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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn…
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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (original 2012; edition 2013)

by Jared Diamond (Author)

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Title:The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Authors:Jared Diamond (Author)
Info:Penguin Books (2013), Edition: Reprint, 512 pages
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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond (2012)

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Diamond, Jared ( 2012). The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. New York: Viking. 2012. ISBN 9781101606001. Pagine 512. 13,61 €

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Superato il traguardo dei 75 anni, Jared Diamond ha sentito il bisogno di scrivere una summa delle sue ricerche, ma anche delle sue convinzioni. O almeno così penso io, sia perché è una tentazione abbastanza frequente tra gli scienziati e gli accademici al momento di lasciare l’insegnamento e la ricerca attiva, sia perché – benché il filo conduttore del sottotitolo, Che cosa possiamo imparare dalle società tradizionali?, faccia da collante tra i vari capitoli – ognuno dei temi del libro avrebbe potuto costituire a pieno titolo un saggio a sé stante.

D’altro canto, Diamond ci ha sempre sorpreso per la vastità e l’apparente dispersione dei suoi interessi: dopo essersi addottorato in fisiologia sull’assorbimento del sale nella vescica, ha studiato sul campo (e continua a farlo) gli uccelli della Nuova Guinea e delle isole del Pacifico, ma la sua fama è legata soprattutto ad Armi, acciaio e malattie, un’originale sintesi di storia e geografia che gli ha valso un premio Pulitzer per la saggistica e fama mondiale. Lascio che sia la voce di Wikipedia a riassumerne i contenuti per voi:

Il libro è incentrato sulla ricerca di una risposta alla domanda che Yali, un abitante della Nuova Guinea, fece all’autore nel luglio del 1972: “Come mai voi bianchi avete tutto questo cargo e lo portate qui in Nuova Guinea, mentre noi neri ne abbiamo così poco?”, dove per Cargo si intendono tutti quei beni tecnologici di cui i guineani erano privi prima dell’arrivo dei coloni. In pratica l’autore cerca di rispondere alle seguenti domande: perché sono stati gli europei e gli americani del nord a sviluppare una civiltà tecnologicamente avanzata e non, ad esempio, i cinesi o i sumeri? Perché gli europei sono partiti alla conquista degli altri popoli (ottenendo evidenti successi, spesso con tragiche conseguenze per i “conquistati”), e non è avvenuto il contrario? Come mai i fieri guerrieri nativi americani sono stati spodestati dall’invasione di un popolo di agricoltori?

Riunendo in un unico libro cognizioni dalle più svariate discipline, Diamond sviluppa un quadro d’insieme sulla storia delle varie società umane a partire dalla fine dell’ultima glaciazione, avvenuta circa 13.000 anni fa. Per la prima volta, si riunisce nella visione storica un quadro formato da archeologia, antropologia, biologia molecolare, ecologia, epidemiologia, genetica, linguistica e scienze sociali, per non parlare della teoria del caos.

In pratica l’autore cerca di dare una sorta di metodo d’indagine scientifico ad una disciplina considerata finora “letteraria” e di respingere spiegazioni razziste della storia dell’umanità, non tanto per motivi ideologici, ma piuttosto, appunto, scientifici. Consapevole del suo ruolo di iniziatore, precisa che la sua è solo una visione generale, i cui dettagli vanno indagati più approfonditamente.

Non riesco a ricordare in che modo sono venuto a conoscenza di Guns, Germs, and Steel. Ho la prima edizione britannica (Jonathan Cape) e ho la certezza (e la prova) di averlo comprato all’Anglo American Book Co. di via della Vite, a Roma. Ricordo di esserne stato conquistato fin dalla prima pagina del Prologo, quella in cui Yali pone la famosa domanda sul cargo (sapevo già qualcosa sui cargo cults delle isole del Pacifico) e di averlo divorato (il libro, non il cargo).

Subito dopo sono andato a cercare gli altri libri di Diamond: The Rise And Fall Of The Third Chimpanzee (Il terzo scimpanzé. Ascesa e caduta del primate homo sapiens) e Why Is Sex Fun? (Perché il sesso è divertente?). Del primo ho la prima edizione britannica in brossura (Vintage): l’edizione è del 1992, ma io possiedo l’undicesima ristampa e sono certo di aver letto il libro dopo Guns, Germs, and Steel. Non ricordo dove l’ho comprato, ma nell’ultima pagina del testo c’è ancora, come segnalibro, un biglietto della metropolitana di Lisbona del 14 agosto 1998: ne desumo che non posso che averlo letto, o almeno finito, dopo quella data. Sul secondo qualche certezza in più: ho di nuovo la prima edizione, questa volta americana (BasicBooks) e l’ho certamente acquistato su Amazon il 4 giugno 1998: Amazon.com tiene traccia di tutto, e quindi posso raccontarvi che è stato in assoluto il mio primo avventuroso ordine su Amazon; che insieme al libro di Diamond mi sono fatto mandare Girlfriend in a Coma di Douglas Coupland, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative di Edward R. Tufte e Timequake di Kurt Vonnegut; e che ho speso in totale, compresi i costi di spedizione, $ 109,87.

Poi ho dovuto aspettare il 2005 per leggere Collapse (Collasso. Come le società scelgono di morire o vivere): di nuovo una prima edizione americana (Viking), di nuovo un acquisto (ormai meno avventuroso) su Amazon.com, il 19 gennaio 2005. Il segnalibro all’ultima pagina è il tagliando di un concerto all’Auditorium Santa Cecilia del Parco della musica di Roma: un Requiem di Brahms diretto da Antonio Pappano il 9 maggio 2005.

Ormai siamo all’epoca contemporanea: perché di Natural Experiments of History, curato da Jared Diamond e James A. Robinson ho scritto una recensione su questo blog qualche mese fa.

Tornando a The World until Yesterday – fatta la doverosa premessa che il libro è sempre ben argomentato e interessante e che la voce di Jared Diamond è inconfondibile e convincente – ho due problemi: il primo è che non tutti i temi affrontati sono, almeno per me, dello stesso interesse; il secondo è che, nel tentativo di rispondere alla domanda Che cosa possiamo imparare dalle società tradizionali?, Diamond a volte dà risposte che nemmeno il compianto Massimo Catalano. Ad esempio: dobbiamo seguire l’esempio delle società tradizionali che rispettano gli anziani (anche perché sono merce rara, mentre da noi sono inflazionati), ma non quello delle società tradizionali in cui si usa abbandonare i vecchi a morire d’inedia o strangolarli direttamente prima di lasciare il campo: «!Jul’joh/ansi, controlla di aver spento il nonno e il fuoco». Ancora: dobbiamo seguire l’esempio delle società tradizionali in cui il bambino non perde mai il contatto con la mamma per i primi 4 anni di vita (per fortuna i miei ormai sono grandi, se no sai che palle), ma non quello delle società tradizionali in cui si pratica l’infanticidio dell’eventuale gemello o del fratellino nato troppo a ridosso del precedente (eppure io, che sono il primogenito e ho una sorella nata 14 mesi dopo di me, quelle pratiche tradizionali le comprendo, anche se non le approvo). Il problema – lo avevamo visto anche nei libri precedenti – è che Diamond è scrupoloso e rigoroso al limite della pedanteria (per quello mi piace!), e ritiene suo preciso dovere fare un sunto degli argomenti e delle argomentazioni alla fine di ogni capitolo, senza lasciare alcun filo pendente …

Tornando al primo dei problemi che ho individuato, penso sia utile elencare i diversi argomenti trattati nei diversi capitoli:

Amici, nemici, stranieri e persone con cui si commercia
Guerra e pace
Cura della prole
Trattamento degli anziani
Risposta ai pericoli
Religione
Lingue
Salute e abitudini di vita

Personalmente, ho trovato di particolare interesse i primi 2 argomenti, il quinto e il sesto e, in parte il settimo.

Sopra tutto, ho apprezzato in modo particolare i racconti autobiografici tratti dalle sue esperienze dirette (Jared Diamond ha fatto una vita veramente interessante e avventurosa la sua parte, anche se non so fino a che punto invidiarlo), mentre sono rimasto freddo ai consigli utili, soprattutto quando si confondono con un salutismo e una political correctness un po’ New Age (guarda un po’: ero convinto che Diamond vivesse nella hippieggiante California, non nell’austero New England).

Ma la cosa veramente importante da portare a casa di questo libro è il concetto (e il principio) della constructive paranoia, di cui si parla spesso, ma segnatamente nel capitolo dedicato alla risposta ai pericoli.

* * *

Le solite citazioni (riferimento alle posizioni Kindle). Potete saltarle, se credete, ma se volete leggerle, armatevi di pazienza, perché sono parecchie.

[…] “constructive paranoia.” […] [665: la prima volta che ne parla è qui]

Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia-long natural experiments in organizing human lives. We can’t repeat those experiments by redesigning thousands of societies today in order to wait decades and observe the outcomes; we have to learn from the societies that already ran the experiments. [703]

Evidently, traditional trade has social and political as well as economic functions: not merely to obtain items for their own sake, but also to “create” trade for advancing social and political goals. [1368]

Citizens are dissuaded in two ways from resorting to private violence: by fear of the state’s superior power; and by becoming convinced that private violence is unnecessary, because the state has established a system of justice perceived to be impartial (at least in theory), guaranteeing to citizens the safety of their person and their property, and labeling as wrong-doers and punishing those who damage the safety of others. If the state does those things effectively, then injured citizens may feel less or no need to resort to do-it-yourself justice, New Guinea–style and Nuer-style. (But in weaker states whose citizens lack confidence that the state will respond effectively, such as Papua New Guinea today, citizens are likely to continue traditional tribal practices of private violence.) [1720]

One example is the so-called Soccer War of June–July 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras. At a time when tensions between the two countries were already high over economic disparities and immigrant squatters, their soccer teams met for three games in a qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup. Rival fans began fighting at the first game on June 8 in the Honduran capital (won 1–0 by Honduras), and the fans became even more violent at the second game on June 15 in the El Salvador capital (won 3–0 by El Salvador). When El Salvador won the decisive third game 3–2 in overtime on June 26 in Mexico City, the two countries broke diplomatic relations, and on July 14 the El Salvador army and air force began bombing and invading Honduras. [2433]

I sympathize with scholars outraged by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. But denying the reality of traditional warfare because of political misuse of its reality is a bad strategy, for the same reason that denying any other reality for any other laudable political goal is a bad strategy. The reason not to mistreat indigenous people is not that they are falsely accused of being warlike, but that it’s unjust to mistreat them. The facts about traditional warfare, just like the facts about any other controversial phenomenon that can be observed and studied, are likely eventually to come out. When they do come out, if scholars have been denying traditional warfare’s reality for laudable political reasons, the discovery of the facts will undermine the laudable political goals. The rights of indigenous people should be asserted on moral grounds, not by making untrue claims susceptible to refutation. [2694]

Richard Wrangham argues that two features distinguish those social species that do practise war from those that don’t: intense resource competition, and occurrence in groups of variable size such that large groups sometimes encounter small groups or individual animals which they can safely attack and overwhelm by numbers with little risk to the aggressors. [2716]

Surveys by Louis Harris and Associates showed that American people believe that the elderly are bored, closed-minded, dependent, isolated, lonely, narrow-minded, neglected, old-fashioned, passive, poor, sedentary, sexually inactive, sick, unalert, unproductive, morbidly afraid of death, in constant fear of crime, living the worst years of life—and spending a good deal of their time sleeping, sitting and doing nothing, or nostalgically dwelling upon their past. [3905]

[…] Iban of Borneo […] [3927: una popolazione particolarmente interessante, come i Pin di Celebes e gli Userid di Komodo]

One obvious negative consequence of those demographic facts is that society’s burden of supporting the elderly is heavier, because more older people require to be supported by fewer productive workers. That cruel reality lies at the root of the much-discussed looming crisis of funding the American Social Security system (and its European and Japanese counterparts) that provides pensions for retired workers. If we older people keep working, we prevent our children’s and our grandchildren’s generation from getting jobs, as is happening right now. If, instead, we older people retire and expect the earnings of the shrinking younger cohort to continue to fund the Social Security system and pay for our leisure, then the financial burden of the younger cohort is far greater than ever before. And if we expect to move in with them and let them privately support and care for us in their homes, they have other ideas. One wonders whether we are returning to a world where we shall be reconsidering choices about end of life made by traditional societies—such as assisted suicide, encouraged suicide, and euthanasia. In writing these words, I am certainly not recommending these choices; I am instead observing the increasing frequency with which these measures are being discussed, carried out, and debated by legislators and courts. [3997: certo che questo getta una luce diversa sul dibattito attualmente in corso in Italia]

All of us kept shouting “Tolong!” (Indonesian for “help”), but we were far out of hearing range of the sailing canoes in the distance. [4364: quindi il "Tolong, tolong, tolong, tolong" della leggendaria Mucca Carolina era un disperato grido d'aiuto?]

[…] traditional people have none of the means of passive entertainment to which we devote inordinate time, such as television, radio, movies, books, video games, and the Internet. Instead, talking is the main form of entertainment in New Guinea. [4685]

But there are two other big differences between environmental hazards in modern societies and in traditional societies besides the particular hazards involved. One difference is that the cumulative risk of accidental death is probably lower for modern societies, because we exert far more control over our environment even though it does contain new hazards of our own manufacture such as cars. The other difference is that, thanks to modern medicine, the damage caused by our accidents is much more often repaired before it kills us or inflicts life-long incapacity.
[…]
Those two differences are part of the reason why traditional people so willingly abandon their jungle lifestyle, admired in the abstract by Westerners, who don’t have to live that lifestyle themselves.
[…]
“Rice to eat, and no more mosquitoes!” was their short explanation. [4769-4774-4779]

The adoption of agriculture enabled formerly nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle down in crowded and unsanitary permanent villages, connected by trade with other villages, and providing ideal conditions for the rapid transmission of microbes. Recent studies by molecular biologists have demonstrated that the microbes responsible for many and probably most of the crowd diseases now confined to humans arose from crowd diseases of our domestic animals such as pigs and cattle, with which we came into regular close contact ideal for animal-to-human microbe transfer only upon the beginnings of animal domestication around 11,000 years ago.
[…]
They do have infectious diseases, but their diseases are different from the crowd diseases in four respects. First, the microbes causing their diseases are not confined to the human species but are shared with animals (such as the agent of yellow fever, shared with monkeys) or else capable of surviving in soil (such as the agents causing botulism and tetanus). Second, many of the diseases are not acute but chronic, such as leprosy and yaws. Third, some of the diseases are transmitted inefficiently between people, leprosy and yaws again being examples. Finally, most of the diseases do not confer permanent immunity: a person who has recovered from one bout of a disease can contract the same disease again. These four facts mean that these diseases can maintain themselves in small human populations, infecting and re-infecting victims from animal and soil reservoirs and from chronically sick people. [5043-5048]

[…] kwashiorkor […] [5114: una malattia dovuta alla deficienza di proteine]

The significance of sex and food is reversed between the Siriono and us Westerners: the Sirionos’ strongest anxieties are about food, they have sex virtually whenever they want, and sex compensates for food hunger, while our strongest anxieties are about sex, we have food virtually whenever we want, and eating compensates for sexual frustration. [5123]

A similar modern case of field scattering by Andean peasant farmers near Lake Titicaca, studied by Carol Goland, provoked development experts to write in exasperation, “The peasants’ cumulative agricultural efficiency is so appalling…that our amazement is how these people even survive at all…. Because inheritance and marriage traditions continually fragment and scatter a peasant’s fields over numerous villages, the average peasant spends three-quarters of his day walking between fields that sometimes measure less than a few square feet.” The experts proposed land-swapping among farmers in order to consolidate their holdings.
But Goland’s quantitative study in the Peruvian Andes showed that there really is method to such apparent madness. In the Cuyo Cuyo district, the peasant farmers whom Goland studied grow potatoes and other crops in scattered fields: on the average 17 fields, up to a maximum of 26 fields, per farmer, each field with an average size of only 50 by 50 feet. Because the farmers occasionally rent or buy fields, it would be perfectly possible for them in that way to consolidate their holdings, but they don’t. Why not?
A clue noticed by Goland was the variation in crop yield from field to field, and from year to year. Only a small part of that variation is predictable from the environmental factors of field elevation, slope, and exposure, and from work-related factors under the peasants’ control (such as their effort in fertilizing and weeding the field, seed density, and planting date). Most of that variation is instead unpredictable, uncontrollable, and somehow related to the local amount and timing of rain for that year, frosts, crop diseases, pests, and theft by people. In any given year there are big differences between yields of different fields, but a peasant can’t predict which particular field is going to produce well in any particular year.
What a Cuyo Cuyo peasant family has to do at all costs is to avoid ending up at the end of any year with a low harvest that would leave the family starving. In the Cuyo Cuyo area, farmers can’t produce enough storable food surpluses in a good year to carry them through a subsequent bad year. Hence it is not the peasant’s goal to produce the highest possible time-averaged crop yield, averaged over many years. If your time-averaged yield is marvelously high as a result of the combination of nine great years and one year of crop failure, you will still starve to death in that year of crop failure before you can look back to congratulate yourself on your great time-averaged yield. Instead, the peasant’s aim is to make sure to produce a yield above the starvation level in every single year, even though the time-averaged yield may not be highest. That’s why fiel ( )
  Boris.Limpopo | Apr 29, 2019 |
In what ways are traditional societies similar to each other, and modern state-based societies similar to each other? In what ways do modern and traditional societies resemble and differ from each other--and is there anything that we can learn from the surviving traditional societies before they disappear?

Jared Diamond takes an in-depth look at what distinguishes traditional from modern societies, and what we can learn from them. This is not a hearts & flowers mash note to traditional societies; he's at some pains to make clear that the lives of traditional peoples, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, are generally harder, shorter, and more dangerous than modern, state-based societies. Injury and disease are far more likely to be crippling or fatal. Death from violence, whether by murder or in war, claims a much higher percentage of the population, despite fond illusions of "the gentle !Kung" and the notion that war is a modern invention.

Diamond spent much of his career studying birds in New Guinea, and in the process found it necessary to become very familiar with the traditional-living peoples of New Guinea--hunter-gatherer bands and farming villages, groups strongly connected to the Papua New Guinea state and groups still living with relatively little contact with that state.

Some of the areas of human social behavior he examines are child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dispute resolution, religion, and language. The subject of dispute resolution is especially important. Without a state-based legal system to use, individuals must settle disputes among themselves. On the positive side, the first step is nearly always an effort at peaceful resolution, even in very serious cases such as when a child is killed accidentally. When it's successful, the result is not a simple right/wrong determination with damages paid by the side at fault, but rather a resolution that addresses the aggrieved party's feelings of hurt, anger, or being wronged, and restores the relationship between the parties that existed before the dispute. When it fails, though, the result can be a series of tit-for-tat revenge killings or outright war between two clans, bands, or tribes. Diamond looks at the ways we might borrow from traditional people's peaceful dispute resolution methods, potentially relieving stress, anger, and expense in civil and sometimes even criminal disputes without weakening the state justice system structures that largely protect us from the danger of revenge-cycle killings and violence.

It's a fascinating and thoughtful book, and Diamond gives us his experiences of living between modern and traditional societies, and a glimpse of the world as it looks through traditional eyes. I've barely touched the surface; you need to read this one.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.
( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
This was a good book with a good message. Unfortunately the writing wasn't as tight as I have come to expect from Jared Diamond. It also could have used a good deal of editing. A lot of things were repeated...again...and again... ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Diamond makes interesting connections between his book research on other cultures and his experience among New Guinea and Australian tribal peoples. Some of his suggestions about the virtues of these cultures are valuable, although he is weak on proposals to implement such changes in the West. He does avoid the myth of primitive paradise, although he may go too far the other direction in suggesting that pre-state peoples all lived in constant fear of attack by any stranger. Reviews by practicing anthropologists are relatively harsh, pointing out that every culture has had the same amount of time to 'evolve' and that anthropologists do not regard pre-literate peoples as any kind of time capsule of earlier human life.
  ritaer | Aug 31, 2017 |
What can we learn from traditional societies
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
While he never takes on his critics directly, Diamond’s book could be viewed as a showcase for the author’s sincere admiration of traditional peoples and the way they see the world. Instead of taking on the whole world, Diamond takes on this other world as his own. And the book’s value depends on the question of whether taking on another’s world is really possible.
 
Unlike some critics, I take Diamond at his word: I believe that he does want to show traditional lives in their complex reality, to demonstrate what they have to teach us without unduly idealizing them. He wants us to see people who live careful, attentive lives in a world of want and uncertainty, people who know how to love their children without reading books on how to do so. He wants to show us the dangers of war, and the bittersweet comforts of industrialization. Above all, he wants to show us how he has been changed by the life he has led. In the end, however, his scientist’s eye plays him foul. Diamond’s stories give one a clear understanding of the exact physical locations of the objects he describes, but leave the culture and emotion of Papua New Guineans unexamined. His description of the lives of traditional people accurately describes their digestion and gestation, but not their thoughts and feelings. And in the end, despite his attempts to be nuanced, his portrayal of the life of traditional people is straight out of Hobbes: nasty, brutish, short, and escapable only by submitting to the authority of a sovereign.
added by keristars | editThe Appendix, Alex Golub (Apr 1, 2013)
 
Diamond has a gift for storytelling. He presents his examples in a seductively readable voice with unflinching confidence, which makes his conclusions about the similarities and differences between traditional and modern society seem like common sense. But as I read the text, I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing.
added by keristars | editSlate, Bryn Williams (Feb 18, 2013)
 
added by lorax | editWashington Post, Rachel Newcomb (Jan 25, 2013)
 

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April 30, 2006, 7:00 A.M. I’m in an airport’s check-in hall, gripping my baggage cart while being jostled by a crowd of other people also checking in for that morning’s first flights.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670024813, Hardcover)

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday—in evolutionary time—when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.

 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:19 -0400)

Diamond reveals how tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years -- until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary terms -- and provide unique, often overlooked insights into human nature.

(summary from another edition)

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