An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.

Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

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Airports I’ve used

Last Friday set an ignominious personal milestone: I broke a record for consecutive days spent away from airplanes that went back to to 2001.

Back then, the post-9/11 shutdown of commercial aviation and my own relaxed travel schedule ensured I wouldn’t board a plane between early August, when I landed at National Airport after a summer vacation in California, and early January, when I took off DCA for my first Macworld Expo. This time, the novel-coronavirus pandemic has grounded me, and it’s unclear when I’ll once again feel jet engines shove me back in my seat and watch the ground fall away from the wing.

So I might as well document the airports I used in the Before Times, having already done the research for my friend Craig Fifer’s Flight Quest project to track who among his friends had taken off from or landed at more airports. As an inveterate list-maker and avgeek, how could I not have taken part in that competition?

So here you go: the 97 airports I’ve used listed by IATA and ICAO code, plus my comments about each.

This almost certainly isn’t complete, as before 1997 I’m limited to incomplete paper records and my own memory. But I don’t think anybody can question my lifelong effort to prop up commercial aviation.

Updated 9/12/2020 to add CMH, 10/7/2020 to add DAL and HOU. 

Return to flight

For the first time in almost nine years, Americans began a journey to space from Florida instead of Kazakhstan. SpaceX’s successful launch Saturday afternoon of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket closed the longest gap ever in human spaceflight from U.S. soil and broke a government monopoly on travel to orbit.

The long wait after the last shuttle mission in July 2011 for this day and this liftoff took me back all the way to 1981. That’s when my 10-year-old self woke up unnaturally early on a Sunday morning to watch the space shuttle Columbia roar to life, taking John Young and Bob Crippen to orbit after a more than five-year drought that followed the splashdown of the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July of 1975.

I didn’t get to watch that launch on YouTube on a flat-panel TV–instead, it was an over-the-air CBS signal on a cathode-ray-tube set. There was also no social media; the only people I could rejoice with afterwards were my brother and my mom and dad.

But then as now, the United States had been through hard times. Not only did NASA have to sit and watch as the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts to orbit and the shuttle program’s delays dragged on, the end of the 1970s saw our country reeling from an oil crisis, an economic crisis, and the hostage crisis. The USSR felt free to invade Afghanistan and throw its weight around the rest of the world.

It was a lot for a nine-year-old boy who had only recently gotten into the habit of reading the New York Times and watching the evening news. It felt like my country kept getting kicked around.

The past year has not been like the year running up to STS-1. It’s worse. So much worse. A global pandemic has killed more than 102,000 Americans and wrecked the U.S. economy (with the inconsequential collateral damage of my being unable to cover the SpaceX launch in person as I did 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch). The president is a ignorant bigot, a pathological liar, and a magnet for the corrupt and the incompetent–NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine being a blessed exception. The streets of some American cities were on fire Friday night.

The state of American spaceflight was nowhere as bad before today as it was at the end of 1980–astronauts have kept flying to space on Russian rockets without the shuttle’s fatal vulnerabilities, and the ISS is a spacecraft big enough to see from the ground. But all the other things make today’s misery index exponentially higher.

And this time, the kid trying to make sense of the world is my daughter. I try to help her with that, but I don’t know that I’m doing that much. Could anybody?

Saturday’s launch doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus, put tens of millions of Americans back to work, vote Trump out of office or banish his brand of cruelty from American politics, bring George Floyd back to life, or excise systemic racism. But as my friend Maura Corbett put it in a tweet, this accomplishment gave “a grieving and broken country some wonder and hope today.” And it should remind everybody that hard work and a willingness to learn may ultimately take you through adversity. And to the stars.

A new bread-baking hack: tangzhong

I’ve been baking sandwich bread about every week since 2004, and two weeks ago I learned that I’d been missing out on a fairly simple technique to make softer loaves that stay fresh longer.

It’s called tangzhong, and I learned about it from a tweet from science journalist Erin Biba. I read the introduction she shared from King Arthur Flour’s blog, then that blog’s explanation of how to work this into a standard sandwich-bread recipe.

“Tangzhong” is either Chinese for “soup starter” or “flour roux,” depending on where you read, and it’s a way to incorporate more water into bread dough without it evaporating and making the bread stale as fast as usual. You do that by cooking a small amount of flour and water in a pan until they form a slurry–as if you were making roux for homemade mac and cheese–that locks in the moisture, Then you combine this with  the rest of your flour mixture before adding your yeast mixture and proceeding as usual.

The King Arthur directions started simple: 3 tablespoons flour and half a cup of water in a pan over medium heat until the mixture thickens. But then math intruded, in the form of calculations to determine how much water to add to the rest of the recipe to ensure that the water added up to 75 percent of the weight of the flour.

The first try, I spent so much time weighing ingredients–a somewhat irritating step when you’re putting flour and then water on a scale in measuring cups already labeled to tell you how much of something they contain–that I forgot to add the weight of that initial half cup of water back in and instead poured in almost a quarter of a cup more water into my yeast-and-water mix. The result was an unmanageably soupy dough that I couldn’t work with until I’d added maybe another half cup of flour above the 3 1/2 cups in my standard recipe.

That left me with more risen dough than I’d need for one loaf, so I broke off a bit and formed that into hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. All were delicious, if done at least half an hour behind schedule. The bread was notably softer and fluffier–more like the pre-packaged sort I renounced buying 15 years ago when I was just embarking on baking hipsterdom–and kept fresh longer, freeing me from wanting to relegate the last couple of slices to toast or a grilled-cheese sandwich.

The second try, I decided to wing it a little and not add any water beyond the half cup in the tangzhong and the 1 1/4 cup in which I normally pour yeast and honey to start. I also saved myself some complexity by putting all of the flour in the stand mixer’s bowl, then taking out 3 tablespoons for the tangzhong. But once again, I still had dough too damp to work, so I added a little more flour and once again got some bonus rolls.

On the third try, I used only 1 3/4 cup of water to start the yeast, leaving me with 1 1/2 1 1/4 cups of water in the total recipe. As in, close enough to not too far below the proportions the King Arthur recipe had specified, if only I’d paid more attention the first time, but also the same amount of total water as in my usual bread-baking practice.

On this iteration, the dough came away from the sides (if not the bottom) of our stand mixer like usual, and the finished loaf was fantastic like the others. As I write this, I am already looking forward to tomorrow’s sandwich for lunch.

Updated 5/16 to correct totals for the third iteration.

Here’s why I have trouble buying things quickly online

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a fair amount of online shopping. But I’ve probably been much slower at it than most of you.

Not “slower” in the sense of taking forever to pick one product over another (although my indecision-making there is considerable), but in the sense of deciding how I’ll pay for it and which third-party site I should click through before making the purchase.

Picking a credit card is the easier part even if I’m not buying stuff for my job (work expenses go on a separate card to ease my accounting). Most of the time, the 2% cash-back rebate on the Citi Double Cash Mastercard makes it the obvious choice. It’s been an even easier call when Citi’s offered extra cash back in promotions with various merchants.

But other card issuers have their own extra incentives. American Express and Chase offer extra cash back and do so much more often, but you have to sign up for each such offer on their sites or in their mobile apps. So I need to consult both before any purchase–and then hope the merchant in question doesn’t drop one of these deals the week after my purchase.

(Note that Amex and Chase also have tiered cash and points rewards for categories outside of online retail; a proper discussion of them would require a separate post.)

Not too many years ago, my shopping decisions would have ended there. But then I had to start considering shopping portals, the points-for-purchases sites most frequent-travel programs provide for members. By itself, a mile or a point for a dollar spent somewhere is barely worth thinking about. But that incremental addition does deserve your time if you’re nearing an award-redemption threshold or have miles or points that will expire without new activity in your account.

These portals don’t all offer the same rate or each offer the same rate over time. To verify which one offers the most return, I use a site called Cashback Monitor that tracks these deals and lets you set up a custom page with your favorites. (For more details, see this concise how-to by One Mile At A Time’s Tiffany Funk.) JetBlue consistently offers some of the best earn rates; fortunately, TrueBlue points have not seem the same deflation as other frequent-flyer currencies in recent years.

You may find no future-travel benefit for a potential purchase. Best Buy, Target and Walmart recently seem to have dropped out, while I can’t remember seeing any travel incentives for Amazon. In those cases, I’ll go to one last site before starting a purchase: my client Wirecutter, which often tells me what to buy and makes a decent chunk of its money off affiliate payments from Amazon and other retailers. If I can’t treat myself to a little kickback on a purchase, helping one of my favorite clients seems like a decent fallback.