Doing Right

It occurs to me that I’ve been remiss lately. I’ve been complaining about those who do life wrong–anti-vaxxers and anti-abortionists, Republicans, and software designers, for example–but I haven’t given any guidance for how to do life right.

I mean, I’d have thought it would be obvious, but the news continues to prove that it’s anything but.

So, with that–and my desire to make this blog a somewhat cheerier place–allow me to present a short playlist of songs that set a proper example.

Actually, it’s a very short playlist, so before I go there, I’m going to highlight a couple of songs that didn’t make the list.

“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”

Damn near everybody has done this one–this version is Bob Crosby and Martha Tilton–buy why? Ignore your problems and they’ll go away is lousy advice in any situation. Maybe it’s useful as a short-term strategy in a high-stress situation, but I’m even dubious about that. Anyone else think this was an early precursor to a certain track from Bobby McFerrin?

“On the Sunny Side of the Street”

Another dubious recommendation that everyone takes a swing at. No digs at Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee: it’s a great song. But really, “deny your problems exist and let someone else deal with them” isn’t helpful either personally or socially. As we’ve seen with the Republican attitude toward climate change.

“Swinging on a Star”

Bing Crosby, of course. The song is so loaded with negative stereotypes, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it as a guide to life: mules are stubborn and stupid, pigs are rude and dirty, and fish are sneaky scammers, or so Der Bingle tells us. So, even though the advice is good–stay in school, or, more generally, learn something–is an excellent first step towards living right, I just can’t bring myself to put it on the playlist.

Let’s move on to the songs that did make the cut.

“Pennies from Heaven”

Bing Crosby again, this time in a number that does meet my standards. His introduction seems like it would be a better fit for “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, and some of the advice is a bit dubious. Taken literally, carrying your umbrella upside down is not only counterproductive from a liquid standpoint, but any cash falling into it is likely to bounce right out. Figuratively, though, it’s on the money (sorry): smiling even when you don’t feel it can make you feel better. And who can argue with any song that reminds you that standing under a tree during a lightning storm is a bad idea?

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”

Johnny Mercer nails this one, musically-speaking*. The lyrics are a bit more Judeo-Christian than I’d really like–Noah and Jonah feature prominently–but the message works. Focus on the good things. Acknowledge the bad, sure, but don’t let them control you. And, while the words do stress having faith, it’s not specifically faith in God. As far as I’m concerned, faith in yourself works just as well.

* And I do love the intro. “The topic will be Sin / And that’s what I’m ag’in’.”

“Straighten Up and Fly Right”

Nat King Cole, of course. And the advice is as timeless as the performance. Listen to that little cricket in the top hat. Nobody has to tell you when–or how–you’re going wrong; you know it already. Don’t call that voice a conscience if it makes you uncomfortable to think you have one, but listen up. And fly right, brother.

“Let It Alone”

The Dixie Hummingbirds’ biggest fame came as a result of backing up Paul Simon, but they’ve been around for nearly a century. This track* often gets lost among their gospel numbers with more conventional lyrics and themes. But the message here is worth remembering: not only can you not fix everyone’s problems, but you shouldn’t even try. It’s not “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Even the sinless have better things to do than to go nosing into other people’s business.

* Historical diversion: Kids, ask your grandparents about early methods of recording video. In particular, ask them about the SLP mode on VHS recorders. (Hint: it slowed the tape speed to one-third the normal rate, allowing six hours of recording on a single tape, at the cost of a significant degradation in video and audio quality.) Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a better recording of this song online.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

Monty Python, closing out our playlist. Be optimistic, pessimism will get you nowhere. I think it’s the best advice you’ll find in a song, even though as a pessimist by nature, I struggle to apply it myself. But when I fail, I do a bit of whistling, and I’m ready to try again.

Jury Duty, Part 2

As I said yesterday, I should not be talking about the case, and I won’t, but I will continue with the overview of the process, and point out a few things I found interesting. Not to spoil all the suspense, but I was not selected for the jury in the trial, however, that does, I believe mean I can say that the charges included murder and drug distribution. On a personal level, I’m relieved: it would have been a long, ugly case featuring some very unpleasant subjects. On a professional level, though, I’m very disappointed: what a wealth of characters and stories I’m missing out on!

My group from yesterday was actually the second set of prospective jurors for this case, another group had been through the process earlier in the week. Enough people had been eliminated from the group that the judge believed there wouldn’t be enough jurors, so my group was added to the pool. The combined group was almost 60 people.

As I explained yesterday, we had to fill out a brief survey about things that might affect our suitability as jurors for the case. For example, it asked if we had ever been or knew somebody who had been a victim, witness, or defendant in a criminal matter; if we knew anybody who worked in a field related to the legal or justice systems; or if we had any opinions about the legal system that would prevent us from reaching an unbiased decision.

A small group of the pool of jurors is named – the group is randomly sorted by computer – and questioned, first by the judge, and then by the two attorneys.

The judge’s questions are mostly standardized. He followed up on the survey answers; for example, he asked people who had been involved in criminal matters to explain the circumstances and their role, and then asked them if they believed there was any reason that their experience would prevent them from “…listening to the evidence presented in this case, make your decision based only on the evidence in this case, and follow the legal instructions I will give”. (I’m quoting that statement from memory, so I may have it slightly wrong, but I did hear it quite a few times today, so it should be pretty close. There was a lot of formulaic text used; lawyers like to keep things consistent, much like QA people.) In several cases where it was clear that the jurors would find it very difficult to be impartial, the judge excused them. I was not surprised at the number of people who had family members involved with drugs, but I was surprised at how many had experiences related to murder.

Unlike the judge, the lawyers asked questions that were not formulaic – in some cases, quite far from formula. Where the judge was gathering background, the lawyers were asking questions intended to explore the jurors’ emotions and motivations. One lawyer asked several people how they decide if someone is telling the truth. Both lawyers asked questions regarding jurors’ understanding of the concept of “reasonable doubt” and how they felt about it. I was particularly amused by one of the lawyers referring to a recent survey that found that 4% of Americans believe “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power” as part of his questioning a juror about reasonable doubt.

After each group of jurors were questioned, the judge and the lawyers conferred, then the lawyers exercised their “peremptory challenges”: selecting jurors they did not want on the jury; they do not state a reason. Here again, a formula is used: the lawyer says “The People request [or the Defense requests] that you thank and excuse juror number X, Y”. The judge then responded with his own formula: “X, thank you for your service. You are excused.”

Once the 12 jurors had been selected, the process changed a little to select three alternates. The alternates sit as part of the jury, and listen to the jury debate, but only participate if original members of the jury are excused. I found it interesting that if an alternate is needed, one of the three will be chosen at random, rather than taking them in the order selected. To select the alternates, a group of three people from the pool was interviewed; the judge and the lawyers then conferred and one of the three was chosen. The other two were not carried over to the next group, instead they were excused. The same process was repeated for the second and third alternates.

With all 15 selections made, the rest of us were then excused. No, I didn’t make it into the hot seat for an interview. About a quarter of the group that started the day got to watch the whole show and go home without ever saying anything more than “Good morning”.

For those of you who were expecting my usual brand of snarkiness, my apologies: I just didn’t find much to be snarky about. But I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the American legal system, and I’ll see what I can do about bringing back the snark next week.

Jury Duty

So, as I said in this morning’s alert message, I was summoned for jury duty. For those of you unfamiliar with the way the process works in the US (or at least the way it works in the county I live in; other places may differ to some extent), it works like this:

Contra Costa County in California, like many places, uses a method called “One Day or One Trial”. That means that you are required to either serve for one day if you are not chosen for a trial, or for a single trial if you are chosen. If there are no trials scheduled for the day you will be serving, you do not need to appear at all. Regardless, once you have served, you will not have to serve again for at least a year.

Names are selected by computer at random from various public lists, including driver’s licenses and voter registration. You receive a form in the mail letting you know that you have been chosen for jury duty on a particular date a few weeks away. The form instructs you to call the evening before to find out if you will need to appear.

If you need to appear, you go to the courthouse and wait with the rest of the prospective jurors. The number of candidates depends on the number of trials that may begin that day. Once you are all assembled, you get a basic orientation that stresses the honor of serving, informs you of how much you will be paid if you serve on a jury ($15 plus 34 cents/mile – clearly you’re not going to get rich serving), and warns you not to leave the room without signing out. Prospective jurors are sent to the courtrooms in groups, and if you’re not present when you’re assigned to a group, you can be fined or arrested – which makes me wonder if anyone has ever wound up in the jury pool for their own trial for being absent.

Once in the courtroom, the judge gives some general information about the particular trial, including the estimated dates during which it will occur and whether it is a civil or criminal trial. Prospective jurors are then given an opportunity to request a postponement of their service if the specific dates will create a significant hardship. Those who do not get a postponement are then considered to be in the jury pool, and the selection of the actual jurors for the trial will be made from that group.

The first three times I was selected, I was told that I did not need to appear. This time, however, I was required to appear, and I found it quite interesting.

Tourist brochuresUnexplained quiltApparently, the city of Martinez where the County Court is located wants to be sure you enjoy your visit. I wouldn’t have expected tourist brochures and restaurant fliers in the juror waiting room, but sure enough, there they were. They’ve also slightly decorated the room. This quilt was hanging on one wall with no explanation of its origin or purpose. Most peculiar. Further research is indicated. They also provide soda machines ($1 for cans, $1.50 for bottles), a few board games and jigsaw puzzles, and free wifi.

The doors opened at 8 and the prospective jurors were directed to a line outside the waiting room; they began processing us at 8:30. On entry, I had to fill out a survey to be used by the judges and lawyers in making a preliminary decision about my suitability as a juror. There were roughly 150 of us, and it took about half an hour for everyone to fill out the survey and settle down. We then got the orientation and waited to be called. A first group of approximately 50 people were called around 10:30. A second group was called about 15 minutes later. I was in the second group.

We gathered in the hall outside the waiting room and the bailiff warned us that texting and using cell phones was forbidden in the courtroom, so we should silence our phones or turn them off. (Apparently, there are a lot of people who don’t believe rules apply to them: when someone’s phone rang in the courtroom, the judge ordered her to turn it off and warned us that any further ringing phones would be confiscated. At least half of the people in the room turned their phones off at that point.)

The judge told us that the trial was a criminal one and gave us the expected dates, and then spent the next hour listening to the requests for postponements. More than half of our group made requests, most of which were granted.

After a break for lunch, those of us who were left were read a list of the people who might be called as witnesses during the trial, and we were asked if we thought we knew any of them. Three people thought they might; the judge then explained that during the selection process, they would be asked for more information. He then gave more information about the case: he summarized the charges, introduced the lawyers and the defendant.

You’ll note that I haven’t said anything about the actual case. The judge read us a brief speech warning us against talking to the lawyers, witnesses, or defendant; doing any research about the case; or telling anyone about the case.

A final reminder to return tomorrow and a final warning to allow plenty of travel time, and we were free to go.

So that’s where it stands. I’m in the selection pool; I’ll report anything else of possible interest that doesn’t violate the rules.