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Moving Away From Facebook

I had originally wanted to give this post the title ‘Leaving Facebook’, but in reality, it may not be as easy to do so for various reasons outlined below.

But first, let me tell you what I initially thought of Facebook, all the way back in 2005 when it was still a platform only certain people had access to (you had to have a university email address, and only some universities were on the list).

Basically, I didn’t see the point of it!

Sure it was fun to check your friends’ brand new profiles, give them a ‘poke’, and see your friend count increase, but the novelty tends to wear off after a while. I mean, seriously, who on earth wants to know what you had for lunch three days in a row?

This is an important point because a site like Facebook can only survive if people spend a lot of time on it. It’s not enough that you go on it once a week, they want you to be on Facebook every single day for as long as possible.

Which brings me to the reasons why I’m moving away from Facebook: it pushes me towards narcissism, and it encourages me to care about trivial things.

Hey, Look At Me!

Let’s face it, nobody just posts everything that happens to them unfiltered on Facebook. Your profile is a carefully manicured lawn, a polished mirror, a room that’s been Marie Kondo-ed to perfection, because deep down everybody cares what someone thinks of them (even if they don’t care what everyone thinks of them).

When I post something on the site, it is with the intention of getting attention. Facebook, like its sibling Instagram, actively exploits this by tweaking a hundred and one things on its site. Now I’m not saying they’re doing it because of some nefarious plan to dominate the world or anything, instead they’re doing it because they want to drive engagement with the site. Engagement is difficult to define, but basically it revolves around the idea of making Facebook central to how people experience the Internet.

Looking for news? Go on Facebook.

Something good happened to you? Tell your friends about it on Facebook.

Starbucks barista misspelled your name? Moan about it on Facebook!

Stuck in a boring meeting? You know what you need to do…

I’m not going to speculate how other people feel or use this (or any other) social media platform, but for me personally, the more I’m on it, the more narcissistic I become. Deep down, I do care how many people like or comment on my post. This is one of the main reasons for me wanting to move away from Facebook.

OMG Will You Look At This?

Another reason for my increasing aversion towards the site is because it makes me care/worry/rage/think about trivial things. On the Internet, someone is always angry about something. These days, more often than not, that thing ends up on Facebook. OMG some random uncle cut into the supermarket queue in front of you? Take a photo of him and post it to your friends and followers. Watch as the condemnations pour in! Revel in your superiority over these uncouth people!

Sure, that’s a slightly more extreme example, but social media really is full of unnecessary debate over trivial things. Your time should be precious to you, so why should you waste it caring over what some celebrity is doing? Why should it bother you that someone got into a fight at their office and is now rage-posting about it?

You may argue that this is all just harmless fun. But try looking around you the next time you’re at a restaurant. How many families are sitting together at a table without anyone making eye contact or talking to another family member, because every one is so engrossed with the little screen in front of them? Pick your poison: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, WhatsApp, YouTube etc. We’re all guilty of it!

Focusing On What Really Matters

Ultimately, these are MY reasons for moving away from something that is toxic in my life. Other people may feel differently, of course. Maybe Facebook is how you make your living. Maybe you do gain a lot of benefit from it, but for me, the negative aspects far outweigh whatever good comes out of spending time on the site. Even so, I haven’t deleted my profile, I’ve merely deactivated it. The sad reality is that some things just aren’t possible to do without being on Facebook. I get that, and I’m resigned to the fact that from time to time I may need to log back in to check on some information that’s ONLY been posted to the site.

I still want something better though.

I want to spend my time with my family. I don’t want to sit down for dinner with my kids only to end up scrolling my News Feed half the time. I want to care about more important things in life, like the question of what memory is, the nature of consciousness, how do we train better doctors and scientists, how to nurture good habits among our children. These are the issues that deserve our time and attention.

When Albus Dumbledore saw Harry Potter staring at the Mirror of Erised, this was the advice he gave Harry:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

I fear in our time, this needs to be modified for when Dumbledore sees Harry furiously refreshing his News Feed:

It does not do to dwell on Facebook/Instagram, and forget to live.

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Aston Martin DB11 V8 Coupe

Aston Martin DB11

Location: Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur

Look, all I’m saying is that if ever someone feels like buying me a surprise birthday gift, I’d never say no to an Aston Martin.

Price: RM 808,000.00 (excluding duties and taxes)

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Productivity During A Pandemic

As more and more people start to return to work, I am beginning to ponder the issue of productivity during a pandemic.

The question of how productive you are is a difficult one to answer even at the best of times. Previously, I could perhaps say that I had had a productive day if I managed to see >10 patients in my neurology clinic, or finished writing a manuscript, or brought along multiple groups of medical students for their clinical supervision.

When everyone is under lockdown, however, trying to estimate how productive you are using conventional means is an exercise in futility.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if I’ve ‘wasted’ the last few months at home. But then again, I look at what else has happened in these last few months, and remind myself: there is a time and place for everything. Sure, I have barely done any research work apart from learning MRI analysis, but I have also gotten the chance to spend a lot of time with my family.

I’ve taught my kids to ride a bicycle. Played basketball and football with them frequently. Helped them with homework. Supervised them while they’re having their online classes. I look back at all these things with happiness in my heart.

Sometimes we are too busy chasing ‘urgent’ achievements that we forget, or neglect, the truly important things in life. Medical training, to me, is one example of how something that feels urgent (as in I really need to finish my training and become a specialist) can come at the expense of things that are far more important in the long run e.g. family. The struggle to become a specialist is brutal, requiring long hours, mountains of motivation, willingness to tolerate abuse, neglect of family members, frequent sanity checks etc. It’s far from ideal, but having gone through the process myself, that’s probably the most honest way I can describe it. YMMV obviously! I don’t think it needs to be this way though, but more on that in a future blog post inshaAllah.

For now, I am just thankful that I’ve been given the chance to spend some quality time with my family before returning to Oxford to continue my DPhil. All of these things (family, memory research, clinical work etc) matter tremendously to me. May Allah make this journey a beneficial one not just for me but also for my family, colleagues, patients, and the rest of society.

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The Best Way To Think About Science

Check out this ‘Behind the Byline’ interview with Ed Yong, one of the staff writers at The Atlantic who’s written some really illuminating articles in the last few weeks about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s my favourite line from the interview:

…science is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.”

Looking at how science is covered in the mainstream media, one can be forgiven for thinking of it as a series of phenomenal findings.

  • “Neuroscientists find the seat of empathy.”
  • “How your brain looks like when you’re in LOVE.”
  • “5G towers cause cancer!” (okay, joking on this one, stop attacking 5G towers people!)

In reality, scientific progress is often messy and does not lend itself well to simple headlines. Think about that the next time you read about some incredible discovery in the news.

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Black Lives Matter

First things first, if your response to Black Lives Matter is “ALL Lives Matter” then you’re doing it wrong. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the slogan represents, but it is a very easy mistake to make. I made it too, when I first encountered the words Black Lives Matter.

I’m not going to pretend that I am anywhere close to understanding what goes on in the lives of African-Americans in the US, but to me it seems somewhat hypocritical to support this movement without commenting on matters closer to home.

One of the biggest dangers of racism is that it can be invisible, such that people can genuinely believe it doesn’t exist, all while continuing to prop up a system that promotes the differential treatment of people according to what race they belong to. In Malaysia, we have a slew of race-based policies that people continue to justify based on an agreement that was made many generations ago. To question this arrangement is to threaten the very social fabric that holds the nation together (some people say).

I find that line of thinking perplexing, to be honest.

The Islamic perspective

My main objection to these policies stems from my religious belief that all human beings are created equal.

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognise one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.

Surah Al-Hujurat [49:13]

For me personally, it is hard to justify how one can believe in the above, but also say that someone has to pay up to 15% extra for a house just because it is not a Bumiputera lot and they happen not to be ‘Malay’ at the time of purchase. One justification for these policies is that ‘the other side does it too’. Some businesses, for example, insist on hiring people who are able to speak Mandarin, as a way of ‘filtering’ out candidates from other races. I am not blind to this. But this tit-for-tat approach just doesn’t sit well with me. Imagine if the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said the same during the Conquest of Makkah. These infidels mistreated us, oppressed us even, so let’s pay them back for what they did! Well, Islamic history would’ve turned out very differently indeed, that’s for sure.

Race as a scientific construct

My second objection comes from the fact that ‘race’ itself is often a cover for ignorance. It is, to quote a phrase that appears in the description for the YouTube video below, a ‘pseudoscientific taxonom(y) of humans, almost exclusively based on pigmentation’. That’s quite a mouthful. The real situation is more intuitive. If a Malay person marries a Chinese person, then their offspring, even by the simplest of standards, should really be Malay-Chinese. And yet, we often force people to dichotomise this decision, by labelling them as Malay OR Chinese, whichever way happens to be convenient for supporting our argument.

To be clear, I think this is nonsense.

If we can’t even decide who’s Malay or Chinese based on the simple situation above, what are we going to do with someone who is of Malaysian Chinese-Brazilian parentage but raised instead by a Malaysian-Indian family? Call them White? Come on man, what on Earth have you been smoking?

Oh yes, the video:

The polite guy in me thinks the title is more provocative than it needs to be. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant talk, well-worth watching, and I am indebted to Dr Sofia Toniolo who first brought it to my attention on Facebook.

Lastly, I think in order to address these issues properly, it is important to recognise that racism may happen even without any malice on the part of the perpetrator. This is systemic, or institutional racism, and you can be part of it even without intentionally setting out to be racist. I hope that by highlighting this fact, more people will be willing to have a productive dialogue about what it means to continue the practise of race-based policies.

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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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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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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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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’…