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On Alex Hazlehurst’s London job search

Alex Hazlehurst’s anecdote isn’t everything. Neither is yours.

The New Zealand Herald published an article by a young Kiwi professional on Monday, detailing her struggles finding work in Britain. The article’s author, Alex Hazlehurst, was roundly criticised—belittled, even—on both mainstream and social media. The Herald published several pieces by responding authors.

This is all very dumb. Of course Ms Hazlehurst was mistaken to think she would walk into a job in London. But that was the whole point of her piece. She wrote to warn her compatriots of something that she learnt the hard way, and that, well… a lot of us already knew, or could have guessed.

None of this justifies the mocking that has come about on social media since. Perhaps she did feel entitled, perhaps her expectations were too high, and perhaps, unlike responding author Claire Nelson, she was misinformed. But a lot of people are wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time. We should cut some slack for this; the question is whether they realise they’re wrong when confronted with evidence. Ms Hazlehurst concluded that she “got a very large reality check” in her time in Britain. It seems like she’s learnt her lesson.

More concerning is the tendency for others to rebut her claims with their own anecdotes, as if they are somehow more canonical than Ms Hazlehurst’s. That’s the thing about anecdotes though: they’re not data. No anecdote, on its own, is any more valid than any other anecdote. People who self-righteously lecture Ms Hazlehurst about how they “worked hard” or “didn’t expect anything” have no higher claim on the expat story than her or anyone else.

Even if the plural of anecdote were data, statistics don’t apply to the individual. No two people face exactly the same circumstances; Ms Hazlehurst’s are no less unique. Some of her struggle was her own imperfections, to be sure, but anyone honestly reflecting on their career knows that luck plays a part.

That said, while anecdotes should be taken with a grain of salt, they offer us something data don’t: an insight into the experiences and thoughts of those who live them. For anyone thinking of moving to Britain, the perspectives of Mses Hazlehurst and Nelson, and Mark Hucke, are all worth reading. Those who come after them might experience parallels or something entirely different, or somewhere in between. One thing I’ve learnt since my undergraduate degree is that you can’t just statistics your way through career progression. For things other than aggregate market trends, anecdotes are often all you’ve got to work with. Many will contradict each other, but all will shed just a little more light on what you might do.

I don’t know what it’s like to move to Britain and start looking for work. I’ve never tried it. I’m generally happy to engage in critiques of empirical or moral assertions. Ms Hazlehurst’s article was neither: she was merely recounting her experience to date. Those with competing anecdotes—and those without!—would do well to keep that in mind. If you’re going to “offer” her any advice, at least be encouraging about it.

On transracial and transgender identity

Somewhere, there’s a distinction between them that doesn’t beg the question. I’m still looking for it.

Some commentators have been quick to denounce comparisons between Rachel Dolezal’s “transracial” self-identity and Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender one. My intuition is that they probably are different, and I’ve been trying to understand why. But I don’t have any good answers, only more questions. To be clear, nothing in this post should be taken to mean I think transracial and transgender identities are actually analogous. I’m just struggling to find a satisfactory reason why they’re not. Here are a few of the arguments I’ve seen.

On Mic, Darnell Moore asserts that Ms Dolezal “falsely represented her identity” and thus “practiced cultural theft”. Trans people, on the other hand, “express their gender according to categories that reflect who they are.” This begs the question. Essentially, Mr Moore has told us that one identity claim is legitimate (transgender) and one is false (transracial). But which identities are legitimate and false was the whole question in the first place.

“Skin color is hereditary,” he then tells us, as does Lourdes Hunter. But some people also think that one’s chromosomes (and their biological consequences) determine their gender identity. Clearly, we could define gender identity by biological parts, but we expressly reject this idea. Instead, we posit a gender identity distinct from our bodies, innate and subjective to the individual. All Mr Moore and Ms Hunter do is assert that we should do this for gender and not race. It’s still unclear why we think there’s a distinction between them.

Similarly, Meredith Talusan argues at the Guardian that Ms Dolezal’s “decision to identify as black was an active one, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” It seems odd at first to claim to read Ms Dolezal’s mind like this, but Ms Talusan explains: “her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence.” Thus, Ms Talusan provides one detail to Mr Moore’s assertion: the mechanism by which one gains the identity matters.

But it’s not really clear where we gained the right to claim Ms Dolezal’s identity is not “fundamental”. Imagine that the parents of a genderfluid or nonbinary person successfully persuaded their child that they were male, and they came to realize their identity only after exposure to a genderqueer community later in life. I like to think we wouldn’t deny them their identity, just because their upbringing didn’t allow them to experience it.

Some commentators, like Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart on Slate, take a more pragmatic approach. They point out (correctly) that transgender people are a marginalized group. Ms Dolezal, on the other hand, is a member of a privileged group, namely, white people, which makes it inappropriate to adopt someone else’s culture. Again, this begs the question. It assumes Ms Dolezal is not transracial (i.e., is white) in order to demonstrate that she is not transracial. The (valid) idea that someone in a privileged position should not appropriate an oppressed identity could be similarly, and similarly fallaciously, used by transgender critics: People assigned male at birth are also part of a privileged group. Genderqueer advocates generally reject that this means trans females are not actually female.

More to the point, though, a primary means of marginalization of transgender people is the denial of their identity: an insistence that they must fit not only into the gender binary, but into the side of the binary that we tell them. And the reason transracial people aren’t oppressed is because… well, we don’t really hear about transracial people. Prima facie, this is evidence of oppression, not the lack thereof: they can’t even out themselves as transracial because they’ll (presumably) be ostracized. But more directly, denying Ms Dolezal her claimed identity is precisely what her critics are now doing. Once again, we have come full circle. We might then say that this ostracization is justified because Ms Dolezal’s claimed identity is false, but then we’re question-begging again.

With this in mind, even citing a need to fight transphobia begs the question. This need, and the lack of a need to fight transraciophobia, rely on the premise that transgender people legitimately self-identify, and transracial people do not. But that premise is exactly our conclusion.

Now, even if transracial identity were a valid concept, this wouldn’t necessarily excuse Ms Dolezal. There are plenty of other reasons why we might criticize her. We might question her integrity or motives. Perhaps we would have rather that Ms Dolezal had been open about her background from the start, rather than had her (former) whiteness revealed only when she reached top NAACP leadership positions. Perhaps our real objection is that Ms Dolezal is claiming the same types of oppression as those faced by black people; transgender people, on the other hand, at least according to some commentators, face different sorts of oppression to ciswomen. Maybe we’ve just decided that Ms Dolezal is a horrible liar and we should listen to nothing she says. These are all appreciable sentiments, even if some are rather insulting. But none of them provide ground for the sort of sweeping statements that have filled the internet about the non-existence of transrace as a concept.

My intuition is that transracial people aren’t a thing, and that however much Ms Dolezal identifies with black culture, she’s not actually black. But I know better than to trust my intuitions: they’ve misguided me many times in the past, and will doubtless do so many times in the future. I would, therefore, like to understand why my intuitions run this way. I’m still thinking.

Some friends of mine offered some very useful thoughts as I was drafting this post. Thanks to all of them.

Addendum: After I wrote my first draft, I realized that Matt Bruenig’s already written a similar post.

Follow the majority that agrees with me, part 2

The Greens continue to make up principles of democracy as they go. Why can’t they just stick to the real arguments on military deployment?

In 2013, amid polls showing 70% public opposition but majority support in Parliament, Russel Norman criticised the government loudly about its lack of respect for public opinion on state asset sales. Dr Norman refused analogies with the 2007 smacking bill (which enjoyed some 90% public opposition but majority parliamentary support), citing the “overwhelming majority” in Parliament with which the latter passed, but he never articulated a criterion for when a public majority should be heeded.

Now, on the deployment of New Zealand defence personnel to Iraq, Dr Norman is proposing yet another mode of democratic accountability. This time, Dr Norman does not propose a referendum. Rather, he (and Labour’s Andrew Little) suggests that Parliament should get to vote on the matter. Dr Norman, again, criticises John Key for making the decision “without a mandate”.

Yet a parliamentary mandate was not enough for Dr Norman to be content with asset sales, nor was an overwhelming parliamentary majority enough for his party in 2001 to support the (Labour) government’s decision to deploy personnel to Afghanistan. And while Dr Norman makes reference to the public in his speech, he’s clearly much more obsessed with Parliament’s right to weigh in on this matter. What gives?

It’s fairly obvious how Dr Norman is choosing which mandates to talk about, just as it’s obvious why Mr Key will not run a parliamentary vote on this deployment, and why Helen Clark was happy for Parliament to vote on the 2001 decision. Mr Key knows he would lose this vote; Ms Clark knew she would win that one. Dr Norman is pressing on mandates whenever he happens to be in the majority—just as I pointed out when writing about asset sales in December 2013.

In other words, everyone is running or advocating whichever procedure will favour them.

Where does the power actually lie?
It’s worth saying that the vote in 2001 was not a vote of authorisation. It did happen, but the resolution was that the “House declares its support” for New Zealand’s contributions to the coalition. It was a symbolic vote—a nice feel-good for the government, but not a necessary one.

Constitutionally, the power to make military deployments (and declare war) is part of the royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister (ref). Parliament doesn’t get any sort of veto right (unless it passes legislation to give itself one). It does, of course, have the role of holding ministers accountable for their decisions and there are a range of means (questions, urgent debates, debates after ministerial statements) to do so.

Dr Norman knows this, of course: notice his rhetoric is about “mandate”, not “authority” or “power”. And one might advance a good case for why the power to commit military personnel should lie only with the legislature, not the executive. But that’s not the system we have today, and until that changes, we shouldn’t pretend it’s how things work. A system that people kept having to second-guess to get right would collapse pretty quickly.

Just make the argument
Parties are entitled to be opposed to military deployment, just as they are entitled to hold stances on any other issue. And there is no obligation to be part of the majority, or to advocate the stance held by the majority, or to implement it. If there were, the Greens would be a very different party: most of their views, after all, would place them in the minority of the New Zealand public.

But the reasons the left should be using are the actual reasons they oppose military action: because they think it is more likely to inflame the situation than help it, or because they think New Zealand lives aren’t worth risking, or perhaps something else. That is, in itself, a substantive debate, and—credit where it is due—one that Dr Norman and the Greens are duly engaging in. It would just be nice if that’s what their rhetoric focussed on, rather than some moving goalposts about when the government should care for which majority.

To avoid doubt: Astute readers will have noticed that (a) this post spares Andrew Little from the same criticism, because while he moved for a vote, that detail was not his emphasis, and (b) this post did not advocate a position on the substantive case for or against deployment except to say there was one.

On Eleanor Catton and expectations of ambassadors

The furore over Eleanor Catton’s comments has been silly. Here’s a genuine attempt to make it less silly.

My original draft of this post was a rant about how ridiculous the Catton–Plunket debate’s been, with responses to all the frustratingly stupid things everyone—both sides, in both mainstream and social media—has been saying. Then I realised that won’t help much, so I decided to focus on what I’d rather see discussed instead.

Boil the partisanship out of this fallout (yes, I know, I have short patience for partisans) and you have two very interesting and tightly related questions:

  1. How should people made “ambassadors” of New Zealand by virtue of their achievements represent us overseas?
  2. In what circumstances is it okay for high-profile people, other than politicians, to opine on New Zealand politics?

Being a good ambassador
It’s easiest to start with what we shouldn’t expect. I don’t expect our unofficial ambassadors to be unreservedly praising. The most obvious practical reason is that listeners get rightly sceptical when someone talks as if their country were perfect. Every country has flaws; those who speak not of them are hiding something.

But there are better reasons to be frank than just avoiding cynicism. Firstly, putting New Zealand on the map isn’t just about singing praises, it’s about building connections with our overseas friends. This is easier when you can compare and contrast the challenges that your countries face. Not everything is, or needs to be, directly comparable—for countless reasons many of India’s challenges are on different axes to ours. But you build mutual respect better when you’re open about what they are.

Secondly, it is—I like to think—a reflection of New Zealand that people can speak openly about their government and culture. Our opinions aren’t uniform and it’s just as well that others are exposed to that fact. To the extent that this freedom is one of the things we’re admired for, we should act like it’s true everywhere—not just on domestic land.

Are there limits? Certainly, I expect accounts of fact to be accurate. That is, opinions should be qualified as such if it isn’t obvious from the context. But anyone who says their country is “dominated by neo-liberal, very shallow” politicians is obviously expressing an opinion. Here, it’s worth drawing a distinction: if being successful makes one an ambassador, it’s for our country, not our government. It’s reasonable to disagree with Ms Catton, but the fact of her expression should be of no more concern than if she had said it at home.

So we’ve established that our informal ambassadors shouldn’t just be fountains of incessant praise. Next question: should they say anything at all?

Opining on politics
Perhaps unwittingly, people have been implying some weird criteria for when it is acceptable to opine publicly. Sean Plunket seemed to think that anyone supported by taxpayers should avoid “bagging” the country. Several have lamented the association of politics with, well, specialties that aren’t politics. Many, particularly on the left, have leapt to Ms Catton’s defence by pointing out that she’s “correct”, “telling it like it is”, or words to that effect.

This is all very silly. The silencing effect of counting everyone whose paychecks come from taxpayers, even more if you count private companies with government contracts, would be breathtaking. Politics should be a topic for everyone, not just politicians. And it doesn’t matter whether Ms Catton is “correct”. We don’t abridge the right to speak just because someone is incorrect.

The better answer is simpler: it is always acceptable to talk about politics. Good democratic systems require the free exchange of perspectives on political issues. Governments improve because they are criticised; the best ideas are known only when not muted. There is nothing about being a successful writer (or an “intellectual”) that makes one different.

A handful of people, like David Farrar, adopt a more nuanced approach: of course Ms Catton should express her views, but it was poor form to do so before an international audience. Perhaps, indeed, it is not the most productive forum. It would be bizarre if she had inserted those comments into a speech, say, intended to inspire budding creative writers.

It’s a shame, then, that mainstream New Zealand media neglected to report the context of her remarks. My best efforts fail to find an original transcript, but we do know that it was in an interview. Ms Catton told the Guardian that it “had been formatted to edit out the questions, […] ‘rather like a disgruntled ranting person to whom a new thought keeps occurring’.” If she got asked a question on the topic, it’s sensible to give an answer—and not to shy away from doing so.


All this is to say that Ms Catton was not only within her rights to speak candidly about New Zealand: it was her imperative to do so. And it’s of no relevance that she was wrong, right, or (more likely in my view) a mixture of the two. One of our country’s most basic characteristics, and one too easily taken for granted, is that we thrive on a robust exchange of opinions. It would be a disservice to hide that trait from the rest of the world.

On the Labour leadership election

Critics of Labour’s electoral college system should be careful with their logic.

There’s been a lot of commentary about how perverse it is that Andrew Little won the Labour leadership pretty much because of support in the unions. I sympathise, but if that’s why it’s a problem that Mr Little won, it’s worth asking exactly what you want from the voting system.

Here’s the thing: Whenever you grant any person, group or other actor any right to vote, you must accept that there is at least some circumstance in which they can single-handedly change the outcome. If there isn’t, then there’s literally zero—not just negligible—chance of impact from the vote, so why would you bother with it?

So when Labour’s electoral college gives the unions any weight greater than zero, it must expect that a situation like today’s, where a candidate lost the caucus and membership but still won the leadership, is possible. Conversely, if it bothers you that Mr Little basically rode in on union support, then you have to advocate that the unions should have no say in the Labour leadership at all.

Now, to be honest, this is pretty much my position, and I’m sure commentators outraged at how the result was achieved would agree. But this requires more than just the observation that the unions don’t agree with caucus or the membership. The fact that there’s a split in opinion there doesn’t imply that the unions are wrong.

The question of whether the unions should have a say can be answered only by asking what the Labour Party is supposed to be about. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade unions, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that they have a stake in the leadership. History isn’t alone good reason, though. The Labour Party is supposed to be a government-in-waiting (or ideally, a government), and there’s a strong argument that any formalised union influence detracts from that role.

This all also means that the fact that Mr Little had 76% union support in the final round isn’t part of the argument. If you want to give unions weight, then presumably you’d accept that the stronger one’s support there, the bigger the potential impact it should have on the final outcome. (I suppose you could have a winner-takes-all scheme like America’s Electoral College, but I hope you’ll agree that’s much worse.) People keep pointing to the numbers as if the extent of the union victory has some particular impact on the result’s legitimacy. Yet I bet if the caucus, members and unions were all close, and it was ultimately the unions that got Mr Little over the line, these critics would still all be saying the same thing

The only qualitative argument I can think of is that Mr Little’s support came about because of his former role as a union boss, so the unions were installing “one of their own”. Perhaps it would be better if Labour’s electors tried to be more objective, but presumably the unions were backing Mr Little because they actually thought he’d do a good job. How is the fact that that belief came from prior experience any different to any other support based on prior work someone’s done with a candidate?

The problem isn’t that the numbers fell a certain way. It’s that Labour instituted a leadership system that obsesses so much with itself that it insists accountability to a weird numerical mash-up of three distinct, and often clashing, parts. If we want to leave one part out of it, then use substantive arguments about why the unions shouldn’t matter, not just an observation that they can, and do, sway the result.

A growing swing to the left in the special votes

The Greens and Labour have been doing increasingly well in the special votes, and National increasingly poorly.

I did a projection, based on the 2011 results, that the Greens probably wouldn’t pick up the extra seat they often do from special votes. But I didn’t call it a prediction, partly because I didn’t intend it to be, but also because the numbers had the Greens only narrowly missing out on that 14th seat. So if the Greens had pushed just a tad further and made it over the line, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I said it was going to be close.

As it happened, it wasn’t close. The Greens had nearly 5,000 votes to spare.

Party Preliminary Projected final Project vs prelim Actual final Actual vs project Actual vs prelim
% Seats % Seats % Seats
National 48.06% 61 47.36% 61 -0.69% 47.04% 60 -0.33% -1.02%
Labour 24.69% 32 25.11% 32 +0.42% 25.13% 32 +0.02% +0.44%
Greens 10.02% 13 10.52% 13 +0.50% 10.70% 14 +0.18% +0.67%
NZ First 8.85% 11 8.54% 11 -0.30% 8.66% 11 +0.12% -0.19%
Māori 1.29% 2 1.38% 2 +0.09% 1.32% 2 -0.06% +0.04%
Act 0.69% 1 0.69% 1 -0.00% 0.69% 1 +0.01% +0.00%
UF 0.22% 1 0.21% 1 -0.00% 0.22% 1 +0.01% +0.00%
Conservative 4.12% 0 3.93% 0 -0.19% 3.97% 0 +0.04% -0.15%
IM 1.26% 0 1.39% 0 +0.12% 1.42% 0 +0.03% +0.16%

To be more specific: The Greens saw their 14th seat shoot not just past National’s 61st, but also past its 60th, to become the 119th quotient. This meant the Greens had room to spare: 4,873 votes less (with no redistribution) and they would’ve stayed on 13, or National would have needed 21,836 more to get to 61. (This is more than the ~18,800 “votes per seat” because National also has the 120th quotient.) For comparison, my projection had the Greens needing 1,139 more than projected to pick up a 14th seat.

Changes in context
What happened? I suggested there were reasons why the specials might swing further left in my projection post:

  • The number of overseas voters doubled this election compared to 2011.
  • Some universities had on-campus polling booths, where a lot of students would have cast advance special votes.

Further on the second point, as Jonathan Marshall suggested on Twitter, unlike 2011’s, this election was during the university semester so more students would have been outside their electorates in the first place.

But I certainly didn’t expect any combination of these effects to add to 5,000 more votes for the Greens alone, so I suspect there’s something else. Also, those reasons are just speculation. For all we know, it could even be related to migration patterns (including domestic migration), though I don’t know that those have actually been changing. The full statistics that the Electoral Commission will release in about two weeks might offer a bit more insight, but it’s hard to discern.

A growing swing since 2008
Beneath this swing, there might be an underlying trend. The Greens have traditionally done well on special votes, of course. But they’re doing increasingly better on specials than they used to, at least since 2008. (I couldn’t easily find preliminary results for 2005.)


The first set of columns is the special vote percentage divided by the preliminary result (so < 1 means a drop), and the second set is the difference between the specials (not total) and preliminary result in percentage points.

Now, take the sparklines with a grain of salt. The scales aren’t consistent between cells, and they each only have three data points anyway.* Also, the two sets of columns are just different measures for the same phenomenon, so the fact that it happens twice adds no weight. (I did both while trying to find a more consistent predictor of special vote impact, and couldn’t.)

But they do broadly indicate an improving trend for Labour and the Greens, and the opposite for National. And the trend isn’t small. In 2008, National lost 0.52 points from specials; this year, they lost 1.02 points. The Greens have gone from gaining 0.29 points to 0.67 points. One seat’s “worth of votes” is roughly 0.83 per cent, a bit less if you allow for wasted votes.

If I were in the National Party, I’d be concerned about this trend. As it stands, National is generally expected to lose a seat to the Greens on specials. But the Greens are getting increasingly good at this, and are picking up the seat even when the numbers suggest the increase won’t be enough.

For people who like numbers, here’s the spreadsheet I used for these calculations: Special vote impact projection 2014. It’s an extended version of the projection spreadsheet I posted earlier.

*Although there are only three data points, they are reliable since they are true by definition, not a sample. (Turnout is interesting for other reasons, but it’s the final result that matters here.) I’d be more worried about short-term circumstances giving the illusion of a long-term trend. The value of adding anything before 2005 might be questionable though, since the situation a decade ago might lose relevance to today.

The minimum swing needed in the special votes for the Greens to steal that seat

A 4.6-point swing in specials relative to preliminary, about 0.6 points more than my projection, would get the Greens a 14th seat at National’s expense. But even less might be sufficient.

I think a projection, which I posted yesterday, is more useful information that the “minimum required swing” calculations that I did for the 2011 election. But if anyone is interested in knowing exactly what the Greens need to clear the bar, here is that spreadsheet I did in 2011, updated with 2014 data: Required changes in special votes to steal seats, 2014 election.

I won’t go through all the various possibilities. If you’re curious, feel free to do that yourself using the spreadsheet. The situation that is most interesting, because (other than no change) it’s most likely, is where the Greens would pick up a 14th seat in exchange for National’s 61st (and absolute majority).

The Greens would need to swing +4.60 points in the special votes alone (not total votes), relative to the preliminary count, to take a seat. I have them projected to swing +4.05 points, so this isn’t unrealistic.

Here’s the catch: In the preliminary results, Labour has the 120th quotient and National the 119th. This means that Labour would lose a seat before National. So they need to gain a little to make sure it’s National, not them, who loses the seat. This isn’t hard: they’re 561 votes away (relative to an assumption that specials are distributed identically to preliminary), or +0.19 points. My projection has them well ahead of this.

So the “minimum change required” situation has both Labour and the Greens taking from National. You’ll notice in the table below that the Greens don’t actually need National to lose as much as it did in my projection: -4.79 points, not as much as my projected loss of -5.58 points.

In terms of absolute votes, this is a swing of 1,648 relative to my projection. I said in my last post that 1,129 votes more would suffice. The assumptions behind these figures are different. The projection margin (1,129) assumes that the Greens only gain votes, and no-one loses any, i.e. it’s likely to be an overestimate (not by double though—the equivalent National loss is 5,058). The “minimum required” swing (1,648 relative to projection) assumes that all other parties perform in the specials identically to the preliminary result. Historically (and hence in my projection) most left-wing parties do better in the specials at National’s expense, and these help the Greens too. So this is also likely to be an overestimate, probably more so.

So really, the most important hope for the Greens to hang on to is that they will perform about 0.6 points, or maybe (depending on what else happens) even just 0.35 points, better in the special votes than the 2011 swings might imply.* As I said in my last post, it’s certainly possible, but it’ll be very close. If I were Steffan Browning or Maureen Pugh, I’d have a very nervous two weeks ahead.

Party Preliminary Projection Special required Change on prelim Change on projection Total required Change on prelim
National 48.06% 42.48% < 43.26% -4.79% +0.79% < 47.47% -0.59%
Labour 24.69% 28.10% > 24.88% +0.19% -3.22% > 24.71% +0.02%
Green 10.02% 14.07% > 14.63% +4.60% +0.56% > 10.59% +0.57%

* My projection applies the 2011 preliminary-to-special swings multiplicatively, not additively, to the 2014 preliminary result. A full method description is in the post describing the projection.


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