My Trip From Hell

Yesterday I flew home from Britain, and it was not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.  The day before — Monday — I had gotten soaked in the rain, but didn’t think much of it.  On Tuesday I got to the airport in plenty of time, got on my flight, ate my dinner.  I set to work on my Edge 3 edit.  Then not quite four hours into a ten and half hour flight I became desperately, vilely ill.  The first thing I discovered is there were no air sickness bags in the bathrooms in business class.  I guess they think business travelers don’t get sick.  I asked the stewardess and they brought me one.  Eventually I had them running all over the plane bringing me many air sickness bags.  I went through five or six before it was all over.  Then I got hit with violent chills.  The cabin crew was lovely.  They made me a hot water bottle and got me an extra blanket.  Unfortunately this began just as we were nosing out of Scotland heading for Iceland.  There was no possibility of setting down.  At one point I really wished they could just open a hatch and throw me out.  Death seemed preferable.

I almost asked them to land in Newfoundland where my doctor/writer/editor/painter buddies live and have them check me into a hospital in St. John’s.  Still I endured until we reached Los Angeles.  I was so weak, and we landed at a remote location that seemed to be in San Diego County.  The top stewardess said it was a bus ride followed by a really long walk to customs and then standing in line at customs and she recommended a wheelchair.  I have never done anything like this before in my life, but I said yes.  I honestly didn’t think I could walk, and I certainly couldn’t have lifted or dragged the suitcase.

The wheelchair guy was just lovely, and I will say — when you are in a wheelchair customs is a breeze.  He recovered my case, and got a porter to take the case.  They took me outside onto the sidewalk, and I tried to contact Lyft.  Only to discover that they won’t come to the airport now.  You have to meet them somewhere else.  That was not going to happen so I hung up and tried to figure out what to do.  When you are weak, sick and dehydrated your brain doesn’t work very well.  I talked to Super Shuttle about getting a private car.  I think the guy could see I was in bad shape.  He said they couldn’t get anybody to the airport for at least 20 to 30 minutes and that it was going to cost as much as a cab.  So I took a cab to Woodland Hills.

This is one of those times when I’m so grateful that I have done okay financially.  I didn’t need to take a van and endure six or seven stops before I got home.  I could just go home.  I don’t want money for money’s sake.  I don’t want to affect other people’s lives.  I mean, not in a bad way like the Koch brothers trying to buy Congress.  I just want to make my life easier, and that’s what happened yesterday.  I got home, sipped on a Coke and went to bed at 8:00 p.m and slept until 8:00 this morning.  I’ve since had another long nap, and I’m starting to think that a saltine cracker or two might not be amiss.

All in all I can not say enough good about the crew on American Airlines flight 135.  They were kind and as helpful as they could be since they weren’t doctors.

Things I’ve Learned About London

So here are a few things that I’ve learned on my last day in London.  Never, ever try to go to a museum, particularly the Victoria & Albert on a bank holiday when it is raining.  The line literally went around the block.  I opted to save this for another trip.

Harrod’s is the Mother Ship of department stores, and it is filled with very expensive and really very gaudy and tasteless things.  Here’s a small sample.

The Tea Room is first rate so I’m betting all the other restaurants are as well.  I finally got to eat Those Little Sandwiches.  I went with the selection of a pea soup with mint drizzle and cream fraiche with watercress.  I had the choice of 3 sandwiches so I went with coronation chicken with almonds, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and egg and cucumber.  It was all delicious.  I have now had English peas three different times and each time they have been remarkable.  They have a different flavor from anything I can get in the States be they fresh, frozen or canned.    Well, I take that back.  At certain times of the year you can get fresh English peas, and I’ll bet they have the same flavor as the peas over here.

I thought about finding some Xmas presents, but everything was just too dear.  Then it was time to find my way out of the building.  That proved to be a daunting task.  I went back by the Egyptian escalator, and snapped a photo.  it doesn’t do it gaudy justice.  There was a sign for a memorial for Diana and Dodi.  I gave that a pass.

Then I was out on the street and went looking for the V&A.  I finally got my Google maps to show me walking which helped.  I reached the museum and there was a line that literally went down the block and around the corner.  It was pissing down rain, and I decided I didn’t want to stand in line for an hour or more just to get inside.  I went hunting for an underground station and went by a flower museum and the science museum that also had long lines (nothing like the V&A, but impressive).  The lesson I have taken away — do not try to go to museums in London on Bank Holidays when it is raining.  I’ll catch the V&A on my next trip and do it on a weekday.

The other fun thing.  My hotel is just around the block from New Scotland Yard.  That had me thinking about the Scotland Yard game I ran for the gang, and how once again George had an obstreperous but very fun character.

I’m contemplating what to eat for dinner.  Indian and Chinese are right out since I’m alone.  I may go the the full Brit experience — beef Wellington or roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.  There is a well recommended restaurant in Trafalgar Square and that’s not quite so far to walk.

I may slip out to visit Westminster Abbey this afternoon.  I love that church and I had my Shepard and Kaidan get married there in my Mass Effect story.  Will be sort of fun to visit it again.

Tomorrow I go home.  I’m glad.  I’m ready.  I miss my cats and horses and friends, and quiet writerly life.

London: The Horse Side of History

After the War Rooms I found myself at an impressive building that housed the Horse Guards.  I’d never visited that museum so I rushed in and spent another hour studying the history of the Horse Guards.  They were founded basically in a reaction to the Civil War and the beheading of Charles I.  The rooms were filled with uniforms and mirror bright cuirasses, sabers, elaborate gold and silver helmets.   And tack.  The horses wear doubly bridles for their parade duties, and the curbs have very long shanks which would put a lot of pressure on a horse’s mouth.  Given the size of the horses and the fact they have to cope with bands and flags and cheering crowds I suppose you’d want that much control.

There was a mock up of the stables with boots and helmets and jackets for kids to try on.  The boots extend well over the knee.  I’d thought that just the lower portion of the boot would be stiff, but they are stiff all the way up.  They must be incredibly uncomfortable to wear much less walk in them.  I thought my Konig’s were stiff — they feel like velvet next to the Horse Guard boots.

The members of the guard spend ten hours a day carrying for their kit and their tack.  I do wish I knew the secret to getting that mirror bright shine on their boots.  I need to buy some black shoe polish and a brush when I get home and apply a little elbow grease.  Maybe that’s all it would take.

There was a large display of actual armor and weapons from Waterloo including the tail of the bay mare that belonged to the man who captured the French Eagle.  I was shouted to learn that Britain lost more men at Waterloo then in WWI.   This small country has certainly endured more than it’s fair share of deadly battles.

After the Horse Guards museum I walked to Trafalgar Square in search of lunch.  I went past the big iron gates that now guard 10 Downing Street.  The last time I was in London you could still walk past the Prime Minister residence.  This is what the “War on Terror” has brought us.  Maybe it is prudent, but it’s depressing and a bad trend when leaders are more an more separate from the people they govern.

After a bite to eat I walked back through the park to Buckingham Palace, bore left and went in search of the Royal Mews.  There I saw the royal carriages — the great gold State Carriage that is over 250 years old and only used for Coronations was amazing.  They have a nice indoor arena.  It’s not as impressive as the one at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, but I think Vento and I would look pretty spiffy in that arched windowed space.

They had a few horses actually in stalls.  Two of the Windsor Greys, but you had to stay well back from them, and two of the Cleveland Bays.  They were older horses.  Concord was a 17 year old gelding and he was cranky as could be.  He kept nipping at his next door neighbor a 21 year old mare named Mary Tudor.  Concord even tried to bite his groom when he went in to clean the stall.

I had a nice conversation with the young woman guard/guide/docent (I’m not sure what to call her).  She actually knew nothing about horses so I was explaining to her horse ear, nose and tail language.  I had a bit of a visit with the groom, and we laughed about Concord being such a crabby bastard.  By then it was four thirty and I decided to head back to the hotel.  I’m not sure how far I’ve walked today — a long way, but at least I got a horse fix that should hold me until Wednesday when I can finally hug my kids.

London and The Weight of History: The War Rooms

I set forth on my wanders at 10:30 this morning, and got back to the hotel at almost 5:00.  All of this was done on foot, I might add.  After consulting a map I struck off in the general direction of the Imperial War Museum, and shortly came upon St. James’s Park.  There are so many impressive buildings, but instinct or luck led me to the War Museum.  I hadn’t ever seen Churchill’s War Rooms so that was the first order of business.  I ended up spending almost two hours in the underground bunkers.  First off, the Brits do things right.  It was a steep fee to enter, but you are given audio guides for free, and the flow of the museum is brilliant.  In addition to the actual War rooms and map rooms there is a large exhibit about Churchill.  I was particularly taken with an interactive screen that had some of his more memorable, humorous and cutting quotes.

There was an eerie sense of having stepped back in time as there were recordings of old radio and news show that had been playing during the Blitz and then the sirens would start, and I felt my heart stutter.  Child of the fifties I remember the drills, my father told me stories of Pearl Harbor Day, and an air raid siren has the power to set my nerves to quivering.  Then an actual recording of Churchill during the Blitz.

Many of the rooms had simply been left in August 1945.  The soldiers and typists and telephone operators just stoop up from their desks, locked up and walked away.  Which meant some of the rooms were time capsules — amber beads buried beneath the streets of London and filled with memories and fears, grief and determination that seemed to cling to the chairs, desks, typewriters, beds, etc.

One of the more touching things for me was an envelop that had three precious sugar cubes inside.  Some young officer had hoarded his sugar ration, and tucked it away in a drawer.  It was still there when the room were reopened decades later.  I wondered who he had been?  Whoever he was I hope he had lots of sugar in the years that would follow.

There was a picture in one room of St. Paul’s surrounded by smoke and flames its dome defiant against a burning sky and it made me think of my friend Connie, and her evocation of that time and the bravery of the Fire Watch.  At LonCon Connie talked about the people who saved the cathedral — they were vergers, and men too old to fight, and choir members, and shop girls who volunteered to sit on the roof night after night and beat back the flames.  It wasn’t just the RAF that stopped Hitler — it was ordinary people refusing to bed under the onslaught.

I found myself with throat aching, and tears blurring my eyes as I contemplated that time and those people, and I wondered if we could rally today?  If we could put aside our resentments to resist a great evil?  I’d like to hope so.

I bought a mug and a t-shirt for myself with the iconic Keep Calm and Carry On slogan.  I think it’s pretty good advice whether you’re facing down fascism or in our time rallying to fight global climate change & murderous fundamentalism of all stripes.

Writers “Rooms”

Despite being fundamentally solitary creatures I think writer’s have a great need for community. Getting to spend a few days in the home of fellow writers Emma Newman and Peter Newman has been bracing and rejuvenating. It’s like being at a convention without all the stress or in a writer’s room in Hollywood without all the stress.

We’ve talked about the business of writing, the craft of writing, run ideas past each other (thanks guys you helped me immeasurably with the tricky bit that’s going to come at the end of the first book of the space opera) our fears and our frustrations. It’s so good to know that other people have experienced or are experiencing the emotions that are bedeviling you.

In addition to all three of us being writers we also share a love of role playing games and video games. I’m also getting a lesson on how really bright, really sensible people raise an amazing child. Their son is only seven, but the brightest most articulate child I’ve ever met.

Oh, and they introduced me to Professor Elemental the most wonderful geek, steam punk rap artist in the world. Actually he’s probably the only geek, steam punk rap artist in the world. Here’s a link to his Facebook page.Professor Elemental

Places of Beauty

I’ve been in Britain for the past week and a half.  The first part was spent at the World Science Fiction Convention in London.  (Largest Worldcon ever).  I met my new editor from Titan books, and the owners of Titan.  Caught up with old friends, made new ones and that was lovely.  Then I took the train down to Somerset to visit with my friends Emma and Peter Newman.  Emma is the author of the SPLIT WORLD series.  You’re heard/read me burbling about how great they are before so if you haven’t read them go find them and read them, and listen to her terrific webcast Tea and Jeopardy.  (She was nominated for a Hugo this year).  Here’s a link to Emma’s website — Ems Place.

Anyway, right now I’m ensconced in the guest bedroom looking out at a grass and tree covered hillside rising up behind the charming stone houses.  There are cows peacefully grazing on that green hillside.  If we lived here my horses would think they had died and gone to heaven.

On Wednesday Pete dropped Emma and I off in Wells for a ramble.  I love this small town.  Narrow twisty streets (if you saw Hot Fuzz you saw Wells), water running down the gutters of the cobblestoned streets.  I was wondering about the source when Emma floored me by saying the water always flowed through the town because of the natural springs.  Water just running away like that.  Not being caught and hoarded.  Wells is famous for it’s cathedral and rightly so.  I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals, all of them beautiful, but Wells may trump them all.  Not only is there the church it’s right in the center of a beautiful garden filled with ponds fed by underground springs and grass and flowers and sculptures.

We entered the nave and the first breathtaking sight was of this, the scissor arch in the center of the building.

It was added later when they realized the central tower was sinking. Not surprising considering how wet the ground must be. It looks amazingly modern, like you’d see it as the superstructure on some spaceship from an advanced alien race.

We moved deeper into the church and came upon the famous clock installed in 1392. It’s not only still there, it’s still operational. It chimes on the quarter hour and the hour, and knights go merrily tilting away at each other.

We next headed up the worn stone steps to the Chapter House. I had once read that the Chapter House in the Wells Cathedral was the most beautiful in Britain, and having now seen it I would have to agree. The pillars culminate against the vaulted ceiling in a spray of stone ribs that look like frozen fireworks. Each boss in the ceiling is unique. Now I wish I had brought a camera because I’m having trouble finding an image of the actual chapter house. Here’s a picture from the main floor of the cathedral that will give you some idea. Just picture this in a small round room with a stone bench running around the outer wall.

It was market day in Wells so when we left the church this courtyard like area was filled with booths selling fresh fish, meats, breads, fruit, crafts of all kinds. I saw a box of raspberries where the berries were so large I thought they were strawberries at first. Apparently this area of Somerset was famous for it’s strawberries and Emma told me they had a special rail line just to take the strawberries to London.

We paused for an Elevenses of tea. I ordered a cream tea, thick clotted cream, strawberry jam and 2 of the largest scones I’ve ever seen. I ended up taking one home, and then Pete just bought some clotted cream at the local market. The stuff we get imported in the States is okay, but nothing like the local cream. After that we wandered through the gardens. The Cathedral cat passed us with a mouse in her mouth. Then she decided we were interesting so she followed us on our ramble. I got a in a lot cat petting which was good, I’m really missing my kids. An iron gate that had always been closed when Emma came before was open so we darted through the the end of the cathedral and studied the way all the sections came together. The gargoyles were perfect and had me thinking the the gargoyle in Emma’s book. Oh, and just stuck on the roof next to one of the gargoyles was a man’s head. (No, not a real one, this isn’t Game of Thrones). A small stone face with an odd grimace.

Titan wants me to come over to Britain fairly often. I think I’m going to be happy to oblige and I’ll be spending a few more days in Wells.

800 Years

 

As I’ve watched the world in general and the Middle East in particular go up in flames I’ve found myself thinking about the power of social media, and the weakness of the theory that democracy can be sprayed onto a culture and a people.  Or in the case of the Iraq war — delivered by the barrel of gun.

First social media.  Once upon a time the world was big.  How people lived in countries on the far side of the Earth wasn’t readily available.  In the States every family had that subscription to National Geographic where from our safe little houses we looked at “those quaint people with their quaint customs.”  

For people in the developing world they didn’t have a convenient window on life in America and Europe.  Then cell phones replaced the laborious task of wiring an entire country, and Facebook, and Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram became available to all, and suddenly we were all sharing our lives — everything from break ups to pictures of our new car or new baby, new house.  So it’s completely understandable why average people living in abject poverty would raise their heads, look at their (often) corrupt leaders and ask — “Why the hell is my life such shit and their lives are so much better?”

And so the Arab Spring began.

The tragedy is that there was no institutional structure to help these people in their struggles for political power, economic advancement, educational opportunities.  Because democracy is hard as are market based economies.

The braying statements that America is just special, blessed by god, truly exceptional is just nonsense.  Our ability to craft a democratic republic is because we had the good fortune to start our revolution near the culmination of hundreds of years of painful and halting development of the institutions and concepts that could support that democracy.

Many of these countries that are riven with strife and turmoil don’t have the institutions in place to support the needs and hopes of their citizens.  They haven’t had their Magna Carta (1215 a.d.) which gave us the first concept of Due Process.  (Yes, it was initially intended to only apply to the nobility, but the fact it existed allowed people to make the argument that its clauses should apply to all people. )

The concept of habeas corpus was present in common law and then enshrined in 1679.  The British Bill of Rights was passed in 1689 which established the right of freedom of speech in Parliament, and the requirement of regular elections.  The point being that we’ve had 800 years to develop these concepts and the institutions that support them.

Does it have to take centuries for these ideas to become embedded in a society?  Probably not especially with our modern information network, but before people can be secure in their persons and their property there will have to be court systems in place to adjudicate those rights, and political entities willing to enforce those laws in an even handed manner, and a way to remove those politicians who don’t abide by the laws.

And sadly for a lot of people that’s probably going to take longer then they would like.

Writer Woes

I’m having one of those days where I am questioning everything about this current novel.  I finished a book that is just one action event after another, and my book has none of that because it’s set in the first year at a military academy, and it’s establishing all the relationships and the world and setting up all these hooks that will pay off later.  The violence will take place on the sports field, and in a duel, and training exercises gone wrong, but the big kabooms can’t hit yet.

But then I became terrified that this would be boring.  And maybe I was doing it all wrong?  I’ve set trying to shoehorn in action, gun play, something even while knowing that’s the wrong approach.

Why are writers so damn insecure?

A Change In Perspective

I had an interesting experience on Tuesday.  I went to work in the morning, and started rereading the scene I had written the day before.  The scene had been fighting me, and I couldn’t figure out why.  As I reread I suddenly realized that this particular professor wasn’t giving a standard lecture.  He was reacting to a profound change that had occurred at this military academy, and that this was off the cuff.   I went back and just subtly changed the emphasis and the focus.  Most of the dialogue stayed exactly the same, but suddenly the scene came to life.

As I was writing I also realized that what I was doing was foreshadowing events that were going to happen in book 3.  That made me jump up out of my chair and do a happy dance.  I don’t think you can rely completely on your subconscious.  I think you have to plot, but damn within the cracks around the plot you can let your subconscious work, and it will probably help you deepen and intensify your writing.

The Amazing(ly Awful) Spiderman

I never thought I would write these words, but the Toby McGuire Spiderman 3 was a better movie than the current incarnation playing in the theaters now.  Not to say Spiderman 3 wasn’t an impressive shit sandwich, but The Amazing Spiderman with Andrew Garfield is so much worse and so horrible on so many levels.

Why did I see it?  I was taking a young relative who has crush on Andrew Garfield, and who am I to cast stones with my mad crush on Tom Hiddelston?  There is also the fact that for me this is homework.  I need to see what’s being done — or in this case done to the audience.

I’ll start by giving the faint praise I can muster — there was one scene early on that had Spidey quipping and joking as he rescued stolen uranium from a group of Russian mobsters.  Putting aside for the moment that Russian mobsters could probably buy all the weapons grade uranium they could possibly want back in Mother Russia for the cost of a few rubles and some vodka, it at least had the Peter Parker cocky, joking quality that is present in the comics.

There was a scene between Peter and Harry Osborn that felt very authentic.  Two boys at the cusp of manhood, uncomfortable with emotion, but happy to be reunited talking and joking in this awkward way where emotion is hidden under insults.  I had to put aside the fact they seemed not to have any contact for years, but at least the scene felt more real to may than any thing else in the film.

Because the movie as a whole was so terrible I was sure that the writers would have Gwen set aside her own dreams of Oxford to be with Peter because he loves her and needs her.  At least they didn’t do that.  Instead he offers to follow her to England so they can be together, but she can still pursue her goals.  Probably one of the reasons I feared the woman-as-helpmate outcome was the fact that Gwen never just “said the words” in the famous advice from my old Star Trek boss.  I wanted her to tell him straight up that her goals were as important as his, and he didn’t get to blackmail her with his need.

Now the awfulness.  

Try as I might I just don’t like Garfield in this role.  He seems manipulative in every one of his relationships from Aunt May to Gwen to Harry to poor old Max.  I have no sense of his life as Peter Parker.  Unlike the terrific Rami Spiderman 2 there are no scenes of Peter applying for college or being in classes, or helping out his aunt.  There’s fighting crime and throwing temper tantrums.

I’m struggling to figure out how to dissect this mess.  I guess I’ll start with just some summery.  

There is a teaser that I guess was supposed to cue me as to which of the multiplicity of plots I was supposed to give a damn about.  It’s Mommy and Daddy Parker getting croaked on an airplane and doing uploady computer stuff.  Then the movie starts with Spiderman doing his derring do. 

Then a bunch of unrelated things happen and villains appear.   There was a brief moment of hope that Max the down trodden engineer would have an honest and recognizable human emotion, but no.  Instead he is presented as a nut who goes from loneliness and sadness to rage without any indication that murderous anger was in his nature.  His obsession with Spiderman was creepy and for me unbelievable.  And there are so many subplots that are thrown in that go nowhere and are frankly stupid.  There’s the fact his plans for this power grid were stolen.  Okay, I get it OsCorp is evil, but they also shouldn’t be stupid.  You have a guy this smart you give him his own division.  You don’t steal his designs.  You pay him well and keep him inside the tent.  Then at points he’s almost treated like high tech janitor.  Which is he?  Scut worker or engineer?  I felt sorry for Jamie Foxx stuck in this movie.

And then there’s Harry.  Oh god, how many subplots did we have to lard onto this movie?  There’s the C runner of a boy rejected and isolated from his father that’s suppose to echo to Peter’s rage over his father’s abandonment, but I don’t know why it’s there.  They never discuss their daddy issues.  There’s the strange genetic disease that took sixty-two year to kill daddy, but is croaking the kid at twenty.  There’s the struggle for control of the corporation.  There’s his obsession with Spiderman, and the rather unsupported belief that Spidey’s blood will save him.  That’s some leap of logic.  There’s discovering all the secret projects at OsCorp where he gets the Green Goblin suit.  Really, OsCorp is going to be the evil nexus for all the villains in the Spiderman universe?  

Harry also goes nuts really quickly which means that both villains become cartoons almost as soon as they appear.  There is absolutely none of the beautiful nuance that Alfred Molina brought to the role of Doc Ock.

I think the studio realized this movie wasn’t working so in a desperate attempt to gin up some kind of emotional reaction they just kept throwing in more jeopardy.  Max aka Electro causes a citywide blackout and then we have two jumbo jets about to collide in the airspace over New York.  When that happened I had to control my strong desire to either curse or giggle.  Probably giggle.  I didn’t want to spoil my companions enjoyment of the movie by making my contempt quite so plain.

And let’s not forget the cliched Nazi… er German doctor who is experimenting on Electro in some creepy building like an abandoned asylum.  Because of course OsCorp would have its secret projects in such a setting.

There’s more false jeopardy when Gwen decides to investigate Max and she gets chased by evil security guards.

Let’s not forget the whole subplot about what happened to Peter’s daddy (apparently mommy didn’t matter too much).  It isn’t until he throws another petulant temper tantrum and throws some of daddy’s possessions across the room that he discover the old fashioned subway tokens hidden in the back of a calculator.  Peter is supposed to be smart.  In all these years it never occurred to him to open the back of the calculator?  The minute I saw the objects from the briefcase I knew there was something hidden inside.

Now we come to the absolute shit cherry on the top for me.  The secret superhero base that dad constructed out of his spare coffee and lunch money that no one in the transit division ever noticed being built.  If Peter had just found the abandoned station, and a small box with a computer inside I would have thought it was silly, but not moronic.  Then the tracks opened and a subway car filled with a high tech lab pops up like a figure in a jack-in-the-box, and I knew this movie was truly worse than Spiderman 3.

We wind down to a final climactic battle with both bad guys.  Gwen dies.  Yawn.  Aunt May says something moving.  Peter puts back on the suit.  Little kid (awwwww) faces down the Rhino — who of course is the crazy Russian from the opening sequence.  Spidey arrives to save the day.

Finally it was over.  I kept thinking it was never going to end.  Two hours and twenty minutes which felt like two years.  God only knows how many millions of dollars, and this is what we got.  Audiences deserve better.  My advice to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier or X-Men Days of Future Past for a superhero fix.  If you haven’t seen this film — Don’t.

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Who knows most, doubts most. — Robert Browning (1812-1889)

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