Archive for July 2017

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings?

Left Behind
I’ve read at least half a dozen contradictory accounts of the origin of the handshake. Because handshakes clearly predate written history, all these explanations are ultimately somewhat speculative. But the most popular story is that an open right hand showed you were not carrying a weapon; if two men met and displayed empty right hands, this presumably meant a basic level of trust existed that neither would stab the other. In one variant of this story, the handshake evolved from an elbow-to-wrist “patdown” to check for hidden knives; in another, the shaking motion was supposed to dislodge any sharp objects that may have been kept in the sleeve.

Of course, this explanation, while plausible enough, doesn’t account for left-handed men, who presumably would have been happy to extend the right hand in greeting while wielding a dagger in the left. But in many parts of the world, since ancient times, the left hand has been considered the “bathroom” hand, the one never used for eating, giving, or receiving—nor, by extension, for greeting—whether you’re left-handed or not.

Meanwhile, the “I’m-not-going-to-stab-you” story doesn’t tell us why the handshake won out over other greeting gestures in the West. After all, in some cultures the standard greeting (even between people who don’t know each other well) is a kiss on one or both cheeks; in others, people hug, rub noses, bow, or even stick out their tongues. Writer Margaret Visser suggests one possibility. As she noted in her book The Way We Are, at one time the English were more demonstrative with their gestures of greeting—for example, English men routinely greeted all women with a kiss on the mouth. As part of the Victorian behavioral “reforms,” public kissing of any kind became socially unacceptable and the handshake came into fashion for both men and women as a convenient way to keep a person at arm’s length. So to speak.

The Left Hand Doesn’t Know What the Right Hand Is Doing
At least in the United States, the handshake has become an extremely ambiguous symbol. At one level, it just means “hello” or “goodbye.” But it can also be construed to mean “we’re in agreement” or even that an informal contract has been reached, as in the proverbial handshake deal. And on a still deeper level, it can mean “everything’s OK between us,” particularly after some conflict has been resolved. But sometimes social convention awkwardly calls for shaking hands to signify the end of a meeting, even though no agreement has been reached or a state of conflict still exists. And heaven forbid that one world leader should shake hands with another whose ideology differs deeply, since people on both sides will judge this as a disingenuous move at best, and at worst, a betrayal of the leader’s values. But was the politician saying, “I accept you and your beliefs” or simply, “Hello”?

Then, of course, business types will read all sorts of meaning into the very style of your handshake. Even if you execute it under exactly the right circumstances, it must be firm but not too firm; it must be held for exactly the right amount of time but no longer; it must be accompanied by direct eye contact; and, for bonus sincerity points, you should add your left hand to make a “hand sandwich.” You may also be judged on the angle of your hand and the number and intensity of shakes.

And if this kind of confusion isn’t bad enough, that’s just the standard, run-of-the-mill handshake. Gangs sometimes use special handshakes to signify group membership, just as fraternal societies and children’s clubs use “secret handshakes” as a kind of password, a symbolic way of saying, “We’re insiders.” So if someone outside the group incorrectly attempts a handshake, the results can be quite serious. On the other hand, a high five (arguably a variety of handshake) pretty unambiguously expresses satisfaction or congratulations—but that’s the exception.

I think the notion that we all need to perfect the art of shaking hands—and reading handshakes—is kind of silly. Even though I can’t proclaim universal standards of handshake meaning, I’d like to do my small part by offering you this easy guide to what my gestures of greeting mean:

  • Handshake: “This is my hand.”
  • Handshake refused: “I’ve got MUNI/motor oil/pastry flour/cooties on my hand—or you do.”
  • Handshake (left hand added): “Your hand is cold.”
  • Kiss on both cheeks: “Hello/goodbye, European acquaintance.”
  • High five: “Dude!”
  • Hug: “You don’t smell too bad.”
  • Palm raised, gap between middle two fingers: “Live long and prosper.”

So then, how do we convey all those extra meanings that are supposed to be encoded in a handshake? My advice is to do what our parents told us when we were three years old: “Use your words.” —Joe Kissell

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More Information about The Handshake…

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You can get more background (and a variety of perspectives) on handshakes from Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims, Esquire’s Things a Man Should Know About Handshakes, White Lies and Which Fork Goes Where by Ted Allen and Scott Omelianuk, and Ever Wonder Why? by Douglas B. Smith.

Discussions on the origin(s) of the handshake include:

Also see Warm Greetings: The Way to Wai and Sawasdee in Thailand at Welcome to Chiangmai & Chiangrai.

For more on handshake etiquette (for what it’s worth), see:

Filmmaker Michael P. Britto is making a documentary called Gimme Five: History of a Handshake.

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One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy.

Nowadays, Gillette’s strategy has been—excuse me again—honed to a new level of sophistication. Each new model of razor has a unique design such that only blade refills made to those exact specifications will fit. When possible, the designs are patented so that third parties are prevented from selling their own refills; Gillette, meanwhile, charges a small fortune for their blades, and customers dutifully buy them. Predictably, when a patent expires, opening the market for generic competitors, Gillette releases a new design, along with a new marketing campaign geared toward making people with last year’s model feel like they’re no longer—sorry—on the cutting edge.

The Leading Edge
This strategy is technically a form of what’s called “loss-leader” marketing. In general terms, a loss leader is a product sold at a loss in order to generate secondary sales later on. In some cases, a loss-leader product doesn’t produce dependencies that lead to other sales directly, but rather builds brand image and goodwill among customers, in hopes that this will indirectly produce sales later on. In other cases, products are sold at a loss strictly to gain market share or monopolize shelf space; profits come from upgrades, add-ons, or other secondary sales.

One of the most common implementations of loss-leader marketing is cell phones. Almost every day I see an ad in a newspaper or magazine advertising a cell phone for free (or some trivially small amount of money), even though I know they cost quite a bit to manufacture. In this case, the “blades” are the monthly service fees. The cell phone company expects to recoup the cost of the phone—and then some—by selling you air time. Distributors guarantee they won’t lose money by building a clause into the contract stipulating that you must pay a “cancellation fee”—in other words, the cost of the phone—if you discontinue service before your contract expires.

Give Away This, Sell That
Any product that requires a service plan, periodic upgrades, or consumable refills is ripe for this type of marketing approach. Satellite TV providers will sometimes install an antenna on your roof and a receiver in your living room for free, as long as you make a one-year commitment to pay for monthly service. Another example is color inkjet printers, which used to be fairly expensive but now routinely sell for well under US$100. Replacement ink cartridges, however, often cost an arm and a leg, in some cases making your total cost per page higher over the long run than if you’d purchased a more expensive laser printer. But my favorite new implementation of “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” comes from the Italian coffee company Illy. Illy offers a subscription program whereby you can receive two to six cans of gourmet coffee in the mail every month. But they also offer a special twist: you can buy a high-end espresso machine at a savings of about US$450 if you commit to a one-year membership. If I didn’t already have an even fancier espresso machine, I’d be all over that program.

It’s not just physical products that work with this sort of scheme either. Countless software developers, Web sites, and internet services follow the same model. If a company is giving away a product for free—whether it’s a Web browser, a news service, music, or whatever—it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s some moneymaking plan behind it, which may very well be a loss-leader strategy. Hmmmm, come to think of it, my company gives away digital products for free—including the very article you’re now reading—in order to produce advertising revenue and promote sales of subscriptions, audio recordings, merchandise, and so on. Has it worked? You’d better believe it. This strategy brings in enough money every month to buy inkjet refills and pay for my coffee subscription. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades…

A 2001 article on The Industry Standard discusses King Camp Gillette and the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Gillette still gives away razor handles in the mail, but as far as I know, you can’t explicitly request one for free—you have to accidentally find your way onto one of their mailing lists. (You can, of course, also purchase the handles in stores.)

Gillette’s top-of-the-line model at the moment is the Fusion, which has five blades—well, six if you count the Precision Trimmer Blade on the back—and you can get both powered and unpowered models. When will the madness end? According to Shaving technology: The cutting edge in The Economist, a mathematical projection predicts that razors with 14 blades will be introduced in 2100. My guess: no way it’s going to take that long.

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Read more about Gillette (the man and the company) in Cutting Edge: Gillette’s Journey to Global Leadership by Gordon McKibben or King Camp Gillette 1855-1932: Inventor of the Disposable Culture by Tim Dowling.

Illy offers a variety of coffee subscription programs, including several in which you can purchase a professional-quality espresso machine at a deep discount if you commit to a one-year membership.

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by Morgen Jahnke

L'Inconnue de la Seine

Every year, thousands of tourists come to Paris to see one of the most famous faces in the world—Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. With her enigmatic smile and serene beauty, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting has inspired both sincere admiration and endless speculation about her true identity (although most now agree that it is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant).

Although less well known, another image of a woman’s face once similarly fascinated and intrigued those who saw it, and gave rise to theories about its origin. Although her true identity is a mystery, the woman who inspired this image has come to be called “l’Inconnue de la Seine,” or the Unknown Woman of the Seine.

The Face that Launched a Thousand Myths
In keeping with the mysterious background to her story, there are various versions of when it actually began. The most common version holds that it began close to the turn of the 20th century, when the body of a young woman was brought to the Paris morgue after she drowned in the Seine (at that time, unidentified bodies were displayed to the public at the morgue in the hope that someone would recognize and claim them). It was here, the popular story goes, that a staff member was so taken with her beauty that he made a cast of her face, creating a haunting death mask of the young woman. Furthermore, it was said that since the woman bore no obvious wounds, she must have taken her own life, perhaps because of some unrequited love.

Although this romantic version of the story is the most common, there are some who dispute certain aspects of it. Some argue that the hairstyle worn by the woman dates to an earlier time, asserting that the mask was made sometime between the mid-1800s and the early 1880s. Others claim that the woman depicted in the mask was not a drowning victim at all, and was actually alive when the mask was taken. Whatever the case, it is true that around the turn of the 20th century, copies of the so-called death mask began appearing in shops in France and Germany, and soon became highly popular objets d’art.

Mask Communication
The key to the growing appeal of the mask was not merely the beauty of the model, but the pleasant smile captured by the cast-maker that seemed so at odds with the reputed tragic circumstances of her death. L’Inconnue, as she came to be known, served as the muse to numerous writers who were inspired to imagine what lay behind the smile, and sought to explain how the young woman had met her fate. From novelists who took the story to dramatic (and perhaps melodramatic) heights, to well-respected writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Vladimir Nabokov who made mention of l’Inconnue in their work, the popularity of the image and the story had an immense effect on French and German culture in the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, it has been argued that l’Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the time, causing fashionable young women (and especially aspiring actresses) to try to emulate her innocent beauty.

Reviving the Dead
The popularity of l’Inconnue did begin to wane as the century went on, but her image was revived in the 1960s, thanks to a new development in medical training. In the 1950s, Dr. Peter Safar refined a system of lifesaving techniques that eventually became known as CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and he recruited a Norwegian toy manufacturer, Asmund Laerdal, to produce a mannequin on which these techniques could be practiced. As he created this mannequin, which he later named Resusci Anne, Laerdal was inspired to give it the face of the young woman who drowned in the Seine, thus allowing CPR trainees to symbolically save her life.

By now, Resusci Anne (or CPR Annie as she is called in the U.S.), has been saved thousands, if not millions of times over, and her face has become known to new generations of admirers. It’s a fitting tribute to l’Inconnue, whoever she may have been, in that her ultimate legacy will not only be tied to tragedy and death, but to compassion and survival. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about The Unknown Woman of the Seine…

In her recent article for the Guardian, Ophelia of the Seine, journalist Angelique Chrisafis interviewed members of the Lorenzi family—descendants of the Parisian model-makers who first sold the Inconnue mask—who argue that the young woman must have been alive when the cast was taken.

For much more information about l’Inconnue’s effect on literature, see the above article, or Anja Seidler’s article, Influence and authenticity of l’Inconnue de la Seine, or Wikipedia.

The history of Resusci Anne is detailed in depth on, by Geoff Watts on, and on the Laerdal Medical Web site.

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When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems.

Family Trees
On a trip to Costa Rica, which is a major exporter of bananas, I saw endless banana plantations and also visited a botanical garden where a botanist shared some fascinating details about banana trees. He said there are about 300 varieties of banana (and their close relative the plantain—pronounced “PLANT-en,” not “plan-TAIN,” by the way), of which only some are edible, and an even smaller fraction cultivated commercially. The type of banana grown most often in Costa Rica is a hybrid that is larger and sweeter than its naturally occurring ancestors.

Among the other interesting tidbits we learned was that banana “trees” are not even trees—they’re the world’s largest perennial herbs. The distinction is not merely academic; the stems, which may appear to be solid trunks, are simply multiple layers of very large leaves that could be cut through with a regular knife. In fact, the stems often break under the weight of the bananas and need to be supported with poles.

Also surprising was that bananas grow upside down, seemingly showing contempt for gravity. Each plant has a flower shoot that produces a single bunch of bananas—by “bunch,” I mean a set of about 15 subgroups called hands, for a grand total of about 200 banana “fingers.” On commercial banana plantations, each plant’s bunch is usually covered with a large plastic bag saturated with pesticides, to ward off both insects and birds.

Being Fruitful and Multiplying
Bananas also have an unusual life cycle. Normally, the primary reason for a plant to bear any sort of fruit in the first place is to propagate itself, since the fruit contains the seed. Modern, commercial strains of banana don’t have seeds. (Well, they do, but they’re tiny and sterile, unlike wild and often inedible varieties of bananas, which have large and viable seeds.) Seedless fruit-bearing plants (think of navel oranges) normally propagate only with human help—as in transplanting cuttings—because the plant has no natural way to regenerate when it dies. Here again, bananas break the mold. Each banana plant produces just one bunch of fruit over its lifetime of about a year and then dies—or at least appears to. But the stem above ground is just a portion of the plant, the so-called pseudostem. There is also an underground stem, called a rhizome, which produces new shoots at the base of the visible stem. These begin growing into new, flowering stems just as the old one is dying. The new plant, then, really isn’t new at all, and is genetically identical to its predecessor.

These peculiarities aside, bananas are an excellent source of potassium, not to mention a highly effective device for keeping scoops of ice cream aligned in a dish. Bananas have been referred to as “the world’s most popular fruit,” “the world’s most popular tropical fruit,” “America’s most popular (or second- or third-most popular) fruit,” and a variety of other designations in the upper strata of fruit stardom, based on different metrics for assessing popularity. In any case, Americans—and much of the rest of the world—certainly consume immense quantities of bananas.

But what about the tale of the exploited banana pickers? I’m sorry to say it’s true. Though the situation is better in some areas than others, and has on the whole improved somewhat since I was in college, the life of the average banana picker is still rather bleak. Of course, if the producers paid their workers a living wage, bananas would become so expensive that few people would buy them, thus reducing demand, and so on—a tricky problem to solve. For my part, I wear banana stickers just as my professor did—not to advertise Dole, Chiquita, or Del Monte or because I think it will have any tangible impact, but to remind myself of the real price of bananas. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about The Truth About Bananas…

Just about everything you’d ever want to know about bananas can be found at—you guessed it— Especially interesting is their page on How to Grow Bananas, which contains details on propagation, harvesting, ripening, and so on.

A much more detailed account, full of important-sounding technical terms and Latin names, can be found at the Web site of UCLA’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. Another similar account is at Purdue University’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department.

For a sobering and excruciatingly detailed look at the banana trade, see Banana Link, especially their page on Human and Environmental Costs.

If you want to grow your own bananas, and can provide a suitable (hot and humid) environment, try

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Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins is, among other things, the social and cultural history of the banana in the United States. Highly recommended reading for banana trivia buffs (there must be some, I’m sure).

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Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression.

The first test I found was called the Porsolt Forced Swim Test (FST). This test was created in the mid-1970s by R.D. Porsolt et al., and it has been used ever since to measure despair in mice and rats. Antidepressants often affect rats in the same way they affect humans, so before human trials begin with any new antidepressant, this is one of the tests likely to be performed in a laboratory. The FST is one of the more reliable tests of an antidepressant’s effectiveness. It’s simple, if somewhat disturbing. Essentially, you put a rat in a cylinder of water for a given period of time, and measure how much of that time the rat swims compared to how long it remains immobile. The rationale is that a rat will give up trying to swim when it feels despair; rats with less despair swim longer. The test will be repeated with a given animal before and after administering an antidepressant; when a rat keeps swimming longer after treatment with a drug, this is taken as a sign of the drug’s effectiveness.

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Check This Box
Needless to say, the FST would not be considered an appropriate test for human subjects. Although I’m certainly no authority on the matter, one of the diagnostic tools that appears to be popular among mental health professionals for assessing one’s level of depression is called the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). This is a straightforward 21-question test, with each question having four possible answers. For each question, the answers range from a score of 0 (no indication of depression) to 3 (strong indication of depression). Add up your score, compare it to a scale, and the doctor can get a reasonably good picture of how depressed you are. Of course, this is just one of many tools, and no responsible clinician would rely solely on the results of this test for a diagnosis. (Nor, by the way, do I recommend using it on yourself without professional interpretation. Caveat lector.)

Interestingly, a “perfect” score of 0 on the BDI only indicates that you’re not depressed (or, perhaps, in denial); it says nothing about how happy you are. In fact, I haven’t been able to find any tests that purport to measure happiness with the same degree of rigor and repeatability as the BDI, probably because happiness is not normally a condition doctors need to diagnose and treat. But if you say your happiness increases by 1% for every article you read at Interesting Thing of the Day, I’ll take your word for it. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Quantifying Despair and Depression…

You can see a copy of the Beck Depression Inventory here (PDF). For information on its validity and further references, see this article at the University of Melbourne.

To see a picture of the Porsolt Forced Swim Test in action, see the description of ViewPoint, a software package designed to automate this test for scientists who need to perform it repeatedly. There are many published studies of antidepressants featuring FST results; see this one for an example.

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