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?

So, that happened. Again.

It was past 2 a.m. on a weeknight in October when I started writing a blog post, which has come to mean that my city’s baseball team has lost another postseason series.

The Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Dodgers did not hurt as badly as 2012’s gut-punch loss to the Cardinals or our 2014 demise at the hands of the Giants, highlighted by an 18-inning defeat at which I had the dubious privilege of being in the stands for every single pitch. We never had the game in the bag, and there was no catastrophic moment of failure. But the output is the same: a need to spend a few minutes “reflecting on everything that’s good about my life.”

(That link doesn’t point to the original ESPN copy of Bill Simmons’ magnificent post on the 2003 ALCS, because some idiotic ad fail makes it unreadable for more than a few seconds. As Simmons has been wont to say: No, I’m not bitter.)

nats-park-2016-nldsOn one level, I know that the cherry blossoms will bloom again next spring, and every team will be in first place on opening day. I will once again enjoy seeing batters leg out triples and fielders turn double plays. And if the Nats are good enough to get into the postseason, anything can happen.

On another level, I want to see my city win a championship while I am alive to enjoy it, and our recent history does not give grounds for optimism. The Capitals have gotten closer than any other local franchise with their 1998 appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, but since then they seem to have developed a postseason glass jaw. The Wizards suffer from the same ailment, plus it’s the NBA and the same handful of teams win the finals anyway. The local NFL franchise looks doomed on multiple karmic metrics, and I’m pretty much checked out of football anyway.

I would love to see Georgetown win the NCAAs more than almost anything, but I don’t think my alma mater is mercenary enough to make that happen. Getting to the Final Four in 2007 was pretty great, but next year brought the calamity I refer to as the “[varying expletive] Easter Sunday game,” and it’s been bad ever since.

That leaves the Nats. I like their odds in the long term, given how open MLB’s postseason is to teams that jump on it–remember, Kansas City won it all last year. But I’d also like to see myself spending an insane amount of money on postseason tickets while the onetime Washington Senators fan who sat next to us last night can enjoy it too.

See you at Nats Park in the spring. This is my home, this is my team. D.C. or nothing.

Weekly output: MLB regional blackouts, Sprint and T-Mobile “unlimited” plans (x2), Tech Night Owl

This week brought the unusual experience of a story getting taken down a few hours after its appearance. The post in question covered the regional blackouts that prevent MLB.tv subscribers from watching their home team online and my use of an alternative domain-name service called Unlocator.com to work around them. I’ve expressed my annoyance at the fan-hostile nature of regional blackouts before, but this story was my first to document how to defeat them… and Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief thought it went too far in telling people just how to break the rules, so he decided to take it down.

Facebook share of Yahoo Finance postBefore you ask, I don’t know what Major League Baseball thinks of the story, as I haven’t heard anything from anybody there since the background conversation I had with a publicist Monday afternoon in which I recounted my Unlocator use. I do know that I’m nowhere near the first person to write a how-to about beating blackouts–see, for example, this April piece from the Los Angeles Times’ Chris Erskine. I’m going to chalk this up to my not reading my client correctly.

8/19/2016: T-Mobile and Sprint’s new unlimited plans aren’t exactly unlimited, Yahoo Finance

As part of August’s stubborn refusal to act like the slow news month it’s supposed to be, Sprint and T-Mobile each introduced new, cheaper “unlimited” data plans that each contain significant limits (like an absence of usable tethering at T-Mo). Most subscribers should avoid these offers, but many may find them tempting because their own phones make it difficult to track how much data they use.

8/20/2016: August 20, 2016 — Rob Pegoraro and Jeff Gamet, Tech Night Owl

I talked with host Gene Steinberg about those new price plans, the state of municipal broadband, and Windows 10’s first anniversary. I would have sounded less positive about Win 10 had I known before the recording of this podcast that the Windows 10 Anniversary Update broke many third-party webcams.

8/21/2016: Unlimited plans at Sprint, T-Mobile have limited appeal, USA Today

My editors at USAT wanted me to compare these two new offerings to the unlimited-data deals they replaced and to the other plans available at each carrier. Sprint’s all-you-can-browse deal came out of this exercise looking a good deal better than T-Mobile’s.

You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.

 

The Nats Park entrance music we need

Baseball has returned to the nation’s capital once again–a phrase Washingtonians could not say for 34 years–and with it comes a new season’s ballpark soundtrack.

Yes, trades and departures have silenced some of the Nationals’ better tunes, like Tyler Clippard’s crafty pick of the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” or the Michael Morse at-bat sing-along of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” But as Bryce Harper’s solo shot reminded everybody during Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Marlins, the Nats remain blessed with the finest home run celebration ever, the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose.”

Nats Park home opener 2016That song should be all the hint the Nats need about finding entrance music that both speaks to here and gets people nodding their heads or tapping their feet. Here are my nominations, none of which show up in MLB Plate Music’s quasi-authoritative list and all of which you can and should enjoy on this Spotify playlist:

“Waiting Room,” Fugazi: Anyone who doesn’t perk up on hearing the bass line that opens this D.C. punk-rock classic is welcome to root for Atlanta. Besides, this song deserves better local-sports treatment than its turn as soundtrack material for our snakebit NFL franchise.

“Run Joe,” Chuck Brown: This cover of Louis Jordan’s song would help to remedy the insufficient supply of go-go at Nats Park. And if no player picks it, the team could still play it to celebrate a successful steal.

“What Do You Want Me To Say,” The Dismemberment Plan: I am sufficiently in the tank for this band that I struggled for some time to pick a worthy at-bat song from their catalogue. This one got a nod for its propulsive start.

“Hello,” Back Yard Band: This improbably peppy cover of Adele’s ballad is not only likely to confuse visiting teams and fans, the shout-outs to D.C. neighborhoods would make it a great fit for the ballpark just across South Cap from “Southwest, Southwest…”

“Mt. Pleasant,” Tuscadero: There has to be a player for the Nats who either lives in Mount Pleasant or a few blocks away in Columbia Heights and who therefore needs to adopt this 1990s bubble-gum-punk salute to that ‘hood.

“DC or Nothing,” Wale: Some of the lyrics here would be a little edgy in a MLB context (see also Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” another tune that would be awesome as somebody’s walk-up anthem), but, man, this is a great song. Harper seems to think so too.

“House of Cards Main Title Theme,” Jeff Beal: This would have to be the exclusive property of an aging pitcher who puts batters away with deception and guile. If Drew Storen could jog to the mound with Johnny Cash’s foreboding version of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” booming across Nats Park, this can and will work too.

MLB playoffs > NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs

It’s 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ division series against the Giants. I am excited to see my city’s team playing in October. And a little nervous. Nats 2014 postseason tickets

The 2014 postseason–the second the Nats have reached since coming to D.C. nine years ago, also the second for a Washington baseball team since 1933–may end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or it may end in the kind of soul-crushing loss that leaves one staring blankly into space until 4 a.m. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that baseball’s postseason–the difficulty of reaching it, the unpredictable outcomes allowed by a quick schedule and five-game division series, and the overall beauty of the national pastime–beats football’s, basketball’s and hockey’s. Let’s inventory what those other prime-time pro sports get wrong:

NFL: The impossibility of multiple-game playoff rounds in a sport as injury-prone/dangerous as football keeps the postseason relatively brief. But teams with a regular-season losing record can get in. And the hype about the Super Bowl–should I call it the “Big Game” to avoid annoying the NFL’s control freaks?–irks me to no end. Get over yourselves already.

(I have other issues with the NFL, but I’ll save those for later.)

NBA: By bloating the postseason to four best-of-seven rounds and then further padding out the schedule with a travel-dense 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA ensures that its playoffs regularly welcome teams with losing records and then grind on for almost two months. Wrong. And then the same handful of teams dominate the Finals. Boring.

NHL: Hockey, too, lets losing teams into its postseason. But my major gripe with the Stanley Cup playoffs–aside from the Caps’ helplessness in them–is the nearly two-month duration that ends with the absurdity of a sport born on frozen bodies of water being played in June.

(As for soccer: MLS, your postseason is fine by me, especially with D.C. United in it.)

Heartache and hard lessons

Thursday night, I saw the greatest game of baseball ever played at Nationals Park. Friday night, I witnessed its saddest contest: a nightmare of a Game 5 loss that saw the Nationals turn a 6-0 laugher into a 9-7 termination of the season that sends the Cardinals to the National League Championship Series and leaves Washington counting the days until pitchers and catchers report.

It hurt to watch in person–to see the wheel ratchet from “we’re running away with this” to “we’ve still got this” to “three more outs” to “just one more out” to “we need another walk-off win” to “oh, no.”

Like many Washington-engineered calamities, this one was built by committee. Gio Gonzalez lost his command in the fourth and fifth innings, coughing up three runs. After the initial six-run onslaught, we went four innings without pushing another run across the plate. Davey Johnson somehow summoned our fifth-best starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to pitch in relief in the sixth, leaving lights-out reliever Ryan Mattheus on the bench; we were lucky to only surrender one run then. From our unimpeachable perspective in section 319, the umpires squeezed us on the strike zone. Tyler Clippard made one mistake pitch in the eighth that left the ball in the Nats bullpen. St. Louis forgot to quit, even when behind by a touchdown. And then Drew Storen couldn’t get that last strike, three times. Game over.

In an alternate universe, I might have tuned out most of this. I grew up so far in the sticks in New Jersey that going to games in New York or Philly was something confined to the very rare day trip. ( The first one I remember was seeing the Phillies at the Vet, which by itself could turn anybody off of baseball.) My dad, maybe as a result of a childhood in the Cleveland area, didn’t make much of a habit of watching games. My mom grew up in the Bronx but was never enough of a Yankees fan to pass that on to me either–to my lasting relief. This beautiful game that we invented was just another thing on TV.

Despite the occasional night out at Camden Yards after college and my annual fleeting interest in the postseason, the baseball gene did not get switched on until 2002. That was when, after too many trips to see my brother in Boston that hadn’t included a stop at Fenway Park, I decided to see what I’d missed. I paid too much on eBay for two tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game that ended in epic form–a blown Mariano Rivera save and a game-winning home run over the Green Monster.

That got me paying attention to standings and box scores, and a year later the game rewarded me with the horror of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

Some gangs initiate new recruits by beating them bloody. This was my initiation to baseball.

And yet the next year, it paid off when I watched the Sox win it all.

I hope the Nationals’ story in 2013–when we’ll have Stephen Strasburg all season, Bryce Harper will have a year of seasoning, and Storen won’t be be recovering from elbow surgery–plays out along those lines. But you never know. Seven years of going to games at RFK and Nats Park, more lost than won, have taught that lesson well. Tonight pounded in a few others: That you can’t ease up while you’re ahead or give up when you’re behind–even far behind. That counting on somebody else to fix your problems doesn’t always work. That expecting luck to operate one way never does.

I’m not going to say that this habit is the most rational use of my time and money, or that it exhibits the most balanced outlook on life. But if I wasn’t going to risk the heartbreak of last night, I wouldn’t have been around for the ecstasy of Thursday–or the magical first innings yesterday when it looked like we were walking into the NLCS. Like Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: Buy the ticket, take the ride.