Argentina – The most embarrassing moment

 I had borrowed a laptop computer from David, but it was too old and slow to test out the software I had brought, so when David picked me up from the hotel next morning, I still had no idea whether this NOM conversion software would work.  I had brought a whole stack of floppy disks; this was still in the days before we moved over to Internet and CD software installations.  I took them with me and David went first to the Satellite receiving station in the south of the city.  He used these people to gather his images of the area around Cordoba where his students were studying the effect of the environment on the habitats of various insects, mainly the mosquito.  They had a similar set up to the one NRI had, we captured data from the NOAA series of satellites, an American set up (NOAA stands for National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and deals with anything weathery or watery in the States.  Their satellites orbited around the earth in a polar direction, so almost anyone could pick up the satellite images.  There was little decoding to do, so if you had the right kit (usually a metal horn, some wires and a bit of glue) you could pick up the signals and make some nice images.  The pictures allowed you to detect all sorts of different features.  A sort of colour picture could be picked up, but unfortunately, the sensors can only pick up red light, but they can also pick up four types of Infra red light, and combinations of these were very useful for detecting where green vegetation is, where fires may have been started, where clouds were forming and what the temperature of the land or sea was.  My institute had developed all sorts of clever techniques to make pretty maps of this kind of stuff, and had been quite successful at getting other agencies across the world to routinely use this data in their environmental monitoring.  Both a good and bad feature of the data was that each piece of information covered about 1km square.  That meant you could never pin point exactly where a bush was green or where a fire was, but it meant you could cover a large area quickly with a relatively small computer.  These images could easily take 500 km swathes in a few moments, and more if you wanted it.  An image of most of Chile and Argentina could be captured in a matter of minutes.  A quick regional picture is often what is needed by your average environmental manager, so it was quite effective.

 Many people across the world had set up their systems to capture the data from the NOAA satellite, and many could do some of the simple calculations needed to get a map of vegetation.  However, the more difficult equations from Land Surface Temperature or fire monitoring had only been tackled by more specialist agencies, and NRI thought they were one that had cracked it.  The NOM software was a new Windows package that was meant to help this processing along and help store the images effectively.

 This Argentinean capture centre could collect their own images but could not do these more sophisticated algorithms for land surface temperature.  So, they were interested in trying out the NOM data for the storage and algorithms, but did not need the capture software.  Instead they needed some conversion software, and this is what I had got from young James in Bradford a couple of hours before I left.

 I was shown around their rather nice office in an old villa style house in a leafy suburb.  I was shown the capture machines (the antennae itself was out of town), and I settled down with the computer specialist, Andre, to load up the software.  I had to keep apologising for the number of floppies as the NOM software was still in development and they had not got it to a smooth set-up routine yet.  In fact I had to do several operations manually before I could get the NOM software to work.  After about half an hour of fiddling, I was successful and the empty shell of the NOM appeared on the screen.  Andre was concerned about one or two ideas of the NOM, but they seemed generally impressed with its look.  The second stage was to load the conversion software from James.  This was a relatively simple operation.  For all the time it had taken me to receive it, this was a simple DOS program which you just copied from the floppy.  I had been given some instructions in a README file giving the syntax for when you typed the instruction.

 By this time, quite a crowd had gathered.  David had invited several people in to see this wonderful new software that was being promised to him.  Mariano, his student, had arrived, his ever-present cheerful countenance a friendly face in a bunch of strangers.  I was introduced to several others and they stood around as Andre and I made the final touches to the system.  We took a decent image of southern South America, from Cape Horn to Bolivia, and typed the file name in very carefully alongside the name of the programme from James.  I pressed return.  A small error message appeared on the screen.  I looked directly at the black screen, but could feel fifteen pairs of eyes burning into the back of my head, and the thoughts of David Gorla were translated into my brain.  “We have paid an Englishman to travel half way across the world, wined him, dined him ,shown him the country, just to have him come with a dud piece of software on a temporary floppy disk”.  I could have quite happily shrivelled away into one of the waste paper baskets and waited till night fall.  Not having developed the software, there was nothing I could do to fix it – I couldn’t even get inside it to take a look at what was going on.  I’ve become more proficient at programming issues since then, but at the time I was very much a lacky.

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One thought on “Argentina – The most embarrassing moment

  1. Argentina – The most embarrassing moment – String Knife and Paper

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