Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

WeChat, but I can’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An avgeek treat: experiencing a takeoff from the cockpit jumpseat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

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

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

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

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

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

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