Careers talk for politics students at Brunel University – download

On Wednesday 16 January 2013 I visited Brunel University in London to give a brief careers talk to their politics students. It was great to be back at my old university 10 years after I left! I was invited back by one of my excellent former lecturers, Dr Niall Palmer, who inspired me to become interested in American politics all those years ago.

My presentation covered tips at university, skills and strategy, career options and job sites, CV layout and content, interviews, and ended with a quiz. My PowerPoint presentation is available here for download and / or distribution:

Careers talk at Brunel University

Brunel University

The secret to happiness

In a way it’s a very bittersweet time of year. Many of us hope to spread happiness and joy to those we care about. At the same time we cannot ignore all the unhappiness in the world and the suffering that many people – and animals too – are being forced to endure.

Thankfully there are millions of decent conscientious people in our world of all backgrounds for whom the message of Christmas isn’t just confined to a few weeks in December. These are the same people who already spend so much time and energy trying to change our world for the better. And they are the same people who will continue to lead by example when all the festivities are over come January the 2nd.

There will come a time in the future when all suffering will be eliminated. This isn’t just a hope that I have but an absolute belief. Just as our species and the human body has gradually evolved and improved over millions of years, so human civilisation will also continue to become progressively enlightened.

A new world order is in our grasp and education is the key. Before the end of this century, science, truth, justice, peace and democracy will have become the fundamental pillars of life for all people, and medical science will have enhanced humanity beyond our wildest expectations. As we strive towards this new enlightenment however, I believe that we can and actively should encourage each other to be happier, and to embrace happiness as a way of life.

In a strange way happiness has become somewhat of a taboo subject. Those who are happy and those who seek to encourage greater happiness are often viewed with suspicion. I suspect this may be because for centuries the promise of happiness has been used by individuals and groups of people the world over to exploit fellow human beings. Even today we can do a simple online search to find countless people willing to help you find happiness – for a price.

Suspicions aside (hopefully) how many of us actually spend time really thinking about happiness or about ‘being happy’? Is it something that we allow our minds, bodies and souls to experience? Or do we more often than not delegate the idea of being happy to our future selves?

Sadly it is so much easier for us to focus on what we need and what we lack; on what we hate and on what causes us physical or emotional pain. Many people simply avoid thinking about happiness altogether, believing that it will inevitably come into their lives just as soon as they have enough money, and thus the freedom to purchase goods and services.

Whilst happiness is of course very subjective and personal to each and every one of us, philosophers and faith traditions throughout history have always cautioned against seeking happiness through money alone. Moreover studies have shown time and again that there’s more to happiness than just wealth and material possession.

A Gallup poll released just this week for example surveyed 150,000 people around the world and found that 7 of the 10 happiest nations on Earth are in Latin America. These countries, which included the likes of Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica, also happen to be amongst the poorest nations in the world.

Happiness is by no means a fixed concept. Even today, scientists and scholars are trying to define, re-define and better understand exactly what happiness is and how we can experience it. Quite understandably then, there are numerous theories and approaches which seek to explain happiness, or at least identify the key ingredients from which it may be produced.

Psychologist Martin Seligman explained that happiness was an amalgamation of 5 things: pleasure; engaging activities; relationships with others; meaning and belonging; and accomplishments. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, which has become a fundamental principle in the world of business, consists of a hierarchy of 5 essential needs: physiological needs; safety; love / belonging; esteem; and self-actualisation.

Aristotle believed that unlike riches, honour, health or friendship; happiness was the only thing that humans desired for its own sake. He considered happiness to be an activity rather than an emotion or a physical state, and that ‘activity’ was the ‘practice of virtue’. The Buddhist approach is beautifully simple and an idea that I firmly agree with: compassion and generosity is more fun, and more fun leads to increased happiness! Put another way, the secret to happiness is making other living beings happy through compassion and generosity.

I believe that happiness begins in the mind through meditation. Also known as positive thinking or having a positive mental attitude, it is by far the easiest and most beneficial act that any one of us can take – to actually think ourselves happy. To create within our own personal consciousness a state of mental and emotional well-being, which in turn flows outwards like ripples in a pond, and encompasses our physical bodies and the world around us. Interestingly it would seem that science and evolution also concurs with this approach.

The human brain weighs around three pounds and has tripled in size as our ancestors evolved over the last 2 million years. Thanks to our frontal lobes, we as a species are now completely unique in the world, in that we have the ability to simulate the future and visualise actions or products before they exist in real life.

This also gives us the psychological ability to ‘synthesise happiness’ and to change our view of the world, so as to make ourselves feel better about our circumstances. In other words, we have what it takes within our own minds to create happiness and to feel happier, irrespective of the world around us. Having a positive mental attitude therefore – and thinking positive – actually works!

This extraordinary finding has been backed up with reliable data and scientific study by the eminent Harvard psychologist Professor Dan Gilbert. Gilbert also suggests that paradoxically we believe that synthetic happiness is not the same as natural happiness. That is to say, people assume that self-taught, self-proclaimed happiness is not as enriching or as rewarding as the happiness that comes from actually getting something that we want.

However his research has also found that this assumption is mistaken. When measured in controlled experiments, Gilbert found that “synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for”. Whilst some may mock the idea of synthetic happiness, in the real world and in the human mind, there is no differential between synthetic happiness and naturally occurring happiness.

So there we have it: the secret to happiness is to ‘fake it until you make it’. You can either be unhappy or less happy until you find happiness by getting what you want, or you can create happiness seemingly out of nothingness inside your own mind; a happiness that will be beneficial and fulfilling to your emotional, mental and physical well-being, and allow you to spread even greater happiness to other living beings through compassion and generosity.

Ultimately, I believe we need a lot more happiness in the world, and I think we shouldn’t be afraid to do something about it.

I wish all my friends, relatives, colleagues and constituents a very happy Christmas, a very happy New Year, and a very happy and fulfilling future.

Warning: BlackBerry Protect flaw uncovered

A few days ago I tweeted a recommendation to download and install BlackBerry Protect. In my view this is a brilliant application for two reasons. Firstly it allows you to remotely back-up all of your data (which can then be set to occur automatically), and secondly because it provides additional security features in the event that your BlackBerry is lost or stolen.

The security features allow you to locate your phone on a map and also instruct it to emit a loud noise, all of which is great if you’ve simply misplaced it somewhere nearby. Best of all you can remotely lock and / or completely wipe all the data from your handset, which is surely excellent peace of mind for any BlackBerry owner. However – and much to my frustration – I recently discovered a fatal flaw with this application.

In a nutshell if you lock your handset online with a password, the phone will indeed lock itself, but the password will then not work on the phone. In other words if you lost your phone and subsequently locked it online with the password “torch123”, should you be lucky enough to find your phone again, you would not be able to unlock it with the same password “torch123”.

Worst of all because there is then no way to unlock your phone and no passwords will work, you will be forced to enter an incorrect password ten times, after which point your BlackBerry handset will go into emergency shutdown and completely wipe all your data. The only remedy available to you at this stage would be to follow the entire process through, sit tight as your BlackBerry wipes and resets itself, and then do a back-up restore. Sadly if you didn’t do a back-up then you’re screwed.

I’ve written this up because this is exactly what recently happened to me – twice – firstly because I thought I’d lost my phone, and then I tried the whole thing again to double check, because I knew that I had not made a typo when I had initially set my password. Thankfully I had completed a back-up a few days beforehand so I only lost a small amount of data. However I did also lose all my BlackBerry messenger contacts and all the messages that I’d received between the date of my last back-up and the date of the restore.

My BlackBerry handset does not run off a BlackBerry Enterprise Server, so I’m not sure if that has something to do with it. I have now sent all of this information over to RIM BlackBerry headquarters, so hopefully I’ll soon get an answer to this anomaly. In the meantime if you are a BlackBerry owner and you have installed the BlackBerry Protect application – you have been warned! Having said that, I would recommend downloading the software and regularly backing-up your handset, but just avoid using the remote locking feature until the problem is fixed.

Letter to the editor of the local newspaper

Published on 13 July 2011

Dear Keith,

In light of recent events at the News of the World, I wanted to write to thank you and your staff for the way in which our local paper is run here in Leicester.

Whilst on occasion I may personally disagree with a particular story, I do appreciate the integrity shown by the Leicester Mercury, and the robust, but fair approach taken by the paper.

As a lawyer and as a former journalist, I believe that the press have an important role to play in holding politicians to account, as well as bringing important matters to the attention of the general public.

I also feel that relationships between journalists and those who hold public office should never become too cosy, and to that end I am pleased to say that my personal dealings with several Leicester Mercury journalists, have always been professional and above board.

It would of course be very sad if innocent journalists at the News of the World lost their jobs following the recent scandal. However, with employment laws the way they are in this country, and with such a vast media empire at the disposal of the Murdoch family, I expect most if not all will be re-employed elsewhere in the organisation.

In terms of the paper itself being shut down, I couldn’t be happier. It was always an arrogant and tacky excuse for a newspaper, which for decades abused its market dominance and popularity to both unfairly belittle those in public life, and bully so-called celebrities with information about their private lives.

In my opinion, the recent public outrage is not simply as a result of actions that were illegal, but also as a result of actions that were immoral.

I for one am glad that the Leicester Mercury holds itself to a higher standard, and that we in the county of Leicestershire benefit from an adult newspaper that is keen to focus on real life, and the important issues that matter to ordinary people.

Yours sincerely,

Councilor Sundip Meghani

Leicester City Council

Speech to Toastmasters International Madrid and Andalucia Regional Conference

Delivered in Madrid, Spain on 23 October 2010

Good afternoon everyone. Firstly may I congratulate you all on your regional conference of this very exciting, vibrant and useful organisation.

What Mike and his colleagues are doing here, by promoting the use of the English language in a positive and practical way, is helping to build bridges between people, helping to create understanding between cultures and helping to improve the prospects, both personal and professional, of our Spanish brothers and sisters here in the beautiful city of Madrid, and beyond.

I’m delighted to be in Madrid for my third visit in 3 years, and I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak with you, today.

In my opinion there is a distinct correlation between responsibility and success. The most successful people tend to have the most responsibilities. But responsibility and success do not come about by accident or by luck. To be successful in one’s career, or indeed one’s personal life, one has to be an effective communicator. One has to be able to exchange ideas and information clearly, so that knowledge can be imparted or absorbed effectively.

Knowledge is power, as they say, and professional people like yourselves place a high value on knowledge, because that information, that power if you will, will ultimately lead to your success. There are four parts to good communication in my view: writing well, speaking properly, listening actively and having positive body language. And I cannot stress enough the importance of that final category – body language.

Extensive studies have shown that when it comes to oral communication and body language, the words we use make up a mere 7% of our interpersonal communication. The tone of our voice has an effective impact of 38%. And our body language, something which we do without even thinking about, makes up 55% of how effectively we manage to communicate. In other words, speaking English is not just about using our mouths and using our ears, it’s also about using our eyes and using our hands.

Now that might seem somewhat daunting; the idea of not only having to learn how to speak in English and hear in English, but also to see in English and to move in English. However do not be disheartened and do not be afraid. Now what I’m about to say would probably devastate Her Majesty the Queen, so this stays between us, but the truth is the English language is not special, it is not exclusive, it is not impossible to master, and it most certainly is not British! The point I’m trying to stress is quite simple.

The way that you speak as you do now in Spanish, and the way in which the Spanish language completely envelops who you are, how you think, how you sound and how you are perceived, should be the approach you take with the English language. And the best way to develop your English, is to spend time with native English speakers, and to immerse yourself in English-speaking culture as often as you can.

Certain traits are of course integral to being able to communicate in English with confidence; vocabulary, fluency, pronunciation, comprehension, interaction, passion and creativity. The English language, just like any other global language, is a means to an end; a linguistic mechanism to enrich life, to acquire knowledge, to build human relationships and to become successful.

Unlike any other International language however, English is the language of global business, the language of foreign diplomacy, the language of the world wide web, as well as being the fastest growing spoken language in the world, and one that will soon overtake Chinese as the most widely spoken language on Earth.

So have fun with English, but also work hard at it. Keep doing what you’re doing, embrace the culture and the passion, the etiquette and the rules, the diversity and the ingenuity, and enjoy the limitless possibilities to turn effective, confident, articulate, interpersonal English communication, into a more fulfilling, a more successful and a more exciting, way of life.

Thank You.

Returning goods to stores made easy

Attempting to return goods to a store in this country can be an infuriating and drawn out process. However if you exude confidence, understand your legal rights and follow through on what you say, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.

When you buy something, pay for it and leave the store, the transaction may be complete but the contract is ongoing. In other words just because you’ve returned home or kept an item for a few weeks, you haven’t automatically completed your end of the contract, and you might still have an option to return or exchange something with which you are dissatisfied.

The question is: are you are dissatisfied with the item because it is faulty, or for some other reason?

If the goods are faulty, not fit for purpose, not as described or not of satisfactory quality, then you are entitled to a full refund. You do not have to accept a repair, a credit note or replacement, although you may want to consider this if you have had the goods for some considerable time.

If you have purchased the wrong item, changed your mind or the item is an unwanted gift, then you are not entitled to a full refund. More often than not however, the shop will give you a refund out of goodwill, but you may have to settle for an exchange or credit note if it’s outside of the store’s discretionary return period (usually 28 days).

You should always act quickly and return items as soon as possible. However if you are attempting to return faulty goods, then you have a “reasonable amount of time” within which to do so, irrespective of what the store’s policy is. So for example, it should to be perfectly fine to return a pair of faulty straighteners after about 6 months if they begin to singe your hair, because if you’ve spent more than £100 on them, you would expect them to work properly for a lot longer than 6 months.

However items which are not fit for purpose, not as described or not of satisfactory quality, should be returned fairly quickly, i.e. within a couple of months, because it would be not reasonable for the buyer to decide 6 months down the line for example that a pair of trousers were wrongly labelled as a size 34, but in-fact measured up as a size 28.

It is always best to have a receipt, but it’s also worth knowing that shops aren’t actually obliged to provide you with a receipt in the first place and under English law, you don’t need to show a receipt when you’re trying to return something. You are just as legally entitled to use a bank or credit card statement to prove the date and location of where the goods were purchased. In-fact simply having a witness who can verify your version of events may also be fine but it’s probably best avoided unless taking legal action.

Whatever happens, don’t take no for an answer, don’t tolerate silly excuses and don’t allow the shop to pass the buck onto the manufacturer. It is the trader’s responsibility to rectify the problem and it is up to them to go back to the manufacturer. If an item is faulty then you should quite simply have no problem in getting back your money from the shop where the item was purchased.

If you don’t get anywhere with the person at the counter, you could asked to speak with the manager. Remind the manager that he/she must surely be familiar with basic consumer law and the Sale of Goods Act, and that you would like the matter to be resolved immediately and without a fuss. If the store manager doesn’t cooperate, take the names of all the people you spoke with as well as details of the company’s head office (if applicable), and leave the store with your head held high.

It is then up to if you wish to take matters further, and you would have several options open to you. You could get in touch with their head office (if there is one) and outline the nature of your dissatisfaction. You could do a Companies House search online, get the addresses of all the Company Directors and then write to them individually. And of course you could always sue the company in the Small Claims Court, if the damages sought are less than £5,000, however this would be time consuming and probably cost you a few hundred pounds.

Overall just remember that you’re not a criminal for taking something back to a shop and wanting a refund, despite how the sales assistant looks at you. Just stay calm, be confident, polite and professional, and then when you feel the full weight of the English legal system behind you, just lean in and gently ask… “may I speak with the store manager please?”

THIS BLOG MUST NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE