A new adventure in digital imaging

I started my week by concluding a day and a half of not eating any solid food, then getting knocked out and having a camera boldly go where no camera had gone before. By which I mean I finally had a colonoscopy–a medical procedure that was a mystery to me until a few months ago.

I don’t want it to be a mystery to you, so I’ll try to explain it here.

The reason to go through this ritual is because colorectal cancer is both common–the fourth most common kind of cancer in the U.S., and have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?–and relatively easy to prevent with proper screening.

An overdue physical exam last year reminded me that I was overdue for this check-up. After an unproductive round of phone calls (the first office suggested proved itself incapable of returning a call), I had a screening scheduled. For several months later.

Fortunately, that screening yielded a colonoscopy date just two weeks away. Which, after a health-insurance glitch that briefly saw the insurance company appear to question my existence, led me to boarding the gastrointestinal roller coaster of colonoscopy prep.

“Prep” here means preparing your colon for its close-up: The camera that a doctor will send into your large intestine by the shortest possible path–that’s right, up your butt–works best with a view devoid of any food remnants. Prep routines vary, but the people at this office instructed me to have a light dinner Saturday and then stick to a clear liquid diet Sunday.

The directions for that fasting diet had some inequities: Black coffee, tea without milk, non-red Gatorade and ginger ale were fine, but vodka was not. I made do with a cup of coffee in the morning, a ginger ale in mid-afternoon, and then nothing but water. Somehow, the hunger stopped bothering me as much halfway through the day.

The fun really started in the afternoon, when I had to start drinking the diarrhea-inducing prescription medicine that would leave that part of my innards unobstructed. In my case, the beverage was something called Clenpiq, which made me think of “clean pig,” which made me think of the “cleaning pig” machines used to clean pipelines–as in, the task of this concoction.

The two roughly 6-oz. bottles I got were labeled as “cranberry flavor,” and I think the American Cranberry Growers Association might have grounds for a lawsuit here. A bit under two hours after making my way through the first bottle, I made the first of a great many visits to a bathroom. I won’t get into the details, but I will confirm that the descriptions offered by Anne Helen Petersen and Dave Barry aren’t that far off.

The second bottle was harder to get through, mainly because I knew what was coming. But after additional bathroom time, drinking a lot of water, and much more Sunday-newspaper reading than usual, I finally went to bed.

The rest was easy. After my wife dropped me off at the hospital Monday morning, I got checked in, changed into a dressing gown, had my vitals taken and saline administered to counteract my dehydration, waited a bit, and got wheeled into the room where it would happen. I wondered which beeps I heard corresponded to which of my vital signs, was told to turn on my side, and the anesthesia started.

As I was trying to decide if I felt anything from that drug, I clicked out. I woke up feeling like nothing had happened, then had my first solid food since Saturday night: graham crackers.

The report I got afterward informed me that they’d found and removed one benign polyp–good for coral but not for colons–and removed it for later examination, the important part being the removal ensuring that it could not grow into a tumor. I also got a printout of the images taken inside the tail end of my digestive tract, some of which evoked Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io and others that suggested I was pregnant with some alien life form.

The last chapter of this medical adventure was one I hadn’t quite been read into: not being able to poop for two days, then having trouble doing just that before the plumbing involved gradually resumed its usual operation.

And now I know what to expect the next time I go through this. In addition to hoping the next colonoscopy also finds nothing serious, I hope somebody can come up with a prep drink that’s a little less gag-inducing.

I’m most domestic when I’m post-international

Coming home from the other side of the Atlantic, as I did once again Friday, reliably drop-kicks me into the “do not operate heavy machinery” zone of fatigue. No matter how much sleep I might get over a long day in a pressurized metal tube over the ocean, no matter how poorly I felt like I adjusted to my trip’s destination time zone, 6 p.m. on the East Coast remains 11 p.m., midnight or 1 a.m. where my journey had started somewhere in Europe.

Close up of the dial on an LG washing machine show it set to run a load of laundry on the delicates setting.

But because I know of no better way to get myself back into my home time zone than to stay up until a normal bedtime, this light fugue state also primes me for housework. Chores like doing laundry, washing dishes, baking bread, cleaning countertops, tidying up spaces and taking out the trash or recycling share a few convenient virtues for this scenario: They don’t don’t require exceptional dexterity, any higher-level math, or prolonged concentration. These household tasks also help to keep my jet-lagged brain off social media and, most important, represent tasks that I’d neglected over previous days by being 4,000 miles or so out of place.

And since part of the point of this exercise in tired housework is to make those evening hours go by a little faster, I have to see it as not a bug but a feature that these chores often require an extra level of diligence. Case in point: Before dinner last night, I spent a good 10 minutes walking circles around the house to try to locate my passport, only to realize that it was right in my laptop bag.

Testing positive for Covid requires sending a whole lot of notifications

At the start of last weekend, two negative Covid tests in a row had me thinking that my sore throat was the result of too much conference socializing or maybe a summer cold. But then I self-tested one more time Sunday night, because I was set to fly to Denver the next afternoon for the Stream TV Show–and that positive result has since led to my having to notify more people than I might have imagined.

An Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow Covid-19 rapid antigen test shows the two strips that indicate a positive result.

That list started with the toughest case: my wife and my kid, from whom I’d have to isolate at home until no longer testing positive. Fortunately, in-house quarantine is easier to manage in the spring when you can open every window for maximum ventilation and eat every meal on the front or back porch.

Next I had to e-mail the organizers of my now-foregone conference. I said I’d cancel my flights and keep that trip credit handy for their next event, after which I’d complete my outline for my panel and e-mail those notes to whoever might step in for me. They were okay with that.

Then I e-mailed the people I’d spent the most time talking to at last week’s WithSecure conference in Helsinki. (The organizers had covered my airfare and hotel, but I’m not sure I can call that travel “free” now.) None of them have written back to say that they’ve since tested positive, which makes me wonder if I’d been in the wrong square meter of indoor space for the wrong 15 minutes.

After that, I sent a note to the organizers of Dublin Tech Summit, where I’m supposed to speak next week. I advised them that while I was reasonably optimistic that I’d get past this and resume testing negative by this weekend, I couldn’t guarantee that. They wished me luck.

Screenshot of the COVIDWISE app for Android that shows the screen on which you enter an eight-digit verification code to sumit a positive test result.

My last act of notification didn’t invove conversations with actual humans. After getting an official PCR test Monday and receiving the results early Tuesday along with confirmation that they’d been reported to the Virginia Department of Health, I had to share them anonymously with VDH’s COVIDWISE exposure-notification app. That would allow other people with smartphones running Apple and Google’s privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework to get warnings of their potential exposure if this software concluded they’d been sufficiently close to me for sufficiently long, as judged by algorithms computing randomized Bluetooth beacons.

The e-mail and text I got from the test operator Curative didn’t say how I would do that. But the app itself explained that I had to visit a VDH page and plug in my last name, birth date and test date to get a verification code that I could then type into the app. That’s “type,” not “copy and paste,” because this Android app refused the latter form of input.

My wife reported that her copy of COVIDWISE pushed a notification of the possible exposure nine hours later. But the more important thing is that no other sort of Covid notification has greeted her or our kid since then. Five days after first testing positive and entering my little house arrest–during which my sore throat and nasal congestion have vanished as the positive strip on my recent tests has begun to look notably lighter than on earlier tests–I remain the only person in the family to have exhibited any symptoms this month or tested positive ever.

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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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.

Thanks, science

Unlike a year ago, I’m not writing a post-Thanksgiving post from my own house. Instead, my family and I were able to travel and spend this holiday with my mom as well as my brother and his family. And one of the many things for which we’re thankful is the unprecedented worldwide effort that allowed us all to get vaccinated, with the two youngest members of this family reunion getting their first doses earlier this month.

That was what I had hoped might somehow be possible once the awfulness of the pandemic broke through my early denial, but there was no guarantee that the scientists of the world could fulfill that hope. And there was even less reason to think that the United States would have three effective vaccines in sufficiently wide distribution to have more than 196 million Americans now fully vaxxed.

I am profoundly grateful to everybody who has spent long days in laboratories, hospitals, clinics and other medical workplaces to get us to this point. They have cleared a path for us all to move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands that Winston Churchill spoke of during another time of worldwide peril.

(Seeing this effort firsthand and making a microscopic contribution to it as an occasional vax-clinic volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps–most recently, a week before Thanksgiving, when I had the welcome sight of parents lining up with under-12 kids–has been a tremendous honor.)

At the same time, a year ago I would not have guessed that an early rush to get vaccinated would fade as people either thought the pandemic was done and they could sit out getting a jab–or believed the conspiracy lies of politicians and propagandists about vaccines. I also would not have thought that vaccine distribution around the world would still be this uneven this far along.

Today’s agonizing news of yet another coronavirus variant is the reminder we shouldn’t have needed that taking our eyes off a moving target will cost us. But while you cannot count out humans’ capacity for stupidity and sloth, the last year and change should also offer more than enough reminder that it’s unwise to bet against human ingenuity.

9/11 + 20

Photo taken from a Rosslyn rooftop Sept. 8 shows the "tower of light" tribute shining into the night sky from the Pentagon, with the river, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument to its left.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.

As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”

The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.

It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.

The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”

At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.

As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.

Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

More things I have learned from being a cat’s human

Among the many changes the pandemic has led to in our home, this one’s the weirdest: We now routinely wake up with a live animal ensconced on our bed.

It took several months for the cat we adopted a year ago Thursday to decide that his preferred sleeping spot was at the end of our bed… and then for my wife and I to realize how we appreciated having Abel be our foot warmer, especially in winter. We also now have an extra alarm clock, in the form of Abel walking over or around us once he thinks it’s time to get up.

Photo shows Abel sitting on my laptop and a WiFi hotspot

If you are not a cat’s human, the preceding two paragraphs may look weird. I get it; I was not read up on this element of cat bonding myself before last May’s increase to our house’s population.

I also didn’t realize that while Abel would be capable of understanding the words “off” or “down” when we ask him to get off the dining room table, his compliance would not stop him from jumping from floor to chair to back on the table five minutes later. (This remains a source of shrugging amusement.)

Nor did I know about the weird noises cats make while grooming themselves–or that I would learn to tune out that self-care soundtrack.

And while I was aware of all the hair cats shed, I definitely did not Get The Memo about the inevitable byproduct of cat sneezes.

And yet the newest member of our family provides endless amusement around the house, allows me to contribute to the Internet’s stock of cat photos, lives up to the low-maintenance reputation of cats by spending much of the day sleeping, and returns our affection by nuzzling us and sometimes rubbing noses–and I didn’t realize how great that last part would be. We have a good little cat. Happy adoptiversary, Abel!

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.