Thursday, 23 February 2017

Locked up!

Phil and I have just finished watching our latest HBO box set. Knowing that we had in the past enjoyed watching NYPD Blue, Homicide - Life on the Streets and The Wire, our son bought is The Night Of. Or perhaps its full title is What Happened The Night Of. Whatever its actual title we just finished watching this gripping, tense, depressing series.

It tells the sad tale of Nasir Khan, a young man of Pakistani American family who, in the process of just getting on with his life in New York, finds himself accused of murder. All the circumstantial evidence points towards him and the police do not investigate any further. Denied bail on the grounds that he has extended family in Pakistan and, despite being born in the USA, never having been to Pakistan and possibly not even having a passport, he might be a flight risk, he is remanded to Rikers Island to await trial.

There he has to learn to survive. Which means that he learns to be brutal when he has to, shaving his head and gradually acquiring more and more tattoos. He learns to help smuggle drugs into the prison and becomes addicted.

Even when the trial falls apart and the system finds him not proven guilty, which is not quite the same as being found officially innocent either, we know his life will never be the same as before. Everything around him is tainted by the events of The Night Of. His community regards him with suspicion. His relationship with his mother is ruined. His father has lost his livelihood. His family's life has been changed utterly. And even the young attorney who defended him has seen her professional life and opportunities reduced.

All in all it is a sad indictment of the police investigation system, the judiciary system and the prison system in the USA.

Years ago I read Cormac McCarthy's book All the Pretty Horses in which young John Grady Cole ends up in a Mexican prison and has to fight for his life every day of his stay there. The brutality of the prison guards and their turning a blind eye to violence meted out by those prisoners who were at the top of the prison hierarchy shocked me. But well, that was Mexico and it was years ago, 1940s to 1950s. Surely things like that did not go on now.

Apparently they did and still do.

Of course, all I know of American prisons comes from novels and films and TV series. I knew the name Rikers Island and knew it was a prison but little more so I googled it.

It "has a budget of $860 million a year, a staff of 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians managing 100,000 admissions per year and an average daily population of 10,000 inmates." So the prison is the size of a small town.
Here's some more:

"it has become notorious for abuse and neglect of prisoners in recent years, attracting increased media and judicial scrutiny that has resulted in numerous rulings against the New York City government. Rikers Island is also notorious for numerous assaults by inmates on staff (uniformed and civilian)
resulting in often serious injuries making Rikers Island one of the most dangerous places to work. In May 2013, Rikers Island ranked as one of the ten worst correctional facilities in the United States."

And more:

 "Violence on Riker's Island has been increasing. In 2015 there were 9,424 assaults which was the highest number in 5 years.On the other hand, murder is rare on Riker's island with none recorded in 2015 or 2016 as of the end of November."

So what we see in films and TV series may be quite true to life.

Are things any better in the UK? I have to confess to knowing less about our prison system, or at least to having watched less stuff on TV about it. But news reports suggest we have many of the same problems. Possible to a lesser degree still there and, by all accounts, growing. Here's a link to a news report about proposed legislation to "shake up" some aspects of prison administration.

I notice that it talks about the introduction of league tables and performance standards. Having seen league tables in operation in education, I have more than a few doubts about their effectiveness. As with schools and hospitals, I find myself wondering if running prisons on a business model is really the best idea. The fact remains that too many people are locked up in institutions that are too big and which are understaffed.

This is the 21st century. Can we not find a better way to run things?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Food for thought!

Today I went into Manchester to meet some friends for lunch. We do this every four to six weeks. We have some nice food and catch up with each others' rather less busy than they used to be lives. As my tram made its way into Manchester, a group of women with a baby came and sat near me. I chatted to them about the baby, a pretty, solemn child of about eleven months old. They were a group of Asian women, the older woman wearing the headscarf, the younger women bare-headed and carefully made-up. They spoke a mix of English, the two younger women to each other, and whichever was their Asian language, in conversations between the older woman and the younger. They spoke both to the baby. The mother of the child spent a good deal of time taking selfies, sometimes with the child, sometimes without. Pride in your baby and the desire to put the photos out there is multicultural.

I met my friends and we decided to go to Jamie Oliver's restaurant. Both my friends have loyalty cards, or Jamie's Club cards, or something of that nature: a gold card which gives certain privileges. One of these is a free glass of prosecco for everyone at the table of the cardholder. And a free tiny starter. All good! It's just as well the prosecco was free. When we asked for our bill we found that they had in fact charged us for it. At just over £5 a glass, we felt that we had to remind them of our entitlement. No problem! And the food was very nice, as you might expect from Mr Oliver's establishment!

And so, after a stroll along Market Street we began to wend our way homewards, one on a tram towards Altrincham and two of us on the one bound for Oldham and Shaw. At the tram stop, the same group of ladies with the baby were waiting to make their way home as well. They greeted me like an old friend. The baby had had a thoroughly enjoyable first trip to Manchester. And the mother continued to take a further batch of selfies most of the way back to Westwood, where they got off the tram.

During our journey my friend was trying to get through to her daughter on the phone and, failing that, to her husband. She had just remembered that it was Wednesday and that the complicated arrangements for collecting her grandchildren from various after-school activities had not been confirmed. The ten-year-old needed to be taken to and from gymnastics whole the younger twins, after French club, had swimming at an entirely different venue. And the times overlapped. And everything got complicated. This is the kind of difficult life young mothers have to deal with in the modern world!

In the end, it transpired that nobody was going to French club, swimming or gymnastics because they were all having a quick bit to eat and then going to church. On a Wednesday? And not Ash Wednesday either! Pancake Tuesday, sorry, Shrove Tuesday, is next week! All I found out was that today is Thinking Day. I didn't have a chance to ask for any more explanation as we had reached my tram stop and so I googled it.

It turns out to be a Baden-Powell related thing. World Thinking Day, which used to be just Thinking Day, is celebrated every year of the 22 of February by all Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Mysteriously, my information told me: "It is also celebrated by Scout and Guide organizations and some boy-oriented associations around the world". (Not Boy Scout organisations, please note. Boys have "Scouts" while girls have "Girl Scouts"!) They are supposed to think about their "sisters" (and presumably "brothers") everywhere, the meaning of Guiding, and its global impact. A theme is chosen each year and donations are collected to help Girl guides and scouts all over the world.

So why the 22nd of February? Because it was the birthday of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who started the whole scouting business" and his wife, "Lady Olave Baden-Powell. Some people call it Founders' Day.

This year's theme is "Let's Grow". This is what their website said, "In 2017, we would like to grow the World Thinking Day celebrations, and invite more girls and young women around the world to experience what it means to be part of the Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting Movement! TheWorld Thinking Day Challenge for 2017 will be a journey of growth, supporting Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting groups as we introduce our Movement to new members.

So now we know!

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

'Tis the season!

Spring must be here, or at least just around the corner. I am ignoring the weathermen's delight at temperatures reaching double figures - not around here, they aren't! No, what I am going by is the fact that there are two blackbirds having regular arguments/fights in our garden and that I was nearly dive-bombed yesterday by two quarrelsome rooks, quarrelling with each other that is, not with me, I hasten to add. Presumably they are vying for territory and showing off to the female of the species.

It did feel as though I had somehow wandered onto the set of Hitchcock's "The Birds". I can't abide birds getting too close to me at the best of times and even get more than a little freaked by pigeons psuddenly taking off in front of me. So two rooks being so aggressive with each other that they almost fell out of the sky onto my head was not what I liked at all!

Another indicator is the frogs which are back in the sluggish stream that runs alongside one of the local bridle paths. I thought I heard a certain amount of croaking as I drew near to their usual spot on my run yesterday. Then I caught sight of movement out of the corner of my eye. So I stopped to look and there they were, the first of this year's amphibious returnees. They are pretty well camouflaged, blending in very well with the soggy brown leaves in the muddy brown water, but with a modicum of patience you can see them, going about their froggy business. What I want to know is where the newly hatched frogs go when they have stopped being tadpoles and are large enough, barely if you have ever seen them on the move, to leave the watery nursery. And how to they always find their way back? Nature is pretty clever really.

Spring this year seems also to be open season for harassing the far right. Long may it continue!

 You could almost feel sorry for UKIP's Paul Nuttall. First of all he had to admit that he did not in fact lose close friends and family in the Hillsborough disaster and now nobody will even believe he was there. Possibly because he appears to have only just decided to make a statement to the investigators about it. That and the fact that former school mates have no memory of his being there. Hmmm! Clearly nobody told him the story of the boy who cried wolf when he was a little lad! As I said, you could almost feel sorry for him ... but not quite ... no, not at all!

And across the Channel Marine Le Pen is feeling got at as well. Her offices have been raided by the police, looking for evidence of fraud and misuse of funds. She, and her father too for that matter, are being asked to pay back vast amounts of European funding which they are said to have wrongly .paid to people purporting to be their political assistants and so on. Ms Le Pen says this is deliberate harassment, an attempt to derail her bid for the French presidency. It couldn't happen to a better candidate!

Except that it has been happening to other candidates. And, of course, from time to time our UK MPs are involved in similar scandals about misuse of funds and allowances for one thing or another. I imagine that most of this funding was originally introduced to make something like a level playing field. After all, at one time you couldn't vote if you didn't own land or have a certain level of income. And in order to stand for parliament you need campaign funds. Then, once elected, you can't keep up your day job (oops, that makes it sound as if being an MP isn't a proper job) and go and discuss matters in Parliament, unless you are a column writer for a swanky newspaper.

So, in order to make it possible for those who don't have sufficient independent means to pay secretaries and researchers or to run two houses, one in London and one in their constituency, you need allowances and expenses claims and so on. It sounds like a good idea. Some people hardly claim a thing. Inevitably, however, there are those who regard fiddling expenses as a perk of the job.

It happens in every sphere. I've been on educational visits with colleagues who carefully save every single receipt for money they spend during the trip and claim it all back on their return. Travel expenses: yes! Eating out: yes ... but maybe you don't need to go to the most expensive restaurants! A couple of beers in the evening when the students are safely tucked up in bed: isn't that pushing it a bit too far?

That way corruption lies!

Monday, 20 February 2017

The truth is out there - sort of!

I came across the name Roger Stone in the paper and decided to find out a little about him. According to Wikipedia "Roger Jason Stone Jr. (born August 27, 1952) is an American political consultant, lobbyist, and strategist, noted for his use of opposition research, usually for candidates of the Republican Party". That'll do.

Roger Stone has written a book about Donald Trump. "The Making of the President". That was quick! Maybe he always planned it, whatever the outcome of the election, but now, with so much attention on how chaotic or otherwise the presidency is proving to be, depending on which truth you believe, must seem like a good moment to get a book out there. You never know, even people who do not as a rule read books might buy this one.

Roger Stone worked on Trump's campaign from the beginning as a senior advisor but clashed with others in the team and left. One of his revelations is that trump trademarked his "Make America great again" slogan back in 2012. Was he already planning to run then? Quite possibly!

 One of the things Roger Stone has said is, “One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civic participation." Here's an example of a trick, found on Wikipedia: "In the first grade, Stone claims, he broke into politics to further John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign: "I remember going through the cafeteria line and telling every kid that Nixon was in favor of school on Saturdays...It was my first political trick". Little Roger started early!

As the man said, “One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civic participation." It's one way of looking at life, I suppose, although I prefer people who don't deal in dirty tricks at all. Some people argue that any means to an end is justified but I still think that a bad means to a good end undermines the goodness of the end. Once you dip into sleaze it tends to spread.

His idea that we choose which truth to believe has a frighteningly real quality to it however. He quotes the example of the death of President Kennedy. “There used to be only one version – the government’s version – about the assassination of President Kennedy: Lee Harvey Oswald killed him acting alone. There was no argument over that until the internet got into full swing. Today, a majority of Americans do not believe Oswald killed Kennedy acting alone – it’s amazing, the people have come to what I believe to be the correct conclusion. Without an alternative media today, you wouldn’t even have this debate.”. Choose the version of the truth that suits you!

And we all do it to some extent, choosing to believe the reality presented by one news source or another. We can try to remain unbiased by reading and listening to a variety of sources but there are only 24 hours in a day and the news sources are proliferating at a furious rate.

But we have to keep on trying because it's that uncertainty about the truth that has helped bring about Brexit and the continuing arguments about how to sort it all out.

(By the way, here is a little something I found about that:

 At a glance | Theresa May's 12-point Brexit plan

* Provide certainty about the process of leaving the EU
* Control of our own laws
* Strengthen the Union between the four nations of the United Kingdom
* Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland
* Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe
* Rights for EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU
* Protect workers' rights
* Free trade with European markets through a free trade agreement
* New trade agreements with other countries
* The best place for science and innovation
* Co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism
* A smooth, orderly Brexit

 Is that a plan?)

As well as Brexit that uncertainty also helped bring about the election of the 45th POTUS and we have his government which is either a smoothly oiled machine or total chaos. You can choose the truth you want to believe.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Commenting on things!

It's a rather grey and damp day. My daily photo posted on Facebook reflected that fact. A friend in not too far away Rawtenstall commented that it was much the same there. Not very surprising! More surprising was my sister commenting that it was also grey and gloomy in El Puerto de Santa María, Andalucía, where she lives. Maybe it's all over Europe!

I'm not letting any of this raise my stress levels. These days I refuse to do stress. I came across a Forbes list thing about stress levels. Forbes seem to do lists of anything and everything. It turns out that the least stressful occupation in the USA is hairdressing. "How stressful is it to be a hair stylist? According to CareerCast, a career information and job listing website based in Carlsbad, CA, it’s the least stressful job in America. “You work one-on-one with people, and you get the satisfaction of helping them,” says the site’s publisher Tony Lee. Hair stylists set their own schedules, enjoy a lot of positive feedback and they tend to make friends with their clients, he adds."

Is being president the most stressful?

In Spain Princess Cristina got way with it. While her husband, the once heroic handball player Iñaki Urdangarín, is facing a prison sentence (how long will he actually serve?) the judge believed that the princess knew nothing about what was going on. My sister, the same one as earlier quoted, comments: "El mismo juzgado que ha absuelto a la infanta Cristina condenó hace un mes a un joven a 3 años de cárcel por robar una bicicleta" - a month ago the same court which found the infanta innocent condemned a young man to three years in prison for stealing a bicycle. No doubt there is a back story behind the bicycle thief incident but there does seem to be one law for the rich and one for the poor. And I expect the Urdangarín family could afford better lawyers!

Today my sister also points out his little fact: "¡¡Qué nadie olvide que mientras se perpetraba la estafa del caso Nóos, la Infanta Cristina disponía de una asignación pública cercana a 100.000€ al año!!... ¡¡La pobre...!!" Basically, she reminds us that while the fraud that became the Nóos case was being perpetrated, Cristina was receiving an allowance of €100,000 from the public purse. After all a member of the royal family has standards to maintain. As she has been disowned by the family, I assume she no longer receives money from the public purse.

With the legal profession in mind, my daughter, a teacher, drew my attention to a company called Match Solicitors who offer help to parents who feel that their child's progress in school is being impeded by the behaviour of some other child in the class. I thought about giving a link to their website but I decided not to give publicity to this latest version of ambulance chasing!

And finally, a friend of mine who is a history graduate, history teacher and writer of history textbooks found some statistics about which degree course works its students hardest. Architecture comes top of the list with History and Philosophy joint second. I have always maintained, indeed I still do, that students of modern languages work very hard. We had to deal with grammar, translation from one language to the other, history, culture, literature, philosophy, phonetics, stylistics, history of the language, all of them subjects in their own right. I could go on and on. Those of us studying two languages had a double dose. We come about fourth in the list, along with Law.

So which degree courses are the least hardworking?

Well, Communication Studies seems to be bottom of the class!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Spreading the word?

I like to think that I am a tolerant person. People have the right to believe in all sorts of things. Which is fine so long as they don't impose it on others. What I find hard to stomach is the smugness of some believers.

The centre of Manchester is over-run at present with Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't think I am exaggerating. You leave Victoria station and there they are, just outside the station and again on the path that goes past the Football Museum and Chetham's Music School, one or two on either side of the path. You see them again on Market Street and in Piccadilly Gardens. They look glossy and well fed, standing by their portable bookcases, holding out copies of the Watch Tower magazine. The only thing in their favour is that they don't call out to passers-by but just stand there, secure in their belief. They make quite a contrast to the miserable homeless, even more ubiquitous, huddled on the pavements in their sleeping bags. I've not yet seen the JWs talking to the homeless but maybe I do them a disservice.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that it is a fundamental thing about the Jehovah' Witnesses that they are supposed to go out and spread the word. Okay, I can accept that. What I object to is the suggestion, not just from the JWs but from many confirmedly devout groups that it is not possible to be good without a belief in a supreme being. Oddly enough, belief in a supreme being does not seem to rule out being bad! I wonder how many good American Christians hold fast to their belief in the right to bear arms and, indeed, own a gun or two!

This morning I came across a news item about someone called Pat Robertson who wondered if President Obama and other Democrats may have participated in a grand conspiracy to bring down President Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned on Monday over his communications with Russia’s U.S. ambassador. Another good conspiracy story!

I read on and discovered that he believes God is on Trump's side.

Referring to a quotation to one of the psalms, "The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed”, Robertson said that those challenging Trump are really fighting against God:

"I think, somehow, the Lord’s plan is being put in place for America and these people are not only revolting against Trump, they’re revolting against what God’s plan is for America. These other people have been trying to destroy America. These left-wingers and so-called progressives are trying to destroy the country that we love and take away the freedoms they love. They want collectivism. They want socialism. What we’re looking at is free markets and freedom from this terrible, overarching bureaucracy. They want to fight as much as they can but I think the good news is the Bible says, “He that sits in the heavens will laugh them to scorn,” and I think that Trump’s someone on his side that is a lot more powerful than the media."

Well there you go!

Mr Robertson gives his views on The 700 Club, a long running series on the Christian Broadcasting Network in the USA. On the air since 1966, The 700 Club is one of the longest-running television series in broadcasting history! Amazing!

For a supposedly secularly governed country, the USA seems to set great store by its public Christianity. All presidents frequently say, "God Bless America". All right, that is gross-denominational, cross-religion but for most it implies the Christian God, I am pretty sure. We would be rather surprised to hear Theresa May suddenly ending speeches with, "God bless the UK".

And so I wondered where we stand on religious broadcasting and found put this stuff:

"British broadcasting laws prohibit religious organisations, political parties, local government and trade unions from running national analogue terrestrial stations. Some religious radio stations are available in certain areas on the MW (medium wave) or VHF (FM) wavebands; others transmit using other methods, some of them nationally (such as via digital terrestrial TV broadcasting, satellite and cable)."

I then found a list of ways to receive religious broadcasting in this country.

And my source of info ended with this:

"Although there are tight restrictions on religious groups setting up their own radio and TV stations, there is a legal requirement for the BBC and ITV to broadcast a certain amount of religious programming. Some commercial local radio stations carry a limited amount of religious programming, particularly in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland"

So now we know.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Changing things and being the same!

So we are going to have a new pound coin, are we? Look out for the new twelve-sided coins next month and spend all those old-fashioned, outdated round ones by October 15th. Why do we need new pound coins? Is it to differentiate from the euro, a coin very similar to the pound coin? Surely it will cause havoc with all the slot machines. Think of all the payment machines at the exit of carparks and the self checkin machines at supermarkets, to mention just a couple of things. And then there are all the supermarket trolleys. Will we all have to carry one of those smiley-face tokens on our key rings so that we can liberate a trolley to our use?

I hope they use all the right ingredients when they mint the new coins. We have had quite enough uproar about the new five pound notes which use tallow in their production and are offensive to vegans and a number of religious groups. It has been decided, however, that these various groups of people are not numerous enough to persuade the government of the need to withdraw the notes and produce them without animal products. I have no objections to them personally, although they still don't look like real money!

Do other countries have similar problems when they produce new currency? Or is it a peculiarly British thing?

For all our cultural differences, fundamentally we remain vary similar in our various countries. All right, some are VERY different but similarities keep,popping up. My sister, who has lived far longer in the south of Spain than she ever did in the northwest of England and is probably more Andalusian than Lancastrian by now, commented recently about voting patterns in Spain.

Her comment regarded the difficulty she had in understanding how working class people in Spain could even consider voting for the right wing Partido Popular. And yet they do! A fair number of them anyway! This led to replies from myself and a number of her friends about the numbers of working people in the UK who puzzlingly vote for the Conservatives. I suspect the same sort of thing happens in other countries as well. And I don't mean just USA!

Then there are the fallen idols. When Franco died and Spain wrote itself a new constitution and everything changed, my sister and her Spanish husband were delighted to see Felipe Gonzalez become the country's leader. He was a bright, shining star, indicating a new and better future for the country. Now I find her despairing at the corruption that her former hero has fallen into. How many people here in the UK cheered when Tony Blair became PM? And look at him now! Cries of "How dare he?" arise when he puts forward his views on Brexit and the lies that were told during the referendum campaign.

We are all much the same under the skin!

Yesterday, or maybe the day before, my friend Colin wrote about names of films and posted a link to an article in the English version of El País about names of films in different languages. It's something that has always fascinated me. "Gone with the wind" became "Lo que el viento se llevó", literally "What the wind carried away": not a bad translation at all. Almodóvar's "Amantes pasajeros" had a crazy play on words to do with the lovers (amantes) being passengers (pasajeros), not to mention the fact that both words could be nouns AND adjectives, giving us "loving passengers" and/or "fleeting lovers". They gave up on getting that into English and just opted for "I'm so excited"; the song did feature quite importantly in the film. I never managed to understand why the Disney film "Up!" did not become "¡Arriba!" when it was released in Spain. For some kind of copyright reasons it remained "Up!"

Anyway, my friend Colin's link gave me this information about the title of the film everyone is apparently talking about, "La, la, land" (not "La-la-landia" but "La Ciudad de las Estrellas"):

"In the musical La La Land, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fall in love while dreaming of making it big in Los Angeles. The title is a play-on-words that even an advanced student of English might miss. To be in “La La Land” means to be detached from reality, a state in which the film’s protagonists often find themselves, especially during the musical numbers. At the same time, ‘La La’ is a reduplication of Los Angeles’ initials – L.A. – which is often how people refer to the city that is home to Hollywood. The title even works on a third front: ‘La’ is the typical sound that Anglophones give to music notes, which stresses the fact that this movie is a musical, while in Spain ‘La’ is not necessarily the sound of choice for singing music scales or forgotten lyrics."

It was the last point that struck me. I am sure the newspaper people are correct about "la" and it's musical use. They are Spanish, after all. At least, I presume that is so. But I remember 1968 when Spain won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called "La, la, la". It had a lot of quite patriotic stuff where the young Massiel sang about how she was singing for her country, which had been good enough to let her be born there and lots of optimistic stuff about how she was singing to LIFE and how wonderful it was. But they clearly ran put of ideas for the chorus because it just went on and on with a whole lot of "La, la, la, LA, la, la, la, la, la, LA" and so on.

Not so much forgotten lyrics as non-existent lyrics!

So we are more similar than we might at first appear.