Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.

Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.

One less car

The total weight of my worldly possessions dropped by about 2,557 pounds a week and a half ago: I gave away the 1992 Acura Integra that had become a driveway-bound monument to how getting around D.C. has changed for me.

Integra mileageI should have done that long ago: November of 2007, to be exact, when the Washington Area Bicyclist Association had a promotion running with Zipcar that would have yielded $500 in driving credit on the car-sharing service.

Instead, what finally pushed me to research my options (I was the “Rob” who sought Greater Greater Washington’s advice) and choose WABA’s current, less generous offer of a year’s free membership was seeing the oil-pressure light come on.

Two mechanics told me that probably would require dropping $1,000 or so on a new oil pump, and that the diagnosis alone would cost over $100, and that was enough to end an automotive relationship that began in the spring of 1997.

Transportation in Washington was much worse back then. There was no ZipCar, no car2go, no Capital Bikeshare. Bike lanes were vanishingly scarce, protected “cycle tracks” unimagined. No signs or mobile apps counted down the minutes before the next train or bus arrival. The city’s taxis ran on the idiotic and unfair zone system, as interpreted by cabbies who rarely missed a chance to rip me off. App-driven, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar were a decade from being possible.

What would it take to get somebody with no off-street parking and no need to drive to work to write a check for $9,294.60 to buy a used car? All of those things.

Integra gearshiftAnd I really did love that car, so much that it took this long for me to accept that I ought to give it up. This Integra RS must have been the least luxurious Acura ever made, lacking power windows, power locks or even power side-view mirrors, but it handled great, the stick shift was a joy to work, and that little four-cylinder engine roared delightfully as it neared its 6800 RPM redline.

(One memorable drive: On New Year’s Day of 1998, I made it from Greenwich Village to Clarendon in three hours and 45 minutes by not stopping for anything and generously interpreting the speed limits. That’s not a record I plan on breaking–as if I-95 these days would let me.)

And for a car bought basically for fun, this was amazingly practical. I often beat the EPA highway estimate of 28 MPG and once notched 36 MPG on a particularly blessed tank of gas. And with the rear seats folded down, the Integra could haul almost anything–a full-sized bed frame, a Christmas tree of any size, not one but two bicycles.

(Another memorable drive: In May of 2000, I went to Manhattan with my friend Doug for Bike New York, with said two bikes in the back. We somehow found an open parking spot outside my cousin’s apartment on Carmine Street–at which we had to pay for less than an hour before it went unmetered for the weekend. That’s probably the greatest street-parking job I’ll ever accomplish.)

Acura Integra in 1997I babied that car for years, regularly washing and even waxing it, as the photo at right reveals. But then in late 2001 I scratched the passenger side by taking a turn too tightly on the way out of my condo’s garage and decided that I did not need to spend almost $800 to fix the damage.

Getting married didn’t really put a dent in my driving habits, but my wife’s problem-plagued Dodge Intrepid blowing a gasket in the summer of 2005 did: The Toyota Prius we bought to replace that snakebit vehicle could carry almost as much stuff as mine, fit into the same parking spaces and got better mileage. And then my wife got a job within easy walking and biking distance, leaving the Prius free for me to use almost all the time.

My annual mileage totals went from four digits to three digits–I’d put over 33,000 miles on the Integra by then–to the low three digits. The biggest problem on this incredibly reliable vehicle became having its battery run down from a lack of use.

And so after 38,478 miles together, it was time to say goodbye to what is almost certainly the last solely gas-powered car I’ll ever own. A week and a half after I last saw my car–behind the tow truck hauling it down the street–I can’t say I miss the old girl. But I do have one small regret: I forgot to check the coin box when I cleaned out the inside, and I suspect I left a quarter or two there.

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

T-Mobile’s free 2G international roaming is not bad at all

BARCELONA–I did something weird when I got off the plane in Brussels Sunday morning after a horrendously-delayed flight out of Dulles: I took the phone out of airplane mode.

T-Mobile 2G roaming

My usual routine on a trip to Europe has been to limp along on WiFi until I can buy a prepaid SIM (which hopefully will work right away but doesn’t always). But after switching my T-Mobile service from an old small-business plan to a slightly more expensive Simple Choice plan with free 2G roaming, I didn’t have to put up with that workaround.

What I didn’t know before this trip here for Mobile World Congress is if I could stand to spend that much time on an EDGE or slower connection. The limits of T-Mobile’s network in rural areas give me that experience more often than I’d like, and it’s not fun.

But when the alternative is either WiFi alone or having to find a store selling prepaid SIMs–sadly, the one in the arrivals area of Barcelona’s airport seemed to have closed when I arrived Sunday afternoon–slow but free can be not bad.

T-Mobile 2G roaming speed testBy “slow” I’m talking a connection that the Speedtest app clocked going no faster than .13 Mbps on a download, .24 on an upload. That’s nowhere near fast enough for sustained use or for work–Monday, I switched to faster bandwidth.

But in the meantime, that EDGE service provided sufficient bandwidth for my e-mail to arrive in the background, to read and write tweets (and even share a picture on Twitter, slowly), to get directions on Google Maps, to check up on Facebook and check in on Foursquare Swarm, and to browse mobile-optimized Web sites with a certain degree of patience.

I’m not alone in that judgment: Ars Technica’s Peter Bright mentioned to me on Monday that he was relying on T-Mobile 2G roaming, and avgeek blogger Seth Miller wrote in 2013 that this free roaming could very well be good enough for short visits.

And even if you’ll still buy a prepaid SIM at your first opportunity overseas, there’s a lot to be said for getting off the plane and not having to freak out over what it will cost you to exit airplane mode before that point.