The D.C. area’s no-flying-needed way to see a space launch

Tuesday night treated me to the first space launch I’d seen in person–meaning close enough to hear it–since 2018. And unlike the previous three launches that I have been privileged to experience from that close, this one did not require a flight to Florida.

Instead, only a three-hour drive lay between my house and Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, hosted at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. (Shout out to Ars Technica’s science writer John Timmer for offering a lift.) The occasion was Rocket Lab’s U.S. debut of its Electron rocket, something I had made two earlier trips to Wallops in December to see before those launch attempts got called off.

Electron heads to space, with its second stage leaving a plume that evokes a celestial jellyfish.

Rocket Lab, a startup that first launched Electron from its New Zealand facility in 2017 and had conducted 31 missions from there since, is the newest tenant at Wallops. But this site across an inlet from Chincoteague saw its first liftoff much earlier–in 1945, five years before Cape Canaveral’s first launch. It’s had a quieter existence since, with recent Wallops headlines featuring a flight or two a year of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets to send Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. They remain the only space launches that I’ve seen, faintly, from my house.

A press pass issued by Rocket Lab granted a much closer view of its “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission, just two miles away from a spare concrete pad next to the Atlantic. At ignition about 40 minutes after sunset, Electron lit up the shore, a brilliant beacon shooting into the sky. The sound rolled out to us about two seconds later–a steady low-frequency roar that might have been an especially loud jet engine, except jets can’t shoot anything into Earth orbit. A clear sky let me track the rocket through first-stage separation, then follow the second stage as its exhaust left a plume dozens of miles up.

If you’re reading this around the D.C. area, you should have multiple chances to experience that, as Rocket Lab plans four to six launches from Wallops this year. Things to know in advance:

• The no-stopping offseason drive should be barely three hours from downtown D.C. to the Wallops visitor center, but woe betide anybody who hopes to make the trip that quickly on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

• The range at Wallops doesn’t shout “space flights here,” lacking the giant gantries of the Kennedy Space Center; the tallest structure is a water tower emblazoned with NASA’s “meatball” circular blue logo.

• Wireless coverage can get really bad, so you should not bank on being able to Instagram launch photos.

• Don’t expect the same show you’d get at a KSC launch. At liftoff, Electron’s thrust is 43,000 pounds, while at launch Antares (with one launch left this year) is good for 864,000 pounds. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have 1.7 and 5.1 million pounds of sea-level thrust sending them skyward. But while you won’t have the experience of feeling a giant rocket’s sound rush over you like an acoustic avalanche, it is still a kind of magic to see something people made leave the ground and soar into the black, all the way to space.

• You can, however, see a launch from closer than the Cape allows. A launch-viewing guide from photographer Kyle Henry lists one location, not always open, 1.7 miles from the pad, with an always-open spot 2.2 miles away. The NASA Wallops Visitor Center is another option, about 7 miles away.

• If you can’t make the trip, you should still be able to see a Wallops launch from around D.C. That’s more easily done at night, when you don’t have to distinguish one contrail from everything else in the sky; you just have to spot a rocket’s red glare.

The major purchase I don’t want to make until next year–if not later

Somebody with a 17-year-old vehicle in their driveway should be the easiest mark possible at an auto show. Any new car on display there should offer an immense advance in comfort and convenience–and an even greater leap in efficiency when the vehicle has a battery-electric drivetrain.

A charging port on the side of a Hyundai Ioniq 5

And yet my visit Thursday to the Washington Auto Show on its public-policy day left me relieved that our 2005 Toyota Prius–somehow still only the second car I’ve owned–keeps rolling along.

It’s not that this year’s show didn’t offer an intriguing selection of electric cars, even with VW sitting out the entire event. Multiple automakers now have not-too-big EVs on the market at not-crazy prices that offer decent range and charge quickly.

(If a tree fell on our Toyota tomorrow, I’d probably make a Kia EV6 and a Hyundai Ioniq 5 our first test drives.)

But the selection will only expand as automakers–here I have to note that decades of poor judgment at Toyota have left it shamefully far behind in EVs–race to bring more electric cars to the market. And each new model year represents another 12 months for manufacturers to improve on existing designs and for batteries to get more efficient. And each new month means more car chargers springing up along the nation’s roads, soon to be accelerated with nearly $5 billion in funding from the 2021 infrastructure law.

Our own house would need its own wiring upgrade before we’d want to park an EV in the driveway. That probably won’t get any cheaper and may cost a lot more than expected, depending on what kind of quirky work lurks inside our century-old abode.

Meanwhile, living in a walkable and Metro-served neighborhood, with no driving commutes for me or my wife, affords us the luxury of not having to use our vehicle that much. And of not even having to think that much about what’s become a relatively low-mileage old car–except, perhaps, when I’m surrounded by shiny new alternatives to it.

CES 2023 travel-tech report: a stand-in laptop and a renewed phone

For the first time since 2011, I shipped out to CES with somebody else’s laptop. The HP Spectre x360 that I’d taken to the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 showed signs in November of a serious motherboard meltdown, so I took a Lenovo ThinkPad X13s loaned by the company’s PR department.

Beyond having a reliable laptop on which to work, my main objective in taking this computer to Vegas was to see if I’d notice a day-to-day difference in the ThinkPad running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 instead of the usual Intel processor. The answer: less than I thought.

Hardware I took to CES 2023, shot from above: Pixel 5a and Pixel 7 smartphones, Inseego MiFi X Pro hotspots from T-Mobile and Verizon, chargers for the laptop and phones, headphones and my CES badge.

Battery life definitely seemed better, but I had neither the opportunity nor the motivation to see if the X13s would approach the “up to 28 hours” touted by Lenovo. That’s because every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the laptop as CES best practices dictate.

Meanwhile, running x86-coded programs on that Qualcomm chip did not reveal any awkward incompatibility moments–even though so few Windows apps have been revised for that ARM processor architecture and therefore must run in Microsoft’s Windows 11 emulation. The uncomplicated nature of the apps I used (Chrome, Firefox, Word, Evernote, Slack and Skype) may have had something to do with that.

I had worried that the laptop only offering two USB ports, both USB-C, might require me to fish out an adapter for any USB-A devices or cables, but this was the first CES in a long time where nobody handed me a press kit on a USB flash drive. And while the X13s isn’t a convertible laptop that can be folded into a tablet, I only ever needed to use it as a standard keyboard-below-screen computer.

I also packed a review phone, a Pixel 7 Google had loaned earlier (and which I reviewed for Patreon readers last month). The 7 has better cameras than my Pixel 5a, so I used that device for most of my photography from the show. As for own Pixel 5a–now on its second life after my successful at-home replacement of the screen I’d shattered in September–it operated with pleasant reliability. Its battery life continued to impress me, although every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the phone as CES best practices dictate. My one complaint with the 5a: the fingerprint sensor on the back sometimes balks at recognizing my biometrics, even after I’d tried cleaning it a few weeks ago.

On both my phone and that laptop, I stuck to past habits and took all my notes in Evernote. And for once, I didn’t have a single sync conflict between devices! I have no idea how that happened, but it did make me feel better about the subscription fee hitting my credit card the day before I flew to Vegas.

I made some room in my messenger bag for twin loaner hotspots, the T-Mobile and Verizon versions of Inseego’s MiFi Pro X 5G. T-Mobile generally offered faster 5G connectivity, but Verizon’s network sometimes reached where T-Mo’s did not. Both hotspots took far too long to boot up–easily a minute and a half before I could tether the laptop to either–and so more than once, I just used the mobile-hotspot function on the Pixel 5a.

This was also the first CES 2023 where Twitter wasn’t the obvious choice for sharing real-time observations. Instead, I alternated between that social network and Mastodon; that seems unsustainable over the long run, but since my next big trip to a tech event doesn’t happen until MWC Barcelona at the end of February, I have some time to figure that out.

What has and hasn’t changed about CES over my quarter century of attendance

LAS VEGAS

Wandering past restaurants and bars in a series of casinos this week has stirred up the usual weird Vegas memories for me: not of great meals or fun nights out with friends, but of the receptions and dinners that CES exhibitors have staged at these establishments.

And now that I’ve covered CES in person for 25 years–every iteration of the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show from 1998 on, minus 2021’s pandemic-enforced virtual edition–there are quite a few of those memories banked in a corner of my brain that I could probably put to a higher and better use.

CES 2023 signage featuring the #CES2023 hashtag; in the background, a neon sign spells out "Las Vegas."

Semi-lavish evenings on the dime of one company or another haven’t changed since that first CES trip, but the show itself has expanded and evolved considerably.

As in, there’s a reason the Consumer Technology Association–formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association–rebranded this event from “Consumer Electronics Show” to just “CES.” A convention that used to be built around home audio and video now covers everything from smart-home gadgets to autonomous vehicles; at this year’s CES, that last category included a gigantic Caterpillar dump truck.

The space taken up by CES has grown as well, just not quite as much. The Las Vegas Convention Center has sprouted a few extensions and then, two years ago, an additional hall that by itself is big enough to host lesser conferences.

Meanwhile, the routine of CES journalism is unrecognizable compared to the placid pace I enjoyed 25 years ago, when I recall filing all of one story from the show–via dialup modem. I still have things fairly easy (I’ve never written for any place expecting a dozen posts a day during the show or had to stay up late editing video), but this week once again reminded me how much writing time can eat into note-taking time.

Other parts of the CES existence, however, might not seem that different to 1998 me.

Getting around Vegas remains a huge pain. The incremental upgrades to transportation since then–a monorail that only connects the back doors of some casinos on one side of the Strip to the convention center, the belated arrival of Uber and Lyft, the Vegas Loop that offers an underground Tesla shortcut between parts of the convention center–have still left most CES traffic on roads that can’t accommodate it.

On a more positive note, the utility of an industry-wide gathering like CES has survived repeated predictions of this event’s obsolescence. It turns out that the vast majority of companies in the tech business cannot count on staging their own events and expecting everybody else to show up. And all of the other companies and people that come here to do business would struggle to strike those deals if so many other like-minded organizations and individuals were not in the same crowded space at the same overscheduled time.

I include myself in that last bit. Especially since going freelance in 2011–as in, about halfway through my CES tenure–I’ve found that my greatest return on the investment in time and money I make every year here starts with the connections I make those few days in Vegas.

Finally, the CES schedule hasn’t budged over the past 25 years. With remorseless regularity, it tears me away from family just days after the start of a new year, then re-connects me with industry friends, immerses me in what’s new in the tech business, and then leaves me to look at a rest of the year in which every other event seems easy. And that’s why I know exactly where I’m going to be next January.

2022 in review: clouds clearing

This was the first year since 2017 that started and ended with me writing for the same set of core clients. After watching 2020 tear down a non-trivial chunk of my business and spending much of 2021 contining to rebuild from that occupational rubble, that was a profound relief.

PCMag lets me both post quick updates on tech-policy developments and take such journalistic detours as writing about the possible return of supersonic air travel. Fast Company gives me the space for more in-depth pieces on technology, policy and science. USA Today, where I’ve now been writing for more than 11 years, remains a great place to explain tech–concisely!–to readers. And in Light Reading and Fierce Video, I have trade-pub clients that let me get into weeds on telecom and video topics, making me more informed about those issues when I step back to cover them for a consumer audience.

The Calendar app on my Mac, showing the year-at-a-glance view in which my schedule looks considerably busier than it did in the 2021 and 2020 versions of this screengrab.

So that’s how I made freelancing work this year. Along the way, these stories stand out as favorites:

Business travel resumed at a level last I’d last seen in 2019 and pushed me past the million-miler mark on United Airlines, with my sideline of speaking at conferences treating me to some new and old places: Copenhagen, Dublin, Las Vegas, Lisbon, New York, and Toronto. PCMag, in turn, gave me the chance to take that Tesla-powered road trip through some outsized and beautiful parts of the Pacific Northwest–a trek that featured an overnight stay at my in-laws’ for my first home-cooked meal in a week.

(You can see a map of those flights after the jump.)

All this travel gave me more practice than I wanted with Covid tests, but especially after I finally came down with Covid in June–and then had a remarkably easy bout that cleared in a week and allowed me to return to Ireland for the first time since 2015. Four months later, I learned that my father-in-law had cancer; two months later, that invasive case of lymphoma had taken Al from us. I wish 2022 had spared him, and then maybe you all could have soon seen him pop up in the comments as he sometimes did here to share a compliment or an encouragement.

Continue reading

2022 gardening scorecard: a pleasant pepper surprise

Gardening remains one of my favorite analog distractions from digital chores–even if it doesn’t necessarily yield as much food to eat as I’d hoped. Which is good, since this was yet another year that saw my kitchen garden underperform in some weird ways.

(For your reference: my 2021, 202020192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

A bell pepper starting to turn red, with a drop of rain on a leaf of the plant partially obscuring it.

Peppers: A

I take no credit for this addition to the list: My wife bought a wheeled planter and some plants for it, resulting in a reasonably steady supply of bell and jalapeno peppers over the summer (plus an egglant or two that I’m not going to try to factor into this report card).

Arugula: A-

Once again, this leafy green’s performance in the spring was not matched in the fall, when some heavy rains in September washed out promising rows of seedlings. And unlike last year, they didn’t mount any late-fall comeback. Should I have waited another few weeks to try that second set of seeds? Maybe.  

Herbs: B+

Parsley was its reliable self, but I didn’t get enough basil to make any pesto sauce, which makes me sad. My attempt to grow rosemary from seed went nowhere; fortunately, the tiny rosemary shrub my wife put in that planter did much better. And mint, despite its reputation for weed-like growth, was only a springtime contender.

Lettuce: C+

This was yet another year in which lettuce did not grow nearly as well as it did in 2017, but it was still nice to be able to step outside in the spring and collect some leaves to add to a sandwich. The important thing to remember: Lettuce is so much cheaper when purchased in seed form.

Spinach: C

See my above comments about lettuce, then add the disappointment of seeing a late-summer crop get washed out when I’ve been able to make that work in previous years.

Tomatoes: C-

I didn’t expect to get so many cherry tomatoes this year–because I didn’t plant them and instead was surprised by how many grew from seeds left from last year’s volunteer plants. I had worse luck with the plants I bought at my farmers’ market, which yielded only a few handfuls of tomatoes for me to enjoy in sandwiches and sauces.  

Beans: D+

This poor grade mainly reflects my own inattentive care, which left too many green beans on the vine for too long. I’m blaming a renewal of work travel that was not a factor for the first half of 2021.

A reluctant rocket launch

Photo shows a sign headlined "CONTROLLED ACCESS AREA" on a fence closing off Rocket Lab's LC-2 pad at Wallops Island, with an Electron rocket on its side pointing toward the viewer in the background.

Friday evening was supposed to treat me to the sight of an Electron rocket lighting up the sky above Wallops Island, Va. Instead, it served up a sea of brake lights at the end of a long drive home from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

But that’s a known risk of trying to schedule a trip to see a rocket launch. The fiendishly complex machinery needed to get a launch vehicle to defy gravity’s pull and then accelerate its cargo to 17,500 miles can fail pre-launch tests, weather conditions can violate launch commit criteria, and a single boat or plane in the wrong spot will cause a range-safety violation. And those are just day-of-launch dealbreakers!

Rocket Lab’s attempt to launch Electron from the U.S. for the first time succumbed to a more mundane obstacle: NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration were still “working to close out final documentation required for launch,” per a Thursday-night tweet from Rocket Lab, which forced a delay to Dec. 18.

Originally, Rocket Lab’s work to open a U.S. launch facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (yes, MARS) on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility was set to advance with a launch of Electron Dec. 7, as announced Nov. 9.

But on Nov. 30, this “Virginia is For Launch Lovers” mission to deploy three Earth-observation satellites then got pushed back to Dec. 9 to “allow time for final pre-launch preparations.”

On Dec. 7, however, a forecast calling for “an incoming weather front bringing strong upper-level winds and unsettled conditions” led Rocket Lab to move the date back to Dec. 13.

Alas, on Dec. 11 an unspecified issue securing clearance of nearby airspace forced a two-day slip to Dec. 15–when itself got got ruled out on the 12th because of bad forecast weather and replaced with the Dec. 16 date than then suffered the aforementioned documentation veto.

That last bit of news arrived as I was already on the road to the Eastern Shore, too late to cancel the hotel booking I had waited to make until that evening after canceling four earlier reservations at the same Hampton Inn in Chincoteague. Fortunately, Rocket Lab went ahead with a tour of their Wallops facilities, including a visit to the pad to see Electron snuggled under a thermal protective blanket.

And because Wallops is only a three-plus hour drive away, my cost to not see a launch remains trivial compared to the airfare, hotel and car-rental expenses I racked up before I finally saw Endeavour fly–an experience that was worth every one of those tens of thousands of pennies.

So what about that Dec. 18 date? It remains theoretically doable, in part because a journalist friend of mine is already planning on driving to Wallops and back Sunday and offered a lift. But I’m going to wait to see if the rest of Saturday brings any new “Rocket Lab update” e-mails.

CES tips for rookie reporters, 2022 edition

This January will mark my 25th trek to CES and will be my 26th CES overall, counting the 2021 virtual edition of the show. A quarter of a century of CES practice may not have taught me how to escape having this pilgrimage to Las Vegas tear me away from my family right after the holidays, but it has given me some insight into making the gadget gathering produced by the Arlington-based Consumer Technology Association a little more efficient, productive and cheaper.

(You may have read an earlier version of this guide, but I somehow haven’t revisited this topic since 2013.)

Planning

The most annoying part of this event happens weeks before you board a plane to Vegas, when a non-trivial fraction of the tech publicists in the universe start asking if they can book a meeting with you and their client at the show. Be exceedingly conservative in accepting those invitations: You will be late to most CES meetings (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of their own.

(After getting the 50th “are you going to CES?” e-mail, you may also fairly wonder: If the time and attention of tech journalists is really this valuable, when does our compensation better reflect that?)

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung or an LG–when scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars or other shelf-stable sustenance, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a reusable water bottle; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with a generous mobile-hotspot data allocation or a WiFi hotspot); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking; twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger. And tape your business card to it, in case you leave it behind in one of the press rooms.

The West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2022, with the CES logo splashed across its glass facade.

Press conferences and other events 

The first of two media days features a light afternoon lineup of talks, followed by the CES Unveiled reception that may be your first chance in months to say hi to some fellow tech journalists and analysts. The second media day–the day before the show opens, so it’s technically CES Day Zero–consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip.

Unless you get VIP access, you can’t count on getting into every press conference–in the Before Times, the lines outside always stretched on for so long that making it into one press conference required skipping the one before it. And except for Sony’s presser at its show-floor exhibit, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware and may not even allow for Q&A with the people involved.

CES features a long line of keynotes, starting on the evening of press-conference day. They can be entertaining but often don’t get beyond being a live sales pitch for a company; you’re more likely to find news in the even longer lineup of issue-specific panels.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew puts together my trips to IFA in Berlin, subsidized by that German tech show.) Each provides access to a ballroom of vendors showing off their wares, a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both of these essential services can be in pitifully short supply around CES, so it’s good that laptop and phone battery lives have improved greatly in recent years. You should still follow the “always be charging” rule and plug in all your devices anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. The press rooms should have plenty of power strips, but that doesn’t mean one at your table will have an outlet free; if you have a compact travel power strip (my friend Rakesh Agrawal recently shared some useful advice about that in his newsletter), please bring it.

Wireless connectivity, however, hasn’t advanced as much at CES. The show has yet to feature free, event-wide WiFi, and even when individual events and venues offer WiFi you can’t expect it to work all that well. Cell coverage itself may be less than reliable in the middle of large, packed convention-center halls. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–171,268 attendees in 2020–and that you should opt for a wired connection if you can find one in a press room.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to the majority of CES exhibitors, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers, and it’s grown substantially since CES 2020.

The LVCC’s Central Hall, with 623,058 square feet of exhibit space and the home of the big-ticket electronics vendors exhibit, can eat up a day by itself, and the new, 601,960-sf West Hall can be as much of a timesuck with all of the automotive and transportation exhibits there. You shouldn’t need as much time to walk the North Hall (409,177 sf) and South Hall (908,496 sf over two levels), each home to a grab-bag of health-tech, telecom, drone and robotics vendors, among others. And don’t forget the parking lot in front of LVCC Central, which this January featured such once-unlikely CES exhibitors as John Deere and Sierra Space–the product of CTA’s efforts to broaden this show beyond consumer electronics.

Budget at least 10 minutes to get from one of these halls to another, 30 to hustle from one end to the other. The free-for-now Vegas Loop–a narrow tunnel with stops at the South, Central and West Halls traversed by Teslas driven by some of the most sociable people in Vegas–can shorten that end-to-end ride, but I’m not sure it will scale to meet CES-level demand.

But wait, there’s more! The Venetian (formerly Sands) Expo about a mile and a half southwest of the LVCC hosts most of the smart-home vendors on its main level, while its lower level hides Eureka Park, a fabulously weird space teeming with startups from around the world. A few companies also set up separate exhibits in restaurants and bars in the Venetian itself.

Many companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

The view from the front passenger seat of a Tesla as it enters the Vegas Loop tunnel from the aboveground LVCC West station.

Getting around

In a word: ugh. CES has a long history of grinding the streets of Vegas to a halt, with the Venetian Expo-LVCC shuttle bus often taking well over half an hour because Clark County apparently has never heard of bus-only lanes. (CES 2022, with attendance depressed by the pandemic to about 44,000, felt blissfully efficient in comparison.) The show shuttle buses also routinely suffered from excruciatingly long lines to board, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show.

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic, but at pre-pandemic CESes I often had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management not tolerating D.C.-level crush loads on board. And the monorail conspicuously fails to stop at the Venetian Expo–a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Linq station and walk north.

Your ride-hailing options are also iffy. Lyft and Uber are no longer the great bargain they used to be, and you may find that the pickup/dropoff zone for them at a CES venue is not as convenient as the taxi stand. Vegas taxis, meanwhile, continue to rip off passengers with a $3 credit-card fee, so have cash handy if you’ll use one.

Walking is definitely an option between places on the Strip, but it’s also your fastest way to get from the LVCC to evening events at the Wynn or the Encore even if that mile-and-change walk may remind you of how little Vegas values pedestrians off the Strip.

Don’t overlook transit. Yes, even in Vegas. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada’s bus network includes frequent service on the Strip that shouldn’t be much slower than any other vehicle stuck in traffic. The RTC’s buses can also work for getting to and from Harry Reid International Airport, provided you time your schedule to match their lengthy headways. The rideRTC app isn’t great, but it does beat waiting for a line at a ticket-vending machine or fumbling with cash.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

A ride decades in the making: Metro from Dulles

Arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport early Saturday morning was nothing like any of the dozens, maybe hundreds of times I’ve landed at IAD over the past 30 years and change: I walked to a Metro stop at the airport and took the train home, no bus connection needed.

Photo taken from a Silver Line train at Dulles shows the station sign, with IAD's main terminal just visible in the background.

Tuesday’s opening of the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line has been justified grounds for local celebration after years of local angst over schedule slips and cost overruns (even if, by average U.S. transit-construction costs, it can look like we stole the line).

But the debut of a one-seat rail link between our downtown and our international airport–a traveler-friendly feature in some U.S. cities and in many more outside the country–should be even more welcome for Washingtonians old enough to remember 20th-century transit options to Dulles.

When I first started making my acquaintance with IAD, Dulles advertised only one such route: the “Washington Flyer Coach” bus that ran every 30 minutes between the West Falls Church Metro station and the airport, at a cost of $9 one-way or $16 roundtrip that later became $10 one-way or $18 roundtrip. That was so bad that it made “can you give me a lift to Dulles?” a routine test of D.C.-area friendship. It was so inadequate that Metro adding the much cheaper 5A bus in December of 2000–which ran from L’Enfant Plaza and Rosslyn with an intermediate stop in Herndon but only did so once an hour–represented a serious improvement.

But it took having phase one of the Silver Line open in 2014, after local backers overcame such obstacles as the George W. Bush administration’s rail-skeptical Department of Transportation, to make “National or Dulles?” less of a dumb question. The Metro extension’s opening reduced my IAD transit timing from Arlington to an hour and change, factoring in a transfer at the Wiehle-Reston East station to a $5 airport-express bus or a free-with-transfer but much slower Fairfax Connector route.

Yet every time I had to sit around the bus level of that station’s garage and breathe its polluted air, I could only wish that the rest of the line would get past the concrete-drying stage.

Four years later than once estimated, that’s finally happened.

So after a short walk Saturday morning from the terminal to the station–maybe five minutes with stops to take photos–I had to celebrate by taking the Silver Line in the wrong direction to see all of it. I let a train to D.C. go by and instead boarded one to the Silver Line’s Ashburn terminus in Loudoun County.

That neighborhood of the county that in 2012 barely voted to stay in the Silver Line project is now the farthest place Metro reaches from the center of D.C. And as development around the station continues, it now has a chance to follow the path of other Metro neighborhoods and become a more pedestrian-friendly spot–or at least one where cost-conscious travelers don’t have to ask friends to give them a lift to Dulles.

A little Lisbon and Web Summit advice

When I arrived in Lisbon for Web Summit in 2016, I had about the least experience possible with the place for somebody who had visited it once before–because that previous visit happened when I was one year old. But over four more Web Summit trips in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, I’ve gotten a much deeper sense of the city and the conference.

If you’re coming to both for the first time, I hope you will find this post helpful.

A Web Summit sign in the Praça Dom Pedro IV, as seen during 2021's conference.

Arrival

Expect a terrific view of Lisbon and the Tagus River on your way into Humberto Delgado Airport–and then steel yourself for a long passport line if you don’t have a passport from one of the European Union’s member state. (This is the airport that persuaded me to renew my long-dormant Irish passport.) You can and should pick up your Web Summit badge right after you clear customs.

Getting around

The Lisbon Metro should be your new friend. Although its network is not all that extensive, it connects to the airport and Web Summit’s venue (more on that in a moment) and ensures that most parts of the center city are only a short walk from a stop. Of the various fares, I’ve found that a Zapping prepaid credit–also good on buses and Lisbon’s hill-climbing trams–has worked best for me.

Update, 10/27/2022: A reader pointed out that Web Summit has arranged for discounted multiple-day transit passes, with the best involving buying ahead of time at the Lisbon Metro’s site (for instance, €25 for five days) and then redeem at a ticket-vending machine by punching in the voucher code e-mailed to you.

Like all good European cities, Lisbon is marvelously walkable and worth strolling around aimlessly during any idle time you may have (such as the day you arrive, when you’ll want to get some sun on your face to counteract the time-zone shift). But it’s a lot steeper than most, and its stone-mosaic sidewalks are slippery when wet.

Don’t forget to eat. Portugueuse food is delicious, and eating in Lisbon was a bargain long before the dollar hit parity with the euro.

Conference app and site

Web Summit not only provides but mandates Android and iOS mobile apps that store your ticket, let you manage your schedule, and network and chat with other attendees. Think of the app on your phone as Web Summit’s answer to WeChat–except this “everything app” doesn’t come with constant state surveillance.

Unfortunately, the Web Summit app and the Web Summit site don’t synchronize. And the app somehow does not support copy and paste (judging from its performance on my Pixel 5a and iPad mini 5), so if you want to save the description and participants of a panel for your notes, you’ll need to switch from the app to the site, search for the panel on the site, and then copy the info from there.

Venue

Web Summit takes places at the Altice Arena and, next door to that roughly 20,000-seat arena, the Feira Internacional de Lisboa convention center. These buildings are about a 10-minute walk from the Oriente station on the Red Line (Linha Vermelha) of the Lisbon Metro, but it can take easily twice as long to walk from the arena to the most distant hall of the convention center. It can also take a while to get in on the first couple of days, when the queue backs up into the plaza in front of the FIL and the arena.

You should be able to rely on the conference WiFi, but power outlets may be harder to find. If you’re a speaker, you should also be able to rely on the speaker lounge for all your meals; otherwise, there are numerous food trucks and stands to choose from in the plazas between the FIL’s four halls. You should not expect to get to every panel you had in mind, but there are enough interesting talks going on that–as at one of my other regular talkfests, SXSW–it can make sense to camp out in one spot and let yourself be surprised.

Departure

The security lines at LIS can be gruesome, like 30 minutes gruesome. But if you have Star Alliance Gold status (which for U.S. readers usually means Premier Gold or higher status on United) and are flying on a Star Alliance airline like United, TAP or Lufthansa, you can take this airport’s elite-shortcut “Gold Track” line–just remember that it’s labeled “Green Way” instead of “Gold Track” because reasons.

That status also lets you stop by TAP’s lounge if you’re on a Star Alliance carrier, but with the common premium travel credit card perk of a Priority Pass membership you can also enjoy the ANA lounge (no relation to the Japanese airline) regardless of your flight. Either one is good for a breakfast before a long day above the Atlantic. Remember, though, that a potentially tedious non-EU passport exit line awaits after the lounges unless you’re flying to another Schengen-area country.

If even after standing for too long in both the security and passport lines, you still find yourself looking forward to returning to Lisbon–don’t worry, that’s a normal reaction.