The illusion of value

I have been looking through my diary for the next couple of months. It is pretty crowded. Meetings, lectures, conferences, TV and radio is almost 7 days a week. It's nice to be busy, isn't it?

But as I look at this ridiculous schedule, I wonder why, if I am so busy, I am so broke. When I say "broke", I mean that I do not currently have enough money to pay my mortgage this month. I am hoping that those who owe me money for work I have already done (some of it dating back to January) will pay me in time. If they do not, I will once again be scrabbling around trying to borrow the money to pay my bills. I'm so tired of having to chase people to pay the money they owe me....

Looking further ahead, I only have enough paid work to cover my obligations for the next month or two. The summer is coming, and everyone goes on holiday then. Freelance writing - and teaching - dry up. So it looks very much as if I will once again be staring bankruptcy in the face by the end of August. I should be used to this by now, I suppose. It has happened every August for well over a decade, with the exception of 2014.

What was different about 2014? Well, things seemed to be looking up then. I was Associate Editor of Pieria, which gave me a small but steady income. I had lots of freelance writing. And I still had significant amounts of teaching. Financially, the tax year 2014-15 was the best year I have had since I left RBS in 2002.

But then it all went wrong. I resigned from Pieria in May 2015 after the commercial director sacked me from a project while I was out of the country, then wiped everything I had written in the previous month off the site without explanation. And inexplicably, shortly afterwards my freelance work all but dried up. By September I was facing default. Fortunately, some of my wonderful Twitter followers donated money so I could pay my bills. And since then, other freelance writing opportunities have turned up. But it is thin, very thin. And my teaching has declined too, not least because of the relentless squeeze on performing arts that the Government seems to think is the best way of diverting teenagers into the study of STEM subjects. My income in 2015-16 was less than half that of 2014-15, and it shows no sign of improving.

And yet, I am busy. Very busy. So why am I broke?

It is very simple. All of my speaking engagements and media appearances in the next two months are unpaid. Some of my writing commitments are unpaid, too - including, of course, this blog. And others are very poorly paid. I am working damned hard for very little return.

There seems to be a general expectation that I will give my time and my expertise for nothing, or next to nothing. I will give up entire weekends to speak at conferences for nothing. I will cancel my evening teaching to appear on TV shows for nothing. I will annoy my students by reshuffling all their lessons so I can do a lunchtime radio interview for nothing. I will devote time and energy to producing a quality piece of writing for nothing.

Admittedly, there is nothing new about this. As a professional singer, I found that people wanted to hear me sing but weren't so keen on paying for it. As a teacher, I found that people wanted me to teach their kids, but thought I should do so for love not money. Now, as a writer and speaker, I find that people want to hear what I have to say, provided it is free. I've changed what I do, but people's attitude to me is still the same. I am still not worth paying.

This is a terrible indictment of me. If people will not pay me, then they do not really value me. It does not matter whether what they want from me is singing, or teaching, or writing, or speaking. What am I worth to them? Nothing. Nothing at all.

And perhaps the fact that I have accepted so many unpaid commitments - and that finding it difficult to persuade people to pay me fairly has been a pattern for much of my life - also says something about my view of myself. How much do I value myself? Do I really believe in what I do?

I have hit a wall called "Pro Bono". Pro bono means "for good". But whose good? Not mine. And I doubt if it is all that good for others either. It is not good for people to think they can get something for nothing. We should expect to pay for quality. If we get into the habit of thinking everything is (or should be) free, we have no way of distinguishing the gems from the dross. Gold is fool's gold, and diamonds are paste.

So I have reluctantly reached a decision. I cannot continue to accept large amounts of unpaid work. I will honour existing pro bono commitments, but after that I will expect to be paid for speaking engagements, and for all writing assignments except for this blog. I will require a guest fee for all TV and radio appearances from now on.

And if the result of this is that I disappear from the airwaves and the blogosphere, so be it. It's been fun, but I can't live like this any more. For my own self-respect, I need to know whether what I am doing really adds value. If, faced with the prospect of having to pay me, people decide they would rather dispense with my services, I will know that the value I thought I delivered was nothing but an illusion. For in this world, value is measured in money. Flattery is pleasant, but it is not a measure of real value. If my work is of value, then I am worth paying.

So if the world does not value my writing, speaking, teaching or singing enough to pay me for it, I must find something that the world WILL pay me for. At present, I have no idea what. But of one thing I am certain. I can no longer live on the illusion of value.

Related reading:

The "something for nothing" society
The end of the road
I am a bank


  1. Yes, that resonates well with my experience. I was semi-professional musician 20 years ago and decided not to pursue that career for the reasons you mentioned. Also few years ago I excercised the option of become freelance consultant and did some pre-marketing, pro bono gigs etc. That is tough job. You need to put lot of hours in "freebies", i.e. marketing. And more entrants there are in the marketplace, more that kind of investment is needed. So you need very beefy gigs to make the effort worth of it. Few people succeed in that. The income distrubution of atheltes, artists and freelancers is very skewed.

  2. I think this is a good decision, and I hope you land well - your writing is good. Is this a farewell then from the blog, for now?

    1. No. I've just updated this to make it clear. I will continue to write this blog, and it will continue to be free to read but with the option to donate. But I may restore it to what it used to be - my own thinkspace where I write about whatever hits my head, rather than focusing exclusively on finance & economics.

  3. I completely understand and respect this decision. Most writers, artists and performers have the same dilemma. We are blessed because we live in an age where we can self-publish, and cursed because there is so much 'content' (I loathe that word) produced daily, there is no way to even read a meaningful summary/review of what is produced, let alone experience it all first-hand.

    I value your work greatly, and have long been impressed by your ability to create meaningful well-written work of high quality in prodigious quantities. Sadly, I do not have the financial wherewithal to contribute significantly. My fear is that news editors simply turn to the next name on the list 'who'll do it for free', rather than consider the quality of the insight they're getting, and that depresses me utterly. However, you are right that it is time to put fortune to the test.

    Is there a way to set up regular micro-donations on your site? I'm happy to contribute a very small amount on a regular basis, but I'm viewing this on a mobile device, and can't see a way to contribute at all (though I'm sure there was one on the desktop site)

  4. Fully understand your decision and think it's a wise one. Your writing and speaking is absolutely excellent and valuable. But indeed, in the current media situation, value isn't being paid enough. On the internet the culture of 'everything must be free' is widespread. It seemed like a great idea and for some things it still is. But I do hope that will change. The problem you write about is something many people and institutions struggle with. It's a downward spiral in many cases. Newspapers not making enough money so they fire their best journalists, lowering the value and attractiveness of the paper to readers, leading to less sales, etc.

    In my country (the Netherlands) there are a couple of new publishing platforms founded in the last years working with a paid subscription model. It can work. However, it's all very new and in development, and a lot has to be learned to find the best way.

    Hope it all works out for you. Whatever you will do next. If it includes finance and economics all the better.


  5. Sorry to hear that, it's part of the austerity madness that sees the household sector borrowing £12 Billion a quarter, the highest since 1987.

    My understanding of Pro Bono in Law firms is that it's not more than 10% of time.

  6. It's depressing that someone who creates so much value for society does not benefit from it. Talk about market failure!

    Sorry if you may have already mentioned this somewhere but is there a reason why you do not host ads on your blog?

  7. Price is a measure of scarcity, which seems pretty weakly correlated with ideals of "value", however one might define it.

    Creative endeavours are in an obvious conundrum if they want to get paid: the world is not particularly short of things to read or listen to, and attention ("flattery") is a reward, and is scarce. Basically sell abundance, buy scarcity, not the best business model... so the only creatives who seem to make a decent living are those who recreate scarcity (more people wanting their attention than them wanting people's attention) which is a rarefied few.

    You may be "famous" enough by now that it might work for you, e.g. some people may pay you to come if you ask, and at the very least it will trim your schedule. And if it works there's positive feedback: charging will make your scarcer. There's an issue though that once you get paid, you might self-censor any opinion that you estimate may reduce your marketability, thus lowering the intrinsic value... could it be that creative endeavours do not belong to the economic sphere at all?

    (Doesn't RBS want you back as Chief Economist? The job is very similar to what you're doing, just branded, and better paid.)

  8. Sorry very much of reading that. Do you think that is a general problem? perhaps internet has increased so much the supply of qualified analysis, there is no demand for so many stuff...
    Never qualified opinion has been so disposable. A redistribution of free competition in favor of consumer surplus...

  9. Hi Frances

    Good luck and best wishes for whatever you decide to do and I am sorry that you work has not been valued in a price and wages sense. There are plenty of other measures of value and quality but sadly they do not pay the mortgage or fill the fridge.

    This also cuts across to measures of GDP and economic activity if we switch to economics. The debate goes on ! But as we are so poor at measuring the service sector and appalling at measuring construction in the UK as well as always being keen to under record inflation we remain unsure about what is happening. In a technology and information revolution that is quite a poor effort.

  10. You are correct in your assessment of your situation and the subsequent rules you will use to guide future work. Don't worry - something will turn up - it always does :)...

    Your situation seems to be a variant of the part-time, zero-hour contracts that so many well-qualified people have to accept nowadays. At least you can claim to talk from strength on inequality and under employment in a time of supposed full employment - something about clouds and silver linings there :)

    Good luck and hang in there, Frances!

  11. Frances,
    I suggest taking Piketty as a model and publishing past articles grouped together on banking failure etc - possibly as a self published E book ?

    1. Very much agree, though forget e-books. Your writing is good, but your wisdom and insight into finance is spectacular. And at least amongst the blogging community you have a 'name'. There is no obvious reason why you shouldn't get a healthy advance for a book on finance.

      Have you talked to the FT or the Telegraph about ocassional articles or even a regular column?

    2. Yes I agree - go for a book deal. You would definitely get one and although (yet again) books are not well paid, they lead to other work and increase your brand.

      I know what you're going through and it's good that you are taking a helps for other experts who need to be treated as such and not just as 'content providers' which can mean anything!

  12. You tried to ride with the baggage and wanted to expose yourself as the new Jeanne d'Arc ... Now you are still caught in the ongoing process I call Fury on Fleet Street. Industrialization of what was once called journalism.

    In order to understand the current situation ...

    Let's revisit the money function (or what I call the money function) first

    The money function from the perspective of a cultural good is
    a) To value in a sense of to honor the provision of goods by other people
    a1) That's about handing over money
    b) To value in a sense of participating in the pricing process which is nothing but the a way to find the ideal quantity of a good put to the counter or market stall from the perspective of sustainable supply - information perspective
    b1) In that sense money is used as a tool
    b2) Once the quantity is well known (fixed) and those who decided to substitute already do you don't need money anymore from that perspective. It's simply enough to pass along colorfully painted stones. That's how industry works. It's fairly understood that industry has nothing in common with market economy in general.

    Without elaborating further the industrial model and the industrial society is a decentralized approach to provide goods based on planned economic principles.

    In that sense income receivers are boiled like frogs. Taking the frog out of the water will not help all of them, once you burned your fingers... Turning off the hotplate can help all the frogs but they will jump into the next pot. From that perspective you definitely offered an appropriate good. Wondering what frog will trade in money for taking him out of the pot?

    There is nothing wrong with taking money from other people. That's the market economic income. Don't fear the valuation - ride into the hell fires of the apocalypse, that's the place where people pay for new ideas. Don't get your fingers burnt, flare off as a whole and you will grow stronger.

    In an industrial society a job is simply seen a hobby while getting paid for hanging loose beside a machine. It's impossible to value participating in providing goods this way.

    Want guarantee by a toaster. Want a valuation, write an invoice.

    What is valued? The output of working combination of talent expressed in skills applied to a (raw)material. Even if we define material in a broader sense combing many of those at a later point in time is a pleasure of those who need not to think about at least one of 'component' (Mr. Flassbeck for example). That's your advantage. You definitely know 2 material very well - apply to a third.

    Hobby is about the opposite, searching for a material that matches the talent and maybe about growing skills or adopting a material according to ones own talent and growing skills that way.

    The industrial model does not work like market economy. In industries those provide the goods hand over money to the customer for the moment of the trade in return for standing beside the suppliers machine for a few seconds, but people 'take' the money from the nearest cash register still which is a tribute to structures grown as a result from legislation enforced by authorities in order to avoid shortages. People had to write the money flowing in and money flowing out. The difference was locked into a 'cash register'. That's why people receive their income from the nearest cash register at the place where they work and provide 'more' goods for free.

  13. Money cannot be used to measure at all since it's a tool for valuation. Dependent on the surrounding valuation can turn into measurement but I doubt that in an economic system that's possible. Valuation without invoice does not work since people cannot be paid for hobbyist activities at work aka. the job. Money is here to restrict the time invested in providing goods the commonweal, which is personally define as all the goods that allow the receiver to decide freely if using a good to server their own needs or public needs. Products that allow to serve one's own need only (no alternative) I personally call self interest goods. Those lead to seemingly ochlocrazy markets.

    Some people get more than required to cover their demands and some not which makes up the income distribution with all the problems on the lower end.

    Get away from calling yourself economist. We currently have an interesting initiative in Austria from the old thumb-sucker economists similar to the seven dwarfs promoting Snow White instead of Katy Perry.


    That reminded me of the original purpose of economists in Old Egypt tax estimation and predicting based on the Nil's water line. They are all still slaves of the Pharao aka. money-socialism or debt socialism. That's the model in which they are granted participation in a society working according to their illusional sense of getting paid for hobbyism at work. They will get boiled anyway. (German language).

    People who don't write invoices fear the valuation. Scienties in the area of economy are simply ivory tower communists whose work exactly for what it's worse - nothing at all aka. as free. Since they all together are more or less happy mummies.

    So said in one sentence. If you want to change something in this world - don't go for the better world, see yourself as one of the 'new generation of free-masons'. Think of Mr. Schumpeter. What did he say? 'Annoy the potential customers with your innovation but not yourself'.

    So if you want to bend the spoon neither do learn from your Mom nor from the mummies. Don't play their game, start to play your's.


    Entrepreneurship is never about hobby, it's getting things done for the moment.

    Hope that helps, even if it's my radical approach to things.

  14. Why not Trade the markets to cover your mortgage every month?

    Balance of payments Frances.

  15. Wow, this is depressing to read. I have been following your blog for over a year now and have always found your analyses to be spot on and very well written. In my head I kind of assumed you were doing well financially, as I have come across many commentators (be it professional investors, economists or some phony consultants) whose writing I found to be far less illuminating, if at all. I guess those people just come along with a mindset that their work is worthwhile paying for (even if it might not be) and that makes the difference. I wish you the very best and hope that your work will get you the attention and money that it definitely deserves!

  16. There is an abundance of talking heads and almost all when they speak or are being interviewed, do so to promote a product. Peter Shiff his gold business, Willem Buiter to get the logo/name Citi-bank mentioned, James Rickards travels the world around and never the cover of his latest book is not shown. And then there are many 'economists' of pension and investment funds.

    So the truth is you are competing with those that are glad to give their opinion for free. Basically, they get paid by the fact that their company or book is mentioned. Sadly, the independent free thinker is crowded out by these self-promoters.

    So my advice is: cultivate a specific theme and/or viewing angle on some economic issues, write a book about it and promote the book like there is no tomorrow.

    Whatever you do, good luck with it!

  17. I avidly read your blog. I also read Tim Harford's blog equally avidly. Occasionally Tim uses his blog to promote a book he has written. I buy many of Tim's books because he writes well and is inciteful. I'm sure you could write an equally incited and readable book. And if, occasionally, you used yor blog to promote your book I might well buy one of yours.

    I doubt would be the only one.

  18. This is clearly an internet thing. It has corroded many industries and professions.

  19. Good for you, Frances! While I'm saddened to hear about your financial difficulties, I'm glad to hear that you're not going to put up with the free content bullshit anymore. It's incredibly frustrating to put a ton of work in, to hear all the kudos from people, but to never get remunerated for it. Charge for appearances...and charge a lot. You're worth every penny.

    And if you feel like a little commiseration, I wrote this awhile back, about the same subject:

  20. I made a living as a freelance journalist from 1999 to 2004, then jumped ship to academia (which, at least to begin with, was no better paid and almost as precarious). What was (grimly) interesting was what happened when academic work looked like drying up, around 2008, and I did the virtual rounds of my old contacts. There was absolutely nothing going: some of my past commissioners had disappeared altogether, some had taken everything in-house, and hardly anybody was paying for anything. One editor (someone I knew slightly, and with whom I'd always had a friendly if not actually remunerative relationship) told me flat that if he was going to pay an external contributor, the least he'd expect from them would be a feature-length investigative story backed by several weeks' worth of research, interviews and local colour: "if you've got a great idea for a column, write it on your blog". I never thought I'd look back on the early 2000s as a golden age for freelance journalism, but compared to the present it looks a bit like that.

    I wish you good luck screwing a bit of money out of the people who try to book you for nothing - good luck, and a bit of solidarity from all the 'get me a Frances Coppola type's, whoever they may be.

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  25. You are correct in your assessment of your situation and the subsequent rules you will use to guide future work. Don't worry - something will turn up - it always does :)...

    Your situation seems to be a variant of the part-time, zero-hour contracts that so many well-qualified people have to accept nowadays. At least you can claim to talk from strength on inequality and under employment in a time of supposed full employment - something about clouds and silver linings there :)

    Good luck and hang in there, Frances!

  26. Frances,

    Join the cookie crew, I've essentially had no income since the beginning of the GFC when I was laid-off in September 2008. Funny, but like you, I was busier for most of the timeline between 2008 - late 2015, when, as i trust you are aware, it all went tits up. Indeed, I've never known a more difficult time financially than since the beginning of 2015 onwards. And I'm based in Hong Kong, which is why I question daily notions of a economic recovery, be it global, regional or local. To add insult to injury, was kicked out of my flat in February and now have a smaller pad that is 30% more expensive to rent. So obviously I share many of your concerns and woes, but at least both try to get an honest message out, and its this that's more important. Would help if had funds and hope others can contribute to the site. Hopefully back on Twitter shortly once I get a working phone, but at least I have internet again.
    Take care and hopefully we'll bump into each other again if I can pull something off in London, but it's a BIG IF!!!!!

  27. It is so nice to read your story.

  28. David Estêvão10 April 2016 at 15:55

    as an economist the answer should be obvious: does what you do enable the recipient to profit? Most of your commentary does not. Create a specific financial advisory and make it payable. Consider some of your free contributions as marketing expenses.But be very criterious when accepting invitations: rarity has value.I'll pay €30 annually to read your comments, pls provide the platform.

  29. Is this the future the so-called gig economy offers us? Probably. I've been a freelance writer for more than 25 years, but in high tech marketing, as that is where the money is, or was. Never worried about the mortgage or bills, but now after all these years the network is drying up. This is not unusual in the gig economy, as your contacts and colleagues retire or change careers or worse. So now I have moved to a small European country where my social security benefits will allow me to live comfortably.

  30. David Estevao is exactly on point. You have been wasting your time and talents with your current approach. You have the knowledge and skill, you just need to channel them correctly.

    Here is your model: Main blog attracts readers, some of whom pay for regular and deeper insights.

    You have to go where the money is. The money is with high-powered professional bankers or investors who desperately need every edge they can get to stay one step ahead of the game. An annual subscription is nothing to them, pocket change, as long as you provide value they can't get anywhere else.

    So think about all the players involved in European finance. Not economists, the players, those in the game. Build a profile of exactly who you can provide information to that gives them an edges. Something no one else is doing like you can do.

    Profile must be precised: gender, age range, education, firms working for, etc. Print out a picture of the typical reader as you see her/him.

    You want a niche that is just right, not too narrow, not too wide. Meaning: Narrow enough that you can own it, but wide enough that you never run out of topics. And you want there to be a lot of players interested in this niche.

    Then list 30 articles you could write that would be of top interest to these players. You need great headlines, but the subject matter is detailed but broad.

    Then for each article, list three sub-articles that you could write that would provide intensely detailed, yet readable, information that would give these players an edge. That they would be happy to pay for.

    If you can do this over the course of a few days, then you have enough depth of understanding and ideas to be able to do it long-term.

    You've been doing piece-work for gatekeepers. Go directly to the money. Quit writing general interest stuff for non-specific readers until you have a solidly established professional direction.

    As for how to execute beyond what I have written, I have ideas on that too if you are interested. I'm an American web entrepreneur with one successul website/online store based on a personal brand (what you would be attempting to do) and have started a second one. I know hosting, website pointers, email marketing, book publishing, and much more and I'm very willing to share my knowledged with you.

    I am most certainly not an economist or financier, just a person interested in wide variety of topics who enjoys your writing. Seriously, let me know if you want input in a reply.

  31. Frances, I am really concerned with your situation and fully agree with your decision. As a heavy Excel user, I happen to follow a blog written by Chandoo. He had been an IT consultant before he started his online business providing training and products in Excel. He provides many free stuffs but in the end, managed to monetize his efforts, and from what I learned, very successfully. Interestingly, what he said in his blog - a paying customer is better than 100 free users - reflected your point of view. You may want to look at his blog (not the technical one),

  32. Ideas:

    1. Forbes pays for articles.

    2.Re late payers, why not charge them for being late - or to sugar that pill: raise prices and offer a discount for payment within a month or whatever. That's common practice.

    3. I bet there are banks who would pay for your input to meetings / decision taking.

  33. Frances, This is a heart breaking story for anyone let alone someone brimming with talent like you.

    The Internet in particular seems to have enabled a dormant 'I can get it for free' attitude in us to surface. I'm not sure whether we are being vindictive reading your content without paying for it but, on reflection, your situation is making me think about having the integrity to regularly donate to the bloggers I regularly; I've just never stopped to think.

    I look at your site amongst others every day WITHOUT FAIL and your commentary and education has enriched me. There are a number of sites that I read that I am certainly prepared to pay for. The content of your site is better than most of the printed press by far, in my opinion.

    I would second the earlier comment and suggest you have a mechanism for payment. It probably cannot solve your problems fully but at least some of us can do the right thing and donate something. Can I be so bold as to suggest you look at the Leap2020 site or Martin Armstrong? They publish snippets of their work and you have to pay for the whole article.

    The very best of luck and God bless you.


  34. ..and after all this time I've only just noticed the donate button. I'll use it.


  35. Definitely seek paid journalism from one of the major newspapers.. Guardian, telegraph or FT. Also as others have said write a book or 2 which will give you income in the background.

  36. Re: 2.

    In accounting it is called giving a discount for early payment. Say, 2-5% if paid within x number of days. A small one could be offered including the retroactive time. This is done easily if the customer signs a note or a bill of exchange for value received.

    Of course, there are also, up front payments in full or partial payments, and deposits.

    Reference, not the simplest explanation: ( What looks like f is often an s in this type.)

    Here is the letter:

    Here is the accounting: p. 34, 69, and 76 visa versa.

    Discount (given Dr. is an expense to the giver because full amount was already booked as revenue, or exchange for asset.

    Notes and bill of exchange example documents.
    p. 183-4

    Re: 3. Getting on the board of Directors of a going concern?

  37. A 2% discount for 30 days would look attractive because that is >= than 24% annual.

  38. Dear Frances
    Can't help, unfortunately, as currently job-hunting & without income. So let me just wish you all the best.

  39. Have you come across Byline? crowdfunded journalism - - still young, and seems to have worked less well for some columnists than for others, but has potential to fund the things you choose to write in a more reliable way than the donate button on this blog. And it seems you have a lot of followers who would be glad to give you their support immediately.

    1. I have come across it, a while ago. I thought about it, and decided it didn't solve my problem.

  40. Oh that’s interesting! I wonder why not? - only if you fancy going into it.

    A lot of people seem to consider the crowdfunding model a viable answer to the problem of how to make any money out of creative endeavours in a digital future - and it’s a big problem for lots of people.

    Perhaps it doesn’t work for you because it just makes the conflation of price and value worse? I came across this in an article about writers and crowdfunding:

    “The crowdfunding model doesn’t eliminate the confusion between monetary reward (valuation) and a judgement of quality (evaluation) - on the contrary, it exacerbates it. Worse, the (e)valuation is made by a self-selecting bunch of strangers which on the one hand gives it a veneer of objectivity but on the other hand erodes the worth of the judgement. The judgement we value is the judgement of those whose opinion we respect, and who we know well enough to respect - that’s not a crowd model...
    Payments come to resemble ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ or ‘retweets’ - they are desired not so much because the writer need to pay the bills (though that may be the initial impetus for asking for them) but because they are signifiers of approval. The amount raised - whether presented as an amount in cash or as a percentage of a target - is just a number that looks very much like a score - and so it sets you up for failure. A score is a pure signifier of reward. Absence of reward, when it is expected, creates disappointment.”

    What do you think?

    1. ...that was supposed to be a reply re: byline, sorry.


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