Category Archives: university

Nocturnal Squirrel

When I saw this article, I immediately thought of Mago.

According to the article,  a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at lab mice that were kept awake to replicate the kind of sleep loss common in modern life, through night shifts or long hours in the office.   After several days of sleep patterns similar to night workers pulling three days of night shifts with only four to five hours sleep in 24 hours – the mice lost 25% of the brain cells in part of the brain stem.

Dear brother Mago, I remember when you did some night shift work some time ago.  So this is bad news for you …………and for me too.

This new research may finally provide a rational explanation why I have failed to win the Nobel Prize so far.  Several times in my life, I have kept those anti-social hours.  But if I do say so myself, I haven’t done too badly with the 25% loss of those brain cells or maybe I just don’t know any different.

My first bout of pulling all-nighters was when I was studying for my finals at University and I am sure many students over the years can tell the same sorry tale.   As the exams got closer, I found that I could concentrate better at night.  First of all, there were far less distractions at night than during the day.  While the sun was up, I might be tempted to leave the books and go enjoy the great outdoors.  But at night, it felt good to stay in with the books by the warmth of the table lamp.  Secondly, I told myself that I just enjoyed sitting at my table and looking out the window to see the darkening twilight and the lightening dawn.

However, I did take it to the extreme.   I took to studying after dinner at 7 pm and carrying on through the night until about 10 am the next day.  Then I would go out to do errands like grocery shopping, have my lunch and then sleep from about 1 pm to about 6pm.  Repeat cycle.  I did this for about two months.

I made it through my exams but there was a toll.  It  made me vulnerable to depression and for a long time after, I suffered from insomnia.

At the time, flushed with the confidence of youth, I thought I was being smart but I guess the sleepless mice experiment shows that I was probably getting dumber by the day.

So my advice is don’t skimp on the good night sleep.


Carolina Squirrel and the Midnight Mystery

The Conspiracy Theorists

This post is the third one in the Carolina Squirrel series (which includes Carolina Squirrel and the Holy Grail and Carolina Squirrel and the Money Pit).  Following well established Hollywood practices, this sequel is actually a prequel.  This tells the tale that started it all; when a mild mannered squirrel began his career as adventurer – mystery solving, globe trotting Carolina Squirrel………..

A long, long time ago (1994), when the internet was still young and there were no blogs or Facebook or Twitter, there were Usenet newsgroups.  As a poor, impoverished and over worked graduate student, I often had to be working in the lab late at night.  When I had some free time, I would take advantage of the free computers and connect with the world through the Usenet newsgroups.

One particular newsgroup that I visited regularly was alt.skeptics.  The prefix “alt” meant “alternative” but because of the type of people that it attracted, many jokingly called it “Anarchist, Lunatics and Terrorists”.  But in fact, alt.skeptics was a great place to meet with fellow inquisitive souls and discuss, debate or debunk strange phenomena or sightings like UFOs, raining frogs, Bigfoot etc.

One night, after midnight, I logged on and joined an on-going online discussion about a most strange case.  A real life mystery which was hot off the presses and here was an active intellectual debate going on and theories were being offered to explain the facts.  It involved a woman who had just been emitted to a hospital with a green sheen on her skin and an odour that incapacitated her healthcare workers.

Suggestions were coming in from all over.  I remember someone from New York suggested that the woman had been poisoned by pesticide sprayed by planes on orange groves.  Within minutes, someone from the Palm Oil Research Centre in Malaysia replied saying that the symptoms do not fit pesticide poisoning which he was familiar with.  And so it went on, this global investigation.  It was very exciting being in the midst of all this.  I can’t remember if I ever went back to the lab that night and so was born, my alter ego, Carolina Squirrel.

This strange occurrence and the poor unfortunate victim would eventually become known as the case of “Toxic Gloria”.   The story goes as follows.

Gloria Ramirez was a thirty year old cancer patient who apparently suffered heart failure.  She was taken by ambulance to Riverside General Hospital in California.  In the emergency room, medical personnel began to treat her.  Then strange things began to happen.  Several people noticed a green, oily sheen on her skin and some detected a fruity odour coming from her mouth.  At this stage a nurse tried to draw a blood sample with a syringe and she noted an ammonia like smell as she drew blood.  Some of the medical crew claimed that they saw yellow crystals in the blood sample.

Shortly after that, the nurse who took the blood sample, fainted.   The doctor treating Gloria and another trauma staff also fainted soon after.  At that point, they decided to evacuate the entire emergency ward, with patients being wheeled out into the parking lot.  A Hazmat team was called in and during all this confusion Gloria Ramirez passed away.

The doctor and one of the nurses continued to have problems after that including sleeping and breathing problems.  The doctor was in intensive care for two weeks and she subsequently developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees.

For conspiracy and cover-up fans, there were the additional points of interests such as the fact that the syringe with the crystals in the blood sample went missing and the authorities initially did not want to release the body and then later while claiming they found nothing strange during autopsy, still wanted to insist that the body be buried in a hermetically sealed coffin.

Eventually, the family got a second autopsy done and again nothing unusual was found.

So what did you think happened to Gloria Ramirez?

In the end, we may never know what really happened but there is one theory with an unusual explanation that has received more acceptance than most but even it is at the edge of plausibility.  If, you are curious, read about it here.

London Revisited; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I am back in Malaysia and already in the real world of work, bills and responsibilities. My break in London was a good one though and i come back well rested and recharged.

As promised, I will be posting about this adventure. To start with, I thought I would give you an introduction and a general review which I will call the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of London today compared to the London I knew 25 years ago.

The Good
There were quite a few pleasant surprises. I arrived at Heathrow Airport at a terminal that I had never been before and was pleasantly surprised at the ease and efficiency of the place. This was quite different from the chaos that I remember from 13 years ago and given the increase of security procedures since 9/11, quite impressive. It was rather a long walk to the Underground train station but then the train whisked me effortlessly through the early morning right to Piccadilly Circus. I walked out into the crisp cold morning air and into a city that was just awakening to the rhythm of a new day. It was a good start.

Just a short 200 m walk and I reached the hotel and had a great reunion with my wife who had been traveling separately for the last fortnight on work assignment. I don’t like it when we are apart so the re-union was very good.

Eros at Piccadilly Circus in the early morning (LGS)

I spent the first few days in and around Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Soho Chinatown and Covent Garden. Generally, all of these experiences were good. I was particularly impressed with Trafalgar Square. It used to be pigeon and dove infested and felt very cold and unfriendly. Visitors spent their time avoiding the stale bird droppings on the ground and on the statues and ducking the aerial bombardment with the hot and fresh variety. Well, the birds are mostly gone and the space is very people friendly now. It feels more like a space that belongs to the people and to be used by the people.

I got a similar impression about the museums and the parks. They have begun to lose their stiff institutional demeanor and become more of a place to serve the public needs. Hence there were Christmas fairs in the park and open air ice rinks outside the august Natural History Museum. London has become less stuffy and more alive. Covent Garden too has become more organic and brimming with innovation and spirit. This new London is more fun and youthful.

Trafalgar Square (LGS)
Covent Garden (LGS)
Reindeer, both artificial and real at Covent Garden (LGS)
Carnival rides (Leicester Square) (LGS)
Skating rink outside the Natural History Museum (LGS)
Outdoor Ice Rinks – grooming future Torvil and Dean’s (LGS)

The food scene has also improved tremendously but that still doesn’t mean that London is where you would go for a culinary experience. The improvement is in the fact there are more reasonably priced variety available with an increased emphasis on fresh ingredients. For example, the chain, Pret a Manger, offers exciting variety of sandwiches which are a world apart from the traditional fried foods of yesteryear.

The Bad
As time has marched on, London has also lost some of its traditional charm. The traditional fish and chips shop has become a rarity. Most have either closed down or have morphed into a more up-market establishment (meaning costlier). I finally did find one traditional chippie way out in Fulham Broadway that served it just the way I remembered it. You are more likely to find Indian food round the corner.

I had hoped that the quaint but functioning fresh produce market that I used to shop at near Fulham Broadway would still be there with its individualistic and colorful stalls scattered along a narrow lane. A form of the market can still be found but it no longer lies within the atmospheric side lane but on the pavement of the main road itself. The supermarkets also seem to stock less of fresh produce and more of ready meals.

I went to visit my alta mater and had mixed feelings seeing the old student’s residence (which was a dump) converted now to choice apartments along the swanky King’s Road in Chelsea. Good to see the fire station which was the scene of many student-firemen water fights during orientation week is still there though.

The Ugly
And finally, there was the ugly. Well, there wasn’t really a lot of that. I guess the ugliest thing was the cold, wet rainy weather that I had to had to contend with for most of my stay and which resulted in me having a bad cough. But then again, cold wet rainy and miserable weather is part of the quintessential London winter experience so one really can’t complain, can one?

Fuzzy and the Poet Scientist

It is sometimes said that scientists lack the heart of a poet and because of that they end up inventing the atomic bomb. Being cold and clinical is just that; cold and clinical. Scientists can excel in the service of mankind only if they retain their contact with humanity and possess the heart of a poet.

Well, if that is true, then I am a very well trained scientist. This is because my mentor and my very first Professor of Biochemistry was indeed a scientist and a poet. Well, more of a songwriter or perhaps a jingle maker. I refer to no less than the highly esteemed Prof. Harold Baum, previously of Chelsea College and now of King’s College, University of London.

Every Christmas, Prof. Baum undertakes to write a song which explains an entire complex biochemical pathway in the time it takes him to sit on a bus from his office to his home. This musical treat would then be premiered during the Department Christmas Dinner. As a result, he has actually published a songbook of chemical reactions called The Biochemist’s Songbook.

At any rate, the real story for this post starts here. I got an SMS text out of the blue from my good friend, Fuzzy, of whom I have posted about before. Seems he is holidaying in Egypt. Anyway, because of that SMS, I got thinking about another post in the Fuzzy series and decided to focus on Fuzzy and his poetic skills.

Fuzzy is incredibly talented as a poet. It seems to just flow effortlessly from him. When he puts his mind to it, he can really write top notch stuff. Unfortunately, being the eccentric that he is, he often puts his talent to less socially acceptable and productive uses such as writing poems or rhymes on ransom notes for kidnapped stuff toys. Yes, there was a time in our student residences when hard working students were busy kidnapping and holding stuffed toys for ransom to the tune of several Mars Bars or other equivalent snacks, instead of studying hard. Fuzzy’s humorous rhymes were often found circulating on these notes.

This was in fact the reason that Fuzzy got his name. During one such teddy bear kidnapping, the owner did not cough up the required sweet ransom but instead left a threatening note outside Fuzzy’s door which read;

Fuzzy Wuzzy stole a bear
Then Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
That meant he wasn’t Fuzzy, was he?

This was a thinly veiled threat that Fuzzy’s bushy hair might be removed while he slept if said bear was not returned. Tut. Tut. Such a violent threat and from such an otherwise sweet girl. So the name Fuzzy came from this incident.

Finally, let’s get back to the beginning of this post about Prof. Baum and his Christmas Party. Well, one of the things the students tried to do every year was to come up with a less scholastic song in reply to Prof. Baum’s newly unveiled chemical tune. Unfortunately, none of us Biochemistry undergrads were good songsmiths and so we had to make Fuzzy (who was actually a rival Immunologist) an honorary biochemist for the purpose of writing these songs. Ah, what fun we had in the rarified air of academia!

Sadly, I cannot remember most of what was written but let me end with just a short sample that I can vaguely recall. This is to be sung to the tune of Jingle Bells, of course.

Jingle Bells, Sulphide Smells,
Azides on the floor,
The Student swallowed cyanide
And he won’t work anymore

The cells they came out whole,
The glass was to powder ground,
The centrifuge took off
And hovered six feet off the ground.

Oh, jingle bells………..

If any of you thought that I was a mad scientist, you now know I had a good teacher and super accomplices.

My First!

This post is about my first, my very first ………….. stuffed toy. What did you think it was going to be about? I have quite a collection of stuffed toys and toy figurines which were all given to me by friends and loved ones. For some reason, I got a reputation of being a stuffed toy collector and the toys kept coming.

My wife is also a collector and of course, I have contributed to her collection as well. If you could see our bedroom, you will find her menagerie neatly arranged next to her side of the bed and mine in a playful jumble on my side.

My reputation for stuffed toys started with a few which came as gifts from close friends and took off from there. My very first one was very special as it was hand made by my girlfriend, Julie, at that time. Although it has seen better days and is a little tattered, it still holds a lot of sentimental value for me.

This picture which was uncovered from a current archeological dig, shows a very much younger me posing with the stuffed animal perched on my shoulder. I was a student living in University accommodation at Chelsea College, London, England. This photo is very important for two reasons. One, it shows the object of the post today and two, it is scientific proof that I was skinny once!

Anyway, if you have not already guessed, the animal on my shoulder is a penguin. No ordinary penguin, mind you! He goes by the grand name of Oliver Noona-Nanook of the North. He was dubbed “Oliver” in remembrance of a trip that Julie and I had shared on a boat named the “Cromwell”. I am sure most of you would know about Oliver Cromwell from English history. “Nanook of the North” was actually the world’s first full length documentary and was about an Inuit and his family in the Canadian artic and was filmed in 1922. It was just a way in my crazy mind to link the poor little chap to his frozen northern heritage. Finally, “Noona” was just added as it sounded like a nice accompaniment to “Nanook”. Also, my friend, Helen the Greek Goddess, told me it was a term of endearment in Greek. While she was not always the best source for reliable information, I used it anyway.

And so, Oliver Noona-Nanook of the North was christened. Needless to say, it did not take long for him to be called by the shorter pet name of “Ollie”. So he became, Ollie the penguin.

Over the years, I have also had “Cedric the Snake” (cause bureaucrats are snakes and Cedric sounds like a bureaucrat’s name)and Tubby (the cap wearing rabbit-bear thingey, on account of his pot-belly, just to name a couple.

My wife’s collection is much larger but two recent acquirements were a couple of bears dressed in the style of the Roaring Twenties which she got on special offer at Starbucks. Very imaginatively, she named the female bear, “Starr” and the male bear, “Bucks”.

What strange animals cuddle next to you in your sleep? …..And please no jokes at the expense of your spouses.

Juliet, Juliet, Wherefore Art Thou?

I am not good at keeping friends. I don’t mean that I get into arguments with them and end up lifetime enemies. No, it’s just that I keep misplacing them.

It all boils down to the fact that I am or have been very bad at keeping in touch by correspondence and soon lose touch when they move around. When I discovered Google and other search engines on the internet, I actually was successful in finding some of my missing friends.

One of them, I traced by visiting a BBS site on United Kingdom culture and folklore (the sort of thing he might be interested in) and leaving an strong insult that only he would understand and sure enough he replied after a couple of weeks to my calling card.

This particular individual I was able to trace over a period of 15 years even though he tried to ditch me by shifting at regular intervals. The last time was the hardest and I had to resort to writing a letter to a known work colleague at his previous job before I could locate him. Happily, this led to him visiting me in Malaysia about a year later.

Altogether, I have found 5 others via the internet search engines and am still in contact with 4 of them. The last one dropped off the radar in the last 5 years. However, there are a couple of people that I have failed to locate entirely and one of them is Juliet.

Juliet Wilson is a friend from my time at Chelsea College, University of London. How long ago was this? It was during the time of the Falklands War. If you didn’t even know that there was such a thing, I suggest you Google it.

Juliet was studying to be a nurse and she shared a flat with two other sweet girls which we took to call the “Bickley Sisters” on account of their closeness to one another and the name of the street where they lived. This was a place that always made visitors feel welcome.

We both served in the Christian Union committee and also grew close through that. Somehow though we seemed to hit it off and we were always able to share our problems with one another.

Juliet was to teach me one of my most profound lessons about friendship. I went through a period of severe depression brought on by my inability to cope with low self-esteem, emotional pressures from my family and my helplessness to help certain dear friends who were going through immense suffering. One day during a break in sessions , in my desperation to just get out of my darkened room and to see some sun, I just called Juliet out of the blue and asked if I could spend the weekend at her home in Winchester.

In retrospect, it was quite something that I was asking. She might have had better plans for her time than to spend it baby-sitting a morosely depressed friend who was no fun at all. Her parents were not at home that weekend which may also have been a problem as it was not her custom to entertain gentlemen in her home alone. I believe she might have had a boyfriend then who also might not have appreciated this scenario.

All I can say is thanks. Juliet, the fact that you said yes to my request without any hesitation (at least as far as I could tell), was very important to me. In fact, all the rambling conversations that weekend and even the way I panicked when I met your parents at the end of the stay, all taught me something about myself and my underlying psychological issues which was the turning point for me in battling depression. You made me realise that friendship and other worthy causes were bigger than social rules and pressures… important lesson for me.

Anyway, miserable being that I am, I have also misplaced her somewhere in this world. Hence my plaintive cry, “Juliet, Juliet…wherefore art thou?”

I am hoping she is happily married with kids and living in South Africa. If my some remarkable miracle, one of you readers knows fair Juliet, I hope you will let me know. With my good fortune of re-finding friends via Google, I am hoping Blogger will also perform, so I am not giving up hope at all.

Run Nurse Run

“Jo Bune” PhotoCredit: LGS

Like stepmothers, I think psychiatric nurses have been given unfair treatment in the media. Just as not all stepmothers are evil witches busy concocting poisoned apples while preening themselves in front of magical vanity mirrors, then equally not all psychiatric nurses are oppressive, dictatorial demons as personified by Nurse Ratched in the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. In fact, although I have no first hand experience, I believe that few psychiatric nurses behave like Nurse Ratched. Overall, psychiatric nurses are well trained, compassionate and dedicated to help some of the toughest patients there are. This post is a tribute to them and to thank them for doing a very difficult and often thankless job.

This is my friend, Jo. She is a nurse. She is one of the sweetest and kindest persons I have ever known. I don’t know if she finally became a psychiatric nurse but as a student nurse, she had to do a period of on-the-job training at the high security psychiatric ward of a local hospital.

Once, soon after she started, I noticed that she had cut her hair short. It didn’t really suit her and I asked why did she do it. “It’s funny, really” she said with her characteristically pleasant drawl. “One of the patients tried to strangle me with me own hair.” And then she laughed. I didn’t think it was that funny to be strangled by your own hair but that was Jo; she laughed these things off and they became unimportant compared to the work, the good that she was doing.

On another occassion, a few of us were invited to a friend’s apartment for dinner. When I got there, Jo and a couple of other student nurses were already there. They were seated in the living area and were laughing so hard that tears were rolling down their cheeks. Always looking for a good laugh, I sat down next to Jo and asked what was so funny.

Jo took a couple of deep breaths and dried the tears with a hankerchief before she related the tale to me. “Well, I started on the high security psychiatric ward this week on Tuesday, you see.” I nodded as I knew about that.

She continued, “We had been briefed thoroughly on safety measures and I was all pumped up, you know. Adrenaline was rushing as they opened the security doors to let me in.”

“I hadn’t taken two steps in through the door when I came face to face with this big naked bloke. He stared into my face and I was too surprised to do naught else but to stare right back. Then I heard the voice of the matron yelling, “Stop him!”

“I looked pass the man and I can see a couple of the big male nurses running towards us with the matron behind them. But before I knew it, he slipped past me, through the security doors and was out in the general hospital area.”

“I’m sure like me, you’d been rooted to the spot too, uncertain what to do. But suddenly, the matron shouted again for me to stop him and that jolted me into action. After all, if I have learnt naught else on this course, it is to snap to when the matron shouts an order.” The other student nurses nodded their heads in agreement.

“So, what did you do?” I asked, captivated by the excitement of the tale.

“Why, I ran after him. I chased him down five flight of stairs, through the cafeteria and we were running along the walkway that runs around that small central garden; the naked bloke in front, me just a few steps behind, much further back a couple of burly male nurses and the matron bringing up the rear, still shouting. What a sight for all to see.”

I was visualising it in my mind’s eye. It was quite a busy hospital and this must have been quite a commotion. “So what happened next?” I asked in anticipation.

“Well, we were really running. Belting along in that order when suddenly it hit me; what would I, what could I do if I caught up with him.”

“So what did you do?” I asked enthusiastically.

“So, I pretended that I got the cramps.” she said jubilantly and with that all three nurses broke up into hysterics once more.

As I said, it takes a special breed to do this work. Thank you, Jo and all the others working with the mentally ill. Your patience, resilience, compassion and sense of humor is much appreciated.