Thursday, March 28, 2013

Certifiable? Certified!

One valuable service provided by Infocomm, the trade organization for the audiovisual industry, is a system of certifications for audiovisual professionals. Last week I passed a career milestone in earning my CTS-D (Certified Technical Specialist - Designer) certification. So what are these certifications, why do they matter and, most importantly, what do I do next?

Infocomm has two levels of certification. There's the basic CTS (certified technical specialist) and the two advanced ones for the installer (CTS-I) and designer (CTS-D) tracks. While there are some very talented people in the industry who remain uncertified and, truth be told, some decidedly less talented people with certifications, there is value in a set of standards for what an AV professional should know. Carrying a certification says that an individual took the time to gain certain core knowledge, spent the effort being tested on it, and made a commitment to keep their certification current through continuing education (Infocomm requires a number of "renewal units" to maintain their various certifications). It says that an organization has made an effort to train their workforce and make sure that training is recognized.  I've been lucky to work  for companies which put a high value on training and education, so have been able not only to acquire certifications but to maintain them through continuing education. For the uninitiated, what are the AV certifications? And where do I go from here now that I've climbed to the top of the AV certification ladder (OK, it was only two rungs. The AV Certification stepladder).

The CTS is a basic, entry-level certification. I've explained it as knowing how to speak the language of AV. A holder of a CTS should (amongst other things), know the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio, different kinds of video transport (composite, component, DVI, Displayport, etc), and the names and standard pin-outs of common connectors used in the AV industry. This is a great introduction to the world of AV, and denotes enough knowledge to be a competent helper-technician  or draftsperson at an AV firm (assuming some knowledge of drafting). A CTS by itself doesn't measure enough capability to run a jobsite as a lead technician, but does indicate that if someone asks you to terminate a mic cable you'd not have to ask what kind of wire (single pair 24 AWG), what kind of connector (XLR), and which pins go where (2 is plus, 3 is minus, 1 is shield).

At the next level - the top of the stepladder - are two choices. The Installer track is just what it sounds like - everything you need to be a lead tech. From cable terminations (including hands-on testing) to rack building to final testing and commissioning of a lead system. I've known several installers with CTS-I certifications. Those who've put in the effort to get that far are the kinds of technicians who can run a job site themselves. This isn't a certification I'd likely ever achieve; I've done my share of installation, testing, and commissioning, but it's never been my primary role and that's not likely to change. Now that I'm on the consulting side of the industry I'm even less likely to be "hands on" to the point where the installer certification is appropriate.

This brings us to the -D which I just earned. As you'd expect, the skillset leans towards design. There are things like projector brightness calculations, acceptable image size for different viewing tasks, lens throw calculations, amplifier power, and the dread PAG/NAG equations (the last of which, to be fair, the test actually gives you in a little pop-up window. There's a minimum of formula memorization required). There are also quite a few questions - enough that you'd not pass the test without them - on process. What goes into a program report. When submittals are sent and who has to approve them. The relationship between specifications and drawings. Overall workflow on a construction project. Some of this is as much project management as it is AV design, but that's OK. An AV Designer who doesn't know how or to whom to communicate plans for an AV system can't really be successful. We work with technology but, as is the case with all things, we ultimately have to work with people.

So now that I've achieved a career milestone, the obvious question is "what next"? There are, of course, plenty of answers to that question. I could follow up with my study of project management principles on the way to a PMP (Project Management Professional) from the Project Management Institute. The last time I was looking into project management study was several years ago when I didn't have the required amount of experience to qualify for the higher certification. Now I do, and a refresher on those skills is always valuable. I'll talk more about project management, perhaps, in a later post. This won't be my next stop, but is on the list. What is the next stop? One trend in AV is a blurring of lines between AV systems and network-based unified communications - especially in the corporate realm. This sometimes blurs the line between the AV and IT disciplines and many AV professionals - myself included - lack the depth of knowledge to intelligently weigh the benefits, drawbacks, and IT requirements for various communications systems which would be integrated with an AV project. With AV and IT converging, it's a good time for us all to learn at least a bit about eachother's space.

So, I'm now filling my head with things like the OSI model, network routing, private vs. public IP addresses, CISCO switch commands, and the like. It's genuinely fascinating to better see how data gets to where it's going once it leaves through that RJ45 jack in the back of your PC, and I'm looking forward to this part of the journey. There will, perhaps, be more of it in this space later. In any event, the technology field is much like the rest of life in that there's always something new to learn.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Feminism, Writing, AV Design, and other Modern Sports

This will be a wide-ranging post containing writing, politics, and hint at writing. If you've come here looking for AV and nothing else, you might want to skip to the last paragraph; this isn't a political blog or a feminist blog, but there are times I touch on both. This is one of them.

There's been some spirited discussion about Anita Sarkeesian's return to producing her Feminist Frequency videos, with an ongoing series on sexism in video games. As a writer I find this branch of feminism interesting because it dissects the role stories play in the creation of culture. As a gamer - and I believe all gamers worthy of the name should feel this way - I appreciate seeing the art form of gaming taken seriously as being worthy of the same sort of scrutiny as literature and film. And as a man, as the father of a young girl, and as a human being I'm saddened that we still live in a world in which women are all too often seen as objects rather than independent actors in their own right.

I'll not rehash Ms. Sarkeesian's arguments here; you should certainly watch the videos for that. There are two interesting side-points that I want to talk about today. The first, and easiest one, is that a writer can sometimes send a message without intending it, and that even the simplest stories do have a message. Consider her take on the coin-op classic Donkey Kong. On the surface, there's not much to that particular story, if there's a story at all; it's an exercise in endlessly climbing the same girders and leaping the same barrels to save the pretty girl from the scary monkey. Sarkeesian makes a very good point, though, that the entire set-up reduces the "pretty girl" to a prize. If Donkey Kong had stolen, say, a bag of gold the story would read exactly the same. This is the point about objectification. So I read this and thought about it and then, through the perils of YouTube search, came across several reactions. A halfwit with a dead animal on his head. A guy who mistakes critique of the writers of the Donkey Kong video game series with critique of the fictitious characters therein. A slew of angry men doing what they thought Sarkeesian was doing: looking into a camera and complaining. (and no, I'm not linking to any of them. Look around if you want; it's not my intention to drive pageviews for mouth-breathing pre-adolescent dimwits).

What this attitude most reminds me of are the critiques of modern writing from traditionalists like Robert Frost (who likened writing non-formal verse to playing tennis without a net) and Truman Capote (who famously called Kerouac's work mere typing rather than writing). Take a moment to read some Kerouac, or Ginsberg's "Howl".

Back so soon? Take some time.

Read them carefully.

I'll wait.

OK. The first thing you notice - at least the first thing I noticed - is the seeming chaos of these works. It really seems as if the early modern poets are just tossing words around. If you try looking a bit more closely, you'll start seeing more. Kerouac seems to be grabbing images at random, but there's an underlying cohesion which hints at much more serious effort and planning than you'd have suspected him of. If you look more closely at Howl's lines you'll find them interspersed with internal rhymes, scraps of meter, and very carefully chosen words. To assume that Ginsberg or Kerouac are just throwing around words and images is the same mistake as assuming that Sarkeesian is just complaining in front of a video camera; it is to only see what is there on the surface without digging underneath and appreciating not only the work that goes into it but also the beauty of the final product. In UPenn's excellent Modern Poetry class (on the Coursera platform last month and destined to return in September) English professor Al Filreis used the adjective "wrought" for these works; it's a good one. They are made things, built things, carefully considered things. You can throw around adjectives and adverbs in an unedited stream of nonsense, but that wouldn't make you a modern writer any more than Ms. Sarkeesian's detractors are gender-conscious thinkers or, ultimately, thinkers at all.

Which brings us, long-windedly, to what I do in the AV design world. It's easy to look at an AV system, be it a conference room, classroom, or a digital signage system it all looks simple; a TV goes on the wall, speakers go where you can hear them, etc. What I've found is that the more I know, the more there is to know. I've seen plenty of spaces with video, plenty with audio. Not all appear to be designed with the kind of thoughtfulness and care that separates an AV system from a room with AV in it.

Did someone do the math to make sure you could have enough voicelift without feedback?
Did someone do the math to make sure that your display is big enough to read the kind of content it's to be showing?
Did someone make sure that the system fit nicely into the space and fit the users' needs?

Life is like that. Not only are there are relatively few things as simple as they seem at first glance, but things that you don't see and very likely never will see unless you've learned just what to look for make a difference. The slightly longer gooseneck mic do improve the PAG/NAG equations. The carefully planned breaks in meter. The emphasis of one detail over another in developing a theme. Life is complicated. Learn to embrace it, learn to look beneath the surface, and have the courage to know what you don't know.

I'll close with more modernism; experimental writer and poet John Cage took Ginsberg'a carefully-wrought text and manipulated it with an algorithm he called a "mesostic" - sort of an internal acrostic. Here's a brief excerpt of what he came up with.

Even this is harder to do than it may seem! I encountered this during the Modern Poetry MOOC from UPenn, and had the assignment to try it myself. Since it was election time, I went nakedly and shamelessly political. I started with Ruth Lechlitner's 1936 piece "Lines for an Abortionist's Office" and tried to bring it to the present with Akin or Murdock's names after their rather questionable views on women's rights became major news. Neither gave all that interesting a result. Then I tried again with the Akin's poorly-chosen phrase "legitimate rape"

Writing through Lechlitner's "Lines for an Abortionist's Office"

pain-sharp Ened,

And then gently touched up with "wing words"
       to brinG
                May be
               fAt and
            deeP as

I somewhat liked the way it ended mid-note, and think it certainly gave a mood or a tone. More to the point, even a quick throw-away exercise like this for a peer-reviewed class took some time and effort and a few false starts to give what looks like a somewhat effortless result.

Moral of the story? (all my stories have a moral!): There's more than you see. Think more deeply and question your assumptions before judging.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

AV Systems, Integration Angst, and what I did last Thursday

UCLA-based Greg Brown has been giving us something of a customer's-eye-view of the AV industry in his blog over on the Infocomm site (for those not in the know, Infocomm is the professional organization for the AV industry). He recently had a pointed two-part series on some of the challenges he's faced with AV integrators in general and in the higher-education vertical in particular. Specifically, in subsequent posts he identified two very different issues: poor design and poor workmanship. I'll leave the latter for another day, although there are some interesting things to say about that in which I'm mostly in agreement with Brown; I especially applaud his efforts to be an educated consumer capable of recognizing workmanship errors beyond the obvious (projection screen installed backwards!) to the more subtle (tie-wraps cinched too tightly in a rack).

What raised my eyebrows on his design complaints is that he identified two opposite issues: gold-plating and corner-cutting. He then raised the additional issue of unauthorized and unexpected equipment substitutions, which is a real but more minor issue. A few thoughts, of course, jumped out at me.
First is that if too much complexity is a problem sometimes and too little capability is a problem other times, then perhaps the real issue - or the only issue - isn't with the integrator. I recently left the integration world for that of consulting, making my responsibilities a bit different. 

This brings me to last Thursday; we have a healthcare client looking to deploy technology in a new facility. I saw lots of spaces labelled as "conference rooms"; some less than 200 square feet, some larger, and some divisible. Many of the latter were shotgun-rooms joined end-to-end rather than side-to-side. Standard practices seemed fairly clear; the small rooms would likely have local presentations, the larger ones videoconferencing and some kind of front-projection system. Simple, straightforward, and standard. To be sure that this was what everyone wanted, I arranged a meeting not just with the architect (my client) but with end-users and their AV support staff. We spent two hours discussing how the spaces would be used, by whom they would be used, how they would be supported, and how current spaces are used. This is part of what I learned:

1. They are very heavy video conference users. Every room was expected to have a dual-display VTC system.
2. Image quality is very important to them. Very large flat-panel displays are greatly preferred over projection systems in any but the largest spaces.
3. End-users are intelligent but not very technologically savvy. AV support personnel would be located in a different building, but be expected to access systems remotely via a network.

This caused quite a few design changes. Dual flatpanels everywhere. No portable equipment. Ceiling microphones in the remaining divisible rooms to save end-users the trouble of having to connect hard-wired devices without local support. Yes, I can hear you out there gnashing your teeth over the idea of hanging mics from the ceiling. I don't care for it either, but they had reasons to not want wired table mics or wireless mics; this leaves relatively few choices. A number of Greg's (and other clients') issues quite likely were integrators doing a poor job. Equally many, though, could have been jobs which were doomed to failure long before anyone showed up on site and picked up tools.

The point of this story? Not asking the right questions to the right people today would have resulted in a disaster a year and a half from now when they get around to actually building it. That's one reason that  most large jobs involve consultants and part of the value we bring; it also creates a sense of continuity through system designs in various rooms and spaces.

So is the moral "hire a consultant"? I'd give an unqualified and utterly-self-serving "yes" if the consulting firm you're considering is Shen, Milsom and Wilke. Joking aside, that's not quite it; the moral of the story is that y

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Some new products: dispatch from the Mitsubishi Roadshow (and more!)

This afternoon I had the opportunity to drop by Mitsubishi's Consultants' Roadshow here in New York. It was a nice opportunity to see what Mitsubishi and some other vendors are up to in terms of new AV products and all-too-briefly chat about the present and future of the industry. Throw in another stop for Delta Display's new short-throw front-projection videowall unit and a visit by the good folks from Biamp and today was quite the day for AV products, both new and familiar.

The Mitsubishi event was a fairly cozy gathering here in two connected conference rooms of the Eventi Hotel here in Manhattan. The first space was, naturally, taken by Mitsubishi's newest flat panels and projectors. They have some nice commercial-grade edge-lit LED panels in sizes ranging from 42" up to 70, with an 80" or larger display promised very soon now. They're what one would expect from a professional-quality flatpanel; fairly slender displays with a nice narrow bezel, bright colors, RS232 and LAN control, and the expected compliment of connectors.

They also have their LASER/LED hybrid projector, which is the second one of these I've encountered. It's a promising technology for several reasons. With no lamp and no filter there's much reduced maintenance. It can be used in portrait or landscape mode with no sacrifice in reliability. Finally, there isn't the same "hotspotting" you'd sometimes get with a lamp-based projector, even if you point it at a somewhat reflective surface. Mitsubishi claims an advantage over their competitors in using only a single (green) color-wheel, allowing much better colors. It looked nice, but is hard to really judge against another model without a side-by-side comparison. Sadly, it shared the achilles' heel of all hybrid projectors I've seen thus far; it just isn't bright enough for all that many applications. In a reasonably dark room with what looked like about a 90" diagonal screen it looked fine, but at 3000 Lumens it just isn't bright enough for a larger display in most permanent installations I've encountered. They promised a short-throw version of this coming soon with the same collaborative tools as their traditional short-throw projector, located right on the other side of the room.

This one was interesting and the second multi-device network based wireless collaborative solution I'd seen today (stay tuned for the next one!). With the aid of a tiny (4" square by maybe an inch high) server box and a wireless router the projector was able to perform screen-mirroring from a laptop, iOS or android device, and even run a thinclient to a Windows OS on the server itself with no connections save a keyboard and mouse.  The tablet applications are the kind of modern touch for which the "BYOD" environment is creating more and more need.

The rest of the space was occupied by Mitsubishi's partners. Crestron and AMX were both present with their newest touchpanel offerings. My schedule and the fact that I knew what they were both up to prevented me from getting too close a look, but for those who don't know I'll say this: Crestron's new panels have a clean, tablet-inspired appearance and AMX's latest panels with edge-to-edge glass and an ultra-wide aspect ratio are simply gorgeous.

Other vendors included Cybertouch, makers of infrared touch-overlays for flat-panel displays. They add shatterproof glass and extra cooling fans to give the displays a long lifespan even when laying on their back like a table. I wish we could have capacitive touch devices, but if you need something large it seems that camera-based systems are the only option. They have a multi-camera system which allows up to ten simultaneious touchpoints.

We also saw ThinkLogical, makers of fiber KVM extenders and switches as well as Kramer, makers of just about everything.  The former even had a nice bit of synergy with our hosts in a fiber transport system that could run right into one of Mitsubishi's video walls.

But wait... I promised two collaborative tools and only gave you one! Earlier in the day, I was treated to a demonstration of Delta's new front-projection video wall system. The model we saw was 137" wide by 37" high for a 143" diagonal and a resolution of 3240x1080. Two edge-blended short-throw projectors provided a display which, even in  a fairly well-lit room, was bright and clear.  There are wider models with a third projector, and taller ones with projectors mounted beneath the screen as well as on top. The privacy screen across the top projectors serves double-duty as a bit of a light-guard for the screen.  (Friendly tip - if you're discussing the increase width and placement of a third projector, don't gesture expansively with your arms before checking if the manufacturer's rep is behind you, especially if she might be getting herself a cup of coffee. Sorry Lainie!). The part that the Delta team seemed most eager to show off is the software; with a video camera mounted beside the left projector it is able to automatically calibrate the edge-blending at the touch of a button, giving re-calibrating "fine-tuning" fully automatically in less than a minute. The calibration software and edge-blending are handled by a dedicated PC

The collaboration software it's packaged with is also pretty slick. Video can be sent from laptops or tablets running their app. You can send a window, a file, or share desktops from multiple devices in a variety of windowing configurations. One video source can also be brought directly into the system through a capture-card on its PC.

So what was my takeaway from all this? Not too much, other than emphasizing that collaboration, video over IP, and mobile devices are on everyone's mind. It doesn't seem to be near the point at which it will replace traditional means of video transport, but customers are certainly looking for more options, and manufacturers are listening.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review - The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I picked this one up on a very enthusiastic recommendation from a friend. We all have books we like, books we love, and book about whic we become downright evangelical. For him, this bordered on the latter. I'm not evangelical about it by any stretch, and am not even quite sure that I love it, but did like it very much and am glad to have given Grossman a measure of my time.

The Magicians follows three well-worn fantasy tropes: the wizard school, the fantasy novel that ends up being real, and the secret history. The latter element is given disappointingly short shrift.  We're given hints that wizards among us quietly spread their influence, but all we see any of them doing outside the magic school is either recruiting new prospective wizards or idling their time away at a sinecure arranged by seemingly limitless magical influence and wealth. The description of the latter, somewhat late in the novel, felt as if it were written by someone ignorant of anything about the corporate world aside from surface appearances and, at first, felt like a very weak part of the novel. Looking more closely, it fits into one of Grossman's main themes: a deconstruction of the nerd author-insertion wish-fulfillment novel.

At first, the book appeared that it was going to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. We're introduced to Quentin, the oh so very smart seventeen year old with an Ivy-league future ahead of him, a headful of fantasy novels, but no real sense of belonging with his peers or any real plans or ambitions. So of course he'll end up at a wizarding school, of course they'll find something special about him there, and of course he'll end up a part of some epic quest the likes of which even the magical world has never seen. He'll eventually find expertise as a wizard, learn the truth about the much-beloved children's fantasy world of Fillory, and go on to have great adventures.  It's obvious and predictable, which is why I was pleased and impressed that it didn't follow formula.

Instead, we find Quentin where many top of their class wunderkinds find themselves. He's suddenly transported from a place where he was special to the place where all the special kids go, where to be a genius by any other measure is to be squarely average. Along the way we find a magic school which, while not as fantasical as Roke Island in Ursula Leguin's _A Wizard of Earthsea_ (for my money the best description of an education in magical arts I've ever read. If you've not read Leguin's Earthsea books, put this review down right now and go get them. If you haven't read them but watched the miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, you might need to lobotomize yourself first), but it did a nice job injecting genuine wonder into something which should be wondrous; the sequence involving the students' taking part in the mysterious fourth year "disappearance" was both lyrical and fascinating.

What I found a touch disappointing and what grounded the book a bit too much for my taste is that Grossman's storytelling was strictly linear. Towards the end we get some marvelous set-pieces with magical battles that could have been beautifully fimled as a Peter Jackson epic followed by a culmination of several story threads, yet the nature of the book lead us to not really feel that these were threads we'd been following all along. For all of its import, we'd seen very little of the magical world of Fillory until we're ready to go there. There are hints, but never quite enough. Later still, when we learn secrets about time-travel, they do little to disorient the reader the way great time-travel or multiple-worlds novels can. Here I'm thinking of things like Hal Duncan's Vellum or even Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Still, not being a modernist experimental writer needn't be a strike against. It just felt to me like a missed opportunity.

Finally, I'll not spoil the ending here but offer an observation: the scene and language used made it appear to be a note of hope, yet I found it vaguely depressing. It appeared to me that Quentin hadn't really had a character arc, but ended in much the same place as he began; as a follower with no dreams or plans of his own, going along to the next thing because it seemed to inevitably come next. Your mileage, of course, may vary and I'd be quite interested in hearing from people who read this differently than I did.

Three stars.