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.