Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Best Of’ Category

Michael Duff says goodbye

Wrote a final column for the A-J, but it looks like they’re not gonna run it. Here it is anyway:

This will be my last column for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

In June 2008, I tried to brand this as an “Internet culture” column and explain how this space would be different from the cacophony of technology columns that were here before me.

The media was already full of people doing industry profiles and product reviews. I wanted to focus on the big picture, to take a moment each week and appreciate things that were threatening to pass us by.

New products are changing the way we communicate and the way we treat each other, but it’s all happening so fast, nobody has time to think about it. We’re so busy using these new toys, we haven’t stopped to consider the benefits of instant communication or the dangers of overexposure.

The A-J gave me the opportunity to do that, week after week, in a format that gave me tremendous freedom. It helped me prove myself as a writer and create a voice that I’ll be using for the rest of my professional life.

I have to take a moment and thank Terry Greenberg for launching a series of new feature columns in 2007. I have to thank Shelly Gonzales for helping me navigate the treacherous legal and ethical waters of modern journalism. And I have to thank Bill Kerns for pleading my case and treating me like a human being when I walked up to his desk with a manuscript in my hand.

I want to thank Beth Pratt and Karen Brehm for their consistent encouragement and feedback, and most of all I have to thank the copy editors who learned when to save me from myself and when to leave me alone. Special thanks to Leanda, and Glenys, and Leesha, and James for fixing my unquoted movie titles and removing a thousand Oxford commas.

The Avalanche-Journal has been very good to me. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities I had and the friends I made here.

I didn’t slaughter as many sacred cows as I wanted to, but I was always able to poke them with sticks. I was trying to think back to my “proudest moment” in these pages but all I can remember is the fun stuff.

I remember abusing senior citizens in Grand Theft Auto and requesting help from Batman when my phone got stolen. I remember taking shots at Nick Denton and interviewing a Peggy Olson impersonator on Twitter.

I once described my job as “explaining the Internet to people who hate the Internet,” but I hope that description isn’t as true as it used to be. I hope the technophobes in the audience were able to read this column every week and come away with a bit more respect for technology and the people who use it.

I hope you read this column and decided to be nicer to people on blogs and forums. I hope you read this column and felt a little bit smarter each week, even when I was writing about things you never heard of before.

I hope you gained a bit more respect for video games and video gamers. I hope you learned to be a bit more careful with what you shared on Facebook, and I hope you learned to forgive people who shared too much.

I hope the people conducting job interviews learned to forgive candidates who left inappropriate stuff on their public profiles, and I hope a few grandparents learned to use Facebook to get closer to their kids.

I can’t say where I’m headed next, but keep your eyes on www.michaelduff.net and feel free to follow me on Facebook or Google Plus.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought, to sum up what I’ve been trying to say for the past four years.

The Internet is the real world. The people are real, the commenters are real, the emotions are real, and the consequences are real.

Every comment, every blog post, and every video game avatar represents a real person, with their own set of quirks and vulnerabilities. We’re getting better at this whole “online communication” thing but we all have blind spots, and not everyone can express themselves well in this medium.

When in doubt, be nice. Don’t assume the worst about people, and don’t rise to the bait when people try to provoke you. Something about the Internet can make rational adults behave like spoiled children. Don’t let them get to you, and don’t let them drive you away.

The Internet is the future, and the future belongs to everyone.

Thank you for your attention and your feedback. I may not be in print anymore, but I’ll be around.

Written by Not Jaffo

September 2, 2011 at 04:32

Posted in Best Of, Columns

Hurricane Irene and the Broken Window Fallacy

Here it comes again, The Broken Window Fallacy.

I heard it just this morning, as a reporter for Fox News talked about the “economic stimulus” that would result from this hurricane. Paul Krugman has been beating this drum quite a bit lately, saying that America needs a disaster, a war, or even an alien invasion to “get the economy moving again.”

But destruction can’t create growth. Anyone who tells you otherwise has fallen for — or is trying to pull — the oldest trick in the book.

Let’s say I’m a shopkeeper who just had his window shattered by a little girl who was playing with a BB gun. Let’s call her “Irene.”

Irene shatters my window, so I have to pay the glass guy $250 to get it fixed.

Krugman and company will tell you that $250 becomes “stimulus,” but where did that $250 actually come from? I was planning to spend that money on a new suit, but now I have to fix my window instead.

The Keynesians are assuming that if Irene didn’t break my window, my $250 would just sit there forever, stuffed in my mattress for a rainy day. But I had plans for that $250. I wasn’t going to hoard it, I was going to spend it. If Irene hadn’t taken out my window, that money would have “stimulated” the clothing store instead.

Keynesians like to pretend that we’re all a bunch of crazy hoarders, rolling around in piles of unspent cash like Scrooge McDuck. But in a modern world, even saved money becomes part of the active economy. I don’t stuff my money in a mattress, I keep it in a bank, where it becomes capital for other people. My saved money is lent out to other businesses and used to finance productive investments.

Nothing is idle, nothing is wasted. When my window gets broken I have to withdraw $250 in saved capital and use it to replace something I already had. I can’t spend it on a suit, and the bank can’t loan it to their client who wants to open a restaurant. For the Broken Window theory to be true, you’d have to assume that I was holding $250 in cash and had no plans to spend it.

Just think about your own life. If someone broke your window tomorrow, would the repair cost come out of hoarded cash, or would you have to give up something else you wanted to buy?

We should feel bad for the people who lost property to Hurricane Irene because all the “stimulus” they’re about to spend on repairs was money they would have spent on clothes and cars and toys for their kids. Now all those plans are ruined, and they have to spend thousands of dollars just to replace things they already had.

This will certainly stimulate the construction industry, but what about the tailors and the auto makers and the toy stores who would have received that money instead?

Nothing good can come from destruction. Emergency spending doesn’t create wealth, it simply diverts resources that would have been spent on other things.

Hurricane Irene is a net loss for everybody, and it’s going to be a big one.

Written by Not Jaffo

August 28, 2011 at 15:27

Posted in Best Of, Politics

Jeff Jarvis starts a Twitter revolution with #fuckyouwashington

The first thing that went through my mind when I heard about Jeff Jarvis starting a revolution on Twitter tonight was “How the hell can I write a column about a #fuckyouwashington hashtag without using the word ‘fuck?'”

Then I saw somebody compare it to Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. Have you watched that clip lately? The parallel is perfect. Howard doesn’t know what to do about crime, oil, or Russians, he’s just demanding that we do something.

The same thing is happening on Twitter right now. Nobody knows what to do about unemployment, corporatism, or the debt ceiling, they just want everybody to get mad about it right now!

Watch the tag for a while and you’ll notice that half of these tweets contradict the other half. Half the protesters think we should solve this by going hard right, the other half think we should solve it by going hard left.

But Washington is gridlocked because America is gridlocked. The outrage on Twitter is random and unfocused because there are actually three different kinds of anger at work here.

First, we have left and right anger, the friction you would expect when you have 30% pulling right, 30% pulling left and 40% stuck in the undecided middle.

But there is another kind of anger layered on top of that. The right wing guys aren’t really behaving like right wing guys and the left wing guys aren’t really behaving like left wing guys.

Republicans who were sent to Congress to cut spending and fight corruption are proposing half-measures and rolling over for the very people they were sent there to oppose. And this anger started long before the 2010 congress. Obama didn’t start the bank bailouts, Bush did. The incredible ramp in deficit spending started with Bush, too.

Obama ran as a hard left populist champion, promising to rise above corporate influence and bring the troops home. Now he’s starting new wars and raking in banker cash with both hands.

So there’s our third heat. The right can’t make things go right and the left can’t make things go left. Increasingly, Washington is working from a set of priorities that have no connection to the will of the people.

If the country was going consistently right or left, at least 30% of the voters would be happy. But we’re in the middle of a serious recession and our politicians seem to be broadcasting from another planet.

Every day they go on TV to stoke the fear, scaring us with words like “crisis” and “default,” each demanding that we blame the other side.

That part is working. Americans are angry and afraid. You told us there was a crisis and we believe you. But we’re not blaming “the other side” — we’re blaming everybody.

Thirty percent of voters will blame the left for anything that goes wrong and 30% will blame the right, but 40% in the middle are ready to blame both of you.

Playing political games with loaded issues is nothing new, but this time everybody knows it’s a game. Voters aren’t stupid. They’re watching cable and reading blogs. They’re listening to talk radio and swapping conspiracy theories on Facebook.

Everybody knows you guys are running the clock out, waiting for the next election. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on TV to scare the shit out of us every day and then expect us to wait patiently for 2012.

You can’t use words like “urgent” and “crisis” and then waste our time with Kabuki theater.

Either the situation is urgent and needs to be solved now, or it’s all just an act that can wait for 2012. This isn’t 1954, gentlemen. The voters are on to you now. We know you’re playing a game and we know you’re using us as chess pieces.

That’s why #fuckyouwashington is trending on Twitter. We’re tired of being pawns.

Every politician in Washington needs to pay attention to this outrage and remember who they’re working for.

Written by Not Jaffo

July 24, 2011 at 03:57

Posted in Best Of, Politics, Twitter

Google joins battle for soul of the Internet with Google Plus

Google launched a limited beta of their new social networking service last week, and was quickly overwhelmed with traffic as eager alpha geeks rushed to find something, anything that would liberate them from Facebook.

Love it or hate it, Facebook has now become the Internet. It’s the most popular site in the world, a one-stop shop for personal messaging, public discussion, political activism and link swapping worldwide.

Google’s new service is called Google Plus, and if you followed Google’s previous attempts at social networking, I won’t blame you for being skeptical. Google Buzz was a disaster and Google Wave broke my heart. Google Plus is starting with a better design philosophy than Facebook did, but even if they do everything right, it’s going to be an uphill battle all the way.

The Internet is basically entering its third evolution now, as expectations become more complex and the last few stragglers make it part of their daily lives.

Phase One was just about finding stuff. In the early days, Yahoo could fit the whole Internet in a series of link lists. Early users jumped on the Internet to find news, trade tech articles, and fight with a self-selected group of early adopters on Usenet.

Phase Two was about sharing stuff. Google made search engines reliable and fast, so the Internet became more about connecting with people and sharing links with friends.

Google won the battle for Phase One and Facebook won the battle for Phase Two.

Now we come to Phase Three. We know how to search and we know how to share, but now we’ve got so much crap coming at us 24 hours a day, even moderate users are drowning in status updates. We’ve got so many “friends” interacting with us in so many different contexts, we can’t just lump them all into one stream anymore.

Phase Two was about making connections. Phase Three will be about managing them.

Google Plus is built around the concept of Circles. Every friend you add to the service must be added to a circle. Plus starts with a set of recommended categories: Friends, Family and Acquaintances. Most people will immediately add a circle for work, then they’ll make a circle for “Super Friends” – the eight or nine people in the world they can share everything with.

This is the function I’ve been waiting for, the function I’ve been screaming about in this column for the past two years.

Facebook is great but modern people don’t just have one face. I follow about 300 people on Facebook and each one of those people follows me for a different reason. Some of them like the columns, some of them like my political rants, some of them knew me in high school, and some of them have known me all my life.

But the people who like the columns don’t necessarily care about politics, and the people who knew me in high school don’t necessarily like what I write. I always feel a little guilty when I post to Facebook because I know any post that appeals to ten people is likely to annoy ten others.

With Google Plus I get to make the choice, and since everybody else is free to make their own categories, too, they can choose what box to put me in. This concept is so simple, I can’t believe Facebook has botched it so badly. Facebook has lists and sharing restrictions but they’re almost impossible to use.

Human interaction occurs in context, but Facebook’s one-stream-fits-all approach encourages people to ignore that context, leading to embarrassing, even disastrous consequences. The people who follow my column are nice, but they don’t need to see status updates when I go on vacation.

My friends love me, but they don’t all agree with my politics. A link that would be catnip for economics nerds might seem boring or even insulting to them. Forcing your political opinions on strangers isn’t just rude; it’s dangerous.

Interactions in the workplace occur in a very specific social context. It was bad enough when all we had to worry about was offending people, but now the things you share at work may be a violation of federal law. In this climate you’re not just protecting yourself when you segregate your social networks, you’re protecting your boss and your co-workers from things they really don’t want to know.

Google and Facebook have just entered into a steel-cage death match for the soul of the Internet. Can Google Plus gain market share before Facebook copies their best feature? My instincts say no. I think it will be easier for Facebook to add Circles than it will be for Google to steal its users.

I think we’re up against the Grandma Factor. Facebook has become so ubiquitous, even Grandma is using it. Will parents and grandparents be willing to follow their kids to a new platform?

I’m guessing no, but maybe that’s a Plus for you.

Written by Not Jaffo

July 1, 2011 at 02:56

Posted in Best Of, Facebook, Google

A Tribute to James Royal Berry (1967-1999)

Royal Berry should have turned 44 yesterday, but we lost him at 31.

I can’t say we were close friends, but he left such an impression on me, I feel like there should be something on the Internet to mark his passing, something more than a formal obituary.

An obituary can’t capture the best things about Royal because Royal was a geek — one of the most brilliant, creative, hardworking examples of geekdom I have ever seen.

Royal was a whirling dervish of creative energy. He had that indefinable “thing” that turns men into entrepreneurs and captains of industry. He had the essential courage of a small businessman, the fierce desire to try new things and make money on his own terms.

In the late ’80s he made a BBS game called “The Pit” — one of the first BBS games to feature color graphics and PVP combat. In Lubbock I believe it was THE first, based on a highly addictive gladiatorial arena model. I did some writing for Royal, back in the day, and I frequently wish I could go back and do it better.

I was a bit in awe of Royal back then, but I didn’t really understand him, and I didn’t know enough about video games to really understand what he needed.

The world had just discovered “Doom” and “Castle Wolfenstein.” Royal was experimenting with 3-D graphics, grappling with concepts that were a decade away from mainstream popularity.

Royal was always a bit ahead of his time, and we lost him right before the world got interesting. I can only imagine what he would have done with iPads, smart phones and an app store full of mobile games.

Royal was also my first Game Master — the guy who took me through my first dungeon crawls and taught me the unique mix of discipline and storytelling that makes a good DM.

That’s what I remember most — the incredible wit and energy that Royal brought to gaming. He brought characters to life and ruled the table with an iron fist. As Dungeon Master he was wicked and merciless and terrifying. I liked to run soft, cooperative games that coddled players and fudged things in their favor.

Royal was my opposite — random, heartless and utterly unpredictable. He never cheated, he never fudged, and he was never blatantly cruel, but he was as impartial and uncaring as the big bad world itself.

He inspired genuine respect and genuine fear as we huddled around the table, knowing our characters could die at any moment, at the mercy of rules and dice.

I admired Royal as a programmer and an entrepreneur, but looking back, what I miss most is having him at the head of that table, performing for a crowd of happy gamers — juggling six different kinds of intrigue, intercepting secret notes, and unleashing plot twists that kept us all on the edge of our seats.

One of my favorite memories from high school was a roleplaying “duel” we fought to settle a bet between two groups of rival gamers. We built it up like the Superbowl and spent weeks trash talking each other beforehand.

We planned an epic battle between a dozen characters and “hired” Royal to adjudicate. This is my favorite memory of Royal because we really did treat him like a Judge. This was a fight between two camps of mortal enemies but there was one thing we could all agree on — we knew we could trust Royal Berry to handle it right.

We didn’t use the word “integrity” back then, but we knew even in this silly context that James R. Berry was a man of honor.

I wish I had known him better. If I’d been a little less intimated by him, we could have been better friends.

The world will remember James Berry as a programmer, an entrepreneur and an online gaming pioneer, but I miss Royal the trickster, Royal the storyteller, Royal the entertainer — cracking jokes and rolling dice with a twinkle in his eye.

Happy birthday, Royal. We miss you.

Written by Not Jaffo

June 2, 2011 at 11:45

Posted in Best Of

Is America still good enough for Superman?

D.C. Comics stirred up controversy all over the Net last week when Superman promised to renounce his American citizenship.

It happened in Action Comics #900, in a story written by David S. Goyer. In it, Superman joins a group of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, creating an international incident. Iran claims he’s acting as an official representative of the U.S. government and calls it an act of war.

The story opens with Superman getting scolded by the president’s National Security Advisor. Superman accepts the rebuke and says he can no longer tolerate having his actions associated with the U.S. government. He declares his intention to appear before the U.N. and renounce his citizenship.

Superman reminds us that he’s an alien and should therefore look at the “bigger picture.” He says, “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy.”

This story can be interpreted in two ways. The first (most charitable) interpretation is that Superman is giving up his citizenship for our own good. He wants to protect America from the consequences of his actions. Viewed in this light, renouncing his citizenship can be seen as Superman acting in America’s best interests.

But most comic readers, and most people who hear the news, are not going to interpret it that way.

There is a very ugly subtext in this story. Superman is essentially “getting in trouble” for doing the right thing. The U.S. is ready to declare him an enemy of the state. When he first lands at Camp David, a Marine sniper is pointing a Kryptonite bullet at his head.

Kryptonite bullets aimed at Superman's head

This is not a pro-America story. People are reacting to it emotionally because Superman is a powerful symbol – a distinctly American symbol, carried forward into another time.

There are a lot of cultural forces in conflict here. I’m fascinated by this story because it’s a great example of how our culture has changed since Superman was introduced.

There are two big trends driving this story. First, my generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world. Comic book films are a billion-dollar industry, and modern comic books aren’t really aimed at kids anymore.

Superman vs. HitlerThe second trend is more cultural. Superman is a Modern Age hero, but we’re living in a postmodern century. Superman came from a world of sharp contrasts and clear lines, when good was good and evil was evil – a four-color hero making black and white choices.

But that world is long gone. Even in childhood, our national fairy tales have been replaced by lessons about moral ambiguity. Our kids are trained to accept all cultures equally, to consider all perspectives and feel sympathy for underdogs.

Our parents and grandparents were taught to worship America. Modern kids are trained to question America – to look for chinks in our national armor and focus on America’s mistakes.

But Superman wasn’t made for this world. He was made for an older, simpler world where America was always right and its enemies were always wrong.

Modern storytellers have done amazing work, redefining old-fashioned heroes for a postmodern world. The shelves are full of outstanding books based on this contrast, from Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” to Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis.”

But Goyer’s story doesn’t strike the same note with me. It feels ham-handed and coarse – turning Superman into a political creature in a way he was never meant to be.

Goyer’s presentation of Superman as an alien isn’t just a postmodern conceit, it’s a betrayal of the character. Superman’s story is an immigrant’s story – an old-fashioned immigrant story lifted straight from the ’20s and ’30s.

He came to America as a child and adopted our values. In those days, that’s what America was – a set of values that anyone could adopt. It didn’t matter where you came from; if you were willing to work hard, play fair and deal honorably with your fellow man, you could wear the label “American” and be part of something that was bigger than any national identity.

Superman was the ultimate symbol of this transformation, proof that anyone could come from tragedy and ascend to greatness. But now America has changed. Our perception of America has changed.

Modern children don’t see America as a set of values anymore. Today America is just another nation on the map — no better, and often much worse, than the others. Superman is an unambiguous symbol of good, and a good hero can’t represent an evil country.

That’s the statement I think Goyer is making in Action Comics 900. America isn’t good enough for Superman anymore. How can he stand for “Truth, justice and the American Way” when we can’t even define what the American Way is?

The concept of an American Way has been swept aside, replaced by a postmodern muddle of guilt and shame. I understand the temptation to throw stones at DC Comics, but I would rather use this as the springboard for a larger discussion.

Does superhero morality really belong in the adult world? Can we see America in context and still be proud of it? Can we admit our mistakes and still celebrate our virtues? Is patriotism a feeling we must “grow out of” as we study history?

I think there’s still room for an American Way in the 21st century. I think we can celebrate America without ignoring history, and I think there’s still room for patriotism in the American heart – not the blind, childish patriotism of our youth, but a mature, adult patriotism that keeps America in context and takes honest pride in what we’ve done.

Written by Not Jaffo

May 6, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in Best Of, Comics, Politics

Sympathy for the Monster – Why we’re all gonna miss Nick Denton

The New Yorker ran a profile of one of my favorite people on Monday and the whole Internet is talking about it.

No, that’s not true. A subset of media-obsessed digerati are talking about it, and I’m following about a hundred of them on Twitter. So I have seen a thousand posts about Nick Denton this week and I expect to see people quoting this article for years.

Ben McGrath has written an awesome piece here — a (relatively gentle) biography of a transformative media figure. It’s not a puff piece or a hit piece; it’s just journalism – an honest portrait of a guy who has taken the “mean and mysterious” thing about as far as it can go.

I’ve been following Denton for years, since Gawker was just a cheeky blog about New York. I always thought he was creating the future of journalism, but this piece has showed me something else. Gawker is still the future of journalism, but that future will never quite arrive.

Any minute now Gawker will experience a perfect nanosecond where they are the world standard for digital journalism; then, an eyeblink later, some other site will leave them behind.

Nick Denton is one of those people who seemed destined to change the world; but the world does not change for nice people. McGrath’s article makes him sound like a charming sociopath, like there’s an alternate Nick Denton out there somewhere, collecting victims in the back of a white van.

Denton is an agent of change, like a forest fire burning away dead wood. And if your reputation gets caught in the blaze, well, that’s just what fires do.

A random quote from Denton reminded me of something in my favorite book. A mentor figure in “The Diamond Age” is devoted to the cultivation of subversiveness in the young. He’s worried that the children in his society have become too comfortable, too complacent, too accepting of authority.

He wants to create an educational program that will encourage the development of entrepreneurs — a new class of subversives who will create a better world by tearing the old one down. Nick Denton is the ultimate subversive – a natural subversive who revels in the destruction of old media, even as he craves attention from the giants who came before.

The most surprising thing in this piece is the sense that it’s all getting away from him. Gawker has become so successful, it can’t really be about New York anymore. Denton created this empire by pandering to his audience, giving them exactly what they want and ruthlessly rejecting anything that didn’t bring in traffic.

But Gawker’s new national audience doesn’t really care about New York anymore. The media figures that Denton loves to provoke are just a bunch of “Old White Men” to them. Denton’s latest attack on New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman got 6,000 hits. Candid photos of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got 300,000.

Nick Denton is the Rupert Murdoch of digital media, but he can’t indulge personal obsessions on Gawker anymore. The readers are in charge now, and Nick is just along for the ride.

This is the real difference between old media and new media. People aren’t afraid of Nick Denton; they’re afraid of his readers. Old media is about what readers should want. New media is about what they actually want. And what they want is so raw, even Nick Denton sounds overwhelmed by it.

McGrath says, “Denton’s own writers live in constant dread of diminishing word counts and the inevitable dumbing down of the culture.”

“How things show up on Twitter, these days, matters more than the full text,” Denton says.

Nick Denton may be a monster, but he’s not the real enemy. He was just the first guy to see the shape of this, selling news to the invading army of Internet users, hungry for snark, gossip and celebrity flesh.

Denton’s successor won’t be a ruthless Brit with a soft spot for Spy Magazine. The next Nick Denton won’t even be human. The next generation of gossip sites will be soulless collections of algorithms and keywords, sucking in readers with laser-targeted bursts of text, precisely measured to match their attention spans.

I’m tipping my hat to the monster here because I remember what really made Gawker great; the one thing McGrath leaves out of his profile. Nick Denton built his empire on voices. Gawker conquered the Internet because Nick Denton has the best “ear” for writing talent that I have ever seen.

The profiles treat them like interchangeable parts, but Denton’s empire was built on the writing talents of people like Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk – writers who brought the snark but kept that tiny bit of humanity that let you know you were still reading a real person. That personal touch is the difference between news and blogging and it’s that personal touch that kept readers coming back.

Denton has abandoned that strategy now. He doesn’t even measure repeat visitors anymore. There’s no time to form a personal relationship with a writer; no time for any of that sentimental nonsense, in this brave new world of big ads and unique visitors.

Nick Denton is at the mercy of his readers, and now so are we, as the “golden age” of blogging makes way for a new kind of industrial revolution.

People love to hate Nick Denton, but we’re gonna miss him, when word counts shrink to character counts and writers are replaced by blade servers running Microsoft Snark.

Written by Not Jaffo

October 11, 2010 at 04:53

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