Archive for the ‘Random thoughts’ Category

24 years since Tiananmen Square

June 3rd, 2013 1 comment

While we who are outside the Great Firewall are more or less free to say whatever the hell we want about, well, whatever the hell we want, others are not so lucky. That’s why I especially admire the courage of those who commemorate the 4th of June from within China. They are often playful, slightly irreverent, and sometimes not in the best of tastes, but these little gestures of subversion are reminders that the flame still burns. Dawn will come.

Lest we forget.

P.S. Despite pessimistic voices in some papers that this year’s vigil might be cancelled because of weather, the once again attracted thousands of people.

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Tiananmen Square – 22 years on

June 4th, 2011 No comments

The British TV licence – possibly the dumbest thing on earth

November 22nd, 2010 1 comment

Don’t get me wrong, I love the charming conservatism of the British nation. I like how milk is sold in 1.136L cartons because you can decimalise the pint but you can’t kill it. I like quaint holdovers like the House of Lords and the Royal Family. I love the way central London is peppered with garden squares instead of Westfields. I enjoy traditional pomp like the Lord Mayor’s Show or Trooping the Colours. It makes me smile when I hear peculiar pronunciations unpolluted by American verbal hegemony, like “Pantene” pronounced as “Pan-ten”, “Dae-woo” pronounced as “Day-oo”, or “vit-amins” instead of “vite-amins”.

The TV licence system, however, is retarded. It is not unique to Britain – some other European countries have also retained it. The British, however, have managed to run the system in such a way as to make it, frankly, ridiculous.

First, a brief explanation of the TV licence itself for those of us unfamiliar with such a backward system. Every year, each household which uses a television to receive TV broadcasts (whether directly or recorded) is required to pay a licence fee, currently £145.50 per year for a colour TV. The fee makes up the majority of the BBC’s funding, with the rest coming from commercial arrangements and topped up by government.

The licence fee system is fundamentally unfair. It falls disproportionately on the young, because it is imposed by household, meaning that a single person household is taxed (it is legally a tax) at the same amount as a large family. It falls disproportionately on working people, because it is a set fee, not “pay per view”. This means that a household is required to pay the same fee if they watch even 5 minutes of television when they get home from work, as someone who has the television available to them at all times. It falls disproportionately on the poor, because it discounts the number of television sets in a household. Someone with just one TV between a family of six pays the same licence fee as a household with a TV in every room. Finally, of course, the tax is a set amount, not means tested and not income-progressive, and so it falls disproportionately on those with a lower income. £145.50 is not a small sum – it’s about $250-300 (depending on exchange rates), quite a bit to save up in austerity Britain.

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Tommy’s travel tip #15: Rome (Part 1)

April 2nd, 2010 3 comments

St Peter's, Vatican City
Travel tip #15: To avoid tourist trap restaurants, make sure you are at least two blocks from any tourist attraction.

When we formulated that rule, we didn’t take Rome into consideration. Rome, the eternal city, is littered with the debris of 2,500 years. You can hardly walk down a street in Rome without bumping into a classical ruin here or a medieval palace there. Finding a non-tourist-trap (or, on the west bank of the Tiber, “pilgrim”-trap) restaurant is hard enough. Finding one that’s two blocks from a tourist attraction proved to be a major endeavour requiring careful triangulation on our maps.
We did manage it, though, the first night we were there. Two blocks from Piazza Navona (location of the Fountain of Four Rivers), we spotted a little alleyway, which could only be reached from our side of the main road through a pedestrian tunnel which was, in fact, a bookshop (“Underground bookshop! Admission Free!” said the sign at the door in English). It claimed to be a trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery, and the prices displayed at the door was very reasonable. The fare seemed Italian – we were glad – with no sign of a fillet mignon or a wienschnitzel in sight.

Inside St Peter's

We pushed open the lace-curtained door, and were warmly greeted by a Chinese lady and (I presume) her Chinese daughter, in English. We seemed to be the only customers in the shop. I asked for a menu, exchanged a look with Brian. I said, loudly, “hmm, this doesn’t seem to have that dish I wanted…”, then in a whisper, “okay, go or stay?” “Your call. I don’t give a fuck. They look Italian enough,” said Brian. We decided that we’ll brave the Asianness. Afterall, didn’t Enoch’s Chinese friend back in Sydney run an Italian restaurant that appeared to serve Italian food?

Staircase inside the Vatican museum

We sat down, and the girl – she couldn’t have been older than 13 – took our orders. “A bottle of your finest vino bianco, kind signorina,” I said, or words to that effect. I ordered a mixed seafood for my entree and a spaghetti with vingoli (“What’s vingoli?” “I think it’s a kind of shellfish.” “Cool.” “Or maybe it’s squirrel. Not sure.”), and Brian had tripe and another pasta.
We weren’t ready for the ambush at all. I’d been in Italy for a week, and was pretty confident I’d come to grips with the place. Then wham – it hit us like a frying pan in the face. Yes, that’s right. The wine was not that great – a tad astringent. “This wine – it’s probably worse than about 20% of Australian white wines!” I cried in horror. “It’s pretty shit,” Brian agreed, “But you can’t complain. I said it was your call!”

Angel on the Bridge of Angels

Everything went downhill from there. My cold seafood mix looked like it came straight from the fish shop counter. And the spaghetti with vingoli – well, it was stir fried pippies with a noodle base. “Does this look a bit Chinese to you?” I asked Brian. He looked down and looked up. “No.” “No? Look at this! It’s got bloody shallots! It’s stir fried pippies with –” “No,” he interrupted me, “because I can see into the kitchen from where I’m sitting.” “So?” I asked. “So I can see the chef. And he’s Indian.” My response was probably best summed up as -_-“.

At this point, though, we were disturbed in our enjoyment of our fine, traditional Italian meals. A distinctly Italian couple walked in – a man and a woman, both wearing a lot of black leather. They spoke rather sternly to the Chinese lady, who was soon joined by the proprietor – who we could now see was, in fact, Italian. The young girl – their daughter, I presume, started talking at length to the new arrivals. The conversation became rather intense.

Staircase inside the Vatican museum

“Mafia,” whispered Brian. I nodded. They certainly looked the part. Emboldened by my experience of watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire in Italian the previous night, I proceeded to translate their conversation…
“Fat Tony saysa to tell you he been hearing you been serving bad wine.”
“No! Curses to the lying son of a boar who spreads such lies.”
“Are you calling Fat Tony a liar?”
“No! I… ”
“I been also hearing where you been serving seafood salad straight from the fish shop.”
“Well, you know how it is, Indian chefs, seafood salad is not their traditional fare…”
“And worst of all, your protection money is late by three days…”
“Our business has been bad! We have no customers except these two stingy Asian boys who aren’t even going to tip! You know what they’re like!”

Mosaic inside St Peter's

The intense discussion seeemed to reach an impasse, when the woman in black strode into the kitchen – probably to quiz the Indian chef on his Italianness – while the man in black sat down at the cash register, and started to count money —
We took one look at that, and decided to make a dash for it, leaving our money on the table. The owner barely noticed us – he was staring at the mafioso thumbing through his cash register.

Until the next day,


Tommy’s travel tip #14: Florence

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

Before the cathedral
Travel tip #14: Don’t go to Pitti Palace

Florence. The capital of Tuscany. The home of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and the Medicis; the city of the Renaissance, of art, architecture, and finance. And it did not take long to see that the money-grabbing tradition of the medieval Medici Bank lives on in the city.

Italy in low season is great value. In Venice, we paid €25 each and stayed in a palazzo, 3 minutes from San Marco Square, breakfast included. Most major attractions, such as churches, are free, and €15 can get you a decent sit-down meal.

Ceiling of the Baptistery

The rules are different in Florence. The San Lorenzo Church, across the street from the Medici palace, fronted by a statue of Cosimo de Medici, attached to the Medici chapel, charges 10 euros for admission. But to get around the no-charging-for-church-entry policy, they cleverly disguise the fee as entry to the “museum”, except you can’t get into the church without going into the “museum”. And the “museum” turns out to be the church’s crypt, with the key attraction being the tomb of – there’s that name again – Cosimo de Medici.

Belt stand near the Medici chapel

Then we made the mistake of heading to Pitti Palace. Built by the Pitti, another prominent family of Florence, it was acquired by the Medicis after they financially ruined the Pitti, and was the seat of the Medici dynasty for most of their reign over Florence. The palace was connected to the Town Hall, on the other side of the river, by the Vecchio Bridge. At the time, the bridge was monopolised by butcher shops. Not wishing to smell fresh slaughter on their daily saunter to and from the office, the Medicis ordered the butchers out, and replaced them with goldsmiths – which occupy the length of the bridge to this day.

Entry to the Pitti Palace costed €12. This seemed a tad excessive, given that the Galleria dell’Academia, home of the David, was only €6.50. We went in anyway, seeing as how this was the home of the Medicis. As it turned out, €12 gets you, well, not very much at all. A few mouldy rooms, a lot of second-rate paintings. All the pick of the Medici collection had been donated to the city centuries before, and are now displayed in the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery across the river. And no photography was allowed. Plus, the €12 covers only half the palace. The other half was another €8. AND the garden was another €6. My conclusion: don’t go there.

Dome of the cathedral

Writing this far, I’ve realised that the Medicis are really ahead of the curve on this one. Lorenzo de Medici must have modelled all this out way back when and decided – damn economic cycles, fleecing tourists is a much more reliable income stream than, say, selling hybrid securities. Hence why the Medici bank folded back in the 19th century and turned to ripping off tourists. Prescience!

* * *

Inside the town hall

We did however make two positive finds in Florence which gave us at least a psychological victory over the Medicis. The town hall, called Palazzo Vecchio, housed a number of museums, again with exorbitant entry fees. Normally, visitors climb a set of entry stairs to the top floor, and starting from the top floor, make their way down another set of exit stairs to each of the lower floors. Having been stung once, we clibmed up the exit stairs (unguarded) to the top floor. (“I don’t have a reputation to maintain in this country.”) The guy at the landing gave us a suspicious look, so we retreated back to the next floor down, and this time, we looked naturally like we’d just come from the top floor. By sacrificing the top floor, we toured the rest of the museum for free. That’s one for tourists, zero for the Medicis.

The other great find in Florence was a specialist pasta restaurant that served a pasta degustation for about €10. Every dish was awesome, as was the wine and the main that followed (not included in the €10). I had a steak in a mirtillo (cranberry) sauce. Awesome.

Until next time,


Tommy’s travel tip #13: Pisa

February 3rd, 2010 1 comment

Streets of Pisa
Travel tip #13: Three scams to be avoided at all costs:
– the Gypsy woman/girl who asks “do you speak English”?
– the Gypsy woman/girl who hangs around the station ticket machine
– the String Man

Continental Europe can be a pretty crap place if you get caught up by a scammer. These are three of my pet peeves.

“Do you speak English?” – This is almost definitely a bad sign on the streets of continental Europe, especially when asked by females dressed in colourful rags. Don’t respond. I did, once, back when I was a naive little Aussie on his first trip to Europe. The lady in question quickly clutched my arm and shoved a postcard in my face: it read “I’m a poor widowed mother of eight pitiful orphaned girls from Bosnia, all the men in the family were brutally disembowelled before my very eyes. I have been diagnosed with cancer of the ovulus and need a lump of money just to buy my daily bread…” or something along those lines. The truth is, these people are Gypsies, not war refugees. They are well organised and they are very, very good at what they do. The best response is simply to feign deafness – easier to pull off when you are Asian. Answering “no” – in English – is probably the dumbest response.

Streets of Pisa
Ticket machine scam – The more industrious Gypsy drifter works in one of two ways. Some loiter around station ticket booths and ticket machines, and offer to help you buy your ticket for you. They will then ask for a few Euros for their troubles. Not a good deal for the traveller, since all ticket machines in Western Europe have an English language option, and in any case the station staff (at least in the cities) are highly trained, very helpful, and speak English. The second, more resourceful variety, we saw in Geneva, and features an old lady who holds a stored-value ticket at a ticket machine, and offers to buy a ticket for you. I don’t know where she got her where she got the stored-value ticket from, but this is an even worse deal for the traveller, because Geneva has a scheme where all hotel/hostel guests receive free public transport. It is a little sad that these people are “working” in these trades, when they are obviously quite bright and speak English quite well. Perhaps if there weren’t such prejudice against Gypsies, they’d be able to make a living in a job that doesn’t depend on fraud.

The String Man – If the “I’m Bosnian rescue me” scam is just annoying, and the ticket machine scam is at least a fee for a service, then the String Man is downright dangerous. The scam works like this. The African man (they are usually black) approaches you, offers to tie a string around your wrist “for good luck” – then demands 5 euros to take it off. “Just walk away”, you are thinking, right? The reason the String Man is dangerous, is because he is not reluctant to use force – first grabbing your arm or bag if you try to ignore him, then blocking your way if you try to walk away. The antidote? I saw it firsthand in Milan. A group of String Men were pestering tourists on the square before the Duomo (cathedral), when a bunch of young mafia bloods spotted them and approached them. The String Men dropped everything and fled – ran – out of the square. It’s great. After the Carabinieri (national military-police) and the Polizia (provincial and specialist police), the Mafia is pretty much the third police force for maintaining public order.

Until next time,


P.S. my bear does not appear in this post because I thoughtlessly left him in Florence during this leg of the trip. He will return for the next leg of the journey.

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Tommy’s travel tip #11: Milan

August 16th, 2009 No comments

Sforza castle

Travel tip #11: Four ways to survive in a foreign country with little or no skills:
– busking
– working as toilet attendant
– begging
– loiter around free food stalls

The busker: Italy doesn’t seem to have the strict busking licensing laws of, say, London, so buskers are everywhere. Some make an effort – the guy who’s painted all in gold posing in front of the Uffizi Gallery looked the part – kind of. It’s a pity that his white sneakers sneaked out and somewhat ruined the effect. The smartest busker, though, was one who set down a set of stereos, put on some opera, and walked away. Passers-by still dropped coins for him.

Milan Cathedral
The toilet attendant: A job for candidates who have some proficiency with a mop and look good in a tux. A German phenomenon, a toilet attendant keeps a public toilet in a reasonable state of cleanliness, and in return gets to stand at the door and demand 50 euro cents off each person who comes in. Most of them are plump matrons, though there was one man in Berlin immaculately turned out in a waistcoat and dress shirt, who looked like he could have been a concert pianist.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - the premiere shopping arcade in Milan
The beggar: To the Tube carriage in London: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. I apologise in advance for disturbing your journey. Times are tough for us all, and I am looking for a little something to get through these times. So if you have any change, or any food or drinks left over from lunch, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for your kind help.” — delivered with confidence and clarity, and highly effective. Almost everyone in the carriage gave him something – money or a sandwich.

The food stand: The best ice cream I’ve had on this trip? Ferrero’s frozen grain dessert, free at Milan station from a promotional stand, not yet available in Australia and probably never will be. If you plan strategically around promotional samples, you can easily survive for a day without spending a cent!

Milan railway station
Until next time,


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Clerkship season – my thoughts

August 9th, 2009 6 comments

The long climb up? - Sydney Law SchoolEnoch has kindly credited me in his excellent article about the clerkships process – I must admit that my contribution to that article consisted of about 5 words and one set of parentheses.

(For those not familiar with the context, the vacation clerkship program, run every summer, is the primary route of recruitment for mid-to-large-sized law firms in Sydney.)

These are excellent tips, though, and it’s recommended reading for all the keen baby lawyers out there. I thought, however, that I’ll also share a few of my thoughts on the clerkships process.

#1: Take it seriously, but not too seriously. Some would see the clerkships process as a single, crowded drawbridge across the chasm between struggling law student and high-flying corporate lawyer. Others don’t seem fussed about it at all. It’s important to have a realistic sense of how important the process is.

The clerkship process is important. For those whose parents are not judges or an important client of a major law firm, it is the best and – despite the many hurdles set in the path – the easiest path to a job at a commercial law firm. Unfortunately, the profession in Sydney places far too great a significance on a start at a commercial law firm. In some respects, a clerkship becomes a badge rather than what it should be – a chance to find out whether you and commercial law make a good couple. As a result, though there are many paths forward, and many paths to commercial law, if your interests swing that way, the clerkship is significant for a law student because it is the easiest way to earn that badge. If you do not put your best – and smartest – effort into the clerkships process, you may end up spending twice or three times the effort to score a graduate job – efforts subject to all the vicissitudes of the market. So start preparing early (ideally, a year early), talk to everyone, read everything, and carefully think through every decision you make in this process.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that a clerkship is not the be-all and end-all of starting your career. There are many other paths to commercial law: as a graduate, after a further degree, as a qualified lawyer, or as a foreign lawyer. Remember, also, that commercial law is not for everyone. It is neither particularly remunerative in the first few years, nor does it offer work life balance as a matter of course. Does working on internationally significant commercial transactions for large corporations float your boat? If it doesn’t, happiness might be just an application (to the public or community sector) away. So don’t fret if the clerkships process and the competition seem a little daunting – there could well be a better path out there.

#2: A successful clerkship application must be balanced but stand out in some way. What does it take to get a clerkship offer? Some firms are rumoured to look only at marks; others supposedly only hire law society executives. In truth, all firms look for a combination of things. For the majority, being well-balanced is key. Academic results, work experience, extracurricular activities, quality of writing (in the application form and in the cover letter), as well as maintaining a good impression in the interview – all combine to make a successful application. To ensure an offer, however, an applicant should be stand-out in at least one area – some quality or experience that helps you to make it past the “maybe” pile into the “yes” pile. For those who are organised, it may be worthwhile cultivating that stand-out quality in the months or year before the clerkship process.

#3: Focus on a few firms, and try as many paths as possible. The clerkship application process is stressful, intense, and time-consuming; a quality application takes a lot of effort and time to perfect. It is prudent to apply for a good number of firms, but anything more than half a dozen will probably be a serious strain on your life. Anything more than a dozen is not for the faint-hearted. Applying for too many firms not only means more applications to draft, check, and customise – it also means that you may find it difficult to remember all the facts about each firm when you front up for the interview. A cover letter carrying the wrong firm’s name is almost certainly the biggest no-no. While not as dramatic, a bland, generic application does not impress the reader, either.

The second part of this item is that it’s a good idea to try as many things as possible. As Enoch mentioned, while a giant law firm might seem the perfect, glamorous workplace, it is not ideal for everyone – indeed, it is not ideal for most people. On the other hand, while a small firm might advertise its great atmosphere and work-life balance, you may find its work a little, well, less than exciting. The clerkship process is a chance to check out the options on offer, and you never know what you might find.

#4 Talk to as many people as possible. Before and during the clerkship process, talking to those who have gone before is a good way of avoiding pitfalls that others have encountered. During the clerkship process, talking to others can shed light on the realities of life and work with your potential employer. All the marketing talk thrown at you during the process are also best read when filtered through a competitor’s interpretation. Firm-organised cocktail parties and other events are a good chance to meet and talk to the lawyers in the flesh – they are primarily for the applicant’s benefit, and only secondarily for the firm to spot outstanding candidates. While it may seem an elusive prospect while you are stressed by the interview process, this information will come in handy when you do need to choose between competing offers. Talking to many people also has benefits beyond the process – whether or not you choose the particular firm in the end, the relationships you forge through the interview process can build or extend your network in the profession.

Finally – this is not strictly speaking a tip – keep track of which firm is offering the best food during the process. It’s something fun to focus on when your mind needs a break from the stress of the process!


Tommy completed vacation clerkships at two law firms in London and an Australian law firm in Melbourne, and completed his practical legal training at a community legal centre and a corporate general counsel’s office in Sydney. No, he doesn’t talk about himself in the third person as a matter of habit.

Tommy’s travel tip #8: Lucerne

June 20th, 2009 1 comment

From Mount Pilatus - view of the Alps
Tip #8:Going up a mountain while afflicted with a severe cold leads to long lasting eardrum damage!*

The lady at the ticket booth assured us that “up-there” it would be nice and bright, even if it was hard to believe standing here on the ground.

It wasn’t until our cablecar had ascended halfway up Mount Pilatus (2120 m), near Lucerne in central Switzerland, that my last scepticism burned away. At ground level, it was a wet, gloomy day. Dark clouds sealed the horizons. An icy drizzle slowly but steadily turned the ground into slush. Atop Mount Pilatus
It seemed at first that the cablecar would enter the grey clouds and never emerge – in places, visibility was just a few metres. Then suddenly, it burst through the clouds, and we were bathed in brilliant sunlight. Fluffy cumulous clouds dotted a blue sky, against which stood the granite bulk of the mountain. The ticket lady was right.

Though grey clouds sometimes seem to cover the sky, the sun is still out there. All it takes is the will to climb through and find it.

Written by the shore of Lake Lucerne, 15 Jan 2009

Kapellbrücke - Chapel Bridge - in Lucerne
* I caught a cold while standing around on Pariserplatz in Berlin at the beginning of the trip, and the cold – with associated hiccups – was still with me when I went up a few thousand metres of mountains in Lucerne. The air pressure change popped my ears – and my hearing didn’t recover until … well, I’ll save the story for another post.

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Lest we forget

May 31st, 2009 No comments