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U.S. Congress to consider bill requiring cell phone radiation labeling

Last month, San Francisco’s city council established a law requiring that cell phone retailers prominently display the Specific Absorption Rate—SAR—of the various models on sale. This number, which ranges from 0.2 to 1.6 watts per kilogram, measures how much of the microwave radiation emitted from a cell phone penetrates human tissue. The cell phone industry was outraged.

But over in Congress, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-OH) seems to think it was a good idea. On 30 June he announced his intent to introduce a bill making an SAR labeling law national. In addition, the bill will, if passed, create a new national research program to study cell phones and health.

“Some studies find links. Some don’t. But studies funded by the telecommunications industry are significantly less likely to find a link between cell phones and health effects. We need a first class reserch program to give us answers,” Kucinich said.

Meanwhile, he indicated, “a labeling law will ensure that cell phone users can decide for themselves the level of risk that they will accept.”

Also in late June, researchers in Austria released the results of a study that found that the risk of tinnitus—ringing in the ears—doubled after four years of cell phone use. The study, from the Institute of Environmental Health at the Medical University of Vienna, found that the risk is higher on the ear in which the phone is used. Researchers said that the link between mobile phone use and tinnitus is plausible, given that the inner ear is in the path where much of the cell phone radiation is absorbed, but didn’t discount other possible factors, such as blood flow constraint because of the way the phone is held.

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Russian Spies Thwarted By Old Technology?

PHOTO CREDIT: Anna Utekhina/iStockphoto

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department had arrested a Russian spy ring in the United States. The articles read like chapters of a Ludlum book.  

The whole story is tremendously weird, starting with the fact that there were Russian spies trawling for state secrets in Montclair, New Jersey (home to a Starbucks, a Talbots, and a Supercuts, but crucially bereft of a CIA, an FBI, or any other of the 16 intelligence agencies that pepper our nation).

The so-called “Illegals Program” was a decade-plus-long effort by the SVR (the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, a descendant of the KGB) to create a deep-cover network of suburban spies. At least five couples made like Tim Robbins in Arlington Road, grilling burgers on the patio while they “gathered information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, CIA leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics.”

Over the next couple of months, many little political tales of spy-agency inside baseball will likely surface, but these stories will unfold in the New York Times, not in Spectrum.

No, what’s interesting is how these Cold War relics communicated with their contacts.  They uploaded images--into which they had embedded secret messages--to certain websites, where their contacts could download and decode them. If the Illegals had used a better method to communicate, they might have evaded detection. Is it possible that these spies were thwarted at least in part by their reliance on out-dated steganography programs?

The idea behind steganography is this: instead of making your data unreadable with encryption, you’re hiding the fact that there’s data at all. So, for example, the classic example is the secret message hidden in a seemingly innocuous picture of a cat. The algorithms generally conceal the secret payload in pictures by altering the least significant bit of the pixels in the image.

And in fact, that’s pretty much the method the spies used. According to the UK Register, SVR provided the Illegals with a steganography software that was “not commercially available."

After they encoded their messages into pictures using this software, they uploaded the images to certain web sites from which their contacts could then download them, reverse the stego algorithm and retrieve the secret message. But, the same images that let them communicate freely, were what busted them in the end. According to the Register, “a New Jersey search uncovered a network of websites, from which the alleged spies had downloaded images. Some of the images have been revealed as containing readable text files.”

Here’s the thing. This isn’t some fancy new technology. Steganography algorithms for concealing data in images has been around since at least the early 1990s. According to Chet Hosmer, the chief scientist at digital forensics outfit WetStone Technology, the number of steganography programs has risen from a handful in the late nineties to about 250 today.

More importantly, using them to hide information is not some elite hacker skillset. In fact, Warsaw University of Technology professor Krzysztof Szczypiorski says it’s more akin to using Microsoft Word. Szczypiorski is one of the white hats behind stegano.net, a project that specifically seeks out new steganography algorithms with the objective of finding ways to crack them.

Steganography is becoming the tool of choice for a whole cadre of criminals a lot more daunting than these putative Borises and Natashas. It’s been used to exfiltrate sensitive data in corporate espionage, state sponsored espionage, and oddly enough--by gangs. Hosmer told me that gangs often use steganography to encode details into the pictures on their gang web sites. Right now you’re probably thinking, “gangs have web sites?” Me too.

What’s odd here is that the SVR went with such an old-school steganography method, one that leaves traceable evidence. Because there’s a lot better stuff out there. Steganography evolves alongside technology, and now you can choose ways of covertly smuggling information that leaves no trace.

Szczypiorski and his colleagues Józef Lubacz and Wojciech Mazurczyk wrote about the evolution of steganography in Spectrum a couple of months ago. The malevolent kitty picture might be the public face of steganography, but as technologies goes it’s actually old hat. Instead of leaving behind an artifact of your wrong-doing for the Justice Department to download, new stego programs use ephemeral channels that disappear when the communication has been completed. It’s called network steganography. You can do it in real time, you can transmit huge amounts of data, and you can do it without leaving behind any artifacts to implicate you.

If the Russian spies had known about these new protocols, they might not have gotten caught so handily. You can bet that the non-Russian spies in the United States (insert your own xenophobia here) are using more sophisticated methods to phone home.


 

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Sensor Tells Wafers When to Get Out of the Shower

IEEE Spectrum’s June special report on the water-energy nexus reminds us of how little we know about how much clean water is required to enjoy the comforts of the modern age. A single chip making facility can easily consume 10 million liters of fresh water each day—close to the daily requirement of a city with 50 000 residents. But do chip fabs have to use so much of this precious resource?

A startup created by University of Arizona researchers to further develop and market technology that promises to dramatically cut water use by chipmakers recently announced that it is looking to sell its patents. Tucson based Environmental Metrology produces sensor equipment and software that detects, based on changes in electrical impedance, when a silicon wafer has been rinsed clean. Without the sensors, chip makers simply err on the side of caution, knowing that any contaminants left behind on the wafers’ surfaces will lower yields.

The technology’s developers, who claim that it can cut water use in a fab by up to 50 percent, say that companies such as AMD, Intel, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Texas Instruments have expressed interest. Cutting their water use allows these tech firms to tout their social responsibility bona fides and helps their bottom lines by decreasing the amount of wastewater that they have to process to keep from running afoul of environmental laws.

 

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Dell Tried to Hide Bad Capacitors Problem 2003-2005

According to Ashlee Vance at the New York Times documents from a lawsuit against Dell reveal just how bad a problem it was having between 2003 and 2005 with its main desktop business computer line the OptiPlex. And it appears Dell tried to cover it up.

As we reported in early 2003, PC makers including IBM had  motherboards using faulty capacitors traced to Taiwan. According to my notes, in late 2002, Dell spokesperson Jess Blackburn told me that Dell did not suffer from this problem:

“I’ve talked to people in both our procurement and development organizations, and here’s what I’ve found out… They tell me that they were alerted to this potential problem out there and looked into [it], several weeks ago, conducted a fairly intensive investigations. Looked at all of the boards as well as the PSUs and found that none of our boards has been affected. Apparently we don’t receive capacitors from any of the suppliers that were affected by it. We haven’t had any customer impact as a result of this. We checked it out and didn’t discover that we source any of our capacitors from the companies that were reporting this problem, and to this date haven’t found anything contrary to that.”

Maybe Dell’s computers weren’t failing in late 2002. But according to the New York Times story, Dell shipped more than 11 million potentially faulty computers between May 2003 and July 2005. And surely they should have been on the watch for crummy capacitors in time to fix the problem.

After the trade magazine Passive Components Industry Magazine broke the story in late 2002, our Taiwan correspondent Yu-Tzu Chiu and I spent a month trying to figure out the source of the capacitors and the extent of the threat to computers. (Special thanks to our former news editor Bill Sweet as well.)

What we found was a case of industrial espionage gone bad. Here’s a note to any would-be secret formula stealers: take the whole formula, not just part of it. The formula in question was for the electrolyte in aluminum electrolytic capacitors with a low equivalent series resistance. These are high-capacitance components that generally serve to smooth out the power supply to chips.

According our source, a scientist stole the formula for an electrolyte from his employer in Japan and began using it himself at the Chinese branch of a Taiwanese electrolyte manufacturer. He or his colleagues then sold the formula to an electrolyte maker in Taiwan, which began producing it for Taiwanese and possibly other capacitor firms. Unfortunately, the formula as sold was incomplete. It lacked certain additives that prevent hydrogen gas from building up and bursting the capacitor.

At the time, few PC and motherboard makers were willing to admit to the problem, even though their products were showing up at repair shops such as Gary Headlee’s and Carey Holzman’s. Headlee and Holzman, did a brisk business replacing capacitors on fried motherboards. But when Headlee posted a list of the types of boards he’d worked on he immediately got cease-and-desist letters demanding their removal.

Dell, according to the Times, must have bought a lot of bad capacitors in order to churn out two years worth of potentially bad machines. In dodging responsibility, the Times story says, Dell often blamed the user. Saying that computers sold to a university math department failed because they had been made to do math too taxing for the computers. Even the law firm that defended Dell, Alston & Byrd had a hard time getting the company to replace them, according to Vance’s reporting. And, too often, the replacement motherboards customers did get, had the same set of weak capacitors.

There’s still a crud-covered motherboard on my shelf here at Spectrum that Carey Holzman sent me back in 2003. It reminds me that in an age of tight global supply chains, even the titanic and trusted can be felled by the small and sinister. It would be refreshing, for a change, if the titanic and trusted showed the integrity we imagine them to have and dealt with their problems directly.

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E3 Post-Mortem

Now that the pixilated dust has settled on the E3 videogame convention, what will remain?  Plenty.   As I blogged before, the big technology innovations include:  Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera, Kinect; Sony’s motion-remotes, Move; Sony’s 3D games; and Nintendo’s 3DS.  But what about the rest?

Here’s a rundown of ten games to look for in the months to come:

Def Jam Rapstar:   Music games have never quite nailed a hip-hop title, but this one from start-up 4mm promises to pick up the beat.  The game measures your ability to rap in sync with a classic playlist of tunes, and, best of all, battle head to head with other players.   

RAGE:   The latest from id Software is another showcase for programmer John Carmack.  Carmack’s new graphics engine renders sweeping outdoor environments, allowing for the game’s off-road driving adventures.  Creeptastic mutants attack with fluidly realistic animations that are astonishing for an Xbox. 

Portal 2:   Valve’s highly anticipated sequel to the cult fave 2007 game earned plenty of fanboys at E3.  Once again, the game puts an Escher-like twist on action titles, letting you navigate environments through inter-connected portals. 

Dead Space 2:   Quite simply, the freakiest, spookiest sci-fi game to come around since BioShock.  This sequel pumps out way more of the zero-gravity action that made the first so unique. 

Epic Mickey:   Veteran game designer Warren Spector takes Disney’s coveted mouse into bold new territory with this heavily-hyped platform game.  The title includes meticulously rendered recreations of classic Disney environs, such as the black-and-white Steamboat Willie cartoon.

Little Big Planet 2:    LBP was easily the most giddily original game ever to hit the PS3.  The sequel puts more creativity into players’ paws, letting them create their own role playing game and strategy game experiences using the built-in editors. 

Dance Central:   Goofy, but addictive, this is one of the few games shown that truly takes advantage of Microsoft’s new Kinect camera.  Look for it to be a big hit with kids, and maybe even get adopted in schools where physical education teachers are already using games like Dance Dance Revolution to get students moving.

APB:   From Dave Jones, creator of Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown, this massively multiplayer online action game pits Enforcers and Criminals against each other.   Skeptics have dismissed it as GTA online, but that misses all the innovation here – like the incredible customization options.  You can even script your own death theme when you blow opponents away.  

Mafia II:  Epic and elaborately detailed, is an open world action game set in the 1940s and 50s.   It’s heavily character-based, as you navigate a returning WWII through a life of crime in the mob.

Rock Band 3:   Multiple vocals, check.  Customizable playlists, ready.  But the next generation of the play-along-with-the-music game is all about something more innovative:  getting real.  Harmonix is releasing real MIDI instruments that you can use in game – or out of game – with the hope of making players more like actual musicians. 

I'm Buying My Next Cell Phone in San Francisco

It may take years before researchers figure out whether cell phone radiation carries long-term risks or is completely benign. The Interphone study, released in May, was supposed to settle the matter; it didn’t.

Meanwhile, governments regulate the amount of radiation mobile devices can emit—the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). They do this because the science is clear on one way radiation can damage cells—by generating heat. Limiting the SAR limits the amount of heat generated to a recognized safe level. Countries differ in how they set these limits; in the U.S., the number is 1.6 watts per kilogram. Researchers are investigating other ways radiation can affect human tissues besides heating them, but this issue has yet to be settled, or reflected in a standard.

Someone like me, who doesn’t want to hide under a rock until cell phones are either given a clean bill of health or proven dangerous, might want to choose a cell phone with as low a SAR number as possible. (They range from 0.1 to the maximum 1.6.) That person might be particularly careful when purchasing a phone for a child—it turns out that children’s brains absorb radiation differently. In recognition of this, a number of European agencies have warned parents to limit their children’s cell phone use.

I set out to find a low-SAR phone the last time I purchased a cell phone. It wasn’t, however, easy to get those numbers, particularly standing inside the store looking at phones. (They can be buried in manuals or data sheets packed with the phones, they sure aren’t on display.) Standing in the store, I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with a customer service rep at a call center, and he managed to eventually find the information. The phone I settled on had a moderate SAR of 0.54.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only shopper frustrated by how hard it is to get this information. This week, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed a law requiring retailers to post SAR data or face a fine. The law goes into effect in February.

The CTIA, the association that represents wireless manufacturers, is not happy about the San Francisco law, the first of its kind in the country. The CTIA says SAR information is irrelevant, and that no phones are safer than other phones. (I suppose CTIA members would rather compete on camera megapixels and apps and music capacity rather than radiation levels.) So it is going to make San Francisco pay—the CTIA is taking its annual trade show, held for the last seven years in San Francisco, elsewhere.

Wow. That’s like the cheese industry freaking out because they have to list fat grams on their labels.

But I can vote with my feet, too. The next time I buy a cell phone, I’ll be going to a retailer in San Francisco.

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How 3D is Nintendo's "Glasses-Free" Game System?

While at E3 in LA this week, I got to spend some more time playing around with the Nintendo 3DS, the upcoming "glasses-free" 3D version of the popular handheld game system.  Nintendo was showing a few limited applications of the device, including the camera feature, two playable games, and some video demos.   

 

The 3DS looks like the current DS, with two screens – a touch screen on the bottom half of the device, and the 3D screen on top.  One of Nintendo’s challenges will be marketing this device to the general public, since you can’t really appreciate the glasses-free visuals unless you’re eyeballing it live.  This is why, at the press conference, Nintendo quickly dispersed dozens of models into the audience to let attendees check it out first-hand.  During my extended time with the 3DS later, I tried to put myself in the mind of a kid picking it up for the first time – and heard a resounding “awesome!” echo in my brain.  But my grown-up brain had a few quibbles.

Though Nintendo isn’t revealing technical specs yet, the 3D image is rendered on the top screen of the 3DS without the need for the Real-D or Dolby glasses used at homes and theaters.  The 3D image isn’t as in-your-face as one you might find in a theater, but the depth and precision is striking.   Two camera lenses on the back of the device are used when you snap 3D photos, and the effect is mesmerizing (even when I just snapped my outstretched hand). A thumbpad on the left side of the 3DS lets you shift the image to change perspective. 

Impressed by the still images, I dove into the gameplay.  Nintendo showed two  flying games, which feature  a long depth of field.  Zooming around the sky while firing off torpedoes into the distance looked amazing.  The moments when other ships drifted behind mine were wow-worthy. At several points in the games, however, I found my eyes slipping momentarily out of focus – sort of like the feeling I used to have reading those Magic Eye 3D books several years ago.  The Nintendo rep showing me the device explained that “everyone’s eyes are different" (really?), which is why the 3DS includes a slider on the right side of the device allows you to toggle between a 3D and a 2D version of the images.  I supposed the occasional toggling is a small price to play for not having to wear glasses (let alone find them hidden or broken in your sofa cushions). 

Overall, the 3DS is extremely impressive, and surely will be a must-have for grown up game geeks and schoolyard players.  But…it’s just a start.   I’m surprised though that Nintendo didn’t demo games designed more specifically with 3D in mind – rather than 3D versions of familiar franchises.  The Nintendo Wii launched with specially designed titles (like Wii Tennis) that genuinely redefined what videogames can be.  It’s  disappointing that Nintendo didn’t make the same effort when debuting the 3DS.  I’m sure visionaries like Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto and others are dreaming up all new kinds of game experiences that will exploit 3D for its fullest potential.  But for now we’ll have to wait to see if and when they deliver. 

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Hands-On With the Hottest New Games

Day Two of the Electronic Entertainment Expo here in Los Angeles, and that means exclusive hands/eyes-on time with the groundbreaking new technologies at the show.

First up, Kinect - Microsoft's motion-sensing camera that promises "controller-free" gaming.  Yesterday, I got to hear Microsoft's PR spiel on Kinect at the opening press conference.  But you can't really get a feel for these new interfaces until you try them out for yourself.   So what's the verdict?  The first few of the half dozen demos I tried out today left me feeling a little bit...meh. 

Kinect Adventures, a sort of extreme outdoor sports obstacle course with rafting and roller-coastering, aims to get players jumping, smacking, ducking, and leaning for points.  But a noticeable lag time between my movements and my avatar's on-screen gave the action a gimmicky feel (something, although, that will probably go lost on the target audience of families and kids).  Sadly, Kinectimals - the virtual tiger pet game - failed to impress hands-on for the same reason.  It gets high points for cuteness, but the most interactive moments - like reaching out to "pet" the cat - felt canned, especially when the animated representation of your fingers on screen wiggle out of cue.  Your Shape:  Fitness Evolved fairs much better, delivering a convincingly precise exercise training experience.  For example, the yoga routines measure the (fairly) exact angles of your squats as you stretch, scoring/correcting you on-the-fly.  Look for this to be big with the Wii Fit home fitness crowd.  The best of the Kinect bunch is definitely Dance Central, a boogie-along-with-the-avatars game that's giddy enough to distract players from any inaccuracies. 

Over at Sony, the much-hyped 3D games were also hit and miss.  More than once, it took some adjusting to get the 3D viewing to snap into focus - and moving around while gaming didn't help.  Killzone 3 in 3D, however, was suitably awesome once it clicked in, proving that fast action videogames could be a huge sell in getting consumers to adopt 3D televisions in the years to come.  While Sony's motion-sensing controller, called Move, feels more responsive than the wireless remote for the Nintendo Wii, it also feels like a bit of a me-too afterthought.  A gladiator game delivers the most pow, as you use two Move controllers to wield your shield and hammer.  No games come close to the aha moment delivered when Nintendo first demoed Wii Tennis here at E3 a few years ago. 

In fact, some of the best games at E3 have nothing to do with 3D or motion-gaming.  Little Big Planet 2, the sequel to the wildly creative Playstation 3 game, adds even more dynamic tools for do-it-yourself players (who can now design their own strategy and action mini-games too).  Rock Band 3, the upcoming music game from the Cambridge-based developer Harmonix (whom I profiled for Spectrum magazine), adds a real MIDI keyboard and multiple vocalists for tracks.  During a behind-closed-doors preview, I got to try out maybe the coolest peripheral ever - the Fender Mustang Pro, a real MIDI guitar controller with 150 buttons.  Players will also be able to plug in an actual electric Stratocaster guitar, since the game can now parse which strings you press. Yes, this is the school of rock for the Xbox generation.  And who says videogames don't teach you anything of value?

5 Missing iPad Accessories

So, err, how to put this? We published a humorous slideshow about iPad accessories and said slideshow uses Flash, so our readers can't see it on an iPad. D'oh! So for those of you on an iPad, here's the story in an iPad-friendly version: good old HTML.

ipad accessories
Are you tired of cleaning fingerprints and greasy smudges off your iPad? Stop wiping and start iWiping. With iWipe, your slate will always be clean. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Are you worried about using your new iPad in public? Introducing iCuffs. Now your iPad will never leave your hands—and vice versa. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Did you know that falls are a main cause of iPad damage? Now avoiding crashes just got a lot easier. iChute gives your iPad a soft landing. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories  
Do your hands get tired while holding your iPad? Do you feel ridiculous using it on your lap? Don’t stress over it. Get a helping hand with iHold. Illustration: David Goldin

ipad accessories
Do your eyes hurt from the sunlight reflected off your iPad? Are you tired of squinting at the screen? Then you need iShade. (Includes iCupHolder.) Illustration: David Goldin

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Early Videogame Buzz at E3

The first (official) day of E3 videogame convention started today, and already there are clear standouts:3D and motion-gaming, as I anticipated. Here’s my initial take: 

Kinect

Formerly known as Project Natal, Microsoft’s controller-free, voice-command, motion-sensing cam captured much of the buzz after the big press conference yesterday.Is it cool?Yeah – though not entirely for the reasons you expect. Hardcore gamers have been (loudly) grumbling about whether a wave-your-hands-to-move interface will have any relevance for them. Maybe it won’t. I’d still rather play shooters like Halo Reach with the precision of an old-fashioned controller. But hardcore gamers aren’t the sell here. Instead, look for casual gamers to flock to this device. And there are three games here that are reason alone to buy the Xbox 360 add-on. First, Kinectimals. This kid’s virtual pet game is in the vein of Nintendogs. The demo shows a girl playing with a cuddly tiger who jumps when she jumps, purrs when she tickles it, and whimpers when she hides off camera – a must-have for girls under 12. The next Kinect hit, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.This is clearly Microsoft’s Wii Fit killer for cardio and yoga enthusiasts. The game measures you instantly down to your waist size and arm length, tailoring workouts accord to your progress. But the biggest smash – Dance Central, a dance game from Harmonix, creators of Guitar and Rock Band. Dance games like Dance Dance Revolution have a long history of success, particularly in Japan, and Dance Central has all the makings of a global phenomenon. Instead of dancing on pads, you move freely in the game, mimicking the moves of dancers on screen. Score! But my personal favorite Kinect innovation – making my TV viewing remote control increasingly obsolete. In addition to playing games, Kinect lets you choose, view, and manage your videos and films without looking for the clicker. That means all the streaming Netflix and Zune content to the Xbox 360 can be navigated just by flicking your hand or voicing commands. And with ESPN striking an (awesome) deal to bring 3500 on-demand live sport events to the Xbox 360, it means no more rifling for the remote under your couch cushions.

Nintendo 3DS

Yes, it looks like real 3D. I got an early look at the new Nintendo 3DS handheld game unit, the 3DS, and the glasses-free 3D actually works. It’s not quite as in-your-face as, say, watching Avatar, but it definitely pops out at you. Nintendo is touting the beefed-up graphics processor and the two screens of the unit, which enable them to pull off this spectacle-free spectacle. I’m impressed.

Sony Playstation 3D

Because Sony has end-to-end 3D technology, from the game systems to the 3D TVs, the company rightly put its muscle behind this innovation. The demo of this first person action game, Killzone 3, looked incredible – from the waves splashing up against the arctic bergs, to the blood dripping down the contours of your goggles. It almost made me upset that I didn’t buy my 3D TV yet after all. Of course, a lot of people will make noises about how few consumers have 3D yet, but all in due time. Killzone 3 proves that some games – particularly first person shooters – will look waaaaaay better in 3D, since this genre of games has always been aping 3D since its inception. Doom 4 in 3D please.

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