Essay

Steve Pavlina Planning Openly to Create a (non)Cult

By Duff McDuffee on April 6th, 2011

Cosmic Connie recently alerted me to this April Fool’s blog post from A-list personal development blogger Steve Pavlina. In it, Pavlina jokes about not wanting employees but slaves to work for free for him:

I have to admit that I don’t really want employees. If I wanted employees, I’d have hired some years ago. Deep down, I know that hiring employees isn’t the right direction for me. It’s not what I truly desire.

What I really want is to build a staff of slaves.

Slavery solves so many problems that I’d otherwise have to deal with if I hired employees or worked with independent contractors. Even unpaid interns can be a bit burdensome. Slavery is clearly the best option.

This model also aligns well with my ongoing exploration of D/s. I don’t want my workers calling me Boss. That just sounds lame. I’d much rather be called Master. It’s better for my self-esteem.

Surely this is just a April 1st prank though right? He’s not really intending to set up a cult? This reply from Pavlina buried deep in the forum comments for this post seems to suggest a grain of truth in the joke (emphasis mine):

The main reason someone would suggest a cult-like comparison is because I deliberately set them up to do so. Partly it’s because I so enjoy teasing people who are willing to diagnose me over the Internet, having never even met me, but the more serious reason is that by making an exaggerated post on this subject first (much of which was indeed intended as a joke), I get a lot of exaggerated feedback that helps me refine the idea to make it more grounded and practical. It makes possible objections more obvious and apparent, so I can consider them and look for solutions.

I intend to share another blog post soon to express how this could work, sans the April Fool’s joke aspects, so people can get a more accurate picture of what the real situation would look like and then decide if it appeals to them. There are a lot of different facets to the idea.

Rest assured I have no interest in becoming a cult leader. I hate Kool Aid, and it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of religion. Joking aside, I do think there’s a lot of repressed anger and envy emanating from those who make that comparison. The very notion that one could live a happy and abundant life and contribute to the world and have people willingly support that vision can really get under the skin of those who feel it’s an impossible dream for them. But this is the very sort of thing I’d like to help change. I think everyone deserves a supportive social circle, and it’s time for people to realize that we’re responsible for our own social environments, and if we desire a certain level of support, we have the power to create it. No force or coercion is necessary — just positive, heart-centered intention and a willingness to work at it. Some people try to create this support with a traditional family structure. Others go a different route.

My business isn’t a typical profit-based venture, so it’s not about getting rich. If I wanted more profit, I could restore the Adsense ads to the website in about an hour. Instant $100K+ of extra passive income per year, deposited directly into my bank account. If I was a capitalist, surely it would be worth spending an hour to add a six-figure passive income stream. I’d like to take a different direction though.

As Caren noted, a big part of this involves helping people develop new skills and learning to express their creative talents. They’d hardly be helpless if they decide to leave. People pay to go to universities and leave with student debts and a lot of knowledge they can’t apply in the real world. What I’m offering is at least as educational as taking classes at a university, a lot more practical, and free.

Pavlina claims that if you criticize his joke for sounding like he’s starting a cult of unpaid laborers, it’s because he set you up to do so…not because a fellow (former) member of the Transformational Leadership Council did in fact create a cult and is currently on trial for the deaths of three people at his Sedona workshop. (James Arthur Ray went further and required his volunteers to pay him money to work at his workshops.) Nope, the only reason anyone would critique Pavlina for cult-like coercive persuasion would be because he exaggerated his position as a joke. Yet he really is thinking seriously about having people basically be his slaves.

The Asshole Takeaway

In high school a friend of my best friend was a bit of a player. He told my friend he frequently solicited sexual activity from women by first brazenly suggesting that the woman perform a sexual act on him, and if they objected, to say “oh, I was just kidding—you didn’t think I was serious, did you?” In this way, he was frequently able to in fact manipulate (persuade?) the ladies to service him in ways they would not have otherwise and have the defense of “just joking.” This same young man would also bully guys like me with the same technique—”lighten up dude, it was only a joke!” We could call this move “the asshole takeaway”: act like an asshole through an exaggerated act of dominance, then blame the recipient for “not being able to take a joke.”

I witnessed another form of the asshole takeaway working at a spiritual organization lead by a certain bald-headed philosopher. This man would often overstate the case for something in a somewhat rude way, then say “I’m an asshole” to preempt any criticism. Stating the rude thing, the listener would want to express anger, but having pre-empted this by calling himself an asshole in advance, all the steam was taken out of one’s potential response. This man’s followers also adopted this behavior within the community.

What Pavlina has done here is a preemptive asshole takeaway. By joking in an extreme way in advance, he is attempting to take the bite out of any response to him that he is creating a cult, abusing his volunteer labor, or dominating others for his personal benefit—all of which he seems to have intentions to actually do in some respects.

Ironic Cults and the Cult of Irony

There were many cult-like aspects of the group I was a member of (Integral Institute) under the leadership of the Bald One (Ken Wilber). But we had irony about it, joked about “being in a cult” openly, and laughed at critics who thought our group was cultish—so we couldn’t have been in a coercive spiritual organization, right? Wrong.

In our case, irony was no defense against “non-coerced” head shaving (both men and women did it without provocation), working 50-70+ hours a week but only getting paid for 40 or less (at an illegally low $5/hour—several members sold illegal drugs to make enough to live and others went bankrupt), defending other teachers who were engaged in very shady activities, and being told regularly by Wilber that we were the chosen ones who were going to bring about the New (Integral) Age (but we totally were opposed to everything “New Age,” naturally). While coercive groups are all on a spectrum and Integral wasn’t necessarily as extreme as some groups, there were ongoing abuses of power that could not be dealt with adequately (the situation may have changed since I left, but Integral Institute/Life and Ken tend to still publicly support highly questionable spiritual teachers). There were also numerous red flags that we chose to ignore. I was skeptical even while working there, but still had a period of 4 or 5 years recovery to deprogram after my time in that organization, a period where I largely lost all my friends who were (and most still are) involved in the Integral community.

Another friend of mine joined the Church of Scientology ironically. He read everything about them available online in advance, and when asked why he wanted to join he mentioned that he was interested in finding out if the reports of it being a cult were true. He ended up doing the first level of “auditing” and didn’t continue, so perhaps his previous research did give him a bit of preparation for leaving, but at the same time he also actually joined this cult and gave them money! When I spoke with him about it, he talked as if he was an apologist for the church.

My point is that there can indeed be ironic cults and cults of irony. Irony doesn’t automatically remove power abuses. In addition, many people in positions of power who joke about abuse are in that moment actually abusing others via the asshole takeaway.

Note too that while Pavlina doesn’t like people who “diagnose me over the internet,” he’s fine with diagnosing the emotional states of his critics as having “a lot of repressed anger and envy emanating from [them].” I’m not going to give the diagnosis from the DSM IV that I think might fit this kind of behavior, I’m only going to state that it is hypocritical. While Pavlina says that “no force or coercion is necessary” to create a “supportive social circle,” he also pulls the asshole takeaway to dominate others, and regularly bans all dissenting opinions. In fact, I received an email today from someone who was banned from his forum for posting a dissenting opinion on the forum thread linked to above. Coercion can be subtle, ironic, and even “for smart people.”

As I write this article, I am checking in with my feelings. I do not notice anger and envy, but a feeling of concern associated with a warmth in my chest and sadness for people who might join a coercive group, and for people who are currently stuck within such groups. Someone I know is currently wrestling with a smart young family member who is stuck in the Dahn Yoga cult. He is working 20 hours a day, sleeping only 4, and he justifies his activity as being part of a movement that will save the world. (I referred this family to John Knapp of the Center for Healing Spiritual and Cultic Abuse. John was a former member of the Transcendental Meditation cult and now works as a social worker specializing in helping people to recover from cults and coercive groups.)

I sincerely hope that any wisdom I have gained from membership in coercive groups benefits others who are considering joining or leaving such groups. Please pay attention to the warning signs of a coercive group or leader. Pavlina is exhibiting many of them already.

UPDATE 4/7/2011: I found this analysis from a blog called “Steve Pavlina Watch” on Pavlina’s April Fool’s post as well: Analysis: Help Wanted

UPDATE 4/8/2011: See also this excellent article from the Cultic Studies Journal entitled “Dominance and Submission: The Psychosexual Exploitation of Women in Cults” by Janja Lalich. While obviously there is a difference, there is a fine line—or perhaps a gradient—between the D/s bedroom play of a monogamous couple and the dominance and submission of a coercive leader or group. Often toxic groups begin on one side of the line and gradually move in the direction of coercion.

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42 Responses to “Steve Pavlina Planning Openly to Create a (non)Cult”

  1. mike crosby says:

    Duff, I appreciate your writing. Thank you.

    In my twenties, (now in my fifties), I was involved with a group in which now I believe is a cult. I read your link "the warning signs of a coercive group or leader", and the group/leader met many of those requirements.

    The group I was involved with was called the local church and its leader was Witness Lee. It has now been 35 years since I was a member, but just last week I read about improprieties involved with that organization.

    Your article does make me question something though. Could there ever be a group that is out of the mainstream, possess a truth/lifestyle not recognized by ordinary folk?

    This article also ties in with your quote by William James in the comment section of your last post–it's not about seeking to change the world in one grand swipe, but living life through moderation.

    • "Could there ever be a group that is out of the mainstream, possess a truth/lifestyle not recognized by ordinary folk?"

      Of course. Neither popularity nor lack thereof are signs of truth or better living.

  2. Henway says:

    I like Pavlina even if he gets on the nerve of some people. Some of his articles and statements, although absurd and overexaggerated always has some truth sprinkled on it. I especially liked his article about acceptance and how accepting a friend as he/she is really is the same as indifference. You're not accepting anything – you just don't care.
    My recent post Dukan Diet Tips

    • Hmm, I disagree that acceptance is equivalent to indifference.

    • Here's what I notice in my experience about the differences between indifference and acceptance.

      When I step into indifference, I feel no flows of sensation in my chest and abdomen. My face is emotionless and the muscles in my face are limp. There is also a quality of muted anger or annoyance which I especially notice in my face, as if trying to hide my true feelings. This muted anger is also expressed in the statement "I don't care" that also often accompanies indifference or apathy. A context in which I commonly experience indifference is when I'm feeling somewhat frustrated with others making what I perceive to be an inconsequential decision and taking a long time to do it. For example: "What restaurant do you want to go to?" "I don't care."

      When I step into acceptance, I notice an automatic inbreath. Immediately some flows of sensation follow on the sides of my head, down my arms, and upper thighs. My face softens and the muscles around my eyes contract slightly. I feel a slight sadness in my chest and my chest feels soft and open. I continue to take deeper breaths, especially in my upper chest. The context in which I most experience acceptance is when something difficult is being conveyed and I step into accepting that this thing is true. Acceptance feels similar to compassion to me, and often occurs in the context of hearing about someone else's suffering.

      I don't know how you experience these things, but I thought perhaps this more detailed phenomenological description might be helpful.

  3. Thank you, Duff, for you mention! You are one, passionate, cool explorer-of-personal-development-kinda dude.

    Thanks for you support. We hope to earn it one day.

    J.

  4. Steve says:

    “the asshole takeaway”
    that is a great expression.

    "My business isn’t a typical profit-based venture, so it’s not about getting rich. If I wanted more profit, I could restore the Adsense ads to the website in about an hour. Instant $100K+ of extra passive income per year, deposited directly into my bank account. If I was a capitalist, surely it would be worth spending an hour to add a six-figure passive income stream. I’d like to take a different direction though."

    Does anyone other than a "scammer" ever say things like that?

    • "Does anyone other than a "scammer" ever say things like that? "

      Excellent point, Steve. It's an unusual kind of bragging, isn't it? "I'm so rich I don't need any more money, but if I wanted it I could make lots more. But since I don't care about the money, I'm not going to pay my employees!"

  5. 32000days says:

    I have no idea what Steve's actually up to here, but perhaps he's got an unpaid internship program in the planning.

    Anyone who signs up as a "slave" would presumably have their own reasons for doing so. Certainly not my preference, but it's a big world and a big internet. In any event, reading those Rick Ross tips would be a good idea for anyone registering in any high-pressure environment or organization.
    My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

    • I think we should be careful about being too hands off in situations like this. People will make their own mistakes yes, and it's not illegal to volunteer to be abused (unless it is, like violating labor laws), but if we assume everyone involved is making a rational choice, we may be incorrect.

      • 32000days says:

        Yeah, my default position is pretty hands-off in most cases in the absence of obvious harm.

        You're raising the alarm earlier than I would – not saying that's wrong, just a difference in perspective. I also don't have the direct experience you had with the Integral organization so maybe you're more attuned to the early warning signs of this kind of thing.

        And my CGW experiences may be causing me to feel more relaxed about this, because at least some of the people involved aren't abstractions but personal acquaintances and friends.

        The whole situation seems pretty comical to me for now. If gangs of men start beating each other in Las Vegas basements, shaving their heads, and wearing black, then maybe I'll get worried.

        BTW, that stevepavlina.org blog that you tweeted about is interesting. I have to admit, I'd be a bit embarrassed to be the operator of an "anti-" or "hate" site. It would feel like I was devoting a whole project specifically to my adversary. Can't really understand the mindset, but maybe if Steve's web site bothers him that much, its a way to vent?
        My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

        • You're raising the alarm earlier than I would – not saying that's wrong, just a difference in perspective.

          I agree I'm raising the alarm early, and yes, it's due to my direct experiences as well as my observation and participation in discussions around the death and harm caused by James Arthur Ray.

          Yea, I'm not particularly interested in only critiquing one figure. I'd like to bring the focus around to much larger issues.

        • > BTW, that stevepavlina.org blog that you tweeted about is interesting. I have to admit, I'd be a bit embarrassed to be the operator of an "anti-" or "hate" site. It would feel like I was devoting a whole project specifically to my adversary. Can't really understand the mindset, but maybe if Steve's web site bothers him that much, its a way to vent?

          I don't know about the motivations behind that website, however for me, Its just a way to share opinions without being censored. Steve doesn't allow them on his own forums, many people including me were banned and our posts were deleted.

          I would be embarrassed if I had to defend an associate who couldn't handle criticism :) .

  6. Rachel says:

    When I first read his post, I thought "How nice, Steve is finally developing a sense of humor." I thought he was satirizing himself, which would be a huge leap in personal growth for him. The line about calling him "master" would be better for his self esteem was quite funny. Finding out he was serious, at least halfway, was not really surprising but pretty disappointing. There went my premature hope that he was, at last, transforming himself into a real human being.

  7. Jack Christopher says:

    Boy do I have a lot to say on this. I’ll multi comment/reply.

    On anti sites, to other Jack: This issue gets complex. Doing an anti site may be overtop, but maybe doing one article isn’t sufficient. Perhaps there’s more to criticise than you think. It’s their perogative to cover something that in depth. But I personally wouldn’t do it.

    The real issue is, what’s their motivation? A fav quote of mine is: “Criticize by creation not by fault finding.” I’m interested in creating new things over criticising old.

    I’m uncomfortable writing even one critical article, or even criticizing in private. I want to avoid the “Monday Morning QB” reputation. But arguably that’s a diservice. Now I’m more willing to criticise privately and comment publicaly about stuff.

    There’s a certain point where quieting criticism is enabling. But there’s also a point where criticism because this self-congradulatory hatedom or really hatedumb.

    • 32000days says:

      The real issue is, what's their motivation? A fav quote of mine is: "Criticize by creation not by fault finding." I'm interested in creating new things over criticising old.

      Good way to put it. My intention is to create from the space of being the original Jack Bennett / 32000 Days. I'll never be defined as "that guy who's against (specific thing X)". Nor will I ever be defined as "that guy who's nothing but a fanboy of (specific thing Y)". I really don't ever want others to experience me that way.

      On the other hand, the idea of a generalist site that has a critical stance – such as, e.g. our hosts here – is an valuable voice to have participating in the conversation. In this case, Duff and Eric are promoting a general philosophy of critical analysis in personal dev / self help, rather than being (e.g.) the "anti James A. Ray site".

      My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

  8. Jack Christopher says:

    “And my CGW experiences may be causing me to feel more relaxed about this, because at least some of the people involved aren’t abstractions but
    personal acquaintances and friends.” – Other Jack

    At risk of souding hyperbolic, I’m *more* concerned for that reason. I can think of several specific people who I’d bet’ll get involved in this.

    I hesistate to call them “friends” because, among other things, this issue in itself makes those connections less clear. I sometimes find myself thinking, are these genuine “friends” or people more into following Pavlina.

    I’ve been involved in that milleu in some compacity for 6+ years. I’ve generally kept distance until these past two. There are sporatic (private) concerns about “guru worship” around him; issues about the power relation between him and his “followers” so to speak.

    For the record, my opinion: the “Pavlina community” is a fandom. But fandoms are necessarily cultish. And there’s definitely a personality cult around him. But that’s the extent to which I’d use that word. It’s definitely gotten “cultish”.

    I would use “fandumb” to describe some stuff I’ve seen. But that implies I solely blame fans. He’s definitely unconsciously, and even consciously in cases, encouraging certain behaviors.

  9. stevepavlinalies says:

    Thanks for a very good blog post. You're right that he doesn't allow dissenting opinions, I was also banned from his forums and my posts were even removed, so no one knew what I was even banned for.

    • You're welcome! I was banned by Pavlina not even for criticizing him, but for criticizing a product he was advertising: http://beyondgrowth.net/guru-criticism/the-unques…

      I have since criticized his solipsism as well: http://beyondgrowth.net/guru-criticism/how-to-tak…

      Not allowing dissenting opinions is a major red flag of a potentially toxic leader or group. It's one thing to ban trolls, another to ban rational disagreement.

      • Jane says:

        Hello,
        Well, I really appreciate this post… I was indeed banned for my comments on the forum about this April Fool's 'joke'… my comments were strongly worded so I wasn't surprised at the ban, but actually I was hoping there'd be a constructive response to it, rather than just for it to be deleted ('trolling', it was, apparently)… If my words were strong, they mirrored the provocation of the original post, but apparently that was unacceptable. Fair enough, but I'm very glad there's a forum for alternative perspectives on this elsewhere on the web. if there had been the opportunity to engage in debate on Pavlina's forum, I'd have been more likely to doubt my misgivings about the cultish elements of the site… as it was, it just confirmed what had been a steady transition from admiration of a well-written blog, to a sense of something very 'tilted vessel', the key elements of which you express better than I could have hoped to on this site.
        My huge concern is indeed that people in a vulnerable life stage may be tempted by the offer, and that the personal 'slave' qualities that were requested – basically unquestioning submission – would stunt their chances at real growth (or recovery from past traumas or perhaps psychological issues), and certainly stunt the potential for critical thought. All this, coming from someone presenting themselves as a source of 'personal development for smart people' – wow, that stung.
        So I must say that I felt a certain amount of contempt for his 'joke' post, which your description of the 'asshole takeaway' matches to perfection. There was not jealousy – but definitely anger and concern. Concern, even, for a younger version of myself.
        Thanks for this excellent blog, Duff!

        • My huge concern is indeed that people in a vulnerable life stage may be tempted by the offer, and that the personal 'slave' qualities that were requested – basically unquestioning submission – would stunt their chances at real growth (or recovery from past traumas or perhaps psychological issues), and certainly stunt the potential for critical thought.

          When you think about it, who would be tempted by an offer for unpaid labor? Only vulnerable, often young people—not married people with a clear career, or retirees who wouldn't bother volunteering for someone so blatantly desiring power over others. This is a classic pattern for coercive groups and leaders who often recruit young, intelligent people with high energy and high idealism.

          Been there, done that, got the collectable coffee mug. :)

  10. [...] Its good to see that I’m not the only one discussing Steve Pavlina’s blog post where he has written about wanting slaves. Over at BeyondGrowth.net, there’s also an interesting post titled: “Steve Pavlina Planning Openly to Create a (non)Cult”. [...]

  11. Jack Christoher says:

    In reply to all, on criticism and (online) fame

    Normally, friends keep you in check. You think them equals, and trust their criticism. But that breaks down with mass popularity. That informal check that worked, doesn’t scale to a mass following. You need a more formal system to deal with mass feedback.

    And that’s just one of the consequences of bigness/popularity. If you don’t have a conscious system to deal with stuff, then you deal with it unconsciously.

    A meta-question is, do I/should I even desire “bigness”? IMO, no.

    (Heh, I hope my comment makes sense.)

    • Jack Christopher says:

      Point is, as a community grows you need to consciously structure it. Otherwise it's unconsciously arranged, and all kinds of issues come up, like criticism getting silenced. Unfortunately the PD field is structured like a bunch of "competing autocracies" [1]. It doesn't help that the mediums for discussion also encourage those autocracies.

      [1] Quote credit Duff.

      • One of the major problems with the existing model of competing autocracies is that genuine criticism either gets banned (from the main forums and comments), is ignored (because it appears on a low PR blog), or is repressed (usually because the author doesn't want to lose marketing and promotion opportunities by offending anyone).

        • Jack Christopher says:

          Jackpot! I knew of this site, but couldn't remember it. It's about common tropes in the workings of (online) communities. Here's an article very relevant to this discussion:

          "Due to the structure and economics of the Internet today, it is often the case that a collaborative project begins under the total control of its founder(s) and proprietor. While the founder may be well intentioned and wish to avoid becoming a GodKing, the administration of the project continues to need doing"
          http://meatballwiki.org/wiki/DevolvePower

          • Hmm, I don't know if I agree with the emphasis on this particular page. There are many security reasons to keep passwords known by one or two people for instance, and there can be plenty of power politics in "open" collaborative projects like Wikipedia. While I agree that power should ideally have checks and balances, I don't think that in all cases a community should opt for a completely flat and open power distribution. It is a matter of appropriateness to the context.

  12. Jack Christopher says:

    “the good thing about the internet – if you disagree with the policies of a given site…you can just create your own site where you’re the boss and make your own rules. Everyone has the opportunity to get their words out, however fragmented.” – Other Jack :)

    But that’s an issue. “Community discussion”, is often autocratically run, framentedly connected blogs/forums.

    And that comes with baggage. I mean, do we want this? I don’t like competing autocracies. That’s a big reason I don’t blog. What’s a better way to do it? Consciously determining an alternative is important.

    • 32000days says:

      But that's an issue. "Community discussion", is often autocratically run, framentedly connected blogs/forums.

      Consider the whole continuum from complete integration to complete fragmentation.

      Complete integration is unworkable and unpleasant – who controls the "one, true forum"? Hope they're a good moderator, because there's nowhere else to go.

      Complete fragmentation also has its weaknesses – everyone writing on their own blog and ignores everyone else?

      Anyway, I like the status quo better than CNN or ABC or The Guardian or Fox News being the gatekeepers of what kind of discussion and debate takes place.

      And that comes with baggage. I mean, do we want this? I don't like competing autocracies. That's a big reason I don't blog. What's a better way to do it? Consciously determining an alternative is important.

      Competing autocracies is better than the one autocracy described in total integration. I can't think of a better alternative yet – in the meantime, blogging provides a perfect way for me to publish, collect in one place, and promote my spiritual, coaching, and personal growth writings of 500-2000 words.

      My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

      • Jack Christopher says:

        Generally I prefer something that values cooperative, egalitarian, democratic and communal ideals among other things. Others'll want different. And that's OK. But it's unacceptable to have an unconscious arrangement, that encourages unacknowledged social/political values and *effects*. And that brings it back to the issues Duff's article bring up. :)

        Soon, maybe this week I'll figure an alternative I like. That sounds preposterous, but I've been thinking about the issue a while. The conversation inspired new thinking.

  13. Jack Christopher says:

    I agree that how power is distributed should depend on your context/goal.

    But overall, Meatball isn’t that anti-authoritarian. Some there might label me an AntiAuthoritarian troll, who can’t AcceptAuthority. (See wiki) It’s mostly pro-democratic. Still it’s more pro-autocrat than anarchist/libertarian. And it’s most critical of wikis, although it favors there use over other mediums.

  14. Ryan says:

    All of Steve Pavlina's blog entries currently have this at the end of them:

    If you've found this website helpful, please donate to show your support. The average donation is $20.71 (updated April 2011).

    I don't remember when he started putting this message at the end of his blog entries, but I don't think it has been there for more than a year, maybe two at the most. Of course, he has been blogging for much longer than that.

    Until recently, the amount was only 11 something dollars if I remember correctly, and no "last updated" date was given.

    I have a hard time believing that his donations have increased that much over what is probably a relatively short period of time.

    But hey, he's going to need to money for his cult, right?

  15. Lauryn Mohmed says:

    Page doesn’t seem to load in Opera, am I doing something wrong?

  16. ex-SP reader says:

    Thanks. I'm glad someone is keeping an eye on S. Pavlina.

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