Another year of battle with the Tree of Hell

The correct weeding implement to remove a finger-sized “Tree of Heaven” sapling is a shovel.

I thought I’d learned that lesson two summers ago, when I foolishly bragged here that I hadn’t seen any new ailanthus altissima seedlings poking above my lawn. But by this June, I had a new crop of these trash-tree growths invading the front yard and part of the side yard.

This time around, I dug deeper, literally. Just yanking out the massed roots below each sapling wasn’t enough; I had to drive the shovel a few inches deeper to find the thicker, trunk-like root running below my lawn. And then work backwards and forwards to rip that out of the earth.

The upside of this dirt-under-fingernails work is, I hope, a more lasting end to this weed of a tree. And so far, that’s worked–in the sense that I haven’t seen new growths in the front yard two and a half weeks after this surgery. (The side yard is another story, but at least that’s not obvious from the street.)

The downside is that unless you do this root removal right before a torrential downpour, the grass you’ve removed probably won’t survive the disruption. In my case, I now have streaks of dead grass, that outline where this invasive tree’s roots had taken up residence in my yard.

You could say I had to destroy the lawn in order to save it. But I’m not going to state that conclusively until this time next summer, when I’m past the spring’s usual foolish lawncare optimism.

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My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.

Ballparks I’ve visited: 17 and counting

Spending Monday through Friday in New York to attend a couple of conferences brought a couple of benefits a little afield of work: catching up with old friends and crossing another ballpark off my list.

Photos from the stands of Fenway Park, Safeco Field, Dodger Stadium, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, Citi Field and Jacobs FieldWith Thursday’s visit to Citi Field, I’m now up to 11 current ballparks, plus six defunct stadiums. The ones still in use, sorted by how often I’ve been there and, for the places I’ve visited only once, oldest to most recent attendance:

  • Nationals Park: In three words, my baseball home. It’s not the best looking ballpark, but it works well. And it’s been amazing to see the neighborhood grow up around this place. Now if I could just be in the stands to watch the Nats win a postseason series instead of lose one
  • Camden Yards: I don’t know exactly how often I’ve been to Orioles games here–I don’t have dates for the visits in the ’90s before I kept a digital calendar. Anyway, it’s a great ballpark, aside from having concourses without a view of the field.
  • Fenway Park: Seeing the Red Sox beat the Yankees here in 2002 remains one of my better baseball memories, and that experience also finally got me to start paying attention to standings and box scores.
  • Pac Bell Park: No, I’m not calling it “Oracle Park.” Three renamings in 16 years is weak, and Oracle’s abuse of intellectual-property law is grotesque. Aside from that, lovely place.
  • Wrigley Field: My wife and I saw the Nats beat the Cubs 5-4 here in 12 innings during the magical first half of the 2005 inaugural season.
  • Progressive Field: My uncle got some amazing seats for an Indians-Yankees game in 2007–so good that my friend Robert Schlesinger, watching at home, noticed somebody wearing a Nats cap behind first base and then recognized me. Thanks, Uncle Jim.
  • Dodger Stadium: We were in the stands here in 2012 for Bryce Harper’s second game as a Nat.
  • Coors Field: On the first day of Free Press’s National Conference on Media Reform, I decided to ditch the afternoon events and scalp tickets so I could see my second home opener in a week.
  • T-Mobile Park: My wife and I caught a game at the then Safeco Field in June of 2013. Good job on the ballpark, Seattle.
  • Rogers Centre: I had a ballgame-sized hole in my schedule the day I arrived in Toronto for the Collision conference last month, so I bought a ticket and saw the Red Sox thump the Blue Jays 12-2. Sadly, the long security lines outside prevented me from getting in before the first pitch and hearing two national anthems.
  • Citi Field: This is another good retro ballpark, but the absence of development nearby makes it an outlier among ballparks.

And here are the defunct ballparks I’ve visited, listed in the same order:

  • RFK Stadium: My fondest memory of this concrete donut will always be watching the Nats bring baseball back to D.C. in 2005.
  • Veterans Stadium: The first major-league baseball game I ever attended was at the Vet, which probably explains why the baseball gene didn’t activate until years after that childhood outing to Philly.
  • Astrodome: This should come with an asterisk, as I definitely remember going to the Astrodome during the year my family lived in Houston but can’t swear under oath that it wasn’t a rodeo.
  • Three Rivers Stadium: My brother and I saw Barry Bonds play for the Pirates here in the summer of 1991. As I recall, the Pirates lost.
  • Yankee Stadium: I wore a Red Sox cap in the bleachers in 2005. Let’s just say I felt like quite the minority at this Yanks-Jays game.
  • Shea Stadium: I saw the Nats edge the Mets here in 2007 and kept thinking of how much the place reminded me of RFK, but with a lot more air traffic overhead.

As for ballparks I haven’t visited, PNC Park tops the list by a considerable margin. (Anybody know any tech conferences in Pittsburgh?) Petco Park probably comes next; I could have crossed that off the list last summer had I flown into San Diego two days before a family wedding there instead of one. After that? I’ll leave that up to where travel takes me and if it leaves ballgame-sized gaps in my calendar.

iTunes (2001-2019-ish)

With Monday’s news that Apple is finally retiring the Mac version of iTunes, there’s been a lot of “good riddance” chatter about the impending demise of this music/video/download-store/backup/kitchen-sink app.

I get it. For years, iTunes has been a glaring example of Apple forgetting one of Steve Jobs’ rules about the importance of saying no to things. But I also have a long history with this program–I’ve been using it continuously for as long as I have any app, maybe longer. And it hasn’t been all bad.

It’s easy to forget today how bad the music-player landscape was before iTunes, full of apps deliberately limited in features and larded with upsells. If you wanted something decent, you had to pay for it upfront–the app that became iTunes, Casady & Greene’s SoundJamp MP, was a $40 download.

And even after iTunes arrived, competitors didn’t take the hint. Typical headline, from a 2006 review of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11: “Nice Features, But It’s No iTunes.” So when I finally set aside time to rip every CD I owned, iTunes did the job. And it was through iTunes that I bought the vast majority of my music downloads–and then paid $25 for iTunes Match to get legit copies of the MP3s I’d downloaded off Usenet newsgroups and file-sharing apps in the days before paying $1 a song was an option.

Most of two decades since my introduction to this app, I no longer use one of its original flagship features, easy music sync. I don’t own an iPhone, and since Apple has held fast to ignoring other mobile devices in this app, I copy the songs I want to store on my Android phone via the Finder.

The new Music app that will replace iTunes may be just as good at the core tasks of music organization and playback, but I won’t know for a while. The iMac on which I’m typing this–kept in service largely because I replaced its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state drive last year–can’t even run the current Mojave edition, much less the upcoming Catalina.

And iTunes for Windows will remain–but that app looks like such a stranger in Windows 10, I can’t deal with it. Instead, it looks like I’m stuck with two other choices with their own issues: Microsoft’s Groove Music, effectively retired after a series of feature removals, and the privacy-hostile Spotify. It looks like Apple isn’t the only large tech company that needs to reboot its desktop music-player strategy.

Six weeks in a row of travel

When I unlocked the front door on our darkened porch Thursday night–and, as if by magic, the power came back on–six consecutive weeks of travel went into the books.

View of Toronto from a departing airplaneIt all seemed like a reasonable idea upfront, not least when it appeared I’d have a couple of weeks at home over that period.

In an alternate universe, a spring break trip to see Bay Area and Boston relatives and then the IFA Global Press Conference in Spain would have been followed by week at home, then more than a week of additional downtime would have separated Google I/O in Mountain View and Collision in Toronto.

But then I got invited to moderate a panel at the Pay TV Show in Denver, with the conference organizers covering my travel expenses, and my Uncle Jim died. The results: 4/13-4/21 spring break, 4/24-4/28 IFA GPC, 4/29-4/30 in Ohio for my uncle’s funeral (I had about nine hours at home between returning from Spain and departing for Cleveland), 5/6-5/9 Google I/O, 5/13-5/16 Pay TV Show, 5/20-5/23 Collision.

I’d thought having the last three trips only run four days, with three days at home between each, would make things easier. That didn’t really happen, although I did appreciate having time to do all the laundry, bake bread and cook a bunch of food during each stay home, then be able to check the status of my flight home the morning after arriving at each destination.

In particular, my ability to focus on longer-term work and try to develop new business took a hit during all this time in airports, airplanes and conference venues. And because Yahoo Finance elected to have staff writers cover I/O and Collision remotely, so did my income.

Meanwhile, I can’t pretend that I’ve been following the healthiest lifestyle, thanks to all of the eating and drinking at various receptions. Consecutive days of walking around with my laptop in a messenger bag left a softball-sized knot in my left shoulder to complement my sore feet. And I’ve woken up in the middle of the night too many times wondering where I was–including once or twice in my own bed at home.

So while the past six weeks have taken me to some neat places and connected me to some interesting people, I don’t need to repeat the experience.

An easy fix for being overrun by parsley: parsley-walnut pesto

This is the time of the year that makes gardening look easy, which also means I have a serious surplus-parsley problem. The plants that had shriveled down to nothing over winter are now straining against the netting covered the raised bed in which they grow, and if I only use parsley as a garnish I’ll never get through more than a tiny fraction of this edible foliage.

You can attack this scenario by making tabbouleh–I’m partial to the NYT’s recipe for Lebanese tabbouleh–but you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time finely chopping parsley and other veggies. And then the results only last a few days in the fridge.

Instead, my go-to recipe is a simple one for parsley and walnut pesto that a farmers-market vendor handed out years ago, which itself was cribbed from a 2008 issue of Cooking Light magazine.

(Note that I’m only talking Italian flat-leaf parsley here. If you somehow talked yourself into growing that much curly parsley, you’re on your own.)

Parsley and walnut pesto

  • 3 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (about 2.5 ozs.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine everything in a food processor, then process until smooth.

You can use the results as you would basil pesto–so not just as a pasta sauce, but as a dressing or condiment for just about anything else. But parsley-walnut pesto has a fridge half-life measured in days instead of the hours of basil pesto. And it freezes exceptionally well, so you can continue enjoying it months later.

And that’s definitely something I’ll be reminding myself of should this year’s basil crop prove as disappointing as last year’s.