Well, I'm back from Atlanta, where I spent two weeks working at CNN to install software on, and test a video server. Back on July 1, I was contracted by Kasenna http://www.kasenna.com, a company I'd worked for three years ago, to set up and test a system in MOuntain View, then when it was working, go to CNN and install a similar unit and do the same tests.
A video server is a computer which stores videos on is hard drive, and allows lots of people to play them on their desktop computers. This particular server is capable of recording 45 movies while playing out 150. A pretty neat trick, considering the box is the same height and width as a standard desktop PC, and only about 6 inches deeper to allow room for its 16 hard drives. CNN will be using this box in a month or so, to capture satellite feeds and serve them out to the newsroom editors who use the video for story-boarding. It replaces a Silicon Graphics computer built in 1996, which can hold the same amount of data but is the size of four phone booths standing side by side. The new box is also faster, and only needs one network card to do the work which took 16 of them in the old computer.
But enough computer stuff.
August 15 I took the noon flight direct from San Jose, CA to Atlanta on a Delta Airlines Boeing 757. I had made the mistake of letting CNN's travel department book my flight, and they made the mistake of waiting till the last minute, so I ended up without a confirmed seat assignment on a 100% full flight. So I got to the airport 2 hours early, and managed to get the window seat in the emergency row. On the 757, this is the row which faces the little foyer between coach and first class, where the main cabin doors are. This meant there was no seat in front of me, hence no place to put my laptop, and I had to stow my bags back a few rows. There was also no working tray table, no place to put my book or CDs. Lots of leg room, though, which was nice for the guy sitting next to me who was so tall he had to bend to keep from hitting his head on the cabin roof.
Delta is one of those airlines which thinks they are saving $$ by not serving free food in the coach section, but I knew that and had lunch before the flight, and brought a snack along.
The flight was uneventful, about 5 hours long, and we got to ATL at about 7:30 pm local time. It was a LONG walk to the terminal, where I found a taxi to take me to the Georgian Terrace Hotel in midtown Atlanta, what turned out to be a 45-minute light rail commute from CNN. This was another result of CNN travel's ace procrastinator. GTH is a historic hotel, built in the early 1900's, across from the "Fabulous" Fox Theatre, where the world premiere of "Gone With The Wind" took place. The cast stayed at the GTH. Caruso and the Met also stayed there in 1913 when they played the Fox. It's all suites, and my room on the 15th floor had a great view of the city. It also had a full kitchen with dishwasher, a closet big enough for a South American family of 8 to live in, with a combo washer-dryer in a closet inside. The suite was almost as big as my apartment.
The travel lady had justified her choice of hotel by saying there were 16 restaurants within walking distance, and since it was dinner time, I lit out for a walk. Four long blocks later I finally reached a restaurant that was open. It was the Gordon Biersch, a micro-brewery which is based in San Jose, CA. My Peace Corps alumni group hangs out there. I figured the last thing I wanted to do for my first meal in Atlanta was have San Jose food, so I kept walking. Two blocks later, brightly lit potential eatery appeared across the street. The sign was hidden behind the ubiquitous peach trees. Just before reaching the door I looked up and saw it was a Starbuck's.
So I kept walking. Past two young men who offered to sell me drugs. Another two blocks and I hit what looked like the jackpot. It was a small strip mall with four places to eat. The Mexican place was closing for the night (it was only about 8:30 pm), the Sushi bar is closed Sundays, one place was just a bar, and the fourth was a Vietnamese noodle place. No thanks. Across the street was a place which said "Asian Steak", but there was only one table occupied, and the menu started at $50. It was getting late, so I decided it would be funny to eat at Gordon Biersch, so that's what I did. The walk back to the hotel got me two more offers for drugs, and a couple of hookers were looking my way until one of their cell phones rang. Not the best neighborhood.
Monday morning I took the 4-block walk to MARTA, the Atlanta light rail/subway system. It's similar to BART in San Francisco. The wait wasn't long, and it was only 6 stops to the Five Points Station transfer point, and then a 10-minute wait for the westbound train, and one stop to CNN. And another 3-block walk around the arena to get to the front door.
The whole first floor of CNN Center is a food court, so I grabbed some breakfast before getting a visitor's badge and calling my contact to come get me and bring me to the 11th floor where I would be spending most of my time.
I won't go into much detail about work, but suffice to say they were very, very good to me. Marc and Scott, who were the guys responsible for the newsroom systems, are both friendly, professional, hard-working engineers from Ohio. They set me up in a cubicle, got me a network connection, and after we realize I would need an escort to go to the bathroom they took me down to Security and got them to make me a contractor's keycard badge. They also took me down to the server room and showed me the old system and the new one, and Marc gave me the CNN studio tour, including behind the scenes newsroom places which normal visitors never got to see. One sight which was a bit eerie for me as a former studio cameraman was seeing Paul Zahn on the air in a studio in front of three big cameras, but she was the only human in the room. The cameras were all remote controlled.
During a lull in the work schedule, I got online and booked myself into the Omni Hotel, which is part of the CNN Center. The rate I got on Expedia was lower than what the GTH was charging, and the only gotcha was they did not have me covered for my final night. That was almost 2 weeks away, I figured something would open up eventually.
So Tuesday morning I was packed, and took a cab to the Omni, where they let me check in at 8:30 am, which was nice. I had expected to park my bags with them and check in at lunchtime.
My room on the 14th floor had a view of the hotel's north tower, in other words no view at all. The room was not as spacious as the GTH, but it was big enough. There was enough room in the mini-bar to keep my insulin.
Starting Tuesday morning, my weekdays were pretty routine. I'd take the elevator down to the lobby, walk across the food court and get some breakfast, badge myself through security and go up to the 11th floor, and chat with Erica, a perky admin assistant who was the only other person in sight of my cubicle, while I set up my laptop and commenced testing. Lunch would usually be in the food court, and then quitting time at 4:30 or 5.
Most of my evenings were spent looking for places to have dinner. Marc had told me there was a Hooter's at Underground Atlanta, which is next to that Five Points MARTA station, and since I like their wings, I went Monday night. But Underground just is not what it used to be (it used to be a Pike Place Market wanna-be), and Hooters was closed, with a banner saying that a Latin salsa place would be opening Real Soon Now. The banner looked old. In fact, 2/3 of the restaurants in the Underground were closed, and half of them had old "real soon now" banners. Kind of sad. But they had a Johnny Rockets, which is a 50's diner style place, so I had dinner there. Bad food, served slowly by a waitress with an attitude. Not at all like the JR's in my neighborhood, or in Las Vegas.
Tuesday I found Hooters by accident, it was next door to Hard Rock Cafe at Peachtree Center, where the majority of the big hotels are clustered downtown. Wednesday I made the mistake of looking at a MARTA map, and decided to check out Buckhead, which is another major hotel district about halfway to Atlanta's northern border. Got out of the station, walked for half a mile and never saw anything except hotels. Went back to the station and looked at the map again, and decided to try Lindbergh Mall, which is where MARTA HQ is located. Nothing. After half a mile I spotted the mall, and it was mostly closed down, but did manage to have the world's thinnest dinner steak at the Waffle House.
Wednesday Gina, Marc's boss' boss, suggested I try Decatur, which is stop 6 on the East MARTA line. That was a good suggestion. A whole row of eateries paralleled the station, and I had a very nice dinner at a Thai place, and then the worst mocha I had ever tasted at a cafe called Java Monkey down the block. I avoided the Raging Burrito, just on general principals, but I returned to Decatur two more times for dinner. Ruby Tuesday is a standard American place, with good service and good food. Sage is an upscale restaurant which did wonderful things with lamb shank.
Across from CNN was an Embassy Suites, which is where I was originally scheduled to stay, and it has a Ruth's Chris steak house. This is a place which is legendary in California and Nevada, very expensive, advertising that they only use the best 1% of USDA beef. While the meat was choice, what they did to it was not. Greasy, heavily salted. And their garlic mashed potatoes were bland. Their "New Orleans Style" bread pudding wasn't.
Across from CNN in the opposite direction is a Chinese-Japanese-Thai place called Golden Buddha. The staff was Chinese and Filipino. At 6 pm I was the only customer in the place. When I left at 7-ish, there was only one other table occupied. The service was excellent, but not the food. I ordered a dish which is traditionally made with a clear lobster sauce, but they used something brown and pungent.
One day during my stay the old server had a melt-down, so I stayed way late with Marc and Scott to be an extra pair of hands, and Gina told us to go out and have a steak dinner. We went down to the food court and a sports bar & grill called Jocks & Jills. We all had something called Nutty Bleu Sirloin, which turned out to be a few walnuts and some bleu cheese slapped on top of a small mediocre piece of meat. A good idea, but needs improvement. Good service, reasonable prices, and so many TV sets on so many different channels it felt just like being in the CNN newsroom.
I'm not much of a baseball fan, but it was suggested that I catch a game just to tour Turner Field. So I went online and snagged a really good seat 8 rows behind home plate to see the Braves play the Rockies on my second Tuesday night. MARTA to Five Points, then a 3-block walk through the Underground to catch the free shuttle. Well, not really free, but I'd bought a $12 weekly MARTA pass, so it was free for me.
The stadium is too big. The story is it was built for the Olympics, and held 100,000 people. When Turner bought it, he tore out a lot of the seats and made the stadium smaller, but it still looked empty during the game. My great seat turned out to not be so great, since it was dead center in the row, and the guy sitting on my right was huge, and the one on my left had a kid on his lap waving one of those foam "We're #1" hands. The Rockies were ahead 5-0 in the 5th inning, so I got up to tour the stadium, on my way out. Which is when the Braves scored 4 runs. So I stuck around, watching from various different levels, and getting some good photos. Braves finally won it 6-5. The fans did not strike me as being the brightest lights in the city, but they surprised me by singing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" at the 7th inning stretch, and proving they actually could count up to 3. Also surprising was their hot dog of choice is Hebrew National, served at a stand called "Frankly, My Dear".
The weekend before I'd done some heavy duty exploring, walking way too much, got blisters on both my feet and limped for most of the day Monday. I think I melted my tennis shoes. Good thing I'd brought along a pair of Tevas. The walking was mostly from going to various MARTA stations, getting out and walking until it was obvious there was nothing to see nearby. But I did strike pay dirt at the Lenox Square stop, which is across the street from a humongous mall. As big as the biggest ones in California, with all the same stores and all the same prices. Lots of walking there. And some more walking since I needed some sundries from Target across the street, but the only pedestrian entrance was all the way around the other side of the building. Atlanta is not built for pedestrians. Next time I'll rent a car.
One thing about walking is you get a close-up view of buildings and sidewalks and streets. Up close, Atlanta is kind of shabby. Very few places are completely bombed out, or totally run down, but very few things are well maintained.
We got 95% of what we needed to get done at CNN, and I may need to go back in a month or so when they put the machine on the live network (they didn't want to do it now due to the Republican Convention). My flight home was boring - I had an aisle seat positioned in such a way that no matter what window I looked out, all I saw was airplane wing. Atlanta's zig-zag line to the security checkpoint was almost as dizzying as a ride at Great America (or Six Flags, as they are known in the South). The entire airport is served by a single point of entry.
Anyway, I'm back at Kasenna at least for the next 4 weeks, my new assignment is to update the training materials for the new release which I was using at CNN. There are a couple of permanent positions which I'm applying for, and the tech support manager sounds very interested, but I want to finish the contract work before taking on another job.
Lots of photos of Atlanta (I didn't bring my camera into CNN, so no pix of my co-workers) are online at http://www.howeird.com/gallery.html