Protected: Accidental innocence

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Religious imagination

Few people I know have tried to imagine the possibility of religion that doesn’t revolve around peace, altruism, enlightenment and/or magic.

Yes, religious life can certainly revolve around these four notions — but it does not have to — unless it is not allowed to.

And it is not allowed to by people in orbit around these notions, who compulsively bring everything back to them, over and over — who call the facts deposited in these aeon-long ruts “eternal truths” and who call resignation to following this well-paved, well-appointed path forever “wisdom”.

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Simplicity simplified

I was told that my description of simplicity would be confusing to non-designers and non-nerds.

Here’s another way to say it…

If a person can say all 5 of these statements about a design, they will call the design “simple”:

  1. “This is a __________________ .”
  2. “It is good for __________________ .”
  3. “Everything I need/want is here.”
  4. “It has no extra crap I don’t need/want.”
  5. “Everything here makes perfect sense.”
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Protected: Jaspers on interpersonal angst

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Simple design

Friday afternoon at work, I facilitated a little salon where we tried to define what “simplicity” means in design.

Because I was facilitating, and it is bad form for facilitators to fight with participants, I had to keep my strong opinions to myself (which is probably exactly why they asked me to facilitate rather than participate).

But, of course, I did have uncomfortably strong opinions, and they had to do mostly with my own compulsion to simplify what we were saying about simplicity.

So here is my distillation, in the simplest terms possible, of how I think of design simplicity:

A design is simple when it is experienced by someone as having the following qualities:

  1. Everything relevant is included.
  2. Nothing irrelevant is included.
  3. It is conceived as systematic: all relationships among parts and within the whole are clear. 
  4. It is perceived as a whole: the entire system is experienced spontaneously as a single unit. 
  5. Its relevance as a whole is immediately obvious. 

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Protected: Lines

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Jaspers, Latour — and Buber, too

I love Jaspers, but I have to classify him with Rorty as another pre-material turn thinker who manages to say amazing things despite an uncannily precise neglect of the role nonhuman actors play in generating truth, and in Jaspers’s case, scientific truths.

His distinction between scientific modes of truth and original truths of being, and the application of a universal knowledge versus individual intuition schema to draw the line between the two conceals the all-important continuity between the two and the controversy around where that fuzzy gray line between established fact and questionable opinion ought to be drawn. It is too bad that Jaspers relied so heavily on scientific understanding as a foil, because he seems to have a lot to say about the nature of communication between individuals interacting in an interpersonal/interhuman — as opposed to social — mode of communication.

And now that I think about it from this angle, I view science as a social-material milieu — a setting where individuals and instruments and materials all socially interact, not as individuals, primarily but as representatives of roles. In other words, the social as Latour conceives it overlaps considerably with the social as Buber conceives it. In social interactions both human and nonhuman and actors play socially-defined roles and represent some ideal type in their acting.

And perhaps interpersonal interactions are possible with nonhuman actors… for instance when an artist works sculpts one particular piece of wood, with its own shape and grain. I think it is this intuition that makes me prefer interpersonal to interhuman… Let’s not limit personhood to humans.

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I am not yet persuaded

People – especially empathic people – can sometimes forget that they, too, have a right to be persuaded.

They unconsciously assume the burden of persuasion, and feel that if they have not persuaded others to their belief, they do not have the right to their own beliefs, or at least not to public belief. They think that until they can argue a belief, they are obligated to keep it to themselves and suppress or conceal their doubts.

I think this can be harmful.

I consider it a liberal’s right, if not a duty, to express non-persuasion or even dissent when it exists, even when there is no strong argument to back up the belief. This practice is important for a number of reasons. If nobody disagrees or doubts, it creates an appearance of unanimity, suggesting self-evident truth. It can cause people to doubt their own doubts and worry that their questions are stupid or misguided. If this fear becomes widespread and habitual, and people stop raising questions and everyone becomes unaccustomed to unquestioning acceptance, a culture of conformity can develop where group-think is the rule and questioning is taboo.

Registering doubt at least keeps questions open. It also encourages other individuals with doubts to speak up. It keeps a society accustomed to hearing individual judgments and individual thinking that goes against the grain.

To a liberal these are concerns of the highest rank.


My conviction is that we can believe or not believe something even without strong arguments.

Of course, if we want people to agree with us, we’ll eventually have to produce some persuasive reasons. Until then it will be necessary to stand alone.

But we are allowed to stand alone. Some of us admire people for standing alone – as long as they also respect our right to be unpersuaded.


Advice to myself:

If I find myself in the midst of a group with whom I disagree, I will raise my hand and state: “I am not persuaded by what you are saying.”

I will openly admit it if I do not yet have counter-arguments. I will tell everyone I’m still thinking about it.

I will not be silent, and I definitely won’t be silenced.

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As Christian fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Christianists, and as Islamic fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Islamists, Progressive fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population should be called Progressivists.

And why shouldn’t they? They have had powerful conversion experiences that revealed the true Truth to them. Now they see the world in its totality with an undeniable intensity, clarity and coherence. They know, they know that they know, and they no longer have patience for those who have no desire to know. They cannot conceive of how they could possibly be wrong, nobody is able to show them to their satisfaction how they are wrong, and therefore they are right.

Some are “born again”, some are “enlightened”, some are “red-pilled”, some are “woke”, and all are naive realists who think they awoke from naive realism, and they are going to wake you up, too.

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Classy progressives

Conversations among progressives can be confusing.

When politics is the topic, everything seems very leftist. They regard exclusivity, privilege, elitism, inequality, unfairness and consumerism as abhorrent and are quick to call it out when they see it.

But when the talk turns to less weighty topics, egalitarianism goes out the window. It becomes a competition to see is most urbane, who has vacationed in the most exotic places, who has the best taste in wine, literature, cinema and art, who knows the most about the newest, most fashionable restaurants, who has a degree from the most prestigious university, who has what status in what airline, hotel and credit card. Who has the highest status?

It all seems very self-contradictory — unless you realize that political beliefs and social ethics is just another of these status qualifications.

To establish that one belongs to the progressive elite class one must have the best taste in food and drink, must vacation in the best places, must have the best educational pedigree and one must believe the right things and practice the best political etiquette most strictly.

Seen in this light virtue signaling is just another dimension of a larger class signaling.

Assuming a progressive elitist class exists, would progressive elitists be aware of the advantages they derive from their dominant identity? Would they be able to overcome the a form of motivated reasoning that sees unjust privilege everywhere but in its own identity? Wouldn’t they feel deeply uncomfortable when confronted by others, and perhaps feel some fragility and rage at having their dominance challenged and at the impudent demand that they share power with those who are different from them? Could they be quiet and really listen for a change, instead of lecturing and dominating the discourse? Could they accept the hard truth that, even with their deductions, counter-balances and privilege-checking they have refused to check the one privilege that dwarfs all the others combined?

Could they apply their own principles to themselves? Or will they use their power to dismiss, discredit, disgrace and punish attempts to speak truth to a power identity so powerful that it demands to be treated not as an identity but as truth and justice itself?

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Design: thinking, crafting and actualizing

This post has also been published on my company’s blog.

To be effective in any design discipline it is certainly necessary to master the universal methods of design. Whether you call these methods Human-Centered Design (HCD) or Design Thinking or invent some new term for it, the principles are always the same and they are incredibly useful, especially for innovation, even outside the domain of what is normally called “design”. Let’s call this the thinking aspect of design.

Effective professional designers also become connoisseurs within their chosen design medium, capable of detecting subtleties in designs, rapidly assessing consequences and weighing trade-offs among different design directions, rapidly switching perspectives, zooming between whole and detail, and tacking between a shopper’s hasty glance and an expert’s inspection. Let’s call this the crafting aspect of design.

But even this is not enough, if the goal is making real change in the world.

For that, a designer must progress beyond thinking and crafting, into the actualizing part of design. This requires understanding of the materials specific to their design discipline. This understanding is not only an explicit knowledge about materials, it also involves an implicit feel for the possibilities and constraints of  materials, as well as fluency in the language which has formed around the material, often used by engineers and craftspeople.

This fluency is acquired less from from talking than from hands-on experience, and it is this that we mean when we say someone “knows what they’re talking about” and it is crucial for winning the respect and active support of the collaborators who will help the designer actualize the design.

Some examples:

  • Industrial designers need to understand the various materials and fabrication techniques used in manufacturing, and they need to know how to speak with mechanical and other types of engineers.
  • UX designers need to understand enough about development frameworks and methodologies to communicate and interact with software engineers. (“UX/UI designers” are even expected to be engineers. Whether they are still expected to be designers is the real question, but that’s a topic for another time.)
  • Architects need to understand methods and the myriad materials used in the construction of buildings, including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc., and have the vocabulary to communicate with the various specialists involved in building projects.

This brings us to an interesting question: What is the material of service design?

My answer is: The material of service design is organizations.

Designing services demands deep and extensive knowledge of how organizations work. The explicit part of this knowledge (the knowledge of MBAs) is far easier than the implicit part which takes years of experience collaborating with many disciplines working in many departments. It is not necessary to have the same level of knowledge as those who work in these departments. But the more a service designer can convey that they know what they they’re talking about when discussing the problems employees face every day in their jobs, the more the service designer can earn their respect and willingness to collaborate. Just as other design disciplines collaborate with teams of engineers and other types of experts to actualize their designs, service designers must enlist the involvement of entire organizations and get them to function as a massive multidisciplinary organizational engineering team. If anyone wonders why service design workshops tend to lean large, this is why.

Great service designers will know the methods of Human-Centered Design inside and out. They will overflow with observations and opinions about good and bad services they’ve experienced or heard about, and they’ll probably talk your ear off about how these experiences came about and what they portend about their industries, etc. But the real test is what happens when they talk with front-line employees, managers and executives. If the conversation plunges into the deepest shop-talk, and everyone is talking what’s going on at work with the kind of intensity normally reserved for sports or scandal, you may be witnessing a talented service designer in action.

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Performative contradiction

Poking around in Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy, I just read something that would serve nicely as a definition of performative contradiction: “to deny by example what is affirmed by assertion.” I may need to read this whole book.

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Faith space

Normally I don’t publish this kind of disorganized mess, but today I feel compelled to reflect on what feels like a constricting world, where liberal space from others is increasing scarce.


A person’s beliefs are not the same as that person’s faith.

Here is why I make the distinction: Beliefs are the product of innumerable choices, guided by attitudes that precede belief. The attitudes manifest primarily as our intuitions of relevance and value, and they pre-consciously influence what we are inclined to regard with interest or complacence, what we accept or question, what we embrace or push away.

Our practical responses are similarly guided. We are pre-consciously inclined to behave in particular ways to different kinds of beings and situations.

Before birth, long before we think or begin making conscious choices, a complex feedback process of perceiving, reacting, recognizing, responding has begun, and this process simultaneously produces us as people and our situation as the world we inhabit and the relationship between enworlded self and the world in which the self emerges is faith.


The best conversations sound out harmonies and cacophonies among faiths, faiths felt to inhabit an impossibly deep, dense, vast reality — a reality which monotheists like to emphasize as one, which polytheists like to emphasize as plural, and which pluralists like emphasize as both at once.


When talking with people of other religions I often detect a shared faith, even despite divergent beliefs. They’re “coming from a good place.” Or their “hearts are in the right place.” This place is what I call faith. And the goodness and rightness seems for me to have much to do with a desire for more than what their beliefs can grasp or possess. This is what I experience as liberal, and, for me, it has less to do with what one confesses or professes, and more to do with hospitality, mobility and spaciousness of soul.


It is not enough to be a mystic, to believe that there is more, to sense that that a beyond exists. It is necessary to desire it and want more and more of it, even though that means almost renunciation of many mystic virtues. A liberal soul does not have special divinatory or gnostic powers, or some special relationship with god that makes one immune to vulnerability, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty or forsakenness. A liberal at heart might be a mystic turned inside out — …

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Faith in faithfulness

Faith is the relationship we have with reality beyond what is present to our experience, the being that inspires our warmest love and coldest dread, the being upon which we depend for our very being, the being with the potential to shock us with its stark alienness or surprise us with inconceivable fullness. Life without faith is entirely pointless, and this is why reciprocation of faith — faithfulness — seems commanded by reality itself.

We should be faithful to the past and to the future, to what is behind what is nearest and concealed by distances, and to the people around me (human and nonhuman) I can learn from and teach and to the mysterious source of my own selfhood. In the stories we tell ourselves, we should adhere to the existence of these realities and not re-narrate them for the convenience of the moment, because only this gives our own selfhood persistence and coherence.

We maintain ourselves as ourselves both for ourselves and for those who love us, those who we love, those who we hope with be faithful to us. Covenant.

I believe this faith in faithfulness makes me religious. No?

Posted in Ethics, Judaism, Metaphysics, Philosophy | 4 Comments

Practical prayer

Sunday, I attended the funeral of a man I’d been praying for, but never met in person. Praying for him made his life, along with what I didn’t know of him more real to me. By hearing how he was eulogized and sensing the loss in the people around me, being there felt strangely analogous to finally meeting someone I’d heard a lot about. But now he was not here to meet, and I wished I’d known him. In this sense, I could feel his absence with his family and friends. It helped me participate in the mourning, beyond just attending the service. I believe I will remember this funeral long after I’ve forgotten the weeks around it.

This is one good practical reason to pray.

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Art and world

Art affirms a world, completes a world or promises a world.

The affirmation of a world that is not full of positive significance and potential does nothing but provide folks with refashioning of the expected: safe novelties.

A world that exalts self-sufficiency and autonomy prefers an impoverished perfection to any suggestion we are not already complete in ourselves, however much loneliness, hopelessness and emptiness demonstrates otherwise: ideological narcissism.

A world that scoffs at transcendence refuses on principle to hope for anything that inspires genuine love: cool lust.


If you have to hustle your art, try spending less time on craft and more time on asking deeply offensive questions.

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3 C’s of service design

More on this later, but I wanted to jot down this framework:

Service design aims to get three things right:

  • Continuity: ensure the whole experience is designed without thoughtless gaps at any unconsidered moment where the customer is confused, frustrated or unserved.
  • Consistency: design the experience to maximize familiarity and “learn once, use often.”
  • Climax: build memorable and differentiating highlights into the experience that make it special to the customer.
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The “yes, but, so” of pseudoliberalism

What is it about Rorty that makes him so satisfying to disagree with? Rorty’s mistakes and omissions make me like him even more. Maybe it is because his ultimate goals and tacit evaluations correspond to my own, and our disagreements are merely around facts and inferences.

Rorty was profoundly pluralistic, and you can feel it.

[I meant to just write about Rorty, but here the post takes a turn toward the theme of emergencies and liberalism, which appears to be my live problem right now.]

Rorty, as far as I know, never did that pseudoliberal move of piously nodding to the ideal of liberalism and then immediately finding reasons to betray it for the sake of saving it from those illiberal others.

Yes, there are illiberals. Yes, they attack liberalism from the inside when they attack it from the outside by forcing it to resort to illiberal measures to defend itself. But with pseudoliberals the eagerness to find necessities to resort to illiberal measures is palpable. Their faces brighten when they find the “yes, but… so…” that lets them have it both ways: appealing to liberal principles to support their own liberty, while finding themselves in the midst of an emergency that calls for privileging their own judgments over those who view things differently. “Yes, but people’s safety is at risk, so…” “Yes, but there is corruption (or conspiracy!) at the very root of the institutions we are supposed to trust, so…” “Yes, but the public is too deluded and stupid to judge for itself, so…” “Yes, but the USA’s form of liberal democracy was corrupted from the start, and the stain of sin remains, so…” “Yes, but we are being overrun by hordes of illegal immigrants, so…” etc., etc., etc.


Saturday, I tried to explain to a conservative friend that if we arbitrarily decide an illegal immigration problem (that is actually on a trajectory of improvement) is such an emergency that it justifies use of extra-democratic emergency powers, he has no right to complain in 2022 when President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declares an emergency over poverty or institutional racism or worker’s rights.

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Rorty on public and private beliefs

This passage from Rorty’s absolutely brilliant essay “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” made a very deep impression on my politics:

I turn now to the other big difference between Nietzsche on the one hand and James and Dewey on the other. Nietzsche thinks religious belief is intellectually disreputable; James and Dewey do not.

In order to defend James and Dewey’s tolerance for theism against Nietzsche, I shall sketch a pragmatist philosophy of religion in five brief theses. Then I shall try to relate these theses to what James and Dewey actually said about belief in God.

First, it is an advantage of the antirepresentationalist view of belief that James took over from Bain and Peirce — the view that beliefs are habits of action — that it frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview. If our beliefs are all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world, then they must all hang together fairly tightly. But if they are habits of action, then, because the purposes served by action may blamelessly vary, so may the habits we develop to serve those purposes.

Second, Nietzsche’s attempt to “see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life,” like Arnold’s and Mill’s substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment’s attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as “symbolic,” and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims. The pragmatists’ romantic utilitarianism does drop this idea: if there is no will to truth apart from the will to happiness, there is no way to contrast the cognitive with the noncognitive, the serious with the nonserious.

Third, pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction, one that takes over some of the work previously done by the old distinction between the cognitive and the noncognitive. The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation: the project of improving man’s estate by taking account of every possible observation and experimental result in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true. Law is another such paradigm. Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals — from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs — may be another such paradigm.

Fourth, the idea that we should love Truth is largely responsible for the idea that religious belief is “intellectually irresponsible.” But there is no such thing as the love of Truth. What has been called by that name is a mixture of the love of reaching intersubjective agreement, the love of gaining mastery over a recalcitrant set of data, the love of winning arguments, and the love of synthesizing little theories into big theories. It is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project, and thereby offends against the teachings of On Liberty. Such intrusion is a betrayal of one’s responsibilities to cooperate with other human beings, not of one’s responsibility to Truth or to Reason.

Fifth, the attempt to love Truth, and to think of it as One, and as capable of commensurating and ranking human needs, is a secular version of the traditional religious hope that allegiance to something big, powerful, and nonhuman will persuade that powerful being to take your side in your struggle with other people. Nietzsche despised any such hope as a sign of weakness. Pragmatists who are also democrats have a different objection to such hope for allegiance with power. They see it as a betrayal of the ideal of human fraternity that democracy inherits from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. That ideal finds its best expression in the doctrine, common to Mill and James, that every human need should be satisfied unless doing so causes too many other human needs to go unsatisfied. The pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness. They sin not by ignoring Mill’s inductive methods, but by ignoring his reflections on liberty.

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Emergency and hubris

An inclination to see emergencies — emergencies being states of affairs demanding extraordinary means to address an immediate dire threat of some kind — can often seem more motivated by a strong inclination to use extraordinary means than in the circumstances claimed to demand them.

And it is not uncommon to see this inclination to exercise extraordinary means appearing alongside a hubristic frame of mind: I/We, unlike those others, see clearly what those others cannot and will not see, because, unlike them, I/we possess special virtues they lack. I/We are [smarter/braver/profounder/greater/kinder/fairer/more rigorous/industrious/prophetic/etc.] than those [sheeple/unwoke/blue-pilled/liberals/pinkos/privileged/bourgeois/Establishment-flunkies/fascists/racists/sexists/cisists/etc.]”

The concern, obviously, is that the response to the emergency will position the emergency-monger in a position where justification and deliberation (behaviors normal among equals) are replaced by pure exercise of authority, where power is knowledge and knowledge is power and it all runs together into a privilege to judge and dictate to everyone what is true and right, on the basis one’s own personal criteria and justifications, despite objections to those who believe in different criteria and justifications for determining what is true and right. From this vantage point, anyone despicable enough to doubt what is plainly true and right (to those virtuous enough to know it) cannot be reasoned with and have forfeited their right to the niceties of reason, such as being allowed to present their case. To use the idioms of the George W. Bush era, if they won’t “support the troops” by keeping their Politically Incorrect doubts to themselves they must be deplatformed for the sake of considerations far more important than civil rights and due process. “The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact,” they #dittoed. Wherever folks all have the same borgy thing to repeat/repost/retweet/#rehash at each other, I get the creeps.

Complicating this suspicion of emergencies is the fact that emergencies requiring quick, procedure-free response do happen. This is where it is terribly important to look at the character of the person seizing power on the basis of emergency. Do they demonstrate a taste for pluralism, or do they seem preoccupied with their own special powers and the privileges these powers justify? If you are a true prophet who sees the future, or you have a special talent for discerning what is most moral, just or kind that permits you to see with clarity others lack who should sacrifice what rights to whom to restore the scales of justice, or your intuition provides you with special insights into discerning what is really real or truly true, or you possess extraordinary courage to look directly into possibilities that terrify smaller souls, or if you are a member of a vanguard who has history on its side — I’m sorry but all these beliefs strike me as varieties of microomniscience and symptoms of apotheoitis.

It is depressingly difficult to figure out exactly how much we are God, because the answer is neither 0% nor 100%, but an uneasy point between. I look for that unease in my political allies.


Just as one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, one person’s suppression or silencing is another’s deplatforming.


I know folks who were on the wrong side of 9/11 and now admit it, but are now making up for it by fighting on the right side of justice by deplatforming people who do not care about equality among all categories of person.

Infinite sigh.


“But, Stephen… aren’t you claiming to have privileged insights into what is really going on?” — Oh, I do believe my efforts to understand what is going on have produced some valid truths, but I have caught myself being wrong too many times to want to impose the implications of my convictions on anyone else. I will argue them with anyone willing to engage them, which, by the way, is not the same as swimming into a logical conspiracy-theory vortex with them. Usually, such vortices are comforting Dervish dances for those who find an overpowering logical suction a suitable substitute for the up-down of gravity and magnetic North in the midst of pluralistic relativity. But to put it bluntly, such folk are entirely wrong to think they lack magnetic attraction to North… On the contrary, they are locked in and frozen in their negative current.

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