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“I have found…”: Disseminating research findings to a broader audience

Meeting “civilians” (aka non-academics) is incredibly fun because they always ask me challenging questions that sometimes I struggle to answer. These past two weeks I had meetings with Mexican bureaucrats who work for the Secretariat of Environment in Mexico (SEMARNAT), civil society representatives and many academics at a social studies of water conference. These folks usually know more or less the jargon and ask me interesting questions about my work, but lately, I have been finding that people are interested in the elevator pitch: “tell me in 2 minutes or less what you research“.

As someone who prides himself in doing public intellectualism despite its associated and unique challenges, I found myself dumbfounded when I got asked those questions. “I mean, I study the global politics of sanitation. Isn’t that enough information for you?” Well, apparently not. So I’ve been working on an every day basis to jot down thoughts on what I have been finding with my research and whether those insights are accessible to the general public. So here is an attempt to summarize some of my recent research in one of those “less-than-30-seconds” elevator pitches.

Rocky Mountaineer Vancouver-Whistler

In my most recent research project on water privatization in Mexico I have found numerous instances of private water supply at the municipal level towards the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the case, for example, in the city where I live, Aguascalientes, where privatization of water supply occurred towards 1905, but a few years later was then remunicipalized. In 1993, Aguascalientes got into a draconian concession contract that has it locked in a situation of poor water supply. The lack of institutional memory is overwhelming. Have municipalities NOT learned that privatization can have negative consecuences? These insights have helped me counterargue the notion that most water privatization processes are the result of neoliberal policies driven by international Brookings-type institutions and the like. Admittedly, these institutions have pushed for privatization of water supply. But the privatization phenomenon is NOT new, and most definitely, it already had happened even before the emergence of international institutions and neoliberal policies.

Now, every time I reflect on what I have studied so far, I use the “I have found” or “my research proves X idea wrong” or “counter to generally-held beliefs, Y is the actual explanatory variable“. This is something I did on a regular basis while writing my doctoral dissertation, but now as a professor I find it is even more important to keep in mind what I actually find in my work. And to be able to articulate these insights for wider, public consumption.

I’d love to hear from my readers (if you do research) the “elevator pitch” of what you have found. Feel free to chime in on the comments section.

Posted in academia, bridging academia and practice, writing.

On doing research that pushes your own boundaries

Last year I had a conversation with a senior scholar, colleague and good friend of mine at CIDE (Dr. Mauricio Merino Huerta, one of Mexico’s foremost scholars of transparency and corruption). In that conversation, he mentioned how he was examining a research question that was pushing his own intellectual boundaries. When someone who is a senior scholar, experienced, seasoned and very well-published tells you that a research question is pushing his boundaries, you can’t help but admire that academic’s honesty, and question whether you yourself are doing research that pushes your own intellectual boundaries to the maximum.

Preparing lectures

I will fully admit that doing research on sanitation doesn’t feel like it’s pushing my boundaries too much. I know the literature well, I know where my contribution to the scientific knowledge of wastewater governance resides, and I have a very-well traced research trajectory. It feels relatively easy and natural to study the global politics of sanitation because I know the field so well.


That said, studying water privatization IS in fact pushing my own intellectual boundaries. Doing collaborative research on the water and energy nexus IS pushing my boundaries. I feel like I’m being pushed to the limit intellectually and conceptually because I don’t feel the same degree of comfort. Same with the project I’m doing on climate policy evaluation. I’m very good at policy evaluation and at environmental policy instruments’ theories, but I know that the added complexity of mitigation and adaptation and the cross-scalar dynamics of climate interactions all are pushing me to work longer, think harder and learn.

I’m learning like crazy these days. And that’s because I am cautious about the work I undertake, but I’m daring to push myself beyond my comfort zone. I think there is great value in doing research that pushes your own boundaries. I am also glad that my work is embedded within collaborative relationships with other great scholars. That way, we learn together and move forward our work together.

These past three years have probably been the best of my scholarly life. I look forward to the next stage in my research.

Posted in academia, research.

In defense of large academic conferences: My post-#ISA2014 reflections

ISA 2014 TorontoIf you were on Twitter and were following me around the time of the recent International Studies Association (ISA) conference in Toronto (Canada), you probably knew I was ill for most of it. I wasn’t feeling well (from food poisoning to lack of sleep to general malaise) and thus, I missed perhaps the best opportunity for me to network with other scholars I follow on Twitter and wanted to get to know in person. That said, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to catch up with friends and colleagues who belong to the Environmental Studies Section (ESS) of ISA. I am on the Executive Committee (2013-2015) of ESS/ISA, and also on the editorial board of the journal Global Environmental Politics, which means I had to attend (despite feeling rather unwell) several meetings. I didn’t mind precisely because I knew those would be the only chances I would have to meet with colleagues whose work I love and respect. And I took care of myself throughout the conference.

To me, this ISA was the most important to attend in recent years, not only because of my service duties, but also because it was a chance for me to present my evolving research with my friend and colleague Dr. Kate O’Neill (University of California, Berkeley) on informal e-waste recycling across the US and Mexico border, but also because it gave me an opportunity to meet other scholars who study the global governance of waste (the panel Kate and I co-organized), revisit research on North American environmental politics. After I co-presented with Kate on e-waste governance, I was a discussant afterwards for a panel on North American environmental politics, which I enjoyed enormously. And finally, for the most important reason: because for the first time, I saw international studies scholars (many of whom come from political science and international relations) talk space, scale and location with geographers. As I said before, ISA is an extremely interdisciplinary and welcoming association and I was glad that we had this conversation.

ISA 2014 Toronto

And this brings me to the crux of my argument: I loved going to ISA 2014. Despite the challenges that academic travel poses to me (particularly, that I almost always get sick when I travel to a conference or workshop). Despite the fact that sometimes the feedback you get is non-existent, and thus I often privilege smaller workshops instead of large academic conferences.

I attended ISA 2014 because we wanted to get feedback on an evolving project, and this was a warm and welcoming audience. I attended ISA 2014 because it allowed me to kickstart my academic writing in a field I never wanted to leave (the global governance of waste). I attended ISA 2014 because I want to be competitive internationally, and I want my research to be disseminated worldwide, not in the local scale.

I know that travelling internationally does increase my carbon footprint, and often times, I fall sick within the first few days. But whether we like it or not, we haven’t yet gotten to the point where we can substitute the warmth of a physical embrace, the kindness of a live comment at a panel, the smiles and positive comments from participants at the conference. And having martinis with your academic friends. So, for better or worse, I will continue attending international conferences and participating with my research.

I will be missing a few of the important ones, like MPSA, AAG, CPSA, CAG, but I will be at APSA. Looking forward to it.

Posted in academia.

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Strategies to kickstart your academic writing

I’ve just finished two more pieces (this week), a conference paper and a journal article, that I needed to have done by the end of the week. I still have four additional pieces to write, and I’m working towards completing those (particularly because they are co-authored). But all this “writing-in-excess” made me ponder about my own strategies to kickstart my academic writing. I call this period “writing-in-excess” because normally I would write for 2 hours and stop worrying about what else I need to finish, because I had already done my writing for the day. Since I committed to complete more manuscripts, I have been writing well in excess of 2 hours a day. This has generated a different set of strategies than the ones I used to have. Here are some reflections on the topic.

First, I use conferences and workshops to force me to write a paper. I write the paper and use the conference or workshop’s feedback to improve my submission to the journal. I don’t do “academic tourism”. I travel to workshops, research meetings and conferences in order to present my work and test my ideas. So, my goal is: 1 conference paper = 1 journal article or book chapter submission.

Second, I move all my manuscripts forward on an everyday basis. This is perhaps a weird strategy for some people. Most academics I know like to focus solely on one manuscript and then move on to the next one. I can’t. Because I sometimes schedule fieldwork around when my interviewees can talk to me (or around when I have funding!) I can’t just be writing one piece. I need to move forward all my pieces, every day (or at least, the vast majority of them). Even if it’s just a few sentences here, a little bit of formatting there, I try to make sure all of them move forward.

Third, I stop writing when I feel exhausted, not when the paper is done. I have a peculiar metabolism, where I need rest on an everyday basis. My energy levels drop dramatically throughout the day. My best writing hours are from 4 am to 1pm. Then, my energy takes a nosedive. So, for example, last night I was THIS CLOSE to being done a colloquium paper. I stopped, because I knew an additional hour of writing while exhausted would be the same as 15 minutes of writing well refreshed. I was able to come back to my paper this morning with a fresh mind and more focus.

Four, I read while travelling. The basic excuse for academic writers NOT to read is that “they don’t have time to read”. Well, you NEED to make time. If you aren’t up on the literature, how are you supposed to write cutting-edge research? This week I’ve had to travel back-and-forth as I’ve been doing some fieldwork in the city where my parents live, and last weekend was a long weekend, so I spent it with them. Instead of driving there, I took the bus and spent the two hours to and back from my parents’ city reading the latest literature on rescaling and water privatization.

Five, I write while travelling. I don’t solely read while I’m on a plane or a bus. I also make notes and write bits and pieces of text that I can then use and reuse. Because this writing is “generative”, I count this time as effectively writing (although not the consecutive 2 hours that I normally do on an every day basis).

Six, I read on an everyday basis and make handwritten notes and highlight relevant text on papers. This is particularly helpful if I feel stuck. I read other people’s thoughts and scholarship on the field I’m interested in, and then I move forward with my notes, building an argument around what they were writing. For example, reviewing recent work on rescaling made me think that the way I approach scale is different from the way a critical human geographer would. This facilitated my writing an argument around the different ways of looking at scale from various disciplines (political science, economics, geography).

These are some of the strategies I use to kickstart my academic writing, hopefully they’ll be of use to you too!

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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Urban water governance: Privatization, scale mismatch and infrastructure

Whenever anybody complains to me that I focus on urban water governance (and yes, there ARE scholars in Mexico who question me because I am interested in how water in cities is governed), my first impression is to want to send them to read scholarly literature. This is often not the best idea, because our writing is, sometimes, indeed incredibly dense, obtuse and hard to understand. I’ve taken to blog about my own research because it helps others and helps me clarify what I am studying.

Because I am based out of Aguascalientes, a smaller city (1 million people) in central Mexico, I have to fly into Mexico City on a regular basis. I have several projects located there, I often guest-lecture at other institutions and at CIDE in its Santa Fe campus and the most important thing, because Mexican water governance (and environmental policy) is so centralized, I have to be in Mexico City to attend important national-level and international meetings.

I was flying into Mexico City this past week, and as I often do, I started taking photographs as we landed. I did the same when we took off the previous week. Having an aerial overview of a city reminds me of why I study urban water governance. First, because it is a clear depiction of scale mismatch. The issues that smaller cities face aren’t the same that megacities like Mexico City do. The scale at which we govern isn’t necessarily the scale at which we need to respond to issues. Second, because it reminds me of issues of privatization, marketization and commodification (a literature I am enjoying currently). Provision of water at this mega-scale necessitates innovative and creative institutional arrangements for service delivery. And third, because it always reminds me of the need for robust, well-maintained infrastructure. As a chemical engineer (yes, I did chemical engineering before my PhD), I am keenly aware of the technical difficulties in providing safe water all over a city. These problems exacerbate as cities expand.

It’s also important to remind ourselves about the heterogeneity of cities when we think about urban water governance. A couple of weeks ago I was in Tempe (Arizona) visiting the Institute for Global Sustainability and the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity (CSID) at Arizona State University (ASU) to give a talk on polycentric water governance in Mexico. I flew through Houston, and as we were descending, I was bewildered. My own perception of Texas is that its cities face droughts. When I looked at the city of Houston, with such a visible water abundance, I was reminded that cities worldwide are all different.

Because of this heterogeneity within an urban system , we need to think through these issues on a regular basis. We can’t afford to design policy responses to water scarcity that are solely focused on alleviating hotspots. We need to look at the water system in a holistic way. My research aims to emphasize the closed nature of the hydrological cycle. In doing so, I go back to the literature spearheaded by Matthew Gandy on urban metabolism. This is an interesting challenge and one I’m keen to explore more as my research progresses.

Posted in academia, research, water governance, water policy.

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Gender, water and sanitation: Some thoughts for International Women’s Day 2014

While I’ve always prided myself in being gender-aware and gender-sensitive, I have to admit that it wasn’t until my good friend Janni Aragon (University of Victoria, Political Science) gave a guest lecture in my Public Policy class, early in my teaching days, on gender and environmental issues. Janni reminded me (and my students) about the many struggles that women face on an everyday basis. I’m well aware that environmental studies have also been perceived as “feminized” in that taking care of the environment has also been seen as a more “nurturing” activity and thus one proper for women. But strangely enough, I don’t think we have studied environmental issues through a gender lens enough. The intersections of gender and environment, gender and water and gender and sanitation are many, although gender issues do not only refer to women (my friend Ed Carr recently published a co-authored paper on gender and adaptation to climatic change that I believe will pave the road for further and much needed work on this important and understudied topic). I myself have started doing some work on gender and sanitation policy in Mexico, particularly as it relates to menstrual hygiene management.

Photo credit: UNICEF Ethiopia

In recent years the connections between gender and sanitation have been perceived by a number of organizations, who have been doing some excellent work. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council recently partnered with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to undertake an event to raise awareness on gender, human rights and sanitation. The UNESCO Institute for Water Education (UNESCO-IHE) organized an event on gender and water and emergency responses this year. WaterAid, another organization whose work I follow closely, recently organized a walk and shared some terrifying statistics on the impact of lack of proper sanitation and water poverty on women:

There are also 1.25 billion women and girls around the world without proper toilets, and many associated burdens. This is a crisis in health, in education, in economic development and in gender equality that simply cannot continue,” said Ms Wheen.

Some notable statistics on women and water and sanitation:
• An estimated 384 million women and girls are without safe water, and 1.25 billion do not have improved sanitation.
• Some 526 million women are forced to defecate in the open for lack of facilities.
• Women and girls without toilets spend an estimated 97 billion hours each year trying to find a safe place to go.
• Average primary school completion rates for boys in sub-Saharan Africa stand at 56%, but only 46% for girls.

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection

Think about it. An estimated 200 million work hours are spent by women collecting water for their households. Women bear the brunt of water collection spending up to 5 hours every day on this task. Given that much of their time is spent in water-fetching, many girls in developing countries often skip school as they are needed at home. Even worse, these young women often skip school during their menstruating days as they lack the dignity of a latrine to relieve themselves and water to clean up. When these girls and women are forced to relieve themselves in the dark, they become targets for potential sexual violence and/or physical attacks. Thus the need for a comprehensive, global menstrual hygiene management plan.

As I wrote last year, we still have a long ways to go to make solid advances in gender and sanitation. On International Women’s Day, here is to a more inclusive and comprehensive plan to address gender issues in water and sanitation governance.

Posted in academia, bridging academia and practice, sanitation, wastewater, water governance, water policy.

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Breaking the vicious cycle of grant writing and research funding

As I have mentioned before, I’m very lucky in that my institution is extremely supportive of my (and my colleagues’) research endeavours. There are a number of (internal) sources of funding to support scholarly research, from support via start-up funds, to individual research accounts, to competing for internal research grants, to funding conference travel. Because I have international collaborators and I’ve worked a lot within the Canadian and Mexican research funding systems, I’m very familiar with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, and with CONACyT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia, National Council for Science and Technology) in Mexico. I’m a little less familiar with the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States of America, but I still know their processes a bit. I’m also a bit familiar with European (mostly French and British) granting bodies.

The grant writing cycle, according to PhD Comics (c) Jorge Cham

What seems to be the commonality in all of these is the presence of a vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing. In order to advance your research, you need to do experiments, undertake fieldwork, participate in academic conferences and workshops. All of these activities, of course, require funding. Which, quite obviously, you don’t have as you start your academic career. More annoying is the fact that most granting agencies will demand from you previous experience managing funded projects and success winning grants. Which you can’t do, of course, because you don’t have the funding yet to execute the research activities required to gain new insights, create new knowledge, and of course, gain confidence in writing new grants so that you can get funding to do more research.

My first year back from Canada and arriving to Mexico, I became increasingly frustrated with the vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing. I kept writing grant proposals, many of which were unsuccessful. I can tell you the proposed projects were fantastic, and I even received some nice commentaries “awesome proposed research, but we don’t have the money to fund you, so, SORRY”.

Last year and this year, however, I have got quite a bit of a break. I’ve successfully submitted a few grant proposals that have been externally funded and now enable me to mobilize resources in a way I couldn’t do before. And of course, with each successful proposal, I gain a lot more confidence in my abilities to secure extramural funding. So, I feel as though this is a virtuous cycle now: the more successful my grant proposals are, the more I seem to be able to write better requests for funding. But I’m also aware of how capricious these funding cycles can be. For all we know, I may have secured a lot of funding for this year, but I may hit a dry spell in the next two years too.

The funniest and most ironic part of this vicious cycle is that having to manage extramural funding, I’ve learned A LOT of stuff (tricks, techniques, reporting processes, even how much do things cost) that I wouldn’t have been able to learn had I not actually gotten projects funded. Getting my projects funded and executing them has actually enabled me to write better grant proposals, propose better and more robust research designs, and learn the ropes of externally-funded project management (which include budgeting, financial reporting, writing technical reports, etc). Again, as I mention, my institution is extremely generous with internal grants, but not all institutions are, and this frustrates me to no end. I thing we ought to break the vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing.

I just don’t really know how.

Posted in academia.

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The spatial, political and human dimensions of water infrastructure

Like anybody who is sort of in-between an early-career-researcher (ECR) and a more seasoned, established scholar, I have spent the last few years thinking about where my research is taking me and exploring new topics and ideas. I have also gained access to different funding sources, something that of course has influenced my research trajectory. When I began my doctoral research, I was 100% sure that what I was interested in was cooperative behaviour. My Masters’ degree thesis is focused on strategic alliances between biotech firms and large pharmaceutical companies. As my PhD dissertation work progressed, I learned about voluntary approaches to environmental policy instruments, which was also based on cooperation. Lately, I have been doing on water conflict, transboundary water governance, water privatization and bottled water. All of this, of course, in addition to my already-known research programme on wastewater and sanitation governance.

I have been considering what to call my current research programme. With the exception of my project on informal waste recyclers, a large portion of my scholarship is focused on water infrastructure. I am interested in access to water, privatization of municipal water supply, polycentric governance and cross-scalar dynamics. And of course, sanitation ties into this work. So I’ve considered the possibility of calling (at least for now) my research programme, “the spatial, political and human dimensions of water infrastructure“.

In opening my research trajectory to the study of spatial dimensions, I am bringing my interdisciplinary training together. I am trained as a political scientist, and a human geographer. Thus, I am interested in the politics of water infrastructure, across multiple scales. However, as any interdisciplinary researcher can tell you, I am also interested in the human dimensions (cognitive, social, anthropological) of water infrastructure. I want to understand individual behaviour, and also collective behaviour.

Will I continue to favor neoinstitutional theories in my work? Of course. I am puzzled by the formation of rules and norms. I am fascinated by the ways in which individuals react to institutional complexity. I don’t reject any other theoretical or analytical framework. I can approach problems from multiple perspectives, and that is what makes my research so interesting.

Will I continue to study transnational environmental movements? Of course, too. Activists are part of the civil society-government-industry triad, and as such, their behaviour is definitely something I am intrigued by. I am, as well, a comparativist. So yes, I will continue to explore environmental policy-making in Canada, the US and Mexico. Having a more defined research programme doesn’t preclude me from doing other kind of stuff.

Will I continue to do sanitation, even if I now do some work on climate politics? Of course, without a question. Sanitation was, and continues to be my first and foremost interest. The size of the problem and the imperious necessity of solution are two very strong drivers. 2.1 billion people lack proper sanitation and 950 million continue to practice open defecation because they lack the dignity of a toilet. I don’t plan on giving up the opportunity to help increase access, narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and try my hardest at eliminating inequalities.

I’m just a bit more focused in my research work now, I think.

Posted in academia, environmental policy, governance, research, sanitation, waste, wastewater.

Reshaping incentives: Encouraging tap water instead of bottled water

Much of the neoinstitutional and rational choice theory work that I’ve read has focused on incentive structures, rules and how these shape norms, behaviours and attitude changes in individuals. My research has examined behavioural change, but mostly from the perspective of industrial factory owners and their decision-making processes when confronted with tight environmental regulation. In my newest project, I am looking at how tap water and bottled water individual decision-making is done. This means, when confronted with the choice of ordering bottled water at a restaurant or requesting a glass of tap water, what do individuals do?

This an interesting area of research for me because, if faced with the choice myself, I will always choose a glass of tap water. This phenomenon (having to force restaurant owners to provide tap water instead of allowing them to impose a purchase of bottled water) is growing in Mexico. I was confronted with this when I lived in Vancouver, where the norm (despite having EXCELLENT quality tap water) was to serve me with a bottle of water. This pissed me off to no end, not only because of my scholarly research, but because the imposition actually shifts control of beverage choice, from the consumer to the supplier (in this case, the restaurant). Recently, the health authorities of Mexico City decided to impose a new legislative requirement on restaurants: you can’t force consumers to buy bottled water, you must provide clean, safe, potable drinking water for them.

As someone who uses neoinstitutional theory in much of his research, I’m interested in how rules and norms are constructed, stabilized and institutionalized. Thus I find it fascinating to understand how this recently-imposed bylaw will be enforced and whether it will lead to any behavioural change. I’ve long suspected that behavioural changes in water consumption are multifactorial: there are many reasons why bottled water consumption has grown exponentially in the last few years. It can’t be only the fact that bottled water is readily available or that tap water in Mexico has been routinely shunned because of badly maintained water supply infrastructure. I’m keen to delve more into this issue in the next year or so.

Posted in academia, research, water policy.

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Tenure-track position in Latin American or Mexican history at CIDE Region Centro

I am hereby reproducing the English-language call for applications for a tenure-track position in Latin American or Mexican History at CIDE Region Centro. Happy to answer questions on CIDE, the Region Centro campus, and life in Aguascalientes.

Applications are invited for the post of a tenure track assistant professor in modern Mexican and/or history of the Americas in the División de Historia, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), based in the Región Centro campus in the city of Aguascalientes, Mexico. Candidates should be available to take up the post in August 2014. Preferred candidates will have a research agenda linked to any of the following sub-disciplines: economic history, environmental history, regional comparative history, borderlands history, historical demography and geography, or digital history.
Candidates must have completed their Ph.D. degree before August 1st, 2014.

CIDE is an institute for research in social sciences with both national and international prestige. The Región Centro Campus was founded in 2011 and today it offers a bachelor degree program in Government and Public Finance, a Master’s degree in Regional and Environmental Economics, and two Interdisciplinary Study Programs, one in Drug Policy, and another in Regional Studies. The successful candidate will be expected to collaborate in one or more of these programs, as well as in the International History Master’s degree offered by the División de Historia. The candidate will be able to benefit from the
proximity of the Instituto Nacional de Geografía Estadística e Informática (INEGI) and the Fondo de Información y Documentación para la Industria de México (INFOTEC), both of which are based in the city of Aguascalientes.

Candidates must send the following documents in PDF format to the address below before March 31st, 2014: a covering letter; three references and some written assessments of their teaching skills (if they have them); an example of their written work (for example, a published or accepted article, or a book chapter or Ph.D. thesis chapter); and a project briefing outlining their future plans for research and teaching. These documents should be addressed to:

Search Committee
División de Historia
Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas
Carretera México-Toluca #3655
Colonia Lomas de Santa Fe
México, D.F. 01210
Tel. (0052) 5557279826
And submitted by email to &

Posted in academia.

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