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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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Besar 2.0

Location: Shah Alam, Selangor

I’m really happy with the Portrait Mode on my iPhone 11 Pro Max. Sure it may not give the most technically accurate picture, but the results are very pleasant to look at (which is arguably more important).

This here is Besar, or rather Besar 2.0.

When I was a kid, my family used to have a grumpy cat called Besar (which means ‘big’ in Malay) because she was considerably larger than the 2 kittens we also had at the time. The cat in this picture belongs to my mother-in-law, but she looks similar to my old one (the cat, not my mother-in-law!), so to keep things simple I’ve named her Besar as well.

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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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Starbucks

Starbucks cup

Location: Subang Parade, Selangor

Check out this beautifully-designed paper cup by Starbucks. I immediately asked if they sold a mug with the same design on it but unfortunately the answer was no.

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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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Leg Day

Leg day

Never skip leg day.

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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.