In search of the common good

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Detroit-industry-muralsThe public interest. The public advantage. The public good. The common good.

These are all phrases that seem indispensible, phrases which we all use, and of which we have an instinctive understanding, yet the meanings of which are all contested and seemingly impossible to define.

These phrases are often used interchangeably. Many philosophers and political thinkers would argue, however, that there are fundamental differences in their meanings. In the ‘common good’, ‘common’ implies commonality among all individuals that belong to a certain group, whereas in ‘public good’, ‘public’ usually refers to matters that are subject to collective action. In contrast to the term ‘good’, which often signifies moral ends that people ought to pursue, ‘interest’ is frequently associated with material benefits. And so on.

I am going to ignore most of these debates about the distinct meanings. What I want to concentrate on is a more fundamental issue that all these concepts attempt to grasp: the relationship between the individual and society, and of the way in which the good of individuals relates to that of a larger whole. I will use the phrase ‘the common good’ to refer to that broad sense of the good of the larger community or society.

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The Strange Case of the Arab Whodunnit

ScreenHunter_2906 Nov. 25 17.57

From the BBC:

Journalist Jonathan Guyer examines the different forms of noir fiction addressing the failed revolutions, jihadism, and chaos in Egypt.

Away from caliphate building and sectarianism, a neo-noir revolution hasbeen creeping across the Middle East, allowing artists and writers to act as ombudsmen in the current political climate. Jonathan meets the writers who are latching onto the adventure, despair and paranoia prevalent in genre fiction to tell stories that transcend the present. He looks at Ahmed Mourad's novel, Vertigo, and Magdy El-Shafee's graphic novel, Metro, which Egyptian authorities seized all copies of before release.

Drawing parallels with the golden age of noir in America, Jonathan argues that, while the Middle East offers an ethereal backdrop like that of post-war America, the Middle East's neo-noir revolution is anything but nostalgic, giving authors and scholars an opportunity to critique imported wars, local autocrats and arrested revolutions.

What's surprising, he finds, is not that detective fiction is showing a sudden popularity in Cairo and beyond but that the genre has been relatively dormant for the last several decades. Sorting through the discarded vintage dime novels in creaky Cairo bookstalls, he discovers that detective fiction has had a long relationship with Arab readers.

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A Keynes for all seasons


C.R. in The Economist:

IN THE years since the publication in 1936 of "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money", John Maynard Keynes’s name has been irretrievably linked to the idea that fiscal stimulus should be used to combat recession during downturns. Such ideas came to dominate economics in the 30 years after the second world war, so much so that Republican president Richard Nixon declared in 1971 that “we are all Keynesians now”.

Although Keynes’s ideas went out of favour in the 1980s and 1990s, they came back into fashion as the financial crisis of 2007-09 unfolded. The use of fiscal stimulus to fight recessions in America, Britain and Asia led Keynes’s most prominent biographer, Robert Skidelsky, to declare the “return of the master”. Keynes's notoriety among the public rose so much that a hip-hop video of him arguing the merits of fiscal stimulus with his rival, F. A. Hayek, went viral on YouTube back in 2010.

But whether Keynes’s ideas were ever as simple or consistent as some modern-day Keynesian economists suggest is a matter of great contention. The Economist noted as long ago as the 1960s that the ideas of Keynes the man were diverging from contemporary Keynesian economics. While Keynes emphasised austerity in the good times as much as stimulus in the bad, many Keynesians considered stimulus a “one-way road” in the 1960s and 1970s. As Keynes himself wrote in 1937: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

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In the Shadow of Frantz Fanon


Florence Aubenas over at the Verso blog:

His office has no door. Truth be told, it is not an office at all: it is a kind of box room, open onto the corridor. Each morning in 1958, the young woman crossed Tunis to sit there. She waits. For what? She does not know. The head doctor, her superior, does not address her. His gaze passes across her as if she did not exist. Sometimes she catches something he says, and she chews it over for whole days. An example? "In Arab culture, breasts are not an erotic object."

She is the only French woman working at the Tunis psychiatric hospital. She is Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, 31 years of age, maiden name Vacher, born in Meymac (Corrèze). She has a check skirt, she has three children, and is a field social worker married to a coopérant [a man doing a social service instead of military service]. The others in the team are all Tunisians and Algerians. Manuellan knows nothing about psychiatry. Too bad. Tunisia, which has just won its independence, has appointed her to this position, in order to show that the new government is doing better than how things were under the French protectorate.

The chief doctor in this department "doesn’t hang round with French people." He told her as much in a glacial tone. He explained: "I have responsibilities in the FLN," the National Liberation Front in the middle of its fight for Algeria’s independence. The young woman warns her husband "I’ve come across a sadist." The "sadist" is Frantz Fanon, 33 years of age. He is already — all at once — a fervently anti-psychiatry psychiatrist, a high-profile essayist, a Nègreintoning against négritude, a revolutionary and son to a wealthy Martinique family.

Manuellan spends two months in the box room, till the day when the Sadist appears in front of her, telling her: "You are going to follow me during my rounds, listening and noting everything I say." He introduces her to the patients, "This woman is not a woman, but a tape recorder." She was his assistant for three years.

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Jewish gangsters, jazz legends, and Joy Division: The evolution of the Ukrainian National Home

Andrew Berman in 6sqft:

On 2nd Avenue, just south of 9th Street at No. 140-142, sits one of the East Village’s oddest structures. Clad in metal and adorned with Cyrillic lettering, the building sports a slightly downtrodden and forbidding look, seeming dropped into the neighborhood from some dystopian sci-fi thriller.

In reality, for the last half century the building has housed the Ukrainian National Home, best known as a great place to get some good food or drink. But scratch the surface of this architectural oddity and you’ll find a winding history replete with Jewish gangsters, German teetotalers, jazz-playing hipsters, and the American debut of one of Britain’s premier post-punk bands, all in a building which, under its metallic veneer, dates back nearly two centuries.

138 Second Avenue with 140-142 to its left, via HDC/Six to Celebrate

The exact date of construction of 140-142 Second Avenue is not known, but evidence indicates it was built around 1830. Then one of New York’s most fashionable streets, this stretch of Second Avenue had been part of Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, which after his death was divided among his heirs. In the early 1830s, urban development reached this area, and stately federal-style single-family homes were built for successful merchants along this street and nearby St. Mark’s Place. 140-142 Second Avenue was probably first constructed at this time as two such houses, which likely looked very much like nearby 4 St. Marks Place. It also probably looked a lot like its neighbor to the south, 138 Second Avenue, before it had a full fourth floor added in the late 19th century and a two-story commercial addition in front in the early 20th century.

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Nanoparticles awaken immune cells to fight cancer

Robert F. Service in Science:

NanoTiny nanoparticles, far smaller than the width of a human hair, might help the body’s own immune system fight tumors, a new study shows. In experiments with mice, the nanoparticle-based therapy not only wiped out the original targeted breast cancer tumors, but metastases in other parts of the body as well. Human clinical trials with the new therapy could begin within the next several months, researchers say. The search for drugs that spur the immune system to fight tumors is one of the hottest fields in cancer research. Immune sentries, known as T cells, are normally on the prowl for suspicious looking targets, such as bacterial invaders and potential tumor cells. If they recognize one, they sound the alarm, inducing other immune cells to mount a larger response. However, the T cells’ alarm can be muted by so-called immune checkpoints, other proteins on the surface of normal cells that tamp down the immune response to prevent harmful autoimmune reaction to normal tissue. Tumor cells often over express these checkpoint molecules, putting the brakes on the immune system’s search and destroy work.

To overcome that problem, pharmaceutical companies have developed a number of different antibody proteins that block these overexpressed checkpoint molecules and enable the immune system to target tumors. In cases where there are lots of T cells in the vicinity of a tumor, or where tumor cells have undergone large numbers of mutations, which creates additional targets for immune sentries, T cells will signal a full-fledged immune response to the cancer. Such cancer immunotherapy can add extra years to patients’ lives. However, existing cancer immunotherapy drugs work in only 20% to 30% of patients. In some cases, even when the checkpoint molecules are blocked that there are too few active T cells around to sound the immune alarm, says Jedd Wolchok, a cancer immunotherapy expert at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In others, he says, tumors don’t display enough of the T cell’s targets, so-called tumor antigens, on their surface. But a seemingly unrelated puzzle offered the prospect of boosting immunotherapy’s effectiveness. Oncologists have long known that in rare cases, after patients receive radiation therapy to shrink a tumor, the immune system will mount an aggressive response that wipes out not only the tumor, but metastases throughout the body that hadn’t been treated with the radiation. Researchers now think that irradiation sometimes kills tumor cells in a manner that exposes new antigens to T cells, priming them to target other tumor cells that carry them as well, says Wenbin Lin, a chemist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and one of the authors of the current study.

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Women and Power: A Manifesto

Jacqueline Rose in The Guardian:

ColleseumAt the end of Mary Beard’s SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome of 2015, she describes taking her kids to the Colosseum in Rome, where she agrees to pay for them to be photographed with “chancers” dressed up as gladiators, buys them helmets and, “turning a blind eye to the cruelties of the modern world”, reassures them that “we do not do anything as cruel as that now”. Given the relentless, vicious misogyny to which Beard has been exposed, it is not surprising that, in her books on classical life and history, such personal moments are rare. But this one speaks volumes. Beard is our most famous classicist, with a gift for bringing ancient Greece and Rome alive on the page like no one else. She is a writer of exceptional erudition and biting wit, and reading her is always a pleasure. This latest manifesto, Women and Power, originally delivered as two lectures, in 2014 and 2017, under the auspices of the British Museum and the London Review of Books, is no exception. Beard is consistently asking the same question: what is the relationship between the ancient past and today? In the Colosseum, she falters, finding it unbearable, as any mother might, to admit to her children that killing and torture are not long-lost memories ripe for play-acting, but rather the hallmark of the world they will inherit.

Beard opens Women and Power by acknowledging the huge advances for women in the west over the last 100 years (her mother was born before women had the vote). But, in view of what follows, this feels a bit like a concession. Her argument is one of continuity. When Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up, or Philomena has her tongue ripped out so she cannot speak of her rape, they are the templates for the active, loaded silencing of women today in public life. This treatment of women’s public speech as an “abomination” has re-emerged in different ways, from the rape and death threats hurled on Twitter at journalist Caroline Criado Perez for daring to suggest that a woman’s image should grace our currency to the abused and raped women around the world who simply dare not speak. Beard could hardly have known of the daily exposures of sexual harassment, from Hollywood to Westminster and beyond, that were to come.

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Historically, men translated the Odyssey; here’s what happened when a woman took the job

Anna North in Vox:

ScreenHunter_2905 Nov. 24 17.39The Odyssey is about a man. It says so right at the beginning — in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation, for example, the poem opens with the line, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”

In the course of the poem, that man plots his return home after fighting the Trojan War, slaughters the suitors vying to marry his wife Penelope, and reestablishes himself as the head of his household.

But the Odyssey is also about other people: Penelope, the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, the princess Nausicaa; Odysseus’s many shipmates who died before they could make it home; the countless slaves in Odysseus’s house, many of whom are never named.

Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, is as concerned with these surrounding characters as she is with Odysseus himself. Written in plain, contemporary language and released earlier this month to much fanfare, her translationlays bare some of the inequalities between characters that other translations have elided. It offers not just a new version of the poem, but a new way of thinking about it in the context of gender and power relationships today. As Wilson puts it, “the question of who matters is actually central to what the text is about.”

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Scientific Proof Is A Myth

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

Heic0814f-1200x800You've heard of our greatest scientific theories: the theory of evolution, the Big Bang theory, the theory of gravity. You've also heard of the concept of a proof, and the claims that certain pieces of evidence prove the validities of these theories. Fossils, genetic inheritance, and DNA prove the theory of evolution. The Hubble expansion of the Universe, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and heavy elements, and the existence of the cosmic microwave background prove the Big Bang theory. And falling objects, GPS clocks, planetary motion, and the deflection of starlight prove the theory of gravity.

Except that's a complete lie. While they provide very strong evidence for those theories, they aren't proof. In fact, when it comes to science, proving anything is an impossibility.

Reality is a complicated place. All we have to guide us, from an empirical point of view, are the quantities we can measure and observe. Even at that, those quantities are only as good as the tools and equipment we use to make those observations and measurements. Distances and sizes are only as good as the measuring sticks you have access to; brightness measurements are only as good as your ability to count and quantify photons; even time itself is only known as well as the clock you have to measure its passage. No matter how good our measurements and observations are, there's a limit to how good they are.

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What We Owe the Innocent Victims of America’s Wars

Patrick Leahy in the New York Times:

Merlin_129588092_7a766fb6-1359-4760-8eca-891f90585cff-master768In “The Uncounted,” their article in The New York Times Magazine last week, Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal laid bare a tragic reality of American military operations against the Islamic State: the untold harm inflicted on civilians.

That the Islamic State is guilty of horrific atrocities is common knowledge. But most Americans seem unaware of the human toll of our own actions, the consequences this has for our national security and our reputation, and that too often the civilian casualties we cause are the result of avoidable mistakes. This must change.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of violent extremist groups has grown across multiple continents. From Syria to Somalia to Pakistan, the United States is combating many of these groups — usually with bombs and missiles. Large numbers of innocent people are invariably caught in the middle.

There are practical ways that we can improve how we protect civilians as we fight violent extremists. These changes will improve our military operations and make our country safer in the long run.

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Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to actors or journalists. Talk to a waitress, or a cleaner


Alissa Quart and Barbara Ehrenreich in The Guardian:

There certainly is room for outrage about both the mistreatment of thespians and models, and the manhandling of waitresses or women picking berries in the fields (We should try for a both/and campaign. It could be called #MostofThem!).

Then again, that inclusive strategy rests on a tacit assumption that the airing of the pain of, say, actor Mira Sorvino will inevitably help less well-born women. And we think the associative property here is probably a fallacy. It’s basically a trickle-down theory of female empowerment. We know how well trickle-down theories of all kinds tend to pan out.

So how can we excavate the vast iceberg of sexual harassment that lies beneath the glittering tip of celebrity abuse?

This is a powerful moment for sharing our stories, but it can sometimes feel like we are only reproducing class divisions that have long existed in the feminist movement – where we are aware of the elegant suffering of celebrity comics, businesswomen and starlets but not those of the working mothers who are handing us our fries or fluffing our pillows. We are not seeing the way the latter are harassed in so many other ways. Working-class women regularly have their purses searched (ostensibly for stolen goods) or are expected to work overtime without pay. This kind of casual hassling is part of the general humiliation that most low-wage workplaces inflict.

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How do the Pilgrims relate to immigrants today?

Randy Dotinga in The Christian Science Monitor:

MayThanksgiving isn't just an opportunity for kids to discover they can draw turkey outlines with their hands. It's a time for history buffs to ponder the Pilgrims, those complicated characters who left an ever-confounding American legacy. British author Rebecca Fraser brings the Pilgrims to vivid life in her new book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America. In an interview, Fraser – the daughter of famed historian Lady Antonia Fraser – talks about the immigrant status of the Pilgrims, their civic dreams, and their surprisingly friendly relationships with Native Americans. "However clichéd," she says, "there is a good deal of truth in the Mayflower legend!"

Q: You describe how many of the Pilgrims were treated in Holland with the disrespect that immigrants so often encounter today – forced to live in hovels and take low-level jobs that nobody else wants. Do you connect them to immigrants of our time?

As I was writing this book, the plight of refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa began to be very visible in Europe. The parallel for me was that a lot of these people are like the Pilgrims – many had professional qualifications in their own countries. Today’s refugees are surgeons and doctors and lawyers who have nothing to show their status in their home country. One of the most important Pilgrim leaders was an ex-diplomat who descended from a long line of members of Parliament, and many others came from wealthy families. The Pilgrims had to leave England because there was a clampdown by King James I. To practice their religion, they had to live in Holland, which was in favor of all Protestants, and in the town of Leiden, whose town government gave financial support to all reformed foreign churches that sought sanctuary within its walls. But the downside of Leiden was that the Pilgrims had to abandon their homes and work for Dutch cloth manufacturers who exploited them. Spending 12 hours at their looms was normal. And like most refugees, they were living in pretty unpleasant circumstances because they had very little money.

Q: What did the Pilgrims hope to find in America?

Freedom to worship and also to be English, not Dutch. They were patriotic!

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Hard Time: roots of the criminal-justice crisis

Chase Madar in Bookforum:

Cover00American punitiveness—in our policing, courts, prisons, and law—can’t be fully understood outside the context of white supremacy. Louisiana’s state penitentiary is on the site of a former plantation called Angola, so named because that was where its slaves came from; black men in bondage continue to farm the land. And the incarceration rate for black men in the USis an astronomical 2,207 per 100,000, nearly six times the rate for white men and higher than in South Africa under apartheid. In recent years, videos of lethal police violence against unarmed African Americans have become a constant on TV and online, making the problem virally visible. Two new books, part of an ongoing bumper crop of necessary writing on criminal justice in the US, explore the relationship between black America and our steroidal punishment system. James Forman Jr. and Paul Butler are both lawyers turned academics who regularly publish in legal journals and the mainstream press. They combine scholarly erudition with a practical knowledge of how the system works, writing with hard-won clarity about prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, witnesses, victims, and offenders. Approaching the same broad subject, both have produced immensely valuable books written from very different perspectives. One of Forman’s many talents is his ability to make radical, unsettling points in the calmest of voices. For example, his 2009 article “Exporting Harshness” makes a convincing case that the so-called excesses of the war on terror are not aberrations. They are, he argues, fairly consistent with the norms of the American penal system, and if they have been harder to ignore, that’s because they have occurred in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, where they have attracted press attention and international outrage. Although journalists have described domestic law-enforcement abuses as the war on terror “coming home” and adopted CIA terms like black site to describe police torture facilities in Chicago, Forman suggests it would make more sense to refer to Abu Ghraib as a Mesopotamian Rikers Island.

In his bracing (but always generous) 2012 critique of Michelle Alexander’s best seller The New Jim Crow (2010), Forman takes on an even more firmly established piece of conventional wisdom. Alexander’s thesis has become dogma among liberal criminal-justice reformers: Namely, mass incarceration is driven by a racist backlash against civil-rights advances, carried out under cover of the war on drugs. Her argument rests in part on the widely held belief that most inmates are nonviolent drug offenders, but Forman points out that only about 25 percent of our prison population fits this description. While it’s undeniable that racism is one of the most powerful engines of our punitive state, Forman asserts that the metaphor of mass incarceration as neo–Jim Crow is limited: “In emphasizing mass incarceration’s racial roots, the New Jim Crow writers overlook other critical factors,” such as the steady rise in violent crime rates from 1960 to the early ’90s and the broad support for disciplinary overkill in overwhelmingly white places like Idaho and Wyoming, which have also seen a steep climb in incarceration rates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 35 percent of the nation’s prisoners were black in 2015. Though that’s an undeniable overrepresentation of black America’s 13 percent share of the overall population, it means the other 65 percent of US prisoners were nonblack. As Forman writes, “That’s a lot of ‘collateral damage.’”

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Anthony Bourdain: By the Book

From the New York Times:

26ByTheBook-master315What books are on your nightstand?

I’m currently reading Thomas Ricks’s “Churchill and Orwell. Graham Greene’s memoir, “Ways of Escape,” is a book I’ve read many times but keep coming back to. John Williams’s “Stoner” is on top of the stack of “To Be Read” books, next to Mark Lanegan’s “I Am the Wolf,” Moravia’s “Roman Tales” and “Agitator,” an overview of the films of Takashi Miike.

What’s the last great book you read?

Truly great? Charles Portis’s “True Grit” is a masterpiece. Don’t settle for seeing the film versions. One of the great heroines of all time and a magnificent book filled with great dialogue.

What influences your decisions about which books to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

Friends often recommend books, and I’m loyal to authors whose past works I’ve enjoyed. I’m a hunter of footnotes. If I’m heavily interested in a particular historical subject, I will often track down everything I can find on it. I can disappear down a rathole of books on, say, the history of the Congo or special operations in Southeast Asia for years. The Kennedy assassination, for instance, took me on a decade-long journey through the history of organized crime, the C.I.A., French intelligence, the French Algerian conflict, the Vietnam War, Castro’s Cuba and the history of the K.G.B. I’m like that.

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New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2903 Nov. 23 19.29In recent years, many of the country’s conservationists and residents have rallied behind Predator-Free 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the country’s birds by eradicating its invasive predators. Native birds of prey will be unharmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s research strategy, which is released today, spells doom for rats, possums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No country, anywhere in the world, has managed such a task in an area that big. The largest island ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times bigger. But, the country has committed to fulfilling its ecological moonshot within three decades.

Beginning as a grassroots movement, Predator-Free 2050 has picked up huge public support and official government backing. Former Minister for Conservation Maggie Barry once described the initiative as “the most important conservation project in the history of our country.” If it works, Zealandia’s fence would be irrelevant; the entire nation would be a song-filled sanctuary where kiwis trundle unthreatened and kakapos once again boom through the night.

By coincidence, the rise of the Predator-Free 2050 conceit took place alongside the birth of a tool that could help make it a reality—CRISPR, the revolutionary technique that allows scientists to edit genes with precision and ease.

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Carolee Schneemann Finally Gets Her Due

F64b37288c48f669aa675938b0b38f29dcde1bc5Jillian Steinhauer at The New Republic:

If you know one thing about Carolee Schneemann, chances are it’s that, during a performance in the 1970s, she pulled a scroll out of her vagina and read the text on it aloud. She actually did this twice—once in 1975 and again two years later, with a different scroll each time. Those performances, both titled Interior Scroll, have come to define her career.It’s not hard to see why. The work seems to distill perfectly Schneemann’s concerns over the last more than 60 years: the liberation of the female body, the celebration of the vagina, the possibility for a woman to be both artistic subject and object, the effects of patriarchy and sexism. Both of the texts Schneemann inscribed on her scrolls are drawn from other artworks she’d been working on at the time, but they also function as feminist treatises; both offer sharp commentary on the way women’s work is often belittled. The first, excerpted from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter (1975), reads

if you are a woman (and things are not utterly changed)

they will almost never believe you really did it

(what you did do)

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