About Gareth J M Saunders

Hi, I'm Gareth J M Saunders, 41 years old, 6' 4", married to Jane, father to twins Reuben and Joshua, and their younger brother Isaac. I'm a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church and have a passion for Mah Jong, Psion PDAs and web design (particularly HTML, CSS (including frameworks), jQuery, and Agile development). I am employed as the Web Architect at the University of St Andrews.

Beautiful piano playing by Rich Batsford

Rich Batsford—In the Moment (2014)

Rich Batsford—In the Moment (2014)

A friend of mine from National Youth Choir of Great Britain days, Rich Batsford, has released a new album called In the Moment, which is really quite beautiful.

The album consists of ten improvisational pieces on piano which are gentle, thoughtful and meditative. Exactly what I need on this emotional day of voting.

You can listen for free on Bandcamp before committing to paying for it. It’s only AUD $7.00 (approx GBP £3.90).

Incredibox — interactive human beatbox

Incredibox

Incredibox version 3

Well, after that epic political post about the Scottish independence referendum yesterday, here something a bit more fun to put a smile on your face, or give you something to listen to while you’re up all night listening to the results programme on the telly.

I can’t believe I’ve not blogged about Incredibox before. It’s fantastic and never fails to cheer me up!

Incredibox is an interactive beatboxing web application (that requires Adobe Flash) where you drag and drop different symobls onto the chaps as they appear from the right. The symbols tells them what to sing, with categories split into beats, effects, melodies, voices, and other things depending on which version you play around with. You then just chop and change to create new combinations and new tunes.

I love it, and there are now three versions. Version three is linked to above, here are the other two:

Incredibox version 1

Incredibox version 1

Incredibox version 2

Incredibox version 2

Why I will be voting ‘No thanks’ tomorrow

No thanks

I love Jeffrey Zeldman’s tweet from November 2007 “If you don’t write, you don’t know what you think.” Over the last few weeks I’ve written bits and pieces for myself to capture and clarify my thoughts on the Scottish independence referendum, which we go to the polls tomorrow to vote on. I wanted to capture something on my blog about my current feelings about it the night before the vote.

Back in February I wrote a blog post called Words and Scotland’s future in which I challenged myself to “listen more, understand what others think and feel and fear [...] and to be on the lookout for the reality behind the labels”.

It had been my intention to write more about my thoughts during the last seven months but family life and work got quite intense, and then in July I came down with viral meningitis and I’ve spent the last eight weeks trying to recover from that.

There was a moment in my hospital bed in early August, while I was coming to terms with the possibility that I may have had a brain haemorrhage (I hadn’t it turned out), that I had a sudden panic that I may not be well enough to vote on 18 September. Thankfully, though, here I am and tomorrow I will be voting ‘no'; I will be indicating that I want to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom.

For me it boils down to three reasons:

  1. Interdependence not independence.
  2. Risk.
  3. Trust.

Interdependence not independence.

I don’t use the word ‘hate’ very much, but recently I have hated what this referendum has done to our nation. Douglas Alexander MP (the Shadow Foreign Secretary) writing in The Guardian noted that

whereas Margaret Thatcher united our nation in opposition to her politics, Salmond has divided our nation in a way she never managed.

I have seen families and friends split, I have seen video clips online and listened to friends tell of campaigners on both sides of the debate assault one another. I have read what friends with opposing views have written on one another’s Facebook walls. Much of it has been amicable and respectful, some of it has not. There has been a level of animosity and intimidation that I have found very, very sad.

In that article in The Guardian Douglas Alexander argued that “Scotland’s yes campaign has been based on emotion, not fact”. To my eyes the yes campaign seems to be creating barriers and problems where there are none. I have heard nothing argued that cannot be equally applied to any other part of these incredible British isles.

In an increasingly globalised world where connections and interdependence are drawing people together to create amazing things like new technology and software, international movements to reform money creation, or social justice and medical breakthroughs through shared research I want to live in a society that is open to collaboration. The wisdom of crowds and all that. I want interdependence rather than independence.

I believe that interdependence is a more mature and modern way to live. When you are a baby you are dependent, as you reach your teenager years you become independent, but as you reach adulthood you realise the value of interdependence.

I get the value of local knowledge and local circumstances. I don’t believe that the current political infrastructure has got it right. But I don’t believe that separation from the rest of the UK is the answer. Why knock down the whole house when you just need an extension and to rearrange a few rooms?

In James Surowiecki’s book The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few (Doubleday, 2004) he argues that the key criteria for a wise group are:

  1. Diversity of opinion—each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Individual judgment—people’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization—”power doesn’t fully reside in one central location, and many of the important decisions are made by individuals based on their own local and specific knowledge rather than by an omniscient or farseeing planner.” (p. 70–71).
  4. Aggregation—some mechanism is required to turn these private judgments into a collective decision.

I believe that Scotland is better off as part of a wider crowd within the UK. England, Wales and Northern Ireland offer perspectives that we cannot see because we are so close to the key questions. I think this is a good thing.

Together with the other three UK nations Scotland has created some amazing achievements. Our global reach has been amazing, far beyond what this size of island in the North Atlantic should achieve. We’ve done that as a part of the United Kingdom. We have been dependent on the support of the other three nations, and they have been dependent on us too.

I don’t want to spend the next ten years or more looking inward and struggling to set up and stabilise a new infrastructure and economy. We already have one. Sure it’s not ideal, there are areas that could be improved but I don’t buy the idea that if we go it alone then we will get it right, that we are somehow superior simply because we are Scottish; that the only way to achieve this is to overthrow our English overlords—that’s not how I see our relationship.

I don’t buy into the idea that we are any different to those in the rest of the UK. I have worked amongst homeless young people in London and they are no different to those on the streets in Edinburgh. I know, while I was living in Edinburgh I sat on the pavements with them and listened. The poor in Sunderland are relying on food banks as much as those in Sutherland. That has to stop in both places and with our shared vision and compassion we can make it happen.

The border—that imaginary line that stretches from just north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to just north of Carlisle—has absolutely nothing to do with it. But Salmond’s rhetoric will try to make you believe that it is. Sure there is a Scottish identity but it’s not a single one. The culture of the Scottish Borders is different to that in Strathclyde or Aberdeen or the Western Isles or Shetland. There is no single Scotland.

Let’s work within the existing system and improve it gradually for everyone in our society. Scottish people have a great track record of doing that within the UK already. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater simply because we didn’t get the government we wanted at the last general election. That’s very short sighted. Because guess what, neither did the rest of the UK, and neither did I at the last Scottish Parliament election! That’s just how representational democracy works.

I love the relationship we have with the rest of the UK. I love that we do have our own identity but that we work together to try to improve life on these islands for everyone. If the Yes campaign’s figures are correct and we could become richer than the rest of the UK and in the top 20 countries globally, I genuinely feel that we would still be significantly poorer emotionally and psychologically for turning our backs on our neighbours in the rest of the UK.

Risk

My second reason is to do with risk. For me the risk of independence is too high despite the repeated assertions from the Yes campaign that ‘we can do it’. But this, for me, isn’t about confidence, or a lack of confidence. It may be about a lack of solid information, if I’m honest.

For the last few months I’ve heard “Yes!” But yes to what? We are being asked should Scotland become an independent country; we are being asked to trust a new vision of what Scotland can be (more about that in a minute) but I don’t feel that the vision has been fully spelt out, except in the vaguest of terms with people’s imaginations being left to fill in the gaps. It is nothing if not enthusiastic and optimistic. A “fairer, equal and more democratic society” sounds attractive but without detail it’s just yet another empty wish. As Ewan Morrison writes, “Yes means too many things and ends up meaning nothing”.

I will not vote for a vague feeling of optimism. I want to vote for something that I have either a suitable degree of certainty in, or at the very least in leaders that I trust will take us forward to a better place. Unfortunately I’ve seen neither from the Yes campaign.

I know what we currently have, I know that it’s not perfect but I know what we have: we still have the pound, we have the NHS (overseen by a devolved parliament), we have EU membership, we have the military security of British armed forces. In Scotland we already have our own very successful education system, we have our own legal system, our own national church. We have these already. So what more is being offered, and what more is being asked for?

Yesterday morning I heard Nicola Sturgeon on the radio saying that the only way to guarantee more powers for Scotland is to vote for independence. Which got me thinking exactly which powers?

It’s easy to say that we need more powers, it implies that Scotland is powerless, which is far from the truth. I suspect that most people in Scotland don’t know exactly what the Scottish Parliament oversees and what Westminster or the EU is responsible for; I don’t. So I looked it up on the Scottish Government’s website: according to them, exactly which powers do we need?

The website repeats the same claim: “The only way for Scotland to get all the powers needed to make Scotland a better place is through independence.”

But which powers?

It says that the last proposal for new powers for the Scottish Parliament was in 2009. Not everything proposed was accepted by Westminster but it did result in the Scotland Act 2012.

Fair enough, but isn’t that how the democratic process works?

It then continues, “there has been consistent support in Scotland for the Scottish Parliament to have responsibility for taxation and the welfare system.”

Of course, it doesn’t say support from whom, but if those are the powers that are being asked for then surely that can be negotiated. Why do we need to reject EVERYTHING else when all that’s required is to negotiate for more responsibility for taxation and the welfare system?

The website continues, “whatever offers of more devolution MIGHT emerge during the referendum campaign, they are LIKELY to fall short of full powers in these vital areas of Scottish life” (my emphases).

First, these areas are not unique to Scottish life, they apply equally to English, Welsh or Northern Irish life too. We’re not the only people who want to improve these areas of life.

Second, I’ve highlighted ‘might’ and ‘likely’. There is strong willingness from the major UK parties to negotiate what Scotland needs, which of course might have a knock on effect to the rest of the UK and benefit many more than just our 5 million.

Modern life is complicated, the world is changing, so let’s roll with the changes, not bin everything and start again.

For me, what those supporting independence are offering is not enough. They have avoided giving definite answers, they’ve not had the courage where appropriate to say they don’t know, or that yes it will be tough to start with. To be honest, they have given the appearance that they are still making it up as they go along, saying anything to get the win. Promising the earth (or the oil or the pound or membership of the EU) when these are not really theirs to give. Negotiation isn’t one way.

I would have had much more respect for the yes campaign if it had actually been promoting a picture of true independence, rather than this watered down hybrid. I wouldn’t have voted for it, but at least I would have had more respect for what they are offering.

Currently they appear to want to be like the UK but not be in the UK. Everything will change but nothing will. We will be a more fair and prosperous nation by using sterling without a currency union, reneging our portion of the national debt, destroying our credit rating, tying our financial security to the central bank of another country, and we haven’t even told you that we’ll need tens of billions as reserves, or that all money is debt anyway and this system of money creation heavily favours the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer without even changing a thing. For me that’s enough. I simply won’t accept this level of risk.

Trust

Lastly, if I was to vote Yes then it would mean that either I had confidence in the plan set before me to take our country into a prosperous and fairer future (and I certainly don’t see anything like that, other than hope and a can-do attitude) or that I had faith in the Yes campaign leaders to lead us there. And I don’t have that either.

For all the talk of creating a “fairer, equal and more democratic society” I don’t see that being demonstrated by the Yes campaign’s leadership. I don’t see Alex Salmond, for example, showing us what it means to be a statesman within a society that is fairer, more equal, and more democratic.

(UPDATE: The Economist shares this belief that “Scotland is unlikely to be fairer or more equal with independence”.)

At times I have felt ashamed to be Scottish during this prolonged process. Salmond claimed victory over Darling during the last televised debate. I didn’t see it that way. I saw a bully, a street fighter, and one of the rudest displays I have ever seen in British politics. Salmond shouted Darling down, badgered him with the same endless questions but he didn’t listen.

Great leaders sell us the why, great leaders inspire by their behaviour, by their example. Well Salmond didn’t inspire me. If his was an example of the kind of inclusive, just and caring society that the nationalists are promoting then I want nothing to do with that.

Salmond missed an opportunity to demonstrate the values he claims to want for Scotland. He missed an opportunity to practice what he preaches. He missed an opportunity to build a case, with honesty and integrity, and genuinely inspire people. Instead he went in for cheap, sensationalist punches aimed to belittle and intimidate Darling. I admired Darling for keeping his cool, to be honest. But I was disappointed, sorely disappointed.

However, it didn’t stop with Darling. I’ve been appalled at how journalists have been treated: bullied, intimidated, attempting to silence them. Duncan Stephen outlines this very clearly on his blog in a post called “A dark vision of democracy”.

And I simply don’t trust that there is even a united vision amongst those within the Yes camp. Within the SNP there is a wide range of opinion about what an independent Scotland should look like, from a Devo-Max model at one end to a full republic at the other. Ewan Morrison speaks about a lack of debate even within the Yes camp, with the general focus on

attacking the enemy and creating an impenetrable shell to protect the unquestionable entity. In its place was a kind of shopping list of desires that was being added to daily. So there was: Get rid of Trident, raise the minimum wage, lower corporation tax, promote gay and lesbian rights, create a world leading Green economy, exploit oil to the full and become a world leading petro-chemical economy, nationalise the banks, nationalise BP, be more attractive to foreign investment. The shopping list of ‘positive’ ideal goals could never tally up, the desires of the Yessers were incompatible and contradicted each other, but to raise this was seen as being ‘negative’. Every kind of Yes had to be included, and this meant there could be no debate. Instead there was a kind of self-censorship and conformism. The Yes camp had turned itself into a recruitment machine which had to silence dissent and differences between the many clashing interest groups under its banner. This was what YES had started to mean – it meant YES to everything – everything is possible – so don’t question anything.

Conclusion

There is much more that I wish I had had the chance to blog about over the last few months, and think through and explore, and to give an opportunity for comment and to listen more.

But as it is these last six months have been some of the hardest and darkest of my life. I am thankful to be alive. I am thankful to be able to vote.. I just wish I didn’t have to take part in something that has been so divisive and upsetting for so many people.

I don’t want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom. I am Scottish and British; I am British and Scottish.

Tomorrow I will be voting with conviction and integrity, I will be voting having listened as much as I can, and thought through the issues myself and weighed up where I believe our country should be headed. I don’t think you can ask for much more in a democratic process.

Whatever the result it looks like it will be close. That will be difficult. It will leave a certainly half of the country feeling battered and let down. I know of some people who plan to leave Scotland should the end result be in favour of independence. I know a lot of people who have talked about it with their families. I have.

Whatever the result on Friday morning there will be need for a lot of listening, a lot of understanding, a lot of gentleness, a lot of faith. I hope we’re up to it as a nation. I’m generally an optimist, a glass half full kind of guy. But tonight, if I’m honest, I am fearful.

Greensky Bluegrass

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a John 5 album which had some bluegrass influences, so I went in search of more bluegrass music on YouTube. I discovered this song “Demons” by Greensky Bluegrass, which is a jolly fine tune. Some splendid beards and facial hair too.

Recovery, a dinner party, and a lot of sleeping

R2-D2 cake by Jane Bakes Great...

R2-D2 cake by Jane Bakes Great…

On Friday evening I managed to escape the house for the first time in weeks when Jane and I attended our friend Andrew’s 40th birthday (dinner) party near Stirling. It was great to be out of my bed and amongst friends for an evening; although I am paying for it now in terms of energy.

Recovery

It’s now nearly eight weeks since I came down with viral meningitis which affected my eyesight very badly and landed me in hospital for six days.

My recovery has been slow but generally steady. I’ve been back and forth to Victoria hospital for various ophthalmology tests and at the last appointment I had with the consultant she was satisfied that my eyesight issues were related to the meningitis and that I should continue to see steady progress.

I saw the GP last week too who gave me new painkillers for the ongoing headaches, which he thinks are partly related to the meningitis and partly to do with the eyesight issues.

What I’ve been doing

One of my work colleagues asked me on the phone last week what I’ve been up to while off sick. The first couple of weeks I spent mostly sleeping. My energy levels were in my boots, and my eyesight was so awful I couldn’t read, so I mostly lay in bed listening to Chain Reaction interviews on BBC iPlayer Radio on demand.

During the next few weeks, as my strength grew and my eyesight improved a little I pottered around the house tidying. The house is now the tidiest it’s been for probably years. I’m now turning my attention gently towards the shed and the garden before winter overtakes the lawn.

Of course, some days I’ve over-done-it a little, as I try to find what I’m capable of. Usually, I’ve been able to sleep it off the next day.

I’ve also spent a lot of time with my three boys, Reuben (5), Joshua (5) and Isaac (3) which has been fun. Exhausting at times but definitely great fun and nice just to hang out, be silly, and bond.

What I’ve not been doing

Because of my eyesight issues (unable to focus properly, flashing images, double vision, and blind spots) I’ve not been able to read very much. I love to read, and with so much time available it’s been quite frustrating not to lose myself in a book. If nothing else this experience is teaching me to be patient.

My phone has been quite a lifeline, and even at the height of my eyesight issues I was able to make out words on my smartphone if I held it very close to my face, and closed my right eye. Ironically, it was only as my eyesight was improving that I discovered the Android accessibility tools.

I’ve not been on my computer as much as I normally would, either. Again, this has been linked to my eyesight issues. About a month ago I was able to use my computer only if I either reduced the screen resolution (how many pixels you can see on the screen at once) from 1920 x 1080 to 1024 x 700, or if I used the Windows built-in screen accessibility tools and zoomed everything to 300%.

It’s been a bit easier to use my PC over the last couple of weeks but my eyes get really tired more quickly, and I suspect that also affects the headaches.

I did manage to move my email to Gmail, though, which felt like a massive success, given the circumstances.

And I’ve not been able to cycle, which has been disappointing. We’ve had some beautifully clear days. I love to cycle in the early autumn when the air is clear and dry but the temperature is lower and the roads are not yet strewn with fallen leaves.

I have been trying to get out for a walk every few days though, and gently build up some stamina. Although my GP told me last week that he expects it will take me 4–6 months before I’m fully fit.

And so to last weekend…

Thanks to Jane’s parents and younger sister we were able to get away for an evening and overnight stay to attend our friend Andrew’s 40th birthday gathering near Stirling (about a 90 minutes’ drive from Anstruther).

It was great to be out of the house and not going to a hospital appointment. It was great to be amongst friends, for some fun chat and silliness, and to eat Jane’s delicious R2‑D2 cake (photo above) that she’d made for him.

We stayed the night in the nearby Dunblane Hydro, where I spent an uncomfortable and largely sleepless night, and in the morning we invited another friend, Rich, over to join us for breakfast.

When I got home I felt exhausted but happy. It had been a good 24 hours.

And today… well, today I mostly slept.

Queen—News of the World (1977) on Family Guy

Brian shows Stewie a copy of Queen—News of the World (1977)

Brian shows Stewie a copy of Queen—News of the World (1977)

Queen was the first rock band that I fell in love with. So I was delighted when I spotted this screengrab from an episode of Family Guy.

And even more delighted when I found this accompanying video on YouTube:

“He’s bleeding man! He’s bleeding! And nobody’s doing anything about it!”

Moving from Outlook (Exchange) to eM Client (Google)

For the last 14 years I’ve used Microsoft Outlook to manage my life. Last week, with some trepidation I moved to Google (Gmail, calendar, and contacts) and something else for tasks (I’ve not quite settled on it, although Todoist is currently a very strong contender). I thought it may be useful for others in a similar situation to document my experience.

Over the years I have used Microsoft Outlook 2000, 2003, 2007, and most recently 2010. I have synchronised it with various Psion handheld computers, with Windows Mobile, and I’ve used it for the last four years with a hosted instance of Microsoft Exchange 2010 from the excellent, UK-based Simply Mail Solutions.

ActiveSync kept sinking

I moved to Exchange in 2010 mainly because I was having issues synchronising my Windows Mobile phone via ActiveSync with two PCs: home and work (below). Synchronisation didn’t always work successfully and I had no end of problems: duplicated, missing or deleted content. Enough was enough, so I looked at the options.

Workflow for using ActiveSync with two instances of Outlook

Workflow for using ActiveSync with two instances of Outlook. I found this caused all sorts of problems when using the phone as the ‘golden copy’.

Move to Exchange

At that point, in 2010, I considered moving to Gmail but Windows Mobile 6 didn’t support Google data particularly well and I had no real need to share my data with anyone else but myself. My main concern was synchronising data between devices not between people.

So I research the options and in the end I moved to an Exchange 2010 account rented from Simply Mail Solutions. It cost me around £70 per year, plus my domain name. But I felt that cost was worth the expense when set against lost time and frustration due to synchronisation failures.

Synchronisation with Exchange Server 2010

Synchronisation with Exchange Server 2010

With this model everything was synchronising with the Exchange server in the cloud. It was fast, it was efficient, and I never once had an issue with duplicated or missing content. I could add a task on my phone during my walk to work and when I got to the office it was already there on my PC. It felt like magic.

When I moved away from Windows Phone a few years ago and bought a Google Nexus 4 it had support for Exchange under its “Corporate” account settings. So, again, there was no need to move. If it ain’t broke…

Why move to Google, then?

What has changed recently though is that now I do need to share my data with (my wife) Jane. To add another user to Exchange was going to be expensive and unnecessarily complex, particularly when you factor in which domain names we use and that Jane was already using Google mail. The logical conclusion was for me to move to Google.

eM Client for mail, calendar and contacts

One of my hesitations about moving lock, stock and barrel to Google was that I’m not particularly fond of the standard Gmail or Google Contacts interface; Google Calendar is okay; Google Tasks is terrible.

As I said, I’ve used Outlook for a long time. It’s become very familiar and some of the workflow processes have depended on features exclusive to Outlook. I would need to find something else, as Outlook’s support for Google doesn’t extend much beyond IMAP support for Gmail. If you want to synchronise your Google Calendar with Outlook you can forget it: it’s a clunky business at best, and impossible at worst.

Calendar view in eM Client, showing different colours for shared calendars

Calendar view in eM Client, showing different colours for shared calendars

Someone I follow on Twitter mentioned eM Client which claims to be the best email client for Windows. I gave it a go, trialled it alongside Outlook for just a week and decided that although it lacks a few features that I really like about Outlook this was perfect for my needs. I will write a more complete review of eM Client in a later post.

Something else for tasks

Like Outlook I like that everything is together: email, calendar and contacts. I decided not to use the tasks as support for Google Tasks isn’t great even on Android.

For a week I trialled Wunderlist, which is one of Lifehacker‘s favourite to do apps. I’d tried it before but after a week I still wasn’t convinced: I wanted to use their Windows 7 client but it simply wouldn’t synchronise with the Android app, plus the Android widget was clunky. So I gave up.

Todoist—simple and clean-looking task application

Todoist—simple and clean-looking task application

That’s when I stumbled on Todoist, which I really like. The Android app is clean and simple, the Windows app just works, it synchronises really quickly, and the widget is perfect for my needs—it does what I need, and works the way that I want it to.

I expect that I will stick with Todoist for the near future.

How to move from Outlook to Google

Moving from Exchange to Google was fairly straight forward: mildly complex but not complicated. Here’s what I did:

  1. Synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts data with Google using demo version of Sync2. It allowed me to copy all my data from Exchange to Google Calendar and Contacts with no restrictions.
  2. Add Gmail account to Outlook as an IMAP email account, then copy (or move) emails from Exchange/Outlook account to Gmail.
  3. With everything moved over and essentially backed-up to Google, change MX records in my domain name DNS. Basically, this tells all email to go to my web hosting company (Heart Internet) rather than my Exchange server (hosted by Simply Mail Solutions). The DNS took about 4-6 hours to update.
  4. Create a forward for my email address so that it all gets passed on to Gmail. I did this within my Heart Internet control panel.
  5. Install eM Client and add my Google account. All my data, email, calendar, and contacts is then synchronised with eM Client.

The nervous bit was waiting for the DNS to update, as you need to set the MX (mail) records correctly otherwise it doesn’t work. But as soon as my gareth@garethjmsaunders.co.uk emails started trickling into my Gmail account I knew that everything was fine.

What now?

So far I’ve been using this set up for a couple of weeks and I’m really appreciating having only one place to check email; I’m loving that Jane and I can see each other’s calendars so easily.

I think this is going to work. I wish I’d discovered eM Client and Todoist before now.