Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Forgetting Italian

My brain is full. Some would say it's shrinking as a result of the effects of ageing, but I prefer to think that nearly 43 years of Life has filled it dangerously full.

If my brain were a computer, I'd either upgrade it or toss it and buy a new one. But before it got to that stage I'd clear out all the failed downloads, free software that wasn't worth the money and all the various debris and detritus that litter an IT Guy's computer.

In that spirit I'm trying to forget Italian. Never used it, never likely to use it; so it's got to go to make room for the rest of my life.

Learning a foreign language is hard enough, but forgetting it is near impossible, especially when you never spoke it that well to begin with. When you try to forget the Italian word for "chair" (whoopie ! I did forget it !) - there's a chance you'll instead wipe out the Spanish word or the French words by accident. And then you'll have holes in the languages you want to keep.

So progress is slow and I'm not convinced that much space is being freed up, because I'm just as forgetful as I was before.

Plus, I'm looking for the equivalent of the "defrag" program that tidies up computer disks, putting information that belongs together in the same general area of the disk. Everything in my head seems to be smeared thinly across the whole brain like Marmite. Trying to piece
together a coherent train of thought involves an exhausting scavenger hunt :-

"Ah that sounds familiar - it's like the stuff I was listening to in that
place ... oh, you know, that place when I was doing that thing for the mobile
phone company in Bristol ... or was it Oslo ? Doesn't matter ... er, what did I
come in here for ..?"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Anderson and Reed do Yellow Pony in Manchester

Update : Warning : if you believe the Guardian music critic, I don't know what I'm talking about.


I was waiting in the bar of the Palace Theatre in Manchester, idly people-watching and this guy took the empty seat at my table and said "Have you ever seen Lou Reed before ?" I had to confess I hadn't and it got a bit awkward because in truth I didn't know his work well at all.

I was there to see Laurie Anderson whose albums "Big Science" and "United States Live" were a regular background to my brave fight with university Mathematics.

Look up Laurie Anderson and marvel at all the different genres people attempt to confine her to. Art Rock ? Avant-Pop ? Transethnicism ? I actually prefer her own term : "Difficult Listening Hour".

She's best known for "O Superman" - a track that (the more missed each day) John Peel helped to unlikely, improbable chart success in the UK in the early '80s. Spoken poetry over an electronic backing from an idea by Massenet really shouldn't be so popular. That said, while she was #2 on the charts, #3 was The Tweets "The Birdie Dance", so there was obviously something in the water at that time.

The pieces that were hers on the "Yellow Pony" show were clever, stimulating and technically brilliant. Lou Reed's pieces were human and emotional and man, can he play a guitar.

The real treat though were the pieces where you had no idea if it was one of hers or one of his. Where two unique talents mingle and where the result could not have been created by any single human.

So many sounds, so many words - I have no idea where to start to explain, so I will leave it unsaid.

It was chuffing good though. Possibly the best performance by an over-60s married couple the world has ever known.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Drunkenness is nothing but voluntary madness

"Drowning your sorrows" with alcohol is akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. There is a proven link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression and schizophrenia. And it's nothing compared to what heroin will do with your mind once your last high has become ancient history.

So, when a violent man with drug and alcohol problems is brought before the bench, the Defence will often suggest that he has (for example) bi-polar disorder and so we should refrain from banging him up so that he can get treatment.

This seems reasonable, until you consider that maybe his mental problems are actually a drug/alcohol induced depression that will depart/reduce when he gets himself off the booze and the pills. Maybe he's just a violent man who drinks and his lawyer is trying to "play the system".

Magistrates are not legal experts, but we have an experienced legal adviser we can call on. What was more significant in my most recent session was that we're not mental health experts either, but often we will have to make decisions that would make Sigmund Freud himself sweat.

A large number of our clients have mental problems and all we Magistrates have are (a) The Sentencing Guidelines (b) experience and (c) compassion and integrity.

That didn't feel like nearly enough today.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Magistrates need some kind of appreciation of the prisons to which they send a small percentage of their customers. To this end, the entire new intake of rookie Magistrates in my county have been invited to visit some penal establishments.

For my first one, I was bracing myself for a distressing life-changing experience - a real voyage to the heart of darkness for this suburban magistrate. You hear stories about the conditions, but no-one I know well enough to ask has actually been inside.

In this case though, there was no amount of preparation that could have prepared me for the surprising reality.

That it was really quite OK.

The prison is for younger prisoners (18-25 years old). The typical inmate is doing the last year of a longer sentence, and this place is something of a reward for good behaviour so far during their sentence. It is therefore not at all typical of the majority of prisons.

It's an Open prison, and even I could hop the small fence into the residential gardens behind the sports fields. Although I can't think why anyone would want to with all the education and entertainment provided inside. Car Maintenance, Plumbing, a decent library, cooking lessons and from time to time there's even a spot of Karaoke in the evenings.

The grounds were quite pleasant : a bit like the kind of technical college that you'd go to if your A-Levels weren't that stellar. The rooms were single occupancy and I've got to say I've stayed in less comfortable hotel rooms this year, although on the bright side I didn't have to submit to random searches.

One thing I learned from the visit was that inside this Guardian-reader, there's actually a Daily Mail-reader. He usually sits quietly but he was screaming in my head throughout this entire visit.
"These are Criminals ! Everyone of the these people has hurt a law-abiding member of society in some way and their victims would never stop throwing up if they saw what a cushy life these guys have.

See the facilities ? Good luck getting that kind of training if you're law abiding. What's the message here - start with a life of crime and if it doesn't work out you get sent here and become a plumber?!"
The Guardian-reader counters as follows :-
Look, it's not to the benefit of the country that these guys hang from their thumbs and get fed on gruel. They're still kids and it's not in anyone's interest to give up on anyone by the age of 20. Educate them and instead of being doomed to swing in and out of prison, they might get a trade or see a possible future that doesn't rely on crime. One day maybe they'll even make a decent shot at being a competent father to their kids and it'll stop the whole sad cycle spinning round.
It's a tough one, and the battle continues in my mind.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lessons from the Credit Crunch

  1. I really was paying too much for my car insurance
  2. You don't need to change your car every three years
  3. Home-made bacon sandwiches are the best
  4. Spend more than £40 on a hotel room? No thank you.
  5. Just paying for a gym membership doesn't make you fit
  6. Cheap tomato ketchup is just as satisfying.
  7. The M6 toll road does not save any time - you go faster, but the road's longer.
  8. Until you get a water meter you're subsidising the large family next door with the swimming pool, 9-hole golf course and rice paddy.
But buying budget disposable razors from the supermarket was less successful. They are blue and have two blades, just like the market-leading premium brand. Except the first blade fails to cut whisker at all and the second slices your face clean off.