Waiting for Moynihan to arrive at Penn

One of D.C.’s strongest points of civic superiority over New York can be encapsulated in four words: Union Station, Penn Station.

We have a Greek temple of a train station built around a beautiful vaulted hall, with a view of the Capitol dome out one door and Metro out another. (We’d rather not talk about Union Station’s Carter-era years of decay.) They have a dreary, subterranean space that hasn’t seen sunlight in over half a century–courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad tearing down the original Penn Station starting in 1963 to clear room for Madison Square Garden atop what was left of its waiting rooms.

That “monumental act of vandalism,” as the New York Times said in an editorial at the start of demolition, not only didn’t save the Pennsy from financial ruin but soon became a source of lasting civic shame in NYC.

The most straightforward fix possible has been obvious since the 1990s, when then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) championed building a new train hall in the James A. Farley Post Office building across 8th Avenue from Penn. That edifice not only sits atop Penn’s train platforms but was built in the same neoclassical style as the original Penn–and designed by the same architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.

But the deal that seemed done in 1997 died multiple deaths and experienced multiple resurrections over the subsequent years. New York did build a concourse under Farley for Long Island Rail Road passengers–it’s much less bleak than the rest of Penn–but I doubted things would progress further until the state announced a signed deal last June to build a Moynihan Trail Hall in the Farley building.

And the crazy thing is, construction is now, finally, underway. On my way to Penn Friday, I couldn’t miss the construction cranes perched above the Farley building. And after I got home, I read that workers have begun installing gigantic canopies over that structure’s courtyards.

That’s exciting to me, even if Amtrak says I’ll have to wait until 2021 to see the finished product. (And if I’ll have to give up a bit of D.C. snobbery.) It’s also exciting to my mother, who grew up in New York and remembers what the original looked like, even before its pre-demolition decline. When they finally open the new hall, I know what I want to do: take the train into a reborn Penn Station with Mom, then have her tell me if they did the place justice.

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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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A request for travel-app developers: automatic screen brightness

This weekend has many of you on planes and trains, which means many of you have been  fussing with smartphone apps to get a ticket’s QR code to scan properly. Thanksgiving-weekend travel pain may be unavoidable, but code-scanning snafus should be a solvable problem.

national-airport-runway-1They remain unsolved in practice because travel-app developers can’t seem to grasp the idea of brightening the phone’s screen automatically when displaying a boarding pass. Instead, these apps keep leaving that work to you.

That’s definitely the case with the Android travel apps I use most often, United Airlines and Amtrak. With UA, I can sometimes get away with leaving the screen on its usual brightness–but not if I want to have the code scan properly at both the TSA checkpoint and the gate. With Amtrak, even maxing out the brightness–something the conductors always remind passengers to do–doesn’t ensure the ticket will scan on the first time.

(I’m kicking myself for not calling out this shortfall in Amtrak’s app when I reviewed it in 2012.)

If I had an iPhone, I could bring up United boarding passes and Amtrak tickets in the Wallet app, which does brighten the screen automatically. But I don’t own an iPhone, and neither does a huge fraction of the traveling public.

From what I can tell, other airline apps are no smarter about this. American Airlines’ app doesn’t appear to adjust screen brightness (although that company should probably first fix the issue that results in a boarding pass becoming invalid if you don’t bring it up at least 30 minutes before boarding) and Delta’s doesn’t seem to either.

Paper is wasteful, but at least I know my ticket code will work every time. When I go to a Nationals game, it’s my only option–the barcode scanners at the turnstiles have yet to accept a ticket code in an e-mailed ticket, no matter how bright the screen on my phone gets. (My wife’s iPhone 6 doesn’t have that hangup, because reasons.)

Meanwhile, Eventbrite’s app has automatically maxed out screen brightness when I bring up an event’s ticket since the first day I opened it. It’s too bad that I’m almost never asked to show a ticket code on my phone when I show up at an event booked through that service. Perhaps it would help if somebody set up an event for travel-app developers and required Eventbrite mobile tickets?

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.