The End of Thrones

Surprise thrones ending

[Spoilers]

Well, well, well! The finish of a certain well-known show certainly seems to have got a lot of people quite exercised!  Me, not quite so much; I have been attempting to cultivate some Buddhist detachment.  Some people, though, have been following the characters and houses in a way usually reserved for football teams.

(I had a quick flash there of a cinematic screening where people group under banners of Lannister, Baratheon etc shouting insults at each other… and a few confused Jon Snow fans mill about on the border between Stark/Targaryen).

The downfall, and the hope, is that the TV series outpaced the books a while ago.  There were some deviations and omissions leading up to that.  George RR Martin has indicated that his fiction will take a different path.  I regard the books as being the “real” Thrones (or rather, the real “Song of Ice and Fire”).

I gather there was a large petition to re-make the ending.  Cue a fair amount of grumbling from my age group about “entitled millennials thinking they can just change what they want.”  I actually reckon that’s a pretty exciting attitude to have, myself, but I’m not so sure about fiction.  You just have to accept that the people writing or producing something may do something you don’t like.  You can pretend otherwise or write your own “alternative” version in your head if you want to.

I compared Thrones to Fullmetal Alchemist in a previous post; that wound up with at least two versions diverging after a certain point, the first being the TV writers’, the later being the author’s (which I liked less, contrary to expectation).  With Thrones, there is the possibility of two or possibly three different versions being made!  The big problem being that by the time GRRM finishes writing, the original cast may be too old or unavailable, and anybody else will likely suffer in comparison.

Was I disappointed in the end?  Yes, but this was largely in keeping with my expectations.  Thrones was at its best when it broke the mould and did what you did not expect; when it was different to other fantasy books.  When the promising young hero gets suddenly cut down in his prime; when the “good guys” decide to fight each other instead of the bad guys; when the idealistic queen’s dragon decides to snack on children.  This disappeared after the divergence point; when Sansa and Theon actually got rescued at the last minute by a hero on a horse, I realised it was becoming more like standard fantasy.

Incidentally, this is one reason I often pull faces when people talk about “character arcs.”  The point of Thrones was that anybody could die or have horrible things happen to them, no matter if they had unfinished business or were only in their “act two.”

So, while being pretty good as standard fantasy goes, the last seasons were not radical.  There being one Dark Lord who, if killed, would end all the Army of Darkness at once was about as fantasy cliché as you can get.

I was surprised at Daenerys going bad, and at Cersei dying in a way that apparently ignored the prophecy.  I didn’t mind the slow ending and wrapping up of the various characters, because I can honestly quite like long epilogues.  In a similar vein, the episode where everyone sat around Winterfell talking was my favourite.

The show also suffered a loss of plausibility; the huge variation in the ability of ballistas to shoot dragons out of the sky, for example.  Although to be fair, GRRM isn’t terribly strong on similar points himself.

What would have worked better?  Well, surprises and cynicism.  A neighbour suggested that the battle of Winterfell should have been lost; the survivors straggle south to find themselves caught between Cersei and the encroaching Winter army.  Then, personally, I would have voted for the humans killing each other and a White Walker sitting on the frost-encrusted Iron Throne while, just perhaps, one or two protagonists flee far south hoping to survive the Ice Age.  That would have been proper Thrones, and a story resonant for our times.

 

 

 

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The October List ***** (Jeffrey Deaver)

October list17368273

This is a crime book with a difference; it’s written backwards.  Or at least, the chapters are arranged in reverse time order, with the “end” of the story first.  The structure is a little like the film “Memento” in that you see each instalment without knowing what came before it.

There is no plot device like a damaged memory to explain this; the author just decided to do it as a challenge and a curiosity.  He was quite right; this book was the most outright fun that I have read for quite a while.

Without giving too much away, the action takes place in New York.  A man is drawn into helping a woman as she is pursued for the “October List” itself, something her employer apparently possessed that some very, very bad people will do anything to get their hands on.  If she goes to the police, or they catch her, something horrible will happen to someone she loves.  There is only limited time to evade her various pursuers and find what they want…

I almost said this is a book for writers, but this isn’t necessary to enjoy it.  If you are a writer yourself, though, you may enjoy it even more.

The key is to reveal new information which changes your perception of what you already know.  The author is very clever about this, and often outright cheeky.  One fundamental of humour is when your brain changes tack suddenly onto something unexpected, and I often found myself laughing out loud when this happened.  It can be a small thing, or seem almost like cheating, but I still enjoyed it with the author.  It was like someone telling what you know perfectly well is going to be a joke, but it’s a good one and delivered well.

You know what the “final scene” is from the very start, of course.  It’s a cliffhanger and the suspense only increases as you wonder how on Earth it can be resolved.  Which it is.  Brilliantly.

I am told there is severe nastiness in some of Deaver’s other books, but in this one it is only hinted or kept at a distance.  So I would heartily recommend this book, and thank you to Caroline who recommended it to me!

Hive link: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jeffery-Deaver/The-October-List/15962207

 

 

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A Green new car?

electric-car

So… my old car is on its last legs.  If you are going to drive a car at all, I think I did fairly well by the environment.  I bought a supermini second hand over ten years ago, and I’ve run it on low mileage until it’s falling to pieces.  It was also a diesel; better for global warming, but slightly worse for local pollution.  When purchased, diesels were officially encouraged.  Shortly thereafter, the government changes its mind and diesel prices shot up.  C’est la vie.

The thing about cars is this: for an ordinary vehicle, a quarter or so of the carbon emissions it will be responsible for are already there when it arrives at the dealership.  If you buy second-hand, you can claim to have avoided some or all of that straight off.  If you are a low mileage driver, the fraction of carbon from building the car will be larger.

But electric cars take more carbon to build up-front.  A lot of this is the battery.  The point where you break even for greenhouse emissions is after you have saved enough miles that you would otherwise have driven with fossil fuel.  Exactly how many will depend on a lot of things, including where you get your electricity from.   I have seen a number of studies and figures quoted.

So, I started doing my research.  When I discovered the job was not urgent, it became quite fun.  It was fortunate I had plenty of time, as it’s a complex issue.

I have been considering three main categories of vehicle:

 

Hybrid
This gets confusing as they come in different varieties.  The first two emit about ⅔ the carbon of an ordinary car.

-“straight” hybrid: a piston engine that runs almost all the time, an electric motor that kicks in when you need it and a smallish battery.  They have a usual kind of range.  Unfortunately, the one I’ve driven so far (Hyundai Ioniq) had rather sluggish performance.

-“plug-in” hybrid: Has a biggish battery and motor so it can do small trips (20-30 miles) on electric only, and you plug it in to recharge.  For longer trips, or if you’re driving hard, the piston engine starts up.  Sadly, research shows that most of the people who bought them don’t bother charging them from the mains.

-Pros: would suit my driving needs very well

-Cons: There’s a lot of heavy machinery to carry about while not necessarily using, and more to go wrong or need servicing.

-“range extender” hybrid: Mostly an electric vehicle, but has a small piston engine and fuel tank linked to a generator.  When doing a long trip, this starts up to power the car and recharge the battery.  The range extension isn’t that much (120 up to 180 miles or so on the one I’ve driven) but you can refill quickly from an ordinary garage or a jerry can.  I would have betted that the tech would converge on these “Rex” vehicles, possibly with variants that used fuel cells or where you could hoist the extender in or out as you needed it… but apparently not.

-Pros: Reduced range anxiety, electric-only the vast majority of the time.

-Cons: Still carrying weight about on short trips where you don’t need it.

 

Electric Vehicle (EV)

This is definitely the tech in the ascendant.  Government grants have been withdrawn from hybrids; there is a further grant available towards installing a charging point.

What looms large in many people’s minds is RANGE.  In my current car, I start getting twitchy when the “fuel low” light comes on, and at that point, I have about as many miles left as most EVs have at best!  However, I could charge at home on my driveway, and there is a nice web service called “zap map” which shows charging points near you and even, possibly, if they’re currently occupied.

Uncertainty on performance doesn’t really help; battery performance will deteriorate over time, or in hot or cold weather, especially if you use heating or cooling.  An electric car doesn’t have so much waste engine heat.

It would reduce flexibility but I have to remind myself that 99% of days the battery would do everything I need and more, and that other days would just take a little more planning.  I might need to stop and charge during a big day out to Lindisfarne for example (I’ve checked where points are) and on a trip to Taunton I would need to make three or four  longer breaks rather than the two I usually do.  EDIT: it seems that for cruising at 60, most EVs will need one minute’s charge for two minutes driving.  Not really that practical for long trips I’m afraid.

Pros:

-Simplicity: One motor, no gearbox, fewer moving parts

-Government grant

-The EVs I have driven have very nice performance, with a real kick of power and acceleration.  Not that this is too important to me, but it’s nice.

-Top green kudos

Cons:

-Range anxiety, plus lots of different companies run charge points, many of whom probably want a smartphone app and maybe a subscription.

-If you haven’t got a driveway to park in, you may be stuck for charging.

 

The silent running problem

When a hybrid or EV starts off, it is almost completely silent until it’s moving quite fast.  Most salesmen have put this as a positive, and it IS cool, until I think of my cat.  She is bright enough to know she should get out from under a car when the engine starts; what if it starts rolling without a whisper?  What about children playing on my street, and people walking around car parks?

Legislation is apparently coming to make sure silent cars have an artificial warning sound or fake engine noise.  But at the moment, where I live in the UK, it seems none of these green vehicles have it.  The VW e-Golf had a button which didn’t work.

Someone needs to get on this.

 

A second-hand supermini

As pointed out above, buy second-hand and you save some or all of the carbon that built the car, depending on how you judge things.  For a low mileage driver like me, the environmental impact is likely comparable to going electric.

Pros:

-Mammothly cheaper

-More choice

Cons:

-Miss out on the Green “cool” factor of something fancy

-Petrol may go up in price, or more streets become restricted to fossil cars

 

The Deciding Factor?

I’m tall.  So far, none of my green test drives have suited.  With the Ioniq and Leaf, it felt like my eyes were too high up in the windshield and the rear-view mirror was blocking my view of the road.  On the Golf and i3, the headrest pushes my head forwards into a stoop; I couldn’t stretch the back of my neck when I wanted.  On all of them, lowering the driver’s seat makes it tip back and throws more weight onto the coccyx.

In the cheap little Honda Jazz, though, the headrest adjusts its tilt and the driving position is fantastic.  The Toyota Yaris was also very comfortable.

Makes you wonder whether car designers really are getting any smarter…!

Conclusion

I’m not acting in haste; I don’t have to.  But at the moment, it sadly seems to me that EV design isn’t mature.  Nothing in my price range has a safety sound, nobody has a comfortable car for someone who is six foot two.

I will give it more time… perhaps VW will modify their e-Golf.  But if I had to buy a car tomorrow, I would be looking for a second-hand Jazz or Yaris.

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Avengers Endgame: **** (no spoiler, mild, and full spoiler sections)

190425160639-02-avengers-endgame-thumb-imax-poster-super-tease

[NO SPOILER SECTION]

OK, I admit it.  I was planning to wait a week or so before I saw this, but wound up going the first weekend on my own.  I’d been suckered in, no matter how I tried to play it cool.

For those of you not paying attention, there have been 22 films over 11 years establishing a shared universe with various characters, and this is the major climax (so far).  The last film ended on one hell of a cliffhanger, and this—the resolution—is breaking box office records.

There was much speculation about what would happen.  While the very end result was as many had guessed, how we got there was a genuine surprise for me and I salute the writers (but not unreservedly).  It showed great patience (both by directors, and asked of viewers) in how long it was before the action sequences started, building the stakes and the tension.  Compared to the first movie I found the action was either easier to follow, or that it didn’t matter if it was too fast.

I came out of the movie feeling satisfied and quite buzzed, and have been thinking about it since.  There was humour, action, and poignancy.  The plot mostly hung together (by my standards).

One slight bum note for me was that the main character of Infinity War was the antihero Thanos, but the main character of Endgame was Tony Stark (Iron Man), and it feels as though Thanos is hard done by.

 

MILD SPOILERS (first ¾ hr or so)

What I had not been expecting was that the film starts by dealing with defeat and failure: five years pass after the catastrophe, and the immediate chase after Thanos bears no fruit.  You see how the survivors react and cope, which isn’t necessarily in the way you expect.  Robert Downey Jnr. delivers his superb charisma and style as Iron Man, and what happens to Thor produces some superb comedy moments, but with underlying pathos.

Then the genie emerges from the bottle: Time Travel.  And what a hard-to-control genie it is!  The Marvel team are going to have great problems with that.  They have some fun trying to establish the rules by reference to films but, as often happens, these rules soon get contradicted.

One of the things I have admired about the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date is its discipline about Dead Meaning Dead.  Unlike the comics and many ongoing superhero series (where if someone gets killed you just shrug and say “they’ll be back in a couple of episodes”) the stakes have been preserved.  The only person to apparently die then return is a trickster god, of whom you might expect it.

22 films in, they have earned the right to do some resurrections.  The problem is that at the end of the film, the door seems to be still open to doing many more.

 

FULL SPOILERS

The bump, for me, is still Thanos.  Although his story sort of finished in the previous film with the realisation that success has cost him everything, we could have done with a little more reflection or interaction before his death.

Stopping there and facing other problems would have been fine; bringing back a younger and more hot-headed version of Thanos to act as an end-of-level Boss felt confusing.

But the film was still one hell of a ride!

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Sympathy for the Conspiracy Theorist (re: Voodoo Histories, David Aaronovitch)

Voodoo histories 9780099478966

A while ago, my father had a gardener who believed a conspiracy theory (by which I mean “something outside the mainstream narrative.”)

My father bought the book mentioned in the title, written by a Times columnist, and said he was going to try convincing the gardener of his wrongness.  I told Dad it wouldn’t end well, and it didn’t.  He and that gardener parted ways soon after.

Leaving aside the question of whether you can get along with someone who holds views very different to your own, I had a look in the book myself.  (This is not a full review, I skip-read and dipped.)

Link to buy from Hive, not that I recommend as such

Now, I am what I would call a sub-conspiracy theorist.  For example, I believe Western leaders left the Intelligence services in no doubt what conclusions they wanted about Saddam Hussein’s weapon programme, but I don’t think they staged the Twin Tower attacks.  In a similar way, I reckon the party line about the JFK assassination is dodgy as hell, but I couldn’t claim to know what really happened.

Voodoo Histories still aggravated me reading it, though.  Not so much because I wanted to believe in something it debunked, but in its general tone.  Essentially, this book is a polemic preached to the choir.  If you share both the author’s views and ethos, you will be reassured and shake your head in despair at everyone else.

It can be questioned whether anyone is open to persuasion about their big beliefs, but even if someone was, I doubt this book would make much difference.  There is little impression of being balanced or open-minded.  When reading about Dr David Kelly’s death, for example, I felt like I was listening to one side of a debate.  I wanted to hear the other side speak before I cast my vote.

An author is welcome to say what they think is right, of course, and I wouldn’t want Mr Aaronovitch to pretend a balance he doesn’t possess.  But if he hopes to persuade those who might be persuaded, something different is needed.  He should have looked at things that really were conspiracies better known to his audience, or that feel enough like a conspiracy to make people believe bigger plots are possible.

A perfect example would have been the MPs’ expenses scandal: it involved politicians of all parties over a long period, and many functionaries knew about it but the secret endured.  A mainstream paper turned the story down, and if another had not taken it up, the scandal would likely have stayed suppressed.

Or, racism and sexism.  These might not technically be conspiracies in that there is not a central co-ordinating authority (these days), but they can feel a great deal like a conspiracy to those on the receiving end.  No doubt there are plenty of unofficial meetings between those who want to enforce the unwritten rules.

Perhaps the most important and fertile ground to tackle would have been Global Warming.  Both sides have accused the other of being a conspiracy; there are vested interests, big money, big lobbying, corruption, media, idealism, ideology and dirty tricks to tackle.  There is also a firm scientific basis for settling the question, exploring “what is truth?” on its most fundamental level.

But you can’t get more establishment than The Times.  I find the absence of Expenses or Climate Change arouses some sub-conspiratorial thinking itself…

 

 

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Four Curses on the NHS (all the more reason to save it)

I had a bad experience recently which illustrates some of the current problems with the NHS.

I had a blocked, uncomfortable and sometimes painful ear that I had trouble hearing through.  It may not be much compared to what some people are used to going through but it was affecting my mood, my concentration, my socialising (I was additionally vulnerable because of the depression and possible autism-related sensory disturbance).

Twice, I went to a doctor who said the ear was almost fully blocked and referred me to see a nurse with a significant wait.  Then, the nurses said that there was only very little soft wax in there and there was no need for treatment, even though I could feel the blockage and couldn’t hear properly.  This makes you doubt your sanity and the honesty of the people who should be looking after you.

The last time, the doctor did say they wouldn’t treat the ear unless it was blocked fully.  I said it was already painful, to which he replied that they wouldn’t syringe it anyway if it hurt!  So I was in a catch-22: if it was bad enough to treat, it would be too painful to treat.

The first time, I got lucky and it resolved itself for a little while.  This was likely in spite of the advice I got, not because of it.  I was told to put olive oil in my ear, but not to stop after a while.  Research shows that if you keep putting in olive oil, it almost doubles the amount of wax!  The paper only recommended to do in advance of syringing.  Which it seems you can never count on.

The second time, I got desperate, tried peroxide drops which caused additional pain, then a home ear syringing kit.  A huge amount of wax came out (was it quantum wax that disappeared when a nurse observed?) and the problem largely resolved.

So: it seemed the NHS would flat out not help me, and some members plain lied.  There are four main reasons why: Gatekeeping, Defensive Practice, Generalising, and Appearances.

Gatekeeping

A friend tells me that when he operated a computer help desk, he would simply control the volume of work by only responding to the people who persisted over weeks.

The NHS does not have the resources to treat everything that it should, but it is politically impossible to admit this.  Therefore they make services hard to access: eg my friend recently had to respond to a text, then an email, then book on a website, then got a physio appointment far in the future at a distant hospital.  The idea is that the frivolous cases will drop out, some of the others will either die or get better on their own, some people will self medicate or get it dealt with privately.
It is worth noticing that in this case, it was a false economy.  I contacted and attended primary care about the problem, and still occupied the appointment made to deal with it.

Defensive practice

There is a risk something will go wrong with syringing ears.  Microsuction is better, but the equipment and training costs money.  Therefore, the nurses are highly reluctant to do it.  They did not even have the basic kit at the primary care centre.

When I did the procedure myself, there was a higher risk of something going wrong.  If it had, I would have been blamed for it but the NHS would still have had to deal with the consequences.

It is worth noting that hospitals with a policy of always admitting to their mistakes and being honest pay out far less in damages than ones which work defensively.

It is also worth noting that on a session of legal training I attended, I was told that the attitude “we can’t do anything in case we get sued!” is self perpetuating and far in excess of reality.

Generalising

Many clinical policies are set centrally.  They do things like reviewing evidence and saying “on average, this treatment causes more trouble or expense than it is worth.”

This does not take into account the exceptions, the people on the other side of the average.  For example, my friend with ME benefited from an anti-fungal drug.  The central authority decided that, on balance, it was too dangerous for people with poor liver function.  My friend’s liver was one of the few parts of him that was OK, but he suffered when the medicine was withdrawn.

In a legal training session, we were told that having a blanket policy which does not permit principled and reason exceptions was in fact illegal itself.  But that was a long time ago.

Appearance

…but it is, of course, impossible for the NHS to admit any of this.  Everyone knows it, nobody can say it, sometimes not even to themselves.  Survival as a health practitioner depends on translating and obeying the hidden message.  In this case it is “Blocked ears aren’t worth us dealing with no matter how much they whine.  Therefore nobody needs their ears unblocking, caspisce?”

 

That I am slagging off the NHS, and that it is failing in some areas, does not mean it should be scrapped or privatised.  Quite the reverse.  A free healthcare system that aspires to universality is a wonderful thing.

But we will not help it by denial of its problems.  The NHS is like a rental house with a leaky roof, but where the landlord will not admit there is a leaky roof.  From time to time, under protest and threat of legal action, he will change the mouldy carpets and furniture and re-plaster the walls.  But the roof is still leaking, so soon it needs doing again.  If he could somehow be forced to acknowledge the problem in private, the landlord will simply say he can’t afford to repair the roof, he has to keep living month-to-month.

The leaky roof is the staffing and strain.  Apparently 35% of NHS nurses are planning to leave.  What does that say about morale and working conditions?

Our health and welfare is worth paying for.  Our politicians, across parties, must have the courage to speak to the public about this, not simply pretend they can keep doing more with less (relative to inflation and demand).

But then, they have to be smart.  I worked in the NHS during the huge funding increases of the Blair/Brown years.  Somehow, hardly any of that money ever got to the front lines.  Perhaps some did make a difference in the flashy prestigious parts, but basic care continued to deteriorate.  We did see an awful lot of flashy and often poorly designed buildings going up which I understand are going to cost many times more than they are worth.  A lot of them were entirely devoted to management.

The NHS needs more resources, used intelligently.  If I was a religious person, I would ask you to pray.

 

 

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Whingeing about Dr Who because I like it

Everyone has their own idea of what they want, or think they want, and reckon other people should want as well.  So here are my thoughts.  I hope the producers recognise that their job is entirely to please ME, even if I might not watch, and disregard what everyone else wants or what pulls in the viewing figures.

* Make it fun…

One of my favourite recent stories (Robot of Sherwood) got roundly condemned in the fan community.  I liked the humour, but they seem to want serious with lots of dramatic gurning.  They are, of course, wrong.

* …or scary…

The gas mask zombie story stands as one of the best ever.  So does the initial Weeping Angel one (although they got flogged beyond worth later on).

* …but not horrible

Scary is good.  Lots of horror is not.  There is an inherent stupidity when you can’t show bullets killing people, so instead you talk at length about people burning to death or creatures being tortured for centuries.  Just show a damn bullet hole, it’s less nasty.

* Please take the tiniest note of F***ING SCIENCE

Maybe there’s no duty to be educational, but at least there’s one to not be contemptuous of the “sci” in a sci-fi show.  Make sure writers understand about conservation of mass and energy at least.

One of the biggest downhill steps of the series was when it began simply having “magic” beings or powers appear without the slightest justification or sense of shame.  There were always some such, but at least they used to arrive with an excuse that they were from “outside the universe where our laws don’t apply” or somesuch.

The science can be bad, I accept that, just don’t spit in its face.

* Why serious won’t work

The doctor has had access to the greatest technologies in the universe from the word go.  He/She could be travelling around with a forcefield that stops nearly everything, a remote control to summon the TARDIS, a “gun” that stuns things or zaps them into a secure prison dimension, nanites that bring dead people back to life, a computer bank that backs up their minds just in case, and probably something that grants the other powers of a god into the bargain.  If he/she doesn’t, it begins to look like the doctor is some kind of reckless thrill-seeker or even someone who enjoys watching mortals play games of life and death.

Therefore, the doctor needs adventures where going in loaded for bear wouldn’t help anyway, and where wits can sort things out before anything too horrible happens.

As for how history and the flow of time can’t be changed… given just how many times the vision of the future, the fates of the human race and Earth etc have altered already, this isn’t really credible any more.  Don’t rely on it.

* All headwritership corrupts, and absolute headwritership corrupts absolutely

Russell T Davies had some wonderful ideas.  Introducing the Doctor to ongoing family dynamics.  Humour.  Acknowledging sex.  But success went to his head and we got less brains, ever-raising stakes, dramatic gurning, lying to the audience, contradicting canon, etc.  When Steven Moffatt took over he indulged enormously labyrinthine plots, which often didn’t make much sense on closer inspection.

When they worked together on the first season, they kept each other in check and did work not bettered since.

* On the recent upswing…

The recent series has been, by and large, pretty good.  I liked the historical ones especially, for all I thought that I wouldn’t.  The weakest link was the space adventure with the indestructible alien that eats everything (ridiculous throughout, but not in a humorous fun way).  Which I feel a bit bad about, because I used to complain about the number of Earth-based adventures, but if you do sci-fi it should be decent sci-fi.

All that said, the point to some extent is that people are always going to complain about Who, and enjoy complaining.  So perhaps all the above should be ignored!

 

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