We Live in Public

And now, for a brief break from The Shocking Truth.  Potentially NSFW below.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…






I have not seen the film We Live in Public.  But I want to steal its title, because we do.

This morning, in fact, I was sitting outside a coffee shop working on my notes about the Velogical rim dynamo (article forthcoming in the Shocking series).  I like this coffee shop because it opens at 6:00 AM, and I can just lock up my bike, walk in, buy a cookie, then sit down at one of the tables outside and read, work on my notebook, or (as this morning) work on note on my phone until it’s time to go to work.  I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, and we have nice conversations.  If it wasn’t facing a strip mall parking lot, it would be pretty ideal, but you can’t have everything.

This morning, as I was working on my notes, I heard a loud, exasperated voice nearby.  A woman was walking along the sidewalk just beyond the coffee shop’s enclosure saying (and I quote without censorship and with approximately the emphasis in the original):

“That’s fucking why I asked you the fucking question, you fucking dumbass!”

Now, let me be clear.  She was not saying this to me.  Nor was she saying it to anyone in the vicinity, or even to anyone who might be far enough away that her volume was merited.  She was wearing a cell phone headset, of course, and speaking to the person on the other end of the line.


This raises two concerns.


Now, when I was a teenager, I tended to talk that way (as did many of my friends).  But this woman was manifestly within three years, either side, of thirty.  Not a teenager.  By the time I was that age, (I’m 56 now) I had learned that this was inappropriate language in public.  And I learned that the people I respected most–coworkers, friends, people like that? didn’t use that kind of language in public.

But she, of course, wasn’t in public.  She was in the world of her phone call (hint:  it’s pretty inappropriate language for private conversations also, but what the hell).

This is the nub of my gist:  we live in public.  When you’re talking on a cell phone, you’re communicating not just to the other person on the line but to the other people around you.  When you work on a notebook, it’s not just you seeing the screen–it’s other people around you.

Observe yourself.  What kind of image do you want to project?


The constant use of “fuck” or “fucking” has devalued the the word.  It’s likely that the person on the other end of the speaker’s line didn’t blanch, because they were used to it from this source.

Now, I use words like that on occasion.  Pretty much everyone does when exasperated enough (even my wonderful spouse, shhhhh).  Such words significantly intensify a sentence and have the effect of conveying extreme frustration and anger.  They’re a spice, and, like cayenne, they can also be used in comedy because they represent extremity.  My favorite example of the moment:

(Available here.)

But if you use a spice or a word too much, it loses its flavor.  It becomes just another word, much as Woodie Allen complains about the devaluation of the word “love.”  (In (I think) Annie Hall, he points out something along the lines of “how I can I say I love you?  People love a car, a movie, a floor wax” (Allen then invents “lurve” as a substitute)).

Look, there is a shortage of decent intensifiers in language.  This is a particularly powerful one.  Use it sparingly.  You might surprise people.


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The Shocking Truth, Part 3 (Introduction, Believe it or Not!)

I’m about to start publishing an impressionistic comparison of various dynamos. It seemed like a good idea to write a technical introduction, so…

 A few days ago, I drafted two single-spaced pages of electrical theory. Then I realized just how unnecessary that was. So here’s a quick overview of what you need to know before I dive into the dynamos. Ready?


  1. All of these dynamos work the same way. They use magnets and coils of wire to turn a fraction of the rotating motion of a bicycle wheel into electricity.


  1. All of these dynamos meet the same standard, defined—for reasons beyond the scope of this introduction—by German standards known as StVZO. Each must generate enough power to run a 2.4-watt, 6-volt headlight. Here’s a useful side-bit: almost all modern headlights intended for use with dynamos fit this definition. Why 2.4 watts? Because traditional taillights used 0.6 watt bulbs. So: all of these dynamos are designed to put out 3 watts (at 6 volts).


  1. But they aren’t really dynamos. A dynamo puts out pulsating direct current (DC). These are actually generators, because they put out alternating current (AC). But I’m going to call them dynamos anyway, since most of the world does.


  1. But (2) is what a dynamo puts out. No dynamo is 100% efficient. The less efficient a dynamo is, in general, (a) the nosier it will be; and (b) the warmer it will run. Noise and heat are evidence of wasted energy. If a dynamo makes a lot of noise and runs warm, it may be putting out 3 watts—but it may be using 15 watts of your power to do that. A silent dynamo that runs cool might be using only 6 watts of input to create 3 watts of output. Consequently, a nosier and hotter dynamo will usually be a draggier dynamo (see: Bart Simpson).


All of that being said, I’m going to be looking at four different ways of building a dynamo:


  • Hub dynamos (as represented by the Shimano DH-3N70—since replaced with newer versions that seem to be functionally equivalent);


  • Bottom-bracket dynamos (as represented by the Sanyo NH-T6—no longer manufactured; replaced with the NH-T10, which was sold until a few years ago. There is a photo and brief discussion of the NH-T10 here—scroll down a bit;


  • Traditional bottle (sidewall) dynamo technology (represented by the Dymotec 6, widely acknowledged as one of the best bottles ever produced); and finally,


  • Updated sidewall dynamo technology in the form of the Velogical Trekking Model.


I have developed a set of categories within which I will rate each dynamo as Excellent, Satisfactory, or Poor (you may remember this system from elementary school). I will also have some miscellaneous comments on each unit. Each will be covered in a single post, and I will end this series with a discussion of the pros and cons of each.


Now, wasn’t that better than two pages of electrical theory?

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The Shocking Truth, Part 2

The Bus on the Wheels goes Round and Round…

People who work with electricity will often refer to something as a bus. This derives from the term bus bar, for a section of copper that carries high currents. The term bus is also used in computing, where it means the part of a computer that shuttles information around—we often refer to a 16-bit or 32-bit bus.

The root is omnibus, for something shared or providing for many, and for my purposes in this entry, bus means just that.  (We could similarly say that several electrical outlets on a wall of your house form a bus.)

As part of my dynamo comparison program (see also here) I realized that I would need to build a bus on my bicycle.

The reason is that I want to be able to test four different kind of dynamos. Two of those dynamos mount near the rear rim, one mounts behind the bottom bracket, and one is in the front hub. Each dynamo has to be connected to a headlight and a taillight and, potentially, to a USB charger (to enable recharging a phone while riding). That’s a lot of connections. Further, one of the dynamos requires installation of a thermistor between the dynamo and the lighting system.

Since I didn’t want to spend a lot of time rewiring the bike every time I did a comparison, I decided to install a common bus on the bike. My plan was to build junction boxes at the front and back of the bike, and provide jacks (connectors) on these boxes through which the various devices could be connected. I ended up with this circuit:


To make it easier to read the diagram, every connection J1 through J5 is assumed to have a “ground” connection, even though it isn’t drawn in. In fact, every connection does. I used standard RCA plugs and jacks:



Each connection supplies power (through the central pin) and ground (through the shell). Consequently, my lighting system need not depend on successful grounding through dropouts, headset bearings, or any other primarily “mechanical” system.

I used small plastic boxes for the junctions (and in the rear, to contain and protect the thermistor—the one supplied with the dyno is a halogen bulb, and I get nervous about the possibility of damaging anything made of glass, so….). The front box is bolted to a spare light fitting on the front rack, providing easy connection to a hub dynamo (if and when the bike is so equipped) and a headlight. The rear box is mounted on the rear rack, providing access to any rear-mounted dynamo and/or taillight.  The wire between the two boxes is taped to the underside of the top tube with helicopter tape.

One nice feature, and a good reason to have a bus like this even when you’re not testing dynamos, is that when a rear dyno is used, there is a spare connector in front that can be wired to the USB charger. Similarly, when a front dyno is used, there is an extra connector in back.

Finally, there is a secondary connection to the bus through the thermistor for those rear dynamos that require its use.

My next step is to get the dynamos aboard the bus!

EDIT:  In case anyone is interested, here are the front:
WP_20140724_004and rear:

WP_20140724_007junction boxes.  First, you’ll notice that the rear box is very slightly melted (you try working in a tiny plastic box with a soldering iron!).  Second, sorry about the photo quality.  It was pretty late.

In the top photo, you see the front junction box with the Edelux cable wrapped around the front rack stay and plugged in, and one open socket.  In the lower, you see the cable from the bottom bracket dynamo on the left, and the cable to the taillight on the right  The special thermistor input (J4) for the Velogical unit is on the other side of the box.    The box itself is mounted on the rack stabilizer stay.

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The Shocking Truth

I have always believed that seeing things is important.  Here’s a photo of my bike from 1980+/-:

Raleigh Gran Prix 1980

See that white thing on the handlebars?  That’s a gen-u-ine bicycle headlight, vintage late ’70s, run off of two C-batteries, contained in the lower portion.  For me, this says something about how long ago it was that Americans started to ignore dynamo lighting.

It’s worth noting that dynamos continued (and continue) to have a healthy life elsewhere in the world.  But already, thirty-five years ago, we had turned away from the humble dyno.

Twenty years ago, I started seriously bike commuting.  By that I mean that I avoided driving unless the roads were icy, and sometimes even then.  But even more, I decided that the dark wasn’t going to stop me.  Here’s what I knew about dynamos/generators then:

(I also knew they were heavy.)

Clearly, sucky technology.

So when I installed lights on my bikes, they ran on batteries.  Cheap, easy to replace, light.  Sort of.  I graduated to rechargeable batteries.  Better, but heavy.  I went from 5-wattt to 10-watt halogen incandescent lights.  Good stuff.

Then, one November day in 2004, my wonderful light system failed me.  The mount went wonky on a rainy evening when I was returning from work.  No problem, I adjusted things and kept on.

And when I woke up some twenty minutes later, I was being put into an ambulance.

I never got that 20 minutes (or so) back.  I am told that as I was riding along, I apparently didn’t see a cut in the pavement that had been made earlier that day to allow replacement of a corner section that trucks had damaged.  In any event, I my front wheel dove into it and I supermanned over my bars and landed on my face.  Ensuing were serious road rash, a concussion (thus explaining the missing tape) and a broken jaw.  And an OTBSC T-shirt.

I recovered.  But during the six weeks my jaw was wired shut and I was limited to a liquid diet, I made a pledge to myself.  From then on, I was going to have good, solid, reliable lights.  And I would never be without them.  They would be mounted securely, and they would just work.

And so I entered the weird and wonderful world of bicycle electronics.  From somewhere, I secured a bottom-bracket generator, which seemed like it would be superior to the sidewall variety, and I installed this on my Kogswell D58.  I bought a BiSy halogen headlight, rated at three watts, but with a specially “shaped” beam designed to make maximum use of that power.  I wired these up and, lo and behold, there was light.  And it was good.

Around the same time, I started hearing about “hub” generators–very expensive units from SON, and less costly models from Shimano. When my bottom bracket dynamo started to show signs of slipping, I decided to bite the bullet (now that I could bite again) and I had Smith’s of La Crosse, a wonderful local shop, build a Shimano DH-3N70 into an existing rim, at a total cost (at the time) of around$130 or so.

It was heavy.  It was notchy.  Or so it felt off the bike.  But once I wired up my BiSy to it, I never once looked back.  I had light like a flamethrower, and only once a minor glitch, when I burned out the bulb in the BiSy after a long period of use (fortunately, I was carrying a spare).

Sidebar:  there’s a long history of people complaining about generators/dynamos burning out light bulbs when run at high speeds.  That’s really no longer true.  By the early 2000s, most headlights intended for dynamo use incorporated Zener diodes, which prevented the voltage across the light bulb from getting high enough to do significant damage.  There were also some third-party circuits aimed at optimizing halogen bulb performance through electronics.  I bought one, but never got around to installing it.  The Zener was good enough for me.

I played around with various halogen lights for a while.  I haven’t found any images of the BiSy, but this one is similar.  I liked it because the light’s reflector was surrounded by an external reflector that could be tagged by automobile lights:

These lights were very good, but there was news floating around of something better.  A light that was way more efficient and that lasted forever.  The Light Emitting Diode, or LED.  Unfortunately, LED headlights for bicycles were incredibly (for me) expensive.  So I bought some parts and made my own.  It looked like this:

(Actually, this was my second LED headlight.  The first was smaller, and used a single LED, but the idea was the same).

The housing was an old Sanyo headlight.  I gutted it, and installed the following extras:

1.  A switch (sticking out of the bottom of the light housing; the switch box behind it was something I installed later so that I could turn a headlight and taillight on and off at the same time).

2.  A rectifier.  LEDs are direct current, or DC, devices.  Dynamos pump out alternating current (AC).  A small bridge rectifier turns AC into pulsating DC–just what I needed.

3.  Two “3-watt” LEDs mounted to a heavy steel washer with thermal cement, the washer likewise cemented into the light housing.  The rationale for the heavy washer is that LEDs

4.  Lenses mounted to each LED–one was set for a narrow beam, the other for a wide beam.

This headlight was significantly brighter than any halogen I had used to date, and I settled in happily.  The ultimate power source, and the ultimate headlight.  What more could I possibly want?

Six or seven years later, I built up a new bike, lighter than the Kogswell.  I installed the dynohub, but discovered that LED lights based on reflectors, rather than lenses, now blew away my home-brew special.  I ended up with a first-generation Schmidt Edelux headlight and Spanninga Pixeo taillight, run happily off my Dynohub.  But there was something odd with the hub.

The bike was making a lot of noise on deceleration, and I traced this to the front wheel.  It wasn’t in the build of the wheel, but appeared to be related to some kind of resonance between the wheel and the fork.  That is, there was nothing wrong, but the wheel was uncannily noisy on braking.  Because I like my bikes silent, I decided that it might be time to look at other options.

And that brings us to today.  I have spent the last several weeks, and will spend the week to come, riding with and experiencing the pros and cons of various dynamo systems.  Later this month or early in August, I will begin a series comparing dynohubs, old-style sidewall generators, new-style sidewall generators, and bottom bracket units (though not necessarily in that order).

Bicycle lighting has changed a lot in the past ten years.  You’d be hard pressed to find any non-LED headlights.  But LEDs change the game in interesting ways, and they may make alternatives to the traditional battery and dynohub options more practical.  So tune in, same bat-time (or something), same bat-blog!


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Cars Are So Hot!

A while back, I opined that cars stink.  And they do.  But they’re just so hot!

And how hot are they?

Well, OK.  Usually not that hot.

But ask any cyclist who has had to wait next to a car how hot they are, and the answer is damned hot.

The reason is two-fold.  First, cars are hot because they use internal combustion engines.  Their power comes from igniting a mixture of gasoline vapor and air in a confined space, resulting in an explosion that pushes a cylinder back, ultimately driving a shaft that connects to the wheels.

Second, that explosion is hot (duh!).  And the engine can’t make full use of that heat.  Which means that the engine is not very efficient.  In fact, you get very little bang for your three bucks and change per gallon.  Internal combustion engines seem to max out at about 20% efficiency. Leftover, unused heat is vented through the exhaust system, radiated through the materials that make up the engine, and dumped to fluid coolants that circulate through the engine to keep it from melting, and which are then cooled themselves by dumping their heat into the atmosphere through the car’s radiator.

Of course, most cars also dump heat through their air conditioning systems, and so the occupants of the car are kept blissfully unaware of just how hot they really are.

OK, so.  If you’re a driver–particularly, since you’re reading this blog, a driver who also rides a bike–consider this:  how much heat do I need to dump into the atmosphere today?  Any chance that I could ride my bike to the store instead?  Yes, people get hot.  No, people do not get that hot.

It may feel like it some times, but we’re pretty much temperature-limited.

Ten gallons of gasoline will buy you a set of panniers.  Not terribly good ones, so splurge.  Spend twenty gallons of gasoline.  Then put them on your bike and put your stuff in them and ride to work.  Or school.  Or empty them out and ride to the grocery store, and ride home.

Cars aren’t the only contributors to global climate change, or maybe even the most important ones.  But they certainly contribute to local climate change.  So if you can’t ride your bike, at least shut down your car when you’re not using it.  Don’t leave it idling when you run into the coffee shop “just for a moment.”  Shut it down when you’re sitting at a long light.  Don’t dump more heat (and stank) than you need to.

Remember, it’s cool to be hot.  But it’s hotter to be cool.



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Come for the Disaster, Stay for the Novel: Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich

Come for the Disaster, Stay for the Novel: Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich



I came across this book quite by accident; I was browsing Atticus Books’ new fiction table, glanced at it, and put it back. Then T said, “I’ve heard good things about that book,” and encouraged me to buy it. Turned out later that she was mistaken—she hadn’t heard of the book—but it turned out to very enjoyable indeed.


It’s tempting to recommend music to go with this book. Something like the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Jackson Brown’s Before the Deluge. But don’t listen to music while you read this book. You won’t want to be distracted, and those pieces are merely clever allusions. The book is not about the same thing.


To start: This is a novel in which a disaster occurs but it is not a disaster novel. It is the story of a young University of Chicago graduate who is obsessed with disasters.


In his third year at the University, Mitchell Zukor simultaneously observes the panic caused by the Puget Sound earthquake and the near-death of a classmate who suffers from an illness called Brugada. Already obsessed with statistics and probability, these two events—particularly the second—change his life forever. He moves to New York to work as a financial analyst, but his genuinely-felt fear of the future soon finds him moving to a new firm in a new line of business: predicting disasters so that business can take steps to prepare, so as to avoid lawsuits.


All of this takes place against the background of a deep summer drought in New York. As reservoirs drain and dust fills the skies, Future World, Mitchell’s firm, grows rapidly, fed by the gut-level fear of its clients. And Mitchell is its best salesperson.


Then the drought breaks, as a hurricane moves up the East Coast—straight for New York. And Mitchell’s worst predictions begin to be realized.


But this is not a book about that disaster, however clearly Rich draws it (indeed, the book is referred to by some as cli-fi, for “climate fiction”). It is a book about Mitchell Zukor, his fear, and his journey from analyst to hero to prophet and beyond.


As I read this book, I was reminded, by Rich’s portrayal of diluvial New York, of Bellona, the city at the center of Dhalgren, Samual R. Delany’s near-future dystopia. Like Kidd, the nameless protagonist of Dhalgren, Zukor is seeking something in himself. What he finds there, and its significance for the rest of us, is something Jean Jacques Rousseau would understand.


The moral, voiced in the words of his associate, Jane, is succinct.


If you enjoy dystopias, if you are concerned about climate change, if you love deeply descriptive writing, this is a book for you. If you fear the future, perhaps even more so. And if you’ve ever attended the University of Chicago or spend time pondering statistics, you’ll be hooked.


Highly recommended.


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O Canada!–a quick review of Arkel cam-lock pannier hooks

Eight years (or so) ago, I negotiated the purchase of a wonderful touring bike.  It happened that the negotiation was done by email, and that part of it was done while I was visiting Vancouver, British Columbia, on a work project.

Vancouver is a wonderful city.  Talk about bike-ability!  I saw hundreds of folks commuting by bicycle.  The food was great (and came in a wide variety of types), the hotel I was in was very comfortable, the streets felt safe and street lighting was kept to a minimum so you could actually see the stars at night from the heart of the city.  Lovely.

But for me, one of the chief attractions was that Vancouver had an MEC store.  MEC–Mountain Equipment Co-op (think “REI,eh?”)–had become one of my standard bits of bike accessory porn when I was looking for panniers a couple of years before.  I hadn’t bought any, but I really liked a particular set on MEC’s website.  So it only made sense, now that I was getting a touring bike, that I stop by MEC and grab what I needed.

So I did.  (Sadly, these particular panniers are no longer available, but MEC still makes good stuff, IMO).  These panniers are a little small for touring, but for the kind I’d do, they’re good enough.  And they’re certainly good enough for groceries, books, bike parts, etc…

But.  I had a love-hate relationship with the panniers almost from the start.  The panniers themselves are great, but the attachment mechanism worked well only on racks with very narrow tubing.  Once the touring bike was gone, I installed racks on my other bikes, but preferred Axiom‘s rather heavy-duty units (see photo showing an Axiom rack on my VO Rando; as you can see, it’s made of rather fat stuff).

WP_20140710_004MEC made a set of pannier hooks for larger-diameter tubing, but they never did work very well.  So these panniers got put in the back of a closet and I didn’t use them.  More crap.

Comes time to decrapify, and I’m staring these things in the face.  I don’t really want to chuck them or sell them–they’re too nice, and it would feel silly to buy another pair of panniers.  What to do?

Improve them!

So the next question was, who makes decent pannier hooks?  I should specify that I wanted locking hooks, because I once had a bad experience with a Cannondale pannier that slid off a rack in my youth.

I looked around, and there are some very tempting mechanisms out there.  Coming highly recommended (and clearly the price leader) were Lone Peak’s units, but the issue there was that they might have been slightly too small.  Ortleib makes some nice stuff, but they don’t sell complete kits–as far as I can see.  You can assemble what you need from the parts that they sell, but you do need to think about compatibility, since they’ve had several systems over time. Finally, I was worried about the various sizes of inserts falling out of the hooks, etc.  So I came to the no-nonsense Arkel stuff:

WP_20140710_005Arkel’s equipment looks, for some reason, like someone went into a hardware store and got what they needed to invent something.  It’s solid and utilitarian.  It isn’t swoopy and plasticky.  It isn’t “polished.”  There aren’t (with the possible exception of the cams) any parts that don’t look like you could get them off the shelf.  The cams themselves, though, make the system work. 

The webbing from the handle is secured to one side of the cam and wraps part way around it, so when you pull on it against any resistance (like the lower hook), the cams slide out of the way.  Release the webbing, and the cams (which have internal springs) rotate into closed position, taking up just enough space to prevent the bag from shaking around.  The hooks themselves are aluminum, lined with plastic, and the cams are plastic, lined with rubber.  They’re not going to do a hack job on your rack’s finish.  Also, their rack-swallowing capacity is huge.  They may not fit all racks, but they certainly do fit Axioms.

To release, just pick up the bag.  That rotates the cams out of the way, and the pannier is free.

Arkel recommends that you install their system by first removing the old hardware from your pannier and then–if you’re modifying a non-Arkel unit–by drilling through the pannier and the backing plate inside it and then “cauterizing” the pannier fabric so that it doesn’t unravel.  I’ll go a  little farther:  use a soldering iron to go right through the fabric and backing plate.  Most backing plates are made of an easy-to-melt plastic, and this will keep things aligned nicely.  If your backing plate is aluminum, on the other hand–well, ya gotta drill.

Assembly is not hard if you were careful when disasssembling things.  Arkel ships the units assembled as if they were already installed, but with slightly shorter screws than you’d want in an actual installation (they include a bag of correctly-sized screws, too, so no worries).  And there’s a well-defined order in the installation instructions.  Just be sure to follow it.  The screw and washer come through from the back, then you put the D-ring/bungie assembly over the screw, then the “handle retainer”, then the rail, then a square nut, which is prevented from rotating by the rail.  Tighten this part-way, then do the other side, then tighten down the bolts from the inside of the pannier.  Done.

Ultimately, everything is attached to the heavy-duty metal rail by the two end-bolts except for the hook-and-cam assemblies themselves.  The latter slide inside the rail, and are locked into their chosen positions with set screws.  I used an 8″ rail, but Arkel also sells a 10″ for larger panniers.  The D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap to the pannier are a nice touch.  Once it’s assembled, you can fit the pannier exactly where you want it on the rack (both for purposes of “I don’t want this to move” and “I don’t want to hit my heels on this thing!”).  I tend to like my panniers farther back, since I have size 13 feet.

It’s easy to see why Lovely Bicycle felt these units “look[] kind of rough in comparison to Ortlieb,” and that they were a little counter-intuitive.  Took me a couple of minutes to figure out where the webbing was supposed to go in order to work the cams properly.  But it’s worth it.

My panniers are not going to go up for sale.  They’re going on my bike: WP_20140710_003

 And one of these days, they might–just might–be going on tour.

The Arkel system is on the expensive side–twice as much as the Lone Peak system–but is certainly worth it if you have a rack built with oversized tubing.

A final note–this is an all-Canadian pannier set up.  Axiom, Arkel, and MEC are all Canadian companies.  Nice that they play well together, eh?


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