WAS-NYP-WAS: commuting from D.C. to NYC and back

New York is my most frequent travel destination, and my most frequent mode of transportation to there is Amtrak train 2100, the 6 a.m. (lately, 5:55 a.m.) Acela Express.

This train keeps showing up on my calendar despite my fondness for sleeping in past 4:40 a.m. because it works to get me to morning meetings in Manhattan. And because the next few Acela departures get ridiculously expensive unless you book weeks or maybe months in advance.

early-morning-acela(Don’t even talk to me about flying. Transit-starvedtraffic-choked LaGuardia is not an airport I need to see again, I’d get much less work done on the way, and I would save little to no time when I can usually walk from Penn Station to whatever event has me in NYC for the day.)

So I keep getting up in the middle of the night–Thursday being the latest example–and finding myself marveling at the sight of stars from my front porch before heading out.

If I’m taking Metro, I need to catch the first inbound train of the day and not run into any delays of more than a few minutes. Thursday, with Metro’s struggles on my mind, I summoned an Uber and enjoyed the rare spectacle of a 14th Street Bridge free of traffic.

Union Station is not too crowded at 5:40 in the morning, and seeing all the people in suits greet each other on the train reminds me that it could be worse: I could be doing this as often as them. Noticing MARC trains bringing commuters into Union Station that early gives me the same reaction.

Thursday, the sun didn’t rise until we crossed the Susquehanna River. That’s not bad compared to taking this train in the winter, when I’ve had to wait until somewhere in Delaware.

trenton-makes-the-world-takesWith the sun up, seeing familiar scenery like the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River helps the miles go by. So does the right Northeast Corridor-specific soundtrack, which always includes Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and Suzanne Vega’s “Ironbound (Fancy Poultry).”

After years of seeing decades-old infrastructure unchanged, the past couple of years have allowed me to watch the progress of a long-overdue upgrade: replacing 1930s-vintage overhead wires north of Trenton. At Penn Station, meanwhile, I’m waiting on another project: the new concourse and entrances on 8th Avenue, which have to be less grim than Penn’s current setup.

After a day of NYC events, the trip home usually takes place on train 2173, the 8-ish Acela. Again, ticket prices often dictate that scheduling–the earlier Acela departures cost too much.

The upside of this train: If you’ve burned Amtrak points for first-class upgrade coupons or you got some with Select or higher Guest Rewards status, there should be space at the end of the train where they bring the food to you. The downside: The train rolls into Union Station after 11, a time when Metro rebuilding-induced delays may or may not mean I get home after 12:30.

That was the case Thursday, when my day ended almost 21 hours after it began. Friday was not my most productive day ever.

Memo to frequent-traveler programs: Kids shouldn’t need their own e-mail addresses

Our almost-six-year-old is already in multiple marketing databases, and it’s all my fault: Once our daughter couldn’t depart with us for free, we started signing her up for frequent-travel programs. The price of miles and points are already baked into the tickets we buy for her, so we might as well take part–and besides, you’ll never hit million-miler status if you don’t start sometime.

JetBlue River Visual viewBut tending these accounts has been more work than I imagined, because some companies have a hard time grasping that children represent a special group of customers who can’t be expected to have their own e-mail addresses.

At first I thought I’d solved this problem with “sub-addressing”creating a new e-mail address on my existing Gmail account by adding a plus sign and additional text to my username. It’s an Internet standard, and I had no issues creating accounts for our daughter at United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, and Amtrak with a “plus-ed” address.

But when I tried logging into our daughter’s United and JetBlue accounts a week ago and was greeted with various errors, I saw that both airlines had stopped accepting sub-addressed e-mails.

The problem was worse at JetBlue, since your TrueBlue ID is your e-mail address. I had to call and provide our kid’s account number and the no-longer-accepted e-mail address; the rep told me she needed her own e-mail address but then accepted a version of my Gmail account with a dot in the middle of my username. It’s weird to have to go through such a workaround when JetBlue’s site has a separate workflow to create a child account.

At United, I could change her e-mail to a dotted version of my Gmail handle after logging in, since MileagePlus account numbers double as usernames. United’s Twitter account then told me I could have put in my own e-mail for her account from the start. I would not have guessed that, since UA’s account-opening UX assumes you’re a grownup–and the e-mails sent to our kid suggesting she jet off to the likes of Australia, Brazil and Israel don’t exactly speak to the under-10 demographic.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and American Airlines still seem to tolerate plus-ed e-mail addresses. (I can’t speak to Delta, as that airline’s network doesn’t work for us.) But after the last week, I won’t be surprised if our little one gets unexpectedly locked out of either account; I just hope I don’t have to spend too much time on the phone to fix that problem.

Weekly output: Chromebook, newspapers and search engines, Amtrak, photo spheres, Google Calendar, Gmail

What’s not on this list? Any gift-guide pieces or reports about Black Friday sales. I can’t say I miss those two staples of Thanksgiving-week tech coverage… and yet I feel vaguely guilty about dodging them.

11/19/2012: Google’s cheaper Chromebook: enough of a computer, Boing Boing

Having this fall’s implementation by Samsung of Google’s Chromebook laptop concept priced for half of last summer’s made the results easier to like. But Samsung also gave this $249 model better battery life and faster performance, while Google contributed more offline-compatible Web apps. I’m tempted to pick up one to have as a backup computer, which was not the case a year ago.

11/19/2012: A Business Perspective on the Snippet Tax, Disruptive Competition Project

My second post for this tech-policy blog picked up where a 2009 rant over stupid newspaper publishers whining about news-search sites had left off. Now, it’s news organizations in other countries complaining that Google News and sites like it are taking away readers; I’m not any more persuaded by that logic three years later.

11/20/2012: Amtrak’s New App: Does It Actually Make Travel Easier?, The Atlantic Cities

I like trains, and I like smartphone apps that simplify my life a little. I wasn’t sure that Amtrak’s offering for iOS and Android would be worth keeping around, but after using it to book and manage a round-trip from D.C. to NYC, I see where the railroad is going with it.

On Wednesday, USA Today was kind enough to publish a condensed version of last weekend’s Q&A about adding a Start menu to Windows 8 in its print edition. That was the first time I’ve appeared in a newspaper of any kind since Roll Call ran a version of a post I did for the Consumer Electronics Association just over a year a ago , and my first spot in a general-interest paper since I logged off from the Post in April of 2011.

11/24/2012: Spherical Panoramas from a Phone, Discovery News

Writing about a feature confined to a new Android release that most users of Google’s operating system won’t see for months, or ever, seems unfair, but the 4.2 edition’s “photo sphere” option genuinely intrigued me. Alas, I initially neglected to note that the older iOS app Photosynth–from a Redmond, Wash.-based software developer called Microsoft you may have heard of–can also generate interactive spherical panoramas from a phone’s camera.

11/25/2012: How to sync your Google calendar with your iPad, USA Today

Credit for this Q&A item goes to my wife, who asked me about this problem on her iPad. Credit for the tip about a new Gmail search option goes to the Google Operating System blog, an old favorite of mine, which brought that change to my attention last week.