Two Perspectives in Ecology

Now this is where I'm getting creative in my blogging and making allowances I would not have made before. I'm reading two books partially, as only sections of them are available, for some reason. They are essentially seminar texts, but considerably lengthier than articles, and embedded in a book. They are "partials", and there might be more such partial readings coming in the future. Thus I'll report them partially, as multiple books within one post. Conveniently, these two present two different perspectives in ecology: phenomenological and anthropological.

Abram, David 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.
...phenomenology is the Western philosophical tradition that has most forcefully called into question the modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality. (Abram 1997: 31)
The key word here seems to be "forcefully". Not most effectively, not most prudently or resultfully, but most forcefully.
Yet these sciences consistently overlook our ordinary, everyday experience of the world around us. Our direct experience is necessarily subjective, necessarily relative to our own position or place in the midst of things, to our particular desires, tastes, and concerns. The everyday world in which we hunger and make love is hardly the mathematically determined "object" toward which the sciences direct themselves. (Abram 1997: 32)
Not that these tenets are true any more; in fact I'm fairly sure they haven't been true since the 1950s and the many followers of Alfred Schutz.
Indeed, the ostensibly "value-free" results of our culture's investigation into biology, physics, and chemistry ultimately come to display themselves in the open and uncertain field of everyday life, whether embedded in social policies with which we must come to terms of embodied in new technologies with which we all must grapple. Thus, the living world - this ambiguous realm that we experience in anger and joy, in grief and in love - is both the soil in which all out sciences are rooted and the rich humus into which their results ultimately return, whether as nutrients, or as poisons. Ou spontaneous experience of the world, charged with subjective, emotional, and intuitive content, remains the vital and dark ground of all our objectivity. (Abram 1997: 33-34)
This is exactly why upon first reading I became frustrated with this long text - it goes on and on, with grace and beauty, with investing the world joyfully with subjectivity. It is more akin to an extremely well written student essay than a philosophical piece that says something. It seems to repeat beautiful phenomenological catchphrases without thinking them through or giving them any fair piece of mind. For me, it is a piece of flowery language [ilukõne].
Unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe it as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience. (Abram 1997: 35)
This is more akin to my own work, but I cannot dismiss explanation as such; description should lead to some for of explanation or at least a direction towards explanation. This is still a murky area.
Husserl struggled long and hard to answer this important criticism [solipsism]. How does our subjective experience enable us to recognize the reality of other selves, other experiencing beings? The solution seemed to implicate the body - one's own as well as that of the other - as a singularly important structure within the phenomenal field. The body is that mysterious and multifaceted phenomenon that seems always to accompany one's awareness, and indeed to be the very location of one's awarenes within the field of appearances. Yet the phenomenal field also contains many other bodies, other forms that move and gesture in a fasion similar to one's own. While one's own body is experienced, as it were, only from within, these other bodies are experienced from outside; one can vary one's distance from these bodies and can move around them, while this is impossible in relation to one's own body. (Abram 1997: 37)
Yet again I am reminded of Plato's contention that the body is an endless source of trouble. Here another problem is added to the endless list - one cannot distance him- or herself from her body; one cannot leave the body, step outside and away from it. Unless of course we consider out-of-body experiences, which still remain physically inside the body. Oh well.
Despite this difference, Husserl discerned that there was an inescapable affinity, or affiliation, between these other bodies and one's own. The gestures and expressions of these bodies, viewed from without, echo and resonate one's own bodily movements and gestures, experienced from within. By an associative "empathy," the embodied subject comes to recognize these other bodies as other centers of experience, other subjects. (Abram 1997: 37)
That is, Husserl recognized motor mimicry.
Only by acknowledging the embodies nature of the experiencing self was Husserl able to avoid the pitfalls of solipsism. It is as visible, animate bodies that other selves or subjects make themselves evident in my subjective experience, and it is only as a body that I am visible and sensible to others. The body is precisely my insertion in the common, or intersubjective, field of experience. (Abram 1997: 44)
Now it seems that one can go overboard with corporeality or embodiment; paying too much respect to bodily aspects and forgetting the "distancing" aspect of it - the body is not merely as significant as that which the body can do, be it by it's expressive or goal-oriented movements or by it creating something which is other than itself - by writing, or typing or whatever (in short, text).
Merleay-Ponty begins, then, by identifying the subject - the experiencing "self" - with the bodily organism.
It is indeed a radical move. Most of us are accustomed to consider the self, our innermost essence, as something incorporeal. Yet consider: Without this body, without this tongue or these ears, you could neither speak nor hear another's voice. Nor could you have anything to speak about, or even to reflect on, or to think, since without any contact, any encounter, without any glimmer of sensory experience, there could be nothing to question or to know. The living body is thus the very possibility of contact, not just with outers, but with oneself - the very possibility of reflection, of thought, of knowledge. (Abram 1997: 45)
I am unable to see anything radical in this: "the self" is, for me, a function of a neurologial kind. This sort of materialism clearly won't resolve the age-old Cartesian dualism, but it does make matters a whole lot easier to grasp.
Yet "I" do not deploy these powers like a commander piloting a ship, for I am, in my depth, indistinguishable from them, as my sadness is indistinguishable from a certain heaviness of my bodily limbs, or as my delight is only artificially separable from the widening of my eyes, from the bounce in my step and the heightened sensitivity of my skind. Indeed, facial expressions, gestures, and spontaneous utterances like sighs and cries seem to immediately incarnate feelings, moods, and desires without "my" being able to say which came first - the corporeal gesture or its purportedly "immaterial" counterpart. (Abram 1997: 46)
This last part brings to mind (if I'm not mistaken here) William James's discussion on the relationship of emotions and reflexivity. He stated these in terms of functional arcs, but I do remember the question of whether the emotion or the facial expression came first.
Ultimately, to acknowledge the life of the body, and to affirm our solidarity with this physical form, is to acknowledge out existence as one of the earth's animals, and so to remember and rejuvenate the organic basis of our thoughts and our intelligence. (Abram 1997: 47)
Yeah, this is one of the connecting dots between materialism and religious discourse - that human is still an animal - and whether it is an animal that has developed and is still developing through evolution; or is it God's perfect creation in His own likeness, an animal above animals.
Humans, however, possess along with these other [vegetal and animal] souls a rational soul, or intellect, which alone provides access to the less corruptible spheres and has affinities with the divine "Unmoved Mover" himself. (Abram 1997: 48)
Yup, my gut feeling was correct, this discourse is present in this text.
The body's actions and engagements are never wholly determinate, since they must ceaselessly adjust themselves to a world and a terrain that is itself continually shifting. If the body were truly a set of closed or predetermined mechanisms, it could never come into genuine contact with anything outside of itself, could never perceive anything really new, could never be genuinely startled or surprised. (Abram 1997: 49)
For a moment, here, the text came close to the topic which we are reallly reading this text for - landscape semiotics.
Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parents and its predecessors. Whatever "instructions," however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself at any particular moment. (Abram 1997: 50)
I found this notion interesting but there is little to none about this available on the internet. A google search landed me on videos of a small (matchbox sized) controller-guided car (a toy), and on a computer science text about identifying ravines via digital images (probably some research preceding the Apple maps 3D function).
The human body with its various predilections is, to be sure, our own inheritance, our own rootedness in an evolutionary history and a particular ancestry. Yet it is also our insertion in a world that exceeds our grasp in every direction, our means of contact with things and lives that are still unfolding, open and indeterminate, all around us. Indeed, from the perspective of my bodily senses, there is no thing that appears as a completely determinate or finished object. Each thing, each entity that my body sees, presents some face or facet of itself to my gaze while withholding other aspects from view. (Abram 1997: 50)
define:predilection - "A preference or special liking for something; a bias in favor of something."
Firstly, this passage notes that we are on the one hand biological entities and on the other, socioculturally constructed. The remark about "unfolding" things and lives is what I think connects semiotics, phenomenology and hermeneutics. I'm not exactly sure yet how to handle the folds, but I am aware of it being one of the key notions in Merleau-Ponty and some hermeneuticians of the later 20th century (Ricoeur perhaps?). I should keep in mind to pay attention to folds in my further readings in these fields. At the outset it seems that Abram is here thinking of a "fold" much like Austin thinks of "sense-datum": that we can perceive only one perspective of an object at a time.
Perception, in Merleau-Ponty's work, is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my body and the entities that surround it. It is a sort of silent conversation that I carry on with things, a continual dialogue that unfolds far below my verbal awareness - and often, even, independent of my verbal awareness, as when my hand readily navigates the space between these scribed pages and the coffee cup across the table without my having to think about it, or when my legs, hiking, continually attune and adjust themselves to the varying steepness of the mountain slopes behind this house without my verbal consciousness needing to direct those adjustments. Whenever I quiet the persistent chatter of words within my head, I find this silent or wordless dance always already going on - this improvised duet between my animal body and the fluid, breathing landscape that it inhabits. (Abram 1997: 52-53)
Firstly, he notes the interaction between the body and it's environment and how it is largely automatic. Secondly he hints that if we shut out the verbal awareness we can become aware of this "wordless dance" that is constantly going on without our noticing. Well, a nonverbalist has to notice.
Our most immediate experience of things, according to Merleau-Ponty, is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter - of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor - as a dynamic presenve that confronts us and draws us into relation. (Abram 1997: 56)
As I like placing similar-sounding words next to each other just like the next guy, I'd like to describe the experience of reciprocal encounter as "commingling, communication and communization of people as bodies". I like the word "commingling" as it implies interaction without any proper communication, "communication" itself is a given (in social encounters), and finally, "communization" implies reciprocity of emotions (although I'd have to make allowances for myself to use the word in Charles Morris's sense, not in the sense of spreading communism).
If we wish to choose a single term to characterize the event of perception, as it is disclosed by phenomenological attention, we may borrow the term "participation," used by the early French anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. The brilliant forerunner of today's "cognitive" and "symbolic" schools of anthropology, Lévi-Bruhl used the word "participation" to characterize the animistic logic of indigenous, oral peoples - for whom ostensibly "inanimate" objects like stones or mountains are often thought to be alive, for whom certain names, spoken aloud, may be felt to influence at a distance the things or beings that they name, for whom particular plants, particular animals, particular places and persons and powers may all be felt to participate in one another's existence, influencing each other and being influenced in turn. (Abram 1997: 57)
Aww, man. This is very reminiscent of Harry Potter. Firstly because Lucien Bole is a minor character in the series, a Slytherin student. Secondly because this kind of "participation" is exactly why he-who-must-not-be-named must not be named. There is only one English translation of this fellow's work available in Tartu and consequently it is in the semiotics library: How natives think.
The magician, for instance, may make the magic palpable for the audience by following the invisible coin's journey with the focus of his own eyes, and by imaginatively "feeling" the coin depart from the one hand and arrive in the palm of another; the audience's sense, responding to subtle shifts in the magician's body as well as to the coin, will then find the effect irresistible. In other words, it is when the magician lets himself be captured by the magic that his audience will be most willing to join him. (Abram 1997: 58)
That is, in words more familiar to my discourse, that the magicians must self-communicate to communicate: if he makes himself look as though he believes in the magic, he can make others feel the same. It is a form of mimesis that starts from within, a self-directed mimesis.
For those few days and nights our town became a community aware of its place in an encompassing cosmos. Even our noses seemed to come awake, the fresh smells from the ocean somehow more vibrant and salty. The breakdown of our technologies had forced a return to our senses, and hence to the natural landscape in which those senses are so profoundly embedded. We suddenly found ourselves inhabiting a sensuous world that had been waiting, for years, at the very fringe of our awareness, an intimate terrain infused by birdsong, salt spray, and the light of stars. (Abram 1997: 63)
I have speculated that this might happen if one fine day the internet infrastructure crashed and without all these technological commodities that depend on it become unavailable, we will have to become reaquianted with the real organic world which we do inhabit, but rarely notice in our daily routines.
To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one's own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen. Clearly, a wholly immaterial mind could neither see things nor touch things - indeed, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things - can touch, hear, and taste things - only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and our own textures, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us. (Abram 1997: 68)
This kind of discourse is very familiar from Onto-Ethologies (Buchanan 2008). The remark about immaterial mind not being able to see or feel the world makes me more sure that religious transcendencende is blind and out of touch. In a sense, God is perfect because He is deaf, dumb, and blind. It also made me think that mechanical beings - so-called robots - no matter how developed feedback systems, can only sense the world so far; it would need to be organic to be equal or better than humans in being-in-the-world. I started reading this text skeptically, but ended up enjoying it very much. Philosophy, go and figure.

Emilio F. Moran (Ed.) 1984. The Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press.
Criticisms of the ecosystem concept have noted the tendency of ecosystem-based studies to overemphasize energy flow, to rely on functionalist assumptions, to neglect historical and evolutionary factors, and to overlook the role of individuals as the locus of natural selection and decision making. In this volume, leading figures in the study of biological and human ecology evaluate these criticisms and propose ways to advance the state of knowledge in ecological research.
I wonder if this is a reference to Odum's eco-energetics. And I very much like the premise that this volume advances the state of knowledge. Because there rarely is a comprehensive answer to any question, be it scientific or not. What we aim for is the advancement of knowledge, not knowledge as something given, complete, and integral. That is, knowledge too is "unfinished" as Thomas Mathiesen put would put it.
Moran, Emilio F. 1984a. Limitations and Advances in Ecosystems Research. In: Emilio F. Moran (Ed.), The Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press, 3-32.
Authors agree that the ecosystem concept was formally defined by Sir Arthur Tansley in 1935 (see Golley, this volume). As a philosophical stance, however, the concept can be found in writings both past and present. Given the human capacity for language and culture - and for the consequent need to categorize and simplify the infinite variety of the external world - all societies tend to develop systems of classification that represent associations of plants, animals, and landscapes (see review by Major 1969). Terms such as biocoenosis (Möbius 1877), ecotope (Troll 1950), biogeocoenosis (Sukkachev 1960) and many others such as natürcomplex, holocoen, and biosystem approximate the ecosystem concept but emphasize differing aspects of the physico-biological interaction of interest to each of its proponents. (Moran 1984a: 4)
My jargon sense is tingling.
The time was ripe for the adoption of such a concept ["ecosystem"]. It helped to bridge the then distinct fields of autecology and synecology. Autecology, the study of the interrelations between individual organisms and two or three environmental variables, had been limited in the past by the difficulties of controlling experimental work due to the inconstancy of climate from one year to the next. Synecology, the study of groups of organisms, such as the community, had been characterized by rather philosophical and deductive tradition... (Moran 1984a: 5)
These neat notions are very similar to the difference between psychology and sociology. It's a sketchy analogy, but I like it.
Critiques of Steward's cultural ecology paradigm led anthropologists towards a more explicitly biological paradigm. Geertz (1963) was the first to argue for the usefulness of the ecosystem as a unit of analysis. Its merits were eloquently stated: systems theory provided a broad framework, essentially qualitative and descriiptive, that emphasized the internal dynamics of such systems and how they develop and change. The explicit adoption of biological concepts in anthropology led to provocative and sometimes productive results. As early as 1956 Barth applied the concept of the "niche" to explain the behavior of adjacent groups and the evolution of ethnic boundaries. Coe and Flannery (1964) noted the use of multiple ecological niches by prehistoric peoples of South Coastal Guatemala. Neither the niche nor other concepts from biology had as significant an impact on anthropological thinking, however, as did the ecosystem concept. (Moran 1984a: 9)
This is good to know as the niche concept occurred in our readings and seemed to contain the possibility of viewing culture ecologically. That is, niches are like codes which border communities functionally from each other.
The seminal paper in archeology may have been Flannery's (1968) in which he postulated the useful application of systems theory to archaeological investigations. According to systems'-oriented archeologists, "culture is defined not as aggregates of shared norms (and artifacts), but as interacting behavioral systems" (Plog 1975: 208). Emphasis was given to variability, multivariate causality, and process (Clarke 1968). (Moran 1984a: 10)
Culture as interacting behavioral systems - that is awesome. And variability, multivariate causality, and process can be related to randomness, bifurcation points, etc., of technical language more close to home.
When an ecosystem is viewed as an organic entity it is assigned properties such as self-regulation, maximisation of energy through-flow, and having strategies for survival. This view is similar to earlier "superorganic" approaches in anthropology (Durkheim 1915; Kroeber 1917; White 1949). Few ecological anthropologists today would accept the notion that ecosystems "have strategies" and even fewer would agree that energy maximization is always "adaptive" in human ecosystem. The notion of self-regulation is more problematic since it devolves around the question of whether ecosystems per se can be cybernetic, e.g., use information for self-regulation (Engelberg and Boyarsky 1979). Patten and Odum (1981) believe this to be a pseudoissue that distracts us from more fundamental concerns: e.g., how are we to think about ecosystems and how are we to place them within the scheme of known systems? (Moran 1984a: 15)
Firstly, in light of this, Lotman's semiotics of culture appears as nothing more than a "superorganic" approach to culture. Also, there is similarity in jargon: when talking about the "behavioural sphere", Lotman posits "strategies" of behaviour. Secondly, the problem of self-regulation (or later, rather, self-transformation) via information is now a familiar issue, as we were made to read Patten and Odum's polemic about the cybernetic nature of ecosystems. Also, similar question actually arises in systems approach to behaviour: in Scheflen's account, regulators are means of social control that (borrowing words from this text) "creates order where there might be chaos". The question is: is the systems approach to behaviour actually tenable? Or would it simply borne a superorganic approach to social situations (group interactions).
Golley, Frank B. 1984. Historical Origins of the Ecosystem Concept in Biology. In: Emilio F. Moran (Ed.), The Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press, 33-50.
Sir Arthur Tansley (1871-1955), an English botanist, coined the term ecosystem in 1935. (Golley 1984: 33)
Factoid noted. If only all (modern) terms had names and dates to go along with them.
One focus of Tansley's research was the plant community, which he defined as the collection of plant species in a particular place and time that live together and interact through a complex of competitive and cooperative interactions. He recognized that soils, climate, and animals have an effect upon the distribution and abundance of these plants. (Golley 1984: 33)
This is rather closer to the sysems approach to behaviour which I'm after. Complex of competitive and cooperative interactions. Sounds like the everyday life of homo sapiens.
Probably the most important and widely used alternative to ecosystem is the word biogeocoenosis. This term arose in the USSR and is derived from the Greek word koinos, meaning common, and the prefixes bio or life and geo or earth (Sukachev 1960). The term biocoenosis was employed by Mobius (1877) in his study of oyster beds and associated organisms in the north sea. It is widely used as a synonym of community in continental Europe. The Russian insertion of the prefix geo into biocoenosis served to emphasize the Russian longstanding interest in dynamic soil processes and their understanding of the interactive roles of plants, animals, geology and climate in creating a specific soil. (Golley 1984: 35)
Hmm.. Made me think if sociosemiocoenosis could designate the goffmanian "play" or socially "given signs". If I ever need to state my work in as incomprehensible words as possible, I'll make good use of "sociosemiocoenosis". As a sidenote I have to remark that some identify coenesis with interactional synchrony, and not to forget Roger Wescott's coenesics as a blanket term for nonverbalism.
We could trace similar developments in the study of lakes or limnology [for example, Forbes (1887) wrote of the lake as a microcosm], geography or human ecology but the point is clear. The terminology of science is relative to specific disciplines and to the cultures in which that science is practiced. (Golley 1984: 37)
That is a truism.
Ecosystem studies required teams of scientists focused on a particular habitat or biotope. This type of research was not only contrary to the conventional pattern of biology, where a single individual with graduate students was the norm, but it was also very expensive. It thus came as a surprise to many that the major source of support for the implementation of this new concept turned out to be the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The AEC was faced with a series of problems that required a systems perspective. First, radioactive fallout injected into the atmosphere fell in unexpected places and concentrated in unexpected organisms and habitats. The AEC needed to be able to predict where and how much radioactivity would be accumulated from nuclear explosion and accidents. Second, the AEC operated several large industrial and test complexes. Initially, they required ecological surveys of the sites and then systems of monitoring the site to determine potential buildup of radioactivity. The ecosystem concept was essential here too. (Golley 1984: 40)
Hmm.. I wonder if nonverbal communication could serve similarly grand purposes. For example, if the behavioural patterns of different sociocultural groups could predict where and how much social disturbance would lead to physical confrontations, riots, conflicts, etc. In this sense "body language" could be the key to world peace.
Do ecosystems undergo senescence and death? Clearly, ecosystems go extinct. Those of past geological epochs can only be recreated in an abstract sense with great difficulty from fossil and pollen records. Equally clearly, some ecosystems become senile. For example, organic matter builds at a rate faster than the rate of decomposition and system behavior becomes slower and slower. Ultimately the system changes. Is this analogous to senility and death? (Golley 1984: 46)
define:senescence - "The condition or process of deterioration with age." Also, "aging" is AE, "ageing" is BE. Also, I am currently a "vicenarian".
Moran, Emilio F. 1984b. The Problem of Analytical Level Shifting in Amazonian Ecosystem Research. In: Emilio F. Moran (Ed.), The Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press, 265-288.
The question before us is, can site-specific studies (micro-level) be the appropriate basis of "region-wide" statements and analyses (macro-level)? A moment's reflection will tell us that such extrapolations seldom work. Phenomena at a given level may have analogs at another levels but they are not identical (Gould 1982: 386). Sliding between levels, by making statements about individuals from aggregate data, has been termed the "ecological fallacy" (Robinson 1950). (Moran 1984b: 267)
This is neat. What is not so neat is that Moran argues against this type of extrapolation on the basis of empirical work - four fieldtrips to the Amazonian basin. What is not neat about it is that he was part of the colonization process:
From the point of view of regional policy, reliance on macro-scale maps has had serious consequences. The decision to focus government directed colonization among Brazil's Transamazon Highway in the Altamira region of the Xingu River was based on political and economic priorities based on the identification of medium to high fertility Alfisols which appeared to dominate the region (IPEAN 1967). This decision was based on the extrapolation of a few soil samples to the region as a whole. As a result, colonists were placed on all available lots as they arrived since soil quality was thought to be homogenous. Also, a uniform set of crops was required in order for colonists to obtain bank credit. Most farmers who followed the directives of the bank obtained low yields and defaulted on their loans. It was not until the colonists were all settled on their land that micro-level soil sampling was carried out by Moran (1975), Smith (1976) and Fearnside (1978) in the Altamira area and by Ranzani (1978) and Smith (1976) in the Maraba region. These investigators discovered that the soils of the area are a patchwork, with radical differences in nearly every kilometer and even from one neighbor's plot to another. (Moran 1984b: 273)
That is some Monsato shiet right thurr. After googling "Monsato in Altamira" I found a video on a blog named "Altamira Garden" which revealed Monsato extorting farmers to use their seeds and Monsato workers ticking back and forth between Environmental Protection Agency and the corporation.
Whereas some farmers familiar with the Amazon refused to go along with the practices promoted by the government and obtained good yields from their diversified agricultural operations, the use of aggregate production data, rather than individual farm management surveys hid the differential performance of farmers and led to a reduction of government support to the whole small farming population. Elsewhere I have sown (Moran 1979b, 1981) that the Amazonian caboclo population had precise knowledge of forest resources, soil types, and had better results than farmers following practices promoted by the planners The caboclos' use of the region's resources (Moran 1974) was more complete, more rational and more efficient than that of outsiders. (Moran 1984b: 276)
Oh, the locals new what they were doing. Isn't that surprising? Well, Moran argues that it is, because the analysts ("agencies involved") "used inappropriate quantitative tools to masure farmers' productivity" (ibid, 277) and only cared about the fact that "the output did not meet national expectations set before the project began."


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