Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lights, Camera, Geek

It's an old family tradition (3 years old to be precise) that between Christmas and New Year I assemble a DVD slideshow movie of the best of the Family Stan photographs from the year.

Every year I get more ambitious, which is fine because every year the technology to support the ambition gets better.

Firstly the soundtrack. Linux has a wonderful range of free toys in this area.
  1. Download the video containing the tune you want from youtube using the youtube-dl application.
  2. Extract the tune from the video using mplayer
  3. Use the dvd:rip application to extract a file from a DVD of Stanetta's church play. This contains numerous stills and pieces of her dialogue that I cut into separate files for later use.
  4. Use the rather wonderful Audacity application to mix the tune with samples of dialogue. I could have played with this for weeks.
I couldn't find anything in Linux that came close to Windows Movie Maker, so I used that to organise the still pictures into order and set up transitions between them.

It was then I realised that I had done this in exactly the wrong order - you really shouldn't mix your soundtrack until you know how long your video is going to be.

To finish the job I burned the finished movie onto DVD using Microsoft's DVD maker.

Hopeful next year someone will have produced something that does all of these operations in one neat application. But next year I'll want to be even more creative with the year-end movie. Animation ? 3-D ? Guest Stars ? Behind-the-scenes DVD extra features and interviews with the cast?

Looking at the finished movie I was reminded that I've had a cracking 2008. Business has been lousy but everything else has been just wonderful.

Happy New Year to all my readers and may 2009 bring you the vast majority of what you think you want and all of what you need.

Stan xxx

Monday, December 29, 2008

Join the IT Crowd

I can't stand one particular advert on TV. And I'm worried it's the just the start of a new trend.

There's a worried man. You can tell he's worried because he's hamming it up like a silent movie actor. He's in a cramped black-and-white room. The bills are piling up and he's afraid of losing his job which totally sucks. His sexy but fickle wife is probably going to run off too. Oh, woe is he.

But wait ! He's signed up for some IT courses and we cut to a confident man striding in living colour from a big house towards his big car (presumably after being a total stud with his wife). The advert ends with him driving off contentedly towards a satisfying and lucrative job in IT.

The reality is more disappointing. The industry is in retreat. In the 1990s any bozo could have parlayed a few basic IT skills into a significant living, and many did. But things have changed. The industry is in retreat in line with the world recession, and there is a significant and growing supply of cheap offshore labour. This hits old lags like me hard, but it's even worse for people just starting out.

For example, imagine you are attracted by the starting salary for Junior Database Administrators (around £25k) with the prospect of doubling that when you get experienced. You work hard to pass the required exams in your free time (one year if you are clever and hardworking).

Unfortunately to get your feet on the ladder you are competing with a large number of Indian guys and gals who have IT degrees and are significantly cheaper and usually more polite and smarter than you are. Eye-wateringly cheap if they don't even have to leave India. Database Administrators don't need to be on the same continent as the machines they tend and the machines don't need to be on the same continent as the people who use them. I've worked with a client in England whose machines were in Holland and whose administrators were in India.

So basically your qualifications buy you a lottery ticket to compete with the entire world to get a job with a shrinking salary that is unlikely to improve either your finances or your sex life.

My message would be that if IT interests you, then get stuck in and compete for whatever jobs aren't being outsourced by being more persuasive, cleverer and harder working than any other applicant. I've enjoyed working in IT and I hope you do too. But don't give any money to these people selling dreams. All you'll likely get is a list of qualifications (you could have got this by googling "IT certification") and a standard recruitment consultancy service (there are thousands of these - or try www.jobserve.com and phone whichever agency has the job you fancy).

I don't like the fact that these people are profiting from fear and selling something you could get for free (and which might not be worth much anyway). I hope they crash and burn and I won't ever have to sit through similar adverts ever again.

Some hope. The coming Depression is likely to lead to a lot more more fear and I suspect that profiting from it will become one of the few growth areas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In the Big City

You need to do a minimum of three court observations before they let you loose on a court as a new magistrate. As my day-job didn't need me yesterday, I went to the nearest big city to see what Justice looked like over there.

The Magistrate Court in that city is new and immense with 17 active courtrooms on the day I visited. This contrasts sharply with the 2 courts I'm used to.

The lady in charge of the rota of 450 magistrates met me once I'd cleared security and took me into the Magistrates' common room. Here were 50+ of her charges drinking coffee, reading newspapers and having animated discussions. I decided I'd like to see an actual trial, so she found a suitable courtroom and introduced me to the chairman who was delighted to allow me to observe, although he did insist on teasing me about the number of "poultry rustling" trials I'd have to sit through in my country courtroom.

As it turned out I can't think of many differences between the procedure or workload of the big city court and my court in the outer suburbs. We have after all got the same Guidelines and the same issues with alcohol, drugs and lousy driving.

I certainly envied the camaraderie of the large common room, but the many small, modern courtrooms had a bit of the feel of the multiplex cinema about them, except that the chairs disappointingly did not have drink-holders in the arms.

The observations have been useful. I've seen how things actually work rather than the way they ought to work. I've seen defendants and victims have a slanging match they definitely wouldn't have wanted the Magistrates to see. And I've seen the way three different legal advisors have banged heads together to move things along so that the Magistrates just need to show up and do their job.

I'll let you know if I ever do get a "poultry rustling" case, but for now the only poultry I'm concerned with is the one I'm going to cook with all the trimmings tomorrow. Hope you all have a Merry Christmas.

Stan xxx

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hallelujah Chorus

Yes, Clueless Stan did a huge piece on cover versions last week and totally neglected to mention the towering classic that is "Hallelujah", which is in the news again at the moment because some giddy girl from off the telly is doing it.

I liked this comment from YouTube "Cohen wrote it, Cale improved it then Buckley completed it." which is glib, rather simplistic but broadly accurate.

Leonard Cohen : "I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song."

Cohen's superlative feat of songwriting is undeniable but unfashionably I don't rate any of his performances. Sounds too much like the record-player needs winding up to me.

He ended up writing 80 verses of the song and when John Cale asked for the lyrics, he chose 15 of those verses as being fit to fax.

John Cale : Best known for his work with Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. If you heard the song on "Shrek" that was John Cale's version. He saw the potential in the song and fashioned a masterpiece from the sloppy clay of Cohen's original idea. Notably his selection of lyrics are a lot more sexual and a lot less biblical than Cohen's. A lot more bondage, a lot less David's horn.

Jeff Buckley : If you heard the song in "The West Wing" then that was Jeff Buckley's version. A bit like James Dean's acting, it isn't what he does, it's the way that he does it.

His approach to the song is broadly similar to Cale's, but in the last minute or so he lays down an extraordinary coda that lays waste to any stiff-under-lip you might possess. He reminds you that "it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah".

It's even more heartbreaking when you know that Jeff Buckley drowned at the age of 30 after completing only one album.

It's odd that it's men that have had all the success with the song up until now. There is no reason why it would work any less well from a woman's point of view.

But forget about Alexandra Burke's version and listen to what Allison Crowe does with the song. Her voice couldn't be more different from the stereotypical "X Factor" empty plastic R&B diva voice. Here is someone who feels the music and communicates. Simply stunning - full of real power and enormous feeling. Big, big ploppy tears on Stan's keyboard.

Musical Trivia - it's in C Major. And it's the saddest song in the world. Go figure.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I was expecting you, Mr Bond

Stanetta is suffering. Every time (possibly an exaggeration) she switches on the news, she claims it's always people moaning on about the economy. Usually Robert Peston.

Personally I enjoy financial news. I love to hear people claim to understand why something good/bad just happened and why they think something better better/worse will happen in future.

In truth, these amazing human inventions called "Markets" have grown way beyond the point where mortal man can predict the future or explain the present. Modern economists are about as credible as Aztec priests trying to explain why the volcano is rumbling.

If there is any hope of understanding, you have to look at the past, and this is where the historian Niall Ferguson's series "The Ascent of Money" comes in. I'm working my way through the series on Channel 4's On-Demand Service and have just watched the excellent second episode about the history of Bonds.

The thirty second version of this is that the first bond market started to fund wars between city-states in Tuscany in the 1360s before going on to win the battle of Waterloo, lose the American civil war, make a fortune for the Rothschilds and bankrupt Argentina.

Prof Ferguson's 48 minute version moves nearly as quickly as that - he keeps it light, draws parallels, quotes specific examples and focuses in on the people involved rather than pretending that it's abstract Forces that are important.

Unfortunately, if like Stanetta you're overloaded with financial news just now, you'll probably be disinclined to spend time watching this series.

You should - it is possibly your best chance to understand what the flip is going on.

And it's important stuff. In my opinion the following is the most important current issue confronting the UK :-
"Banks and other lenders have issued about 6.5 billion pounds ($9.9 billion) and 10 billion euros ($13.7 billion) of bonds backed by the UK government since the state offered to guarantee them two months ago"
Are you in favour ? Against ? Or don't you understand the question? Maybe you understand the individual words of question but you can't understand why it's so gosh-garned important.

Governments are doing weird stuff with your money and a bunch of other money it hasn't printed yet. I think it only proper that a generous amount of screentime is given to people like Robert Peston and Niall Ferguson to explain it. Sorry, Stanetta.

Vote Stan.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hamster Haven

I am pleasantly baffled by girls. Especially mine.

Stanetta's school chum was talking about hamsters. The conversation rapidly spiralled in a jazz-style onto the subject of hamsters on roller-blades and then into a freestyle improv on how you can spoil hamsters rotten.

Stanetta disappeared into her room after school, booted up her laptop and slammed out in hardly any time at all this amazing advert for "Hamster Haven - A place where your hamster feels at home."

If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, where on earth do young girls come from?

Good work, Stanetta. Made me smile and made my jaw drop and my head spin. It'll be a sad day when you start making an ounce of sense.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cross My Heart And Hope to Die

I was really looking forward to writing a long piece mocking the pomp and circumstance and the airs and graces of my recent swearing-in. But I'm not going to. Much.

There was plenty of potential for mockery. For example, in attendance were four High Court judges and a Lord Lieutenant with a massive ceremonial sword and a High Sheriff, all with uniforms out of "Duck Soup". I knew what the judges did for a living, but it took some serious wikipedia to work out how the other guys filled their days.

The venue was a massive contrast - a rather cramped modern lecture theatre at the University of Stanster. We were packed in so tight that it was difficult to stand when it was our turn to swear our oaths. Early on I dropped a piece of paper on the floor, but I couldn't have ducked down to get it without appearing to commit an act of gross indecency on one or both of my squashed neighbours.

Fortunately the speeches were brief and soon I was standing and swearing my non-religious version of the oath (hold the God). It was a shock to hear the archaic language come tumbling out of my mouth. I resisted a momentary mad impulse to do a comedy voice.

I sat and later I signed The Book with a disappointingly mundane black Bic biro.

And that's how you make a Magistrate.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Stan is an anagram of Santa

I dreamed last night that I was in court presiding as a Magistrate. The accused, a Mr. Santa Claus, had been accused of breaking into houses. An aggravating factor was that he did so while they were occupied at night. Given that he brought a large sack, he was obviously also "going equipped" for theft.

Mr Claus didn't take anything of value, but he did consume an awful lot of sherry that would obviously have put him well over the drink-drive limit. Given that he also drove around the world in a single night, it seems irrefutable that he comfortably exceeded the national speed limit of 70 mph even in 30 mph zones in built-up areas.

Mr Claus did not attend court and I was happy to sign a warrant for his arrest. Bail would seem to be unlikely, given that he is very likely to abscond back to his home address in a place which does not have an extradition treaty with the UK.

The accused is due to visit the UK this month and I hope the police will be vigilant and I look forward to dealing with this miscreant in due course.

Ho ho ho indeed.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sympathy For the Gerbil

It is John Milton's 400th birthday. His poetry I find inaccessible - both because of the language he uses but also because the subject matter requires a detail Biblical knowledge and belief that I will never possess. To me he comes across like one of the original manic street-preachers.

On the same day, Oliver Postgate died - the co-inventor of Bagpuss - in my opinion a far more worthy object of study. What's not to like about a shop that doesn't sell anything and a baggy pink sleepy cat that a young girl loves despite his flaws?

It's a world where things which are Lost are looked after until they ready to be Regained. It seems to me that Oliver Postgate could have written Paradise Lost ... or more likely John Milton could have written a Bagpuss episode.
The World was assembled before the window,
Summoned by the crash of wood.
Then it was that Bagpuize in shades of pink sallied forth
To investigate commotion.

Seems upon the night a gerbil came, with teeth unearthly sharp.
Had chewed the beam supporting o'erhanging ceiling.
Eden's tidy Paradise was Lost,
Now reigned Disorder in that unhappy retail space.

Bagpuize did cast his eyes around and soon discovered the cause
And cleared his throat and addressed the crowd, of Mice and Men
"The beam above was once a proud and strong right-angle.
But down it came and here it rests upon the ground"

"It's not the gerbil we should blame - it is the Fallen Angle"

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Addictions

I'm a freelance IT person and so I haven't seen many heroin addicts in my life.

Not that IT freelancers are a particularly well-adjusted lot. I've worked with way more than my fair share of alcoholics and people who indulge in what I would call "risk-taking behaviours". This covers driving like idiots, gambling, fooling around with unsuitable partners and generally doing stuff that would make their mothers cry.

My favourite example is a guy I once worked with who was making good money but who slept in his car rather than getting a hotel room. He told me he was saving up until he had £100,000 in the bank and then he was going to drive his car/hotel to a casino in Monte Carlo and stake the lot on black. If he won, he'd party for a few years; if he lost, he'd return and try and get his old job back. One day he quit and left without a word - I never heard from him again.

The addictions of IT people tend to be sociable addictions - alcoholics and gamblers can and do maintain successful careers and often you wouldn't know they were addicts unless they actually told you.

Heroin addiction is a whole different story.

A couple of the cases in the court session I observed last week involved heroin addicts. Both of them looked old way beyond their years and their skin was an unearthly glowing white - like the make-up of a geisha - like a ghost. Their lives were a mess - the cliche used in court is that they had "chaotic lifestyles", which makes it sound as though all they needed was a course in Time Management.

In fact heroin had killed these people - they just hadn't stopped moving yet. Their higher brains were dead - they had become zombies, fit only to crave more drugs and make pitifully poor attempts at petty crime to fund their habit. Meanwhile their bodies were slowly falling apart as their minds unravelled.

On my way back to my car after court, I walked through an underpass. There was a young girl, face unnatural white, slumped against a wall. She lit up a cheap disposable lighter and watched the flame with unnatural concentration. Then she flicked it off and eventually back on again and repeated the flame watching. I walked on by, she didn't seem to notice me and I heard the "click ..... click" of the lighter continue behind me.

Breaks your heart - that used to be someone's little girl before someone brought heroin into her life.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What a bunch of totters

I sat in on a traffic court today, and it made me realise that The Law is a big softie when it comes to drivers.

It allows you to accumulate ("tot up") twelve points in any three year period before there's any question that you will lose your licence.

Get caught doing just over the speed limit once ? Pay a modest fine and have three points.

Get caught "forgetting" to renew your insurance ? Have six points and a bigger fine.

But as long as you keep your nose clean for three years there's no further action taken - the points fall away and are forgotten like bad dreams.

People end up in magistrate court with their licence at risk either because they have committed a more serious no-no (e.g "Driving While Disqualified") or because they have accumulated 12 point and over and have become "Totters".

Anyone want to share the road with serious lawbreakers or persistent minor lawbreakers ? Thought not.

The presumption is that someone with twelve points is likely to get banned for six months plus. The exception is where the magistrates are convinced that banning someone would cause "exceptional hardship".

This is a poorly understood concept, for example the fact that the driver will likely lose their job is not usually considered exceptional.

One tip - get a lawyer. In court today I saw an intelligent articulate man make an absolute hash of it. I felt for him because he was a fellow freelancer and losing his licence is going to affect his business at the worst possible time. But under questioning he had to admit that his wife could drive, his kids were old enough to be independent and no-one else in the world would be inconvenienced even slightly if he couldn't get back in his 4x4 for the next six months.

Don't feel too sorry for him - he had chances and he blew it and now he'll have to study the bus timetable for a while.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Covers

After a long day I'm a 200 miles drive from home and I can't sleep. So I'm greedily hogging the hotel's free wifi broadband and listening to cover versions on YouTube until I'm ready to drop.

It all started with yesterday's posting about Stevie Nicks' "Dreams" and how The Corrs' version was so woeful. This led me onto her "Edge of Seventeen" which is wondrous, while Lindsay Lohan's version is predicably awful.

Although, to be fair, Stevie Nicks swiped the bass and drums from "Bring on the Night" by The Police for "Edge of Seventeen", so it's almost a cover version in itself.

Not all cover versions are a bad idea, but in most cases you do wish someone could have had a quiet word to try to talk them out of it.

For every good one (Gnarls Barkley's version of Radiohead's "The Reckoner") that add something worth hearing, there are six thousand bad ones (the Gregorian monks version of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams") that go through the motions and stamp over everything that was good about the original.

Some just puzzle me. Take Radiohead's version of The Smiths "The Headmaster's Ritual" - it's technically well done by a talented group at the height of their powers but it spectacularly falls flat. For starters, the line "Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools" needs Morrissey's Manc twang, not Thom Yorke's public school Oxfordshire vowels. But mainly it's a case that this song has already been done Mr. Yorke - kindly please go write another one of your excellent experiments in sonic melancholy.

You do forget sometimes that some of the greatest pieces of music of all time were cover versions. "Wild is the Wind" was written for Johnny Mathis but his version was a soppy cheesy unlistenable mess while Bowie made it damn well soar.

I don't have the patience to include links but here's my incomplete list of cover versions that I didn't even know were cover versions :-
  • "I Fought the Law" - The Crickets
  • "Hazy Shade of Winter" - Simon & Garfunkel
  • "Twist & Shout" - The Isley Brothers
  • "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" - Otis Redding
  • "All Along the Watchtower" - Bob Dylan
Don't those titles look odd with the original artist?

Thankfully The Clash, The Bangles, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix didn't think that doing a cover version was anything to be ashamed of.

Finally some of my guilty favourite cover versions.

Johnny Cash doing U2's "One"
Travis doing Britney's "Hit me Baby One More Time"
Arctic Monkeys doing Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good"

And so to sleep, with a force of nature singing a 27 year-old song in my head

"Just like the white winged dove...
sings a song ...
Sounds like she's singing...
whoo...whoo...whoo, "

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Go Your Own Way

"Cool", or whatever new-fangled word is replacing it these days, is over-rated.

The pursuit of "cool" is what forces the Jeremy Clarksons of this world into wearing tight jeans well into their dotage. It's why you hide your record collection from your friends. It's what stops you spelling Rap with a Capital "C".

However, there comes a point where your street-credibility has fallen away to such an extent that you reach an Event Horizon and you realise that you will never be taken seriously by anyone half your age ever again.

And that's when you relax and buy trousers with elasticated waists and sensible slip-on shoes in whatever darned colour pleases you.

It's also when you don't mind admitting you spent the morning listening to Fleetwood Mac.

Hard to describe Fleetwood Mac. They've were formed the year after I was born, have survived a succession of line-ups of extremely variable quality and have produced some rather excellent music. If you've watched TV at any point you will have heard their music although these days it tends to be in the background or in the adverts.

The incarnation I prefer is the line-up they had for the "Rumours" album - their tricky thirteenth album. For a group that are pigeon-holed as being purveyors of shallow elevator-music, they were having a hard time of it :-
  • Mick Fleetwood (Drums) - divorcing
  • LIndsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks - relationship disintegrating
  • John & Christine McVie - marriage imploding
I think that tension definitely raised the temperature of the music on that album. I do recommend dusting it off and having another listen.

Especially "Dreams" which is Stevie Nicks at her soulful conflicted best. If you want to know how great a singer she was, compare with The Corrs' painfully twee version of the same song. Yeek!

But just for the record, thunder doesn't only happen when it's raining.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Soft Justice

Anthony Marland from Ashton under Lyne, Greater Manchester was finally jailed for four months recently after being caught driving while disqualified for the 54th time. People are quite understandably asking what the heck happened on the previous fifty-odd court appearances.

Well, it seems he got a community order which he broke and a suspended sentence but otherwise the magistrates presumably kept fining him and re-banning him.

I would launch into a rant ... but ... er (fidgets nervously) you see ...

It's like this. At the recent magistrate training we were working through a example where a young driver was caught driving while disqualified. For the fourth time. I was in a group of five students and most wanted to send him down for 3 months or so. I suggested something along the lines of :-

"Isn't that an over-reaction, given that the worst he's had so far is a fine. Let's give him a high community penalty - a last chance to sort himself out"

Well, I managed to talk them round and we kept our fictional scallywag out of clink.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Driving while disqualified is the moral equivalent of mooning the courthouse while smoking a joint. It shows total contempt for the court and the law and needs a punishment that would deter the vast majority and properly punish the odd one or two who think they can get away with it. Doing it multiple times is beyond belief.

Well, I know that now and I'm fortunate that I've been able to make my mistake in the classroom.

But you see I think even the old push-over soft-touch that I so recently was would have sent the guy down fifth-time. I don't know the full story obviously but as to why it took so long, my ghast is as flabbered as anybody's.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 3 : Virtual Reality

After a very technical session on dealing with fine defaulters, we spent most of Day 3 role-playing some fairly realistic cases.

It's going to sound strange but it surprised me how little my colleagues resembled rookie magistrates during the roleplay. It was always a fear of mine that when I walked into court it would be obvious to all that I was a newbie. You forget that there are no training wheels and there are no "L" plates, so there's really no visible way to tell just how experienced a given panel of magistrates are. It's possible that a sixty-something is just starting out, while a forty-something might have been doing the job for twenty years.

The least experienced magistrate of the three (I'm told) tends to be given responsibility for looking up the "book" value of any offences in the Sentencing Guidelines. And there's no way someone can screw up something that simple, right ?

Wrong.

I took my turn role-playing the chairman as we tried a low-level Ecstasy dealer (actually a fellow magistrate in his early sixties trying to play-act a sullen teenager). Now, "E" is a Class A drug and dealing it is a serious no-no. In fact, in all but the mildest cases it's too heavy a crime to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court and all we can do is to tee it up for the Crown Court.

M'colleague entrusted with the guidelines however had drifted off, hadn't listened properly to the charge and was under the impression that Ecstasy was a Class C drug. Thus we spent quite a while considering exactly the wrong scale of sentences and almost needed to be rescued by the legal adviser. Very embarrassing for all, because there's an enormous difference. Dealing Class A can attract a serious jail sentence (up to Life) while dealing Class B/C is most likely to be dealt with through a community order.

You can be sure that we've all learned a powerful lesson from this, and from now on we're all going to pay close attention to the charge and will triple-check that we've got the right page.

Drug trivia : If you and mates are sitting around and sharing a joint, when your mate on the right passes-de-dutchie-to-da-left-hand-side, he is guilty of supplying drugs to you. Equally, when you pass it on, you are supplying too. The technical term is "Sharing minimal quantity between equals on a non-commercial basis", but it's a step up in charge from "possession for personal use".

Violence trivia : A head-butt can be considered to be "assault with a weapon" and you're in a lot more trouble than if you had thrown a punch. Kicking too, if you're wearing shoes of any kind - even trainers.

Right, core training over. Now all I need to do is to somehow fit in three court observations and to attend the swearing-in ceremony.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 2 : Heavy Traffic

This morning was all about sentencing. Nothing to do with capital letters and full-stops, rather the art/craft/science of finding a punishment to fit the crime.

There are Guidelines - lots of them - to ensure that each bench of magistrates produces something like the same sentence for similar offenders committing similar offences. Still, these guidelines are written in English, and so differing interpretations are possible.

This interpretation can have quite an impact, for example where Magistrates differ on whether an action is considered to be "premeditated" and this has a devastating effect on sentencing in Actual Bodily Harm cases. For example, one way you could end up painting over graffiti at weekends for a while, another way you end up losing your job and slopping out in an overcrowded prison.

There is also the issue of whether the Magistrate is :-
  • A Guardian-reading, vegetarian, doe-eyed, bleeding-heart liberal
or
  • Sarah Palin
Honestly, I really tried very hard not to be either of these - but in every single one of the exercises I ended up sentencing lower than everyone else in the room. I wasn't necessarily wrong on individual cases, but I'm not sure I'm being an effective Justice if I'm consistently under-punishing.

To remedy this, I'm intending to embark on a toughening up regime. Think Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" :-
  • Read the Daily Mail for a month
  • Memorise two or three of Norman Tebbit's speeches
  • Shoot a moose and eat it
The afternoon was all about traffic offences and the tedious 14-step process for working out how much to fine various varieties of car madness. It's a sausage-machine : feed in the offender's weekly income, match the crime to the example in the guideline, adjust upwards or downwards depending on circumstances, turn the handle and swipe the offender's plastic.

It's an important subject which I promise to study more later, but the truth is that I spent most of the afternoon session wishing someone would drill a hole in my head to let the boredom out.

We ended the day with a short talk from the guy from the Magistrates' Association. Poor guy had to give his presentation to a room full of people, slack-jawed and vacant after sitting through several hours of road traffic calculus. There was an undignified rush for the door afterwards as we all headed for our cars to drive home with even more Due Care and Attention than usual.

Two days down - one to go.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 1 : From Geek to Beak

You can be almost totally ignorant of the law and still pass the interviews to be selected to be a Magistrate. It's your common sense and judgement that is deemed important at that stage.

However they don't let you into the courtroom for your first sitting unless you've got some basic knowledge of rules and procedures.

Which is why thirty-odd of us are spending the next three days in a hotel conference room with the senior Justice Clerks and a blizzard of flipcharts and powerpoints, getting acquainted with the finer points of sentencing and case management.

It has been very practical - some very testing scenarios that would make your straight hair curl, and your curly hair straight. In particular, one unpleasant (fictional) sexual assault case where we had to decide whether (a) they were likely to get more than 6 months in prison, hence it was a job for the Crown Court or (b) Magistrates Court was appropriate.

Even though it was a printed example and it involved a fictional victim and assailant,I had a very strong emotional reaction to it. Fortunately all the particulars of the case that made me sick to the stomach turned out to be valid reasons to crank up the tariff for the crime and, as it turned out, I would have been right to follow my gut and pass it over to a judge and jury.

It's good to know that there isn't always a disconnect between how bad a crime feels and how seriously it is taken by the courts.

We had split into groups to discuss that case in different corners of the room and it was strange to listen in as four groups of earnest middle-aged people had similar overlapping conversations, slightly out of synch, using sexual words in a legal context. The word "ejaculation" in particularly seemed to pass around the room from one group to another, like some obscene sea shanty.

One day down, two to go.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Driving without due care

Driving drunk is a bad thing. Ditto for drugs. But driving listening to music can be just as dangerous. If you have a feeling for music, there are pieces that are not merely distractingly good, they are forgetting-to-breathe-and-ploughing-through-a-bus-queue good.

Take for example an old favourite of mine from 1994 : "Roads" by Portishead. After a four hour drive home during which it played constantly over the ostinato of my diesel engine, I stumbled into the house, sought out Mrs Stan and demanded she immediately explain why it just worked.

Not "Darling I'm home after four nights away on the road, kiss kiss", but a wide-eyed madman wanting musicology, stat.

As I've explained before, I'm not a sophisticated musician and there is usually some laughably simple trick that has tickled my reptilian brain-stem. The musical equivalent of waving something shiny at a baby. This time however, Mrs Stan had to resort to Purcell, Bach and Scottish folk music to explain what was going on.

Anyway, apologies to anyone taking the scenic route through the Cotswolds from the M4 to the M5 past Swindon and Cirencester yesterday evening. I hope my singing didn't affect the quality of my driving too much. It's a beautiful road and I promise next time I drive it I'll play something less distracting and keep my mind on the road.

Other Emotional Music I shouldn't listen to while driving (the emotion varies):-
  • "Karma Police" - Radiohead
  • "Exit Music (for a film)" - Radiohead
  • "End of the World News" - Tom McRae
  • "Paint it Black" - The Rolling Stones
  • "My Guitar Gently Weeps" - The Beatles
  • "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone
  • The Queen of the Night bit from Mozart's "The Magic Flute"
  • Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs"
  • Mahler's Fifth Symphony
  • Schubert's Ave Maria
  • Sam Cooke - "A Change is gonna come"
  • David Bowie - "Wild is the Wind"
  • Nirvana - "Something in the Way"
Update : I found a live version of "Roads" on YouTube, and it's even better (apart from the yahoos whooping over the quiet bits).

Kenny : agreeing with your recent comments on Dido. I want to force her to listen to Beth Gibbons and scream "Like this, like this, you hack".

Dido is James Blunt with breasts - Beth Gibbons is a singer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Magistrate Mentor Meeting

Sorry it has been a while since the last posting - I have been absurdly busy with my Day Job as well as working my way through the magistrate core training workbook in my copious free time.

I had a pleasant meeting today (Sunday) with my magistrate mentor. He's an 8-year veteran, who is currently in the throes of his magistrate chairman training. The idea is that in my first year we will sit on the same panel of magistrates together on between three and six occasions. The fact that he isn't yet a chairman means that when we do sit together there will be two old-hands with me, which is quite a comforting thought.

The workbook is hard-going. I've been repeatedly told that we're not expected to have mastered it before we attend training, but I'm someone who finds it difficult to do part of a job.

One of the ways I'm attempting to get on top of the material is with mind maps. I've recently discovered the FreeMind software which makes it very easy to draw them. Here's my crib notes on Road Traffic offences for example :-




Finally, some trivia on Road Traffic offences with which to amaze your friends:
  • You can get points on your license for disobeying a "Stop" sign, but not a "Give Way" sign
  • Kerb Crawlers can be disqualified from driving, even though the offence is not one which involves getting points on your licence.
  • Any sob-story you use to attempt to escape disqualification cannot be reused within 3 years.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Swearing can Big and it can be Clever

I thought there was a good chance that the recent kerfuffle about comedy on the BBC would be used by some people as a weapon to push home a prissy conservative agenda.

I figured it would the Undead Concerned Christian Tory Viewers Society or similar; but now it seems that the push is coming from tabloid newspapers which have made good livings from sex scandals and pictures of bethonged celebrities' girlfriends.

I'm against gratuitous swearing - but no swearing at all ?

Scott Adams, the creator of the "Dilbert" cartoons once extracted the basic elements of comedy :-
  • Clever
  • Cute
  • Bizarre
  • Cruel
  • Naughty
  • Recognizable
His theory is that only by combining a number of elements can anything be truly funny. Taking the example of the phone-message from Brand and Ross, this only ticked the box marked "Cruel" and that's why it was it wasn't at all funny.

The usually excellent Emily Maitlis on the usually excellent "Newsnight" programme took one of my favourite jokes of the last year and used it to beat up on a BBC representative as an example of how offensive comedy on the BBC had become.

I would contend on the contrary that this particular joke should be handed down through generations of comedians to show them what a well-constructed joke looks like. It should be ruthlessly compared and contrasted with the inarticulate dung-chucking in which Brand and Ross indulged. I'm disappointed that Emily Maitlis would pretend not to understand the difference.

Frankie Boyle's joke was on "Mock the Week" and if you missed it, it is currently available on YouTube here.

Here are the points I would make about it (no, I'm not going to repeat it):-
  • He said "Pussy" and not one of the more usual stronger, meaner words for the same thing, and that made it all the funnier.
  • He said it was "haunted" which is a bizarre notion and infinitely preferable to any other descriptions involving death, decay and dessication.
  • It was a clever, bizarre, admittedly cruel, naughty joke delivered by a cheeky chappie at the height of his powers.
  • It absolutely slayed the audience and his fellow comedians and me at home. You can forgive a lot when a joke just "works".
What's the harm in an adult listening to a joke like that ? None. Things get more complex when you talk about kids. Sure, there's a watershed but there's also YouTube, BBC IPlayer and Digital Recorders. There's a debate to be had here, but let's admit that it's a complex one and don't let's kill what is good with simplistic calls to ban everything.

Vote Frankie Boyle.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Unfashionable lack of anti-Americanism

You have to be impressed by the American people. Not just from seeing the pictures of fired-up voters queuing for hours to cast their ballots. The thing that got me was just how well-mannered the two candidates were after the result. Obama called McCain "a brave and selfless leader". McCain braved some booing from his defeated supporters to be equally nice to Obama.

McCain's concession speech was rather good. He made the point that being an American meant more to him than being a member of any of other organisation, the Republican party included. I wish I believed that British politicians had that level of commitment to their country.

I just love the fact that whatever the imperfections in the US electoral process it sets up a magic moment in January when the most powerful man in world will hand over power to his political rival without a shot being fired.

Could you imagine this happening in ancient Rome ? Sub-Saharan Africa ?

How many lives are lost in failed and successful coups throughout history ? How often has the best man for the job resulted from military regime change ? You usually end up with a macho gun-nut (or his inbred kid) who bankrupts his country in foreign adventures and brutal snuffs out dissent at home.

Not that George Bush was a good advert for a peaceful process. At least the American people were smart enough to bring in the 22nd Amendment which means you only ever get eight years of a bad president.

So hats-off to the American people. I hope you've got yourself the president you deserve, and if you haven't your Constitution will ensure you can get yourself another one without picking up any of those millions of guns you like to keep around the place.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Land of Heroes and Poo-Throwing Monkeys

Were I ever to be in a situation where a grenade was about to go off nearby, I suspect I would in rapid order :-

a) Start crying, and
b) Soil myself

The last thing I would do is

c) Cooly throw myself on the grenade to protect my mates

Hats off to Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher of the Royal Marines who did exactly that and lived to tell the tale. His backpack ended up in orbit, but he somehow escaped to tell the tale and to pick up some bling from the queen today.

A man of his rank makes about £60 per day, and I'm guessing days like he's been through seem actually pretty blooming long.

I can't help but compare and contrast with Wrongathan Ross and Woeful Brand who (get/got/will almost certainly get in future) considerably more ... for doing what exactly ?

Monkeys throwing their own excrement around would seem nuanced by comparison.

And I certainly know who I'd rather have as a mate.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lost

There was a report today that the credit crunch has resulted in a loss to the world economy of over a trillion pounds.

Now that doesnt worry me so much for 3 reasons.

Firstly, at the current exchange rate this represents about three US dollars.

Secondly, it's probably going to turn up when they look down the side of the sofa.

And thirdly, it's not really lost - all you can say is that today's inaccurate guess at the value of the world economy is less than yesterday's inaccurate guess.

Don't lose sleep - and vote Stan.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poem in October

Driving to work early in the morning ... er ... sucks. It's nowhere near as much fun as heading home in the dark, because in the morning you're miles from home, tired and with a full day's work to put in.

I dulled the boredom by listening to four hours of news - Radio 5 from 05:00 to 06:00 and then "Today" on Radio 4 until 09:00. Fortunately for my mental health, in among the gloomy financial news items and John Blooming Prestcott, there was an article on one of my all-time favourite poets, Dylan Thomas.

The house where he was born, grew and wrote a great deal of his best work has been lovingly restored it to its 1914 condition and opened as a guest house. If you feel like using Dylan's toilet and sleeping in his bed, you can now stay the night at Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.

But why do that ?! For one thing, not all his best work was produced there. Take "Prologue" , his very last poem. Masterful use of language and it rhymes from the middle outwards, which makes for a very unconventional feel. Written while riddled with pneumonia/emphysema, off his head on alcohol/morphine at the Hotel Chelsea in New York. Surely nobody is going to think it's a good idea to recreate that experience ...

Walking in the physical steps of an artist is a total nonsense. The house is just an old house and the toilet will just be an old toilet.

Also, Thomas, though one of this planet's great writers, didn't come close to making the grade as a human-being. He wasted his talent and heaped misery on all who loved him. His work is definitely worthy of study, but his life ?!.

My advice is to save the money you'd spend on staying in the guest house, and instead buy a copy of "Dylan Thomas Selected Poems, 1934-1952". If you already own a copy, buy another and leave it in your local pub.

We might get lucky and the words of a Poet who became a Drunk could inspire a Drunk to become a Poet.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spending too long on Question 1

I'm working through my Magistrate homework this morning. There's a workbook with nine sections I need to have completed before the formal training next month.

And I'm thinking way too much about Question 1 :-
"You have been appointed as a magistrate because you possess the six key qualities sought in a Justice of the Peace. In this box, take a moment to refresh your memory by listing the six key qualities."
The answers are in the book, so I could just have copied them and moved on. Instead in my mind I'm imagining a Cosmo-style questionaire : "So You Think You Could Be A Magistrate ?" with a multiple-choice quiz and points to add up and a write-up on what your score means.

The six qualities are as follows :-
  • Good character
  • Understanding & communication
  • Social awareness
  • Maturity & sound temperament
  • Sound judgement
  • Commitment & reliability
I'm not at all convinced that anyone really measures up to that list, although I'm definitely going to be including them in my CV because they do look rather impressive while being all but impossible to prove.

Take Jesus, for example - full marks for points 1,2, 3 and especially 6 but there was that unfortunate incident with the money lenders in the temple and choosing Judas as a disciple definitely didn't demonstrate sound judgement.

"Social Awareness" is definitely an area that worries me. My upbringing was loving, I did well at school, I went to a nice University and ended up funding a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Can I really think myself into the shoes of someone born into poverty and abuse and addiction that led on to a life of petty criminality ? And to what extent does it matter if I can't ? How can a Magistrate possibly be both (a) representative of their community of imperfect people whilst (b) being a paragon of virtue themselves ?

Anyway, all this thinking was hurting my head, and I had move it along or else I'd never get anything done, so I decided to give myself marks out of 10 for each of the 6 categories based on gut feel and instinct. I ended up with 46 out of 60, which allowing for modesty, arrogance and imperfect self-knowledge feels about right.

How well did you do ?

Less than 40 points - Put your hands in the air, or we'll shoot!
40 to 50 points - You show some human qualities and many human failings. You might just make the grade.
Over 50 - Forget the magistracy; go straight to sainthood, Reverend Mother.

Now for question 2 ... this could take some time ...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Ode to Driving

Update : Sunday night

I got some well-deserved earache from my sister-in-law via email.

________________________________
> From: Mrs-sergeant-major-stan
> To: Stan
> Subject: Radiofreeblog
> Date: Sun, 26 Oct 2008 16:58:28 +0000
>
> Stan,
>
> Got to ask what is wrong with a ford focus diesel, as being married to your little bruv that's what I've got????!!!!!
>
>
> Me

I was just looking around for something that was as little like a Dodge Viper as possible and well-known. I nearly went with an Astra Diesel, but that's what the UK police drive, and I'm not going to upset them.

The Focus is a great car and when my Big Stupid Spanish Diesel packs in, a Titanium X is definitely on my shortlist. But tell me with a straight face that it could light up a movie like a Dodge Viper or Ford Mustang ..

One of the pleasures of working away from home in the winter is the long drive home in the dark.

Yes, that right - I said "pleasures".

There's something about a long drive at night. Obviously the UK isn't the ideal place for driving, which is why all the best Road Movies are set in the USA.
  • UK Road movie : Ford Focus diesel up the M6 from Rugby to Carlisle
  • US Road movie : Dodge Viper along the Historic Route 66 from Chicago to LA.
I really can't imagine a great film being made that includes a toilet stop and a Ginsters "Mexican-Style" Chicken Pasty at Knutsford Services.

Even so, I do tend to enjoy myself. For one thing there's the music. A long drive in the dark is one of those rare occasions when you can crank up the music and really listen, rather than just having it on in the background.

I listened to "Every Day Hurts" by Skunk Anansie about a dozen consecutive times. Mrs. Stan has a degree in music, so when some piece gets to me I usually run and get her to break it down for me : why is this so marvellous ? Usually she smiles and tells me that it's always the same sort of music that gets me :-
  • Syncopation : the stress is on the off-beat : one TWO three FOUR
  • Tension between the rhythmn instruments and the solo creating a "surge" in tempo
  • Bass - and lots of it
"Every Day Hurts" is no exception. It also has a singer that makes you feel like she means it, like she lives it. An amazing drummer too - Mark Richardson, who now plays with Feeder.

Thanks to traffic delays, I also had chance to reacquaint myself in some detail with "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd and "Salvador" by Jamie T. I fear that these may turn out to be musically isomorphic to "Every Day Hurts", but I don't care - great tracks in their own way.

I also enjoy overtaking trucks at night - I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe because it gives the illusion of speed. Also each one's different and it's going to strange places with cargo hidden from sight. There is something awesome about 40 tonnes travelling at 60 mph mere inches from your window.

I do like the service stations too - which I associate only with pleasure. Bladders are relieved, aching limbs stretched, children eat sweets. Wonderful places and greatly underrated.

But the best bit is arriving at my destination.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hard Work

Between the magistrating and the beginning of a new contract, the novelising has suffered. Tonight I had a spare hour to run a creative writing exercise I've used before where you put your characters together in a room and let them just talk.

Here's what I ended up with - it doesn't look like much but it gives me a more dynamic view of the characters and the beginnings of a voice for them. Incidentally, I've made them both female to force me not to take the lazy route by peopling my book with people just like me.

*************************************************************************************
Our heroine, Hailey, enters Stage Left in oversized Mickey Mouse T-shirt and slippers. Gladys the Ghost sits wearing a pink crystal crown and ball gown Stage Centre at the kitchen table. She is eating toast and reading a newspaper.

Gladys has been busy again; overnight she seems to have redecorated the castle in Barbie style – all pink, all plastic. The kitchen chairs are padded furry pink thrones. It looks totally realistic to Hailey, but it's just that Gladys has the power of making people see whatever she wants them to see.

Together they are trying to come up with a way to turn a run-down, depressing castle into one that people would actually visit. Gladys stages a different redesign every morning. Her favourite was the “Bouncy Castle” redesign on their first morning together. Mostly this was because of the look on Hailey's face when she found out that the soft inflatable kitchen table she had leapt full-length onto was actually a normal wooden kitchen table. Nowadays Hailey is much more wary (and much less fun Gladys thinks).

“Pink. Nice.”

“Glad you like it, dear. It would definitely attract the little girlie-girls who want to play fairy princess.”

“Sure – but you'd never get the boys within a mile”

Gladys shrugs. “Please yourself.” She turns the page of the newspaper noisily.

“Anything interesting in the 'paper ?”

“Oh yes. And do you know why ?”

“No.”

“Because this is a magic newspaper.” pause for effect “This is tomorrow's newspaper.”

Big eyes. “Really ?!”

Cheesy grin. “You are SO gullible, girl.”

Silence as Hailey grinds her teeth and Gladys eats toast.

*************************************************************************************


... and then something else happens followed eventually by many more things and finally things stop happening altogether and I stop writing ...


Yes, that really took me a full hour. The book will definitely not be finished by Christmas.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Swamped

I'm now rather embarrassed that I complained about the slow pace of the Magistrate selection process. Things have gone into fast-forward recently. For instance, in the last week I have received the following :-
  • A last minute invitation to attend an evening of introductory training this week
  • An Induction Pack, including a thick wad of paperwork related to the on-going training and assessment process (the ickily named "Competence Framework")
  • An invitation to join The Magistrates' Association.
The scariest item arrived this morning : a Rota Return return form for January to June 2009, asking which days I wouldn't be available to serve.

The reason it's scary is not just that it is evidence that it's all actually going to happen, and happen really quite soon. It's also because my lifestyle doesn't easily adapt to planning eight months in advance. I have no idea what I'm up to on Tuesday June 30th 2009. In fact, I'm equally stumped as to what I'll be doing on Friday January 2nd 2009, and that's only 11 weeks away.

It's no wonder that the Magistracy is dominated by people with predictable, plannable lives; for example teachers, civil servants and retired people. I have absolutely no answer how to avoid that happening : I just felt like having a whinge.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Driving

I had a choice last night and an extremely cunning plan.

Due to a boring set of circumstances, a work meeting fell through and I found myself with a hotel room I couldn't cancel. I decided to drive South anyway and use it as a base for going into the heart of London for beer and curry with a few dozen techies, some of whom were potential clients.

Now, my hotel wasn't a perfect base for my assault on London. It was in a sleepy town about half-way to the south coast, with a rail service that would take over an hour to wend its way to the wrong side of London.

Hence my extremely cunning plan - to drive into the heart of London.

Yes, I know it sounds like lunacy but I had a few things going for me :-
  • If I timed it right I would be crossing the Congestion Charge boundary just after 18:00 and so wouldn't need to pay.
  • I have a sat-nav so my shocking sense of direction wouldn't be an issue.
  • There's a car park near the meeting place in Trafalgar Square that has a special night rate.
I have also been driving for the best part of twenty years, so how hard could it be ?

Really quite hard as it turns out.

The first part of my plan succeeded and I hit the charge boundary around 18:10. Traffic was fine through Hammersmith, but as I closed in on the centre, things became strange.

My car appeared to grow larger as the roads narrowed. Everyone started driving like they were on crystal meth, swapping lanes and yelling out the window. There seemed always to be something stationary or coming towards you in the inside lane - usually a taxi, but often pedestrians or builders' vans.

Jane, the voice of my sat-nav, relayed instructions but as the turns became more frequently, even she sounded stressed. 

Eventually the inevitable happened, and to avoid colliding with a skip lorry, I ended up in the wrong lane and missed my turn. This was in China Town in the heart of the rush hour, so there was no prospect of obeying Jane's command to "Turn Around When Possible". I ended up going down a narrow alley between two low rent Chinese restaurants and I swear there were live angry chickens flying past my side windows as I squeezed through.

Eventually Jane told me that I had reached my destination, but there was no sign of the car park. Instead there was some on-street parking that was free of charge since it was just after 18:30.  I am not going publicise where this parking was : I don't want everyone to know about it.

So I saved myself the price of a train journey, had a life-changing experience and when the event was over I was only two minutes walk from my car. The drive home was quite stressful, but if you've braved the A4 Cromwell Road at rush hour, then there's little in this world that can phase you. 

Would I do it again ? Probably not. I don't know how anyone drives in London without having accidents and picking up penalty points twice-daily. The experience made me feel like a country cousin, chewing on a blade of grass, out of his depth in the big city. Driving through a northern market-town during the school run time will seem restful in comparison.

If you do decide to take your chances, one piece of advice : the only variable you can control is the amount of space you leave between the front of your car and the manic death-racer in front of you, so make sure you leave more space than the London taxi drivers think sufficient. And ignore the hooting - it is probably you they are hooting at, but there's probably nothing you could have done about it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jab

My Stanetta is back from school with a sore arm. On the bright side she's now a hundred times less likely to die from cervical cancer.

This is thanks to the German virologist Harald zur Hausen, who discovered the link between the HPV virus and many types of cervical cancer, winning him a share of this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Seems like a no-brainer to me that every parent would want to protect their girls from such a serious, avoidable risk, but the HPV innoculation jab has stirred up some controversy among a smattering of no-brainer Christian groups.

Their thinking is that by consenting to the innoculation against HPV, I am giving the green light to premarital underaged sex.

If Stanetta is reading this - no, I'm not. You can wait until after I'm dead, as previously discussed.

Seems to me that these out-there Christian groups would prevent people from wearing seat belts on the grounds that it encourages people to drive like morons.

Innoculations save lives - it tickles me that many of the groups opposed would describe themselves as "Pro Life".

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Online Justice

When you are finally appointed as a Magistrate, you are granted access to the online Judicial Intranet which contains every guideline, protocol, speech or news item relevant to anyone across the entire Justice system. This is a marvellous invention which avoids you having to find room for a shed-load of paper manuals at home. As well as all-too relevant resources such as up-to-date copies of the Bench Books, there are some pretty strange documents. My favourite is "Procedure for Circuit Judge’s application for a 10-year replacement robe".

There is a very useful FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section, which among other things tells me that even though I'm likely to be in court 26+ sessions every year, I'm still not exempt from Jury Service, which strikes me as rather unfair.

Oh, and according to the "Media Guide for Magistrates" - if I am ever door-stepped by a ravening pack of tabloid journos, then my first instinct (a gruff "No Comment!" ) is not encouraged. Instead I should politely and calmly recite my favourite stock answer, along the lines of "I have said everything I intend to say about the case in court, and have nothing further to add".

So much to learn.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Not-For-Prophet

I'm annoyed that I'm not getting the adulation and acclaim I deserve for predicting the current financial apocalypse over six months ago. I'm even more annoyed I didn't manage to make money out of it.

I don't have much to add to what I said before - except to say that many more dominoes are yet to fall, and that all governments should stop assuming that pouring more water into a bucket with a hole is going to give you anything other than wet feet.

Some good things have come of this. For example, the death of the simple-minded worship of The Markets. Nowadays, believing that unregulated Market Forces should alone decide what is Good is akin to believing in the literal truth of Norse Mythology. Especially in Iceland.

There have also been some rather excellent jokes :-
  • The Isle of Dogs Building Society has collapsed. They've called in the retrievers. Meanwhile, in Japan, The Origami Bank have folded.
  • What's the difference between Investment Bankers and London Pigeons? The Pigeons are still capable of making deposits on new BMWs
  • Quote of the day (from a trader): "This is worse than a divorce. I've lost half my net worth and I still have a wife."
The best bit is that all the sleazy people who hid their money offshore aren't covered by government guarantees and so are likely to lose the lot. Now that's real entertainment.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Status Report

You may see that I've rearranged the furniture of the blog a little.

This is mostly due to the fact that becoming a Magistrate kind of complicates the act of blogging. For one thing, people will drop in looking for an in-depth account of my life as England's newest JP and, well, they're more likely to get a book report or a current affairs whinge.

I did consider starting a seaparate blog devoted exclusively to the Magistrate issues which would be totally free of the other stuff in my life I care enough about.

This would have been a safer option and would have prevented some bozo from ever complaining that my opinions on Bolton Wanderers, "Spooks", Darfur, Starbucks, Coldplay, Fedora Linux, Damien Hirst, "Lost", Soldiers, Putting Things in Cheese, Single Transferable Voting, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Flavoured Coffee, Garden Centres, Mobile Broadband, Craft Shops, Glen Campbell doing Green Day cover-versions, Icelandic Banks, Spanish Cars, French mustard, Crosswords, Marmite .....

... would in any way affect my ability to do my duty and enforce the letter of the law when I pull on a suit and go and do my civic duty as a Magistrate.

I've decided to take my chances and I'm staying with one single all-mixed-in-together blog. If all you care about are Magistracy issues then these articles are now appropriately tagged and you can get them here.

Although frankly you'd be better off reading Bystander's blog instead - I really don't know a thing yet.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Finally Officially

Nearly Warming the Bench

I took a break from my dreams of Internet riches to put on a suit and attend the local Magistrates' AGM. It was nice of them to invite me, because even now my application hasn't been rubber-stamped by the required number of people in the Lord Chancellor's Department, and so I'm not yet a pukka Beak.

It was good to meet up with my future colleagues. I stood in a room eating buffet with forty of them, and at first I couldn't for the life of me spot one single common feature between them. I was expecting a few of the stereotype JPs; for example "Bored Wife of Local Worthy" or "Creepy Masonic Golf-Club Member" or "Retired Headmaster", but I was pleasantly surprised to find a decent cross-section. Well, a decent cross-section of middle-aged, middle class white people anyway.

Yes, not a single Negro, Asian, Chinese or Apache. Maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked, the Borough that we serve has a non-white population of 1.9% compared to an England & Wales average of 8.7%. So statistically, to be representative of our community, you would expect a maximum of one non-White person in the group, and it seems we're only one person below that target.

After sandwiches and small-talk we adjourned to the main Court for the meeting. Committee up at the front where the judge usually sits, with the rest of us spread out; some sitting in the Dock and some in the Jury section. There followed an amiable set of elections and some griping about the Sentencing Guidelines and then forty Magistrates tried to leave a small car-park at once, proving that Magistrates aren't any better drivers on average than the rest of the population.

My training is in November and I've been told that three days is simultaneously way too little and far too much. So much of the job relies on common sense and judgement and that can never be taught, but to be au fait with the applicable legislation and guidelines is a almost a full-time job.

A fortnight before Christmas, the rubber-stamping is complete and I get sworn-in. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Escape Text

Update Final : I have closed this down. Works fine but I can't see how it would ever pay. Think I'll be able to cope with my loss of my £2.47 investment.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Have there been times when you've wished your mobile would ring so that you could escape from a meeting ?

Thanks to Stan Industries you can escape in three easy steps
  1. Send an empty text message to ????????? (+?????????? if outside the UK - it should work anywhere in the world; please could someone with a non-UK mobile try it.)
  2. My computer will phone you back. As soon as you answer, it will hang up.
  3. You leave the room pretending that you're on a call.
Give it a go. It costs only the usual price of a text message and is only very slightly immoral. Let me know if it worked, and tell me what it was you were escaping from.

Text Stan.

Update 1.0

This application is running on my second-best computer at home which is rather ancient and produces a wicked amount of fan noise, so I'm going to switch it off at nights. So you'll just have to feign a heart attack if you want to get out of an uncomfortable meeting in the small hours.

My plan was to see if anyone would use the service for free, then if there was sufficient interest I would move it onto a premium rate number so that I could actually get some revenue.

My costs are very low :-

* Machine : old computer that was gathering dust - £0.00
* Software : all free - Linux, Skype, SMS Tools, some self-written Python code - £0.00
* Internet Access : using my home connection so no extra cost - £0.00
* Mobile hardware : old Nokia 6230i, otherwise gathering dust, with the USB cable that it came with - £0.00
* Mobile service : Cheapie SIM card from Tesco - £2.47
* Outbound calls : I use Skype (an internet phone service) and my program hangs up the phone in less than 1 second, so I am not charged for the calls - £0.00
* Inbound SMS : You don't pay for receiving text messages - £0.00
* Electricity : my biggest cost - not sure how much it costs to keep an antique PC and mobile phone juiced

So I wouldn't need much revenue to make a profit, but I have a sinking feeling that only-a-few people would be willing to pay not-very-much for this service. I suspect the Dragons in "Dragon's Den" would laugh me out of the room - let me know what you think.

Update 2.0

My ex-colleague Fiona has successfully tested the application with her German "Handy", which just goes to prove that my potential audience is everyone in the world who owns a mobile phone - about 2,000,000,000 people. I'm not greedy - I just want 1% of them to sign up and for 1% of those to pay 10p for the service every day.

That would be £20k per day - anyone who's been in IT for a while knows this kind of false business case only too well - it's how Web companies got such absurd valuations during the dot-com era.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Scones

The heroine of my novel-in-progress is having a problem understanding the connection between scones and visits to historical houses.

Go to any historical house and you will always be able to choose from three or four different sorts of scones with your tea in the restaurant.

Why scones ? The Tudors didn't really sit down to plates of them, right ?

Scone Palace near Perth in Scotland is so-called because it is made entirely out of scones. This would be the one exception where it's justified to serve them.

It's not ? Oh well.

My heroine intends to launch her historic house in a different way to appeal to a younger crowd - we're thinking flagons of ale and some less fogeyish, more authentic food. We're not sure exactly what - but maybe something like Red Deer Pie:-
To Bake Red Deere. Parboyl it, and then sauce it in Vinegar then Lard it very thick, and season it with Pepper, Ginger and Nutmegs, put it into a deep Pye with good store of sweet butter, and let it bake, when it is baked, take a pint of Hippocras, halfe a pound of sweet butter, two or three Nutmeg, little Vinegar, poure it into the Pye in the Oven and let it lye and soake an hour, then take it out, and when it is cold stop the vent hole.
Sounds like that would go down well with a couple of cold flagon of ale. And once you'd quaffed that, you'd be in the mood for a guided tour that was a bit saucier and lively than the usual. Because life in these Halls was probably a lot livelier and saucier than the National Trust guides would suggest.

And yes, I am referring to myself and my heroine as "We" and yes, this is not a sign of abundant mental health.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Buy Stan

My current field of expertise is "Data Warehouse Appliances" - a field that has recently come to prominence now that the mighty Oracle have come into the game this month.

My Headless Laptop (picture in a previous posting) could be considered an example of such an appliance. Not a particularly good one, but it has the following features, all in the same box :-

  • An operating system (Linux Fedora 9)
  • A database management system (choice of MySQL or PostgeSQL)
  • Storage for data (a 40Gb hard drive)

Doesn't sound like a big deal, but traditionally in database systems you need to buy these separately and get them talking to each other, which doesn't always end well. For example,
  • A big Hewlett-Packard server running Unix
  • An Oracle database with lots of whistles and bells for working with big databases
  • A shed-load of connected storage
Oracle and HP have got together to produce a pre-configured set-up so that (if you believe the hype), like a 'fridge, all you have to do is to plug it into the wall. This is why they call it an Appliance.

There's a lot of debate about how much it actually costs. It's reminiscent of the "free holiday offer", where once you've paid taxes, arrangement fee, compulsory insurance, airport transfer etc it doesn't look terribly "free" any more.

In the case of the HP-Oracle appliance, the quoted price is $650,000, which is actually very reasonable for a system of that size. However, this price does not include er ... most things. For starters it doesn't include the Oracle whistles-and-bells, which at around $100k per processor adds $3.2m to the price. Then add on the storage software costs (around $1.6m) and now instead of $650,000, we're looking at a real-world price of $5.5m. Quite a difference.

If you're not in that financial league, I definitely recommend the Stan Headless Laptop, where the costs are more modest :-

* Broken laptop - around £100
* Fedora Linux 9 - free
* PostgreSQL and MySQL - free
* Storage - free with the laptop - can easily be expanded with external disk drive(s). These will cost money but there is no software cost associated.

Very reasonable, I'm sure you'll agree.

Buy Stan.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

So What

I've been working from home and when I'm not being distracted by "Spooks" boxsets and eating, I'm usually listening to Radio 4 rather than watching daytime TV.

Which is why I got to listen to the series "Soul Music" which collects together testimony from fans about how a particular piece of music "changed their life". Yes, it was a bit corny, but that didn't matter - today's piece was "So what" by Miles Davis.

The piece is half a century old now, and by all rights it should be Grandad Music, fit only to be played on TV drama soundtracks. It's also Jazz, which means it occupies a filing cabinet that is widely mistaken for a urinal these days.
(( Insert the usual Stan ravings here during which Stan will beg you to spend a tiny amount of your life listening to the piece that's got him excited. He's even likely to provide a link to YouTube to make it really easy for you. Stan will go on to deny he is a Jazzer, despite having posted on Humphrey Lyttleton and Nina Simone recently. He'll then change the subject to avoid alienating his long-suffering readership. ))
If Jazz isn't your thing, you might at least check out Elbow - one of the few worthy winners of the Mercury prize in recent memory. I saw them on "Later ... with Jools Holland" here and they blew the walls down. Big, noisy, daft Rock from some big, noisy, daft lads from Bury, Lancashire.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stan Writes

I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to all my readers for the lack of words lately. The fact is that I've started novel writing again and it tends to swallow spare time, motivation and, more relevantly, every spare well-turned phrase that passes through my head.

I've failed at this before, but this time will be totally different. Last time I shut out the world, climbed into my head and had a totally miserable time. This time I'm going to talk to people, try bits out and generally try to enjoy the experience.

The plot so far :-
"Hailey is a lady having a thoroughly miserable time. Her boyfriend dumped her for a lap-dancer, her accountant decamped to Peru and her grandfather died aged 95 while trying to goose his nurse.

It also turns out that Grandfather was totally broke when he died, so all she gets in his will is his dilapidated Tudor hall (complete with all-too-modern debts) and a decent bottle of whisky that he had managed to hide from the bailiffs.

Spending the night alone at the Hall, she wakes up in the morning with a half-empty bottle of whisky, a bad head and sees Gladys, the Sarcastic Ghost smiling sweetly at her across the table.

Hailey's mission is to restore the hall to a glory it never had, inventing a history for it that would attract legions of American tourists. This puts her in conflict with the dishy history-geek who runs the highly successful neighbouring Hall.

Will fighting turn to love ? What's it like to live with a ghost ? And is there another way of selling Historic Britain without resorting to scones, rose gardens and gift shops?"
Do let me know what you think. I'm certainly keen to see What-Happens-Next; it would be nice to know I'm not the only one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pour Encourager Les Autres

If your laptop is misbehaving - show this picture to it and say "Stop that, or I'll get Stan round to rip your screen off".

This is a previous laptop of mine which I dropped, busting up the screen. I've used it on my home network for a while to play around with Linux, but I didn't do anything about the screen, which lit up with an abstract tessellation of jagged shapes.

Yesterday I was running a huge fever from a bout of man-flu. I had a sudden crazy desire to remove the screen - after all, it was just wasting power lighting up a screen that wasn't being used. Sweat was dripping off me as my shaking hands levered up the keyboard cover, unscrewed the monitor retaining screws, removed the screen and relocated the bits-and-bobs that were attached to it. I felt like Doctor Frankenstein creating a monster.

So now I have a headless laptop that has been very well behaved. As have all the other electrical appliances in my house. I think they're scared that the same will happen to them : either that or they're plotting silent revenge for mutilating their comrade.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ambient Kitchen

So what does Stan do when the girls are in the front room indulging in "Strictly Come Dancing" ?

Well, tonight he's at the kitchen table, drinking beer and listening to ambient music on Magnatunes while trying to brush up on his PHP and Perl programming.

My laptop now has a choice of Windoze XP and Linux Fedora 9, and I've got to say I'm spending increasingly more time in Linux. One of the main reasons I hadn't moved over before was that previous versions of Fedora didn't recognise my wi-fi card - Fedora 9 worked straight out of the box. Another reason was that Yahoo Music doesn't work with Firefox, but I've now found Magnatunes, so that's less of an issue.

The thing about the Magnatunes site is that they don't work with the major labels - it's a very direct way for independent musicians to get their music heard (and potentially sold). This is fine by me - if I wanted to listen to the current top 100, I'd put on some commercial radio station - personally I'd rather listen to something a bit off-centre - something that might actually surprise me.

Like "Requiem" by Robert Rich from the "Below Zero" album, which is described as "consisting of turbulent organic atmospheres". I don't know about that, but is very much worth a listen. He sounds an interesting guy - according to Wikipedia :-
At an early age he thought he disliked music. However, at age 11 or 12, he began growing succulents as a hobby. He would leave a radio tuned to static at a low volume for his plants. This experience influenced his interest in avant-garde and minimal composition....

... He began building his own synthesizer in 1976, when he was 13 years old ...

... around this time, he attended Stanford University. During his tenure there, Rich became well-known in the San Francisco Bay area for giving live night-time performances for somnolent or sleeping audiences. These were experiments to influence REM cycle sleep with auditory stimulus. They were usually nine hours long and lasted from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.. During these performances, he would generate abstract drones and atmospheres while the audience dozed in sleeping bags that they brought themselves. In the morning he would end the concert with piano solos. He would then serve tea to the audience.
You really couldn't make that stuff up !

Anyway, much more fun than reality celebrity dance contests - and perfect music to drink beer and cut code to.

You can listen to the whole album for free here - and if you think it sucks, then you've lost nothing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fuld's Gold

There are many appealing aspects to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The sight of braying City Boys on the pavement with their potplants and putters for one. For those of us with a pinko-commie-fag-subversive leaning, it would seem that justice is being finally done.

However, there is this guy called Richard S. Fuld Jr.

Let's call him" Dick".

Dick has been CEO of Lehman Brothers since it was spun-off from Amex in 1994. Dick has had a bad year - the value of his options have dropped by some $900 million since the stock peaked last year. However, it hasn't been all bad - he has "earned" (in the loosest possible sense) $466m during his CEO tenure, including a bonus of $22m in 2007. Also, in the (very likely) event that he'll be asked to leave by the new owners, he will be due a $64m leaving package.

Dick didn't see that his company balance sheet was shot to pieces due to the effect of toxic real estate loans. He twice turned down offers of a lifebelt, first from the Koreans, then from the Chinese. Either one of these deals would have refinanced the company and saved tens of thousands of jobs.

While his company has been in meltdown this week, he has reportedly been holed-up in his plush office suite saying nothing while his underlings have tried to save the company. Presumably he's been hiding under his desk, counting his money, crying and calling for his mummy.

He has finally surfaced, and is due to appear in Washington in front of Congress to
“examine the regulatory mistakes and financial excesses that led to the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers,” and “explore the impacts of the bankruptcy on financial markets and the United States economy."
Dick will no doubt blame "short sellers" (as did the Bear Stearns guy before him) and then head off for a very comfortable retirement - he has after all done nothing illegal, and "stupidity" is unlikely to be a valid reason for his new bosses to kick him out of his job without a bean.

Tell me where the justice is in this case ? To me it's another indictment of Free Market theory where the assumption is that "Market Forces" will reward the good and punish the bad.

Buy shares in any company selling Red Tape - governments will soon be putting in panic bulk orders to help regulate their unregulated markets to avoid this happening again.

Oh, and vote Stan.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jazzmen Never Really Die

I watched "Humph's Last Stand" last night - a recording of the Humphrey Lyttleton Band's last performance before his premature death at the age of 86.

I'm no jazzer, but even I could see that the band was something special. Even I could see that Humph's lip wasn't quite what it was, but I loved the way he worked around that, like a veteran midfielder who doesn't have the legs any more but makes up for it in guile and experience. Plus he was smart enough to surround himself with an amazing mixture of old jazzmen and two young lady sax players, Jo Fooks and Karen Sharp.

Jo Fooks composed my favourite piece, with the downright daft title of "M25". Unlike the motorway, it flows and moves along at a fair lick. A wonderful virtuoso piece, and she makes that big tenor sax seem very light on its feet indeed. I've checked, and she is known to name her tunes after the first thing that comes to mind e.g “Faffin”, “Song for Sid”, “Bums on Seats” and the immortal “Quite likes Brussels Sprouts”.

According to her gig guide she's been playing some pretty small venues since Humph's band broke up - if there's any justice in the world though someone's going to give this girl a break soon. Meanwhile buy her album. Or if you've already got it, give your copy to a friend and buy it again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Grumpy old man made grumpier by a pub

I went to a pub near my home with Mrs Stan a few weeks ago and even now when I close my eyes, the screaming starts in my head

"WHAT DO THEY THINK THEY'RE DOING ???"

The pub had been a low dive when we moved into the area and they hadn't been able to make a living from serving cheap lager to knife-wielding maniacs and old men with dribble hanging out their mouths. Now it was under new management, had been painted and a chef was rumoured to be knocking out gastropub grub. This was appealing to us as the existing pubs near us either cater exclusively for adolescents or for old men with dribble hanging out their mouths.
What we only realised when we stepped through the door was that this one had decided to become a Sports Pub.

In a suburb this is just plain silly. Sports Pubs do well in the city with the after-work mob. In the suburbs, Sportsfans have made the long, arduous trip home and the last thing they want to do is to go back out again. Especially since they've got Sky and Setanta at home, which is likely if they're any kind of Sportsfan.

As if to confirm this, the number of massive plasma screens showing different obscure football games outnumbered the clientelle. One quarter of the room was set up with tables for food, and a single hassled party of diners were gamely trying to ignore the noise.

It took the four staff twenty minutes to serve us beer, which is impressive given that, with the exception of one noisy Drunk talking belligerently at one mute Drunk at the bar, we were their only customers.

We eventually got the drinks over to the only two comfy seats and the table was sticky. Despite the pub being empty and the staff bored, no-one had been pestered to clean the table. We later heard the owner at the bar trying to save money by sending one of the barmaids home. The chef lurked looking like a man in secondary nicotine withdrawal : his bargain roast meat specials weren't exactly in demand.

I felt like striding up to the bar and sorting them all out :-

  • "Oi ! Owner ! You'd be better off chatting to the customers rather than trying to save a tenner's worth of bar staff expense"
  • "Oi ! Barmaid ! If you're doing nothing better you might as well be clearing tables. Or learning how to change a barrel in less than 20 minutes."
  • "Oi ! Chef ! If you're not busy, knock us up a batch of chips - you might just persuade me not to leave the second I've chugged this pint"
  • "And would someone for the love of God, please switch off the fecking TVs if no-one's watching !!"

Clueless. I know nothing about running a pub but I even I know when one is in a death-spiral of despair when I see one. And if I can see it, why can't the owners see it ?

So we're back to drinking Breezers with the adolescents or listening to the old men cough.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Words, Wide Night

The title is my favourite poem by Carol Ann Duffy, who is very much in the news at the moment.

She wrote a poem "Education for Leisure" about a sad, broken boy having murderous thoughts and heading out into the world with a knife "to play God".

This didn't go down well with a small number of teachers. They kicked up a stink and it has now been removed from the exam syllabus and books containing it are to be destroyed.

If I started a Google search, how long do you think it would take me to find a case of murder caused by good poetry ? Duffy's poem doesn't glorify, encourage or excuse violence. She reports a state of mind and the only rational response to it is pity for the deluded boy/girl. It wouldn't make you think "A knife rampage! What an excellent idea ..."

Duffy has had bad luck with tiny vocal minorities. She was considered for nomination as Poet Laureate but the story is that Tony Blair thought that a homosexual Laureate would upset Middle England.

Andrew Motion got the gig instead. Know any good poems by Andrew Motion ? Thought not. Neither do I.

Anyway, "Words, Wide Night" isn't at all controversial. It's all about how words don't do the job when you're trying to express love. In other words, love poetry is all very well and good, but it's not to be confused with the real thing.
Words, Wide Night - by Carol Ann Duffy

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this

is what it is like or what it is like in words.