Thursday, January 18, 2007

Some you win, some you lose...

Peter and I arrived in yesterday morning to a message informing us that one of our partners had been sending out large quantities of spam yesterday evening. The message ended: "You put this spammer out of business today or get your entire domain blacklisted tomorrow!" This could have affected all of the partners we host email for. In order to protect the hundreds of other email users who rely on us we took the unilateral step of blocking email to/from that partner till they found and fixed the problem.

We then contacted the partner concerned and they have started investigating and found that one of their computers in their office had a number of viruses, but they actually believe that the spam came from a guest from Western Europe who used their office broadband connection to do their email yesterday evening. They are still investigating. Although it was probably not the computer they found the viruses on that sent out all the spam this shows that partners MUST be more diligent with their virus protection of their own computers.

This is exactly the type of problem we were concerned about and why we blocked .DOC files in December. This is the type of thing that can happen when a computer is 'hijacked' using the zero day exploit in Word documents. We all need to consider the implications of letting guests plug in or attach via wireless to our broadband connection. Today we discussed how all of us will almost have to get to having airport style security checks for people who wish to use our connections.

Spam is getting out of hand, so we understand why the spam blocking agency took the action they did to only give us 24 hours to solve the problem: Approx 6 months ago we had about 60,000 spam messages per month to deal with. We will be dealing with over 200,000 spam messages this month. If this rate goes on as it appears to we could be dealing with over 1 million spam emails by the summer and 5 million by this time next year, by which time the real email would constitute less than 0.01% of the email we were coping with. At some stage it could become unmanageable to try to deal with!

On a lighter note, in order to disengage my brain when struggling with these issues I play a quick game of Solitaire on my phone/PDA. Today for the first time I got 2005, the first time over the 2000 level... there is only one score higher I could have got so its the second top score.

Of course getting this is totally random and has no skill at all. There are times when I feel that the fight we have with various computer problems is totally random. Strange considering they should be logical devices. What's even stranger is that often the cards seem far from random.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I haven't written anything since I have returned from Singapore, and suddenly I realise two months have gone by since my last entry.

Since returning from Singpore [which was almost a whole month away] I have been involved with two major projects and various discussions with our partners: The two major projects were the finishing of an interactive training DVD. This is a project that has taken over a year to complete, primarily because the project has gone through two major re-writes and was started from scratch three times in the process and partly because we were fighting faulty equipment and buggy software.

The equipment/software problem is because we don't have the funds to have the best, we are always trying to do the impossible... make media with almost no money! However, I did finish the training DVD just before Christmas, so at least I could relax knowing it was finished.

Secondly, I was trying to complete the dub of a major drama video from Arabic to Farsi [spoken in Iran]. They had done the dub in Tehran, but very badly. So we had to record the songs for the video here [we have a Farsi singer here in our town] and I went through the film sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase with another Farsi speaker synchronizing what was recorded in Tehran with the lip movements of the actors on screen. I finished the synchronizing just before Christmas but will do the mixing of the sound and adding of Farsi titles.

Then fighting the equipment began again. Because we don't have enough hard disk space in the audio dubbing suite we had to do the dub in sections and found that there was a slip in the synchronizations for each section. Then the video editing system [Premiere running on Windows] proved its old unreliable self crashing time and time again [6 times in 2 hours] which meant rebooting the system each time so nothing was action done.

The third issue that consumed time were discussions with other agencies we work in partnership with. Almost everything we do in partnership with other agencies. It's said 'no man is an island', we have no choice, we all have to work together. But this can cause major stresses if the agencies concerned don't do things the same way... there are always minor differences, but sometimes these can escalate and take time to resolve.

When we, as a family, went on vacation to see my son in Singapore I left a task for two of our Egyptian colleagues to do. The task was to configure a database system and train a team in Egypt how to use it. The programmer who was supposed to do the configuration went AWOL [absent without leave] so to speak and didn't do it. When I came back I had a very unhappy partner agency who didn't have a working database system or training.

The situation got worse as the programmer totally disappeared and we were worried he might be ill, had an accident or something. Eventually, after trying all routes to find him I got an email saying 'sorry I didn't do it and I won't be able to'. Short and sweet. So I had to work out the system and do it myself together with the other Egyptian in an online conference. We did that all Christmas Eve, finishing at 4am on Christmas Day [25th December]. Christmas Day in the Middle East is 6th January so it meant that my Egyptian colleague could train the other Egyptians before their Christmas!

As we look back over the past year and towards the new year, here are out concerns:
  • What to do about the programmer in Egypt, he has been very involved in what we do over the last year and is one of the best in the region, so replacing him would be difficult.
  • We lost a valuable member of the team here in November. He was our first line technical support person -- he fielded the questions before we dealt with them determining if it was a real technical problem that we should get involved with or was a problem with [for instance] the partner's computer and not our problem at all.
  • Generally more people, Peter and I are both project and R&D people, we really need a team of good support people to do some of the work we are doing. We would like to train Middle Easterners to do this, but are not sure how to fund such.
  • We have requests to help with maybe 3 or 4 times as much as we can actually do. If we cut down to what we can reasonably do it would leave Peter and I doing only maintaining systems which would drive us nuts as we are not maintainer type people.
  • We are spending time trying to plan the next 12, 24 and 36 months to try and get out of the sort of 'Catch 22' situation we are in.