Monday, May 29, 2006

Florida Cracker Boston Trip: Day 1

We got up at 5 am Sunday morning. We'd worked like crazy until midnight Saturday cleaning, packing, and generally getting ready to fly up to Boston. I'd even loaded up the van Saturday night so the only thing Judy and Megan had to do was flop in the van for the trip to the airport.

And it was a good think I had. It still took 30 minutes to get everybody up and out the vehicle. It was at that point out next door neighbor Chuck showed up. I'd talked him into driving the van back to our house, and then coming back next Sunday to pick us up. We'd looked after his house many times when he and his wife went on long trips.

We got to the airport around 6am, checked in, and went out to the gate. We sat around waiting for the flight to board. We were finally in the air around 7:50 am. Even though the flight was through Delta we flew up on a Song 757. What was interesting about the 757 flight was the in-flight entertainment system.

Behind each seat headrest, right in front of the passenger seated in back, was a 7"-diagonal video player that was powered by an NSC Geode processor running Redhat embedded Linux via a RedBoot loader. You could tell it was Linux because of the streaming boot messages as every video player was powered on. The players had only two hardware buttons, one for screen brightness and the other a power button. Everything else you needed to do with the video player was directly on the touch-enabled screen.

The system was set up to stream video from movies and TV, and audio. The movies were all pay-per-view, and to support that model there was a slot on the bottom of the player to allow for credit-card swiping. All audio was available via a plug on each arm rest. You could either plug in your own head phones, or you got a complementary pair of ear buds from the flight crew.

Audio and video quality were pretty good. The library was fairly extensive, running a pretty wide gamut in tastes (for an airline). The TV had about a dozen channels that included Discovery, CNN, and MSNBC. If we assume that the aircraft is a 757-300 that carries 252 passengers and every passenger has streaming video to their seat, then this indicates a pretty high-bandwidth delivery system; essentially broadband. Add true video-on-demand capability for pay-per-view movies, and you've got a pretty sophisticated system. Although I counted no more than a dozen movies to choose from, it appeared that the movies could start at any time. This means that worse case you could have 252 individual movie (video) streams. Since the screen was only a 7"-wide (diagonal) LCD, you can get away with cutting raw bandwidth with compression tricks. After all, the screen is small enough and the resolution poor enough with a standard LCD that you won't notice artifacts unless you stick you nose right on the screen.

I bring all this up because 10 years ago I was working on Time Warner's Full Service Network (FSN) in Orlando. Over the last 10 years the technology has gone from our room full of SGI refrigerator-sized servers requiring a large building and $5000+ digital set top boxes to this system small enough to run on an aircraft traveling from Orlando to Boston at 35,000 feet. And this system did it a whole lot better than we ever did.

We finally got to Boston around noon, picked up our fabulous Ford Explorer rental at Hertz, and drove up to our rooms in Tewksbury N.W. of Boston. That brings up another interesting piece of technology, Hertz's Neverlost GPS-based navigation system. We managed to fumble the destination of the hotel into Neverlost, and it then led us on a merry trip up to the hotel from Logan. I'll talk about Neverlost in greater detail later, when I've had more experiences with it.

We were so tired from being wired about the trip and not getting much sleep for 48 hours that we all crashed for several hours of sleep when we checked in. When we got up we started to put together an itinerary for the rest of the week. We had a simply exquisite meal at the nearby Wendys (a #6, a #8, and a Frosty), then went back and rested some more. Finally, at 10pm, we all loaded back into our simply fabulous Ford Explorer and trekked back to Logon to pick up Lauran. She was flying into Boston from Tallahassee via Ft. Lauderdale.

We drove into Logon a little earlier than planned, but that was good, as Lauran got into Logon earlier as well. We drove around a few times, then I stopped at an outer curb and went in with Megan to wait for Lauran. Judy sat in the drivers side so we wouldn't have the fabulous Ford towed away. Lauran came down from soon after we walked into baggage claim. We waited another 10 minutes, then snagged Lauran's bag and headed back out to the car.

Once back in the fabulous Ford we were treated to some of Boston's very best hospitality. Our fabulous Ford, next to the curb, was blocked in the front and on the driver's side by two other vehicles that had arrived after we did and wanted to share the same curb space with us. Once we had Lauran with us we were ready to leave, but we couldn't due to our new-found friends. When a few gentle horn beeps failed to illicit a response, my dear sweet wife went out to politely ask the driver on our left if he would pull up. He refused, and Judy, with the strength of will that growing up in Pennsylvania instills, went back to the state police officer conveniently parked a few cars in back of us. Our blocker, seeing that Judy wasn't kidding, finally pulled away. I pulled out partially lest some other equally minded Bostonian take his place. When Judy got back, the other driver who was blocking us in the front expressed his sentiments and his reasons for not moving. Overall, it was such a wonderful experience that it was a shame it had to come to an end.

We got back to the hotel in one piece. Lauran and Megan stayed up until 2am, then we all finally got some sleep.

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