DANGER: Orcs on bicycles ahead!

I knew Saruman was treacherous, but this takes it to a whole new level.

Frodo Baggins

The Boat Race

The 2021 Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, held last Sunday in Ely because of the pandemic, has concluded with Cambridge winning both the men’s and women’s races.

But this post is not about THE boat race. It is a story about MY boat race.

Years ago, in a moment of madness, I joined the Jesus College Boat Club and began my life as a rower. It was the winter of 2005/2006. In hindsight, it was probably the worst time to pick up rowing, considering the fact that you had to start so damn early in the morning when it was awfully cold. Did I mention it was winter back then?

So yes, the first time I dipped my fingers in the River Cam, it felt like liquid nitrogen! Clearly I was not destined to be a rower. I did, however, stick it out until the end of term, ‘competing’ in a couple of events namely the Queens’ Ergs and the Fairbairn Cup. I say ‘competing’ because, let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly Speedy Gonzales when it came to rowing.

By my own reckoning, I was the second ranked novice that term. Second ranked, from the bottom that is! Every training session I pushed myself hard, knowing there was a very thin line separating myself from the title of ‘Worst Novice Ever’ for the Jesus College Boat Club. Ha!

My kids laughed at me when I told them I used to be a rower, until I showed them this picture:

I am both horrified and proud that I even signed up to be a rower that term. Horrified, because if you know anything about me, you’ll know that sports isn’t exactly my forte. In the picture above I look moments away from being ejected out of the boat and into the River Cam for an unplanned swimming session. But still, I am proud that I volunteered for something so out of my league.

My only regret is that I didn’t do more to capture those moments. How could I when I was playing World of Warcraft all the time busy being a medical student?

The past year has taught all of us the priceless value of the outdoors. I’ve written about it numerous times on this blog, but I’ll say it again: I’m incredibly glad that I can just walk out of my door and, just a minute later, find myself in a beautiful park looking at trees and empty fields under an expansive blue sky.

Going back to rowing, I honestly wish I had stuck with it for a bit longer. I gave it up after the 2005 Michaelmas Term but even now, I still remember the exhilarating feeling of gliding across the surface of the River Cam when all 8 rowers were in synchrony with each other.

Incidentally, I went jogging last Sunday (the morning of the 2021 Boat Race) wearing the very same rowing T-shirt as the one in the picture. I must’ve kept it all these years because of its sentimental value, as proof that I too, was once a rower.

Hot Air Balloon

My family and I saw a hot air balloon yesterday while playing in the park. Turns out ballooning has a long history in Oxford, based on this BBC article about James Sadler:

James Sadler: The Oxford balloon man history forgot

From the article:

Balloon fever had struck England 30 years before in 1784 when Sadler had become the first ever Englishman to fly.

Back then, his hot air balloon drifted off from the vast fields by Merton College, Oxford, early on 4 October and rose about 3,600 ft (1097m) in the air. 

Further on in the article it mentions:

And such was the lack of information about our skies that some people thought you could use a paddle to row in the sky.

Sadler had been warned he might collide with Heaven, and that sky dragons might come and attack him.

He was so famous that he once went to Cheltenham in 1785 to conduct a balloon flight and the entire town closed.

Unfortunately we couldn’t really see who it was flying the balloon yesterday. To the anonymous pilot (is that what you call someone who flies a balloon?), thank you for brightening up our day. I hope you made it past the sky dragons safely.

Small Talk

I was sitting in the MRI suite the other day, waiting for my research participant to finish his scan, when I heard the two radiographers talking in the background. They were discussing the various supermarkets in the area, with an intensity that came from a deep and thorough knowledge of the topic.

“Sainsbury’s is here, right next to this roundabout.”

“Ah, but surely you would have to pass an Aldi AND a Morrisons to get there.”

Well, not if you go through this road. Plus, there’s also a Tesco nearby!”

“You don’t say…”

“They have the best offers when it comes to…”

On and on the conversation went. My first reaction was to try to tune out the ‘noise’ and return to the article I was reading in The Economist. “I’m just not that good at making small talk,” was what I told myself.

Then I thought: Why do we label conversations like these as ‘small talk’?

I mean, it was obviously important to the people discussing the issue. And yet, exchanging pleasantries, talking about the weather etc. are all lumped together under the category of ‘small talk’, presumably to differentiate them from the real business at hand, the actual ‘important stuff’.

In all honesty though, we often overestimate the importance of distant events in our life, and underestimate the significance of little things around us.

Take the topic of this week’s The Economist, for example, the one that I was holding in my hand:

No doubt, these issues are important to someone. But who am I kidding? What role do I have to play in any of these? Sure, I may know about events happening a thousand miles away, but what use is that if I can’t even give a stranger directions to the nearest supermarket?

My point is that we need to reassess the balance between what we consider to be important vs what seems trivial in our life. Small talk does not necessarily mean idle talk i.e. gossip. Often, they mean more to people than whatever is splashed across the headlines that day.

Silently, I slip my copy of The Economist into my bag. I focus instead on the conversation in the background, which has now evolved into careful inspection of the exact locations of various supermarkets in Google Maps.

In my mind, I slowly begin to memorise the details:

So to get to Sainsbury’s, take the main road north until you come to a T-junction, not the big one, but the one with a rickety fence next to it. Turn right, and keep going until you pass a flock of sheep…

DPhil Diaries #1

I am halfway through my DPhil and yet I feel like I have only just begun the journey.

In some ways, I wish I can take all that I know now, and go back to the start of my DPhil. Life as a DPhil student was never going to be easy. One aspect that I found particularly difficult was making the transition from thinking like a clinician to thinking like a scientist.

What do I mean by this?

Well, clinicians tend to view something new in terms of whether or not it is useful in clinical practice.

Clinician: You know that exciting new discovery you’ve just made…

Scientist: Yes? (looks up tentatively)

Clinician: Can I use it to help my patients?

Scientist: Well, this discovery is important because it reveals the mechanism of working memory disruption in cerebral small vessel disease.

Clinician: Mmmkayyy, get back to me when you’ve found a way to put it into clinical practice.

Of course, that caricature is only partly true. The gap between the two worlds is smaller than you imagine; more and more people are becoming clinician-scientists.

My own research project involves studying a condition called cerebral small vessel disease and how it affects cognition i.e. the way you think. I really like working in this area because it straddles two different but related fields: experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

The pandemic put a stop to my data collection process, but hopefully in the next few months I will be able to complete this crucial step in my DPhil. Right now, I am writing a review on cerebral small vessel disease as well as working on some voxel-based morphometry analysis of my group’s neuroimaging data. I pray this will all go smoothly inshaAllah.

Changing seasons

In the meantime, the weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and winter is graciously making way for spring. Yesterday morning, I went for a jog at the park next to my house. In the evening, I brought my kids for a walk at the same park. We went to my favourite bench, said hi to the ducks and gangster swans, and stopped to play at the playground.

I’m going to miss these walks for sure when I return to Malaysia.

They are therapeutic despite their simplicity, giving me the priceless opportunity to work through my thoughts in relative solitude. More importantly, they provide me with the opportunity to spend quality time with my kids.

We talk about school and friendship. I explain to my kids the important of looking after nature and the effect of climate change. In return, they educate me on the various Pokémon types and abilities.

Thanks to their dedicated tutoring, I can now say with confidence that my favourite Pokémon are Charizard and Snorlax.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, thank you very much for reading. Here are some pictures I took yesterday of the park around sunrise and sunset. Enjoy!