Friday, May 29, 2009

Virtual Magistr8s

According to this report we are entering an era where you don't have to enter a court to get your audience with the Magistrates.

I'm personally a big fan of anything that reduces some of the ludicrous delays and rampant inefficiency we have in the current system. As a computer guy who also happens to be a Magistrate, I'm also delighted when my two worlds collide.

You have to wonder though whether anything would be lost. Would we reach the same verdicts by watching a small computer screen as we would if the accused were life-sized and sweating, blushing and smirking a few feet away ? Would we show as much compassion for a bunch of pixels as we do for our fellow humans?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Non-Existence of Unicorns

Aristotle would have enjoyed being a Magistrate.

The particular case I'm thinking about concerned a charge of benefit fraud. The individual would be guilty if we believed beyond reasonable doubt that :-
  • (a) they were in receipt of benefit in the period
  • (b) they were gainfully employed during the period
  • (c) they hadn't told the benefits agency about their change in circumstances
(a) and (b) were admitted by the defendant but they claimed they had sent a letter to the job centre telling them about the change of circumstances. The letter had not been received, but mail has been known to get lost. Could we really be sure beyond reasonable doubt that there was no letter ?

Proving a negative is difficult, and usually impossible. It's akin to proving that unicorns don't exist (hint: they might be good at hiding). There was no evidence for the existence of this letter, but as William Cowper said : "absence of proof is not proof of absence".

However, when we looked at their story in detail, there were some blatant discrepancies and absences. The decision then was to consider their testimony to be unreliable to a degree that we plain didn't believe it and so to find them guilty as charged.

Unreliable witnesses sometimes tell the truth. So-called reliable ones are sometimes mistaken. Mail can be lost. I admit there was a chance that this letter fell through a wormhole and was eaten by aliens as antipasti.

But I think that beyond my reasonable doubt that this person indulged in some wishful thinking and carried on claiming after they started a low-paying, insecure job. And anyone who defrauds the taxpayer ought to be punished - in this case with some unpaid work.

Just don't get me started on MPs' expenses.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My One Minute Mix Tape

Look, we're all very busy. Who has the time these days to listen to a whole album ? In fact, listening to the same three minute track all the way through is SO last century.

Fortunately, Radio Free Stan has come to the rescue of impatient music lovers everywhere and I have collected my favourite individual moments from all music ever.

Each of these moments lasts a maximum of two seconds and so even if you put a whole second of silence between them, you can still listen to all twenty in only one minute.

(1) The opening chord of Barber's Adagio for Strings

(2) "The Chain" by Fleetwood Mac - the first guitar chord on the bit that's used for the Grand Prix coverage on the BBC

(3) "The Chain" by Fleetwood Mac" - where the voices come in together after the instrumental on the word "chain"

(4) The clarinet bit from the start of "Rhapsody in Blue"

(5) The cadence at the end of "Dark Side of the Moon" on the word "Moon"

(6) The "Lord, I can't change" bit before the guitar solo in "Free Bird"

(7) Radiohead "Exit Music (for a Film)" - after rising and opening out, it hits the peak of panic on the words "Now ... we are one"

(8) Bach Cello Suite #1 - take your pick - any two second sample from it is gorgeous.

(9) The opening of "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes

(10) The start of the chorus of "Meet Me on the Corner" by Lindisfarne

(11) Where the gears shift and "Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand makes a sudden move in a totally different musical direction.

(12) Opening chords of "Stairway to Heaven"

(13) The female voices on the words "Voca, voca me" from the Maledictis section of Mozart's Requiem.

(14) Intro of "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols

(15) The top note from the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's Magic Flute.

(16) The closing notes of "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong.

(17) Start of the chorus of "Honky Tonk Woman" by The Rolling Stones

(18) Opening of "Play Dead" by Björk

(19) Intro of "Blue Monday" by New Order

(20) Dido's Lament by Purcell, on the words "When I am Laid in Earth"

I could think of about three hundred more - even if I restricted myself to the "B's" think of all the goosebump moments from the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Beethoven.

Decisions, decisions ...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek

When I was 12, I had a problem. OK, I probably had several problems, but here we're going to discuss The Science Fiction Problem.

You would have thought that 1978 would have been a great year for a young sci-fi fan. "Star Wars" was at the cinema, "Star Trek" was on endless loop on TV and "Blake's 7" had started to run around an old quarry in Surrey in fancy dress.

But ...
  • Although "Star Wars" dazzled with the special effects, the plot was an ill-disguised wafer-thin fairy story.
  • "Star Trek" had some excellent plots ("City on the Edge of Forever", "The Trouble With Tribbles", "A Piece of the Action"). But the acting and the dialogue and the shoddy sets ... yeek.
  • "Blakes 7" managed to combine worst features of both.
In short, nothing on TV or Film in 1978 compared to written Science Fiction, which was fine. I lost myself in Heinlein, Asimov and "Doc" Smith and I never became a Trekkie, Trekker, Star Wars fan or Warsie.

Fast forward to 2009 and I'm nearly 43 and at a loss in Basingstoke.
I decided to see the new Star Trek film, and blow me if it didn't make me feel like was 12 again.

The plot was unsatisfying, the morals were simplistic and Simon Pegg's Scottish accent was laughable. But that's nothing when you're riding a starship on a blast wave to escape the wake of an exploding black hole. Or making a HALO drop from the edge of space onto a platform drilling down into the core of an alien planet.

This film is a inch deep but it's light years wide with a considerable visual impact that probably would have totally poleaxed me if I was 12.

The euphoria quickly faded after the film when I jumped into my tatty diesel car and navigated myself inaccurately around the one way system. Seat Toledos don't have warp drive. Or photon torpedos. And I can tell you that you desperately want to use both when you're in a dump like Basingstoke.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Future Shock

"Reservoir Dogs" is lightweight compared to Stanetta's post-appendix stomach pain.

In Quentin Tarantino's gruesome film, Mister Orange screams and whimpers throughout from a nasty case of bullet-in-the-gut. It's extremely disturbing, but it's so much worse when it's your actual daughter hysterical with pain, and instead of an easily diagnosed bullet wound, there's no apparent reason nor any obvious way to stop it.

So I decided to take a week off from work (and this blog) to help look after her - which I think I did best by being distractingly awful at Mario Cart. How did fathers manage before the invention of games consoles ?

It hasn't been all doom and gloom. For starters, Mario Cart is a hoot and an excellent source of Class "A" banter with Stanetta. The Wii console connects wirelessly via our home broadband connection and we passed some good hours racing other daughters and dads and geeks from around the world on a rainbow road in outer space.

At night, Mrs Stan and I watched the second series of "Damages" and I managed to find time to watch Series 4 of "Lost". I may discuss these at some length later.

Just one quick warning though. If you're watching "Lost" series 4 while stressed and sleep-deprived, all the flash-forward/flash-back/time-travel will mess with your brain. Especially if you accidentally read a review of Series 5 which is now being shown on Sky, which describes a whole different set of flash-forward/flash-back/time-travel which I am destined to experience when I get hold of the Series 5 boxset in my personal future.

AAAAAAARRRRGGGHHHH! My mind - it is blown.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Since becoming a Magistrate I've become a rather strange animal - a 20,000 mile a year motorway driver who obeys the speed limit.

Well, I'm more compliant than I used to be anyway.

You might think my improving behaviour was because of first-hand experience of the real impact of the fines and bans I've been involved in handing out. It does makes me cringe to think of the shame involved if I ever had to come to court to be punished for driving misdemeanours. I'd especially hate to be in the position of pleading "exceptional hardship" in order to save my licence so that I could continue to do my day job. Plus, there's an outside chance that the local papers might enjoy a "Magistrate in Speed Ban Scandal" headline. There would certainly be some uncomfortable disciplinary meetings I'd be eager to avoid.

All this is reason enough to back off the gas, but the real incentive to change has been the careless/reckless/dangerous driving cases I've seen. In far too many of these, excessive speed has been a factor in the resulting injuries and deaths - so much harm could have been avoided or reduced had the speed limit been obeyed.

Here's a device that's worth some serious consideration. It's a speed limiter that uses GPS satellite technology to stop drivers from accelerating to above the prevailing speed limit. The usual knee-jerk response is nicely encapsulated in the feedback to the article in The Times above :-
"I like the idea but what scares me about these is: What if I need a little extra speed in order to finish overtaking a car instead of crashing into oncoming traffic? What if a lower speed limit starts while overtaking? Is this system intelligent enough to recognise these situations?"
The answer is "No, of course it isn't that intelligent, you pillock. It's up to you to be intelligent enough not to start overtaking unless you can finish without breaking the law."

Modern cars are full of technology that assumes that drivers are idiots and steps in when they are in danger of hurting themselves. ABS forces you to brake like a professional driver, traction control forces you to accelerate smoothly, Air Bags stop you breaking your face on the windscreen. They all make decisions for you.

You are never in total control of what a car made this century is going to do. This means that people who learned to drive last century have needed to learn to drive in a different way, but the overall effect is that driving today is a lot safer than it used to be.

Some will say that it's a lot less fun, but none of those people have ever sat through a trial involving road deaths at a Magistrates' Court.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Nick Harper @ The Horn, St.Albans

I didn't have any expectations at all for this gig. It was a convenient excuse to meet up with m'ex-colleague Kenny and have a few beers and do a few crosswords listening to the Horn's eclectic jukebox. In fact, I told Mrs Stan that I hoped the gig would be cancelled so that I could feign disappointment and we could carry on setting the world to rights and arguing about 3 down.

I don't know what the words "Folk Rock" mean to you, but in my mind they don't translate to "A Good Night Out". However, Nick Harper turns out to be one of the best guitarists I've ever seen, he writes better poetry in his lyrics than many a professional poet, he's a very talented vocalist, a comfortable performer with a real rapport with his audience and he is a more than adequate stand-up comedian.

Sometimes the special effects strayed into what Bill Bailey would describe as "Let's Go Inter-Stellar!", but otherwise the gig was a total delight and made me want to seek out some of his albums and tell everyone I meet that they should too. It also gave me a new appetite for live music.

The back-room at The Horn where Nick played is only big enough for a medium-sized wedding reception, which was great in terms of atmosphere but it must have led to a rather stingy box-office return. Although, saying that, I saw Hue and Cry play a large Glasgow theatre quite a few years ago, and the distant response from the audience led Pat Kane to moan all night that they should have played two nights at "King Tut's" instead. I hope Nick keeps playing these intimate venues, but equally I hope he finds a way to make it pay.

Speaking of which, you should definitely download "Blue Sky Thinking" which was the highlight of the show and very representative of what he's about. Clever lyrics and one man and a guitar making it sound like a whole band's playing.

I think you'll enjoy it, but it won't sound nearly as good on your iPod as it did Live.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

You Are The Magistrate

This lady has been sentenced to unpaid work. She can only wear high heels (she says). The work involves wearing stout boots. There is no compromise. She is heading towards your court to be resentenced.

Whatever punishment you choose, the tabloids are likely to make fun of you. And bloggers and anonymous commenters will say mean, mean things about you.

Would you replace the Community Payback with :-
  1. A fine
  2. A curfew, with electronic tag
  3. A short prison sentence
  4. Or just ask the Probation Service to find her a job that can be done in four-inch heels
Personally I'd love to impose an extra sentence for her use of the cliché "It's health and safety gone mad", but I'm sure my spoilsport legal adviser would advise me against it.

And yes, I just noticed that I've used the words "high heels", "boots" and "punishment" in close proximity. Apologies to all those guided here by Google in the expectation of something a sight more kinky.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Can You Hear Me, Young Stan ?

In 1973 Stephen Fry was 16, and he wrote a rather snotty letter to his older self. I wonder what kind of stamp he put on it. I didn't think Royal Mail delivered to the far future.

The Guardian recently printed the letter the older self decided to write in reply. This would have been even harder for a postman to deliver.

Stephen Fry aged 16 comes across as being spectacularly mixed up, painfully vulnerable and incandescent with anger. Not a happy bunny. And quite reasonably so - I'm sure 1973 was not a great place to be ferociously intelligent and gay.

Fry The Elder reassures him that things will work out for him despite the travails to come, while seeming sad that he's lost Fry the Younger's intensity.

I'm not sure such a letter to my 16-year-old self would be strictly necessary. Stan the Younger was a very focussed kid, happily studying Maths and Science and noticing very little else, except a bit of Sci-Fi. Although, he did feel a bit of a freak for not having the same ambitions and priorities of the other kids, so maybe I could have reassured him about that.

Looking back, it doesn't seem healthy for Stan the Younger to have such a limited world. It would be tempting to tell him to open himself up to the world a bit more, try some new things. But I'd be scared that if I changed one little thing about my past it would be one of those Butterfly Effect deals and I'd end up sniffing glue alone in a bedsit in Lowestoft.

Oh, what the heck, I'll take the risk. If by some freak of the time and space my younger self gets to read this blog, the following pieces of advice are definitely recommended:-

  1. When you leave University and have the choice between Accountancy and Something Else - choose Something Else.
  2. You are physically incapable of growing a non-risible beard. So don't try.
  3. Toddlers have very sensitive palates. So when you're talking to Stanetta about chilli peppers, don't invite her to have a lick.
  4. The red button in that hired flat - don't press it. It sets off the burglar alarm and you don't know the combination.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


It's all going to be OK.

Bolton aren't getting relegated this season, Swine 'Flu is just a bout of the sniffles, the economy isn't heading all the way down to zero, and the right woman got the Poet Laureate gig.

Sorry to keep banging on about Carol Ann Duffy. I just love the way she attempts to describe the indescribable by putting ordinary words together in artful ways. And now she's taken on a job that drove the previous holder of the office to write an ill-advised, poorly executed rap for Prince William on the occasion of his 21st birthday.

In honour of her appointment, I have written the following :-
Carol Ann Duffy, when you take on the laurel.
Please don't waste time finding rhymes for "Balmoral".

My favourite poem of all time wasn't written by her though. It was written by the Brazilian poet Pelé in 1970. Receiving the ball on the edge of the Italian penalty area, does he prosaically dribble between the centre backs and round the goalie ? No, he pauses and side-foots the ball to an obscure unoccupied piece of green by the touchline so that a Carlos Alberto-shaped blur could come from nowhere to bullet that ball into the net. The poem doesn't have a name, but I call it "Brazil 4 Italy 1".

Who says poetry has to be about words ?