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Confession of a distracted permie  RSS feed

 
pollinator
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I want to lay out my confession to the whole permie world in the hopes that others won’t make my same mistake. Bear with my explanation.

I came to permaculture by way of studying the food system in the USA. As I began to see that I had little control of what I ate within the mainstream system, I looked into various agricultural systems. I stumbled upon permaculture. I dove in and even earned my PDC after my wife and I bought a homestead and moved on it to begin a new way of living.

I learned that at its heart, permaculture is a holistic approach to thinking about creation. It is big. I don’t mean big in the sense of importance, but it is important. Big in the sense that the depth and breadth of permaculture stretched beyond a lifetime of observation, study, and application. Simply stated, there is a lot to wrap one’s head around.

When faced with a complex whole, the Occidental tendency (I can’t speak for the Oriental) is to deconstruct in order to understand. We in the West break the whole down in order to deal with what we have before us. Yet, our big mistake is that we rarely seem to reconstruct the components back together in order to come to a fuller understanding of the integrated whole. We get distracted by the components and fail to think systemically.

My confession is that I am guilty of that very distraction and focus upon the clockworks while not knowing the time. I allowed myself to stall on one or two of the components of one system that is part of a more holistic plan.

I use the word stall because I can forgive myself if I had focused on one component of a system that is part of a whole plan if I then used that as a step to reach the next component and the next and the next and so on until I came closer to a more complete plan implementation.

In my case, I stalled on swales. Suddenly, I saw the need for swales everywhere. Every slope I looked at while driving I envisioned the tree-growing, water-management tool in place. I implemented them in the design for my own property to good effect. I devised an affordable way to build swales using my old tractor and a two-bottom plow. I tell you, I was proud of my ingenuity and the solution to the problem I had of water running off my property.

I posted in the forum threads here at permies.com and talked to everyone I met about swales. I read everything I could about swales. In short, I became focused on one single element, one single component of a vastly complex and integrated plan and it was to my detriment. The holistic plan took a back seat. I had to remind myself that permaculture is not about cob ovens, hugelculture mounds, rocket mass heaters, or swales. Permaculture is grander than that.

By what I believe I’ve observed in the forum threads here, I don’t think I’m alone in being distracted. No, not everyone gets hung up on swales. But there are other singular components of a system of what should be a larger plan that distract us. I wonder if we should try to do a better job of reminding each other that permaculture is holistic based on principles and strategies. Permaculture is not the sum of its tactics of which swale building is just one.

A quick review of the permies.com forum threads shows the permaculture thread has more than 44,400 posts. I’d expect that to be one of the threads with the most volume. Yet, what raised my awareness to my own error of distraction was noticing that the forum threads seemed to be preoccupied with certain topics. For example, the topic of rocket stoves/heaters has more than 44,000 posts (two threads). I’m not saying that everyone has stalled on RMHs. But, I suspect that many have; just as I had on swales.

Like any genuine confession, there has to be a changing of ways that follow or it is no real confession. I have worked to correct my perspective to think more holistically when I consider my own homestead. I will work to ensure I don’t stall on any one or two components of our overall plan design.

Finally, I hope others here learn from my not-too-terrible error of perspective. Permaculture is holistic, and I hope everyone can see the forest and not just the trees.
 
pollinator
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What an excellent post.  And, yes, I'm as guilty as you are.  The problem with permaculture for me is that it's SO huge an endeavor, that if I don't break it down into smaller components, I'll never do anything.  I would love to have someone look at my place and hand me a checklist and a map and say "do this".
 
garden master
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It has been my experience that for the construction phases of a homestead or farm you have to take it one step at a time but you also have to keep that Big Picture in front of your mind.
I have seen many people do the design work but then they don't get that numbered list built and stick to it. They get started on the water control (always should be step #1) but then decide "I need food growing now" and switch gears long before they are actually ready to start growing food.
The next thing you hear from them is "my swales blew out in the big rain" or "my garden isn't growing well because I don't have enough water in the soil" or I need to get the fences up because I just bought some (name the animal of your choice here).

Most people who start out to do permaculture have this happen to them at least once, loosing focus is just part of the learning curve I think.

Redhawk
 
Dan Grubbs
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Edited OP to correct three small typos.

Todd and Redhawk, thanks for your replies. I hope a dialog develops among us all and a way to keep ourselves holistically thinking and working. Maybe it is not needed and I'm an outlier in the larger data set. I don't know. I figured that if I captured it here, others will confirm or deny that it is an issue or is not -- with degrees of variance, I'm sure. I'm not thin skinned on this, so I hope others jump in.

To both of your points about biting off what we can chew, I agree we need to have that as part of our thinking. But, I at least, need to constantly remind myself to back out and look at things from the 30,000 ft. view. I need to be comfortable moving back and forth between the tactical implementation and the holistic plan.

 
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What a great post Dan. I really enjoyed reading it. I also have to catch myself and stop, and re-observe the big picture I have in mind when thinking about my new farm. I don't live there yet, the plan is to move next summer/fall after we build our little house. In my mind, the first step for me was soil. Everything soil. For me, it doesn't matter what I grow, I must get the soil right to be successful at providing healthy grass and forages for my future grazing ruminants, to grow my fruit trees & berry bushes, and to grow my annual vegetable garden. I totally went down the rabbit hole of all things soil, and I came back out having learned a lot. I really got a little sidetracked from my big picture permaculture plan for the new farm (and it does include swales ). There's so much I have to do, and I'm constructing my "short term" five year plan of what I want to have accomplished and put in place, and I also have a longer ten year plan of what I would like to have accomplished by then. I gotta choose which steps I take in what order, and a few could be shuffled around, but for me making a choice is the hard part.
 
gardener
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I think it's natural for people to focus on whatever they are most interested in, but having an overly zealous fixation can be a problem. Before you even got to it, I knew you would mention the rocket mass heaters.

From a moderation point of view, I know that there are certain topics that people get very fixated on and these are the ones where most of the squabbling occurs. There's been lots of squabbling amongst the builders of heating equipment, and in the building section generally. It's unusual to have a heated debate which turns nasty, if people are discussing the best way to grow Swiss chard.

I don't always learn from other people's mistakes, but I certainly have when it comes to acquiring livestock too early. I also won't create a system where fish are reliant on many mechanical systems, unless I am sure that I can pull it off.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I see that those who have participated in this thread seem to ask "what is the order".

So, this is the order we are following on Buzzard's Roost (be ready for side tracks as emergencies do come up, it is farming after all).

1. water control (first you have to make sure the water that comes to your place has the chance to sink in and stay there) this could be swale/berm or terrace and part of the swale berm is knowing the key point and main line so you can lay these out before you start moving soil.

2. get grass growing on the water control structures so there isn't any erosion in a heavy rain event. If you are going to be planting  trees for a food forest or orchard type set up, this is the time to do the first plantings.

3. house or garden (if you have a house, start the garden if you plan to live there now). This might also include some out-buildings like barn, coop, stable, etc. getting this done early makes everything else flow along faster and easier.

4. from here on it is up to what emergency just came up or just follow your initial plan.

EG. on Buzzard's Roost we were building terraces, wife got sick and now it is all me, so, Change in plan, I'll be using straw bales to define my terraces and slow water travel as I finish up the infrastructure of a perimeter fence.
WE were going into commercial pork but now that will go away and we will be doing chickens, ducks, geese, guinea hens.

The best thing you can do to keep yourself on track is to draw out your plans. Use those plans to make a list from most important to least important and then realize that the list might change due to something happening that you couldn't see coming. (like sickness, hurricane, tornado, etc.).
At that point you have to make an emergency list or just do a bit of rearranging. There is really just one constant and that is that number 1 and two must be done before anything else, with out that being done at least to the point of no erosion will occur, then you are not going to have any soil to grow things anyway. Or you are going to be fighting nature and we can never win that battle, she will always win.

 
Todd Parr
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Dale Hodgins wrote:I think it's natural for people to focus on whatever they are most interested in, but having an overly zealous fixation can be a problem. Before you even got to it, I knew you would mention the rocket mass heaters.



For nearly any question on permies, the answer is rocket mass heater, hugelculture, or DE
 
pollinator
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This goes a little beyond permaculture in some ways, and hopefully I haven't missed the OP's point, but here I go.

I am in the middle of reading a JADAM book and a nice quote mentioned is that "philosophy must come before technology". I believe that's similar to what you are saying, Dan, in that we must have something in the distance to focus on to keep us on track.

In the western world, north america specifically, we are not really taught any philosophy in our early years partly because we've got such a short history by comparison to the rest of the world. In Asia, they have millennia of experience that has been built up into a rich philosophy and it's well-known to the general population.

Because of a lack of philosophy, there is an impatience I feel, which is why there is a lot of action without full awareness and observation. There also seems to be a focus only on the present(and the self) and not for the future or past. Many people I see around me want solutions done as fast as possible or they want to be "experts" in their field as fast as possible - all without consideration of the consequences or in view of the larger picture. In Japan, if you want to apprentice to be a swordsmith or a professional sushi chef, you will be "in training" for 5-10 years or more, learning the ins and outs of all aspects of those arts.

To the defense of the distracted permies person though, much like the lack of philosophy, there is a lack of interaction with nature in modern culture as most tend to view themselves separate from nature. Building a swale or hugel and working with nature I assume is a rather enjoyable experience for most. People likely want to repeat that experience, which is why they stay with things they know know how to do and repeat the process. This leads to "wanting to build swales everywhere". The intention is wonderful, but I think that the execution is misguided because of the lack of philosophy.

Hopefully that idea tied together near the end. Permaculture is a big topic and I'm in the middle of actively working to condense my ideas down while being more concise, though it's a work in progress.

P.s I am no stranger to fixation on certain subjects/technologies, but it seems I've built up a mechanism to prevent "obsession" - probably stemming from my environment and curiosity that keeps me exploring new things. People in my province, farmers especially, are known as "jack of all trades" in that you're likely to run into someone who knows the basics of carpentry, electrical, plumbing, mechanics, etc. I've heard in some parts of europe that trades people, such as ones related to construction, are required to take some time learning the aspects of other trades that are related to the trade they are studying for. These seem to be holistic approaches.

Along with the point of studying a broad range, it is equally important to question your questions. Instead of asking "how do you build the best swales?" "how do you build the best RMH" "how do you build the best hugels" ask  "what are the ways that you can store water?" "what are the ways you can store heat?" "what are the ways you can create soil?". This line of reason will lead to such broad questions that they will force one to look from a holistic point of view. 
 
pollinator
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I have a different view about post counts on biggies like rmh and hugelkulture. They are topics that get people to these forums. Once these biggies get them here, they learn the other aspects.  So in essence, its helping people get the total concept.

If i were to google both of these, i would guess permies is on the first page of searches.

Having said that,  the op's thoughts are valid. We all get in our own singular pattern.
 
gardener
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Keeping on track with your tasks and ensuring you're always working on the most important thing is one of the most challenging things in the world. There's the obvious stuff that knocks us off track.: a broken water pipe is going to take priority over perimeter fencing, animals have a tendency to get loose, three feet of snow drop two months too early, machinery breaks down. For me that was almost my entire summer. We had a huge winter last year, and every time I thought I had room to move forward, I'd discover a new broken piece of infrastructure.

I try (and fail) not to worry about that stuff. It'll happen, and all I can do is add in flexible time to my plans to deal with the unknowns. What I can control are my plans. More specifically, constantly planning. As Eisenhower made famous:

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.



I love to plan. It's one of the things I do professionally in my non-permaculture life. But plans are overrated. It's easy to come up with a plan and say "1. Swales 2. Plant tree lanes 3. Reseed pasture" and assume you have a task list. But when are swales done? They may have been very important the first couple of swales, but by swale 8 or 9… are you really working on the most important thing? That's where distraction lives. The solution for me is to value planning, not plans. Planning gives me the perspective of the whole, and really think about my priorities. I think a lot of people get stuck on plans. They treat a five year plan like a task list instead of a forecast. Forecasts always get more and more accurate as you get closer to current time, and each time you do it you get better at it. It's a lot like meditation in that aspect. Meditation is a practice, not a thing you complete. For me planing is a practice. The value is in the planning, not the result. The purpose is to re-align your perspective to what's important. And the more often you do it, the closer you get to actually working on what's important.


 
Dan Grubbs
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Some really good thoughts here. The challenge with making a statement is that it is hard to include all the variables or subtitles that make up reality verses a declaration of something that is less reflective of reality. So, the continued dialog is critical to ensure we arrive at a more holistic understanding.

Kyle, help me understand what you mean by the difference between planning (to me the mental activity) and the plan (the product or outcome of the mental activity). I think I know what you're getting at, but I want to be sure.

Wayne, you hit upon the great thing about social sharing: social learning. I found permies.com through my other searches, so I know of what you write. I love the way you summarized my thoughts by calling it a "singular pattern." I think our Western training teaches us to go this way in our approach to things because we don't want to take the time to understand the whole as a whole, which for some cultures can be an entire lifetime. I think this gets to part of what Jarret is addressing.

Considering Jarret's comments, I wonder is there a cultural tangent to how we approach the teaching of permaculture. Is there a Japanese approach to teaching permaculture in that students wouldn't expect to be practitioners for 5-10 years? Is there an American approach where students want to build their farm yesterday based on some tactics they learned from a YouTube video? I sense from Bryant's view that the process is pretty important as well as the culmination.  Interesting thoughts.
 
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Dan Grubbs wrote:.... Permaculture is holistic, and I hope everyone can see the forest and not just the trees.



This is all fine and I have been on the board forever.
However...

As soon as you go beyond the talk and start walking the walk - you should start figuring out the inner details of whatever piece of the permaculture you are trying to implement.
At this point refined focus is needed (if only for the time).
And so - why worry about what it is you are missing out?
For the time your attention is narrow and you keep your head down. So what?

For the last two years I have been into treatment-free beekeeping while also recycling every imaginable piece of trash into my own beehives (material recycling is one of the points of my beekeeping and how it all started, in fact).
So - this is all I have been thinking about lately (natural parasite resistance of the honey bee and how to achieve that within my own, very limited, temporal and geographical scope).

I am thinking about beekeeping and all the practical and theoretical details related.
Forget the holistic ideas and all that high talk.
Should I feel bad about it? 
No, I should not.
I am just a single ant that is trying to drag a pine needle onto the same, big, permaculture ant-mound.
I am busy because my needle is very heavy, and the mound is high, and yet my time is short.
No ants - no mound.
End of story.
 
Kyle Neath
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Dan — I was worried it might be a bit muddled. Ran out of coffee yesterday and I'm feeling the pain now.

I think the biggest difference is that planning is a process — it is research, re-aligning your context, and problem solving. The result of that process is a plan. While the plan can be useful (you shouldn't ignore it!) the knowledge gained from going through the process is at least an order of magnitude more valuable. One of the biggest values is re-alignment and forcing yourself to focus on your longer-term goals. Sometimes we can get caught up in our plan (build swales) that all we're thinking about is how to build the best swale instead of why we were building the swale in the first place.

To me, goals are the things that should stick around long-term, but your plans should only last at most a year (ideally, a season).
 
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wayne fajkus wrote:I have a different view about post counts on biggies like rmh and hugelkulture. They are topics that get people to these forums. Once these biggies get them here, they learn the other aspects.  So in essence, its helping people get the total concept.

If i were to google both of these, i would guess permies is on the first page of searches.

Having said that,  the op's thoughts are valid. We all get in our own singular pattern.



I think you're very right about this. People looking to make hugels or rocket mass heaters don't have many places to ask for help, so they come here, where Paul specializes in both of these things, and there's a lot of people knowledgeable about it. Our chicken and duck forums aren't that big, because there's other forums that have a ton of people who have had chickens or ducks for years, so they go and post a question there for more and quicker answers. The more people we get who are knowledgeable about subjects--like Joseph Lofthouse is about landrace breeding--the more people come to permies looking for answers to those things. And then, like you said, they branch out and learn more about other subjects.

A lot of the posts on permies are people sharing their projects or asking for help. And, that's great! It's also great to have discussions about the system and design process. But, for every discussion about that, there's a lot of people asking how in the world do they implement a certain part of their system. Especially for those of us that haven't taken a PDC, when we design our system and decide to put in a swale and a keyhole garden and herb spiral and hugelkulture, we have to figure out how to do each of those things. That's four separate threads started compared to the one about design!
 
Dan Grubbs
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Hey Nicole! Thanks for the note.

I hope no one thinks I'm attacking forum threads and posts. That certainly was not my point, and I wouldn't be here if I didn't gain value from forum threads. I was simply using posts as a kind of barometer and example to help illustrate that we can become singularly focused when we plan and implement what should be a holistic design. These forums should be a treasure trove of information that people can go to as a knowledge management resource.

My message is not about forum threads, but about helping to keep myself (and maybe others) focused on the bigger picture related the ecosystem of the landscapes we are fortunate enough to help manage.
 
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I think it's also important to remember that not everything on here is applicable to your climate, all the talk of water control for me it is the total opposite I need to remove water as fast as possible not hold onto it, same with cooling the soil I need to warm mine up with black plastic not cool it with mulches. (if I wish to grow marginal plants like squash and tomato)  But then I get hung up on other things, I've been smacking my head on regulations regarding stored rainwater usage on crops for sale (it's illegal without treatment). Perhaps I should drop that especially as I never watered this year and only watered twice last year. Maybe I should just accept I need to use town water for the greenhouse. (or put a sneaky pump into my spring)
It may also be that people appear to get hung up on here as we all ask about something specific, when in reality we're thinking about 30 things at once. On a personal note if I try to think of everything I end up starting it all and finishing nothing while everything I started decays around me.
 
pollinator
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If I may.. I don't think I suffer from this issue. I admit that I do not always know all the elements of Permiculture, but I also grew up on a farm and a lot of what is said on here is actually old farming practices with new drive, or renamed. I am okay with that.

But almost 10 years ago I drew up a long term Farm Plan, taking some 10 months to write down ideas and then form them into an operational plan, which is far different than one for a financial bank. In any case I still have that rather large document, and occasionally go through it. By doing one big project per year, and yes a few little ones, my wife and I churn along and have got a phenomenal amount of work done. I say that because other farmers in the area say that because of how much this farm has changed.

Part of that comes from being here 43 years...all my life...so I got quite a bit of observation time in. I also got 300 years of family history here, longer if you consider my Indian heritage, and some of that is written down and some is oral history.

So my advice of 10 years of this is...pick one big project per year and complete it so that you do not get overwhelmed. Sure a few smaller projects are nice, but I see too many people trying to do too much. That just leads to burnout, and even at 30,000 feet, perspective is distorted when looking through the lens of fatigue.

My other piece of advice is, make a great operational plan. In my case I took a pounding from people saying "just buy sheep already", but I waited for the right flock, did my Farm Plan, and now have found EVERY TIME I have deviated from it, things go bad. Very bad. So I stick with my plan, resist the urge to do other things (though I have been tempted) and keep working even though sometimes it seems fruitless.



 
Bryant RedHawk
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Skandi Rogers wrote:I think it's also important to remember that not everything on here is applicable to your climate, all the talk of water control for me it is the total opposite I need to remove water as fast as possible not hold onto it, same with cooling the soil I need to warm mine up with black plastic not cool it with mulches. (if I wish to grow marginal plants like squash and tomato)  But then I get hung up on other things, I've been smacking my head on regulations regarding stored rainwater usage on crops for sale (it's illegal without treatment). Perhaps I should drop that especially as I never watered this year and only watered twice last year. Maybe I should just accept I need to use town water for the greenhouse. (or put a sneaky pump into my spring)
It may also be that people appear to get hung up on here as we all ask about something specific, when in reality we're thinking about 30 things at once. On a personal note if I try to think of everything I end up starting it all and finishing nothing while everything I started decays around me.



Water Control also includes removal of water where it isn't desired. 
What does your government consider "treatment" would a sand filter work for that or does it include chemical treatment? (I do realize that you are not just dealing with the Danish government, I'm sure the EU has regulations and laws in place too.)

Trying to do everything at once shows disorganization of thought processes, a not uncommon issue for farmers and gardeners, it is why lists and planning were invented.

When I go out on a consultation the clients usually are in a state of being overwhelmed by all the information they have acquired. I usually end up simplifying everything for them before we can start a plan of attack on their farm.

Redhawk
 
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I expect that the distraction you speak of is par for the course.  We live in a specialist age, where specialization is rewarded on multiple levels, and I think that being "distracted" by one topic or another is basically a symptom of that.

Myself, I think I'm fortunate in that I am, I think, endlessly distracted.  I have many and varied interests, and I am discontent to spend too much time focusing on any one of them.  So what I have noticed that I will do is become fixated enough on a particular topic to research it somewhere between a superficial and moderately thorough level, implement a few things, then move on to something else.  I don't necessarily choose to move on, I just get distracted by something new.  But what I have noticed is that, over time, I will circle back to delve again into a particular topic, just in greater depth and detail on return visits. 

So perhaps one can take a habit of being distractible and turn it to advantage?  Keep lots of books on the shelf, and keep enough stuff on your to-do list to keep you moving?  Maybe in that way you will be able to see the forest and the trees.
 
pollinator
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I look at the issues you speak about from a different angle, but have come to some similar understandings.

But i think the problem is sourced from the cultural entrainment, the environment we are raised in which oddly forces us to go against both our own nature, and nature itself.

and to overly fixate on the details, often at the expense of the larger systems. and further to collectively ADHD like awareness, through gross overstimulation of the senses and mind.

i do agree that system thinking, and re learning holistic thinking, is a major answer to many questions and problems we have.
I also believe the crux of the problem is in the way our society trains it's members to objectify, exploit, and always seek expanse and profit, even at a far greater cost in the future.

our inner drill sargents, always telling us we must do more and more to be acceptable even to our own expectations, and forcing the not good enough paradigm of our culture to evaluate ourselves harshly, if not continually pushing forward in some ways - seeking to always profit, and co incidentally - exploit.

sometimes it is ok to fail, to not progress, and to lay fallow. i am big into that, the power of inching along, small steps, even no steps, it is ok.

it is very difficult to for a person to unlearn these habits in thinking and interacting and shift themselves on a fundamental level, at which point they are likely misunderstood by the rest of the hundred monkey humans still entrained in cultural programming.

I strongly believe that this indescribable shift in thinking is the only thing that can start to heal our world, both human cultures and the environmental degradation issues we are faced with.
it can't be taught or forced upon anyone, to fully realize the interconnectness of all beings, and feel one's proper belonging in the world.

to fully grok the epic ness of the super organism Gaia =)

and i believe when you get to the heart of the matter, the answers become very simple. this is the core shift that needs to occur.

if most/many people can shift in this way, then the methods of organizing societies and going about getting our needs met within sustainable means will all change.
from that basic understanding of the unity of all beings, things would naturally sort themselves out, with clear solutions.
 
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