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.