12.25.2008

As I get older, my habits are changing. I think that they are changing in most part due to how the world changes around me. In seventh grade, I hardly ever wore shoes, whether inside or out. I kept a backpack around me all the time that was filled with all manner of useful items. There's no real reason why I did that; I was in seventh grade, what situation could really arise in Scottsdale, Az that would require three or four novels, some rope, several cutting implements, and two different beverages?

The other thing I carried around with me was a head full of all the information I would need to contact all of the people that I knew. I had, in my mind, all of the email addresses, AIM names, and phone numbers of everyone I cared about. I no longer do that. My phone and Gmail inbox contain that information now.

Granted, this is because I'm required to handle a lot more information. The world is noisier. I have to know how to contact all manner of people and businesses, as well as have the numbers for numerous people who I may not call, but who will call me or whose numbers are requested of me.

With all of this cell-phone communication, it's hard to find a quiet space anymore. I usually try to signal the importance of a given situation to my co-participants by the sphere of people for whom I'll answer the phone, while I happen to be involved in said situation. For instance, my wife can always get me, unless I happen to be in the shower (for safety and equipment replacement reasons) and while I'm in the booth during a service or production. My wife, family, and a few friends will be answered if I'm at a sit-down meal with people. Everyone will generally be answered the rest of the time, if I'm awake.

The other thing that brings more and more noise is the world around me. I'm waking up earlier and earlier thanks to Colin's sleeping habits. I hear the trash pickup, the sprinklers, the neighbor warming up his rumbly pickup.

My day is filled with noise both literal and figurative. The cars around me while I travel the streets, the construction on the freeway, the meaningless noises of everyone around me doing what they do all day long fill my ears. Also, my brain is filled with the blather of people with more opinions than facts, repetition of news stories that are days and months old with fractally incremented changes that are supposed to make them new and different, and, truthfully, my own thought processes which rise up to protest this kind of pseudo-information.

This morning when I woke up, it was really very quiet. The neighbors weren't idling their trucks, the sprinklers weren't going, and the house was silent. I think this is one of the modern blessings of Christmas. As a holiday, it's not about lighting off low-yield explosives, or shouting at people from their front stoop. Christmas is about the quiet reflection of something that occurred in a quieter time. It lets me get a little of the noise out of my heart. Christmas lets me refocus away from all the noise, and hopefully experience a tiny birth in my own soul.

8.17.2008

Plato, Aristotle, and Books vs. Movies based on books

This is something that just started percolating in my mind tonight, which I feel the need to get down. I may come back and revise, I may leave it as is.

I have a theater degree. Most of my practical, hands-on classes revolved around the design aspects of theater, but I certainly had my share of the more generic theater history and dramaturgy classes as well.

One thing was mentioned that has really just been floating around in my head until just now. In the Republic, Plato makes the case that poetry, and, by extension, theater, is not to be included in his ideal, utopian, just society. He feels that poetry can have the effect of carrying itself as the truth rather than actually being the truth. In its meter and rhyme, in its repeatability, poetry can come to supplant the truth. As Les said at church this morning, the little quips we hear, like 'cleanliness is next to Godliness' become the Truth. Their catchy little hooks worm their way into our consciousness and tag into the receptors in our brain that should be reserved for real, actual truth.

Aristotle disagrees with Plato in his Poetics. He feels that the structure of poetry, its rules, make it a valuable way to convey information. The catchiness of the information that poetry can convey make it a good messenger for us. We retain things when they are presented to us as rhymes. This is probably why I know so many songs. Finally, Aristotle upholds the notion of Catharsis as a very valuable reason for the retention of theater and poetics. In acting out scenarios which encompass, surpass, and eclipse our normal, day to day tribulations, we can deal with our own, lower amplitude, worries and situations. This is perhaps best exemplified in movies like Fight Club and Office Space: movies which depict men who exist in parallel worlds to many men we know, who fight and cheat and triumph over their own lacking existence. Knowing that Tyler Durden and Peter Givens, like Jeffery "The Dude" Lebowski are out there fighting for all us sinners makes us more able to deal with going into the office and sitting under fluorescent lights.

It seems like a great theory. In many ways it is very workable. Aristotle was no slouch. But I find that something happens when something that seems true to me gets recaptured and repackaged in poetic, epic, theatrical form. That truth becomes much less important. Just as chips in my cellphone have replaced my own neurons as a place for storing the information I need to contact the people I know, the movies based on books I know become the new repositories of the truths I find. Tarnished, disposable repositories at that.

I've read the Lord of the Rings fifteen times. This may seem excessively geeky, and that's fine, it is. I'm a nerd. You're sitting on your computer reading a blog, so ease up.

Having read LotR that many times, the world of middle earth seemed alive in my mind for most of my adolescense and young adulthood. However, when Peter Jackson made the movie versions, I lost something of the books. I think the movies were masterful and fantastic. The only movies I've ever seen that do justice to my mental image of how the books play out. But I think that the tension of having to hold all of that world in my imagination was what kept the stories alive for me. When the movies came out, I had a new place to store all that information. That new place is currently in a box sitting on top of a speaker in my living room. My mind doesn't have to store it anymore.

While the emotional catharsis of watching those movies, especially with the moving music, was nice, what concerns and somewhat worries me at this point is the intellectual catharsis I'm experiencing. Having seen it all played out in detail, that becomes the new true middle earth, not the one in my head. The poetry has robbed me of my thoughts.

I hope that in telling my son stories, doing the poetic thing, I don't rob him of some wider truths in life.

6.09.2008

Our sweet scenic screen.


Late last year, while I was still working for Highlands' AV contractor CT Communications, I installed a couple of projectors and designed a system to suspend a unique scenic element: a scrim that totally fills the upstage end of our stage. In addition, I flew two Eiki XB-41 projectors over the house, suspended via Chief universal projector mounts from 5' long pipes. The pipes put the projectors right in to the correct elevation with respect to the screen so we don't have to do any keystoning to the image.

The image to the projectors is sent via a nifty little box made by Matrox: the GXM DualHead2Go. This box splits off a signal to two displays, while presenting to the host computer a single display. In this case, we turn two 1024x768 displays into one 2048x768 display. This allows MediaShout or ProPresenter to address the main screen as a single monitor, which makes it pretty easy to display our images and video on the big screen.

The screen has been used a few times now, for the Christmas musical, Easter, and now Vacation Bible School. For the other two performances, our media director, Brock Rexius, made the same kind of quality, 2D, hi-res video that he usually does, just in a really really wide screen format. This time, we're on our most advanced use yet. We had a very gifted and motivated volunteer, Brian Wadley, who made a custom 3D environment for us to project as our scenery. The science lab, pictured in the picture up at the top of the post, went through several iterations and a lot of tweaking. After an initial render, the media guys flew the scrim last week and tested their prototype. The perspective was a little big strange. Not willing to pull punches in the quality department, they remade the environment and rendered it out to perfection.

It looks as though our stage is a giant science lab. There is a screen with a spark-type image, electric arcs shooting around, and other, fully animated, little touches that turn it into a great set. It would have been incredibly difficult to have this kind of quality in a physical set, and certainly extremely time-consuming and expensive.

The media guys specifically included a lot of media that was provided by the group that developed the content that our VBS is using. There are certain characters that show up around the 'set' as 'posters' and also we see a 'blackboard' that displays the main lesson for the day. Each day is rendered out separately, with a different lesson appearing on the 'blackboard.'

The one thing that I can't show you (because I don't have pictures currently) is that, because our projection surface is a sharkstooth-weave scrim material, when we project normally directly onto the front of the scrim, it appears to be just a white screen. However, if we shine light behind the scrim, the material acts as though it's translucent. For the Christmas musical last year, we took advantage of this by having a choir behind the scrim, making a great entrance well into the program, totally surprising the audience.

I look forward to the great things that our creative and technical team will do with such a great tool in the future.

Using Fellowship One checkin for VBS

A few weeks back, some of the ladies and I went to Texas for the Dynamic Church '08 conference. I wrote a little bit about the trip at the time.

This week, the rubber has met the road in terms of implementation. Sunday morning check in has been going fine, we had a lot of volunteers come forward and express their willingness to assist before the first and second services. We usually run about 350 or 400 kids between the two services a week, checking in over a 15 or 20 minute period.

The check in kiosks are fairly cheap sheet metal numbers that we got from global industrial. They've got big rubbery casters and locking front and back doors with cable passthroughs on the bottom of the chassis and through the top of the countertop. We've found, so far, that they keep our equipment fairly secure. There are usually four check in stations that are spread through the main hallway of the childrens' building.

This morning, we had almost 400 kids checking in during about half an hour, in one place (the lobby of our worship center.) It went off nearly without a hitch. To accomplish this, I did three things.

First, last week I rolled out a new group security policy on my domain controller, that would specifically apply to my check in computers and the 'checkin' user specifically. Essentially, I went through the list of things that I could restrict, and checked almost all of them. Now, when the 'checkin' user logs in, they get a blank start menu. On the checkin computers, a shortcut to the Fellowship One checkin application in the startup folder of the Start menu ensures that they will have that functionality. There is also an icon on the desktop to allow users to doubletap on the touchscreen to restore from exiting the application. Any other functionality is shut out for the checkin user, which will hopefully prevent unauthorized users from logging on to the computers and surfing bad websites or, perhaps worse, our large, open shared folders. To prevent that eventuality, I went through our shares and specifically denied share access to the 'checkin' user.

Yesterday after church we brought all of our normal carts over from the childrens' building and set them up in the lobby. I originally set them up in a star formation, as shown in this action shot:
We found that this arrangement didn't balance the traffic flow very well, so after our initial check in flurry, the kiosks were rearranged into a straight line, like so:
We had an additional three check in computers set up temporarily for the week. Two of them are running on staff-laptops-plus-label-printers, and one is from a cart-less check in machine that we use to do check in for the nursery. They were all set up on a table, just to the left (north) of our cluster of kiosks:
Network wise, I ran a Cat5e cable from a nearby switch, housed in a janitor's closet, to the first cluster of kiosks. There, the cable hits a Dell PowerConnect 2124 switch which is, quite securely, sitting on the floor. That switch distributes to the four kiosk machines. The table is served by another cheap Belkin branded switch that I found in a cabinet somewhere on campus. The biggest network bottleneck that we faced during the half-hour of power was at our connection to the outside world, a fractional T1. I think >1.5Mbps just isn't quite enough for seven simultaneous check in sessions as well as our staff's Monday morning homepage logins.

The last thing was something I should have done a couple weeks ago, but never had myself and powered on check in kiosks in the same place during the week: I made some registry settings in order that on our check in computers, the 'checkin' user is automatically logged on. This consisted of setting the following keys HKLM/Software/Microsoft/WindowsNT/CurrentVersion/Winlogon
AutoAdminLogon = 1
DefaultUserName = checkin
I also had to create the string
DefaultPassword = 'our checkin password'
(The documentation that I got from the Dynamic Church conference left out the string creation, so heads up)

In any case, tomorrow I'm anticipating that I'll walk in at about 7:30, hit the power button on the check in machines, and our volunteers will be able to quickly, efficiently, and securely check in our 400 or so kids in the morning.

5.26.2008

Improving our worship services with proper audio compression.

For a long time, well into the formative years of the audio portion of my career, I was disdainful of outboard gear. I felt that using compressors and lots of effects were a crutch, a way to keep from having to pay attention to what was really going on in the mix. I'm not sure why I felt that way, perhaps just because those who mentored me during that time never really took the time to explain to me the benefits, which left me thinking that time spent on outboard gear was wasted, and that I should spend my time becoming very precise with my EQ and gain structure habits.

I repent of those ways. It wasn't until late last year that I got into a situation where I had some time to really experiment. The band I was mixing for had their own on-stage in-ear mixing setup, and not having to deal with that headache left me more open to spending time playing with all of the other equipment in my rack that I'd never really touched before. At the time, the compressor I was using was the Presonus ACP-88. It's really a terrific little piece of gear, given that it is working. Less than a thousand dollars gets you eight channels of perfectly serviceable compression, with decent gates. I was able to use it for a five musician band who usually ran about 10 channels worth of audio, between electric and acoustic guitar setups for the lead vocalist, a couple different synth sends, a bass, some drums, and random little things they'd bring in like a xylophone.

This problem that I had in mixing for this band is that our church decided to rent a serviceable but acoustically challenging venue. It had very low ceilings, a tiny stage, and, to be honest, we didn't have a lot of people to soak up SPL. The drummer, as many drummers are wont to do, would play with all of his might. In such a small room, this meant that I had to mix the rest of the band up above his level, which, without a little help, would have been very difficult.

Compression made my job easy. With basically a compressor per input, it was easy to park the acoustic guitar right in the middle of the mix, the xylophone-via-sm58 was audible, and with judicious compression vs. gain balancing, feedback wasn't really something that I had to deal with very much.

I brought my new-found appreciation for the possibilities of compression with me to my new position at Highlands. We're a little bit different from most churches, in that we have four teaching pastors who rotate on a more or less weekly basis. Their speaking styles are very different from one another. One in particular is very given to starting out with almost too much volume, as if to command the audience to pay attention. Since we don't do a mic check for the pastors aside from 'check check, ok it's on,' these first few minutes are when the sound volunteers will nail down gain and EQ settings for the pastors.

However, when the pastors' voices dip down in the middle of the sermon, it leaves us stranded. For three weeks, it was inevitable that one of the ushers would come down and ask that the volume be brought up for the people in the back. Additionally, our services are recorded directly to a camera for broadcast via our website, with the camera fed from the mono mix of the board. Our video team had issues with the worship audio totally blowing them out of the water, and then nowhere near enough audio during the sermon. They had to rip audio from our CD recording and then, without any external time clocks, sync all of the audio to video. To me, these were both problems that compression could easily solve.

We ended up purchasing two of FMR audio's Really Nice Compressors. One is inserted directly into the channel that we use for the pastors' wireless microphone. The other has a more heavy-duty job of limiting all of the audio that we feed to our camera for the video recording. The RNC is, in fact, really nice. As advertised, when you change the controls, the compressor responds. It's clean and natural sounding. Both compressors that we bought have done a world of good for us. At $175 each, they're very hard to beat.

Since we installed and configured the compressors, I haven't had a single complaint of the pastors being too quiet, or too loud. Proper compression helps my volunteers to be able to concentrate on the sermon, and makes our sound team look better.

5.17.2008

So I just finished this book:


I read the bulk of it during the plane rides to and from DFW and the Dynamic Church 2008 conference. The authors made an appearance on NPR's science Friday a couple months ago, and I happened to catch a big chunk of their segment during an In-N-Out run.

There are so many concepts discussed in the book which resonate with me. Mostly, they resonate as the things that God is trying to lead us away from with many of the instructions in the bible.

For example, the book relates how, once you have performed a favor for someone you view as an enemy, your brain seeks to square away the dissonant notion that you are helping someone you perceive to be bad. Therefore, with the action already taken, one's mind lessens the disparity by improving that persons image. When Jesus exhorts us to pray for our enemies, he is accomplishing at least two things: a) someone is being prayed for, and b) in praying for this person, we are moving them from a category of 'they,' e.g. bad people who aren't esteemed enough by us to deserve our prayer, into a circle of those whom we value, and probably from there into a circle of those whom we can no longer view as completely separate from us.

There are all kinds of similar issues throughout the book. I don't usually make notes or fold corners while I go, but this book is going to end up a bit dog-eared once everyone is done reading it.

Check it out.

Dynamic Church Conference 2008 Day 3 (sort of)

The chairs in the Frisco, Tx Embassy Suites and conference center leave something to be desired. The chairs for the class and conference rooms are your usual scantily padded stackable numbers, which is to be expected. However, there are nice marble tables arrayed throughout the concourse, surrounded by alligator-looking pleather chairs. They look wide and inviting. They look like the type of chairs that someone might plop down in to have a conversation, or to get some last-13-minutes computing done.

Don't be fooled. While appearing to be fully functional and even comfortable chairs, they fail at their primary mission: holding you in their embrace, preventing you from an inevitable collision with the floor. The pleather is too slick; and hundreds or thousands of conference-going butts crouched at the edge (as I am now, of necessity) have deformed the cheap stuffing into what is, essentially, a slide. Sit as far back as you want; the chair is in cahoots with the carpet. Without intercession, you are going down. Sitting in these chairs requires effort and focus, two things which sitting should not require.

That being said, today is my last day here in the Frisco/Dallas/Ft. Worth/Coppell/Plano/etc. metropolitan area. We are ditching the last bit of rah-rah speechifying for the generic joy of our rent-a-corolla and the hugging-you-but-hitting-you embrace of US Airways coach seats. Our flight is set to depart just shy of noon, with the benefits of time zone delivering us home, in relative terms, half an hour later.

I was finally able to distill my experience succinctly during a phone call with my sister last night; while none of the concepts or processes that I've gleaned while here are complex, it has been of great benefit to be able to block these few days out to learn them. Things at Highlands, while not overtly stressful, are too filled with immediate sorts of demands for me to have blocked out the time to really learn all this stuff in one fell swoop. Sure, I could have limped through, figuring it out for myself as I go, but in the end, being able to cram it all in together really helps in the mental process of making it all connect in my mind. My brain has been free to form a Fellowship One cortex rather than just sprinkling this information throughout my computing and design centers.

And thus, I call the trip a success. The time away from Meg and Colin has been unenjoyable but helpful. I'm eager to get back home, to sleep in my own bed (so different from the hotel's that I was better able to sleep on the couch last night) next to my helicopter-son and my beautiful wife.