Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Diet Coke: Fountain vs. Can

My friend W and I are both Diet Coke addicts, and we have both made the observation that we prefer the fountain variety (from places like McD's) over the can. I've always been curious why that is.

Then, I opened a can of Diet Coke from my garage and it tasted NASTY. There was no flavor to it at all. It tasted like soda water. So I went on the Diet Coke website to look for a way to report it to the company. In the Frequently Asked Questions on the website, I found this:
Why is the U.S. fountain version of Diet Coke sweetened with aspartame and saccharin?

Because aspartame by itself is heat and pH-sensitive (meaning it loses sweetness over time), the concentrated found syrup causes aspartame to lose it sweetness faster than it would in a finished beverage. Fountain diet drinks, therefore, are sweetened with a blend of aspartame and saccharin to assure maximum product quality.
This explains both why the Diet Coke I had from the garage was nasty and why W and I prefer the fountain variety of Diet Coke. First, the Diet Coke in the garage came from a large case that's been sitting in the HEAT in the garage for quite some time, so I think the aspartame lost its sweetness. Second, the fountain variety has SACCHARIN in it!!!

Who knew?

Flashback - It was always weird for me pulling in to foreign ports and buying their local version of "Coke Light" and getting used to the sweetness of the saccharin they still use in the canned sodas overseas. Then, coming home from deployment, I would have to let my tastebuds get used to the American version with aspartame again.

Come to think of it, I coulda sworn saccharin had been outlawed in the U.S. When I looked it up on wikipedia though, it says it is not, in fact, banned in the U.S. (but it is in Canada). There was a proposed ban in 1977, and that's probably why a lot of soda companies switched to other artificial sweeteners like aspartame, but studies since then have shown it is NOT a carcinogen. "In 1991, after fourteen years, the FDA formally withdrew its 1977 proposal to ban the use of saccharin, and in 2000, the U.S. Congress repealed the law requiring saccharin products to carry health warning labels" (from the Wikipedia article).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Invisible Shield

Sticking to my previous disclaimer, nobody at Zagg or anywhere else is paying me or giving me anything for this.

I'm a big fan of the Invisible Shield screen protectors from Zagg.

They originally designed this stuff to strengthen Army helicopter blades. Turns out, the stuff works great for screen protectors on handheld electronic devices.

Zagg makes them pre-cut for every handheld electronic gadget known to man. Over the years I have bought one for just about everything I own with any sort of a display screen. I have one on my old Palm Pilot, on my new BlackBerry, on my GPS Receiver, on my Polar heartrate monitor watch... Even if you have something they haven't already pre-cut the correct size for, you can custom order the size you need.

They're really easy to put on - a lot easier than your typical sticky screen protectors. Other screen protectors I had tried on my Palm Pilot were like messing around with a sheet of scotch tape - getting stuck to your fingers or to itself and being unforgiving about realigning it after you've already stuck it on. With the Invisible Shield, you spray it with a special solution and it won't stick to your fingers or anything else. You put it on your display, slide it back and forth to the right alignment, squeegee off the excess solution and let it dry.

Once it dries, you can't really tell it's there anymore. The website has some videos of them trying to scratch the heck out of screens of iPods with car keys, and it leaves no marks or evidence whatsoever. Like I said, I've been using them for years on my gadgets and I've had no scratches or any other blemishes on any of them, in spite of geocaching and hiking and banging the stuff on rocks.

Anyway, the reason I am writing about them TONIGHT is that when I placed an order on their website tonight, they sent me two one taken, one left - one-time-use coupons for 20% off that I could forward to friends. They expire in 30 days. If you want one of the the last coupons, drop me an email and I'll forward it to you.

Jib Jab

In case you've never heard of it, Jib Jab is a website with some pretty funny satirical cartoons (and some pretty obnoxious and some pretty obscene ones, too - I don't recommend browsing the JibJab cartoons with small children around).

One of my favorites was "This Land" during the last Presidential election campaign. In case you missed it, here it is:



Well, it's election season again, and Jib Jab has come through with another spoof on the candidates. With this one, they have made it so you can copy a photo of yourself and insert it into the video.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Summer Vacation Movie Marathon Weekend

You know your kids are done with summer vacation when...

...you find them in their bedroom playing "school" and ES is reading a book to YB.

That was a first for us.

Even so, they're going to seriously go into J & M withdrawal when school starts. They've been spending all day every day playing with J & M from the house across the street. Whenever we want to go run and errand somewhere (like to get haircuts this afternoon), regardless if we're only going to be gone for like an HOUR, and in spite of the fact that they've already been playing with J & M for like FIVE HOURS, you'd think we were driving the WAH-mbulance. They sit there and WHINE about how they want to go HOME to play with J & M.

Good Lord! There is MORE to life besides playing with your friends and making a disaster area of both our houses and our front yards and leaving toys strewn across the street between our houses (or at least sidewalk chalk drawings).

I also don't look forward to the goodbyes we will have to endure in a little over a month. It was hard when Z & C moved out of that same house across the street back in October. In fact, it took a while for the boys to even approach or start to play with J & M, because they were sad over loosing Z & C and it was weird having someone else living in Z & C's house.

Movie Marathon Weekend

Yesterday, J & M's mom B invited us to go with them to see Kung Fu Panda at the Sharkey Theater matinee. The Sharkey Theater is a really good bargain. Active duty are free. I think adults are like $3 and kids over six are like $1.50. It's amazing for all four of us to go to a movie theater and pay like $6 to get in and another $5 or so in refreshments.

The drawback is the place was packed. If you're tall like me, your knees rub up against the row of seats in front of you. Little kids were squealing and crying in various corners of the place. We actually saw several of our neighbors there, too.

Anyway, in spite of the drawbacks, Kung Fu Panda was really funny, and we all laughed a lot. Thanks to B for inviting us along!

Rounding out our movie marathon weekend, we watched the second part of our Tom Hanks double-header tonight - The Man with One Red Shoe. This one was WAY over YB's head and he didn't even attempt to watch it. He built a fort out of couch pillows and blankets instead.

ES enjoyed it, but it was a bit over his head and he had a lot of questions. I had to pause the movie several times to explain whether the spies currently on the screen were the good guy spies following Tom Hanks to protect him and make him look important to the bad guys spies or if they were the bad guy spies trying to figure out why the good guy spies were following him.

Two of the less comfortable questions ES asked... First, there was scene with Carrie Fisher in a leopard print bikini trying to seduce Tom Hanks in his bedroom and making monkey noises. ES asked what they were doing, and we told him they were playing a game. Then later Hanks' brother (Jim Belushi) is upset because his wife (Carrie Fisher) is "making love" with someone else and kept saying it over and over again and was really angry about it. This led ES to ask what "making love" meant.

So if you've got young children and you're reading my blog for movie recommendations - I guess in hindsight I'd hold off on the Man with One Red Shoe. (It's still a great movie though!)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

New Toy Syndrome

Okay, well, I don't have new toy syndrome YET because I haven't bought one YET, but Garmin just rolled out the new Oregon series of handheld GPS receivers. Check out the demo!

It looks pretty sweet. I especially like the fact that it can upload the GPX files from the Geocaching website and it will display the geocache listing with descriptions and clues and whatnot. Right now I usually carry my GPS for bearing and range to the geocache and my PDA for the cache listing to read the description and hints. It would be nice to have them combined into one device.

From the looks of the image gallery (click on the check it out link above), it looks pretty small - like smaller than my current Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx.

I'm not sure how I feel about the touch screen though. It'd be nice to find one of these in a store somewhere to get a feel for it.

Hmmmmm...

I know I've written before that nobody pays me anything to write on my blog.

However (comma), I will shamelessly say that if anyone at Garmin is reading this and wants to let me take an Oregon out for a trial run and blog about it, let's talk. :-)

Wii Warning Revisited

Man, I feel bad for E and K after reading their tv casrep over at OCA. My wallet hurts just thinking about it.

For anyone who has recently started reading my blog and/or recently acquired a Wii, I'll repost this:

Sony TV Repair

So, our new Sony TV all of a sudden got these two vertical lines permanently appearing on the screen, regardless of the video input source. I called Sony and they agreed it needed to be fixed under warranty. We had to wait about a week for the "part" to arrive on island, then a repair guy came out. The "part" was a whole new screen, but it works like a champ.

Funny story though, he said most of his work these days comes from Wii damage. He said he recently had to replace FIVE screens in ONE week from throwing Wii controllers into the TV screen! Can you believe it?!?

This warning message goes on the screen for several seconds before you can start a game.

However (comma) I know how good my children are aren't about following instructions.

Mortgage Fiasco Follow-Up

Thanks to those of you who have offered your feedback, advice, sympathy, and support on the mortgage issue.

I spent a good amount of time on the phone with a manager at the Big Name Bank (BNB) on Friday. She ran the numbers again and this time it came out $1,200 higher than the initial Good Faith Estimate (GFE). She was effusively thankful for our many years of being loyal customers to BNB and in order to keep our business, she offered us 0.XX points off our loan, which amounted to $962. So with that discount, we'll end up paying about $250 more in closing costs than what the GFE said, so it'll still be in the ballpark of $2,000 less than the Local Mortgage Broker's offer. I told her that would be acceptable, because I understand it's an "estimate" and there will be SOME variability in the final results.

Now, we're anxiously watching the mortgage rates and waiting. We can't lock in our rate until 30 days from closing (our closing date is 29 August) without paying a fee. We're hoping the rates take a little dip later this week.

Here's a snapshot looking out the back window of our new house...

Odds and Ends

Family Movie Night

Tonight we opted for CPK for dinner and went to Blockbuster and rented a Tom Hanks double header. First up was Big. It was a little over YB's head, but he sat and watched most of it with us and laughed along with us. ES seemed to enjoy it though. Man, it was remarkable how YOUNG Tom Hanks looked.

Next up is The Man with One Red Shoe. I couldn't believe our neighbor B across the street said she has never seen EITHER of these movies! I loved both of these flicks when they came out in the theaters.

Conversation at Dinner Last Night

Just when we thought ES had cracked the Mommy-and-Daddy code...

LW to me: "Tonight is B... A... T... H night."

ES: [Gasp!] "Tonight is BITCH night?!?!?!"

It occurred to me that since the boys have been on summer vacation, ES hasn't been getting anywhere near the spelling and reading practice that he got during the school year. Methinks his misfire on the bath night message is highlighting the cobwebs accumulating in the spelling portion of his noggin.

Sneaky Little Bugger

Our 4-year old YB is learning some tricks of the con artist trade. He wanted a toy and ES wouldn't give it to him. So he went to the front door and called out, "Hi, E___!" (Aside: E is ES's best friend from school and lives just up the street from us) ES immediately dropped the toy and ran to the front door to go play with E, and YB ran back to the play room with a cheshire-cat grin and grabbed the toy that he wanted. E was actually nowhere to be found, YB just said that to distract ES. I wonder where he learned that one from?

Follow-up report on new running shoes

So far I've run 20.9 miles on my new Brooks Adrenaline GTS8 running shoes, and I really like them a lot. No pain in my feet and no need for any sort of inserts.

Planning Our Road Trip

Follow-up to a previous post on what to do about our cars. We're going to ship my Camry Hybrid to Baltimore on the Navy's dime. We contemplated selling LW's car and buying a Toyota Highlander on the mainland. We decided we just can't afford it right now with the new mortgage payments and the fact that sea pay and COLA will be going away when we get back to the mainland.
Aside for anyone who cares: The military Vehicle Processing Center (VPC) here will accept our car any weekday, no appointment necessary. For shipment to Baltimore, they gave me a guaranteed delivery date no later than 35 days after you drop it off at the Honolulu VPC.
Instead, we're going to pay Matson $1,000 out of pocket to ship LW's car to Seattle.
With Matson, we need to drop the car off by any given Wednesday, and the car will ship out on the following Monday. They said it would take 10 to 12 days to ship to Seattle.
Although the Navy won't pay us to ship the second car across the Pacific, they WILL pay us to drive across country. I was curious just how much they would pay us and started searching the internet for answers. I found these two websites were helpful and informative:
We plan to fly to the west coast, pick up the car, go to a wedding in Oregon, drive to San Diego for another wedding, then head across country and see some friends and relatives and the sights of America along the way. So far, we're planning on visiting the Avenue of the Giants, Sequoia National Park, Legoland, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and we're very excited to finally visit a Great Wolf Lodge and spend a day frolicking in their indoor water park.


A Plug for My Favorite Lunch in Groton

For Andy and Sam who are getting settled in their new home and for anyone else headed to Groton, whence you feel those pangs of lunch-time hunger in yer belly, get thee to the Village Bakehouse! I could eat there every day of the year and not get tired of it. I love their sandwiches and wraps, and I couldn't resist those cookies with the candy-corn in the middle.

Blunoz Self-Portrait with his most favorite cookies at VBH
October 2006

Friday, July 25, 2008

Good Faith Estimates

Okay folks, I need to hear your honest opinions here. I have two questions:

1) If someone (like, say... a bank) give you a "Good Faith Estimate" for how much something will cost, then how accurate do you think that estimate should be?

Then, let's say, purely hypothetically speaking, that you review the estimate and think that they significantly underestimated something, so you call them and specifically ask them about the item you think they miscalculated or underestimated. Let's say, again hypothetically speaking, that the customer service representative on the phone tells you, "We're [insert name of BIG name reputable bank here], we do this all the time and we STAND BY OUR ESTIMATE."

2) So question #2 is: How would YOU interpret said big name bank representative saying they "stand by their estimate"?

Go ahead... Take your time... Give it some thought.

Now, click on "comments" below and tell me your answers to the two questions above.

After you've told me what you think without being biased by my opinion, then scroll down and I'll tell you what my take on all this is.





[Cue final Jeopardy theme music]





Okay, so let's just say that WASN'T such a "hypothetical" situation I gave you above.

My realtor has been pressuring us to use a local Virginia mortgage broker who she works with on a regular basis. So I asked for the Good Faith Estimates (GFE) from both the local mortgage broker (LMB) and from the big name bank (BNB). We've been loyal customers of the BNB for many years, and our past two home mortgages have been with them.

Comparing the two GFE's, the BNB's closing costs were about $2,200 LESS than the LMB (monthly payments were about the same). Between that and the fact that I didn't know or necessarily trust the LMB, we decided to sell our souls to get our mortgage from BNB.

Now, come to find out that BNB's GFE was a pretty substantial UNDERestimate... by about $3,100!!!! The underestimate is due to the EXACT thing that I pointed out to them in the first place. Now, BNB says, "Well sir, it IS an ESTIMATE, so it's NOT exact."

This brings me to my first question up above. Yes, I acknowledge it's an ESTIMATE and there is going to be SOME variability. But how much variability is "reasonable"?

10%?

20%?

30%?

The original GFE's closing costs were approximately $7,300. Now they're saying it's going to be $10,400????? That "good faith estimate" missed the mark by 42%!!!! It would have been cheaper to go with the LMB, and the LMB had accurate numbers in the line-items in question.

Let's move on to my second question above. After pointing out what I thought was probably a big underestimate on the line items for county taxes and title fees, the loan agent on the phone told me, "we stand by our estimate." I said to myself, "Self, surely you aren't the first person to ever buy a house in Loudoun County and use BNB for your mortgage." They do this all the time, so I'm sure they know what they're talking about. Besides, when he said, "we stand by our estimate," in my mind I interpret that as, "if it IS a miscalculation (especially after you've brought it to our attention as a potential error), then BNB is going to cover it."

Are these foolish or unreasonable interpretations???

In hindsight, I'm kicking myself. Maybe we should file this one under the category of "stupid kevin tricks." I was foolish and did something that I don't normally do. I accepted a non-commital ambiguous response on faith. I should have asked the loan agent point blank, "What if the estimate is wrong? What if the county taxes and title fees really ARE $X,XXX, then what is going to happen? Are YOU, BNB, going to pay for the difference?" Chances are, he would have said no.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ahhhh, sweet Georgia...

I had a double-whammy flashback experience at the NEX on Sunday.

First, teleportation song "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado came on the overhead speakers, and suddenly my mind flashed back to January 2007 in Rota, Spain, driving that teeny-tiny little rental car back and forth between the BOQ and the boat. It seemed to me they played that song on the radio there about once an hour at least.

Then, as we finished our shopping excursion through the NEX, we were all feeling parched, so we stopped in the package store on our way back out to the car to get something to drink. LW found a new canned ice coffee drink that was labeled as a Caribou Coffee drink. I read the fine print on the label and saw that it was a Coca-Cola product and started getting excited.

You see, back during my three trips to Westpac (Western Pacific), I developed an addiction to Georgia iced coffee. It's made by the Coca-Cola corporation, but only sold overseas. According to wikipedia, it's the highest grossing coffee beverage in Japan.

Every time we had a port call, I would buy at least a case of the stuff and stash it in my stateroom. Before we left Westpac in 2003, I stocked up with as much as I could bring home in my stateroom. It actually lasted me through the transit and about a month or so after we returned home from deployment, then I started going through withdrawal.

Starbucks had the Double Shot things, which taste pretty good, but would have driven me bankrupt in a week if I had continued my Georgia consumption rate. When I bought Georgia by the case, it came out to something like 30 cents per can, whereas the Starbucks Double Shot was absolutely ridiculous at over $2 bucks per can.

I've missed Georgia ever since. That's why I got so excited when we found this new ice coffee beverage in a can that was made by Coca-Cola. I had to try some.

[Cue Sound Effect: Angelic Choir singing Hallelujah!]

It was really good - pretty much exactly like Georgia. My only complaint was with the weird shaped aluminum can with the screw top, there was a weird metallic taste from the bottle neck. It'd probably be better if I poured it out into a cup.

Price wise, it still wasn't as affordable as Georgia, but it was a heckuva lot better than the Starbucks stuff. Hmmm... I wonder if I can buy the stuff at Costco in bulk???

BT BT

Yes, yes, I know... FIVE blog posts in ONE day??? I started off writing a "Weekend Recap" type of blog post like I have done before. Then I decided to break it up into different blog posts by topic. I find it's easier for me when I link back to previous blog posts to have the blog post be a little bit better confined to one topic. Besides, I was so busy with mortgage applications and filling out the HHG shipment application during the week that I didn't blog for several days.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What the heck is BPA?

We've been fans of the Camelbak water bottles for quite a while now. The boys have the small versions to take with them to school in their lunch boxes. LW and I have the larger size for during or after exercise.

Recently when we had visitors from the mainland, we got in the car to do the touristy thing around the island. I put my Camelbak water bottle in the cupholder in the car, and E asked me if it was BPA Free. I said, "Is it what???" I had never even heard of Bisphenol A (BPA) until he told me about it. (Aside: Like I said before, I always end up learning cool stuff whenever we get to visit with P&E.)

The wikipedia artcile on BPA is pretty informative. It turns out, this BPA stuff can be toxic. Of more concern is that when it gets hot (like if you left your water bottle in the car), it leeches out the BPA 55 times faster than it normally does.

There's no legislation against using BPA in plastic products yet, but apparently a lot of companies that make reusable water bottles, baby bottles, sippy cups, etc are changing to use BPA-Free plastics. Walmart and Toys-R-Us have declared they will no longer sell products such as baby bottles with BPA plastics.

We were happy to find that as of April 2008, Camelbak is now making all BPA-Free water bottles, and LW just got us some new Camelbak bottles to replace our old ones.

How can you tell if your water bottle is BPA free or not?

Apparently the products that had BPA in them had the recycle symbol with a 3 or a 7.





The newer BPA-Free water bottles from Camelbak have a little symbol that say "BPA Free" with two little leaf silouettes.

Honolulu Historic Hike


Back a few months ago our Cub Scout pack did the Historic Honolulu Hike, but we were busy with some conflicting plans that day. So Saturday, I took ES and his friend E out with E's dad, and we did the Historic Honolulu Hike.

It's supposed to be a 5 mile hike, but we made one wrong turn along the way and it ended up being a 6 mile hike for us. Even so, it was a good hike and we got to see and learn a alot about the historic buildings of downtown Honolulu. The boys each had to answer questions about each of the 20 stops along the way to earn a patch for their cub scout uniform.

The hike starts out at the Maritime Center by the Aloha Tower.

I was amazed by the number and variety of tropical fish we could see just standing at the water's edge by the Maritime Center.

Traditional Blunoz Self-Portrait at Kawaiahao Church
"Kawaiaha'o, the first Christian Church in Hawaii, was built between 1836 and 1842 in New England style architecture. It is often referred to as the "Westminster Abbey of Hawaii". Fourteen thousand coral slabs, quarried by hand from reefs 10 to 20 feet under water, comprise the main structure. Each slab weighs more than 1000 pounds."

Washington Place

This house was built by some sea captain who married a Hawaiian princess. The princess later became Queen Lili`uokalani and was the last monarch of Hawaii. She is famous for composing the song Aloha Oe. After the captain and the queen were both dead and gone, they sold the property to Hawaii and made it the governor's residence in 1921.

State Capitol Building

The State Capitol Building was actually pretty cool. It's designed with three main elements to symbolize Hawaii. It's kind of hard to tell from the picture, but if you look at the base you'll see the sloped sections, and the inside is open up to the sky like a volcano. The pillars are designed to look like palm trees. All around the outside of the building is a reflecting pool symbolizing the ocean surrounding the islands. It was pretty neat to see.

Father Damien Statue

The Iolani Barracks

Iolani Palace

Even if you don't have kids in scouting, I would say this Historic Honolulu Hike circuit was a really good walk around Honolulu. I would encourage others who want to see the historic sights to use the same route and question sheet. However, I can't find the route and question sheet anywhere on the internet. I checked the Aloha Council website, but no luck. I may scan it later on and post it here for others who want to give it a shot. If I forget, and you want it, drop me an email and I'll send it to you (and/or post it here).

Restaurant Review: Compadres

Friday we made a trip to the Scout Shop and took the boys to the New Balance store at Ward Center to get some new shoes for school. The COB recommended the Mexican restaurant Compadres, which is right next door to Ryan's on the second floor of the Ward Center (upstairs from the NB store / down the hall from Borders). We've seen it several times, but never stopped because it's right next door to our favorite restaurant Ryan's. Since we just went to Ryan's last week, so we decided to give Compadres a try. I give it a thumbs-up for food and service, thumbs down for noise level and bugs.

The food was very fresh and absolutely delicious. The tortilla chips were fresh, very light and crispy, and the salsa was excellent - flavorful, chunky, and a little bit of kick. We ordered an appetizer of the guacamole and it was REALLY good (ALMOST as good as my wife's fresh guacamole).

The menu had a lot to choose from and it all sounded really good, so I asked the waiter what his favorite was. His response: Dos Ricardos. As a kid I loved New Mexico style enchiladas with the eggs on top. This dish was a tortilla shell with black beans, your choice of meat (I chose the carnitas), with three eggs (I took mine over medium), cheese, freshly diced pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, guacamole and sour cream. It was REALLY good.

They had a small section of non-Mexican things on the back side of the menu. They also had a KIDS menu with basic tacos, quesadillas, corn dogs, fries, etc. The boys enjoyed their taco and corn dog.

The service was friendly, courteous, and professional - above average by Hawaii standards.

Prices were a little on the high side (entrees in the $15 to $25 range), but it was worth it both in terms of the freshness and quality of the food and in terms of the portion sizes they give you.

My two complaints about Compadres were the noise and the bugs. They could seriously use some sound dampening materials on the ceiling. My wife and I couldn't hear each other talking across the table from the general noise level of people talking reverberating off the walls and ceiling. There were several flies and other bugs bouncing around on the inside of the window next to our table. Recommendation to the manager: Buy a fly swatter and get rid of a few of those bastards in between customers occupying the table.

Other than some grafitti, the men's bathroom was clean and in fairly good repair. My wife complained that the ladies room was disgusting though.

Broadside Blog

I've been a big fan of the Broadside cartoons in Navy Times for a long time. Whenever I pick up a copy of Navy Times, the first thing I do is flip to the back and read the Broadside cartoon. I actually got to meet the artist, Jeff Bacon, while I was in Monterey back in 1999-2001.

Anyway, I discovered Jeff has started a Broadside Blog. He puts up new cartoons and has caption contests, but he has some other more thought provoking good content like this one about Success in Iraq and this one with the Hero of the Week. Check it out.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Things I learned about my credit score...

As far back as I can remember, I've had really good credit. I can't remember ever having issues with my credit score. ...Until I recently applied for a mortgage to buy a house in Virginia. I discovered a couple of problems on my credit report of which I was previously unaware. I thought I would share these lessons I have learned the hard way to maybe help you avoid a couple of pitfalls I have unexpectedly encountered.

Problem #1: Beware PCS Moves! Be proactive in paying your final bills in your old duty station.


When I left for the training pipeline in Groton, I had orders to a boomer out of Bangor. While I was in the training pipeline, I got an ORDMOD (Orders Modification) sending me to a fast attack homeported out of Norfolk but on deployment and changing homeports to Pearl Harbor. When we sold our house and left the DC area, we provided a forwarding address for our final bills, but the final bill took a while to catch up with us in Hawaii at the end of the whole PCS move. As soon as we got the bill out here in Hawaii, we immediately paid it. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Dominion Power sent our final bill to a collection agency for the whopping $70 that we owed them.

The credit bureaus don't care so much what the reasoning was. All they care about is that you had an account that was sent to a collection agency. So the first two negative remarks on the credit report that surprised me were the "Negative Information - Collection" and the "Time since negative information too short." Ouch.

My advice to you is this: When you do your next PCS transfer, don't wait for your final utility bills to catch up with you in the snail mail to pay them. Proactively contact the utility companies and pay them over the internet or phone or whatever means necessary.
Disclaimer:
This is NOT a complaint about LW. She worked her butt off selling our house and doing the HHG packout without me. I certainly wouldn't have done any better a job than she did. I'm just saying that we both learned we need to be more careful about this in the future.

Problem #2: Don't open a new account every time you want to make a big purchase.


If you've been reading my blog for a while, then you might remember the big TV debacle. That was when I tried to buy a new TV - first from Best Buy, then from Circuit City, then from the NEX. Why didn't we just get it from the NEX in the first place? Because Best Buy was offering 90-days same-as-cash financing, and the price was a lot less than what they were charging at the NEX. (We eventually bought the TV through the NEX's price matching program, but we paid it all at once instead of three monthly payments).

It's been a while since the big TV debacle, so in case you don't remember or you have recently started reading my blog, here's a quick recap:
- Applied for Best Buy credit card online. The online program said in order to confirm my identity, it had to ask me some questions. The questions it asked were totally bizarre and had no connection with my past at all (see the blog post for details). So I said to myself, "Self, just go down to the Best Buy store, SHOW them your ID card so they KNOW who you are, and get the credit card."
- Applied for Best Buy credit card in store. Denied. The letter that came in the mail later informed me that I was denied because I already had a credit application OPEN on the Best Buy website. I'm sorry that just makes no sense to me - I'm STANDING there IN the store SHOWING you my ID card... sorry, I'll get off my soap box before I get into a long diatribe about this.
- Applied for Circuit City credit card because they had the same TV for the same price and offered the same 90-day same as cash financing. Denied. The letter that came in the mail later informed me that I was denied because I already had a Circuit City credit account from when we bought our washer and dryer in Monterey back in 1999. Again, why didn't they just say, "Oh, you already HAVE an account with us, what would you like to buy today?" Again, getting off my soap box now before I spend too much time expressing my frustration with them.

Okay, so back to the story at hand: my credit report.

Yyyyyeah, each time you apply for a credit card, they run a credit check. It turns out that credit check shows up on your credit report as sort of a, "Hey, this guy wants to open a Best Buy account, so we're running a credit check" blurb. It turns out that having a whole bunch of credit checks on your account in the recent past is looked on UNfavorably by the credit bureaus and lowers your credit score.

I discovered I had a big misunderstanding about credit through this experience. I always thought it was no big deal to have a lot of credit accounts open with zero balance. I figured that was GOOD. I mean, that tells people that a lot of different businesses trust you, right???

Wrong.

In the credit companies' eyes, if you have ten credit accounts open with $10,000 credit limits, you could theoretically go out and max out all of your credit cards and suddenly be in $100,000 of debt, and you might feel more compelled to pay THEM than to pay your mortgage. That doesn't give the mortgage lender a warm and fussy feeling inside. In order to boost their confidence that YOU will pay THEM, they would rather you had as few credit accounts open as possible. Having credit HISTORY (of establishing debts and paying the debts off on time) is GOOD, but having a dozen different retail store accounts open and not being used (even if they have zero balance) is NOT good.

My advice to you is this:

1) Obviously, my three credit applications all at once in the pursuit of a TV were a huge mistake. The credit bureaus don't care about the extenuating circumstances. All they know is that you tried to open three credit accounts. Be cautious about opening new accounts or allowing businesses to run a credit check on you. It is now much clearer to me why companies ASK if they can run a credit check on you, because simply by them doing the credit check - it's going to leave a mark on your credit history.

2) Close old accounts. If you bought something under some promotion, that's great. Did you pay it off? Good. Now close the account. I was surprised to see I had a couple of accounts on there that I hadn't used since like 1996, but the account was still open. I closed all of those extra accounts, but I doubt it will update in my credit report soon enough to help my credit score for this mortgage.

Like I said, I hope reading this will help you avoid these pitfalls.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Virginia or Bust

After much waiting and nervous anticipation, I finally have orders.

We're going back to DC!

When we left my last shore duty tour in DC, we thought the commute from Ashburn (out by Dulles Airport) in to the Pentagon would be too long and that we would want to live closer. However, my opinion has changed after further investigation and discussion with friends from church. I hear the Loudoun County Commuter Bus is actually pretty comfortable and takes just about as much time as the Metro. On the LC commuter bus you can eat and drink and there's a restroom at the back of the bus, and I hear it's a lot less crowded than the Metro. We really liked living in Ashburn last time, so we've decided to go back and live there again.

Now our life is a flurry of mortgage applications, setting up household goods (HHG) shipments, setting up vehicle shipments, etc, etc, etc. More PCS stories and lessons learned the hard way to follow...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I've been tagged again...

Sam tagged me for a six random things meme. I did one of these back in February, but I'll come up with a new list for this one.

1. I'm sort of a beer snob. My favorites are Henry Weinhards, Smithwicks, Sam Adams, Dos Equis, and now Land Shark Lager. I really can't stand Budweiser, MGD, Coors, etc.

2. I've only been apprehended or detained by "the authorities" twice. The first time was in Guam. The second time was in Virginia. Those are each stories for later blog posts.

3. My favorite place to go on vacation is Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Our family has a condo and a boat up there. During our last shore duty in DC, we went up to the lake for about a week each summer.

YB and Daddy Driving the Boat
Lake Winnipesaukee, NH

4. My second favorite place to go on vacation is our timeshare resort in Orlando (see trip advisor reviews here). They've got a big pirate ship made out of foam rubber with four little-kid water slides going out in different directions. The staff all wear pirate-themed outfits and take the kids on treasure hunts around the campus, etc. Each time we've gone there, we've spent most of our time just enjoying the resort and then devote one day to Disney.

Daddy & the boys going down the pirate ship slide.
Horizons in Orlando

5. I'm always intrigued by stories about time-travel. I was in like 3rd or 4th grade when The Final Countdown came out in theaters. Then in like 5th and 6th grade one of my favorite movies was Time Bandits. Then of course there was the Back to the Future trilogy and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. More recently there was Timeline, Frequency, and Deja Vu.

Although they didn't involve time travel per se, the first and third Highlander movies held my interest with a similar sort of fascination. (Aside: I like to just ignore the second Highlander movie and pretend it didn't exist. That was horrible.)

Two of my most recent favorites along this theme were an excellent book, the Time Traveler's Wife, and an NBC TV series, the Journeyman. I was excited to see that Time Traveler's Wife is in production being filmed as a movie. Unfortunately, the Journeyman just sort of stopped during the writer's strike and it never started up again. They used to have the full episodes available to view on the NBC website, but NBC took them down.

6. Pet Peeve: People who drive around with their bass turned up so loud it reverberates through my chest cavity more than a block away. As I write this, I'm getting pretty pissed off at the people throwing a party about two blocks from here. With our windows and doors shut, the bass is vibrating our house and giving me a headache. I went outside to find out where it was coming from, and I can hear the music clear as day as if it was coming from my own house. I had to walk to the far corner of our housing area to see the flashing disco lights from a house just across the bike path / just outside our neighborhood.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let's see...
  • link to the person who tagged you. Check.
  • post the rules on your blog. Check.
  • write six random things about yourself. Check.
  • tag six people at the end of your post. Mmmm... I already tagged the people I know in my last post, but since she's new to the blogosphere, I'll tag MN Tall Girl.
  • let each person know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog. Check.
  • let the tagger know when your entry is up. Check.
Mission accomplished.

Oh, here's a bonus random thing about me:

7. In case you hadn't already figured it out, I'm one of those checklist type of people. I get a feeling of satisfaction from being able to cross things off a list.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Blog round-up odds and ends

Seriously:

Congratulations to Nereus on his retirement after completing 20 years of service in the Navy!

Thanks to fastnav for pointing this Navy SEAL Memorial service out. I got pretty choked up watching it.

Not-so-serious stuff:

DadGoneMad has been on vacation this week, but he invited several guest bloggers to post in his absence. Most have been pretty funny, but this one was my favorite and had me in stitches. Here's an excerpt:

The first time I tried to teach Emmeline to use the toilet by herself, she insisted on using mine -- not the fancy blue bucket with a shiny white seat but the big standard adult kind that could have swallowed her whole with its gaping porcelain maw. But I figured if she was eventually going to graduate to a real toilet anyway, she might as well start as soon as she can. And this way seemed to involve less cleaning. With my back turned as I arranged her pile of clothes on the floor, I heard her mumble something about "pee like daddy," and I assumed she just excited about using my big toilet. I turned around to see her standing up proudly, hands on her hips, spraying the base with a wild fountain of urine.

She shouted gleefully, "Emme's peeing like daddy!"

"Well, kinda," my wife shrugged later, "But her aim is better."

If you thought that was funny, then keep reading because it gets better from there. The little girl's explanation of anatomy to the grocery store cashier is priceless.

If you're a fan of Dancing Matt, you should check out his blog. Scroll down to his July 5th entry and check out the spoof video someone made of his Dancing Matt videos. WARNING: It's not suitable for children due to sexual content (no nudity) - hence I'm not actually posting the video directly into my blog here.

Another Teleportation Song came to mind recently. I forget where I heard it, but it was just in the past couple of days that Dancing Queen by ABBA broached the threshold of my consciousness. Suddenly, my mind flashed back to the Hard Rock Cafe in Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates. It was during our 1998 deployment before Usama Bin Laden's terrorist threats started severely imposing on our port call liberty. We used to all go to the Hard Rock all the time. Back then it was the closest thing outside the confines of the port facility that didn't require driving all the way to Dubai, but I hear they've really built up the area a lot since I was there over 10 years ago. Anyway, there was this Canadian band that called themselves Cinema and played a lot of cover songs. One of their favorites was Dancing Queen, and the two female vocalists in the band sang it with such a resonance in their voices, it was just mesmerizing.

Speaking of that 1998 deployment, thanks to RM1 for bringing back not-so-fond memories of that halfway night.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dirty Looks

You would think a mom would know better because she's been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.

So there I was...

We went to get lunch at the Wright Brothers Cafe on Hickam AFB. On the way there, little A fell asleep in the back of the car, so E stayed with him in the car while I took the other three boys in to get lunch.

Wait, backtrack a moment. Allow me to explain something first.

The mere suggestion - ney, UTTERANCE of certain words in front of the boys will throw them into a wild frenzy the likes of which shark hunters have never seen. LW and I are very cautious not to mention such forbidden words in front of the canine-like hearing senses of our children and have come up with other means of communication such as code words or typing to each other on instant messenger across the family room. Even that isn't totally secure, for ES has discovered we use it as a means of covert communications and will race to one of our computers to read what we wrote when he hears the little "blip-blip" signifying an IM message sent or received.

Okay, now back to our story.

So there I was...

Standing in line at the Wright Brothers Cafe. I ask the boys for the third time what they want to eat. Suddenly, the lady in front of me turns around with a Cheshire Cat grin and says, "You boys should have the ICE CREAM!"

I winced and froze in my tracks while I waited for the unanimous choral "ICE CREAM!" response that I expected from the boys.

Thankfully, it was just a close call. In all the noise of the restaurant and the boys' natural state of perpetual motion, the signal-to-noise ratio was low enough that the "ice cream" suggestion didn't cross the threshold of their consciousness.

Even so, if looks could kill... I think I either scared or pissed off the lady with the angry lack of humor in the facial expression I shot back at her to convey, "You did NOT just say that in front of these kids!!!" She actually looked somewhat offended by my facial expression and lack of appreciation for her sense of humor.

She quickly turned back around to place the orders for her and her middle school aged daughter. That's the part that really gets me though. The fact that she's a mom and presumably she's had to deal with kids screaming, "I want ice cream!" at some time in her parenting experience makes me think she should know better.

Thank goodness it was just a close call.

And now, speaking of ice cream, LW is sending me subliminal messages that she wants some.

Diamond Head round 2

Sunday while the ladies went to the spa, E and I took the boys to see the Mighty Mo. N didn't seem at all alarmed that it didn't look like a giant lawn mower (see previous post where he asked if we were going to see the Mighty Mower).

ES reads the plaque where the Japanese surrendered.

E and I had a good laugh when we walked through the gift shop at the Mighty Mo though. Even this isolated non-profit organization across the harbor from the NEX couldn't escape the long-arm of the RIMPAC merchandising agent...


In spite of my initially positive review of the New Balance 1062's I bought a while back, I quickly found them not to be as comfortable as I had initially thought. P & E both know a thing or two more about running shoes than I do, and E went with me to a honest-to-goodness running shoe store called Runners Hi. I had heard about brands like Brooks and Mizuno before from reading friends blogs, but I had never actually SEEN a pair of said shoes before setting foot in the Runners Hi store. Sure, I was aware that I could order some online at places like RoadRunner or Running Warehouse, but they usually don't honor the free shipping or return shipping thing to Hawaii.

The guys in the Runners Hi store were very friendly and knowledgeable. They shook my faith in New Balance though. They told me with the pronation of my feet, I need a stability shoe, and they couldn't believe the NB store people sold me a pair of 1062's.

I walked out of the Runners Hi store with
a new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8.

Now, none of the shoes in this store had any price tags on them. Given the "specialty" nature of the store, I was cringing in anticipation of some serious sticker-shock when we went to the cash register. However (comma) I was very pleasantly surprised. The sticker price on the Brooks shoes were like $20 cheaper than the last pair of NB shoes I bought, and then the salesman asked if I was military and gave me a 10% discount. Cue Sports Announcer Sound Effect: He-Shoots-He-SCOOOOOOORES!!!

I took the new shoes out for a 2 mile run this morning to try them out and they were really comfortable. So far so good.

Diamond Head round 2

This afternoon I left work and ran home to meet up with my family and our visiting friends, and we headed off to try the Diamond Head hike again. We got to the parking lot about 4:30 p.m. and this time there were PLENTY of empty parking spaces.

This was my second time doing the Diamond Head hike, so if you want to know more details and logistics for planning your own trip, you can click here to see my previous blog post.

Our gang on the trail switchbacks

All four boys did a GREAT job on the hike. I was really pleased with how well it turned out. ES, YB, and 5 year old N all made it all the way to the top and all the way back down to the parking lot under their own propulsion. Little 3 year old A rode in the stroller on the paved portion of the path and had to be carried for a good portion of the trip.

ES was on point for most of the hike. Here he is, excited that he was the first member of our group to make it to the top of the steps.

These are the spiral staircase steps inside the old bunker / Army observation post near the top of Diamond Head.

Self portrait looking toward Hawaii Kai with the Koko Head crater and the ridge above Hanauma Bay in the background.

Daddy and ES Back at the Beginning of the Trail

I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about going this afternoon. The boys seemed cranky when I got home and it was hot as heck today. Plus, I was worried about the traffic. I was really pleased with how well the afternoon turned out. The late afternoon sun wasn't too bad and it wasn't too hot. The boys did great - the whining quotient was significantly below average. They seemed to have a good time and I really enjoyed the quality time with LW and them. Traffic-wise, we had a bit of congestion on the way driving home, but we still got home 30 minutes earlier than I had predicted when we started this adventure. In summary, I'm really glad we went!

Cue Sports Announcer Sound Effect: He-Shoots-He-SCOOOOOOORES!!!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sea Life Park

Today I got to do something NEW on the tourism front. We took our visitors from the mainland to the Sea Life Park over on the eastern end of the island.

It's pretty darn small in comparison to Sea World. If you've ever been to Sea World, then you might be disappointed with the Sea Life Park. Think of it as a very low-budget, small scale version of Sea World with no corporate backing from Anheuser Busch. On a positive note, I thought the Sea Life Park was well worth the price of admission (at least at the military-discount price from ITT).

We went to the dolphin cove show first, which was neat to see, but not extraordinary. The backdrop of Makapu'u Ridge and the Makapu'u Lighthouse (where we were just hiking yesterday) was really beautiful though.

We were on top of that ridge in the background yesterday. In the hi-res version, you can see the Makapu'u Lighthouse on the left side of the ridge.

Next we went to the reef tank to watch the Stingray Ballet. I really enjoyed just standing there watching the fish, the turtles, and the rays swimming around and around in the tank. I took several pictures I really liked, but I'll just share a couple here.

ES faces-off with a Puffer

I was trying really hard to get a good shot of one of the rays flying by behind the boys. I thought this was going to be my favorite shot of the day the way things were lining up...

...then YB stuck his finger up his nose right as I took the picture.

The spotted rays were really pretty and graceful.


Turtle Feeding in the Reef Tank

The second show we went to was by far the best. The Hawaiian Ocean Theater was a really fun show to watch with dolphins, penguins, and sea lions. As an added bonus, this show is done in a covered amphitheater, so it was nice to sit in the shade and have a rest from the blazing hot sun today. The first three rows of benches are yellow to warn you about getting wet from splashes. If you take kids to the show, and they don't mind getting wet, then I encourage you to sit down in front. They do a parade of the penguins and have a couple of sea lions walk through on the floor level right in front of the front row, so all the kids that were sitting down in the front row got really close looks at the penguins and sea lions.

The third show we attended was the Kolohe Kai Sea Lion Show. It was mildly amusing, but not great. The kids enjoyed seeing the sea lions. If you go in expecting low-budget, then you'll be happy. If you go in expecting Anheuser-Busch corporate-sponsored Sea World, then you're going to be disappointed. There were at least a dozen people got up and walked out in the middle of the show.

There were more static displays of turtles, penguins, birds, etc to see, too. However, the two things that really made it worth the price of admission for me were the Hawaii Ocean Theater and just standing there mesmerized by the fish in the big reef tank.

Logistics: Food wise, you will note on their website that they do not allow outside food or drinks. This caused LW to ask, "What do they offer for food and drinks inside the park?" You will also note that the website lacks any such information about what they DO offer for feeding hungry thirsty children. There's very LIMITED options. I saw one snack bar that offered hot dogs, soft serve ice cream cones (vanilla only), and funnel cakes. That's it folks.

Also keep in mind that this is in a fairly isolated location way out on the eastern tip of the island. There isn't ANYTHING close by or convenient.

Advice for future seekers of the Sea Life Park: Plan to eat elsewhere before or after your visit. In our case, we looked at the schedule and planned to arrive at the park at noon so we could catch the 12:30 dolphin cove show.

If you drive there via the counter-clockwise coastal road past Hanauma Bay and the blowhole, then you can stop in Hawaii Kai to have lunch on your way. There are a dozen places to choose from in Hawaii Kai - everything from McD's to Roy's. (Aside: I don't recommend THIS Roy's in Hawaii Kai because the acoustics are horrible and you won't be able to hear the person across the table from you. Also, do NOT go to "the Shack" - we tried it and that place is horrible!). Personally, I would shoot for Tacos del Mar.

Time wise, we arrived about 12:07 and made it just in time for the 12:30 show. We left about 3 p.m. just after the sea lion show, so we were there just under 3 hours.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Strike 3

Jinx...

As I wrote that last blog post last night, I said to myself, "Self... Bad things happen in threes. What's Strike 3 going to be???"

Our plan this morning was to go hike Diamond Head. We got all ready and packed up the cars and headed out there. As we were driving toward the state park in the center of Diamond Head, we saw a lot of people walking toward the crater from many blocks away OUTSIDE the crater (i.e. still a significant walk into the crater via the tunnel much less walking up to the top of the peak). I commented to E sitting next to me, "Dude, these people are CRAZY! Why on EARTH would they park way out HERE and WALK all that way into the crater?" We drove through the tunnel and ended up in the long line of cars being told to make a U-turn and go back out because the parking lot at the state park was full.

Woops. You mean all those people had a REASON why they were walking all that way??? They WEREN'T all just a bunch of stupid tourists???

So there you have it - Strike 3! Cancel the Diamond Head plans. There was no way we were going to park that far out and walk all that way with the kids.

Note to self: When planning on going to Diamond Head, have a contingency Plan B ready to implement.

Instead of Diamond Head, we drove over to the eastern tip of the island and did the Makapu'u Ridge Hike. For more details about this hike, please go back and read my first and second blog posts about our previous trips.

It was a spectacular, gorgeous day out, and the wind kept us from getting too overheated.

We carried our picnic basket cooler with us and had a picnic lunch on top of the ridge by the lookout.

ES wanted to hike up to the very top and see the WWII bunkers again. The rest of the family headed back down the trail to the parking lot while ES and I went up to the top. We also stopped to find one of the geocaches that I had not yet found on this ridge.

Daddy, ES, and his dog Lotis at the geocache with Koko Head crater in the background.

The view from up on top of the ridge, standing on top of the bunkers is absolutely amazing. It is my favorite view point in all of Hawaii. I took a short video panorama this time. It really doesn't do the view justice, but I will share it with you to get a feel for it.

A Swing and a Miss

STRIKE 1!

Well, we were looking forward to the grand opening of our new community pool today. We expected big crowds. LW asked me to drive by the pool on my way home from work and report back on what the crowds were like. I arrived to find... an EMPTY pool. There were a few people milling about near the community center, and a lifeguard standing near the pool. I rolled down my window and asked if the pool was open. One of the employees told me the pool was closed because someone pooped in the pool, so now they have to clean it. So much for our big grand opening. That just really irritated me. We can't have ONE DAY of our new pool being operational before someone had to ruin it???

BOWFIN

Instead of going to the pool, we went to see the USS BOWFIN museum.

Bearing, MARK!

Traditional Blunoz Self-Portrait
(Mighty Mo and Arizona Memorial are in the background)

We had been discussing going to the Mighty Mo at some point and hadn't come to a decision yet. When we were in the parking lot at the BOWFIN though, one of the boys asked if we were going to see the "Mighty Mower" next. I wonder what sort of image of the world's largest lawn mower he had in his head when we were discussing going to see the battleship.

FOUL BALL!

YB was being stubborn before we left the house and refused to put his shoes and socks on. When he finally did get socks, this is what he chose...


I think this falls under the category of beggars can't be choosers. LW told me to just let it ride and be happy he had socks on.

STRIKE 2!

We went to Sea Breeze on Hickam AFB to have dinner tonight. After we arrived, we found this...


Apparently, they had a really bad kitchen fire at the Sea Breeze last Wednesday, and they're closed UFN while they rebuild the kitchen. In the meantime, they have rigged a temporary kitchen (spoken "barbecue grill") out on the patio by the Sand Bar.

The Improvised Kitchen

The menu is VERY limited - hot dog, burger, chicken, or caesar salad with individually wrapped basic condiments served on paper plates with plastic utensils. If I had known that before we drove all the way out there, I would have gone to the Mongolian barbecue at the O'Club instead.

The boys seemed to enjoy it though...

Mmmmm, Longboard Lager! :-9*

* Disclaimer: The bottle was empty, and he was just blowing into the bottle making a whistling noise. I thought the picture was priceless though.