Friday, December 19, 2008

Assassins

So ... we have been playing Assassins.

For those of you who don't know, Assassins is the best game in the world. You have at least 30 players, and the organizers arrange them in some sort of circle; each player is assigned a "target", who is another player in the game. You only know who your target is; you obviously don't know whose target you are, not unless he or she screws up big time. You are supposed to "kill" your target, which may happen in a variety of ways. At SSP, there were three ways of killing: "sniping", i.e. throwing a rolled up sock at your target, "poisoning", i.e. sticking a toothpick in your target's food before he or she noticed it, and "stabbing", i.e. pasting a sticker discreetly on your target. What made the game complicated in the SSP version was that no one could kill his or her target in the presence of a witness, who could be anyone, a player, a teacher, a random person, whatever. So if I threw a sock at my target furtively, and someone else was present when that happened, my target would not die; the move would backfire, and he would know who I am, so that he would take precautions ensuring he was never alone with me.

So much for SSP assassins (there are funny stories with that too, remind me to tell you one day).

Here at Princeton, the International Students Association organized a game of Assassins recently; which is to say, it is still going on, but no one except the dead people seem to care too much any longer. Also, the game is not solely for international students - in fact, the most zealous participant so far (read: most bloodthirsty) is from Ohio; perhaps more relevantly, he is dead now. Someone squirted him with a water gun.

So, the Princeton Assassins rules are different in some key respects. First of all, there is only one way of killing, "shooting", which is just a fancy name for squirting with a water gun. One of the more zealous participants went to the extent of sending ISAP (that's the organizer) an email asking them to define "shooting with a water gun". He got back a reply containing the technical definition, which is to say "at least two or more square inches of the target's clothing (when unfolded) or body must be clearly wet or moist with water of or relating to that squirted from one of the water guns specified by Princeton University, or any similar water gun, orange or green in color, whose range may not exceed 12 meters. Furthermore, the target must clearly feel the sensation of being squirted, and in the event of any confusion, an amenable agreement must be reached by the two parties involved" - the email went on. That's how ivy league universities work. Anyway, the other, more important rule in this version of Assassins was that there was no No-Witness rule. So I was allowed to shoot my target even in the presence of witnesses. There were, of course, "safe zones", which were classrooms in session, bathrooms, the Street, and so on. There was also a "safe time", from 1 a.m. till 8 a.m. No player is allowed to kill anyone in a safe zone, or during safe time. Once I killed a target, I got his or her next target as my next. So the whole circle got smaller and smaller until only one remained, and this was the winner. So much for the rules.

Now, I consider myself to be a great Assassins player. In fact, a number of people will vouch for the fact. So I said to myself, "Ok, you have to win this. You know the game inside out, you have resources, you have the looks, you have the style, what more do you need?" It is true; I am too modest to actually ever admit this, but I am the essence of the sexy killer, a James Bond reincarnate. Daniel Craig - pooh. I brush my teeth with ten Daniel Craigs every morning.

Anyway, so I started preparing. I set up shady alliances with all the other Forbes players (Forbes, for those of you who don't know, is the residential college in Princeton where I live). I sent spies throughout Princeton to look for clues and mysterious strangers. I ignored the beautiful girls who always seem to gaggle around me and set to work with cold, steely resolve.

My first target was Edvin. Edvin Memet, the genius from Romania, the International Physics Olympiad gold medallist, soccer fanatic, who had placed into a ridiculously advanced physics class (one that is affectionately called Death Mechanics in Princeton). And my job was to kill him.

It was intense. I stalked him on Facebook, sent out spies after him, kept a dossier on him; this was weekend, unfortunately, so I couldn't get him before or after his classes. But fate was on my side. Dressed impeccably (shirt, formal trousers, tie. I had considered a tuxedo, but decided in the end to leave that for the more important targets) a la the Mafia, I waited in the afternoon for Edvin to walk out of a building I had traced him to. He did, and I said in my sexy tenor Al Pacino voice, "Edvin. I am really sorry that this had to happen." and squirted him with my green water gun.

It was heroic! He took his death like a man, falling in a slow motion, and I could almost hear choral music all around me. He was going out, he said, but he would give me the name of my next target when he came back.

I went back to Forbes, thirsty for more blood. All the perfumes of Arabia and all that was just complete shit. I needed to kill more people. I sent ISAP an email, because we had to register each kill within 3 hours.

Within 10 minutes, they sent me a reply. The game, apparently, would not begin until midnight, and so my target, Edvin Memet, was still alive.

I was shocked. I had killed him, and watched him die slowly and painfully, and extracted the promise of his next target. Now he knew who was after him. Worst of all, I had already used up my Al Pacino voice.

No matter. I am a professional in these matters. At 12:39 a.m., I killed Edvin Memet again. He died slowly, just as before. I had taken some of my friends with me, and they had served as the bait. They had knocked on his door, pretending to collect support for Obama, and his roommate had answered, and apparently Edvin was not in. At that point I had just started using four-letter words randomly when he actually walked straight into the corridor. I quickly arranged my shirt and everything, and started using a Johnny Depp voice, found that I had lost my voice from the cold, ended up growling menacing and then almost choking, then chucked the whole idea and emptied my water gun on Edvin for the second time in 10 hours.

He was drenched, but he took it like a man ... again. My next target was Estefania Fiallos. Freshman, again. In Wilson College, too, that complicated things.

My first attempt on Estefy failed disastrously. I made the mistake of walking right up to her door and knocking. A guy answered, and I could tell he was suspicious. I admit it was stupid of me.

But who has ever stopped me from doing what I want? My sources told me (doesn't that sound insanely mysterious?) that Estefy was going to go out that night with Justin, who was a friend's roommate. To watch a movie (ha!). So I collected a small band of followers (Katharina, Jon, Michael), and went to Frist, waiting for her to turn up with Justin.

It was short. I recognized Justin's booming voice, and looked up to find him waiting outside the theater with a smallish girl who I recognized as Estefy. This time, because she was a pretty girl after all, I used my deadly Charlton Heston voice.

"I want you to know, Estefy, that this is not personal", I said in a sexy growl, and shot her. It was tragic, watching her eyes tremble, in the knowledge that I had ruined the date, and sort of betrayed Justin. Justin stood stoically beside her, and I suspect he was rather amused. Estefy took it like a man, too, except of course, she was a woman. She told me my next target was Jonathan Erlichman.

That one was hard. Jonathan proved to be insanely paranoid. I spent four hours outside his door, and he didn't come out. I knocked on his door, and his roommate opened, and spotted my water gun, and almost slammed the door shut in my face. I managed to convince them that I was after Chris Perlman (I couldn't come up with any other name; I have never heard of any Chris Perlman in my life), and I had simply mixed the rooms up. Anyway, I couldn't do much after that.

Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of humor. The next day I attended a lecture on Pythagorean triples in Fine Hall (yes, I am a math major. Funny how similar I am to Moriarty), and enjoyed every minute of it. When it was over, I made a rather fine point about Pell's Equation and how it was relevant to the lecture, and - glowing at my own brilliance - turned around to leave the lecture hall with everyone else. When I found my target sitting two rows behind me, ready to leave the hall too. Apparently, he had listened to the lecture too. And ALL this bloody while, he had been at my mercy. Now I was essentially stuck, because I had my water gun but it was empty. The nearest bathroom was three floors above. By the time I would fill my gun and bring it down, my target would have left.

But I had an advantage; my bike. I knew where my target lived, and hoped he would be going straight back to Whitman. I watched him leave and rushed upstairs to the bathroom to fill my water gun. I used warm water, and rushed down again, and got onto my bike and pedaled furiously to Whitman. To make matters worse, my gun had a leak, and I could feel my jacket getting wet all the while I rode. I hoped it would not seem inappropriate.

I was looking out for Jonathan all along the way, but I missed him completely. No matter; I had overtaken him. I met a friend, Waqas, near the entrance to Whitman, started talking with him (a cover, gentle reader, a cover) animatedly, and soon found Jonathan walking up to his death.

I was vicious this time. I don't know why, probably because my own jacket was half wet from the dripping water; but I basically soaked Jonathan top to bottom. He looked more like a bedraggled crow than I could ever have imagined.

And then it was Olaf's turn. Olaf, a very nice Buddhist students in charge of several student groups around campus, was a junior (third-year). I went to look for him in the Whitman Dining Hall, where he worked; but my efforts failed, and I was almost caught as a spy. I managed to lay the blame on someone else (don't squirm; he survived the angry mob), and escaped to my target's room. I had decided on a full frontal attack, so I knocked authoritatively. He lived in a 9-person suite, with TWO floors and a luxurious living room. He wasn't there. His suitemates told me to come in, and I did. I introduced myself as Hamza Aftab, a Buddhist student (Hamza is one of my closest friends, also playing; he's a Muslim from Pakistan), interested in racial abuse (I later wondered how this had sounded), and in joining the group "Conversations", of which Olaf was the President. His suitemates were very friendly, and gave me a Sprite, and heard all about my Buddhist roots (I was brilliant here!), and what Tibet was like (I let my imagination run wild), and so on. And still he didn't come back.

I took my leave after an hour and a half, and waited in the landing for Olaf. He came in, with a friend too, and came up the stairs cautiously. It was like The Untouchables stairway scene. I started talking on the phone (with no one, of course. Just a decoy) in Bengali, fingering my water gun inside my pocket with the other hand, waiting till he came within range. I started talking animatedly in the language I knew he wouldn't understand (I was reciting a Chandrabindoo song, for Christ's sake), and sometimes laughing aloud to make it convincing.

Olaf had been eyeing me warily for quite some time. As soon as he came to the landing, I whipped out my gun and started to squirt him with it; and he did something completely unexpected. He actually jumped forward, and grasped my hand. It would have been scary if I hadn't shot him by then, he would have taken the gun out of my hand, probably. But I had managed to give him one good squirt before, so that was okay. His friend, apparently, was playing too. I introduced myself as Hamza, again (of course; what if his friend had been after Rik? I couldn't afford to take a chance), and learned that my new target was Atanas Petkov.

That was really, really hard. Atanas had been prewarned by Olaf's friend (who was a Bulgarian like Atanas himself), so he was prepared. I went and lurked in his corridor, and suddenly his roommates came out and took pictures of me. This was really freaky. I had been expecting paranoia, but not intelligent counterplanning. The fact that Atanas now had my picture made things very, very inconvenient.

I decided to use one of my contacts who lived in the same building as Atanas. Mehek Punatar, also from India. I explained my plans, and counted on her.

A day later, I realized she was double-crossing me, and helping Atanas.

Sick of the ways of the world, I arranged for an accident to meet Mehek, and set out on my way to find a new contact. It came unexpectedly, in my Freshman Seminar class. Andreas Sakellaris, my classmate.

Apparently, Atanas and Andreas attended the same mathematics class, MAT 201 (prospective math majors like me who start off in MAT 215 use MAT 201 to crack hideously arrogant jokes). And the last class of the semester was the next day in Lewis Library.

So I was ready. I skipped the last few seconds of Rahul Pandharipande's MAT 215 class to take position. I filled my water gun to the brim, and lurked outside the classroom Andreas had shown me. As soon as the class was over, the professor walked out and I walked in. Atanas was smiling, a dejected, fallen smile; he knew death when he saw it ... and I was death in a sexy package.

And then ... I got my new target, Cristian Rastapopoulos. He isn't called Rastapopoulos, of course. I just named him so because his last name is unpronounceable. He is a Romanian SENIOR.

I have not killed him yet. Because the first time in my life, I am facing the prospect of a task that is in essence impossible.

He goes out of his dorm before 8 in the morning and comes back after 1 at night. So I can't get him in his dorm (safe time, remember?). What he does in between is deeply mysterious. To make matters worse, he is a Taekwondo fanatic. As is each and every one of his 8 suitemates.

I did everything possible. I tracked him down individually in three sites and searched his interests. I talked to professors and tried bribing certain people in power to help me get him. I assumed a new identity. To half the campus now, I am known as Sreedev Basu, who is in reality a classmate who stays in Forbes in the room opposite. I went to the official Taekwondo club, where Cristian is a regular member, and attended the last six practice sessions; he didn't turn up. I am now known in the Club as Sreedev, the guy passionate about Taekwondo, who is going to join the Club next semester. I have taken a few kicks during the sessions, and learned terms like "Fang!" and "Chop!", which are the grunts that we're supposed to do before kicking the hell out of someone in Taekwondo. And he still hasn't turned up.

There was a Romanian night in Princeton the day before Winter Break, and I hoped Crisitian would be patriotic or homesick enough to attend. I went there beforehand, and slipped in, the only non-Romanian in the entire hall, hoping to pass off inconspicuously as an Indian immigrant in Romania. I drank Romanian apple juice, had Romanian food, tried to convince some babbling Romanians that I was Sreedev Basu from Romania who just happened to be unable to speak Romanian at the moment, and then adjusted my disguise. I was still Sreedev Basu of Romania, only hard of hearing, so I didn't have to participate in conversations. I learned the basic words, "Buna!" for greetings, and "La revedere" for goodbye. I wandered among those throngs of Romanian math geniuses, my frail disguise holding out, saying "Buna!" randomly and receiving stares and blank looks. I even learned the Romanian national dance and danced with a pretty little Romanian girl for a minute, later introducing myself in English as Sreedev Basu. The girl immediately said "Oh! I know a Sreedev too, at Princeton! He's at Forbes, do you know him?" I mumbled, went back to my hard-of-hearing disguise, and said "La revedere!" and slunk off.

Which was when I bumped into Edvin. My first target.

I will never forget the nightmare that followed, Edvin grasping me by the hand and introducing me to everyone else in his loud voice "This is Rik, from India. He is playing Assassins ... he killed me - TWICE! Har har har."

My disguise was falling to pieces. Everywhere I could hear mutters like "Assassins? What is he doing here?", "India? This is a Romanian thing, isn't it?", "Rik? I thought he said he was Sreedev or something?", "Holy shit I just danced with him and he said his name was Sreedev", and so on.

My exit was not graceful. I practically fled.

So that's how things stand now. I have not yet killed Crisitian. I have infiltrated at the highest level, true, so much that the entire Taekwondo Club except him now knows and loves me and uses me occasionally as a punching bag. I have learned Romanian customs, added my name (i.e. Sreedev's) to the Taekwondo mailing list, and have done everything except killing him.

Now what?

At least my water gun is not dysfunctional, like Dan's. His gun's trigger came loose, so that before killing someone, he had an elaborate process; he took out the gun itself, took out the trigger, screwed the trigger on to the gun, squirted it at the ceiling to test it, then squirted his target.

And yet he managed to kill 10 people before he died. My assassination list is now only 5.

But what the hell, I'm alive.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mirror

Before I start writing funny-as-hell entries once again, let me take a moment. A moment is not the kind of thing you can have any time you want at Princeton. But today, in the midst of a chaos of homework that have to be completed as soon as possible, in the midst of waves of nausea at the sheer fact that my homework was not yet done, in the midst of a tremendous rush for good grades and the onus of proving the fact that everyone who got into Princeton deserved it ...

... I felt lonely, and spent half an hour just staring out of the window.


Outside my room, there is a tree that is slowly turning orange and yellow - and shedding its first leaves all over the squirrels seeking refuge. The rabbits are rushing back into the comfort of their homes before sunset, as soon as the intense cold starts settling in. Inside Forbes, my home, the warm crackling fireplace magnetically attracts groups of friends to chat with each other and play games and finish homework - the closest thing to an adda I can ever get here. The moon rises over the tall steeples of Gothic buildings - and fairy tales are created in the Princeton campus. Sadness. And poignant evenings quietly settle over the ancient lampposts, and the gargoyles look sad and lonely ... as the earliest traces of winter touch the campus. The trees are slowly getting bare ... and the orange and red plethora of colors sometimes makes the rushing students forget everything - and they feel lost, standing in the middle of that rush of dreamy colors, but ...

... somewhere two oceans and a continent and an entire world away, Pujo has arrived.

Durgapujo. The best times of my life ... all those nights of staying wide awake, cursing the incessant beating of the dhak, all those Shoshthis wandering around Maddox Square with friends, watching girls and weaving dreams, all those lazy afternoons of impossibly heavy meals and careless siestas, all those jingle jangle mornings of idling away time and hanging around at the parar pandal, all those evenings of the fiascos that went by the name "cultural program of Golf Gardens", all those chess matches with friends, card tricks ....

... the smell of kaashphool merged with that of my childhood ...

and the Saptamis. Me and my circles of my greatest friends ever ... wandering around from early in the morning, having lunch together, then pandal-hopping, generally hanging around together, playing Killer with cards, and finally going back to our earliest childhoods in Deshapriya Park, riding all the rides, screaming in delight like eight-year-olds, poignantly watching darkness fall.

That is my past now, but I cannot let go of it. The memory is too overwhelming, it's my present, it's my future - and this year, I wasn't there. I will not be at home for Pujo for the next three years, and maybe not even after that.

And the leaves are turning red and falling off, and my childhood with them. But it's not yet time for the memories to go.


I love you, all my friends. Happy Pujos.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Return

Yes I know. All the while I have been absent, I have been sorely missed. Fellow bloggers have had a chance to come into the limelight, my fans have been steadily biting their organs off one by one (in sheer anticipation, I assure you), girls have been swooning, life has been a whole lot less interesting.

But yes, the winds of change are here again, and with the quiet assurance of spring, I'm back again.

It's technically not spring, ok, fine, whatever. It sounds cool.

First of all, I would like to thank all those people who have waited patiently for my return, knowing that this blog would be revived one day. My parents, for their everlasting belief in me. All those associated with this beautiful project, I would like to tell them all, this is OUR dream, not MINE, and this is not my triumph alone. Thank you all for that. Wait -

Who the hell mixed up my blog post with my Oscar speech? He's fired, whoever he is.

Among other news, I have been to the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp 2008 in May. I have, as usual, failed to enjoy it. All they ever talked about was mathematics. I mean, seriously guys, get a life! I met Ninad there too (scroll below for my post about Ninad and his tryst with bedbugs). He's a whole lot smarter now than I remember him. He beat me 3-0 in a chess tournament, in fact. That's all right, though, it feels good sometimes to let the losers win.

I wrote a poem a couple of days ago. Here's how it goes:

The Subtle Chihuahua
The subtle chihuahua,
A sad figure in the musical twilight,
Sits and stares at the lollipop sea ...
He thinks
Dark thoughts ... dark red mainly,
But dark grey ones as well -
And love ceases to be a theorem
And life an assumption
In the nuanced corners of his brain.
The subtle chihuahua -
Black against the sea
Thinks of home
And Rolex watches.
Swiss chocolates - metaphors for thoughts -
Crowd his mind;
And the walruses watch desperately,
Clinging with their last strength
On to the subtle chihuahua,
Who thinks of his childhood
And the black and white colors it is painted with.


Yes, intense, I know. It has metaphors for all sorts of things, I believe, and also a nuanced analysis of life. It has a commentary on - er - the general state of affairs, and the metaphysical imagery, as I keep telling anyone who would listen, is just schnilledorous. That last word, by the way, was coined by me. It means "of or relating to the metaphysical imagery of Rik Sengupta's poem The Subtle Chihuahua". Five minutes before I coined the term I had been reading up about circular definitions. Here is what the dictionary has to say about circular definitions:

circular definition n. See definition, circular

So much for technical terms.

I also started writing another poem, but I got bored thirty seconds into it. See if you can perceive any subtle signs of my boredom ... it's hard to spot, I think ...

Surrealism
I was walking along the sands of Mali
Thinking about life and Dalí
When suddenly, a whale appeared
In overalls, with a scholar's beard;
And if you think this poem's weird,
It's your own effing problem.


I have no idea why I just wrote down two of my MOST random poems ever here. As Anasua would probably say, these are ddmp (deep dark morbid poetry). But hey, they are a part of what I am, so I'm not complaining.

Anyway, I think I've had just about enough for now, I'll probably update again tomorrow. Or not. Either of the two. I'll see you guys later.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Emergency Examination Helpline

Right. So this is turning out to be my second consecutive post about cheating. But I'm doing it on popular demand. So, not guilty, your honor.


Actually, the day before yesterday I met New Age Scheherzade for the first time, and she asked me for some tips about cheating in exams (hehe, sorry Anasua, it's good to be brutally honest sometimes). So I told her to keep an eye on my blog. Here it is, for all you prospective cheats out there! (By the way, New Age Scheherzade was only joking, for the slow on the uptake among you. She doesn't need to resort to other means. In fact, since she's going to Princeton, I have no idea why she is sitting for the IITs anyway)

Math
Cheating in math is the easiest. Use your resources wisely. Wear spectacles to the examination hall that magnify your eyes around 3 times (6 if you want to go for the Grand Effect). What that effectively does is convince the examiner/invigilator that you are a total geek who doesn't know how to cheat. And couldn't care less. Take your TI 83 or TI 84 or TI 89 or Casio (whatever) to the examination hall. If they aren't allowed (haha IIT!), smuggle them in. Use your socks or sleeves. It's the same thing with cards, really. If all else fails, check my last post and pick up tips from Alex. When you are sitting down in the examination hall, look around for the geek nearest to you who is SURE to know the answers (if that geek happens to be you, don't bother reading the rest of this post). Calculate the shortest
effective distance between your center of mass and the geek's.

Definition: Effective Distance
Effective distance between two points is measured as any distance joining the two points which is traversed by any real object if it is to be passed between the two points. This is not necessarily the straight line joining the two points; that happens only in an ideal situation. Practically, the shortest distance between two points and the shortest effective distance between the same two points in vacuum at 298 K and 1 atmospheric pressure are related by the approximate empirical formula k = (χZ0/ε + 6.1P) l

where χ is the Euler characteristic, Z0 is the characteristic impedance of vacuum and ε is the dielectric permittivity. The quantities k and l are the effective distance and actual distance respectively, and P, known as Sengupta's Constant, is a singularly revolutionary constant related to something impossibly important in physics.

Once you figure out the effective distance, use it to your advantage. Write your answers on your calculator and pass it by means of the shortest effective distance to the geek in question. Attract his attention. Ask him to approve of your answers, and tell you which ones are wrong. If possible, agree on a code beforehand. Morse code works amazingly well if the examination is composed of multiple choice questions. If a lot of theoretical blabbering is involved, resort to other codes. Bribe the geek well. Chocolates always help. Geeks are also bribed by math books, hacking software, and girls, in no particular order.

You can also cheat at math using small pieces of paper. Microfilm works amazingly. If you aren't comfortable with that sort of thing, write all relevant formulas on a piece of paper in the smallest possible handwriting. Hide it in a strategic place. How strategic is up to you.

Physics
Physics is not a subject where it is easy to cheat. You have to study for that one, sorry. The microfilm approach works, I admit. But not as effectively as math. If possible, smuggle in a laptop with ethernet connection and use it surreptitiously. Distract the examiner. Be creative. I always like my own style. I point at something irrelevant and scream on top of my voice "RATTLESNAKE!!!!" (there are no rattlesnakes in India by the way). In nine cases out of ten, the examiner starts and looks towards where you are pointing. He or she then proceeds to check all over for anything resembling a rattlesnake. Once he or she is satisfied that there is NO rattlesnake involved (which will not take time if this is a biology teacher we are talking about who is acquainted with India's fauna), you are in trouble. But it gives you ample time to whip out your laptop, and search google for whatever it is you are writing the answer to. Be discreet though.

Chemistry
The only thing I can suggest about this examination is - don't. Turn. Up. I have no clue about chemistry. I always get screwed during chemistry examinations. I'm no authority. Sorry.

More coming up about general cheating procedures or ways to do better at exams. If you need quick tips right now, check out this amazing entry by Anasua - here. It appears that she knows a bit about the trade too!


To all of you who are sitting for their IITJEE today, all the best. You guys will do just fine. To those of you who aren't sitting for your IITJEE today, you wasted five minutes of your life reading this post. Go find something better to do. And the fact that this is my second consecutive post about cheating should not be misinterpreted as a decline in my ethical values. I am still as honest as ever. More or less.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Of Cards and an Associated Art

The funny thing about card games is that everyone gets serious after a while. No, really. Really, really serious.

For instance, let's say A and B are playing chess. A makes a stunning move that puts B's queen in danger. B then retaliates by sweeping all the pieces off the board. Game over, no one wins, everyone goes home happy (more or less). Or take for instance a game of soccer between two teams X1X2X3X4X5X6X7X8X9X10X11 and Y1Y2Y3Y4Y5Y6Y7Y8Y9Y10Y11 in which the Y's are losing 13-0. Then what do the Y's do? They take the goalkeeper of the X's down, and score goals in an empty goalpost (if you think that's too much, I have actually seen this happening).

But ... a card game is a different story. Let's say seven people (for the sake of abbreviation, I will call them Elliott, Joyce, Alex, Liam, Ilona, Wendy and Rik) are sitting down at a table, wanting to play some Texas Holdem poker. Fair enough. More so because there isn't any real money involved.

First, a brief introduction of the characters:

Elliott: A good young man, brilliant in whatever he does, and always willing to learn the tricks of the trade (What trade? Hold on, I'm coming to that). Is dressed in a black formal suit and is seated in a casual, devil-may-care pose. Is concentrating on the cards (mainly his own ones, which makes him different from - say - Liam).

Joyce: A morally upright young lady, impossibly rigid about rules and ethics, with an intense hatred of the trade (Wait, I'm coming), and determined to catch ANYONE adopting unofficial means to win. Is looking around the table like a hawk, and peering suspiciously at Liam and Rik.

Alex: Greek guy, good at probabilities. Getting good at the trade, though learning every day from Liam and Rik. Is also relaxed and looking around for distinctive "tells".

Liam: Hmmmmm, ok this one's tough. A very charming, shrewd and hard-to-read guy. Is more or less the opposite of Joyce. Is a master of the trade. Is dressed in a suit with extra long sleeves (note this: extra long SLEEVES). Hmmm. Is wearing sunglasses and looking at God knows what. Face expressionless. Fingers twitching.

Ilona: Young lady again, trying to analyze other players. Is interested in the psychological aspect of the game. Has neutral feelings about the trade. Insists that she is only playing casually, but has won the largest pot of the day so far. Also very hard to read.

Wendy: Young lady. Shares some of the views of Joyce about the trade, though enjoys a good joke when she sees one. Like Ilona, her stack of chips is increasing exponentially. Laughing while playing, looks EASY to read, except that no one can actually do it.

Rik: Aaaah, our hero. Has pretty much no clue what's going on, but trying to appear as smart as possible. Inside that confused visage, however, lies one of the shrewdest brains around (except that he hasn't actually won a pot yet). Is reading people with charisma (and getting all of them wrong, but still, you can't ignore the charisma).

Ok this was an imaginary situation, but I have played with all the characters mentioned above (except Rik; or maybe not, I have played with myself. That way, you are assured of winning no matter what). And I know everyone's style more or less.

But since this post is about the trade, I will stop digressing and tell you more about it.

The trade is known to the common man as "cheating". Otherwise known as "the Art", "the passes", and "that shit Liam and Rik are amazingly good at".

Right, so now I am actually blogging an entry about cheating at cards. Don't get me wrong. My morals have not declined even a bit. My ethics are still as strong as ever. But cheating is no anti-ethical behavior. It is an Art. The greatest art form ever.

Take, for instance, the matter of Liam's sleeves. You need to see what's inside them to appreciate the true extent of his art. On a good day, his sleeves would conceal two Aces of Spades, several other Aces, nine complete hands (as in only pocket cards), a dealer chip, a Bicycle Revolving Poker Set, a screwdriver (don't ask), a lethal-looking knife, and a collection of shady looking coins. When he is feeling particularly high/lucky/drunk/smart, he tries concealing a biased dealer inside his clothes, but that unhappy event is luckily not seen too often. People tend to notice.

Or take myself. Whenever I sit down to play poker, my collar hides a world in it altogether. I can't tell you the details obviously, for purely aesthetic reasons; let me just say, in all modesty, that if I - er - unleash my collar's strength, I will win any tourney in the world. Unless Liam's sleeves are extra long.

Let us now confine our attention to Alex. He appears to know probabilities to such an extent that he can calculate - in about 2.68 seconds - the odds of getting a flush at one try if you select five cards at random from a complete pack (for the clueless, this is 33/16660). If you are getting impressed by the Greek human calculator, think again. In reality, he has a small handy pocket calculator hidden in his - ok, there are decent people reading this, let's just say his hiding place is a bit unorthodox. He has also formed a nexus with Liam, which makes it unfair on me. It's harder to cheat when you have an alliance of other schemers working against you. Added to the fury of Joyce if she finds out.

That's all very well. You have the means in your sleeve. Now all you have to do is to use them. How do you do that without arousing suspicion?

You use one of the following:

1. Magic (i. e. sleight of hand)
2. Misdirection
3. Foul language
4. Red herrings
5. Nagging tone
6. Camouflage

Personally, I prefer the first two - because I am a dabbler in both magic tricks and misdirection. Liam was a master of foul language and red herrings. We both occasionally went for the nagging tone. Alex relied on luck and camouflage.

By magic, you can palm a number of cards and delicately swap them with your original pocket cards when no one is looking. Or you can try mass hypnotism, but that occasionally fails to work. If it fails, you are done for - you'll probably get lynched. My personal favorite is the "glide" and the "reverse pass". Experts will know what I am referring to. Googling won't help, so you've been warned. False shuffles are also BIG helps, as is dealing from the bottom.

Misdirection refers to making people think you are cheating in another way. For instance, if you look constantly at a particular spot on the ceiling and gulp once in a while for effect, official anti-cheats like Joyce smell a rat. They begin to think that your artistic cheating technique involves that spot on the ceiling in some way. They begin pacing furiously like caged lions, and checking and double-checking the ceiling, the pillars, and even the bathrooms. Which gives you ample time to take the pocket aces out of your - er - pockets. Or collar, in my case.

Foul language refers to using amazingly bad language for misdirection. For instance, Liam would shout "#@%*Y)W*Y$*^T)$(*%#@%*@#^()*&^%)(^^#$%*^*$&^" at the top of his lungs, and we would all look away embarrassed. Then Liam would simply rummage in his sleeves for the right combination of cards. Most often he would mess up, but that's just because he would be trying too hard.

Red herrings are used when you blame others indirectly for your acts. This was the one occasion when Liam and I worked together. We combined so well that we got away with the entire game, and Joyce reprimanded two other players for our crimes. These techniques are top secret. So sorry for leaving the details out.

Nagging tone refers to the act of boring vigilant watchers like Joyce to death. They usually yawn and look at their watches as you drone on and on and on and on about the dangers of cheating, and how you are opposed to it, and how you wouldn't even dream about it, and how you distant uncle once got caught ... *yawn*. You use that opportunity to great effect. Thank you Alex for that one.

Camouflage - well, I'll just give you an example. Alex hides his calculator in his - er - unorthodox place, remember? Well, when he has to take the calculator out to calculate his odds, chances are that no one will catch him because no one is actually bothering to look at his hiding place (except a very, very, SICK few). So he is totally safe.

I will keep you all posted about newer methods.

I can't believe that I actually wrote an entry about cheating at cards in the first place. To defend myself, I can only mention in all modesty that I was voted the "Most Likely To Cheat At Cards" at SSP, beating competition from the likes of Liam. So I am in fact in a position of authority.

Finally, a note to Liam if you are reading this. Remember that AWESOME day when Jason got the blame? How I pushed you and you fell, releasing the extra cards on to Jason's lap, and Joyce got all mushy, saying "You too, Jason?" and stuff like that? We still haven't confessed about that day to anyone! I think it needs more publicity ...

Cheers all.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Story of the Duck Cult Part 1: The Rise

There is a Duck in each of us.

Yes, you heard that right.

There is a Duck in each of us. With a capital D, too.

I told you folks about SSP, right? So this is the kind of random thing that can happen at SSP. The classes at SSP occasionally got boring. Well, not really HELL boring, but the kind of regular boringness that is associated with spherical trigonometry and celestial coordinates. On any given day, you could look around the class and find at least four drooping heads - six on a good day.

So one day, we got fed up with the snores punctuating the class and decided to add some - er - color into it. Three of us got together and Providence provided us with three of those amazing battery-operated ducks that go "Quack-quack quack quack quack quack" when you close the circuit with your fingers (Providence, I have found, has all sorts of weird ideas all the time, but this one turned out to be for the better). If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here.



So yes, Connor Stokes, Udbhav Singh and yours truly got hold of those ducks from Providence (the weird fate thingy, not Providence, Rhode Island) and got them to speak for us. Whenever the professor started getting a little too boring (which is WAY more often that it would normally seem), we would unleash the fury of the ducks. They would quack their insightful comments throughout the class, and enliven otherwise boring lessons. It irritated some people, and amused others, as is inevitable in new ideas. Great religions seldom come unhindered. But whatever opinion someone had of the Duck Cult, no one could ignore it.

And so it was that the Duck Cult was born.

We at the Duck Cult have our own set of beliefs. Our fundamental belief is that there is a hidden Duck in each of us, yearning to be set free. It symbolizes our spirit, our soul itself. And we are all mere mortals in the eyes of the Great Duck Our Lord, He Who Quacks Over Hills and Oceans.

Some would say we took this too far (are you reading this, Ilona?). But the fact remains that the Duck Cult was an inspiration, the symbol of joy and hope to the millions who found their inner quack. True Cult members are willing to die for its sake.

These are us, the three original founders, looking amazingly regal and sexy in our formal dresses.


It would be lying if we say that we did not ever resort to violence while spreading the Word of the Duck around. That is because we believe that a little violence is perfectly all right if the ends justify the means. At the end of the day, we are all happy and quacking. That is the only thing that matters.

Which is why the Duck Cult members are always to be found armed with a battery-duck and a water pistol, fighting for the cause of the Great Duck Our Lord, He Who Quacks Over Hills and Oceans.

This is again a picture of us, in a slightly more combative mood.

The three original founders (that's us, duh-uh) became more or less legendary. We recruited people from all over the world once we got back (currently we have secret organizations in India, USA, Italy, Singapore, Turkey and Greece), and even wrote our own Ten Duck Commandments:

The Ten Duck Commandments
I am the Duck thy Lord.
Thou shalt have no other water fowl before me.
Thou shalt not make for thyself another rubber duck.
Thou shalt not make wrongful use of the name of thy Duck.
Thou shalt not let the name of the Duck be dishonored.
Thou shalt not hesitate to kill for the sake of thy Duck.
Honor thy Ducklings.
Thou shalt not molest the duck.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's Duck.
Thou shalt not quack falsely.
Thou shalt not let any Duck be stolen by non-believers.

Trust me when I say that we made enemies at SSP; we irritated every non-believer out of his or her wits, and forced non-believers to take up the religion (all for their own good, of course). Anti-Duck societies sprang up everywhere, but we fought them hard, and overcame them. We infiltrated the SSP dorms, and the city of Ojai. We even planted our own flag in places where they were least expected.

To this day, we remain the Three, the founders of the deadly Duck Cult that inspired the joyless millions, and struck down non-believers ruthlessly. And it is just the beginning.

Thanks Udi and Connor for the good times. They are just beginning. And ALL other members of the Duck Cult. And a special thanks to Sydney Goings (our secret organization chief in Las Vegas), from whom I borrowed the first photo in this post. The others are my own, so a big thanks to me too. Oh and by the way, our level of infiltration is so amazing that MIT's CPW has the Boston Duck Tour arranged with it. Hmmmmm. That's us. You've been warned.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remembrances

Ok, real quick post before my math test tomorrow.

STATUTORY WARNING: This post is going to be serious. Yep, you heard that right. Serious. But hey, don't worry, I'll be back tomorrow with more funny posts, so keep your spirits up. Well, here goes ...

I have studied at South Point High School for about - let's see - thirteen years. And now there's come a time when I am going to have to leave.

To cut a long story short, today I want to remember my school, because in five months all it will be is a memory. I don't mean the Vogons will come down in their yellow constructor fleets and annihilate South Point High School or anything. It's just that I won't ever look at its doors with the eyes of a student. And that is hard.

I was studying differential equations (bit of a mood-spoiler, isn't it?) a while ago, and I - er - dozed off a bit. Hey come on, differential equations aren't exactly spellbinding stuff. The point is, I closed my eyes and swam around in a whirl of memories. And what kept coming back most was the thought of the school I am about to leave.

There were a few teachers in my school who I - to put it lightly - didn't quite like. In fact, I used to have all sorts of uncomfortable feelings (fever, nosebleed, plague, whatever - all depending on the degree of nastiness of the teacher in question) whenever a day dawned in which I was supposed to attend a class taught by those teachers. I remember the swirling conflicting thoughts that would rage on in my head before their classes began. "Why do I have to do this?" "Why doesn't something terrible happen to the teacher?" "What the hell am I doing here?" and the like.

Today I suddenly missed that feeling. Bit of a hollow sensation in my stomach, really.

So I decided to go ahead and post a poem I wrote earlier (it's in my Facebook profile or something I think), and upload a video I made recently. Both of them are dedicated to my school - South Point.


The Long and Winding Road

video




A Life Ends

My school is ending.

For thirteen years I have roamed its corridors,
As my sweat mingled with the sweat of a thousand others in its wake,
Breathing the same air,
Feeling the same emotions,
Living the same life.

And now it is Time.
Time to say goodbye.

How? The seconds stretched into hours, the hours stretched into days, the days stretched into months, the months into years, the years into memories.

And now it is time to cut the ropes and be free.

It is time to edge out my little lonely dangerously swaying boat out into the great big ocean with no shores in sight.

It is time to put the wind on my back and set sail from the shores I have known in search of places yet to be visited and friends yet to be discovered.

It is time to be free.

If only all the memories would let go. The memories of a life soon to be left behind, one that calls out to me from the depths of my childhood, one that shaped my mind and wrought my dreams.

My school is ending.

And I have to let go.


[For the curious, the first song in the video is from an amazing recent Bengali movie called The Bong Connection. The track, Majhi Re, is actually a symbolic song; through an extended metaphor, it compares childhood to a paper boat set afloat in the wide sea. Hmmmmmm. Yes, see what I meant by serious? But hey, it's a beautiful song. As for the second song, I doubt any of you will need any introduction.]

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ode to a Bedbug

"Madness! A man needs a little madness, or else ... he never dares cut the rope and be free."

Zorba the Greek (1964)



IMOTC stands for the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp. Sounds real sexy until you realize that

1. It certainly ISN'T the IMO; it's meant to be the last hurdle before the hardest Olympiad in the world, and let's just say it does a pretty good job of making people work hard to get into the Indian IMO team.

2. The food is TOTALLY vegetarian, and for someone who lives in a part of India known for its non-vegetarian delicacies, it is better to die than spend a month with curds and rice (yes I know you liked it, Udi and Ashwath. Just a matter of taste).

3. Well, it isn't fun, in the strictest sense of the term. It's a rigorous, fast-paced camp that no one understands except a privileged few. In reality it can be quite a pleasant sensation to sway gently to the rhythm of mathematics and fall asleep without a care in the world as the Professor drones on about non-Euclidean geometry and modular functions and their relation to elliptic curves. But then you have to make sure that he doesn't catch you napping.

Anyway, this IMOTC I'm talking about is a camp held in Mumbai for a month in summer. I was selected to IMOTC 2007, where my roommate was initially a great guy from Pune called Ninad Sancheri. A week into the Camp, he left. He wasn't managing to cope with the workload, and was intelligent enough to leave to follow other more meaningful pursuits. I just mention him because he plays the central role in the killer story I'm about to tell you.

So we were roommates, fine. We talked about random things, like chess, SATs, and the general decline of a physics education in India. When night finally came, he asked me which bed I wanted. I chose one, and with it my destiny. To this day, I firmly believe that that was the single most important decision I took in my life.

I am a very sound sleeper. There is a saying in my school, that when I sleep, people listen. I'm not sure what they listen to, but what the hell, they go ahead and listen anyway. To the best of my knowledge, I don't snore, at least not loudly. The point is, when I sleep, nothing short of something like, for instance, a saber-toothed tiger or the French Revolution can wake me up.

So next morning, I was getting ready for classes when Ninad walked up to me and said, "Hey Rik, did you sleep well last night?" I thought this was a very thoughtful question to ask. Time proved me wrong. "Yep", I replied brightly; "And you?" Ninad scratched his ear and said, "Yeah ok, could have been better, I suppose. Say, did you notice any bedbugs?"

I stared at him for about twenty seconds, and then said, tonelessly "Bedbugs."

"Yes, bedbugs."

"Er - not that I can think of. Why, are there bedbugs here?"

"HELL YEAH THERE ARE."

This particular conversation ended right there. That day, after classes and everything, we went to sleep as usual. At around two o' clock in the morning, I woke up again and found Ninad sitting bolt upright in the next bed, staring intently at something on the ceiling. Completely nonplussed, I looked groggily as the room swam into focus. There, silhouetted in the soft moonlight seeping through the windows, sitting on his bed in his pajamas and staring at a bedbug on the ceiling, was Ninad. The bedbug in question was not cowering under the gaze. He was putting up a good fight too.

It was an epic psychological struggle. Ninad stared at the bedbug, and the bedbug stared at Ninad. I stared at them both, thinking of a good thing to say. I finally decided on "Ahem, ahem". Not a very smart thing to say, I know. But hey, what would you have done?

Ninad turned round and saw me goggling. His face split into a very toothy and embarrassed smile. "Bedbugs", he said by way of explanation. "So I perceive", I said, and went to bed.

Next day was a holiday. Our first practice test was coming up two days after that, so everyone decided to study a bit. But hey, there's only so much you can study in a day, especially if it is Olympiad math you are talking about. So everyone took it easy. Except - Ninad. He was shut up in the library from nine in the morning till seven at night, poring over ancient dusty volumes of the sort that are used by necromancers, if you know what I mean. We were all very impressed. "Here's a guy who KNOWS his math, and is going to OWN the tests", we said. "Smashing guy, he's giving it his all", we added. "F**K, HOW THE HELL IS HE STUDYING SO MUCH AT A STRETCH?", we concluded.

That evening, a tired and happy Ninad came back to our room, carrying an odd sort of bottle. He looked at me, his face glowing in the rays of the setting sun in an aura of victory, and a day well-spent. He said, in a winning voice, "I studied about bedbugs today."

I looked at him long. "Excuse me?"

"I studied about bedbugs today. In the library."

"You studied about - er - bedbugs today. In the library. All day."

"All day yes. And I found out a lot about them. Their history. Their habits. Their passions."

"Hold on, are we talking about bedbugs here? When you say 'their history'?"

"Yes, of course. D'you know, the first recorded bedbug was observed in Jabbalpur, India, in 1887 by Maharajah Sameerkhand."

Well, the story ends here. I don't remember what I replied. I just remembered his face when he said it. He was ABSOLUTELY serious. He isn't the kind of guy who jokes around. He is the no-nonsense guy. That odd bottle was a lotion of bedbug poison or something of the sort. He meticulously applied it all over his bed every night before he went to sleep. He was found, once or twice, talking to bedbugs. I'm convinced that if he tries hard enough, he will be the first person ever to actually understand bedbugs, their ways of thinking, their philosophy of life, their perspective on existence.

I just mentioned this because I was thinking about Ninad. He is one of the most brilliant students in India, and will be a great and successful person whatever he does in life. But as the story demonstrates, he's also mad. That is good, isn't it? Madness ... it's important to everyone who aspires to dream big one day.

Ninad, man, miss you.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Next Big Things at NASA

Ok, a quick break from studies and an update to my blog.

First, thanks to ALL the people who have commented. I never expected seven comments for my first blog entry :D, so thanks!

I'll try to keep writing as much as possible, but truly regular blogging will only happen from April 5.

I was thinking this morning about SSP. For those of you who don't know, SSP is a really amazing summer camp I went to in the summer of 2007, and which - as the much-clichéd saying goes - changed my life. Well, it really did, so I don't know how else to put it. You can read about SSP here.

Anyway, I went and stayed in the summer camp in California with 33 of the brightest minds from around the world, and guess what we did there. That's right, we had fun! We played around all day, formed a Cult inspired by the Duck (more on that in the coming weeks), played foosball, soccer and poker, hung around with friends till 4 in the morning, went on great field trips, had awesome food, you know, the works. Oh, and occasionally we also studied astronomy (spherical trigonometry and cylindrical coordinates - don't even think about asking) and tracked down an asteroid which appeared to have an attitude problem.

When I came back to India, people were all over me, saying "WOW man, you're the next big thing at NASA, aren't you? You must have studied your [censored] off at SSP and done research beyond our wildest dreams! Did you eat or sleep at all?"

I tried in vain to explain to them that SSP wasn't about studying our whatsits off. We did research, true, but it wasn't exactly earth-shattering. It was all about fun. Well, when people showed an irritating tendency of continuing to disbelieve me, I showed them this video from SSP. The guy in the dinner jacket with the weird sunglasses and the headband a la Jimi Hendrix is me. My valiant opponent is a Greek guy called Alex. Brilliant guy, learned Texas Holdem in no time, and spouted probabilities along the way. The coward who tried to strangle me midway into the fight is a Californian called Liam (more about him later - trust me, this guy has a LOT of stories about him). Other minor background characters are Udbhav (from India), Daksha (from Singapore), and Sydney (from Las Vegas!). If any of you are reading this, miss you loads!



video


If that kind of activity befits the "next big things at NASA", I'm afraid the future of astronomy in the world looks very, very bleak.

By the way, as you can see from my amazingly athletic moves, I love The Matrix trilogy. Me and several million other people. The funny thing is, EVERYONE at SSP liked it. Now would you call that weird?

Z

Monday, March 24, 2008

Numero Uno

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was Blogspot.

At least, that is exactly what it seemed, when I realized with a shock one fine morning that most of my friends had blogs. It seemed that blogging was as much a part of everyday life as - say - eating, sleeping, or fooling around doing nothing. And everyone knew everything about it, except poor me. As always.

So I decided to make one for myself. Don't ask me why, I have no clue. Maybe because of the selfish child in me who started shouting "MOMMY, that friend has a blog, I want one too, boohoo", or something along those lines. Anyway, the point is, one fine morning I decided to have a blog of my own (hey, let's face it, it is a pretty neat idea), and so here I am, sitting blankly in front of my computer screen, wondering what the hell people write as their first ever blog entry.

Ok, before things start getting really serious around here, let's make one thing clear. This is not a serious blog. You won't find me spouting Kafkaesque ideas here, or discussing transcendentalism. This is certainly not a blog where I will express dark thoughts, vile, serpentine, black, twisted ideas that leave people depressed, shattered, and - more importantly - bored. This is just going to be a blog where I will try to express the world as I perceive it. It's really what blogs are all about - they are simply diaries. Albeit ubercool electronic ones.

I have no clue how often I will be able to write in this blog. Maybe once a day, once a week, once an aeon, I have no clue, seriously. It's not my daily planner. It's for recording random strands of thought.

Let's see, what else? Er ... nope, that's it for today. If you like my blog, thank you, I really appreciate it, and DO come back soon. Feel free to leave comments as and when you wish. If you don't like my blog, well, hey, I'm no diplomat. I just write because I feel like it. You are under no obligation to read it.

Oh, and in case you think why my name is the Z-Particle, there's a supercool reason behind that too. Remind me to tell you about it one day. But you gotta admit, the Z-Particle sounds amazingly insanely sexy. Life is all about packaging these days.

Z

PS: Why is this blog called the thirteenth dimension? Well, it has a lot to do with F-Theory, an impossible-to-understand branch of string theory. F-theory deals with objects in 12 dimensions, and incorporates higher topology. And it has a really cool extra dimension attached to "time". But being as I am, I hate two-timers (horrible pun intended). So let's look beyond all those squiggly dimensions of F-theory, and deep into the 13th dimension.