Orion

There’s a word that is sometimes used to describe clear winter nights like this one:

Crisp.

The air is cold and fresh, with very few clouds overhead, allowing one to see the night sky in all its majesty. One can’t help but wonder: what must have gone through the mind of the ancient traveller as he looked up at such splendour?

Today I learned about Orion, one of the most prominent constellations in the night sky. Apparently, depending on its orientation, in particular the direction of Orion’s Belt and Orion’s Sword, it is possible to work out where North is without—gasp—using Google Maps!

See if you can work out where Orion is below:

And here’s a closer look at the constellation:

A few more nights like these, and I’m sure, I’m going to have to invest on a proper night sky app for my iPhone!

I Shall Use My Time

I had originally wanted to give this post the title ‘Welcome 2022’ (very original, IKR?) but, having thought deeper about it, decided to go with this poignant quote from No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it is to say that at the end of the movie, one of the characters recites these lines originally penned by the American writer Jack London:

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

The start of a new year is like the first few pages of a notebook, fresh and crisp, waiting for pen to meet paper. In my case, I literally bought a new Moleskine notebook* for use as a sort of diary plus planner plus thinking companion this year. But I digress…

As I was making a mind map of all my priorities for 2022, my mind wandered back to this quote. I began to ask myself: am I making full use of my time here on God’s earth? In other words, am I living, or simply existing?

If I’m honest, the answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because I know what I’m doing right now (research + clinical work) is important and meaningful. No, because there are many ways in which I can do better!

Rather than waste more time entertaining lofty ideas, I decided to drill down into the specifics: what do I need to do to make better use of my time?

Quitting social media

The first, and most obvious, step for me was to quit social media. Luckily for me, all I have (or had) was Facebook; I deleted my Instagram account about a year ago and I’ve never really been a fan of Twitter/TikTok/LinkedIn etc. So, I logged on to Facebook and selected the ‘Delete my account’ option. Facebook, being Facebook, makes it more difficult than necessary to delete your account. What actually happens is that your account is put on a (really slow) conveyor belt heading for the dumpster. Instead of deleting your account straightaway, Facebook only does so after 30 days! Plenty of time to develop some regrets and cancel the process, right? We’ll see. The magic date for me is 1 February 2022, after which I will be free from the evil clutches of Facebook! 😁

Now I want to make something clear here. If you, yes you who are reading this, genuinely find social media useful, then by all means go ahead, don’t let me stop you. I don’t want to be that guy, you know, the smug guy who’s not on any social media platform and looks down upon people who are active social media users. But I’m willing to bet that most of you have spent more time than you’d like on social media lately. I know I have! And what did I get for all my efforts? The tiniest hint of a benefit, and a bucket-load of anxiety, agitation, and anguish.

If you know anything about social media, then the previous statement is hardly surprising. These things are designed to capture our attention. In the last few months, as I’ve watched an endless succession of outrageous things that went ‘viral’, only to be forgotten a week later, I am forced to ask myself this hard question: why the F am I spending my time on this garbage?

So this is me, saying goodbye to social media for good.

Upgrading my reading list

The other thing I’ve resolved to do is to stop obsessively checking the news. I acquired this habit during my A-Levels, when I would make myself a cup of Nescafe and open up the BBC News website first thing in the morning, almost every morning. One website is fine (I think) but slowly and surely the list of websites grew to include BBC News, The Guardian, The New York Times, Financial Times (free for Oxford students!) and a whole bunch of others.

Here’s the problem…

Like social media posts, news articles are carefully crafted to keep you engaged. Put another way, nobody wants to hear that nothing new is happening. And so, we are served with one outrageous thing after another (“OMG, look at what so-and-so just said about vaccines!” or “Billionaire tweets about cryptocurrency while high on weed!”). These things clearly are not conducive to a calm and collected mind.

So instead of opening various news websites every morning, I now start my day with reading 2 pages of the Quran (together with their translation) followed by my neuroscience/neurology books. I still glance at the latest headlines but I try my best to stop myself clicking on the links and reading any further. When I’m tired of reading ‘serious stuff’, I turn to stories; in the last week, I’ve finished Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (can’t believe I’ve never read it before, sorry Steve) and I’m about halfway through Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

The net result of doing the above 2 things is I find myself in a more peaceful state of mind.

Obviously, there are many other things I intend to do in 2022 but I’ll save that for a later post. Until then, remember, my friend, to use your time wisely.

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.

By the declining day, man is (deep) in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.

Surah Al-‘Asr [103: 1-3]

* For you nerds out there, it’s a Moleskine Classic Expanded Notebook, dotted paper, soft cover (black), 400 pages, 13 x 21 cm

The Year 2021 in Review

First, the stats:

I wrote 71 posts (not including this one) amounting to 28,036 words; that’s half a DPhil’s worth of words! Traffic continues to improve, with 9,628 page views from 5,336 visitors to the site over the course of the year. My readers are overwhelmingly from Malaysia, although I am both humbled and pleased to see readers coming from a growing list of countries (see below).

One thing I’ve learnt this year is the value of thinking in terms of quarters when planning out your year. I’ll describe my planning process in my next post, but before that, let’s review the 4 quarters that made up 2021.

Q1: January to March

I started the year admiring the beauty of nature in Two Views, Neurons in Nature, Dendrite, and Dendrite, Again. This will be a recurring theme in my writing; the most important lesson I’ve learnt this year is how therapeutic it is to spend time in nature. The paradox of our modern world is that we are becoming increasingly detached from the world despite living in a hyperconnected environment. I can go on and on about this topic but I’ll save it for a later post.

In February, a dear friend passed away suddenly, leading to an outpouring of grief in Farewell Old Friend. For me, it was a timely reminder to check on family and friends more often, something which I have, regrettably, failed to do in recent years. Note to self: must do better!

Q2: April to June

This was a relatively quiet quarter. I got the first of my two (now three!) vaccine jabs at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford. The world around us was slowly opening up, with restrictions being lifted in stages.

I also wrote a couple of articles elsewhere. The first was Dua Dekad, to commemorate two decades of leaving my beloved alma mater MCKK. The second was an article for The Star, which I co-wrote with my friend Dr Khor Swee Kheng in response to some vaccine hesitancy in Malaysia.

Q3: July to September

My family and I did a whole bunch of travelling during this quarter. Partly, this was a response to my complete failure to see many parts of the UK when I was an undergraduate here. Back then, I was more of a Europhile (hah!) and therefore ended up planning trips to countries like France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy etc. The combination of Brexit and the pandemic made the choice simpler. Alhamdulillah, in retrospect, I consider myself blessed to have been given the chance to see how beautiful the rest of the UK is. My dream is to one day return to North Wales to explore the place further.

Q4: October to December

After pleasure, comes pain. Back to the DPhil grind, except that it no longer feels like a grind, rather a pleasant journey into the world of neuroscience. No, I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of the work or the difficulty of the process. I’m referring to how I view my DPhil now; it’s not something I have to do, but something I get to do. Being able to spend a few years learning, researching, reflecting on a subject in-depth, especially something as fascinating as cognitive neuroscience, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One thing I’d like to do in the future is to guide and encourage more people (especially my medical students) to pursue a similar path.

While we’re on the topic of pain and pleasure, I somehow managed to get a ticket to witness two of my favourite football teams, Manchester United and Liverpool, battling it out at Old Trafford. Except, instead of an all-out battle, what we all got was more like a playground scuffle in which one kid grabbed the other, gave him a wedgie and forced him to say “Uncle!”. United are now under new management, but I think the players have really let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer down with their attitude. If they’re not careful, they’re going to do the same to Ralf Rangnick. No wonder Gary Neville called them a bunch of whingebags the other day! Sure, they won against Burnley last night, but come on, it’s Burnley…

Liverpool are in a better place than United, no doubt, but they too need to improve if they want to be serious about challenging Manchester City for the title. The next few months will be very interesting if you’re a fan of the English Premier League. My own philosophy when it comes to football is to not get too emotionally invested in the success of a particular team. That way, I get to enjoy the football more no matter who’s playing!

And with that, I bring the year to a close. Thank you, dear readers, for getting this far. I hope that you have had a meaningful year too, and that 2022 will be better than 2021 inshaAllah.

Cold Morning #2

Vincent van Gogh once said:

If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.

The temperature was -2 degrees Celsius when I left my house to go jogging this morning, but who can resist going out when it’s looking like this?

I also saw wave after wave of birds passing above, flying southwest towards some unspecified destination.

Have a safe journey my feathered friends!

See also: Cold Morning (which I wrote in January this year)

Cambridge

I find it hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since I first set foot in Cambridge. Back then, it felt like I was entering an alien realm, full of weird rituals and traditions. Indeed, at one point, all I could think of was getting away from the place. That’s what six years of medical school will do to you, mmmkayyy kids?

Now, though, coming back to Cambridge feels like returning home after a long trip. Some of the characters have gone, never to return, but others have stepped up to take their place. A friend is now a Fellow and Director of Studies at my old college; how time flies!

COVID-19 made it more difficult to do all the things one would normally do when visiting Cambridge. Still, we were able to go punting along The Backs, an activity that brings back memories of peaceful afternoons spent on the River Cam.

Trying to enter Jesus College, I hit a snag; the porter insisted that no visitors were allowed into college (alumni included). Luckily for me, I knew the porter from my days as an undergraduate there, so in the end he only smiled and let us in. Apart from the new Porters’ Lodge, College looked exactly like it was when I left more than 10 years ago.

Before leaving, we stopped by to visit the new Cambridge Central Mosque. If you haven’t been there before, I would highly recommend going, even if you’re non-Muslim. The architecture is stunning, the setting peaceful, the people welcoming.

Until we meet again, inshaAllah.