July 31, 2021

Making an “on-air” light for my home office

The final product - an "on air" light when I'm in a meeting.

When my wife and I started working from home in March 2020 we settled into a routine where she’d work downstairs and I’d be in the bedroom upstairs. Since I'm on the bedroom our cat Angie is usually sitting on the bed right behind me - in full view of my webcam. This is great for paying the cat tax during meetings, but not so great when my wife wants to come give Angie some pets and I happen to be on a video call. After a few accidental meeting interruptions I knew there had to be a way to make it easier for her to know when the coast was clear for a cat visit - something like the "on-air" lights used in recording studios.

Our senior cat Angie enjoying some sunlight on the bed.

We already had a few Hue light bulbs in the house, so my first idea was to just turn a light on whenever I went into a meeting. I could do this pretty easily from my phone or Google Assistant, but I usually forgot to change the light which defeated the purpose.

Luckily I’d been exploring some DIY home automation tools and had bought a Raspberry Pi to try out Home Assistant, an open source home automation solution that can be run locally on your own WiFi (I wrote a bit about Home Assistant in Debugging the smart home) . It can run on a bunch of different hardware, but I wanted to keep things simple so I bought a Raspberry Pi starter kit from CanaKit and followed Home Assistant’s instructions to get things set up. With Home Assistant you don't even need to already have Hue lights. You can use any light the 100+ lights Home Assistant supports or even just smart outlet with a light plugged into it.

Here’s a quick walkthrough of my setup:

What I used

The steps

The first 3 steps involve setting up the Raspberry Pi and Home Assistant. I followed along with the online documentation for each step and will link it below. If you've already got it configured, skip to Step 4 to build out the automation.

Setting up Home Assistant

1. Set up Home Assistant on the Raspberry Pi

I followed the excellent guide on Home Assistant’s website with no issues. I chose to do the Home Assistant Operating System installation as recommended on their website.

2. Add the Hue integration in Home Assistant

Again Home Assistant’s excellent documentation makes this super simple. There’s even a single click button to add the integration from the site: https://www.home-assistant.io/integrations/hue/

3. Install the macOS (or Windows) Home Assistant Companion App

Direct link: https://github.com/home-assistant/iOS/releases/tag/release/2021.7/2021.202

Creating the Automation

Creating the actual automation is the only part not covered by Home Assistant’s documentation so I’ll walk through it in detail. We're going to create a scene that tells Home Assistant which lights to turn on, what color to make them, and how bright to set them. We'll then create an automation that tells Home Assistant to trigger that scene when the computer camera turns on and an automation to turn off the lights when your camera turns off.

1. Create a scene for your lights

  • Navigate to Configuration > Scenes > Add Scene in Home Assistant.
  • Name your scene and choose your light(s) from the devices list
  • Click the lightbulb to choose your brightness and color/temperature
  • Save your scene

2. Create your "on air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned On”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Skip conditions and leave as is
  • Choose Activate scene for your Action type and select the scene we made in step 4
  • Save your automation

4. Create your "off air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned Off”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Choose Device for your Action type and select your light
  • Choose Turn Off for the action.
  • Save your automation.

Now you’re good to go! If you set this up, run into issues, or have an interesting automation I’d love to hear about it on Twitter.

December 21, 2016

Disney Channel’s AI is Better Than Yours

One of my favorite movies growing up was Disney Channel’s Smart House. Pat, the Smart House AI, could play the best music, make you a better dancer, and even kick out the bully when he started causing trouble at the party she organized for the kids without them even asking!

Today’s voice activated "assistants" like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa have been on the market for years now, but still seem to fall short of capturing the imagination like the voice-activated assistants inhabiting cultural masterpieces like Smart House and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Serving more as voice-controlled UI translators, today’s assistants match trigger words and phrases to fairly specific actions. Sometimes machine learning helps make these queries more flexible, but in the end we’re still asking a device to complete an action.

Read more

October 16, 2016

Daily UI #003

Over the past week I've started taking part in the Daily UI design challenge to showcase and improve on my design skills contained in the rest of my portfolio. Day 3 was a particularly fun challenge as it opened up the prompt to any landing page. I've never designed with video before, so I wanted to experiment with scenic imagery showcasing an elegant experience. I landed on the concept of creating a website for a helicopter tour company, mostly so I could use this beautiful footage.

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September 12, 2016

Moving to San Francisco

I've lived in Boston almost my entire life. I was born in the city, went to public school in my hometown and then studied at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, only 15 miles from home (perfectly in line with data from the NYTimes).

I'd entertained the thought of moving away to live somewhere new, but it's never been a major priority. During college I struggled with this feeling of loving my home and my city, but also wondering if maybe I was missing out by not being somewhere new. Objectively Boston is a great place, a city where thousands of people come to study, many of whom stay after graduating. But there was always a question hanging in the air - is it really this great or is it just because it's what I know?

Read more

August 16, 2012

Shoe Shining and the Lost Art of Maintenance

My shoe shining kit just arrived from Amazon. Until this afternoon I had never shined a pair of shoes in my life. I've worn plenty of shoes, but shining them never seemed like something that was worth the time or effort. Sure, shoes look nice when they're bright and shiny, but they just end up getting dirty again, so why bother. Besides getting dirty and scuffed up, shoes ultimately fall apart from use.

I've also never made my bed (except for a three day stint in the second semester of my senior year of college). Sure I make it when I change my sheets and going to sleep tucked into a fresh, well-made bed is one of the best feelings in the world, but the purpose of every day bed-making always eluded me. Why take the time to tuck everything in sleeping Will was just going to pull it all out again?

Monday night, as I returned home to my awesome new apartment after a weekend away, I was greeted by an incredibly un-awesome sight - a virtual landfill of clothes, boxes, and assorted trinkets scattered throughout my bedroom. How had this happened? It couldn't have been that messy when I left.

It was.

The age old art of maintenance has seemed to disappear in today's fast-paced, always connected world. Who has the time to shine their shoes and make their bed when the whole wide world is beckoning us at every moment. I've noticed my attention span shrinking over the past few years and so far while writing this blog post I've opened Safari three times just to check that the Internet was still there.

Clearly I'm still figuring out the whole aspect of maintaining things in my life. While there are plenty of tools in place for maintaining relationships, finances, and blog posts (which I've also struggled with) these quantified tools have yet to make it to our physical world. We're forced to rely on ourselves to make our beds, shine our shoes, and clean up our rooms. Unfortunately, we hate the mundane and live for the dopamine packets provided by constant interaction.

So why open up the black hole that has been my attempt to blog? To remind myself of the importance of maintenance and the power of actual putting thoughts into permanent, actionable statements. The hardest part is facing the reality of an un-maintained life. It's easy to ignore the treadmill waiting for me and push it off until tomorrow. The longer we postpone something, the easier it becomes. Eventually the idea of maintaining said habit becomes much more frightening than the small, consistent commitment of going through with it.

Tomorrow at 5:45 am is the moment of truth. Do I wake up, stretch, exercise, and make my bed? Or snooze through the daily maintenance I should be performing?

February 8, 2012

Accidental Existentialism in Food Trucks

I always feel a little lost during the first few weeks back on campus after break. There's that thing called homework that I'd tried to forget about and the strange transformation in my schedule that fills up all my free time with poorly timed blocks of class. But while all this is par for the course, my usual adjustment period was recently complicated by the mysterious white truck lurking on Tufts grounds.

I first noticed this unmarked white vehicle parked on Packard while living off campus over break. As I walked passed it, I would try to determine it's purpose, but it would always stare silently back at me, taunting me in its unwillingness to reveal its secrets. Thoughts and questions about this white leviathan haunted my dreams for days, but as the semester began to approach, the elusive beast faded from my mind. Would it were so easy.

On the first Monday of classes, I left wind ensemble rehearsal with a spring in my step. Thrilled to be making music once more, I felt as if the world were at my fingertips and was more than ready to tackle the three hour night class looming before me. And then I saw it. The white truck was waiting for me across from Anderson as if it knew I would have to pass by on my way to class. It's side was open and two men were operating from within, a line of students forming along the back. What kind of seedy business were they up to? I had to know.

I approached at a brisk walk, not wanting the wily white truck to know I was onto it. I gazed within to see beautiful columns of meat being carved into what I could only assume were delicious sandwiches of some sort. I resisted temptation and walked on. This scenario would repeat itself again on Wednesday and once more I chose not to stop despite the call of the white food truck. My curiosity was too strong, however, so I ventured back during our ten minute break, only to find it silently sitting in the dark once more, waiting patiently for our paths to cross some point in the future.

For weeks this white truck has piqued my curiosity and recently tempted my taste buds, and still I've yet to try it. Always in a rush to class, I've passed it, looking longingly at the meats taunting me from behind the open window. How is it that I've been too busy to stop and try something I so desperately want?

Here I am, entering my last semester at Tufts and I'm too worried about getting to class a few minutes early to stop and treat my tastebuds to a new experience. This wasn't originally supposed to be existential or particularly meaningful, I was just asked to throw something together as filler for the opinions section and the food truck was suggested as a possible topic. I knew that my personal history with the food truck could possibly be a starting point, but now that I've double checked the definition of existentialism with Wikipedia, it seems I ended up writing an existential piece anyway.

So where does that leave us? While the mystery of the mysterious white truck has been nearly brought to a close (I plan to visit it for lunch tomorrow), there are still many more journeys out there to be taken and mysterious white trucks to investigate. Four years goes by incredibly fast and with May growing closer every day, that five minute early arrival to class seems less and less important, especially when compared to a warm, delicious gyro full of freshly carved meat from the existential food truck.


November 9, 2011

The Speech UI Revolution

With Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4S last month, the paradigm of human-computer interaction saw what will become the largest shift since the original iPhone brought capacitive touch screens to the masses. In a single decade we have gone from typing on a set of static keys on a phone, to interacting with an adaptive touch screen display, to now being able to have a conversation with our phone. This transition reflects the desire of people to interact with technology as we do with each other. Touch brought our gadgets and technology out of the realm of plastic devices into objects of desire with emotional value. We bring our smart phones everywhere, sleep with them in our beds at night, and caress their screens until they give us what we want.

The touch revolution helped make interactions with technology more intuitive, more responsive, and much more powerful. A single pane of glass with an adaptive user interface allows developers and designers to create a custom environment for each situation the user is in, so that content can become the focus of applications instead of menu placement and UI design. Users no longer have to worry about where the ‘copy and paste’ command is in the new MS Office ribbon, and instead can focus on making their creations look, read, and feel the way they want them to. This transformation also allows designers to create incredible experiences that replicate real-world instruments, allow the user to simply navigate to an address by tapping on a map, and rotate an image by manipulating as they would an actual photograph. So if touch is so great, why did I say that the introduction of Siri will change the way we interact with technology?

For as long as we’ve had computers, we’ve dreamed of interacting with them as we do with each other, through conversation. One needs only to look at science fiction classics like Star Wars and of course the infamous Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Conversation, whether verbal, textual, or ultimately through body language, is how we are able to communicate most effectively. While voice-to-text technology has existed in rudimentary forms since the 50′s, Siri is the first “digital assistant” to have an actual conversation with you. A conversational interaction is far more powerful than existing speech recognition command interfaces like those found in Google’s Android or Vlingo’s smartphone software. Instead of issuing a keyword, “navigate to”, and a search term, “Starbucks”, the user can now converse with the computer to narrow results, select the best option, and then act upon the information.

With computers, smartphones, and tablets now shipping with much more hardware processing power than the average user will need, designers and developers can focus on changing the interaction paradigm and desktop metaphor we’ve adjusted to over the last few decades. In a fantastic interview with The Verge, Android designer Matias Duarte talks about designing interfaces that reflect the uses and realities of technology, instead of building on archaic metaphors that no longer apply. Touch was the first milestone in enabling this UI revolution, but speech recognition will take us even further. With speech, our technology begins to have a “soul”, a spirit, an attitude even. Siri’s designers understood this and instead of simply building call and response into the engine, they gave Siri attitude, writing custom responses that created a personality for the machine. As computer synthesized voices become more natural and speech recognition algorithms get better at detecting the meaning behind natural language, the interactions we have with technology will continue to blend the lines between human-human interaction and human-computer interaction.

So where does this leave us? Children being born now will never know a world where speaking to your computer labeled you as a geek who didn’t get out enough. Interacting with computers will continue to become more and more natural as speech recognition matures and computers become better at reading facial expressions and body language. While Minority Report set what has become the gold standard for futuristic user interfaces, the reality is far simpler. Complex hand-waving and gestural cues will become obsolete as we talk to and interact with technology as we would with our friends. This may seem like a far-off vision of the future, but as Apple demonstrated with their “Knowledge Navigator” tablet concept in 1987, technology that seems as far out as flying cars can be attained in mere decades. Touch helped us connect with our devices and speech recognition will help us build relationships with them, bringing our science fiction dreams ever more close to reality.

November 6, 2011

Interview with Tufts Gordon Institute

This past summer the Gordon Institute at Tufts sponsored my internship with 1Minute40Seconds, a startup founded by alum Blade Kotelly and based in Cambridge. Three of the recipients were interviewed to highlight their experiences. For me, working at a startup, applying the skills I've acquired throughout my life, and embedding myself in the entrepreneurial scene in and around Boston was a fantastic, transformative experience. Below is a snippet from the interview.


William Vaughan currently interns for 1Minute40Seconds, a technology company founded by Blade Kotelly, E95. Vaughan applies his industrial psychology coursework to make Kotelly's product as user-friendly and intuitive as possible.
"I've really been able to incorporate all those things I've learned in class about how people think into an actual design," Vaughan said. "The biggest thing I've learned is how to put knowledge into the real word—actually working on a product instead of a project for class. I'm learning how to plan on a project, implement it, consult with my team, and create a presentation that shows where we are and how much farther we have to go."


See the rest of my interview and those of the other students here.

November 1, 2011


Most places won’t serve this to you for a few very good reasons,” Will said to me as he delicately placed a raw egg yolk into a small shooter glass on the bar before me, sliding it along a spoon into the awaiting layered liqueurs. As instructed, I sipped on the egg whites and bitters that adorned the top of the drink, drank the next layer of brandy to steel myself, and, with one swift motion, took the remaining Curaçao and egg yolk into my mouth. There was no going back. Time to drink.

Drink. So many connotations for such a small word. I drink orange juice in the morning, drink a glass of red wine at night, drink beer at frat parties, and drink shots at pregames, but the best Drink is the bar. With no sign outdoors, no marker on the entrance, and only a tiny black sign at the bottom of the staircase to remind the regulars, Drink is a bar that is just as elusive as the Knickebein I was about to consume. Winner of the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, a national bar competition held annually in New Orleans, Drink has created a name for itself and is quickly becoming the go-to bar for industry professionals visiting Boston.

As a part of Barbara Lynch’s family of incredible Boston restaurants, Drink breaks some of the most standard rules in the traditional bar handbook. Located beneath another one of Lynch’s restaurants, Sportello, Drink hearkens back to the days of speakeasies and secret retreats from a chaotic world. You descend the stairs and proceed through a door into a world where every aspect of the bar is coordinated to create the perfect cocktail experience. Solid black counters line the brick walls and the three U-shaped bars extend outward beneath the windows looking up onto the sidewalk above. Behind the bar lie not rows upon rows of various alcohols, but glass bowls of lemons, limes, and oranges, and the necessary tools to turn separate ingredients into one amazing cocktail.

Entering Drink is like falling down the rabbit’s hole. Every turn and twist sends you into a new adventure of alcoholic exploration.  It’s almost like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books; you begin your evening’s experience by telling the bartender your favorite alcohols or flavors, and each of the knowledgeable bartenders is able to transform your unsure words into the perfect drink you never knew you loved. I’ve brought friends who have started by the night by requesting “something that tastes like rainbows and unicorns” and others who have simply asked for an Old Fashioned. After a few questions about whether you like things sweet or bitter, fruity or savory, stirred or shaken, Drink’s specialists are off to create a unique cocktail just for you.

This interaction between the bartender and the customer is truly what sets Drink apart from most bars and restaurants in Boston. Instead of fighting your way to the front of the bar only to yell out, “RUM AND COKE!” at the top of your lungs, you are treated like a friend who is stopping by to hang out for the evening. A simple folded white cloth and a glass of water mark your place at the bar while your bartender pulls the necessary ingredients from beneath the bar and begins to work his magic.

While I’ve been referring to the staff at Drink as bartenders, they would more aptly be described as mixologists. Creating drinks is as much an art form as it as a profession, and the mixologists at Drink demonstrate this well, perfecting the traditional cocktails such as Daiquiris or Manhattans with love, while experimenting at an individual level with each and every order. A well-made cocktail is delicious, but nothing beats the experience of sitting in a dimly lit underground Mecca of mixology, watching some of the best bartenders in the world create your personalized drink right before your very eyes.

One night, after starting with a delicious St. Germaine cocktail followed by a cucumber-infused gin drink, my friend and I were itching to try something a bit more adventurous. Before us, Will, the bartender, had just placed half an eggshell into a glass and was carefully sliding the yolk into it, saving it to add to the drink he was making. He added a few liqueurs to a shooter and then slid the egg in, placing it before the man sitting to our right. Amazed, we looked on in disbelief as he sipped the drink and contemplated the yellow yolk staring back at him. The yolk won, and the man refused the rest of the drink.

My friend and I looked at each other, and, without a single word, we accepted the challenge. We would conquer the egg yolk drink and live with whatever consequences we would have to face. So there we were, eyes wide with a combination of fear and exhilaration, as we took the raw yolk into our mouths, broke it with our tongues, and drank.

As published in the Tufts Observer

October 3, 2011

All About the Pitch

This week I'm starting a new category called "Lesson Learned" to catalogue some of the important and probably obvious lessons I've learned recently and throughout my life. While I hope that some people might benefit from these posts, their true intent is to create a mental backup for me in case I forget them!

Back in January I was taking a class called Entrepreneurship and Business Planning, where we worked in teams to create a business idea and build out the supporting documentation and research, from market analysis to presenting a fully developed business plan in front of successful entrepreneurs and investors. Once our teams had formed, we each had to come up with some business ideas, share them with the group, and pitch the best two to the class to decide which business we would develop throughout the semester. Having come up with a few ideas over the past few years, some ridiculous, others only slightly crazy, I was excited to pitch these ideas and hopefully build them out into something I could eventually turn into a business. I shared a few of my ideas with a group and one was chosen to be presented in class.

And then I messed up.

While the idea was clear to me, I didn't spend enough time thinking it over and making it simple for everyone else to understand. When I stood up in front of the class I blundered through a short, awkward presentation trying to unsuccessfully distill the business idea into a short pitch everyone would understand. I babbled something about a foursquare for living a green life, but most of the class had no idea what foursquare was and if they did they really weren't any better off. I think I received one, maybe two votes, with the professor initially forgetting to add mine to the list of possible ventures when polling the students.

My fatal flaw was assuming that it's easy to explain something you're familiar with in a short amount of time to people who have no idea what you're talking about. It seems obvious, but somehow I'd missed it until that day. Giving presentations and improvising talks have always been things I'm pretty good at, but when your time to talk is reduced to 60 seconds, every single word counts and should be chosen wisely. You cannot be over prepared for a presentation, particularly when you have under a minute to convince the audience that your idea is the best.


So what was my idea and how should I have approached the pitch? My basic idea was to create a social game around making environmentally friendly choices in the real world. Google Power-Meter and Microsoft Hohm had just launched and I felt that the general consumer was beginning to become more environmentally conscious. These tools for measuring power usage, combined with the inclusion of MPG measurements in current hybrids, could create a large amount of data around a user's energy consumption. I felt that this could create an opportunity where a social platform could tie in this data and create a game around being efficient. Beating the average Prius mileage could gain you points or badges to be used in purchasing sponsored green products for example. While the idea isn't horrible (at least in my mind) it wasn't necessarily complete nor was it the right time for something like this. As we've seen, foursquare usage has plateaued and both Google and Microsoft have shut down their energy monitoring products. In a world where social networks are a dime a dozen and systems that monitor energy use are still not well-integrated and expensive (business opportunity?), my idea may not have been the best one.

But I should've been able to convince the class anyway.

When preparing for the pitch, I should have detailed all the aspects of the idea on paper and sorted them into categories such as revenue opportunities, market needs they addressed, and features that would draw users. By breaking down the idea, I would have been able to understand what was and was not compelling about it. The non-compelling aspects could be pushed aside and left to deal with later, while the best aspects of the business would be featured in my one minute pitch. Presenting the problem (concern for the environment without direct positive reinforcement) and then the solution (a social game that rewards you for being green) would have been a great way to pitch to the class in just 30 seconds, well below the one minute marker.

Think carefully about your idea, reduce it until every single word has importance, rehearse your delivery, and you will amaze the audience. Every. Single. Time.

September 27, 2011

Dropping Focus


Over the past few days I've been struggling with the decision of whether or not to drop my Finance class. While the class was interesting, informative, and definitely helpful for my future, it was adding a lot of work to my limited amount of time that is already divided among four other classes, work study, my position at 1minute40seconds, and multiple clubs on campus. Then there's also the issue of having "Will" time to write things like this, take photographs, play music, and generally take part in the world around me. But at what point does it become necessary to consider dropping a class instead of plowing ahead and making things work? I always have a hard time quitting things that I've signed up for, feeling as though it's shirking my responsibility. Dropping a class always feels the same way and ultimately figuring out the decision causes a lot of stress.

As I was reaching a relative state of anxiety trying to figure out what the best decision for my future self would be, I came to the important realization that my future self will be able to handle whatever gets thrown at him just as I am able to today. The biggest difference between the unknowns of the future and the knowns of the present is that I am currently able to have a modicum control over the stressors in my life. Once I leave college behind me in May this opportunity will likely be less available to me. As a senior who has always taken more classes than necessary and has taken required classes as soon as possible I have a bit of leeway in determining how I spend my senior year. I realized that I could spend the year taking as many classes as possible while filling my schedule with classes and work so that 12 hour days sans breaks became the norm (as it had been so far this semester), or I could lighten my credit load a bit and participate more in some of the incredible opportunities only offered while in school.

Being at college offers you the incredible opportunity to participate in clubs and organizations of any kind imaginable, which I've done over the past three years. I've played in the Tufts Pep Band and the Wind Ensemble, danced on the ballroom team, and become president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), but these activities have always come second to classes and been second class citizens. Now with the newfound responsibilities of holding office in HFES, I've opened my mind to the simple thought that college is more than learning in classes and networking, it's a place to explore and play around with different clubs, responsibilities, and roles. While this is something I've always held to be true, I don't think now that I ever truly believed it before. Now I do.

My generation has been taught to do as many things as possible as well as we can. This has been great for me because I'm interested in so many different subject areas, but it keeps us from learning one of the most important aspects of success: focus. As the Twitter and Facebook generation, we've become used to constant interruption from notifications and being a pinball bumped around from track practice to the after class meeting, saxophone lessons, checking out the latest episode of Archer, and doing homework from five different classes. We don't know how to focus. When I'm in class I'm constantly responding to emails for other classes or groups, and while at group meetings I'm figuring out how to tackle my first set of homework problems. Maybe this is only a problem for me, but I find it hard to agree.

So what's the solution? Sacrifice. But not personal sacrifice. We don't have to sacrifice ourselves, our interests, our unique beliefs that mark us as individuals, but we have to sacrifice the idea of being able to do everything for everyone. Decisions have to be made and sometimes we have to trim the fat out of our lives. This could be choosing classes over activities as I have done in the past, letting a harmful friendship fade, or dropping a class that can be taken again the following semester. The key is to understand where you are and what is valuable to you. I made my decision and while the future me might have to struggle through some financial documents while starting a company, the present me is making sure he'll have a senior year to look back on and remember with happy recollection of activities and events that hopefully helped make him into the man he is.

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