The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”

18 04 2012

Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Trial. (Credit: US Library of Congress)

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but it makes an important point.  Just because many people believe, assert, or convey something does not immediately graduate whatever they report to become scientifically-reliable or even scientifically-useful.

This is actually symptomatic of a larger cultural issue here in the US.  Frankly, the dichotomy of what people choose to believe when it comes to personal testimony versus hard, scientific data in our society amazes me.  -And not in a good way.

There are numerous instances where hard-and-fast data hasn’t convinced a jury (or social group) of the reality the data demonstrates, and conversely, there are numerous examples of personal testimony that would easily have a jury condemn a suspect to death that would never stand up under scientific peer-review.

The simple reality is that people at-large simply seem to trust one-another more than (or in spite of the lack of) the presence of verifiable, hard data.  With, in many instances, grave consequences.

So, how have we arrived here?

Science as the most successful “reality tool” ever invented

How can this be?  How, in a world so clearly affected, governed, and reliant on the fact that scientific inquiry is the most reliable means to establish what is real and what is not, is there so much skepticism toward data, science, and scientists?

  • Don’t believe me about the success of science?  Look at everything, from the performance of the thousands of controlled explosions under the hood of your car to the molecular processing running the electronics of the iPhone in your pocket.  From landing probes on other worlds to controlling nuclear reactions with finesse to generate power.  From predicting the behavior of atoms in a lab to predicting the astronomical curvature of light halfway across the universe – the simple fact is that science is the best tool to understand reality – discriminate what is real from what is not – ever conceived by humankind.  If scientific data or the scientific process were inherently unreliable, then these achievements would be plainly impossible.  We would simply not be able to master reality in the way that we have using the scientific method if it didn’t always work.  (Left to ourselves and our naturally-unscientific methods of investigating the world, we can come to believe that dances influence the weather.  That earthquakes are a result of hedonism.  That illness is a result of possession by evil spirits.  You see the point.)

To many, it seems that “data” is a mysterious, possibly corruptible thing; that magician-scientists are able to distort it to “prove” anything.  That’s not the worst of it.  It also seems that scientists themselves are often placed in a different camp from the rest: Unconvinced by tearful assertions or compelling testimony, they are seen as aloof, cold… inhuman, even.

This conception of the scientist is something I’d like to explore, and I think it all begins with a single statement:  None of us likes to believe that we, as humans, are as fallible as we are.  So, what makes a scientist different?

Scientists recognize that we, humans, are terrible scientific instruments.

We are.  We’re awful.  Primarily, our data-recording mechanism (memory) is inherently flawed, governed by perception, emotion, expectation, bias, and it changes over time.  Further, there’s no way to do a direct download from memory to verify what a person is saying is an accurate description of their memories… or worse, if what they say is even true at all.  We also make connections that simply aren’t there, unable to discriminate coincidence from cause-and-effect.

This is why scientists rely on instruments that are not corrupted by feelings, fear, or excitement.  The colder and more calculating the instrument, the better the data it collects and records.  Even with these technically “unbiased” instruments, scientists subject to these flaws are still in the loop, which is why all ultimately-respectable data and analysis is brought before a group of other scientists to review (peer-review) to help ensure that the scientist has not unwittingly corrupted his own data.

All this because humans are terrible scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, despite these rather damning flaws, non-scientists seem to believe that they (and other people) are, in effect, excellent scientific instruments.  Human testimony is amongst the most effective tools to convince a jury of peers.  With all respect, putting a hand on a holy book and conveying a sense of sincerity (even if manufactured) has a way of graduating the “data” a human being reports to a plateau above actual data that can be scientifically verified, ignoring the fact that memories can be wrong(!).

Further, the validity of scientific data is often secondary to whether or not the scientist delivering the data “seems” credible, ignoring the fact that the data and data collection process can be assessed on its own merits.

Quite a disconnect.

What can we do to rectify the disconnect?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a while, and aside from training everyone in society to be a scientist, (which not everyone wants to become,) the only solution I see is to improve public relations.  Science is essentially failing a PR war, one waged both intentionally and unintentionally by those unsettled by a purely clinical view of the universe.

We need help to convince people that scientists are specialists in understanding how to collect good data and how to effectively wield data to construct a reliable, useful view of the universe.

  • NOTE: We can choose to believe any view of the universe we please, but choosing for instance to believe that offering a sacrifice to Zeus every spring will keep floods at bay is not a reliable view of the universe.  It will still flood no matter if I make an offering or not.  I may, in turn, assert that Zeus is fickle as an explanation, but then my view becomes neither a reliable nor particularly useful one.

We need more scientist heroes in our social dialogue.  Instead of having scientists always be the “dangerous ones who have gone too far” in our films and television shows, they should be portrayed as they are – venturing into the unknown that terrifies many of us in order to help us all better understand and (ultimately) prosper in our universe.

Having “mad” scientists all-too-frequently portrayed as antagonists – heedless, obsessive, or impious –  breeds a deep-seated distrust of science that is propagating through the entire social mind.

The truth is, I believe the sooner people understand that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” – that even if millions of people believe in or even attest to something, (whether it be a flat Earth, astrology, UFOs-as-aliens, miracles, or that vaccines cause autism,) their cumulative belief doesn’t make their claims scientifically true or even scientifically useful – the sooner scientists will find the support they need for doing all the things we want to do: Cure cancer, create clean, powerful sources of energy, travel between stars, etc.

Food for thought!

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Spaceflight simulators, space games, and STEM

17 04 2012

Cockpit view from a simulated spacecraft in freeware spaceflight sim, "Orbiter."

For those who aren’t familiar, “STEM” is a particularly hot-button acronym in the professional space education community these days that stands for, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

These are the college degrees and professions that ultimately keep the economy, innovation, and space exploration in particular going.

These are also the fields that have been suffering from declining numbers during the last couple of decades.  (Consequently, projects with heavy STEM education components are often bumped to the top of the funding pile…)

In response, there appears to be a waxing tide of development of vaguely (or overtly) educational space-centered video games.  This seems to be a new push during the past couple of years, distinct from the open-source processing endeavors such as SETI@home and MilkyWay@home.

In this light, I’d like to take a moment to review and highlight a few of many excellent spaceflight software options out there, historical and contemporary, that are worth checking out for yourself (and some of which may even need your help!)

Starlight: Inception

Based solely on personal bias, I must begin with the lost genre of the spaceflight simulator. Or, more specifically, the spaceflight combat simulator.

Much like a conventional flight simulator, spaceflight simulators provide exactly what they sound like they do: the in-cockpit experience of flying a spacecraft or space “fighter.”

While many of these as games are related to sci-fi franchises, (e.g., X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, Wing Commander,) and contain much scientifically-apocryphal content, such as sounds in space or apparent aerodynamic/non-Newtonian movements in a vacuum, I don’t think the impact of these games can be overstated.  I myself was in part inspired to a career in aerospace by games like these as a kid.

(More accurate but less-adrenaline-pumped simulators without a “game” component include Kerbal Space Program, Orbiter and Microsoft Space Simulator.)

Credit: Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC

So, this brings me to the present day.  It’s been many years since the last spaceflight combat simulator was released, (e.g., Descent: Freespace, Tachyon,) and in an attempt to restart the genre, Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their proposed game, Starlight: Inception.

Evoking design elements of classic Star Wars, Wing Commander, and even some of James Cameron’s “Aliens,” the game looks to hit all the right notes to inspire a new generation of impressionable gameplayers toward a future amongst the stars.

Frankly, I feel like having games like this out there contributing to the social fabric is critical.  Plus, being a privately-funded campaign, the project team is very receptive to the suggestion of its backers – the more people call for enhanced realism and technical accuracy, the more will be incorporated!

Check them out and offer your support if you feel so inclined – the game won’t be “launched” unless they reach their fundraising goals.  Future generations of inspired spacefarers (or other STEM professionals) may thank you!

NetworKing

From the fantastic to the strategic, I’d like to mention a free game developed by the technology office at NASA Ames Research Center called, “NetworKing.”

The objective of this educational Real-Time-Strategy game is very grounded: to build and maintain three separate space communications networks, (Near, Space, and Deep-Space,) and evolve them to the point of being unified into a single space communications network.

The equivalent of experience points are earned as NASA missions are successfully enabled by the network, and money for upgrades is earned as time on the network is leased to commercial satellites.

In all, an innovative way to communicate what it takes to run a communications network in space and definitely worth checking out.  -Playable now online or via free download.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

On another side of the spectrum is the concept of the MMO, or Massively-Multiplayer Online game.

NASA recently experimented with the MMO concept as a means of education outreach and STEM inspiration with a project called Moonbase Alpha.

Evolving the success of Alpha a little further, NASA and Project Whitecard Inc. initiated another ultimately-successful Kickstarter campaign that kicked off the creation of a full-fledged, NASA-sanctioned MMO entitled, “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

Screenshot from NASA MMO Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. (Credit: Project Whitecard)

The game aims to incorporate real locations, hardware, and mission profiles, leveraging the full support of NASA to create a tool to engage thousands of people simultaneously in realistic space exploration role-playing.

A beta-test version is expected this year, with the game to be released in 2013.

-So, in short, there’s lots of activity on the space-meets-video-games front, and much of it is being self-directed with the support of NASA itself.  Check it out and/or show your support!  (Even if only to point someone else in their direction.)

The astronauts of tomorrow will likely get their first space exploration thrills on games like these.  Let’s help make sure they have the opportunity.





Science as the language of time-travelers

16 04 2012

A note today on something that is implicit in many of the popular treatments of time travel that I’d like to make explicit.  Namely, I’d like to explore the answer to the question:

Presuming backward-and-forward time travel to be possible, how could we communicate with those from different times?

This is something that actually comes up quite frequently in science-fiction.  More often than not, the answer to the protagonist’s communication woes is simply: Science. 

More specifically, science is the means by which a character from a less-advanced culture is able to understand and quickly adapt to and utilize new concepts.  -And I think it’s spot on.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

The Time Traveler interacting with an artificial intelligence expert system at the future New York Public Library. (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Common Element

Take the recent film incarnation of “The Time Machine” as an example.  When the Time Traveler begins his journey into the future, he does so from the same spatial location – his house in early-twentieth-century New York city – to arrive in a futuristic New York City that looks to be mid-to-late 21st Century.

In attempting to answer his own question about the nature of causality in the universe, he is able to meaningfully interact with a computer system from the future to quickly digest advanced concepts.  (Further, on a related note, the backwards-compatibility of scientific concepts allows the computer to understand him.)

Take this exchange, for example, (bearing in mind it essentially occurs between two characters hypothetically separated by what could be nearly two centuries):

Time Traveler:  “What are you?”

Computer:  “I’m the 5th Avenue Public Information Unit, Vox Registration NY-114.  How may I help you?”

Time Traveler:  “You’re a stereopticon of some sort.”

Computer:  “Stereopticon?  Oh no, sir.  I am a third-generation, fusion powered photonic with verbal and visual link capabilities connected to every database on the planet.”

Time Traveler:  “A photonic?”

Computer:  “A compendium of all human knowledge.  Area of inquiry?”

Time Traveler:  “Know anything about physics?”

Computer:  “Ah.  Accessing physics.”

Time Traveler:  “Mechanical engineering.  Dimensional optics.  Chronography.  Temporal causality.  Temporal paradox.”

Computer:  “Time travel?”

Time Traveler:  “Yes!”

Very quickly, the Time Traveler is able to accurately communicate the advanced concept of technical time-travel to the point that the artificial intelligence from the future is able to anticipate his inquiry.  No small feat!

Crossing the Generation Gap

For another example, let’s take the more recent film “Tron: Legacy.” 

But wait, astute readers might say.  There’s no time travel in that film!  I beg to differ.

Programmer Kevin Flynn learns about the outside world from his son, Sam, in Tron: Legacy. (Credit: Disney)

In the story, programmer Kevin Flynn is marooned inside a computer system for nearly two decades.  Based on his technical background, he is easily able to digest the existence of technology twenty years ahead of the world he knows during a conversation with his son, Sam, (which is essentially like talking to someone from 20 years in the future).  He asks his son what the world he’s been separated from has changed:

Sam Flynn:  “I don’t know.  The rich are getting richer, poor getting poorer.  Cell phones.  Online dating.  Wi-fi.”

Kevin Flynn:  “What’s Wi-fi?”

Sam Flynn:  “Wireless… interlinking.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Of digital devices?”

Sam Flynn:  “Yeah.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Huh.  I thought of that in ’85.”

A Universal Language

And let’s not forget that this principle – the idea of science as a universal language – was essentially the basis of Carl Sagan‘s landmark book, Contact.

Dr. Ellie Arroway, moments from receiving an extraterrestrial signal using math and scientific principles to communicate engineering plans across space and time. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Being that it’s impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time, (and one of the reasons that my two passions – space exploration and time travel – are not too dissimilar,) any electromagnetic signal received from an extraterrestrial source comes from the past and must be able to communicate to future civilizations – whether technologically advanced or inferior.

This is why science is (or will be… or has been?) the language of time travel.

-Just a fun aside to keep in mind during your next millennial jaunt.





Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back – demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.





Xenoarchaeology Critical Mass

29 12 2011

The recovery of an alien artifact from the TMA-1 lunar excavation site in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Credit: MGM)

Xenoarchaeology Rising

2011 has been a good year for the nascent pursuit of xenoarchaeology as serious science.  After beginning a conversation with a 2010 Viewpoint article I authored in the journal Space Policy, which was intended as a broad, conceptual justification for the further development of xenoarchaeology as a field, I was rewarded with a generally favorable review from Spacearchaeology.org as well as some fruitful academic sparring with a public relations specialist sporting a long-standing grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (more on the aforementioned fruit to follow).  

Now, I am quite pleased to note that 2011 has seen other space science researchers open up to the idea that conceptually setting up the rigorous and credible search for (and investigation of) suspected alien artifacts is not only warranted, but due.

While most, it seems, find the concept of xenoarchaeology to be at the very least on the forward edge of scientific conception, it appears that an increasing number of scientists are coming around to the same conclusion that I did: For a field aiming for discoveries necessarily encased in enormous scientific and socio-political bombshells, a proactive stance is appropriate.  

Quite simply, now is the time.

With luck, we will soon reach a sort of intellectual critical mass cultimating in a formal xenoarchaeology workshop, the proceeds from which should lay out the groundwork for a new, practicable 21st-Century science.

To this end, I’d like to point out some of this recent relevant work:

Davies’ Footprints  

Eminent researcher Paul Davies of ASU’s Beyond Center penned an article in Acta Astronautica early in 2011 entitled, “Footprints of alien technology.”  Much in the same vein as my own article, Davies considers deep time in combination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life to conclude that there is a possibility of subtle biological, geological, and physical artifacts of xenobiological activity, even on the Earth.  He then suggests means to search for such trace evidence.

Searching Luna

Carrying his work a step further, Davies and undergraduate student Robert Wagner submitted an article this past fall, also to Acta Astronautica, entitled, “Searching for alien artifacts on the moon.”   Applying the logic distilled in the previous work against the current SETI paradigm, this paper details the relevance that indirect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of non-human technology would play.  The article suggests a practical, low-cost application of a search for such evidence using increasingly high-resolution imagery of the lunar surface available to the public (via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, for instance). 

The practice of this remote sensing search, by very definition in my own article, would be considered a practice of xenoarchaeology. 

In point of fact, regarding the applicability of xenoarchaeological guidelines, this is an example of what I called “Scenario 1” in my 2010 article  – that being a remotely-conducted investigation.  This is in contrast to “Scenario 2” xenoarchaeology, being an in-situ human investigation (astronaut), and “Scenario 3,” an investigation involving artifact/sample return to Earth or terrestrial capture of an artifact.

Justifying Solar System Xenoarchaeology

Further hammering home that we have yet to reasonably exhaust the possibility of xenoarchaeological artifacts lingering in our own cosmic backyard, researchers Jacob Haqq-Misra and Ravi Kumar Kopparapu of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and Penn State, respectively, also submitted an article to Acta Astronautica entitled, “On the likelihood of non-terrestrial artifacts in the Solar System.”  In it, Haqq-Misra and Kopparapu utilize a probabilistic approach to quantify search uncertainty in the Solar System.  They conclude that, “The vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.”

So, there you have it.  An exciting time, indeed, and further proof that the area is ripe for both academic and practical research!





Future SwRI astronauts stomp on the accelerator

26 08 2011

SwRI's suborbital science mission patch. (Credit: SwRI)

A quick note today on the further development of the worlds’ first commercial scientist-astronauts!  The Southwest Research Institute‘s (SwRI) suborbital research program, after its stunning announcement last spring of the purchase of several research seats on upcoming suborbital spaceflights, is showing no signs of slowing.

Recently, after their three commercial scientist-astronauts-in-training, (specifically termed payload specialists,) completed basic astronaut training, they announced the release of their project mission patch (at left).

I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but I’ll be brave enough to admit that something as technically irrelevant as a patch can make an endeavor feel suddenly very real.

According to their recent statements, the team is moving out of the phase of training and the construction of their spaceflight experiments to fine-tuning their payloads and integrating them with future spacecraft.  With SwRI and Dr. Alan Stern leading the way, the advent of commercial civilian scientist-astronauts is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I hope to follow right behind.

Ad astra, SwRI!





Xenoarchaeology Online

9 10 2010

I am excited to report that my article, “A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations,” has been published online by the journal Space Policy as an in-press corrected proof as it awaits publication in an upcoming issue.  (I mentioned working on it previously in a post here.)

The thrust of the paper is that when you consider the galactic timescales and hazards we know to be in play against the evolution of alien life, we’re likely to discover evidence of life before we discover astrobiology itself.  Further, it’s only a matter of time before we identify suspected material evidence of astrobiological activity.  -And regardless of whether or not it turns out to be a real find, we should be prepared to investigate and evaluate it will the scientific rigor deserving of an actual find, with the foresight to successfully manage information verification and public dissemination.

The paper is a stab at highlighting the applicable scientific protocols, planetary pitfalls, and social snags a xenoarchaeological investigation might face in the hopes of stimulating discussion toward the development of a fully-fledged field of study.

Here’s to making it one step closer (academically, anyway) to the stars.  Feedback welcome.

UPDATE 11/2010:  The article has been officially published in Space Policy Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213.








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