Mad Cows and Angry Chickens

on Thursday, May 31, 2007

When you think of a farm, do you picture rolling hills with cattle grazing freely or do you see a place where the cattle are locked and immobilized in cubicles and force fed grain and feed made from left over parts of other cattle? The farm of James Herriot's books or the mechanical farm similar to The Matrix.

Photo by itsgriff
Photo by aimhmga

Desmond Morris wrote a book in 1989 entitled, "The Animal Contract". In this book, he examines the evolution of farming. He holds that when men domesticated animals, the arrangement was one of mutual benefit. The farmer for much of human history took great care of his animals, providing them with food, care, shelter and a good life. Even though, the animals were being raised as food and destined for the dinner table, he argues that they were given a quality of life they would not otherwise have enjoyed in the wild. This give and take arrangement is the basis of the social contract between animals and farmers

I know that there are many vegans who feel we should not be farming any animals at all and that all farming is exploitation. However, I believe though that from the moment we are born, we have an impact on the world around us and it is a give and take relation. To live we need to consume resources which we do at the expense of other creatures and sometimes at the expense of fellow man. Every need, every action we take impacts on our world. We all consume water, breathe air, excrete waste, wear clothes, live in houses, travel in vehicles etc. All of these impact the world and is carried out at some expense to our fellow creatures.

Our task and our challenge is to reduce the impact of such actions so as to reach an acceptable equillibrium. In the case, of traditional farming, the equillibrium or the trade off was food in exchange of a better quality (and in some cases, longer life span) than the animal might expect living in the wild. Unfortunately, the quaint traditional farms of yesteryear have been increasingly replaced by large corporate farms which follow the mantra of optimising food and biomass production per square meter. They are definately more productive but their methods are a hazard to both man and beast.

These factory farming methods has led to widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones in agriculture which are definately deleterious to our health. Mad cow disease and avian flu are greater threats because of this high intensity farming. The impact on animals has been frightful. Animals like cows and chickens are crowded together, often immobilised for their entire life. Such animals develop behavioral problems not unlike having a nervous breakdown. This has resulted in animals injuring themselves or others. To counter this, factory farms resort to mutilation of the animals through actions such as cutting off beaks. The animals are often force fed as well. Clearly the animals are not enjoying a better quality of life. Rather they are sentenced to solitary confinement in inhumanely close quarters awaiting execution. Desmond Morris would definately agree that we have breeched our social contract with farm animals.

I like the convenience of fast food joints but I feel we need to tell these food manufacturers that we want food from ethically managed farms where animals are treated with dignity and given a quality life. We need to say no to the nightmarish torture dungeons that farms have become today.

Many native cultures give thanksgiving either to God or to the spirits of the animals that were about to be sacrificed for food for their people. Perhaps we should try that the next time we order a Big Mac. Perhaps we should add our voices to those fighting for a more ethical approach to animal treatment in factory farms.

Please have a look at this flash animation which warns us further of the consequences of our inaction. You should see this if 1) you want to learn more and 2) if you share by wacky sense of humor.

Squirrel's Secret Spot No: 5b (Bogor Botanic Gardens)

on Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Presidential Palace

Water lilies

More Water Lilies

Last month I posted on Bogor Botanic Gardens in Bogor, Indonesia. In that instalment, the first of three, I focused on the Gardens and some of the main botanical exhibits. This second instalment will focus on the Summer Presidential Palace which is adjacent to the Botanic Gardens.

This Palace is still used to house visiting heads of state. At one point, all that separates the public from the palace grounds is the Botanic Gardens Lily Pond. This structure is a legacy from the Dutch rule of Indonesia and in part of the Gardens is a small graveyard for these early Dutch adventurers and colonialists.

The rest of the expansive palace grounds are fenced but the fence functions to keep the large herd (600) of white spotted miniature Deer in as much as to keep intruders out. These deer are descendents of deer brought in from India and are a major attraction for visitors to the Gardens.

Dutch Graveyard in Bogor Botanic Gardens

Miniature White Spotted Deer

Squirrel Seal

I tried to post on the Bogor Botanical Gardens tonight. But for some reason, Blogger was not allowing me to load my photos. And for some bizarre reason, it allowed me to upload this.

Until Blogger behaves, this is my substitute post. A little "seal" which I developed at

And the winner is.......

on Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's true. After years of humiliating rejection for serious scientific work, LGS was finally awarded the Nobel Prize for Partying and this was acheived by winning a little competition. He was nominated for and awarded the prize by Stock City Girl. She is Swedish and lives just round the corner from the Nobel Museum, so you know this is as authentic as it gets (also I was not required to pay any money so that proves it is not a scam). With tears in his eyes, the Awardee said,"If I had only known it could be won so easily, I would not have studied that hard at University. Thank you Stock City Girl for believing in me."

This just in:- This reporter has learnt that LGS has also been awarded the "Balls Award" by nancycle on 22nd of May. The selection process for the "Balls Award" is very different in that it is more of a people's choice award rather than undergoing the stringent selection process of the elite Nobel Committees. The Awardee said, "It was harder to win this award than the Nobel Prize as it involved doing a short thesis on song lyric interpretations. It was like sitting for an exam and it was not multiple, I mean choice!" He added, "I am honored to have been awarded this by nancycle cause she deserves the female equivalent of this award.......and I have no idea what that award would be called!"

When asked about his future plans, he replied, "Awards are fine but you still have to eat. So I'll still be collecting nuts tomorrow."

No Pictures

on Friday, May 25, 2007

I still remember the two blue buildings sitting on a small hill. They were my Uncle's company's holiday bungalows and my cousins and I would spend many childhood holidays here. They were called bungalows but really they were both small wooden structures on stilts, built like a village or kampong house. Each building had two bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a common hall and a kitchen. For safety and practical reasons, the bathrooms and the kitchen were not on stilts and had a cement floor.

On the side of the right building was a swing and sitting there in the cool of the evening was a popular activity. As the buildings were literally on the top of the small rise, sitting on the swing was like being king of the hill. In front of us, our kingdom extended some 300 m as the land sloped away. This was a great place for kids to be kids and let their imaginations run wild. The land was undulating and was primarily full of tall, swaying coconut palms. There were also patches of long grasses and here and there tiny pools of water when it had been raining. This was our playground, our jungle, our battlefields and our undiscovered lands.

Beyond that, was the coastal road and beyond that, beautiful soft sand and clear, warm waters of the Straits of Malacca. Behind us was a fisherman's village practicing an authentic rural lifestyle. It was like a world apart for city kids like me.

The beach was unspoilt and the sea great, complete with a small island just offshore that you could walk to at low tide. A great place to build sandcastles, to laze under the shade of coconut palms, to collect shells or to organise hermit crab fights. All around was serenity when you wanted it, nature to investigate and to be enthralled by and adventures to be savoured.

It was here that I learned how the fishermen would catch worms by spitting chewed bread on the sand near the waterline or dig for them in the mud near the mangroves. It was here that I learned to fish, learned how to build traps for crabs and had hysterical fun shrimping at night. It was here that I first fell in love with kayaking. It was here, I learned to love nature.

I had to leave this wonderland behind when I went away to do my studies and then I was distracted when I first started to work. When I finally had time to revisit it, I found that so much had changed and so much had been lost to time and progress.

The waters there today are so polluted that people risk infected sores if they swim in the sea with any wounds or scratches. The crabs, shrimp and fish are all gone too. The beach is littered with plastics and briken glass. The coconut trees have given way to buildings, roads and car-parks.

The two bungalows have also gone as has the village behind them, replaced now with high rise condominiums and holiday units. I don't see kids playing on the beach and there are no more fields to stir their imaginations. Instead, every one now comes and swim in the swimming pool which overlooks the now almost lifeless sea.

I have no photos to post tonight because the place that I remember and which brought me so much joy in my youth no longer exists and like many places in Malaysia, unfortunately, my memories lie buried under concrete and asphalt.

Rediscovering Christina's World

on Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

I do very well in quizzes and in games like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and Trivial Pursuit. That's because I have a lot of general, trivial and useless information in my head. I am trying to say that I have quite a good general knowledge. However, there are two categories where I am weak in and are my archilles' heel in such general knowledge quizzes. These two areas are "current politics" and "art".

I generally have a loathing of politicians so someone has to be extraordinarily good or unfortunately, extraordinarily bad for me to register him/her in my mind. Hence, I don't know the names of most current politicians.

With art, I do know a bit but that's been what I've picked up for myself over the years on rare exposure to treasure houses of arts like the British Museum or the Kuntahistorische in Vienna. In the famous words of a celebrity from American Idol; "I've had no formal training." Nevertheless, I know some of the famous names and understand the difference between impressionism and surrealism. (Although I still don't understand the difference between some Modern Art and an accident).

So, I think we have established that when it comes to art, I don't know much. However, I know what I like. I like Monet, Renoir, Klimt, and Dali. I also know that I don't share the fascination most of the world has over Mona Lisa's smile.

There was one painting that I remembered seeing and I can't remember where or when but whenever my mind turns to art, I see it in my mind's eye. Somehow this picture made an impression on my soul. The frustrating thing was I knew nothing about this picture. So yesterday, I went and got the help of an expert, Josie. I told her about the key elements of the painting and presto, hole in one, she got the right one on the first try.

So, I finally know that this painting that haunts me is called "Christina's World" and is by Andrew Wyeth. It seems Mr. Wyeth is a famous painter and this painting is considered one of the icons of modern American painting. I did not know all this before. I did a lot of researching and I found out all the following wonderful facts (although I suspect it may be old news for many readers).

This was Mr. Wyeth's first commercially successful painting and sold for just USD 1,800. It was painted in 1948. The girl in the painting was a neighbour and a friend of his wife. Her name is Christina Olson (born May 3, 1893 and died January 27, 1968). I have often wondered about the unique composition of the painting with the twisted torso of the woman and the deliberate emphasis of distance to the houses. I have also wondered at the frail limbs and since the face is not seen in the painting, whether it was a girl or a woman and whether she was smiling, crying or distressed. I guess I like this picture cause it made me wonder what the story was all about.

It seems that Christina was suffering from some progressive muscular degenerative disease. A precise diagnosis was never made and it could have been a number of inheritable degenerative diseases or polio which was very common then. At the time of the painting, Christina was in her 50's. She had almost no strength in her legs but refused to use a wheelchair and prefered to crawl all over the house and farm. She was by all accounts a very capable woman who did her utmost to not allow her disability hinder her from a full and as normal a life as possible.

When Andrew Wyeth painted this painting, Christina was actually making her way down the hill to visit her parent's grave. The farm, barn and house is still there today and can be seen if you visit Cushing, Maine.

The other interesting thing is that this painting was done using the Tempera method in which pigments were mixed with egg contents to create a better binding agent.

Well, I don't know how many years the un-named painting haunted me and had me wondering. I am so glad to be finally formally introduced to it and the story of the painting and its subject does not disappoint.

Rambo - American Hero / Malaysian Fruit

on Monday, May 21, 2007

We all remember that lovable killing machine played by Sylvester Stallone which graced our silver screens in the 1980's, don't we? I refer of course to Rambo. This character almost but not quite won the war in Afghanistan and Vietnam singlehandedly. Too bad that America had only one Rambo cause surely if there were at least two of them, then the U.S. Army would be truly unstoppable. Canadians have reason to fear Rambo too. In the first movie, "First Blood", Rambo shoots up the entire town of Hope, British Columbia (the town was standing in for an American town in Washington State). It had something to do with the fact that Canadian towns were cheaper to destroy.

Of course, all this patriotic flag-waving, muscle flexing and bad guy bashing had a great influence on young adolescent males all over the world. Many even adopted the name Rambo to identify with their hero. Most of these were strangely 100 pound weaklings. In Malaysia though some combinations of Western names and Eastern names make poor or unfortunate matches.

Imagine a young underweight weakling trying to impress pretty girl. He says, "My name is Rambo....". So far so good. Then he continues, "Rambo Tan". And the girl is rolling on the floor in hysterics.

Tan is a common family name but Rambo Tan sounds unfortunately like "Rambutan". Rambutan does not conjure up the image of a "you don't want to mess with me" macho hero in Malaysia. Rather it is the name of a popular hairy fruit.

Yup, hairy fruit! I kid you not. Look at photos for proof. The rambutan fruit is the size of a chicken egg and has a hairy, fleshy skin which may be red or yellow in color. Peel off the skin to reveal a white fleshy fruit with a woody seed in the centre. The white flesh is best described as being translucent and similar to a firmer and sweeter lychee flesh. It is a very sweet and refreshing fruit. Unfortunately, it does not ship well and very often if it makes it to overseas supermarkets, the fruit looks black and dishevelled. The fruit grows in large bunches on a large tree about 30 feet tall.

There is one further unfortunate association with the name "rambutan". There used to be one main mental asylum in Malaysia and it was in a place called Tanjung Rambutan. The name was therefore synonymous with going nuts.

So Rambo just doesn't cut it as a macho name in Malaysia. Rambo Tan is even worse. You'd either be a fruit or a nutcase!

All photos by LGS

Famous Blue Raincoat - Analyzed to Shreds

on Sunday, May 20, 2007

I was challenged by nancycle to explain what I meant when I referred to Leonard Cohen's lyrics as "being able to carry messages at several different levels". I will probably regret this severely when I consider the knowledge and caliber of some of my readers. Still part of blogging is the exchange of ideas and I am sure I'll learn a lot from the dissenting comments.

Okay, my previous post was on "Villanelle for our time". The lyrics was not by Cohen; only the music. So in order to explain my statement, I am making use of another popular Leonard Cohen song which is "Famous Blue Raincoat".

Squirrel Nitpicker (the critic) says:

This song/poem is in the form of a letter. When I read the lyrics, I am first struck by the background detail that paints an atmosphere and a mood. It is not just trivial information. It is cold, at the end of December and it is very early in the morning. It's 4 o'clock to be specific. Why would someone be up at that time of the night? Probably the letter writer is depressed, unsettled, melancholic (with music from Clinton Street) and lonely?

On the surface, it is a cordial letter. The purpose of the letter is to ask if "you" are better. We are not told what is wrong with "you". But, I surmise, that this and the concern about how "you" is living in second stanza, are just the smokescreens of the writer.

If we look to the next level, I believe the writer is actually troubled by a pivotal incident which is Jane coming by "with a lock of your hair". We now realise that Jane, "You" and writer are somehow intimately related and yet seem to be separated. Jane came by but after what must have been sometime...going back all the way to the night that "You" went away. Yet Jane also spends the night at writer's as if it was natural.

Now clearly there is some history and some hurt that has occurred between writer and "you". If it was myself penning the words, it would have resulted in a very two dimensional descriptive of my feelings with regards to this hurt. Leonard Cohen, instead, is able to give us insights to all three characters and how the incident has affected all of them.

And what is it that we learnt? This letter tells of a love triangle. Possibly the writer and Jane are or were married ("you treated my woman") but "you" could be writer's brother ("my brother, my killer") or a very close friend. What amazes me is that we learn so much about all three characters and it is done in such a natural an uncontrived manner.

Jane's relationship with writer was obviously set back or damaged by some level of infidelity when she runs off for a short time with "you". She liked the excitement of "you" in contrast to the dull, conservativeness and passiveness of writer. She needed more than what writer could supply and despite her short liaison with "you", "you" was able to "take the trouble from her eyes".

"You" is a free spirit. Seeking an ideal woman ("Lili Marlene")which doesn't exist, he is unable to be in long term relationships. Yet, "you" being the idealist is more an expert of the heart than writer and is more passionate.

Writer is the saddest but most complex of all. He hated "You" for what he did but now that time has passed, he realises that "You" was able to give fulfillment to Jane in a way that he was impotent to do. His anger has disappeared ("enemy is sleeping") and is replaced by resignation and an acknowledgement that it would actually be better for "You" and Jane to be together.

Well, that's my understanding of this song and is multilayered because it covered three characters not one and the surface words are often contradicting the underlying intent and finally the story may be about betraytal but the message is about self-effacing love.

As a footnote to this, I actually am most familiar with the version sung by Jennifer Warnes. In this version, just a few choice words were changed. These are shown alongside the lyrics below in yellow. By just these few changes, the story changes to that of an estranged couple. The writer is the mother who seeks reconciliation. She recognises that their daughter, Jane, loves and needs her father and hopes her estranged husband realises that his ideal life or whatever he was seeking for is just a mirage. The writer invites him home.

It's four in the morning, the end of December
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.

I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert
You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?

Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
You'd been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without Lili Marlene (But she never turned up I mean Lili Marlene)

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life (And you treated some woman....)
And when she came back she was nobody's wife.

Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
Well I see Jane's awake --

She sends her regards.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I'm glad you stood in my way.

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free. (...and your woman is free)

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear

Sincerely, L. Cohen
(Sincerely, a friend)

Uncovered Nuts from 22nd October 2006

on Thursday, May 17, 2007

When I first began to post, I wondered if there was life out there cause I got no visitors or comments. However, I think some of these posts were worthy of a second look. So from time to time, I will re-post one of these old buried treasures. I hope you will receive them with the same joy a squirrel has when in spring, he uncovers a nut he had buried last autumn........

LGS's Cultural Tour 1 : Leonard Cohen's "Villanelle for Our Time"

Squirrels dance and make noises all the time. On those tissue-thin credentials, the Lone Grey Squirrel bases his right to give a tour of the cultural world and to throw in his views and comments. Critics nit-pick while squirrels nut-pick. Close enough.

Today, I am in a funk (funk n. a state of severe depression). I really cannot tell you if that I am in this funk because I have been listening to my new CD, "Dear Heather" by Leonard Cohen or that I was already in the funk which is why I went to buy a Leonard Cohen CD. Anyway, I have decided that a good funk and a Leonard Cohen CD were made for each other.

I generally enjoy Canadian artists. I find most of them refreshingly uncompromising about not selling out their art to commercialisation, at least that is the impression I get. I have enjoyed the "angry" young women like Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavine. I have actually seen the former in a street concert in Ottawa just before she became an international star. I have enjoyed the social crusaders like Bruce Cockburn as well as the fun-loving but strange bands like Crash Test Dummies and Barenaked Ladies (the latter, I was disappointed to learn is an all male group). There are many more and I will revisit them again.

For me though, two giants stand out because of their soul-baring lyrics. When you hear them, you feel as they have given you the most intimate of glimpses into their inner sanctum. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen was born and bred in Montreal. The singer, songwriter, poet and novelist is now in his seventies but has been one of the most influential song writers of the 20th century.

The lyrics of his songs are often emotionally as well as lyrically complex and seem to carry a message at several different levels. Many of the songs deal with the mysteries and complications of women and relationships. Some seem to be almost too painfully real and very potent in their ability to provoke an emotive response.

"Villanelle for Our Time" is a song that seems to appeal for all of us to search ourselves in the hopes that we begin to understand that people are more important than our differences whether they are petty or imagined to be big and is also more important than transient, personal gains. Truly a meassage for a fragmenting world, driven by unbridled capitalism. Enjoy the lyrics below, go out and get your own copy so that you can feel the impact of his complementarily, evocative music. Finally, join me in a long good funk.

words by Frank Scott (1899-1985)
music by Leonard Cohen

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.

This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.

We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.

The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.

Not Steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.

Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Senators on Ice

on Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mike Fisher scores for Ottawa Senators, a short-handed goal
against the Buffalo Sabres in a Stanley Cup Semi-final Playoff game (2007)

As far as sports go, there are two games which I would not dare to play for fear of loss of life and limb or at least a few teeth. These are rugby and ice hockey. Yet strangely enough, these are the two sports that I watch and follow with a passion. If the New Zealand All-Blacks lost a finals or a series or if Team Canada failed to secure the ice hockey world championship, I'd just feel that something was not right in the world. Maybe even the sun won't rise the next day.

This is strange cause in my part of the world and really in most of the world, soccer rules supreme. However, having watched ice hockey when I was in Canada, I couldn't help notice that soccer seemed to be played in slow motion. It was like watching 22 snails on a large playing field. Why do I like these two violent, full contact sports?

The truth is these games are played with more passion and sense of fairplay than most non-contact games. Soccer is riddled with shameful acts like Maradonna's Hand of God incident. I used to play basketball and believe me its a dirty game of elbowing and tripping. The most contact for a non-contact sport. Also strangely inspite of the mayhem on the playing field (fights are regular in both ice hockey and rugby), the fans are generally well behaved.

This is in contrast to sedate games like cricket where fans fight, umpires are beaten up and even coaches are murdered. Soccer too is full of violent fan related incidents. So maybe part of the appeal of watching rugby or ice hockey is that I feel very safe in the stands while watching my team work out my aggressions for me on the field or ice rink.

I did not grow up with ice hockey, so what made me pick up the fever. I have to say the combination of speed, agility and precision passing and shooting. When it all comes together it is like a well choreographed dance. And what an adrenaline high to watch a game in multiple overtime and playing sudden death.

When I was studying in Ottawa, the Senators were only just re-formed. I was so excited but then later disappointed when almost all the tickets were snapped up for the whole season. At any rate, it was a bit too costly for my student budget. However, the newly formed Senators were pretty much the whipping boys in those days so I didn't miss much. The teams that were doing well included the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers. I was there when the great one moved to California. A day of national mourning in Canada. The names I remember were names like Fleury, Messier, and the notorious Lindros.

Today, the Senators are 3 games up in the best of 7 semifinals against the Buffalo Sabres. The Senators are on the ice and heading for the Stanley Cup. Go Sens Go!!!!

Two years ago, I was in Denver for just a couple of nights but I was thrilled that I managed to get tickets for the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers game. This was my one and only live NHL game. I went with a friend who had never been to a hockey game before either. Our tickets turned out to be as far up in the rafters as possible. I'm told they are called the nose-bleed seats because of the high altitude!

I went dressed for the occasion in an All-Blacks Rugby T-shirt just to confuse everyone. To my surprise, a guy just two seats away was also wearing the exact same T-shirt. What are the odds of two nutters wearing a rugby shirt to an ice hockey game? We were pleasantly surprised.

It was a great experience even though I was supporting the Oilers who eventually lost 5-3. I am now plotting for an opportunity to go to an international rugby game wearing the Ottawa Senators T-shirt!
(all photos except the first one are by LGS in Denver 2005)

A "Cloak and Dapper" Tale

on Monday, May 14, 2007

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.

"Almost" Love Hurts Most

on Friday, May 11, 2007

I was seeking inspiration by visiting my blogging friends. I noticed that a few of them were posting or had recently posted about TV programs. This is a topic that I have actually never posted on before except incidentally when I posted about the M*A*S*H song and when I posted about scenes that make me cry. I was still moseying along when I came across Proxima posting about the works of Joss Whedon and especially about the TV series he created called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Well, I got really excited cause I share the opinion that Joss Whedon is a genius writer. One critic once said that the quickest way to create a TV flop was to put the words "Buffy" and "Vampire Slayer" together and yet Whedon made it into an international hit which ran for 7 seasons and with a huge cult following around the world. I could go on for a very long time on this topic but have avoided doing so because I feel I need to spend sometime in research to do this topic justice. For that reason, I am not making this a post about Whedon or Buffy either.

After reading Proxima's post, I got a little nostalgic for the series. One of the many themes of the series was the issue of unrequited love. Charles Schultz (creator of Peanuts) once said there is no comedy in being happy and made unrequited love one of the things that will plague many of his adorable characters. Hence, Charlie Brown's agonising relationship with the little red haired girl. While at the meantime, Charles is oblivious to Peppermint Patty's and Marcie's affections. And will Schroeder ever reward Lucy's devotion?

I add to Mr. Schultz's observation and note that there is no drama in being happy. Drama finds its voice in challenge and in pain. Once again, unrequited love or sometimes the tragedy of "almost" love can be powerful elements of a story.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our heroine is a young teenage girl with supernatural powers to fight vampires. Yet in the end, one of the strongest friend and ally to her is a vampire, Spike. This journey from mortal enemies to reluctant allies to friends to almost lovers was developed masterfully over six seasons. Sometimes your enemies know you better than your friends but as they learn to know you might they also grow to love you? That was one wonderful thread of the story. Their's was both a case of unrequited love and later a case of "almost" love.

Below is a video tribute by a fan using clippings from the TV series. It begins with the last time Buffy and Spike interact during the season and series finale. Spike is about to find redemption for all his evil deeds by performing an act of self-sacrifice. In the love-hate, almost relationship between the pair, Spike had actually said and demonstrated his love and had repeatedly received a rebuff from Buffy. Even when they shared intimate moments of closeness and friendship, he had never heard her return his feelings.

I have been watching this clip a few times and I think this video combines the climax of one of the most tragic "almost" love relationships ever on TV together with a wonderful song to make a particularly evocative tribute to the world of Buffy as created by Joss Whedon. It stirs my heart and I would like to share it with you.

Anxiety Attack or Psycho 101

I just wanted to get a post out tonight. Yet when I came to the keyboard, I could not decide what to write about. I had so many ideas and yet none seemed right for the moment. I soon realised that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. I wanted so much to post something and to make sure it was an awesome post that in the end I am paralysed with indecision. This form of anxiety is known as performance anxiety. In my opinion, this tends to affect men more than women. Worse, women have no sympathy at all for male sufferers.

If you think that performance anxiety is just the whimperings and imaginations of a weak mind, you should try and pee at this lavoratory pictured below. Women are very often the cause of this form of anxiety.

Anxiety is often linked to paranoia; the mistaken belief that everyone is in a conspiracy to get you. Again, to those who are free of such ailments, paranoia anxiety seems so silly. What makes you think that you are so special that everybody even notices you, let alone conspire against you? However, if you have paranoia anxiety, you see evidence for this conspiracy everywhere. I noticed this advert recently. Being ethnic Chinese, I had to wonder why 30 Chinamen (and a zeppelin) was needed. Should I take offence, be worried? I am all of that but I am also very curious on how this practical joke will work.

Finally, anxieties tend to make me seek comfort in eating. Paradoxically, this can lead to its own set of problems in the form of food or diet anxieties. I worry and therefore I eat. But I eat so much that I worry. However, it is really, really bad if others worry about what you eat too.

Squirrels need to take care of their anxieties cause they already spend too much time with nuts.

Last Post From Borneo

on Tuesday, May 08, 2007

This will be the last post on my recent trip to Sabah on the island of Borneo. For me personally, the highlight of my trip was the visit that the conference delegates paid to a remote interior village located within the Crocker Range Park.

It was the village of Ulu Senagang Keningau. The name approximately means the settlement in the upper reaches of the river named after the odd shaped rock which is inhabited by the Keningau clan of the Murut tribe. This village is about 4 hours from the city of Kota Kinabalu by car and maybe an hour from the nearest neighbouring settlement. It is not the most remote village by far as some villages require a few days walking to get to. The village though is however located within a community use zone of Crocker Range Park.

The Park was formed to protect a very important watershed area. However, the villagers were already there before the formation of the park and part of their farms and fruit orchards now lie within the Park boundary. Rather than forcing them to abandon their homes, the Park authorities are trying to develop a community management of the affected area that allows certain activities to continue as long as the Park's objectives of conservation are not compromised.

Part of the welcome line. (LGS)

The villagers were told that a bunch of visitors from all over ASEAN were going to visit and they went out of their way to prepare for the visit. When we arrived, we could see a long line of villagers, from the old to the young, patiently waiting to greet us and shake our hands. It took quite a while for the 40 odd visitors to shake the over 100 waiting hands. This hand-shaking ceremony was delayed also because for many of the 40 visitors, arrival at the village meant the first chance of a toilet break in 3 hours.

Milling around outside the toilets (LGS)

Wewere then ushered into their school building and regaled with speeches and a dance. After that we were treated to tea and coffee and a selection of staples such as tapioca, sweet potato and sago that had been steamed in banana leaves. Very nice though starchy in consistancy. Later, we had an opportunity to look at and purchase some of their traditional handicrafts.

The people were wonderfully warm. They were not shy or self-conscious which is the experience I have had with the First Peoples in Peninsular Malaysia. Instead, they were very self assured and openly friendly. We had a good time interacting with the young to the old. The children were very happy to see themselves on the playback screen of digital cameras.

Spirits of the Dance (LGS)

The handicraft were in stunning colours with black, red and yellow predominating. On display were baskets, food covers, fish traps and also photo frames custom made for tourists.

I had one very interesting experience. At the entrance to the village was an old hand pump. It was part of a Canadian-University of Malaya project to install and test handpumps which could be easily repaired by local villagers. This project took place in the 1980's and was in fact part of my very first job. I never came to Sabah to install any handpump but this was clearly part of the same project. The handpump has now been motorised but clearly the well shaft was still in use. It was interesting to see something from the start of my working career.
Handicrafts (LGS)

Blast from the Past (LGS)

Fatboy Slim and Other Contradictions

on Sunday, May 06, 2007

My taste in music is quite eclectic but I still generally lean to mainstream and traditional. However, I find some music at the fringes to be very exciting. Fatboy Slim is a contradiction even within the name ("fatboy and slim") but is also a bit by itself in my range of musical favorites. Nevertheless, I do like the music very much and this video in particular stands out. The music is good, the choreography is fantastic and surprise, surprise, veteran serious actor Christopher Walken is amazingly limber and I am so envious of how well he dances. This rare combination makes this 2001 video something special indeed.

Two Terrible Tales

on Saturday, May 05, 2007

I have tried to share about the beauty of Malaysia and the wonderful diversity of its people and I am grateful that many of you have said that you have enjoyed learning more about this part of the world. I am proud of Malaysia but I am also worried for it. With progress and development, we seem to have also lost many good core Asian values like good neighborliness, the extended family, the racial tolerance etc.

This last week has been a particularly shameful week for the country. Local news have featured two tragic tales which have left many of us shaking our heads. I must warn readers that the second story and picture is particularly graphic and unpleasant. If you feel you would rather not read about it or view the photo then please stop reading now and proceed no further. I feel compelled to share these terrible and shameful tales because this is the reality of Malaysia. The story of the country is incomplete without a glimpse of both the good and the bad.

Story One: Interference

Re-union of Marimuthu and his 6 children (original article NST)

Marimuthu is a rubber tapper. It is a tough job and his income barely provides for his family's needs. He is a Hindu and has 7 children (from 4 to 14 years old) with his wife of 21 years, Raimah. His ordeal began about 35 days ago when the officers of the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) cme to his home and took away his wife and 6 of his children. His eldest son escaped the fate because he was not at home at that time.

JAIS officers contend that Raimah was actually born a Muslim and therefore they acted to prevent the 7 children from being brought up as Hindus. The 6 children were placed with Muslim foster families and their whereabouts were not revealed to Marimuthu. Raimah was sentenced to be detained for 100 days fro religious re-indoctrination.

The family maintain that although Raimah's parents may have been Muslim, she was raised as a Hindu and had married her husband legally but at a Hindu service and had raised her children as Hindu.

It has taken 35 days for Marimuthu to have his day in court but even then the result is not satisfactory and in my opinion reeks of coercion. The court was told that a settlement had been reached in which Marimuthu had agreed to drop all charges of wrongful detention against JAIS officers. The settlement allowed for the immediate return of the 6 children to their father. The father is free to raise them as Hindu but this was made possible only by his wife Raimah making a statement that she was born a Muslim and will always now remain a Muslim but that she releases her right to the children to her husband.

Furthermore, even though the law of the land recognizes their marraige as legal, the Islamic authorities have declared the marraige void. As such, Raimah can no longer stay with her husband but she is allowed to visit her children.

It is so sad. This is a couple who did not have much in this world. Yet they have worked together and lovingly raised a closely knit family. Now the parents are separated in fact even if they are still legally married (where is the logic there). The father will now have to try to cope with 7 children on his own. I have to ask what was the point of all this interference in to this family's life. Who has benefitted? What justice has been served? Indeed, the whole family has suffered and will continue to suffer because of this. I hope that lawyers and politicians of integrity and reason will not allow this story to end here on such a note of injustice.

Story Two: Inhumanity

The Suffering of Ganesh Kumar (org.article NST)

Ganesh Kumar came to Malaysia in search of a job that could give him an income that he could save towards making his dreams come true when he returned to India. He expected that the work would be hard and the hours long but what waited for him in Malaysia was sadly beyond anything he might have feared.

Ganesh worked for a family (parents and son) who ran a sauce making factory out of their house. However, more or less from his first day there he was abused by them. Stories are emerging that he was chained, beaten, denied food and even had scalding water poured on him.

He endured this treatment for almost 9 months. Then last week, his employer took him by car to a remote area and abandoned him in the forest. Local villagers found Ganesh wandering in the forest and he was brought to hospital. He was lucid enough to tell medical authorities what had happened but despite receiving treatment, Ganesh passed away after a few days. The cause of death was starvation. The doctors estimate that he had been on starvation rations for at least a month.

His "employers" have now been charged with murder. As the story unfolds, other unsettling details emerged. One of them was that two previous foreign workers have escaped from this same family and have accused them of abuse. Although those cases are still pending, the family somehow was allowed to take on new foreign workers. Secondly, this occured in a populated area and I have to wonder if some neighbors could have intervened earlier.

I cannot fathom how anyone could still treat another human life with so little regard today. I am moved to tears for Ganesh and his greiving family back in India. I feel as a country and a people, we let Ganesh down and I wish we could at least apologise. More practically, Malaysians individually and as a society must do some soul-searching and I hope act to prevent more abuse of defenceless foreign workers in our midst.

If this blog had a flag, it would be at half-mast this week in recognition of the two tragic and shameful tales above and what they say about what is wrong in Malaysian society.

Jungle Stream and Mahua Falls

on Friday, May 04, 2007

Mahua Sub-station, Crocker Range Park (LGS)
During my recent trip to Borneo, I made a visit to the Crocker Range Park. The Crocker Range is a range runs parallel to the western coast of Sabah. It is located about 2.5 hours from the town of Kota Kinabalu. At the north end of Crocker lies Mount Kinabalu which is the tallest mountain in South East Asia. The entire mountain range consists of sedimentary rocks laid out in layers of sandstone and shale which have been uplifted.
The Crocker Range Park was formed to protect the pristine forest and many endangered plants and animals but its primary function is to protect important watersheds to ensure a continued supply of clean, fresh water.
One of the stops was made to the Mahua Sub-station. From here, a short trail leads to the 50 foot high Mahua Falls.

Juvenile Cicada (LGS)

Mahua Stream (LGS)

Sedimentary Rock Layers at base of Mahua Falls (LGS)

Mahua Falls (LGS)

Caroming Thoughts

on Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Left Brain has staged a coup. It has decided that it is only logical that readers of this blog could not possibly be interested in more consecutive posts about my recent trip to Borneo. Right Brain countered that based on some readers’ comments, it felt that it would be alright to have more Borneo posts. Left Brain laughed and taunted, “You call that a convincing argument?” Left Brain reminded Right Brain about the pre-agreed editorial policy of spacing out similar posts to ensure greater variety. Left Brain emphatically put an end to any consideration of further posts on Borneo at this time, celebrating this as a victory of intellect and logic over mushy-feely thinking.

With that, Right Brain has withdrawn to consider creative ways to launch a counter-offensive, leaving the field to the victorious Left Brain. In celebration, Left Brain has decided to post on “caroming thoughts” or how one thought hits another to form a chain of connected thoughts.

Caroms is a game for 2-4 players and played on a special wooden caroms board with 9 white and 9 black seeds and a red seed called the “Queen”. The object of the game is to use a special striker and with a flick of the fingers, use the striker to hit the seeds and to get your colored seeds into the pockets in the corners of the board. “Caroming Thoughts” comes from the idea of the seeds colliding with one another in sequence.

Let us now follow this scientific experiment.

1. Squirrels love peanuts!

2. Peanuts are part of the legume family which have nitrogen fixing nodules which actually help to enrich the soil.

3. Enriching the soil nowadays often need costly chemical fertilizers because pesticides and herbicides have killed off the naturally occurring friendly soil organisms.

4. Chemicals have changed our lives so much. For example, it allows us to change our hair color.

5. Do blondes really have more fun? And do gentlemen really prefer blondes? Marilyn Monroe is okay. Nicole Kidman is better but for me, dark-haired beauties Sophia Loren and Isabella Rossalini rule.

6. Nicole Kidman was of course the star of the movie musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge”.

7. Moulin Rouge means the Red Windmill. Man has been harnessing the power of the wind for sailing, milling and for pumping water.

8. Water is a finite resource that is essential to life. It needs to be managed sustainably and protected from pollution and wastage.

9. What is the essentials to life? Is it enough just to exist? What is the meaning of life? What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?

10. The answer to the last question can be found in the book “Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adam. Now he was smart, intellectual and had a great sense of the ridiculous. He was a nut and I liked him.

The experiment started with nuts and ended with nuts. This conclusively proves that the world revolves round nuts. Left Brain out.

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