Friday, December 30, 2005

Christmas break... NOT!

We planned carefully, worked hard before Christmas so we could all have a break of a week over Christmas. Over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day a colleague in Egypt would be 'on call' as they celebrate Christmas in January not December. The rest of Christmas week we would be taking turns on being 'on call'. We have a system where is a fault develops it sends an SMS message to the person on call OR if someone needs support then again an SMS message is sent.

Tuesday was one of my other colleagues birthday so that day I was 'on call'. There were about 20 alerts from the monitoring system and 6 calls for help. So much for a break. The most serious was that on the server that handles enquiries from listeners to radio stations or visitors to web sites. Our servers have multiple hard disks in what is called a RAID system. The theory of this is that if one hard disk fails the other takes over... but... this only applies to data not to the 'system' which cannot be RAIDed without extra expensive hardware. Since it's the data that is critical to us we throught that this was the best way forward.

There are a number of servers in our office handling the various facilities we host. This is the 'engineers eye view' of the server rack. It looks somewhat complicated, but the rack contains servers and audio cabling and battery backup systems... everything we need to attempt to have 24/7 service!

Of course, this RAID system of multiple hard disks is the best way forward except during a Christmas break! The data was fine, but the system disk went unreliable. On Tuesday I 'patched it up' attempting to correct errors on the hard disk, with the aim of keeping it going till the following week when we were all back at work. Good theory. Didn't work in practice.

Wednesday... the hard disk failed totally. Peter is 'on call' so I can relax... hmmm... good theory? Other colleagues all round the world phoned me on my mobile, and didn't follow the correct procedure which would have put them in touch with him. Grrrrr... some un-Christian thoughts passed my mind! Messy day and Peter began the process of trying to sort out the mess.

Thursday... yep, my turn again 'on call'. Serious stuff... time for a rebuild of the server. Yes, that's me peering dangerously into the server with screwdriver in hand. We have a 'spare' server, so I ended up gutting that to get the main audience relations server running.

In the process I have re-built the system in a different way. Instead of dual hard drives in a RAID system which protected the data but left us with rebuilds whenever there were problems with the system disk I have used the spare server as a 'mirror' for the main one. The theory of this is that if on or other server fails the other can take over. We shall see!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A week is a long time...

They say a week is a long time in politics... but it seems that two weeks is even longer in the work I do, since it's two weeks ago that I last wrote in this blog.

A couple of weeks ago the main email server in London had been attacked and just been rebuilt. Well... nearly rebuilt as we found out later. It was not that the attacker had left anything behind - we had been worried that he might have left a trojan or or two. Trojan programs are the computer equivalent of the Trojan horse in Greek history - they are programs hidden in the system that allow malicious attackers later access, without actually being obvious as being something nasty. There weren't any trojan programs left.

But... the server was totally unreliable for about 10 days. Servers like the ones we run have as part of their Operating System a method of self-protection. What that means if if they start running out of resources they automatically kill off normal programs so that the server keeps going. So, for instance, if it was running short of memory the server would kill off the email service and keep going. This stops us having what Windows users call the 'blue screen of death' but can be extremely irritating to find you have to restart the email service or whatever reguarly. But we couldn't work out why we were running out of memory. The server has inside it two computers [processors] and about four times the amount of memory a home computer has. It shouldn't run out of memory!

In this trauma we thought the memory was faulty so we got the leasing company to change the memory. Because we were having memory problems they tested the memory before installing and after they changed it we still had memory problems.

Eventually we traced the fault down to when the leasing company had re-installed the system they had installed the wrong 'kernel'. The kernel is the heart of the Operating System and the kernel they had installed was designed for very old processors that could not handle as much memory as we had installed in the server. We remotely installed a new kernel. This worried us as if the kernel didn't install correctly the server would crash and we would have to request another total install of the Operating System. However, it did install correctly and we now have the server behaving correctly, working faster and not running out of memory.

We took the opportunity of the rebuild of the server to implement some security enhancements that we had been planning to do around now anyhow. But we had been planning to do them on another server to test before installing them on the 'live' one. It also required writing a new user interface for part of the system... all to do done as fast as possible so that 'normal service will be resumed as soon as possible' as it used to say on the TV screens while I was a kid growing up.

In between all this I was co-ordinating a project for a new very large website we will launch in February. We have had a programmer here for a month [he leaves today actually] and there has been the need for a lot of thought about how the underlying structure will work so that it will be expandable in the future.

And... the mobile phone text message system is just about to go into phase two of development. We have proven it is both needed and doable, but we need a more reliable and expandable system, that would also be able to be easily installed in other locations around the world. We had a planning meeting about that leading onto research oabout equipment we can use in the future. Phase two starts as soon as possible...

Between all this I have been editing a video training series for the organization we grew out of. Eventually we hope it will be an interactive DVD. Training videos are always very difficult to do. The reason for this is that they have to be interesting. I know all films and videos have to be interesting, but training films are somehow more difficult to get to be interesting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Server attacked... and repaired.

Early last week our biggest server was attacked and an intruder go into it [not physically, but basically took over control of it] and then started using it to attack other computers and servers in London and around the world. The people we connect to in London received complaints about this and disconnected it from the Internet.

When someone has got in that deeply the only thing you can do really is to wipe the hard drive and re-install everything. Fortuneately we had a backup that was only 8 hours old [we do daily backups]... but re-installing is definitely non-trivial. What made it worse was the following morning one of my colleagues went to Dubai and another was teaching in another country, leaving me to sort everything out. Although before he did leave we talked through the re-build and decided to do the security upgrade we were planning to do soon.

That security upgrade was pretty complex. I won't bore you with the details, but basically it took me about 18-20 hours per day for about 5 days to get things back to where they were. However, I must admit that the pain was worth it and now with my colleague back we can see the fruits of that labour.

What did surprise us was just how many people were using our facilities. We have about 250 users and over 400 email accounts on the server. Of course, that means that was the number of people disturbed by that one hacker.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Administrator needed...

Wednesday is the day when David, who does the book-keeping for us, comes in. He gives us one day per week, which we thought might be enough, but we are realising that it is not enough. As we are expanding so the administration is expanding.

By that I mean all the accounting for partners - everything we do is in partnership with another group and its important to get all the calculations right and to chase up when they pay us or when they don't. It may sound simple but we work in many different currencies, expenses can be in US dollars, British Sterling Pounds, Cyprus Pounds, Egyptian Pounds... and so on. Working out what percentage of our costs like electricity and communications charges should be attributed to each project is important too.

We are realising that a lot of that has not been done and a lot of the chasing up has not been done. We have focussed on getting the projects done rather than the administration to support them. I have many unanswered emails... before Peter came I was doing a lot of technical stuff, which was necessary even if somewhat boring. Now it looks like our need is for administration so I shall have to spend a lot of my time doing that.

We did have a good breakthrough at the end of the week technically though - the connection to collect files from Malta at last has got working. This has been troubling us for some months.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Two David's

First two days of this week involved two meetings with two David's - one American, one New Zealander. We had been talking about the need for more people here -- recruitment. Since we don't salary people 'recruiting' means something different to commercial companies.

One suggestion that came up from one of these meetings was to have a training centre here, where people from the Middle East could come for a few months to a year to learn more about media. It might also be that we have some westerners also in their 'gap year' coming out to work alongside these young people from the Middle East so as to learn about and share in the rich culture of the region.

In between meetings I have spent a lot of time getting some problems solved with the scheduling system for the radio stations. Boring but necessary.

Friday, November 11, 2005

New project started

We have started a new project which will last for a year in total. It's a total re-write of a website that is very interactive with our primary audience. Some Christians tend to take a confrontational approach to those outside the faith - basically telling them where they are wrong. Jesus tended more towards dialogue and attracting people to himself, the old people he had really bad words for were the Pharisees. Of course, even for people caught in the very act of sin, he didn't say 'OK, carry on it's quite alright' but 'Go, and don't do it again'.

So, this website publishes articles and allows interaction. Sadly its got in a bit of a muddle and so the first stage in untangling the site and then re-creating what the authors actually want. We have a programmer over from another country for a month to do the first stage of this, then he's back in the new year again... we hope to 'go live' with the new site early in February and then finish all the rest of what is needed over the next 12 months.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A week later

A week since I wrote... not sure if that is a good sign or a bad one.

It's been a week of ups and downs. Sometimes I feel like its all overwhelming and I cannot continue and sometimes I feel like things are moving forward.

Overwhelmed? There are many more things to do than we can do and all of us at times this week have felt we are just cranking the wheel and getting nowhere. We had never intended doing lots of maintainance type stuff essential to keep things going, yet we find ourselves doing a lot of that. These are things like keeping email and websites and audio streams going.

When you visit a website it feels like the author just wrote the stuff and that's it. For him that is it, but we are maintaining the computers and systems that keep his material there. And that is a lot more like the maintainance needed to keep an aeroplane flying than the maintainance needed on a house. The engineer looks at the aeroplane after every flight, two or three times a day often, yet our houses need action infrequently.

Today we had a team meeting and we drew all the relationships and all the locations on the white board - we realised how many people we are serving and how many depend on us. We are doing a lot of things for a lot of people. We realised how international we are when one of our partners paid us this week and that one financial transaction involved 6 countries!

So in amonst the feeling of getting nowhere there is the odd nugget. We were talking about training and I get tired of training because it often seems people should be able to find some of the stuff out for themselves. So I have as a value teaching people how to learn rather than just how to do something. When the subject of training came up I groaned inwardly. However one of my colleagues from another country said that at some recent training he had done he had been using my approach of not just teaching people how to do the task but of how to learn for themselves... and he said it was working. This is a big change for the Middle East, where that whole approach is counter-cultural, but necessary for today's world. Maybe I am making a small change after all...

It's been a time of change this week too - we moved three of the rooms in the office round. We are having more people come to stay and work with us for a month at a time and they stay in the guest room at the office. We moved the guest room to one that we didn't need to go through on a regular basis and was more out of the way. It won't be long before we really need a guest apartment for visiting staff, but we don't have money to pay for that yet.

This also gave more space for workstations, which we will need with both the extra people coming and going and because we had an extra full time person start this week. This means that reguarly there will be between 5 and 7 people in the office for the next few months. We are having to learn to communicate better and work more as a team than just a couple of individuals.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Meetings foreground... voip background...

This week looks like being full of meetings after last week being full of conference meetings. Helping advise another partner organization in Malta today. Tomorrow discussion about how to set up an online community of believers [or church by any other name].

In the background to all these meetings colleagues have been setting up a VOIP system. So what is VOIP you ask? VOIP stands for Voice Over IP, which in plain language means using the Internet to connect telephone calls. This would enable people responding to radio or tv programmes to connect to people who can help them with any questions they might have. Up to now if people want help its been through old fashioned letter, email and more recently SMS messages from mobile phones... but people in the Middle East are 'oral culture' which means they prefer to talk than to read or write, so if we can get this working it would be a big step forward.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Conference Season

Seems like only yesterday I was in the UK travelling around and trying to sort out the final legal things to get bank accounts working for the organization [not as easy as it might sound]. Then an overnight flight back to Cyprus - and into 'Conference Season'. The winter in Cyprus is the time for conferences and as someone remarked today you could almost spend your whole time going from conference to conference up till Christmas. A few years ago I tended to go to a few more than I do now. I am bored of conferences - they often end up being a talking shop where little gets done!

Anyhow, this week I have been up and down to Limassol to a conference there which was fairly useful. I suppose its cheaper to fly everyone to one place and then allow loads of meeting between people to take place, but even me who is pretty extraverted gets tired of going from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting...

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Another day of doing lots... first a trip to the garden centre to get a present for my mother-in-law, then a trip to another part of Birmingham to look for a notebook computer for a colleague - second hand, had seen it earlier and was sold by the time I got there - then lunch with a family friend, then off to anther outskirt of Birmingham to see if Daniel can get old repairable instruments [he bought a flute in that state for 10 pounds] then off to a place Daniel might spend his next year, back to where we are staying for a quick dinner and then Tim off to an organ lesson and Daniel and I go to do the final packing of the stuff we are taking to Cyprus [they will pick this up between 9am and 12.30am tomorrow]. The photo of my phone diary shows how the week has looked... longing for Cyprus and being normally busy!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sorting :-(

Although all the stuff we want to take to Cyprus is out of our house, it wasn't yet packed in a way suitable to ship. We have just spent the first two days of this week, re-packing and sorting [and throwing away more] everything so that [hopefully] it will all arrive safely in Cyprus.
Some things we have re-utilized: For instance, there is a very nice bookcase we inherrited from Sue's grandparents which we have used to contain bubble wrapped paintings inherrited from both of our grandparents.

I think it's about 45 boxes we have now packed. It was very tiring work and other than packing solid pine wood sides for both Sue's and mine and Daniel's beds, it's all finished. They collect on Friday.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Wesley and Methodist Churches

When I was growing up I read avidly the 'Journal of John Wesley'. It came to life for me when I started work at Bush House in London. Bush House is at the end of the Strand and opposite is the tiny church of 'St Mary's'. St Mary the Strand is famous because it's the church John Wesley was thrown out of for being a heretic.

It was a Methodist church I was speaking in - first time in a Methodist church, and fortuneatly I was not thrown out as an Anglican heretic!

And... I managed to get an afternoon sailing with a friend of mine in his Enterprise. YEEAAHHHH! [It was his church I was speaking at!]

Friday, October 07, 2005

Out of the house

One of the reasons to come over to the UK was to clear out our house. We have decided to sell our house in the UK and buy one in Cyprus. We had been sort of lending our house to a local church that in return were financialy supporting us, for them to use for a series of Australian pastors. Just over a year ago they appointed a local English pastor so the house was no longer needed for this and we rented the house to an elder from the church, who now wants to buy it. This means we will not have the expense of paying Estate Agents!

We spent a few days going through all our remaining possessions in the house - taking some to the dump, some to charity shops and the rest put in boxes to ship to Cyprus. The task was more difficult as the previous auzzie pastors had left things behind - so they weren't the tenants, nor were they ours! Anyway, its all out now and safely in the garage of a friend of ours who is graciously lending part of it till it is collected and taken to Cyprus.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Glued together...

I got Araldite and Superglue today, and successfully glued back together the two old bits of equipment I use that really need replacing.

The 'new' mobile phone I bought second hand off an Egyptian friend when my phone stopped doing GPRS [Internet connection over a mobile phone] and also started behaving eratically when charging. The one I got second hand does the GPRS correctly, has a colour screen, which I find much easier to read with my eyes getting older, but has the same problem with charging. The top flap had cracked in four places - the previous owner had repaired one place, and I managed to repair two more with Superglue and hopefully the final one will stay together for a while at least.

The Araldite was for my notebook computer. It's now four years old and has been used extensively every day [almost] in those four days - I reckon its been used for about 10,000 hours now. Anyhow, about a year ago one of the top mounting pieces of plastic broke. It's purely [well, almost purely] cosmetic, so that's OK. However, more recently the hinge to the screen broke, with a piece of the plastic even falling out. I have managed to fill the gap with Araldite and hopefully this will give the computer a little more life.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

UK arrival... then 2 computers later

We flew overnight on Sunday night - the check-in time as 02:30 for an 04:30 flight. They brought breakfast at the start of the flight rather than the end of the flight. The two vegetarian meals for Sue and Daniel came as hoped for... and it was uneventful and normal boring flight... Which is what you really want... and exciting flight is definitely not what you want. There is as you may know a Chinese curse 'May you live in interesting times'.

Yesterday we got some glues to repair both my notebook computer [now 4 years old and showing it!] and my mobile phone [I managed to get a second hand one from an Egyptian friend, but it needed repair too].

There are many family things to do while we are here. Both Timothy and Daniel inherrited some money recently and both are spending it on instruments. Today we went to let Daniel try out some clarinets. He needs a better one to progress. Timothy wanted a full 88 key keyboard and both wanted notebook computers. So today we got Timothy his keyboard and both the boys got their noetbook computers. Apple MACs. When we get funds for the organization to replace my notebook we will probably get an Apple MAC the same as the boys. They are much lighter than my notebook as as I do a lot of travelling I would love a lighter computer.

Now, using a shared Internet connection all three of us have our notebook computers on the dining room table of my mother.

Friday, September 23, 2005

3 days and counting...

Three days to go before we leave for the UK. The new leaflets arrived and look OK. The printer we use was the first ISO9001 registered printer on the island. ISO9001 is an interesting standard - most standards are to do with quality of work, ISO9001 is to do with matching what you say you will do. So, for instance, if you say you will manufacture doors with a tolerance of 10 cm then making a 2 metre door 2.10 metres is acceptable. For printers it's fine - for instance, if they say it will be ready at 12:00 on Friday, it will be ready at 12:00 on Friday. OK that may not sound amazing, but it is amazing for the culture of the Middle East.

We also finalized an outline for 3 project proposals to a US foundation and sent it off. It was a useful process as it meant Peter and I had to think through exactly what we felt God wanted us to be doing. They wanted an 'executive summary' which is a challenging task, every word has to count and you have to distil the project to its core.

Unfortuneatly our ever so friendly mechanical workshop is not ISO9001 registered, which means that although they promised to collect the dingy trailer on Tuesday and bring it back by today, they have not even collected it... which measn sadly I won't get a day sailing tomorrow.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Money, money, money... it's a rich man's world...

Yeah OK, Abba again? And no I'm not here asking for your money. Today, I went to the bank. Twice. Trying to sort out opening bank accounts in the charity's name. Everything like that seems to take a long time. When I am back in the UK I have more still to do with this. Hopefully by the end of the year all the bank accounts etc will be sorted. Till now everything has been running through specially designated personal accounts [to keep it away from our real personal accounts]. So much paperwork!

About 2 weeks ago I had an email from a US foundation saying 'we gave you some money last year and wondered if there were any projects we could help with this year'. No, I don't get these emails every day of the year... first time I have had one like that in 8 years our here! They had a specific way they wanted the reply, so this afternoon Peter and I worked through that and made a first draft of the reply. Tomorrow it will have to be finalized and sent.

Of course... we may get nothing and we do need more funds to cover the various projects as we expand.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Programmer needed

About a year ago I started developing a piece of software that allowed SMS messages [or 'text' messages if you prefer] from mobile phones to come into the computer system that is used for listeners to the radio and satellite TV stations to contact them. I was creating a 'glue' layer between a program that someone had written to send and get SMS messages from mobile phones and a database system that someone else had written. A 'glue' program sounded easy. And it started off that way... and grew... and grew...

This was also a 'cheap' solution - using a regular mobile phone with a cable connected to the computer. Worked great in development, works mostly fine in production... but... sometimes and totally unexplainably the computer fails to connect to the mobile phone. So a week or so ago I wrote a 'restart' procedure so that if it failed to connect it would restart and connect correctly. Worked well and solved the problem. We have two systems - one 'live' and the other 'development'. The development one is also used for our fault reporting system so that we are using it enough to debig things before the 'live' system.

So, since it had worked fine on the development system for a few days, a couple of days back I upgraded the live system. What I forgot was that the restart procedure needed an upgrade of the main system. So... rather than restarting it started another copy of the program. Today there were complaints about the un-reliability of the text system within the last couple of days. Looked on the system... more than 250 copies of the program running and a new one starting every 15 minutes! Ooops!

OK, return it to the old system and everything back to normal. Next thing is to integrate email into the listener response system. We act as the integrators and find all the traps others have left all over the place, and so it was with this. One of our partners in this project had set up their domain in a strange way... as the 'experts' we're there to try and untangle the mess. Very often in these cases untangling it takes longer than it would have done had we set it up in the first place. Oh well...

Programmer needed? Yes. We need someone with Perl and PHP programming experience to take on this side of the work as it's expanding and not leaving me enough time to do other work. I quite like a small amount of programming [meaning a few days a month] but we now have enough work to keep at least on person working full time on programming.

Oh and we have been talking with partners about a more elegant solution rather than using regular mobile phones. If we can go that route it might allow us to integrate regular voice telephone calls into the system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

To the printer...

That's it! Finished! We took the file on CD to the printer today. After almost a week of planning / writing / designing / reviewing / re-writing / re-designing we had to call 'deadline' and took it to the printer. He promises that it will be ready by Friday.

We're not totally happy with it but hopfully it will do what we want it to... excite people about what we do.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


So the last three days has been all change [yes, that does include much of Saturday!] On Thursday afternoon Peter and I started a discussion about how we communicate what we do with others... also known as 'publicity'. Thursday afternoon was taken up with discussing what we need, who we need to communicate with and how we should do it. All with with a publicity budget of nothing. Essential is some leaflets. We shall just have to find money for that!

Friday with Peter and then some of Saturday with the family we spent discussing text and images for the leaflet. What I am finding is that I am really disconnected from the people we are trying to do this publicity for. I have ideas about what people in the Middle East think - maybe not 100% accurate, but I feel that I have less ideas about what people in the UK think. For instance, Peter was feeling that the buzz around the UK is about post July 7th bombings in London and that was affecting everyone's perception of work in the Middle East. I have no idea really what people in the UK are feeling.

So that makes me feel quite strange about all this publicity... will it work? will it communicate? will it excite people? will it bore them? What we really need is people in the UK to come out here, find out what we do and then them write publicity... it's all about knowing your audience [as I tell people out here in the Middle East] and I don't really know the buzz of the UK now.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Support system working... we hope!

Well... two days later and the support system seems to be working. Been working on trying to get some 'end user help files' written. The aim of this is to create answers to the questions users ask and point them in the right direction. Even if they come back to us asking, it will be quicker to say 'read it on the website' than explain over the phone or over instant messenger how it works.

There are still some bugs in the system, but it looks like its heading in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Two days into the week

It seems like I only just got back from Egypt, but this is two days into the week already. Monday was mainly taken up with meetings with a colleague from Malta who is over. He had loads of technical questions and Peter and I spent a large part of the day working through them.

Today, we spent it working out ways of reducing our workload. Being technical 'experts' in the eyes of others makes us targets for requests for assistance. Sometimes this is helpful but often we get wildly distracted solving other people's problems. If someone says 'my email is not working' it could be a problem with our system or more often than not its a problem with their computer.

So what we are trying to build is a defence wall around ourselves to allow us to answer the queries that are relevant and bounce back to others the problems that are really theirs. Because we are getting so distracted we are then communicating badly in quality and quantity with those people who we should be. So today was taken up working out what is reasonable for us to do and within what time-frame, and working out methods of improving the quality of the communication with those we should be communicating with.

We will also be introducing a strict rotation of who is on call, rather like a doctor, so that we are not all being pestered with phone calls, emails and instant messages. Tomorrow I am on call!

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Just back from a trip to Egypt. Wherever you travel in the Middle East people warn you about tummy bugs. I forget all the names, I remember there's 'Jordan Jip', 'Beirut Bug' and the 'Cairo Curse' to name but a few. These are caused by water born bugs, and for the first time ever I succummed to the dreaded 'Cairo Curse'. This laid me up in bed for a large part of Saturday, but it came and went quickly and I'm now back (almost) to normal.

The reason for the trip was to set up a project for a big website. We were needing a programmer, designer and webmaster - all Arabic speakers. So with a colleague from the USA I was visiting some of the people we work with to talk through the proposal for the project. It was good to meet face-to-face again with the people that I normally only meet on an instant message chat or email.

The meetings went well and we managed to do all the meetings we needed in the few short days we were there.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Guests and meetings

Yesterday a guest from another organization related to ours flew in from the USA. Not diectly, but that's where he's from. He is staying for a few days in our office guest room.

Today he and I were meeting to discuss a project we hope to work together on over the next year or so. It's an Arabic portal site, with significant content and a growing audience. The audience is from all over the Arabic speaking world including a sizable number from Saudi Arabia.

Up till now the site has been a bit of a muddle. It has proven the concept if you like, but now we have been asked to be involved in supervising the development to get it to a much larger fully operational position. It will involve co-ordinating Arabic speaking designers, programmers and system administrators. So later this week we fly to Egypt to meet the team we are putting together.

Meetings sometimes feel like 'just all talk' but its often in the planning of projects that they succeed or fail. The next two days will be full of such planning meetings.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Working correctly... we hope!

Peter managed to get the routing to work now which is a great relief to both of us. So now we have main and backup entry points into our system for our partners. We'll have to watch it over the next few weeks, but it should make it more reliable.

In doing this, we found that the dynamic DNS system was not doing quite what it should. Ooops? What's DNS? The Internet runs on numbers, rather like telephone numbers, but numbers are very difficult to remember. Well, they are for most of us. I mean instead of typing if you had to type, you'd find it pretty difficult pretty quickly. The DNS system is what allows you to type something user-friendly and looks up the number automatically for you.

Bacause of the sort of connection we use, one of our two connections changes its number every so often and we have a system that should automatically tell the DNS what the new number is. So part of my time yesterday and today was updating that system so that it now does it correctly.

Alongside this I was updating the 'fault reporting system' so that partners can tell us when something is not working. The new system sends Peter and I an SMS message when someone notices something wrong. Sometimes its the other way round... one of the radio stations we host on the Internet is having problems and we told the partner about it so they can rectify it. Really that's the name of the game. None of us can do it all, we all work together to achive a common goal.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Please can we have 28 hours in a day from now on?

Today started too early! I was at the airport at 8am. That's the second day in a row I have been up too early and it's telling. I was picking up a friend who works in the Middle East. He had been taking a vacation in Egypt, and was coming back to spend a couple of days with us before returning to the country he works in.

We spent some of the morning planning a joint project we will be working on next year, and some of it running around town: buying cable clips, going to the bank to pay the rent, going to the travel agent to change flight reservations, going to another origanization to give them an invoice... all the things that have to be done to just keep things rolling. Boring but necessary.

Buying cable clips? My friend is helping me by installing another 3 sensors for the alarm system for the office and needed them to neaten off the wires. When you add PIR [infrared] detectors you have to do a 'walk test', which means you walk through the area and see if they trigger.

Some time ago I learnt that if you walk very slowly you can fool a PIR detector into not triggering. By very slowly I mean about 3-4 metres in 10-15 minutes, or slower. So for a few minutes we played the game 'can I walk slowly enough to not trigger the PIR?'. The answer was than neither of us could, so hopefully no potential theif could either.

In between all that I am copying video tape masters. I brought back a series of 16 or so video tape masters from the conference a couple of weeks back and now have to copy them all. Each is approximately one hour long.

This afternoon I spent time reading and writing email. At last I have got it down to a reasonable amount. One of the problems with good fast communication is that the volume of communication has radically increased and people expect more of it. Years ago when people went abroad and it took weeks for a letter to get to where that person was, you had plenty of time to read and respond. People wrote few letters. Not so with email.

There are still only 24 hours in a day, of which about 8-10 are working hours and so if communication has increased to take up 3-4 hours of that then there is less time for other things. That was the trap I was in about a year or so ago. I found it mind boggling how long all the email was taking.

Then along came instant messaging. To start with it was great, it allowed colleagues in different countries to work together in real time, reducing some of the emails. Quickly however it began to take over. As soon as I arrived at the office people would open a chat window and start asking questions. So although the email had reduced to maybe 1-2 hours per day the instant messaging had absorbed another 2-4 hours and I was getting even less done.

So now I turn it off... the email and the instant messaging and do it when I want to. Some of my colleagues in other countries don't like it, but I feel more sane. And I try to reduce the communications stuff down to about 5-10 hours per week.

Of course the next frightening thing round the corner is VOIP - what's that you ask? A disease like AIDS? No, its using the Internet for telephone calls. At the moment one of the things that stops loads of people phoning me is the cost. When that is free... oh no... even when instant messenger services are turned off, my Internet phone will ring!

Of course, every good thing has a bad opposite and the VOIP thing actually does have a good side, it will enable us to set up ways of listeners to the radio station responding via a VOIP linked telephone to the programmes. Any ways that we can get to interact with the audience is a step in the right direction.

It's one of the projects that Peter needs to get to as soon as this burden of the routing is lifted from him. Keep praying for the routers to be up and working.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Administration and meeting

Today was a mixed day. Part administration and part a meeting. Wednesday is the day David our part time administrator/book keeper comes in.

I went in very early [for me] - about 8am - to try to get things started before he arrived. I needed to do some invoices for facilities to partner organizations. We realised that there were a largish number of bills not paid so David went off and paid them. And then he began to get caught up with the rest of the paperwork.

It's not a full time job our administration, but it is probably 1/2 time. So, one day a week means we are permanently behind. It's the kind of job that would suit a retired person with the right gifts who likes the sun of Cyprus [hint].

Although David never gets to the bottom of the pile, he is beginning to do more and one thing we are bad at is chasing up when people owe us money. We are hoping that will be something he begins to take on - sending out monthly statements to remind people when they owe us something!

The meeting was with one of the partner groups we are working with for the SMS system, plus with the main software developer for the web interface. In between talking with David we managed to get one of two partners upgraded to the new system which includes email connection as well, and the other one is ready for upgrade the only problem is who will do the tech support for the change over. Not us!

The system is working well enough that there are hopes of rolling out similar systems for many parts in Africa and India and Parkistan. Again those are outside out 'patch' so others will be doing it. Encouraging to see that though.

Finally just as Peter left through the door he said that he thought that it was now mostly working, although there are a couple of sigificant wrinkles still to be ironed out.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The big picture?

This morning Pete and I spent the time together talking about the plans for the future… and praying a little. We decided this will be what we do each morning this week. It's very easy for us to get caught in the hussle and bussle of every day work without seeing where we are going.

For instance, one project we have been working on is a gateway between SMS mobile phone messages and a secure website, so that people responding to the radio stations can send SMS messages. It had been causing us grief keeping it all working and we were wondering if it was worthwhile. At a meeting a few weeks back we found that there were about 15 messages per day going through the system and growing. This sort of thing helps us focus on why we are doing what we are doing… rather than just doing it!

Pete's feeling a bit under stress with keeping all the Internet stuff going and we really need more technical support. We have so little free resources that even trying to improve things can end up causing problems elsewhere. Of course, this is the story of non-profit organizations the world over, but it doesn't ease the stress.

Anyhow I spent the afternoon catching up on email and helping Peter with one of the problems that is bugging us. We have two ADSL connections to the Internet. This is both to increase the bandwidth we have available and to have some redundancy. The redundancy is the problem. We want to allow people to connect to us on the second link if the first goes down. Sounds easy, but implementing is somewhat more difficult. At 6pm we left the office with it still not working.

So, back to the big picture… there are way more things we could do than have manpower and money to do, so deciding/finding out from God which we should do is the issue. Please pray that we find out God's will for what we should do in the next 12 months and what we should not do! Oh, and while you're about it, pray for more people to help us and the money we need, particuarly the money needed to cover the costs of such mundane things as the rent.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

It worked! [at last]

Finally completed the conference video that was wanted urgently. I don't know how many times I tried rendering it... I have lost count. I started on Friday and then every few hours over the weekend I would walk to the office to check it had worked... and it hadn't. It was so frustrating. I like equipment to work - or at very least have a reliable fault you can fix. This was just plain flaky.

I had made the DVD masters and I was trying to make the Video CD masters. Every time it would stop or freeze at a different place. I would try this and that and the other to try and fix it... then leave it for a few hours to while it should work and it would fail again. Its the part of the work I hate.

Eventually I traced it to a faulty RAID card [the RAID card is the thing that turns two normal hard disks into one very big, very fast hard disk for video editing]. It's another casualty of the upgrade. One of the new 'caddys' that enable us to swap hard disks around was faulty and totally wrote off a new RAID card and one of our original RAID cards, and it appears that it damaged this one. The problem is that you cannot buy the RAID cards we need in Cyprus. So we are dead in the water so to speak...

Anyway, at least its finished now, so I can send off copies to the UK head office, and I actually completed 2/3 of what I intended this week.

Tomorrow is a new week!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Editing completed

When you make DVDs or VideoCDs there are four parts to the process [excluding the filming] which are:
  1. Video editing
  2. Sound editing and mixing
  3. Convert files to DVD/VCD format
  4. DVD/VCD authoring
Today I completed the first two parts, which are the 'artistic' parts of the process, ie deciding what to keep in and what to remove, how to add appropriate graphics and how to balance the sound.

When the editing is completed the files have to be converted to the correct format for DVD or VCD. This is called 'rendering' and take 2-6 times the duration of the programme. So for this which is a 60 minute programme in 2 parts it will take about 10 hours to render both the DVD and VCD files. It's not something you have to sit and watch [which would be very tedious] but with the problems with the video editing machine the programmes that do the conversion seem to be having problems... I have done the conversion twice on one part and have left it trying again overnight.

When the files are converted I can start the 'authoring' process, which is adding the menus and titles that you see at the beginning of DVDs and make the master DVDs from which copies can be made.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Video editing

Today I spent the whole day woking on video editing one of the seminars I recorded the week before last. The content of it is timely so we need to get an edited DVD and VCD [Video CD] out as soon as possible.

The project involved adding in the Powerpoint graphics that the speaker used at the presentation. Many of you will know what Powerpoint is already, but for those who don't it's a Microsoft program to create graphic presentations on a video projector that can be seen behind the speaker as s/he speaks.

Sounds simple enough... export the graphics from Powerpoint and import into our video editing program [we use Adobe Premiere]. However... there is a small amount of information lost around the edge of a normal TV screen which is not lost when a presentation is projected onto a screen. This means that speakers often use the entire screen for text, some of which will be lost on the TV screen. So many of the graphics have to be re-worked for the video edit.

Alongside that problem there is also the problem of animations. We can export each graphic, but we cannot export the animations, so all the animations have to be re-created by hand in the video editing system. This often means that a single graphic will have to be exported a number of times with different stages of the animation and then put together as an animation afterwards.

The audio was recorded separately on the new Edirol R4 system, which worked exceedingly well, and part of the reason for using it was that we needed to record the audience reaction as well as the speaker. That means that we then have to mix the audio to go with the video. For those interested we use ProTools for that. ProTools is a pretty high end tool for mixing audio and it was a joy to do the audio for the seminar on it. Using tools that make the task easier also make it more enjoyable. We have so many struggles with equipment, having something that works easily is a real joy!

Now I've probably painted the picture that shows recording and editing a simple seminar is not as simple as it might sound at first. What made it more of a struggle is the problems we are having with the video editing system decribed in earlier blog entries. Still, it's progressing on slowly, despite having problems with the video editing system. Tomorrow I continue... hmmm... no I won't, my son arrives back from two months away and we will collect him from the airport in the morning.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Double it and move up to the next unit of measure

Today I spent the whole day creating a support administration system for all of our partners. We have made attempts at this in the past, but in order to cope we have decided that support has to change to a more structured approach.

Sometimes we have been overwhelmed with requests for assistance, more than 50% are usually not our problem and in some weeks almost all the 'fault reports' are nothing to do with us. However, every time we get a message saying 'there's a problem here' we have to check whether or not there really is a problem.

This in itself wastes time, particuarly when we are in the middle of something else and have to stop doing that to check out if there is a problem. Having structured approach lets us separate the support from us individually and prioritize according to our priorities rather than responding to other people's priorities.

What this means that any of our partners can either go to a webpage and complete a form describing the problem or send an email to a designated address. If they use the form then they will get either an email or SMS message in response, so they know that we have received the form and are dealing with it.

This project was one of three I want to complete this week and I had been concerned that it would take more than half the week so that I might not actually get to the other things that need doing this week.

This is particuarly in light of a rule of thumb in writing computer programs 'estimate how long it will take, double it and move up to the next unit of measure'. This means if you estimate it will take 2 days, it's likely to take 4 weeks! So its very pleasant and unusual to complete a computer programming task in less time that I would expect.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Defenders 2 Attackers 1

I wont tell you all the gory details of the attack. Firstly you probably wouldn't understand and secondly if you did you might work out some other vulnerabilities from what I tell you.

What I can tell you is that the break-in was not as serious as we first imagined. We are pretty sure we know where the break-in occured and how it happened. We have added extra 'bolts on the doors' so to speak, however, although we have added the extra security there is no way to make any server 100% invulnerable [certainly not the way the hacker got in] so please pray for the security of the servers.

It took ages to find - to start with I was looking for more subtle, cleverer break-ins. To find that it was simpler was actually reassuring. Anyhow, finished all that about 4am this morning. What was annoying was the bad service from the hosting company in London. They guarantee a reboot within 15 minutes. It actually took 4 hours, during which time I was waiting for them. Earlier in the week Peter had to wait 17 hours for the reboot. the exuse they gave was that they couldn't find the server among the tens of thousands of servers in the hosting company!

Friday, August 19, 2005


Well, I'm back in Cyprus now. I had a 6 hour delay on the flight back so spent time in the airport reading... and getting bored. Instead of arriving at about 10-11pm I arrived after 4am. I guess that means they made up some time, but still it was annoying especially as I had arranged a meeting for 2pm today [Thursday]. So I slept most of the morning and then went to the meeting.

We were discussing the development of the SMS message gateway system we developed. This allows listeners to the radio stations to send SMS messages to people who will follown up with their needs. In at least one country in the Middle East this is the primary method of getting messages and about 15-20 per day are received. One development we would like to do is to integrate with VOIP. VOIP is the system that allows telephone calls to be made over the Internet. This would mean than listeners could phone a Cyprus number and the call would be routed over the Internet to the person who would answer them.

We were also replacing a faulty phone. We developed the current system using cheap 40 pound mobile phones, but one of them has gone faulty and screen is totally back so we have no idea what its doing at all. One of the development things is to upgrade the system to use commercial grade phone modules that will enable us to be more reliable and to do the extra VOIP facilities we want.

It seems upgrading is in the air again... yesterday I had messages from Peter and some of our partners that one of our main servers in London had failed. Obviously I could do nothing about it sitting in an airport lounge [note for techies, I don't have wireless on my laptop so could not use the Internet wireless hotspot... I need a new notebook soon].

Anyhow, today I found out from Peter that the reason for the server going down was that the server had been hijacked by a hacker in Belgium. He had got in using the user name and password of one of our Egyptian support team.

Unfortuneately there is no defence in the world against someone using a legitimate user name and password and all the hacks to our servers have been through this method. We have thoughts about how to upgrade the systems, but we need more people to help and more than anything prayer coverage as nothing can stop this sort of problem.

Please pray for protection for our servers

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Buying more things wastes even more time!

I ordered a couple of special hard drives to come to my mother's house to try to overcome the problem with the video editing computer. They are significantly cheaper in the UK and the company sent me an email order confirmation saying that it was dispatched on the 7th August and would take 1-2 days to reach her. Being a trusting kind of guy, I believed them.

I arrive at my mother's and there is a new memory chip for our digital camera, plus some family things [ did it correctly again].

The following day I go to Brighton to pick up some components we need for the office. In particular I need some relays to modify our 'Telephone Balance Unit' to work remotely, plus red light relays so we know when mics are live.

A Telephone Balance Unit is the piece of equipment that allows you to do 'phone in' shows on radio and we want to start doing those this autumn. The equipment we bought works very well... but the button on the front is stupid, it's way too small for me to get even my small fingers into it, so that's why we wanted a remote for it with a reasonable sized button.

Anyway on the way to Brighton in the car I suddenly think "Ooops, what about the hard drives?" and as soon as I get back I send a message to the company concerned. They reply almost immediately that there had been an 'operational problem' at the courier company and that I would get them before I left.

Sadly this company totally failed and they had not delivered by the time I left. So now I am faced with the problem of getting it sorted out. These things waste so much time, no wonder the UK companies don't compete well in the world market!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

End of filming...

Well... the conference came to an end and we completed about 22 interviews, 7 seminar recordings and one advertising piece. The final interview was completed as people were getting on coaches to go home... we worked right up to the last minute!

The two of us on the crew both wished we had borrowed our wives step meters to measure how far we walked.

I caught the coach back to London and then went to the south coast to visit my mother for a couple of days. I think I had more than 50kg in total so was horrified with the number of stairs to go up and down at the railway stations.

I was ever so thankful when my mother offered to pay for a taxi to the airport so that I wouldn't have to go up and down all those the stairs again.

She came with me to the airport and reckoned I got away with the extra baggage through flirting with the check-in girl... hmmm... I'm sure it was just God opening the the door for me!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Television production: 'Hours of inactivity followed by 2 minutes of frenetic activity'

Someone once described TV production as 'hours of inactivity followed by 2 minutes of frenetic activity'. I'm not sure this has been totally true for us this week. In the last 5 days we have filmed 16 interviews, 7 plenary talks and one advert.

It's far short of the 30-40 interviews that we had wanted to film, but because almost everyone that we wanted to interview is a significant leader in the organization their schedule is VERY full and it's been difficult to make contact, arrange times for filming and then meet up for filming.

There have been times when we have been sitting waiting for an hour for someone to turn up... not quite the 'hours of inactivity' but we have waited and then the interviewee has turned up and said 'I have another meeting in 5 minutes, can we do this quickly?'

Till today the weather has been kind to us and we have had sunshine so most of the interviews have been outside. Today it rained and we were forced to be inside, which meant we were looking for suitable locations and then also having to light those locations.

The equipment today is MUCH lighter than it was - it was about 100kg as the mininum when I started nearly nearly 30 years ago, but even today camera, tripod, sound and lighting equipment comes to probably 30kg and carring that around; up and down hills between venues gets very tiring. We had about 45 minutes between interviews today and me and a colleague fell asleep waiting since we were so tired.

For all it being tiring, I must admit that location filming is still probably the most enjoyable part of my work.

I met another interesting person at dinner today, someone who is a professional graphic designer in southern California. He and his wife are over here helping with the children's work, but he hadn't known that there were opportunities for the Lord to use his gifts in His service out here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Well this is day 2 and we have so far completed 1 interview, and he was over 1 hour late for the appointment. The content was very good though.

I'm working with a colleague from Malta on this project [he's the guy on the camera]. I think we will both be very fit by the end of the conference. It's about 1 mile up and down hills between the main conference site and our accomodation. It's a mile in the other direction to many of the locations for filming.

We have also been filming some of the plenary sessions, which have been excellent. The main plenary that is wanted for distribution after the event will be tomorrow.

I was slightly concerned about all the equipment arriving OK, as I had ordered some extra pieces in the UK [along with all the tapes we needed for filming]. But PTL everything arrived safely.

The new tiny sound mixer/hard disk recorder [Edirol R4] we were given a month ago is excellent and really makes things very much easier. We are so thankful to people that come alongside us and help us with these gifts.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Meeting people...

There are about 1500 people at the conference that we are working at from all over the world. Our main job is to film interviews with people about the 'core values' of the organization so that new people coming into it may learn from the old stagers what its about.

We have a list of about 30-40 people who would be good to interview... but... have you ever tried to find 30 people in 1500? Then agree times to meet to film them? It's proving quite a task in itself.

What is interesting are the other meetings that take place unplanned... well... I say unplanned, but I guess God is doing the planning! I met for dinner with the missions pastor from a large church in the USA. We were both sharing what we were doing here and what our interests were...

What was facinating in this divine appointment was he had a guy in his church who wanted to set up a registry of media professionals who wanted to use some of their time per year for the Lord. We have a project where we want to bring out media professionals to work alongside and mentor people from the Middle East so that they learn to do some of the bigger projects better.

Coming out from dinner I met the wife of a sound mixer from the USA whose husband is just finishing a college course and is praying about what is the next step in their life... I'll meet him later in the week.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Frustrating isn't in it!

Some days things go from bad to worse. This was one of them. The ongoing saga of the programme with added Greek... this morning my son and I went in to the office to copy from the DVCAM to the new video editing computer... and the computer failed.

I then took it down to the computer store. One problem was that the BIOS on the motherboard didn't support DVD writers [we use a DVD writer] so the store technician flashed a new bios onto the motherboard and the DVD writer started working and the RAID system stopped working.

On the servers we use RAID to 'mirror' the hard drive so that if one fails the other can take over. On the video editing computers we use RAID in a different mode so that each drive is used alternately making one very large hard drive that is very fast!

So they then tried a new RAID card. This took at least a hour, because the BIOS on the RAID card was incompatible with the BIOS on the motherboard so it to had to be flashed with a new bios. Eventually all seemed to work together except one of the removeable units for one of the hard drives.

We use removeable hard drives so that we can have three pairs of hard drives [ie 6 hard drives in total] because we need so much space for video editing we cannot have enough space on one pair, so we swap them for different projects.

The computer store is supposed to close at 2pm but stayed open till 4pm working on it, which meant that I didn't have lunch till 4.30pm.

When I got back to the office after late lunch I replaced the faulty removeable hard drive caddy, found the second new one was faulty, bodged a way round using some old removeable hard drive caddies and then... had problems with the RAID system, which it had not be possible to see because the removeable hard drive system had not been working.

The RAID system failed totally. Fought with it for a couple of hours and then it was time for dinner.

Back after dinner... managed to get the system going sufficiently to copy the programme [this time correctly - no added Greek and high quality] onto a hard drive. Finished 9.45 pm.


Very frustrated!

When I get back from this trip I will have to start again trying to get the new and the old video edit computers to work. The aim is that the new one will become our main editing computer, hopefully much faster than the old one, and the old one will be used in the ProTools sound dubbing system as the video playback system.

One option is to purchase new SATA hard drives for the new computer. We don't really have the funds for this - already the new edit computer has had unbudgeted an extra new motherboard, an extra new RAID card, and a new Matrox dual head graphics card...

Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to swap over to video editing on an Apple MAC, but that would be even more expensive!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Final day in the office?

My final day before travelling to the UK. That means I was trying to finish up too many things... I met with one colleague who will be away when I am back and then back when I am away again and so we won't meet again till the end of October. Seems like a long way off. He's the main co-ordinator of the learning website, so we will be in contact through email during the next two and half months, but we wanted to make sure how it would progress during that period.

Then my other colleague came back for an hour or so - he'd been on holiday this week and he will be in the office next week alone, so I was doing the 'handover', leaving him with all the things I had not done or could not do. One of which was a problem of Internet routing. When you connect to a website the other side of the world [or in this case connect from Malta to Cyprus or visa versa] the packets of data go through many computers en-route. If any one of them is having problems then the effect for the end user is a problem with the website.

We collect audio files from a computer at the Malta team office for one of the Internet radio stations and they connect to our system here to administrate following up people who contact the radio stations. Neither way is working properly, its been almost 2 weeks since we have been able to collect audio files and during that time they have had severe problems connecting to the administration site.

Last night, very late, I chatted online with the team leader in Malta and we diagnosed the problem together. There is a computer or computers near them [probably in Italy or France] that are loosing packets of data as they go through the Internet. What is strange is that if those packets are addressed to one of our two connections we lose about 90%, but if they are addressed to the other connection we lose about 50%. 90% is unusable, 50% is just about usable, so it would make sense for us to route packets to the Malta team through the connection that works better for them. That's where I came unstuck.

The 'black box' that does this is called a router [for those who are interested we use Cisco routers] and so I logged on to one of the routers and looked to see if I could route the packets in a way that would make it work for Malta and us. At this point I realised that my colleague [who is ex-British Telecom] knew a whole league more than I do about routers and although I can do the basics of routing I hadn't got a clue how to do this. So that's one of the tasks I left him.

My son was in the office too, trying to finish building the video editing computer, 'It will only take an hour' he said... and finished at 5.30 this evening! Tomorrow I will have to go in to the office and copy one programme onto the computer... this is the ongoing saga of the programme with 'added Greek' mentioned in business as usual.

When they copied it a second time, it arrived back without added Greek, but the quality of the sound was terrible [for the technically inclined, the Betacam player we have only plays back with Dolby C encoding, whereas they had recorded it without Dolby C encoding]. So rather than try a third time, we borrowed a DVCam recorder and tomorrow will make a copy straight onto the computer [correctly this time] and then on Monday another colleague will drive back to Nicosia to return the DVCam recorder.
So after all that today was not my final day in the office before I travel!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

It's all in the timing...

I phoned the International office about the delivery at 1 minute past 9am to see if the package had arrived. I don't know if I was more surprised or relived to find that it had. So all things being well it will be ready for me on Monday when I get there.

And on the subject of timing, a new probable team member came round this afternoon and we were talking about what he will be doing and in passing he said one of the things he had hoped to use, but so far hadn't, was his qualification in distance learning for IT. Ping, light goes on in head... isn't this what we're trying to do with the learning website? I'll have to get him and the other guy who's working on it together. He and I are struggling somewhat as we know little about distance learning.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Buying things wastes time!

About 12 years ago we spent a couple of years living the USA. One of the good things about the USA is that when you place an order with a company it is nearly always fulfilled on time and on specification. Contrast that with the 3 years we spent in the UK directly after that when only one order I placed with a company was fulfilled on time and on specification. Sometimes I feel it hasn't got any better in the last decade. Today was an example:

About a month ago I placed an order for a Manfrotto 522C - it's a remote zoom control handle for our Canon XL1 video camera - the C is important it specifies that it works with the Canon cameras and not the Sony cameras. Because we're in Cyprus I got it delivered to a colleague who would bring it out. When it arrived I found the company had supplied a 522A not a 522C. So I got in touch with them, firstly they claimed that the 522A works with Canon - I referred them to the Manfrotto website.

Then they came back and told me Manfrotto no longer made the 522C and so I would have to have a cheaper and not so good one. No that wasn't what I wanted. So I researched the Manfrotto website again and found a better version which was slightly more expensive... yes they could get that for me and deliver it to the international office in the UK in time for the filming I am doing next week. I also ordered 40 video tapes for that filming and FAXed them delivery details.

Today the people from the office are going to the venue where the conference will be held and phoned me to confirm everything I had got sent to them had arrived. Everything had... except... yes you guessed, the remote zoom control and the 40 tapes I had ordered for filming. So I phoned the company [yes, these are all International phone calls] and eventually spoke to one of the managers who apologised profusely and said that the piece of paper with my order was sitting on his desk and he had forgotten to sent it out!

After a whole series of phone calls he is now sending it overnight to arrive before 9am tomorrow at the international office, when one of the team will hopefully collect it and take it to the conference. and all of the sellers I have used through, on the other hand, delivered everything on time and on specification.

We're not a commercial company but I wonder how much it costs european industry [we have the same problems out here in Cyprus] with people spending hours and many phone calls chasing orders, sending back stuff that is wrong, re-ordering what they should have supplied in the beginning and waiting till it arrives late.

My youngest son came in today to try to build a new video edit computer, and, no he didn't complete it because the Cyprus company that faithfully promised to supply the RAM failed to do so. That too ended up with numerous phone calls and wasted time chasing it up. One wonders why europeans don't have a word like the Arabs do - maleesh - which is close to our 'whatever' but much more expressive.

Teaching or learning?

In the old days there were craftsmen, master-craftsmen and apprentices. People learnt by working alongside others who had been doing the craft for many years. In recent times we have schools and training colleges and universities. It almost appears like people want to open their head like taking the lid off a kettle and pour in knowledge. All over the world this seems to be the modern way. But you don't gain skills that way.

One of the things that we are trying to do is improve the skills in media of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. But often we have found they come approaching it as if they want the knowledge without the skills. The website we are developing as a way of encouraging learning now has this as its motto “This is not the place where you come to train. This is the place where you come to learn.”

I spent part of today with a colleague trying to get the right style for this site. Its important that its friendly - not just a load of facts. People from the Middle East are very relational so it has to have the feel of a workshop with people working alongside each other and learning from each other. Well, we'll have to see how it turns out and if the people we want to encourage find it helpful... as they say 'watch this space'.

Most of the day was spent editing, and programme 5 is nearly finished now. It was left rendering over-night.

This evening I wired another mobile phone into the system and then wrote the extre program code to make the system work with multiple phones. Tomorrow another colleague will test it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

T shirts with slogans

The Christmas before last my oldest son gave both me and my other son t-shirts. He had added slogans to them. Mine said 'Don't ask me... it's a hardware problem!' and my son's said 'Don't ask me... it's a software problem!'

This is the last week before I go to the conference so I set myself two targets:
  1. Finish the editing of a training series so I can take it to the conference
  2. Finish the programming of the SMS gateway so we can use more mobile phones on the system
I spent some of the day editing part 4b of the training series and left it 'rendering' - rendering is the process of converting one file type to another file type. We edit video programmes at full broadcast quality, the files are very large and we have special hard drives to do it with. When we distribute them we want to get a whole hour on a CD-ROM. This means compressing the video a lot, and is called 'rendering' It takes about 3 hours to render a 15-20 minute programme.

In between that I was back and forth to the computer shop we use. My youngest son has been helping us by building the second and new video edit computer [it's a hardware problem!]. Only it has proved more difficult than we hoped. We use a Matrox 2500 system which is somewhat old technology but works very well and we managed to buy one new recently for about 15% of the cost.

However, it is very fussy with the other hardware that it is connected to and my son spent a week trying various things in the office before we decided that the motherboard would never work with this system. So today he was in at the computer shop trying another one... and other pieces of hardware to work with it. We finished there around 5pm having finally sorted out what we need. That's the good news. The bad news is that it will cost about 400 pounds more than we expected.

In between going back and forth to the shop I taught another colleague how to use the new wiki I mentioned and in doing so found that we needed another application on the wiki site to allow him to upload images. I got that working this evening.

What I had hoped to do this evening was to do a bit of the programming for the SMS gateway [a software problem!]. The SMS gateway allows listeners to send SMS messages [also called text messages] from their mobile phones and they get put into a database system here. Then the people from the radio stations who respond to listeners can read the messages and type a response which is then sent out by our system. I wrote the software that takes the SMS messages in and sends them out.

Currently we have one phone connected to the system, but we want to have a number of them, so that many of the radio and tv stations we work with can use this facility. And what I have to write is the bit that swaps from phone to phone sending and receiving messages. I can only program when I have peace and quiet - like in the evenings - I'm not a terribly good programmer and get distracted easily [that's a plug by the way that we need a programmer out here full time, someone who knows Perl, PHP and UNIX].

The system is being used by one of our partners and we didn't realise just how critical it was till last Monday when three of us from the office went to a meeting in another town with them. When we got there we found that during the time we had driven to the other town a small problem had developed such that they could no access it. Normally had one of us been there it would have been a 5 minute [or less] job to fix.

In the process we found that they were receiving 15-20 messages a day and that they were using them every day for a programme that was broadcast later in the day - responding to listeners questions. Without the live facility the production team were having to go back over old messages to find some to respond to. It showed us that everyday people in the the Middle East asking questions about Jesus and want to know more about Him.

Anyhow I didn't get started even tonight as one of my colleagues is away on holiday this week and one of the servers out here went wierd, gobbling up all the free space on one of the hard drives and stopping it working in the process. I tried everything to find the problem and eventually rebooted the machine. This is drastic, we try never to re-boot unless necessary... and ... it didn't restart. Which meant at 9.30pm I had to go into the office and sort out the problem.

We use a system called RAID on our servers. RAID means that we use 2 hard drives every place that you would normally use 1, and all the data is simulaneously written to both hard drives. The logic for this is that if one of the hard disks fail [as happens to all hard disks, the only question is when... bit like human beings and death I guess] then you have not lost your data. It appears that one of the hard drives had partially failed and the server was sitting there when it re-started saying 'Press Control-D to enter maintainance mode'. Which I did and fixed the problem.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Business as usual?

Some days things seems to happen and are significant, other days its just 'business as usual'. The last two days have been like that. So what is 'business as usual'?

Yesterday I went to Nicosia with a colleague from another organization - they use our facilities to make DVD masters of films, and one of the films they are making a DVD of has just been dubbed into Farsi, the language spoken in Iran. The video tape format that the tape was sent in was one we couldn't handle [DVCAM - more harware we need sometime! Anyone want to donate, this is what we need!] so the other organization got a company in Nicosia to make a copy onto a format we could handle. Unfortuneately in the process the sound got muddled and in places we had Greek audio not Farsi audio. There was also some audio missing from the video tape. So one of the reasons for going was to check that the audio would be done right this time.

When it is copied correctly, some time in the next month, we will then take it into our dubbing suite [for those of you interested it's a Digidesign Digi002 system] to mix the Farsi dialogue with the music and sound effects. At the same time we will correct the levels and make the audio quality correct for the pictures. Then we can create the DVD master that will be used to allow Iranians to see the film.

The second reason for the trip to Nicosia was to buy a new lighting stand and to buy a couple of padded camera bags for equipment... well... that was the plan... but things changed when I got to the company that sells the equipment. Firstly they had some old camera bags that they were prepared to sell at approx 20% the cost I was expecting to pay and secondly they had a new lightweight complete lighting system cheaper than I could buy in the UK, as they had directly imported from Italy. So I ended up buying a complete lightweight lighting system. This now completes our portable filming equipment - about 3-4 weeks ago we were given a new very good sound mixer which is also a 'hard disk recorder' [in other words it records audio onto a computer type hard disk - its an Edirol R4 for those interested] from a donor in another European country.

In a week's time I shall be travelling to yet another European country to record about 32 interviews and a seminar or two, plus set up some training, and we need all this for that event and for other projects we have in the next year.

Today I spent most of the day video editing a training programme [we make a few training programmes for other organizations]. Editing training programmes, which are often just one person speaking to camera with captions and other graphics is not very exciting as a production, but the value to the people all over the world is great, so the motivation is not from the artistic but from the content. We have a few more to finish by the end of next week so that I can take the masters to the conference I mentioned earlier.

I also spent some time talking through with a colleague about a training website for people doing media in our region. This will take the form of a wiki and a forum. What's a wiki I hear you ask?

Wikipedia defines a wiki as "a web application that allows users to add content and their own version of History, as on anInternet forum, but also allows anyone to edit the content." In other words its kind of like a book that anyone can add pages or edit. Sounds wierd doesn't it. I mean, what if the Bible were a wiki, so anyone could add, delete or edit? I was really skeptical about them when I first heard. But if you think of it more in terms of a co-authored book then you can begin to see how it will work. So we are setting up a wiki and discussion forum with a group of other consultants to bring together training materials for people in the region that we work. It won't be open to everyone, like Wikipedia [which is an encyclopedia as a wiki] but only to people who are part of one of the organizations we work with.

So that's it... the end of another week. Next week one of my colleagues is away on vacation so I shall be doing all the support work too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

It had to happen...

Well, being the last in the family to have a blog, and being told that people want to know what I do with myself... I decided to start a blog.

This evening the guys from the office were taking an Egyptian colleague out go-carting as a 'goodbye' thank you for helping us over the last month. Just before we left I got an email from one of the ministries that we broadcast their radio station on the Internet for saying they were having problems and people were not able to 'tune in' reliably. The problem is their end as all the other ones we handle are working fine... but could we help. So off to go-carting while thinking about how to help.

Cyprus, like many places in the Middle East, does 'deals' or barters so when we got there although the prices were displayed we are all asking what sort of deal they could do for us. 4 people, so instead of 9 pounds for 15 minutes what price would it be. They said they could do a deal and it would be 36 pounds for all four! Anyway we had a great time, the Egyptian colleague started off driving as if he was driving a car and soon learned that go-carting makes driving in Cairo seem possitively calm and relaxing.

Back to the office after the carting [11pm] and we pulled out one of our satellite receivers and re-configured things so that we were sending the radio station feed to London rather than the partner ministry. This cleared up the problem and so in the next few days we will work with them in trying to find out what their problem is... or passing it on to the relevant person in their organization.

Much of what we do now is 'mission critical'- in other words if we stop or have a fault then people notice quickly and it affects how people hear [or don't hear] the Gospel on a daily, hour by hour basis. It had never been our intention of being a 'service provider' but more of a pioneer and developer. What this means is that either we have to find another ministry to take over the day-to-day stuff or we need more people here to work alongside us. That's where the Egyptian colleague comes in... we really hope that he will be coming back and doing a year internship with us. It would be a win-win situation and on the physical level all of us are for it, but we really want to know what God wants.