Saturday, February 28, 2009

So, you want to be a Magistrate - Part I

Imagine a heavily pregnant woman. She's crying.

Now imagine that she's in court because she is alleging that her man has assaulted her. Again.

Now imagine you are the man's defence solicitor and it is now your job to stand up and shred her testimony and cast doubt on her reliability as a witness.

Go on - don't hold back - it's your job. Ignore her tears, her emotional state, her lack of education and vulnerability. Really get stuck in - she's not your client.

Imagine she's now really bawling her eyes out.

Imagine that you can see that her husband (in handcuffs) has been grinning from ear to ear throughout, and he actually laughs at one point.

Now imagine you have to sit at the front as a Magistrate, pretending not to be emotionally affected. It is your job to imagine that this poor woman may be lying or mistaken. It always possible that for once in his life Laughing Boy is innocent.

Imagine that you're pretty sure that something went on, but you have don't have nearly enough evidence to establish it "beyond reasonable doubt". Laughing Boy is released, smirking. The girl's mother in the public gallery gives you a withering look.

Still fancy being a Magistrate ? Sign up here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I'm sick of Anonymouses

For your comfort and convenience, from now on you need a Google login to make a comment. on this blog.

All comments will be moderated and only the fun ones will be approved.

Because this was supposed to be a bit of fun, and some comments really don't help turn my frown upside down.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stan's Hands

SCENE 1
(Stan is cross-legged on a bed in a Travelodge no-star room, staring zombie-like at the screen of a battered laptop after a hard day of putting zeros and ones in a pleasing order for his clients. STAN'S LEFT HAND has questions. STAN'S RIGHT HAND is prepared to give some answers. STAN'S BRAIN has temporarily left the building.)

STAN'S LEFT HAND

Stan, why do you blog ? It's tricky, likely to upset people and don't you already spend enough time sitting at a computer ?

STAN'S RIGHT HAND

To begin with it was just about playing with a new technology, which I see as one of the great joys of being alive at this time.

But for most beginner bloggers the first posting is "Woo, isn' t this great ! I'm going to write lots !". The second posting is usually an apology for not posting anything recently and often there is no third posting.

The reason I've persevered is that I've found it useful to look closely at stuff that has provoked any sort of emotional reaction in me. By making the effort to write down the reasons for feeling the way I feel, I'm forced to give it some real thought. Over the years it has taught me a lot about the world but especially it has taught me a lot about me.

Plus I'm transparently egotistical and I do love to write.


STAN'S LEFT HAND

But the Magistrate thing - that's changed everything hasn't it ?

It was fine when you were just an IT consultant with colourful views on female vocalists ("Dido is James Blunt with breasts - Beth Gibbons is a real singer.").

But now you're a public servant.



STAN'S RIGHT HAND

Yes, but I'm also a British citizen with rights. And there's no legal or ethical issue involved unless I divulge privileged information or bring the Magistracy into disrepute. Which I have no intention of doing, because I respect the law and love my new job. Best job I've ever held down, by the way.

I don't see the problem with letting people see that Magistrates have opinions, doubts and erratic taste in music. In fact, I think a lot of the problem with recruiting a spectrum of Magistrates is that not everyone can picture themselves doing the job, can't imagine "fitting in" and can't imagine the personal satisfaction that comes from facing the issues Magistrates face.


STAN'S LEFT HAND

So you're going to continue blogging about being a Magistrate ?


STAN'S RIGHT HAND

It would be a shame not to. Like I say, I blog about stuff that provokes an emotional reaction in me and the 5% of my life that I devote to being a Magistrate is currently accounting for something like 95% of emotional reactions.

STAN'S LEFT HAND

But you're not as good as Bystander.


STAN'S RIGHT HAND

No, I've also noticed that. Most annoying.

He has a well-developed narrative "voice", he's experienced and knowledgeable about his subject and he has accumulated a vast dysfunctional family of commenters.

My only edge is my inexperience and naivety. Once I lose those, I'm in big trouble.

(At this point, STAN'S BRAIN wakes up and spoils everything. It can't think what else to write and decided to shut down for the night. STAN'S HANDS take a well-earned rest.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Unforgettable

"Amnesiac" by Radiohead is a hard album to love. I know this to be true because I bought a copy as soon as it came out in 2001, played it twice and hated it so much I didn't play it again for seven years.

I fished it out recently, and I just "got it" - totally connected with it on a molecular level  and I can't believe I survived without it for so long. I'm now thinking of buying another five more copies so that I can fill all six slots in my CD auto-changer in the car with it.

I'm particularly insanely in love with "Living in a Glasshouse" which sounds likes someone doing a New Orleans Funeral at Glastonbury. It's the single craziest musical collaboration since Father Abraham agreed to work with The Smurfs, being an attempt to marry the Indie Miserablism of Radiohead with those consummate Jazz-Heads, the Humphrey Lyttleton Band. It's an attempt that is doomed to failure, but what a glorious failure it is. The three loud bumps you hear during the song are (1) everything including the kitchen sink being thrown in (2) the rule-book being thrown away and (3) my mind being blown. 

I don't imagine the majority of Radiohead fans will like it. I don't imagine the majority of Humphrey Lyttleton fans will like it. But if you're a fully-paid-up member of both fan-clubs and you're prepared to give it a chance, it will most likely. Blow. Your World. Apart.

It inspired Mrs Stan and I to give a huge amount of thought to left-field musical collaborations that actually worked out well. Queen and David Bowie  (Under Pressure) ?... Hmmm, so-so. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder (Ebony and Ivory) ? ... Maybe.  Akon and "Alvin and The Chipmunks" (Lonely) ? ... unfortunately not true.

Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weeds

It fair warmed the cockles of my heart to hear that 15 valuable heat lamps have found their way to Dudley zoo. These lamps had recently been seen in action at a cannabis farm in Halesowen before they passed into the hands of West Midlands Police who donated them to the zoo. There was no reported attempt to "freecycle" the cannabis crop, but at least the snakes and baby penguins are going to feel the benefit of the lamps (picture here)

Which reminds me ... I watched Series 2 and 3 of "Weeds" at the weekend. I reviewed Series 1 on this blog a good while ago and the quality has been more maintained.

It's good script, as the stoners would say.

For those who haven't indulged so far, it follows the downward spiral of a suburban soccer-mom drug-dealer as she tries to pay the bills by selling Class B narcotics.

It does take a cartoonish view of the thrills and spills of smalltime suburban drug-dealing, but it is telling that every single character involved with the dealing loses considerably as a result whether in term of life, love, liberty, money or toes (don't ask).

The characters also become much harder to like as time goes on. Nancy was something of a victim of circumstances in Series 1, but now it's clear that she's become a lying, spiteful, disloyal, manipulative [female doggie] and a darned poor mother.

Apparently there's a Series 4. Tut tut - I guess she doesn't learn.

Anyway, the humour is adult, sharp and painful and Mary-Louise Parker's performance is a total joy. Definitely recommended if you like your humour with a bit of an edge.

Oh, and it's a delightful idea to have the theme tune performed in a radically different style every week. Elvis Costello, Engelbert Humperdinck, Joan Baez, Linkin Park, Regina Spektor and other versions in a Afro-Pop, Indie, Latino and Hip-Hop styles.

Overall, in a word : intoxicating.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fine Figure

(Thanks to one of the many anonymouses for inspiring a small correction to my version of events hereunder. Does that affect your comment, Kenny ?)

The accused was a gorgeous woman who appeared in the dock in quite the ensemble.

Actually the truth was very different, but if I'm going to be changing the details to protect identities, it seems a shame not to imagine some beauty and glamour. Plus when it comes to making a film version of the blog, here's a part ready-made for Monica Belluchi.

So, let's imagine that the accused was a gorgeous woman.

If you had asked me last month, I would have said that short prison sentences did not work and that fine defaulters shouldn't go to prison.

So how did it happen that my two colleagues and I recently sent this vision of beauty to prison for a relatively short time for non-payment of fines ?

The unpleasant reality is that some time ago she was found guilty of a serious offence and fined. Then, when in considerable arrears with paying the considerable fine, she was given the choice of getting her payments back on track or doing some time in prison.

She chose to say that she would pay the fine.

And then she did not actually pay the fine.

This isn't right and there ensued a long series of events, over a matter of years, during which there were many opportunities for her to save her liberty by coming to an arrangement with the courts. She hadn't made a payment in over a year when she got dragged back into our court to explain herself.

She couldn't.

So, we sent her to prison. I understand that the jails are full and that fine defaulters are not a priority, but really - could she reasonably have expected us to do anything other ?

If the threat of prison for non-payment is an empty one, then who in their right mind would ever pay a fine ? And then what would be the point of fining anyone ?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Called to the Bar'd

So many people appear in Magistrates' Court clumsily dressed, hands in pockets and mumble monosyllables into the floor .

This chap however may have erred on the other side however, turning up dressed in white in a stretch limo with a glamorous "research assistant", quoting Shakespeare while in possession of a Pot Noodle and a Cuban cigar.

No, I don't know what to think either.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Home Sick

Hugh Cornwell, formerly of The Stranglers and the biochemistry department of Lund University, has written "Please Don’t put me on a Slow Boat to Trowbridge" in which he compares the county town of Wiltshire (unfavourably) with the Black Hole of Calcutta.

I don't know what he has against the place - I'd say it's not even the most unpleasant place in Wiltshire (hello, Swindon). I'll bet that even without pausing I could name six British towns more deserving of musical abuse.

Reading, Croydon, Crewe, Stoke, Livingston, Milton Keynes.

Several decades ago I wrote the following about my home town of Blackpool. From what I've seen it doesn't look to have improved since.

Anyone who wants to set it to music is more than welcome.

Blackpool is a third-rate, once great seaside resort in the unfashionable North West of England. The town’s motto is “Progress”, but it might as well have been “Progress, and Sod the Consequences”, as in recent years it has turned from a bolt-hole for Northern gentlefolk into a tourist processing-plant that has been described by one visitor as “The Calcutta of the North”.

Blackpool is at its best in summer, and that’s not good.

The seafront (or “Prom”) is packed solid with garbage, chip bags, dog turds, street peddlars, and people-people-people determined to have fun or die in the attempt. The beach is one of the main attractions – a grey, windy stretch of sand that is heavily littered with mutant seaweed, broken bottles, plastic bags, and the occasional dead dog. People sit shoulder-to-shoulder on deckchairs in this squalor, licking their over-priced ice creams and staring out to sea.

The sea actually looks very pretty, but this is just the effect of the sun glancing over the thin layer of oil and the thicker layer of raw sewage that cover the murky polluted water. Every year the Head of Tourism for the town is photographed in the local newspaper drinking a glass of seawater to prove that it is safe to bathe in. It is a different Head of Tourism every year.

And yet millions of tourists still come to Blackpool every year. They stroll along the Promenade savouring the Blackpool air – a heady cocktail of rotting fish, stale cooking fat, car exhausts and (of course) the sewage and dead dogs from the beach chilled to twenty below zero. The brochures call it “bracing”, but a more honest description would be “nauseating”.

When night falls the visitors pile into Blackpool’s many nightspots to drink too much Australian lager and start fights with people just like themselves.

Souvenirs of Blackpool are bought by the armload. You would think that the hangover, knife wound, bout of dysentery or venereal disease they brought back with them would be sufficient reminder. But the people who holiday in Blackpool are not put off by its manifest imperfections. Year after year, from cradle to grave, from father to son – the attachment to holidaying in Blackpool seems to have some sort of genetic basis. At the first sign of summer, they fall over each other in a lemming-style dash to the Lancashire coast. Once there, instead of throwing themselves over he cliffs, they queue to be ripped off by the tourist-fleecing machine that is Blackpool.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

People who Operate from the Dark

Shh !

Listen !

Can you hear it ?

It's the sound of people talking about me on the Magistrates' Association web forum.

My comments are "cheap. grubby and anon".

My blog is neither "fish nor fowl"

They wonder why on earth I had bothered to become a magistrate.

(my favourite) "I dont think I would find it easy to sit with him as a winger. Perhaps he will "mellow" as he beds in on the Bench."

I was a blogger before I became a Magistrate and I hope to be one well after I retire. We're all entitled to our opinions - it's just that I think it healthier to express them in public blogs like this rather in closed members-only web forums.

On that subject, I believe the Magistrates' Association have missed a trick here. Their web forums (fora?) are utterly fascinating, even the ones that aren't taking a swipe at my little blog. Anyone who's interested in being a magistrate or understanding magistrates should sign up for an account.

Shame you can't do so unless you're a member.

Talking and Not Talking

Hi. You have reached the Voice Mailbox of Stan Gamla.

Don't bother leaving a message - I don't do voicemail.

I don't leave voicemail messages and I don't have voicemail set up on my mobile.

It's a total waste of time. Something like 90% of messages follow this pattern :-
"Hi... er ... it's [name] ... I wanted to talk to you about [getting Stan to drop the important stuff he's currently busy with and instead do something that benefits only them]. Can you call me back? Byeeee."
They wanted to talk to me. Instead they spent 60 seconds of their time talking to one of my machines and I spent 60 seconds of my time listening to the message. If we're really unlucky, a telecom company will have made money out of both of these redundant activities.

If you call me there will be no answerphone message. After you've listened to the ringing signal for a while, you will eventually work out for yourself that I am either unable or unwilling to talk to you at that precise instant. You will hang up. At a later point when I am available and willing, I will see your number in "Missed Calls" and I will call you back and give you the full benefit of my attention.

Because your call is important to me.

This scheme won't work if your number is withheld. Good - I don't want to talk to people who withhold their number.

But what if it's urgent ? Well, people I care about know to text me or email me. Everyone else can wait their turn.

It sounds brutal, but isn't it worse to force people to leave a message and then never return the call? Some people even claim never to have received your voicemail message, and there's no way you can prove otherwise.

Voicemail is inefficient, unreliable and annoying.

Join the revolution. Don't leave a message after the long tone.

Beeeeeepp.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Beats Me

Very few crimes are totally alien to me.

For example, I enjoy alcohol and so I can to some extent understand the attraction of drinking to excess and taking more intensely intoxicating drugs.

I'm also imperfect (a.k.a "human"), and so I suffer to some extent from anger, greed and impatience; and so I can to some extent put myself in the shoes of people who have committed assault, fraud and speeding.

All these activities are illegal and I don't condone them - I'm just saying that I can understand why people commit these crimes. I can see the attraction. I can see how it can happen.

However, I'm nowhere when it comes to understanding Domestic Violence.

I can understand some people love their partners and stay together. I can understand some people hate their partners and leave. What has me totally foxed is why some stick around to use their partner as a mental and physical punch bag, alternating assaults with expressions of regret and declarations of love.

I watched "Violent Partners: Tonight" on ITV1 to see if I could get an insight.

No chance. There was a simple message that Judges are too lenient and that there was a one-step catch-all solution to the problem.

Make sentences harsher.

For starters, how much harsher ? Double ? Triple ? Ten Years ? Life ? Castration (for male offenders anyway)? They seemed to leave this as an exercise for the viewer.

And anyway, since when did harsher sentences prevent crime ?

For serious crime, please note that the murder rate was higher when the death penalty was a possibility. Also, do you think a criminal with a gun would pull the trigger if the maximum sentence was ten years, but would think again if it was twenty years ?

For less serious crime, the penalty for using a phone while driving was increased a while ago - has it resulted in a reduction in this behaviour ? No, not really. Penalties for Cannabis possession were increased last month and I doubt that a single committed stoner would be influenced to change their herb-of-choice. Incidentally, hands up anyone who think that increasing penalties for being an idiot on a level-crossing (as suggested today) is likely to make any difference to the number of boneheads who fancy their chances against a speeding train.

Higher sentences don't reduce crime. The Americans have much harsher sentencing with more people in harsher jails for longer. They still have a much higher crime rate.

I will concede that there's more to sentencing than the reduction of crime. For example, there's punishment and protection of the public - and to some extent locking such people up for longer will certainly punish them and will definitely keep them away from the public for longer. The programme had some horrific examples where it would be hard to argue that the perpetrator was sufficiently punished or the public sufficiently protected.

However, the crucial point is that we need to stop domestic violence happening in the first place, and just doubling/tripling the custodial period isn't going to get that job done.

I suspect the first step is to understand why people do this - to understand what it is they get from doing it - to understand how it can happen.

Which is where we came in.

I'm nowhere when it comes to understanding Domestic Violence.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Beaten

I went to Goodison Park to watch Bolton get gubbed by Everton. I was with an Evertonian friend in a section with the home fans, so it was just as well that Bolton didn't do anything exciting, otherwise I may have found myself in some trouble.

It was a totally gutless performance by the Trotters - I'm sure it didn't help that they had sold the still-beating heart of the team, Kevin Nolan, for not all that much money during the transfer window. Nolan was pure commitment and one of the players who could rally dispirited troops to snatch a result. Without him, as soon as things started looking bad there didn't seem any way back.

The most depressing sight however was the painfully small number of Bolton fans who had bothered to make the 30 mile journey to Merseyside. If I had put my mind to it, I could have counted them and given you the exact number. They didn't move around a lot and there weren't that many of them.

You heard it here first : Bolton will be relegated this year. They're dispirited, disorganised and they haven't even got the support of the fans. If I gambled (I don't) and if I had money (I don't) I think I could make a tidy sum here.

Goodison is in need of rebuilding and the toilet facilities are a joke. At halftime you push seven-abreast through the narrow doorway, get buffeted along like a cigarette butt in a urinal, and eventually find a place to do your business. You then allow yourself to be pushed along toward the exit and squeeze back out (I'll resist using another toilet-related simile here).

I couldn't help noticing that in front of me, exiting the toilets after passing through the same process, was a large man holding his young son's hand with his right hand and brandishing a half-eaten extra-long sausage roll with his left.

Don't ask.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Finer Diner

I recently enjoyed watching the Channel 4 documentary "Big Chef Takes On Little Chef" where Heston Blumenthal tries to breathe some life into the Little Chef restaurant chain.

Yes, that's Heston Blumenthal; the 3-Michelin-Star chef of Snail Porridge and Bacon & Egg Ice Cream fame. And Little Chef; the purveyors of ultimate greasy filth.

This week I've been Travelodging near to the original new-style Little Chef on the A303 near Winchester. It's now Thursday and I'm heartily sick of eating supermarket sandwiches in my motel pod-room. And so I thought it was high time that I ate out.

The interior reminded me of a funky staff canteen. Red plastic chairs and a Blue Sky ceiling complete with clouds. It was clean and newly fitted out. Only a portion of the restaurant was open that evening, but there was definitely some atmosphere. More life than in any service-station restaurant I've eaten in anyway.

The staff were ill-trained but so helpful and friendly that it was impossible to hold a grudge. I ordered one from a choice of four bottled beers and had to spell the far-from-exotic "Carlsberg" for the waitress. Just as well I didn't order the Gew├╝rztraminer.

One of the joys of the documentary was watching the regulars try to come to terms with Mr Blumenthal's bizarre creations. Fortunately/unfortunately most of the really out-there dishes have been ditched, although they did still have the braised ox-cheeks and I still wasn't remotely tempted. I ordered the steak and ale pie. With a green salad - just to see what Little Chef's definition of a "green salad" was.

The food came before I could make much headway with my crossword and it looked very good. I couldn't eat it though because the waitress had forgotten to bring me any cutlery.

Eventually though I cut into the pie and found tasty, high quality meat and a lovely savoury gravy contained in a suetty (if that's a word) casing. Not as good as the pies at "Porter's", my favourite pie restaurant in Covent Garden. Maybe not even as good as at the better gastropubs. But way better than you would dare to expect from a bypass-adjacent caff. The salad turned out to be herby and fresh with a light dressing.

A few questions about the toilets :-
  • Why would anyone want their urinal to suddenly start playing a Rolf Harris song when they are attempting to widdle into it?
  • The sit-down toilets speak. Isn't this likely to give small children nightmares?
  • There's nothing wrong with toilets smelling of real disinfectant. Why make them smell of fake coffee ?
Maybe I just didn't enter into the experience, but maybe I didn't want an experience - maybe all I wanted was a pie and a beer and a toilet that shut the flip up.

I'd definitely recommend the place if you're on the A303 and hungry but it's probably not worth a special trip otherwise.

Unless you have kids that is.

Kids'll totally love the battiness of the place, the simple food and the rather excellent-looking dessert menu. Plus they'll adore the little packets of "Jelly Belly" jelly beans you get with the bill.

Speaking of the bill : my good steak pie, salad and beer cost me £11.35 which I reckon to be pretty good value. I dread to think what muck you'd get for that price at the nearby services on the M3.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Twiddling While Rome Burns

Sound Engineers have a switch on their consoles that does absolutely nothing at all. They call it a DFW (Doesn't [Flipping] Work).

It comes into its own when the "talent" decide they know all about sound engineering (they don't) and insist on changes being made to the mix.

The sound engineer will then make a big show of making complex adjustments of the DFW until the band decide that the quality of the sound is much better thanks to their intervention. The performers will then go away happy and leave him in peace.

IT Developers have a similar process. Project Managers often decide they know all about IT Development (they don't) and insist on changes being made.

The IT developer will then take about ten minutes to increment the version number, change the colours and fonts used in the Login Screen and do a global replace of variable names.

They will then play "Quake" for the rest of the day before recompiling the code and passing it back to the Project Manager in the early hours of the next morning. I'll guarantee that the result will a smug PM who will have no further comment.

This IT developer also admits that in the past he has declared impressive-looking variables that are never actually used in the rest of the script. My favourite is "DATA_INTEGRITY := 'TRUE', which was enough to convince my Project Manager of the time that I was taking great pains over data integrity.

I have a growing suspicion that Interest Rates are the economists' equivalent of the DFW switch. It looks to the uninitiated as though strenuous efforts are being made to rebalance the economy, but in fact they are stalling for time hoping the economy will come round by itself and they can take the credit for it.

Does anyone see any evidence that it actually matters what the Interest Rate is ? The economy seems to me to be just as pear-shaped now as it was when rates were 400% higher.

Placebo Economics ? I think we should be told.