Stars

While waiting for my kids to finish their karate lesson, I decided to play around with Night Mode on my iPhone. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a tripod with me, so I did the next best thing; I put my iPhone one a metal pole with a flat top, allowing me to adjust the Night Mode setting without having to hold the phone.

The picture I got was OK (I guess), but it looked better after some quick adjustments in the Photos app. What I would really like to do is get a picture of the Milky Way core, but I’ll have to do a bit more planning for that.

Nevertheless, seeing the stars above reminded me of the lyrics to this song by Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens):

How great the wonders of the heavens
And the timeless beauty of the night
How great – then how great the Creator?
And its stars like priceless jewels
Far beyond the reach of kings
Bow down for the shepherd guiding him home

MacBook Pro, Unleashed

To say that I am excited about the new MacBooks Pro would be a gross understatement; the new M1 Pro / M1 Max MacBooks Pro are absolutely phenomenal! All that’s left for me is to figure out how I can afford one without having to then file for bankruptcy! =)

But first, some background into my decision-making process.

I am the owner of what I (and many others) think is the last generation of truly well-designed MacBooks Pro. Yes, I am speaking of the Retina MacBook Pro from 2015 or so, before Apple went crazy on aesthetics and neglected the real purpose of a pro-level laptop. Granted, in recent years Apple has dialled down some of those changes—goodbye butterfly keyboard, you will NOT be missed—but until today I had not been very impressed with any of the laptops they released from 2016 or so. The M1 Macs released last year were a step in the right direction, I thought, but at the back of my mind I knew they could do better than that.

And boy have they actually delivered! Here, take a look at the tech specs.

I am genuinely curious to see if the 16-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro (the one I’m currently eyeing) can do a better job than an iMac Pro at running my neuroimaging analyses. Currently, I am figuring out how to do MRI tractography analysis which involves generating millions of streamlines (connections) between different brain regions. My old MacBook Pro struggles to finish analysing a single person’s MRI scan, and even my iMac Pro at the office is finding it challenging. Below is a screenshot showing all 10 iMac Pro cores in use by tckgen, the process responsible for generating all those streamlines:

Logically, these new laptops should be able to outperform the iMac Pro from a few years ago but still, it’s mind-blowing to see so much power in a portable form factor.

Apples deserves some kudos for having the courage (finally, a fitting place to use that word) to remove the touch bar and bring back genuinely useful things like the MagSafe port and the SDXC card slot. Their choice of the word ‘Unleashed’ to describe today’s event is also perfect; I can’t wait to get my hands on one of these. So, yeah, if any of you know someone who would be willing to sponsor one for me, let’s talk! =)

We Want MOAA.R!

I’m not sure if there’s a better way to do this, but when you have multiple R scripts to run every single time, it makes sense to combine everything into a single “Mother-Of-All-Analyses” kind of script.

As you can see, I’m still very much a script kiddie when it comes to running analyses in R. But even at this stage, I can already see how useful it is to know all this stuff. Anyone wanting to be a clinician-scientist should seriously consider dedicating some amount of time to learning the ins and outs of statistics instead of just delegating the work to a statistician (as I know many people still do).

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough following his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession. It is also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945.

I first read about Blenheim Palace in one of Bill Bryson’s books; I think it was “Notes From A Small Island”. What fascinated me the most was not the Palace itself, but its grounds, the work of one Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

Thankfully, Blenheim Palace is just 20 minutes down the road from where I live, so in June this year I brought my family along for a visit. One good thing about the venue is that they let you upgrade your day ticket into an Annual Pass for free, an offer that we gratefully accepted. I even managed to squeeze in another visit in July, having convinced a few friends to accompany me for a walk around the grounds.

Below are some pictures from my two trips to Blenheim Palace:

View of the East Gate with its tapering walls, an optical illusion of sorts designed to give the impression of greater height.
The Palace Entrance.
The Great Hall ceiling showing the Duke of Marlborough presenting the plan for the Battle of Blenheim to Britannia.
The Blenheim Despatch a hastily scribbled note by the Duke of Marlborough on the back of an old tavern bill, telling his wife Sarah “I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know that her Army has had a glorious victory.”
Statue of Queen Anne in the Long Library. The Duchess actually had a public spat with the Queen, but sought to rewrite history by erecting this statue in the library.
The Gilded Cage, a sculpture by Ai Weiwei in the garden. The duck in the picture kept on following me everywhere for some reason.
The Duke & Duchess of <insert imaginary place name here>.
Winton Churchill’s favourite fruit cake.
Into the Marlborough Maze.
Roses in the Rose Garden.
Grand Cascade & Pump House.
Standing in front of the south portico which is topped by a bust of Louis XIV that was looted by the Duke of Marlborough from Tournai in 1709.
View of Blenheim Palace from the South Lawn.

And finally, a gallery of miscellaneous pictures taken during those visits:

DPhil Diaries #3

It has become almost a cliché to say that everyone’s PhD journey is different. Well, mine is no different. I mean, mine is different, obviously…from other people’s PhDs, but the same, oh you get what I mean!

One important milestone during a PhD is when you complete all your data collection and can focus on analysing and writing up your research. When the pandemic first reared its ugly head, I thought for sure that it would delay my data collection process significantly. After all, my research involves participants with cerebral small vessel disease, who are almost always in the highest risk category as far as COVID-19 is concerned.

Last year, our lab had to stop seeing research participants for almost 6 months. In fact, it was almost 9 months until we started feeling more confident about bringing in participants for research assessments. As much as data collection is important to us, we also have a moral duty to protect our participants from harm. Coming for a research visit is not the same as attending an actual appointment in clinic; one is voluntary, the other is necessary. We tried switching to online assessments but whereas it was mostly fine for younger research participants, things were not so straightforward when it came to people with neurological conditions.

Despite all that, by some miraculous route, I now find myself very close to finishing my data collection alhamdulillah. I’m hoping to wrap it all up by the end of October before it gets really cold but we’ll see how it goes. One potential problem is this year’s flu season—I call it fresher’s flu—making people sick and more likely to cancel their research visits.

Speaking of freshers, the end of September inevitably means an influx of people into central Oxford. Yes, I’m talking about the arrival of undergrads! Being a collegiate university has its advantages, but one disadvantage is that almost all the colleges are located within walking distance from each other. This also means that when undergraduate students return from their incredibly long summer vacations, the Oxford city centre population increases by about 12,000 within a week! Graduates have less of an impact, partly because we (research students) don’t have long holidays like the undergraduates do, so our movements in and out of the city are less noticeable.

I think back to my own arrival 17 years ago (gosh, has it been that long?) and chuckle at how foreign everything seemed back then! Prior to coming to the UK in 2004, the furthest I’ve ever been from home was to go back to my grandparents’ house in Perlis in the northern part of Malaysia.

The picture below was taken 17 years ago on my very first day in Cambridge.

I remember walking up the Chimney i.e. the Jesus College entrance, and plonking myself on a bench in First Court, thinking what-on-earth have I gotten myself into!

And below is another picture of the Bronze Horse sculpture in First Court, taken in July this year when I went back to college with my wife and children in tow.

Alhamdulillah, life works in mysterious ways so here I am; still alive, still a student (!), still enjoying learning about the wonders of the brain.