Saturday, June 01, 2019

More thinking Right (and Left)

It is commonly held that as one gets older, one becomes more right wing. I don't know if it's just because I am contrary, but my experience has been the exact opposite. Whilst I have always been a lefty, I am become more so as I age. It is only just recently that my age begins with a '4' and coincidentally I now have become a father and thus, no doubt I should be becoming a deeper blue, but I am really not.

My most recent reflections have been driven by reading this excellent book: The Secret Barrister, Stories of the Law and How it's Broken. The author beautifully outlines our criminal justice system and all that it can and should be. He also tells the truth about how it is crumbling and falling apart. The truth is that no system is perfect but chronic underfunding will always risk systemic failure. The problem is that the system was chronically underfunded until 2010. Since 2010 it has faced literally massive cuts. The political expediency of this is obvious; it goes largely unseen by the public-at-large but the real world consequences are terrible.

I find myself intrigued and dismayed by the banality of evil. This is not a novel observation but I do think it a crucial one. My favourite best/worst example of this comes from Apartheid South Africa.

The mind-boggling level of bureucratic racism meant that even prisoners' diet was determined by their skin colour. The picture below comes from my visit to Robben Island 15 years ago. This is a blown up ration card showing the allocations to 'coloured' prisoners and black inmates. Somehow the system had decided that the racial differences meant that the nutritional needs of non-whites were by gradations less that the white man's and hence by the simple banality of this pseudo-science, Black prisoners faced malnourishment.

In a similar way, I think it entirely accurate to describe the cuts to the criminal justice system since 2010 as evil. I do not use that word lightly nor do I wish to accuse or decry individuals whose politics I profoundly disagree with. What I am driving at here is the disconnect from the thought of 'we need to save the taxpayer some money and not spend as much on legal aid or Crown Court proceedings. which in an of itself is quite inoffensive but the huge consequences to real people at the sharp-end of these decisions are terrible.

I just want to note here, the vital truth that austerity was always terrible economic policy and has completely failed in its own terms. The notion that these cuts were anything but a choice is actually as ridiculous as it is commonly believed.

In my own area of healthcare, I so often see the effects of constant scrimping and the myth of efficiencies that will somehow ensure that we can continue to do more and more with less and less. Just to deal with the strawman here - of course all systems have efficiency issues and I have no problem with honest drives to improve things. However what I have seen in my professional life is that ultimately it is the quality of care that suffers for inadequate resources; all healthcare professionals I know would tell you that they are not delivering the level of care that they want to or think they should because it is simply impossible with the resources we have. There is also a point where certain kinds of cuts and 'savings' end up costing more. The simplest example of this (that I have seen countless times) is due to the fact that hospitals have no spare capacity. Bed occupancy rates are too high in winter, and as a consequence there are no beds for elective surgical patients. So the cost saving is in not having the number of nursing staff needed to have more beds. But the cost is often that an operating theatre goes unused for half a day or more. That's usually two surgeons, an anaesthetist or two, a scrub team and an anaesthetic nurse who cannot do the work they're paid for. Between 6 and 10 people who are being paid to drink coffee and generally be annoyed that they can't just do their jobs.

There is no doubt that cuts to legal aid often have similar effects. There are plenty of tales of Crown Court workings grinding to a halt because of the huge issues caused by a defendant with no legal experience defending themselves because they cannot afford legal representation.

What the Secret Barrister tells is the real life consequences of how an under-resourced system fails victims of crime in a myriad of ways. It is also a system that fails the accused. The state has a duty of care to the guilty which it is nowhere near meeting. And the creaky system definitely risks failing the innocent defendant.

Which brings me back to my point about the banality of evil. This creaking system is a machine that chews up and spits out real people - often the most vulnerable of our society. The cost is measured in the damage to people's lives. The political decision to save what actually amounts to quite small amounts of money for a nation state has implications for real people at the sharp end that are literally life-changing and unjust.

This is why for me, politics is always, inescapably, a moral pursuit. I do not claim to have all the answers or even some of them, to be honest but I am very suspicious of a political philosophy that is so careless of the consequences.

Why am I becoming more left-wing? Well, when you look at where right-of-centre thinking is at right now, it is failing of every front: Economically, austerity is not just wrong, it was - and is - the opposite of good policy; on health, our NHS has rarely faced more challenging times whilst a look at the US shows the dangers of abandoning this system; endless attacks on 'red-tape' led to Grenfell; Punitive strategies for immigration caused Windrush. I could go on and on but the truth is the same. All political questions are moral ones. The consequences of decisions are lived out in real people's lives and subsuming the interests of individuals to a political philosophy that leaves a trail of destruction makes me ever more convinced that the right-of-centre framework is inherently flawed. That's not to say that left-of-centre is blameless or flawless but as I outlined here, there is a reason why I hold to this worldview and how my main question with any policy position is 'what is the real-world effect?'

The Secret Barrister has simply outlined how in the area of Criminal Justice this kind of approach that knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing - that seeks to do everything on the cheap - leaves us with a Criminal Justice System that is certainly not just and only barely meets the definition of a 'system.' Thus what you're left with is simply criminal.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Sound bites sound good but usually have a hidden bite.

How's that for a soundbite? It's not bad is it? But is it true?

I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years thinking about how poor public debate so often is. Simplistic soundbites trump complex truths. This is especially true with respect to Brexit but it applies to all areas. It is so easy to 'win' an argument with a simple phrase but when you dig, just a little deeper you find out that that simple phrase is simply not true.

A good example of that is the argument around 'austerity.' It was very fashionable half a decade ago to compare the national economy to a household budget. Phrases like 'we have to pay our way' or 'maxing out the nation's credit card' or 'not running up debts for our children to pay off' carried the day. Each is deeply misleading. This is an interesting post, but if you want to understand why all of these austerity soundbites are untrue, Mark Blyth's Austerity, the History of a Dangerous Idea is a really good and accessible book.

Here's one of my favourite examples from over a decade ago: The M4 Bus Lane.

Sound ridiculous doesn't it? A Bus Lane on a motorway. Seriously? I have to admit that when I heard about it, I was very sceptical. I filed it in the mental bin marked 'not this thing.' What I mean is that I broadly supported the government of the day but there were some policies that I wouldn't defend.

Then I discovered that it worked. And that intrigued me. The point about the M4 Bus Lane is that is was never about buses. It was never about encouraging public transport. It was all about smoothing traffic flow.

There is a small elevated section at the end of the M4 that is 2 lanes. That is never going to change in the medium term. To make it three would be hugely expensive and involve demolishing a lot of nearby homes. The transition from 3 lanes to 2 with the well-understood behaviours of drivers is responsible for worsening the congestion at busy times. As it's not possible to make it 3 lanes, what can be done? Well, because of where the traffic is joining and leaving, it was thought that moving the 3 to 2 lane reduction back to Heathrow might ease the flows. The idea was that having the reduction at a point where there was less traffic would more than compensate for the loss of capacity. Basically there was a short stretch of tarmac that needed to be closed to make this work.

How do we know if it worked or not? Well, the Department for Transport did the studies before and after and indeed the average travel times for cars got better. (And got worse again when the lane was removed). It would have been achieved simply by closing that lane but as the lump of tarmac is there, why not use it for something? Like Buses. Even if it didn't work, it would still be a reasonable policy to try out.

But here's the problem: How long does it take to unpack why it's a sensible idea and to go looking for the data to see if it worked as intended? And how long does it take to utter the soundbite We're removing the M4 Bus Lane as we're ending the War on Motorists...?

Sound bites win arguments. Arguments that should fail.

Hey, that's a good sound bite too...

I don't really know what the answer is, especially in a age of mass and instant media but I do know that our democracy is under threat from people who deliberately obfuscate and mislead with cute phrases.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Anti-semitism and the Labour Party - some complex thoughts...

I should probably begin by stating that I am a member of the Labour party. My reasons for joining were a little convoluted. I do think that part of being a citizen is to be politically engaged. It depresses me and worries me that many people aren’t. So many things that affect all our lives go unnoticed or unchallenged for this reason. As the West Wing noted, decisions are made by those that show up.

I must confess though that I am one of those odd people who is inherently interested in politics. I really care about policies and outcomes but I am also interested in the process. So in one sense, it’s easy for me to be engaged. Despite this, I was not a member of a political party until quite recently. It was David Cameron who inspired me to join the Labour party. As I have mentioned, I do have an interest, and I tend to watch the party conferences’ leaders’ speeches. I was so incensed by Cameron that I joined the Labour party. I got involved. Only in a small way but I did. Having said that, I am not significantly involved in the party – I have never been to a meeting or canvased doorsteps. I do read the members’ emails, and I have voted in leadership elections, but that’s it.

Antisemitism has become headline news – specifically in the Labour party, the following is my analysis of where we are at. I really want people who disagree with me to try to convince me, I want discussion. I want to be persuaded of a different view, if my understanding is wrong.

It is impossible to talk constructively about antisemitism without first acknowledging the long and horrific history of Jewish oppression. The Holocaust looms very large over the 20th century, but that was not a new phenomena. It was new in extent but not in terms of how Jewish people have been maligned, mistreated, oppressed and ultimately murdered. We know that Shakespeare wrote about it, we know how in mediaeval times in much of Europe, Jews were despised. You can go back to the third century AD when Rome converted to Christianity and Christendom was born and Jews were cast as ‘Christ-killers’ (which is appallingly bad theology, by the way). You can go even further back to ancient Babylon when the Jews were a mistrusted and persecuted minority. So there is 2500 years of history here.

Given the two-and-a-half millennia of history it is not surprising that Jewish people have a kind of 'paranoia.' I don’t even think ‘paranoia’ is the right word. Most commonly we use that word when there is no actual threat, when it is a perception that everyone is out to get you – what is the word when they actually are? Even after the Second World War with the establishment of the State of Israel, the surrounding Arab nations vowed to destroy the state and drive all Jews into the sea. It is not true to characterise antisemitism as a thing of the past – it is very much a thing of the present. From the desecration of Jewish graves to personal violence to simple discrimination, it has not gone away. 

Given all of this and the true horrors in living memory, Jews have an absolutely justified sensitivity (if that’s the right word?) and antisemitism should never, ever be remotely tolerated. I think it is hard for non-Jews to understand, to inhabit this. But the horrors of the all-too-recent past are very real. However, I am not yet convinced that antisemitism therefore should command a special status above other forms of racism. More of that later.

The State of Israel has an ignoble history but it is a complex one. The above description of centuries of abuse and discrimination that in some senses culminated in the Nazi atrocities gives the psychological backdrop to Israel. Added to that is a genuine military existential threat and so I do not think anyone can be surprised that a siege mentality exists for the Israeli State. In fact, it is almost the defining characteristic of the country.

This is where it all gets a lot more complicated. In order to establish the State of Israel, the Palestinian people were displaced and they have for seven decades now lived in what is essentially a massive refugee camp. The Israeli state is able to cut off access, cut off power and generally ensure appalling conditions for those who live there.  And in this particular battle, the Israelis are the ones with all the power. In this article in the Guardian, it is argued that it is inherently antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany. I disagree. It is both potentially deeply insensitive and very offensive but the Israeli state very much have the whip-hand and some comparison with the way the Palestinian people are treated could be factual accurate. If that is true, not withstanding the circumstances I have just described, why would it be wrong to say so? Arguably, given the history of Israel, the charge of becoming like one's oppressors is an important one to lay if the facts support it.

It is true, that extremist groups target Israeli civilians and that is pure evil. It is also true that the Israeli forces when attacking legitimate targets are incredibly careless of the so-called collateral damage -  as well as being guilty of criminal over-reaction: responding to stone-throwing with live ammunition. Make no mistake, there is a lot of blood of everybody’s hands but the State of Israel, for all its totally legitimate security concerns, is guilty of horrendous crimes.

There is a part of UK left-wing politics that has a strong affinity for the Palestinian cause.  Ultimately, this in an oppressed – and often murdered – people. Where we run into trouble is the conflating of righteous criticism of the actions of the State of Israel and an attack on all Jewish people. And it happens both ways.

There are, undoubtedly, people who take criticism of Israeli actions and turn it into an attack on Jews. And that is antisemitism. There is no way around it. The historic tropes about Jewish people are so often heard when criticisng Israeli actions. It is also true that apologists for Israel will use the word ‘antisemitism’ as a shield to hide behind – as if any criticism of the actions of the Israeli state are automatically dismissible. Herein lies the problem – genuine antisemitism is real in UK left of centre politics (although very much a minority) and the accusation of antisemitism is used to avoid fair scrutiny and challenge to horrific actions. 

I do not think it possible to have a meaningful discussion of the issue without understanding and acknowledging that these two situations co-exist.

So, what of the UK Labour party; does it have an antisemitism problem? My answer to that is yes and no. And I will insist that it really is both yes and no.

There is clearly a sub-group of left-of-centre thinkers who cannot separate the wrong actions of Israel from Jewish people (or do not want to) and some who take it further and believe in odd world-wide Jewish conspiracies. This does exist, and some of these people are Labour members.

For what it’s worth, I have never seen this within the Labour party. But, as I have already said, my day-to-day participation is minimal, so I could just not be in a position to see it. What I do know, is that whenever an allegation has come forward, the party has investigated and suspended or expelled members found to have crossed this line.

Antisemitism is never acceptable. In the light of the 20th century it is particularly abhorrent, and should never, ever be tolerated. But here is the first however. I do not think it remotely accurate to say that the Labour party does tolerate it. I think the investigations and expulsions show that the party does not. Furthermore the evidence from actual research on the matter shows that antisemitic views are prevalent in society – but less so among Labour supporters. Moreover as the Parliamentary report in 2016 stated, It should be emphasised that the majority of antisemitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-rightwing parties and political activity. So, here’s where it gets really sticky. There are anti-Semites within Labour’s ranks, but the characterisation of the situation by the media is also deeply misleading. So I believe the following to be true:
  1.  Labour is striving to deal with the issue
  2.  The prevalence of antisemitism is not higher in the Labour party than elsewhere in society
  3.  Newspapers are being selective and misleading in their reportage.
I will concede that, given all that the Labour party stands for (or claims to), the presence of antisemitism within its ranks is deeply disappointing. It is also the case that there is a particular flavour of ‘leftie’ antisemitism which is different to the kind of prejudice and racism you see from right-wing parties. However, this leads me into point 3. I do not want to fall into the trap of whataboutery. I will not defend antisemitism by saying it’s everywhere or that other parties are guilty of racism. What I am driving at here is that the Labour problem is not as huge as some want you to believe and is being confronted by the party. To give the counter example; the Conservative Party has a much larger Islamaphobia problem that gets a fraction of the coverage. This is what I mean by the selective and misleading reportage. By the way, it’s not just me that thinks the Conservatives have an Islamophobia problem – former party chairman Baroness Wasi (with whom, I disagree on almost everything) says so. But more to the point, in the Mayoral election, Zac Goldsmith ran a deliberately racist campaign against Sadiq Khan. Not only did the party leadership take no action against Mr Goldsmith, they sanctioned this campaign and supported it. To be absolutely clear here: my argument is not that 'Labour may be antisimetic but that's ok because the Tories are Islamophobic.' That is as ridiculous as it is ethically wrong. My argument is that the media reporting bias makes the Labour antisemtic issue look bigger that it really is. And that is also morally unacceptable. As I hope I have made clear, I consider antisemitism deeply evil, but it is also wrong to use antisemitism for one's own ends.

Whilst, I disagree with those who think the antisemitism in Labour story is just a media-creation, I can understand where they are coming from. This incredible inconsistency feeds into that understanding very easily. Labour must continue to fight and root out all forms of racism wherever they are found within the party. And antisemitism does deserve special attention and at the same time, the projection that some want you to believe that Labour is inherently antisemitic is both unfair and misleading. It does become something of a nuanced argument after a while. Whilst the evil of antisemitism is very much black and white, the wider story really isn’t in this case.

Part of what I am reaching for here is the notion that something is not necessarily antisemitic because a Jewish person says so. Clearly, the voices of Jewish people should be the first we hear from but this argument is what allows people to defend the hideous actions of the Israeli state by claiming any criticism is antisemitic. There must be some objectivity possible here.

So, how do I sum all this up? Firstly I am not convinced that antisemitism is categorically different to other forms of racism. (If the argument is the Holocaust, then the Roma people of Europe have a strong case too). If you disagree, please convince me otherwise, I really want to hear what you think. Secondly, the conflation of legitimate criticisms of the actions of the State of Israel with animosity of all Jews is both a hallmark of antisemitism and a very convenient shield to the evil argument that Israel can do no wrong. Thirdly, the Labour party must strive to confront this. Fourthly the party has taken actions. Fifthly, there is no doubt is my mind that parts of the media are playing this story as a way to attack the party (and particularly the leader) with significant bias and deliberate myopia.

Ultimately, I do not think the Labour party is inherently anti-Semitic. You may say that I would say that as I’m a member. I profoundly disagree; if I thought the party was anti-Semitic, I would leave immediately. If you disagree, show me why I am wrong. I am listening.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Why Regulations are a Good Thing (or why Brexit makes no sense whatsoever)

I try to be very careful not claim expertise I do not have. I am not a trade expert. However, I have read a lot, and this is not a complex or difficult subject to understand: if you read anything by anyone who actually is involved in this world, it becomes very clear, very quickly.

So first things first, 'red-tape' is not a bad thing. There is a received wisdom that regulations stifle business and therefore are bad things that need to be cut. This can be true but the broad brush statement is nonsensical (and actually dangerous). Last year, we saw the most dramatic and horrific example of what happens without proper regulation: Grenfell Tower. The inquiry continues, but this much is in the public domain already: - the cladding on the building was incredibly flammable and the reason that a small fire that should have killed no-one killed 72. This is why we have building regulations. I will not speculate here on where exactly things went wrong (were the regulations inadequate or not followed?), but the need for regulation was demonstrated in a totally tragic way.

I want to talk about cars. Motor manufacturing is a really good archetype to focus on because it illustrates the need for regulation in a way that is accessible to all of us and motor manufacturing in Europe is multinational and hence cross-border cooperation is central to how the industry works.

There are those who argue against regulation: in essence, the argument goes that you do not need regulation as the 'market' will drive up standards. Whilst the extreme view, that no regulation is needed, is rare, most arguments against regulation follow this form. Free-market economics is a really powerful idea. Each of us is an economic agent. Each of us makes purchasing choices based on lots of things; primarily quality and cost, of any given product. If product A is clearly better than product B, then the competition will mean that product B sales fall. The manufacturers of B then need to innovate to keep up. This process clearly works. There are literally countless examples: no one owns a mangle these days as everyone has a washing machine; CD players replaced tape cassettes; flat-screen televisions are ubiquitous; the pen is so much easier to use than the quill... etc. etc. etc. The key point here is that there is no 'central planning' this is simply the democracy of the market at work.  Each of us individually making choices that drive innovation and change.

Whilst choosing to use a pen rather than a quill is an easy choice, many others are much less so. In the context of cars, there are a number of safety-critical systems. Brakes are an obvious example. I think it is accurate to say that all of us, when we are driving and apply the brake pedal, we expect there to be some effect on the motion of the vehicle: we expect the brakes to work! When I buy a car, the effectiveness of the brakes is not something I particularly think about. There are various systems around that make brakes better but we all know there's a minimum level of effectiveness that we have come to expect. This is because there are regulations governing braking systems that stipulate they must meet a minimum standard. There are two good reasons why this is not simply left to 'the market.' Whilst it makes sense that consumers only want cars with central locking such that twenty years ago it was a premium item on a car and now they all have it, the same does not apply to brakes. The simple reason for this is that I am (and the vast majority of consumers are) not in a position to be able to tell if a braking system is good or not. Furthermore, it is important not to leave it to the market because the quality of the brakes on your car affect my safety as well as yours.

One might say, but what if I chose a car that has ABS? is that not consumer choice driving improved safety. Yes it is. However, how do you know that with ABS you're getting something different to a standard system? Have you checked? If not, you are relying on the Trades Description Act: A set of regulations.

For these very good reasons, all developed countries have product regulation. In the case of cars, there are various standards that a vehicle must meet in order to be sold in any particular country. If you are a motor-manufacturer, you really want to sell your car in as many countries as possible. Thus you need to make your vehicles to the standards that apply in those countries. Meeting the standards, and more importantly, the checks/inspections needed to demonstrate that the standards are being met impose significant costs on the manufacturers. The Common Market principal of the European Union is very simply a cooperation between 28 nations whereby they agree to use the same standards. This means that a car made for sale in any one of those nations can also be sold in all the others. Hence a massive cost saving for the manufacturers. There is also a significant cost saving to the nation states, whereby the costs of developing standards, necessary inspections and quality control, and enforcement are shared between the nations.

If - as part of leaving the EU - the UK leaves the Common Market and the Customs Union, then the question would be, what standards would the UK motoring industry adopt? Well, there are two choices essentially - its own bespoke standards or to simply mimic the EU ones. If the UK goes it alone in this sense then it will impose a significant cost to the government in establishing and enforcing this and industry would then have to make cars to different standards than for the EU. This extra cost would make UK manufacturing much less appealing to the foreign-owned car industry. The UK is a major producer of cars. One of the biggest. But not so good that manufacturing could not be moved elsewhere.

This is where the EU Customs Union is important. Cars are made of lots of components. The modern supply chain is often multinational. A company in France might make fuel tanks for cars assembled in Spain and Germany and the UK which are then sold to Italy. Because all members of the Customs Union use the same standards, there is no need for border checks either for the components moving from the parts manufacturer to the assembly line or for the completed vehicle going to the dealership.

Car manufacturing is a high-tech process. They use what's referred to as a 'just-in-time' system. The parts needed for today's manufacture of x number of cars arrived in the factory at 7 o'clock this morning. This system saves big money because in means that the assembly plants do not need big warehouses to store parts (and all the systems necessary to check and secure them) and because anything stockpiled by a company is a financial cost of paying for something before you need it. And with car components, we are talking about millions of pounds' worth. If the UK opts to just copy the EU rules then we would be following regulations that we would have no part in writing.

If the UK is not part of the Customs Union (in some form) then all of this falls apart. By definition, this necessitates checks at the borders to ensure standards are being met. Suddenly 'just-in-time' delivery falls apart (for any component that crosses a border) and the costs of manufacturing in the UK significantly increase.

What is true for cars, is true for every sector of the economy with any cross-border component. Aerospace production will be particularly badly hit.

The reason why people talk so much about trade deals (and we should be clear, there are good ones and bad ones) is not because of tariffs. Tariffs are easy, you just sit down with your opposite number and agree not to have them. Trade harmonisation is the difficult part. In order to grow trade between nations, you all have to be working from the same page; a computer built in your country will work fine in my country. I want to sell you toys that we make so we agree to use the same standards for toy safety so that no child chokes on some poorly-made part or gets ill from the lead paint. Essentially, as I far as I can see, there are two approaches to a trade deal 1) You agree to use the lowest common denominator - i.e. you bring standards down to the lowest of participating countries or 2) You agree complex and detailed standards that apply to all.

It is an oversimplification to state that the EU is basically an institution dedicated to the second type of trade deals. (It is also a distributor of farm subsidies). This is an over-simplification but not by much. And this approach is important because, for all its faults (and the EU does have a few), it has been incredibly successful at this, producing trade deals to both increase trade and maintain a high level of consumer protection. The UK has been instrumental in this process. In many cases the EU regulations have been based on UK ones. The notion that Europe imposes regulation on the UK is simply not true. It is also highly pervasive because it is convenient for politicians to say that this unpopular thing is being done to us by Europe.

The UK is a sovereign nation. This hasn't changed. It is entirely possible for the UK to leave the EU. The point it, it is not possible to do so without consequences. There are certain inevitable choices - either we cease to be part of the single market with a not inconsiderable impact on trade or we maintain our membership but give up our right to shape the rules in cooperation with the other members. Similarly, it is entirely possible for the UK for forge new trade deals with other nations but that does not make us more sovereign: all trade deals dilute sovereignty as they involve nations agreeing to use rules mutually agreed upon.

In the modern world, regulations are vital. The UK leaving a huge trading bloc like the EU is an option that a sovereign nation is free to do. What our sovereignty does not give us is the right to demand that the remaining 27 members give us what we want. The politico-economic reality is simple. The UK can leave the EU but only with significant costs. The UK, from a practical point of view, across all sectors, will most-likely end up following very closely to EU rules and regulations - ones that until now, we've had a huge part in writing.

It's almost as though Brexit makes no sense.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Stupid signs...

Have you spotted the problem yet?


Ok, in the words of Rafiki, look haaaaaaaarrrdddddeeeer....

Ok, I'll show you:

Made me chuckle...


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Wooden Computer Case

I've been building computer systems for quite a while now. Don't let anyone tell you it's difficult, it's really not. It does take a little bit of work to get components that are compatible but as well as being very cost effective, it's also quite fun.

Over ten years ago, I replaced my main lounge TV with a projector. I did this because I like having a truly large screen and because I hate how big TVs dominate a room. When the projector is off, there is no TV, it's just a wall. Of course, you get better resolution with a TV but that is the trade-off. And my Hi-Definition projector gives a pretty good image.

Of course, if you have a projector, you do need some kind of TV-receiver/DVD player etc. to make it work. I opted at the beginning to use a MediaCentre PC, initially with Windows XP MCE and later with Windows 7. This has certain advantages such as, you automatically have a digital video recording system (long before they were common-place) and a 'Smart TV' in that it's connected to the internet and will show my photos, beautifully and instantly. There are lots of media software options too to make the interface nice to use - I am currently running Windows 7 Ultimate with Media Centre because I've never got round to trying out other options.

As far as I can see, the only real downside of this approach is that you need to put a computer tower somewhere.

I used to have this case:

Now, it's a perfectly servicable case but it's not exactly pretty. I've been thinking about building a case for a long time but moving to a new (and very nice) house inspired me to finally get my act together and design and build what I wanted.

Generally speaking with computer cases, one of the features I look for is that they are easy to access, as anyone who home-builds knows, the need to get inside to upgrade or service/replace parts makes it really annoying if you have to undo dozens of screws first. I exaggerate but you get the idea - the easy of access and ease of installing components is high on my list of features, right after having the number of drive bays, expansion slots etc. that I want. This case is a little different, here I had to compromise access for ascetics, but I think it was worth it, this one time.

As a practical point, there are several ways to approach this. There are some beautiful examples on the web and some quite clever ideas. I decided that the easiest approach was to buy a case that had the features I wanted as a chassis to underpin my wooden box. This makes the siting of components so much easier. I also managed to pick up a 'cosmetically damaged' one from eBay for less than £20, which given I didn't care about the outside that I was throwing away, seemed to be a good deal.

The case I went for is the  Kolink Aviator White ATX Mid Tower. I liked this tower, primarily because it seats the power supply at the bottom for best air flow and temperature control which is critical with a wooden case (more of that later) and it had some nice additional bits like the USB ports and switchable fans that I was able to incorporate into my new case. The other purchase for this build was a power switch and LEDs from eBay for about £1.50 with much longer leads than standard hence being able to put the power switch exactly where I wanted.The picture shows the stripped down carcus ready for me to build round. The basic idea is very simple and simply involves cutting some pieces of MDF to fit wound the metal chassis.

In order to mount the wood cladding to the metal chassis I drilled holes though the metal so I could use wood screws for fixing.

One of the key design features of this case is that it appears to be floating. This is for two reasons, firstly because with the powersupply at the bottom of the case this allows good airflow for better cooling and also because it makes for nice aesthetics.

 Whilst it would be possible to actually have the case floating and suspended by the side pillars, this is actually quite tricky and there is no real advantage to this. Mounting the case on a hidden block is a much simpler solution that works really well. In fact the block shown here was not wide enough and the compression from the pillar angle meant the case leant over and hence I widened this block later.

The two pillars were cut and shaped from softwood.

The front of the case has essentially two features; the top part is hinged to allow access to the DVD drive bays (and also 2 USB ports) and the lower part has several holes drilled to create an extra vent. The 'oak-leaf' pattern was chosen to match the oak finish it was eventually going to get.

In order to mount the power switch in the base part of the case, I used my router to create the space and simply glued the switch and LEDs in place. A small piece of dowel completes the button.

I then mounted the fan switches on the top of the case.

 That's essentially the case with just a few final touches. Again I used the router to create space for cables to run under the motherboard. I added a little cable tidy for the power cable at the back and finally installed the USB ports behind the same door that allows access to the DVD drives.

So that's the complete case.

MDF gets a bad rep but it's a very versitile, light weight and cost-effective material. It is not, however, pretty. So, the real final touch is the oak-effect finish, which is acheived with an iron-on oak vaneer and clear varnish.

And the finished article:

 I did find that the cooling wasn't quite good enough despite it only being a relatively low-powered system (AMD 2.3GHz Quad core processor, GeForce 210 1024Mb graphics card and Blackgold Dual TV tuner).

This I rectified by installing a Cooler Master Hyper 212. I have used one of these on another system and been very impressed by how effective it is.

So there it is; a wooden case. In its current form, it wouldn't be suitable for a high powered system but for a media centre designed to go in a lounge, I'm very pleased with the result.