WAS-NYP-WAS: commuting from D.C. to NYC and back

New York is my most frequent travel destination, and my most frequent mode of transportation to there is Amtrak train 2100, the 6 a.m. (lately, 5:55 a.m.) Acela Express.

This train keeps showing up on my calendar despite my fondness for sleeping in past 4:40 a.m. because it works to get me to morning meetings in Manhattan. And because the next few Acela departures get ridiculously expensive unless you book weeks or maybe months in advance.

early-morning-acela(Don’t even talk to me about flying. Transit-starvedtraffic-choked LaGuardia is not an airport I need to see again, I’d get much less work done on the way, and I would save little to no time when I can usually walk from Penn Station to whatever event has me in NYC for the day.)

So I keep getting up in the middle of the night–Thursday being the latest example–and finding myself marveling at the sight of stars from my front porch before heading out.

If I’m taking Metro, I need to catch the first inbound train of the day and not run into any delays of more than a few minutes. Thursday, with Metro’s struggles on my mind, I summoned an Uber and enjoyed the rare spectacle of a 14th Street Bridge free of traffic.

Union Station is not too crowded at 5:40 in the morning, and seeing all the people in suits greet each other on the train reminds me that it could be worse: I could be doing this as often as them. Noticing MARC trains bringing commuters into Union Station that early gives me the same reaction.

Thursday, the sun didn’t rise until we crossed the Susquehanna River. That’s not bad compared to taking this train in the winter, when I’ve had to wait until somewhere in Delaware.

trenton-makes-the-world-takesWith the sun up, seeing familiar scenery like the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River helps the miles go by. So does the right Northeast Corridor-specific soundtrack, which always includes Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and Suzanne Vega’s “Ironbound (Fancy Poultry).”

After years of seeing decades-old infrastructure unchanged, the past couple of years have allowed me to watch the progress of a long-overdue upgrade: replacing 1930s-vintage overhead wires north of Trenton. At Penn Station, meanwhile, I’m waiting on another project: the new concourse and entrances on 8th Avenue, which have to be less grim than Penn’s current setup.

After a day of NYC events, the trip home usually takes place on train 2173, the 8-ish Acela. Again, ticket prices often dictate that scheduling–the earlier Acela departures cost too much.

The upside of this train: If you’ve burned Amtrak points for first-class upgrade coupons or you got some with Select or higher Guest Rewards status, there should be space at the end of the train where they bring the food to you. The downside: The train rolls into Union Station after 11, a time when Metro rebuilding-induced delays may or may not mean I get home after 12:30.

That was the case Thursday, when my day ended almost 21 hours after it began. Friday was not my most productive day ever.

August lawns are the worst

April is when moderate temperatures and regular rain conspire to make me dare to dream of a perfected lawn. And then every August, weeks of inadequate rain and blast-furnace heat leave that dream withered.

August lawnIt doesn’t even bug me much that most of the yard has turned a shade of greenish-brown. That should come back to life by late September, and in the meantime my lawn looks no worse than most of the rest on the block.

(The neighbors who had sprinkler systems installed, something we are too cheap to do, live farther down the street or around the corner.)

But I could do without seeing cracks spread across large expanses of the yard. Since these signs of drought happen in the same place, they represent my annual reminder that I didn’t do enough to cultivate a thicker lawn when I had the chance in the fall or spring.

The “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street appears even worse, with more than half of it overrun by weeds anxious to demonstrate why yard grass should be selected out by this climate. (At least the heat and dryness seem to have taken some of the fight out of the Tree of Hell seedlings that invade the front lawn every July.) I should dig out the entirety of that strip and either re-seed it from scratch or put in some abuse-tolerant ground cover.

But as I type this, the thermometer on the front porch is showing about 94 degrees, and I just can’t be bothered. It’s August. All of this can wait.

 

 

 

Memo to frequent-traveler programs: Kids shouldn’t need their own e-mail addresses

Our almost-six-year-old is already in multiple marketing databases, and it’s all my fault: Once our daughter couldn’t depart with us for free, we started signing her up for frequent-travel programs. The price of miles and points are already baked into the tickets we buy for her, so we might as well take part–and besides, you’ll never hit million-miler status if you don’t start sometime.

JetBlue River Visual viewBut tending these accounts has been more work than I imagined, because some companies have a hard time grasping that children represent a special group of customers who can’t be expected to have their own e-mail addresses.

At first I thought I’d solved this problem with “sub-addressing”creating a new e-mail address on my existing Gmail account by adding a plus sign and additional text to my username. It’s an Internet standard, and I had no issues creating accounts for our daughter at United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, and Amtrak with a “plus-ed” address.

But when I tried logging into our daughter’s United and JetBlue accounts a week ago and was greeted with various errors, I saw that both airlines had stopped accepting sub-addressed e-mails.

The problem was worse at JetBlue, since your TrueBlue ID is your e-mail address. I had to call and provide our kid’s account number and the no-longer-accepted e-mail address; the rep told me she needed her own e-mail address but then accepted a version of my Gmail account with a dot in the middle of my username. It’s weird to have to go through such a workaround when JetBlue’s site has a separate workflow to create a child account.

At United, I could change her e-mail to a dotted version of my Gmail handle after logging in, since MileagePlus account numbers double as usernames. United’s Twitter account then told me I could have put in my own e-mail for her account from the start. I would not have guessed that, since UA’s account-opening UX assumes you’re a grownup–and the e-mails sent to our kid suggesting she jet off to the likes of Australia, Brazil and Israel don’t exactly speak to the under-10 demographic.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and American Airlines still seem to tolerate plus-ed e-mail addresses. (I can’t speak to Delta, as that airline’s network doesn’t work for us.) But after the last week, I won’t be surprised if our little one gets unexpectedly locked out of either account; I just hope I don’t have to spend too much time on the phone to fix that problem.

State of my French: less rusty than feared

PARIS–I’ve now spent more time in a French-speaking environment than at any point since the June day in 1991 when I boarded a flight to Newark from here at the end of my family’s two-year expatriate stay.

Paris in the eveningTwenty-five years is a long time to go out of practice in a language, and I lived up to my low expectations of my degraded proficiency when I said “210” as “205” Monday evening. But each day since then, I’ve gotten a little more comfortable at not just hearing or reading French but the more difficult part of speaking it.

I’m not about to have verb-conjugation tables pop back into my head all filled out, but as I find myself engaging in brief exchanges without getting flustered, I’ve realized that the francophone parts of my brain haven’t turned to mush. Instead, I can almost picture the old synapses lighting up for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Vous pouvez imaginer mon soulagement!

(Yes, I did wimp out by checking that in Google Translate.)

I am going to need more practice to get close to my former fluency. I could add French to the Spanish lessons I’ve been taking in the Duolingo app (thanks for the recommendation of that in a comment on an earlier post here), but what I really could use is another good tech event or two to attend here. Suggestions?

 

Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.

 

You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.

 

Bring on the pain train and get it over with, Metro

Metro is about to get immensely less convenient, and I am relieved by that development.

Woeful WMATA headwaysFriday’s announcement that the rail system will see miles-long sections of track and stations closed in series for rebuilding over the next year means a new level of agony for anybody trying to get around the area. At best, continuous single-tracking will reduce service to 18-minute headways; at worst, a 24-day shutdown of the Red Line across much of Northeast will upend 108,000 weekday trips.

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s “SafeTrack” plan has one thing the past five years of alleged rebuilding have not: a 2017 deadline. Since the 2011 launch of a $5 billion capital-improvement plan, we’ve been enduring miserably long headways and service interruptions at nights and on weekends without any sustained sense of progress.

And now that months of smoke and fire incidents (one fatal) have made “arcing insulator” part of the Metro vernacular, it seems this work didn’t fix a damn thing in some critical areas.

If this SafeTrack really can pound three years’ worth of work–things like replacing insulators and electric cables, cleaning debris, rebuilding trackbeds, and installing radio and cellular transmitters–into a single year and finally wrench Metro over years of neglect, make it so.

Silver Line track through TysonsI admit that’s easy for me to say. I work from home and my wife bikes or walks to work. For many trips into D.C. Capital Bikeshare has become an effective alternative to Metro, and Uber, Lyft and car2go can also take Metro’s place for many trips. When I do take the subway, I am adept at checking not just Metro’s own next-train estimates but the Metro Hero app’s real-time maps.

But I still have a substantial investment in Metro. Literally: We chose our house to stay within walking distance of two stops, and we could only do that because the condo I bought two blocks from an Orange Line station doubled in value from 2000 to 2004. I could give away my aging car last year because we live in an area with (supposedly!) effective rail transit that I continue to rely on for most of my trips to the District as well as such Virginia destinations as Tysons Corner and National and Dulles airports.

As such, I want to see Metro do two things before it takes a tire iron to everybody’s schedules.

One is to show the progress of this work clearly and consistently. Bragging about how many track fasteners have been replaced is useless when I have no idea how many still need replacement; I need to know just how much further along each closure advances the system. WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld has been saying the right things about transparency, so I am cautiously optimistic about this.

The other is accountability. Metro has been talking a big game about overcoming deferred maintenance for at least a decade–the quotes in the Post’s June 2005 story “Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro’s Problems” are painful to read now, as are the things Wiedefeld’s predecessor Richard Sarles said–and we need to know what went wrong and on whose watch that happened. I would like to be optimistic on this point, but I’m not there yet.