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Belle Waring

What’s The Math Made of, Ding-Dong?

by Belle Waring on January 26, 2014

ETA 24h later: I told my girls that I was wrong and that everyone on the whole internet explained that they could perfectly well go on and win the Fields Medal if they were inclined to be mathematicians, and that being super-fast at mental arithmetic as a child isn’t the same as going on to make interesting discoveries in math as an adult, and that I was a jerk, and also wrong. Additionally, wrong. So if Zoë (12) wants to take time out from her current project of teaching herself Japanese, or Violet (9) wishes to take a break from her 150-page novel about the adventures of apprentice witch Skyla Cartwheel, then, in the hypothetical words of the Funky Four Plus One: “They could be the joint.” [Listen to this song because it’s the joint.]

“Y’all’s fakes!”

If you’re impatient you can skip ahead to 3:20 or so. Tl;dw: the overly scientific Princess Bubblegum, having snuck into Wizard City dressed in wizard gear along with Finn and Jake, is buying a spell from a head shop place that sells potions and spells and all that schwazaa. But she wants to know what the spell’s made of. “Magic?” Then she asks…read the post title. Then they get busted.

“So, kiddos,” I asked my kids in the elevator on the way down to the pools today, “are numbers real, or are they just something people made up?” Violet: “Real.” Zoë: “Real.” “That’s correct! Numbers are real! Like what if there were a sakura with its five petals, and it were pink, but no humans existed. Would it still be pink? Would it still have five petals?” [At approximately floor 14 I decided to bracket color problems.] “Yep.” “And things that are true about the number five, would they still be true too, like would five times five equal twenty-five and stuff?” “Totally.” “Could two plus two ever equal five, if there were no people around to check?” Zoë: “No, obviously not. Even now, people have lots of different languages, but if they have a word for five, then that word is about something that’s not two plus two, and it’s twenty-five if you multiply it by itself, and stuff like that. And people discovered zero two times.” “Correct! Math is real!” Zoë: “Also people discover important things about astrophysics with math, and then the same numbers keep turning up, and why would it be like that if there wasn’t really math?” “OK, so, we can keep discovering new things about math, right?” Girls: “Sure. Mathematicians can.” Me: “Maybe you! No, not you. I’m sorry.” Zoë: “I know.” Violet: “What?!” Me: “No, you’re both very intelligent children, you can learn calculus just as well as anyone, but if you were going to be an incredible math genius or something we’d kind of already know. Sorry.” [John was doing laps at this point. I’m not sure he approves of my negative pedagogical methods.] Zoë: “What’s set theory?” Me: “It’s just what it sounds like. There are sets of numbers, right, like all the prime numbers, all the way to infinity? Theories about that.” Violet: “I’m going swimming with daddy.” Me: “OK, there’s just more math out there, waiting to be discovered—but sometimes mathematicians come up with stuff that’s crazy. Like string theory. Which maybe isn’t a theory?” Zoë: “Why not?” Me: “I think they might not have any tests at all proposed by which to prove their hypotheses.” Zoë was very indignant: “That’s not a theory at all! What is that? Me: “Math that’s really fun and weird and entertaining if you understand it? John, can string theorists not propose any test whatsoever that would prove their hypotheses or is it rather the case that we lack the capacity to perform the tests that would figure it out?” John: “It’s an important distinction and I think it’s the latter. Like, was there an even or an odd number of hairs on Zoë’s head on March 23, 2006? There’s some true fact of the matter, but it’s indeterminable.” Me: “Well they can’t be demanding time travel, Jesus.” Violet: “We should have counted!” BEST. SUGGESTION. ERVER!1

OK, so, I’m a Platonist about math. Like lots of mathematicians I knew in grad school, actually, but not by any means all. In fact, some were a little embarrassed about their Platonism. My algebraic topologist friend was of the ‘numbers are the product of human intelligence’ school (N.B. while I understood vaguely what my HS friend who was also at Berkeley did set theory was writing is his diss on, in a kind of babified ‘along these lines’ way, I genuinely could not understand at all what my algebraic topology friend was doing. What, even?) This reminds me of an idiotic discussion I had in a Classics seminar with me vs. an entire group of people (including my dissertation adviser). They all maintained that there were no structures absent human recognition/simultaneous creation of the structures. As in, absent the evolution of humans on the earth, there would be no regular geometric structures. I was just like:?! Crystals that are even now locked in the earth inside geodes, where they will never be seen? Beehives? Wait, are these all imperfect and gently irregular, and thus unsatisfactory? They shouldn’t be because many of the crystals are perfectly regular. Anyway OH HAI ITS BENZENE? I…was neither presented with any compelling counter-arguments nor was I winning the argument. It was very irritating. Then I brought up my own objection—this is steel-manning, I guess: benzene was created/isolated by humans? Like Faraday even? Fine, NOBLE GASES! NOBLE GAS MATRIXES! I can draw argon on the board! Look at how this shell is so full of electrons mmmmm this probably doesn’t want to react with anything cuz it’s so lazy amirite guys (but we can make it (but also in the Crab Nebula it’s happening naturally!) but that’s irrelevant))! I still…did not win the argument. We were forcibly moved on to another topic.

I know people wanted to discuss the external reality/human-created nature of numbers and math in the earlier thread, but we got trolled by someone who was ‘just askin’ questions’ and said I ‘had to check with each and every commenter about exactly what he/she intended’ before taking offense ever at something, say, sexist that someone said. (HhHHmmmyoursuggestionfascina—NO.) Now’s your chance!
N.B. Long-time CT commenter Z alone is permitted to use humorous quotes from recalled Barbie and Malibu Stacey dolls in his discussion with me. If anyone else does I will smite you. With smiting.

Images From Ukraine

by Belle Waring on January 24, 2014

EDITED TO MAKE CLEARER: I don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine! My general inclination is to support the groups opposed to closer relations with Putin’s repressive Russia, but it’s clear even from the linked photos that there are fascists on the line vs. the riot cops as well. I strongly encourage you to read the comments from readers who are better informed than I.

I am not going to pretend to much knowledge about what has sparked the current outbreak of violent protests in Ukraine. Well, generally, it seems the citizens feel that the government of Ukraine wants to (insists on? Is being mumble*sort of arm twisted* convinced to?) maintain their country’s historically close relationship with Russia (soclose of a relationship) instead of making moves towards eventual EU membership. In November President Yanukovich turned down a trade pact with the EU, and Russia is continually complaining about the EU “meddling” in Ukraine’s affairs (it being in the near abroad and all one imagines). In any case, at the moment rioting has been going on for some days and has turned violent as some protestors have been shot by the police and killed. The Washington Post reports that opposition leaders and the government are in talks, and that two protestors have been killed, but many other sources online say it is as high as five. Basically I just wanted to share these photos with you. Most are originally from Gawker.


You, unknown sir or madam, are officially, totally badass. Really. There may be a statue later.


Testudo! When something works, it keeps working.
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Please Go Away Mao, You Are Banned As Well

by Belle Waring on January 22, 2014

Dearest Mao Cheng Ji,
We are the staff and posting priveliges of Crooked webmagazine. We have been recommended to you as a person of trustworthiness for any trolling enterprise. At the moment we have over 5,893,903 (five million, eight-hundred-and-ninety-three-thousand, nine-hundrend-and-three) US comments waiting in the spam queue of a blog that was formed by Hector St. Clare, until recently the most acclaimed and five-times elected troll of our blog. However, his blog has been shut down for some time while he has been in exile from his native land, and for this reason we have no way to access our comments, as we all lack passports because or paperworks problems due to our initial blog-formation not being intended to be a group blog. Our blog was expanded to have more members of the board but the requisite letters of incorporation are awaiting approval and must be approved in many countries at the same time if we are to regain bloggging passports. So we have contacted you to ask you to move to Hector St. Clare’s blog permanently in the hopes that as soon as he re-continues his blog we will be able to access our 5,893,903 US comments currently waiting in the queue. We will need you to assist us in this enterprise by commenting their a small amount to cover the transfer fees but we will be happy to repay you for this service with 20% of the comments 1,178,780 US comments. Thanks be to God, we are all very excited at the prospect of you commenting permanently at Hector’s blog, and never commenting here at Crooked Timber again, under any circumstances, even needing to use a false name. I speak for all of us in saying we were lucky to of been given the chance to use your help to get our comments back from Hector’s blog. We may be contacting you with more details about the 5,893,903 comments.

For real, no. Hector was a substantially better feminist than Mao when it came to recognizing that gendered threats of violence are a special case, worth considering as different from generalized internet threats, for reasons other than ‘prudishness’—namely they are an attempt to drive women out of public fora.

Shoes: The Only Band That Really Matters. Part I

by Belle Waring on January 18, 2014

No, IRL it’s The Clash. Nonetheless, power pop—it’s so wonderful! What’s the best part? The pop? It…sort of better be the pop because I like the Raspberries and, let’s be frank, the amount of “power” involved is limited. If I had to pick one power pop song that was my favorite ever, I would—I would first declare all Big Star songs off limits so they wouldn’t occupy all the top spots, but it would be “Jesus Christ”, and, well, it should oughta be The Flamin’Groovies’”Shake Some Action,” right?

But screw it, and forget the thing I implied .04 seconds ago in writing this post, because it’s really by Zion, Illnois’ finest, Shoes:

Oh but Belle, what is this mysterious power pop of which you speak? Is it a bunch of lame white bands from the late 70s and early 80s? No. It is a bunch of lame completely awesome white bands from the late 70s and early 80s. (There were some black power pop-style musicians I know nothing about, prolly. Tell me about them, edumacated readers.) Yeah, Americans liked the Beatles, but it took them years to get even the most basic grasp on the thing, during which they sounded like Badfinger, and then new wave started happening, which pushed people into a different confused direction. With the result that, amazing things happened, as above. See also:
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I hear that the chicks have it easy on online dating sites. They say the dicks flow like the waters of the Nile, carrying all away before them. Also the pictures of the dicks. I am led to believe that they are very easily obtained. Men who want dick pics use Grindr and that’s apparently working out great for them. But what about straight guys? What? About them? One brave redditor decided to test his theory, by using science. Which is real.

Last night I was bored and was talking with a friend on skype about her experiences with online dating. I was joking with her that “girls have it easy on dating sites” etc. etc. ….I decided that I would set up a fake profile. Set it up as a gender-swapped version of me essentially see what would happen. So I did the username, and I was up. Before I could even fill out my profile at all, I already had a message in my inbox from a guy. It wasn’t a mean message, but I found it odd that I would get a message already. So I sent him a friendly hello back and kind of joked that I hadn’t even finished my profile, how could he be interested, but I felt good because I thought I was right that “girls have it easy”

Do go on. Wait, no, I’ll summarize. Dudes started messaging him right away (he notes here that his female friend is only average in attractiveness and is fine with his saying so.) They said things that were not immediately sexual, but weird. Then when he said no or responded neutrally, they said unpleasantly sexual things. They repeatedly proposed NSA sex, like maybe in the next hour? and some skyping, maybe? Webcam action?
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Freedom Isn’t Free

by Belle Waring on January 13, 2014

ETA: It has occurred to me only just now that this post would have better had it been titled “America: rRuck Yeah!

You have probably already read about the horrible chemical spill in West Virginia last Thursday, which the New York Times has a stunner headline: Critics Say Chemical Spill Highlights Lax West Virginia Regulations. Oh, really? (You can read lots of good posts on this and previous environmental and labor disputes at Lawyers, Guns and Money—you can start looking at Erik Loomis’ posts as he also has great series along the lines of ‘this day in labor history’.)

300,000 were left with poisoned drinking water (coming out of the tap!) after specialty chemical-producer Freedom Industries spilled some 5,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol into the Kanawha Valley’s water treatment intake near Charleston. The water remains clear although poisonous, but smells helpfully like licorice. Also, boiling it doesn’t help.

Obviously this logo is but a minor blot on the company’s record vs. its actual malfeasance but uh…it’s a crime against good design, since my daughters looked at it and asked, “what’s rReedom Industries?” Also really looks as if it should have the smoking twin towers photoshopped into the background, and perhaps a big glistening tear into the eagle’s eye, and it would be a good blog header for Pamela Geller. Hey, remember her? (She doesn’t follow good trigger safety at all, I totally just learned this. But she’s a teetotaler also, so.)

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Love Is Gonna Let Me Down. Not Reggae, Though

by Belle Waring on January 10, 2014

One time I made a mix that was Belle’s Saddest Mix Ever. This was to go with my brother Ben’s Saddest Mix Ever. The were not disjunct. This song by Toots and the Maytals was on both:

Everytime I see your face
Something moves within my heart
And it thrills me to my soul
And tells me that
Love is gonna let me down…

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This Is Only a Test

by Belle Waring on January 9, 2014


What if I linked to my favorite song by everybody’s favorite Australian punk band, and merely pointed out that Ross “I Would Do Anything For Love But I Won’t” Douthat is only 8 1/2 days away from misusing found alien technology, not to better the world, because he’s a selfish monster, but to better his own life by becoming infinity percent cooler?


And look, he put out some great music, in his defense, right?


But that’s not at all what Culture tech is for and I can tell you, without spoilering the 21st Century at all, that both I myself and way MOAR KNIFE MISSLES get involved, so, it all evens out.

Are you going to go on and on about The Saints like a bunch of little bitches, or what? Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Oh, wait, now I’ve like entangled myself in my own quantum wossnames, haven’t I? COMMENT IN THE NEW THREAD. If you’re going to go on and on about something do it in an interesting fashion. Don’t feed boring trolls poorly-prepared victuals. Make the trolls earn their meagre fare. Then, eventually, you may reward them with fun-size Milky Way or something. God.

UPDATE: I failed. Because I could have written the post in a comprehensible way. But I did not. OR WAS I FAILED?!
1. Look, people have been going on about whether the Jim Crow South was maybe, possibly, kinda racist for like 425 comments down there in John’s thread. IT WAS. Also, DON’T FEED LOW CALIBER-TROLLS. “But Belle, Mao Cheng Ji started it!” STFU bitch.
2. People were not enough with the loving Breakwater’s “Say You Love Me Girl,” from below. Let’s grant they just don’t like that kind of thing, which was why they didn’t like it. OK GRANTED. Why didn’t they love Shuggie Otis more? Was it…racism? Oh, no, actually. Probably it was just liking this one other kind of music that they do like. Which is fine an all but…
3. As inestimable non-trollish commenter Michael Sullivan pointed out, if this had been a male poster reminiscing about some post-punk stuff he might well have gotten 100 comments in an hour. So, was it—sexism? No, actually, people just don’t appreciate good music sometimes. So then I was listening to The Saints. And then I noticed, damn, Ross “I Would Do Anything For Love But I Won’t” Douthat looks just like that one dude in The Saints! So I suggested an humorous vignette in which Meatloaf (not “Mr. Meatloaf”; the New York Times regrets the error; like many Indonesians, Meatloaf only uses one name) was transported back in time using the technology of Iain M. Banks’ Culture. But would that have been satisfactory? No, so I had to specify that I subsequently hunted him down and killed him with knife missiles which, if you haven’t read the books, are EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAY ON THE TIN. Then people expressed variously, bafflement (here, sorry) and the objection that The Saints, being a seminal punk band, can hardly be post-punk can they, missy? (EXPECT KNIFE MISSILES.)
I don’t know why you people make everything so difficult.

Belle’s Record Collection, Um, II: The Reddingsing

by Belle Waring on January 8, 2014

I bought this album by The Reddings for .99. I could tell it was going to be amazing because of the Platonic solids—it’s Back to Basics! Also, that one dude doesn’t have any glass in his glasses=WIN.

The Reddings/Back to Basics

But then I couldn’t listen to it till now. So I didn’t know how awesome. OMG! It’s all the deep cuts I wanted! And two of the dudes are Otis Reddings’ sons. Not to be confused with Shuggie Otis (son of Johnny Otis) and his superlative Information Inspiration. Oh damn I have to play that now in case you don’t know this song. It contains the line “here’s a pencil pad/I’m gonna spread some information.” I don’t know why, but this fills me with a deep, deep feeling of satisficing the criteria of a good life. John totally agrees (N.B. may not actually agree.)

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99 1/2 Won’t Do

by Belle Waring on December 22, 2013

John gave me my Christmas present early. It was…our stereo. Yes. The stereo we had all along. That I had cut off my hair to buy! No, psych. But it had only been in our possession in its entirety since 2011, along with all our records, which I bravely rescued, all on my lonesome, from Colonial Storage on Abercorn Extension outside Savannah. I had to kill the biggest brown recluse spider I have ever seen in my life, from which my mover, who had served two terms in Iraq as a Marine “ran away like a little girl” in his words. It was on the back of a mirror he was moving and he was able to set it down without breaking it, on account of military training, before running off in the aforesaid manner, and I picked up a piece of a chair and killed it. It wasn’t like we could do anything useful just knowing it was in there somewhere, right? [I will spare you from the further explanations of why we could not set up our stereo in our old house.]

Yes, so we shipped our records and stereo to Singapore. That was economically very rational and I don’t want to hear anything about the sunk costs fallacy and the excellent new (to me) 70s Boston Acoustics speakers and 70s Marantz receiver I could have bought at the Adelphi Mall for the same money. Because I would never have gotten the records. Sure, in principle, I could have bought the same records again, but I wouldn’t have, because I don’t know what records I have. Ha! Refute that, Chicago economics guy! Now, the answer is supposed to be that if I don’t want to listen to it for ten years I don’t want it. Not so fast Professor Nerdlinger! I might want to be surprised! Like, hey, “Come Dance With Bump?” Released in Asia on the label Music Girl? Which I might very well think I had hallucinated if I could not hold it and look at its astoundingly great, yet deeply mysterious cover? Bump is apparently the nom de dance of a super-hot black chick with striped stockings, purple platform shoes, and a gold and yellow fringed hot-pants one-piece. But maybe she’s not? Maybe Bump is the DJ playing songs to which you are meant to do the bump and…something? OK, on a listen the latter. I guess I bought this here and couldn’t listen to it for ages. So it was a bad example. I only happened to notice it in alphabetizing. My daughter was willing to help until I told her it was 3 letters deep and she was like l8rs, Imma listen to Vocaloid, which I have convinced iTunes to accept in hirgana and katakana, although this has created alphabetizing issures of its own…
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Not from a parody account, it would appear:



by Belle Waring on December 15, 2013

Sooooo, the youngs. you may have heard they like Justin Beiber or Rhianna or something. They don’t. They like computer constructs, only one of which is human, and we hear her voice only, and anyway there is some debate about whether she’s canon. Vocaloids! The original technology was invented by Kenmochi Hideki at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain in 2000. Backed by the Yamaha Corporation, it developed the software into the commercial product “Vocaloid.” (ボーカロイド Bōkaroido). (This product exists separately from the Vocaloids I’m talking about and is used to generate back-up vocals and other things like that in ordinary pop songs). The most popular is naturally 01, Hatsune Miku. You can even see her perform live! (You should really watch this—it’s not clear quite how bizarre the scene is till partway through.) Her ‘voice’ is compressed into the upper range of human hearing, and beyond what any human could sing. But it’s not merely a person’s voice sped up; it’s constructed (though some samples were taken from a Japanese actress).
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Sorting Hat’s Gotta Sort

by Belle Waring on December 13, 2013

OK everyone, important moral questions here! Set your trifling trolley tracks and trickery to one side! IF you were set under the Sorting Hat in Hogwart’s Academy for Witchcraft and Wizardry, would you be a Hufflepuff, a Slytherin, a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? Now, it’s important to remember that the books are all about a bunch of Gryffindors who save the world a British boarding school from evil. And that Ms. Rowling, though awesome in many many ways, suffers from world-building problems in others (she is free to tell me my 7-book series, which unites all the children of the world in the love of reading, is conceptually flawed as well.)

There are larger problems, such as the eensy-weensy “er, not to Godwin your whole series, and I know your evil wizard from the 30s backstory was going there, but, um, why aren’t wizards ruling the world, with Voldemort having a continental empire, full of Muggles whom he has shuffling off, of their own accord, under the imperius curse, quite horribly with no need for guards or jailers or even wizards to construct the camps…?” Naturally in a book for children one would put it more, “why aren’t wizards trying with a bit more of a ‘can-do spirit’ to take over the world, I wonder?” Setting that aside, within Hogwart’s itself: we get Cedric Diggory to remember, and he’s super-hot and everything in a pale, unhealthy way, but otherwise, Draco Malfoy’s initial pronouncement that he’d rather not be in the school at all than be a Hufflepuff is not really gainsaid, leaving you with the impression that they are a bunch of morons. Not so! The eventual TOTAL FAIL fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, while written in some wiki fashion by libertarians, or possibly by the character Randy in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (which some of you may have heard of from Stephenson-quoter-kun) has some very good features (I realize it does not sound at all plausible when I have laid it out like that but it really does have its moments). Fine, technically it’s written by the Less Wrong people. Waaaay different.
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Domestic Helpers

by Belle Waring on December 10, 2013

The foreign workers in Singapore are divided by gender into two tasks and two entirely different ways of life. I talked below about the men, who do mainly construction, but also work on the oil refineries off the south coast. Women who are guest workers almost all work as domestic helpers, who live with the family for whom they work, and do a variety of tasks: cleaning house, cooking, taking care of children, taking care of elderly or disabled family members, washing cars, shopping at the wet market for fresh food like fish and tofu and eggs and fruit and vegetables, shopping at the grocery store for rice and noodles and frozen chapati and Marshmallow Fluff, etc. etc. Most are from the Philippines, but many are from Indonesia and some from Myanmar or Thailand—some must be from mainland China but I feel I never hear of them. Expats like me would hire them if they were from Beijing and spoke even rudimentary English, because then they could help our children better their Mandarin. Women from the Philippines are paid more, because they are likelier to speak better English and be better educated (not so uncommonly with a post high-school degree, like our first helper, who worked for us for nine years.) They are also paid more because the government of the Philippines has negotiated a minimum wage for them, as I understand it. Indonesian helpers are sometimes 18-year-old girls who have literally come straight from a village where they lived in a house with a packed earth floor, and then they are screamed at because they didn’t use the right setting on the washing machine. They go through training courses paid for by the maid agency, allegedly. I think this is more a spurious reason for the agency to make the fee paid by the workers higher (as in many places, the women often pay a multiple of their eventual monthly salary to the Indonesian agency that gets them a job in Singapore.) The government of Singapore requires employers of helpers to pay a levy of—mmm—$380? (One of those convenient internet banking things). Domestic helpers are now guaranteed one day off a week but only if contracts were signed in 2013; previously Filipina workers were guaranteed one day off a month—oooh, lavish innit—and workers from Indonesia and Myanmar…none.
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Riot In Singapore

by Belle Waring on December 9, 2013

There was a truly unprecedented riot in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood last night. (Video report from the BBC, Channel News Asia, Al Jazeera’s good report.) Our family just moved house, out to the wilds of Bukit Batok (a lovely apartment, actually, next to the Bukit Gombak MRT). Up till October, though, we were living right up the road from the spot where it took place, like 700m away; we would have been able to hear the yelling no question, and the bus exploding with what I imagine would have been rather startling ease. The riot started when a private bus, driven by a Singaporean, struck and killed an Indian worker while backing up. The bus driver was injured in the riot, and the bus itself destroyed completely. There is video of the windshield being smashed, and later footage of the bus completely aflame, suddenly punctuated by the gas tank bursting. Ambulances and, later, police cars (??! there aren’t enough interrobangs to express my feelings about typing this sentence) were also turned over and torched. A number of policemen were injured in the riot, as were some rioters, but the police never fired on the crowd, and got things under control within two hours, and happily no one else died. The cops were able to get there in a hurry because the Tanglin Police Post (bigger than a station, and more important) is about 500m away. They’ve had a big photo on one of their recruiting ads for ages, on a banner on the side of the building, that shows a bunch of ethnically diverse police officers armed with riot gear and huge plastic shields. I used to think, whenever I rode past in the taxi, so exhausted from work and in terrible pain, at the end of a thirty minute drive, with my head fallen to one side and my cheekbone pressed flat on the glass like skinless chicken breast against the cold plastic in the butcher’s section, “well, they ain’t never going to get the chance to do that.”
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