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Dendrite

Location: Cutteslowe and Sunnymead Park, Oxford

Dendrites are cellular projections that function as information-gathering structures in a neuron.

According to PubMed Wikipedia, the word ‘dendrite‘ is derived from the Greek word δένδρον déndron which means “tree”.

Looking at the picture above, it’s not hard to see why neuroanatomists immediately think of trees when they peer at a neuron under a microscope.

See also: Neurons In Nature

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Neurons In Nature

I have a lot of photos of trees, more than what a normal person would (should?) have in their collection.

In my defence, trees always remind me of neurons for some reason, and for that very reason I find myself taking photos of them whenever I look up and see the familiar branching patterns.

Take, for example, this image:

Compare that with some of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s incredible drawings of neurons, like the one that graces the cover of the book ‘A Beautiful Brain’ seen below:

It’s amazing how similar they look, isn’t it?

So whenever you feel tired of looking down at your smartphone, may I suggest looking up every once in a while to admire these ‘neurons’ in our natural surroundings? Just don’t walk into a tree, that’s all!

Disclaimer: This may, or may not, have happened to the author before.

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Two Views

I am not a runner. I would much prefer flying my epic 310% speed mount in World of Warcraft going to the gym. The most I’ve ever accomplished in terms of running is probably contributing a couple of points to Sulaiman House after (barely) finishing the annual cross-country event in Kuala Kangsar.

So yeah, running’s not exactly my forte.

Occasionally, however, with much ‘encouragement’ from my lovely wife (thanks dear!), I gather enough motivation to drag my fat ass off the couch, put on my sports shoes, and go out for a run.

And on days like today, when I arrive early enough at the park (which is just next to our house by the way) that there are very few souls around, I am rewarded with glorious views of the landscape bathed in the golden light of the rising sun.

While out on my run this morning, I came across an unoccupied bench in the park and sat there for a while, absorbing the view and appreciating the tranquility around me. I think it’s a shame that in our world today, we seem to have lost any appreciation for the simple act of being alone with our thoughts. Our days are filled with Zoom calls, Spotify playlists, YouTube videos…it’s rare to have a moment of solitude.

But moments of solitude are very important, especially if you get to spend it in nature. They remind us that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that there is something bigger, and more importantly, that the world is in God’s hands.

I like this quote from an article by Andrew Sullivan entitled ‘I Used To Be A Human Being‘:

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

Sitting on that park bench earlier, I couldn’t help but recall these verses from Surah Ali ‘Imran of the Qur’an:

There truly are signs in the creation of the heavens and earth, and in the alternation of night and day, for those with understanding, who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down, who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth: ‘Our Lord! You have not created all this without purpose– You are far above that!– so protect us from the torment of the Fire. 

Surah Ali ‘Imran [3:190-191]
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Happy Birthday Class of 2001

Batch picture taken in 1997.

Sometime in 1996, I remember being asked to step into the headmaster’s office at my primary school in Subang Jaya. There, I was told that my teachers wanted to apply for a residential school place on my behalf. All I had to do was answer a simple question:

Which school did I want to apply to?

“MCKK”, I replied, without thinking too much about it. After all, I had more important issues to deal with back then. My rival (and also good friend) Wong Wai Kit was in danger of overtaking me in the class rankings. Plus, I needed to figure out what cards to put in my latest Magic: The Gathering deck. Also, the Backstreet Boys had a new song and I still hadn’t memorised it! Ok I’m just kidding on the last one…or am I?

Anyway, it was only in December of 1996 when I started sweating about my spur-of-the-moment answer a few months earlier. I had yet to receive any news regarding the outcome of my application. All I had was an offer from a religious school, Sekolah Menengah Agama Medan Harun (I tried to Google it today but couldn’t find any evidence that it still exists). I was tempted to accept the offer, you know, just for the novelty of it. Thankfully, the long-awaited letter offering me a place at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) arrived a few days later. I was ecstatic!

My parents and I arrived in Kuala Kangsar on 12 January 1997. It was a Sunday, and as we made our way to the Kuala Kangsar Rest House, I got my first glimpse of the school. There it was, the Big School, with its Graeco-Roman columns, looking totally different from any other school building I had ever seen. To a 12-year-old boy like me, it was like a vast castle, one that I somehow got to call home for the next 5 years.

As for the rest house itself, it was cosy enough, and we even met a few other families who were there to register their sons. These days, the rest house has been refurbished and is now known as the Lanai Casuarina, but back then it was a much more modest establishment.

Registration Day

The next day, 13 January 1997, I stepped into the Hargreaves Hall for the first time as an MCKK student. Huge boards on the walls listed down the names of former Best Students, Scholars, and Head Prefects. Our teachers waited eagerly at the front of the hall.

Welcome to MCKK, the No. 1 World Class School, I believe he would have said. May Allah SWT place Allahyarham Haji Baharom Kamari in the company of the ‘solihin’, and reward him for all his good deeds.

We listened to a speech by the Headmaster Haji Baharom Kamari (who sadly passed away recently on 1 January 2021, innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raaji’uun). Afterwards, I made my way to the Prep School where I was directed to my new home, Dorm B. Dorm B was one of the smaller dormitories there with only 16 boys in it (laundry numbers B27-B42). We slept in double decker beds, complete with mosquito nets that we had to tuck in (perfectly) every morning. My bedmate was a kid from Taiping, Faiz a.k.a Bugs, who always seemed to have a supply of tomato juice in his locker. Knowing what life in a dormitory is like, perhaps that was the only drink that no one else wanted, which guaranteed that he could consume it in peace!

Another dorm-mate, who’s now an Orthopaedic surgeon, wasn’t so lucky; everyone knew he had a steady supply of biscuits in his locker. What usually transpired was that the poor guy would try to open his locker door quietly by just a few inches, and fish around blindly for some biscuits. Someone would inevitably spot what he was doing and a few seconds later those biscuits would be gone, passed around from one person to another in the dorm.

Back to 13 January 1997…

Starting life in a new environment is always a nerve-wrecking event. This was no exception. I looked around and noticed another kid in the top bunk of the double decker bed next to mine. Amid the hustle and bustle of people settling into their respective dormitories, he was busy studying.

I was impressed!

I even remember the exact book he was holding: it was the ‘Sejarah’ (History) textbook, and he was reading it as if it was actually interesting, you know, like a Dragon Ball comic or something.

“Damn!” I said to myself, it’s going to be really hard to do well here! These kids are so motivated! How the hell am I going to survive? Maybe this was not such a good idea after all.

Living The Good Life

Thankfully, all my worries were put to rest by the multitude of self-improvement activities imposed upon us by our helpful Prep School Prefects. Of course, by ‘self-improvement activity’ I really mean torture. And by ‘helpful’, I mean ‘sadistic’! Ha ha ha…

Throughout the year, we were subjected to all kinds of punishments: push-ups, knuckle push-ups, running laps around the dining hall, sleep deprivation, hauling a big-ass roller around the Big School field…we had to do it all! Our bleeding knuckles were testament to the amount of ‘love and care’ showered upon us by our seniors.

Another ‘motivational’ session in progress, possibly due to the haphazard arrangement of underwear on the railings behind us. Note the three Dorm B boys having an impromptu meeting at the back. Clearly our prefects weren’t paying enough attention!

Even so, there were many light-hearted moments during these ‘motivational’ sessions. I remember one night in particular when my batchmates and I were doing push-ups in the area next to our dormitory called the Grey. It was probably around 3am or so, and to make matters worse, it was raining and we were shivering as we had been ‘involuntarily exercising’ for quite some time. The cold rain kept on falling, running in mini-rivers around us. That is, apart from one brief moment when the water miraculously turned warm as it flowed around our hands. Someone clearly had neglected to go to the toilet before lights off. And as Dr Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, “When you gotta go, you gotta go!” Until now, I have no idea who the culprit was, but thanks anyway bro!

Times have changed, and I suspect if anyone tried to replicate this sort of educational environment nowadays, they would get in serious trouble with the school. Not to mention the inevitable leak that will go viral in countless WhatsApp groups everywhere. As any modern day philosopher can tell you, Hell hath no fury like a bored netizen!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning the practise of physical punishment just for the sake of it, but speaking from personal experience, neither am I saying that it has no value either.

I sometimes ask myself, do I resent being the ‘victim’ of ‘torture’ at the hands of our Prep School Prefects? With the benefit of hindsight, my answer is…not at all. On the contrary, I am indebted to them for making me, and my batchmates, who we are now. To their credit, it couldn’t have been easy to look after 100+ boys from all kinds of backgrounds. We were the sons of farmers, doctors, rubber tappers, engineers, businessmen, teachers…all forced to somehow learn to become independent, but at the same time, to become part of a larger community, a band of brothers. If anything, the experience taught us to look beyond our petty concerns. We were constantly reminded that being there was a privilege, and that privilege came with a responsibility to contribute towards society.

Kolej istimewa
Didikan untuk semua
Keluar membimbing negara
Maju terus mara

So to Foodle, Zarox, Mon, (Allahyarham) Annuaruddin Mustofa a.k.a Onek, Azam, and Buana…my sincere thanks to you all.

We’re One Big Family

It’s been 24 years since these events took place, and I can honestly say that 1997 was one of the best years of my life. It was the year I got to know a bunch of strangers who would go on to become my friends and eventually, my brothers. Together, we make up MCKK’s Class of 2001. In our WhatsApp group, we sometimes joke about who was in the first intake, who came in during the second intake etc. So in anticipation of these jokes, let me say this once and for all:

It doesn’t matter whether you joined us on 13 January 1997, in February that year, or in 2000. Nor does it matter if you left the school in 1997, 1999, or 2001.

You’re part of our big family. Always have been, always will be.

All grown up in 2001 (or so we thought).

Fiat sapientia virtus.

B34
13 January 2021
Oxford, United Kingdom

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Cold Morning

Alhamdulillah, the children were able to experience snow for the first time in their lives yesterday morning.

One of the perks of living next to a park is that we can still go for a quick walk despite the lockdown. I took this opportunity to drag my kids out of bed early so that they can see the splendour of freshly fallen snow before more people started walking about in it.

In my heart, I hope they will grow up to love and appreciate the environment.

The issue of climate change, or to use a better term, global warming, is something that is not given enough emphasis right now. Whether in the form of flooding (as we are seeing in Malaysia), or forest fires, the impact of global warming is only set to become more severe unless we take better care of our world.

I want to teach my children to become better stewards of the environment. After all, it’s the only one we’ve got, at least until someone figures out how to terraform Mars!

The world is a beautiful place, despite all the challenges we are facing right now, and it would be a shame to lose this beauty because of our reckless attitude towards the environment.

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Why I Wake Up At 5am Every Day

I first developed the habit of waking up at 5am probably a few years ago when doing so seemed to be the only way I could get some peace and quiet before my kids woke up (sorry kids!).

In Malaysia, this is way easier because the time for ‘Subuh‘ (or Fajr) prayer normally starts at around 5.45am, giving me some time to accomplish a few of the things I will be describing in this post. Here in the UK, things are slightly different because the starting time for ‘Subuh‘ can differ by several hours over the year.

The point is, when I say 5am, what I really mean is waking up approximately ‘an hour or so’ before the time for ‘Subuh‘.

Golden Hour

People do their best work at different times of the day. Some are morning larks, who perform best in the mornings. Others are night owls who tend to burn the midnight oil working.

There’s no doubt in my mind at least that the hour before ‘Subuh‘ is the best hour of my day, and here are my reasons for saying so:

Fresh Start

Waking up early in the morning provides me with the opportunity for a fresh start each and every day. It reminds me of this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip (incidentally Bill Watterson’s final one) where Calvin is excited about having ‘a day full of possibilities’.

Calvin & Hobbes

That is precisely how I feel on the days when I manage to wake up early.

Over the years, I’ve really started to appreciate the ability to look at the coming day as if it’s a clean slate. All of us are sometimes burdened by unnecessary worries about work we haven’t completed, overdue assignments, past arguments etc. By starting the day fresh, I feel like I have a better chance of tackling these issues in a reasonable, intelligent, way.

Mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness has become increasingly popular worldwide but it is far from new. People have been finding ways to achieve mindfulness for millennia. Some do so by exercising, others by meditating. For me, the best way to obtain some peace and tranquility is by performing the ‘tahajjud‘ prayer and, since the beginning of this year, by reading 2 pages of the Qur’an immediately afterwards.

I am hesitant to talk about this practise because I really don’t want you to think that I’m this super-motivated person who manages to perform ‘tahajjud‘ all the time. That is the seed of insincerity that negates whatever good deeds one performs. And truth be told, I know of many other people who are infinitely better at this than I am. So please don’t think highly of me just because you’re reading this.

What I do want to share with you is the tremendous value of this mindfulness practise. Sure, doing a couple of ‘raka’at‘ plus reading a couple of pages of the Qur’an may not seem like much, but if there’s one thing that I’m 100% certain about, it is this: I feel much more at peace on the days when I manage to wake up early and do these 2 things compared to the days when I skip this activity.

I have a lot more to say about peace actually, but perhaps I’ll save it for a later blog post. For now, let me just say that being at peace is often underrated in the modern world’s pursuit of happiness.

Information Gathering

Last but not least, waking up early gives me time to read, read, and read like the nerd I am.

Most mornings, I go through a few news websites reading about what’s happened around the world in the last 24 hours. I am conflicted about the value of this; on the one hand, I enjoy reading the news and it genuinely seems like a sensible thing to do, but on the other hand, much of it is depressing (especially nowadays) and doesn’t really concern me personally.

In line with my New Year’s resolution, I am trying to shift my focus away from day-to-day news and towards deeper, more intellectually-stimulating writing such as long-form articles, medical journals, and magazines like The Economist that gives me a more analytical take on the news. If your mind is like a garden, why would you plant garbage in there? Try instead to plant seeds that will grow into healthy trees that will benefit everyone around you.

Conclusion

I hope I have managed to spark in you some interest in exploring the benefits of waking up early every day. One thing missing from this post is information on how to do so i.e. what are the things I do to make it easy to get out of bed so early in the morning.

Fear not, I will elaborate on this in a future blog post inshaAllah. I feel that this is such an important topic that it really deserves its own post.

After all, losers plan, winners execute.

A lot of what I’m going to say about this topic boils down to the habit-forming strategies discussed in ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. I can’t recommend this book enough. It is probably the single book that has made the biggest difference in how I approach things in recent years. Looking back at what I’ve written in the past year, I notice that I’ve already mentioned this book twice so far in the following posts:

So stay tuned for tips on nurturing this, and many other, healthy and rewarding habits. Until then, take care everyone.

Assalamu’alaikum, peace be upon you.

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The Special One

Graffiti inside a phone booth located near the Blavatnik School of Government and Oxford University Press on Walton Street, Oxford.

Important reminder to stay humble?

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Welcome 2021

Are you one of those people who believe in setting New Year’s resolutions? Well, I am!

A new year is like a fresh page in a nice Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, waiting for you to fill it in with ideas and thoughts about what you want to achieve. In this post, I want to try and give you a sense of my thought process for planning my year ahead.

Role-playing

I’ve been a big fan of role-playing games ever since I was in primary school. By far the best role-playing game in existence is Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D for short. What I particularly love about D&D is the ability to choose the role that you will be playing. I’m a wizard at heart, which in a roundabout way even translates into my real life role of being a clinician-scientist (I think).

So yes, I think about the my roles seriously!

One way this is helpful is when planning your life. I first read about this concept in Stephen Covey’s book ‘First Things First‘. This book changed my life, honestly. It taught me the idea of identifying the key roles that you have in life, and then thinking of what your priorities are for each role.

For me, the important roles I have right now are:

  • Personal i.e. my relationship with myself
  • Family member
  • DPhil student in Clinical Neurosciences

And to a lesser extent:

  • Friend
  • Community member
  • Neurologist / clinical lecturer

Sure, there are other roles that I occasionally occupy, but these are the ones I consider to be foundational to who I am. The key here is to be realistic with yourself; one cannot prioritise every single thing in life. For me, the most important responsibilities I have right now are related to my own self, my family members, and my PhD. That doesn’t mean I’ll be neglecting my other roles, just that if push comes to shove, I know which one to prioritise.

Take my role as a neurologist, for example. Undoubtedly, this is something very near and dear to me. I’ve wanted to be a neurologist since before going into medical school! But right this very moment, I’m not actually working as a neurologist, nor am I involved in teaching medical students. So even though this remains a crucial role for me, for now I’m content to put less emphasis on it while I focus on other aspects of my life.

Personal

First things first: what are my responsibilities to myself?

Here, I tend to split things into 3 categories: physical, mental, and spiritual.

Physically, I want to be healthy. This is by far the most important goal I have for 2021. Without health, it’s difficult to achieve anything else; health is wealth. My goal for this year is to improve 3 areas of my physical health: diet, movement, and sleep. Diet-wise, I want to follow Michael Pollan’s advice in his book ‘In Defense of Food‘:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I’ve yet to come across better advice when it comes to food, so I’ll just stick with this one.

Movement is important, something that we don’t do very much in our modern lives. I’m not just talking about going to the gym for a cardio session (which I can’t do anyway these days thanks to the damn COVID restrictions). I’m talking about something more basic, the idea that we should try to be constantly moving during our waking lives. Part of this is walking more steps every day, part of it is me also toying with the idea of getting a standing desk at work. We’ll see how this goes.

Spiritually, this year I want to read and write more. I want to spend more time reading the Quran, not just for the sake of reading it, but in order to try and understand it more, and hopefully to commit more parts of it to memory. I also want to move away from reading day-to-day news (which is mostly horrible things) to consuming slower content: longform articles, medical journals, and The Economist (for news). Apart from writing in this blog, I want to try and develop a journalling habit where I physically write things in a notebook. Writing is therapeutic, especially when you do it with pen and paper I think. That’s why I’ve put reading and writing under my ‘spiritual’ category.

Family member

I am very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity to spend more time with my wife and children. Being in a foreign country can be tough at times, but I’m hoping my kids will become more resilient following this experience. Time to teach them some grit!

Both my wife and I have been very busy in the past due to our clinical work, so getting to spend some quality time with our kids is a real blessing.

But there’s also another aspect to being a family member which is my relationship with my extended family. If I’m brutally honest with myself, this is the area where I have failed miserably in the past. This is the area that I most need to improve, and there’s no better time to start doing so than right now.

Although I’m mostly an introvert, someone who is perfectly happy to sit at home reading a book, I deeply admire people around me who are more outward-looking. My mother-in-law is one such example: someone who makes the effort to touch bases with countless other friends and family members, even if there’s no formal occasion. In contrast, I hardly even know my own cousins!

Truth be told, I’m a bit uncomfortable writing about these things because I’ve never really had close relationships with my extended family. I think this is a mistake, one I intend to rectify if I can inshaAllah.

Being 10,000 km away from everyone makes it harder to do so. Being in a pandemic doesn’t help either.

But the fact that times are difficult makes it even more important to make sure that everyone is OK. Put simply, I don’t want to be somebody who is successful on his own, while other people I should care about suffer in silence. That would be the ultimate irony, wouldn’t it, to live in a hyperconnected world where you know what a stranger had for breakfast (hint: it’s on their Instagram feed) but aren’t even aware that your family members are having problems putting food on the table. What a sad world that would be!

PhD student

I am cautiously optimistic about my DPhil. On the one hand, I know what I need to do in terms of data collection, data analysis etc. On the other hand, I have no idea how to plan for the future giving the rapidly-shifting nature of the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

Consider this example: how does one plan to test 30 more patients when one doesn’t even know how long the current restrictions are going to last?

Look, I understand that it’s difficult to plan and coordinate anything during a pandemic. But I also think that the UK government has mostly made a mess of it, and in fact, are pretty much clueless about what they need to be doing. As of last night, the UK is no longer part of the European Union, and people in government are talking as if this is a good thing! How did a once-mighty Empire end up abandoning their obligations like this? Or in the words of King Théoden of Rohan, ‘How did it come to this?’

How indeed.

Nevertheless, despite all the problems and challenges, I remain deeply interested in the topic. I think my area of research has important implications for my patients, and it is for their sake that I continue to struggle with the task of doing a PhD during a pandemic. May Allah ease the hardships, and make this journey a rewarding one for everyone involved.

So there you have it, my messy thought process for planning the year ahead. For what it’s worth, I’m constantly reassessing my goals, to make sure that they stay relevant to who I am and who I intend to be. Wish me luck!