Every team is tied for first place at the start of Opening Day

Thursday gave me an excuse to leave my house that I haven’t had since 2018: a ticket to a Washington Nationals home opener. But instead of a sunny daytime game, hours of rain pushed a 4:05 p.m. start against the Mets back to 7:05 and then further to 8:20 p.m.

This Opening Night was also unlike every other one I’ve seen in D.C. because the game had a D.H. on both teams. Major League Baseball’s adoption of the designated hitter across both leagues as part of the settlement that ended the owners’ lockout of the players left me feeling a little lost every time I looked at the scoreboard and didn’t see a pitcher in the lineup column on each side.

I’m already in baseball mourning over the obsolescence of my rough understanding of double switches. I trust I have plenty of company in National League cities.

The game itself, however, fit into a familiar pattern of early-season mediocrity. The Nats lost to the Mets 5-1, with the highlights being some precision throwing by catcher Keibert Ruiz and shortstop Alcides Escobar to catch runners at first and home in the first and fourth innings, plus Juan Soto’s solo shot to right in the sixth.

The rest of this don’t-call-it-a-rebuilding season doesn’t look to be much better. But even if I’m going to see my team lose more games than it wins, I’ll still enjoy seeing less-likely moments like a crisply-turned double play that isn’t the usual 6-4-3, a double legged out into a triple, a stolen base that started at second or third instead of first, and a pitcher embarrassing the other team by hitting a home run… ugh, never mind.

So sick of Silver Line schedule slips

My least favorite genre of local transportation story, by an overwhelming margin, is reports of delays in the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond. Over the past few months, I’ve let myself grow optimistic that this wait for a one-seat international-airport ride would end–and then this week served up a new round of gut-punch news about the project’s long-anticipated entry into revenue service.

Thursday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld used the agency’s board meeting to announce a new problem: incorrectly sealed joint boots connecting third rails to their power supply. It’s sufficiently irritating that these cable-connector assemblies–a basic part of the system that you can easily identify from a train, given that they look like giant orange hair dryers–were not installed right, pushing the extension’s opening into, maybe, July.

But it’s worse that Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the construction, apparently knew about this snafu for months but did not see fit to loop in the taxpaying public. To put this more directly: When WMATA and MWAA posted presentations earlier this month about Silver Line progress that didn’t mention this hangup, they lied.

And this development follows a long series of dashed deadline hopes.

In 2014, months after the first phase of the Silver Line had opened, this expansion was projected to open in 2018. A year later, extensive design changes had pushed that timeframe out to sometime in 2020. That estimate held through discoveries in 2018 and 2019 of such problems as defective concrete panels, incorrectly installed railroad ties and flaws in fixes for those concrete panels. But then issues with the train-control system found in 2020 yielded a revised estimate of 2021 that then evaporated as fixes for them dragged on into the summer of 2021.

MWAA declaring “substantial completion” for the Silver Line’s tracks and stations in November, followed by it reaching the same milestone in December for the extension’s rail yard, was supposed to put this extension officially in the home stretch. Instead, these two agencies have found new ways to prolong the punch-list work needed before Metro can take control of the line and then, after some 90 days of its own testing, open the faregates.

I am among the less-inconvenienced stakeholders. I don’t commute to Reston or Herndon and only lose an extra 15 or 20 minutes and $5 on each trip to IAD by having to transfer to MWAA’s Silver Line Express bus at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station–not that every time I’m waiting for that bus, I don’t think that a completed Silver Line could have already whisked me to the airport.

But the larger picture is that $2.778 billion worth of infrastructure continues to sit idle while MWAA and WMATA point to the other party (or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which must provide a separate sign-off) as the reason for the latest delay. I don’t perceive any urgency at either agency’s leadership to put this asset into service–although at this point I mostly blame Metro, since I see the same feckless lack of initiative in the transit agency’s prolonged inability to get its 7000-series trains back into service.

It’s a disgraceful failure of project management all around, and only one thing eases the embarrassment factor for my city: the far more horrific cost and schedule overruns afflicting New York’s transit projects.

Travel achievement unlocked: million-miler status on United Airlines

The past three months of travel have returned me to many of my usual winter destinations, which has been great all around. But one flight in particular also took me somewhere I’d never reached before: past one million miles on United Airlines, a line I crossed 75 miles before landing in Frankfurt on my way to Barcelona for MWC last month.

Boarding passes--one for the IAD-FRA flight that put me over 1,000,000 miles, followed by older ones from United and Continental, with foreign-currency coins placed to hide my frequent-flyer numbers--sit atop a route map from United's Hemispheres magazine on which Dulles and Newark are visible.

That’s not one million frequent-flyer miles earned: United, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, offers a separate set of benefits to long-term customers based on miles flown. And United is both stricter about welcoming passengers to them and more generous afterwards.

Where Delta simply totals expenditure-based elite-qualifying miles and American factors in flight distance on paid flights on its aircraft plus base miles earned on paid partner-airline flights, United counts just miles aboard its own planes with only two minor accounting exceptions (read after the jump if you want the details). Its reward for the first million miles is MileagePlus Gold status for life–still the best mid-tier status you can get on the big three carriers.

My journey of a million miles started with an ignominious single step: I misplaced a paper ticket and flew Continental Airlines a day late from Newark to Paris to visit my family in the spring of 1989. (I didn’t have a CO frequent-flyer account until my father opened one for me in January of that year; thanks, Dad.) After a couple of years of that transatlantic lifestyle, I barely left the ground for the next few years and flew Continental even less. Fortunately, that airline didn’t enforce a miles-expiration policy–allowing my wife and I have a wonderful ride to Italy and back for our honeymoon, upgraded with miles I’d earned a decade ago.

I didn’t open a frequent-flyer account on United itself until 2003. (My Washington Post colleague Keith Alexander’s business-travel coverage and my belated introduction to FlyerTalk were instrumental in making me realize the utility of focusing my business on the airline with a hub here.) E-mail statements from United are the only records I have left that long ago of my lifetime miles, and they show the number slowly ascending–from 52,056 in February of 2007 to 92,926 in February of 2009.

A blue United tag, with a 737's engine and the Pacific Ocean visible through a window in the background.

But then two things happened within about six months: United and Continental completed their merger in October of 2010, and then the Washington Post got rid of my column and my job. The first development combined lifetime miles mostly accumulated on flights out of Newark in the previous century with those I’d clocked more recently out of Dulles and National; the second freed me to travel, both on my own money and that of conference organizers.

By February of 2016, I was up to 581,205 miles; by February of 2018, two years of covering and speaking at events across oceans had me at 750,291. Along the way, I developed an exhaustive acquaintance with the seat maps of United’s fleet, increasingly detailed mental maps of its hubs, and an enduring fondness for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” even after hearing snippets of it thousands of times in United ads, safety videos and hold music.

At the start of 2020, I finally added a column to my status-tracking spreadsheet (if you don’t have one and you’ve read this far, you should fix that) to record my million-mile progress. And then that progress stopped.

Last year saw this journey resume in earnest, and I finally crossed the million-mile mark on Feb. 26. Some avgeeks have had their flight crews celebrate the occasion, but I didn’t want to make myself too much of the story.

Because my newfound lifetime status wasn’t just about me: United lets million milers designate a companion to share their benefits, meaning I could elevate my wife to my own status. Sending an early-morning e-mail from a lounge in Frankfurt to surprise her with that news felt as good as any upgrade clearing ever has.

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One of my newer travel rituals: setting up a TV hit away from home

AUSTIN

Normal people don’t check into lodging at a destination and then evaluate the room for its TV-backdrop potential, but I have never pretended too hard to be a member of the normal-people demographic.

Picture shows a Pixel 5a phone cradled in a GorillaPod tripod mounted to the screen of an HP Spectre x360 laptop.

So when I got a message from my usual producer at Al Jazeera on my flight here Friday (my thanks to United for adding free messaging to the inflight WiFi in December) asking if I could comment on the White House’s attempts to add TikTok to its public-diplomacy strategy, I knew I’d need to find a workable background.

Fortunately, the house I’m renting (and had rented for several years in a row for SXSW in the Before Times) has an excellent bookshelf in the living room. It also had enough room in front for two chairs: one for me to sit in, another to serve as a stand of sorts for my laptop.

Because that 2017-vintage HP Spectre x360 has a woeful webcam, I don’t just park it on a table or another suitable flat surface. At the same time, I don’t want to do a video interview looking at my interviewer on a phone screen that’s more than a foot away. Instead, I use my Pixel 5a phone’s back camera in place of the laptop’s camera–a workaround that requires running Dev47Apps’ DroidCam app on that Android device and on my Windows laptop and connecting the two devices with a USB-C cable.

Then I place the laptop, folded open to its “tent mode,” over the top rail on a chair so I can see Zoom, Skype or whatever app I’m using for the interview (or virtual panel) on the computer’s screen, and then use an old Joby GorillaPod flexible tripod to position the phone atop the laptop.

That gadget accessory is now among the first things I toss into my suitcase before a trip: Instead of flip-out, rigid legs, this tripod features a trio of flexible legs that you can wrap around a nearby object. Or, in this case, splay out across the hinge on a Windows laptop in tent mode, such that the smartphone camera sits just about at eye level.

That may look like a ton of work, but I’ve now gone through this routine enough times that it doesn’t feel like it demands much time–certainly not when the TV hit starts a bit behind schedule, as this one Friday did.

The international-travel ritual I would very much like to have done for the last time

Staying up past midnight isn’t really part of my event routine these days, but I was determined to do that Tuesday night in Barcelona–not to enjoy any MWC nightlife, but so I could swirl a swab in each of nostrils while a stranger watched me do that via my phone’s camera.

I timed this quasi-exhibitionist performance to meet the Centers for Disease Control’s rule that air travelers to the United States provide a negative COVID-19 test administered no earlier than one day prior to travel. Because that’s one day, not 24 hours, my window to do this opened at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

And because I had packed a proctored version of Abbott’s BinaxNow antigen test$69.99 for a two-pack–I didn’t have to find a testing location open at that hour and could get this done in my Airbnb.

The experience felt slightly like I was recording a hostage video: After opening the Navica app this test employs, that app opened my phone’s browser to eMed’s site, which then asked for permission to open my phone’s camera so that my “guide” could walk me through the test, starting with me holding my passport before the camera and then keeping it in view.

You can imagine my relief at watching this test strip in the Abbott kit almost immediately show only one line and then stay that way, after which eMed e-mailed me a PDF that a Lufthansa check-in agent at BCN briefly inspected Thursday morning before printing my boarding pass.

Getting this negative result that quickly represented a major upgrade over the two other times I’ve had to get a COVID test to fly home, both of which took place when the CDC rule allowed a test three days before departure: a PCR test in Estonia last August that came back negative the next morning, and an antigen test in Portugal in November that only had me waiting an hour or so for an e-mail with a “Não detetado” PDF.

But every one of these tests also represented a waste of time. If requiring a negative test before boarding an international flight actually worked to slow the pandemic, every other country would make Americans do that before flying from the world’s COVID capital. But most don’t–I didn’t have to provide a negative test before flying to Spain through Germany a week ago.

Instead, it’s the U.S. government that imposed this requirement in the last days of the Trump administration last January. The pandemic subsequently hit never-before-seen peaks anyway, not because Americans with passports dared to use them but because too many of us still won’t get vaccinated. What this rule has done is inconvenience and worry travelers–and detain those unlucky enough to test positive overseas like Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson, who got to spend an extra week in a hotel room in Spain three months ago.

At the start of February, 29 airline, travel and business groups sent a letter to the White House asking the government to drop the testing requirement for vaccinated travelers. There are many times when trade assocations’ requests for regulatory relief deserve a skeptical reading, but this isn’t one of them. The CDC rule is a joke that was never funny, and it needs to go.

Brief memories of Ukraine, over 32 years later

Until this week, my relatively limited travel around the world had not included any places that later became war zones on live TV. Thanks to Russia’s paranoid president Vladimir Putin lashing out in toxic nostalgia for the Soviet Union, that description no longer applies to Ukraine.

My mid-1989 introduction to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was too brief. As part of a post-high-school-graduation student tour of the Soviet Union that my parents paid for (a boondoggle that I remain amazed got a green light from Mom and Dad), a few days after landing in Moscow, our group took an overnight train to the city then called Kiev.

Our compressed schedule over maybe two days there had us visit multiple museums, see a concert, and gawk at the Motherland Monument, a gigantic WWII tribute consisting of a statue of a woman hoisting a sword and a shield emblazoned with the USSR’s hammer and sickle. But we also had a limited amount of time to walk around Kyiv itself, which on our final day in the city yielded the unexpected sight of a large gathering of people next to a stadium holding signs and flags.

As in, the kind of politicial demonstration that was not supposed to happen in the country that President Reagan had fairly labeled an “evil empire.” The flags themselves–blue and yellow banners, which I knew did not match the red-and-blue flag of the Ukrainian SSR–were equally surprising.

I didn’t know what those people were protesting, and the photos I took don’t reveal enough visible text on their signs for me to type into Google Translate now. But more than three decades later, I think that the kind of people who would gather publicly under a forbidden flag in 1989 will fight like hell against Russia’s murderous incursion.

The other takeaway I retain from that trip, which also took our New Jersey contingent to Odessa, Sochi, and St. Petersburg, then still called Leningrad: The Russian people–some of whom have marched in the streets this week at considerable risk to their own safety to protest this assault against their democratic neighbor–deserve better than having any more of their future stolen by Putin and his corrupt, thuggish ilk.

2021 gardening report card: a belated basil assessment

This annual recap of my gardening efforts should have been written last month, but then I got distracted by other topics–much as the return of travel in the second half of last year distracted me from tending to plants during what were, in retrospect, some critical parts of the summer.

In fewer words, I’m still figuring out this gardening thing, more than two decades after my first successful experiments with growing herbs in pots on an apartment balcony.

(For your reference: my 202020192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A

Parsley was not as prolific as in previous years, but basil was 2021’s pleasant surprise, between the two plants I bought at the farmers’ market that kept yielding gorgeously green leaves through fall and the smaller crop I got from seeds in a pot in the dining room. Mint and rosemary grew reasonably well too, and the the same indoor pot yielded enough dill to flavor the occasional plate of scrambled eggs.

Arugula: A-

My most reliable green lived up to past performance in the spring but then took a mighty long time getting in gear after I planted a second crop of seeds in September. That second batch looked to be finally coming into its own after we returned from Christmas travel–and then we had snow while I was out at CES, and I think it may be done for now.

Beans: B

We repeated last year’s apathetic strategy of trying to grow beans in random containers around the back patio, but they were not quite as productive this year. My being around less often to tend to them after July also probably figured into this shortfall.

Lettuce: C-

Someday, I will figure out what I did right to get lettuce to grow as well as it did in 2017. That day did not come at any point in 2021, so I had to content myself with just enough lettuce for some springtime sandwich fixings.

Tomato: D+

This grade would have been a D or lower had it not been for all the plum and cherry tomatoes that either volunteered or grew from seeds that I didn’t expect to do much of anything. They contributed to some delicious pasta sauces–but the slicing tomatoes I value most for their contributions to sandwiches fell victim to my being out of town in mid-July and again in August.

Spinach: D

Here’s another vegetable that did much better before, even though I tried growing it in almost the same spot this year and gave it the same overall amount of care. But there’s nowhere to grow but up in 2022, right?

2021 in review: return to flight

The course of this year abounded in bumps–from the horrifying sight of an attempted coup at the Capitol six days into January to the stubborn, vaccine-refusal-fueled persistence of the pandemic. But 2021 was still not 2020, and I refuse to brush that aside.

The most important dates on my calendar this year had no equivalent on last year’s: my first, second and booster shots of a coronavirus vaccine. Those Moderna doses helped give me so much of my life back, and I’ve tried to repay that continuing to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

They also allowed my writing to feature something last seen in January of 2020: datelines. My first travel for an assignment came in July, when I set out on a 1,000-plus mile road trip for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report. That was followed in August by a transatlantic jaunt to Estonia and back, a quick September visit to Miami Beach to moderate my first in-person panels since February of 2020, an October reunion with Online News Association friends, and November trips to Lisbon for Web Summit and to the Big Island of Hawaii for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit (note that organizers paid my travel costs for all of those events except the ONA gathering).

The long days I spent drive testing wireless networks for PCMag paid off a second time when the editors asked if I’d be interested in doing more work there. That solved a problem I had when I ended my experiment in writing for Forbes–where to cover tech-policy developments–but this gig has since allowed me to write about such non-political subjects as a test drive of a $120,000+ battery-electric Mercedes.

This year also saw me write for several new places–always a good thing for a freelancer, also a key factor in 2021’s income exceeding 2020’s by a welcome margin–while last week marked my 10th anniversary as a USA Today tech columnist. That’s approaching the length of my tenure as a Washington Post tech columnist, which is crazy to consider.

Among all of this year’s work, these stories stand out in my mind:

  • In February, I wrote about App Store ratings fraud for Forbes, because a company as self-righteous about its control of a mobile-apps marketplace as Apple should do a better job of policing it.
  • I teed off on exploding prices at Internet providers in a May column for USA Today after being inspired and irked by the poor disclosure I saw during the research for a U.S. News guide to ISPs.
  • In my debut at the Verge in early June, I explained how data-broker sites function as a self-licking ice-cream cone and offered practical advice about how to limit the visibility of your personal details.
  • Family tech support awakened me to the inadequacy of Gmail’s message-storage management, leading to a USA Today column teeing off on Google for that neglected user experience.
  • Who better to quote as a hype-puncturing source about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband than Elon Musk himself? The reality-check video keynote he did at MWC in late June yielded a Fast Company post that helped inform my subsequent coverage of rural broadband.
  • I combined my notes from the Estonia trip with interviews of U.S. experts afterwards for a Fast Company story explaining that Baltic state’s e-government journey–including why it would be such a heavy lift here.
  • I used my PCMag perch to unpack Apple executive Craig Federighi’s disingenuous Web Summit talk about App Store security.

Having mentioned my business travel here–see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2021–I have to note that the most important flights I took were the ones that reunited me with family members for the first time in well over a year. I hope your 2021 included the same.

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Better pizza at home with steel and paper

The last 20 months of enforced home cooking have allowed me more opportunities than usual to make one of my favorites, pizza. I’ve made my dad’s recipe, I’ve figured out deep dish–and lately the unlikely combination of a slab of metal and parchment paper has figured into my pizza adventures.

Pizza just out of the oven and still on the parchment paper, topped with sausage.

It all started years ago when my wife gave me a Baking Steel, a quarter-inch-thick steel plate that addresses a major weakness of baking pizza at home: Your oven can’t get hot enough to yield a crispy crust. Metal this thick, however, both soaks up heat and conducts it to whatever’s touching it–so preheating this slab in a 500-degree oven for 45 minutes ensures that pizza dough will get much closer to the crispy, lightly charred crust of a legit pizzeria.

The catch with this technique is that you need to transfer a fully-assembled pizza to this furnace of a surface as quickly as possible. But sliding a pizza off a wooden or metal peel risks part of the raw dough getting stuck halfway through–an anxiety-inducing scenario after you’ve sunk a couple of hours into this culinary project.

That’s where the parchment paper comes in. After finally thinking to look up if the 420-degree maximum temperature listed on the box meant all that much, I saw that Cook’s Illustrated pronounced parchment paper safe for up to 20 minutes of 500-degree heat–and pizza on a Baking Steel needs just nine minutes.

This belated insight radically simplified the whole production. I flatten out the dough and top the pizza right on a piece of parchment paper, slide a metal peel underneath that, have the pizza slide effortlessly off that onto the steel, and then retrieve the finished product. Bonus: The steel stays clean, requiring only a just-in-case swipe with paper towel after this heat sink cools off… some two hours later.

It’s not the same old Rock Creek Park trail these days

I went for a bike ride through Rock Creek Park this afternoon. That doesn’t set this Saturday apart from a great many others over my last 25-plus years–but the state of this long-neglected trail is finally changing from the cycling route I’ve known since I was a much younger man with far fewer gray hairs and a considerably faster average speed on a bike.

A long-overdue rehabilitation project led by the National Park Service and the D.C. Department of Transportation kicked off this spring, and it’s already yielded some impressive benefits and applause from cyclists. The Western Ridge Trail–the stretch from from the intersection of Beach Drive and Broad Branch Road to Klingle Road–is no longer a narrow, pothole-pockmarked relic. Further south, the Rose Park Trail, a spur that links the Rock Creek trail to M Street and Georgetown, has received the same upgrade.

But the really exciting work is still in progress: a new hiker/cyclist bridge over the creek just south of the Zoo tunnel. That will replace a shamefully narrow sidepath on the existing Beach Drive bridge that requires cyclists to walk their bikes unless nobody is coming in the other direction.

This work will also include rebuilding the trail’s Zoo bypass, closed since 2018 after part of it washed into the creek. Since then, cyclists have had to ride on a five-foot-wide sidepath in the tunnel that takes Beach Drive past the zoo–which, as tricky as that can be, is not outright terrifying like the two-foot-wide curb that cyclists had to white-knuckle their way along until an earlier renovation wrapped up in 2017.

From the state of construction I saw today, with piers for the bridge partially complete on either side of the creek, I’d like to think I will be able to enjoy this bridge no later than next summer. By then, the stretch of the trail south of the Taft Bridge should also have reopened, ending the need for a steep climb out of the creek’s valley up to Woodley Park. (Since that detour then sends me down Connecticut Avenue, past an old apartment of mine and through some of my favorite parts of the District, I don’t mind it that much.)

There’s a lot about 2022 that’s up in the air at the moment, but at least I have these little things to look forward to.