A D.C. summer isn’t complete without a Fort Reno concert

I don’t get out to concerts much these days, but Monday allowed me to check out a couple of indie-rock bands for free. The Northwest D.C. venue I attended lacked such typical amenities as a bar, air conditioning and walls–but I couldn’t miss what I thought was my last chance to catch this summer’s Fort Reno concert series.

These free shows in that Tenleytown park at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW, named after the Civil War fort, have been on my calendar since it existed on paper–so my first would have been sometime in 1996, but I can’t tell you when. They’ve been on the District’s schedule since 1968, which is an amazing record for a volunteer-run production.

The format hasn’t changed over the two decades I’ve been attending, or trying to attend, Fort Reno shows. Three local bands play short sets on a bare platform from about 7 to 9 p.m. in front of an all-ages crowd picnicking or dancing on the ill-kept grass around that stage.

I wrote “trying to attend” because an evening thunderstorm is guaranteed to cancel the proceedings–I blame that for scrubbing at least one show featuring the Dismemberment Plan that I’d had on my schedule. And the more frequent scenario of swampy heat in the high 90s will discourage a lot of music fans from spending two hours sweltering to the beat.

But if the weather cooperates, you can see some pretty great bands. My all-time favorite show would probably be Fugazi’s August 2001 set there, but I’ve never seen a bad performance there. Monday introduced me to Makeup Girl’s peppy alt-rock; sadly, I only caught one song from Bacchae and missed Numbers Station.

Fort Reno is easy to get to, provided the Red Line isn’t a mess and traffic on Foxhall Road or Wisconsin Avenue isn’t the same (at least there’s plenty of free parking on the nearby blocks). And while you do have to bring your own dinner and a picnic blanket, you need not think too hard about nourishment: Duck into Whole Foods, get some prepared food and a non-alcoholic beverage in a non-glass bottle, and you’re set.

(The three things forbidden at Fort Reno shows are alcohol, drugs, and glass bottles. Don’t be a jerk; you can get a beer later on.)

Nobody will mind if you walk around the park to explore the scenery. Telecommunications nerds should appreciate the radio and TV transmitter towers looming overhead, while geography-minded types can summit the highest natural elevation in D.C., all of 409 feet above sea level, by walking uphill behind the stage past a large oak tree until the slope levels off, then looking for a small metal marker.

And the crowd is always a delight. Monday’s show featured the usual mix: cool moms and dads bringing their kids up right, aging hipsters (one sporting a t-shirt with the 1980s political commentary “Meese Is A Pig”), and slam-dancing teenagers. There was also one boy wearing a wolf’s-head mask, who got a “wolf boy! wolf boy! wolf boy!” cheer from the band and the crowd.

I also found out Monday that it wasn’t the last show of the summer: The organizers had rescheduled a rained-out show for this Thursday. As I type this, the weather looks… not fantastic, but definitely not rainy. So you should go.

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Lawn enemy number one: the Tree of Hell

Fourteen summers of battling the weeds in our lawn have left me with a weird, foliage-driven sense of the calendar.

If I’m twisting loose chickweed with a weeding fork, it could be February but it shouldn’t be later than April, lest I waste my efforts on plants that have already gone to seed. Pungent deadnettles come about a month later. followed by crabgrass.

And from late spring on, I can expect to see Ailanthus altissima saplings invade the front yard. “Tree of Heaven,” my ass: This invasive, quasi-viral plant grows like a weed, literally stinks, and spreads with zombie-like persistence.

Clawing out one of our worst imports from Asia requires advanced stubbornness. Plucking a shoot out of the lawn is easy but leaves a densely-coiled root that will send more growths aboveground within days.

You have to shove a trowel underneath it, elevate a clump of lawn, then feel through the dirt for that root mass and then tug it loose. Done right, you’re left with a long stretch of subterranean subversive that can no longer make a nuisance of itself.

I want to think I’ve seen results this summer, in the form of patches of lawn that haven’t sprouted new ailanthus shoots in weeks (but do show the collateral damage of bare spots that I’ll have to re-seed in the fall). It may seem like an endless task, but it can’t be as futile as trying to evict our single worst import from across the Pacific, the tiger mosquito. Right?

WeChat, but I can’t

SHANGHAI–It wasn’t until shortly before I left for CES Asia that I realized showing up here without a WeChat account would mark me as some kind of hick. I’m now about to head home, still bereft of a WeChat account. But I tried!

WeChat, for those as uninitiated as I once was, is the service AOL Instant Messenger became in an alternate universe. Tencent’s messaging app not only connects almost one billion users in real time, it functions as a wallet, a business card, a news feed and a great many other things.

So I downloaded the Android app, plugged in my Google Voice number–as the work number on my business card, it’s what I ordinarily use without a problem on phone-linked messaging systems.

But what worked in WhatsApp and Signal did not in WeChat. After creating an account and entering the security code texted to my number, I got this error message:

“This WeChat account has been confirmed of suspicious registration in batch or using plugins and is blocked. Continue to use this account by tapping OK and applying for an account unblock.”

Whoops. I tapped through to a “Self-service unblock allowed” screen, tapped its  “Read and accept” button. That presented me with CAPTCHA prove-you’re-not-a-robot interface that had me tap the letters in one graphic that matched those in another.

But after going through that, I still couldn’t log in. Instead, the app told me to get another WeChat user to verify my existence on their phone. I’ve now tried that a few times with both U.S.-based and local users, and after each try the app has offered a vague error message about the other person not being eligible to vouch for me.

After some further research, I think the problem is my using a Google Voice number. That possibility goes unmentioned in WeChat’s English-language online help, but a Quora post reports that Tencent quashed that option years ago.

And thinking about it, it does make sense: I can’t imagine that the Chinese government would look fondly on any communications service that allows people to use a number likely to be untethered from a billable address.

When I get back to the States, I will see if I can’t get WeChat to work with some kind of a burner number still attached to a real account–maybe from a loaner phone. Otherwise, I guess I’ll have to set up WeChat with my “real” phone number. I can’t stay illiterate in this service forever, right?

An avgeek treat: experiencing a takeoff from the cockpit jumpseat

I’ve flown out of Newark International Airport dozens of times, but Tuesday’s departure wasn’t like any of the others. Instead of flying United (or, years ago, Continental), I was on Gogo’s 737-500 testbed with other journalists to try out the company’s latest inflight WiFi system.

And instead of occupying one of the 58 generously-spaced seats on that 1982-vintage airframe, I took the jumpseat up front, just behind the pilot and co-pilot.

That was all Zach Honig’s fault. When I was on another Gogo WiFi flight last March, the editor of The Points Guy travel blog thought to ask if he could take the jumpseat for landing–allowable because FAA air-carrier rules didn’t apply to this private flight. That sent me into an immediate fit of jealousy.

So Tuesday afternoon, I had to ask–politely, while acknowledging the pilot’s discretion. He considered it for a moment and then said okay, and I promised to keep my mouth shut and not touch anything. A flight attendant unfolded the jumpseat, and of course I needed help buckling myself into the five-point harness.

My eyes got a little wider as the pilot explained that if we had to get out of the plane in a hurry, we’d bail out the side window, using the rope stashed above it. Then he and the co-pilot busied themselves with their checklists as I gawked at the switches, knobs and gauges covering most of the available surfaces.

I’ve had the privilege of flying up front a couple of times before–a biplane ride out of College Park’s tiny airport in 1996, and a floatplane tour of Seattle out of Lake Union in 2010. This involved a lot more metal.

EWR being EWR, we had to wait an extra 10 minutes or so to get our clearance. We taxied to the runway–it felt like we took each turn too late, on account of my sitting forward of the nose landing gear–and lined up. The pilot pushed the thrust levers forward, the engines roared, and after a very short takeoff roll our lightly loaded Boeing cranked into the sky.

I had to resist the impulse to yell “holy shit! holy shit!” as we banked left and then right, the altimeter spiraled upward, the trim wheels on each side of the throttles spun, and Manhattan’s skyline unfolded across all three of the windows on the right side. Flying is a more visceral experience when you can watch the pilot turn the yoke, then see the plane respond a moment later–and when sitting at the front of the jet lets you feel it shake more than you would seated by the wing.

Then we popped through a layer of clouds to see them spread out before us, an impossible sight from any seat in the back. Looking at that office view, it became much clearer why people do this for a living.

I will admit that the seat itself–with no recline and vanishingly little legroom–was among the least comfortable I’ve sat in on any airplane. That did not matter Tuesday afternoon.

For more pictures (plus a shaky, poorly exposed video of the takeoff), see this Flickr album.

A dark pattern at work: the overseas ATM that quotes a price in dollars

Being a user-interface nerd means you can’t stop critiquing everyday objects like signs and doors. Most of the time, the quirks you notice will only waste people’s time, but those that cost money deserve extra attention.

Last week’s trip to Lisbon for the IFA Global Press Conference offered a fine example of the second kind: an ATM that offered to price my withdrawal in dollars instead of euros. Its screen helpfully listed the exact price I’d pay to take out €50: $58.10. The only possible answer to that: nope!

The ATM was offering what’s called “dynamic currency conversion”–best understood, in UI-nerd terms, as a “dark pattern” set up to part the uninformed from their money. This offer amounts to an invitation to pay a premium for knowing upfront exactly how much you paid for that transaction, and you should always decline it. Even if you’re paying with a credit-card that would charge a foreign currency conversion fee.

I pressed the button next to “Accept Without Conversion,” and when I checked my bank account a few days later I saw that my withdrawal amounted to $54.22. My $3.88 in savings isn’t much, but it does represent an exceptional rate of return for a few seconds of work.

If only I’d always been that smart: Two years ago, jet lag caused me to lose situational awareness while buying a transit pass in Dublin’s airport, so I unthinkingly tapped the button to run the transaction in dollars instead of euros. I can only hope Transport For Ireland appreciated my generous donation of a dollar or two.

 

Bonus of an unwinter: a spring surplus of parsley and spinach

I really did think that the 2016 gardening season had ended in December with the first hard frost. But then the parsley and the spinach refused to die. Even the few inches of snow we got in March wasn’t enough to kill them, as I found out when I removed some chunks of hard-packed snow two days after I got home from SXSW to expose intact spinach leaves that promptly wound up in a creamy pasta sauce.

Now that the ground has warmed up and the arugula and lettuce seeds have germinated and gone to work, I suddenly have more parsley and spinach than I know what to do with–although I’m trying by throwing some into every stir-fry, stew and sauce I can put together.

I guess I’ll also be making a lot of tabbouleh and parsley-walnut pesto weeks earlier than my usual gardening schedule would suggest.

(The sage also kept going through the winter in less robust form, although there aren’t as many obvious applications for that herb.)

As much as I appreciate living in a place with actual seasons, this does look like a pleasant bonus for having a fake winter. Now if I could just get basil to be half as productive, or at least to stop taunting me with a lack of productivity…

 

Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.