Indyref – Beating me with experience

A few weeks ago I was with some of the other dads in the pub and the topic turned to Scottish independence. I’m getting used to that now and have my indyref cheat-sheet tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

There followed a long discussion with people from around the world (only about 50% were English, the rest Scottish (me), Indian, South African, American and German) about the pros and cons of a Yes vote and in the main it was conducted from a position of curiosity and in good spirits. I admit I probably rabbited on a bit after the third or fourth IPA though…

There was however one chap though whose attitude puzzled me. An Englishman and a nice enough bloke, he was staunchly against independence but not for any real reason that would affect him, from what I could see. His argument basically went “You would be stupid to leave as Scotland can’t possibly survive on its own.”

And that was it, repeated ad nauseum with a teensy bit of discrimination and Salmond hatred mixed in from time to time.

Now, if he was well enough informed about the debate – even by the standards of the mainstream media – so as to be able to argue his point, then fair enough. As it was though he spent upwards of two hours talking about a ‘Yes’ vote to stay in the union and a ‘No’ vote to leave.

Hmmm…

Yet, despite having failed to understand even the most fundamental parts of the referendum debate (I got fed up reminding him that Scotland wasn’t choosing government on 18 September, and nor was it a commitment to a single government in perpetuity), he felt informed enough to lecture in a very condescending manner about Scotland basically imploding under a Nazi Salmond presidency without the financial and administrative support of England.

His political leanings became clear during the course of the conversation, and by the end it was obvious I was probably dealing with a specimen of Ukippus faragula and I had to beat a hasty retreat for the sake of my own sanity. Trying to explain it was about self-determination and the possibility of a fairer society was just burning calories, just not as quickly as I was consuming them, unfortunately.

A similar, albeit slightly more open minded conversation was had in the pub last weekend, but from these and other discussions it’s become clear that while people in Scotland may be being forced a diet of indyref fabrication and obfuscation from their TVs and papers, at least they’re getting something.

With only 80 days until the biggest constitutional decision taken on these isles in generations, it’s a curious position to be in where the bulk of 57 million people are effectively disengaged from the situation.

What has fracking ever done for us?

Fracking.

Seems to bring out strong emotions in people, doesn’t it? The word also lends itself to lazy punnage so is a favourite of tabloids and swivel-eyed pamphleteers alike, amplifying its use and ensuring the word is never far from the headlines.

Trouble is, most are comically uninformed about gas extraction techniques yet are prepared, eager even, to waffle on loudly and with authority about fracking and the problems it will cause.

Now observe as I waffle on loudly and with authority about fracking…

I’m no petroleum geology expert but even my 5 or 6 years in the offshore industry puts me at an immediate advantage to 99% of the population in terms of exposure to the concepts and realities of exploration and production drilling. I know that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are not radical new things, that fracking has been carried out for decades – even onshore in the UK – and that many of the doom-laden prophecies are simply nonsense.

The geology of the UK simply doesn’t enable the kind of apocalyptic earthquakes that some predict will inevitably follow. Methane is already in groundwater at varying levels, and the physical distance between gas reservoirs and the aquifers and the geology involved (hint: if the caprock were permeable then the gas wouldn’t still be there – duh) means there is almost no chance of them being affected.

Yes, effective regulation and oversight is required to stop the excesses and abuse that rampant capitalism is wont to pursue, but fundamentally fracking is not a problem where the geology is suitable. Our trusty media seems a bit reticent about telling us this though, perhaps fearing the loss of the word from their punning arsenal?

So, as part of a balanced transitional energy supply mix, I’m happy with fracking.

Where I do have a problem though is with the exploitation rights. When a well is sunk halfway between Aberdeen and Stavanger no-one has any personal claim to the rights to the resources held below. This isn’t the case in the Home Counties though, or anywhere else onshore.

Bear with me here because my legal knowledge will never trouble Rumpole of the Bailey, but I’m aware that the definition what rights a freehold owner has to any resources below ground is somewhat fuzzy, with the traditional definition of solum extending to the Earth’s core nowadays being restricted to some definition of the Earth’s crust alone.

Not that this has any real influence in the fracking debate as the depths we’re talking about are wholly within the continental crust, human drilling technology currently being unable to get anywhere near the mantle. So, as a freehold owner I have rights to the mineral resources and any other treasure beneath my property. I don’t think that is in any doubt.

So when I hear that the Government is keen to reduce the red tape involved in getting onshore shale gas production going by streamlining the permissions required to drill beneath our homes I get a little worried. I’m still trying to get hold of authoritative information about this (more details are due to be released today), but it would seem to have good intentions in clearing the worst of the Nimbyist objections and potential legal trespass blockades out of the way, but as always the devil is in the detail.

Basically, assuming my home is to sit above or near some kind of fracking activity I’d be happy with the following:

  • Test well passes beneath my property – Notification and nominal one-off payment related to size of property with a minimum of, say, £100?
  • My property lies directly above a producing reservoir – Notification and you pay me a percentage of the money from the produced gas
  • Production well passes beneath my property – Notification and you pay me a (smaller) percentage of the money from the produced gas
  • Surface activity related to drilling near my property – Subject to normal planning and compensation legislation

Note that the payments and percentages involved might not be huge.

For a test well it might only be a few hundred pounds per property at most, meaning that even under built-up areas the compensation payments to landowners might only total ten or twenty thousand pounds.

For the production payments it would seem only fair to reserve a percentage of the production revenue for the people who, in effect, own the gas. Maybe 5 or 10% distributed across all affected landowners would be fair? Transit payments for wells passing beneath my shed would of course be much lower. There is precedent in the siting of wind turbines that have only been permitted with some community benefit being factored into the costs.

Note that production payments would need to be tied into gas production not profits, because even though we all know big corporations would never dream of setting up their tax and reporting regime to offset or obfuscate profit in one business unit to minimise their liabilities elsewhere, it’s probably best not to tempt them, eh?

Let’s not feel too sorry for the companies involved here. For test wells its unlikely to change the economics of their operations by any significant amount, but it might just make them think a bit more about sinking wells indiscriminately. For production it should simply be viewed as just compensation for exploitation of resources that we already own. Yes, the risk is with the energy company, but they will not be crying into their Frosties even after having to lose a little bit of their profits to pay us for our gas.

What about you?

Are you happy with the proposals?

Should we be forcing a fairer distribution of the wealth that will surely arise from the shale boom?

Should not we be asserting our rights more strongly?

Scottish Independence & Twitter – Like-minded souls?

My experiment with Twitter led me to think about the make-up of people I follow on Twitter, and those who follow me.

With no obvious pre-selected bias (I’ve been on Twitter for about six years and followed many of these people for much of that time) it appears that almost all of the Scots I follow on Twitter have turned out to be very much pro-Yes. Similarly, of those that follow me, the majority also appear to be Yes supporters. Not really sure why this is, other than the fact I am obviously a person of impeccable taste…

Seriously though, you curate your own Twitter and so most of the people I follow on Twitter are fairly liberal and share a similar world view on most things such as equality, fairness, self-determination, opportunity and privilege, is it any wonder then that the overwhelming majority subsequently turned out to be Yes supporters?

Probably not, given that continuing in the dysfunctional Westminster relationship offers very little hope of progression in many of the areas that seem to matter to them; dismantling of the NHS, staying out of unnecessary wars, stripping national assets in the name of short-term profit and transfer of wealth to City pals, the rise of neo-con politics/UKIP/anti-immigration feeling or the systematic dehumanising of those requiring state assistance (unless it’s a pension in which case you’re untouchable).

If I followed a lot of right-wing, libertarian, warmongering, ultra-capitalists would the consensus be for No? Probably.

Can we draw any conclusions about the general social attitudes of the Yes and No camps from this admittedly tiny and unscientific sample? Possibly.

As it is, I have, to my knowledge, only one active No follower. There may be others but they’re being very quiet about it if they are. Whether this is because they feel bullied and intimidated by the vocal Yes camp (as has been alleged by some) or whether they just lack the conviction to participate in the debate yet remain fundamentally opposed to independence, I do not know.

Similarly, I don’t see any real floating undecideds out there in my Twitter universe. Some were but quickly coalesced around the Yes side of the argument. Again, does this point to a trend for anyone seeking information with an open and inquisitive mind to quickly realise that the torrent of lies being perpetrated by the Better Together campaign requires very little effort to ignore?

Whatever. There are obviously plenty of vociferous No supporters on Twitter, but I haven’t yet been able to find many who I would consider following as they are either single-issue accounts who post about nothing except the referendum (no need to follow for that kind of stuff, I can get BBC News after all), or they leave a pretty foul taste in the mouth.

Yes and No – State of the Union debate Part 2

There are of course forces out to discredit and smear the Yes camp. The term ‘cybernats’ has become a bit of a running joke, as is the assertion that somehow the Yes campaign is centrally masterminded and funded and there are these thousands of sockpuppets manning stalls, changing avatars, handing out stickers, writing blogs and posting comments and generally spreading the positive Yes message. How can people genuinely believe this nonsense? No-one is funding or directing me, nor anyone I know of. It all smacks of paranoia and desperation.

What I do see is a massive resurgence in a politically active and engaged electorate, the kind I don’t recall since the days of the Poll Tax and, in a more broad sense, the early ’80s socialist movement (yes, I’m just about old enough to speak on this with authority!). People seem to have found a new vigour for politics through the referendum and I find this hugely encouraging. I hope that it offers a glimpse into Scotland’s future, a future where people feel empowered and able to stand up for what they believe in as it can make a real difference rather than resigning themselves to resentful apathy, as seems to be the current state of British political engagement, frothing ‘kippers excepted.

This is the antidote for the disenfranchisement that Westminster has engendered in the general public over many decades, and while the same feelings are being playing out south of the border in the guise of a regressive and insular UKIP freak show, the grassroots Yes movement – resolutely cross-party and inclusive despite the No camp’s protestations – shows Scotland prefers an altogether more progressive outlook.

It’s almost like we are a – whisper it – different country?

The Better Together position that all this is co-ordinated at Salmond’s behest is laughable, but sadly there appear to be many who swallow the ‘cybernats in your cupboard’ line and some display a breath-taking hatred towards Salmond and the SNP. This is despite the SNP, with yer man at the helm, having managed a largely successful and populist government since 2007. Where are the huge, party-crippling scandals? Where is the overt jobs-for-the-boys, ‘fuck you we’re the 1%’ sleaze? Where are the disowned manifestos and raft of broken promises?

Nowhere, yet many folk still seem to harbour a deep mistrust for the SNP and, by extension, Alex Salmond.

Anti-Salmond feeling seems to be basically “I don’t like the look of him”. Fattist? Linlithgowist? Jowlist? Whatever the prejudice, prejudice it is, yet it continues to cloud the thinking of many who conflate independence with eternal SNP rule with a presidential Salmond running Scotland like some tartan-clad Monty Burns.

Bizarre. But then logic is often left off the menu in politics it seems.

Anyway, in an independent Scotland I look forward to the truth and reconciliation process where people sheepishly admit that they were complicit in this nonsense out of nothing but genuine conviction (“My gran likes in Kent and I don’t want to feel like she will be a foreigner” etc.) and lack of credible alternative strategies given who their paymasters were at the time. We will do well to remember to be magnanimous in victory, accepting of their mistaken ways.

What all of this means is that there is precious little actual debate and a lot of shouting from the sidelines which is hardly helpful considering what is at stake and the sheer number of people who remain Don’t Knows.

I watched in disbelief last month as Yes Scotland tried to organise a ‘Big Indy Debate’ in Glasgow aimed primarily at undecideds, but struggled to find anyone to represent the No side of the debate. Despite being chaired by the neutral Electoral Reform Society Scotland, the line from Better Together was that this was a Yes event and no fair representation would be permitted. They then started to moan that the event was going to be one-sided because – wait for it – it wasn’t going to have anyone from the No side there…

Yes, they were complaining about a lack of representation at an event they themselves had refused to participate in! Who else was going to step in? Those blokes from Milli Vanilli?

In the event I watched some of the live stream and it was characterised by a lot of passionate and reasoned points being made by the Yes speakers (notably, none were SNP, how could this be? That bastard Salmond again, hiding behind the curtain, pulling all the strings!) and a fair stab by a couple of No speakers of convincing floating voters about the case for the union. Sadly, there was one chap who displayed all the bitterness and negativity that we’ve come to expect from unionists. The whole event seemed to work out reasonably well though and there was a significant swing to Yes.

Now, I have some sympathy for the Better Together position that this would not be a 100% neutral situation, but if you are so unsure of your argument and so lacking in confidence that you don’t feel you can properly rebuff and challenge a mildly (or even wholly) partisan audience, then what are you really doing in the fight in the first place? I’ve heard many stories of No events that are pre-screened or invite only – even ones where the venue was a secret (?!) – but it almost seems that you could swing a cat in most bits of Scotland and hit three or four Yes events. They are open to all, well publicised and easy to find, if you’ve a mind.

What is going on here? Why is No so afraid of open debate? I hear of a lot of anecdotal evidence of local debates showing large swings to Yes, as in the debate in Glasgow, but many of these are organised by Yes (that grassroots/orchestrated campaigning again!) so perhaps that is not surprising. There are a few No swings in open debates that are loudly trumpeted by the No camp, primarily in the posher tertiary education establishments (no surprise, lots of rich mummies and daddies with an understandable vested interest in the continuation of the union) and/or No strongholds like the North East, but where is the country-wide debate and discussion?

The obvious solution to this situation would seem to be a genuine debate platform from the BBC and/or STV. Watching from afar it appears that there is nothing of the sort though. Maybe I’m missing it or maybe the next few months will bring the viewers and listeners of Scotland something credible and worthwhile though, who knows?

They certainly deserve it.

Yes and No – State of the Union debate Part 1

Although not able to vote on account of my exile to the SE of England, in an attempt to fully equip myself with the facts about the referendum I have been actively seeking out views from the Yes and No camps, as well as from people who are firmly Don’t Know.

This hasn’t been easy.

While there is a huge and growing body of pro-independence material out there produced by ordinary Scots and which is generally well-considered, positive and progressive in its outlook, there appears to be a notable lack of anything similar from No supporters.

The No campaign has thus far been built upon negative campaigning (don’t think I’m being too contentious here, it’s almost a cliché at this point) and is, to these eyes, struggling under the uneasy truce between factions of Labour struggling to contain their contempt for the Tories who are the obvious ringleaders of the Better Together campaign. It has comprehensively failed to put across any single benefit of Scotland staying in the union, other than “It’s worked for 300 years”, which I would argue is debatable at best when looking at the last quarter of that period, and in that sense their tactics only really be viewed as a failure up until now.

They do, however, have almost all of the mainstream media in their pocket so why bother exerting themselves?

The reluctance of David Cameron or senior Govt. officials to enter the debate except to lob comments in from afar speaks volumes. They know the risks of entering the ring and have decided, on balance, that it’s best to be viewed as detached and cowardly rather than stir up any latent anti-Westminster, anti-coalition, anti-austerity, anti-Bullingdon feelings in the populace.

I think this will prove to be a grave mistake but who knows, they might yet emerge as inspiring leaders? Hmm…

That’s the No camp then, seemingly content from day one just to have the tame media convey all their messages to Scots voters, confident this is all that would be required to retain a considerable lead in the polls and secure a continuation of the union.

Arrogant and conceited, lacking any dignity or passion. Surely not?

What of the Yes campaign then?

Apart from typography (Yes Scotland’s use of a strong, tightly-kerned Helvetica which works in multiple colours trumps the staid and inflexible Better Together use of the frumpy Stag, and its dilution with the alternative UKOK brand), what does the Yes campaign have over its unionist rival?

Well, positivity in spades for a start, almost too much at times. Is that because of spellbound optimism or just a genuine conviction in the chance to shape Scotland’s destiny and a possibility of a future state where things are just a little better than today?

I watched with interest as Stuart Campbell, who I have been aware of for more than 20 years for his work in the games industry, announced his intention to set up a dedicated political blog at Wings Over Scotland and have dipped in from time to time to see how things were going. Recently however Wings has become a vital source of information as Campbell (and his occasional helpers – ‘we’ is very much ‘I’ in this case, but that has always been his style) has dismantled lie after fabrication after deceit emanating from the No camp and its media tendrils. In particular, its reach is advancing rapidly; as I write it seems poised to break into the top 90,000 websites globally according to Alexa, having been outside the top 100,000 only a few weeks previously.

WoS is not alone however, there are a large number of other worthy and well-written pro-independence blogs from the likes of Bella Caledonia, Business for Scotland and Newsnet Scotland, and the amazing thing is they are almost wholly focussed on providing readers with description, explanation, facts and figures to back up the case for a successful and just independent Scotland.

This is the kind of information that most undecideds say they need to make their mind up and, approached with an open mind, there is a lot of compelling evidence that should at least help balance the relentless tide of scare stories and downright misinformation coming from established outlets.

There’s a bit of pro-Yes bias of course (they are pro-independence sites, after all) and the odd shaky predication, but most of the content is remarkably well considered and generally avoids the kind of ad hominem attacks and haughty “nanny knows best” dismissal that characterises the majority of the No camp’s output.

I recently looked around for similar grassroots, bottom-up No blogs and found…nothing. A few frothing unionist scribbles (in the worst, West of Scotland fitba-related sense; all Union Jacks and barely-concealed sectarianism) and a fair bit of official Better Together stuff, but nothing of the quality, breadth or depth that is readily available from the Yes side.

Why is this? Surely those passionate about keeping the union together can be expected to make a convincing and reasoned case for its continuation? It didn’t appear so, so I asked my 500-odd followers on Twitter (bear in mind this probably includes 400+dormant/bot accounts!) for pro-union sites that were worthy of consideration.

And I waited.

And waited.

Eventually I received two replies. One was from a follower who I is, I think, English but lives in Scotland and who I knew to be very much pro-union and which basically stated that there were basically none because it was very hard to argue for the status quo and a lot easier for Yes supporters to be passionate about change. An odd position, but there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere, but nothing to my mind which could explain the dearth of No sites.

The other was from someone I don’t follow and who I don’t think follows me, but pointed me to two blogs. One was a little light on content and heavily on the polemic, the other seemed to have a bit more ‘weight’ behind it in thought. Neither was very positive, being restricted to the usual FUD, and neither had the scale or engagement that the Yes blogs seemed to have in terms of comments (often 200+ on a WoS article) and free sharing and dissection of ideas. Where then is the positive case for the union?

I began to feel that perhaps the winds were changing. OK, any genuine undecideds only aware of the mainstream media may understandably drift towards the safe harbour of a No position, but I became sure that anyone genuinely seeking to learn more about the debate online (such as it is) could not fail to come across a wealth of broad-based, well-researched and above all positive messages about independence that must surely inch them towards a Yes vote, or at least cast doubt on all the guff being fed to them by the mainstream media*.

The intelligence of the electorate cannot be dismissed, and many who may only be exposed to BBC/STV and the press must surely smell a rat when being presented with the relentless and increasingly desperate stories which fall apart under even light scrutiny (using the pound, oil reserves and revenue, pensions, nuclear cataclysm, alien invasion etc.).

With months of this to go and a likely ramp-up of the rhetoric to come, many will hopefully be prompted to look beyond the headlines and will realise that they are perhaps being sold a dummy.

The polls still show a (narrowing) lead for No, but they are only going one way and it is not looking great for Better Together. I am also sure that the polling methodology used is, at the very least, open to question as this is an unprecedented event in UK politics so no-one really knows how to ask the right questions (if they even try) or how to engage with the unique constituency (16-17 year olds, plummeting landline use in some sectors of the electorate etc.) without introducing untested and unverified weightings, and the wide spread of results yet aligning trends seem to bear this out.

The fact that the pollsters failed to detect the scale of the SNP victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections also cannot be forgotten. What if similar forces are at work here and the largely London-based polling organisations are wide of the mark again?

I asked in my first post about independence if Salmond had been hasty and vainglorious in attempting to get a referendum though so quickly, but could Eck have pulled a blinder here?

*Since I wrote this a few weeks ago, the Sunday Herald has come out in support of Yes.

Indyref – Truths uncovered

In the last few months I have been getting more and more engaged with the debate (see previous post) and have been a voracious reader of everything and anything I’ve been able to get hold of, from both sides (hard though that is sometimes, as explained below).

This has truly been an eye-opener.

So many of the truths I have held since forever have been comprehensively de-bunked, I’ve been astounded by the skulduggery and duplicitous tactics displayed on occasion and I’ve found myself deeply impressed by the passionate and broad-based campaigning carried out by ordinary Scots.

Of course the “truths” I’m talking about are the old “too wee, too poor, too stupid” lies Scots been spoon-fed for years. Lies that, in the absence of any credible counterpoint, are almost welcomed by many in Scotland in some kind of perverse ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Easier to accept we suck on the teat of a benevolent England than stand for ourselves and face the cruel, nasty world without its protection and care? Hmmm….

I myself was tacitly accepting of many of these things – understandably, having been smothered in the propaganda since birth – but the way in which almost every long-held assumption about Scottish finances or ability to operate as a sovereign nation has been skewered by the data (I’m big on data, me, give me 250k rows of CSV data and I’m a happy man) and the ongoing constitutional debate and admission by the Westminster government that many of the “we cannae dae it” arguments are simply bluff and smokescreen.

In particular, if the independence debate achieves absolutely nothing else, the revealing of the robust nature of Scottish finances in the context of the whole UK – even without a drop of North Sea oil – should hopefully put a lot of the whingers back in their boxes where this is concerned. Never again should it be said that Scotland doesn’t pay its way in the union, or couldn’t be a successful independent economy.

There are however a lot of things about a post-union Scotland that aren’t known, and indeed can’t really be known, but what many fail to realise is that’s OK. It’s impossible to predict the future, whether in or out of the union, and anyone who states categorically that Scotland can’t be a successful and just society on its own needs to have a long, hard look at themselves. Many seem to be under the spell of politicians who promise much and consistently fail to deliver, but are somehow held as authoritative due to being the incumbents in the current political system?

The assertion that David Cameron (or Ed Miliband) would be able to deliver on a promise of ‘greater prosperity as part of the UK’ is no more valid than Alex Salmond saying that ‘an independent Scotland would be more successful’. Some feel unable to place their trust in the FM’s statement though, seeming to require certainty and detailed figures, but are happy to accept the PM’s position even though it comes with the same levels of forward-looking uncertainty (who says Cameron or the Conservatives will even be in power in 18 months, let alone long enough to deliver on such a promise?).

There is, however, a great deal of recent history that would point to exactly the opposite happening if Scotland stays in the UK, but this seems to be glossed over? After all, everything wrong and unfair in the union will immediately be resolved following a No vote, will it not?

Mistakes will be made and challenges overcome, but they will be Scotland’s mistakes to make and Scotland’s challenges to overcome and the inevitability of a more democratic and accountable political system (not hard compared to the weasel-y 21st century Westminster) means Scots will have a genuine ability to effect positive change if the parties involved in future governments fail society.

Were that the situation now…

To balance these positive revelations though I have had cause to consider my opinion of something equally deeply held, that of the position and impartiality of the BBC. Now, the BBC is not perfect and I’m no naïve dreamer so know that the BBC is, at heart, an “establishment” organisation which of course has an agenda, but I’ve been a staunch defender of it over the years and have always been happy to pay the license fee which I believe to deliver excellent value. I viewed the news output as, in relative terms, balanced and thorough and was happy to use it as a primary source, being able to spot the obvious bullshit or omission and seek alternative views elsewhere if required.

However, the bias with which it has reported the independence debate has, at times, left me speechless. It’s obvious who is pulling the strings here, but let’s just say that for the first time I’m actually left questioning the BBC as an entity and the need to replicate it if Scotland gains independence. Yes, a publicly-funded broadcaster is absolutely what we should have, but the obvious influence that the Better Together campaign (not the Govt., remember! Imagine civil servants carrying out party political orders?!) wields over its editorial line is flabbergasting and I would like to see a more defined line between government, trust/governors and the management, with better accountability built-in to the charter.

Anyway, it turns out the BBC is only as biased as the rest of the media who are even more blatant in their pro-union stance. However we’re used to the mainstream media defaulting to a right of centre, authority-led agenda in most respects (GMG and TM excepted) so this is no surprise. The BBC – that alleged hotbed of touchy-feely leftist liberals – has always balanced the Govt. approved line with a more progressive attitude in at least some of its coverage. No so with the independence debate which has been almost ridiculously partisan. The recent CBI debacle is only one stunning example of where it has been exposed, but it is really doing viewers and listeners in Scotland a huge disservice in failing to even pretend to take anything like a balanced position.

Where is the debate? Where is the analysis? Where is the journalism? Surely there must be a load of folk in that shiny box by the Clyde (statistically at least 30% of them?) who are nursing bitten tongues from having to parrot the company line on the referendum day after day? The lack of deviance from the script is admirable…if we were in some banana republic, but this is a supposed democracy where a genuine constitutional question is being asked and yet one side alone has the ball and gets to decide when to play and when to go in for tea?

However, establishment is as establishment does so perhaps there is nothing too surprising in this. In the event of an independent Scotland I look forward to the stories of in-fighting and struggles against the London-led agenda which will surely emerge.

On Scottish independence

As I posted the other day I’m going to do a few posts on Scottish independence. Very little that won’t be said elsewhere by others using nicer words in a more pleasing order, but I figured I’d just jot them down so that when the reckoning takes place I can point to this and say “Eh? Who are you people and what do you want?”

As a Scot living in England – in the UKIP-heartland home counties no less, only a few miles outside of the M25 – I’m sometimes asked for my views on Scottish politics and, lately, independence. Though this has happened infrequently up until now, something tells me I’ll be getting asked a bit more often in the coming months…

I have supported the “idea” of independence for about as long as I can remember, not in some sort of petty, nationalistic, anti-English McGlashan manner, but in a genuine albeit unresolved conviction that Scotland was not getting the best out of the current arrangement and that it simply had to be better served by a government that it elects to represent itself and which has the ability to effect the change it is mandated to carry out.

Crazy, huh?

Holyrood has proved that proportional representation, at least in part, and a parliament set up without need for a stuffy, unelected second chamber has proved itself to be effective enough, certainly shaming the London gravy train. I could only think that a fully-fledged political system set up along similar lines and backed by constitution would be far better than the anachronism we call Westminster, grand and steeped in history and ceremony though it is.

That independence was the natural situation was obvious to me as a lad, and decades of neglect and indeed active sabotage of the Scottish economy, combined with a drift towards an ever more right-wing consensus in Westminster, have only added weight to the feeling that there must be something – anything – better than the status quo.

I was however aware that an independent Scotland would in some ways be a poorer nation. After all, I was continually being reminded how much we would lose and how much of a drain Scots were on the rest of the generous and broad-shouldered UK. Dwindling oil output, international influence, Barnett formula “subsidy”, excessive welfare spend and all that.

Despite this, I am comfortable with being both British and Scottish and indeed have always identified as ‘British’ when completing census, passport etc. My logic for this is that although I am culturally Scottish, the body which issued the passport or which was collecting the census was a British institution and I am, I suppose, a British ‘subject’. While no royalist, my feelings about the royal family have softened somewhat in the last 20 years or so, from sort-of-republican to laissez-faire acceptance and I now see no real benefit in ridding ourselves of a figurative and, let’s be honest, game old bird as head of state out of nothing but idealistic fervour.

Let me get back to you when Charles takes up the throne, however.

Life as a Scot in a well-off part of England is of course very pleasant in the main and, apart from a few risible cliché gags (deep-fried Mars bars, cobwebs in wallets etc.) and the odd innocently ignorant and easily dismissed comment from the hard-of-thinking, tending to be heard in pubs (stuff about “sweatys”, living off English taxpayers etc.), I am, and predict I’ll remain, perfectly happy here.

Having experienced almost no prejudice or discrimination in England in over 25 years of living and working here (on and off) I’m a firm believer in “what goes around, comes around” when it comes to racial and social prejudice in this context (don’t think for a minute that I equate this for life here as a non-native English-speaking immigrant/person of colour/gay person though – different kettle of fish, that.).

I’ve seen English people protest about anti-English feeling in Scotland, but – surprise, surprise – they are generally the ones who slowly reveal in themselves a deep-seated resentment and/or actively discriminate against Scots. And Irish. And Polish. And brown people. And muslims. And gay people. etc. etc.

The same goes for Scots in England. Basically, any English or Scots that feel subject to discrimination on these shores should probably look to their glenohumeral joint for evidence of trimmed and fried potato batons. There are exceptions of course – exceptionally bitter and nasty people can crop up anywhere – but this rule has stood me in good stead all my life. Be nice, be tolerant and in the main people will be nice and tolerant towards you. If you find yourself in the company of people who aren’t nice and tolerant then go somewhere else.

So, being relative accepting of this benign if a little odd scenario (ask a foreigner about the differences between England, Scotland, Ireland, NI, GB, UK etc. if you want to know how odd it appears from outside!), when the SNP won its 2011 landslide and the prospect of the referendum and independence was realised for the first time in my adult life, I was a bit conflicted. On one hand I was excited as I desired to see an independent Scotland take its place in the world, but on the other I was acutely aware that relatively few of my fellow Scots felt the same way. I also felt that Alex Salmond was rushing things by trying to get the referendum progressed as quickly as possible (vanity from Eck? Surely not!) and approached it with a feeling of resigned dread, much the same way I felt about the contemporaneous AV referendum (don’t get me started…).

Still, I resolved to keep an eye on developments from afar and see what transpired.

Scottish Independence – A stark choice

In the coming months I may be posting a bit on the matter of the referendum on Scottish independence, I’ll just leave this here for now.

hope or fear

Vodafone

Like many of Vodafone’s victims, sorry customers, I’m duty bound to try and prevent my fellow humans (that’s you) being snared by its gaping, apostrophe-shaped maw.

Friends, this is a creature that offers precious little in the way of connectivity, and even when a decent signal is conferred by your device, you must throw a six to see if that 4 bars of 3G actually translates into any significant throughput. Often this is but a cruel illusion and your fate is to stare at a faltering progress bar, awaiting the inevitable timeout.

As a metaphor for the whole Vodafone experience this is strangely apt.

I recently stood in a Vodafone shop and demonstrated this remarkable phenomenon to one of the disinterested staff. Their comments of “Well, what do you expect?” and “Yeah, it’s like that sometimes” should tell you all you need to know about their contempt for us, their unsuspecting prey.

After the terrible kicking they’ve received since the economic dog days of 2007, the prospect of more of these shrines to incompetence and indifference is probably the last thing our beleaguered high streets need.

Like many, I was initially seduced by an excellent deal on a handset, but to my eternal shame my error was compounded by my subsequent intransigence and failure to avoid taking the dangled bait of an even more generous retention deal on one of Mr. Jobs’ portable telephones a couple of years later.

Never underestimate the power of The Shiny.

Now 18 months into this two year purgatory, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and am looking forward to the day when I can emerge, blinking and bewildered, from the belly of the bloated crimson beast, free to tart myself about the networks as I see fit.

Until then I can only repeat; friends don’t let friends Vodafone.

p.s. If, after 30-odd years of consistent and pervasive branding, you still think the company is called ‘Vodaphone’ then you deserve everything you get. Sorry.

LED Driver for PC use

Warning – Long post!

In this post I explore the possibility of using an LED driver for PC use. tl;dr version – it works.

In 2011 I built myself a new HTPC to replace a ropey old Medion thing. I based it on an Asus E35M1-M Pro with 60GB OCZ Agility 3 SSD and Sony Blu-Ray drive and chose a tiny little Cooler Master case to stuff it in – pretty much the same size as old LK-style Linn boxes.

Cooler Master Elite 100 case

A HTPC, yesterday

I don’t need any huge storage on board as all media is either stored on an HP Microserver with a couple of TB drives, or more commonly nowadays just streamed from the web.

I junked the supplied 150 W PSU as a) it was a noisy bugger, and b) the AMD Zacate-based system would only need about 40 W so it was overkill considering the needs of the system and would be perpetually running in a very inefficient manner. I bought a small PicoPSU-type thing so that the whole system would be silent (I removed the fan from the motherboard – you’re only young once, what’s the worst that can happen, etc.).

This is great but of course the problem with these DC-DC supplies is that they only split a low voltage supply of around 12 V into the regulated 12 V, 5 V & 3.3 V rails the system requires, and still need a transformer to provide the AC-DC conversion and step-down from 240 V to ~12 V, so the solution is a power brick the chucks out at least 5 A at 12 V, about 1,209,999,940 watts shy of powering a flux capacitor-powered DeLorean.

Apart from spoiling the sleek form factor of my new PC, on trying to buy one of these supplies I found it was a classic ‘pick two’ case:

  1. Cheap
  2. Readily available
  3. High quality

As many small LCD TVs have similar power needs I discovered that Ebay etc. was flooded with cheap, no-name supplies (“Bestvolt Lightening Power Supply Co. Ltd, Shenzhen” etc.) that promised the earth but only cost about £10-15.

Maplin, RS etc. will also sell you one but at eye-watering prices (Maplin’s current price is £36!), and with no guarantee that they’d be any better than the Ebay crap. Finally, ‘silent computer’-type places will sell you one to partner your PicoPSU but again you’ll pay for the privilege – typical costs are about £100 including the PicoPSU – and when you consider that kind of money can get you an extremely high quality 500W desktop supply you can see that someone’s getting ripped off…

Anyway, I found I had a 60 W supply in the garage so used that but I was acutely aware it was far from a quality bit of kit and I always kept an eye on it. When it started making a lot of whining and whistling noises I retired it after about 18 months of constant use in late 2012 before it could go pop (the system is never powered down).

After a bit of deliberating I went with the cheap option and replaced it with an Ebay special, cost about £10 if memory serves. I had my suspicions about this one too – it was very light, never usually a good sign – but it worked as expected.

A few weeks ago though the throughput on the network to the HTPC fell off a cliff, from about 20mbps down/12mbps up to <1mbps down and, weirdly, still about 5mbps up. I suspected the power supply was going a bit wobbly and I was proved right when it went 'BANG!' a day or two later after I was powering it up again after re-routing some cables.

Off to Ebay again to discover the same tawdry selection of supplies. I tried Maplin, RS, Farnell etc. without much luck so started searching wider. Some CCTV systems have similar power needs so there were a few sites selling supplies for them and one or two looked OK, but the price was creeping up to around £20 again.

I figured this was about what I'd probably need to spend to avoid getting a cheapo dud again, but searching for "12V 60W supply' I began to notice other types of PSU creeping up in the search results.

These were supplies intended for use in powering SELV lighting. Now many were AC supplies intended for halogen use, but I noticed that many were termed 'LED drivers' and output 12 V DC. Interesting...

My train of thought was that these supplies are intended for professional fit-and-forget installs in ceiling cavities etc. with MTBF/service lives measured in years or decades, and as such should perhaps be of slightly higher quality than the bricks that Joe Public buys in Currys to replace the one for their 19" Bush LCD that they lost 'in the move'. All sorts of compliance and liability things kick in when an electrician installs something and I figured that these LED drivers couldn't possibly be worse in terms of EMC and reliability. But would they do a job?

I did discover one thing though, that LED drivers were available in two basic configurations; constant current and constant voltage. Obviously constant voltage was what I needed as I doubt PCs take to having the voltage swing wildly up and down as the load changes.

My electrical knowledge is scant and therefore dangerous (I've only been thrown across the room once though) so in my head 12 V always equals 12 V and 5 A always equals 5 A, but I suspected there was more to it than that so I thought I'd ask the Internet.

However, various searches for 'led driver power computer' etc. didn't bring up any relevant hits, weird in this age of Rule 34 and sane-but-gibberish-spouting content farms.

I took my query to the esteem’d gents and ladies of Superuser but my plea went unanswered, even after I’d pony’d up 300 reputation as a bounty. There was a suggestion that I may have better luck over at the Electrical Engineering Stack Exchange so I asked a mod to migrate the question.

Finally, this started generating answers and broadly they seemed in agreement that in principle there was nothing to stop me doing this. I was lacking any kind of authoritative answer though, until one Brian Onn stepped in with this brilliant reply:

Not all power is the same. These LED power supplies are built to a lower price point and thus have a design goal of using fewer parts. The result is often a single stage isolated flyback design rather than the more typical 2-stage design where the first stage is a PFC boost to 400V or so, and the second stage is the flyback regulator.

A single stage design is good for a LED supply that wants to be small and cheap, because it eliminates the large PFC boost inductor, the high voltage switch and the bulk capacitor on the first stage DC bus. Instead, the flyback transformer together with the controller IC is used directly for PFC.

Although this power supply is good enough for powering a string of LEDS, it will perform poorly for other types of loads, such as your HTPC.

Due to the lack of the PFC boost stage, this type of PSU cannot regulate away the 100Hz/120Hz ripple on the DC bus after rectification. This low frequency ripple shows up on the output as a possible 3% to 5% output voltage ripple, which may not be so good for a HTPC.

The lack of a bulk capacitor on the input DC bus means that this type of PSU has no hold-up capability. It cannot weather a voltage dip or brownout on the input AC side very well and would mean the output dips significantly whenever an AC brown-out occurs. This might crash a PC, whereas a PSU designed for a PC might not.

For the Power Factor Control to even work, it has to have a very low and slow loop bandwidth for the PFC circuit, but since the PFC is part of the final output stage, this also means the final output has the same slow control loop. This is necessary otherwise the PFC circuit would try to follow the AC line and would give poor power factor (a two stage design has 2 loops: the slow PFC loop and the 2nd stage has a much faster loop for good transient response). This single stage, low and slow loop bandwidth means that the output of the LED PSU has a really bad transient response. This is fine for a LED string that doesn’t need good transient response, but it is no good for a PC that has a CPU, CD drives, video cards and hard disks all putting much heavier demands on the PSU.

Now, having said all that, I don’t claim to know what the internal design is of that LED PSU you linked to in your question, but I am just giving my general comments on why a typical purpose-built LED PSU has the the potential to be not such a good choice for a PC.

Now that’s more like it. Finally an explanation of why these supplies might not be such a good idea.

I wasn’t totally discouraged though as I’d pulled the last brick apart and it was obvious this was not a quality piece of kit, and indeed was only a single stage supply such as Brian’s answer had explained would be the case with LED drivers, so I’d argue that there is nothing inherently better about power bricks as it is obvious that they too are built down to a price, and are cynically sold to unsuspecting consumers too.

Brick internals

Through-hole side – Wonky Edition

Brick internals

Surface-mount side, showing blown fuse at lower left. Check the dodgy placement and excess paste

My second reason for not giving up was that the concerns raised about the supply not being able to keep up with large shifts in the PC’s demands probably probably didn’t apply in this instance. The system has no fans or hard disks to spin up and although the CPU/GPU will dynamically alter clock, given that the difference between min and max states is only about 9 W this isn’t huge considering there are the on-board smoothing caps etc. to help even things out. The Blu-Ray drive is so seldom used that I’m not even considering it.

So, the system had survived for 18 months using a shitty single stage supply, what did I have to lose by trying a high quality single stage supply? I had already found a place selling a driver from a well respected brand at a penny less than £20 delivered and bought it before the above answer was provided so of course I was going to try it.

When it finally arrived (fucking PayPal…again) I was disappointed to find it would be a bit of a squeeze in the case (I was hoping to mount it internally for a stealth look) and it being IP67-rated (told you, quality) I wasn’t going to be able to pull it open to compare it to the no-name without ruining it.

Anyway, I bodged it together with choc-blocks, retaining the previous sleek barrel connector input just in case I needed to go back to a traditional supply, and powered it up – success!

The first thing I did was check the power line speed. This had increased to previously unknown highs of about 30mbps down – good news that I’m taking as confirmation that the old supply was chucking out obscene amounts of EMC.

I ran the system for an hour or two, just playing movies and music and all was well. I downloaded the OCCT stress-test suite as used by Anandtech and set that to run, using the PSU test. It crapped out after 20 minutes as the CPU temp reached the pre-set limit of 85 °C, so I bumped up the limit to 86 °C (4 °C less than the maximum temp – like I said, life on the edge) and let it run overnight which it duly completed.

It’s since been running 24/7 for about four days and things are still looking good. I’ve played Netflix (which due to crappy old Silverlight doesn’t use hardware H.264 decoding on AMD E-350), iPlayer and local 1080p content (both of which do) and all works fine. There’s even been some very high winds which usually cause problems in our village but nothing has caused it to hiccup yet.

So, can we take this sample of one underpinned with some very dubious assumptions as confirmation that LED drivers are suitable for powering a low-demand PC?

Maybe, but I’d give it a few more months and see what happens. In particular, I’m keen to see what happens when we get mains brownouts. These generally cause the microwave clock to reset as a minimum, with the oven clock going too if there is anything more than a momentary glitch, so if the HTPC goes down too I can deduce the kind of fault that might have caused it.

More some other time, perhaps.