Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

8/15/2005

Adventures in Bureaucracy: An Appropriately Unwieldy Post

Or, How To (Hopefully) Get The Government Benefits You’re Entitled To In 100 Painful Steps.

First, a preamble, because reading this post will still be shorter than living it: When I was little, I was jealous of all of my friends whose parents had useful, easy-to-describe jobs, like doctor or teacher or dentist. One day in junior kindergarten, we had to draw pictures of what our mommies and daddies did at work, and our teachers then annotated the drawings as we dictated. I don’t remember what I drew for my dad (Mom, pregnant at the time, stayed at home with me) - I was four years old, so I assume that one picture of mine was more or less indistinguishable from the next - but the caption has been preserved in the family archives: “My daddy,” I explained, “plays on the computer and draws on the marker board.”

Umpteen years later, that’s still more or less the impression that I have of my father’s work, with one important modification: my daddy not only plays on the computer and draws on the marker board, he also meets with Important People in Employment Insurance. Which, at this point in my life, is a hell of a lot more useful than doctor or teacher or dentist. It means that my daddy, unlike yours, has inside dirt on the Employment Insurance department, such as “you fill everything out online but it’s all stored on paper”, “they don’t actually have a national system”, and “they tried to overhaul the system years ago, at a cost of six hundred million dollars, and it didn’t work. Now they’re trying to upgrade so they’re living somewhat less in the past.” Which, come to think of it, is not so useful, because anyone who’s ever dealt with EI could probably figure as much out themselves.

My mom, also not a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer, also has a job that has unexpectedly proven useful as of late. Mom’s job requires her to deal with disability and unemployment claims, and upon hearing that after two and a half months, I still hadn’t seen a dime, she knew exactly what I needed to do: “If you don’t get this one sorted out, call your MP,” she advised. “It’ll work. I don’t like to abuse that avenue, but it’s been long enough and you’ve tried everything else.”

I agreed to do it if it came to that, but I couldn’t imagine that being anything other than an exercise in frustration: I’d met said MP during the all-candidates debate last year, and he wowed me with his meticulously-honed ability to deflect every question directed at him by quoting irrelevancies from the Red Book. I figured a call to my MP would go something like this:

Me: Hi, I applied for EI eleven weeks ago. I haven’t seen any money yet, and my file has been frozen. Everyone I talk to tells me to talk to someone else, and as far as I can tell, there’s been no progress on my case.

The Honourable Mr. So-and-So: The Liberal Government is committed to streamlining the Employment Insurance application process. Under our initiative, the government has introduced computers to Employment Insurance offices across the country. By 2008, we will have invested $10,000,000 in hiring seven new staff who can program them to review your application instead of sending it into a black hole.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. What it did come to was this:

Claiming Employment Insurance Benefits: A Saga In N Parts, For N Large

April, 2005 - contract at Island U expires. Island U efficiently sends a Record of Employment to my permanent address. Permanent address is parents’ home, as I have moved ten times in as many years.

May, 2005 - I fill out massive online Employment Insurance form, putting my parents’ address as my permanent address. Upon finishing, the EI website tells me to spend the next four weeks waiting for my claim to be processed.

June, 2005 - Computer dies. Meanwhile, back East, letter from EI arrives at parents’ house, directing me to fill out my first three reports online. I fill out the first, at the local library. EI website thanks me for the report. I try to fill out the second, and this time, the EI website isn’t so happy about that state of affairs, and orders me to call their 1-800 number.

Dutifully, I call the 1-800 number, and get passed along to four different EI workers until I get someone who knows what’s going on. This EI worker is a computer-savvy one, who knows that the online report-filing system traces IPs and figured out that I was filing my reports from BC, not from out East. Bad Moebius Stripper! No benefits for you! I object, saying that I’ve been looking for work in BC for months. Helpful EI worker helpfully tells me that she will transfer my file to BC, and that I will be notified four weeks later, when the file has been successfully transferred. After receiving this notification, I should present myself to the local (BC) EI office with proof that I have been actively seeking employment in this province. “In other words,” she paraphrases, “for now you just need to hurry up and wait.”

July, 2005 - I hurry up and wait, all the while continuing to be available for suitable employment. Nothing happens. At the end of the month, I figure that even accounting for our notoriously slow postal service, it’s been too long since I’ve heard from the EI folks, so I present myself at the local office and explain my entire story to the woman at the counter, to the consternation of the half-dozen people standing behind me in line. The woman at the counter nods sympathetically, and at the end of my five-minute spiel, she takes action: she picks up a sheet of paper from the desk, highlights a 1-800 number on it, and instructs me to phone it.

August, 2005 - I phone the 1-800 number, and tell my entire story again, intending to add the part about how I stopped at the office to talk to a human being and was directed to the hotline. The operator looks up my file, putting me on hold twice in the process. “Ah,” she says finally. “There’s been a disentitlement placed on your file.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were listed as living out East, but our records indicated that you were actually in BC, and hence not seeking employment out East, so we’ve put a block on your file.”

“I had my file transferred,” I explain, AGAIN, “because I was never actually living out East. The reason I had my file transferred was because I have been actively seeking employment in BC all along, JUST LIKE I AM SUPPOSED TO.”

Without missing a beat, the operator says, “Well, then, in that case you’ll have to visit your local office in person, and explain that to them.”

“I did,” I reply. “They told me to phone this number.”

At which point, the stars align, or something like that, because GLORY BE, the operator says, “I’m going to put you on hold and contact a senior manager about this.”

Muzak plays. A few minutes later, the operator, invigorated, declares, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to send a notice to your local office instructing them to remove the disentitlement. This will take up to two days. I will also tell them that you will be visiting them in person. Bring with you a list of job applications you’ve sent out, interviews, and so forth. They will then review that, and when they see that the disentitlement has been removed, they will be able reactivate your file.”

I thank her.

Three days later (two days to remove the block + margin of error) I arrive back at the local office, and present myself, along with my list-o-job-apps to the woman at the counter, who’s the same woman who had told me to call the 1-800 number a few days earlier. I give her the page. She takes my SIN number, and sends me on my way.

“When should I expect to see some money?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that,” she chirps, and produces an info sheet from her desk. She highlights a 1-800 number. “You’ll have to call this number.”

“When?”

“You can call them now. There are phones by the back wall, with direct lines to the BC office.”

(Reread that part: There are phones in the local Employment Insurance office that connect you to the national Employment Insurance office. This is an institution that actively embraces its inefficiency.)

“They know stuff about my file that you don’t know, having just dealt with me in person?”

“Yes, they have that information. We just added an extra phone, for your convenience.”

I trot over to the convenient new phone, pick it up, request a human being, and tell my entire story AGAIN. The operator is confused. “I wouldn’t have that information. You’ll have to visit your local office -”

“Well, that’s convenient,” I reply. “I’m at my local office right now!”

Back to the counter, to the woman with the 1-800 fetish. “They sent me back here.”

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll put you in line to meet with someone. There’s a 20-minute wait.”

Fine.

Again the stars align, and exactly twenty minutes later I’m talking to this really patient man whom they surely hired by accident, because he’s so very good at his job that I am completely taken aback. For one, I don’t have to tell him my story, because he’s been spending the last ten minutes reading it. I ask him when I can expect to see some money.

“Well,” he says, “first we have to remove the disentitlement from your claim. From there it will be two business days.”

“The person I spoke to on the phone said that it would take two business days from the time I phoned to remove the disentitlement, and that I should hand in my list of job applications after that.”

He shakes his head. “Oh, no. We can’t remove a disentitlement until after you come in with your account of job applications. It will be two business days. Who told you otherwise?”

I provide a name.

He continues: “I see that you filed the original claim over ten weeks ago, so you’ll be wanting retroactive benefits. Did you already fill in that form? I couldn’t find it at the front desk.”

I reply that I didn’t know that there existed such a form, and that I thought that the retroactive benefits went without saying when I told Ms. 1-800 at the front desk that I’d filed the original claim ten weeks earlier.

“Hmm,” he says, “she should have given you the form to fill out. I’ll get one for you now.”

Translation: Ms. 1-800 is inept even by EI standards, and I’m grading on a VERY GENEROUS CURVE HERE, PEOPLE.

The guy returns with the form. I observe that I have half a page to explain why I haven’t filled out the biweekly reports for the last ten weeks. “Half a page?” I say. “You’ve seen my file.”

“You can use the back if you want,” he offers.

“Can I attach additional sheets?”

Five minutes later, having availed myself of the stapler on the desk, I complete the tome (”Please see my file for more details,” I conclude sadistically), and hand it to the fellow. He tells me that I should be seeing some money in two business days. I remark that I’ll believe that when I see it. I am not being rude, but I am obviously frustrated, and he responds in quiet, soothing tones - much as I do when dealing with those students of mine who are not being rude, but who are obviously frustrated. Amusingly, even though I know what he is doing, this technique works perfectly on me, and I calm down. I thank the fellow, and leave.

Two business days later, I call the 1-800 number, which I now have on speed dial. I listen to the automated service, which, disappointingly but not surprisingly, informs me that there has been no activity (none!) on my file in the past two weeks. I summon a human being, and go over my story, again, to be told that it will be three weeks before I see any money.

“I was told two business days,” I report.

“That’s incorrect. Who told you that?”

I provide a name.

The operator tells me that she’ll have someone phone me within the next two business days to discuss my situation. I reply that I’ve spent two and a half months discussing my situation, and while that’s certainly been lots of fun for all involved, at this point I’d really prefer to just get some money. She tells me they’re working on it.

Two business days pass. No one phones.

I present myself to the local EI office again, and tell an abridged version of my story to Ms. 1-800. I can tell it’s a whole new story to her, because her face registers no hint of recognition despite the fact that we have met three times before. I can’t really blame her, though; she probably meets a lot of disgruntled unemployed people with similar stories, and sooner or later they probably all blend together in one amorphous mass of disgrunt. “Hmm,” she muses sympathetically, and produces a sheet of paper. “You should call our 1-800 number. There are phones at the back…”

Because there’s no one waiting in line, I seize the opportunity to tell her the entire story, including detailed descriptions of my experiences with her, my experiences with the 1-800 number, and my experiences with her telling me to call the 1-800 number. I request an appointment with a human being. Request granted.

Twenty minutes later, I am sitting with a human being, who tells me that she doesn’t know what that other person was talking about, because it’s never two business days for the file to be processed, it’s one week. But, she tells me, it’s a good thing that I came into talk to that other person, because when you come talk to someone in person, they put your file on someone’s desk, whereas when you just drop off your materials at the front desk, they sit in someone’s outbox for two weeks before getting processed. She tells me this like it’s standard procedure. She dispatches me, telling me that it takes a week to process my file, no, really this time, and if it’s not processed then, to come back.

It’s not processed within a week. I come back and wait in line, and hear the teenaged girl directly in front of me explain that she has a Social Insurance Number, it’s just that she suspects that her mom has been using it illegally to get work. This is taking a long time, and the girl turns around at one point, sees the huge line behind her, and apologizes. I tell her that she’s not the one who should be apologizing, and that I hope she gets her stuff worked out, and that she should take as long as she needs to get this taken care of. She smiles.

When that’s done, I deal with - hallelujah - someone other than Ms. 1-800, who makes an appointment with a human being for me. The wait is short, because while the teenager was trying to get the SIN crap dealt with, the people in front of me got processed. I am called within two minutes, by a tanned woman with frizzy white-blond hair. I walk over to the desk, resolved to play the I’m going to call my MP about this card if my file doesn’t get processed right then and there.

But my resolve weakens when the blond woman gives me the most pained look I’ve ever seen from a government official. “I’ve been reading your file,” she tells me, “and reading and reading and reading it. Dear Lord. We’re going to get this resolved right now.” And then she explains that she is going to personally hunt down the person in charge of my file, and wait as he processes it. I am awestruck.

She phones the person in charge of my file. He does not answer. My heart sinks.

But, get this: the next few minutes consist of this woman, the patron saint of mismanaged EI files, running back and forth, physically hunting down this person. “He’s probably on coffee break,” she tells me. “His secretary tells me he’s in today.” She explains that this might take a few minutes, because she usually works in the call centre, not the local office, so she doesn’t know what this fellow looks like. She dashes off before I can tell her that I don’t mind waiting a few minutes to get my benefits.

Ten minutes later she announces, out of breath, that she found him, and that he’s in the process of looking at my file for the first time. I lean back in my chair and wait, because this can take awhile.

Shortly afterward he phones, and I hear one side of a conversation that goes something like Speaking…no, see, this needs to be dealt with NOW…this woman has been waiting almost three months…she’s filled in all of the relevant forms…yes, I KNOW, but this person keeps being told that it’s going to be taken care of soon, so please just take care of it now and get it over with…okay, thank you.

She hangs up. “It’s all taken care of,” she tells me. She doesn’t seem surprised that taking care of the thing that needed taking care of took all of five seconds once she got a hold of the person responsible. “You will have your money in two business days.” She then takes some information from me, and fills in the last ten weeks’ worth of reports. “Done,” she reports.

I thank her and thank her and thank her, because if she’s not sincere, then at least she’s just given an Oscar-worthy performance.

One business day later, I call the 1-800 number, and for the first time I’m told something other than the fact that there has been no activity on my file. Today, I check my account, and find that my balance has an extra digit to the left of the decimal place. It’s over.

My first purchase is going to be a bouquet of flowers for the last person from the EI office I spoke to.

27 Comments

  1. Wow. That just kept going. I kept thinking you were almost done, and then there’s another paragraph. And another. Although my experience getting a Social Security Number was nowhere near as bad as this experience, I really felt like I was there experiencing all of it. I think you also deserve flowers for persistence. And great writing.

    - Nicholas — 8/15/2005 @ 3:35 pm

  2. hooooleeeey shit.

    Damn, I think this has the making of a modern saga.

    - meep — 8/15/2005 @ 4:56 pm

  3. Aie. I keep having visions of overhead projectors (that reminds me, I need to write them an angry e-mail).

    Though I suppose that my excitement only lasted a week. Yeesh!

    - Dan — 8/15/2005 @ 5:02 pm

  4. well, i was going to comment, but meep just stole the only comment i could think of.

    - Polymath — 8/15/2005 @ 5:11 pm

  5. damn, I should have had you fight with my health insurance company.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 8/15/2005 @ 5:33 pm

  6. Too bad Kafka isn’t alive to appreciate this.

    - TonyB — 8/15/2005 @ 5:58 pm

  7. My mom always reviews the (American) health insurace claim forms and tries to reconcile them (my dad had 6-bypass surgery and all that it entails) and that probably approaches the level of beurocracy you have dealt with. Me, I just take my chances … of course I don’t understand the $15 co-pay for my physical last month (book says *everything* is a $5 co-pay) and I have received about 472 “This is not a bill” statements in the mail indicating a $200+ credit balance for various doctor visits over the last year, but I’m sure my heirs will appreciate the check they may someday receive.

    - William — 8/15/2005 @ 6:25 pm

  8. Nick - thanks. I see that I was successful in capturing the feeling of “surely this is going to be over soon GODDAMMIT IT ISN’T”, which I felt about ten times during this whole ordeal. (Speaking of the bouquet, I just realized that I might have some trouble getting the flowers to the patron saint of mismanaged files: I only know her first name, and she usually works in the call centre, which is god knows how big. And seriously, if you delivered something perishable to this place, would you trust it to arrive before it perished?)

    Meep - I tell ya, the one thing that got me through this (well - besides the possibility of thousands of dollars) was the knowledge that this would make an appropriately unwieldy blog post when (if) it was all over. (Full disclosure: I have had this post on draft mode for more than two weeks.)

    Dan - yeah, I thought of a certain overhead projector as well. (For the non-Mathcamp set - last month, we needed an overhead projector at Mathcamp. The one that Dan ordered lived in Portland, OR, and was to be shipped to another place in Portland, OR. It took the scenic route, through Tukwila, WA, and then to Ontario, CA, before finally arriving at its destination.)

    RH - uh-uh, no way, no how. The only way I’m going through something like that again is if there’s thousands of dollars in it for me. (That said: if there is thousands of dollars in it for me to fight with your insurance company, I’ll do it with a smile on my face.)

    Aside: stay tuned, possibly, for a related post, How I Got My Computer Fixed: An Appropriately Unwieldy Post. However, that one may be awhile in the making, because it has been two months and I HAVE STILL NOT GOTTEN MY COMPUTER FIXED.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/15/2005 @ 8:38 pm

  9. Speaking of computers (which probably don’t suck as much as bureaucracies), I was trying to warbike the other day. It turns out that there’s a reason people don’t warbike. So, I biked my computer to the service depot in Montreal and was prepared to take it away from them if they couldn’t fix it (back to the US, where IBM ought to be able to fix it; or at least I could get our research group’s secretary, who kicks ass, to get it fixed.) Fortunately, they found out that removing the extra RAM stick restored it to workingness.

    I’m a big fan of being able to take things away from people who can’t fix your computer.

    - plam — 8/15/2005 @ 11:09 pm

  10. Oh, and I realize that MS might not have anywhere else to take her computer away to, which is sort of unfortunate. But I’m just imagining it being somewhat satisfying to be able to say to the repair folks, ‘No computer for you (incompetent fools)!’

    - plam — 8/15/2005 @ 11:13 pm

  11. wow, ms, i can’t believe you had the wherewithal to go through with all those endless, kafkaesque steps. incidentally, have you ever read anything by kafka?

    - lobster — 8/15/2005 @ 11:49 pm

  12. Sorry, I could only get half way through that. You understand.

    When I run the government everyone will get money, whether or not they have been looking for a job, or even have a job. It will be much simpler.

    Vote for me! Well not yet. Wait for us to have some proportional representation system: http://www.fairvotecanada.org/phpBB/viewtopic.php?topic=653&forum=1&0

    - r6 — 8/16/2005 @ 12:14 am

  13. Next time I go to a Gov Office, I’ll look for the tanned-white-blond-haired-women-who-rules-this-part-of-the-world…

    - ZamZam — 8/16/2005 @ 5:37 am

  14. Wow. That’s completely ridiculous!

    I don’t suppose you caught the name of the guy who was in charge of your file so that you could complain? That story is so beyond what should happen…

    Though the MP card is effective - when you MP is elected (as opposed to campainging) they want you to see them as useful. Certainly my MP has been quite helpful in the past…

    - parodie — 8/16/2005 @ 5:40 am

  15. Yes, if nothing else, this should be turned into a one-woman play. Or, rather, One woman and a telephone. And you could interweave the two sagas — EI and getting computer fixed. It’ll be a hit!

    Maybe not as big as a hit as that Spelling Bee show, but maybe if we put some songs in….

    - meep — 8/16/2005 @ 7:11 am

  16. Informative, and scary

    I can’t help myself, really. The point almost makes itself, but I figured I’d make it explicitly. Read this entire post over at Tall, Dark, & Mysterious. An excerpt simply cannot do it justice. Now, imagine these people are running your health care s…

    - Truck and Barter — 8/16/2005 @ 8:25 am

  17. Wow, this post has now been used to show how bad our health care system is. Maybe you should write more about health care, so people can respond to our education system, or something.

    - wolfangel — 8/16/2005 @ 8:42 am

  18. What I’m really curious about is: exactly what did the guy in charge of your file actually have to do to process your claim?

    - Independent George — 8/16/2005 @ 11:50 am

  19. Hmm… Upon further review, it seems this might have been a good time to take up smoking weed.

    (apologies for the double-post).

    - Independent George — 8/16/2005 @ 11:54 am

  20. Something people should realize: a bureaucrat is never fired for not doing the job they obstensibly were hired to do.

    At least, that is true in most bureaucracies.

    - meep — 8/16/2005 @ 11:56 am

  21. DEAR SWEET LORD ALMIGHTY.

    No, see now, Wolfangel, I don’t have to write a post about health care in order to start a discussion about education, because this post right here can be used as evidence that our education system sucks! It can also be used to argue why the troops should stay in Iraq, why Harry Potter promotes Satanism, and why the young people are experimenting with the homo-sexual behaviour now-a-days. It’s like a Rorschach post! Maybe next time I’ll just post a big ol’ picture of an ink blot and see which points “almost make themselves”.

    Seriously, though, it’s not my fault that someone who lives in a country that has three (3) branches of government, can’t figure out that the gummint folks who run Employment Insurance are different from the gummint folks who run health care. Not to mention the fact that we have, like, doctors and shit here - our hospitals aren’t staffed with the likes of the EI folks, who are all bureaucrats. Shee. But anyway - I didn’t intend to start a discussion about the Canadian health care system, and as I’ve said before, nothing good ever seems to come out of discussing it with Americans, particularly ones who will jump on every flaw in the Canadian system, without actually mounting any semblance of a comprehensive comparison between it and the US system. However, there’s a rousing discussion on the subject over at T&B, so feel free to talk about the educational system there.

    Meep - ah, playwriting is Dan’s thing, not mine. Becky has penned a play or two as well, if I recall correctly. And you’re the Broadway musical expert. So if anyone wants to collaborate on the one-woman play/musical (someone who can actually sing will have to play me), I’ll be happy to bankroll it with my EI money.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/16/2005 @ 1:40 pm

  22. The clueless, and those who teach them

    Blogger Tall, Dark, and Mysterious has far, far more patience than I. Her description of the hurdles required to get EI benefits in British Columbia is painful just to read, never mind actually deal with. And if the folks on…

    - Number 2 Pencil — 8/16/2005 @ 5:46 pm

  23. I wasn’t blaming you for that. Unless you happen also to be the blogger at T&B, in which case, perhaps I would be.

    Now, I know there’s bureaucracy at US government offices too. So what I want to know is why you can also trust the government to run (a) the tax system or (b) the military or (c) any sorts of research funding or (d) all that law-making stuff.

    - wolfangel — 8/17/2005 @ 3:55 am

  24. DUH, it’s because all that other stuff isn’t socialism.

    *cough* Anyway, to reply to a few points I haven’t replied to yet; TonyB and lobster, I haven’t read Kafka. Maybe I should, though could there possibly be anything there that I haven’t experienced firsthand? And Independent George, I am under the impression that the person who had my file on his desk had merely to click on something that would remove the disentitlement from my claim; with that done, I could file my reports (yes, I am actively looking for work; no, I do not have a job right now), which would allow the money to come in. And plam - I’d take my computer away from the people who aren’t fixing it, but them not fixing it is covered under warranty, whereas some other place fixing it would cost me…a sizable chunk of the EI money I just received.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/17/2005 @ 1:24 pm

  25. Actually, I don’t trust the (US) govt to do research funding properly. There was a very good article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about various funding irregularities at Cornell and a few other places (medical research, funded by the NIH). Research money was going to fund regular operations and accounted for being spent on shadow research (i.e., it didn’t exist).

    But this is going far afield.

    Bureaucracies can pop up in places other than government services. It happened to IBM in the 80s, for example.

    - meep — 8/17/2005 @ 1:30 pm

  26. or AT&T in 2000. I had a miniature version of this problem : they charged me $300 erroneously, and it took 40 hours of me waiting on hold and writing letters and so forth to get it sorted out. No one had the authority to deal with it, no one would return phone calls, and supervisors were never present (even when I was promised they would be). At some point, I got switched to an incorrect department (”how did you get this number? Customers are not supposed to reach this number.”) and the woman there took pity and sorted it out in 30 seconds… and understood immediately what happened just by looking at the computer record.

    - Sam — 8/17/2005 @ 3:37 pm

  27. It helps to keep a log of all your conversations, including the names of the people you spoke to. You don’t need a full name, so you don’t have to be too aggressive in asking. For some reason, they tend to get defensive if they think you’re going to rat them out to their supervisor. Besides, the point isn’t to have some ammunition if you wish to complaint – that’s just a side benefit.

    The goal is to humanize yourself. Most people think that means trying to tell them your life story and why it’s so important to get this done right now! In fact, this tends to make you all the more anonymous – they’ve heard it all before, probably a dozen times already in that day. But when you ask for their name, not only do they start thinking of their own accountability, they also remember to think of themselves as a person, and then you, as well. It’s at that point that you want to follow up with your own name (even if they’ve already asked for it – again, at this point, you’re trying to reinforce the point that you’re a person, and not a grievance). And if you wind up having to go back to that person, start by cheerily calling them by their name, even if you want to strangle them.

    And if all that fails, well, now you have a handy log of all the crap they forced you to go through. Bureaucrats love lists, and written documentation; they’ll take a complaint that much more seriously if you’ve got documentation.

    - Independent George — 8/18/2005 @ 7:40 am

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