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.

Dungeons and Dragons (Part 2)

Having chosen or rather been given no choice but to choose a thief, I was ready to be drawn into the Dark Realms conjured up within the twisted mind of Almighty Wally, our host and Dungeon Master.

The Plot
Wally explained that our party had come across this small village at the foot of the mountains. In recent times, some ancient religious sect had taken over the abandoned castle on a nearby mountain. Since then, strange things and creatures have been seen. The villagers dare not venture out at night due to the presence of werewolves and other creatures of the night. Then last month, members of the cult met the village heads to demand 10 virgins each full moon for sacrifice to their demon God. That first sacrifice was due in two weeks time. The village leaders offer to pay us to go to the castle and defeat the cultists before then.

We, of course, agreed to do this gallant task as they were paying us a lot for a succeessful mission. But the way to the mountain castle is protected by a thick thorn hedge and patrolled by packs of werewolves and Giant trolls. We first needed to visit the labyrinth of Gath because at the centre of the labyrinth was a mural that would tell us more about the ancient castle and a map to guide us through the thorn hedges. Oooo. I listened intently to Wally. Not a bad story to give us a little semblence of sense in what would otherwise be a series of senseless encounters and fights. Before long, our merry band consisting of a Paladin, a Barbarian Warrior, a Ranger, a Cleric, a Druid, an Assasin and a Thief (squirrel jumping up and down, that’s me! that’s me!) entered the dark underground Labyrinth of Gath.

The “Staying in Character”.
Woweee. In the labyrinth, it seemed that everywhere we turned there was some beast or monster to be killed. Most of the time, the Ranger got them at a distance with her bow and arrows. Whatever got past that were soon chopped down by the Barbarians axe or the paladin’s sword. Even the Cleric (or Mage as they called him) and the Druid got the occasional beast using their magical powers or by calling on their deities for help. I was happily sneaking past all the fighting and collecting hidden treasures and artifacts. This was okay for awhile but I soon got fed up of missing the glory and excitement of the fight.

So in the first encounter after the morning tea and rest room break, I decided to live dangerously. We had entered a chamber and there was a giant Troll in it. Every one took their expected action stations. Once again I was expected to stay out of the way until the big heroes dealt with the baddie. But enough was enough, I told Wally that I chose to sneak behind it and attack with my dagger.

Jaime said, “Are you mad? You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Cause you’re a thief! You’ve got to stay in character. And what are you doing? You’re pricking away with a puny dagger, for goodness sake!”

“I may be a thief but I am a brave and fearless thief!” I replied.

Jaime appeals to the Dungeon Master to intervene. Wally decides to let me do what I want. He’s sure that I will soon learn the folly of my ways.

I have a small theoretical chance of throwing the dice where the outcome would be that I had a lucky stab at the monster and it just happened to sever the juggular and the monster keels over mortally wounded. Like a gambler at Las Vegas, I blew on the diced and willed for the right numbers to appear. Like most gamblers at Las Vegas, I lost.

The battle goes something like this;

I jump on the back of the troll and stab him with my small dagger. (Roll dice). Miss. No damage.

Troll busy fighting with Paladin. So I try to poke him with my dagger again. (Roll dice) Hit but only 1 damage point against the troll. Equivalent to a bee sting.

Troll decides to swing his club at me. (Rolls dice) Hits me with 12 hit points. Wally tells me this means that I have lost my left arm and am suffering from internal bleeding. My character may be suffering but my adrenaline is up.

Being the gallant thief, I stab away again with my dagger. (Roll dice). My blade breaks off because of the hard troll skin.

Troll swipes at me. (roll dice) Another 15 hit points. Wally tells me I am now splattered all over the cave and am definately dead. Ah well.

They thought that I had learnt my lesson about staying in character but I can be really, really stubborn about learning things. So they allow me to rejoin the group as a new character (also a thief) and I am promptly fried to a cinder while on a suicide run towards a dragon with my little pocket knife. They respawn me again and I die two more gruesome deaths before lunchtime.

Wally and Karen come to me and say, “Look, stay in character or else you’re not resurrecting after the next death.” It seems my attempts to make my thief a hero is not going down well with everyone else. They don’t think I should rise above my station. It’s also slowing down the quest as each time I die, they have to return to the village to get a new thief. Okay, now that my sense of immortality had been lost, I decided to conform and stay in character.

The Great Boredom
Before long, we had killed everything there was to kill in the labyrinth and all we needed to do was exit the labyrinth. Our party turned left, left, left. Dead end. Right, left, right. Dead end. Left, left, right. Dead end. We keep going. Before long 15 minutes of fruitless wanderings had passed. Almighty Wally speaks from heaven, “look you guys are supposed to be bloody scientists! The way out has a simple mathematical solution!”

With one voice we murmured, “Oh, a mathematical solution! Why didn’t you say so!” One hour later we were still stuck in the labyrinth. People were beginnning to yawn, read magazines and nod off. We were going nowhere.

Finally, Wally asked what did we want to do next. We said go left. Not because we knew what we were doing but because we didn’t know what else to say. Wally solemnly rolls his dice and says, “hurray! you are out at the base of the castle!’ Now, we all suspect a bit of divine Wally intervention there but we were so glad to be back in the sunshine we kept quiet.

The Climax.
By dinner time, we had reached the inner sanctum of the castle. Victory was at hand. There were a few minion guards to occupy the heroes. But my thieving eyes was on this beautiful giant crystal sitting in the arms of the bronze idol in the centre of the room. I rushed towards it, skirting the fighting (notice, I am keeping to character) and as a thief would do, I placed my sweaty hands on the crystal and lifted it up. Before Karen the Assasin can call out a warning to me, Wally rolls his dice and proclaims that white smoke begins to rise from the idol.

The cleric and the Druid rush to my side and attempt to call on their Gods to stop the billowing smoke. (Roll dice). The smoke grows in volume.

The cleric and the Druid try throwing holy water on the idol. (Roll dice). Smoke turns black. Team memnbers are blaming me for picking up the crystal. I say, I am a thief, what do you expect! They say, they would expect me to check for traps before picking up the crystal. “Oh” I say.

The Druid takes out some scrolls and begin chanting but the black smoke gets worse and sparks appear.

Then I had an inspirational thought! I told Wally, “I smash the crystal to pieces on the floor.” Wally looks pale as he rolls his dice. He turns paler when he sees the result.

“Um. There is a big explosion, an earthquake, volcanic eruption. The castle collapses. All of you have to do saving rolls to see if you survive.”

The team is not happy with me cause half of them are dead and the other half gravely injured. I am dead for the fourth time. They drag their sorry, battered bodies back down the mountain to the village only to find that the villagers have lost everything in the earthquake and eruption and they were attacked by angry mobs.

Everyone was stunned.

The aftermath.
It was almost midnight when Karen and I walked to the bus stop. We had left the place like every one else a little shocked and subdued by the game outcome. We sat at the cold bus stop for a few minutes before Karen turned to me and said,”You know, that almost never happens.” I nod solemnly.

She added, “I wish it happens a bit more frequently. It was so funny.” The bus came and the driver found us laughing hysterically. Karen, Wally, Jaime and I remained friends but I was never ever invited to another campaign. Jaime never got over the fact that his Paladin was lynched by the village mob!

Dungeons and Dragons (Part 1)

This is the story of my experience, while I was at University, with the strange gaming world of Dungeons and Dragons.
The Initiation
The world of Dungeon and Dragons is a strange and secretive one. I was always interested in it and made my interest known but I got no response from my colleagues other than some vague mumbling about how they had read about it somewhere. Yet every Monday, I saw sleepy, bloodshot eyes all around – evidence that each weekend, there was a secret gathering with long, wild, serious D & D marathons going on.
For weeks, I felt left out. Then one winter day, Karen asked me what I was doing for the weekend. I said “Nothing much – feeding squirrels.”
“How would you like to see some real action?” she asked teasingly. Of course, I was ecstatic. “Meet me outside the labs at 9.00 am Saturday. Come alone and don’t be late!”
I was there early and had to wait for her. Eventually, Karen appeared out of the blowing snow and led me into the white landscape. We took some creative short cuts through some hedges and fences and we walked along some streets for a good fifteen minutes. I realised that we had been going round the same cul-de -sac for the last five minutes and it was a familiar cul-de-sac too.
“Karen, are we headed for Wally’s pad? I ask only cause we’ve gone round it four times.”
“Shhh!” and she pushes me up the driveway and to Wally’s front door. “Had to make sure we were not followed” she offered.
She tapped the door three times, paused and then tapped twice. Wally, opened the door and ushered us in without a word. Only when we were inside did they both relax. “Sorry about the cloak and dagger but not every one’s significant other or supervisor knows where we are today and we want to keep it that way!”
I was led into the den and there assembled were six other comrade at arms waiting and eager for the coming adventure into the Dark Realms.
The Rules
I enthusiastically asked lots of questions but nobody really wanted to waste time helping the novice out. So the rules were simplified and summarised for me. Chose a character. Play the character. When the character does something, I get to roll the dice which determines the outcome of the action. Everything else was under the control of the Almighty Wally our host and Dungeon Master.
The Pecking Order
The wonderful thing about D & D is that you get to chose from a variety of characters. For example, you could be a wizard, not unlike Gandalf. Or perhaps a super-righteous defender of all that is good, a Paladin. Even a Ranger with special abilities like talking to animals seemed like a cool character. Or perhaps a cleric, skilled with knowledge of the supernatural.
“Why can’t I be the Paladin?” I asked.
“Andy is the Paladin.” Karen replies.
“How come he gets to be the Paladin?”
“He brought the beer.”
“Jaime. He brought the chips.”
“Ranger? Wizard? Elf?”
“Taken, taken, taken.”
“What’s left?”
“You can be a thief.”
Beggars can’t be choosers. “Okay!” I said cheerfully. “I’ll be the best thief there ever was. Let the games begin.”
(end of part 1. To be continued……)

A "Cloak and Dapper" Tale

I had to sit for an English proficiency exam before going to the UK to study. This was way back when I could still do something dumb and get away with saying, “So what did you expect! I’m just an irresponsible teenager!” Ah, the good old days with a built in excuse! Oh, how I miss them. Ah, but I digress as usual.

My command of English was fairly good so I was not very worried about this exam but as I sat through the preliminary briefing I was feeling a little intimidated that the examiner kept making the point that we would be tested on our ability to listen to and comprehend a native English-speaker. As he mentioned it for the umpteenth time, I could feel a knot in my stomach and my stomach is never wrong. Nevertheless, the initial section of essays and questions went well.

Finally we got to section B. In this section, the exam candidates had to listen to a 15 minute recording of a lecture and then answer questions about what we had heard. At first it sounded like gibberish. Perhaps it was the wrong tape or the tape player was going at the wrong speed. It seemed unintelligible. Then the horrific truth began to dawn. The native English speaker we were listening to had an incredibly broad and rich Scottish accent. Whatever it was, it was not the Queen’s English. I got through but I learnt then that there were many forms of English.

Eventually I ended up at the University of London in Chelsea College. It was a good place to study ….. friendly and very accommodating to foreign students; we really felt quite at home, one of the lads. I learnt a lot during my time there.

One thing I learnt was that the English had many euphemisms for the toilet. When I first arrived, I found that airports and other transportation hubs preferred to call it the WC which is short for water closet. The common folk may refer to it as the loo, the lav, the john (some say it was named in honor of the not-so-popular King John from the legends of Robin Hood) or the privy (presumably a place of privacy to do the deed). As you rise in society, you may encounter the “throne room” which implies a certain level of decorum that really doesn’t exist. Polite society may call it the “gents” or the restroom. I became familiar with all of these but there was one more term that I would become exposed to, only in my final year at University.

It began with the students given the responsibility to plan the Christmas dinner and dance for the Department. Everyone was given different responsibilities and I ended up being in the group in charge of physical arrangements. We were having the party at the cafeteria of one of the smaller buildings. My team had to clean the place and put up the decorations. We spent a good part of the day doing it.

At about 4 in the afternoon, our faculty Dean came by to wish us luck with our preparations. He enthused as we showed him around our decorations and arrangements for the hall. He complimented our work and he stressed that the evening was very important as he had invited the Dean of the prestigious college X (name is changed to protect me from hate mail) and his wife for the party and he wanted to make a good impression. We assured him that we would be on our best behaviour to make him proud. He was about to leave when suddenly, he asked us “Where is the room for the coats and cloaks?” As it happened, all six of us on physical detail were all foreign students and had totally overlooked the fact that it being winter, the guests would arrive with coats and cloaks and would need to deposit said items in a secure location before joining the party.

The Dean repeated, “You’ll have to have a room to put the coats and cloaks.” We considered the dilemma for a moment. The truth was there were no rooms available for that use. After some discussion, we told the Dean that the best thing we could do was to get a couple of large tables, place them in a small enclosed alcove near the entrance. The coats and cloaks could be placed neatly there and we would place the registration table in front of that basically securing the area. As the registration table would be manned at all times, the coats and cloaks would be safe. Satisfied with this arrangement, the Dean bid us good fortune and left us to our final preparations.

The party was supposed to start at 7.30 pm. By 7.OO everything looked wonderful and the food which was being brought in by our colleagues on the food and beverage committee smelt delicious. At this point, the place was still fairly empty as it was still early. As fortune would have it, the first two selected by ballot to man the registration table was myself and my good friend Hardeep Singh, both of us non-native English speakers!

Around 7.15 pm, a handful of people had started to drift in. After registering with us, we took their coats and cloaks, placed those on the table behind us and they were free to enter the hall for music and food. Hardeep and I were in a jolly mood as we had already imbibed on some of the good beer available.

Through the glass doors, we could see our Dean with his VIP guests. They were walking about at the front of the building. He was probably taking them around for a little tour. Before long though, the visiting Dean’s wife left her husband and our Dean, who were talking animatedly about some plaque on the wall, and started through the glass doors, right towards our table.

I was intimidated by the sight of her and I think so was Hardeep. She walked with a certain posture and grace which coupled with her elegant evening gown alerted us both that we were about to be in the presence of breeding and aristocracy; something neither of us had any experience of before this. We both stood up in anticipation.

She glided across the floor to our table and in the very purest of blue-blood accents asked, “Do you have a cloakroom?” We were probably standing there with our mouths gaping, blinded by her glittering diamonds and awestruck by the her fur coat draped around her shoulders. She repeated, “Can you show me to the ladies cloakroom?”

Hardeep, bless him, recovered first and managed to blurt out, “I’m sorry madam but we have no ladies cloakroom.”

At that, she seemed to recoil physically but she persisted, “No. You don’t understand. You must have a ladies cloakroom.”

Hardeep was on a roll. “No, madam. You don’t understand. We forgot all about a ladies cloakroom. But do not worry. Please just deposit it on this table and I guarantee that my partner and I will watch over it …..all night!”

At this stage, my ladyship’s face had turned from red to green and finally pale. I had listened to this exchange in silence but now my brain had finally caught up with real life time. Without a word, I gently took the almost catatonic woman by the elbow and led her down the corridor to the “ladies” and slowly and deliberately said, “The Ladies’ Cloakroom, madam.”

She entered the room in silence but with relief written all over her face. I was grinning from ear to ear as I sauntered back to Hardeep who looked at me inquisitively as he still was unclear about what had just happened.

“Hardeep,” I said, “She needed to go to the ladies and you asked her to deposit it on the table.”

“And we’d watch over it all night” he continued. Then we both burst out laughing and we laughed until we cried tears.

Moral of the story:- Don’t trust your VIP guests to non-native English speakers.