Tuesday, 21 October 2008

University Report Cards

The national media is reporting today of a new scheme that will be piloted in 18 UK universities following the publication of a report suggesting that the traditional degree classification system is outdated because of its failure to recognise important skills.

To quote directly from today's Times on the purpose of the report cards:

The report cards will give information on students' performance throughout their time at university, such as a breakdown of grades by modules and details of areas in which they have excelled. They will be given alongside a graduate's traditional final degree grade, and aim to give employers, higher education institutions or other interested parties more contextual detail about a candidate's abilities.

Confusingly, The Times is saying that the report cards are intended to supplement the traditional degree classification system whereas the Guardian talks about them being an eventual replacement of the '200-year-old degree classification system'. The Guardian refers to them as 'achievement reports', though. Achievement reports will contain, amongst other things, a full breakdown of results for modules studied and any prizes won. The report cards are likely to be particularly useful to employers because they contain assessments of the student's presentational skills and ability to work effectively in a team.

Any student seeking a legal career after graduating will view this differently. Recruiters in the legal profession already, in my experience, manage to successfully identify an applicant's presentational skills and team-working skills. Especially on the solicitor side. Typically, as part of a training contract application to a city law firm (or really any commercial law firm) you will be required to write about examples of when you used these skills in application forms. After that, if invited to an assessment centre, the graduate recruitment team at the firm will be able to test your competency in these areas themselves.

Even recruiters in the legal profession might welcome this proposal, though. This is because it is veritable evidence that the applicant actually did the activities they say they did and used the skills they say they developed. At the moment, I don't believe the same checks exist by university tutors who, in their references to employers, are only really required to ensure the applicant has achieved the first and second year grades they stated in their application form.

Friday, 17 October 2008

U.S. Election - Al Smith Dinner

This is hilarious. An absolute must watch. The Al Smith dinner is something fans of The West Wing might know a little about from early on in season 7 of the hit show. It is an event held in New York at which the Presidential nominees from both parties speak at. Arnie Vinnick, the Republican nominee in The West Wing, didn't want to go it because he didn't want to be in a room with members of the Church. Matt Santos, the Democratic nominee for President in The West Wing called it the most "political non-political event". That is an apt description of it. Here's the clip from YouTube of Obama's speech - it is hilarious. Who needs debates on policy when this Presidential race can be decided by determining who the best stand-up comedian between them is?!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

U.S. Election - Final Presidential Debate

The third and final Presidential debate took place last night and having watched all three (as well as the Vice-Presidential debate <--Nerd Alert) I can say, without a doubt, that it was the best one so far.

Both candidates were on the ball. Many of the problems that I highlighted of the previous debates were not repeated, only hinted at. In the last debates, Obama had attacked McCain's campaign comment that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong". McCain had defended that he was referring to the American workforce and was not being delusional about the current financial crisis. Likewise, McCain attacked Obama on his campaign statement in which he expressed an apparent willingess to sit down with the President of Iran "without preconditions". Both of the candidates were stretching their interpretation of the other's remarks. But not in last night's debate.

Instead, over an hour and a half, the candidates were both asked questions on eight issues. The first question (as with previous debates) was the economy. McCain immediately found what would become for both candidates a point of reference: a plumber in the toss-up state of Ohio by the name of Joe Wurzelbacher (or just Joe). McCain tried to explain how his economic and tax plans would be best for Joe's small business and how under an Obama presidency, he would be taxed heavily. This was a bad example though. Obama countered (as in previous debates) that because Joe earned less than $250,000 per annum he would not have to pay more tax. McCain said that Obama was intent on "spreading wealth around Americans" which he called a form of "class warfare". But that's a clear distortion of what Obama is actually doing.

The third and fourth questions were about the candidates leadership in the current election campaign and their respective verdicts on their opponents running-mate. Both stated that they were unhappy with the way the campaign has turned negative in recent weeks. Obama did well in clearing up the misconceptions over his actual relationship with Steven Ayers and ACORN, a voter registration service, that has been in the news because of allegations of corruption.

Interestingly, when it came to discussing the respective running-mates of the candidates, McCain had more negative things to say about Biden than Obama did have about Palin (which was, in fact, nothing). McCain identified Palin as a role model who, in particular, understood children with special needs. Obama simply agreed with McCain on these points; however, in his support of Biden, he was able to offer more substantial evidence: his foreign policy experience and his record for fighting crime.

The sixth question was about healthcare and the same spiel was regurgitated by both candidates only this time they addressed Joe from Ohio in particular. What a lucky guy he must be! On top of all of his current worries he's probably being pursued by the press and being asked about his views on how the candidates performed in the debate.

The final topics debated were: Roe v. Wade and Education. The former question is important because the next President is likely to appoint at least one judge to the bench (probably two). So what criteria will they be using? McCain is in favour of overturning Roe v. Wade and stated that he will not require a litmus test to be passed by potential appointees. Obama stated his position on a woman's right to choose and the specific requirements on which he would ban partial birth abortion (i.e. the mother's life is not put under risk). For this part of the debate at least, your either for one candidate or against them. I support a woman's right to choose.

On education, neither candidate was able to pin down the reason why America is able to invest so much in its students yet it performs consistently less better than it should against other countries. Obama, however, was the only one to identify the element of parental responsibility in showing children the benefits of knowledge and learning.

It was clear from this debate that McCain hasn't changed the content of his policies so much as he has changed the way he expresses them. Obama, as commentators have pointed out, tried to play it as cool as possible. This strategy is obviously because it was difficult to tell what sort of tone McCain would adopt in the debate. That McCain was angry can be seen from a statement that he made early on in the debate: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have done so four years ago". Ouch. This didn't stop Obama concluding at the end of the debate that only he can effect the requisite change required in America and that American cannot afford to commit itself to four more years of the "same failed politics and the same failed policies" of the past eight years.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Man Booker Prize 2008 Winner - The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga has won this year's Man Booker Prize for his novel The White Tiger.

This was the first novel that I read after it was long-listed back in July. I thought it was a pretty decent book at the time but I didn't expect it to get shortlisted or be the winner in the long run.

What I did like about the book was that it was thoroughly original, modern and very readable because of its engaging characters. However, I didn't like the way the novel was structured. The main character - the White Tiger of the novel - is Balram Halwai. We learn early on in the novel that he kills his master (at the end of the first chapter in the book, I think). Over most of the next chapters, the author explores Balram's relationship with his master and this is really where the novel is at its best. Adiga used humour well and there were some interesting subplots. Then I quickly found myself at the end of the novel and I still didn't understand why Balram had to kill his Master to get what he wanted. I understand his entrepreneurial ambitions but not why they lead to him committing such a vicious act. The socio-political parts of the book were the best parts, I thought, and were what remained with me after closing the book.

In my last post I mentioned that dream winner would be Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole. This was a much longer book that Adiga's and whilst some of the criticisms that I have made of Adiga could equally be applicable to Toltz, I found the novel resonated with me much more. In fact, when Michael Portillo this year began to announce the winner, he said: "The Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008 is a debutante novelist..." - this meant either Toltz or Adiga from the shortlist and I leapt up with joy, but it was not to be.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Power of Literary Writers

This is something that I was in awe of recently: the Power of Literary Writers. Some people are a able to conceptualise problematic issues in special ways and deal with them accordingly. A select few of those are able to go one further and write about them in interesting and engaging ways. Yet fewer of those are able to write about them through the medium of a novel.

Three different examples that I have read about recently help emphasise my point. These are: the Man Booker Prize, Toni Morrison's endorsement of Barack Obama and a selection of 42 Writers who have each written pieces arguing against the 42 day detention proposal being debated in the Lords today.

The Man Booker Prize 2008

The shortlist for this year's prize was published at the beginning of September and the winner will be announced on Wednesday. I have nearly finished reading all the shortlisted books. My dream choice to be awarded the prize would be Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole. I thought it was a tremendous epic novel. This 700 page masterpiece dealt with a variety of themes, including: betrayal, love, rebellion against accepted norms in society and a fantastic exploration of a father-son relationship.

This is the first novel that the author has published. I have read a couple of interviews by this author since being shortlisted and the thing which struck me was just how successful a philosopher he is on the aforementioned oft-appearing themes in his novel.

Toni Morrison's endorsement of Barack Obama

Toni Morrison was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She famously called former President Bill Clinton America's first black president. Morrison is supporting Barack Obama this year and has done so since early on in this year's election season.

Why is this particular endorsement special? Well, it came in the form of a letter that she wrote to Senator Obama; here is an excerpt taken from the New York Observer:

In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don't see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom. It is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naivete. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it. Wisdom is a gift; you can't train for it, inherit it, learn it in a class, or earn it in the workplace--that access can foster the acquisition of knowledge, but not wisdom.

When, I wondered, was the last time this country was guided by such a leader? Someone whose moral center was un-embargoed? Someone with courage instead of mere ambition? Someone who truly thinks of his country's citizens as "we," not "they"? Someone who understands what it will take to help America realize the virtues it fancies about itself, what it desperately needs to become in the world?

Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of its birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.

There have been a few prescient leaders in our past, but you are the man for this time.

Good luck to you and to us.

I agree with all of what Morrison writes and think that it is an excellent precis of why Obama is a special candidate. The level of understanding that Morrison reaches in her letter is something that I haven't really seen elsewhere.

42 Writers against 42 day detention proposal

Visit 42writers.com and you will be able to read several well-known writers take on the government's proposals for 42 days detention of suspected terrorists. Its not just their views, though. They are all against the proposal; but the point is that they have such valid and interesting reasons for opposing it. For some, like Hardeep Singh Kohli, its about the length itself. For others, like Linda Grant (a short-listed author for this year's Booker prize), its the additional words 'without trial'.

My favourite is the writing by Sadie Jones. In such a short piece, Jones is able to demonstrate the different interpretations of the phrases: terror, war on terror and war on terrorism and why this is problematic.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Fair Game

We are currently observing a turning point in the American election season and I think it is the most crucial part of this election. Various polls are showing that Barack Obama has a comfortable lead over John McCain and the polling in the important toss-up states suggests that news is even worse for McCain. So what do you do if you're McCain? The answer is you attack and having just watched one of his rallies in the toss-up state of New Mexico it is obvious that he is doing just that.

Attacking is a good strategy to win elections. If you can get a good soundbite of something that your opponent believes in or thinks that sounds stupid or reprehensible and if you say it again and again, it could easily be something that the voters will think of immediately before casting their vote on November 4th. Governor Palin has been attacking Obama for befriending a domestic terrorist, William Ayers. When I first heard that she said this, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and read more about the case she was referring to. It quickly became obvious though that its a non-story. Obama's website - Fight the Smears - has been updated to fight this particular one too.

In his speech in New Mexico, McCain said that when he tried to question a particular view of Obama's he gets the cold shoulder from him. "For a guy that has written two memoirs", said McCain "he's hardly an open book". A good line and certainly one that some voters will remember, for want of more accurate and reliable information, before casting their vote. This is simply not the case though, in my opinion. McCain, it seems obvious to me, is trying to move away from speaking about the economy - the real issue that matters. This must be frustrating for the American voter. During their first debate, well over half an hour was spent on the bailout plan and a real attempt was made by the moderator to force the candidates to talk about the situation between themselves. Neither candidate sufficiently engaged with each other. This is disappointing because it would have been a fantastic opportunity to get a genuine one-over on the candidate.

The Obama camp has been on the attack too. However, their attack is valid, in my opinon. It comes in the form of a short documentary (13mins) called Keating Economics on their website. This documentary links a rather shady period of McCain's period in the Senate with his current (and future) attitude towards the economy. It shows that he doesn't have good judgment or people's best interests at heart when he is functioning as a leader. Having watched the documentary, I think its content is fair game. The same cannot be said for some of McCain's and Palin's most recent attacks on Obama.

This brings me to the reason that I am writing this. Tonight is the second Presidential debate. The bailout plan has now been passed by congress. Both candidates should be able to openly talk about the economy and get across to voters why their recovery plans are better than their opponents. Furthermore, both candidates should be able to commit to answering the question. This sounds silly; but, for example, if asked which parts of their plans for government are no longer feasible because of the need to be tight on the purse strings, they should be able to single particular areas out no matter how unpopular their ideas would be.

Tonight's debate is going to be won by the candidate that is most willing and able to engage with the key issue affecting voters: the economy. If McCain brings along his tacky one-liners, the American people should send him packing. If Obama isn't able to demonstrate his command over issues relating to the economy, then he should be judged weak too and voters, rightly, shouldn't vote for him because he's a Democrat. That wouldn't be fair game either.

Friday, 3 October 2008


Having decided to take an impromptu year out before commencing the BVC in 2009, I have been giving thought to how I could fill that year best.

I haven't taken a gap year previously and this is actually something that I have regretted since. However, for some reason the idea of traipsing leisurely across the world doesn't really appeal to me right now because I feel I would prefer to get some good experience on my C.V.

I like the idea of working in the legal sector and earning money at the same time. This is because I would probably have something useful to talk about on my C.V. and I would be earning actual money. The next question I've had to consider is what sort of legal position am I interested in and where am I interested in doing the work. The answer to these questions respectively are: firstly, either a legal secretary or a paralegal position would be preferred; and secondly, as close to home as possible.

So far I have managed to fire off an application for a legal secretary position that was being advertised by a local law firm. I have since called about the position and to see how my application is progressing but, unfortunately, I have received no indication either way. The recruiting solicitor at the firm seems interested in my application but hasn't really taken any further steps since telling me so. The position remains advertised and I don't know what to do. I don't want to keep nagging at the solicitor so as to frustrate him; however, at the same time I would like to know where I stand.

Everybody I talk to about this gives me the same response: "Oh, well its the credit crunch, isn't it? These places will be having a tough time taking anyone on right now".
I'm not so sure though. If the economy is to blame, which it may well be, I would like to know. Mostly because its something I can tell my grandchildren about in a few years time and feel important about: "Your generation has got it easy. In my day, by the time I had graduated and was looking for a job, I had the challenge of doing so during the Greatest Depression on record!"

This has led me to start thinking of a short non-legal career. The easy one would be to get a job at the local supermarket. Long hours; not bad money; but a lower self-esteem is required than I am prepared to offer, I think. I am, though, teetering on the brink of firing off an application to them too. At least I will be earning something.

On the distant Bar-related side of things: I still haven't joined an inn yet. That is the first thing that I need to do. I think I might be in London later this year and so will try and fit a visit to some of the inns that I am interested in in my travel plans.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Reasons why I support Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States:

1. He is a Democrat. I am somewhat of a lefty. Therefore it is natural that I would be attracted to supporting the candidate that the Democrats nominated. I believe in a larger government than most people on the right of the political spectrum would favour. Although this does not mean that I am in favour of government prying into aspects of private life where they don't have a place.

2. Not only is he a Democrat, he opposes the war in Iraq and has plan to remove American troops from there. I think the war was illegal: the reasons that the Bush administration and a lot of other Republicans gave for going to war in Iraq were because that it posed an imminent threat, had WMDs and harboured terrorists. None of these reasons turned out to be true. I would have supported an invasion of Iraq if the reason was to dispose of a cruel military dictator. However, I would have expected a much better planned and better executed invasion than the one that we did get. I think the world will be better with Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the USA's armed forces. Having listened to how he conceptualises the existing threats against America, I think he is better placed to make the correct decisions on how they should be handled. McCain may have the military background but I don't think he has as sounder judgment as Obama on foreign policy issues. I think he would be too ready to involve American military power where it shouldn't be.

3. Having said that last point, this point may seem to conflict with it, but I hope I am able to explain why I don't think it does. Obama has stated that he is prepared to attack terrorists in Pakistan if they have actionable intelligence and the President of Pakistan isn't prepared to go after them himself. McCain, like Bush before him, is determined to keep Pakistan as an ally of America. I don't understand how a distinction could have been made between Mussharaf (the then President of Pakistan) and Saddam Hussein, by the Bush administration. They were both military dictators. If America is for freedom every where, why didn't they liberate Pakistan too? At least they shouldn't have classified it as an ally. Obama hasn't said that Pakistan will no longer be an ally of America; however, his attitude to the country is an improvement, I would say.

4. Obama is a smart guy. The first time that I read about Obama was shortly after the Democratic National Convention in 2004 (when John Kerry was nominated). The Independent had an article about him. I remember thinking that he was obviously a very clever and charismatic person - a born leader. I read a little about his background: his work in Chicago as a community organiser and his work in the Illinois state legislature. Most of the article was concerned with the speech he had made to the convention in which he talked of America not being disparate blue states and red states but one United States of America. I always thought of America being like in the former and so I was very interested in someone who was talking of an America that was just one entity. I think someone who is so fond of this idea of togetherness and working with friends and foes side-by-side to get things done is admirable. McCain is far more of a divisive character in my opinion.

5. I don't know exactly what Obamamania is. However if there is such a thing as an Obamamaniac, I am probably one of them. I mention these strange words because I think it helps highlight the fact that Obama is somewhat of a brand now. And that brand or that slogan is about the overcoming of a challenge and reaching heights that haven't been reached before. This is a guy who openly called the existence of slavery in America the 'greatest sin in the nation's history' - he is prepared to state what he thinks because, even though it pains him, he has a vision for making his country a better place. No easy feat.

6. I have read one of the books that Obama has written: The Audacity of Hope. In it, as well as describing the policy positions that he stands for, he talks about his life experiences that helped shape those positions. Obama is, in my opinion, a genuine politician who can connect with ordinary citizens of the country and understand their problems. How many houses does McCain have? Well actually I don't care how many houses McCain has. He can have 10 or 100 - but he must be able to state, in under 2 seconds, how many houses he has and not refer the question to his own advisors.

7. Obama chose Biden; McCain chose Palin. This, for me, shows how much more responsible Obama is. He could have chose Clinton and wrapped-up the election now, but he didn't want the distraction that choosing her would entail because it would impinge on his promise of change. Obama is prepared to look at the bigger picture, McCain is small-time in comparison. He is a self-proclaimed maverick which I actually think is dangerous. He pulls stunts: consider his most recent: suspending his election campaign to go back to Washington and deal with the financial crisis. Now, consider the current position: things aren't resolved, he is to blame for putting other members of congress on edge, and he's suddenly trying to benefit from his actions by saying he was right and Obama was wrong in the course of his election campaign. Well, for me, when he suspended his campaign, he suspended his campaign. He can't go back on what he said and use his actions to support his campaign. There was no need for him to suspend his campaign - he was clearly pulling a stunt.