Monday, May 27, 2013

New Engineer's Bench Podcast "Traditional Video QC with Tektronix"

Hugh and Phil go through some of the principles of traditional video QC using the Tektronix WFM and WVR series test sets. Find it on iTunes, vanilla RSS, YouTube or the show notes website.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Failure of the BBC's "Digital Media Initiative" and other large IT projects

I still describe myself as a Broadcast Engineer rather than a project manager - and in fairness I do spend more time looking at cable-schedules and schematics than Gantt charts. However; I am often responsible for other people's money in achieving what they want in TV and data facilities. Compared to the BBC DMI project the largest project I've had overall financial responsibility for came to a bit more than 1% of the size of that gig so I am in no means an expert. However - I have worked for dozens of large and small broadcasters and I think I've seen some of the best and worst aspects of other people's project management styles.
I feel sorry for John Linwood - the BBC's CTO who has been suspended over the whole debacle. It's telling that the Beeb now have a CTO rather than a Chief Engineer as that latter term implies that you've had a career in broadcast engineering - you've calibrated monitors, fixed studio cameras (and then racked them in live productions), installed Media Composer (and supported the editors), replaced the head-drums in VTRs as well as the myriad other bits of experience that the top technical job at the world's most prestigious broadcaster would imply. John is a similar age to me and so I'd expect him to remember mk.2 telecines, tubed cameras and 1" VTRs but he's a software guy; ex-Yahoo, ex-Microsoft and it's there you'll find both the justification for him being the Beeb's top technical guy and the reasons for the pickle he's now in. The DMI was a software project BUT software projects have a huge propensity to fail. Around 30% of software projects in commercial industry fail - but that's OK; you have to take risks and great things don't come if there wasn't a danger of failure (that's why it's a risk!). However - in government IT projects the risk of failure is an awful lot higher - typically 70% for publicly-funded IT projects. You'd expect project manager who are being paid with tax-dollars to be more risk-averse but the opposite seems true. Clearly this has been the case at the BBC with the DMI. 
Ross Anderson has written extensively about this kind of thing; he did an interview with Stephen Fry on Radio 4 a couple of years ago which makes a lot of these points; as an aside his brilliant book "Security Engineering" is now in the public domain.

Here are a few thoughts on big-organisation technical projects;
  • The danger of "not invented here" - when I was at the BBC most custom projects (i.e. equipment and solutions not bought in from external manufacturers) were often specified and implemented by Research Department. In fact too many projects were as there was an attitude of "nobody understands what we do except us" and so consequently too many things were done by people who might be doing it for the first or second time (chief engineers of facilities will have designed/built maybe two or three machines rooms in their twenty year career - I've done it dozens of times in the last decade!). 
  • "Gold plating" everything - In the late eighties/early nineties there was a guy in BBC Research Department who liked the DEC MicroVax 3100-series running VMS (at the time it was a £35k industrial computer) and so whenever a project needed an external computer we'd see a MicroVax appear in the machine room. Automated upload of new weather symbols to the Quantel Paintbox - throw a MicroVax at it. Download realtime financial data from Reuters to make the Aston strap for the breakfast news financial segment; control the caption generator with a MicroVax! However - when it fell on the maintenance department to make something work they typically used a BBC Micro (we all had them at home and new how to program/homebrew them) - the ASTED project to control external logo generators and make them work with the Aston caption machine for news programmes was all done via a £350 BBC Micro, not a £35k MicroVax.
  • In a similair vein I had a friend who was working on the NHS unified records system for EDS - he spent eighteen months working on a new secure-VPN protocol; that's not a problem that needs solving! That one is already done with a choice of closed and open-software solutions.
  • Don't despise project management methodologies. Lots of engineers have a distrust of Prince2 and it's ilk and for sub-£1m projects the overheads are too onerous, but there are so many valuable lessons that proper project managers bring. In a recent discussion with a colleague about how one project had turned quite painful we realised that the PM101 principle of fully involving the users had been almost totally missed by the customer and it was proving hard to get the poor editors and assistants to buy-into the new system once they saw the implementation.
  • "Good, Fast, Cheap - choose only two" - this is the warning PMs often give and it's regarded as customers as a prohibition rather than a good principle to run a project by. The tension of having to hold those three ideas and adjust the sliders as necessary means you don't push them all to the max and expect the best outcome. If they had regarded this principle there is no way they would have let the thing drag on for five years. Timely projects are the best kind.
  • Specify, specify, specify - the more you leave to fortune or to the contractors' discretion means you have too many undefined problems.
  • Don't disregard experience - the engineer who taught me all I really know about broadcast SI - Chris Clegg - had one thing he used to say about designing facilities; "...given a crew of qualified operators they should be able to run this studio/OB truck/machine room with only fifteen minutes instruction from the usual operator". You can't do that without intimately understanding how TV workflows interact with facilities and how operators and assistants operate. The point is that the best broadcast project managers have years of experience in those areas. Professional project managers (who aren't experienced engineers) don't have those insights.
One thing I can't understand is why Siemens were initially given the project; are they renowned for any of the things that were trying to be achieved? - big database, large video storage, transcoding, version management and the underlying filesystem to make it all hang together? Given that it also has to work with your editing, transmission, and VOD platforms why on Earth not get Avid, Isilon, Google etc involved; OneFS for the backend and GFS for the database sound like they were designed for this (and they also run most of the big Internet media sites).

It'll be interesting to see if the BBC takes on an experienced engineer as their next CTO.

Friday, May 24, 2013

AJA HD10AMA analogue audio pinouts

The HD10AMA is a great de/embedder with two HD/SDi outs; very useful gadget. Here is the D25 details.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Managing multiple identical sound devices in OS-X

I use Skype (although I may be looking for alternatives due to Microsoft's proved snooping - see here) and I like to have two sound devices so that the radio can keep playing through my speakers without me having to reach for volume control when I take a call. Also, when podcasting, I use the same laptop to run the presentation, keep the Skype call going and make the recording (that chews up three sound devices!). So along with the laptop's internal sound chip I have two cheap external USB dongles. Since they are identical they show themselves with the same name is all apps and invariably (especially if I've been away from my desk for a day and re-booted the OS without any of the USB devices attached) Skype picks up the wrong sound devices as default. It's trivial to change back but I always get it wrong (" the headset the first or second one"?!)

In Utilities is the Audio MIDI setup application (which I've never used before) where you can set "aggregated sound devices" - presumably to allow the same audio to play through several outputs? But - it allows you to create a proxy for a device and give it a sensible name.

So, I made new devices for the two USB sound dongles and gave them sensible names.
This now means that when I look at available sound devices in other apps (particularly Skype) I see things I can distinguish!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Engineer's Bench podcast - new episode; "File based QC for TV delivery"

Hugh and Phil go over some of the basics surrounding delivery of TV shows as files. We then do a QC pass using Vidchecker. Find it on iTunes, vanilla RSS, YouTube or the show notes website.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Raspberry Pi - firmware

Apparently they haven't been that thorough on delivering them with up-to-date firmware;

So, many thanks to my colleague Dave "the Don" Poves for the following;


I do not know if you know that Rapsbian will not update the firmware as ArchLinux does as part of the system upgrades. This is a manual process, but you can automatise it.

To find out your current firmware release you need to issue:

# /opt/vc/bin/vcgencmd version

If the build is not from the last two weeks it is outdated.

You can update it by doing the following:

$ sudo apt-get install ca-certificates git-core

$ sudo wget -O /usr/bin/rpi-update

(The short URL points to this one, it just saves a lot of typing:

$ sudo chmod +x /usr/bin/rpi-update

Once the above script has been installed you can get the latest firmware by typing:

$ sudo rpi-update

Also I am a big fan of Mosh ( and the use of keys so you do not need to type your credentials every time you remote into your Pi. It is a really amazing product. I am getting a new one for some more nefarious objectives. :)


There we go, much better!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Adventures with the Raspberry Pi

Unless you've been under a rock for the last few months you can't have failed to have seen the Raspberry Pi; that credit-card sized ARM-based computer that sells for £25. Although it's modestly powered it does stand up as a small Linux computer for server, desktop or media-centre use. Remember; we had servers twenty years ago when no computer on Earth was this powerful!

So I've been monkeying around with a couple of these boards for a week or so and here are a few observations. To start with a few initial notes;
  • Make sure the SD card you use is both properly formatted and has a valid OS image on it; I battled with one board for days before re-formating it and sticking a new copy of Debian on it. The board literally looks dead if the boot-loader is corrupt.
  • I didn't find any of the problems a lot of online folks claim is an issue - power supplies; I've tried everything from iPhone, Kindle, no-name USB through to the USB-service port on the back of my TV. All powered the boards fine. I haven't measured it I imagine we're talking less than an amp at 5v.
  • It's a lot easier to us one of the many tools to format the card and copy on the OS image. I've been using RPi-sd card builder v1.1
So - there are numerous pre-compiled OS images for download and I suppose it depends on what you want to do with it. My first port of call was a Debian build called "Wheezy" which seems to be the general Linux distro of choice that comes with the KDE desktop. The card must be partitioned into a FAT32 formatted boot partition (64 megabytes) and the rest of the card (at least two gigs) as an ext4 Linux partition. YaST allows you to max-out the main partition when it runs. So long as you know what IP address gets assigned at boot-time you can SSH into the board;

So with Debian installed you can use it as a proper desktop machine or a network server. There are two USB2 ports and so it makes for a very powerful NAS head for a regular USB drive.

The other application that seems to attract the most attention is XMBC for which there are several builds. I stuck OpenElec onto another SD card (this is the joy - you can switch £5 SD cards around and you've got a new machine).

The XMBC builds don't come with a desktop or even an X-client (it writes straight into the display buffer - and it has MPEG2 & H.264 decoding on the board). But it is just the job for a Media Centre.
Another feature of the OpenElec build is support for the Apple Airplay protocol so you can "throw" media playback to it from iTunes or iPad/iPhone;

Several folks online have commented about the poor output quality of the analogue audio 3.5mm jack. The HDMI audio is fine and although the mini-jack ain't great I discovered a couple of things that improved it to tolerable;
  • Don't use a USB hub to power the Pi - most don't have a great regulation of the 5v rail which also tend to be noisy. A Kindle or Apple wall-wart suffices.
  • Use a good-quality USB cable; I had a cheapie cable powering the board and it covered the audio output in hiss. A Kindle cable did the job.