.

Nor are families told that they could earn more than twice as much interest by opening FDIC-insured money market accounts at banks across the country. Families of fallen soldiers say they often don’t want to touch the "checkbooks" because they view them as payments in return for their sacrificed child. As a result, Prudential holds onto the death benefits, often for a year or more.

"I’m shocked," says Cindy Lohman, a Maryland woman whose son, Ryan, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. "It’s a betrayal. It saddens me as an American that a company would stoop so low as to make a profit on the death of a soldier."

Millions of Americans have unwittingly been placed in the same position by their insurance companies…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:27 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Conservatives who think are becoming embarrassed

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Interesting post by a conservative professor of corporate law:

These days it’s getting increasingly embarrassing to publicly identify oneself as a conservative. It was bad enough when George Bush 43, the K Street Gang, and the neo-cons were running up spending, fighting an unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, incurring massive deficits, expanding entitlements, and all the rest of the nonsense I cataloged over the years in posts like Bush 43 has been a disaster for conservatives.

These days, however, the most prominent so-called conservatives are increasingly fit only to be cast for the next Dumb and Dumber sequel. They’re dumb and crazy.

Conservative pundit David Klinghoffer has a great op-ed in today’s LA Times that nicely captures what I’m on about:

Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions — like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now. Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose news and opinion website, Breitbart.com, is read by millions. In his most recent triumph, Breitbart got a U.S. Department of Agriculture official pushed out of her job after he released a deceptively edited video clip of her supposedly endorsing racism against white people.

What has become of conservatism? … With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of "neocons" versus "paleocons." Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons. …

Conservatism wasn’t just a policy agenda, a set of partisan gripes or a football team seeking victory on the electoral field. Above all, it was a satisfying, sophisticated critique of modern, materialist culture, pointing a way out and up from liberalism.

Let’s tick off ten things that make this conservative embarrassed by the modern conservative movement:

  1. A poorly educated ex-sportswriter who served half of one term of an minor state governorship is prominently featured as a — if not the — leading prospect for the GOP’s 2012 Presidential nomination.
  2. Tom Tancredo calling President Obama “the . . .

Continue reading. It’s interesting, though of course even the conservative pantheon includes outright racists like William F. Buckley Jr., who took the position that African-Americans were not ready for full citizenship and who resolutely opposed the Civil Rights movement.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:24 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP

The string of Obama’s broken promises lengthens

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Ed Brayton:

Here’s yet another broken promise from Obama when it comes to executive power and the 4th amendment. The Washington Post reports:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — "electronic communication transactional records" — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history.

4th amendment? Probable cause? Warrants? What are you, some kinda commie pinko?

This is all about the use of those National Security Letters that have been so thoroughly abused since they were created by the Patriot Act. In 2006, the feds admitted that the FBI had badly abused their authority with NSLs, using them to collect information that had nothing to do with terrorism and ignoring directives from the FISA court governing their use. But they had fixed those problems, they assured us.

Then in 2008, they had to admit that the same thing had continued to happen long after they assured us that they had fixed the problems. And in addition to the FBI, the CIA and the DOD have been using them too. So by all means, let’s make it even easier for them to get all this information without a warrant.

Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official, said the proposed change would broaden the bureau’s authority. "It’ll be faster and easier to get the data," said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law. "And for some Internet providers, it’ll mean giving a lot more information to the FBI in response to an NSL."

Many Internet service providers have resisted the government’s demands to turn over electronic records, arguing that surveillance law as written does not allow them to do so, industry lawyers say. One senior administration government official, who would discuss the proposed change only on condition of anonymity, countered that "most" Internet or e-mail providers do turn over such data.

To critics, the move is another example of an administration retreating from campaign pledges to enhance civil liberties in relation to national security. The proposal is "incredibly bold, given the amount of electronic data the government is already getting," said Michelle Richardson, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.

The critics say its effect would be to greatly expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order. "You’re bringing a big category of data — records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information — outside of judicial review," said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer under President Bill Clinton who now represents Internet and other firms.

These are not a little-used tool, by the way. They’re used about 50,000 times a year. The New York Times yesterday called this "an unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign." They’re right.

Obama’s broken promises seem to point to increasing dictatorial powers for the American presidency. Great. Just what we need.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:18 am

The crisis of middle-class America

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Edward Luce at FT.com (Financial Times):

Technically speaking, Mark Freeman should count himself among the luckiest people on the planet. The 52-year-old lives with his family on a tree-lined street in his own home in the heart of the wealthiest country in the world. When he is hungry, he eats. When it gets hot, he turns on the air-conditioning. When he wants to look something up, he surfs the internet. One of the songs he likes to sing when he hosts a weekly karaoke evening is Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black”.

Yet somehow things don’t feel so good any more. Last year the bank tried to repossess the Freemans’ home even though they were only three months in arrears. Their son, Andy, was recently knocked off his mother’s health insurance and only painfully reinstated for a large fee. And, much like the boarded-up houses that signal America’s epidemic of foreclosures, the drug dealings and shootings that were once remote from their neighbourhood are edging ever closer, a block at a time.

What is most troubling about the Freemans is how typical they are. Neither Mark nor Connie – his indefatigable wife, who is as chubby as he is gaunt – suffer any chronic medical conditions. Both have jobs at the local Methodist Hospital, he as a warehouse receiver and distributor, she as an anaesthesia supply technician. At $70,000 a year, their joint gross income is more than a third higher than the median US household.

Once upon a time this was called the American Dream. Nowadays it might be called America’s Fitful Reverie. Indeed, Mark spends large monthly sums renting a machine to treat his sleep apnea, which gives him insomnia. “If we lost our jobs, we would have about three weeks of savings to draw on before we hit the bone,” says Mark, who is sitting on his patio keeping an eye on the street and swigging from a bottle of Miller Lite. “We work day and night and try to save for our retirement. But we are never more than a pay check or two from the streets.”

Mention middle-class America and most foreigners envision something timeless and manicured, from The Brady Bunch, say, or Desperate Housewives in which teenagers drive to school in sports cars and the girls are always cheerleading. This might approximate how some in the top 10 per cent live. The rest live like the Freemans. Or worse.

It only takes about 30 seconds to tour Mark’s 700sq ft home in north-west Minneapolis. Cluttered with chintzy memorabilia, it was bought with a $50,000 mortgage in 1989. It is now worth $73,000. “At one stage we had it valued at $105,000 – and we thought we had entered nirvana,” says Mark. “People from the banks kept calling, sometimes four or five times an evening, offering equity lines, and home improvement loans. They were like drug pushers.”

Solid Democratic voters, the Freemans are evidently phlegmatic in their outlook. The visitor’s gaze is drawn to their fridge door, which is festooned with humorous magnets. One says: “I am sorry I missed Church, I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.” Another says: “I would tell you to go to Hell but I work there and I don’t want to see you every day.” A third, “Jesus loves you but I think you’re an asshole.” Mark chuckles: “Laughter is the best medicine.”

. . .

The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. . .

Continue reading. There’s a video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:16 am

Departing: Hospice care

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The GOP really, really doesn’t like hospice care or end-of-life counseling. The reasons are unclear—perhaps they believe that they, themselves, will not have to go through the death experience, as it were. I’m of an age at which the end of life is starting to come into view, and I think that hospice care and end-of-life counseling is a very good—and merciful and charitable—idea, despite the "death panels" that the GOP labels them. (I think the GOP has somehow the idea that this kind of care is actually some sort of execution.)

At any rate, Atul Gawande has an excellent article on the considerations and tradeoffs in helping people through their deaths. Highly recommended. It begins:

Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die. It started with a cough and a pain in her back. Then a chest X-ray showed that her left lung had collapsed, and her chest was filled with fluid. A sample of the fluid was drawn off with a long needle and sent for testing. Instead of an infection, as everyone had expected, it was lung cancer, and it had already spread to the lining of her chest. Her pregnancy was thirty-nine weeks along, and the obstetrician who had ordered the test broke the news to her as she sat with her husband and her parents. The obstetrician didn’t get into the prognosis—she would bring in an oncologist for that—but Sara was stunned. Her mother, who had lost her best friend to lung cancer, began crying.

The doctors wanted to start treatment right away, and that meant inducing labor to get the baby out. For the moment, though, Sara and her husband, Rich, sat by themselves on a quiet terrace off the labor floor. It was a warm Monday in June, 2007. She took Rich’s hands, and they tried to absorb what they had heard. Monopoli was thirty-four. She had never smoked, or lived with anyone who had. She exercised. She ate well. The diagnosis was bewildering. “This is going to be O.K.,” Rich told her. “We’re going to work through this. It’s going to be hard, yes. But we’ll figure it out. We can find the right treatment.” For the moment, though, they had a baby to think about.

“So Sara and I looked at each other,” Rich recalled, “and we said, ‘We don’t have cancer on Tuesday. It’s a cancer-free day. We’re having a baby. It’s exciting. And we’re going to enjoy our baby.’ ” On Tuesday, at 8:55 P.M., Vivian Monopoli, seven pounds nine ounces, was born. She had wavy brown hair, like her mom, and she was perfectly healthy.

The next day, Sara underwent blood tests and body scans. Dr. Paul Marcoux, an oncologist, met with her and her family to discuss the findings. He explained that she had a non-small cell lung cancer that had started in her left lung. Nothing she had done had brought this on. More than fifteen per cent of lung cancers—more than people realize—occur in non-smokers. Hers was advanced, having metastasized to multiple lymph nodes in her chest and its lining. The cancer was inoperable. But there were chemotherapy options, notably a relatively new drug called Tarceva, which targets a gene mutation commonly found in lung cancers of female non-smokers. Eighty-five per cent respond to this drug, and, Marcoux said, “some of these responses can be long-term.”

Words like “respond” and “long-term” provide a reassuring gloss on a dire reality. There is no cure for lung cancer at this stage. Even with chemotherapy, the median survival is about a year. But it seemed harsh and pointless to confront Sara and Rich with this now. Vivian was in a bassinet by the bed. They were working hard to be optimistic. As Sara and Rich later told the social worker who was sent to see them, they did not want to focus on survival statistics. They wanted to focus on “aggressively managing” this diagnosis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:13 am

A tooth, ready for its close-up

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You really must watch this brief video, zooming in to a healthy tooth. Very interesting structure.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

Religious bigotry in the US

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Still alive and active, as noted in this report from the Center for American Progress, received in an email:

In December, the New York Times reported that "for months," hundreds of Muslims had been gathering every Friday at an abandoned building two blocks north of the World Trade Center for prayer and readings from the Qur’an in Arabic. A group of Muslims purchased the building — which had been damaged from debris resulting from the 9/11 attacks  — and now, led by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, plan to build a 15-story Islamic community center there that will include a mosque, an arts center, a workout facility, and other public spaces. ASMA founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said the project "sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11." "We want to push back against the extremists," he added. Other faith leaders offered support for the project. "[Abdul Rauf] subscribes to my credo: ‘Live and let live,’" said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a spiritual leader at a nearby synagogue. "Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says,’" said Joan Brown Campbell, a Christian leader in New York. Despite interfaith support for the project, the idea of having a Muslim center anywhere near Ground Zero has set off right-wing outrage based in bigotry, paranoia, bias, racism, and intolerance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Brush tests: Vintage Blades soap

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I had very good lather from Creed’s Green Irish Tweed shaving soap, but that soap retails for $68/tub. What about a soap at the other end of the price range? Vintage Blades LLC offers a triple-milled tallow-based shaving soap (like Crred’s) for much less: $25 in a wooden bowl, or $12.50 for just the refill. So for the next few days I’ll use this soap with various brushes.

First up: the Omega Lucretia Borgia synthetic-bristle brush. Once again, as with the Creed’s, a truly great lather Again, I took my time in loading the brush, and the brush deliver: ample rich lather for three passes—and plenty for more, in fact.

The Merkur Slant with its Swedish Gillette blade smoothed the stubble away flawlessly, and a splash of St. John’s Bay Rum aftershave brightened the morning (overcast with fog, in fact) considerably.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2010 at 9:07 am

Posted in Shaving

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