Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Another banking wally...

Another bank gets added to my 'wallies' list...

When I was back in the UK I went into Abbey to close my business bank account. In a branch, face to face with a nice human being who did everything needed before my eyes and got me to sign all the relevant papers. She (of course) also tried to dissuade me. Well, actually, she accepted it because I told her that I had already opened an HSBC account to change to. She said they would close it and send me a cheque for the balance. The balance at that stage was just a few pounds and paying this in to my Cyprus account would have cost more than the value of the cheque.

Next thing I find is that somehow I have money coming into this account [Ooops, I had forgotten to tell someone the new bank details] and the bank are still sending me statements. Irregularly. Strange, since as part of the closing procedure they had removed me from the Internet banking system.

Yesterday I phoned the bank. All the usual security questions. Including 'What is the number on your bank card?' I don't have a bank card any longer, I destroyed it because I should no longer have this account!

'We have no record of you requesting the account to be closed'. Is this another method of keeping customers? But you closed my Internet banking correctly. 'Could you go into your branch please and do it again'. I am in Cyprus, so, no that's not possible, can I FAX you the instruction? 'Yes, no problem, here's the FAX number'.

I immediately go and type a FAX, sign it and add a copy of my passport - I don't want them then coming back wanting evidence of my identity. In the FAX I ask them to FAX back confirmation that it is all done.

No FAX reply so today I phone again. Same security questions. Except new one 'Can you tell me all the recent transactions on this account?' No, because that account should be closed and all the deposits are in error. I can only tell you transactions from when you irregularly send me statements as I don't have a card for the account, which should be closed, and cannot access Internet banking any longer. Eventually they accept I am who I claim to be.

I then ask them to tell me the status of the instruction I FAXed them yesterday. 'We don't have any FAX from you, sir' - banks generally start using sir when they are covering up some incompetence or another. But I have a FAX confirmation that you received it. 'That's only your word against ours.' OK, can I FAX it again and will you wait on the line to confirm you get it? 'Sorry, sir' [sir again] 'The fax is not in this room and we don't have access to it'. Can you get whoever is in the room to check while I FAX it. This is the third time I am trying to close my account with you!

'Will you hold for a moment, sir.' I wait while innocuous so called music assaults my eardrums. I put the call on speakerphone so that its not quite so bad. Minutes pass. More minutes pass. 'Did you send the FAX from Cyprus?' Yes, I did, why? 'Did you use the correct country prefix?' Yes, of course I did, I also know I connected to your FAX machine since I heard the FAX tones and I have a receipt to show your FAX machine accepted it.

'Will you hold for a moment, sir.' I wait while innocuous so called music assaults my eardrums. I put the call on speakerphone again so that its not quite so bad. Minutes pass. More minutes pass.

'We think we have found it now, sir' [I wonder which pile of papers scattered around the room they had to knock over and plow through to find it... do we really trust our money to people like this?] 'My supervisor has now signed off on it and it will not take the normal 3-5 days for processing, but we will do it hopefully today or tomorrow.' Hopefully.

Well that was the irritating bank problem. Now the very irritating one. We pay our utility bills through bank transfers online. You should also know than in Cyprus they use a comma not a full stop to show the cents. Mostly. Usually. Not always. So £12,34 means twelve pounds and thirty four cents.

The Bank of Cyprus Internet banking system here doesn't have separate fields for pounds and cents like the Abbey one in the UK to ensure you get it right. When you type the amount as £12,34 the system says do you want to transfer £12.34. Yes, you did read that right. One place is a comma the other a full stop.

Not consistent. Easy to make a mistake. Today we did. By accident. Now instead of paying twenty one pounds to one utility company we paid two thousand one hundred and have all the hassle of getting the money back from them.

Just a thought... often when you call a bank or similar organization you get a message something like 'Calls may be recorded for training and...' Is it legal to record calls to a bank and then send it to them for their training?

Monday, December 17, 2007

That Monday morning feeling...

Aiieee... came in this morning to find one of the servers in the cluster had locked up and the system had not automatically swapped to the the backup. First server lockup in about a year. And before that we had not had one for maybe a couple of years. Servers are supposed to never lock up. Now to find out why. What a way to be greeted with on a Monday morning!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

We won't be popular!

One of the things that has taken a lot of time this last few weeks [in between everything else] is planning for the new year. That involves three things - budgeting, time budgeting and prioritizing activities. Cyprus changes from the Cyprus Pound to the Euro on January 1st, so one thing we had to do was change the way we budget from Sterling/Dollars to Sterling/Euro (and Dollars). With the dollar weakening by the day we had to look at how projects that work in dollars will affect our cash flow. Also meant that except with partners from the USA we will either work in Sterling or Euros, whereas we had worked in Sterling or Dollars.

In reviewing all the finances to produce a budget we found that the most significant cost in terms of labour was not the administration of all the services we provide to partners, but the ongoing development in terms of labour for the services. Ongoing development is the upgrades to the services we need to do each year to ensure that all the security etc is working and up to date. For instance, for email it takes more than 8 man weeks of labour to do the annual upgrades. So we have decided that as a result of this we will add in an extra line to our invoices to partners to show the cost of doing this so that get a truer idea of the costs of these services.

That overlaps with looking at our time budget. Our total labour cost in administrating services is nearly half a man year and our total labour cost in development/upgrades for services is over 1 man year. When you take into account organization admionistration, vacations etc, we reckoned it basically took Pete and me working full time to keep going. And we are not here to be a service organization!

We realised that if we continue on as we are, we have no time for the new projects that are coming up. These new projects are more important to our aims and objectives as an organization than some of the projects we had been providing services for for partners. We're not saying that some of our partner projects are unimportant, to them they are, and to other people they are, and if we had time we would help. It's just they are not core to our organization. So we took a long hard look at what we are doing in the service area. It was difficult, most of the services we provide to others we need for our own projects too.

There was only one thing we could find we could cut that would not adversely affect our own projects. Its quite a big service we have been providing to five of our partners. But if we can redeem any time for the projects that are critical to us then it has to be cut. We won't be popular!

So that looks like it just might work, especially if we can expand and take on a couple more workers this next year as apprentices so that by 2009 they are starting to carry more of the workload. In discussions with one partner it looks possible we shall have funding for this to happen...

But... this week I have a couple of colleagues over from the Middle East and they have brought with them a number of other projects they want us to help with. Groan. In Europe and North America you just 'Sorry, no way'. But in the Middle East, where relationships are key this is a big problem. So, they were expecting us to increase in what we could do with them and we are trying to decrease. What's more they are looking at some of our freelance staff to do more work for them, which will make them less available for us. Aieee... just when you think life is complicated enough, it gets more complicated.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Flashed past...

I have been back just one month and sometimes it seems like a year! Actually that's because so much has happened or rather so much has been done.

Having an administrator is definitely a blessing. They insist the administration gets done! So lots of the things that have been put on one site and hope they will go away have been found and are being done. What has become obvious is that too much of what happens around here is dependent upon my knowledge. And that's gotta change. And it is. I have set up a shared information system for the office so that instead of most files living on my computer they now live on the main shared information server.

Doing this was part technical and part administrative. Technically it involved setting up one of the office servers to be a samba server. Basically a samba server looks like a Windows server (and this one is set up to look like a Windows Domain Server as would be used in a secure office environment) but without any of the costs of actually having a Windows server! Alongside this I have added a Namazu full text search engine so that we can find any files on the shared server - it's no good having the information if we cannot find it! Alongside setting it up technically was copying the files from my computer to the right place on the server [all 1,538 of them] and sorting out with some sort of logic, which needed to be written down, for how we will all use the system.

Alongside this was the administrative task [which I had kept ignoring] of sending out all the invoices to our partner organizations, which should have been done within the last six months and which I hadn't found time for. Having an administrator also meant we had to make this more logical, so work out a proper budget and cost sheet etc. Great to have done and hopefully will mean that Paula can do most of the work in the future for these... as well as keeping lists of when they should be done etc.

Budget... yes, that has taken a lot of time, but we now have a 2008 draft budget, which Peter and I need to go through next week and agree how we will move forward in 2008. Cyprus changes to the Euro on 1 January, so that had to be taken into account and we are now working things out in Euros and Sterling so we can compare.

We now have a regular Monday morning meeting where we go through the past week and next week so that tasks are somewhat more structured. Of course in doing so we realise how unstructured we were and Peter thinks we need some way of prioritizing tasks.

Actually Peter has done a really great task this last month - he has researched and worked out a migration plan for changing our Internet connections. We met with the representative of one of the providers today and signed the agreement. Basically this will mean that we pay the same amount we are at the moment but will get 3 times the service - from 1.5M down and 256 up we go to 4M down and 756 up. This will help us in 2008 develop some of the video streaming we hope to do and also help us with better Skype and other VOIP calls around the region.

Talking of telephone calls, one thing that has been really bugging me has been the phone system in the office. Its really old and antiquated and takes a lot of time to keep working. One thing we are hoping to do is replace it with a new VOIP system next year when we get a gift from one church to pay for it. VOIP? Basically normal phone switchboards are analogue, using normal phones, whereas VOIP [which stands for Voice Over IP] uses digital phones that connect to the normal computer system and a server computer acts as a sort of exchange. We could really do with someone coming out for a month or two to set this up for us... any volunteers?

Today a couple of friends of Peter's arrived for a week as volunteers. One of them will be doing some redecoration - where we had a roof leak last winter the ceiling needs repainting, and the other person will be helping develop a structure for the short term projects. Short term projects? See if any of these interest you:
Oh, and I have also developed two Keynote presentations - one about our vision for showing to partners and guests and another for one of the churches that supports us. Keynote? Its the mac equivalent to PowerPoint and can be considered to be PowerPoint on steroids! Not that I'm biased or anything...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Playing catchup

Well... been back at work two days and playing catchup. Pete [my co-leader of the team] is off in another country in the Middle East. So I guess I am holding the baby again too.

Paula, our new administrator, has started and I spent Monday morning working with her to try to sort out some of the recurring charges and other admin issues we need to deal with [and delegate to her]. Actually already I am seeing how she will make a difference. She is noticing things that have been falling behind for some time and looking at ways of making them work.

In the afternoon I spent time with Phyo, our trainee programmer/designer catching up with what he has been doing and helping set his next priorities. The sort out a couple of technical things - one with a printer Pete had been having problems with while I was away and another with one of the radio streams that had stopped working because one of our partners had removed a file from the server...

Today... well... one thing we have been bad at is fund raising, but I have an invitation to the USA to meet some potential funders there. I have been sent a 28 page document to fill in, and today I have been wading through it. Some questions are easy, many need quite a lot of looking at. For instance a percentage break down of how we use our funds. We don't have those figures at our fingertips [maybe in a years time when Paula sorts us all out we will, but not now!]

Miracle of miracles the Internet banking is now working [started while I was away] so that has reduced the workload for our book-keeper somewhat. However, I dare not tell you the ongoing saga of the banking problems... this with our UK bank this time which has sucessfully forgotten to reply to my FAXes, failed to send out a bank card, failed to send it a second time, then sent two bank cards to a third wrong address... one day [maybe] all our banking facilities will work... including hopefully the Internet banking on our UK account.

Of course, although the Cyprus Internet banking is now working , the Bank of Cyprus did have to show how inefficient they were as well, by sending us a new Euro bank book for an account that is now closed!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Home after vacation

One of the things I wanted to do on my holiday was to try to catch up with my email. Email had been something that felt like the sword of Damocles over me, and as fast as I tried to catch up... I never got there and this 'thing' was hanging over me worrying me that I had missed something or not replied to something.

I had not managed to file emails for about a year and in the process of filing I found that I have been corresponding with 394 individuals and 136 companies and organisations.

I replied to many that I should have replied to over the year and after working hard at it managed to get down to 50 outstanding messages. I felt that was a possible number to clear over the remaining 10 days of my holiday - 5 per day. The trouble was more kept coming in and as I wrote between 5 and 10 per day, I never seemed to get down below the 50 outstanding messages. So the sword still hangs over my head!

The holiday has been really great - basically just hanging out with Daniel and at times his friends. Yesterday we managed to get a day sailing - the doctor from the ship he is on, Daniel and I rented a Hobie 14 [14 foot catamaran] and took it out for a couple of hours sailing. We were sailing in the South China Sea and the wind was light. Its a wonderful place to sail. I wish we had more opportunity to sail there.

Daniel is a natural sailor and I look forward to the time he will be back in Cyprus for a few months, when hopefully he and I can go out sailing at least once per week.

We also helped with the International Night for the ship - this is a presentation, this time done in the local Anglican Cathedral about what the ship is all about. Because so many people wanted to come they wanted to do a video relay to another building. Talk about following in father's footsteps... Daniel was directing the video relay and I was one of the camera operators.

It was great to see the vitality of the young people from the ship in this presentation, though like many church things they couldn't allow the creative presentation to stand on its own as a form of communication and had to have a talk as well. I guess nothing is perfect... except God!

Biggest problem they faced was lack of equipment - they had about 25% of the equipment they really need for this sort of presentation so everywhere people were trying their best... and struggling. Nevertheless, the audience enjoyed it. It would be interesting to see what these young people could do with the right equipment and the time and opportunity to develop the presentation fully.

By the time you read this we will be back in Cyprus. We're not really looking forward to the trip back. We have a 3 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, a 12 hour layover in KL, an 10 hour flight to Dubai, 3 hours in Dubai and finally a 5 hour flight to Cyprus. The flight from KL to Dubai is overnight... famously called the 'red eye' due to what the passengers look like at the end of it.

I guess it will be back to trying to feed the email beast now we are back in Cyprus... looking at what I was filing I think I read more than 22,000 emails per year and write at least 2,500 emails per year. Admittedly that is less than it used to be as so much is now done with IM. I haven't logged on to any of the IM systems while I have been away, though urgent messages have come via SMS [didn't count these, but more than 50 of these] and direct email to my phone [52 of those].

I was hearing how the the officers of Daniel's ship, like the officers of most ships these days have loads of emails back and forth to the company. Gone are the days of the master of a ship BEING the master. Accountability means communicating and involving decisions. The same is true in most lines of work these days. I wonder how much more we would achieve if we trusted people to make the best decision before God they can and didn't have all these extra layers of communication and accountability. My bet is we would gain between 1 and 2 days per week and possibly more.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hong Kong National Day

Yesterday was Hong Kong National Day. Some shops were closed, but many still open [to make money, a primary concern of most people in Hong Kong]. The ship that Daniel was on had to go out and anchor in the bay as a cruise liner was coming in to use the berth that they had been using. Apparently they get cheaper berths if they do this.

The reason I think the cruise liner was there was for National Day. It was absolutely ideally situated for the fireworks in the evening. I think the Chinese invented fireworks and certainly this display was the best I have ever seen, the the crowd control by the Hong Kong police was excellent... except that it meant we had a less than ideal view of the fireworks! However, the event was brilliantly organised, with visitor/tourist desks at street corners manned by people who told us why streets were closed off and where to go to be able to see what we did see.

Today was Daniel's day off this week, so we went over to Hong Kong island [we are on Kowloom now] and went up the tram to the peak. I'm not sure if Sue had her eyes closed for the tram up the mountain... she had threatened to do so if it got too scary. As we left the wind came up and we almost felt like we were going to be blown off the peak.

When we came down we visited Stanley Street looking for a camera for Timothy. We failed in the quest, but did manage to find a drawing tablet for Daniel which will be part of his 21st Birthday.

The ferry between Kowloom and Hong Kong is amazing... not much different from how it was 100 years ago. Great fun to see the harbour from the ferry, and to see Daniel's ship from the harbour.

We have come aboard Daniel's ship for the next 12 days and its wonderful to be in a cabin with space to sit and crash out, type on the computer, make coffee... and a bathroom with space to turn round in!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hong Kong

We're now in Hong Kong, visiting our son Daniel. It's good to be here. The trip was not good though.

We flew Emirates from London through Dubai to Hong Kong. There were a number of flights shown as connecting flights one with a 2 hour layover in Dubai and one with a 9 hour layover in Dubai. Because flights that are shown as 'connecting' normally have accommodation provided I assumed we would get accommodation for the longer layover. No... we didn't. So we spent a long and boring night in Dubai airport, kind of drowsing, Tim somewhat sleeping on the floor, Sue curled up on a chair and me feeling very stiff and very painful in my back.

Why so painful in my back? Well... as soon as we got onto the aircraft in London I found the chair was horribly, terribly uncomfortable, with a bar across the back sticking into my kidneys/spine. Sue said this was the most comfortable airline chair she had ever sat on with support for her back whereas normally it wasn't. And she felt mine and said it was the same as hers. So I assumed that for the first time ever she has a comfortable chair and mine was painful.

I tried jamming the pillow below this bar, and that relieved it a little. I tried folding the blanket and jamming that below this bar, and that was slightly better. Both were still very painful. It was sufficiently painful I was gritting my teeth from the pain for part of the flight to Dubai. Since it was comfortable for Sue, maybe at least she would get a good flight.

Second flight from Dubai to Hong Kong, we found that the chairs had labels on the buttons... and one of them controlled this bar that digs into the bottom of your back (or makes it comfortable if your body is like Sue's and not like mine). So I could move the bar back and reduce the pain in my back. I couldn't eliminate it totally, but it was significantly better, and with a pillow below the bar it was nearly comfortable.

We finally arrived in Hong Kong. We had had problems finding appropriate accommodation. What we wanted was a good basic, cheap hotel/guest house, nothing fancy... and something that took bookings online. We had the Lonely Planet guide [great, we highly recommend these] and we were using that coupled with searches on Google.

Looking online and in Lonely Planet there seemed to be two choices: cheap or expensive. Nothing in the middle. Last year in Singapore we managed to find a couple of low/mid-priced hotels that were very good, but here in Hong Kong there seemed nothing in the middle at all and the expensive were very expensive. So we booked a couple of rooms in a cheap place... also we wanted en suite bathrooms rather than shared bathrooms. Oh... and we wanted it to be close to where Daniel's ship was moored.

The booking confirmation email was slightly alarming with warnings about people accosting you outside as you went in. Daniel visited the place and his comments were something along the lines of the place being basic.

We arrived... very very tired... could have slept anywhere.

The double room for Sue and me was 1.5 metres by 2 metres (5 foot by 6.5 foot) with an en suite bathroom [including toilet, wash basin and shower about 80 cm by 80 cm (2'6" by 2'6"). The bed was 4 ft wide which means there was a 1 foot gap to the wall alongside and 1 foot 6 inches at the end. Never mind... we slept.

Following morning Tim and I went out to check out another place up the road that was in Lonely Planet didn't have online bookings. Much better... still very very basic... we booked a room for that night but we would have to move rooms again the following morning. There was a bunk free in Daniel's cabin and so Tim moved in with Daniel and we moved to the new place.

Hong Kong seems like a dirtier, busier, very much more expensive version of Singapore. We have been here 5 days now. It's nice to see Daniel, but Hong Kong is nothing very much to write home about.

In order to do email/web we have to go to Starbucks as we bought a 30 day Internet card that works in some branches of Starbucks and some other locations which we have yet to find.

Starbucks here is cheaper than Cyprus or Lebanon, but still pretty expensive compared to other places, and the coffee nothing very much to speak of. In fact I think I shall be pleased if I don't have to visit another Starbucks for another year after this trip. One of the branches has plastic columns with millions and millions of coffee beans in them as a display. I thought what a waste... well maybe considering the quality of the coffee its not, but that's another story...

I am beginning to feel pretty fed up with the waste I see everywhere. On the ship Daniel is on they have had to change from containers for the margarine to individual sealed portions in plastic. So every meal there are hundreds of plastic containers thrown away.

I understand this on the aeroplane, as a necessary evil, but on the ship its ludicrous. And whenever we have one of these Starbucks coffees there's also loads of waste too... the plastic cup, the lid, the heatproof sleeve. And if its a cold drink then add a straw to the list [keep the heatproof sleeve so that you don't get frostbite on your fingers].

Why can't we wash things up and use them again?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Two weeks in the UK

It's a strange time coming back to the UK and doing talks and things telling people about my work. I had just over two weeks in the UK doing this. In some ways I love it and in other ways I hate it.

I do enjoy telling people about what I do, because it shows what God is doing in the area. I often tell people how we are just almost running alongside while God is doing things. Because we are working with other people who speak the languages, we are doing primarily technical, production and guidance on content. The actual content is written, recorded etc by others. So we cannot evaluate fully what it is like. We partly evaluate through the popularity or otherwise of the material we produce, and the response to the material. Those are both encouraging.

We have also recently evaluated, by getting ours and other people's material evaluated content-wise on a system that we developed to score how different materials hit their target audience. That too was encouraging.

So if all that's encouraging when I tell people about what we are doing, why do I hate it? The reason is that I feel I am telling only half the story, yes, I tell some of the struggles too, but not the long term emotional struggles.

Quite a bit of the time I feel that I am creatively stunted in what we are doing and in what I see others doing. Because I feel that we are not really being as creative as we should be I feel that I am not telling the whole story. Some of what we do is creative, but lots is not. Lots is boring.

And that overlaps with the talks that I give to people about what we do. Often I fall asleep in sermons because they are pretty boring. When the vicar from one of the churches in the UK we come from came out to Cyprus a while back, he came to church with me and over lunch admitted to the family he wasn't sure if he should wake me in the sermon as I was sleeping so peacefully.

Most talks, most radio programmes, most TV programmes seem to be 'the Bible says this...' But when Jesus was on earth much of the time he didn't do talks along the lines of 'the Bible says this...'. He told stories. Interesting stores. Creative stories. Sometimes he took existing stories and added creative new ends to them.

So why is so much of our communication boring as Christians? We justify what we do by counting the effects... so many people heard, so many people responded. Yes, that's important. We do the same, but I have the increasing nagging feeling that we are missing out on our calling to be creative, to seek interesting ways of telling people about Jesus and to do in a a style that is good.

After all, when God created the earth He said it was good, and we are created in the image of God with the same inbuilt nature to be creative.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Banks... we love 'em... NOT!

Well, I went to the bank this morning, picked up the user id and pin for both directors and one digipass... yes, you did read that right ONE Digipass. They didn't send two! Oh well, at least we can start using the internet banking. Back to the office, phone the bank [yes, because you cannot do this at the bank] and then the tedious security questions... and at last my internet banking is working.

Go to my trusty mac notebook, open Firefox, go yo the website and type in userid and pin [having verified that what at first sight appears to be a unsecure login is in fact a secure login left appearing to be unsecure to catch the unwary]. And... it doesn't work! No, Firefox is not supported on the mac.

So I tried Safari. Got further, and if I looked it at 'view source' and copied the URL from the Refresh meta-tag... hey presto it worked. Since more and more people are abandoning Microsoft Internet Explorer, I have no idea why there are so many badly written websites around that use the 'features' that make IE dangerous to use. Oh well...

Next, phone HSBC. The company credit card didn't work last week. First time I was trying to use it. Got the interminable press * for this, press 1 for that and... yes a wonderful option 'Please enter your date of birth...' I did. The disembodied voice said 'This is not the date of birth we have on record, please enter you date of birth...' I did the same again. I got the same reponse. Am I in an endless loop, can I get out? Ahhh... suddenly I get a 'If you are a business customer, please press 1 to continue'. I do that. I wait. I listen to boring tinny music. I wait. I listen some more.

Eventually a human being comes on the phone. Ah, I will try to find out why it is blocked, please hold while I talk to the relevant department. I wait. listen to boring tinny music. I wait. I listen some more. Thank you for holding, I will now transfer you to the Credit Card Department. I wait. I listen to boring tinny music. Somebody on a distant line [are they in India or Timbuktu?] says that Yes, your company credit card is blocked. [I knew that, that's why I was phoning!] Eventually he finds that because I hadn't used it the bank had blocked it [so that when I did want to use it it would not work]. Great. Please can you unblock it? No, you have to do that at the bank. I can't do that, I'm in Cyprus and the bank is in Wales. OK, can I FAX a request to unblock it. Yes, that might work, I will find the FAX number for you.

Now, there's one more thing. The card I have runs out at the end of October [even though its blocked] and I would like a new one now, not in two months time as I am traveling. No problem sir, but you have to do this at the bank. I can't do that, I'm in Cyprus and the bank is in Wales. OK, can I FAX a request for a new card? Yes, that might work, you could try that.

So now I have to type a FAX, sign a FAX and send it to the bank... but wait a moment. Excuse me sir, but did you know that there was also a deposit account attached to your bank account and that since you have quite a bit of money in current account you are actually losing interest? No, I didn't know that. What is the account number? Yes, I can tell you the account number no problem... Can you transfer some from the current to the deposit account for me? Yes, no problem, sir. [Hmmm... why was the thing I hadn't thought about easy and what I really wanted to do impossible?]

One final thing, I want internet banking set up please. You have to do that at the branch, sir.
I can't do that, I'm in Cyprus and the bank is in Wales. You can download the forms and send them to us. The url is You only need to send us the first five pages when you have printed it.

The form reminds me of the new e-tickets for aeroplanes... you know, the ones to save paper. If you've not had an e-ticket, it works like this: The old tickets used NCR paper, approx the equivalent of 1 or at most 2 pieces of very thin A4 paper cut into approx 1/4 size of A4. The new tickets you have to print out yourself and printed on 4 pages of 100 gsm printer paper. I estimate we are now using 4-6 times as many trees for the new e-tickets than the old paper ones.

Anyhow the HSBC form is 10 sides of A4, of which actually I only need to return two pages not five pages. So I have completed the form and then scanned it and sent a scan copy to my co-director in the UK for him tom complete and take to the bank. Aieee... no, for some oddball reason the files I sent print out 4 times size and won't fit onto an A4 page [they did here!]. So... I have to take them over with me at the end of the week and hand them over to him on Saturday... yes, that means another week is lost.

I wonder how much cheaper a pair of shoes, a motor car or my weekly shopping bill would be if banks were actually efficient and I didn't waste so much time trying to get them to do simple stuff. I think I may have spent approx 1 man month on these extra banking things over the last year-and-a-half... that would be a net extra cost of approx 2000-3000 in a commercial company, maybe more... multiplied by [say] 1000 companies in Cyprus with similar problems that makes 2-3 million pounds lost to bank inefficiency. I dread to think what the costs are worldwide.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Internet banking in Cyprus

After only 18 month or so of Cypriot [or maybe EU] bureaucracy we have our office bank accounts open... We are a UK registered organization wanting accounts in Cyprus. It is the EU after all. All we now needed was internet banking. Of course, that would mean more forms, I was expecting that. They haven't heard about the decimation of the rain forests for wood pulp from trees here, it's more like if you can create a form with one side as important, we'll make it 5 sides, and print it on 5 separate sheets of paper.

OK, so I fill in the form, which has to be co-signed by my co-director in the UK. I take the form away, send it to my co-director, he signs and sends it back. The form is a template company resolutions saying 'We'd like to use Internet banking'. Simple.

I take the form back, and was told, 'Where's the company stamp?' Next followed a 15 minute discussion where I explained that we didn't use company stamps in the UK. I remember using a company seal approximately 25 years ago, but not seen one since. [long phone call to aged mother in Athens, stockbroker or baby-minder... I suppose it could have even been her supervisor...] Eventually they decide that they will accept the form without a rubber stamp that I could have forged for one pound down town.

'OK, now we'll add this to your Internet bank login'. I don't have an Internet bank, my wife does, but I don't. 'Ahhh, because your wife applied we automatically added you'. But, I don't want it added, I want it separate and I don't want to have internet banking for my personal accounts, my wife deals with that and... phone call to her supervisor [well, someone else anyhow, since I don't speak Greek, it could have been her son, a priest or the prime minister for all I knew]. 'Yes, we can accept the form without the rubber stamp and I will create a new account/login for your business internet banking'. Guess what? More trees die, another 5 pages of forms to sign. 'The new login will be here in 2 or 3 days'.

A week or so later I collect the account details and my secret pin/password [and a cheque book for a bank account that I had already closed... another tree dies...] I am told 'Before you can use it you have to phone this number and they will activate it'

Back to the office [too easy to phone from the bank] and I phone the number written on a scrap of paper. 'I just want to ask you a few personal questions as a security procedure... what is your passport number?' Nothing as simple as your mother's maiden name... we all remember our passport numbers don't we... having found my passport I recite the number 'Sorry sir, that is not your passport number' It is... I have it right in front of me. 'Do you have your old passport, maybe it is that one...' Great idea using a passport number that changes every few years as an identifier...

'OK, let's try this as alternative, please tell me the bank account number attached to this login...' I tell her. 'No, sir, that is not the number...' Am I me? Have I transmogrified into someone else? I am failing the security questions badly... 'What is your date of birth?' I pass that one. I then find that in fact they have attached my personal accounts to this login not [as specifically requested] only the business ones. I politely ask them to connect the correct accounts. 'I cannot do that sir, you have to go to the bank to do that'. Bank to the bank.

Firmly [and frustrated] I say: Please can you connect the correct accounts to this login? 'Ah... I was going to contact you...' [she fumbles though a 10 cm pile of papers and finds a complement slip clipped to the form I had brought in 10 days earlier] '... there was a problem with your application' Apparently, since they had provided us with a draft resolution and they had printed in the names and we had decided to add an extra name in handwriting [it is after all our company resolution] this was causing a problem. We would have to start all over again.

Just a minute... I have my login, all I want it the accounts attached to it changed to the ones I specifically requested. [Another phone call with her cousin, primary school teacher or landlady's daughter.] 'This login is for your personal accounts' No, I never requested that, or filled in any forms for that, and specifically requested not to have that facility. So it must be for the one that I filled in the forms for, which is for my business accounts...

'Sorry, you'll have to start again... I will print the forms and you can fill them in again for this additional login...' Another tree dies. Just a minute, these forms are totally different from the forms you gave me last week. 'Yes, those must have been for your personal accounts...' But I didn't want, I specifically didn't want internet banking for my personal accounts... we spent time with you phoning [your aunt in Australia, your garage mechanic or whoever] to clarify this and that is why you gave me those forms.

I complete the new forms. I need this quickly, can I have this sent down today so that I can use it today... my book-keeper is in today and I need to use it. 'If we FAX it to Nicosia, you can have it tomorrow...' Just one problem... where we had written in the directors handwriting on the resolution we had passed as a company...

[another phone call with brother-in-law, hairdresser or local coffee shop owner... no... another bank employer comes over summoned, it was a phone call 5 metres across the office]

'Ah, Mr Richard, so nice to see you... how are you?' Discussion in Greek. Further discussion in Greek. Elongated discussion in Greek. They take out the 'white out' and paint out one place on their form that we had injudiciously written on... oops sorry, I mean our company resolution that we as directors had written on. Now they can FAX it to Nicosia and Nicosia will never know...

OK, now just one thing, it all has to be done on the computer. I peer over watching to check they do it correctly. Well... maybe. Excuse me why have you left unchecked the box for doing transfers to third parties. 'Oh... do you want this?' Yes, of course.

'You will have to buy a Digipass if you want to do that...' What is a Digipass? They explained. Its what I know as a SecureID from RSA Security, and I probably know more about them than they do as we are thinking of implementing this at the office ourselves and have spent time talking to the technical people about the implications of this system. Yes please, I'll have one of those for each director. 'Please can you fill in these two forms...' Two more trees die.

'The new login and Digipass will be here tomorrow...'

We'll see.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thoughts from the airport

I'm sitting writing this blog entry in the airport on my way to a meeting in another country. The meeting is to introduce one friend of mine to another friend of mine... with mutual interests. Sounds like a long way to take a flight to make an introduction? In this part of the world relationships are very important and making introductions can make all the difference in the world. So this sort of meeting is actually very important, and a critical part of my work here.

I have completed the multi-language DVD project at last working in Arabic, Farsi and English subtitles. I haven't solved the dual layer problem, that's for another day, but I did fix all the language/subtitle/multiple video problems. I was really pleased with that. We have now send it out to a number of people for checking.

DVD Studio Pro is a very good product and one that I am very pleased we now have. To do this project I had to use 'scripting' which is a more advanced feature than any of the other DVD authoring packages we have had in the past. We tread a difficult line: Final Cut Studio is a very expensive package indeed, but we have spent so much time fiddling about with other packages and hardware that having this really saves a lot of time.

Pete was back in the office and seeing all the things we have done over the summer... but we still have problems with infrastructure... by that I mean water! Our offices are in the top floor flat and we have been having very high water bills. Over the summer we found that the two flats were connected together. The day a friend came to sort that out was the first day of the official holiday period here... so all the plumbers merchants are shut for two weeks. They are open again this week so hopefully that will be sorted.

Also the toilet is having problems... a leak on the water inlet. We have had this fixed 3 times in the last year, but to no avail. Its just too old so we will have to replace it. In theory this is the landlord's responsibility, but because he wants to sell the property at some stage he will not do any expensive maintenance, so Pete and I decided we just have to get it done.

Second day back Pete discovered we are playing a cat and mouse game with the email spammers. Earlier in the year we had introduced a 'gleylisting' system for email which had radically reduced our email. 'greylisting' is a system which says to a new incoming sender of email 'please come back later we are busy right now' and if they do so more than 7 minutes later we accept it. The reason this worked was that legitimate email senders did come back later and spammers did not, because their aim was to dump millions of emails as quickly and possible and if they couldn't be delivered at once they didn't bother.

But... now the spammers are coming back later. Peter discovered they were coming back 10 minutes and 15 seconds or 10 minutes and 30 seconds later - presumeably because most greylisters have set their time-out at 10 minutes. So we have advanced our timeout to 11 minutes. Cat and mouse... I have no doubt they will change their timeouts too and we will be playing this game again and again.

We also started a new short term worker this week who is writing country profiles for one of out websites. So the office feels busy again with four of us in the office every day and two others in on other days.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

One month... feels like one week!

Nearly a month since I last posted. Seems like only a week. Peter is back this week, so will be sharing the workload again till I leave in September and he is left all alone!

Yes, we do now have bank accounts open in the name of the organisation! We have also changed the accounting package we use to SQL-Ledger. SQL-Ledger is a very good multi-currency and multi-user accounting package that runs on most systems [we are running it on a Linux server] and... its free!

I installed SQL-Ledger and then created the 'chart of accounts' to make it work and then got it printing... sounds easy? I have to have so many different skills to do this work. Actually creating the chart of accounts was tedious but relatively easy, whereas getting the system to print was frustrating and relatively difficult. But now it is working and David and I have had two Wednesdays [he comes in every Wednesday] working on the new system. I shall the whole of each Wednesday with him before we left in September so that he is comfortable with the new system...

Phyo, our trainee designer/programmer has been working on two things: 1) a new administration menu system for all our admin systems [we will use if for administration of web-sites too later on] and 2) designing logo/business cards etc for the organisation. Both have taken some of my time supervising.

Also been frustratedly trying to make dual-layer DVDs on Final Cut Studio. So far not succeeded. I have read and read online about it and some people seem to have no problems at all, others immense problems. I am one of those with immense problems. I am still working on that.

Dual-layer DVDs are like the sort that you normally get when you get a feature film, in that you can store theoretically about 120 minutes at most on a single layer DVD and up to 240 minutes on a dual layer. So a feature film with with all the extras usually needs a dual layer. But... I say theoretically get 120 minutes, this depends on the quality you want on the DVD, the higher the quality the less minutes. So for some projects I need to be able to reliably create dual layer DVDs. So far I have not succeeded.

One of our partner organisations had problems streaming video again, so we took over, again... but its Windows Media. Horrid. So unreliable. Microsoft have admitted a problem with the system and sent a patch out with a 'hack' to the registry as well... which is documented 'at you own risk'. Our partner says they will move all the streaming to Scandinavia in September... good luck to the new people...

In between that all I have been doing all the 'duty engineer' roles as Peter is away. An example: Email comes in from partner tech support to say that they have seen on one of the sites having an 'invalid security certificate'. I gently write back to say something along the lines of 'we warned you about this and told you to notify your users'. Response from tech support guy: 'Yes I told my users but forgot about it myself'. [My paraphrase] If I was a lawyer I would bill them for an hour or my time!

Paula, our new 'administrator' [part of the job is to work out a job description, ie work out what we need administrating and how to do it], has been in a few days and we have been going through things together. She starts regularly some time in September.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

27 years, 18 months and 3 days

Spot the pattern in 27 years, 18 months and 3 days? I've been thinking about patterns this week. It was our 27th wedding anniversary, one of only 3 wedding anniversaries that match the pattern 1, 4, 27... people never get to the next in the sequence... 256! So what links 27 years, 18 months and 3 days? They are all related to activities this week. The first is obvious it's our wedding anniversary and we went away to a hotel in the mountains to get out of the heat, only to find that even up in the mountains it was 36 C. However, the break was excellent and we had a great time together.

18 months and 3 days each relate to what we call 'Cyprus time' meaning late. 18 months is the length of time we have been trying to open a bank account for the organization here on the island. You wouldn't believe how complex it has been. Getting documents from the UK, getting an apostile attached by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to show they are legal documents, getting a letter from our bank in the UK, then the Cyprus bank losing all the documents that had taken time and money to acquire. But at the end of last week I was in the bank withdrawing money and the manageress said that she had found all the documents and we could proceed. So I went in on Wednesday morning to meet her. No luck, she said come back next Monday. I really hope on Monday we shall solve all the problems and get the bank accounts opened properly.

The money was being withdrawn to pay the deposit for the Mac Pro computer for the edit suite mentioned in the last post. It would take 4 days they assured me for it to be delivered. 4 days 'Cyprus time' meant in reality 8 days. But that is pretty good considering it came from Holland. It arrived today. So I spent this afternoon with my youngest son getting everything working on it and now we have a really very good working video editing system. The whole thing is now digital: the camera records digitally on mini DV tapes, is pushed from the digital video recorder to the computer using Firewire, the computer monitor uses DVI and the video monitor HDMI and then we make DVDs from what we filmed. I was not sure if the DVI and HDMI bits were going to work [I only trust things I have done, not things that 'should work']. But it all works well. And... we completed the broadcast DVD for the Farsi dub we have been working on for months and months.

Oh, and by the way, this is what the Mac Pro looks like [image curtesy Wikipedia]. Apple always seem to make their computers look different. The handles/wings on the top and bottom for instance... I ought to run a competition for the best guess as to what it might be if it wasn't a computer. The fans seen behind the grill [which run almost silently] make it look more like a device for testing a jet engines [obviously you have to imagine the scale of the thing much bigger than it really is]. We used to say 'answers on a postcard to...' but in this digital world I guess it should be 'answers by SMS to...' Anyway leave a comment if you have any great ideas as to what alternatively it might be.

Actually the real competition is to find the key to the sequence in the first paragraph: 1, 4, 27, 256. I set this as a challenge to the two programmers in the office [one who loves maths]. He eventually got it. But can you?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Video Editing

You'll have to click on the photo to see the annotations, but below is a picture of the new video edit suite that our friend wired all the jack plugs for. I ordered the new Macpro this week and it should come next week... Cyprus time... we'll see! When it does come the final few wires on the desk can be hidden and it will become even neater to work on.

A few weeks back I helped film a musical for a friend of mine and Tim (my son) is busy doing the audio editing and I am spending evenings and spare time video editing. We recorded the musical with three cameras on one night and one camera on two other nights so there are five cameras to choose from... but I have to ensure that they are all synchronized with the audio, which is easy for the cameras recorded on the same night but tricky for the other nights. Tim recorded the audio on a ProTools system in 16 tracks and this week he brought the drummer up and re-recorded all the drums as the live recording of the drums was not good enough.

The video edit suite is working 24/7 right now as during the working day its busy making... and hopefully finishing a Farsi dub of an Arabic film. There are two versions needed, one for satellite TV companies to broadcast and a second for distributing as a DVD in Iran and around the world. The DVD for distribution I hope will be bi-lingual Arabic/Farsi, which will be interesting to make as not only does the audio need to change with the language but also all the opening and closing captions.

The new big website is progressing very well. We got it to the stage where we could demonstrate the system to all our partners and show how it will work. There is a saying in programming that the first 90% takes 10% of the time and the final 10% takes 90% of the time. This will certainly be true in this project. We demonstrated the system, but it is only 10% or less working... there is still 90% to do!

The website is going to be very very different to anything else about in Arabic. Its a web 2.0 site - the first we have been involved with making and so there is a lot of learning. 'What's web 2.0?' I hear you ask. There is probably somewhere a good definition of Web 2.0 is significantly more interactive and media oriented. People are community related in Web 2.0 and rather than a one way flow of published information, there is an interaction of provider and audience into what is a seamless community.

The video project is moving slowly too with a totally new story idea being developed. Its something that slightly stresses me... this is one of the more interersting parts of my work, yet I have little time to develop it.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Juggling people and projects

Its been a crazy week... good week, even great week, but crazy. Its been a week of juggling activities... I looked up juggle in online dictionary. Interesting definitions. #3 is the definition I mean, but I was juggling many jobs at the same time!
n 1: the act of rearranging things to give a misleading
2: throwing and catching several objects simultaneously
v 1: influence by slyness
2: juggle an account, for example, so as to hide a deficit
3: deal with simultaneously: "She had to juggle her job and her
4: throw, catch, and keep in the air several things
I have had two friends out from the UK [both staying at our guest flat], one is doing an audit of our financial records, which took a lot of questions to be answered by me. Part of the audit was to complete out 'asset register' which meant that we had to go round and check every computer/server/IP switch/monitor etc etc etc was correctly in the list of items we own.

Alongside this the other friend has has been wiring loads of jack plugs onto cables to complete the wiring of our video edit suite.. which involved me showing her how to do it and supervising all the wiring. And then she started redecorating Peter's office while he is away so that he comes back to a nice fresh office.

Alongside that I have had a colleague over from Egypt [and is staying at the office] and we are working on a new and very large website, which has totally new and unique features. Its a complex 6-9 month project. When finished it will [we hope] be very good but its a lot of work and there were loads of questions from him to me.

Alongside that I have been supervising our trainee programmer/designer on two projects, he is helping with this big project and writing a system to enable us to schedule duty periods of our monitoring system.

Alongside that I have been talking with another colleague [also staying at the office] about a video project we hope to shoot late this autumn... and he had a friend from a course he had just been on over to visit... [and is also staying at the office.]

Alongside that I have been responding to requests from Peter for more promotional materials to be copied and sent over to the UK.

Alongside that, with Peter away, I am duty engineer for his turns of duty...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Reviewing media, the UK and server[e] attacks

Nearly a month has gone by since I wrote anything... My son is much more reliable. I don't know how he finds the time since he is almost as busy as I am.

Anyhow four things significant have happened in the last month, one could think of them as a week each but the first one took a month, the second two weeks and the last two a week each
  • review of all media
  • preparing for Peter to visit UK
  • visit from someone from UK
  • server attacks
We have been reviewing all the media projects we are involved with and those of our partners to see where we can be most strategically involved in the future. Sounds simple... but wasn't at all... you see we had to develop the methods to do the reviewing before doing teh reviewing! We have been talking about this for a couple of years or more, that is, developing a system for evaluating media for our audience. An American colleague did some work on it about a year ago but really we got nowhere till a guy from the Middle East joined us for a month.

Alongside me, he developed scales for evaluating the media and then spend days watching videos, satellite TV channels, listening to Internet radio stations and reading through web sites. The result is an extremely useful evaluation of all the projects we are involved with and others we might be involved with through partners. This evaluation took a lot of my time and Peter suggested that I should write a book to help others in their thinking. I wrote the draft outline for three chapters and have had good feedback from people who have read it. I have realised that though the book is very necessary, it will be a big job. I shall probably write more today.

Alongside this we were preparing publicity stuff for Peter to take back to the UK. I wish that things like this could be focussed on, not just rushed and fitted in between other things. The new colour laser printer has proved to be extremely valuable in doing all the publicity.

Then we had a guest from one of our supporting churches in the UK. Actually it was the vicar/pastor. He spent a week with us catching up with all that we are doing. It was really great to have him come out.

Then the inevitable... we have had with one of the servers over the past 3-4 days. We reset that server many times per day, and then it works for a while. We will be resetting again and again over the weekend and then starting again to sort on Monday morning.

We had thought it was all caused by Denial of Service Attacks from Egypt [we were definitely getting these and the server crashed after each attempt]. Then on Friday morning we had a crash at a time we were NOT being attacked so we spoke to the hardware support people in Germany thinking this was a hardware problem. The moved one Hard Disk to a different location in the server as it was apparently quite hot. The server crashed again. They replaced the Power Supply. The server crashed again. They changed the hard disks over between the two servers... this to prove if it was related to the Hard Disks or the motherboard. It crashed again. Each 'crash again' was after a few hours so we were waiting each time to see... So we have now diagnosed the problem to be related to the Hard Disks. When I had spoken to the head of Tech Support in Germany we talked about moving all the data to a new server and rebuilding on totally new hardware. We will start this on Monday morning.

If we had not had the DoS attack we would have traced the hardware problem sooner, but we were fighting that [which was a pain, as soon as we blocked an IP they changed IP!] and thought that was the cause of the problem. Now we know its hardware we will change as soon as possible. Rebuilding the server will be a pain!

We hope a colleague from Egypt will come over soon and the project for him is to get mySQL based DNS working so we can swap sites around servers quickly to not have this problem in the future. The alternative is to use virtual IP based switching, but because of security problems the Data Centre locks IPs to MAC addresses to stop spoof attacks so we cannot use virtual IP switching :-( Now I expect I have really confused you... MAC addresses? Every network adaptor in the world has a unique hardware address called its MAC address. In order that people don't pretent to be you, ie spoof your server, the system matches MAC to the IP address.

Well, that's about it. By last night I was extremely tired and fed up. I hate all these technical problems - I would much rather be working on the media and letting other people do the techie stuff, but we don't have people to do the techie stuff so we have to do it, and with Peter in the UK for six weeks I am left 'holding the baby' so to speak!

Monday, May 28, 2007


This week has been a time of supervising a number of projects. We are just about to go live on a site that will help Arab speakers who want to know more about Jesus to study what the Bible says about Him... so I have been checking everything is ready for the launch and then we are trying to set up a Skype conference call to check that everyone involved is happy before it is made live. Trying to co-ordinate 4 people in 3 time zones and 3 continents to approve this has proved somewhat trying and we still haven't had the meeting.

Alongside this I have been supervising our new trainee on a project that will help us monitor all the servers better... and... trying to get someone else working on a mac-mini that is supposed to be sent to Bagdad. But... the mac-mini that was absolutely promised delivery this last Tuesday didn't turn up. Cyprus is part western, part middle eastern so in some ways its not surprising. However, what is surprising is how I solved the problem. I bought one in Egypt, having transferred money to a friend. He bought it and gave it to another friend who was over there and he brought it back, so I went to the airport at 10:30pm yesterday to pick it up from him and hopefully now the project can progress.

I think I should run a competition to see if any of you can guess how many visits to shops, telephone calls, SMS messages, Skype calls and messages I did in order to just buy this one mac-mini.

New Boat & Regatta

A couple of weeks ago a Tornado hit the sailing club destroying my first boat. Because this was the beginning of the season I set about immediately looking for a replacement. Eventually I bought a Wayfarer dinghy. It's old but seaworthy and although it needs some maintenance work I sailed her the day after I bought her last weekend. This is a picture of my first minutes sailing her with Neil, a friend who is a good sailer and there to give guidance if needed. The Wayfarer is one and half times the size of the Mirror and develops much more power. After about 30 minutes we swapped crews to have his 11 year old son as my crew [which has become our normal crewing arrangement].

Oh and yes, the sails are filthy because the boat had not been sailed for a few years!

Last Saturday I took my youngest son and a couple of friends out sailing in her. We had a great time. Later in the day I did a minimal amount of the maintenance needed [changing the main sheet to original centre Wayfarer layout from a somewhat difficult to control end of boom main sheet arrangement for the sailors amongst you] ready for today...

This week in Larnaka is the celebration of Kataklismos, which is a rememberance of the flood when Noah, his sons and animals were saved. So logically I suppose, on the Monday of Kataklismos the sailing club has a regatta where we all sail round to the main Finikoudes sea front of Larnaka. Here's the club group picture I took. There are only two English families in the club, all the rest are Cypriot. The club is sponsored by McDonalds for this, so you can guess where we had lunch! You can probably see the McDonalds t-shirts on some of the members.

Among the flotilla we had three knock downs and a couple of capsizes on the mini-cruise, fortunately we were not one of them. I was sailing very conservatively, I had hurt my back slightly a day or so before and decided that I did not want to practice capsize drill today!

Sailing conservatively meant that there were only two other boats arriving after me on the outward leg and we were the last dinghy back on the return leg. Admittedly the club boats are 470s and Lasers so even if I was sailing hard I could not have caught them up. Anyway it was great fun.

This is the Google Earth map to show our route. The zig-zag at the top is sailing back and forth waiting for the rest of the flotilla. Somehow the GPS lost some of the track so there are gaps. Oh well... interesting anyhow. We sailed 11 nautical miles today.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Panic Stations

The last few weeks have simply flown by. About three weeks ago I had a dream, not the normal dreams that we have but one of those significant dreams that you sense is God speaking to you. The dream seemed to indicate that we would be having more help in the office. At the time there was nothing on the horizon so I put it away wondering if the dream was just a way of God encouraging me.

It was about a week later that I received a phone call offering a short term worker to help with reviewing all the different projects that we are involved with and to help us develop a method for evaluating what we do in the future. This is something that we have wanted to do for some time and made a start on but go nowhere. So come Monday this person started working with us and staying in the guest flat.

About a week later someone at out Friday evening group asked if we could do with some help from a student programmer. So we met with this young man and he started with us the following money. He is being supported from people in the UK and will be with us we hope for 12-18 months.

About a week later a friend said they now had more time available and might it be appropriate for them to help as our administrator... and they will start tomorrow.

Another partner agency has brought over a short-term volunteer from South Africa and he is working with us for a couple of weeks in developing a component for a joint project. The hardware hasn't arrived in time for him to start that so he has been helping us with other work for us.

OK, so with all these extra people around the place why have I titled this 'Panic Stations'? The reason is that yesterday morning I came into the office to find one of our two main servers down, which meant all of our websites were down and all of our radio stations. I rebooted the server remotely and started looking with Peter to see if we could find out why it crashed. While I was doing this the server crashed again.

I contacted the service company for the hardware and the computer restarted... and crashed again. By the end of the day I was very frustrated and sent out an SMS message to about 40 friends around the world saying 'please pray'. Eventually the server came up around midnight... and crashed again at about 6am this morning! We rebooted it and it stayed up for a couple of hours and crashed again... we rebooted and it crashed again... eventually it came up long enough for Peter to look at it and find that it crashed as a result of what was effectively a Denial of Service attack through a fault in one of the websites we host. So we took that site down till the programmers can re-write and fix the problem.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Those of you who read this blog regularly will that I have a weakness to work too hard [some have even remarked on this]. However, I have a hobby which helps me relax and recharge and get closer to God. The hobby is sailing. A couple of years back I bought a second hand Mirror dinghy very cheaply and have been learning to sail. And loving every minute of it!

Only last weekend I had a really great time with sailing around the bay here with the 10 year old son of a friend of ours as my crew. The weekend before I had this lad and my 10 year old nephew as crew. We had a really great time and I was looking forward to sailing again this weekend as the week has been very tiring... we have a couple of new staff members [one short term] and have been supervising them and remotely supervising development in Egypt and... yes it goes on at the normal pace of my life.

Friday morning I woke to see the curtain dragged out of the window and the windows rattling and storm around. It was louder and more violent than any storm I have experienced before. The rain was nothing like rain in the UK, it was kind of like opening a fire hydrant from the sky and letting it rip.

We have had heavy rain before and I was concerned about what was happening at the office as last time some water had come in through the office roof and though I had asked a builder to look at it, he had not yet had time to come. In God's provision one of the two staff members was staying in a guest room at the office and so he got up and moved some of the computers and boxes and boxes of software out of the water pouring down through the ceiling. Roads were flooded... this is what it looked like on one of the roads between the office and our home.

When I got to the office, the french windows from the balcony to my office had blown in and water had also come across the floor of my office. Attached to the balcony is a satellite dish which downloads material off satellite which we then re-encode to upload to the Internet. The dish was no longer pointing at the satellite but at a neighbouring tree. It took a while to re-point the satellite dish correctly and get the radio station re-broadcasting on the Internet.

While I was doing this I had a phone call from a friend of mine saying that a tornado had crashed through the sailing club and although their boat was fortunately undamaged, mine was not so lucky. They had put it back on the trailer, but I was not going to sail her this weekend. So after lunch I drove down to the sailing club with my wife. On the way we saw this caravan that had been about 50 metres away on the beach last weekend now wrecked alongside the road.

My dinghy had also been lifted and blown from one end of the sailing club to the other. My friends had put all the parts together and put it on the trailer, but closer inspection showed it was not going to sail again without extensive work.

The hull had been punctured in many places and almost all the panels would need replacing to sail her again. The number of holes was too extensive to look at just a patch here or there.

Because it had been bashed about so much the fibreglass stitching that holds the panels together had all come adrift and it would be almost impossible to get new fibreglass to take to the old wood even if it were repaired. The Bible has something to say about trying to patch old wine-skins with new. Fireglass to old marine ply is pretty similar!

I had spent the winter stripping down and re-varnishing the boom, gaff, mast, rudder and centreboard. Now the gaff [part of the mast] had been damaged and would need a new gaff. All the buoyancy tanks had been damaged, ripping pins and panels apart.

Some of the structural pieces were also damaged. The boat isn't matchwood, but I don't think it's ever going to sail again as it would be much quicker to build a new one [quicker, mind you, not quick] than trying to repair this one.

So... I am feeling low. Sailing has been my sanity preserver and we are at the start of the sailing season not the end.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

When 4th best is good enough?

I can't believe its so long since I wrote on this blog, I have posted a couple of items on my other blogs, but basically not had time to blog for a couple of weeks or more. Pete and I are reviewing what we are doing. We are running about 220 component projects for various people and having problems maintaining it all. Running Internet servers grows more complex by the day.

Last week one of our partners from Spain flew over and we had a couple of days with him and one day with another partner too thinking through what we do. One phrase struck me that he said, 'Many times I am doing my fourth best option...' More and more we are faced with the least bad option rather than the best. Obviously choosing between a good and a bad option is a no-brainer. Choosing between two equally good options is easy, but we find choosing between two equally bad options very difficult. There is a phrase I remember from when I grew up 'Heads you win, tails I lose'. When its like that it just feels... well... strange.

Because we are so short of staff we are faced with making cuts in some of those 220 component projects. Which ones? Any cut will affect somebody seriously. Some people may not hear the message if we do cut. Another thing this guy from Spain said was that on the questionnaires he has to complete for any project he does within his organization there is a significant question that he has to answer for his bosses: 'What will happen if this project is not done?' I puzzled and puzzled over this.

Something about the question concerned me. Was it because we were faced with a similar one 'What will happen if this project is cut?' or something deeper than that. The more I puzzled the more I could not see it till the Friday evening. On Friday evening a bunch of folk who all follow Jesus come round to our house. We have a meal together, pray for each other and then look at the Bible together.

Anyhow, on that Friday evening we were looking at the book of Acts and about Peter and a Roman Centurian. The question came up "What if Peter had said 'No I'm not going to visit the Centurian'?" The answer we came to is that God would have found another way to communicate His love to the Centurian. Ahh... here's why I was so perturbed. The re is one answer to the question 'What will happen if this project is not done?' and its the same in every case. The answer is 'God will find another way to communicate His love to those He wants to'.

But that doesn't actually make the decision about what to cut any easier. It could mean 'Does anything I do matter if God will find another way to communicate?' Pete and I came back to what we feel God is calling us to. This guy from Spain again... he said we need to come back to our mission statement. We knew and could easily state what our 'unique selling points' [don't you just love marketeer speak?] are, but a mission statement?

Every company and organization has their mission statement today. McDonalds mission statements starts off 'McDonald's vision is to be the world's best quick service restaurant experience. Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile...' or how about 'Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow...' Trouble is that reading too many mission statements makes me want to vomit.

Anyhow, we did eventually get a mission statement and core values. We have also created a questionnaire that will help us evaluate all the projects we are involved with. Now all we have to do is persuade our partners to fill in the questionnaire... maybe we should offer a prize. Any suggestions on what the prize should be? Leave a comment...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Email working and spam being killed

At last, we sigh with relief the main parts of the email upgrade are working and spam seems to have been reduced dramatically. A very boring week of testing, checking, compiling programs and configuring.

I was getting about 40-50% spam and now in the last two days [since we switched on the extra spam checking] I have had only one spam email. It seems so strange to me, why people are bothering sending spam, it really is a constant battle and more and more people are killing more and more spam emails... and so they have to send more and more and more and more...

Today I spent most of the day writing a couple of small [but complex] scripts to create all the SPF and Domain Key records for our DNS system. Time was when DNS was simple. Now it grows in complexity and reading the files gets more complicated. And looking at things I can see it getting more complicated by the month. Oh well...

Just looking at part of DNS that we are not using yet: Service calls. Instead of typing your system would ask what http services it supports and sent you to the right machine. Complex but useful for the way the internet will be growing in the future.

Our Egyptian programmer is approximately half way through his time here and the messaging system is working functionally, but with some glitches. Hopefully we will go into testing mode next week. This is the core of a new website which will be about community interaction.

What makes the messaging system different is that it works like a threaded discussion forum, but with the primary key being the person you are interacting with. This is because the focus is on relationship building.

This weekend is Easter and I will take a couple of days off and hopefully go sailing.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Email gets more complicated by the minute

OK, so we have the email upgrade working but... we do a lot of email forwarding and the new SPF and Domain Keys don't handle forwarding well. It appears that I have to violate one RFC [RFC's are the Internet 'rules for how things work'] in order to get other RFCs to work.

Oh well, lets watch it over the next few days and see what happens. It's now past midnight and I kept working to try and get everything sorted so email wasn't breaking.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Blogging from my phone

OK, so its possible to blog from a mobile phone, but does it work for me? If this post is on my blog then it does!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Critical but very boring techie stuff

This week has been filled with very boring but critical technical stuff: working with Peter on the roll-out for the new email upgrade and getting a version control system working. Plus of course all the normal stuff of going through accounts with David. Plus of course working with a programmer from Egypt who is over here for a month working on a project. Plus of course all the normal maintenance of the system. Plus communicating with our partners about what is going on.

We never get closer than about three months away from the top of our to-do list and mostly we are way further behind than that. One of our partners today suggested that we should stop doing anything else and just focus on our to-do list till its cleared.

This is a great idea in theory, but in practise would be a disaster. The reason is this: Although Peter and I can do all this boring techie stuff it doesn't fulfil us and we see it as boring techie stuff too. So, if we just focussed on that and never did anything interesting we would get so bored we would give up. So we have to try to balance boring with some interesting to keep us motivated. Which means the boring keeps piling up. And since we lost John last Autumn the to-d0 list is increasing rather than diminishing.

So what is this boring techie stuff: Email is still an essential tool for our people and for communicating with people who want to know more about Jesus. But... and here's the but... spam is killing it off. As I mentioned in a previous post up to 96% of all email is now spam. So, because we handle about 50,000 real emails a month we have to also deal with up to one-and-a-quarter million spam emails per month. Yes, you did read correctly that is about 1,250,000 junk emails to deal with! Per month. Actually is not quite that number because the 'real email' count includes a few junk emails that slip through the net.

The aim is to get rid of most of them before the end user sees them. I get approximately 1,300 emails per month, so if we didn't have a spam filter running on the spam percentages above I could get more than 16,000 emails per month. Say it took me 5 seconds per email to open it and check if it was spam and then delete it because it was spam, that would take me about 80,000 seconds or 22 hours of clicking, reading and deleting. I would get almost nothing done at all! As the filtering works fairly well I can spend less than 30 minutes per week clicking, reading and deleting spam. [As an aside our top user of the email system received over 6,700 emails this month - most users receive low hundreds of emails per month.]

Any improvement we can make gives me and the 300 other people more time to do something useful. The effective cost is horrendous. 300 people all wasting time. Amongst us we are probably losing the equivalent of about 50 man hours per week in clicking, reading and deleting spam. If someone were paid the minimum wage in the UK of £5.50 this would be costing over £14,000 per year. Alongside this is the cost of Peter, Alex and I implementing tools to try to reduce this to as low a level as possible. Spam is costing the world economy millions of millions of pounds per year. It's a total waste.

Anyhow... the upgrade we have implemented is called 'greylisting'. It's a clever idea based on the fact that almost every spammer is running a special program to deliver all their junk around the world as fast as possible and is not running a proper MTA. MTA stands for 'Mail Transfer Agent' and it's the program that runs on a server to handle email between users. MTAs are designed so that if they cannot deliver on first attempt they keep trying for a few days... but spammer programs don't do this.

So what greylisting does is this: When someone new tries to deliver to us our MTA responds with 'We have a temporary problem please try back in a few minutes' and we log the message as attempted delivery. A spammer program goes away and doesn't come back because its only aim is to deliver as many as possible as fast as possible... a few failures doesn't matter. An MTA on the other hand does try back in a few minutes and when it does so, we match it with the previous attempt and this time our MTA says 'OK, we'll take it this time' and we also log the MTA as valid so that next time it tries with another email from [hopefully] a valid user then we will accept it immediately. [There is also a special website all about greylisting if you are interested].

The greylisting system isn't perfect, but it does kill most spam and the only impact is to slightly delay email from valid users the very first time they try to send it. Alongside this there were two other upgrades called SPF and Domain Keys. Read the links if you want to know more. They make greylisting look positively simple to understand.

The second techie thing I was involved with is setting up a version control system. Version control systems allow us to have a repository for all the programs we or others write and all the configuration files we use. Every time we make a change to a file or program we update the version control system. It stores the changes and because it knows of the changes we make each time we can rewind what we have done and other members of staff can see what the changes were that were made between different versions. All sounds clever and is something we should have implemented a year or two ago, but have been too over-run with work to do so.

The one we will be using is called Subversion or SVN for short. Subversion is a pun on a tree of versions... The internet is full of horrid puns, which I suppose is the techie way of staying sane. For instance there is a robot program to use with Subversion called CIA. Why CIA? Because CIA monitors and informs on subversion .

That same partner [from paragraph 2] and I wondered about spam... we've never seen anything remotely helpful in any spam message so cannot understand the mentality of people who send them. But then my wife was explaining the other night about the forums for support for Google AdSense, where people were saying they had bought a site and put Google AdSense on it and couldn't understand why they were not making any money [hmmm... maybe because you have no content on the site?] . Now we know why people send spam, it's these same people who are clicking on the spam and expecting miraculous growth in certain parts of their anatomy. Pity its not growth in their brain cells.

One problem is that although there have been laws in existence for the last 5 years to protect us from spam [EC Directive 2002/58/EC], almost nobody manages to sue the spammer. This month only the second company in the UK was successfully sued for damages resulting from sending spam. And the amounts in both cases were piteously small: the first award was £300 and the second £1350. What we need is a significant number of spammers behind bars for many years to deter people from trying it on.

Ok, so light relief time: Found this wonderful spam cartoon on