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Crowd Control

Crowd control

Working from home ain’t easy, especially with kids around! Had to recruit new bodyguards to try and impose some sort of crowd control…

Update (12.09pm):

None survived the encounter with a 3-year-old child. Puny minions!

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Ramadhan 1441H: A Reminiscence

You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.

Surah Al-Baqarah [2:183]

The holy month of Ramadhan has just ended. For some, this marks a return to ‘normal’ life, or at least, a life as normal as can be in this pandemic. For me, however, the passing of Ramadhan this year really feels like losing something valuable. What follows is my humble attempt at recording some of my thoughts on Ramadhan 1441H.

Back to basics

In years past, one of the paradoxical aspects of Ramadhan in Malaysia is that it is often associated with excessiveness rather than frugality. The epitome of this is undoubtedly the all-you-can-eat Ramadhan buffets where you can get nasi kandar, nasi tomato, nasi ayam, nasi goreng, mee goreng, mihun goreng, kueyteow goreng, ayam goreng, ayam merah, ayam tandoori, satay ayam…wait, where was I again? Oh yes, excessiveness! Indeed, the Ramadhan buffet for me is the antithesis of what this holy month should be. If you’ve never been to one, I don’t think you can quite appreciate how much food there often is. Sometimes it feels like war in there, especially when there’s only one piece of lamb chop left and many hungry souls eyeing it!

Let me put my hand up and say that I’m equally guilty of partaking in these all-you-can-eat buffets previously. Thankfully, this year all that wasn’t even a concern as most eating establishments were shut anyway. Instead, we had to eat at home (ooh!) with our families (aah!), which automatically limits the amount of food you can bring to the table.

I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to go back to the basics: spending time with my family, eating a simple meal for buka puasa, reading the Quran on Zoom with my batchmates, performing the terawih prayers together etc. Turns out when you strip away all the relentless marketing for more food, more clothes, more things in general, you end up with the truly valuable moments in life. Who knew!

Staying productive

When I flew back to Malaysia in mid-March, I had a plan to stay productive, by keeping up with the latest medical/neuroscience journals and writing up the introductory chapter to my DPhil. I got in touch with my neurology unit to see if they needed my help, but alhamdulillah by the time I obtained approval to return to clinical duties, the situation in Malaysia had improved slightly to the extent that I could just remain on standby and carry on with my DPhil work.

The only problem was trying to maintain productivity while working from home. This term was supposed to be dedicated to analysing the neuropsychological and neuroimaging data I’ve collected thus far, as well as learning about advanced MRI topics like resting-state functional connectivity and diffusion imaging. Honestly, I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to keep up with all the online lectures but this is one area where I’m determined to put in a lot more effort in the next few weeks inshaAllah.

On the flip side, I am now spending so much time with my 3-year-old son that I have officially been upgraded to Best Buddy status.

Social media use

One last thing that I wanted to write about is the role of social media in a pandemic. In a previous post I mentioned how my use of social media was limited to a few platforms, but in recent weeks, this has coalesced even further to basically just Facebook.

Privacy implications aside (something that deserves a blog post of its own), here’s what I like about social media:

Social media allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends while I was overseas. In particular, as the COVID-19 situation in the United Kingdom was steadily worsening and more and more places started to shut down, I could still follow along with developments in Malaysia. I also found social media useful for charity work particularly through IMARET (in which I have a tiny supporting role).

But social media use also comes with its own pitfalls. Two in particular deserve special mention:

  1. Self-righteous posts and public shaming: All of us have seen this. The hastily-taken snap of people queuing up to go into a supermarket, or cars stuck in traffic, accompanied by harsh words about how people should be staying at home. Yes, people should stay at home as much as they can, but I wonder why we are so quick to judge others negatively for doing exactly the same thing we are doing. The people posting traffic jam pictures, implying that they are going to work but these other people are doing…what? Shopping? Sightseeing? This is one area where I think we can benefit from being less judgmental towards other people.
  2. Fear-mongering: In Malaysia, there’s been a lot of hate directed towards Rohingya refugees, blaming them for all kinds of problems from unemployment to COVID-19. I wonder what we would say if our own families were being massacred, our own homes destroyed etc. A friend of mine wrote how we are being tested here, not as the Muhajirin but as the Ansar i.e. not as the people facing trials and tribulations, but as the people responsible for helping these refugees. May Allah open our hearts and fill it with empathy for others.

Conclusion

Overall, this Ramadhan has acted as a reset button for me, allowing me to pause and take stock of the many blessings I have in life. Although I miss being in Oxford, doing neuroscience-y things and pretending like I know a lot more about human memory than I really do, I am also aware of how privileged I am to be able to batten down the hatches and try my best to weather this storm. And because no lengthy blog post is complete without a Tolkien quote, here’s one from the Lord of the Rings:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.


“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Thank you for making it this far.

Selamat hari raya Aidilfitri, maaf zahir dan batin.

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Mango Tree

Mango tree

It felt good to be able to plant this mango tree that my father-in-law gave to me. May it bloom and bring bountiful rizq to passersby inshaAllah.

P/S: As you can expect, I have absolutely no idea if this is a mango tree even. I guess we’ll see in a few years’ time.

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Echoes Of A Distant Past

At the beginning of the year, if you had told me that soon I will be joining nightly ‘tadarus’ (reading of the Quran) sessions on Zoom with my friends, I would have looked at you and asked “What’s this Zoom thing you’re talking about?”

But such is life, that within a few short weeks, Zoom has become a huge part of many things we do today.

Because of the Movement Control Order (MCO) that has been implemented in Malaysia since mid-March, the month of Ramadhan this year has been very quiet so far. No ‘bazaar Ramadhan’, no ‘terawih’ prayers at the mosque, non of the usual activities that accompany the month of Ramadhan. To try to break the monotony, I invited some MCKK batchmates of mine for ‘tadarus’ sessions every night via Zoom. The aim here is to get us to read the Quran, even a little, especially during this blessed month of Ramadhan.

Alhamdulillah, I am really happy to see this simple being embraced by others. Attendance has been unexpectedly decent too, with about 15-20 people tuning in every night. We wanted to keep it casual, so everyone can choose to either read half a page of the Quran, or simply listen to other people. That way, we hoped more people would be attracted to join the session, even if just to have a quick chat at the end.

So far so good.

What I didn’t anticipate was the rush of memories flooding back in, transporting me back to those years I spent the month of Ramadhan in the quaint town of Kuala Kangsar.

I entered MCKK as a Form 1 student on 13 January 1997 which was near the beginning of Ramadhan that year. Five years later, my batchmates and I left ‘Koleq’ also during Ramadhan, after sitting for our ‘Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia’ examination. So as my friends were reading the Quran on Zoom, I couldn’t help but visualise the nights standing in ‘terawih’ prayers at the Prep School ‘surau’, together with these new friends of mine who would go on to become the brothers I never had. Likewise, my mind automatically wandered to ‘iftar’ in the Carey Hall, supplemented with food and drink bought from the ‘bazaar Ramadhan’ in the area popularly known as ‘Lembah’.

Looking back at those years, I can honestly say that they made me who I am, for better or worse. Indeed, for me personally, Kuala Kangsar is the closest thing I have to a ‘kampung’, not in the physical sense of where my relatives are, but in the sense of it being a place where I return time and time again in search of peace and tranquility. Even now, despite having spent time in other peaceful places like Oxford and Cambridge, the introvert in me inevitably longs to make another short trip to Kuala Kangsar. Definitely something to do before I fly back to the United Kingdom later this year inshaAllah

I am writing these words just after concluding tonight’s ‘tadarus’ session, during which I couldn’t help but be captivated by these few verses in Surah Al-Anfal:

True believers are those whose hearts tremble with awe when God is mentioned, whose faith increases when His revelations are recited to them, who put their trust in their Lord, who keep up the prayer and give to others out of what We provide for them. Those are the ones who truly believe. They have high standing with their Lord, forgiveness, and generous provision.

Surah Al-Anfal [8:2-4]

Have a blessed Ramadhan everyone.

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Origami Spinosaurus

Origami spinosaurus

Location: Selangor, Malaysia

I thought it would be a good idea to introduce the kids to origami during this Movement Control Order period. My son found a YouTube video purporting to show an ‘easy’ way to make a spinosaurus. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the head to fold correctly so for some weird reason this spinosaurus ended up looing upwards. Oh well, better to spot a falling meteor I guess!

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My Plan For The Site

I read a really interesting article entitled ‘Running a Paid Membership Program‘ by Craig Mod recently. That got me thinking about my long term plans for this site. I’m lucky enough to have a job that, while it will never make me a millionaire, is more than good enough for meeting my basic needs. So in that sense, Craig’s advice doesn’t really apply to me as I’m not intending to set up a membership program or anything for this site.

I do, however, like the idea of building an audience of like-minded people who can appreciate the sort of things I pay attention to. One really useful tip I came across in the article is to:

Start writing / making videos / producing what it is you intend to produce for members today, build up that muscle, and do it, ideally, for years before launching the program

Yes, it takes years of work to build a following, especially if you shy away from sensational news or social media spamming. I’m OK with that. I think if you look at this endeavour as a long-term project, then it enables you to stop obsessing about where you are now, and start focusing on the trajectory that you’re on. For me, this translates to the following: it doesn’t matter if only 1-2 people are reading my site daily (as is happening now), as long as I keep on producing useful articles and my readership is growing.

Even though I don’t have any plans for recruiting ‘members’ to this site, I really like the idea of having a place where I can post my thoughts regularly, and where people can come to read (and maybe discuss?) what I’ve written. For years I have been using RSS to follow blogs like Daring Fireball by John Gruber, Kottke.org by Jason Kottke, and Six Colors by Jason Snell. I guess I like the idea of a blog that is personality-driven, rather than the bland news and opinion pages I often see on newspaper websites.

In summary, my plan for the site is this: to use it as an avenue for sharing my day-to-day experiences as a doctor, researcher, and lecturer with other people who are interested in these sort of things. Hopefully someone reading the site will find something useful, funny, or uplifting that they can then use to motivate them in whatever it is they’re doing.

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Keeping Fit During The Movement Control Order

I had gotten into something resembling a fitness routine prior to this Movement Control Order (MCO). I don’t have a car in Oxford, so I just cycled everywhere I needed to go. 80% of the time, this is fine—enjoyable even—given how nice some of the cycle paths are over there. The other 20% of the time, I’m huffing and puffing uphill trying to get to the John Radcliffe Hospital, or gripping my handlebars like a madman trying to prevent myself from being blown over while cycling in strong winds.

In addition to cycling, I also went to the gym 2-3 times a week. For me, this was a pleasant outcome from reading the book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. For those of you who’ve never come across the book, it’s basically about how small changes make a big difference in the long run. With my gym routine, I started off doing simple cardio once a week. Truth be told, at that point that was all my body could cope with, I was pretty badly out of shape! But slowly I started to vary the routine, in addition to increasing the frequency of my gym visits. Lo and behold, after a few months, I had gone from 0 visits to the gym to going there every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday almost without fail. I even cycled to the gym during Storm Ciara, although this sounds braver (or more foolhardy) than it really was, seeing as in Oxford it was basically just stronger winds than usual.

I flew back to Malaysia around the time of the first MCO in mid-March to be with my family while continuing my DPhil work remotely. One thing I’ve found challenging is the inability to go anywhere to exercise. This has forced me to change my routine slightly. I’m doing less cardio (which may be a good thing?) and more body weight type of exercises.

I tried running around the porch. Given that one round takes me about 20m, it took me almost 250 rounds to get to 5km. To avoid wearing out only one knee, I ran clockwise for 500m before going anti-clockwise for another 500m, alternating between the two until I got to 5km. Overall, not a very fun experience! Also, my pace of 9’51″/km was very slow as I was unable to get a clear stretch of road to build up any kind of speed. I mean, I’m a pretty slow runner at the best of times, but I’m not THAT slow usually.

Calories from 5km run

So I switched to doing more body weight exercises, and that seems to be more promising. At the moment, I’m trying a new routine whereby I start off with some jumping jacks and then switch between leg, chest, shoulder, and back exercises. The whole routine takes about 10 minutes and includes things like:

  • Jumping jacks
  • Air squat
  • Prisoner squat
  • Mountain climber
  • Step in
  • Bird dog
  • Superman
  • Push up
  • Shoulder tap
  • Bridge
  • Straight arm plank
  • Elbow plank

I try to do 2 rounds each session, although towards the end I tend to get a bit wobbly from exhaustion! Haha…

One interesting thing I’ve discovered is that performing the ‘Taraweeh’ prayers burns up a respectable amount of calories (see below). I’m trying to figure out if changing the type of exercise from ‘Mind & Body’ to ‘Yoga’ or ‘Fitness Gaming’ changes how it counts those calories, but I don’t have enough data to come to any conclusions just yet.

Calories from Taraweeh prayers

So yes, ladies and gentlemen, do not neglect your prayers!

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Books

Books

Location: Oxford, UK

Just some of the books that I managed to read last year. I particularly enjoyed ‘The World As It Is’ by Ben Rhodes.

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Learning How To Learn

I wrote a short post on Facebook yesterday that garnered some attention (by my own measly standards), so I thought I’d expand on the post here.

First of all, let me just say that I’m always wary of giving parenting advice such as this. Why? Because to a certain extent, it implies that I’ve got it all sorted out when the reality is quite the opposite. Being a parent is a bit like building a plane while flying it, or flying a plane while building it, whichever order you prefer. Most of the time I struggle to get my kids to stop playing ‘Frogger in Toy Town’ or ‘Cricket Through the Ages’. Heck, I often end up joining them…that cricket game is hilarious!

Cricket Through the Ages

Secondly, I’m aware of how lucky I am to have the luxury of staying at home to look after my kids without having to worry too much about where the next meal is going to come from, how to pay the bills etc. Being in lockdown is clearly a lousy situation, it really sucks. For some people, it’s an inconvenience; for others, it’s an unmitigated disaster. I don’t want to downplay the negative aspects of a lockdown, merely to share with you some of the methods I’ve tried to make the best of this unfortunate situation.

So to re-cap, the Facebook post was about giving my kids a topic to research and present. Basically I choose a topic at random, they get half a day or so to read about it online, and then they have to prepare a short presentation about said topic.

My reason for doing this is not so much to get them to learn things, but to learn how to learn.

Kids these days are faced with a daunting challenge i.e. how to make sense of things in a world overwhelmed with information. That’s why I think one of the most important skills to acquire at an early age is how to sift through the pile of information available, in order to get to the bit of knowledge that you need. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and unless you train them to do it, it’s not going to get any easier as they grow up.

I’m being relatively flexible about how my kids research their topics. In fact, I’m kind of hoping that they make mistakes along the way because I think it’s valuable to know how you ended up making a mistake in the first place.

Because they’re new to this, my kids often end up copying down whatever is in the very first website they encounter. Often, this is Wikipedia, so in that sense, they’re not that different from many university students! Eventually, I hope to nudge them away from just using Wikipedia, but for now, I just want them to develop a sense of excitement towards independent learning…so Wikipedia it is!

One tweak I’ve made is to get them to alternate between presenting their findings in English one day ,and Bahasa Melayu on the next day. I really want to include Arabic and Mandarin in this list, but I’m not fluent in either language. Oh well, something for the dad to learn I guess! I don’t know how long they’ll be able to stick to this routine, but hopefully they will pick up some useful habits while doing it.

And now, back to ‘Cricket Through the Ages’…

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Ship

Ship

Location: The National Gallery, London

I can’t be the only person to appreciate the amount of love and care that went into painting this ship.