Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The curse of the 'Engineering Project Manager'

I heard this very moving report on the radio this morning - it concerns a fatal Nimrod crash in Afghanistan in 2006 and lays the blame at the engineering procedures for maintaining the aircraft.
I can see exactly how this happens - engineering managers who describe themselves as 'facilitators' - to whom everything is a hand-off to someone else and who won't be doing any of the design/build/test work themselves nor will they have any responsibility for the system once it's in and working. I always felt when I ran engineering in facilities that there was immense worth in the people who would be operating and looking after a system having a say (or complete involvement in) it's design and build. In effect me and my engineers owned the systems we devised.
I quite like LinkedIn - it's a Facebook for the over-40s! Anyway on your profile you can solicit recommendations from people who you've worked with in the past and these get displayed as part of your resume.
Now then, a few years ago I was sitting on two job offers - root6 (the one I took) and chief engineer at a rather large facility that was pioneering a tapeless workflow for their major client (a big international broadcaster). A ex-colleague was the caretaker engineer and a couple of days after what I thought was an excellent interview (secured me an offer) he called and warned me about what was essentially a poisoned-chalice. Their 'systems architect' had lumbered them with a build that missed one tape in six and took many times longer than realtime to transfer clips from the backup system to the editing SAN. Those two facts alone killed their workflow and for a year they were the biggest hirers of VTRs (on trestle tables!) in London. He hadn't seen all the pieces working together in demonstration and had taken the manufacturers' words for it - suffice to say they were all pointing at each other! Over the next two years they made it all work but it wasn't a happy ride for the facility or the client.
Anyway - I found a recommendation for this chap on LinkedIn - about what a bang-up engineering architect he was and delivered ahead of time/below budget etc etc. I just goes to show - don't believe anything you read on the internet and don't trust engineers who don't own the system they are delivering.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Eng Funds no.21 September 1988

Another BBC photo from a couple of decades ago! There's me in the back row. Mark Chambers (rear left) and I shared a flat - he worked in OBs at Kendal Avenue. Tim Cowin (between me and Mark) worked in Radio and Jim Binks (below Tim) now works at EMS.
Anyone else you know?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Electronics Graphics area from 1991

I was going through some old photos from work - this is BBC White City's first electronic graphics suite - you can see a couple of original series Quantel Paintboxes (the 6U one with the brown front panel that looked like every other Quantel box of the eighties!), Sony DXC3000 camera (their first broadcast CCD model), Questech Charisma (two channels, IIRC - not the curvy effect model), Abekas A64 disk recorder (sixty seconds of video!), Ampex Ace 200 edit controller, three BetaSP decks and a Revox 1/4" tape machine.
This was the first area I had a hand in - possibly my start in Systems Integration. We had the DVE, Quantels and A64 hooked up to each other over a 4x4 601 matrix - 8 bit digital video over 25-pin D-types so it was possible to do lossless bouncing between those gadgets.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Big companies and small SI contractors, pt.2

I have lost count of the number of pre-sales or project meets I've been in where a staff project manager from the customer's internal projects or procurement department will say something like;
How are you proposing getting those fibre cables between these two rooms?

Invariably it's the first time I've been in the building (where matey-boy has been working for years) and I normally admit I don't know - it's their building and I was hoping they'd tell us how to route the cables between the rooms. My standard response is;
We'll be guided by you

Which in the case of a meeting yesterday didn't cut any mustard! It reminds me of a Not the Nine O'clock News sketch;

No no Grandad, no clues!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For a class-1 device you need a mains earth!

We had a monitor that was giving people mains shocks off the SDi BNC connectors. I opened it up and there was no earth from the mains inlet to the metal chassis. No then - if you want to have no internal earth you have to have a plastic case and one other layer of insulation between the user and any current-carrying conductors (that can be a layer of air - but the device must be 'double-insulated' AKA 'class-2'). I hope this was a manufacturing fault and not a design oversight!
It's not unusual for equipment (particularly with a resonant or switch-mode power-supply) to have the internal earth float at half-mains (with a very high-impedance to the power-source, no real ability to deliver any current), but that's why you need a safety earth connection if you can touch the chassis-earth (on the BNCs, for example) and not get a little belt!

before - oh dear! - after - much better!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Behaviour of big broadcasters with small SI contractors

There are four big independent broadcast SI contractors in the UK - aside from Sony, Thompson and Ascent's in-house departments the big broadcasters tend to put their studios, OB trucks and transmission-centre builds out to TSL, ATG, Megahertz and Gearhouse. Smaller contractors (like root6) live in the shadow of these guys.
Those broadcasters (and large broadcast facility providers) tend to have in-house procurement departments that are very close to their favorite SIs. They've worked with those guys in the past and know them well - they probably had a few years together at the Beeb in P&ID (planning and installations dept).

Anyway - there have been several instances where we've been asked to quote for a good size job (>£200k) with these customers. Because it's someone of substance you make sure you've got all your ducks in a row - all documentation is complete and the tender (by request) tends to carry diagrams, schedules etc - the kind of stuff that smaller customers would assume comes after they've placed an order with you. Inevitably they wind up placing the job with one of their favoured pals (even when, in the case of one job we were £80k cheaper - but not enough for the in-house project manager to want to use someone he'd not worked with before). In the case of that job I got a call from one of the freelance wiremen who was taken on (who we use as well) with the question "..why have you specified that for the mains supply in bay 2?" - I was astonished - they'd passed on all the pre-sales work we'd done to the contractor they (probably) knew they were going to use all along. They hadn't even removed my name from the AutoCAD diagrams.

In a sense it's all legal - tender conditions specify that everything you turn in becomes the property of the client but if they always want to only have the choice of the previous two contractors this is exactly the way to go. If they want smaller contractors to be viable alternatives and/or keep the big guys honest this is not the way to behave. It's disproportionately hard on smaller contractors and (no doubt) saves the larger guys because they benefit from the pre-sales planning we've had to do. If you don't think your existing systems integration contractor is providing value then let someone else have a crack rather than just using their quote as a stick to beat the guy who sees your work as his by right.

There are other people (aside from the four mentioned) who have built and run systems that have many hundreds of hours of terrestrial television delivery under their belts!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Eizo CG232W television monitor

I've been sent several monitors to look at over the last year that are essentially high-end computer displays that have been fitted with HD-SDi input and (with verying degrees of success) been sold as grading screens.
The first mistake that's often made is the amount of light output. The worst offender was the HP DreamColour range - peak whites at 500Cd/m2! BBC standard is to grade for TV at eighty and many film people are now setting monitors at sixty for long grading sessions. It is true that delta-E (the smallest perceivable colour difference on a standardised scale) decreases with overall illumination - at five hundred candelas per metre-squared you're nearly blinded. It might be fine for watching Toy Story but it's not what TV grading is about. I hear lots of colourist-wannabe's going on about how good a monitor looks without realising the most important thing is that a monitor is accurate - it conforms to the standard. Your TV at home should look good so you enjoy your movies etc. BUT your grading display should be brutally honest. Also - bear in mind that only about one in ten-thousand people have perfect colour memory (I don't) and so looking at a monitor for colour accuracy without a colourimetry probe (and not a £200 thing you bought for your Mac!) is pointless.

1. Whites - I'm so glad this display is kicking out a respectable sub-100Cd/m2! As mentioned we've seen several computer monitors that have been bent to look like TV displays that kick out many times more light than they should.

2. Blacks - Nothing special for an LCD - this looks like many LCD TV displays, the blacks are a bit lacking in detail. Ironically the cheap JVC DTV-20 series do blacks a bit better.

3. Interlace - the de-interlacer seems on par with the VuTrix Pro-24 - it struggles a bit with certain slow pans and zooms but seems to get captions (crawls and rolls) correct - better than the VuTrix. Some sub-frame events (fireworks going off, paparazzi camera flashes etc) upset it more than other monitors.

4. Resolution - looks fine. On a 0-15Mhz grating I can see the last section fine and there's no lacking in detail on real pictures.

5. Colour balance seems fine – next to a know good display both whites and blacks (well, 10% greys!) are v.close to D6500. It seems to track perfectly as well.

6. Backlight consistency – much better than the three VuTrix panels I’ve seen recently – as good as a Sony or eCinema DCM-23 (both >£15k panels).

I’d stress that I’ve looked at it very much as a TV monitor with my BBC / Illuminant-D eyes on. I’m not a film colour guy but TV colourimetry is my thing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The failure of IT projects and the Y2K hoax

I've blogged about the Y2K hoax in the past and I think it provides valuable insights into people and how they operate. I listened to Stephen Fry's "In the beginning was the nerd" (still on the iPlayer) - a potted history of IT with particular emphasis on hardware and software designers. The interview with Ross Anderson was by far the most interesting part and I managed to get hold of the unedited interview which I've stuck on my server here.
One of the most interesting points he makes is the high degree of failure of IT projects - approximately 31% of computing projects in the private sector fail (that's a long understood number) - when a project goes so over-budget or when completed radically under-performs. In a sense, for privately funded projects you expect a degree of failure because if business leaders aren't taking risks they aren't finding new and profitable ways of doing things.
The horror I discovered is the rate of failure of IT projects in the public sector - more than 70% - and this from civil servants who should be more risk-averse than businessmen.
Anyway - he covers all of this in what is a very insightful piece.
It's a good job that traditional engineering projects don't have such a high rate of attrition.

Monday, October 05, 2009

ITV DVB-T stations - poor film transfers

Twice in the last couple of weeks I've sat down to watch a favorite film and realized what a terrible job ITV do when it comes to ITV 3 & 4 (actually - a few months ago the copy of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure I watched with the kids on ITV 2 was similarly afflicted).
The Scarlet Pimpernel (the 1982 romp with Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews; "Sink me, your tailors have betrayed you"!) last week and Clint Eastwood Unforgiven about a month ago were both put out in 4x3 with very clear 1" C-format artifacts on them. Hasn't it been fifteen years since we started to do film transfers at 16x9? Wasn't that mandated by Ofcom when the Beeb saved DVB-T in this country from ITV's incompetence in the OnDigital debacle? Relying on telecine sessions you did back in the early nineties just won't do now - and even if you do have the cheek to just copy the 1" transfer to DigiBeta at least have the courtesy/engineering ability to line up the last VPR3 in your transfer area!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Windows - occasionally 110% accurate!

It does indeed need to close - permanently!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Good SciFi - Flashforward

2009 is turning into a good year for science fiction - District 9 had some truly original ideas and now Flashforward;
A mysterious global event causes everyone on the planet to simultaneously lose consciousness for 2 minutes and 17 seconds (137 seconds), during which people worldwide see what may be visions of their lives approximately six months in the future, April 29, 2010. The event results in deaths from accidents and leaves the survivors wondering whether what they saw will happen.

Sarah and I caught episode one last night which was entirely watchable until the last scene which left us both speechless! There is no violence or gore (to speak of) yet the idea they present in the final part was genuinely frightening - I won't spoil it any more but catch it on five's watch-again service (fantastic the UK is getting is a couple of days after the US) or score yourself a DRM-uncrippled version from the various torrent sites. On EZ-TV