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.

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

Weekly output: Safari reloading, screenshots and privacy, Windows 8, SXSW and smartphones (x2), syncing, Android keyboards

I wrote the first three stories on this list using an external keyboard hooked up to my ThinkPad. That move came courtesy of the busted keyboard that stopped responding to certain keystrokes–including Enter, Backspace, 8 and h–sometime between my going to bed the night before SXSW and my getting on the first flight to Austin. That did not add to the business-travel experience.

3/11/2012: Tip: Avoid hiccups in Safari browsing, USA Today

I’m glad this column’s format doesn’t require using a specific reader’s name, because this problem comes from my own experience with Apple’s browser. (The day after this posted, Apple issued a 5.1.4 update to Safari that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do much to solve the problem.) In the rest of the column, I offer a reminder that I too often leave out of pieces on privacy: If something online is sufficiently interesting, people will take a screengrab of it and share that image, regardless of whatever privacy settings once protected that item.

3/12/2012: Windows 8: The Shock Of The New, And The Old, Discovery News

I wanted to like Microsoft’s upcoming replacement for Windows 7. I still do. But blowing up a smartphone interface, Metro, to laptop-screen dimensions seems like a fundamental mistake. So does making touchscreen gestures critical to so many routine actions. Yes, many of my peers in tech journalism–see, for instance, ZDNet’s Ed Bott–have been far more positive about Windows 8. But most of those reviews were done on touchscreen tablets loaned by Microsoft , while I installed the Consumer Preview release alongside Win 7 on a non-touchscreen laptop.

3/13/2012: Smartphone Battery Life Goes South By Southwest, CEA Digital Dialogue

Forgive me for writing yet another rant about lame smartphone battery life–but my experience at the conference set a new low. And I wasn’t alone in this dilemma. The night after I wrote this, I found myself at a bar next to a spare power outlet. I plugged in my travel power strip and soon had people coming up to me with dead or dying phones, offering to trade a drink ticket for one of the remaining outlets on the strip.

3/16/2012: Which Apps Might Outlive SXSW, Discovery News

In retrospect, I could not have picked a much worse time for this post to go up–on the morning that Apple’s new iPad arrived, and only hours before the news of Mike Daisey’s duplicity would break. What was I thinking? Anyway, I do like how this piece turned out, so please read it when you get bored of reading about tablet computing and journalist standards–if not sooner.

3/18/2012: Tip: A cautionary tale about syncing, USA Today

I wasn’t sure this reader’s question about unexpected BlackBerry contacts syncing would be relevant enough until Andy Baio wrote a great piece for about the perils of giving too many third-party apps access to your Web services. That inspired me to pivot from one person’s glitch to the larger issue of being too generous with access to our data. The balance of the column, a reminder to check for alternate software keyboards on an Android device, came about because commenters on my Boing Boing review of the Samsung Galaxy Note asked why I didn’t tell readers to switch from Samsung’s obnoxious keyboard.

Since I’ve now posted this summary on a Sunday two weeks in a row, I’m going to continue with that schedule. I trust that you all are okay with that. Also: If you don’t want to wait until the end of the week to see where I’ve been writing and/or find my Twitter feed too noisy, I’ve set up a tumblr blog under my LLC’s name, Prose Hacking, where I link to each story I’ve written more or less in real time. This is probably a misuse of tumblr, but–hey, I needed to develop a minimal level of competence with that platform, and I needed to do something with the domain name I registered for my company.

A Metro user-interface wish list

One side effect of being a user-interface critic is never being able to step away from the work–the world is full of bad UIs. And sadly enough, public transportation has been a tremendous contributor. Consider the transit system I know best and use all the time, Metro.

Don’t get me wrong here: Metro’s rail map is a model of clarity (yes, I own a copy of “Transit Maps of the World”) and I’ve grown so used to Metro’s signs counting down the minutes until the next train that the absence of equivalents in places like Boston baffles me (“I’m just going to have to wait at Government Center for an indeterminate period of time?!”). The leadership at WMATA greatly improved the system’s usability when they provided a schedule feed to third-party sites like Google Maps, as I documented in an article for ReadWriteWeb two weeks ago.

Yet in some ways, Metro’s user experience remains awkward enough to make you wonder about the motives of the people behind this “UX.”

  • Too many bus-stop signs are useless. The one pictured at right, across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, isn’t even the worst: Although it offers no map or schedule, it does name the end points of each route.
  • Bus-route monikers mean nothing. Take the 30s routes–please. Most 30s buses going west out of downtown head up Wisconsin Avenue, but the 38B goes across the river to Arlington. The 32, 32, 34 and 36 are local, but the 37 is express. Metro can’t even pick logical names for new routes, with no established constituency to confuse: When it added express service to BWI Airport, it named this route “B30” instead of, you know, “BWI.”
  • The NextBus interface, on both the desktop and mobile, is clumsy and slow. It’s terrific that Metro lets you look up real-time arrival estimates for buses–when those estimates approach reality–but unless you’re standing in front of a sign with a NextBus stop number, you have to look up service by choosing a bus line, then a direction, then a stop. Metro’s sites desperately need a “service near my location” button like those on NJ Transit and BART’s mobile sites; fortunately, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tweeted in June that Metro was working to add that. (The photo shows a related problem of incompatible next-arrival tools used by other systems; to see if Arlington Transit’s 42 bus will get there before the 38B, you’re asked to hit a separate site.) Update, 12/1, 12:02 p.m. Reader “t” commented that NextBus’s smartphone site – –  offers that geolocation option already. I tried it, and it almost instantly reported the next arrivals for the four Metro bus routes nearest my home, plus a D.C. Circulator stop about a mile away.
  • The downtown transfer stations need better exit signage. Get off at Metro Center, then try to find the westernmost exit. You can’t without a compass on your phone; at any given point, you can only see one or two signs pointing which escalator will take you towards one of its four exits. (There used to be a large map on the Red Line platform showing exactly where those exits put you on the street, but that disappeared at some point.) The situation is as bad at L’Enfant Plaza.
  • As a great many others have complained, station names are a form of grade inflation. In the city, endlessly-hyphenated names like “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” suggest how much influence a particular councilmember holds; in the suburbs, exercises in wishful thinking like “Vienna/Fairfax-GMU” imply that locations five miles away are next door. I can only hope Metro’s board quashes Fairfax County’s delusional proposal to name seven of the eight future Silver Line stops in the county after either “Tysons” or “Reston.”
  • Poorly-connected suburban stations. Building a Metro stop is an expensive exercise, but some area jurisdictions must have forgotten that when designing Metro stops that impede access from adjacent neighborhoods. In Fairfax, the Dunn-Loring stop squats in the median of Interstate 66–but there’s no pedestrian bridge connecting it to the north side of the highway. Walking from the West Falls Church stop to a friend’s house in Pimmit Hills–about a mile by air–sends me on a two-mile trek along multiple highway on- and off-ramps. In Montgomery County, walking from the Forest Glen stop to the east side of Georgia Avenue requires a hazardous crossing of eight lanes of traffic.

You’ll note that I didn’t include a common Metro rant: its byzantine route structure, with off-peak, peak and “peak of the peak” fares that also vary by distance. That’s because Metro’s stored-value fare cards, and in particular its SmarTrip RFID cards, help to hide the cost of any given trip. (When I interviewed Metro CFO Peter Benjamin in 1999 for a piece explaining the then-new SmarTrip system, he said upfront that Metro wanted to make the price of any one ride as invisible as the cost of a single drive.) It’s funny how a good interface can make complexity vanish.

Weekly output: Flash, Android tablets, SOPA, Microsoft stores, Metro

News flash: I haven’t been writing as often here. That’s a logical outcome of having more places willing to pay me to write, but at the same time I feel like I’m committing a blogging foul by letting this go dark for a week or two at a stretch. At the same time, I’ve realized that keeping up with my scattered output can’t be that easy for interested readers–I can’t always remember what I’ve written over the last two weeks.

(I point to my work on Twitter and my Facebook page, but good luck finding those links later on at either site.)

So I’m going to do a post each week wrapping up my work. That will ensure there’s something new here each week, and it will give me a spot to share some insights about how each post/article/Q&A/podcast/speech/interpretive dance/etc. came to be. (Credit for this idea and the structure I’m using goes to Brett Snyder’s Cranky Flier blog, which runs a “Cranky on the Web” post each Saturday noting where he’s written or been quoted.) Yes, the fact that this exercise may better promote my work and myself has not escaped my attention.

Nov. 15: “Fading Flash And Other Media Missteps,” CEA Tech Enthusiast (subscription required) CEA Digital Dialogue

A follow-up to an earlier post on Discovery News about Adobe’s decision to stop developing mobile versions of its Flash Player, in which I note some possible downsides of having to rely on a universe of apps for name-brand video on mobile devices and other non-computer gadgets.

Nov. 16:  “Why Android Tablets Can’t Catch A Break,” Discovery News

I’d meant to write this review of the Vizio Tablet earlier, but other events kept bumping it aside. The upside of that was that I could incorporate some extended observations of Vizio’s marketing and the broader state of the tablet market into the piece.

Nov. 18: “Online Piracy Act Is Copyright Overreach,” Roll Call

This is an updated version of a post I did for Tech Enthusiast two weeks earlier. CEA–no fan of the Stop Online Piracy Act–wanted to get the post a broader audience and sold Roll Call on running it. (CEA and I came to our dislikes of this foolish bill separately, but I don’t mind their efforts resulting in my first print appearance since April.)

Nov. 19: “A Store That’s The Apple of Microsoft’s Eye,” Discovery News

I trekked out to Tysons Corner to see Microsoft open its 14th retail store, the first anywhere along the Northeast Corridor. My first impression was probably yours: It’s a lot like Apple’s stores. My second: The Microsoft Store presents a tough critique of the PC business as we’ve known it.

Nov. 19: “How D.C.’s Metro Opened Up Its Data,” ReadWriteWeb

I started this post months ago; after my editor told me “no rush here,” I took advantage of a liberal deadline to over-report the piece. So, please, ask me an obscure question about Metro, transit-data feeds or mapping applications.

Updated 1/31/2012 with links to non-paywalled versions of the Tech Enthusiast links.