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Calling Mister Goodwrench by Steve Cunningham

  • It’s lab rehab time again, and this week at my shop new disk images will be created, complete with all the system and application software updates available since the first of the year. These will then be pushed over the network to each of the nearly fifty computers that now make up our audio and video computer labs.
  • This time it should go more smoothly; our new digs (well, new to us anyway) have been completely rewired with Cat6 Ethernet cable; switches and routers have been upgraded and in some cases replaced. The disk images should experience a quicker trip coming from the three virtualized servers several blocks to the east. Fast Ethernet is a truly wonderful thing, and my IT guys think it can be done in a single day. I’m not so sure about that, but I am grateful for a bigger pipe.
  • This happy situation has provided some time to think about how to make the labs more efficient and effective. One recurring issue that hasn’t had its share of attention is how to quickly identify computers and other technical equipment, both in studios and in labs, that need servicing in between full rehabs. When a piece of gear misbehaves, I’m surprised at how often students are reluctant to report it. Minor problems with lab equipment, such as an inability to print or a program that crashes too frequently, are basically ignored. Instead they simply move to another station, or grab a duplicate piece of kit, and continue to work. Faculty who experience these inconveniences are much less reluctant to complain, but they often provide problem descriptions that are less than descriptive. Our lab monitors are above-average in their technical expertise with equipment, but they’re also students with work-study credits, and often they too drop the ball. Usually they’ll just leave a handwritten slip of paper in the log book instead of filling out a paper trouble report. Then there’s the matter of how long it takes to notice the trouble report, put it on the maintenance schedule, and get to it. Add to that the fact that we have two new studios coming online in the fall, each of which has it’s own set of reasonably technical audio (and some video) gear. In short, we’re managing a lot of gear in our spare time, and the time between when the trouble happens, and when one of us diagnoses the problem and fixes it, is too long.
  • It occurred to me that we could use some maintenance-scheduling software, so I wrote some rough requirements. It would need to be free or at least cheap. and feature a database for to provide searchable storage; it must work on the Internet to make it accessible from anywhere; it would be nice if it had enough instructions embedded in it to walk the user through some semblance of troubleshooting questions, and it would be useable by work-study undergrads and the odd grad student.
  • I went looking for such a program online knowing that there was no budget for it. After a few hours of scouring the web, I found candidates but all were premium products, meaning one has to actually buy them. Some of them offer a free version, but these tend to be cut-down, crippleware teasers whose job is to encourage users to buy the deluxe version. Of course, both versions come with — wait for it — a yearly maintenance contract which is definitely not free. Furthermore, they seem to only run on Windows, and most look like they were designed for Windows 98.
  • Wait — why not build a simple web-based system using WordPress and Gravity Forms? I’ve built websites for the department using WordPress for structure and content management, and the Gravity Forms plug-in to create forms that ask questions and collect the answers. Couldn’t that be made to work by creating a directed questionnaire for submitting trouble tickets online? I believe it can, and have already mocked up the first couple of form pages. The Gravity Forms form builder has a conditional logic function that lets you ask a multiple-choice question at the top of a form, then display a specific series of follow-up questions based on the answer to the first one. This just might work — I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Steve Cunningham is an assistant professor of practice at USC's Thorton School of Music. Questions? Comments? We'd love to hear them. Please email them to

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