Monday, February 23, 2009

SONY's Stupid Piece of Shit That Doesn't Do What The Goddam Thing It's Fucking Supposed To....

My conehead bro Miguel sent me a link to possibly the funniest thing I've seen all year.

But it's only February.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Miscellaneous Geek Stuff

Some miscellaneous geek stuff for my two main conehead brethren, MilesW from Kula and Miguel from Toronto.

A better shot of the antenna arrays at the top of 3G's crane.

By sheer coincidence, the above two pictures fit together almost perfectly.

3G Wireless' operations trailer (not the porta-potty).

This is one of my PCs running Adobe's TourTracker mapping / profile application. John Carter, the executive producer, runs the app.

TV World. We have plenty of space in Escondido. In crowded downtown areas, the two mobile production studios are parked so close, the stairways overlap.

The open door is the Audio Suite. Production is the 2nd door, my home for the past 9 days. Notice the double-wide expando trailer.

Front monitor wall in the Production room. If you look carefully, you can see the Skunkware logo displayed on the GPS Preview monitor, just to the right of the rightmost PROGRAM (big) monitor. Immediately to the right of GPS is the preview for my AKI PAINT virtual telestrator system.

Not just eye candy. These two brainy beauties are the graphics department. Ally (left) and Michelle.

Jack, the Director.

My Steed

Fun driving a car which is, in and of itself, a credential.

Last Roundup At the Goat Rodeo

I've been just too exhausted and sleep-deprived to update in two days. Haven't been eating, haven't been sleeping, haven't been properly hydrating, too bleary-eyed to see normally.

I did manage to squeeze in a brief visit with my two ├╝ber-cool nephews, Christo and Tyler, in Santa Barbara after the Solvang TT. Great kids, honest and hard-working, great students, doing cool stuff all the time. Christo has a well-paying job while he studies for his PhD in Computer Science, but Tyler is still a starving undergraduate, so after dinner I stopped at an ATM, punched up some dough, and stuffed a big wad of cash into Tyler's hand. What else are uncles for? When I was in college, I was pretty broke and had to hold down part-time jobs for walking-around money, and I remember those times vividly, so tightening up Ty with a few bucks probably gives me as many jollies as it does him to receive it and spend it.

Yesterday's stage Santa Clarita -> Pasadena was phenomenal. The crowds were like the Tour de France, massive gobs of people crammed into every available roadside space, cheering madly. The LiveStrong Foundation has asked people to not paint on the roads for environmental reasons, so they've been giving out yellow chalk. The roads were almost solid graffiti, and I'm not sure the chalk is that great an idea either, because after the vehicles roll through and the peloton rolls through, there is a yellow haze in the air so thick that it affects the television pictures. THAT can't be good either, not for the fans at the roadside and certainly not for the athletes.

The Pasadena finish at The Rose Bowl was great for the RADAR, as the group took 5 laps around the Rose Bowl. Producer keyed the RADAR graphic the last 4 laps, and it had good production value because you could see that the breakaway was really tooling at 38, whilst the peloton (with Astana 4-abreast on the front, protecting Levi) was just sort of loafing along at 34. The highest GC rider off the front was Hincapie, and he's +6 minutes, so as long as Astana kept things reasonable, they had nothing to worry about.

Good stuff.

Unfortunately, the entire GPS system shit the bed about halfway through the stage. For some reason the 3G guys can't figure out, the whole link just fucked right off (eh?) slightly before the final mtn summit, and never came back. Producer was pissed off, but, hey, we're walking the high wire here with unknown, unproven solutions we threw together and pulled out of our asses a few weeks before the event because no budgets were approved. I'm personally more than satisfied with what we got working and with the decent but unspectacular up-time. I'm downright floored. If producer wants a bomb-proof solution, then great, but give me, AllanP, and the RF guys a year of development and a testing budget if you don't want a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.

Here's a photo of the room key collection I've amassed during the Tour. Unfortunately, I lost one or two. There should be ten I think, not eight. I think I also lost my digital camera, so I had to take the photo with my phone, hence the suckiness of the photo itself.

Last night I drove down to Rancho Bernardo from The Rose Bowl, stopping on the way to grab a cup of hot tea, which was my dinner. Arrived at the Hilton and broke out a bottle of wine Christo had given me, a nice Syrah from Summerland Winery, where his friend works. I didn't have a corkscrew, so I asked the young cutie at the front desk if she had one. She said "you have to promise to bring it back, because we only have one". I promised and gave her the Boy Scout's Pledge Salute. Went up to the room, popped the cork, walked back to the front desk, handed Cute Young Desk Chick back her corkscrew with a fiver as a tip for saving me the trouble of running out to a 7-11 to buy a corkscrew (hotel doesn't have a restaurant) and saving me the stink-eye of asking the bartender in the hotel bar if I could borrow his. She saw the tip and said "you want that in quarters?". I said "no, I don't need change, that's a tip for you for lending me your corkscrew". Cute Young Desk Chick went all blank. She was absolutely dumbfounded. I guess front desk staff at Hiltons don't get too many tips.

One thing I've found is good therapy when I'm tired or grumpy or pissed off is to make somebody else's day. It's so easy and so cheap, and my day already sucks...and the best defense is a good offense. In Clovis, I went to this funky old cowboy diner for breakfast and my waitress (named Rhonda), who'd clearly seen some tough miles and needed some dental work, smiled at me and was genuinely really nice, so I left her a $10 tip on an $8 check. Made my day, and I think it probably made hers too, unless she thought I'd made a mistake rather than having done it intentionally.

Went back up to the room and all of a sudden felt absolutely awful. Seeing stars. Staggered into my room, vomited solidly (made the toilet), fell asleep on top of the bed in my clothes (shoes still on), woke up 7 hours later, still fully clothed.

Good thing today is the finale.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sometimes You're The Windshield and Sometimes You're The Bug.....

ID-ing Boonen (blue) and Cavendish (yellow) after leadout man pulls off using AKI PAINT.

Tracking Boonen and Cavendish with the AKI PAINT tracking bubble.

Greetings from Solvang, one of the strangest places I've seen inside the US. As I stated in a previous post, Solvang is a Danish community in the middle of rural California. It's all about Denmark. Charming, but weird.

In Paso Robles today, I chalked up a nice "W" in the win column, but I also screwed the pooch all by myself at the very end of the day. Nobody's fault but mine.

First, the good. I represent AKISPORT in the US. It's a Czech company which makes some insanely cool broadcast tools, the best I've ever seen. Those guys are great programmers and they "eat their own cooking" (do events with the products they develop), which is the most important thing in this business, as far as I'm concerned.

I brought an AKI PAINT system here to show to the VERSUS guys. It's a really cool virtual graphics tool, kind of a virtual telestrator on steroids. I demoed it to Producer and to Executive Producer before the Tour started, and they seemed vaguely interested, but there were so many problems with the weather and with general chaos that it has gone more or less unused. This morning, Producer walked into the truck first thing and said "OK, I've got a few minutes and an idea, let's see what thing thing can do". We ended up putting together a very interesting clip of the previous day's sprint involving Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, and Cavendish's leadout man. I telestrated the leadout man pulling off, then I telestrated Boonen slipping in behind Cavendish, and then I used PAINT's tracking magnification bubble to track the two of them as Boonen closed in and just missed pipping Cavendish on the line. Paul Sherwin did a nice voice-over, and VERSUS led their broadcast with it.

Very cool. Very informative. And.....the first time AKI PAINT has been used on US TV. A feather in the caps of Tomas, Marek, David, and the rest of the guys over in Brno.

But I screwed up on the RADAR.

I've come to the conclusion that the RADAR is fun but really isn't very well suited to bike racing. It's a fun toy, but it's a bit of a mixed bag. It's certainly not as suited to bike racing as it is to ski racing. In ski racing, you either get the skier, or you get nothing. With enough tinkering, you can get the skier every single time. In bike racing, there are so many riders and race vehicles and motos and so muc hchaos out on the course that you get all sorts of wild bouncing of the needle as the decoder jumps from object to object, struggling to acquire targets. And because the race vehicles are barely ahead of the actual riders, there is only a very tiny time window in which to get valid readings.

For the past two days, I left the graphic up in preview, and Director switched it in when he thought it was relevant, which worked fairly OK, but I wasn't entirely happy with the timing. So today I attempted to do it myself, and I goat-fucked it right up my own ass, with a hot poker. Director left my CG switched in "hot" and I was supposed to animate the RADAR graphic on at exactly the right moment.

I missed. Badly. I almost missed the sprint completely.

After the race, the guy who operates Camera 8, which is the final camera before the finish, told us a security guy had made him move from his regular position just a few seconds before the riders came through. That was an unusual move from a power-drunk security dickhead, and the camerman was pissed. Director was pissed too. The change of perspective confused me, and as a result, I animated on the RADAR way too late. The peak speed was 40.1 MPH, but I might have missed the peak speed by being so late. Cavendish won easily, so perhaps he wasn't going that hard, but he had a tailwind, so he might have been faster than that.

It was pretty obvious that I blew it. After everybody took a bathroom break following the interviews, we re-assembled in the truck. Producer asked me "what happened?". I simply told the truth. I said "Simple explanation. I fucked it up". He laughed. It had been a pretty good day otherwise, so I don't think anybody was too upset about it, except for me.

Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

I'm really exhausted from all the travel, and I need to be at my best for the TT tomorrow here in Solvang. I really could use a good night's sleep so I can pay closer attention tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

This One's For You, Miguel

Some pikkies of the absurdly huge crane used by 3G Wireless to maintain microwave contact with the relay aircraft. The head of the crane has a motorized, gyro-stabilized, auto-seeking head to keep the antenna arrays aligned with the aircraft, which is up to several hundred miles away.

Mapping Graphics All Day Long

The GPS stuff worked all day long during today's stage from San Jose to Modesto. VERSUS used the hell out of it. Every segment, sometimes twice per segment. Producer and I were sort of shaking our heads, because for 3 years he wanted this and had it 0% of the time. Now he has it almost all day long.

Here are some actual GPS images that were used on today's broadcast. On the "profile" (lower third), I have overlaid it onto a cycling photograph so you can see the alpha.

Live GPS Mapping Graphics Using Bailing Wire and Chewing Gum


After 3 years of total failure by CSC (one of the largest computer companies in the world), a 0% success rate, AllanP and I successfully got live GPS mapping graphics on the air (on both Worldfeed and on VERSUS in the USA) on the very first day on which we had a fighting chance.

The previous day, the weather was so shitty that we later learned the FAA had banned all light aircraft within a 250 mile radius. No chance at an RF relay. That's what fucked the whole race to a dry bleed during the Santa Rosa stage.

The start of the Santa Cruz stage featured really sucky weather once again (as the peloton crossed the Golden Gate Bridge), but the FAA at least allowed the RF relay plane off the ground.

AllanP, who really never was given the opportunity to do anything more than a basic comms test with the GPS base station before yesterday, got live GPS data (indeed from 8 transmitters) for the first time ever. Amazingly, he stood there in the TV truck and thwacked away at his code for 2 or 3 hours (my code was considerably simpler, and already finished), and by the time the racers were 30 or so miles from the finish (passing Mavericks, the famed big-surf spot at Half Moon Bay, ironically), damned if we didn't have live GPS mapping graphics live on Worldfeed and live on VERSUS in the US.

Wasn't perfect, didn't work that consistently, but was accurate, looked good (that's my part) and was good enough for Director and Producer to use about 10 times on the air.

AllanP and I were, frankly, stunned. The first time we saw it on the PROGRAM monitor, knowing it was going live to the world, we looked at each other dumbfounded, as if VERSUS was showing a naked Angelina Jolie having wild monkey sex with a Passa Fino.

After the broadcast, a dishrag-looking Producer slapped me on the back and said "DAMN, after 3 years, we've finally got live GPS. Nice job".

It was a good day.

Ironically, the simplest piece of the whole Buckminster Fuller-esque chain (but still the last missing piece) was provided to us at the last minute out of nowhere, like pennies from heaven. We'd discovered during the ill-fated Santa Rosa stage that AllanP's map-composition app sucks up a fair amount of bandwidth, and the satellite internet connection in the TV compound is too weak to support it, given all the other bandwidth-sucking going on in the various production trucks. As I drove from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz on Sunday night, I'd stopped at a Best Buy and bought a cheap wireless router in hopes that somehow we'd find our own pipe in the parking lot of some BOA bank branch in Santa Cruz (site of the next day's TV compound). An hour before the broadcast, Eric Hall from PSSI Satellite Systems stuck his head in the door to say they'd secured a temporary internet drop from the City of Santa Cruz, would I like to use it as a dedicated pipe. I quickly unwrapped the new router, configured it, password-protected it, and attached all the GPS mapping PCs to it. Eric stuck a Cat5 through the truck's mouse hole, and away we went. A quick test revealed the temporary drop was wildly asymmetrical (50K push, 2 meg pull), but AllanP's mapping app mostly pulls, so we were good to go.

3G Wireless ultimately completed the circle by coming up with the goods with the RF. Wasn't perfect, wasn't even great, but worked well enough at times, so after the stage I went over to their trailer and spread some love. Those guys could use some good news, they've been busting their ass for a week now, and the weather has cornholed them every day. They had no fucking idea what we were planning to do with all that data they were firehosing to us, so I showed them examples of what we used on the air, and let them bask in some glory. Thanks to Greg and Craig, the pilots, the ground crews, and all the rest of their ass-busting technicians.

Speaking of examples, the mapping graphics AllanP's application generated, which my app fed through to my AKISPORT GS2 CG and displayed on the air, are still on the RAID drive on my AKISPORT CG in the truck, so I can't post them at the moment because I'm at the hotel in our next city (Doubletree in Modesto). I will post some of them later today for those of you who didn't see the broadcast.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goat Rodeo

Santa Rosa was, to quote my good friend MikeW, a Goat Rodeo. To quote another good friend TobiasD, "die wetter ist ekelhaft". One of the worst storms in California in years.

There was a lot of screaming going on yesterday, fortunately none of it was directed at me. But don't take my word for it, read about it here.

Behind the scenes, we were hearing terms like "no fucking way in hell" from the RF guys concerning pretty much anything. Aircraft were grounded for safety reasons by the Federal Aviation Administration. No GPS telemetry, no cameras, no audio, not even race radio most of the time. The TV show consisted of 1:45 showing little kids jumping through puddles at the finish, then 15 minutes of 60 guys loafing half-heartedly through a few laps around Santa Rosa @ 20 mph, then Mancebo throwing up his arms in victory.

A certain TV commentator (you all know who I mean) screamed at the Producer after Producer forced him to read the results "as of 3 laps before the finish" as "the results". Senile Old Drunk Commentator (SODC) was insulted, because he'd never heard of such a thing before - just like the time he was insulted during the 2007 Prologue that Timing & Scoring "must have messed up" Jason Donald's time because Donald was in the lead, and SODC had never heard of the kid. Well here's a news flash SODC....Jason Donald's time was 100% correct that day in 2007, and Producer was correct yesterday. The race was, in fact, called . . . as of 3 laps before the finish. So scoring & timing was right both times, and you went off like a roman candle both times, despite the fact that you were WRONG.

The results were delayed by two hours due to the glacial pace of the decision-making by the head commissaire, so I didn't get out of there until about 7:30. A quick stop at my sister's house to say hello, drive to Santa Cruz, arrive and flop into bed around 11:00.

At this level, race stages usually start at a leisurely 11AM or noon. For some unknown reason, today's stage (which goes across the Golden Gate Bridge) kicks off at something like 8:30 or 9 AM, so TV crew call is at 5:30. Good thing, because there was some sort of mixup with the hotel rooms last night, and the whole crew wound up at a Best Western All Suites in Santa Cruz, which is a sucky hotel. Noisy, right next to the road, with paper-thin walls. Oh well, I'll sleep next week at home. So all told, I will have spent a grand total of slightly less than 6 hours at this hotel.

I'll try (again) to get some photos today, but die wetter is supposed to be ekelhaft again, so all bets are off.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Quick Update from Santa Rosa

Quick update. As you probably saw on TV, the Prologue went pretty well. A few bobbles here and there, but everything worked pretty solidly. Fred used TTWare and Matt used TTRemote to plug in the start times post facto, as the start was too far away from the finish to get the start times live.

We blew one finish (I forget who) because the DSL routers went out of synch for no apparent reason, so the clock kept running on the air. Fred got the time perfectly, but the finish packets to the AKI were lost by the routers. Sucks, but hey, it's a bike race on live TV, going to 150 countries. With all the warts. Schitt happens.

The guys over at 3G did a decent job with the RF, it blew to shit one time for a few minutes, but it pretty much worked, and the bar has been set so low by the previous RF company that it didn't take much to exceed expectations.

The weather tomorrow, for the first road stage, is supposed to be terrible, possibly even horrendous. My punch list:

1. Get the RADAR wired, powered, & working from the finish line. Fred is helping me with the hardware, and in fact came up with an ingenious idea - he's going to power the RADAR off the D-Line interconnect, since both the RADAR and the D-Lines hang on the Finish gantry.

2. Make a long RS-232 cable, run it over to the 3G truck, and get ready to suck down the GPS data from the 8 GPS transponders out on the race vehicles and relay it in real time to Adobe.

3. Run a long network cable to the TourTracker portable downlink, so the TourTracker infrastructure software can have a decent pipe.

4. Load the current GC standings on the Chyron interface and onto my own AKI software.

5. Review all my graphics with the TD and with Ally, our pretty and highly competent Font Coordinator, and Michelle, our equally cute Chyron operator, as there are a few inconsistencies between my AKI graphics and Michelle's Chyron graphics. Minor stuff, but the VERSUS Graphics Police are thorough and brutal.

6. Finish my own piece of the TourTracker TV graphics chain, a program to load the live course profile onto the AKI GS2 and display it on the air.

Got a nice note from my good friend GeorgeP, he was watching in Australia. The AKI guys said they were going to watch in The Czech Republic on EuroSport.

Will try to get some pikkies tomorrow if time allows.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's All About The Schwag

I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen a lot of things. But I have never seen an event that does as good a job with schwag as the Amgen Tour of California. I showed up today to pick up my credential, and this is what was presented to me:

A ball cap, 4 button-down Columbia dress shirts, 5 short-sleeve Columbia golf shirts made out of wicking material, 3 long-sleeve t-shirts, a fuzzy Columbia fleece, and meal vouchers for $15 off in many restaurants in most of the stage-finish cities.

Wow. I don't want to know what AEG's schwag budget is, but there are over 400 paid people working for the race and probably 1000 volunteers per day, so do the math. A million bucks maybe?

That's a fuck-load of schwag. But we'll all look sharp.

The golf shirts and the cap

The t-shirts and the fleece.

Columbia button-downs.

Also issued were two loose-leaf books, one just for hotels and logistics, and the other showing aerial maps and diagrams of all the stage finishes, starts, hospitality areas, course profiles, and so forth.

This whole event is an example of brute-force engineering.

I saw EricH and TracyM, the PSSI Satellite guys, at reception. They are really cool guys and smart as hell, they are competent as hell, and we've got some wild schitt planned for this 9 days. AllanP, the mapping wizard from Adobe, will be here tomorrow. And of course I went on the obligatory shopping spree at FRY'S with The Fred, stocking up on all sorts of odds & ends. As a result, I am a bit excited and a bit less filled with dread about the sheer magnitude of work that is pressing down on my noggin for the next two weeks. Working with really smart, really happening, really progressive colleagues is definitely one of the major jollies I get out of this business. We bust ass, we raise the bar, we break ground with new technologies, and we have as much fun as possible doing it. The ultimate guys are the ones for whom doing a flawless job is the ultimate fun, which is why I like my ski racing guys so much. They are "that kind" of guys.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tour of California Technology Preview

To quote the most talentless singer in pop history, "Ooops, I did it again". Contrary to my vow to give up stage racing, I agreed to once again provide the TV graphics for the 2009 Amgen Tour of California bike race.

I am going to attempt to make this blog a kvetch-free zone during ATOC, because you, loyal readers, already know how confusing, disorienting and just damn difficult pro-level stage races can be from a production standpoint. This year, we're live on Versus and worldfeed every day for 9 days, starting Saturday Feb 14.

From a fan perspective, this should be a great race. Lance will be riding, along with most every other star of the pro peloton - Hincapie, Boonen, Cancellara, Van de Velde, Cavendish, Leipheimer, Voigt, Zabriskie. Stage 2 actually crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, which should be nothing less than jaw-dropping, particularly if the weather is good. We finish up in San Diego on Feb 22.

I was intending to fly back out to Utah on the 23rd to get in more backcountry skiing, but I'm predicting I'll be just too damn tired and burnt out at that point to do anything other than go home and sleep for a week.

There are several new twists this year. First of all, I'm no longer using my old, slow Matrox Digisuite machines to render graphics, I'm using my nifty new AKISPORT GS2 machines, which are really, really trick.

Second of all, I am no longer working for scoring & timing contractor Phoenix Sports Technology, but instead am on the payroll of Hatch Entertainment, the television producer.

Thirdly, I've now got a technical collaborator, a very smart programmer from Adobe named AllanP. AllanP is the brains behind the Adobe TourTracker mapping technology, which is some damn brilliant stuff. AllanP and I are going to attempt to bring some very cool real-time GPS geo-tracking technology to bear on the television broadcasts of the road stages. We got a late start and our development is pretty raw at this point, but we're thwacking away at some stuff that should end up looking like this:

The icons representing individual riders should render in real time, with a latency of perhaps 20-30 seconds. We'll see. The logistics of whipping multiple sources of GPS data around the country and cyberspace, processing it in various ways, and getting it on the air, is represented in this Buckminster Fuller-esque diagram:

Needless to say, there are a lot of potential points of failure, even before you get into programming bugs.

AllanP is a very talented fellow, as am I (I modestly opine), so I'm predicting we'll get this working, and it will work a fair amount of the time. It's simply inconceivable that it will work all the time, because "it's a bike race", i.e. schitt happens. We're talking about a sport where a 13-year-old girl waving a lunch bidon by the side of the road can bring down 7-time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong, causing him to face-plant on the tarmac and almost ruining his chances of winning Le Tour. Bike racing is the sporting form of pure, unadulterated chaos.

AP and I got a late start due to factors beyond our control (i.e. management), but we're making progress. And.....the utter & complete failure of of other contractors to make this work for the past three ATOCs has set the bar so low that we can't POSSIBLY do worse.

I'm also going to attempt to use my RADAR expertise to broadcast the peloton speeds during the sprints, live to the world. It will look something like this:

Then there are the usual race graphics, which will look something like this:

AllanP and I have a few more tricks up our sleeves, but more about that later.