Inertial Management

“…with that understanding, I believe I will be able to strike the right balance between instituting change, and keeping in mind the results and considerations of administrations past.”
– From the manifesto of a candidate for the 16th MC.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
A fourth-year’s reflection on the 16th MC candidates’ Q&A.


This year’s elections Q&A has come and gone. I was not in attendance, but I’ve been reading mantarui‘s piece about his experience there, and I’ve also been talking with other alumni/senior students about some of the sentiments and proposals that the 16th MC candidates have made available online. For mantarui, who’s been through a fair few of these himself, there was a sense of déjà vu, perhaps from the feeling of having heard some of these pitches before.

As for the online proposals, regarding the idea for GUI coordinators, one response it provoked from my friend was the following:



For context, the ‘pillars’ refer to MC portfolios that existed prior to the 14th MC. There were five ‘Community Pillars’ during the time of my MC (the 12th), which had Directors for Academic Affairs, Community Service, Cultural Activities, Social Activities, and Sports. These Directors each spearheaded a Standing Committee for each portfolio that coordinated and supported the activities of relevant projects and Interest Groups (GUIs being an innovation1 of the 14th MC).

To be clear, it’s not that my friend thought that the GUI coordinator proposal was merely an unnecessary rehash of an old structure that would yield no real benefit. What I’m trying to show is merely that there was some irony to be appreciated, from a perspective that saw the similarity with the benefit of a slightly longer historical perspective.


Our chat also brought to mind some ideas I’ve had from around the time I was considering the question of how best to structure2 the MC and USC’s activities. These ideas were, more specifically, about the pattern year-to-year changes in the structure of student committees, where the leadership is consecutively handing over their offices to their successors.

For clarity, I’ll state these ideas a pair of principles describing the political structure of student organizations. 

Principle 1 (‘Principle of Institutional Conservatism’).  Student organizations are conservative institutions. Getting rid of projects and portfolios is generally avoided.

Principle 2 (‘Principle of Institutional Expansion’).  Even on the exceptional occasions when projects and portfolios are culled, over time the leadership structure will expand, rather than contract or remain stable. This is because the mandate of every batch of leaders is to institute improvement.

Although I’ve stated two principles, on a deeper analysis the trends they describe stem from the same underlying logic.

The social/political logic behind Principle 1 is that, fairly or unfairly, a suggestion to axe a post or project can be read as a negative verdict on the necessity/performance/quality of the position/office-holder/project. I described the context of having directors for each ‘community pillar’ earlier, and as an illustration of the logic I describe, imagine suggesting that the post of, say, the Academic Affairs director should be eliminated or derogated to a lower level in the subsequent committee structure. At the minimum, not just the Academic Affairs director, but also his predecessors might wonder why the proposal was being made. (And perhaps the more general human tendency here is to rationalize the value of what we already have, and what was done in the past.)

The practical implication is that only rarely would outgoing office-holders find it worthwhile to impose a reduction in scope. Politically and practically, it’s virtually all downside – the risk of criticism and unpopularity, having to justify an unfamiliar idea to people – and no upside.

For Principle 2, the considerations are likewise thoroughly pragmatic. Assuming outgoing office-holders retain a measure of influence and cachet, it is difficult to run on a platform with the primary purpose of getting rid of portfolios and marquee projects. On the other hand, to appear to believe that existing systems and initiatives are good, just either limited or in need of improvement, is simply the path of least resistance3. The savvy candidate intends to streamline processes, or improve the implementation of things, or ensure greater accountability for projects and areas of concern, etc. Principle 2 succeeds because it just so happens that creating portfolios, rather than eliminating them, seems a plausible measure for achieving these goals, e.g. I’ll have a director in charge of X so that he/she can plan and coordinate and be responsible.

To sum up, the practical consequence of the stated principles is that, all things being equal, projects and portfolios tend to proliferate (but so will expectations and disaffection, if the real situation never actually changes).

In the economy of human effort and ideological investment, however, there tends to be a stable state from which it is difficult to deviate. Indeed, I would argue that a further implication is that where the state remains stable (i.e. no proliferation), the main predictor is the existence of projects and portfolios that are time- and resource-intensive enough that it becomes difficult to proliferate new ones; perhaps certain examples come to mind…


So is it really case that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Is progress an illusion? Is becoming a jaded senior inevitable?

Something else I’ve recently been examining is one USP student’s call to ‘try a little kindness’. I’ve mentioned that I wasn’t present at the Q&A, and I suspect that if I’d had been I’d more readily sympathize with this writer’s distress. The attitude she decries in the audience – destructive, self-indulgent, and nasty – is one she describes with reference to blood sport.

The writer further likens the questions, comments, and reactions from Q&A attendees to the candidates to the throwing of missiles at the candidates. Here, however, I believe she is in error. One cannot sanction the idea that just the manner in which a criticism or a question is expressed should disqualify or discredit it  – or that, conversely, being ‘nice’ in putting forward an opinion should increase its currency. That way lies destruction. Should criticizing the police for the mishandling of a case be taken as tantamount to undermining their morale and reducing their effectiveness? What about publicly ridiculing Arsene Wenger’s transfer strategy through meme-y videos?

I think the fact is that it may, but it really shouldn’t. Likewise, perhaps the tone of the Q&A was nasty and non-constructive. Still, this is something that all sorts of leaders and representatives deal with, either during campaigning or on the job. And all credit goes to them – rather than their detractors, or even their boosters – if they do well despite this AND the deliberate efforts of opponents to undermine them.

I think I speak from experience when I say I’d be enthusiastically for ‘trying a little kindness’ to your elected agents and representatives. At the same time, I’m also enthusiastically for the active exercise of the ability to question, criticize, and dissent – and I’d go so far as to say that the more active, the better.

Why? Well, this actually comes back to the nature of institutions – specifically, the problem of institutional inertia, and the cynics who understand it.


You’d be forgiven for rating me a cynic for my statement and analysis of Principles 1 and 2. I do think that they describe reality, not in the way of physical laws, but perhaps in a way closer to economic theory4. Given that the reality I’m trying to describe is social rather than natural5, deviations are possible and, indeed, expected (unless you’re a cynic).

Just take the fact that there are going to be just 6 positions in the 16th MC. If you were trying to keep count, you might have deduced that there were 11 positions in the 12th MC. Obviously, something went wrong (or right, depending on your outlook).

Philosophically, the question (of wrong or right) is of course more complicated. Concerning the social reality, how are we to agree on whether the decision to down-size (or streamline) the MC resulted in more benefit than trouble? Under the 14th MC, Ground-Up Initiatives were seen as the way to go, rather than the rote obligation for a bunch of Standing Committees and Working Committees (which were often named for their specific project or event) to organize things. On the other hand, maybe the intangible value represented by each community ‘pillar’ wasn’t something the 13th MC should have been so ready to write off.

But regardless of whether the course of official action was beneficial or detrimental, at least within the paradigm I outlined earlier, the fact that there was a deviation from the general tendency signals that there exist concerns apart from practical and political calculations, which the paradigm would otherwise have sufficed to account for.

In my estimation, the only difference between cynical political operators and genuine reformers is that, for the latter, there are stakes. Why else (aside from a martyr complex) would someone consciously attempt to push through something unpopular or troublesome (or put in the effort to spin it such that it isn’t seen that way at crunch-time), when it would be so much easier to promise the kinds of modest improvement that everyone understands?

In a similar vein, I think the difference between the truly cynical bystander and the jaded-but-sincere critic is that while, for the latter, tone is at the service of necessity, for the former, tone is invariably the most convenient value. This is the reason I resist even the suggestion of using tone as the benchmark for the value, moral or practical, of opinions. One cannot but surrender to the cynics eventually, if one must surrender to the tone police.


“No, its citizens have turned over rulership to the politicians, instead of participating in it! The people have democratic principles on their lips, but can’t spare the effort to safeguard it! The collapse of a government is the sin of its rulers and leaders. The collapse of democratic rule is the sin of every citizen!” – From Ep.53 of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, of which I am a big fan.

The truth is that there is no easier position to be in, than to be a cynic on the right side of institutional inertia. All one has to ensure is that nothing difficult is agreed on or discussed.


I began this post with a pair of epigraphs. Placed side by side, I think they speak to each other.

In a way, as well, they come from places that might be polar opposites – one from the vantage point of imminent responsibility, the other from the vantage point of imminent [haha sorry me too] obsolescence.

The first statement, about ‘[striking] the right balance between instituting change, and keeping in mind the results and considerations of administrations past’, certainly has a cynical reading; however I propose that the challenge worth attempting is appreciating, simultaneously, the reality of institutional inertia and the possible value of persevering towards something despite that. Therein lies the potential for something like progress.

As for the second statement (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’), that comes from a place closer to my own vantage point. In fact, my initial attempt at a statement of Principle 2 was gloomier than the current version.

Principle 2 (Initial Version). Even on the exceptional occasions when projects and portfolios are culled, in time they will be reintroduced, if in slightly modified form.

The forecast here is that we are doomed to continuously re-treading old ground, without even recognizing that we’re doing it. Upon further reflection, this was something I had to reject – though I still suspect it tends to be true that the easiest solutions are often the ones with precedent, and that the causality runs both ways, i.e. easy ↔ done before.

So at the end of it all, I think the question is, What’s the best we can do?

Not everyone who is involved in the life of the social community is going to be able to (or should) take up a committee post, but I think the choice to be conscientious and cognizant about the direction the community is taking is available to everyone, and that it does make a difference. Against the context of institutional inertia, I believe the active exercise of the ability to question and dissent are a positive indication of socially constructive participation, and therefore to be welcomed more than discouraged; at the same time, I agree it’s worth remembering that there’s always room to be kind.

But against the theme of ‘institutional inertia’, something important to recognize is that it’s not that institutions are inherently repressive or retrograde. It’s just that expediency militates against institutional change, and that eventually sets in everywhere (yes, even at that upstart new technology company).

Something else I believe, is that there’s nothing inherently meritorious in upsetting the equilibrium. Perhaps, even, more often than not, it might be counter-productive. So if one believes in the need for change, I think a decent place to start is in ensuring a reasonably comprehensive understanding of the situation, understanding the practical constraints on possibility, and having a thorough understanding of the nature of the change that one is trying to effect. A tall order, but perhaps the principle could be summarized as first understanding the equilibrium, before essaying to subvert it.

I think ultimately the challenge is not to overcome inertia, but to manage it towards the (social) goal: not a tug-of-war, but a controlled roll.

  1. As far as these things go – cynically, just to the extent of nomenclature… 
  2. The Community Life/Student Welfare distinction is an artefact of those considerations, with the dual-VP system having been handed over to me in the form of Community Pillars/Houses. 
  3. This is not meant as advice – if anything might inspire a residual feeling of proud tribal identification, it’s the idea that USP students can be trusted to recognize legitimate criticisms and thwart sycophants seeking a cheap in. Neither is it meant as a condemnation. 
  4. Or syntactical rules, for the linguists. Shout-out! 
  5. In the sense of ‘natural sciences’. 
Posted in Reflection

My Response to an Interesting Seniors’ Survey

My own answers to the seniors’ survey questions I wrote about. I guess another starting point for the dialogue I am imagining, would be what my own answers might be, so here they are.

A. Things that ‘supercharged’ my experience, valuable aspects of USP.

For me, one answer is peer mentorship. I think the benefits of having a willing and genuinely friendly mentor were great. Beyond just being able to point out potentially useful directions to me, and beyond connecting me to other people, the fact that the mentoring relationship was also personal meant that this exercise of reflecting on the value of past and potential experiences was something I was informally introduced to from the start. A discussion about which classes and professors she had found interesting and that I might find interesting, becomes grounded in the terms of that reflection.

Overall, I think I got a lot out of the programme. Significant sources of value for me were particular classes, as well as exchange. I accessed both through my peer mentor, and contact with other seniors who were introduced to me by the social network of seniors (of whom my peer mentor was my first contact).

Another source of value was the social connection to the student community, which started in year 1, but continued through FOP and USC MC. This was both a valuable end (forming friendships, learning things),  as well as a means for accessing value (gaining a broad knowledge about what the programme has available, how things get done in it).

Another answer for me is the writing center. I accessed this through Dr. Don, who taught my Writing & Research module, and who encouraged his students to apply. I continued to benefit from his mentorship after the class as a writing assistant as well. At the writing center I got to do something I enjoyed (think about what makes good writing, work intensively with writers), and also secretly learn all the content in all the WCTs. Eventually the writing center also yielded a research topic, which I pursued as an ISM about pragmatics and interaction, for my English Language major.

B. Disappointing aspects of USP, unfulfilled promise.

I guess the general feeling is that corporately fostered intellectualism will always tend to be shallow. Ways to foster this organically might include building social capital, which is notoriously hard to settle on a definitive reading of, as Aaron Maniam’s students will tell you; I guess my intuition is that the way seniors and profs and peers helped me access value and think about value is the key.

I felt that the ‘U’ part of USP was always neglected. Aside from USP-centricity and insularity, there will always be the option of adopting an individualistic ethos (a society-wide problem, not a USP-specific one) – of trying to ‘get the most out of’ the programme rather than mining value. I felt that living up to the ‘U’ part of USP, e.g. by actively encouraging greater involvement in university-wide groups and engagement with non-USP peers and profs in students’ respective majors, would mitigate these problems, and encourage more constructive involvement.

C. Bonus elevator pitch: If I were asked to summarize what I think USP students are like.

I think USP students are always looking for ways to have a transformative impact on the institutions around them. ‘Transformative’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘big’, but it always involves understanding how things are at a deeper level, because that’s where the best opportunities are.


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An Interesting Seniors’ Survey

A few months ago, I came up with just two questions that I thought would be useful to put to Year 4 USP students and alumni.

A. What initiatives or individuals acting in an official capacity1, supercharged2 your USP experience? Alternatively, What parts3 of USP did you find most valuable, and how did you access these things?

B. What parts4 of USP did you find most disappointing, or that you felt failed to deliver on their initial potential? Alternatively, In your mind, what would be the top candidates for promises that USP failed to deliver on?

1a: E.g. an interest group, participation in a student body, an international programme or competition, a workshop, etc.
1b: E.g. professors, admin staff, residential managers, house captain, peer mentor, NUSSU exco rep, etc.
2: ‘contributed great value to’
3: E.g. academic rigor, international opportunities, interesting projects – this will require some reflection… 
4: E.g. The curriculum? The culture? The groups? Etc.

The senior students and alumni would be asked to write a response to either or both questions, whichever they preferred.

I envisioned these questions as part of an infrastructure for reclaiming the ‘residue’, so to speak, of students’ experiences and ideological investment in the program. How this infrastructure might look like is, students are invited to submit their responses in Year 4, and their responses are added to the archive. Reaching this point becomes something a Year 1 student can look forward to, and the store of past responses can be built up as a resource for future reference, for anyone who might be interested in the question, ‘What is USP about?’

Something that past observation reveals to be true: It is sometimes difficult to articulate the value of a recent experience, especially a complex and wide-ranging experience, in the specific terms of an immediate demand. Other times, we even suspect that someone who experiences profound growth may not even be fully aware of it. I don’t think this is strictly speaking ‘the problem’, but I think finding a way to develop the conversation is probably worth doing. I think accumulating the responses our students give about their diverse experiences is one way to develop the conversation, in that although we may talk about different things we found to be valuable, the convergences might tell us something about the kind of value the programme may be good at producing, and that over time we might be able to learn how to articulate what we could not easily do before.

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Some Background to the House Charter

My prepared notes of the introduction I was asked to give about the House system and House Charter at the USC Town Hall on 9 November 2015.  

(Excuse the slightly awkward syntax; I wrote this to approximate a speaking voice.)

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Derek, and presumably the reason Tham asked me here is because I drafted the House Charter in 2013 when I was president of the 12th MC.

It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since then, so things should have changed some – and I think it’s a good thing that they’re doing this, because with more knowledge and experience, we should be able to make some improvements.


To start us off, I want to suggest the idea that tonight we’re supposed to be discussing the ‘House system’, but when we drafted the Charter the goal was never simply to make the House system better, but to make the whole USP experience better, and I think that’s the same goal that the current team has.

But, and I hope you won’t think this is a stupid question – but what’s ‘better’? What does it mean, how do we qualify it? Some ideas that tend to come to mind are having a reference point for progress. ‘Better’ has to be better than something else. Maybe tonight we want to come up with something better than in the past – and hopefully progress is not a myth.

But we often also want to think of ‘better’ as like a brand comparison. I can say that in the past, one of our hopes was to come up with something that would set the stage to make USP better than, say, Tembusu – that our residential life and our academic programme should be more ‘intellectual’ or ‘educational’ or otherwise more value-added.

And actually at the same time we were quite worried about the quality of our residential life, because back then it felt like a lot of systems were lacking. Basic things like safety kits, or who should be responsible for this or that, dining, maintenance, and all that. I think that’s one clear improvement that’s happened in the past two or three years actually, thanks to our RA team and residential life leadership, as they call themselves now.


But regarding all this – and I just realized this today, thinking about what I wanted to say – was that in retrospect, when we used to discuss houses, house system, residential life – all the problems, and trying to come up with a better solution, one of the things that we used these discussions, was to really imagine and articulate what we hoped for in terms of social life and quality of college life.

So I guess the idea I am trying to suggest here is that trying to put a system or plan in a rich context can potentially be quite powerful. When you’re discussing it, it really doesn’t feel conclusive or like it has a resolution, but maybe along the way it might lead to actions and discussions that might change some things.


Ok, so for the history part, time for some grandfather story. I matriculated in 2011. I’m currently doing my fifth year, extending because I changed major in year 2 from Econs to English Language, and because I went for one year exchange and didn’t map everything. 

In year 2 I was also in USC, the 12th MC, and towards the end of the term I drafted the charter. I remember rushing out revisions based on people’s feedback, sending the revisions out, and waking up early to get signatures from people. ‘Coz it was the last day.

But back in 2011, the RC was brand new. I was actually in the first batch to get to stay in it full-time. So before even the move to RC, USC’s 10th MC first started thinking about the idea for Houses. I took part in the O-Week run by the FOP team of the 10th MC. Some time after that the 11th MC took over. At some point there were House Captain elections.

For the first part of my first year I mainly knew my purple OG by the OG name – and actually even the following year Eugene and Wei Leong’s batch experienced this weird gap between being in an OG and suddenly being told they had a House. So some time in the later part of Sem 1, the House Captains under the 11th MC came up with the House names you currently have, together with Kevin Yap, the VP, who was the one who thought of the ‘UNITAS’ idea.

So the main point of this grandfather story is that Houses are not something from forever. I don’t know when the traditional OG colors were chosen, but I know when their names and even the idea for them happened. And before we had Houses we still had OGs and FOP.

As for the House Charter itself, before the 12th passed it on to the 13th MC, there wasn’t anything – no document or authority saying what Houses are for, what Houses are, what structure they’re supposed to have, etc. And in practical terms that doesn’t stop OGs or even Houses from basically functioning. So why draft the Charter?

Partly it was tactical. If USC wanted to keep developing things like residential life through the House system, several of us thought it would be better to be able to formally say what Houses are, for example if we need to discuss ideas with admin or make decisions as a Club.


So if you’ve read the charter, I think the two thrusts defined for Houses are quite clear, basically residential life, and integrating new students (you know like orientation). To explain a bit more about the link between Houses and residential life, the idea was that to really reach 600 people in the RC, the social networks need to be more extensive and more active. All the way from the 10th MC’s time (and in a way the 9th), this was part of the idea.

Actually this is one thing I hope you will think about, since you have the benefit of more years established here in the RC to look back on it. Is it really true?

Also from talking to Tham we realized some ideas we had last time are not as current today. For instance, back then quite a few of us had the feeling that the architecture was kind of working against us, like single rooms on corridors being very isolating. We also had all these decentralized lounges and theme rooms, compared to our seniors’ memory of a core USP space called Chatterbox from before we moved to the RC, so there was a kind of like nostalgia for that idea of community.

These might also be outdated concerns, and I think you should be a better judge than me about whether these are relevant nowadays.


Okay, final thoughts: I find that a lot of ideas being floated around now are not exactly totally new. I mean, there’s always a mix of ideas about spaces, community, making sure Houses have inter-batch bonding, clarifying things and making the point of roles and structures clear, all that.

So I believe that the only truly productive way to work from that, is to really try to put things in a rich context, to try and imagine and weigh alternatives. For instance, other than Houses, what other things do USP students find valuable? Some people really spend a lot of time in things like the QR centre, or floorball, or talking to their USP profs about projects even after they’re finished with a mod, etc.

Genuinely weighing alternative ideas means realizing that we start with assumptions as well, like what Houses are about – is there really a need to specially promote ‘bonding’? Why, and for who? Why are Houses even a good idea? And a point I made earlier as well, Houses are not from forever.

I also said earlier that drafting the charter to formalize things was kind of a ‘tactical’ move, in the sense that making Houses officially recognized under USC and run under USC, it’s the Club as an institution that takes the responsibility. This prevents potential controversy over what the basis and function of Houses are, for instance if a future MC member tries to say that Houses’ role should be this and that, we have a safeguard.

But on the other hand it also offers USC the power to do with Houses what it wants. Whether to keep it going, or to totally change its form – or totally get rid of it, if we decide it’s just not a good thing to keep doing anymore. I guess my challenge to you would be if you could think about these as real alternatives and weigh them as real alternatives as well. Not that I want to scrap houses, but it makes your reasons better. Your new charter will be an expression of your vision, your goals, your values, but it’s the reasons which might make a reader care, otherwise it’s just an irrelevant document.

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Initial thoughts on the breach of Halal-certified standards in CT Dining Hall

On Thursday, some diners at the dinner session got wind of how the roast beef served at one of the Halal-certified counters had been improperly prepared. This worrisome information was raised by a member of the dining committee1 to the Residential College leadership, who were prompt in announcing the information and asking the Office of Housing Services (OHS), which manages the dining hall and oversees its operations, to investigate.

On Saturday morning, OHS sent an email about the incident to some students (primarily Muslim students, but I hear they failed to include Muslim exchange students). It was disappointing in the lack of details given about what the circumstances of the error was. While it acknowledged that ‘the roast beef served […] was prepared in a non-Halal kitchen oven’, it failed to provide an account of why this was done and whether it was permitted.

The email goes on to say that ‘[t]he errant kitchen staff has been suspended by Chartwells’, which not only failed to clarify things, but raised further questions about whether this response was sufficient or appropriate.

In addition the email stated that arrangements had been made for the food to be served at the Halal counter to be ‘provided by a Halal-certified source from Friday, 9 October 2015, onwards’. As was discovered on Saturday morning when a diner examined the certificate at the counter, catering had been provided by Eurest Catering, a member of the Compass Group. Chartwells, however, is also one of the brands owned by Compass (in fact, Chartwells is a newer name to some of the students than Compass: up to the renewal of the dining hall contract with NUS at the start of this academic year, students had known the contractor to be Compass). That OHS permitted this arrangement, with the contractor engaging a subsidiary to make the food instead, was a point of unhappiness for some students.

To be clear, OHS did not inform the students about this arrangement with the contractor. Given that the contractor has at present clearly demonstrated that they were not fastidious about observing standards of operation, I am surprised that OHS was not stricter in demanding either an assurance or an alternative solution, on behalf of the students. This is a situation where essentially the same contractor is preparing the food as before, and where presumably no other alternative arrangement has been discussed with the students who would find this untenable.

But aside from the lack of consultation with the students who would be directly affected by the arrangement, I think the general lack of explanation and information from OHS in general has also been frustrating and damaging.

I think it is fair to say that most students, Muslim and non-Muslim, regard this as a serious breach of trust, especially in Singapore, where observance of Halal-certified standards is regarded as a basic assurance. Given the seriousness of this lapse (which I hope was at least promptly investigated), I think the expectations of what an official account should be have not been met. The apology email that was sent did not contain much in the way of explanation or information from any investigation, leaving many questions unanswered. Many of these questions would be about the operations of the kitchen, and while the contractor may choose not to be entirely forthcoming with the details, surely it is the duty of OHS, the NUS office entrusted with oversight of dining hall operations, to ensure they are held to account.

1. Which comprises students, professors who are Residential Fellows, OHS staff, and Chartwells staff

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Alternative House Naming Proposals

This list born out of a conviction that there must be a scheme that would make more sense.

  1. Crimson, Tangerine, Viridian, Indigo, Violet, Onyx.
  2. Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Phosphorous, Sulfur.

Contributions welcome!

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Posted in Vanity

Shower Thought

3 years on, I realized that if I had to sum up my committee’s vision, it would have been, ‘A community that gives a shit.’

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