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Gone in a New York Minute: How the Amazon Deal Fell Apart

In early November, word began to leak that Amazon was serious about choosing New York to build a giant new campus. The city was eager to lure the company and its thousands of high-paying tech jobs, offering billions in tax incentives and lighting the Empire State Building in Amazon orange.

Even Governor Andrew Cuomo got in on the action: “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” he joked at the time.

Then Amazon made it official: It chose the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens to build a $2.5 billion campus that could house 25,000 workers, in addition to new offices planned for northern Virginia. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Democrats who have been political adversaries for years, trumpeted the decision as a major coup after edging out more than 230 other proposals.

But what they didn’t expect was the protests, the hostile public hearings and the disparaging tweets that would come in the next three months, eventually leading to Amazon’s dramatic Valentine’s Day breakup with New York.

Immediately after Amazon’s Nov. 12 announcement, criticism started to pour in. The deal included $1.5 billion in special tax breaks and grants for the company, but a closer look at the total package revealed it to be worth at least $2.8 billion. Some of the same politicians who had signed a letter to woo Amazon were now balking at the tax incentives.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” said New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris and New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Democrats who represent the Long Island City area, in a joint statement.

The next day, CEO Jeff Bezos was on the cover of The New York Post in a cartoon-like illustration, hanging out of a helicopter, holding money bags in each hand, with cash billowing above the skyline. “QUEENS RANSOM,” the headline screamed. The New York Times editorial board, meanwhile, called the deal a “bad bargain” for the city: “We won’t know for 10 years whether the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize,” it said.

Anti-Amazon rallies were planned for the next week. Protesters stormed a New York Amazon bookstore on the day after Thanksgiving and then went to a rally on the steps of a courthouse near the site of the new headquarters in the pouring rain. Some held cardboard boxes with Amazon’s smile logo turned upside down.

In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, protesters hold up anti-Amazon signs during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in New York.

They had a long list of grievances: the deal was done secretively; Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies, didn’t need nearly $3 billion in tax incentives; rising rents could push people out of the neighborhood; and the company was opposed to unionization.

The helipad kept coming up, too: Amazon, in its deal with the city, was promised it could build a spot to land a helicopter on or near the new offices.

At the first public hearing in December, which turned into a hostile, three-hour interrogation of two Amazon executives by city lawmakers, the helipad was mentioned more than a dozen times. The image of high-paid executives buzzing by a nearby low-income housing project became a symbol of corporate greed.

Queens residents soon found postcards from Amazon in their mailboxes, trumpeting the benefits of the project. Gianaris sent his own version, calling the company “Scamazon” and urging people to call Bezos and tell him to stay in Seattle.

At a second city council hearing in January, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, subtly suggested that perhaps the company’s decision to come to New York could be reversed.

“We want to invest in a community that wants us,” he said.

Then came a sign that Amazon’s opponents might actually succeed in derailing the deal: In early February, Gianaris was tapped for a seat on a little-known state panel that often has to approve state funding for big economic development projects. That meant if Amazon’s deal went before the board, Gianaris could kill it.

“I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris said at the time. “I am against the deal that has been proposed.”

Cuomo had the power to block Gianaris’ appointment, but he didn’t indicate whether he would take that step.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s own doubts about the project started to show. On Feb. 8, The Washington Post reported that the company was having second thoughts about the Queens location.

On Wednesday, Cuomo brokered a meeting with four top Amazon executives and the leaders of three unions critical of the deal. The union leaders walked away with the impression that the parties had an agreed upon framework for further negotiations, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“We had a good conversation. We talked about next steps. We shook hands,” Appelbaum said.

An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The final blow landed Thursday, when Amazon announced on a blog post that it was backing out, surprising the mayor, who had spoken to an Amazon executive Monday night and received “no indication” that the company would bail.

Amazon still expected the deal to be approved, according to a source familiar with Amazon’s thinking, but that the constant criticism from politicians didn’t make sense for the company to grow there.

“I was flabbergasted,” De Blasio said. “Why on earth after all of the effort we all put in would you simply walk away?”

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Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.”

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Mars Opportunity Rover Ends Nearly 15 Years of Discovery

The Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the Red Planet’s surface in 2004 for a 90-day mission of exploration. More than 14 years later, NASA has finally closed the book on this tiny rover that wandered across Mars sending back troves of information. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Report: Facebook, FTC Discuss Multibillion Dollar Fine

A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network’s privacy lapses.

The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. 

Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent. 

At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.

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Report: Facebook, FTC Discuss Multibillion Dollar’ Fine

A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network’s privacy lapses.

The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. 

Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent. 

At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.

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‘Fintech’ Could Help Mexicans Abroad Send Money Home

Mexico’s new government is trying to slash the cost of sending cash home for Mexican families living abroad and is hoping competition from “fintechs” (financial technology) will encourage banks and services like Western Union to reduce commissions and improve exchange rates.

Deputy Finance Minister Arturo Herrera said the government did not plan to place new regulations on the flow of remittances, one of the country’s largest sources of foreign currency and a lifeline for millions of poor families.

Sending remittances

However, the former World Bank executive envisaged that the increasing use of money transfer apps would help bring down the cost of sending remittances. Currently, the commission charged and the foreign exchange rates imposed together take a bite out of each remittance of 8 percent on average. Herrera said that should be brought down to 5 percent.

“That is to say, the cost of transactions must come down by about 40 percent. That is something the fintechs are probably in a better position to do than traditional actors such as banks,” Herrera told Reuters in an interview earlier this week. 

“Their great advantage is that they can operate in a more efficient and direct way and at lower costs, which should lead to lower commissions,” Herrera said.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has made fighting poverty and inequality a centerpiece of his administration. Herrera said bringing down the cost for financial services like remittances would help many of the nation’s neediest.

Banking costs are a sensitive issue in Mexico. When Lopez Obrador’s ruling MORENA party introduced a bill last year to limit banking fees it triggered a selloff in the stock market. Lopez Obrador distanced himself from the bill.

Calm investors

Other changes were better received, with credit ratings agency Fitch saying a bill introduced by Lopez Obrador to loosen restrictions on pension fund managers could lead to better returns and payouts for beneficiaries.

Lopez Obrador has also tried to calm investors’ nerves by saying there would be no modifications to the legal framework relating to economic, financial and fiscal matters in the first three years of his tenure.

The government says 24 million Mexicans live in the United States, by far the largest source of money sent home. Mexicans sent a record $33.5 billion in remittances in 2018, a 10.5 percent jump from a year earlier, Mexican central bank data show.

Mexico is already home to 75 startups that specialize in payments and remittances, data from fintech platform Finnovista show, while remittance apps like Remitly and Xoom have been gaining popularity.

Herrera said banks and Western Union would have to make their services cheaper to compete with money transfer apps. He did not say how quickly that would happen.

“I wish we could make it happen immediately,” he said.

No comment from Western Union

Western Union and its closest rival Moneygram did not respond to requests for comment. The Mexican Banking Association declined to comment on the topic.

Turning to fintechs for change is part of a broader strategy aimed at decreasing the use of the cash in Mexico, Herrera said. He said the Finance Ministry planned to reveal additional measures at the annual Banking Convention in March.

Ninety percent of transactions in Mexico are made in cash, in a system that he said is inefficient and expensive and creates ample opportunities for corruption and money laundering.

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Google to Invest $13 Billion in New US Offices, Data Centers

Google plans to invest more than $13 billion this year on new and expanded data centers and offices across the U.S.

CEO Sundar Pichai announced the news in a blog post Wednesday , emphasizing the company’s growth outside its Mountain View, California, home and across the Midwest and South.

“2019 marks the second year in a row we’ll be growing faster outside of the (San Francisco) Bay Area than in it,” he wrote.

Google will build new data centers in Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. Pichai estimated the construction of the new centers will employ 10,000 workers.

It makes good political sense for Google to highlight its expansions outside coastal cities, said CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler. 

U.S. legislators have paid increasing attention to Google and other big tech companies in the past year, and are considering passing privacy laws to regulate the companies’ reach. Investing more widely across the U.S. could help it curry favor with federal politicians and officials, he said.

Google is focused on expanding its cloud-computing business, a market where it faces stiff competition from larger rivals Amazon and Microsoft.

The company will have a physical presence in 24 states by the end of the year. It currently has locations in 21 states, and is expanding into Nevada, Ohio and Nebraska.

Its expansion is likely also a way to attract new employees, Kessler said. Google will add an office in Georgia, and expand its offices in several cities including in Seattle and Chicago.

Google said it spent more than $9 billion on similar expansions across the country last year. 

Google did not give an exact number of employees it expects to hire as a result of the 2019 expansions, but said it would be “tens of thousands” of full-time workers.

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Google to Invest $13 Billion in New US Offices, Data Centers

Google plans to invest more than $13 billion this year on new and expanded data centers and offices across the U.S.

CEO Sundar Pichai announced the news in a blog post Wednesday , emphasizing the company’s growth outside its Mountain View, California, home and across the Midwest and South.

“2019 marks the second year in a row we’ll be growing faster outside of the (San Francisco) Bay Area than in it,” he wrote.

Google will build new data centers in Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. Pichai estimated the construction of the new centers will employ 10,000 workers.

It makes good political sense for Google to highlight its expansions outside coastal cities, said CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler. 

U.S. legislators have paid increasing attention to Google and other big tech companies in the past year, and are considering passing privacy laws to regulate the companies’ reach. Investing more widely across the U.S. could help it curry favor with federal politicians and officials, he said.

Google is focused on expanding its cloud-computing business, a market where it faces stiff competition from larger rivals Amazon and Microsoft.

The company will have a physical presence in 24 states by the end of the year. It currently has locations in 21 states, and is expanding into Nevada, Ohio and Nebraska.

Its expansion is likely also a way to attract new employees, Kessler said. Google will add an office in Georgia, and expand its offices in several cities including in Seattle and Chicago.

Google said it spent more than $9 billion on similar expansions across the country last year. 

Google did not give an exact number of employees it expects to hire as a result of the 2019 expansions, but said it would be “tens of thousands” of full-time workers.

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China’s Huawei Soft Power Push Raises Hard Questions

As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Huawei’s bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of “Hockey Night in Canada.” TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.”

The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality.

The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools .

Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China’s authoritarian government spy on people around the world.

“Huawei’s marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.”

At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week.

Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei’s critics were fabricating threats.

Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative.

“At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don’t think the government should do business with Huawei,”’ said Saint-Jacques.

There’s no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei’s marketing, which isn’t unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention.

Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020.

In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks.

Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score.

And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain’s Cambridge University.

Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there’s no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don’t automatically own any resulting patents.

Britain’s Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei’s money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense.

Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts.

Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists.

The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It’s expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology.

Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei.

The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium’s King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei’s chief EU representative, Abraham Liu.

“We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei’s biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said.

To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters.

Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei’s charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government’s surveillance and censorship it uses.

“It’s not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said.

Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy.

“Today’s innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”

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Google, Apple Face Calls to Pull Saudi App Allowing Men to Monitor Wives

A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives’ travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple’s online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday.

Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app.

The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers.

The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

“Part of the app’s design is to discriminate against women,” said Rothna Begum, an expert in women’s rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch.

“The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women’s lives that much more.”

Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian’s phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare.

Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to “take a look at it”.

Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country’s strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes “abusive practices against women” in a Twitter post.

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women’s rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action.

“Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment.

But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.

 

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