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12 British Legal Terms Explained

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Does an arched eyebrow beneath a powdered wig set your heart racing? Do the words, "Objection, My Lord!" make you giddy? Although English courtroom dramas keep American fans riveted, some legal terms can be a bit of a muddle, leaving statesiders confused. We hope the testimony herein will set things to rights. (Note: The following explanations apply to England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own court systems.) 

1. SOLICITOR

You know solicitors and barristers are both lawyers, but what's the difference? If you have the idea that solicitors handle the paperwork—wills, contracts, and the like—and barristers do the courtroom work, you're partially right. By far the majority of lawyers are solicitors and, yes, the paperwork bit is correct. They may advocate for clients in the lower courts, and in some instances in higher courts. Nonetheless, in most court cases a client retains a solicitor, who in turn retains a barrister to present the case in court.

All prospective lawyers start on the same educational path: First, a bachelor's degree in law (LL.B.) or, if they read (majored in) another subject at university, a year or two of postgraduate education in law. After that, the paths diverge. Prospective solicitors must take a one-year Legal Practice Course, usually followed by two years' apprenticeship. 

2. BARRISTER

Following graduation, prospective barristers must first apply to join one of the four Inns of Court and then complete the one-year Bar Professional Training Course followed by a year's training in a set of barristers' chambers, known as "pupillage."

The primary function of barristers is to act as advocates, and they may do so in all courts. That said, usually a barrister may only act upon the instructions of a solicitor. Barristers are either Queen's Counsel (also called leaders or leading counsel) or junior barristers.

3. INNS OF COURT

The term “Inns of Court” refers both a set of buildings in central London and to the ancient legal societies based in them. Their origin is cloaked in mystery, but the Inns probably began as hostels for lawyers in the 14th century. Now, every barrister must join one of the four surviving Inns: Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn, and Middle Temple. According to the Oxford Dictionary of British History, the Temple was the London residence of the Knights Templar until their dissolution and was left to lawyers in the mid-14th century.

From an early date, the Inns played an important role in legal education. Although barristers no longer reside at the Inns, their attendance at a number of dinners given by their Inns are a social requirement and guest speakers at the dinners offer a form of continuing education. When new members are considered for a pupillage or an invitation into chambers, the dinners provide an opportunity to assess their compatibility.

4. CHAMBERS

Chambers, in addition to referring to the private office of a judge, can also mean the offices occupied by a barrister or group of barristers. The term is also used for the group of barristers practicing from a set of chambers.

5. QUEEN'S COUNSEL (QC)

In the late 16th century, these were barristers who were appointed to assist the law officers of the crown. During the 18th century, they lost their close connection with the crown and the title became merely a mark of honor for distinguished barristers. Now, a Queen’s Counsel is a senior barrister of at least ten years' practice who is appointed by an independent selection panel as “one of Her Majesty's counsel learned in the law.”

According to a former solicitor, “QCs are sort of higher paid consultants brought in by a junior barrister.” In court, they sit within the bar and wear silk gowns. Thus they are said to “take silk” and are familiarly referred to as “silks.” Junior barristers traditionally wear “stuff” (worsted wool) gowns. If the monarch is a king, silks are known as King's Counsel (KC).

6. CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE (CPS)

The CPS, which is organized on a regional basis, conducts most criminal prosecutions. The Chief Crown Prosecutor of a region is roughly equivalent to a district attorney in the U.S. 

7. CROWN COURT

The Crown Court has jurisdiction over all criminal cases tried on indictment. It also hears appeals from magistrates' courts.

8. CROWN PROSECUTOR 

A Crown prosecutor is a barrister or solicitor employed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

9. MAGISTRATE 

A magistrate is an unpaid volunteer without formal legal qualifications who serves in a magistrates' court. There are also, however, district judges (formerly called "stipendiary magistrates" and known in slang as “stipes”) in London and other major cities.

10. MAGISTRATES' COURT

A magistrates’ court consists of between two and seven magistrates or a single district judge. The magistrates' courts initiate all criminal prosecutions by considering whether there is sufficient evidence to justify committing the defendant to the Crown Court. Another function of the court is as a court of summary jurisdiction: a criminal court of trial without a jury. Magistrates' courts also have a limited jurisdiction in civil matters relating to debt and matrimonial proceedings.

11. CONSTABLE

All police officers hold the office of constable. 

12. OLD BAILEY

The Old Bailey is London's principal criminal court. The courthouse was first built in 1539, just outside the western wall of the city, next to Newgate Prison. The name comes from “bailey,” the external wall enclosing the outer court of a feudal castle. Reconstructed several times, the building now extends to cover the former site of the prison. Although the court's original jurisdiction included only serious crimes committed in the City of London and Middlesex, in 1972 it became part of the Crown Court with its jurisdiction no longer geographically constricted. Since 1981 it has been part of the Supreme Court. Famous trials conducted at the Old Bailey include those of William Penn (1670), Oscar Wilde (1895), and Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper" (1981).

Sources: New Oxford Companion to Law (2009); Gooch & Williams, Dictionary of Law Enforcement (Oxford U. Pr, 2007); Cannon, Dictionary of British History (2013); Oxford English Dictionary Online; Oxford Dictionary of Law (2013). (All sources except the last accessed via the website of Los Angeles Public Library.)

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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