Kurt’s Humanism

I’ve been reading an account of the development of Humanism, but in Chapter 21 of Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut sums it up in just one paragraph:

Humanists try to behave decently and honourably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.

Resolved

My New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to write something original every day. This won’t mean writing in this blog each day – it could be an entry in my diary, or some fiction. I’m allowing myself all sorts of get-outs, so a (non-work-related) email counts, as does an interesting combination of two words.

In Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut classifies writers as either ‘swoopers’ or ‘bashers’, where swoopers write whole swathes of prose and then go back and edit, and bashers hone each sentence to completion before continuing. I realised that I fall into neither category because, although I think of myself as somebody who writes, I rarely do.

It’s been about six years since I wrote the last sentence that I was really proud of, while in San Francisco on business: ‘Californians in Alcatraz Swim Team T-shirts flap, then settle and perch to watch fishermen gut clams.’

Although I’m too lazy to search out the exact quote, Will Self once said that in order to do any writing at all, he had to become infinitely slothful and inert – then the writing would just happen as a reaction to the boredom he had created. After six years, I can no longer even fall back on this excuse.

Favourite tracks of 2010

Near-constant Spotify usage has meant that 2010 has, for me, been more about songs than albums. Or perhaps it’s not been much of a year for LPs? Either way: here’s the unordered list (although, for the record, my favourites are Run Overdrive, Late and Mandrill).

Oh, and here’s a Spotify playlist for almost all of these tracks.

Run Overdrive – Civil Civic

At a bit of a stretch, I can imagine this instrumental track as the theme to a parallel-world Top of the Pops. It’s infectious, uplifting and, for those inclined, presumably quite danceable – but it’s also a little twisted, in particular the rocket-propulsion synths that remind me of Xinlisupreme’s speaker-shredding tracks.

It’s also refreshing to hear a band comfortable without a vocalist (I really hope they don’t succumb). Come to think of it, I still haven’t had the opportunity to play this track at really high volume… I bet it’s a riot live. One of my very favourite tracks of the year, for sure.

New York is Killing Me – Gil Scott Heron

Did anyone else see this coming? ‘I’m New Here’ came from nowhere for me – Gil Scott Heron sounds bruised and weary – and good grief, his voice is incredible these days. The clicking, clapping backdrop to ‘New York is Killing Me’ leaves space for Heron’s mournful complaints. The remix featuring Nas works well, but for me Nas’ contributions dilute a terrifically sparse track.

Microlite – Trophy Wife

I’m predisposed to like Microlite as they’re an Oxford-based band, and put on a good night at the newly gig-centred Modern Art Oxford. While it’s early days and they struggled to find enough material to fill their set (a limp Joanna Newsom cover almost spoiling the fun), this track, their first single, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Late – Ergo Phizmiz
I’d previously only heard Ergo Phizmiz tracks in collaboration with People Like Us or via Ubuweb or Free Music Archive – but here it is, a genuine Phizmiz album, available in the shops. While on most of the album Ergo does a spot-on Viv Stanshall tribute, this track summons the spirit of Syd Barrett – all late-night meaderings and childish rhymes about Boris the florist.

Bright Lit Blue Skies – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

While ‘Before Today’ doesn’t contain a perfect track like ‘Every Night I Die at Miyagi’s’ (from ‘House Arrest’), this hits all the right notes for me. Much of 2010 has felt like the past, musically speaking, and when I hear ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’, I’m transported to family camping holidays in France, circa 1988. Although the definition of hauntology seems to shift, I understand it as music that evokes false memories – and even on first listen I could have sworn that this had been a hit in my childhood.

On top of all of that, it’s a terrific pop song.

Ancestors – Gonjasufi

I don’t know who Gonjasufi is, but I know that his voice is ace. Over a backing similar to some recent Doom tracks, Sumach Ecks’ whispers his hesitant rhymes in a style unlike any rapper I’ve heard before. Intriguingly, Wikipedia lists his occupation as ‘rapper, singer, disc jockey and yoga teacher’.

Uncertain Memory – Grass Widow

Nothing on ‘Past Time’ quite reaches the heights of Grass Widow’s self-titled debut album. But this track, with its surf guitars and Electrelane chorus, is a winner. What on earth is the time signature here? Like Deerhoof’s ‘My Heart’ remix, ‘Uncertain Memory’ is reluctant to let the vocals die away, cutting away bars in order to preserve the flow. Add in the grandeur of the strings parts in the second half, and this is a track that keeps on giving.

Peppermint – Spectrals

Another track influenced by Phil Spector, ‘Peppermint’ filters sunny 60s pop through a grimy filter (see The Drums’ ‘Summertime!’ EP).

It’s an effortlessly hummable pop tune, just brilliant.

Bellringer Blues – Grinderman

The first Grinderman album was a mixed bag, and it was hard to shake the sense of midlife crisis from Nick Cave and co. ‘Grinderman 2’ is another story. I’ve enjoyed this album more than anything from Nick Cave since ‘No More Shall We Part’ – partly due to Cave’s ballsy confidence, but largely down to the instrumental backing. The guitars crunch and stutter and, on ‘Bellringer Blues’, reverse and slow down, creating a drunken structure that the song can only just contain.

Cave described the album as “like stoner rock meets Sly Stone via Amon Düül”, and on this album returns to his fallen prophet persona. ‘Bellringer Blues’ features Gabriel and deals swiftly with the Bible: I read that book every page / And then I put it away / Said I don’t think so / It makes slaves of all of womenkind / And corpses of the men

But it’s the looping weirdness that does it for me. Welcome back, sort-of-Bad Seeds.

Hand Covers Bruise – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

‘The Social Network’ was one of my favourite films of the year, and the classy production values were exemplified in Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack. ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ plays over the opening sequence, immediately dispelling any notion that a film about Facebook might be in any way whimsical. Sparse and haunted, ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ is a statement of intent. Surely Trent Reznor will now be the soundtrack composer of choice?

All Packed Up – Idiot Glee

Kentucky’s Idiot Glee is my pick of bands to watch. James Friley dodges Animal Collective copyism by referring directly back to Pet Sounds, but with Four Tet-like folktronica backings. Short and sweet, I’ve had ‘All Packed Up’ on more or less constant rotation for months.

Lightning Fossil – Prince Rama

This could almost be a lost Incredible String Band track. The banshee wail becomes less of an accompaniment and begins to lead the rhythm, until the point that the song threatens to become operatic prog folk. That this all happens in less than four minutes is astounding. Also, it gives me a mental image of Kate Bush singing with those head-throwing muppets from Labyrinth.

FM Tan Sexy – El Guincho

A bit of a surprise turnaround, ‘Pop Negro’ all but ditches the calypso plundering of 2008’s ‘Alegranza!’ in favour of a curious mixture of retro disco styles. I can almost imagine ‘FM Tan Sexy’ as an academic study of synthy 80s pop – as with Ariel Pink, it feels familiar on the first listen. Halting and bombastic, ‘FM Tan Sexy’ didn’t necessarily match my expectations of the return of El Guincho, but is terrific in its own right.

None an Island – Lorn

Another act that I know little to nothing about.

I can totally picture Doom rapping over this track, but there’s a certain glory in its sparse grind, carried by the tweeting high-pitched organ riff.

Tightrope – Janelle Monae feat. Big Boi

Outkast only really work for me in the context of Singstar. This track has all the same bolshy fun, but Janelle Monae’s vocals act as a convincing ‘fuck off’ to Duffy and the like. This track also features Big Boi’s Jemaine Clement-esque rhyming of ‘NASDAQ’ and ‘asscrack’.

Four – STLS

Apparently Lisa Schonberg and sts perform live facing each other, each playing a full drum kit. I have to see that. Four is buried at the end of the ‘Drumcore’ EP, but is the pick of the lot: the two drum kits intially compete, then phase together momentarily, forming one huge beat. Alternately shambolic and tight, ‘Four’ fills me with unbridled enthusiasm every time I hear it.

Hotel – Ergo Phizmiz
Another track from ‘Things to Do and Make’. Sitting somewhere between the Bonzo Dog Band and Madness, this is a track that’ll always put a smile on my face. A simple song of complaint about a seedy hotel (‘There’s spiders on the floor here’) with a refrain played on a detuned guitar, it contains some Flight of the Conchord-worthy endearing lyrics, including: And the manager is manic / And he may well be Hispanic / He’s obsessed with the Titanic / And his morals are appalling.

Midnight Boycow – The Sexual Objects

Davy Henderson has cited the Modern Lovers as a template for The Sexual Objects’ album, ‘Cucumber’, although I’d say there’s a Kinks influence in the mix too. There’s something really endearing about these slightly filthy and ramshackle pop songs, and ‘Midnight Boycow’ (closely followed by ‘Merrie England’) is my pick of the bunch.

The Young People – Belbury Poly

My favourite of Ghost Box’s ‘Study Series’ EPs, this features crude synths and that ‘Look Around You’ sense of 1980s wonder.

It really feels that Ghost Box have lived up to expectations this year. And that cover artwork – just superb.

Hey Boy – The Magic Kids

Hopelessly naive indie whimsy, with a severe Brian Wilson hangup and none of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names’ self-deprecation.

It shouldn’t work so well, but it’s just lovely.

Go Do – Jónsi

Only slightly tarnished by featuring on a Dulux advert, this is a storming track from Sigur Ros vocalist, Jón Þór Birgisson.

It’s a track that somehow, in spite of all cynicism, feels genuinely other-worldly.

Marathon – Tennis

Tennis are super-cool, is that right? I fell a bit oblivious to any hype – but this track is just beautiful, a Spector girl group turning to Jackson 5 falsetto, filtered through wobbly FM. Also, just short enough to leave you wanting, immediately ready for repeat.

The Merry Barracks – Deerhoof

I’m allowed this one, because although it’ll be on next year’s album, Deerhoof Vs Evil, the band released it as a free download this year. And on the strength of this, I’m more excited about the new album than any album for an awfully long time. The loping electronic rhythms, Satomi Matsuzaki’s absentminded childish vocals… just magic.

Let’s Go Surfing – The Drums

A borderline choice given that this first appeared on the ‘Summertime!’ EP in 2009, but given that it also appeared on The Drums’ debut album this year, I’m going to allow myself this one. I’ve written about this song before, but I still love it, not least because Rose insists that the chorus is ‘Obama, I just wanna go surfing’.

Parrot in the Pie – Ergo Phizmiz

Am I labouring the point? Ergo Phizmiz’s album ‘Things to Do and Make’ is my album of the year, and picking only four highlights from it is still doing it a disservice.

Roadtrips would be drastically improved if only I could memorise the chorus to this track.

Gold – Darkstar

I’ve had Darkstar’s ‘North’ on rotation since it was released, and while debut track ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’ may still be the standout track after much reworking of the rest of the album, this cover of The Human League’s ‘You Remind Me of Gold’ is a real grower. I think I may have latched onto the album more because of the lack of new material from The Notwist: Darkstar’s skittery, spidery rhythms and two-note piano melodies scratch a similar itch – but I’m really glad that I’ve given ‘North’ the time to sink in.

Take Me Back – Aloe Blacc

Without even googling for reference, I imagine that Aloe Blacc’s similarity to Bill Withers and Al Green has been much discussed. But tracks like this are a reminder that there’s no technical reason why few artists are creating this kind of raw soul.

Too Much, Too Fast – Solex vs. Cristina Martinez & Jon Spencer

This really shouldn’t have worked. The appeal of Elisabeth Esselink’s tunes have always been the charity-shop ramshackleness, and having Jon Spencer widdling all over them ought to have been dreadful. But the album, ‘Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown!’ is just fantastic – and this track in particular is excellent fun.

Female Guitar Players Are The New Black – Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern’s awfully good at playing the guitar, isn’t she? Having said that, I’ve just looked up the lyrics to this song online, and while the track sounds like an orgiastic wrestling match, it appears to be about foxes and some wind near a bridge. So, perhaps a little disappointing, but Marnie’s ten-finger tapping and the frenetic drums still win me over, foxes or no foxes.

Sing – Four Tet

Other than his wonderful collaboration with Burial (‘Wolf Cub’ – one of my most-played tracks from last year) and the live performances with drummer Steve Reid, this is my favourite Four Tet song since ‘She Moves She’ way back in 2003. The bleeping melody gives Hebden plenty to monkey around with, and over the course of nearly seven minutes becomes hypnotic. To be frank, it could be twice as long and I it probably wouldn’t outstay its welcome.

Vietnam – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles do not need Alice Glass, and were far better before they had a vocalist. I’m not sure if this is against the common consensus. Or do people hate Crystal Castles after the hype train for the debut album? Either way, this track reduces Glass’ contribution to a series of sampled pitches, over a ‘Downward Spiral’ synth thump. I’m a total sucker for this kind of quasi-chiptune treatment of voices.

Mount Hood – Hauschka

We saw Hauschka play in St Michael’s Church in Oxford, freezing cold sitting on the pews, even wearing our winter coats. While much of his work is composed for a 12-piece orchestra, he played solo with a grand piano prepared with card, duct tape, leather, tambourines and ping-pong balls resting on the strings. With eyes closed it was almost impossible to imagine one man making so many rattling, clattering noises all at once, with the soft piano lines interspered. The most inspiring music I’ve heard live this year.

1977 – Ana Tijoux

This track makes me question what I actually get out of hiphop – I can only understand 10% of the words, but I still get a real kick out of this.

Does anyone else out there find great pleasure listening to rap in a language you don’t understand?

My Heart (Deerhoof remix) – Wildbirds and Peacedrums

Forget my earlier comment. I’m allowing myself this one anyway.

Last.fm tells me that this is the track I’ve listened to most this year, which sounds about right as there were a few days when I listened to little else.

Silver Sands – Stereolab

Stereolab’s career distilled into just over 10 minutes.

A track of two halves, this begins with sugar-tinged Krautrock before making an about-turn into Heatwave noodling territory.

Ambre – Nils Frahm
Uncomplicated and beautiful, this track buried into my brain a long while ago.

Music like this does rather make other, fussier productions seems a bit ridiculous. ‘Props’ to Thom Yorke for recommending this via Spotify.

Mandrill – Ergo Phizmiz

This is the tune that’s been stuck in my head more than any other this year. And it features easily the best collection of words from any song this year: This mandrill / he was mauvish in the chops / and delicious / I met him down the shops one day / And he said ‘How d’you do?

When the third verse begins, Ergo’s pals pull together to make the most joyous sound I’ve heard for such a long time. Seriously, this is going to sound over-the-top, but this ‘novelty’ song makes me well up with happiness.

Listen to the Spotify playlist containing most of these tracks.

My Heart – Deerhoof remix (Wildbirds & Peacedrums, 2009)

This track was sitting high in my list of favourite songs of 2010 (to be written up over the next month), until I realised that it was actually released late last year. I’d first heard the original Wildbirds & Peacedrums song as the soundtrack to a video at Oxford’s Modern Art Museum, in which a group of dancers formed a spontaneous dance routine in a warehouse and innercity areas. Unusually for me, I’d enjoyed the installation video so much I watched it all the way through twice.

It was only a few months ago that I heard ‘My Heart’ again, and it took me a while to place it. The original track is measured, bluesy and raw – although on further listening it seemed to take rather more time to cut to the chase than I’d remembered, and the second half seemed to lose itself a little. Enter Deerhoof’s remix, which leaves the vocal relatively untreated, emphasises guitar lines, but removes the coda and, in a pretty audacious move, actually removes whole bars in order to keep the vocal flowing with few instrumental gaps. This results in a far more poppy tune, despite the loping, woozy effect of the flexible time signatures. It’s by far the most accessible remix I’ve heard from Deerhoof, and turns a solid tune into something oddly hypnotic.

Listen to My Heart – Deerhoof remix on Soundcloud.

GetGlue is a foisting machine

In the last week or so I’ve been playing around with GetGlue, a new recommendation and social networking site that covers all media (i.e. film, TV, books, music, general topics). After my abortive research into film recommendation sites – and I really should update my earlier post, as I ended up leaving Jinni in favour of Criticker, which still has plenty of failings – this feels like it could become the site for me.

There are several main draws to GetGlue. The first seems trivial but is central – you gain virtual stickers for various activities – for example, rating 50 TV shows. These stickers show up on user profiles, working as boasts similar to Xbox achievements. There are also mentions of becoming applicable to receive ‘hard-copy’ stickers for free, but this doesn’t seem to be the big sell.

The other USP is that GetGlue distinguishes between recommendations and ‘checking in’ – i.e. letting users know what you’re currently watching, reading, listening to or thinking about. This feature’s obviously inspired heavily by Facebook updates, and indeed you can publish each comment directly on Facebook (or Twitter) – you could actually use GetGlue as a portal for social-media updates related to your likes or dislikes.

Finally, and the feature that’s got me hooked, is the ability for users to become ‘gurus’ of particular subjects, achieved through posting reviews and users voting. Guru status bestows the user with page-editing privileges and also the ability to hardwire particular recommendations to that page. The temptation to foist obscure but related books, films and music onto casual browsers is huge, I’m discovering. I’m disproportionately proud to be guru of 10 things, currently: The Last Man on Earth, The Drums’ Summertime!, Dungen, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Lonnie Donegan, The Research, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Electrelane’s The Power Out, The Hired Sportsmen and 13 & God.

As with my earlier comparison post, here are my thoughts about GetGlue, distilled:

Pros:

  • Impressively wide catalogue due to links with specialist websites e.g. Last.fm and imdb
  • Ability to add to index from selected sites
  • Covers music, film, books, topics
  • Clean, clear interface
  • Guru status offers Wikipedia-like editing rights, plus ability to make recommendations
  • Stickers encourage exploration and are strangely compelling
  • Distinction between ‘checking in’ and liking things
  • There’s a linked iphone app
  • Links to Facebook and Twitter

Wishlist:

  • User profiles by default show a Facebook-like ‘stream’ rather than a definitive overview of that person (favourites are more enlightening but are buried away)
  • Favourites can’t be split into media type, so can become messy and unrepresentative
  • Can’t reorder favourites or lists
  • ‘Saved’ items could be made into more useful ‘to read’/’to watch’ lists, so could become a reminder tool
  • The iphone app only allows you to ‘check in’ rather than rate favourite items
  • Recommended items are literal-minded and uninspired (e.g. if you like an album by an artist, you’ll like other albums by the same artist), and only relate to a single item rather than a combination of items
  • Inability to add extra comments to a page once you’ve reviewed – even if you’re the guru
  • ‘Check in’ seems different to ‘currently reading’ etc – it’d be nice if user profiles could show media that the user is currently immersed in…
  • Only three tiers of rating: ‘favourite’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ (perhaps, though, this is a ‘pro’, as it’s much lessy fussy than, say, Cricticker)
  • Can’t embed stream or favourites in non-Javascript blog (like this one)
  • Can’t easily browse recommendations – quite limited categories (e.g. 1970s)
  • This is entirely trivial, but I’d love to see the stickers feed into a meta-game or measureable tally of ‘progress’ – probably irrelevant for most people though!

You can see my GetGlue profile here.

Doctor Who – The Lack of Time

I’ve been resisting this.

Since its return in 2005 I’ve followed Doctor Who, on and off. Like many fans of the ‘classic’ series, I wasn’t too sure about the form the regenerated show had taken. First Christopher Eccleston’s wild pantomime and then Russell T. Davies’ increasingly sloppy series arc plotting kept me holding the show at arm’s length.

Again, like many fans of the original series, I had high hopes for this year’s sort-of reset, with highly dependable Steven Moffat in the script editor and executive producer role, and Matt Smith as the Doctor. And, I feel that we now have what we wanted. Series 5 has far more of the hallmarks of classic Doctor Who, it appears to be gradually unravelling RTD’s more questionable decisions, and I see in Matt Smith flashes of Patrick Troughton and even (he was my Doctor) Sylvester McCoy.

But it’ll never be quite right, and I think I now see what’s wrong.

At first I thought it was just the cliffhangers. Watching the recent 2-parter ‘The Time of Angels’ / ‘Flesh and Stone’ and last week’s ‘The Hungry Earth’, it’s obvious that Doctor Who revels in leaving the audience hanging. In classic serials, much of the time in each episode was spent engineering a tantalisingly open ending (often hastily resolved in the next episode, I’ll admit). It’s a huge shame that the showrunners allow themselves this luxury in just a few stories each series.

But more and more, I feel sure that the real obstacle is the 45-minute run time for each episode. Recent, much-hyped, episodes such as ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘Vampires of Venice’ have felt rushed beyond belief, allowing 20 minutes to set up the scenario, 15 minutes mid-crisis, then madly racing about to wrap up the story within the final 10 minutes.

Far more successful have been the 2-parters, for good reason: approximately 25 minutes set-up, 50 minutes crisis, 25 minutes resolution. The scripts have room to breathe and there’s time for character interaction rather than just plot-furthering.

Equally successful, in my opinion, are many of the ‘minor’ episodes in recent years. While perhaps now seen as a scene-setter for the full invasion at the end of Series 1, for me the most effective recent Dalek episode has been Rob Shearman’s punchy, lone-Dalek story, ‘Dalek’. ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Blink’, ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and ‘Amy’s Choice’ are all terrific and, I‘d say, some of the best standalone episodes that the new series has to offer. But they’re very unlike most classic Doctor Who serials: they play to the strengths of the time restriction. The number of stories in the past that restricted themselves to this time limit can be counted on one hand (I think): for example, ‘Black Orchid’, ‘The Edge of Destruction’ – both similarly curbing the ambition of the stories to fit the timescale. Conversely, many New-Who stories have appeared to cram a full 90-minute tale into half the time.

Russell T. Davies and now Steven Moffat have taken the approach of introducing series arc, presumably to counter the briefness of each episode, to allow a story to take shape over several episodes. RTD’s arcs were largely spurious – lazy signposting that led to surprise, deus ex machina conclusions; Steven Moffat’s first attempt may yet prove more coherent. As well as the series arcs, both script editors have ensured that characters, especially the Doctor’s companions, have matured and adapted to circumstances. Much of the discussion on fan forums and podcasts revolves around character relationships and revelations (‘Does Amy prefer the Doctor to Rory?’, ‘Is River Song really the Doctor’s wife?’), which is all well and good. Modern Doctor Who is excellent at exploring the mythology of the programme, and, increasingly, prodding at characters’ motivations, including the Doctor’s.

But it’s a shock to realise that what Doctor Who doesn’t do at all well any more is adventure.

Finding a Last.fm for films

I love lists. I love films. Surely there exists an online application that allows me to log the films I’ve watched, which then recommends other films I’d probably like?

Last.fm has fulfilled my nitpicky needs for music, and frankly, I would never keep a manual log of music I’ve listened to. However, I do keep a handwritten diary of films that I’ve watched (and I’m comfortable with the image you may have of me after that confession!). The downside of a handwritten record is that, in this age of remix culture and endless tweaking, I can’t analyze the list in any way. So begins my search for the ‘Last.fm for films’.

My criteria include:

  • a satisfying ratings feedback system (rating films must be fast and decisive)
  • ability to filter, export and display list data (to display on this blog)
  • a comprehensive list of film titles
  • a solid and reliable recommendation system

I’m not trying to be impartial – this is a search for the best tool for me alone. Extra points will be awarded for:

  • being UK-centred or at least not wholly USA-centric
  • inclusion of social features (finding people with similar tastes in order to ‘steal’ recommendations from their lists)

I tested each website using a similar technique – I added ratings for a bunch of films (most of the sites require 10 ratings before any recommendations are made). As far as possible, I rated the same films on each website (a mix of my favourites e.g. ‘Rear Window’, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’, ‘Bigger than Life’, a selection of non-English-language films e.g. ‘The American Friend’, ‘Il Divo’, and popular films that I disliked e.g. ‘Once’, ‘Revolutionary Road’). Judging the ease of adding the ratings and the resultant recommendations informed the bulk of these conclusions.

Click ‘Read more’ below to read the full reviews of each of the websites.

Continue reading Finding a Last.fm for films

Tim Major – writer & editor

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