The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 30 2014 5:55 PM

Pretty Much Everyone Agrees That Bogus Charges on Your Cellphone Bill Need to Stop

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission accused T-Mobile of cramming, or adding unauthorized charges to users’ cellphone bills. And now both the FTC and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are coming out against the practice and reporting on its problematic ubiquity.

Cramming works by burying deceptive third-party charges in a bill’s list of fees so consumers won’t even notice or will assume the line item is warranted. Cramming dates back to bills for landlines, and telecom companies later evolved to hide charges in extra-cost text messages, known as premium short message services. But even though the practice has mostly been stopped for wired telephones and texts, it lives on in a system called direct carrier billing.

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In a report released on Monday, the FTC noted, “In six recent enforcement actions, the Commission has alleged that such practices have cost consumers many millions of dollars, and in just three of these actions, defendants have agreed to orders imposing judgments totaling more than $160 million.”

Meanwhile, in a report released on Wednesday, the Senate committee described cramming as a billion-dollar industry that garners revenues for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The committee said that these carriers can hold on to as much as 30 to 40 percent of the vendor charges on customer bills, and that the telecom industry has wrongly dismissed cramming as a minor problem when it actually costs consumers millions of dollars a year. The report explains, “vendors using websites and apps connect to carrier billing platforms. Direct carrier billing methods are relatively nascent, and it is not possible at this stage to predict the extent to which scammers will find ways to cram charges on wireless bills.”

The FTC and Senate committee both claim that they will prevent cramming from continuing. The commission concludes that it “will continue to monitor the issue of cramming on mobile phone accounts and evaluate whether other potential solutions—including legislative measures and additional regulatory changes–are necessary to ensure consumers are protected from unwanted and unauthorized charges.” And it outlines five industry best practices that would create a safer environment for consumers:

1. Mobile carriers should give consumers the option to block all third-party charges on their phone accounts.

2. Advertisements for products or services charged to a mobile bill must not be deceptive.

3. It is critical that consumers provide their express, informed consent to charges before they are billed to a mobile account, and that reliable records of such authorizations are maintained.

4. All charges for third-party services should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed to consumers in a non-deceptive manner.

5. Carriers should implement an effective dispute resolution process.

Based on how hard it’s been to shake the con so far, it seems unlikely that this wave of scrutiny will stamp it out for good, but in the meantime consumers can dispute charges they think are unwarranted, and hopefully with multiple agencies working on the issue, it will be easier for customers who think they’ve been wronged to seek protection.

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July 30 2014 5:52 PM

Meet Johnny Dronehunter, Shotgun-Toting Defender of American Privacy

In the not-too-distant future, privacy will be a thing of the past, with drones roaming the skies and keeping tabs on the American public like the subjegated citizens of Panem. With a real-life Katniss nowhere to be found, who will be the only hope for us in this bleak, dystopian future? A tattooed vigilante named Johnny Dronehunter and his silenced shotgun, apparently.

That's the premise of a new—and particularly absurd—ad from Utah-based company SilencerCo for its new supressor line, the Salvo 12. In the hyperbolic promo (which you can watch above), our hero is seen chasing down a drone via car before he pulls over, grabs his large, silenced shotgun, and blasts the hovering symbol of tyranny right out of the sky. When five more drones close in, they meet a similar fate. Johnny Dronehunter does one thing exceedingly well (and quietly), and that's hunting drones. Sorry for the spoiler.

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According to SilencerCo CEO Josh Waldron—who was interviewed via email for the Vice blog Motherboard—the company "created Johnny Dronehunter and intend to continue a series of videos in this vein with him as the main character to represent the Americans who feel they don't have an appropriate voice in this privacy debate." As well as to, presumably, increase the sales of what SilencerCo is calling "the first commercially viable shotgun silencer."

There are, of course, a numbers of flaws in this general premise—like, for instance, is a suppressed shotgun really the optimal weapon for hunting drones? Also, why would there be a cluster of drones in the middle of the desert? That seems to be an especially wasteful use of surveillance resources. Mostly, though, given that the use of government drones on American soil is an issue that demands to be taken seriously, fantasizing about blowing them to pieces doesn't seem to lend itself being an appropriate voice in what should be an important and thoughtful debate.

Plus, not for nothing, but shooting down a drone is, by all accounts, almost impossibly hard to do.

But hey, sick silencer, Johnny.

July 30 2014 5:28 PM

It's Flash Flood Season in Colorado, and We May Might Not Even Know When They Start

With the American monsoon season in full swing (yep, there is such a thing), this is the time of year when epic dust storms sweep through Arizona and normally idyllic Colorado mountain streams can turn into raging torrents.

Right on cue, the National Weather Service has been tracking a potential flash flood threat along the Front Range of Colorado for days now.

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A second day of heavy rain is expected across northern Colorado on Wednesday.

Image: NOAA

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After heavy rain for the better part of two days, totals are starting to add up. Radar estimates and a network of citizen-science rain gauges indicate as much as 6 to 8 inches of rain have fallen in isolated parts of Colorado—half the annual average—though most places have received closer to 2 or 3 inches. On Tuesday, Denver set a new record for that day’s rainfall with 1.8 inches, breaking the previous mark of 1.44 inches set in 1989. Weather records in Denver begin in 1872.

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Radar estimates show that as much as 6 to 8 inches of rain has fallen across northern Colorado since Tuesday.

Image: National Weather Service

While the current round of flooding probably won’t cause widespread impacts, the weather pattern is still packing some hefty moisture content—around the 90th percentile for late July, according to the National Weather Service. Now that the ground is saturated pretty much all the way to Oklahoma, there’s nothing impeding all that water from reaching the mountains. The NWS says moderate rains should continue across Colorado “in full force” for the better part of the next seven days or so. Writing on his personal blog Tuesday night, hydrometeorologist Matt Kelsch said the current setup is similar to that which produced epic rains in the region just last year:

The general pattern today, last September, and in other big rain events share some basic similarities. 1) A weak atmospheric disturbance is enhancing mid-level “monsoon” moisture from the tropical Pacific, 2) humid easterly flow in the low levels will bring in Great Plains moisture, and 3) the upslope flow combined with instability will help to turn that moisture into clouds and precipitation.

In an email, he told me that while flooding this time may cause some problems, it’s “not on the order of last September.”

Although this has been a particularly well-forecasted event, meteorologists are flying partially blind due to the aftermath of record-breaking floods last year. Stream gauges along the Big Thompson River that were washed out by last September’s mega-flood are still out of commission. In 1976, the Big Thompson produced the deadliest flash flood in Colorado history. Last year’s flood was more widespread and lasted much longer than the 1976 flood.

Forecasting a flood and actually tracking one are two different things. To forecast floods, meteorologists use weather models and rainfall to estimate the probability of a big event happening. But when trying to track floods as they’re happening, nothing beats a stream gauge.

And many parts of the increasingly urbanized Front Range simply don’t have them. As Kelsch told me in an email, “The gauges were few and far between anyway. And in most small flash flood prone basins, there were never any stream gauges.”

Thanks to rapid urbanization (Colorado’s population has doubled since 1976) and global warming (a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor), the risk posed by heavy rainstorms in the mountains funneling their way through narrow canyons and into the urban conglomeration has never been higher.

If this week’s Front Range threat is any indication, meteorologists that measure and predict such floods are already having trouble keeping up.

July 30 2014 4:47 PM

What Other Secret Experiments Are Companies Running on You?

Facebook and the dating site OkCupid have each recently admitted to running secret experiments on their users.

Facebook loaded some users’ news feeds with more negative posts from their friends and family to see if it would make them less happy and engaged with the site. (Surprise: It did.) OkCupid lied to some users about their compatibility with potential dates to see if they’d still get together. (Surprise: They did, although not quite as often as they got together with people with whom they were actually compatible.)

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Both experiments led to consternation among users who didn’t appreciate being treated as psych subjects without their knowledge. But OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder set the whiners straight with a blog post vindicating the site’s actions. “Guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” The Harvard Business Review agrees: “The real problem in corporate America isn’t too many experiments—it’s too few.”

Thus reassured that we’re the crazy ones for expecting companies not to deceive us about their products and business practices, we couldn’t help but wonder: What other totally ethical clandestine experiments might our corporate overlords be running in the name of science and profit?

We won’t know until they deign to tell us. (Not that they owe us anything, of course. We’re just data points!) But here are a few guesses, along with the contributions to human knowledge that they might be expected to yield.

  • Does food poisoning make people less happy? Yelp investigates by switching its worst-rated sushi restaurants’ reviews with those of its most highly rated.
    Hypothesis: Some people will get sick, but others will eat the bad sushi and give it five stars.
  • Are alcohol’s effects partly psychosomatic? Inspired by the keg party episode from Freaks and Geeks, Anheuser-Busch substitutes O’Douls for Bud Light in every third six-pack.
    Hypothesis: Most customers will still act drunk, although some will wonder why their beer tastes slightly less metallic than usual.
  • Are counterfeit handbags really such a turn-off to fashionistas? Exploring cost-saving measures, Louis Vuitton tries replacing all the merchandise in a subset of its stores with knockoffs from New York City street vendors.
    Hypothesis: Kanye West
    will call for a boycott.
Companies conducting research
Why put the same product in every can when you could be conducting valuable scientific research?

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com

  • Is truth less profitable than fiction? The Mail Online runs an A/B test to find out whether real news stories get as many page-views as the ones it fabricates.
    Hypothesis: If you sensationalize the headlines enough, it makes very little difference.
  • Do empty inboxes make people lonely? The inquiring minds at Yahoo Mail introduce a software bug that halts delivery of messages to millions of users for days at a time.
    Hypothesis: Users will be sad and outraged, but most will not leave the service as long as Marissa Mayer
    apologizes very sincerely.
  • Are yuppie liberals as sensitive to gluten as they think? To get to the bottom of the latest food craze, Whole Foods injects gluten into some products labeled “gluten-free.”
    Hypothesis: Only a small percentage of customers will require hospitalization.
  • How gullible are heroin addicts? In the face of flagging sales, the Barksdale Crew renames its product and changes the caps from red to blue.
    Hypothesis: The junkies will eventually notice the difference, forcing the crew to strike a deal with Proposition Joe.
  • Nature or nurture? To help shed light on an age-old question, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center swaps 5 percent of babies at birth without notifying their parents.
    Hypothesis: Most parents will still love the children, and some will in fact greatly prefer them to their biological spawn.
  • Is one religion as good as the next? A scientifically curious group of priests, rabbis, and imams investigate by trading sermons for a few weeks.
    Hypothesis: Admission rates to heaven will remain unchanged.

Previously in Slate:

July 30 2014 3:47 PM

Netizen Report: Colombia May Jail Grad Student for Sharing a Research Paper Online

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Juan Arellano, Ellery Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Colombia, where two pending court cases concerning defamation and an alleged copyright violation could send free expression in the country on a rapid, downward spiral.

In one case, biology graduate student Diego Gomez could face between four and eight years in prison for posting another academic’s research on the file sharing site Scribd. The 26-year-old is being prosecuted under a criminal law that was reformed in 2006, as the result of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. Though it was intended to fulfill the trade agreement’s restrictive copyright standards, the law expanded criminal penalties for copyright infringement, increasing possible prison sentences and monetary fines.

July 30 2014 2:02 PM

Martha Stewart Loves Her Drone, Just as Louis XIV Would Have Loved His

Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time on Wednesday titled “Why I Love My Drone.” The only appropriate response is to pen an answering column about Why We Love Martha Stewart’s Column About Why She Loves Her Drone. First, there is a MadLibbian delight to the juxtaposition of the proper noun Martha Stewart with the military technology drone. (At The New Yorker, Henry Alford savored the pairing in a riff that Stewart says “was really funny but missed the point about why I love my drone.”) The new Time piece—just the latest of Stewart’s paeans to her quadricopter—advances the story of romance while supplying that much-needed layer of accuracy. Mostly, Stewart adores her drone because it is a “useful tool,” and she is all about useful tools. The drone takes beautiful, unique aerial photographs and videos of Stewart’s surroundings:

The view I was “seeing” on my iPad with the help of the drone would have otherwise been impossible without the use of a private plane, helicopter, or balloon. With any of those vehicles, I would have needed a telephoto lens, and all of them would have made an unacceptable commotion on the beach. What’s more, I would not have been in the photos!
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The images are so arresting and beguiling that even one of her farm workers now has a drone.

One of my farm workers used his drone, a DJI Phantom flying camera, to capture amazing images of my 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York. Suddenly we could see with astonishing clarity the layout of the open fields, the horse paddocks, the chicken coops, the greenhouses, the hay barn, the cutting gardens and henhouses, the clematis pergola, and the long allée of boxwood. The photos were so good I posted them to my blog on Marthastewart.com. The response was phenomenal!

As Stewart points out, this interest in sweeping bird’s-eye vantages predates the invention of drones. It may be related to our humanity. The Great Wall of China, the Nazca Lines in Peru, hot air balloons, the telescoping towers of the late 1800s—all of these technological marvels, Stewart writes, came into being in part because we had no drones to give man dominion over his limits. What could their builders have accomplished with remote-operated flying robots?

“It is hard to imagine André Le Nôtre laying out the exquisite landscape designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte, and later the magnificent Château de Versailles” without a drone, Stewart marvels. Yet, she continues, Henri IV was able to redraw Paris without a drone, and Capability Brown transfigured the landscape of England to align with his “axis of vision” without a drone. She does not mention it, but Stonehenge too may have risen without drones, the Rubicon was likely crossed without the aid of drones, and drones were almost certainly not involved in the discovery of penicillin.

All in all, it is a powerful argument for drones.

Drones can underscore a harmonious social order. Stewart says that the shots of her farm revealed “a very good landscape design—thanks to the surveyors and landscapers who worked with me on the overall vision, much as le Notre worked with Louis XIV.”

Drones can also highlight similarities between one’s vegetable garden, seen from above, and one’s “Peter Rabbit marzipan-embellished Easter cake, which was designed without the help of a drone.” What an enlightened monarch like Louis XIV could have achieved in the field of leporine pastry ornamentation if he’d only had a drone is too staggering to contemplate.   

July 30 2014 12:04 PM

Support Your Team by Sending a Robot to Cheer on Your Behalf

Being a rabid fan doesn't mean you can actually make it to all of your team’s games. But when you're not there in the stadium, there’s still a way to make your presence known. Especially if you're supporting South Korea’s Hanwha Eagles.

The Eagles are a baseball team with a less than stellar record, according to the BBC, so to keep morale high, their stadium is now equipped with robots that can be controlled remotely by fans. (You can make a picture of yourself show up as the “face” of the robot you're controlling.) If erstwhile Eagles supporters can’t be bothered even that much, the machines can just start cheers and hold up programmable signs on their own. 

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“It’s a pretty neat idea,” Andrew Albers, a former Minnesota Twins pitcher who now plays for the Hanwha Eagles, says in the video above. “It gets the crowd into it and really helps them get involved.”

The reality of a robot crowd is probably a lot more depressing than Albers is making it sound, but maybe the novelty will help draw human fans. At least it’s nice to see robots relaxing and enjoying a game given all of the competitions they’re being called to participate in.

July 29 2014 6:21 PM

Twitter Is Less Dead Than Ever

Remember when Twitter was dying?

That was last quarter, when its earnings report showed that it was growing somewhat more slowly than analysts had expected. Clearly, eulogies were in order. (For those not fluent in tech-pundit-ese, “Growing somewhat more slowly than analysts expected” translates loosely to “dead.”)

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Funny thing about businesses, though: They don’t necessarily shut down their operations in shame just because some writers feel that they’ve lost their momentum.

On Tuesday, Twitter rose from its proverbial coffin to report another round of quarterly earnings, and this time things didn’t look half so bad. Not only did it beat expectations for revenue ($312 million, up 124 percent from the same quarter last year) and turn a profit, but the company’s key size metrics—monthly active users and timeline views—grew more rapidly than expected.

Suddenly, Twitter is not only alive, it's the hottest stock on Wall Street. Within an hour of the market’s close on Tuesday, Twitter’s stock had soared 30 percent, from $38.59 to over $50 a share. The chart below is really quite something.

TWTR stock chart
A Google Finance chart shows Twitter's stock price before and after it reported earnings on Tuesday.

Screenshot / Google Finance

I’d like to say that I sort of predicted this—oh, what the heck, I’ll just say it: I sort of predicted this. I pointed out that Twitter is different from social networks like Facebook in that its monthly active users represent only a portion of its true audience. In some ways, it's more like a media platform, connecting celebrities and publishers to their followers and fans—including many who don't actively use Twitter themselves. As such, I proposed that "unique visitors" might be as important a metric to Twitter as "active users." And the former number is much larger than the latter.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter would in fact unveil "as many as four new metrics that it hopes will illustrate its reach beyond the 255 million users that log in at least once a month." But Re/Code's Peter Kafka clarified on Monday that those metrics weren't yet ready for primetime.

As it turned out, Twitter did so well on its existing metrics last quarter that there was really no need for new ones. That may be partly because last quarter brought the World Cup, which shattered Twitter's records for user engagement. Insofar as Twitter functions as a real-time news service, big news events bring a flood of attention to it, which fuels long-term growth. CEO Dick Costolo also credited some user-friendly recent changes to the site, like its new profile pages, for helping to bring in new users.

Still, on a call with investors Tuesday, Costolo emphasized that Twitter's reach is much greater than its active-user numbers reflect. There are, Costolo said, "hundreds of millions of additional visitors who come to Twitter each month but don't log in." Therefore, he added, "the size of our audience is two to three times that of just our monthly active user base."

For now, Twitter is not focused on making money from those additional visitors, the company's leaders said. But down the line, it will almost certainly find ways to serve advertisements to people who view tweets or timelines even when they aren't logged in, as YouTube already does. It will also run a number of experiments designed to make the site more inviting for new users and for visitors who don't want a Twitter account of their own.

It's clear Wall Street now gets all of this, and Twitter's stock is flying high as a result. It probably won’t stay quite this high, but you never know. For now, let’s just consider this another reminder that declaring things dead is dead.

Previously in Slate:

July 29 2014 5:02 PM

Weirdly, Netflix Is Faster on Verizon FiOS if You Slow It Down

Comcast isn’t the only telecom giant that Netflix has had problems with. The streaming service has been locked in battle with Verizon all month over who is at fault for slow Netflix streaming speeds on FiOS. Mounting evidence suggests Verizon is the one to blame, but here’s something pretty definitive: Accessing Netflix on FiOS, but through a virtual private network (VPN), speeds streams up. Which shouldn’t happen.

Colin Nederkoorn, a co-founder of the software development company Customer.io, explains in a blog post that when he played a Netflix speed test video to see how fast it was streaming, he got 375 Kbps—which is just 0.5 percent of the 75 Mbps download speed FiOS claims.

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So Nederkoom thought to connect to a VPN and see how fast Netflix would be. VPNs usually make everything slower because data sent through the network is encrypted on the sender side and then decrypted on the recipient’s side. It's an extra hurdle that's worth it if a user needs security, but is inefficient for something like Netflix that a user doesn't need to further protect. Unless they're trying to access another country's Netflix content.

But when Nederkoom connected to VyprVPN and started the test video, it streamed at 3 Mbps, or about 10 times the VPN-free speed. “It seems absurd to me that adding another hop via a VPN actually improves streaming speed,” he wrote. (It’s worth noting that Ars Technica has been writing about using VPNs as proof of throttling for a while.) 

Absurd is a good word for it. Reduced speed is usually a huge drawback to security measures that involve encryption like VPN. In this case, though, the speed loss is negligible compared with the gain that comes from tricking Verizon into thinking you’re in a different place, where the Netflix streams aren’t intentionally slowed down. Verizon will probably continue to posture and defer blame so it’s all of our jobs to start giving them some side-eye.

Update, July 30, 2014, 3 p.m.: Golden Frog, the company that makes VyprVPN, sent me a statement about its interpretation of the situation. The company's CTO Philip Molter said,

We've seen a lot of people accuse Verizon of throttling. However, what is happening likely isn’t technically “throttling.” Instead Verizon is simply neglecting to deal with traffic congestion because they have no incentive to do so.
Netflix appears to be using Level3 to get to Verizon. If these Level3/Verizon links are saturated (reports are that they are), then performance through those links is going to suffer because the pipe is not big enough for all the bits that need to go through it. Golden Frog uses multiple backbone providers to get to Verizon customers, so we avoid those congested links. Our paths to Verizon are not congested.

Maybe Verizon is just being lazy and isn't willfully penalizing Netflix.

July 29 2014 3:34 PM

Can a Baby's Death Tell Us Anything About Video Game Addiction?

Most Americans don’t take video game addiction terribly seriously, but South Korea has been dealing with rising rates of gaming addiction for years now. And the new documentary Love Child, which aired on HBO Monday night, explores the cultural climate that produces the problem.

Love Child investigates the story of a 3-month-old baby, Sarang, who died of malnourishment in 2010 while her parents were out playing video games at a PC bang, or Internet cafe. The couple was poor, and they earned money by playing video games— they would spend time getting desirable objects and weapons and then sell them for real-world cash. Specifically, they were playing a game called Prius Online, in which you raise a virtual sidekick. Essentially they were nurturing a digital child, while their real baby starved at home alone.

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They were charged with murder but ended up convicted only of involuntary manslaughter, because a judge ruled that their gaming habit was an addiction that prevented them from understanding the consequences of their actions. The father served one year in jail, while the mother didn't serve any time. As it concludes, the documentary notes that the couple has now had another child.

The film is about the stunning irony of the baby’s death—though Sarang means “love” in Korean, she experienced none as her parents cared for a digital child instead. But more broadly the film attempts to explain how Korea’s advanced Internet infrastructure, strong video game industry, and cultural desire for communal activities (in real or digital space) have all played a role in the gaming addiction that now plagues the population. According to statistics cited by the film, 2 million South Koreans deal with some type of online addiction (that’s out of a population of about 50 million), and one-third of the country plays video games often enough to be classified as gamers. Video game addiction is such a problem that the Korean government groups it with alcohol, gambling, and drug addictions.

But the video game industry continues to deliver immersive, multiplayer online games, and the people keep consuming them. One video game developer said in the documentary, “Our goal is to make users happy by reflecting their desires in games. If a game developer fails to lead users to be immersed in games, then it's a neglect of duty.”

Love Child tells the story of the Sarang case well, but it’s hard to know how broadly the larger narrative can be applied. In an interview with Yahoo Tech, director Valerie Veatch even says that she and her crew met with and interviewed the couple, but didn’t include the footage, which seems like it would be kind of important, in the documentary. “It was a real intentional artistic choice on my part,” she said. “My films are spaces for conversation to bounce around in.”

Still, the film raises important questions about how people react when presented with virtually unlimited high-speed Internet and immersive gaming worlds where they feel that they can shed their regular identity and become something else.

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