Complexity and collapse

Joseph Tainter

As you know, The Hannibal Blog is fascinated by the issue of complexity in modern society.

That is, “fascinated” as you might be in a horror movie: simultaneously freaked out and intrigued.

If I had to give a working hypothesis in my evolving thinking, it would sound a bit like the answer by that character in The Sun Also Rises:

How does complexity enslave us? First gradually, then suddenly.

In other words, complexity can increase slowly for a while but then suddenly becomes catastrophic. This view seems to be in the Zeitgeist. Here, for instance, is just a tiny sample of intellectuals I’ve recently come across who seem to be exploring versions of it:


Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, a new-media visionary whom you’ve met here before, takes another look at the fascinating work of Joseph Tainter (above), an anthropologist at Utah State University. (Somewhat surprisingly, he then tries to apply that to … business models in the television industry!)

Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies looked at the abrupt implosions of ancient Rome, the Mayas et cetera.

As Shirky summarizes it, Tainter’s thesis is that societies become more complex because

early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

… Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. …

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.


Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard, argues in a piece called “C0mplexity and Collapse” in Foreign Affairs that the great powers don’t rise and fall gradually (as everybody from Herodotus to Paul Kennedy has assumed) but disintegrate abruptly:

Empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.

(I was somewhat surprised not to see a reference to Tainter’s work in Ferguson’s article, but there you go.)


David Segal in the New York Times takes that impetus and applies it to our strategy in Afghanistan, the financial crisis and much else.


It seems to me that there is an opportunity in this topic of complexity to find something original (and simple) to say, a new “theory of complexity”, as it were. I’m going to start looking for it.

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50 thoughts on “Complexity and collapse

  1. This is great stuff!

    The interesting challenge of a new theory of complexity is whether to make it simple or complex. I’m not being facetious. My first thought is a giant matrix where you scale human activity (e.g., law, arts, government, social interaction) across a network of variables such as technology, globalization, economic system and see if you can identify tipping points at which things become unworkable. Then you identify the root cause problems that make things unworkable–is it limitations on communication, time, systems interfaces and are there benchmarks to indicate when you’ve crossed a point of no return.

    Second, as my example shows, the first antidote that people apply to excessive complexity is the addition of more complexity.

    Therefore, is the solution to complexity an Alexander/Gordian knot approach or is it to recognize that perhaps the reason that complexity causes downfalls is because coping strategies for complexity in different areas of societal structures mature at different rates. So if your technology gets ahead of your economic system, or regulatory system (mmm what made me think of that?) a collapse can occur and be attributed to complexity.

    Penultimate point–it may be as simple as practical limits on any system. An example is the lowly human. Able to cope in an agricultural or even feudal environment but the added complexities of jobs, commutes, television, Facebook, consumerism, kids suddenly lead to collapse because you can’t do everything. Same with governments, too probably.

    Last point: an old boss of mind would dismiss elegant solutions with the phrase, “It sounds like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.” Maybe thats the basis of the theory–either increase the size of the bag (if possible) or reduce the amount of shit.

    • OK, so you give us two options:

      1) a “giant matrix”.

      2) the Alexandrian approach of cutting the Gordian knot.

      Based on your regular reading of this blog, which do you think we’ll settle for?

      (Based on mine of yours, I know you only posed one of these options rhetorically. ;))

    • Right again!

      But I think it is worth looking at the underlying idea of the matrix, which is the idea that complexity results from the proliferation of new interconnections among various aspects of human activity. As we jump into the exploitation of those interconnections, our control systems or coping mechanisms may not be equally mature, and that is what results in complexity leading to collapse.

      A simple example–a new interconnection between previously unconnected human activity was the introduction of semiconductor technology into the automobile. Increasing complexity which created more fail points in the car and you can only diagnose/fix failures with special equipment. So a roadside breakdown suddenly became more of a potential collapse than an inconvenience.

      You can apply the same logic to computerization of investment trades (e.g., Proctor and Gamble). And the best example is technology and health care–as a result of that interconnection we are able to keep people alive who in the past would have had no hope–and the result is an interesting ethical debate (and potential economic collapse of the health care system because other control systems/coping mechanisms haven’t advanced at the same pace).

      It’s not just technolgy but those are the easy examples.

      Am I making sense?

    • “Am I making sense?”

      i think the point is obviously valid, but hasn’t every generation made the same claim? that mans reach exceeds his grasp. did i understand you?

      BTW, if you read my conversation with Abelard le Duc, it is also my opinion that man is definitely not mature enough to make a moral/logical use of his complex tools.

    • You make perfect sense, and I agree with you that the permutations among new interconnections is the place to start looking.

      Incidentally, are you aware of the etymology of “matrix” versus “pattern”?

      Matrix from Latin “mater”, mother, in the sense of “womb”.

      Pattern from Latin “pater”, father.


    • @Thomas

      A simple example–a new interconnection between previously unconnected human activity was the introduction of semiconductor technology into the automobile. Increasing complexity which created more fail points in the car and you can only diagnose/fix failures with special equipment. So a roadside breakdown suddenly became more of a potential collapse than an inconvenience.

      For the last 25 years or so of my “career”, I worked in a highly technical, fast-changing, environment (telecommunications). There were two advancements happening simultaneously. Reliability and complexity. Our circuit cards performed more functions (and more costly) but, at the same time, became more reliable. To apply this to your automobile metaphor, it means that a roadside breakdown becomes more likely to be catastrophic (costly) while being less likely to actually happen.

    • @Douglas–That’s an interesting and valid addition to the discussion–the degree of reliability and our degree of reliance on complex systems. Lots of additional examples come to mind–a jumbo jet is much more reliable than the Wright brother’s airplane, but it has more points of potential failure and a failure is more catastrophic.

      You can probably extend that to the banking system and “too big to fail” somehow!

    • @Thomas

      You can probably extend that to the banking system and “too big to fail” somehow!

      I’d really rather not. 🙂

      I have, for some time, been hoping that the increase in the use of electronics would have a similar effect in medicine but that hasn’t happened. Computerization has either reduced costs or kept them down while increasing reliability (yes, even while increasing catastrophic result) mostly due to redundancy. That jumbo jet? Full of all kinds of redundant systems to prevent that possible failure from causing that catastrophic result. This is evidenced in the statistics…

      53% of airplane crashes are attributed to pilot error
      21% to mechanical failure (which is not only the automated and redundant systems)

      The weak link seems to be human in nature.

  2. It seems to me that there is an opportunity in this topic of complexity to find something original (and simple) to say, a new “theory of complexity”, as it were.

    the topic reminds me of the mathematical and philosophical ideas of “the golden mean” and “the quiet mind” . your new theory of social complexity might be found in the writings of mathematicians and poets?

    True wisdom joined with simpleness; Henry Howard, The Things that Cause a Quiet Life

    Bertrand Russell’s writings about happiness touch upon almost every aspect of social and political philosophy. Here I shall be content to outline the more important features of his theory.

    1. The ability to successfully complete a journey generally requires knowing where one is going. The same is true of happiness. Russell believes “that in the advanced industrialized nations a better ideal of private happiness is probably the thing that is most wanted. More important even than political and economic reconstruction is the realization of the things that really make for human happiness.”(How to be Free and Happy)
    2. He rejects mentalist views that maintain that happiness solely or most fundamentally consists in having the right frame of mind. Psychological factors are important but they do not come first. “I put first,” writes Russell, “purely physical conditions – food and shelter and health. Only when these have been secured is it worth while to consider psychological requisites.”(What is Happiness?)

    excerpt from an article by marvin kohl

    • “The golden mean” might indeed be teh general model of any theory that might result. It falls into the ancient category of seeing solutions in “balance”. (Compare: Polybius > government)

      Russell: He’a a great character and I studied him for my book (although I had to cut him in the second draft.)

      But I wonder if he overshoots in these two points you give us. How can one know where one is going?

      Regarding the second point, he seems to be rephrasing Maslow’s pyramid but stopping in the middle of the said pyramid. Virtually everybody from the Buddhists to my hero Diogenes would disagree with him.

    • How can one know where one is going? metaphorically = goal

      “What is Happiness?” – 1939
      Maslow’s pyramid – 1943 ?
      maslow maybe rephrasing russell?

      in any case, “i put first purely physical conditions” seems to be same as the pyramid, these basic needs must be met before one can advance to anything more complex like “the realization of the things that really make for human happiness” first point from article.

      buddhists don’t agree with maslow’s triangle?

      i realize my thinking is tangent (one might wonder what the heck happiness has to do with the topic), but only an uncluttered mind, a quiet mind, one at balance can produce a simple solution. (as opposed to simplistic solution)

      are not ridiculous, counter-intuitive complex solutions a product of a cluttered mind confused about which direction to go to achieve balance, happiness, satiety?

  3. At the risk of sounding too simple, I suggest the analogy of extinctions of animal species. A species which doesn’t adapt to changes in its environment, becomes extinct.

    Regarding the survivability of nation-states, Edmund Burke (famously?) wrote: A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation.

    • Edmund Burke said a lot of wonderful things like that. My favourite quote by him is from the height of the friction between the British and American colonies. He and others wanted to reconcile with the colonies so they would remain part of the British Empire while King George and some others pursued a policy of irritating the colonies with taxes and duties, etc. His comment was “A great empire and small minds go ill together.”

    • I’m already thinking about analogies to the biological world, as it happens. But the demise of species may not have been caused by increasing “complexity” per se. Perhaps if the dinosaurs had been more complex, they could have adapted to the new climate.

  4. I like this also…

    How does complexity enslave us? First gradually, then suddenly.

    Especially as applied to civilizations or, as Phil put it, nation-states (though I would qualify them as “great nation-states”).

    To my simple mind, it seems that simple civilizations (emerging or developing nations) can function well because they have simple needs and processes to address them (assuming limited or no corruption). As a nation develops and becomes more entangled with other nations (trade, alliances, conflicts, etc), the needs get more complex and the processes have to adapt by also becoming more complex.

    Think of a child’s building blocks. The initial structure he builds is stable because it is simple. As the structure grows, it becomes more complex and stability is weakened. Eventually, the structure can be brought down to ruin by removing only one or two key blocks.

    I think what I am saying is the more complex the structure (society) becomes, the more weak points it develops which can then be exploited (intentionally or unintentionally).

    The other metaphor which came to mind was the “frog in gradually heated water.” Unfortunately, it’s a bad one because the frog has been shown to be aware enough to jump out at some point before it’s too late (much, I am told, has to do with how gradually the heat is elevated… maybe give the frog a little wine first so he’s already in a stupor, like a drunk in a hot tub).

    • The frog, as I recall, only jumps out when you throw it in the boiling water — because it notices the sudden difference. It casually allows itself to be boiled if you put it in cool water and gently bring it to a boil.

      Let me contemplate your other points….

  5. When professors in academic prose present an indictment of complexity, I smile. Do any other writers have a more complex complexity complex?

    Niall Ferguson begins his essay with Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, as if admitting from the get-go that the painting might tell the story best of all. And simply. And elegantly.

    Form mirroring message–now that’s elegant.

    • That’s an irony we all missed until you pointed it out, jenny. LOL.

      Now I’m thinking of equivalents…. Republican senators advising abstinence….

    • Niall Ferguson’s essay is timely, and a bit sensational, but the basic idea has been around a while. 

      Those who are old enough to remember the Great Depression already know that terrible  “consequences” can arise from uncertain “causes”. 

      Moreover, versions of:

      For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
      For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
      For want of a horse the battle was lost;
      For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost; —
      All for the want of want of a horse-shoe nail.

      go back centuries and also convey the idea that a collapse may have small, hard to identify, causes.

  6. and talk about your zeitgeist: From your site, I go to Yahoo, where this story is featured: Pentagon Brownie Recipe Takes 26 Pages.

    And then the Pentagon collapsed like a flan in a cupboard.

  7. I didn’t read Tainter’s book, but you make me want to read it. And, a place like Salt Lake City, it excites my imagination.

    Complexity. Generally I tend to distrust big concepts, because of the risk of getting too abstract & a-historical. For example I didn’t follow the French at all when they fell in love with the ‘structure’ concept (structuralism,) but that would take us far.

    Why a-historical. Because to me empires are all different, which doesn’t mean that trying to understand what they have in common is useless, quite the contrary, historicism – which both the Italians and the Germans liked a lot in the past – being just a tool among others.

    For example, to see empires as biological adaptive systems (Ferguson) that can collapse all of a sudden – like possibly the Western Roman empire did -, is quite interesting, since, what is man if not biological? And, applying such complexity theory to the American strategy in Afghanistan, to the financial crisis etc. is intriguing and can produce something, provided we don’t do as the French did – idolatry of concepts.

    I will follow you in this theory of complexity (wedded with simplicity) and see what happens.

    • “… Generally I tend to distrust big concepts…”

      Aha! So you are an Anglo-Saxon thinker after all. 🙂

      Can’t resist from poking you (a propos of another conversation we’ve had): Boy, you must … loathe Hegel.

    • Ah ah ah, of course I don’t loathe Hegel. In these days I’m reading his ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a summary of his entire system in the splendid translation by Benedetto Croce.

      Well, I am Anglo-Saxon in my way, in that to me intellectual exploration must be concrete, in my case helping us to understand why we are the way we are and what can we do to improve ourselves.

      I just don’t like the use of abstract concepts within French philosophy (Anglo-Saxons are different, not as abstract as the French), the weakest element of a culture – the French – I like very much (their prose, savoir vivre, cinema, les Annales etc. but, their poetry, much less: to my taste poems in English are a lot better)

      Henri Lefebvre was a champion of frivolous thought (not to mention ‘Les Nouveaux Philosophes’!). He absolutely taught me NOTHING when I was 27-30. So I threw ALL his books, I really did, I’m not kidding.

      Also the Germans make use of big abstractions etc., but they are much more profound, and connected to real life to the extent they create landslides now and then!

      Italy’s 1900 philosophy (Croce, Gentile, Gramsci, ie a liberal, a fascist and a communist-liberal) was heavily influenced by the Germans. Italian philosophy is concrete, not much in tune with big ideas but with practical solution of single problems, case by case. For this reason Croce and Gramsci especially – who learned a lot from Hegel – have appealed to Anglo-Saxons much more than Hegel himself.

    • That reminds me: I have this thread on the Great Thinkers. (The real point of it is to examine ALL the great thinkers, but I’ve tentatively settled for Patanjali as the Greatest of them all.)

      Why don’t you, who have read more books than any of us here, nominate YOUR choice of Greatest Thinker.

      And, importantly (so you can’t wiggle out into some grand abstraction), 300 words of explanation why his or her contribution is so great. Just a game. Basically: Who, of them all, influenced you most?

  8. Might I suggest a book by a personal hero of mine: Clive Ponting’s “A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations.” Ponting looks at (if you hadn’t guessed by the title) how humanity exists within its environment, how we exploit the environment until its exhausted before thinking to assess the situation, and how we are unable to fully grasp the long-reaching consequences of societal systems on that environment.

    What I love about my dear Clive is that he isn’t some naive Romantic who thinks we’d solve all our problems if we only went back to noble savagery. Hunter-gatherers approached the environment the same way we do: hoard what resources you can, when you can, to best secure a place for your kin group and friends. It’s just they were using stone tools and there were only two million of them, as opposed to six billion.

    Unfortunately for humanity, we can’t turn off these instincts that we evolved to survive in our hunter-gatherer tribes. And those instincts lead us naturally into a capitalistic economic system, replacing tools, edible plants, and livestock for “capital” with which we can now survive. Or, at least, some of us can. I don’t mean to be polemical; I mean, communism sucks too, but that doesn’t excuse the gusto with which we’re burning through the planet’s resources under the free(-ish) market.

    And Clive doesn’t spare anyone; he points fingers every which way. But he doesn’t just point fingers, he provides evidence to back up everything he says. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter, if you care:

    If I could make everyone in the world read one book, it would probably be this one. And if I had to summarize humanity’s problem in one paragraph, I’d say this:

    Competition with people outside our peer group for a limited pool of resources presses us to create systems that maximize our profit in relation to our resource investment (be it agricultural, economic, or technological). Maximized profits perpetuate growth and expansion in pursuit of a wider resource pool. Unfortunately, the systems that maximize our (short-term) profit more often than not lead to (long-term) degradation of the resource pool (see: hunting, deforestation, strip-mining, … offshore drilling). As the resource pool grows smaller, competition becomes more fierce, each party desperate to secure whatever profits they can to support their continually growing peer group (be it a tribe, city, or nation). A vicious cycle ensues, until the resource pool becomes so small it cannot support the (by now) grossly expanded civilization. Thus, collapse.

    We best wise up or another collapse is a-comin’.

    • When I was young, I was told of a sort of herd theory involving environment. It went something like this:

      A herd of wild horses in a box canyon with no egress will expand to slightly more than what sustenance of the canyon can support. It will shrink and expand until it eventually reaches a kind of stability at about the number the canyon can sustain.

      Man, with his alleged intelligence, has learned to adapt his environment to sustain his expanding numbers. The Easter Island chapter shows what happens, even to man, in a limited environment over time.

      Hunter-gatherer clans survive by moving on to other un-ravaged environments once they have depleted the resources of their current one. All wars (in spite of the silliness of blaming religion) are about resources. Competition among tribes for land and resources is no different than competition among nations… except in scale.

      Now, we are learning that we live in a “box canyon” called “Earth.” We do not yet know the size of the herd our canyon can support.

    • Fascinating, Chris.

      I immediately thought of another way in which we are, genetically and behaviorally, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, to disastrous effect in modern times:

      Whenever we have something to eat, we eat. For our ancestors, that meant survival. For us, it means being fat.

      I’ve Amazoned the book. If I’ve learned anything here on The Hannibal Blog, it is always to trust the book recommendations of my readers.

      Unfortunately AND fortunately, the result is that I now have a stack of books, a library in effect, that could keep me reading for ten years.

      Very intrigued indeed about this one.

    • Yeah, totally. The ability to store nutrients into fat quickly is a definite advantage on the African Savannah. I’m glad I piqued your interest in the book. Heh, hope it’s not a let-down….

    • @Chris

      Fascinating. I firmly believe “we can’t turn off these instincts that we evolved to survive in our hunter-gatherer tribes.”

      An idea first conceived by Darwin himself, somewhat the father of (human) ethology – Dutch Nikolaas Tinbergen, Austrian biologists Lorenz and Von Frisch – another way of saying ‘evolutionary psychology’.

      I always liked this approach – I am digressing – possibly more European tho. It concenrs those evolution-dependant behaviours, like – as an example – the tribe instinct of having lived for immense loads of years in tribes of possibly 30 people (I forgot the exact number), so that, our deep emotional capability – family plus friends – cannot ‘exceed’ THAT number. Our problem being, we live in mass societies, which means ‘stress’: in an elevator full of strangers – for ex – we are not at ease since to hunter-gatherers any strangers meant danger.

      Getting back to the point, my only doubt is the ‘one factor’ explanation approach (environment). It has the advantage of simplicity, but I usually distrust unique factors – lead poisoning the Romans etc. – since human societies are damn complicated. I read the page you link to. Easter Island was isolated in the huge Pacific ocean, so in another non isolated case they would have bought wood.

      As a study though of how environment can contribute to a collapse, the book is very intriguing, and I might read it too.

    • “…the tribe instinct of having lived for immense loads of years in tribes of possibly 30 people (I forgot the exact number), so that, our deep emotional capability – family plus friends – cannot ‘exceed’ THAT number….”

      You mean the “Dunbar Number”: 150

    • “[M]y only doubt is the ‘one factor’ explanation approach (environment).”

      That’s a fair criticism. I, too, am loathe to boil anything as complex as the collapse of great civilizations down to one exclusive factor. But Clive certainly convinced me that, as contributing factors go, the abuse of the environment is a fundamental and very significant one.

      And, concerning Easter Island (in response to your, “Easter Island was isolated in the huge Pacific ocean, so in another non isolated case they would have bought wood.”), I believe the book’s larger point is that we (as a species) have degraded our planet’s environment to such an extent that there is no place left from which to buy wood, as it were; our behavior (building the industrialized world by monopolizing high energy technologies and then maintaining it at the expense of the undeveloped world (importing (*cough* stealing *cough*) their wood, if you will)) is what got us here; and, even if we could continue as we have (by finding other, untouched forests), it wouldn’t really help us (e.g. stop global warming)…. To do that, it’s gonna take a conscious overhaul of our relationship to the environment. One I’m not confident we can do (in time). But I’m a pessimistic son of a bitch when it comes to humanity … 🙂

  9. @Andreas

    Why don’t you… nominate YOUR choice of Greatest Thinker.

    I have not read more books, and – as you suggest – it can only be the thinker that influenced me most in my most formative years, not the greatest, I cannot say who is the greatest in general.

    Ok, I’ll write that. Only 300 words? Wonder if it will stop me from ‘wiggling out’ 😉

    I’ll say in advance it is Antonio Gramsci, considered today (by Anglo-Saxon critics btw) the most influential Italian thinker of the second half of the 20th century. It doesn’t really matter whether he was a Marxist – like it doesn’t matter that Nietzsche sort of favoured Nazism: N had a truly exploring mind, and G too.

    Only, G to me is linked to painful memories of conflicts with my right-wing family bla bla, like when this ferociously anti-communist general (and living Gold Medal in WW2: most were ‘dead’ Medals) – my brother in law’s father – when my military service days arrived had me sent to a sort of re-education military where they tried to ‘purify’ me, as I *narrate here*. But I’ll do that.

    • Interesting choice. He certainly is a breath of fresh air after the French guys (Foucault, Barthes, Althusser, Derrida). What is your view of Eco?

    • The French got lost in such unproductive stuff!

      Eco is a medievalist, ex Catholic, scholar of Joyce not by chance, a lot into aesthetics and into Anglo-Saxon culture – in fact his interest was returned. One of my favourite authors when I was 35-40, but after ‘Il nome della rosa’ I got tired of him. His theoretical books (plus some great articles on California: ‘Dalla periferia dell’Impero’) were not bad but valuable for ‘that’ time, while Gramsci is more ‘fur ewig’, a paradox since his thought stemmed from the working class struggle following the Russian revolution.

      I might get back to Eco for his studies on esoterica. I’m a layman in that but esoterica (mystery cults) is useful to grasp aspects of Ancients and of the Renaissance.

    • Roma,

      “like it doesn’t matter that Nietzsche sort of favoured Nazism” ?
      … shouldn’t that read – “like it doesn’t matter that Nazism sort of favoured Nietzsche”?

    • OK, Roma. I’ll find time to read up on Gramsci in anticipation of your post.

      Gramsci, I recall, only made it into our college term-paper footnotes when we were really desperate to show erudition and simultaneously hadn’t the foggiest notion of what we were talking about….

    • Bavaria, I’m on a week-end trip South of Rome with Flavia, eating fusilli at the moment and drinking red wine from Apulia. Tomorrow I’ll think of something about Gramsci. Pls tell me where do you want me to post the 300 words on him. Ciao

    • Never interrupt fusilli and Apulian wine for … anything.

      Whenever you’re ready, post wherever you like: here or on your blog…

      Assume we don’t know ANYthing about him.

    • I finally wrote my Gramsci piece over at my blog. But I failed. I used 795 words instead of the 300 words requested. I just can’t help it. 😦

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