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August 23, 2006

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Welcome to the August 23, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Tempting Data, Privacy Concerns
New York Times (08/23/06) P. C1; Hafner, Katie; Zeller Jr., Tom

The three months' worth of search data inadvertently released to the public by AOL researchers poses a conundrum for researchers such as Cornell University computer science professor Jon Kleinberg: They could sift through a dataset that could offer academic researchers an unprecedented glimpse into how people use the Web to retrieve information, or ignore the data out of respect for the users' individual privacy. Kleinberg, whose research focuses on algorithms for understanding and searching the Web, downloaded the data immediately, but decided against using it due to privacy concerns. The breach shines a spotlight on the long-running frustration of academic researchers that raw data about Internet usage is extremely difficult to come by, accessible only to a cadre of corporate researchers working at the large companies where the data is locked up. Many researchers claim that the data, which details the search queries of some 650,000 AOL users, is too valuable to ignore. The users are not personally identified in the data, but in some cases the search terms reveal enough information to infer an individual's identity. AOL moved quickly to take the data off of its research Web site, but numerous other sites had already downloaded the data, reposted it, and made it searchable. Academia, excluded from the fresh datasets routinely made available to researchers at companies such as Google, has in essence made do with the Alta Vista and Excite datasets for almost a decade, though they shed scant light on the habits of today's users. "The way people use search engines now is totally different," Kleinberg said. "Partly because what you expected to get out of a search engine back then was much less, so people didn't try anything too fancy." Everyone can agree that protecting privacy is important, said Jamie Callan, an associate computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and chairman of the ACM's special interest group on information retrieval. But, Callan claims, "there's also a strong belief that it is very important for the scientific community to have access to data of this kind in some anonymized form."
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Wireless Pioneer Viterbi Headlines ACM MobiCom '06
AScribe Newswire (08/21/06)

ACM's Special Interest Group on Mobility of Systems Users, Data, and Computing (ACM SIGMOBILE) is sponsoring MobiCom'06, which takes place at the Marina del Rey Marriott in Los Angeles, Sept. 24-29, 2006. The 12th annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking will draw researchers, industry professionals and executives, as well as students from around the world for a panel that takes an in-depth look at wired and wireless access. Workshops on wireless and sensor network dependability and security, underwater networks, vehicular ad hoc networking, and wireless mobile services on local area network hotspots are also planned for the gathering. Wireless trailblazer Andrew Viterbi, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Southern California who co-founded Qualcomm, will discuss his expectations for wireless communications in the years to come in his keynote presentation on Tuesday, Sept. 26. The same day, ACM's Athena Lecturer Deborah Estrin, a computer science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, will present "Wireless Sensing Systems: From Ecosystems to Human Systems." The panel, "Wired Vs. Wireless Access: the Race to Higher Speeds," is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 28, and will include executives from Verizon Wireless, Ericsson, Intel, Cisco, T-Mobile, Cingular, AT&T Research and Sprint as participants. MobiCom'06 will also feature papers, demonstrations, exhibits, and an ACM Student Research Competition for students at the undergraduate and graduate level.
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Geeks Pray $100,000 Box Will Solve Software Crisis
Register (UK) (08/22/06) Vance, Ashlee

As the computing industry looks down the road to architectures with four, eight, and even hundreds of cores per chip, fewer and fewer researchers will have the resources to experiment with new software models on the complex new designs. To address that problem, a group of researchers has developed the RAMP (Research Accelerator for Multiple Processors) system--a relatively inexpensive FPGA-powered machine consisting of 1,000 nodes that can serve as a testbed for bleeding-edge system designs. "Little is known on how to build, program, or manage systems of 64 to 1,024 processors, and the computer architecture community lacks the basic infrastructure tools required to carry out this research," wrote the RAMP researchers. "Fortunately, Moore's Law has not only enabled these dense multicore chips, it has also enabled extremely dense FPGAs." Today, a single FPGA can accommodate up to two dozen cores, enabling the exploration of large, sophisticated architectures. The RAMP project has received unusual attention because it is partially led by David Patterson, the famed University of California, Berkeley professor who was a driving force behind the initial deployment of RISC designs. With multicore designs taking over, Patterson sees the gulf between hardware and software designers widening. "What's wrong with the multicore change is that no one is ready for it," he said. "The pieces of the software stack are not ready for thousands of CPUs per chip." Patterson argues that software developers cannot take their customary approach of waiting until ample hardware floods the market before adjusting their programming tactics. The performance of today's code will suffer from having to crawl across numerous low-power chips, and the problem will affect algorithms, programming languages, compilers, libraries, and operating systems. Patterson says the RAMP system should give developers a fairly accurate idea of how many clock cycles a given operation takes to complete.
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GNOME and Google Reach Out to Women
NewsForge (08/21/06) Brockmeier, Joe

When the GNOME project received 181 applications for Google's Summer of Code (SoC) program, and all of them were from men, GNOME's Chris Ball and Hanna Wallach proposed that some of Google's SoC money be used to reach out directly to women. The result was GNOME's Women's Summer Outreach Program (WSOP), which has more than twice the number of projects underway than originally planned, thanks to Google doubling its funding for the project. Even though no women applied for the SoC program, WSOP received more than 100 applications, as well as more than 200 email messages from women who wanted to contribute to GNOME somehow but did not have the necessary coding skills. The call for WSOP applications reached a wide audience of women in universities, computing groups, and online, whereas many of the applicants had not heard of the SoC program. Confidence is also an issue for women, Wallach said. "Many of the women who contacted us expressed concern about their coding skills, yet were extremely well-qualified. Google's 'prove you're the best person for the job' attitude may be off-putting to people who aren't entirely confident in their skills," she said. In response to questions about why GNOME would pursue women more enthusiastically than men, Wallach says that because the majority of the world's population is female, GNOME is initially targeting the group that could have the biggest impact. Wallach hopes that GNOME's outreach efforts will serve as an example for other free software projects. Already, several projects are underway to boost female participation in Linux, Debian, Ubuntu, and other open-source projects.
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The "Data Valdez" Versus the Privacy Ceiling
The Flowing Candy Bees (08/12/06)

With a group of researchers preparing to present a paper on the economic limitations of privacy violation at the ACM 2006 DRM workshop, which takes place October 30, 2006, in Alexandria, Va., the exposure of the search queries of some 658,000 AOL users seems almost prescient. The concept, known as the privacy ceiling, argues that forward-looking companies would scrupulously guard against privacy violations due to the liability of amassing large repositories of sensitive information. Liability can come from many sources, such as vicarious infringement, which companies can be liable for if it can be proven that infringement in fact occurred, that the company benefited from it, and that the company could have stopped it. Librarians reacting to the Patriot Act purged the records of their patrons' reading habits, creating their own privacy ceiling. Similarly, companies can be liable from their customers for privacy violations. AOL's case, which appears to have involved a simple miscalculation by a few employees, illustrates the principal that companies can limit their liability by reining in their data-collection practices. To curb the potential liability from disclosing customers' data, the authors of the report recommend that companies implement architectures with built-in monitoring capabilities to safeguard sensitive data. They go a step farther and advise companies to actually control their users' activities to the fullest extent that their architectures will allow. Finally, the authors recommend that companies build their systems around privacy alone, rather than trying to balance the demands of copyright holders.
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Chips Promise to Boost Speech Recognition
CNet (08/23/06) Shankland, Stephen

Carnegie Mellon University researcher Rob Rutenbar believes the key to making speech recognition a practical reality is using a custom computer chip. At this week's Hot Chips conference in Palo Alto, Calif., Rutenbar said, "It's time to liberate speech recognition from the unreasonable limitations of software." A custom processor could be used for speech recognition similar to the way in which special-purpose hardware has been used for graphics. Speech recognition software continues to be plagued by speed limitations and power demands. The "in silico vox" project at Carnegie Mellon consists of custom ASICs and FPGAs. Rutenbar provided a videotaped demonstration of Carnegie Mellon's speech recognition technology using a low-end FPGA, and it recognized short sentences about two times as fast as researchers were able to speak them and matched the university's Sphinx speech recognition software in accuracy. First-generation custom chips are expected to be about twice as fast as the rate of regular speech for a 5,000-word vocabulary. One custom chip is being developed to work at 10 times the spoken rate, and there are plans to reach speed factors of 100 and 1,000.
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Robotics Team Rolls Out Ballbot at Carnegie Mellon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (08/23/06) Templeton, David

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a robot that can travel across a room balanced atop a urethane-coated aluminum sphere. The Ballbot is a self-contained robot that can travel in any direction, compactly swiveling and turning without falling down. While there are still many kinks left to work out, CMU research professor of robotics Ralph Hollis said that it demonstrates that robots can capably operate with just one wheel. Humanoid robots built with human-like legs are stable, but too expensive and complex for practical use in the home or office. When he was seeking to develop an alternative to the clunky three- or four-wheeled robots that are prone to tipping over when they accelerate too quickly or travel on ramps, Hollis concluded that a ball would be the best method of propulsion, though he still had to figure out how to make a tall, thin, and relatively heavy robot balance atop a soccer-ball-sized sphere. Fiber-optic gyroscopes give the Ballbot an internal sense of balance by measuring inertia, pitch, and roll angles, sending out hundreds of signals every second to a computer that controls the rollers that turn the ball, ensuring that the device is always in position to stand or roll, but not tip over. "It's more stable than the typical robot," Hollis said. "It doesn't like to tip over." Hollis is also working on a project involving haptics, using techniques such as magnetic levitation to endow the computer with a sense of touch. He kept the hardware as simple as possible, shifting most of the Ballbot's workload to the software. The robot carries the heaviest equipment at the top, drawing on the same principal that makes it easier to balance a broom by holding the end without the bristles in one's hand.
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US Government Lab Offers Grid Computing Toolkit
IDG News Service (08/22/06) Mullins, Robert

The Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory has developed an open-source toolkit that harnesses the power of grid computing to improve scientists' ability to collaborate remotely via the Internet. The Access Grid Toolkit will enable real-time communication among scientists throughout the world by developing programs that can share video, audio, data, and text. Now in its third version, the toolkit supports wall-sized displays and features detailed visualizations of simulations, a consolidated user interface, and other enhancements. The toolkit has been downloaded more than 20,000 times in 56 countries since its first offering. This version of the toolkit, which is written in Python, offers improved middleware that promises to make it easier to write applications to run on the Access Grid, according to Thomas Uram, technical lead for the project. The new version also includes some of the most commonly used Internet protocols, such as SSL for security, FTP for transferring data, Jabber for instant messaging, and XML for data description. InSORS Integrated Communications has used the toolkit as a springboard for commercial applications, including a research program at the National Institutes of Health focusing on allergies and infectious diseases.
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Capturing Online Video Pirates
Technology Review (08/22/06) Roush, Wade

Popular online video-sharing sites have been fighting a losing battle as they try to curb the posting of material copied from movies and commercial TV broadcasts without the permission of copyright holders. For the most part, these services have been removing unauthorized content when they receive a complaint from the copyright holder, after it has already been posted. However, new technologies are emerging that can preemptively ferret out copyrighted material, such as a system in use on the video-sharing site Guba that compresses a video file to a mathematical expression and compares its "fingerprint" with a database of commercial videos, excluding any matches from the site. Another technology embeds a watermark in movies, enabling studios to trace bootlegged copies of a movie taken with a camcorder back to the original theater and movie showing. While fingerprinting may not be able to keep pace with the volume of TV programming broadcast every day, and watermarking does not actually catch pirates, the techniques could be a valuable defense for video-sharing sites against the same type of legal challenges that brought down Napster and MP3.com. Roughly one-fifth of movie content on video-sharing sites is pirated, according to Guba founder Tom McInerney. While pirated content can drive Web traffic and create advertising views, it can also attract unwelcome legal attention. The nuisance of dealing with a steady stream of takedown requests compelled Guba to develop its fingerprinting system, which uses wavelet technology to condense the video into compact mathematical representations. Computer vision technology measures the frequency of scene changes to generate a form of time stamp. The system screens every video uploaded to Guba, singling out those that match a fingerprint in the database for human review. The system identifies pirated content with a 99 percent accuracy rate, McInerney says.
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Computers Take Over 2006 Minn. Elections
Associated Press (08/21/06)

Minnesota will count all votes cast in the state's upcoming elections using electronic machines from Election Systems & Software and Diebold. State officials are confident that Minnesota will not encounter any problems in accuracy or tampering of the election results, although electronic voting has its critics. Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says the 2004 election had an error rate of nearly zero for ballots counted electronically, compared to an error rate of about 1.5 percent for ballots counted by hand. Minnesota plans to retain original paper ballots and randomly choose precincts for mandatory hand recounts as safeguard measures. There have been errors or poorly written code, but analysts have not uncovered any efforts to plant malicious commands in software to fix a vote, says Brian Phillips, president of SysTest Labs, which serves as an independent testing authority for voting machine software. Nonetheless, critics say there are a number of examples of faulty programming, mechanical failure, and human error having an impact on elections. "The security standards are practically worthless, as is the certification process," says David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University. "At the end of the day, that computer is no more trustworthy than if you had one person count all the ballots with nobody watching."
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Software Takes You Into World of Images
Seattle Times (08/21/06) Romano, Benjamin J.

Microsoft researchers working at the company's recently created Live Labs division have developed a software program that cobbles together photo tourism software, imaging applications, and a new display technology to create an immersive, interactive tour of a remote location. Live Labs was created to quickly develop new products in an attempt to compete with Google and Yahoo in the arena of Web applications. A prototype for Photosynth, for example, appeared only a few months after research began. "It's kind of a new method for us for developing software and we're pretty excited about the nimbleness that it will give us," said Microsoft's Adam Sheppard. Live Labs is headed by Gary Flake, the architect of Yahoo Research Labs before he was hired away by Microsoft. Photosynth, the first project to emerge from Live Labs, begins with a collection of images of a certain place and organizes it with the photo tourism software. The system builds a basic 3D map of the space by analyzing the features that the pictures have in common. The user can fluidly navigate through the images, and clicking on a given feature will bring up other photos taken that contain the same element. The software also allows users to add annotations to images, and automatically applies one annotation to all images that contain the same feature being described. The digital world created through Photosynth could be linked to the point where the software could recognize in a picture of someone's refrigerator a postcard from Notre Dame, for instance, and, treating that image as a Web link, jump off to a larger set of images of the cathedral. By only streaming data as it is needed, the software conserves computing resources. While Microsoft has yet to formulate a business model around Photosynth, the technology could be used to enhance its Windows Live Local mapping software.
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FTC to Examine Net Neutrality
IDG News Service (08/22/06) Gross, Grant

The issue of whether proponents of Net neutrality are justified in their concern of large broadband providers impeding Web content from rivals will be studied by an Internet Access Task Force organized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said her group welcomed this turn of events, noting that "We certainly look forward to the analysis of an agency that exists to protect competition of the broadband market in which 98 percent of customers receive their service from either the telephone company or the cable company, if they have that choice at all." On Monday, FTC Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras urged lawmakers to exercise caution when considering Net neutrality legislation, as it could ban broadband providers from charging Web sites higher fees for faster service or prioritizing their own Internet content. In a speech at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Aspen Summit, Majoras said she had no doubts about Net neutrality advocates' sincerity, but was questioning "the starting assumption that government regulation, rather than the market itself under existing laws, will provide the best solution to a problem." Still, she promised that her agency will probe cases of discrimination by broadband providers. In November the FTC will host a conference that examines protecting consumers in the converged technologies era, with an emphasis on trends, applications, products, services, and technology issues expected to emerge in the next 10 years, according to Majoras.
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2006 Horizon Awards Winner: Stanford University's Password Hash
Computerworld (08/21/06) Collett, Stacey

Seeking to stem the proliferation of phishing scams, researchers at Stanford University have developed a technique that prevents a stolen password from being used to access an authentic site. "Internet users often use the same password at many sites," said Dan Boneh, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford. "A phishing attack on one site will expose their passwords at many other sites." The Anti-Phishing Working Group identified nearly 12,000 malicious phishing sites in May 2006, up from 3,300 sites just one year earlier. The technique, known as Password Hash, or PwdHash, simply adds "@@" to the beginning of a password that a user types out when registering on a Web page. That combines the password with the site's domain name in an algorithm that creates a customized password that will not work even if it is stolen and typed verbatim. Adding a cryptographic hash is not a new idea, but the novel part of the researchers' work was to make it so easy for end users to apply. Three years ago, Secret Service agents told Stanford's engineering and computer science department that phishing was the most serious threat that the researchers could help with. The most difficult part of developing the application was training the software in a browser to know when a site was prompting for a password. Today the software is freely available, and versions exist for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers.
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Knocking Down the Barriers to the $100 Laptop
eWeek (08/21/06) Lundquist, Eric

The One Laptop per Child group is close to clearing the most significant technology obstacle to its $100 laptop: the display. The screen needs to be durable, inexpensive, and readable in both dim and brightly lit conditions. In commercial products, it often costs more to replace a broken display than to purchase a whole new notebook. But Mary Lou Jepsen, CTO of the One Laptop per Child initiative, claims to have developed a display that existing LCD factories can mass produce that will have a higher resolution than 95 percent of the laptops commercially available today. The display, which can be read in sunlight or in a room without backlighting, consumes just one-seventh of the power required by traditional screens. Such a display could have a major impact on commercial applications. Jepsen described the technology in a recent interview. Noting that new research usually takes 20 years to travel from the lab to the market, Jepsen said that she opted for a variation of LCD production techniques to bring the device into mass-production in record time. The technology is already in place for every other aspect of the laptops, Jepsen said, noting that she hopes to ship 5 million to 10 million of the devices next year, and 50 million to 100 million the year after. Jepsen reexamined the cost structure of the LCD and, when considering the needs of the laptop's users, found that many spend a lot of time outside with sparse access to electricity. She developed two modes of display: one that is color backlit with 1W MAX power consumption; the other is black and white, reflects sunlight, and has a 0.2W MAX power consumption. The pixel layout was changed to diagonal stripes of color so that the panel's resolution could be adjusted both vertically and horizontally. Also, Jepsen did away with a considerable amount of the costly interface electronics and color filters.
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Can US Control Over the Web Be Untangled?
SDA Asia (08/17/06) George, Priya

The U.S. government has renewed its contract with ICANN to govern the Internet, delegating ICANN exclusive rights to manage the IANA function of the Internet until 2011. The contract is subject to review and renewal each year. Many in the international community have called for an impartial, global organization such as the United Nation's Working Group on Internet Governance to take over stewardship of ICANN, and thereby the Internet. While the U.S. Department of Commerce launched ICANN with an advertised plan to privatize it eventually, the renewed contract means this will not happen until after 2011, if ever. The U.S. government has made recent statements that it is interested in ceding control of ICANN, but these have not been echoed by ICANN's current overseer, the U.S. Commerce Department. Commerce official John Kneuer says the department is trying to ensure the Internet's stability, and that the IANA function is "extraordinarily technical in nature, and very explicitly tied to security and stability." GoDaddy vice president of corporate development and policy, Tim Ruiz, welcomes the extended contract for ICANN, calling talks of a transition "premature." Others believe that ensuring that today's DNS can handle the Internet's expected exponential growth in traffic is more important than solving global control issues, at least in the near future. NetChoice executive director Steve DiBianco says, "ICANN has definitely made progress towards independence, but more needs to be accomplished before a complete transition is appropriate." SRI International's Marcus Sachs says DNS scalability and security are the two main challenges facing ICANN right now.
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Wrestle a Robot
New Scientist (08/12/06) Vol. 191, No. 2564, P. 39; Cho, Dan

Artificial muscle systems have not advanced to the point where a robot can defeat a human in an arm-wrestling contest, although such a development could be on the horizon thanks to recent advances in materials technology. A key challenge is keeping the muscles reliable without the need for constant repairs, heavy batteries, or large power input, and researchers have been inspired by human muscles to come up with a fuel-powered solution. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas' NanoTech Institute were tasked by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create such muscles, and their first project in this vein employed muscular sheets assembled from carbon nanotubes and incorporated into a fuel cell filled with sulfuric acid; electrons are consumed when oxygen reacts with the acid to form water, resulting in a positive charge that causes the nanotube sheet to contract. Another project the researchers worked on involved a system with a wire built from a platinum-coated "shape-memory" alloy that contracts when heated by exposure to methanol vapor in air. Cooling down the wire causes it to return to its original length. Winning an arm-wrestling contest cannot be accomplished solely with a fueled-powered muscle; durability, precise control, and biocompatibility also have to be added. More lifelike robots, lighter and more nimble artificial limbs, and synthetic organs are some of the potential breakthroughs that could be facilitated with the development of reliable artificial muscles.
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Collaborative Spam Filtering Using E-Mail Networks
Computer (08/06) Vol. 39, No. 8, P. 67; Kong, Joseph S.; Rezaei, Benham A.; Sarshar, Nima

UCLA and University of Florida researchers have come up with a distributed, message-based system for filtering spam that allows users to query all their email clients to see if another user in the system has already flagged a suspect email as spam. This scheme permits users to make information queries without inundating the network, keeping bandwidth cost to a minimum while achieving a spam-detection rate of nearly 100 percent, at least in simulation. To address the performance, scalability, and trust issues inherent in collaborative spam filtering systems, the researchers turned to complex networks theory--which facilitates network dynamics analysis with statistical mechanics--to effectively exploit social email networks' topological properties; this was accomplished through the use of the percolation search algorithm, which supports the reliable retrieval of content in an unstructured network by analyzing only a small portion of the network, and the digest-based indexing scheme. The use of social email networks for the purpose of spam filtering proscribes the need for a server as well as a traditional peer-to-peer system. Upon receipt of an email, the client program first tries to ascertain whether the message falls into the categories of DefinitelySpam or DefinitelyNotSpam, which can be done via any traditional spam-filtering technique; if the message is determined to be definitely spam, a digest for the message is generated and then cached. If the email is suspected to be spam by the client program, the system is queried to see whether the email has already been labeled as spam by other network users through the implantation of each query message into the digest, after which the query message is percolated through the email contact network by nodes with an implanted query request. Hits are routed back to the node from where the query originates via the same pathway by which the query message arrived at the hit node, and then the client program quantifies the volume of hits received, tagging the message as spam if a constant threshold value is exceeded. The setup requires all nodes to forward all messages exchanged in the system anonymously to prevent anyone from employing the system to map out social connections.
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