Monday, November 06, 2006


We arrived in Singapore today. We are here for 3 weeks to spend time with Daniel. No, not work... total vacation, so no blog entries after this one for 21 days!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

SPAM :-(

"We appear to be using an unusually high bandwidth on one of our two links..." that was the greeting this morning from John who is first line tech support. Hmmm... why?

20 minutes later I want to go to the balcony and SCREAM "AHHHHHHHHHHHH". Yes, I've found the culprit. Untold quantities of email are passing through one of our gateways. Thousands, tens of thousands of messages. "OK, STOP ALL EMAIL IMMEDIATELY".

We discovered a problem - one of our partners was sending out bulk email. Theoretically this was to about 1000 people who had [I hope] signed up to receive it, so it was not [I hope] spam. There was a problem in the computer program that was sending it [not written by us, but by a programmer working for them] which meant that thousands and thousands of emails were sent. Not only did this totally clog our system reducing performance to everyone, but because of the fault some people got more than 800 copies of the email [with Word document attachment]. This action could get both the partner and us listed as a spammer which has legal and ministry implications.

In response to this we have disconnected the offending partner from email entirely while we are doing whatever we can to reduce the impact of this activity upon them, us and other partners. Instantly disconnecting while we sort the problem may be irritating to them, but is essential to maintain the service to everyone. It takes time to sort out problems like this and may be a few days before we can restore service to them.

We have to very careful about sending mass or bulk emails to people. It is essential that whenever they send a mass or bulk email that you have clear evidence that the person receiving it has specifically and deliberately asked them to send it. If they do otherwise they will be classed as a spammer and their domain will become locked to send emails. What is more serious for us is that our servers will also become classed as spam servers and will then be blocked for all users to send emails.

Failing to comply is not just immoral it is also illegal under DIRECTIVE 2002/58/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector (Directive on privacy and electronic communications). Member states have different punishments for violation of their respective implementation of the directive, but I am sure I don't want to find out what the inside of a jail looks like without being merely a visitor!

What does the law mean in practice: If someone writes to a website or radio or TV station, then our our partners can write back and forth as much as they like. However, unless the person has specifically signed up to receive bulk emails then they may not send them an email that is sent to many people; they may not send them extra unsolicited information about the station; they may not send them a survey; they may not send anything which is more than responding to their specific email questions or comments. The response should be personal not bulk.

It is questionable and has not yet been tested in law if they may even send them an email asking them if they would like to sign up for extra information. Current opinion [among the professional ISP community] is that they may write to users who started communicating with the station before 2002 and ask them if they would like bulk emails, but they may only do this once and a non-reply must be considered to be a 'no'. In fact unless they have a specific 'yes' then everything must be considered 'no'.

As an example of the specific sign up, if they have a web page for people to send messages etc if they want them to be able to also receive bulk emails [eg newsletters or information about the radio station or website] they must have a separate check box for them to confirm they want these bulk emails. The check box must be unchecked and the user must check it - the law requires 'opt-in' not 'opt-out'. If they announce on the TV or radio an email address they must make it clear if this is for communicating with the station or to receive bulk emails. Unless they have specifically told the listener or viewer it is for bulk emails [eg "If you would like to receive ongoing information about our stations please send an email to this address"] or unless the listener or viewer has specifically asked for bulk emails [eg "Please send me information about your station whenever it is available" or "Please keep me up to date with all the programmes on your station"] then they must consider the email not to have opted in and never send them a bulk email.

Sounds severe... and it is. Currently on our main email server we reject twice as much spam email as we accept as real email and for some people the 'real' contains a high percentage of spam. Spam is a real problem, it wiill get to the point where email is totally unusable as a communication medium unless something is done about it quickly.

So that was the early morning distraction... now down to 'real work' -- mixing the audio for a drama DVD in Farsi. "Please God, give me a smooth ride on this one". This should actually be fun. I enjoy sound mixing and doing the final mix on a dub should be enjoyable.

Problem One: The Betacam tape that I am copying from appears to have problems, or is it a headclog or... phone call to engineer... no answer... try again later.

Problem Two: More major, the so called 'M and E' tape is different from the picture tape. 'M and E' stands for Music and Effects. When you are dubbing a programme into another language you prepare first an audio tape with just the Music and sound Effects. Over this you add the new dialogue and finally mix them all together to make a combined audio track. Alongside this you take the pictures from the picture master tape. The picture master tape should be identical to the M and E tape. It wasn't. Why?

Phone call to production team in Egypt. They knew there had been problems during the editing [some years ago] but didn't realise the two tapes were not identical. Now I have to find out where they are non-identical and make artistic decisions as to how to correct it. Simple... not.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Sonic Solutions or Sonic Problems?

Sonic Solutions: The leader in Digital Media... or so their website tells us. Maybe you've guessed... I'm back to problems with the infamous DVD we are making. Today I burned what should have been the penultimate DVD having corrected all the problems. There are 100 video titles, countless menus and playlists in this DVD so checking is a task in itself.

First when I came to make the DVD my dear friendly DVDit Pro came up with an error saying 'Cannot recode MPEG audio' or something very close to that message. With 100 audio titles all having MPEG audio and nearly 50% of the menus also having MPEG audio you are left screaming a question... "Which MPEG audio?"

Of course, being a computer it just sits there looking blankly at you not answering at all. Obviously the programmers at Sonic Solutions thought a guessing game was more productive to the spirit at this stage in the proceedings than actually telling us... so guess and guess again and I found the offending files.

Hallelujah... with the offending files corrected it made a DVD image. Took it home to burn. Remember the new office burner has failed and I haven't had time to pull the system apart and take it back to the shop where they would test it for 3 days, send it back to the supplier who would test it for who knows how long and eventually pronounce they will... maybe... supply a replacement.

Yes, it burned correctly. Yes, it plays correctly. No, its not perfect. Some of the corrections I did appear not to have happened. Second award for duff computer program goes to Adobe for their flagship program Premiere for video editing which when you click 'Use audio from the left channel only' sometimes indicates its doing this, plays it back through the speakers from the left channel audio but then creates a file with the left channel audio missing!

Now just in case you are wondering, please ask any Apple MAC users you know if they have the same problems with Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro. When I said to a colleague from another organization that I felt like chucking the Windows based system out of a very high window she offered to help me with it! She had changed from Windows to MAC and knows my frustration. It was why she changed. While you are looking for Apple Mac users [not difficult to find they are increasing every day] go to the Apple website and watch their extremely funny adverts contrasting Windows and Mac computers.

But is everything Apple Mac perfect? No, far from it. We have a system for allowing people to send SMS messages securely to our servers. We want to have a small neat system we can ship to remote locations to enable the SMS messages to come in from all over the place. A Mac mini should be perfect. The old G4 that was available till this summer worked great. Now they introduced Intel processors and... won't work with the SMS system. Intel processors? Aren't they the processors that Windows computers use? I'm not saying a word! Silence speaks louder than words.

Well... I have 4 more days before our vacation and two things to do:
  • complete this DVD
  • complete a sound mix for the audio for a film dubbed into Farsi

Friday, October 27, 2006

Too successful?

As I write we are broadcasting a live radio show from our studio over the Internet. We are having problems... problems of success... we have so many people calling in and chatting that the equipment is not really coping.

A few of weeks ago the computer that handles all the chatting was going so slowly that we could barely move the mouse at times. So that week we went out and bought 3 times the RAM and the following week we had about 30 chat windows open at the same time... and the computer was still having problems.

I think the only answer really is to buy a cluster of 3 or 4 MAC mini computers and let each one handle a third of the task. The MAC minis handle the audio better than the Windows computer we are currently using. We'll need some flat screens to go with them and a KVM switch so the person answering all the messages can switch between them. If you are feeling stressed at work with answering the phone at the same time as chatting on line... imagine what its like having up to 30 chats going at the same time and the phone [via Skype, MSN or Yahoo] still rings!

Just a few minutes ago the presenter was talking about praying for people to be healed by God, someone called in over Skype and shared on air about how the Lord had healed them... another listener has just sent a file through about how they went for an operation last week and how they were healed just before they got to the operating theatre much to the confusion of the doctors.

We are really excited about how well things are going but we have to somehow upgrade equipment to cope with the needs. Please pray that we receive the funds we need to do this.

Oh, and in case you are wondering... in between writing this and checking that everyone knows what they are doing for the radio as I will be on vacation in a weeks time... I am running back and forth to the video edit suite rendering video files as mentioned in the previous entry!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A day in the life...

There is almost no such thing as a 'typical day' as every one seems slightly, somewhat or very different. But in the last few days I have felt I really ought to try to paint a picture of what the nearest thing to a typical day is. This is put together from a number of days to show some of the diversity of what happens... but only becasue I cannot remember the detail of an individual day. Everything actually happened this week and is pretty close to the sort of diversity I deal with daily.

I wake around 8.30am when Sue brings me a mug of hot coffee. Sophia, one of our cats enters the bedroom loudly saying 'Out, Out'. Sue opens the door onto our balcony to let her out. Sunlight and fresh air streams in through the balcony door. I look over and see an oil painting of a tall ship beating against the wind...

Slowly, very slowly conciousness creeps over me. I drink the coffee and grab my Treo. My Treo is one of the tools to help run my life... apart from being a mobile phone, it's also a multi-version Bible with concordance, task list organizer, diary, remote access to our servers and... a very silly solitaire card game that allows my brain to go into neutral when things are too frantic.

As I turn over in bed I review the day ahead with God. What is it that I have to do, what could I do, what is urgent, what is merely important. My 'to do' list[s] have over 100 items on them, ranging from writing project proposals, through editing DVD projects to buying a water filter for the house. Prioritizing is essential, so as I sip my coffee I 'chat it over with God' and see His take on what are the priorities of the day.

No breakfast. I almost never eat breakfast. I find that my body is slow getting started and food at the beginning of my day usually ends in pain later in the morning. I drive to the office. It's only about a mile away, but frequently I need the car at the office to go out and buy something later in the day, so I take it rather than walking.

When I arrive at the office around 10am, I greet John, and find out if there are any urgent problems with any of our computer systems. John is first line defense on any problems, diagnosing whether the problem is with our systems or a problem with the end user of the system [as is more frequently the case]. Today there are no problems, praise God. John is reviewing graphs of how our systems are performing, in between copying tapes onto the hard drive of the studio computer.

I go through to the second office and greet Michael, a programmer out here for a couple of months doing an update on the SMS mobile phone system we operate. It turns out to be more than just greeting, Michael started work earlier and has some questions about the system that will allow us to place remote mobile phones in places like Bagdad. We monitor the mobile phone systems by comparing the time now with the logged time that we last connected with the phone. If its more than 60 minutes then we have a problem, an alarm goes off and somebody does something about it. 'But', asked Michael, 'did we really want that if the phone was in Bagdad?' There then followed a 30 minute design discussion about how we should monitor the remote phones and all the interconnected links that connect us with them.

I turn on the video editing computer, check where I have got to in the DVD project I am editing and start a 'render' of a 2-3 minute sequence. A render is where the computer makes a single video file out of graphics, captions, video and other animations. I check and correct the audio levels on this sequence as I am working from review notes sent back from the partner with this project. It takes about 15 minutes for each sequence to render and there are 99 sequences in this DVD.

During the time that this sequence renders I go to my office and phone one of our partner organizations. It seems that another of the other partners has managed to get somewhat muddled over the copyright implications of a website that we are having some programming written for. Somehow, the programmer has managed to get paid for the project and retain rights to what he has written... this is an ongoing problem that has been on the back-burner for some months and the day before our partners had a meeting with the programmer to try to resolve the issue. There were also some other things I needed to discuss with this partner, but he had a meeting to go to and I had to go and do the next video edit and render.

I return to the video editing, check the review notes, make changes as needed and set off the computer for another render. Peter, my co-team leader arrives so I greet him, and discuss with him the order we need for some equipment to be brought out from the UK with the next person coming. I return again to the video editing, check the review notes, make changes as needed and set off the computer for another render.

Time for coffee. The door bell rings. It's Jim back from the USA. He had warned us he was coming in. We all come together in the lounge for coffee. It's a time of sharing and then we pray together about whatever are the issues of the day. Today we wanted to hear about what Jim had been doing in the last 6 months while he had been back in the USA and then pray for him. This took up the rest of the morning as we also discussed where the training projects he is involved with overlap with what we are doing.

My Treo makes a loud alarm noise to say 'time for lunch' so I hurredly return to the video editing, check the review notes, make changes as needed and set off the computer for another render over lunch. This sequence has a bigger problem with it than I hoped and just as I am setting it off to render the phone part of the Treo rings. It's Sue reminding me gently it's lunchtime. 'I won't be long...' I reply, and drive home.

At 1.30pm my Treo alarms again. This time it's an SMS message telling me that I am 'on call' this afternoon for any system problems that might occur. John does the mornings 5 days a week and then there are three of us that do the afternoons and weekends... and actually fix the problems. So one of us is always 'on call' rather like a doctor.

I drive back to the office, return to the video editing, check the review notes, make changes as needed and set off the computer for another render. I answer another question or two from Michael and find a message on my desk to say that the partner I was talking on the phone with earlier on the day phoned back while I was at lunch. I phone him back only to find he's in another meeting.

I go through to the sound studio and check that everything is working as we will be doing a live radio programme from the studio that evening.

My Treo alarms again. This time, it's an SMS to tell me that one of the radio playout systems has failed and that one of the stations we handle is thus 'off the air'. So I go to my computer and log into the playout system, sort the problem and put it back on air. Just a few moments work and part of what being 'on call' is all about.

Trouble is... having turned on my computer to log into the system to fix it, colleagues in Egypt see that I am online and immediately set up a chat link to ask me some questions. Then someone from Malta also notices I am online and has some questions. So I have three chat windows open and in between answering them I open my email and check that. Multi-tasking my brain... as Michael arrives in my office with another design question. Email, chats with remote colleagues and local ones takes up the best part of an hour and a half. All necessary to keep them moving forward with what they are doing.

Peter arrives back from picking up some equipment and we close the door and spend a few minutes discussing some sensitive personnel issues plus some longer term plans. We pray together about those. We are interupted by a security question from Michael relating to the project he's working on.

My Treo alarms with an SMS to ask me to go online and do a Skype chat with a colleague in Egypt about a technical problem. After doing so I phone back the partner I started the conversation with earlier in the morning and we sort out what will happen over the copyright issues and the equipment and discuss an upcoming project we are working on together. At least that conversation gets completed today even if I haven't managed to get back to the video editing much in the afternoon!

The door bell rings again. I let in the presenter and production team from one of our partners for the live Internet radio broadcast that night. I check with them that everything is working correctly and then my Treo alarms again to say its time to go home as we are going out for a meal with some friends celebrating his 65th birthday. I get home, change and find I have totally forgotten where we are supposed to be going for this meal. Absolute blank. I remember the conversation about where it was, but totally forget the content of that conversation, so I phone the friend to get the directions again. It's in a wonderful little taverna just outside our town.

Half way through the meal and ten minutes after the time the Internet radio broadcast is supposed to start my Treo rings in it's mobile phone mode . Hmmm... it's a colleague from the other organization in the studio. Which means bad news. They say 'We're not on air, what is the problem?'. The Treo comes in handy again. I log into the servers at the office remotely and find that the reason they are not on air is the person who created the schedule to put them on air had not taken account of the fact the servers all run on GMT [ie time in London]. So when they programmed it for 20:00 [8pm] it was 20:00 GMT not 20:00 Cyprus. So I manually put them on air, phone them back and explain.

I enjoy the rest of the meal, meeting with other friends from various churches in our town. Of course, because I had put them on air manually, I will have to take them off air manually, especially as they are supposed to go off air at 23:00 which is the equivalent of 20:00 GMT. If I don't fix this, then as soon as they go off air, then the scheduler will put the studio back on air and we will have nothing going out at all! So I take Sue home and return to the office, fix the scheduler and manually take them off air.

Just as I am closing the door to the server room I smell burning. Worst thing you can smell in a server room. I find that one of the power supplies has burnt out, so I replace it with another one from our store. It immediately burns out. Ooops, this is serious. Then I find the problem. Earlier in the week I had put in a 12 volt relay to turn on the red 'On Air' light. I thought this was connected to a 12 volt indicator supply. It wasn't - in fact it was connected to a 24 volt indicator supply, so the relay had been gently cooking throughout the broadcast and was now nicely browned all over. I remove the relay, change the power supply [again] and go home to bed. Midnight.

3am. I am still awake, very tired but not sleepy. I get up, go downstairs and type up the minutes to a meeting a week previously for 3 organizations that are coming together to start a new interactive youth Internet radio station. 4am. I am now sleepy so I return to bed.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

People needed...

By the end of November we shall lose a very valuable member of our team. Officially he has been our primary support person, the person that people talk to first about any problems they are having with any of our facilities. However, he has been much more valuable that that... he has also been Mr Fixit, sorting out many things that needed doing around the office, from plumbing to building shelves. And even more than that he has kept a smiling face and been an encourager to the rest of us. He is away on vacation at the moment so we are missing him already.

So if there were people available to fill all the people we need what roles would we need filling?

  • Office Administrator & Book-keeper
  • Primary Support Person
  • Server Administrator
  • Software Developer
  • Video Editor/Sound Mixer
  • Training Co-ordinator
  • Fund-raiser

When I thought about this I initially thought I will try to put them in order, but I am less convinced there is an order. We really do need an Office Administrator and Book-keeper. It's a sort of half time but critical role. From simple things like ensuring we have an office cleaner [not doing the cleaning but arranging it to happen] though sorting the multiple mishaps [like arranging a plumber or air conditioing engineer when needed -- can require up to a dozen phone calls chasing up], office supplies and remembering silly things we forget like coffee, but alongside this the vital role of Book-keeper. We currently have someone who gives one day per week on this, but sometimes its quite a bit more than that and keeping it done on a day to day basis is a real need.

When we lose John at the end of November we shall need another Primary Support Person, again this could be a half time job, involving answering problems [when a user says 'my email isn't working' he finds out what they mean, then check that it is working from our end and then tells them what to do to fix it if he can... frequently with the facilities we provide its not a problem with our facilities but with the end users use of them] We also need documentation writing for some of the facilities and John has been steadily uploading programmes off audio tape onto the main audio server as a sort of background task. This of course alongside the building shelves etc that I mentioned earlier.

We really need a full time Server Administrator, someone who knows Linux/UNIX and is comfortable administrating email, web servers and database systems, backing them up and doing all the housekeeping needed to keep 9 production servers directly under our control running and a helping partners with a few other servers that they turn to us for advice on. There are currently three of us doing this support part time and we would still be available for 'holiday relief' and some of the administration but we are more project oriented people who are better developing new ideas and systems.

We need a Software Developer, someone who is confident in Perl, PHP and SQL. We have had someone out here for three months developing a system for connecting desktop mobile phones to the database servers. He will be coming back for six weeks next week. Looking at the projects we could be doing if we had a developer shows us we really need one.

We could do with a Video Editor and Sound Mixer combined. I can do both those jobs and actually enjoy doing them, but don't have time and projects are always getting behind because I don't have 'focus time' for some of the projects. When I mean 'focus time' I mean significant chunks of time [weeks not days or hours] to devote to projects, this is in part because I am 'on call' for support for 3-4 shifts per week, have co-ordination meetings, administration and a host of other calls upon my time.

Over the last couple of years we have had an Egyptian person as an intern, he has been here between a quarter and one third of his time. It has been very profitable both ways. He is now a very competent system administrator and becoming a valuable media consultant in the region. We would like to multiply that and have 3 or 4 interns - so there would always be one intern here in Cyprus. To run an effective internship programme we need someone to do it. Someone who can travel so that between times here at our office they can be visited and encouraged - that's the role of the Training Co-ordinator.

When I said we needed a Fund Raiser, that is true, but that would only be part of the job, also needed would be communicating with supporters about what we are doing and how things are going. We need funds for projects and for keeping the office going, but we also need equipment that is not allocated to specific projects but helps us do what we do. An example of this would be an interactive whiteboard with video projector. We have a couple of small rather old whiteboards, but as we are often developing systems, being able to integrate whiteboard and video projector would very significantly enhance our effectiveness. Replacing all the aging screens with LCD screens would be another need... plus some decent computers for development [we are currently using old cast-off computers for this].

So if we had all these what would I do? I would go sailing of course... no seriously, I spend a lot of my time in meetings and co-ordinating and being the stop gap for when something needs doing. I would so some projects but not be overloaded like I feel I am right now.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Meetings, meetings everywhere...

So far this month I have had meetings in Cyprus [as might have been expected], in Egypt [twice] and Tunisia [once]. OK, the Egypt twice was en route to and from Tunisia, but there have been a lot of meetings. Most of those meetings were about one of the major web sites that we host. The actual name of the site we don't publish here but the site has another information site that you can see what its about and how effective it is called eBridge. Click on 'Results' to see graphs of visitors, new people signing up etc.

Basically the site aims to 'sit down and drink coffee' [metaphorically] -- to build bridges with Muslims and share Jesus in a natural way. Obviously they can accept or reject Him, but frequently Christians say things in a superior 'we're right you're wrong' sort of way which is unhelpful to building relationships and thus inviting them into a relationship with someone we love dearly called Jesus.

We have been hosting the site for two years or so now and a year ago we took over responsibility for rebuilding it -- both design and site development, with others doing the regular updates on the content. Our partners also started advertising on Google and the response was overwhelming. While we were advertising we were getting more than 30,000 new visitors per month. Since we have stopped advertising [due to finances] we have now [only?] about 25,000 visitors per month with about 4,500 who have joined as members and interact with the editorial team daily.

The meetings were to plan the way ahead for the next year. What is ironic is that there is something incarnational about relationships that virtual relationships miss. What do I mean by this? Here we are running a very successful website where thousands of people are interacting daily, but we have to have face-to-face meetings to plan the website.

Now I'm back there are a few things to finish off... the DVD project that I am loving to hate [went for review while I was travelling and now have all the hopefully final comments to integrate]... plus a dub of a video into Farsi [another group did the main voice dub and we are sorting out the mix and adding in recordings I made of the songs in Farsi]... plus a dub into Kurdish of a video...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Struggling with Sonic Software

At last... I kind of hope... the DVD project will come to an end... maybe...

Having solved the jittery problem with Sonic DVDit Pro [no thanks to tech support who were hopeless!] The next thing that happened was I got some wierd problem when I get half way through the project re-rendering etc [ie a week for full time work later] is that it crashes with a 'error in source code WaveDump.cpp line 244, -1' code. Eventually be reverse engineering finding where they store temporary files and finding out which file was being accessed at the time it brings up this error I found that one of the video files had a corrupt audio file with it and that was crashing the system... why can't it say something useful like 'Problem with audio file cp2.mp2, cannot continue' - at least then I would know which file was faulty!

Then... find that there is a specification limit to how much of a DVD can be used for menus, and because there are so many animated menus we are over the limit. Of course... the program only tells you this too late. If you duplicate and edit a menu it allows you to go over the limit, then on one change it suddenly says ''Ooops you are way over the limit, no changes..." or rather the 'way over' part is missing so you have no idea how many changes you need to make to allow it to work.

I hate computers at times like this. I mean if this was a cheap domestic package we were using then what would you expect, but this is the second to top software for making DVDs on Windows machines... wish we had money to go MAC totally... next video machine will certainly be a MAC! Each time I need to make a test DVD it takes between 2-4 hours for the machine to make it.

I got the new dual layer DVD blanks on Monday - we need double layer ones for this project to fit it on and they are not so easily accessible and about about 6 times the cost [approx 3.50 GBP each out here]. Overnight Monday night I rendered a DVD image, was going to check it then add the final audio tracks today and make DVD overnight.

But... this yesterday morning when I came in I found the RAID controller showing an error [the RAID controller makes two hard disks into one very large and very very fast hard disk which you need for video editing]. Yuk... But the disks were bought on 3rd Sept so they are just within warranty... contacted the supplying company who said 'Yes, we will test them, then return to manufacturer, then when they return new disks to us, we will send them to you'. [Approx 4-5 weeks from past experience].

So we bought a couple of new hard disks... this project is proving expensive to us what with new software for the captions [which we then discarded] new DVD authoring software for the number of clips, loads of DVDs as tests for the new software, new DVD writer [because it failed] and two new disks for the RAID system. Please I want a MAC video computer for my birthday and forget about all this Windows rubbish ;-)

Anyhow... have managed to coax some life back out of the disks, put them on another computer [that is identical to the video one and we happen to be borrowing from another organization at the moment] and yesterday I copyied all the files that are not corrupted between the two computers.

Today I made a full project DVD... YIPEE!! Ready to send off to our partner. After it was finished I started going through checking the menu orders and... you'd guessed it I now get a 'menu out of order error -45633' come up on screen. I don't believe it :-(

I have had an email from Tech Support at Sonic, saying if there are further questions please reply on the website. So I went to the website [almost every day for a week] and cannot login because it doesn't recognise my password so I clicked in the 'email me my password link' and... nothing comes! So I look up the 'Contact us' page and it links to the login page that doesn't work and requires the 'email me my password' to work. So... no contact with Sonic. Thanks guys... not!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mobile Phones

Today we had a strange thing happen... two of the desktop mobile phones used for incoming and outgoing SMS messages were working and two were not. Finally traced to a very wierd problem... on one of the non-working desktop mobiles there was an incoming SMS message with the phone number showing a something like 3C487A068FD298 - nothing at all like a normal number which should be something like +441211234567. This strange and wrong number crashed the mobile phone, which crashed the program importing it, which locked up the USB connector to which all the mobiles were connected, stopping two of them working, but allowing the other two to continue. Very strange.

Lost blog

Hmmm... last week I wrote an entry which has mysteriously disappeared into the ether. Rather like emails seem to sometimes. Strange. When I first started using the Internet and in the old days BBSs email was somewhat unreliable. Then about 5 years ago things seemed pretty reliable most emails seemed to deliver and responses were quick. Now we seem to have drifted back to the 'bad old days' of unreliable email.

Anyway... now I forget what I wrote last week about the previous week's activities. I do know I eventually solved the problem with making good DVDs, no thanks to the Technical Support Department of Sonic [we use DVDit 6 pro which is very powerful and good].

They suggested we had the wrong/old display drivers [we were using the latest, which were old but there were none newer and it was a problem with playback on a set top DVD player anyhow]. They then suggested that the problem was due to having old firmware on the DVD writer [we had almost the latest version - but later found another problem - and it had been working fine with DVDit 2]. Finally they suggested that the DVD stock we were using was bad [we had been using the same DVDs successfully prior to switching from DVDit 2 to DVDit 6].

Eventually I found the problem was that Premiere or the Matrox capture card was somehow changing the DV tapes interlace from bottom dominance to top dominance. Why DVDit version 2 didn't object but DVDit Pro version 6 did I fail to understand. Great... now working fine... almost... in checking everything the last few DVD burns got worse and worse and eventually the DVD burner [a Pioneer A03 which we paid 700 sterling for when it first came out] died. Hah... found the problem... the stock was new stock and unless you had upgraded to the latest firmware [which they hadn't notified us of] then new stock burnt out the laser! So new DVD writer needed.

Anyhow what has happened for the last week is that I have been re-editing and re-editing the material for a project we started 12 months ago [and had too many changes en route]. I am now 50% through the final re-edit and hope by next week I can tell you all I have completed it.

What I can say is that as soon as possible we shall change from using Microsoft Windows for our editing computer to a Mac using Final Cut Pro. We have had three or four Windows based editing systems and they have always been unreliable. The reason for staying Windows had been simple - cost, but now Apple Macs are cheaper and so no reason not to use them. I have a Mac notebook which I have had for 9 months now and it hasn't had any 'blue screen of death' or lockups or anything... and it's lighter than any Windows notebook I have seen!

I wonder how many weeks of my life I would have saved if we could have afforded a Mac based video editing system... could have been out sailing instead of fighting a silly computer!

Friday, August 04, 2006


Having got the servers working more reliably today all three of us in technical support spent the day re-wiring the bay that the servers live in. In big organizations, which both Peter and I worked in, there are people who are 'wiremen' people who are very good at the detailed wiring of connectors. No such luck here, so we do it. It's nearly complete and tomorrow we should finish it. The target: Prepare the equipment for the next 3 years service.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sprocket holes

When I started at the BBC all the news was shot on film. The first sequences I directed were on film. Film is a nice medium - when you hold it up to the light you can see little pictures and with a magnifying glass you can see exactly what you have. Between each picture there is a nice little sprocket hole for the projector [or telecine machine in television] to align the each picture.

The ongoing saga of making DVDs makes me long for the 'good old days' of film. With all this 'top field' 'bottom field' stuff it is complicated and invisible. However, today I have cracked it [I hope]. Although DV tapes are recorded with bottom field first, somewhere in the import process this gets converted to top field first... but... Premiere seems to think it hasn't so says 'export this bottom field first'. I don't know how many places you can change the field order... too many for my liking, but at last I have found the right combination and I am busy making a final trial DVD.

Switch over

So why did clustering not work? We [two of us] tried everything we could for a week to get clustering to work. Sadly we couldn't make it work with the resources we had. Reading what other people were doing online with clustering I found that most people had 30 Gig RAM or more in their servers [we have 1 Gig in ours and many home machines have half that].

To get that amount of RAM you need four 8 Gig RAM cards. Each 8 Gig RAM card costs approx 11,000 US dollars... yes, you do did read that right, so to have 32 Gig in two servers would cost just under 90,000 US dollars, that's just under 50,000 pounds sterling! So, assuming the price would drop within the lifetime of the servers we investigated... only to find our servers would only take 4 Gig RAM and to get more powerful motherboards would cost another silly amount of money... so forget that.

So we then spent two more days rebuilding the system to be a 'replication pair' of servers. This is not as powerful as a cluster but works well with the resources we have available. And we have now switched over to the new system.

Alongside this, the video editing project needed a new DVD authoring program - that's the software that enables menus and other clever things to be added to DVDs. The new software refused to work properly, producing very jittery images. I tried all things to make it right and nothing seemed to work. So... reluctantly I phoned technical support in the USA. This is a charge service so I was trying to do every option before incurring extra costs.

Tech support was not very helpful. Having asked all the options about what I had tried they then suggested that the display adaptor software on the computer was out of date [we had the latest software] or maybe the DVD burner needed new firmware [we had the latest firmware] or maybe the DVDs themselves were bad [we have used them successfully for months] - everything but a problem with their software of course. Not helpful.

This morning I woke up thinking maybe there was a problem with the GOP structure of the files. Oh, yuk this is really technical! GOP stands for the highly technical phrase 'Group of Pictures' and what happens on a DVD is that every so often they have a complete picture but within the 'group of pictures' they only have the differences between the pictures. This saves a huge amount of disk space. Hmmm... but... the GOP structures were correct.

I then read somewhere online that somehad had a problem with the 'field dominance order' of some video capture cards... I wonder??? 'Field Dominance Order' really is too technical to explain simply. But basically normal TV has the top field first but DV tapes have the lower field first. OK, strangely... very strangely... very strangely indeed... it appears that if I invert the field dominance order in the program making the video files and then invert it again [ie put it back where it started] in the program making the DVD it works! But... the quality is not quite what is needed as I had to convert the file to Quicktime and back again. So... more investigation.

Third breakthrough... Peter had been struggling with some computers in our 'lab' which were refusing to work. They are regular desktop computers, but he found today that if he turned off the battery saving system [normally only of use on laptops] they work correctly. As the Americans say 'Go figure'.

So we move on... this is really boring but necessary stuff.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Up periscope...

"Up periscope... scanning horizon... clear to surface..."

This last month seems like 2-3 months in one month. Mainly we moved house, which we had intended doing earlier in the year when it was cooler, but happened in July. The house move went well and can be read in detail in Sue's blog, but it did take me away from other work for quite a while.

Then there was editing to catch up on. This training DVD just won't go away...

Then we have a major rebuild of the servers. One of my colleagues from Egypt has come over for the month so that Peter, he and I can all work together so that we are all understanding the system together.

What we wanted to do was an upgrade to one of the database systems we host to stabilize it for 3 years - obviously minor upgrades during that time, but the major one now. Within that upgrade we wanted to have automatic backup of the data and automatic changeover between the servers. This is called clustering. Another change had been in process by the programmer of the system and that was to incorporate all the images into the database.

Everything worked well until the day we were due to switch over from the old system to the new... when we tried it we found that one of the databases was very large indeed and clustering required more resources that we have available, but that the newer version of the database software would probably handle the large database better. So now we are in investigation for how to proceed as the databases will grow significantly during the 3 years we want this system to work for.

Alongside this, there is the war in Lebanon. We hadn't anticipated getting our guest apartment ready yet, but had to do so in a hurry to accomodate a couple who had evacuated Lebanon.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

One of the services we provide is what is called a 'contact management system' for people who contact various radio and TV stations. 'Contact Management' is a way of ensuring that letters, emails, SMS messages and phone calls are all dealt with promptly and that the people doing this can know what contact has happened with an individual viewer or listener before. The radio and TV stations we help have tens of thousands of contacts per year, so this kind of thing is important. It is also important that the information is kept private and confidential.

When we started providing this service about just under two years ago the numbers on the system were pretty small, but have grown out of all proportion and now the two servers we had handling this system were really not coping very well. Every time one of the people doing listener support would click on a page of information it could take up to 30 seconds to display. They were getting very frustrated. As a clue the BBC home page takes about 7 seconds to display everything... this was a text only page and taking 4 times as long!

This upgrade has been long in the works, if you have followed th saga of the motherboards you will know it well. But at last this week we managed to upgrade the main server and at last all the parts have arrived to upgrade the backup server.

One of the things we also do is research new technologies to see how they can be used for communicating around the region. This week Peter showed me something that as they say 'blew my mind away'. We have been streaming audio for some time and doing trials with video streaming, including streaming video to some pretty large numbers of people from various conferences. But to my mind video on the Internet is pretty lame. If the material is not available elsewhere then I guess it's OK to watch but I'd much rather watch satellite TV.

However... Peter showed me the new Reuters website with embedded video. The quality was stunning and smooth [often Internet video is jerky] with good sound. The technology used for this is Flash video and uses Flash Media Server software.

Funny enough this has come along just at the time we need it for a project we have discussed for some time, and has grown closer to actually happening while I was in Egypt. There is a TV programme on one of the satellite TV channels about a couple of small groups of people who each meet together in their homes to worship Jesus. As you can imagine in some places in the region this is the most appropriate way for followers of Jesus to meet.

The desire is to create an Internet 'home' that people can come to who see the TV programme and who want to know more and want to link up with others who feel the same as they do. I use the term Internet 'home' because the aim is to be much more than a website, with lots of things on offer and eventually live linkups between people who cannot meet physically. We had already decided to use Flash technology, but the Media Server technology will make it much more open and friendly for those coming to the site. Of course dreaming the idea is only 1% of the work!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Just back from Egypt where I was directing a Live Outside Broadcast... and there are a lot of pretty upset people back there in Cairo. Why? People from the event we were supposed to be broadcasting kept coming in to the video control room where we were working from and asking us to feed the programme onto the screens so everyone could see it but we could not because it wasn't there on the satellite channel it was supposed to be on... there were many phone calls asking why it could not be seen on the satellite channel... the people that sponsored the uplink kept asking why they could not see the programme they were paying for. Just as a clue, the cost to the sponsors for this one Live OB was the equivalent of half the price of buying a flat to live in. So you can understand why they were upset. Why wasn't it on the satellite channel? I have no idea. Someone somewhere decided it should go out all over sub-saharan Africa but not the Middle East.

However, for me personally, I also was upset about the communications between our OB site and the main Outside Broadcast which meant that for the second year running we had a disaster uplink. Before the event I kept repeating to the broadcast organizers that the communications needed to work well and I was concerned as soon as I heard what they were attempting to use [one ordinary phone line] - that they were totally inadequate.

In the morning of the Outside Broadcast we tested the communications, connected the phone line into our talkback and although the quality wwas poor it were adequate and I was encouraged. Maybe it would work and I would be proven wrong.

When it came to the live OB we had problem after problem connecting and when we did it appeared that the OB engineers in at the remote site had no clue how to handle the facilities. When we first connected the sound was adequate and we could hear the director, then it became distant like down a tunnel... it sounded like we were on a regular phone handset that had been placed on the desk, not connected into the talkback system, but I cannot believe anybody would even attempt a TV OB using a phone handset for communications, so I am not sure what was happening. Then after a while we would get tone dialing on the line and then the line would be hung up. We would then redial and redial and redial... for 30 minutes or longer only getting voicemail, eventually connecting only to repeat the performance. Taking that long to re-dial each time meant we missed the first two inserts we were supposed to do for the broadcast.

It is almost 30 years ago to the month when, as a very junior Outside Broadcast engineer, I was involved in sound mixing a major OB for the BBC. Over a period of 10 days we did numerous inserts into radio stations around the world including many in Africa. Some were simple but many were more complex than the OB last weekend.

I remember particularly doing a sequence with Kenneth Kaunda simultaneously into a number of radio stations including Zambia. It was notable to me because part of the interview included this African statesman sharing his faith in Jesus as being the only hope for the continent.

Why I am now upset is that as an 18 year old junior OB Engineer I set up and facilitated many links with complex communications over those 10 days, some difficult to achieve but all successful. Since then, over the years I have been involved in many Christian events, including directing significantly more complex ones than the OB last weekend. Now I weep because we had absolutely appalling communications again. And it was totally unnecessary to be that bad.

Of course I also had my own traumas in Egypt again, where they swapped the second unit director to someone who had never directed TV before and therefore got really bad pictures and blocked my requests for backup interview guests to cover if there were problems - eg when we hit a time of total silent prayer for the only time we did get on air... but that's another story...

It is the second year running there have been problems. The first year I just felt sorry for the organizers thinking it was a unique occurence. This year has been a repeat performance. So what do I do? At the moment I have said I will not spend my time on these Live OBs in the future. Should I spend more time teaching more people? Will they learn? Will I really learn to say NO!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Finances and volunteers

Every Wednesday David comes in for the day as our book-keeper. He is retired and gives us one day per week doing our accounts. I am amazingly thankfull for all he does. The day he comes in I try to keep clear to work with him on all the financial matters. One day per week is really not enough time, so he is always behind and always trying to catch up. Today by 5pm I was whacked out and came home for a rest [the bacterial infection still seems to have left me weak] but David carried on working for another hour or so after me.

There are also dozens of other little jobs that need doing, which get sidelined till we get time or it becomes critical... the printer needs a new cartridge, the bath for guests has problems, we need more paper and so it goes on.

John is another volunteer - he helps us with technical support. Every morning he comes in and answers emails and holds the 24/7 support hotline phone for if there are problems. He is another person I am amazingly thankful for.

John leaves us to fully retire in November and David never catches up... we need more volunteers, people who can help. So if you fancy a retirement job in a pleasant location... let us know!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Testing... testing... testing...

No, I haven't just forgotten to write... well, partly, but mainly because I have been unwell. I had a urine infection, so the doctor told me, and felt really really unwell for a few days and then afterwards have had very much less energy than I normally have. I am on the mend now, but it really did take a lot out of me.

It's only a few days before Michael leaves us and although he is not happy that enough testing has been done, we have done a lot and today we did 'stress testing' of the new SMS system. Over a period of about 10 minutes 8 people fired SMS messages at the system as fast as they could, repeating the same message to emulate the equivalent of about 10,000 to 15,000 messages per day. Which is vastly more than we expect at the moment, but the aim was to see what would happen if there was a huge number come in at one time.

The results were very encouraging. At one stage the Desktop Mobile did have a problem, but Michael's code went into it's error catching routine and corrected the problem.

Peter and I have been working [since I have been back] at trying to get all the systems up to our new dual-failover system. We are not there yet, but hope to complete before the end of June.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The 'Lab' - part of the computer food chain!

A friend of mine who works for one of our partners sent me a URL to the Microsoft Macintosh Laboratory. It was very impressive... hundreds of Macs everywhere with a whole cluster of Mac minis. He added 'pity we cannot get anything even approaching this for our line of business'. So true. We would love some Mac minis for developing systems for use around our region. They would be great for monitoring stations and SMS gateway machines and audio workstations and... and... oh well, in our dreams.

Anyway the development of the SMS gateway is progressing and so you can compare our modest setup to Microsoft, here is a photo of our setup... just after we took delivery of another 3 Burnside desktop mobiles so we can test them clustered together. Well, actually it's half of it. The other half is a couple more lab computers on a big table the other side of the room. Most of the lab machines became lab machines because they were too old for anything else useful. So we use them for testing and development.

This week Michael will be trying to get his software to automatically configure itself for multiple Burnside phones on the same USB connection. In the old days [no not 'good old days' or 'bad old days' just the old days about 10 years ago] you plugged something like a modem into one of the serial ports. You knew because it was labelled 'COM1' that it was COM1. With USB it's not so easy... the com port changes when you plug extra ones in, hence why Michael's software has to go out and find the correct phone.

The machine at the front contains the motherboard we are testing for a new replacement we want to put in for all of our servers. Assuming it all goes to plan then it will be moved to our rackmount servers in about 2 weeks time. So far... [this is the third one we have tested] it looks fine. When we have approved that motherboard and completed testing and put it and others like it into service then the old slow motherboards will become lab machines replacing the even older and slower ones we currently have. Now you understand why we long for some of the resources that big brother Microsoft has at their disposal!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Little things please little minds...

At least we had a couple of successes this week... for those following Sue's blog will know of the ongoing saga or maybe we should call it nightmare of selling our house in the UK... so some successes at the office help... a little...

We got a new motherboard [3rd one for those following this ongoing saga] for one of the servers and will be using it for testing the new SMS gateway for the next couple of weeks before putting it into service. The SMS gateway allows people to send and receive SMS messages from teams looking after the websites we host and radio and tv stations we partner with. Well... having had two failures with motherboards we at last have a success.

The new one is much better than either of the other two in features offered and works perfectly [so far]... no racing clock and full monitoring of voltages, temperatures and things and all connectors working. Actually there are loads more connectors than normal. For those technical I think there are about 8 USB connectors, 2 Firewire, goodness alone knows how many audio including an optical audio and 2 Ethernet. It is the 2 ethernet that are particuarly good. We normally have to fit an extra ethernet board to get our servers working, but this comes with 2 built in. Of course the bad news was the price. Which we won't talk about. Especially as we need five more of them.

Secondly got the first live test of the new SMS gateway working on the 'live' system. And it worked perfectly. Next week we shall change one of the live SMS systems over to the new software and see how it runs, monitoring it continually. Interesting to see the difference between the old version [which I wrote] and the new one written by Michael. Michael is with us for a further month and is a professional programmer. On the server when we run my software it shows up as the most 'hungry' program on the server for resources. It is almost continually top of the list of using up resources when we monitor. Michael's on the other hand is so low that it doesn't even show on the first page of programs! This is particuarly good news as we want to run many copies of his program at the same time for many different mobile phones.

Had a visit on Thursday from one of the folk that I did the live TV Outside Broadcast for last year. He was conveying thanks from the team for what I did and we spent about half a day talking about what might happen this year. I have made a number of suggestions and hope that they will be accepted so as to reduce the stress at both ends.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Catch up? When?

Tuesday/Wednesday have been catchup days... catchup with colleagues returning from vacation [in particular Peter who co-leads the team with me] and catchup with accounting.

Wednesday is the day David our book-keeper comes in. We spend the most part of the day raising invoices to partners for their projects. The problem is with the book-keeping and administration is that it isn't a full time job, but it is more than 1 day per week. So with david coming in one day per week we are always behind. We try to keep up with paying the bills, but the invoicing partners is always way behind. In this case we found one that should have been sent out in October 2005 that hadn't been. I don't know what the answer is really, other than pray that God sends us someone who can do 1/2 time book-keeping and administration.

We are also fighting an old accounting system - Quick Books. It's not really up to what we want it to do and intend changing over to SQL-Ledger as soon as possible. SQL-Ledger will help a lot, but we wanted to change over as soon as we got all the new accounts. Since we are now in the EU we can do things easier... so they say... all we need is the charity/company papers from the UK verified by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK and hey presto... we can do things in Europe. But it has been months and months waiting for the FCO to verify our papers and we are still waiting.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Good meeting, bad hardware

Had a good meeting this morning discussing how we will proceed with live interactive Internet radio. We hope to start the new youth radio station, with a high emphasis on music and interaction at the end of September. There's quite a lot to sort out before then, like the new youth team, music profile, themes etc. I came back from the meeting feeling that this was the sort of thing I enjoy -- co-ordinating a team of people towards a defined project.

Then this afternoon happened. I hate hardware. The mother board I had replaced... see this thread, proved to be faulty and had not allowed any SMS messages to come in or go out over the weekend. So I changed it back to the old, slow motherboard as slow is better than stop. So tomorrow I have to try to sort out what to do about it. Also one of the SMS 'desktop mobile phones' went faulty at the end of last week and we are having problems getting a replacement sent out. This means that the SMS project is effectively held up until we get it.

So, day start good, day end bad.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Changed the motherboard on one of the servers yesterday... the one with the groundhog day problem... and some things are running much better. It now runs on a clock that stays pretty much on time and we can correctly monitor the motherboard temperature, fan speed, power supply voltages etc. But... the second network card doesn't seem to work with this motherboard.

We have a system for monitoring all the servers, and all the services on each server which is supposed to send us an SMS message if something goes wrong. Peter has been off all week, so I have in between been trying to get the monitoring system working with all the new servers and services.

We have nearly 300 services to monitor and these are continually checked and and problems reported to us. About 10% of those services are proving an absolute pain to get monitoring properly. One such service is an alarm if the number of email messages waiting to be delivered gets greater than a preset limit. If this happens it normally means something else is wrong eslewhere, but its a useful indicator of a potential problem. Of 10 of the servers that have email going through them I configured 5 to monitor the number of email messages with no problem, but the other 5, with identical configurations are refusing to work. Why?

These technical problems are extremely boring. I would rather be working on media projects, but things like the monitoring service enable us to use the systems without spending all day every day just monitoring the technology. When I spend a week of in-between times trying to get the monitoring working and sorting out boring mother boards I wonder...

So... what we need is a good technical system administrator who likes keeping systems going!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Whacking hackers...

Today at lunchtime there was a discussion about how to murder someone. No, don't worry this was all in the light of the board game Cluedo. I was saying that I could not imagine using a candle-stick to kill someone. I'm a gentle sort of person on the whole and clobbering someone to death is just not me. But hackers really get my goat, I kind of feel like picking up a large heavy object and banging it around their heads.

Today we were hacked again. Last time we were hacked we thought we had closed all gates, locked, bolted etc. In the past people got in through using legitimate usernames and passwords they had stolen through our users not having adaquate virus protection. This time, in one sense it was much less serious in that they couldn't get into the system as a whole, but they did find an exploit on one of the forum systems and changed the forum system to rabid anti-Muslim propaganda. Seems like we are hit from both the Muslims and the anti-Muslims.

Strangely enough they appeared to leave a valid calling card. In the past it has been invalid, but this points to a site in Spain - home of a celebrated hacker community. So what should we do about them? Call the police? Tell al-qaeda? Send them a paela?

Groundhog day on a computer?

You know I have been complaining I don't have enough time to get everything done... well one of our servers has found the solution to the problem. It gains time, so that in a couple of days it's clock is two days ahead. We then reset the clock back to normal and it relives those two days again. Groundhog day all over again. Trouble is... its a pain! We have a system that should correct small time errors every few minutes. But this is drifting too far out for this to cope so that it cannot correct itself.

So, thought I, I will set it do to a big correction every 5 minutes. Sounds good eh? Well, yes, but the reason it runs every 5 minutes is because the clock says so. So guess what happens? It corrects the time, which means it pulls it back and then runs the correction again, which pulls it back and... need I go on? Of course this is not too much of a problem unless it sends you an email to say 'Done that, aren't you grateful than I'm such a nice little computer?' [liberal translation of technospeak message it actually sends] which gets a little boring if you get about 60 messages per hour like that.

Solutions on a postcard, sent yesterday to arrive last week to: Time Travel Bureau, 5 Vie La Temps, Tempus Fugit, Tomorrow.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

No news for a month

I started this blog thinking people might be interested in knowing what I was doing... since a number of people support me in this. However, I have had no emails from anyone or any comments from anyone so I have kindof lost interest and find doing this a bit of a chore. If nobody wants to read it, why bother?

So what has happened in the last month? Well, the live video and audio relay went pretty well. It was much smaller than last year, but there were still about 30-40,000 listeners and about 8,000 viewers over a period of a week. So although it was much smaller, it was obviously a worthwhile exercise. Bacause of where it was coming from there were numerous breaks in the feed. As someone who used to work in professional broadcasting this is pretty frustrating, especially as there is 'off the shelf' satellite technology that w0uld make it work very well indeed.

I also visited a country in North Africa to talk to the main editor of one of the websites we developed and host. We get about 60,000 visitors a month to this site and we have just finished rebuilding it totally. Most of our websites are media oriented, ie they have a lot of audio and video content, but this one is about 98% text. We have just turned on something called 'Google Analytics' which enables us to see where people come from, which is a total of 91 countries. It even breaks it down by city so I see nearly 700 visitors from Riyadh and even a handful from Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Some of those people are now responding to the message and we've been creating a new website for those who want to go on from an initial contact and know more about what we believe.

We've had a programmer [Michael] out here for a couple of months creating a stable system to integrate SMS messages into our work. Some of you will know that I created a system about a year or so ago to do this, but there were two problems with this: Firstly the programming I did was great 'proof of concept' but really needed a professional programmer to write a cleaned up reliable system for rolling out around the world. Secondly the hardware we had been using was not really up to it and so we had to use different hardware which meant it had to be re-written from the ground up anyhow. So that was what he was doing. It's close but not finished... and it should have been finished by the end of April.

One of the problems faced was the Arabic long messages. SMS messages was supposed to be a Short Message Service, but for many people in the region it has tended to replace email and has become pretty long. Some of this was documented, some of it was covered by sections in the specification that read 'reserved for future expansion' and then Michael had to dig around and try to find out if anything was written about the future expansion that was actually being used. Anyway, he has decided to stay on for another month which should complete the porject. There is probably enough work for him to do if he came back full time... so maybe that will happen.

In between all this Peter and I have been trying to get all the servers completely moved over to the new cluster in Frankfurt. We moved another one over last week and will make that live this week and hopefully complete everything before the London contacts run out at the start of June.

We hope to be start regular weekly live broadcasts in the beginning of May and this week a Scandanavian will be flying out to discuss this project. He has been involved in running an FM station in Sweden, so his input will be valuable.

As you have probably gathered from the beginning of this post, I am somewhat fed up. The stresses over the church have really got to me and I'm currently taking a break and then kind of looking around for another place to go to church. Although there are 8 english speaking churches in our town none of them seem a good match and I will probably end up at whatever I consider to be the least bad option... which is not very motivating to say the least. I feel closer to God out sailing than I do at church right now. At least when we look at nature we don't see men leading people astray!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Streaming video and moving sites

This week we will be handling the video and audio streaming for the same conference we did last year. Last year we had 70,000 listeners and 20,000 viewers approx over 4-5 days. I don't know if this year will be bigger or smaller, we shall wait and see.

Last year I went to the country in which the conference is being held but this year I am not, so I have been setting up the links on the server ready for the feed and my son helped set up the 'shuttle' system to send to the conference. The 'shuttle' is a very small but powerful computer with a special card inside for converting video into the web stream. It's about the size of a large shoebox, but really a pretty powerful computer.

Anyway it took a while to configure, but not only is it working better than last year in the tests, but I learnt quite a bit more about video streaming in the process. It's a never ending cycle of learning and developing here. So the rest of the week I shall be [on and off] monitoring the feed and checking everything is working correctly.

I also moved one of the main sites we handle here from the second London server to our new server cluster in Frankfurt. There are still about 20 sites we have to move sometime soon.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Good news and tribulations...

I cannot believe it is two weeks since I wrote an update. It seems to have both flown by and dragged out for ever. I have been very stressed these last couple of weeks, but more of that later.

I have had meetings with a couple of our partners, resulting from the experiment in live radio on the Internet. The result of these meetings is that this area of work will certainly expand in the future. We are looking at more experiments leading to a full time service by the end of the year.

I have been editing a DVD in between. Having got the sequences together, I spent 2-3 days 'authoring' the DVD. Authoring is the process of puting in all the menus and links and what goes to where etc. In a multi-media training DVD this is pretty complex. Anyhow... having spent 2-3 days getting it ready to burn a demo to sent to our partners in the UK I click on the 'Make a DVD' button. Hard disk wirs... dialogue boxes come up on screen saying 10%, 20%, 30% etc up to 99% when its says [paraphrase] 'Croak, you gotta be joking this ain't gonna turn into a DVD for love nor money'. Actual message was 'Unknown Error UkErr01 - cannot make DVD'.

Furious I went to the website to talk to tech support for this commercial software. 'This product ceased to be supported in September 2005, please buy an upgrade'. The upgrade is 250 sterling! I downloaded the demo version of the upgrade, expecting since its an upgrade it will read in all the work I have done: Nope - 'Sorry you cannot import this file the version that made it is too old'. So I had to learn a new package and reauthor the same thing again... GRRRR...

Michael has managed to get the communication with the database working and the start of communication working with the mobile phone. So things are progressing pretty well there. I am encouraged having him doing the programming. He is much more logical and structured than I am which is what is needed in a programmer... I am good on the ideas and concepts and I can programme, but not good on all the 'what if's to test is something goes wrong. I have been his liaison with the project so have been in and out on this over the couple of weeks.

Next week we are handling the streaming of a live event in video and audio from Egypt. Last year there were 70,000 listeners and 20,000 viewers over 4-5 days. I have no idea how many to expect this year. I was in Egypt for this last year, but this year I am not going. An Egyptian colleague will be handling that end and I am handling all the stuff from Frankfurt servers.

The following week I shall be making a visit to Morocco to see some partners there. This will be the first time in Morocco and I am looking forward to it.

So... the stress point... this is something I don't normally write about here as my wife normally puts this sort of thing in her blog, but it has so affected me so much I think I have to have it here. The church we have been attending has adopted 'The Purpose Driven Life' lock, stock and barrel. The problem with the Purpose Driven Life is not that it is 100% wrong, but that it is a confused mix of good and bad. It is a mix of normal Christian doctrine and Southern California mega-church universalism. We have a word for this phenonema its called 'syncretism'. If you want to know exactly what it means, here's a pretty good definition.

Anyhow [as I appear to so often say], some people I am friendly with in the church have seen this too, but the leadership are into it hook, line and sinker and some people are being totally misled and deceived into not seeing all the errors... even the basic tenet is wrong, we should be spirit led not purpose driven!

Not sure where will be going from here church wise. I'm pretty sick about the whole thing.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Trials, tribulations and good news...

Another week gone by and it seems like only one day. This week has been marked by trials, tribulations and good news.

So first the good news. We have another volunteer for 2 months out here. He arrived late on Wednesday evening. He is a programmer and his job is to create a program that will take SMS messages and put them in a database and messages from the database and send them as SMS messages. This is part of our upgrading of the SMS system.

I had written a program to do this, but it suffered from two problems. Firstly the hardware we had been using for the purpose were normal domestic mobile phones connected to our servers. These proved to be too unreliable. Secondly in order to communicate with these Nokia mobile phones we had to use some software called gnokii. That was designed for talking to 1 mobile phone only. In order to get it to talk to more than one mobile phone I had to do some very complex programming, which proved to be unreliable and make the whole project unstable when using more than one phone.

We have now found some new better professional Desktop mobiles from a British company called Burnside Telecom. These appeare very much better and the task of the programmer is to write a new simpler [and therefore more reliable] program to talk to these units.

So, that't the good news... we had got a new computer ready for Michael [the programmer] to use. It was using a spare motherboard we had and we bought new components to go with it. On Thursday we turned it on for him and within 10 minutes it froze. We rebooted. Within 10 minutes it froze... again and again. We tried different configurations and new hard drive and... it froze. So that had to be taken to the computer shop for them to look at. In the meantime Michael is using an old computer we have as a 'lab' machine for testing. This is old and slow. So inappropriate for him to use for the project.

And... CYTA... [the main telephone company here on the island] decided to do an 'upgrade' to the DSL system in our town this week starting very early Wednesday morning. Upgrade? Hmmm... it took most of Wednesday to get one of our two links working again. The other, which was with a different ISP, took till Thursday evening to get working. The other ISP blamed CYTA for the disruption. And it took till late Thursday evening to get all our facilities back to normal. Yuk. I hate ISPs that cause us more work!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The experiment ended

The experiment on live Internet radio is over. I am both pleased and sad. Pleased because supervising a live 4 hour broadcast every night is a strain on top of a normal workload... sad because it was such a success I would rather it is sad to stop it. We had been getting about 50 listeners per day to this station, but by the end of the experiment we had over 2000 listerners per day, most within the 4 hour period of the live broadcast!

We have a saying 'no peace for the wicked' and I guess I must be in that category since as soon as the live broadcast finished we had to change servers from a London supplier to a Frankfurt supplier. So Peter and I have been tied up all this last week doing that. On the whole we are pleased: The London supplier had 24/7 reboot, which meant if there was a problem and the server had locked up we could get it rebooted, but only 9-5 Monday to Friday support. So if there was a server failure at, say, 5.15 on a Friday we had to wait till Monday morning for it to be fixed. Since most of our audience use the servers in the evening fixing problems promptly became a significant problem. The new company has a true 24/7 support option.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Live Internet Radio

Right from the beginning of when we started Internet radio my hope and desire had always been that it should be live so that the presenters could interact with the audience. This Tuesday we started a two week experiment of 4 hours live Internet radio each evening. It has taken up a lot of my time ensuring everything is working and that the presenters are trained in how to do live [contrasted with pre-recorded] radio.

The results as far as audience is concerned have been pretty amazing. We have seen a 350% increase in the audience since we started. But the audience increase is not the whole story - we have had many contacts with listeners through phone, MSN, Skype, email and messages posted on the website.

Of course its not the size of the audience that is just important, if we broadcast sports we could get a huge audience! The content is also important. We have changed the style of the programming, but we are not totally happy with that and this next week I shall be having meetings with others of the management team to discuss how we go forward. It's obvious from the numbers we need to do something regularly live, but the question is to how to get the content right for our specific audience. That is always the most difficult question.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Moving on...

Almost 3 weeks since the last post. Doesn't seem like a 'dear diary' spot. I will try to get back to more regular updates. There seems to be a logical problem here: When I am busy there is loads to write about and almost no time to do it. When I have time it is because there is little to write about! Today is part of the 'busy' but I couldn't sleep so got up and decided to write.

From the ongoing trail of problems you will know that we have had countless problems with servers and with the hosting company we use in London. We hope we will soon have solved both of those problem areas.

We decided that we need to work more like a telephone company with our mission critical servers. Obviously you don't want to try to make a telephone call only to find your telephone doens't work. One of the ways telephone companies get over the problem of equipment breaking down is to have two of everything critical with a system that swaps over to the other one if the first one breaks. This is called 'hot standby'.

The system we had been operating was called 'cold standby'. Cold standby systems have other equipment that can replace the faulty equipment, but needs to be set up to take over. This is what happened over Christmas. We had the parts, but we had to configure them and get it working.

Over the next few weeks we shall be setting up a hot standby system with all the servers in the office and those that are currently in London. This will directly double our costs as we shall have to have two servers wherever we had one, but it should in the medium term reduce the stress on us as when one goes wrong the other will take over, and then the repairs can be done when we want to, not when everything is crashing around us.

To solve the London problem we will be moving the facilities we lease in London to Frankfurt. We have been negotiating with a German company to provide facilities similar to what we are leasing in London. Again we will be going for a 'hot standby' system, so this again will double our costs. We have been discussing with our partners and they are prepared to pay the extra costs so that we can all have a more reliable system.

Alongside all these decisions we have been working on two things: Preparing for two weeks of live Internet radio and preparing to re-launch one of the websites we host. For both of these we have had extra people from one of the Arab countries staying with us to prepare.

The two weeks of live Internet radio is an experiment and will come from our studios here in Cyprus. It is for a week before and a week after Valentines day. Valentines day is celebrated in the Middle East and gives us a suitable 'peg' to hang on many questions about love and about how God cares for us. More news as it unfolds.

The re-launch of one of the websites came as a request from the team that develop the content. We have helped totally redesign and restructure it. It's a 12 month project and we have hired full time a programmer to work on it.

Generally speaking the sites we host get between 2 and 8 thousand visitors a month. Which is good considering the target audience. This site was at the bottom end of the figures, but the countries visitors came from and their reaction to the material more than made up for this.

In December the team started using Google AdWords to advertise the site and the result was almost a 10 fold increase in visitors to 19,000. In January the figure was over 34,000. Apparently about 2% of those visitors then signed up for more information. And this is before the new re-launch.

The re-launch will happen within the next week or two. We are ready, we are just waiting for the content team to be ready. So for two reasons... watch this space.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Support problems

The only thing that is reliable about computers is that they are unreliable! And trying to do everything we do within a very very limited budget only makes it more difficult. We have Internet radio stations that operate 24 hours a day, Internet TV programmes for viewing, websites, e-commerce sites, email systems etc etc etc

We have a system that monitors everything and sends a text message to the mobile phone of the person on duty, in theory, within 15 minutes of a problem developing. As you know from following this blog we have tended to have problem after problem after problem with systems. This week we had a minor problem with one server. Sadly the problem became greater because the person on duty ignored the alert thinking it meant something else.

What we realised as a result of this is that sometimes we get so many messages from 'clients' reporting faults that we cannot see the wood for the trees. I say messages from clients reporting faults... but what we found out is that only about 25% of the messages we recieve are reporting faults. The rest fall into the category of either administrative messages or personal support messages [where the 'client' has a problem, but the problem is not ours but theirs!] or where the client is asking for a new feature rather than reporting a problem.

So... how to manage things? Administration is not my strong point. And we have just come to the end of another year, which means I/we have to do an end of year report including the end of year finances. We always find the end of year reports a pain to do... and yet find when they are completed they are really helpful in seeing how much we have actually achieved. So... coming up is going through the finances and going through the logs to see what we have done.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Since Christmas, as before Christmas, the biggest thing I have been doing is editing a training programme. Training programmes are always difficult as they have to be 'interesting' but often the material is somewhat abstract and trying to make them interesting can be difficult.

In the early autumn we installed a new computer for editing - the old one was now four years old and very slow by today's standards. We thought we could do the upgrade cheaply by just buying a new motherboard and keeping everything else the same. No chance sadly, we ended up building a completely new system... and what was worse we were supplied with a faulty component [cheap 15 pound component]. Sadly that faulty component did significant damage to other parts... the supplier replaced the faulty component but not all the other parts it damaged.

Anyhow... my son is into hardware for computers and he came in to do the building of the system. Computers for video editing are complex beasts and he installed the system about 4 times before saying it was working. So I started editing with the computer. It was not 100% working. Every so often it would crash. I know some people say 'What do you expect, it's a computer?' and others might be demeaning of Microsoft, but I do expect computers to stay running longer than a couple of hours.

Having started the editing and having a deadline of early January, we could not stop and try sorting out the problem, which would have required a complete re-install again [maybe more than once] and we had no real idea how to stop it crashing. So I persevered. And persevered. And persevered. And got angry with it. And wished we could have a Mac editing system [which is what we would have gone for it we were starting fresh today]. And got even more angry with it.

This is time for an aside, because it's from this that some thinking came about... There is a strand of Christianity called the 'prosperity Gospel' - people from that strand teach that since God created the whole universe he can sure provide all we need in abundance all the time. And there is some truth in that teaching. Some truth. But not whole truth. Anyhow people who teach from that strand tend to drive Mercedes, live in big houses and have the latest and best of everything.

There are some groups within Christianity that value austerity as the way forward. That group tend to have bicycles, live in apartments and re-use tea bags. And there is some truth in that teaching. Some truth. But not the whole truth.

So in times when I am struggling and getting angy with these stupid computers I tend to feel attracted to the 'prosperity' and wish for the latest, greatest, no expense spared... after all aren't we trying to share Jesus in what we do and so what we do must be valuable?

Had a meeting yesterday with someone and he said one of his gifts was fundraising. Often, when I am getting angry with lack of resources I feel that maybe I should do less and fundraise more. But that in itself is strange. There are some times when we have received really quite significant gifts, and one of our ex-trustees said that I was pretty good at it. Well... that's what's strange. There have been times when we have received sizable gifts but generally it has been God arranging it. Someone might come to our office and say 'what do you need money for now?' or take me out for coffee, and I share what we are doing and they say 'how can I give you money to help this?' It's pretty infrequent I will grant you but it does happen.

Other times I have tried to 'fund-raise' for equally valuable projects and got absolutely nothing! So I tend to end up carrying on using junk equipment because I can achieve more even with problematical equipment than with fund-raising. Of course, one might take into account my stress level too...

So there we are. Struggling with equipment, wishing I really believed the prosperity Gospel, feeling guilty I am not fund-raising, knowing that I would not get anything anyhow unless God brings the donors, and if He brings them then so long as I am doing what He calls me to do I don't have to do anything other that be there available. And I am still struggling with the equipment.

Yesterday morning the video editing computer was behaving even worse than normal. I was wishing we are back in the 'good old days' of shooting film not videotape - at least you could hold the film up to the light to see it and edit it! At lunctime we discussed it and my son did some research in the afternoon and then from about 8pm through to 1am we re-installed the system again...

It's better... lots better... but still not 100%. It's not crashing every hour or so now, but it is misbehaving, refusing to play back video perfectly. Struggle on. Struggle on.

So where does that leave us? As a team we talked and prayed today. Yes, I think we all have secret longings for prosperity, and feel guilty about not fund-raising, and are not gifted in it and... and...