Critical Thinking and the Splinter Moron

Licking Ice

Bad Decision

Listening to a call-in show on my increasingly eclectic podcast list, a man who suffers from schizophrenia shared his experience of having two personalities: one a devout Christian, the other a hard line atheist. As a result, he had the unusual experience of deeply believing something he knew wasn’t true. When the show host remarked that at least he wasn’t a scientologist, the caller replied that while he may be schizophrenic, he wasn’t that crazy.

What a rare insight, to rustle up an entirely new perspective from within. What is it to build that capacity, and can we do it for others?

I’ve been reading Maria Konnikova’s piece on why people persist in believing things that just aren’t true, and it gives me an odd solace to know someone who’s gone to extreme lengths to alter people’s beliefs has so tragically failed. There’s a part of us that resists good information and rigorous process. We need to get underneath that. Talking with Benjamin Riley about how people make decisions got me thinking, and prompted this post.

I’m concerned that teaching critical thinking may be largely a waste of time, and I wish it wasn’t so. There are exceptions, largely I think due to powerful self-driven learning in particular areas such as science and medicine, but the nature of the way people adopt crazy ideas and poor thinking suggests that critical thinking in one area doesn’t necessarily transfer to another.

There’s no guarantee that a sudden calling to deep focus such as a cancer scare or a call to civil action will always yield better thinking. Conspiracy theories, quackery and lavishly adorned obliquities in self-published, unicorn embellished paperbacks await those who haven’t found solace or simplicity in the cool marble halls of evidence based logic. It can go either way.

This unconscious fracturing of mindful critical process isn’t reserved for high stakes events, it’s a part of our day to day lives: a phenomenon I call the ‘Splinter Moron’. Lodged deep in the minds of each one of us, is a thin shard of crystalline craziness. A wedge of logic-resistant agar that selectively plays host to infections of irrationality and spurious conjecture.

We’ve all had that moment with a friend or colleague. The sudden, unexpected suspension of logic that doesn’t map to the well-rounded whole we think we’ve come to know.

  • The lawyer who inexplicably falls prey to a Nigerian money scam.
  • The savvy entrepreneur who can read markets, analyse data and refuses to vaccinate their child.
  • The esteemed educator… and wife… and child… who all buy power-balance bracelets. (A true story that pains me still…)
  • The student who, having studied a tree graph of dice-roll probability, is convinced that the next roll will bring a 6 because the last ten didn’t.
  • The friendly, family oriented, community minded racist.

A university education doesn’t offer much protection from the Splinter. The profile for cult inductees is a pretty fair cross section of education and means. So how do we teach-out the Splinter from the thinking of ourselves and our students, how can we lead critical thinking well? My thoughts so far:

It should be personal and confronting. The experiences offered students in the average class setting usually don’t attend to people’s specific blind spots. If you want to really challenge your own moronic Splinter you need to make sure you’re hitting the mark. When we learn a new method of critique, we’re more likely to apply them to reinforce our existing non-crazy beliefs than we are to dive into self-induced cognitive dissonance.

It should be social. We can’t do this alone. If we did we couldn’t really know we were heading in the right direction.

To the degree that the process must be personal, confronting and social….

It should be safe. Having your mind’s soft midsection revealed to the world needs a less dramatic process than a Gok Wan shopping mall reveal. After all, the opening statement won’t be ‘you look gorgeous!’ it’s more likely to be ‘you’re an irrational, part time fruit-loop who shouldn’t be trusted with heavy machinery.’ (Just like the rest of us.) So to make it safe….

It should be relational. Somewhere in that confronting mess, we need a connection we value, and that feeds our value back to us. Our inconsistencies in thinking are made more stark when they map back onto rational processes we hold dear, and that’s scary time for anyone. Anyone engaging in that process deserves to feel known and deserves to feel valued.

It should be constructive. We need to be held accountable in a way that supports our movement out of the mire.

So far, most of these conditions can be met by any group, with any belief. It’s easy to find social, safe, relational environments with the illusion of personal confrontation. It’s good to feel you’re working at something, even better if that thing is just a hair’s breadth away from the work you really need to do. So….

It should map to a framework with a peer mediated research base. I don’t know how that can be implemented consistently. Seems a bit unwieldy already doesn’t it? But if you’re mapping reality onto people’s weak spots then you really need to have your foundations set before you lead yourself or someone else on the journey towards the truth.

The truth is unconcerned with you. When you find it, expect its stony indifference. To make the experience a little nicer, make sure you get there with a friend.


As I publish this, the only word underlined in spellcheck-red is ’scientologist’. It’s the little things.

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Life at Full Scale

The mechanics of a day can pull us through the hours leaving us none the wiser or more connected. It’s easy to tick off tasks and feel you’re ahead, even if you’ve passed people by in the process.

Recently, I paused the relentless machine and listened.

What I heard were the concerns of people doing their best to make it through. I heard about organising children’s lunches and getting everything done in a day. I heard about the housing market, and the school zone filled with large homes demanding such high rent. Through those stories I heard the sense of sometimes being overwhelmed, like you may just be the only one holding up the sky.

The people I listened to were all wise, all thoughtful, and all ten years old.

Children don’t face smaller problems.

Their sense of the world isn’t scaled down. They are complete, their experiences are total. We need to acknowledge that.

Teaching is not the work of reductive sculpture. Children have so many people they need to be, other than who they are for us. Often this is demanding, exhausting work for which they just don’t have the tools. To whittle a young person to a shape that only fits our context is unfair. The least we can do is leave them whole.

Lydia Davis writes stories, some of which are only a single sentence long. Read The Old Dictionary. Now.

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Gaming Strategy and League Tables

Generate a number, win a prize.

Imagine you’re one of a hundred players. Pick a number between 1 and 100 to win. Where’s the challenge? The winning number will be the number one-third of the average of all numbers chosen in the game.

It’s where you stand in the group that counts.

What do you do? Your thinking might look like this:

Stage One: Perhaps 50 seems an average. So choose one-third of that, (Around 16 or 17). But.. Maybe everyone else is thinking that too. So..

Stage Two: If everyone’s thinking of 16, and that’s the average, you can choose one-third of that number, (5 or 6). But.. surely you’re not the only one thinking like that? How many others would do the same? So..

Stage Three: Start predicting how many other people act levels ahead. If some people choose 16 as the average to work from, others may have gone even lower, so you’re final ‘one-third number’ may be less than 5.  You’re thinking about what others will score because what matters, is where you stand in the group.

Now imagine you’re running a school. Your data is about to become public, along with all schools in your area. Where you stand in that group, counts.

Generate a number, win a prize.

Welcome to round one of New Zealand’s education league tables game. The first numbers are already out. With the full knowledge of the numbers and how they rank, schools now have a year to generate new numbers for the next round. Any school might want to be in the top one-third, but then every other school is thinking the same way.

Next year you may see a rise in achievement data. If you do, will you call it improvement?

Stakes change the game, and we decide those stakes. It’s a big responsibility. There are better ways to know schools, and better ways to compare them. If you’re using those tables to inform decisions about schools, you’re raising the stakes, and you’re changing the game.

If you do, be sure to think several rounds ahead.

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The Paperless Office

W ith a laptop in your hands, why are you using paper? We landed on The Moon using less processing power than it takes to watch Youtube, so why haven’t we caught up, and how far ahead will our tools go before we’re eventually pulled along in their wake?

Progress isn’t what it used to be. We need not wait for a newscaster to embellish tales of dwellers at The Edge. Now we journey together. The tools, the process, and the willing testaments of others involved are ours for the taking. This is my experience of that journey so far.

The paper office can be a wasteland. Papers, like pelts waiting to be tanned by attention, lie and lean over work space making the present harder to grasp. The habits required for ingesting, processing and acting on information are no different for digital content, but the tools change how we perform those familiar tasks and also allow for automation.

But automation comes at the cost of translation; you need to speak the right language if you want to control new and automated tools. You need to know what to ask so you know what’s going to happen when you’re not looking.


For most documents, Yep, by Ironic Software can automatically combine a series of scanned items into a single file. Perfect for cards and letters that accumulate beyond their shoe-box limits. I rearrange large pdf files with Combine PDF and use Apple’s native Preview for re-organising smaller jobs or making annotations.

Apple native Image Capture is a little known gem for image ingestion. I prefer it to iPhoto for having control over the import process. It also has a hidden talent for managing hard copy photos. Put four photos on your scanner and Image Capture will separate each photo and save them to the folder of your choosing as individual files. Outstanding.

Once ingested, files need to be organised. Keeping things in their place is hard with default finder settings. I use Default folder X to make saving files in the right place easy. It lets you tag files, set favorite folders and navigate save locations across your hard drive with ease. If you’re feeling game you could automate everything with Hazel. A magical broom that follows your rules to automatically move, tag, name and colour files. When I used it though, I felt more like the magician’s apprentice than Harry Potter.

I’ve played with Punakea but I now use Leap instead of iPhoto to organize all my photos and files. It has a much more useful tag system and allows better access to originals than iPhoto. Photos from my phone are automatically synced by Image Capture to a processing folder where I then edit their file names in batches using A Better Finder Rename 9.

I push things across from my iPhone and personal laptop with shared folders in dropbox. I use the dropbox iOS app to upload and sync new photos to both laptops with a photo folder shared between home and work accounts.

Though I once used evernote for notes, I now use a custom version of notational velocity to store and retrieve all text notes. This syncronizes across to the iPhone with the simplenote web service. All notes on all devices, all the time. It’s the only thing that seems to be infinitely simple and powerful all at once.

For to-dos I use Omnifocus which also syncs to the iPhone. It’s great when information is coming in faster than you can keep track of and you need to stay focussed. It’s more powerful than you may ever need, but it does a good job of organising on your behalf.

To syncronise with the real world of paper, I’ve cobbled a combination of filing tips from the Get it Done Guy, David Allan‘s Getting Things Done and Paper Flow, using Repeated Actions folders and Project folders to organize different ways. The paper in my office looks similar to the folders on my laptop. That just makes things easy.

Paperless Office vs Paperless School

Some offices seem to run paperless, but I’d question how easily they manage it and what resources were needed to implement and sustain such a system. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on the paperless office. Good systemic change involves a heavy investment of time or money. Usually both.

Which of those things are abundant in schools?

When many educators talk about paperless schools they don’t speak directly of the benefits. They just proclaim it, as if it were a badge of honour.

It’s not.

For some companies it’s an effective way to do business when time is money, and both can be invested to make efficiencies. For schools however, the core business is different: it’s learning. Somewhere in the mix we started thinking that technology was synonymous with learning.

Technology is not learning. Like all things, technology must demonstrate it’s right to command our time and energy. It must earn its keep.

Don’t-get-me-wrong, some paperless tools really do earn their keep. I’m a big fan of google docs and have been for a long time. It does many things better, faster, smarter than any other tool, but when it stops doing that, I stop being a fan. The same goes for all the other tools I use. It seems like a good place to draw the line. I just don’t think the idea of a paperless school is inherently good for its own sake.

Teachers, yours is not the job of saving the rainforest, it is to teach those who may one day dedicate their own lives to doing so. Yours is not the job of justifying the pernicious meme that a lack of paper is a defining characteristic of future edu-edginess. It’s your job, and the job of those who support you to make sure you do one thing well: teach. Anything that gets in the way of that needs a very good explanation for itself. Technology makes an impact. Always.

What is the impact on teachers in paperless schools?

Is it the right impact for encouraging learning and teaching?

I can attest that all my techno-widgetyness around paperless systems has done very little to make me a more effective teacher.

Give me paper and a few good coloured pens any day of the week. Preferably every day.

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Digby and the Law of Distraction

Digby tells me I can use them just like spinach, but I’m not convinced.

His intense, turtle necked stare striking out from the cook book’s back page suggesting that if he hadn’t made it as a New Zealand chef, he’d have welcomed a role as Dr Who, or more likely a ‘made-for-TV’ Maurice Gee adaptation. That said, his flamboyantly titled ‘A Vegetable Cookbook‘ is a gem. Digby’s classic approaches to killing and preparing your own plants have stood the test of time since 1978. More than can be said for his chin-lunging knitwear. But I digress. I’m still faced with a boxed forest of beetroot plants and Digby’s assurance that the Romans used them like spinach.

It’s a new problem, and all thanks to

A box of local veges, delivered weekly. Genius. Best thing is, instead of fussing with buying to suit a recipe, you start from the ingredients and work your way out. No high-risk coulis reductions using special utensils I can’t buy without speaking French. No. This is the sock darning, make do attitude.. delivered conveniently to your door. Not exactly war time.. but you get to put your hands on your hips and say: ‘that’ll need using’.
I do this now.
I’ll use Digby’s help to slay the crimson krakken lurking in my fridge. Its red tendrils spreading like a scene from War of the Worlds. Digby’s book has a chapter for each vege. It’s fantastic. With a focus on the one thing you need to use it keeps you focussed on what’s important.
In education, I think we can sometimes lose that focus. We have a choice of so many ingredients, procedures and presentation styles it’s sometimes easy to loose sight of the core content. We can become distracted with complex recipes of technology with its interactive devices and and online community.
There’s potential for a globally networked, collaborative, interactive task to be an edu-recipe more complex than it is nutritious.
So where’s the main ingredient?
With ICTs promising better such vibrant ways to engage students, it’s easy to lose track of what learning we wanted them engaged in. We need to keep track of that, and especially notice when it’s strangely absent from our conversations about ICTs.
We all have a gadget wish list. But maybe just once, when someone is asked what they’d buy with $2000 to spend on their class, they might reply: “A solid understanding of phonemes.”
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Managing Impulsivity – One Cattle Prod at a Time

Inspired by John (FarmGeek) Hart ‘s session on food labeling at 2010 Kiwi Foo Camp, I decided to present the problem of poor eating habits to an eager class of year 5 and 6 thinkers. I turned the problem over to them, to solve and illustrate on A5 card.

Minutes later we had a class set of solutions to analyze. The slide show below shows the wide range of ideas. Some put life and limb at risk, others hide vegetables in your dessert bowl. Robots, electrocution and lasers play a big role.



How could we organise these great ideas to help make good decisions on the best way forward?

By creating pairs of opposites, students created several different spectrums to organise and compare their solutions.

Cheap vs Expensive

Realistic vs Futuristic

Simple vs Complex

Forced vs Free Will

Effective vs Ineffective


Humane vs Inhumane

all of these were student generated, and provided powerful tools to compare the qualities of each solution.

We organised each of the spectrums to a human continuum: Handing out the cards after a shuffle meant each student had someone else’s solution to interpret and justify as they spread out across the room for each continuum, reasoning and discussing as they went.

Which were the values we held most important? We decided on ‘humane’ and ‘effective’. We mapped them together on a single chart using two axis.

Our solutions to bad eating 2

 Some clear patterns emerged. Our solutions were either very humane, or very effective. Surely you’d agree, being promptly whipped by an electric prod as you reach for a Mars bar would help to whittle away those extra pounds, but it’s not exactly humane. How could we get it perfect? What solution, imaginary or otherwise would take the top right spot in the graph?

We reviewed our ideas again using problem analysis to see just what problem we were each solving with our ideas. I’ll write about that process later.

This is the kind of work I really enjoy. Making sense of things that are messy and that don’t have easy answers.

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Bower to the People

I‘d just as soon as put my hand in an open crocodile as play cards, especially on holiday, so getting me to the porch table for a ‘friendly’ game took some serious peer pressure. I’d never played 500 before and this was going be the first time in a while that I’d pushed myself to learn about something that I ..Simply. Didn’t. Like.
How often do we ask that of our students?
‘Last Card’ is more my game of choice (when I have no choice.. and there’s no available crocodile). There’s nothing more satisfying than watching truly competitive people fall to the fickle whims of skill-free chance. This game however, seemed to involve skill, knowledge and (as a virtual crocodile began to nibble at my index finger).. strategy.
Without any real prior knowledge I had 500 pegged with a difficultly somewhere between Last Card and Bridge.
Bridge has also been a mystery to me. All I remember from my Nan’s all-day gaming sessions with the ladies from church was a near-silent hypnotic hum over the table, and the guarantee of scones and jam. Scones have remained a permanent, diet-slaying Achilles’ heel for me. Cards.. not-so-much. Turns out 500 is similar to Bridge. It still involves a bit of strategy but doesn’t take as long, so it’s more suited to the younger player who may have other things to do with their day, like checking facebook.
500 shares sailing’s frustrating trait of making up special words for things we already know. (Can we just turn the boat to the right?). You have a left bower and right bower.. which are both Jacks.. (24 anyone?) and the scoring involves ‘tricks’, ‘runs’ and other novel complexities. As more details followed I found myself gazing out across the coastal flax, idly scanning for crocs. The idea is to work with your partner to win as many ‘tricks’ as you can and reach a score of 500 first. I decided that 500 was a goal far too large to be fun, let alone likely. The chance of losing points along the way also means the game can go for a while. Thankfully I was paired with the only other person who had never played so it was probably going to be a quick one.
Our ineptitude began as comical and then became insulting when, after 50 tricks a bag of chips and playing several left and right bowers (with celebratory song) we had cleaned up and won by a 400 point margin. We had learned just enough to play a rough game and come away equal parts victorious and bewildered. Our gracious instructor Scott on the other hand, was a broken man. Still, it was thanks to his careful guidance through a few open hands, and his generous on-the-fly play tips that we learned and scored as well as we did.
“You’d never play a spade at this stage mate.. have you got something better?… yeah… that one.. that’ll……win it for you…. “
It’s our job to not just teach skills, but to give people the passion to use those skills every day. We know it’s not all the literate kids who achieve, it’s mostly those who choose to read in their own time, and they have to want to do it when we stop looking.
If Scott had done it any other way he’d have lost us.. in so many ways. As it stands he set us up to not only understand a bit of the game play, but to want to play it again. If we didn’t have that, we simply wouldn’t ever do it again and that sprouting branch of future learning would be cut back to the trunk, never to grow again.
Thanks Scott. I’m glad you’re a teacher.
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Obedience School


I’ve been toying with the idea that it if we want to grow children who can develop their own reasoning and follow through on social action then we should sometimes allow ourselves to be overthrown. Isn’t all the ‘empowering young learners’ talk made irrelevant when underneath it all, we consistently expect obedience even when we may not always have the best perspective or the most ethical way forward?
Where did this thinking start? My recent travel in South East Asia was a lesson in war and cultural survival. It led me to consider the responsibility of educators world wide:How do we do the work of preventing future evil?

If teachers could mover back in time and rewind the history on any given tyrannical regime, where and when would they insert themselves to make the greatest change?
The first thought is to try and change the leaders, to be empathetic and transformative teachers to the Pol Pots and Stalins themselves, but I  doubt we could re-write the hearts of tyrannical leaders in the making. I’m not sure how early in life that tyranny starts but in my work I’ve glimpsed small shards of darkness growing from a young age. I’ve found that a lack of empathy in children is slippery business to diagnose, communicate or seek help for. I don’t think teachers have the skill or power to address it through their small window on a child’s life.
Thinking further I considered the extent to which evil organisations are co-operative endeavors involving not just the lead roles, but casts of thousands all singing in tune. Moreover they include (require?) a vast and silent proportion of people as the audience of onlookers. The good, who do nothing.
“>They are the ones we can change now in our classrooms.

Those who are silent, uncertain and fearful.
Those who take comfort in instructions and boundaries.
Those who engage unquestioningly and succeed in our systems of consequence and reward. 
The obedient

They arrived this morning in schools all over the world with little expectation of exerting real power in their immediate world and perhaps we thought nothing of it, because they are children. We expected them to obey and rewarded them for it. 

But are our children really empowered to overcome their fear of not belonging, of not obeying, of not ‘being good’ and their fear of us, to do what is right to challenge injustice?
We need to allow this.. to inform it.. and to encourage it. To give that social action wings we must sometimes allow ourselves to be the first casualty of truly ethical bravery. To bow to a greater good that has taken a well considered stand  against us. In doing so we may just raise a generation who are each prepared to overcome their fears and mobilise themselves to make sure we never let some histories repeat. I like the idea of a well reasoned, ethically driven bloodless coup… with a shared lunch to celebrate. 

( This was the original image in my head when Imagined my original blog URL )

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A Bird in the Hand

I share a story with a group of young, open minds.

I’m in Luang Prabang in Laos, at the foot of a long set of stairs that lead to a hilltop temple. An old woman is selling young birds, each cramped in their own tiny bamboo cages. it’s good luck she says to let them free at the top of the hill. No thanks. I am resolute. But I turn it to the group.

What would YOU do?

They arrange themselves in a human continuum across the room.. from an absolute ‘Yes I’d buy one’ to an absolute ‘No’. I’ll want to know why, I say. There’s magic in the why. First we hear from the two extremes.

“I don’t believe in luck, so it’s a waste of money.” Says the farthest ‘No’.

 The opposite ‘Yes’ replies. “I’d want to set the bird free if it was in a small cage.”

The debate begins.. “But you’re not really helping because she’d just get another bird and put it in a cage!!”

Without prompt.. people begin to move about.. changing position.. changing opinion.
Why did you move.. what’s changed for you?” More magic.. more distinctions in reasoning. The clusters are deceptive. Each person has their own unique way through the problem.

Someone walks the length of the class to sit firmly in the ‘No’.. there are cheers of support from those now a little more cramped by the door.

Careful.. When we make these positions a social group, we add a new value to the equation. How could the need to belong to a group change your reasoning? Are you all there for the same reasons?

I add new detail to the story: When another tourist rejects the old lady’s bird cage she throws it carelessly on the ground, hurting the poor bird inside. ( A clever technique to encourage a purchase.. )
More debate and eventually the spread of the human continuum settles.. now the scales tilting a little more heavily to the ‘No’ than when we started.

So, now.. Imagine amplifying your opinion through time over the next two weeks.

Did you buy the bird? Then imagine a steady increase to the old lady’s bird sales over the next two weeks till eventually she’s selling scores every day.

Didn’t buy? Then imagine the sales dwindling to nothing in the same time frame.

When you amplify your short term, small scale decision does the result still balance with your original reasoning? Compare the future outcomes.
The discussion continues.. but an observation has come from the one who doesn’t believe in luck. They’ve drifted in from the extreme ‘No’ and now sit closer to the middle. “ If her sales stop, then we know that birds will die because she doesn’t take care of them.. because if no-one buys them she’ll let them die…… but then she won’t buy any more birds so no more birds will be hurt.”

Brilliant. So: If you chose to stop her sales or not, how do you balance the certainty of the dead birds with the unknowable suffering of many birds in the future?

But surely, that’s enough temple splitting for a day. Time to run about in the sun.

Because it’s all about balance.

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At the Crossroads

Hoi An, Vietnam- New Years Eve

Walking to the festivities by the river through the Old District of tailors and restaurants we noticed a throng of people at an unlikely spot and decided to investigate. What we found were several hundred young locals standing, sitting and squatting, packed shoulder to shoulder at each corner of an intersection. Another hundred teens stood astride scooters almost blocking the road, reluctantly giving way to let the odd car squeeze by. We were still unsure what all the fuss was about when suddenly a scooter appeared from a gap, blazed through the intersection and disappeared on the other side prompting a roar of applause from the crowd. This was South East Asia’s Mod Squad, and we had arrived at ‘The Drags’.

We eagerly anticipated some kind of Vietnamese intersection X-Games, but it wasn’t to be. The scooter wrangling hijynx, like the front wheel of many an attempted wheelie, never quite got off the ground. Yet when a wheel DID lift off.. the crowd response was raucous. Pretty soon we began lowering our expectations and started to join in on the cheering. At one point there was even a police scare when the streets emptied in seconds flat. No police ever arrived but the brief panic added to the atmosphere of risk and excitement. This was just like a scene from ‘The Fast and The Furious’ but with a much smaller carbon footprint.

In all fairness it’s hard to wheelie a machine designed strictly for the day to day chores of work and transport. Perhaps it’s just as hard to lift such a frivolous idea up from the gravity of a culture that takes such pride in their capacity for useful work.

Though the skill level suggested this was a new thing it clearly had a keen following. This was a full-swing celebration of an idea, played out in a spirit of rebellion. Exploring the possibilities of their day to day tools and overcoming a historical focus on personal utility in the same fell swoop.

I say good on them. I hope they get it off the ground.

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