All posts by anomalogue

Lean Startup for the built environment

Why aren’t civil engineers getting on board with modern product management methods?

Everywhere we look there is a clear, urgent need for new roads, bridges, buildings, structures. Why can’t we have them today? It’s because of all these people with jobs we’ve never heard of who inspect stuff and write complicated documents — I call them “analysis paralysis professionals” — who want to think about everything endlessly instead of getting down to the real work of building.

In the time it takes to blueprint a building you could pour literally thousands of tons of concrete into a hole, and stick girders and rebar into the concrete before it dries. Or even better, attach some platforms to the girders and get some near-term use out of the work. These structures don’t have to be perfect! We can repair and reinforce them if they start crumbling, tipping or bending. And if a building collapses or a bridge falls into a river, we can can pivot and rebuild something much better with the knowledge we’ve gained through the so-called “failure”. Sure, there’s inconvenience, frustration, loss of life, but a catastrophe produces precisely the data we need to make better, safer and more innovative structures, and isn’t that the whole point of it all: Constantly improving structures?

I invite you to imagine with me a future where our cities work like our mobile phones. If we were to question the bureaucratic habits that bog down the building of our physical environment and adopt the best practices of software development, we (or at least those of us who survive the “fast failures”) could enjoy the same vibrant, ever-evolving, ever-updating, trial-and-error innovation we enjoy in our digital environment today.

Trading off trade-offs

One of the most interesting tensions in design, and the one least accepted by novice designers is trade-offs. Everything we choose to include as a consideration in design comes at the cost of an excluded competing consideration.

But against the tension of trade-offs is another tension: a) to solve the problem right away with this current framing of the problem, which necessitates these trade-off choices, or b) to search for a new framing that might put more considerations into harmony rather than into conflict and require fewer significant trade-offs.

This kind of reframing can occasionally produce the kind of miracles executives demand when they “push teams past their limits”. Sadly, the kinds of executives who tend to do this kind of aggressive pushing prefer to credit the miracles to the belligerent refusal to accept trade-offs, rather than to the reframing that really produces them.

And in the majority of cases where teams are pushed this way, especially when reframing is undermined through shifting goals or demands to show constant evidence of progress, the refusal to accept trade-offs forces the least acceptable trade-off of all. Good design is traded off for all-inclusiveness.

Beetle green

I just had a vivid memory from my early childhood in Pennsylvania. We had a row of rose bushes in my back yard and the roses attracted a certain kind of large iridescent turquoise-green beetle. The only other place I ever saw this color was in my grandpa’s house. For some reason he owned a lot of items — stamped metal toys, fishing reels, outboard motors — painted in metallic beetle green. In the early 90s they started painting cars this color, and suddenly the color was ubiquitous. Then it went out of style and I rarely see it anymore.

My gut says this color will be back in the zeitgeist soon.

Loves

If we separate, seclude and protect ourselves from the harsh Otherness of the world for awhile; if we quiet ourselves down and refuse to scatter our attention and diffuse our efforts; if we concentrate our awareness and go deep enough into ourselves to discover what is there; blissful benevolence toward All may arise in our heart and overwhelm us.

We call this Love.

But isn’t love the instinct that drives us beyond ourselves toward a particular, individual other? Isn’t it the will to emerge from seclusion and safety to risk all, and if necessary to suffer or sacrifice? Isn’t it the desire to overcome our inwardness by joining our selves to a beloved other in togetherness?

These loves are so different in their trajectories and conditions it is hard to fathom how they can both be designated by one word. In other languages, such as Greek, they go by different names. Yet, there is reality expressed in marrying them under the shared name, love — as long as one doesn’t dominate or displace the other…

African Frog

I really thought I’d written up my story of the African Frog. I was just looking for it, and it’s not here. I will rewrite it now, because this is one of the key mythical tales of my life.

When I was a young boy living in Brockway, Pennsylvania I had a beautiful tank of tropical fish. My folks would occasionally take me to the pet store over in Dubois and let me pick out a new fish to add to my tank. On one of our trips I spotted an African Frog. I had to have that instead of just another fish. When we brought it home and let it out it seemed pretty happy swimming around in there with the guppies, swordtails and neon tetras. Except, a few days later we noticed one of the fish was missing. Every day or so after, there’d be one less fish. Eventually, the only thing left in the tank was the African Frog. Then one day the African Frog was gone, too. We found him a few weeks later, mummified in a ball of lint.

The odor of burning rubber

When thinking about truth, we expect both clarity and effectiveness. These qualities are so expected, in fact, that they serve as criteria for truth. If they are present we assume what we think is true, and if we are surrounded by people thinking the same way we might even succumb to certainty.

Certainty is comfortable. We tend to try to stay in situations where we feel we know what is true, or at least have a gist of truth. Most of us, who work at living normal, orderly, productive lives, mostly succeed most of the time.

The life of a strategic designer is not like this. Strategic designers are routinely asked to help organizations innovate. This requires framing or reframing problems: re-conceptualizing known truths, or making sense of chaotic situations nobody understands or resolving conflicts where incompatible, incommensurable visions collide.

Working to discover/make (instaurate) a concept that manages to produce all three qualities at once — clarity, effectiveness and consensus — is tricky work. Normally it is necessary to try on and discard multiple framings that only produce only one or two of these qualities before one comes along the fully resolves the problem.

This process is instructive if we are observant and ready to meta-reframe what we think is going on. In other words, this activity of frame instauration can produce philosophical shifts. These experiences and my attempts to account for them have shifted my own understanding of pretty much everything.

What have I taken from all this shifting? First, I know what it is like to shift between frames. I know what it does to my experience of whatever problematic situation I am trying to understand and I know what it can do to my experience of the world, instantly, all at once, as a whole. I also know what it is like to do without a frame, and the harrowing things that does to my experience of the world. I am used to radical surprise, of having (literally) inconceivable possibilities become conceivable, and along with it all kinds of ideas that were standing in front of my face, invisible, staring me in the eyes while I was rooting around in the shadows for knowable unknowns. I have a very vivid sense of pluralism, and of a transcendent ground from which truth in all its pluralistic glory emerges.

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An urgent question to ask: If an explanation is clear and effective why would anyone refuse to accept it?

A better reframing of this question is: What good reasons might a person have for refusing to accept a clear and effective explanation?

This question becomes even more effective if it is asked from a pluralistic perspective, assuming that multiple true answers are always possible because questions can be framed myriad ways.

What follows below is my answer to this question.

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It is important to us that our truths are clear; that is, they give us the means to think about our situations. This means, first, being able to ask a question that can be answered. Not knowing an answer to a question can be frustrating, but at least we know what the problem is. Perplexity, the incapacity to find the relevant question in the face of a crisis, is unbearable, when this happens we become anxious that we do not have the truth.

It is important to us that our truths are effective; that is, they work properly, orienting us to the situations we find ourselves in and enabling us to anticipate and respond to what is going on. If we lose this ability and we are constantly surprised and our responses falter we begin to suspect that we do not have the truth.

It is tempting to settle with truths that are both clear and effective, and for a long time many of us have, on principle, rejected all truth criteria but these. But there is another criterion that is just as important: it is importance itself.

It is important to us that our truths are significant; that is they make our situation important to us, and inspire us to care about it, whether caring means loving or hating, embracing or opposing. If we lose the capacity to sense significance in our situation we will become indifferent, and here we ought to learn to suspect that whatever truth we have is not worth keeping.

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I know a lot of people right now who feel irritated, agitated and dissatisfied. If they are not angry or sensorily stimulated or intoxicated, they are just blank in a horrible way.

These same people are certain they know the truth, and everyone they know agrees with them that they know the truth, and part of the truth they know is that philosophy is an inferior precursor to science, or a highfalutin substitute for religion. It never occurs to them to think about how they think, because they already know that is a dead end.

Besides, they know the real cause of their misery: wicked oppressors.

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I heard somewhere that when we lose our sense of smell, we do not simply smell nothing. We smell something resembling burning rubber. It drives people into depression and sometimes to suicide.

Perhaps the moral blankness we don’t feel when we lose the capacity to sense importance is like the burning rubber we don’t smell when we lose our sense of importance.

Rendering a philosophical proposition present

I’ve tried to say many times what Stengers says here:

To try to render a philosophical proposition “present” means first of all to try to avoid the form of commentary that is suitable for the exposition of an author’s beliefs, of what he or she thinks. It is to make thought inseparable from the problem of “how to think” that obliges this thought.

This is why I warn people away from philosophy surveys that report the beliefs and outline the arguments of philosophers.

Philosophies are not “belief systems.”

Neither are religions, for that matter.

x = y zillionths

Zillion is a funnier word for myriad, which happens to be my favorite qualitative number.

For me, any exact quantity is only an approximate fraction of zillion.

If x is an exact value, x = y zillionths.

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Qualitative math. Operations performed on none, some, few, many, myriad…

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I suppose I’m still thinking about math today.

Little known anomalogue trivia: I have a shelf of math books, primarily about chaos theory (what Darwinism was to the 19th century and relativity was to the early 20th, chaos was to my itty-bitty generation) .

(Philosophical hermeneutics can be seen as qualitative chaos theory. Yes!)

I also have a bunch of statistics for nonstatistician books (statistics seems worth knowing but not enough for me to actually do the work of knowing it), a few classics on teaching math and some flaky ones addressing math aesthetics.

(If math aesthetics interests you, see my “handsome math” Pinterest board. I love Pinterest. Because it emphasizes our responses to the world around us instead of enabling us to project our alleged personas (now known as “personal brands”!) to the world, Pinterest is where you can see a person’s individual axiologic (to me, the very seat of the soul) in their tastes and hopes, rather than watching their boring attempts to compete for medals in the cramped ethnomethodic olympics of our times. I learned a lot about my own aesthetic seeing collected together and juxtaposed all the pretty stuff I spontaneously liked and collected together.)

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“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Saint-Exuperie

I had exactly this same thought 20 years ago, and was startled to discover that someone had said it almost the same way, word for word, which probably means I saw it and forgot about it. It is a beautiful, true, neglected insight.

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I’m in a weird, highly parenthetical mood.

Mathematician’s faith

From Isabelle Stengers’s Thinking With Whitehead (bold mine)

Thinking with Whitehead today therefore means accepting an adventure from which none of the words that serve as our reference points should emerge unscathed, but from which none will be disqualified or denounced as a vector of illusion. All are a part of the problem, whether they refer to the whys of human experience or to the hows of “objective reality.” If compromise solutions do not suffice, it is because they try to circumvent the problem instead of raising it; that is, they try to mitigate the contra­dictions and to make compatible that which defines itself as conflictual. Whitehead was a mathematician, and mathematicians are they who do not bow down before contradictions but transform them into an ingredi­ent of the problem. They are the ones who dare to “trust” in the possibil­ity of a solution that remains to be created. Without this “trust” in a pos­sible solution, mathematics would not exist.

This truth is the one William James called faith or belief, his only an­swer when confronted by those who have declared that life is not worth living, “the whole army of suicides (…) an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, fo llows the sun round the world and never terminates.” It has nothing in common with what I would call, to underline the difference, “to be confident,” that is, to continue, to carry on in the mode of “everything will work out fine.” The mathematician’s trust is inseparable from a commitment not to mu­tilate the problem in order to solve it and to take its demands fully into account. Yet it implies a certain deliberate amnesia with regard to the obviousness of obstacles, an active indetermination of what the terms of the problem “mean.” Transferred to philosophy, this indetermination means that what announced itself as a foundation, authorizing a position and providing its banner to a cause, will be transformed into a constraint, which the solution will have to respect but upon which it may, if neces­sary, confer a somewhat unexpected signification.

It is funny that Stengers calls this a mathematician’s trust and views it as a characteristic that can be transferred to philosophy. I see this faith as the essence of philosophy (I wrote “dialectical imagination” in the margin of the page) and the element of  intellectual creativity common to problem-solving in any field.

It is certainly crucial to design innovation, and it is finding conditions favorable to it — the right level of desperation (which translates to willingness to trust), the right collaborators (who share this faith), the right deadlines and pace — that separates great design projects from dull ones.

It is also the difference between tedious debates and true collaborative dialogue: Do both parties have faith that another conception of a problem can yield radically new solutions — and actively prefer pursuing this utterly inconceivable, imperceptible, utter nothingness of an impossibility in the face of the most extreme anxiety? Or do they demand exhaustive disproof of all existing hypotheses prior to submitting unwillingly to some futile search for who-knows-what by some mysterious method nobody seems able to explain much less codify? The latter attitude make philosophical friendship impossible (and for those few capable of philosophy, taking this stance, in fact, is to refuse friendship). I feel like I need to add this softening qualification: Luckily, many other forms of friendship exist besides philosophical friendship.

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I have wedded this “mathematician’s faith” (or dialectical imagination) with a religious faith that perceives infinite importance in the exercise (especially collaborative exercise) of dialectical imagination, for the sake of deepening relationship with that who cannot be conceptualized — of transcendence. I have a simple word for the instinct that drives of this collaborative exercise: love.

This latter faith, the faith that there is better, and that better is tied to our relationship with realities beyond our sphere of understanding, and that this relationship involves other people is why I call myself a religious person.

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Do you see why I have to understand Whitehead?

SD vs UX research

In a couple of months I’ll be giving a talk on the difference between the kinds of research we do to inform user experience (UX) design and the kinds of research we do to inform service design (SD).

This question can be approached from multiple angles. The most obvious is probably differences in tools and techniques. What tools are common to both UX and SD, which UX tools are normally not used and what new tools have been developed for solving service design problems?

Besides the tools used, are there any other differences in how the research is done? Are different questions asked? Is there a shift in focus or emphasis? Is analysis conducted differently or documented differently? Are different people involved in fieldwork or analysis?

The reason these questions are most obvious is they are likely to provide the most useful answers, so obviously that won’t be the angle I will take.

No, my angle will have to be one that gets at the essential difference between UX and SD, which drives the need to dig for different kinds of insights.

I want to take this angle because, to be frank, SD is much weirder than UX and any other design medium I’ve researched and I still haven’t nailed down what makes it so weird. I want to use this talk as an excuse to figure it out, or at least generate some interesting ideas in an attempt to figure it out.

My starting hypothesis is this: I think the goal of service design research is to uncover design problems and the precise relationships between them — in other words, design problem systems, spanning moments, spaces, design media and disciplines.

Discovering and defining such problem-systems is different in nature from discovering and defining problems constrained to one particular medium, and this might be the root difference that drives all the other differences.

If you know anything about this topic, please do shoot at my feet and make me dance. I need to think this through.

Paranoid style in American politics

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

… Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

— from “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964

Yes, 1964!

I’ve had a copy of Hofstadter’s book sitting on my side table for the last couple of years, but I have never gotten around to reading it. While I find conversation on the substance of specific paranoid fantasies to be tedious, interminable, unproductive and palpably degrading, as an object of inquiry I find the phenomenon of the intellectual style itself to be fascinating and, sadly, relevant. Maybe it is time to pick it up and read it.

Coping strategies

I’ve met people who cope with life’s stresses with distraction, with narrowness, with willpower and with inspiration.

Distraction and narrowness are both avoidance strategies. Distraction often takes the form of a “work hard, play hard” life, oscillating between extreme busyness and extreme entertainment that never leaves time for sustained intensive reflection and the discomfort that attends it. Narrowness does the same thing with different means. Narrowness focuses all attention on a defined region of activity or knowledge, a subject that occupies one’s mind without pushing it past its own limits and producing discomfort.

Willpower does confront discomfort directly but pushes straight through it in order to achieve goals, and to develop skills for overcoming discomfort and maintaining control, focus and equanimity.

Inspiration can go multiple ways. Inspiration can seek sources of meaning that make discomfort seem worthwhile in the context of a meaningful life. It can also look for meaning precisely in the places that produce discomfort, so that sources of discomfort and meaning are the same, but the meaning outweighs and redeems the suffering. Finally, one can seek meaning precisely in suffering (or at least certain forms of suffering), so now the suffering isn’t balanced against meaning but is viewed as a signal of potential meaning and a path into meaning.

I’m sure there are more coping methods, but these are the ones that came to mind first. I’m watching many of my friends moving from avoidance strategies to willpower strategies through the practices of stoicism, and it’s sensitized me to differences among approaches.

Soulsizing

If you are a person who invests your best time and effort into understanding what matters most to you, chances are you’ll end up understanding things differently from most people in your life.

But everyone has some kind of understanding of what matters most to them, even if they have not spent time explicitly interrogating it. And by virtue of the fact that these understandings attach to the most important things, the understandings are invested with great importance and might even be counted among the most important things.

This means there is not only a difference in understanding, but a morally-charged difference in understanding.

That moral charge often manifests as taboo against even hints of doubt, much less approaching in a questioning spirit, much less engaging in active interrogation.

So not only is there a morally-charged difference in morality, but also a morally-charged difference in whether we even ought to actively seek a deeper and possibly destructive understanding of understandings of precisely what we value most.

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The strangest thing about digging beneath prohibitions against digging into morally-charged understandings, it how much general understanding and how many quotidian beliefs get undermined in the process. These questions literally change everything, including, perhaps most of all, what is meant by the word “everything” when we say it, how much that word comprises.

Everythings come in many sizes.

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What is the basic unit of measurement of a soul? Everything.

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Our souls give each other’s souls space to live.

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The harder you work at understanding — whether you succeed or fail does not matter, but only how much you ultimately diverge from the norm — the less you can expect to be understood, because many cannot follow the thinking and many more refuse to. The difference between people who would if they could but really can’t, and people who could if they would but really won’t becomes starkly evident, and starkly significant.

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Existential FOMO

A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.

I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.

The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.

A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.

It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.

Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.

Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.

Mishkan skies

I’ve had an image in my head for awhile, and I decided to be lazy and produce it in Adobe Sketch just to get it out of my head and in front of my eyes. Adobe Sketch has this cool animation feature and I think I almost like this image more as a clip. I have another, less distinctly previsualized mishkan image in my head and maybe I’ll do something similar with that. I want it to be a grid of colored threads and metal strips. It really should be a textile piece. I am feeling drawn to printmaking right now, so it could end up a metallic ink block print of some kind. I need a print studio.

Understanding souls

Most folks who believe in souls think of a soul as the being who inhabits and animates a body. I agree with them, but I see souls as inhabiting and animating more than bodies. Anything understood to have an understandable purpose behind it, anything where answers to the question “why?” are more directly to the point than answers to “what?”, “how?” has a soul. When we try to understand something, we are trying to get at its animation.

I would argue that understanding itself implies soul, not only because souls do the understanding, but because souls are implied in the object of understanding, though in this case the object is another subject behind any objective knowledge. Objectivity is understood when it is understood in the context of a subject capable of comprehending that knowledge.

When we understand a loved one we become able to comprehend their words, gestures and actions, because our souls can animate our empathy and allow us to respond to what they mean by them.

But I would like to intentionally misapply homonyms to confuse categories, by suggesting that when we understand the subject of mathematics we become able to comprehend math problems, because our souls can animate mathematical thinking and move our thinking effectively.

No matter what it is that we objectively comprehend, we comprehend it only because we have subjectively — in the broadest sense — understood it first in a way that can animate our comprehension, and it is this alone that makes it meaningful.

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Big problems happen when we try to comprehend what first needs understanding.

Kids will try to do this when they try to solve math problems purely procedurally without understanding the concepts. Adults will do this when they try to explain other people’s confusing behaviors before they’ve attempted to know them as people.

Even bigger problems happen when things that cannot be comprehended are dismissed as nonexistent before understanding has been attempted.

This is where we see cynical dismissal passing as insight. “Postmodernism” is confusing because the emperor wears no clothes — there is no sense to get. Souls cannot be scientifically proven to exist, or defined in a precise way a rigorous positivist can do anything with, so it is nonsense. Institutions are even more aggressive about eliminating what they cannot measure and operationalize than individuals, and a great number of individuals think by the logic of the institutions to which they belong.

And when we forget that understanding and comprehension are different and require different kinds of approaches and efforts, we lose the capacity to recognize much less navigate and surmount failures of understanding and we end up entrenching in mutual miscomprehension against enemies. Gaining understanding is hard enough when both parties in misunderstanding seek understanding and know what understanding involves.

But when one side of a conflict of understanding comprehends only comprehension, peaceful impasse is the best one can hope for.

If both sides comprehend only comprehension and become convinced they comprehend evil intent on the part of the other, both are 100% correct. In this case one should stop praying for peace and start praying for the shortest, least lethal war.

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A soul is most a soul when lives as a soul among souls.

This is why I chose to live among souls. It is better.

Other names for design instrumentalism

This whole line of thought I’ve been calling “design instrumentalism” — and the lighly-technical-at-most voice I use for describing it — has become increasingly productive. I can’t write in my own voice and exclude all philosophical language — especially those words and names that have become experience-near for me and are organic elements of my thinking.

I have, however gotten feedback that the name itself might be confusing or annoying, so I’m considering other names.

“Axiopragmatism” is one option — which has the virtue of explicitly introducing valuative/moral/aesthetic concerns to a school which has been accused of excluding them.

I’m still thinking, and I’m open to suggestions.