Wednesday, 28 December 2011

If we could answer all her questions...

“…if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.” – Carl Sagan
When I was young my inquisitive nature occasionally got me into trouble. Often in fiction, the child whose only aim is to annoy is portrayed as firing off a string of high pitched "why"s; it is easy to see how a secondary school teacher could be driven to madness when - with the constraints of an academic year, a period length, and an externally dictated curriculum - they are confronted with an incessant desire to know the reasons why.
Amongst all my report card comments, mostly telling me to be quiet in class, two contrasting comments stick with me to this day. The comments that I most clearly remember were both made by Physics teachers; one when I was in year 8 (1999) and one when I was in year 12 (2005):

"I am not here to answer Margarida's questions."

This did not, however, deter me.

"If I knew the answers to all of Margarida's questions, I'd be a very famous physicist."

I have to say that the latter teacher did far more for me, and us as a class, to ensure that we understood what we could about science and physics, than the first teacher ever did. The good teacher embraced the limitations of his ability to answer as part of the beauty of science and its ever-expanding body of knowledge. The bad teacher took it as a personal insult that I had the audacity to ask him questions to which he could not provide an answer, and seemed to think that it was my way of making him look bad, or ignorant, to the class. Only years later and with the benefit of hindsight and maturity do I understand that as the origin of his hostility towards me. - Blog

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Rejected by the ethics board: North Korea

North Korea is a social experiment that would never have been approved by an ethics board. It's a combination of a religion/religious experience with some profound Stockholm Syndrome, and some morbid voyeurism from the rest of us as we cannot tear our eyes away from the latest developments in this train-wreck nation. - Blog

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A story by my grandfather

My grandfather is a great story teller, mostly because he's had a pretty interesting life, and he's had a good memory to remember some great stories. Whilst searching for some Doris Day songs (from the film Glass Bottom Boat), I remembered that there's a particular tale of mistranslation that he told me once. I decided to google the expression, and lo and behold, I found his story in an Armenian forum! It seems to be told by someone from Portugal, so I wonder if the tale has simply just travelled...

For all of you:

When TV didn't exist yet, in the glorious age of radio, it happens that a certain lady - let's call her Mrs. E. - worked in a private radio station. She had quite a pleasant voice and a very good diction so she had a lot of fans. Mrs. E. didn't speak a word of any foreign language.

One day she was presenting a songs program. So while a song was playing, she picked a good english-portuguese dictionary that was handy, and started translating word by word the title of the following one: "My love, come back to me". After a hard work she wrote down her final translation, a work of art.

When the playing song finished, while putting the new record on the dish, she announced the title (her translation) of the next one: "Amor, salta para as minhas costas!"

Do you know what that means in english? "Love, jump on my back!"

It took quite a while for Mrs. E. to recover from such a gaffe. And needless to say that she never translated any other title... - Blog

Monday, 21 November 2011

Walking to Work [photos]

I won't be winning any photography prizes by taking photos with my camera-phone (or any other camera/camera-phone), but here are some shots of what my walk to work looked like this morning:

I suggest having a look at the link above if you want some really gorgeous photos. Here's the link again, for those too lazy to scroll. - Blog

My first day at work

Friday, 11 November 2011

Cooking for my parents

I’m 24 and until September I’d never cooked for my parents. This was a big deal to me given that for most of my life I had always eaten my mother’s cooking but I had not yet had the chance to share with her my culinary developments since moving out. The opportunity presented itself when I was invited over for dinner one night to take a break from my hectic commuter full-time-job life to which I was adapting slowly, having only graduated in July: I lept at the chance and offered to cook! It took a bit of fighting with my mother’s maternal instincts in order for her to relinquish the job of feeding us, but then that Sunday there I was, standing outside their door holding my bulging Tesco bags and ready for action!

Deciding what to cook for a family of three was the hardest part. I tend to cook only one day a week, and make enough food to take to work with me each day for the next 3 – 5 days. The basic formula tends to be: Some form of mince, some form of beans, half a rack of spices. Occasionally there’s some variation; I might throw in a new vegetable or some pulses, buy a jar of paste from morocco or somewhere in the orient, and hope for the best. I can honestly say that exploring the possibilities and cooking for myself has resulted in my making some of the nicest food I’ve eaten. The secret isn’t in being an amazing cook per se, instead it lies in the fact that the textures and flavours are new, and they’re entirely to my taste.

For this meal, I would go ad-hoc. I decided not to plan it more than my regular meals, and instead just leave the house in plenty of time and wander around Tesco until I felt inspired. I toyed with a jar of Tagine paste (which I highly recommend) and put it in my basket, but after wandering around a bit longer I decided that no – this meal would be made from scratch! The advantage of this recipe is that most of the spices and the oil you can happily use again in many meals to come or as an excuse to throw some dinner parties where you’re the chef.

Preparation time: Overall preparation time was two hours, but if you want it done faster you can include less water with the stock and add the carrots a little earlier.

Cost: Just over £10.
Feeds: 3 people, twice, with some leftovers.

750g Beef (but can equally be pork or lamb)
2 Onions
200g Shallots
600g Carrots
3 Peppers
1 Tin chopped tomatoes
1 Tin chickpeas
2 Garlic cloves
Hot Chili Powder
Ras El Hanout spices (black pepper, coriander, ginger, paprika, allspice, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, turmeric, cayenne, cloves) but you can easily replace this with just ginger, turmeric and nutmeg.
Olive oil
Beef stock cube
4 tablespoons of flour
6 Chapatis

500g Spinach (frozen)
150g Feta cheese

Chop the onions into chunks and crush the garlic cloves, fry in a large saucepan with a tablespoon of olive oil and leave to brown before adding all the beef. Wait for the beef to be fully cooked – add salt, cumin and paprika. Add the stock cube to about 300ml of boiling water then mix in with the meat. Add the peppers (chopped into slices), the shallots (peeled), the tin of tomatoes, and the chickpeas. Stir well then leave to cook so that the vegetables soften and the water from the stock evaporates – but not completely. You can make the side dish while you wait.

After about 20 minutes add the Ras El Hanout, or your preferred combination of spaces and add the carrots (sliced). Mix well, and leave for another 20 minutes. You can heat the chapatis while you wait. Add the flour and the hot chili powder, stir well, and you’ll see the stock water “vanish”. The meal is ready.

Side: In a frying pan, add the spinach and wait for it to defrost. Spinach stores a lot of water, so keep it at a low heat for the spinach to dry but not burn. Some people might fry the spinach in a bit of olive oil or add chopped onion, but personally I prefer it without. Once it is dry, chop the feta into blocks, and add it to the spinach, mixing it in to melt well.

Chapatis: Once you’ve made the spinach and your main is almost done, you can give the frying pan a wash and then just heat each chapati on the frying pan for about 10 seconds on each side. You can place them in a clear dishcloth to keep warm while you wait for the meal to be done.

Dessert: I blitzed yoghurt and raspberries with three tablespoons of sugar the night before and left it to freeze. Once frozen, leave in the fridge to soften a little and then mush it up with a fork – voila! Home made frozen yoghurt. - Blog

Goodbye to the job...

It's 11/11/11 and my last day on the job. My dad sent me this in an email this morning:

Coolest dad ever?
Thanks dad! - Blog

Monday, 7 November 2011

What it's like to commute.

I would be surprised to find anyone who, with a straight face, could tell me that they honestly enjoy a commute.
One does not do much on a commute, but what one does is done uncomfortably. There are a series of different types of trains that go the length of my commute during the day, but the things that they have in common tend to be a) a dreadful lack of space, and b) an absurd waste of space. The train will often be so packed that most passengers will be found crushed up against the luggage rack, standing or sitting by the toilets and doors, and often lined up all the way down the corridors. Some trains will have sets of two, four and five seats.
Wherever there is a row of 3 seats, it is an unwritten rule that the window and aisle seats must be taken, and that any middle seats will be left for bags. Most of the time the seats that are taken are taken up by people who occupy 1.25 seats. This is inconvenient for those of us that require a minimum of 0.75 seats. I wish I had any humour with which to convey this sad truth.
In addition to this, even for anyone within a "normal" size range, the seats are not designed with elbows in mind. The seats force you into a primary school assembly sort of position, where you have your hands on your lap and don't move for fear of losing your lunchbreak.
Often you will be lucky enough to smell someone's breakfast, gum, coffee, dinner, or beer; depending on whether it is the morning commute or the afternoon. You'll almost certainly be treated to a handful of phonecall conversations, muffled music that headphones cannot contain, occasional alarm, ringtone, and snoring.
Some people have children. It's 6:18, it's peak time, it's London; there's nothing but frantic men in suits with their coffees, iPads, suitcases, iPhones, Evening Standard, fold-away bikes, ..., there're women in their inappropriate-for-running heels; with handbags, tote bags, Kindles, Metros, Blackberrys... And somehow in the middle of all of this, in trainers and a pink anorak, is a mother with two children, one in a pram, shoving herself onto carriage 8 as she tries to shush one with a dummy and the other with some food. Children talk and scream and cry and cry and cry. And you feel guilty for hating every second, because they're children and she's outnumbered.
Sitting on the tube is, in a way, better than the train. Although nothing can compare to the two hour bliss of finding your favourite seat empty on the morning train, and getting on with your own business quietly the whole way there, the tube affords a different perspective of travel.
Sitting on the tube lets you see far more people "cycle" far more quickly. Sometimes I find myself wondering what the tube looked like on the day of the 7/7 bombing; those looks of boredom, monotony, the faces tired of hearing that someone apologises for the delay due to signal failure, a slow running train, a suicide on the Jubilee line... And how little any of those people could've known what would happen to them. It's a horrid way to go, and on a tube no less.
I particularly enjoy the lines to and from the City, the way you know whether you're on a Circle or Hammersmith & City line train. The suited crows are there, with their waves of iPads, ebook readers and smartphones (do commuters prop up this industry? Everyone has something. Often many "somethings".), then there are the students, the tourists, and the people that seem fundamentally misplaced. There was the skinny highly tattooed guy in a new-looking suit and old suitcase, the old lady in 8 shades of mis-matched pink, the Victorian governess, the large black man in a suit and yellow shoes scribbling in his Moleskin in a frantic way.
They say that 1 in 10 people has X disease, or Y mental illness, or that 1 in Z people have been sexually abused, have stolen, have accidentally killed a pet. And you spend so many hours each week in close quarters with a different cross-section of the population, each individual with their own back story, thoughts, plans... You're bound to be within feet of incredible strangers without ever knowing it.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Liberty and Justice for All

As I recently mentioned, I spent rather a lot of time drafting and re-drafting a personal statement application to BPP for a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). When I was done, I sent it to a few friends that had read the first few drafts and one of them made the following comment:

"I'm especially glad you got rid of the bit about believing in justice"

This wasn't too encouraging, because I in fact did not "get rid of the bit" that said:

"I believe that the GDL at BPP would allow me to further develop my love of justice and argument and serve to empower me with the relevant knowledge and qualifications to embark upon a successful legal career."
Still, it didn't seem to bother them too much. And that was after I removed my 'joke' opening paragraph after a barrage of comments telling me that there is no place for humour in an application. I should've known. I should've known!

"A compulsive reading of every John Grisham novel I could get my hands on is not what made me want to study law. Nor was I convinced by a dozen irate males that perhaps I ought to consider a change of career path, and I certainly did not decide to do it because I thought I could handle the truth."

I saved myself some embarrassment which is always good.

On the topic of justice, I found today that the mother of a friend of mine has a particularly good quotation regarding law and justice:

"I also enjoyed her response to the question: What would your advice be to anyone wanting a career in law? She replied: "Remember that the law and justice are not a married couple. At best they are a one-night stand and part company in the morning." I certainly could not have put it better."

Have some Justice: - blog

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Always on the move

As I walked into work I thought about which song I should append to my next blog entry. The first song I thought of was The Clash's I Fought The Law, but although I know that taking the Graduate Law Diploma will be hard work, I'm not sure it is quite on par with "breaking rocks in the hot sun". Furthermore, I don't want to "fight" the law, and if I do, I certainly don't want it to beat me.

What I am trying to say with this is that on Monday - having submitted an application on Friday afternoon - I had a phonecall from BPP Law School telling me that I had an offer and that an email would soon follow with instruction of how to accept and start paying them. The more cynical amonst us may simply shrug and point out to me that anyone who applies to do a GDL, provided they can pay up, will be accepted. I can honestly say that this attitude does not bother me. I know that my course, and how much I benefit from it, depends on me: on how hard I study, on what I do with it, etc. That doesn't mean that I didn't spend several weeks drafting my personal statement, speaking to friends who have taken a GDL/LLB/LPC/LLM, going to open days, reading different publications, and following a series of twitter feeds. I did.

Actually, the open day really sold me to the course. The Virtual Learning Environment, which enables students to access all the resources from a remote location, seems to have been the pivotal point that enabled me to believe that I could succeed through "distance learning". Although the stigma of "mail-order degree" seems to follow me around, regardless.

I went and got myself an external reader card at my nearest University library (where I happen to have studied for my two other degrees) and took out a few books on what seemed to be interesting topics that won't necessarily be covered in the GDL, but that I could take an interest in for casual reading. Apart from that: now I play the waiting game.

Because there wasn't a lot of music favourable to lawyers ("I studied law and... it was great fun!"), I have decided to leave you with what I was listening to when I came into work this morning.

Friday, 12 August 2011

#DearCommuter - brief notes on commuter rage and catharsis

I've just been elbowed twice by a loud-breathing man in his mid-50s, reading "One for the Money" by Janet Evanovich, listening to Lily Allen loudly, and occupying one-and-a-half train seats. I was elbowed when the fabric strap of my canvas bag had the audacity to fall off my shoulder with a jolt of the train and graze the sleeve of his plain white tee. I was elbowed twice because I failed to react the first time.

My initial thoughts were of quiet indignance, but the more I thought about how I'm sitting twisted in my commuter seat, elbows-on-pelvic-bone and legs-in-the-aisle, the more I realised I was suffering a small bout of what, in larger portions, can be seen as commuter-rage. One quick message to a friend, and all my pent-up resentment towards the man vanished (I retain my resentment towards train manufacturers who promote size-zero seating and National Express East Anglia for its own set of reasons).

It's interesting how, often, all that is required is a quick comment to a friend for the event to be forgotten. In the best cases, the situation can lead to a good chucke and be turned into a comical anecdote, albeit probably not one you'll still be telling at the dinner table in 3 weeks time. I wonder if this ability to quickly project something into the aether, were it not to cause more obvious damage than good, be of help to dispel road-rage too.

For those of us who do not risk the lives of others by picking up our phones in the heat of the moment, we can find catharsis through a quick sms message. However, it must be borne in mind that friends have no "unsubscribe" option and can't politely opt-out of your commuting first world problems bursts, and so if they are to remain friends you might want to consider a somewhat less direct option. The wonderful world of social media has brought us, amongst other tools, Twitter. Maybe the next time three people ram into me as I try to alight, I'll remember to write an open letter to my #dearCommuter and not notice too big a drop in followers.

The essentials of interview preparation

I was offered a job after my last interview in London, on Wednesday (I’ll tell you who with once I’ve signed a contract.). Until this point I have been very reluctant to write anything about the process of applying for jobs, writing applications, or attending interviews. As someone who is unemployed it is easy to feel that you lack the credit to be able to write something and deserve to have anyone pay you any attention. On occasion, you'll find many guides on how to get through an interview, but many of these are full of unhelpful platitudes which aren't much help.

Here are my brief tips. Of course they’ll be of varying use to you, depending on what job you’re applying for, so be sure to tweak them accordingly.


1. Visit their website.
It’s a very basic suggestion, but you really ought to have done this while you were writing the application. If for some reason you didn’t do that then, do it now. Read all relevant publications they produce – know how they communicate to potential clients. Know what their working hours are and what services they offer.

2. Talk to people.
See if you know of anyone that has worked there. For example, if it’s a job at a University or a Council try to speak to employees, ex-employees, students, clients, ex-clients, or anyone that can give you a little more insider knowledge of how they operate.

3. Know the team.
A few companies have staff pages/profiles. Give them a read, know who you’re working with. Search for the organisation’s name and see what they have been involved with recently, and whether they’ve been in the news.

Part of any application process is letting an organisation know why you’ve picked them. They’ll want to know why they ought to hire you, but also why you want to work for them specifically and how you can make their organisation better.


1. Choose your attitude
This is really the biggest point I can make. An interview is about giving the employer a snippet of your personality. They’ve seen on paper what your qualities are, but they want to know if you’re going to drive them round the bend during day-to-day activities. If you come across as snarky, jaded, facetious, or just annoying as hell, then you can forget about it. Key point: strike a balance with everything. Don’t be unbearably arrogant but don’t be insecure; don’t be happy-go-lucky without a care in the world, but also don’t be negative.

2. Keep a professional distance
The relationship your employer is looking to establish with you is (one would hope) not a romantic relationship. Whilst there needs to be a foundation of trust, they do not need to know all your deepest darkest secrets and they are not committed to loving the true you. Even if they ask you what your biggest regrets are, what your worst qualities are, or other questions that could easily lend themselves to long life stories: avoid this at all costs. Which brings me to my next point.

3. B+!
Be positive. This isn’t the sort of recommendation that says: you can do anything if you put your mind to it! No, this is meant to be taken literally. Whenever you’re asked a question, try to reply with a positive answer. If you come across as someone that can’t stop moaning you may find that people are somewhat less eager to share a work environment with you, day in, day out.

4. The nitty-gritty
You have to know why they should hire you. If you’re iffy about yourself, they’ll be iffy about you. If you can manage the previous 3 points, then now is the time to know yourself. Before your interview go over everything you sent in your application and your CV; write a long list of all your professional and personal achievements. Know what you have done, know what you’re most proud of.

For any interview, these are the things you should know so well that you can recite on queue at any time:
  1. the main projects you’ve worked on, how you went about organising them – what action you took, what your results/achievements were. Make them tangible. 
  2. your greatest personal achievement (success in sport, success at University, success with a personal project, etc)
  3. when you’ve worked alone and with others – this crops up repeatedly! 
  4. your strengths, know how to tie them in with your experience.

5. The tricky questions
It is common to be asked what your weaknesses are, and the usual recommendations for this are as follows:
  1. pick a weakness that isn’t really a weakness
  2. pick a weakness that everyone has
  3. pick a weakness that is unrelated to your job
  4. whatever your weakness is, mention how your strengths make up for it (ex.: my weakness is [x], but I see it as a vital part of [y] which I’m really good at) 
Other “trick” questions include “where do you see yourself in 3/5/10 years?” and “what is your ideal job?”. Try not to be overly idealistic. In the case of the first question don’t tell the interviewer that you want their job – find an answer that encompasses good personal development and that shows that you’re willing to commit and grow with the position you’re being interviewed for.

In terms of your ideal job it can be wise to not be too specific and list elements common to the job you’re applying for. So, for example, if you’re working with people or developing a certain skill, you might say that your ideal job incorporates more of this. 

Key point: Whatever they ask you, keep in mind points 2 and 3. Don’t get too personal and maintain a positive attitude.

6. Be prepared
If you’re reading this, then this is likely to be a moot point, but take the time to properly prepare for an interview and not just wing-it. For a specific interview make sure you know exactly what you can bring to the workplace and why you’ve picked them. Being familiar with the ins-and-outs of the organisation will allow you to do this well.

Think of all the questions you’d ask yourself, and again use online resources to find questions that are most asked. Ideally, get a friend with some experience in your field to give you a good grilling the day before.

7. Ask a question
If you’ve thought of a question during the interview, then great. If not, try to prepare an open question for your interviewers. Don’t ask any questions about yourself (how much you’ll be earning, what benefits you get, etc) because that sends off all the wrong motivation signals. Try to take the opportunity to find out more about the job you’re going to do, about how the organisation typically go about a certain task, or something that shows curiosity. Do not ask a question whose answer would take 30 seconds on their website to answer.

My notes for my latest interview

Friday, 5 August 2011

8 quick tips on how to pick a Twitter username

Before decided to turn my private Twitter account into a public one, I tried creating a new one to allow me to maintain separate streams. I quickly ran into trouble. Tips for creating a Twitter username include:
  • Use your real name
  • Use a company name
  • Use your existing domain name
  • Don't look like a massive spammer
  • Don't act like it's a Hotmail account from the year 2000 (x_hotStuff86_x)
  • Don't brag like an idiot (PUAmaster... oh wow, that exists. On second thoughts, not surprised.)
  • Don't use the same username you've been using on forums and game sites for the past 10 years. Remember that one quick google search may reveal more than you wanted to share.
  • Don't use easily forgettable keyboard mash. You're not Randall Munroe so unless you have a site as clever as xkcd, all you're going to do is get yourself forgotten.
Given that Twitter does not work like an e-mail provider, where you can just select a different service if you can't find an alias you like, it is slightly reminiscent of those early Hotmail days where everyone scrambled for a decent name and then ended up resorting to birth years and numbers to distinguish themselves.

Overall, unless you were an early adopter, you're likely to find that all the best names are taken and the number of reasonable available combinations for the 15 character limit is pretty small. Still, keep trying eh?

Well this isn't what I expected to be famous for

Times Higher Education, August 4, p.15

Paying for labour: pay your interns and your stock photographers

Graduate Fog is part of one of many new websites aimed at helping graduates feel better about their unemployment by collating careers-related articles and advice. Despite the overwhelming about of websites that share the same aims, Graduate Fog still manages to have some interesting and useful contributions, and moans appropriately about the state of un(der)paid internships.

Unfortunately, they don't always seem to appreciate that "the creative types" also need to earn a living, and thus rather than pay for their iStockphoto they have displayed it along with one of their articles, watermark and all. Oversight? Edit: A reply from Tanya de Grunwald of is posted below, confirming that this was indeed an oversight. Apologies for jumping the gun on this one.

On a better note, I highly recommend their satirical intern glossary: Do You Speak Intern?. Highlights include:
  • SERIAL INTERN Intern who has completed several lengthy unpaid internships, has bags of experience but – crucially – no actual job.
  • INTERN SUFFIXING / PREFIXING Practice of putting the word ‘intern’ before or after a regular job title, thereby avoiding the need to pay this member of staff a salary for doing this job.
and my personal favourite given my current state of yearning for a minimum wage job:
  • NATIONAL MINIMUM WAGE Formerly the rock-bottom wage that we agreed the lowest-skilled workers in society should not earn less than for their labour (cleaning toilets, etc). Today, the NMW is now considered a hefty salary by many interns who are used to receiving no salary at all for their work – despite having just spend £27,000 on a university degree.
Reply from under the break.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Broad and in-depth knowledge

There are always lots of interesting job vacancies floating around, although not always for the best reasons. This particular vacancy with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants broad and in-depth knowledge:

  • The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) relies heavily on in-house specialists on the European Union to inform the UK's policy towards the EU. If you have a broad and in-depth knowledge of the EU, then we could soon be relying on you.
Of course it could always be that they have more than one vacancy but simply failed to make that clear. That, however, would not be amusing.

Feel free to share your own findings in the comments.