I got bit last night, hard, by an astounding bug in Windows Live Mesh 2011. This bug put me in the position of having to cut together (again) a PowerPoint slide deck of 430+ slides from 20 disparate sources, including Keynote, while 18 speakers and a crowd of nearly 400 people waited.
It could have been even worse…
Flashback: I have been a cheerleader for Mesh right up until now. Through the past three years of interminable beta, apparent lack of resources from the Mesh team and/or indifference from management at Microsoft. The complete failure to push forward a product that had huge promise to keep Windows machines relevant and show the superior usability of computers that are kept seamlessly in sync has and continues to mystify me.
I’ve used Mesh to keep a laptop, work computer and home computer in sync and it is an ideal situation. I’ve been using it this year to keep my two desktop machines, one at a normal desk with a chair where I can chill and the other at a standing desk where I work the majority of my time. I have different project folders and have been using Mesh to keep them the same across the two computers. This way I don’t have to think about which computer I’m at, the apps and data are the same. And I don’t have to incur any performance hit from the files being across the network; even at megabit speeds you don’t want compiles or video editing going across a wire.
So it was with my Ignite data. Everything I need to manage Ignite is in one place, including the material for the next event. I had my overall ‘Master’ deck here, along with the material from each speaker that needed to be integrated in. (If you aren’t familiar with the Ignite format; presenters each have 5 minutes to speak against 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds, 19 speakers x 20 slides plus intro/extro/intermission = 435 slides).
On Tuesday night before the event I started the big integration. I had my base master deck from previous events, cut away old stuff and started integrating new talks. I got through the first four and then went to bed. The next morning I got up early and completed the deck integration, as well as refined my opening remarks and put in slides to support things I wanted to be sure we covered at the intermission and after the last speaker. There are a lot of moving parts to an Ignite event, and you can’t keep them all in your head or wing it and come out ok. On top of all the things I had to worry about for the overall evening I was giving a talk of my own.
So the deck was ready, at 435 slides. I saved it, did a bunch of other stuff to get ready for the evening. When I took a lunch break I decided to switch to the sitting computer for awhile and powered it on. I had no idea at the time but this is when the fateful Mesh error occurred. I did some other work, sent off a copy of the deck to the production company that handles filming Ignite, then started packing the car with all the gear needed, including the computer I had used in the morning to finalize the deck.
Setup went pretty well. There was some frustration that I couldn’t get Windows to manage the three-monitor setup I had planned to use (operator, projector, stage) which really bummed me out as I had wanted to have a downstage monitor for speakers to see their slides on so they wouldn’t have to turn to look behind them for timing. But otherwise things seemed pretty good.
At 6:05, with about 20 minutes to go before I’d need to be ready to hit the stage, Chenney from Plum St. Productions leaned over and asked me when she could have the full deck.
“I’ve only got 140 slides, like the first five speakers or so.”
“That can’t be right, there are over 400 slides.”
I looked at the deck, sure enough, it wasn’t all there. Freaking out with the clock ticking and over 300 people in the theater below me already I reloaded the deck, double checked I was taking it from the right place. Then it hit me, the deck I was looking at was exactly what I had when I went to bed the night before. Somehow the final deck had been replaced. And I knew right then how; when I turned on the other computer, which had not been on since the night before, Mesh synchronized in the wrong direction. How on earth could it think that writing over a newer file with an older file made sense I do not know, but there it is. And here I was, totally fucked.
I then began the most frantic PowerPoint editing session in history. Very fortunately one of the last things I had done before I went to bed was export every presenter’s slides as JPEG files to make integrating them simpler (and preserve their exact appearance which tends to change when you cut/paste slides from disparate decks). It was still the worst of circumstances, I should have been mingling with the crowd, having my first beer and loosening up, thinking about the introduction, before I hit the stage. Instead I was doing the office drone equivalent of extreme ironing.
This threw off my whole evening. Hopefully it didn’t detract from everyone else enjoying the evening. The other speakers were unaffected. I feel bad for missing a lot of material I intended to cover during the intro and restart from intermission.
There are definitely some lessons learned here; First is that Mesh is toast. I had one other time earlier this year where I noticed some files were missing completely, on all three machines and thought I had just made an error, but now I know it was Mesh.
Second is have multiple copies of the deck; on the computer, on a flash drive, and uploaded to a server in case all else fails. This is obvious, like all back-up disaster stories are in retrospect.
How could it have been worse? Imagine Chenney didn’t ask about the deck, and we started on time and got half way through the first set and found we didn’t have any more content slides…