Thursday, October 30, 2008

Most men, so I'm told, are glued to the TV when either the football or Olympics is being shown. Not me. I'm happily fairly oblivious to either. But now... it's the Volvo Ocean... and why do I mention it? Well, my team is currently in the lead. And, to make things even better, they have just beaten a world record.
Torben Grael and the crew of Ericsson 4 swept into the history books yesterday as the first monohull to breach the 600-mile barrier in 24 hours. They’ve been chased by men, machines and the elements in the last 48 hours – and nothing has touched them.
They had been lying fourth behind but battling it with the leaders - Green Dragon, Puma and Telephonica Black. But its pretty dreadful weather they are sailing through as Mark Chisnell puts it:
In their foaming, boiling, 25-knot wake the fleet lies scattered as the devil and the deep blue sea picked off the hindmost one by one – the cold front sweeping over them with a mix of murderous squalls and ugly waves in a pitch black night. We’re almost down to the last man standing.
If you're as gripped as I am you can follow the race online, even through a 3D virtual simulator, where the boat's instruments, when they are working, relay everything via satellite to your computer at home... almost in real time. But they don't always work. In fact, Ericsson 4 have equipment failure now.

So back to reality for me... over the past couple of weeks we have been battling murderous squalls on the technical front. Three weeks ago I wrote about the DDoS attack. One of the outcomes of reviewing this was a decision to upgrade two or more of the servers. They are three years old now and so replacing them is about due. But its not just a case of copy the files and off you go... it will take about three of us at least a month to move everything over and upgrade all the systems on the new servers. A very big job, which is why we only try to do it every three years!

Having decided to do this we brought Raed over from Egypt to help and then ordered the new hardware. We lease the servers rather than buy them, leaving the leasing company responsible for the hardware maintenance. On Monday they will pass them over to us, with a bare operating system on them and we will start the task of checking them and installing all the systems and moving the sites across.

In between all this the attacks have continued - like a cold front sweeping over us. We watch the attackers in real time, and have defense mechanisms set up to rebuff them. But trying to second guess their moves is difficult, so we have set up what is called a 'honey trap' to try and lure them in to showing their methods. This will give us some indication of how much they know about us and why certain sites are more attacked than others.

One of our partners - with a site for central Asia - was online chatting with me today and they want to increase the facilities, to start online broadcasting to their region. Another site - for the Middle East - will have new facilities and a new design before the new year. A further new site - also for the Middle East - should be live before the new year. So it feels like a 'foaming, boiling, 25-knot' race downwind barely in control of what is happening. I am looking forward to Christmas - which I hope will be the end of this leg of our race and the sites and new servers will all be behind me.

Friday, October 03, 2008

DOS attack

Most of day yesterday we suffered what was called a 'Distributed Denial of Service' or DDoS attack. This meant that web sites on one server were unavailable at times. The problem will have shown itself as either the server appearing to run slowly, or unavailable or problems within the website that looked like a MySQL problem.

So what is a DDoS attack? Well in our case all of these were caused by a whole load of computers sending invalid file requests many times per second - or at their slowest many many times per minute. What this did was to start extra instances of the web server to respond to these requests, till the server ran out of resources and failed to deliver. Normally the 'load of computers' are Windows computers with viruses [usually called a botnet] that allow them to be controlled from a master computer or robot system. All automated. Against us.

Peter eventually wrote a new rule into our automated response system to stop this happening by blocking users who try the same method of attack. Within seconds they were being blocked.

Fortunately it was a relatively minor attack. We recorded only 59 computers attacking us from the time we turned on the rule in the automated response system to block them. Today this has dropped to a trickle of 26 still attacking us in the first 8 hours of the day - all being blocked. Some botnets are huge - for instance, this August the Dutch police shut down a botnet of approximately 100,000 [Windows] computers infected and controlled by two people.

Oh, the the problem on Wednesday turned out to be a faulty cable. How come a faulty cable did all that? Well, the switch connecting to a workstation in the office, which, by the way, was turned off, sensed something strange on the cable and decided to keep trying to sort it out many thousands or millions of times per second. It also decided to tell the entire LAN about the problem [a broadcast message] again many thousands or millions of times per second. This broadcast message affected other switches and affected the server. Cable fixed, fault disappeared!

In case you're thinking that sounds rather like the DoS attack we suffered, it was. It was a type of DoS attack. The difference being that one is accidentaly, but from the evidence in the logs we can see the other was malicious.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Yikes its a bridging storm?

Today is a public holiday... so I should be off. I had hoped to go sailing with a friend.

Alert on my phone: All the connections to the FUP system are down... in fact sarah is down [sarah is the name of one of our servers]. This needs urgent attention. So I speed to the office.

It appears that one of the transceivers on one of the routers has failed. So I change it. No difference... but one part of our system starts to sort of work. So I check all the cables... and find that some that I need to know what they are are not labeled. [We have copious free time for labeling... not!] So I label all the cables, plug in the critical ones and everything looks fine.

I plug in the rest and... one of the servers has totally locked up. What? Crazy... cannot happen. Spend next few hours sorting out the server and everything looks fine... for a while... but my notebook cannot get an IP address. Why? So I unplug all the non-critical cables and... my notebook gets an IP address. Everything looks fine.

I plug in the rest and... one of the servers has totally locked up. What? Crazy... cannot happen.
OK, this time I learnt my lesson. I leave all the uncritical cables out, reboot and sort out the server and leave for home [dinner time now].

After dinner... I get an alert. One of the servers is not connecting. So I go back to the office... and find that in all my plugging an unplugging one of the cables has become lose. So fix it and plug in and go home.

Then the strange bit. I speak to Peter. He esplains [hope I get the jargon right] that we may have a 'bridging storm' going on. Basically its this... we have more than 50 devices [servers, routers, phones, workstations etc] in the office on 3 different physical LANs [ie networks] connected to about 16 'switches'... connected to 2 Internet connections to the outside world.

Switches are the things that connect all the devices together and talk to each other making a tree with one being the 'boss' [I'm sure Peter had a more technical word for that]. And the master switch talks to all the others telling them where in the tree they are and how to behave. If one of them wants to become the boss then an argument starts and can result in a bridging storm where some switches [and thus devices] are cut off. Why so many switches? Well, three reasons - firstly it's difficult and expensive to cable every point from a central location, secondly we have many extra points we need for testing and research and development and finally manufacturers [including manufacturers of VOIP phones now add a switch in the back of their devices.

So how would this make servers lock up? Well... we have some clever software in that to make sure that either the main or the backup is up and working. This is roughly the same language as the switches talk and maybe, just maybe, the bridging storm makes this go really crazy. Well... it makes me go crazy anyway.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A duck paddling upstream?

Another month has gone by and I am re-reading what I have written in the past couple of posts... and thinking sometimes I feel like a duck paddling upstream in a river: There appears almost no activity on the surface and under the water the poor duck is paddling like mad to make progress against the current.

The annual report is now almost finished. I keep hoping it is finished and then there are more small changes to make. The annual report has taken a lot of my time, plus a lot of a couple of other peoples time in the UK. The overhead of red tape these days seems enormous. Gone are the days of getting on with the task and being trusted that you are getting on with the task [whatever that task is]. It's sad really - like the whole world has suddenly lost its innocence and has become a frantic fast moving bullet train.

We have also been struggling with personnel problems. One part time worker [who had been writing for us] causing us a large amount of time and effort. Since this person is part of the reason why we're here we couldn't just drop him like a lead balloon and duck and hide while the pieces fell everywhere. The fallout is still having effects on both time and energy.

In between that I have been doing some technical stuff for a new website we hoped to have up and running by October. We'll miss that deadline. The new website is 100% interactive - what people call 'Web 2.0' - very different in look and feel to anthing else we have done. The person who had been the developer on it is now on another project with us, so we have taken on a second developer to work on this. We're pretty sure we will have enough work for two developers over the next 12 months, but still this is a step into something bigger.

We have now taken on responsibility for an office in one Middle Eastern country, so that too is a step bigger. Both developers will work from this office. Its a good step and one of the plans is that the two developers will also be trained to take on the system administration for all the servers. They are starting to do this and have already relieved some of the pressure on Peter and myself. But this also means we need to train them - we did some training in August and have seen since then them taking on some of the responsibility for the system administration. Peter and I really like it when we find out they have sorted out a problem or installed something without having to come back to us for extra help information.

But... the big new Web 2.0 website does need our help and that has consumed some of my time over the last month. We heard that we should [hopefully] be getting an extra full time member of the team in January. A western trained System Administrator who will take over supervising and co-ordinating all the systems administration for us. Initially that is creating extra workload for me - getting the Job Description and other paperwork done, and trying to sort out how a visa will work for him. He will be based at out Cyprus office. We already have a desk waiting for him - a couple of weeks ago we were given some extra office furniture from another organisation here in Cyprus.

And on the change front, the office flat [used by the various Middle Eastern workers when they come here] had to be changed as the block that it was in will be pulled down this month. We have now found a new flat and moved everything to it. The new flat will be nicer - it's smaller and more compact, but much better quality. That change too took up time in my month.

My next month? Well... it will be a catch up month. Get the visa for our new worker sorted, get the web 2.0 site live, get other facilities working on our 'flagship' site, finally send in the annual report [must be by end of October] and hopefully have a slightly quieter month. Peter and I want to try to get some time for thinking/brainstorming together. Last Autumn we did this and it helped for what we did in 2008. We have a couple of things to add to it this year - one is a 'Risk Management' policy, the other a 'Reserves' policy. The reserves policy should be easy, but trying to work out risk management on what we do and how to reduce those risks, well... that's a different issue altogether!

As some of you know that I love sailing. Over the summer I have been lent an outboard motor. I used it yesterday when the wind was too light for sailing quickly back to the club. Now... if I can only find an 'outboard motor' to fix to this duck paddling desperatly upstream I'm sure we'll make more progress!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Writing... writing... writing...

One thing I found out when I was in the UK was that for our Annual Report to the UK government bodies I had to have much more information than I thought I would. I had been expecting to just print out the figures and say 'Here you are...' but they require and extensive narrative to go alongside this. My brother-in-law helped show me and we downloaded one from another organisation as a template. His advice as 'keep it as simple as possible...'

So I came back to Cyprus with a writing task. I read through the template and started drafting our own. But as I read I became convinced that I needed to check out all the government guidelines too. So I downloaded them and read the 150 page book (in detail) to check I was doing it right. That book referenced other materials... which I also downloaded and read.

The reading/writing/reviewing/checking took about 10 days in all. I hope its correct now. What I thought would be about 2-3 pages has now turned out to be 17 pages... and that is following the advice of 'keep it as simple as possible...' I found it mind stretching - checking that I was following all the regulations. The red tape these days is phenomenal!

During this, I had the author of a series of short stories we are developing (eventually a video series) over and have been spending time with him honing them. Writing a short story is almost more difficult that a full blown novel in that the story has to be complete in itself within 1000 words.

I read somewhere that Sir Winston Churchill [about the only British politician I have any time for and he's dead now] said something like this 'If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.' Doing some research I now find the quotation attributed to Mark Twain, President Taft and Woodrow Wilson! Whichever, the point being that short takes longer than long in writing.

In between the all that writing I have been reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell it's a great book and I highly recommend it. Doing more research online about Rob Bell I came across the statement of faith from his church was was not a propositional statement like most but what he called a 'Narrative Theology'. You can read the Mars Hill Narrative Theology for yourself and see what I mean. Anyway, this seemed to fit with some of what I have been writing in a book recently and so I wrote [you'd think I'd had enough writing wouldn't you] my own 'Narrative Theology' which you can read on another of my blogs. What intrigued me was that you can summarize the entire story of the Bible in one A4 page. Doing so actually expessed completely what we believe in a way that a propositional statement of faith misses.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer slowdown... not!

For almost a week we were chasing round trying to record extra video inserts and printing leaflets on our laser printer and getting other leaflets printed by the local printer. Why? Lots of the people are leaving for some weeks for the summer.

First to go was Sue and Tim. Tim is starting another university course and Sue went with him to help settle him in. Then two days later Peter and his family left for 6 weeks... then the following day Paula and her family left for 8 weeks. Then... summer started... the following day I am told it hit 40C... and guests arrived from Egypt for 10 days.

So I am left 'holding the baby' for 3 weeks. And today one of our main servers crashed. It appears one of the fans may be faulty so I will have to replace it before too long. Peter had been doing more of the technical stuff recently which had relieved me from that chore. But he has been finding it very much too much of a chore and so we want to find a 'interesting' task for him when he gets back in August. After that is he runs a beginners System Administration for Linux servers course, starting the day after he returns!

Today a colleague flies in from another country and we will be discussing the stories he is writing [50 short stories] which will eventually become a series of 10-12 short video programmes. He will also be proof checking a new version of the Gospel we are publishing. It's not enough for it to be readable, even all the diacritics have to be correct for Arabic. He'll also be helping lay it out for internet and PDF files.

Alongside doing some graphic design for that project and supervising it, I am trying to get a new audio and video chat system going for one of our websites. I haven't done anything on this yet and it needs to be running asap... and certainly before I go to the UK for a couple of weeks in mid July.

Alongside that I am trying to get things ready for a new programmer who will be joining us in August. He is coming on the System Administration course that Peter is running then I will have him for a week to brief him on a major website he will be programming for us.

Alongside that I need to chase up a grant application for funding from the USA... which seems to have gone very quiet.

Alongside that I need to evaluate and plan to meet people in Wolverhampton about a new database system we are considering.

And of course with Sue away I am looking after the house, cats, guests...

Our biggest need right now is for more people. I keep getting encouraged to spend more time doing people related things. And I would like to, but there are tasks that cannot be ignored so I cannot spend the time I would like on people related things.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Live video link

Last Sunday I did a live video link from our offices back to the UK. I set up the camera and put on the autocue at the front so that it could carry the output of the camera so I would know how well framed it was as there was no cameraman - basically move myself to fit into the frame rather than the camera!

We used Skype in one direction and then a mobile phone link [into an earpiece] for me to hear the questions. It worked well. It was slightly difficult talking at times as in the UK it was being put on a large projector for many people to hear and my voice put through the PA system. This meant I heard my voice coming back all reverberant a second or so later. It was quite difficult thinking and talking in that case... well maybe its just because I am normally behind the camera rather than in front of it.

This week we have been thinking about TV as we are planning a series of short video programmes to shoot early next year. The plan is to write stories and get feedback from them, choose te best and record them as radio dramas and get feedback from them and then from those choose the best and film them as short video dramas.

We also had one of the web developers over here for about a month. This was his final day here and he returned to Egypt today. He has done a huge amount of work on our big web project and I am very pleased with the way it is going.

This weekend is cataclismos - the weekend when the Orthodox church remember Noah's flood. This means that Monday is a day off and that is the annual regatta of the sailing club. Frankly I am very pleased to have a day off and go sailing, the last month has been somewhat tiring.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A non-entry

Normally I don't end up writing because I don't have time. I generally think through what I should write and write the blog entry in my mind before starting on the computer. I have been going over and over in my mind what to write. Never coming to a conclusion. I still haven't but my wife reminded me that people wanted to know...

Life at the office has been the kind of normal rough and tumble of things... In turning the blog entry over in my mind I was thinking about what I do . About 15-20% of my time is financial administration, another 15-20% is general administration, 30-40% is technical, 20-30% is promotion/publicity/fundraising, 20-30% is project administration, and 20-30% is creative project work.

If you add up the worst case scenario you get 170% and best case 120%... the trouble is I never have a best case week! So what do I drop? The administration/fundraising and the technical are necessary to enable the creative to take place and projects to take place. If I dropped the projects my workload would become sensible [80% best case, 110% worst case] and I would go nuts within a few weeks.

Oh... and we lose Paula our administrator in a years time. She will be returning to the UK with her family. We very much need to replace her. Tomorrow she will be spending some hours with immigration department hopefully sorting out a question about a visa for one of the people coming over to help us. If she wasn't doing it, I would have to. She sorts out all supplies for the office, does some of the accounting, office cleaner, resources etc etc... before she joined us these were either adding to my list or not getting done.

We have had a programmer over for a few weeks and he has been working on our most significant web site. The new developments are going well. I spend on average between half an hour and an hour per day working on different aspects of this site with the programmer, and have over the past couple of weeks spent over an hour per day communicating with the content team on this site.

We want to improve the interaction with the visitors to the site - many of them have expressed an interest in knowing more about Jesus, we now have to enable that to happen. Its not just as simple as 'OK, here's what its about, make your mind up...' That would be the western propositional approach. Within the Middle East it is a relational approach that is needed. Having said that, the post-modern generation are more relational than propositional. Facebook is an example of this social networking. It allows individuals and groups of people to interact.

I'm reading a book at the moment by Thomas Freidman entitled The World is Flat. In one chapter he talks about visiting Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. He asked what the most frequent searches were. No surprise that sex hit top of the list, but the second was God and third jobs. Our aim is to create a social network of people searching for God and let them interact with followers of Jesus so they can come to know the God who first went searching for them. The fact that we've had over 1400 people asking for Bibles shows the thirst.

There are times recently when I feel overwhelmed. There is too much to do, and too little time. I end up chasing things that don't bring fulfillment but are necessary. I sit and wonder why we lack so many human resources. Jesus said 'Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers...' We do that alright!

At our Friday evening group one of the members was talking about a leadership seminar she had gone to recently. She felt that they had mistakenly confused management with leadership. When she said that, it was like a light going on in my head. That's the problem we face. Peter and I are leaders but not managers. We need a manager. The problem is that managers want to control and then lead... this is the dilemma the church has got into when it confuses management and leadership. I have observed all over the place this happening. The Lord inspires a leader or leaders. They need managers to help. The managers eventually take over the leaders and everything dries up, running like a well oiled machine but going nowhere.

So I come back to not writing because every time I start to think then the thinking takes me in a different direction. I miss a clear thought that I want to put down what we are doing at the moment. Tomorrow I will start another week... will it be a 170% week or a quiet 120% week I wonder.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Banks... hmmm...

OK, so another week another bank. Actually my rants about banks have gone quiet for a while.

I have been trying to complete our end of year balance sheet and I&E sheet. One of our bank accounts in the UK should have internet banking but doesn't. I have called the bank a few times. Each time they say they have sent out the 'welcome pack' and we should have it. We don't. Today they said 'Ah, its too long now, you will have to re-apply'.

It shouldn't be a big deal, but it is because my partner in the UK moved house at the back end of the year and two of the statements were lost in the move. So... aiiiieee... oh well.

I've also been preparing budgets for projects this week... along with gantt charts for the project planning. I feel like I am trying to put together a jigsaw to get the projects to interleave correctly. Well, more like trying to put together six jigsaws at the same time. Now, if you ask my family they will tell you I don't like jigsaws. I rarely do them. I find them frustrating. I found this planning frustrating. Oh well... another week...

In between I have been discussing stories with a script writer for a series of short films we hope to make in 2009. That was enjoyable, though I actually prefer the next stages of film making [shooting and editing] more than the story planning. And that brings me back to the start. We need funding for these films, the funder needs our end of year balance sheets and I&E , and I cannot complete that till I get the bank reconciled and I cannot do that till the bank gets Internet banking working for me...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Publicity, success and failure

This morning I was sitting reading some information from a big Christian organisation. It was the organisation that my son works with. He has been visiting us for 3 months and today he returns. We may not see him for 2 years. Its always hard for parents to say goodbye, but saying it to your 21 year old son, knowing its likely he will be 23 when you next see him was difficult for me.

As I looked at the publicity for this Christian group I remarked to my son that though we needed it we don't have anything like this. 'Oh, you must be a more spiritual group', he replied. Christian publicity is always jam packed with success stories. Cover to cover. We're so busy we don't have time to write our success stories. Even if we did it would feel uncomfortable. Not that we aren't successful in the way that other Christian groups measure things. Earlier in the year we did some calculations and found we had more interactions with our audience than the most successful Christian TV station in the region. But we don't write such things generally. Why? Partly because we don't have time and partly because we don't think it was the way of the person we follow.

Yesterday I was looking at the description for a new sound mixer on the Internet. Along with the specification there were quotes from many of the 'power users' of the system. One of the target audiences for this mixer were 'houses of worship' and the audio director of a large California church was singing its praises. Specifically he liked the ability to integrate to the recording system and produce a 'best of worship' each month. The technology was neat, but I didn't know what to feel about the thought of a monthly 'best of worship' album. I sat and wondered what the carpenter of Nazareth would have made of this. What fishermen called from their nets would make of this.

When we share the love of God with people who don't know His grace we are challenged to consider how to do it. Some people don't think about the how, they just rush in like a bull in a china shop claiming their way is justified in the Scriptures. Others mix and match so that the style is barely discernibly different from the culture of the people they are trying to communicate with. In a sense if God says 'do it this way' then regardless of what we feel we should 'do it this way'. But I think Scripture shows us clearly that God wants us to be friends not automata. I have a pinochio string puppet in my office that I use to illustrate that difference. Friends talk. They discuss. Abraham remonstrated with God over the people he was concerned about. He was a friend of God.

We are planning a video series now, hopefully to complete within the next 24 months. A series of stories that communicates the love of God in a way that will encourage people to think and to respond to Him. Its taking a lot of discussion and planning. There are two aspects to this - the planning of the content and filming and finding sponsors to help with the costs. The first part is interesting, the second part a chore. A necessary chore. Not that I dislike meeting people and telling them about what God is doing, but I feel distracted from all the rest of what we have to do. And our publicity is nothing compared to the group my son works with. We are small. We struggle and struggle to do what we do and frequently feel we are failures more than successes. We are overwhelmed with what we have to do in the areas of administration and technical support.

As I sit here thinking and chatting with our Father I wonder... what did He feel when he let His son go to this earth knowing it would be 33 years before He was with Him again? He was not overwhelmed with the work like we feel, yet he couldn't sit back and wait for his return, He still had work to do. I wonder about His measurement of success... no colour brochures, no history of success followed by success. Indeed read the Scriptures prior to His son coming and it reads like the script for a disaster movie with sparks of success followed by troughs of failures.

When we say we follow His son, I wonder how much we really do. And the trouble is... I like successes: I tend to be enamoured by the big flashy offices of the successful Christians... and I sometimes feel like chucking it all in and joining one of the success stories, even though I know in many ways they are only a veneer. I am tired of spirituality being measured in terms of 'blessing'. Job is one of my favourite books. I am fearful of following the Messiah. His road led to death. That's how God measures success. And its painful.

Next weekend is the time eastern Christians remember the death and resurrection of the Messiah. His success was to leave behind a small group of frightened failures... failures who turned the world upside down as they communicated the simple truth - God loves us. He always has done and always will do so. Nothing we do can change that. He doesn't ask us to do anything. He doesn't measure our successes and failures. He just asks us to turn to Him. He did it all. 2000 years ago.

Today we walk with Him. And He walks with us. Success or failure. And we need to communicate the simple truth with our generation: God loves us. He always has done and always will do so. Nothing we do can change that. He doesn't ask us to do anything. He did it all. 2000 years ago.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Flying forward

I'm sitting in the airport waiting to fly to Beirut. It's 00:30 - just past midnight. It seems this is the first free moment I have had this year. I am way behind on my blogging. Last night I completed the blogs for my sailing... I try to record each trip so I learn how I am getting on. But my media work is less similar. I guess the only thing I can learn is that we need more people.

So what has happened in 3 months? Working backwards from today...

We just said goodbye to Luke. Luke is from Canada and is helping out another media team. He came to us for a week to work on a new scheduling/playout system for Internet radio. When we first developed Internet radio playout we were thinking of the radio sounding much like the BBC World Service, where there are scheduled programmes and people tune in at a certain time to listen to the programme.

What we have found over the years is that people tune in ephemerally... and for short periods, usually in the order of 15 minutes. Since most of the programmes are 15 minutes long this means they catch the end of one and the beginning of another. They don't get a single programme from start to finish. If they want a whole programme they go to the 'on demand' stream where they hear it from the start when they want to hear it.

Anyway the upshot of this is that instead of streaming to a schedule which takes a long time for the programme presentation department, we will be doing a more eclectic mix of programmes based on a rule based template where the computer will chose which programme to put out when. Luke will be programming this system for us and our partners.

This last month we have had John out from the UK. He spent the entire month watching TV. Sounds like a teenager's ideal job, but John is retired and the TV watching he did was copying loads of master tapes to hard disks so we can make DVD masters and stream the programmes on the Internet. It was a labour of love for him, as the programmes are in Arabic or Farsi and he doesn't speak a word of either language, but the tapes had to be monitored as they were copied to make sure there were no problems.

Actually there were problems and sometimes it took two or three attempts to get each one on the hard disk. The problem is partly due to the age of the master tapes and partly due to the fact they have been stored at room temperature. Room temperature in Cyprus can easily exceed 30C during the summer and sometimes gets close to 40C. This is not good for magnetic tapes. Or DVDs.

Before that we had Alison and her family out. Alison came for a busman's holiday: She is an accountant and came to do our end of year accounts. It was quite a task -we had changed accounting systems during the year and so it meant pulling figures from both systems and merging them together. But first there were end of year currency variations to enter, end of year write-offs and accruals to deal with and so on... and we changed currency on 1st January from Cyprus pounds to Euros. Still it was all completed, even if it did take longer than expected. Without people like Alison, I'm not sure where we would be!

Alison brought with her the equipment for a new telephone system for the office. Our old one had been causing grief for some time. The new one is VOIP based and much much better. When the equipment came I was the person to get it all going on one of the new servers... servers? At the end of last year I had tried to upgrade one of the packages on one of the main servers in Cyprus. Only I couldn't, because that version of the Operating System was now out of date [the version of Linux we use is only upgradeable for 24 months]. So I installed a new version on a spare server, intending to migrate the pair of servers that were now out of service date across. Only I found that we had a hardware problem with the spare server.

So at the beginning of the year, Peter and I decided to replace both of these old servers with brand new ones [they were about 3 years old anyhow and lacking power]. So that involved a lot of work for both Peter and I in the upgrading.

In between all this we were trying to bring online a new Flash Media Server in our main cluster. This is going well, and we are seeing how good the new Flash Video Streaming will look.

Oh, and I forgot [but shouldn't] we had a programmer over in Cyprus for a month working on one of our web sites...

Well... if that sounds like we have been sitting around idle, I also did a short trip through the UK to the USA early in the year. The trip was both planning and visiting a major donor who we hope will fund two projects this year. One of those projects is an apprenticeship programme we dearly need to free up Peter and I for other things.

Monday, January 07, 2008

What is reality?

The last month, apart from time off for Christmas, has been focusing on four things:
  • Planning for 2008
  • Budgeting for 2008
  • Completing the update on one website
  • Planning next stage on another website
One problem we have found in 2007 is that we don't have all the people we need for doing the system administration on the servers we have. I have probably complained about this before... but these servers are the backbone of what we do and the backbone of what some of our partners do. Within this region there is only one other person we know of able to do this support.

In order to move forward and do the important rather than just maintaining things for others we determined we needed to do two things: 1) train one or two other people to help 2) cut back on the things we had been doing for other organizations. The trouble is this would have a significant detrimental effect on other organizations - we shared this with one and they were not sure how they would get round the problem.

We had two colleagues over from Egypt for a couple of weeks working on the update for the website and the planning the other website. The update is to create a themed feel to the site so that we have Christmas and other seasonal themes, rather like Google. It gives the site an 'alive' feel. We also had some extra facilities to integrate, allowing chat rooms and other interactive features to be brought into the site. It worked well and we are very pleased with the result. We now have over 7,500 members - that's people who have signed up to regularly participate in the site - so we are very encouraged.

One of the colleagues we had over was really concerned about the cutting facilities for other organizations. He suggested we look at expanding the training, making a fully fledged apprenticeship programme. Well, we looked at this and it did seem a wise and helpful way forward. We then looked at funding it and assuming all the partner organizations agree to help with will move forward into 2008 with 4 apprentices. By the end of 2009 they should be able to have taken over the lions share of supporting all these facilities.

Peter and I had been doing lots of planning and budgeting anyway - this was an expansion rather than something totally new on our agenda. Planning and budgeting is one of those amazingly important and time consuming activities that seems to get nowhere, but without being done you really do get nowhere! What it has left me with is a number of grant applications to complete before I go to the USA later this month to share with funding agencies who have already expressed an interest in our activities.

The other site we were working on is a totally new one - a web 2.0 site. What's web 2.0? It's almost 100% interactivity within sites. No longer to you read, listen and view material - your interact with it. In this case the site will look at feel more like a virtual reality computer game than a website. But it won't be virtual reality it will be actual reality. We have no idea about the reaction it will get - so far people who have seen previews are very impressed. For us its a big step into seeing if people who prefer oral culture find it easier interacting with this sort of... well... not a site really, more an environment. Watch this space!

One of the colleagues will be cominng back here in February to work further on the site with us [he is continuing in Egypt now] with an aim that it will be launched in March. In the mean time, Peter will fly to Egypt to look at setting up the apprenticeship programme there. I am making a quick trip to Jordan and then over to the USA... so in actual reality we are doing a lot of traveling too. I enjoy traveling, but sometimes I think the virtual reality of being able to travel at the speed of light would be really helpful!