Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Milestones: First Trophy

Monday night was my eldest son's first Cub Scout pack meeting of the school year. They handed out several awards and participation patches for the activities that happened over the summer like the Bottle Rocket Derby and the Raingutter Regatta.

ES received a patch for participating in the Bottle Rocket Derby. The other dads there from our den all told me that ES deserved some sort of purple heart attachment for his "participation" patch given the trials and tribulations he went through.

For the Raingutter Regatta, I am surprised I didn't write a blog post about that. I searched back through my blog and can't find it though. It was a very challenging day for us. It was an opportunity for me to exercise my fatherhood skills in explaining good sportsmanship to my son.

The race was very difficult outside in the church parking lot with a steady, strong breeze blowing. The boys built their own boats with kits similar to those provided for the Pinewood Derby. The race was set up in two parallel rain gutters filled with water. The boys had to blow at the sail on their boat through a straw in order to propel it forward, and they had to do this INTO THE WIND. It was hard.

The Bear Den Lineup

ES racing his boat

ES was pretty bummed that day because he didn't win any of the 1st, 2nd or 3rd place trophies awarded on the spot. We left feeling a little down in the dumps.

Monday night at the pack meeting though, they gave out little trophies to everyone who participated, and came up with a award category for each. ES won the award for "most original design."

When we got in the car to come home, he asked, "Daddy, what does most original design mean?"

Uhhhhh... I bit my tongue to keep from saying it's just a name they made up so they could give everyone an award for participating. One of his best friends from school, J, got an award for "the most decals," so I told ES that his award was for NOT using any decals and decorating the boat by hand from his own imagination.

The Most Original Design Trophy

ES is VERY proud of his trophy. He walked into the house hiding it behind his back, walked up to his mom, pulled the trophy out and said, "Ta da!" He brought to our attention that there were some fingerprints on it and asked what he should use to polish his [cast plastic] trophy.

My wife lovingly told him just wiping it off with a dishcloth would do the trick. ;-)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Silly Legal Disclaimers - Volume III

I periodically have to remove the battery from my BlackBerry. Today, for some odd reason, after I pulled the battery out, I said to myself, "Self, there sure is an awful lot of writing on that battery. What the heck does all that say???"

The first sentence...

Do not abuse battery.

Gosh, I'm SO glad they put that there. Cuz ya know I was just itching to see how high it could bounce off the tile floor on the first floor if I dropped it from the atrium opening on the 7th floor of my building. Whew! What a RELIEF they put that statement on the battery for my BlackBerry. NOW I know better!

Seriously... who thinks these things up???

Oh, yes, I did say there was "a lot" of writing on the battery, didn't I? After that breathtaking statement above, it says to dispose of the battery properly (um, okay...), and then it offers what I assume are the same two legal statements in like 17 other languages. This is because, you know, BlackBerry doesn't want to get sued by some guy in Bangladesh because he was beating on his BlackBerry battery with a sledghammer and it stopped working and nobody warned him "do not abuse battery" in his native language.

Give me a break.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pentagon Gouge: Uniform Shift to Blues

Heads-up for those Navy folks in the DC area: The shift to blues is Oct 5th.
NOW would be a good time to dust them off and make sure you can find all the pieces and parts before you really need to put them on.

Also, the Navy Birthday Ball is on Saturday, 24 October at the Hilton in Alexandria.

The Naval District Washington message announcing the uniform shift is copied below. Please note, this message specifically addresses uniforms for military funerals such as those at Arlington National Cemetery or for briefings on Capitol Hill.

R 311605Z AUG 09




B. E1 TO E-6:





Friday, September 25, 2009

Still not happy

Overall, I do like USAA and have used many of their insurance and banking services for many years.

This blog post deals specifically with the USAA Mortgage service. You may recall my tirade against USAA Mortgage back in August 2008. It was during that episode that I learned USAA used to farm out their mortgage services, but had recently brought it in-house, "in order to provide better customer service."

A year later, I continue to have doubts about the quality of the USAA mortgage customer service. First, there was another comment I received on that post in August 2009.

Then, we had some very good friends of ours go through a very difficult house sale with USAA. I write this blog post on their behalf because (a) their story is another data point on the quality of USAA Mortgage customer service and (b) because they don't have a blog. They gave me permission to post their story here, and they have reviewed what I have written to make sure I got the facts straight.

Our friends are active duty Navy and were stationed in Florida. They bought a house there in 2005. They were very happy with their house there and would have loved to just stay there. Unfortunately, the Navy had other plans for them. They received orders to transfer to the DC area this summer, and they had to sell their house.

They were very happy they found a buyer for their house, but unfortunately, it was a short-sale. They had to sell the house for $80k less than what they owed on the house, so USAA had to approve the short-sale.

So let me ask you a question. If you were in the same circumstances, how long do you think it should take the bank to say "yes" or "no" and either approve or disapprove the short-sale?

17 minutes?

17 hours?

17 days?

17 weeks?

Let me ask the question one other way. Put yourself in the BUYER's shoes. If you put an offer on a house, how long would YOU be willing to wait for the bank to approve the sale before you give up, withdraw your offer and look for another house?

It took 17 WEEKS for USAA to make a decision on the sale of their house. Our friends were understandably worried that the buyer was going to give up and back out on the deal.

Now, in USAA's defense, I know they're taking a loss here and it's NOT a good deal for them by any means. I can understand reluctance on the part of USAA. Maybe it is prudent to stall a little bit and see if another buyer shows up and offers to pay more. ...but 17 WEEKS?!?!

There's another complaint about USAA's customer service in this case that just really bothers me though. Several times during those long 17 weeks, my friends called USAA to ask for the status of approving the sale. The customer service representative on the phone would offer the standard pleasant greeting and ask for their member number and password to access their account. When the account information came up on the representative's computer screen, there would be a sudden, "oh!" shift in attitude. As soon as they saw "short-sale pending" on the account, the customer service representatives proceeded to INSULT my friends by asking in a condescending tone, "Would you like to make a payment today?"

Our friends response? "Uhhh, NO, I DON'T want to make a payment. I'm NOT BEHIND on my payments, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I pay my mortgage on time every month, and I would continue to do so if the Navy wasn't forcing us to MOVE."

I'm disappointed in you, USAA. On the insurance and banking side of the house, you have always treated customers such as me with the utmost respect and courtesy. That's why I've been a loyal USAA customer for so many years. It sounds to me like your mortgage service is still falling short of the mark.

My friends were already under enough stress and pressure having to deal with the PCS move (with the freeze the Navy put on PCS orders affecting them, too) and the short-sale. USAA is supposed to be a company that caters to the military, so you would think they would understand the concept of PCS moves and not insult their customers who are fully up-to-date on their mortgage payments but have to short-sell their house due to military orders.

On a positive note, USAA DID approve the short-sale, and our friends are very thankful for that. They are very happy that everything worked out fine in the end. It was just disappointing the stress that USAA added to the situation along the way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mark your calendars: Loudoun County Farm Tour

For folks in the DC area: Mark you calendars for the Loudoun County Farm Color Tour on Oct 17 & 18. We have really enjoyed the Loudoun County Farm Tours in the fall and spring. Hopefully it'll be warmer this year - last year it was frigid outside, so we didn't do much on the tour.

Here's a repost of the announcement I received:

Loudoun’s Farm Color Tour October 17 and 18 - Spend a Weekend in the Country!

Fall is a beautiful time of year in the Loudoun Valleys, with views of the Blue Ridge, Short Hill and Sugarloaf Mountains. From 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 17 and Sunday, October 18, enjoy this free self-guided driving tour down tree-lined country roads to privately owned Loudoun County farms. Thirty-one sites, including 13 wineries, are participating in this year’s tour. Visit horses, chickens, sheep and alpacas in their natural environment. Take a hayride or have lunch by a scenic pond. Pick your own apples and pumpkins. Tour a winery or a nursery and talk with the proprietors about their specialty products. Enjoy the colors, people and products of the Loudoun Valleys!

Three news stops are included in this year’s Farm Color Tour. At Ballentine Farm in Waterford, visitors can take a hayride, visit the pumpkin patch, dig potatoes, and learn about the lifecycles and basic care of the farm’s cows, horses, chickens, and turkeys while enjoying fresh-pressed cider and home-churned ice cream. Edgegrove Farm in Purcellville will be offering pony rides and horsemanship demonstrations, and visitors will be able to pet many different breeds of horses. And at Rock Hill Farm in Leesburg, visitors can see the collection of late 18th and 19th century brick and stone buildings, tour one of the few pre-Civil War bank barns remaining in Loudoun County, and enjoy a glass of lemonade while watching horsemanship demonstrations at Rock Hill’s new indoor arena.

Returning farms include Ayrshire, Alpacas of Middleburg, Butterfly Hill Alpacas, Chicama Run, Crooked Run Orchard, Equine Rescue League, Grandale Farm Restaurant, Heritage Farm Museum, Ivandale Nursery, Loudoun Nursery, Master Gardeners, Northgate Vineyards, Sunny’s Corner, Sweet Home Alpacas, Temple Hall, Wegmeyer’s, Willow Hawk, and Zephaniah Farm Vineyards. In addition, several wineries and country stores will have special events throughout the weekend.

Brochures for the Farm Color Tour, including a map and directions to all participating farms, are available at the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, Loudoun County libraries and community centers, and the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association. Up-to-date tour information is also available at, or request to have a brochure mailed to you by calling 703-777-0426 or email

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pentagon Gouge: Tomorrow is Car Free Day!

I'm going to see if I can make Pentagon Gouge my regular Monday post.

Reminder: TOMORROW (Tuesday, 9/22/2009) is Car Free Day in the DC Metro Area! If you register at the Car Free Website to either reduce or eliminate the use of your car tomorrow, you could win some free stuff.

Note, even if you already use public transit to commute, you can still pledge to go Car Free tomorrow.
As for me, I would normally drive to the park-n-ride in the morning (~5 miles away) and drive home again in the afternoon. Tomorrow, I plan to walk to the free Ashburn Farms Shuttle Bus and ride it to the park-n-ride and ride it home again in the afternoon.
Give it a shot!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Small World

Each of us at some point in our lives have had one of these experiences. Some stranger you just met finds out...

a) you're in the Navy, or
b) you're from (insert STATE name here), or
c) you were born in (insert YEAR number here)

and that someone proceeds to say, "Oh, I once knew someone who...

a) was in the Navy," or
b) was from (that STATE)," or
c) was born (that YEAR),"

and the coup de grace is when they say, "Maybe you know him" (or her) and ask, "Do you know (insert name of person you've never met but happened to have shared the same profession, state of residence, or birth year here)."

I was in the gym the other day and happened to hear one of those conversations, but it was about a guy being in the same Army Division. It gave me a flashback though to the last time I remember having one of those conversations, but it was one that had a very surprising ending.

So there I was... (yeah, yeah, this is a SHORE duty story, not a sea story, but still...)

In the fall of 2004, I finished my department head tour as Navigator on a submarine in San Diego, and we had just moved to Ashburn. It was Halloween and I was out trick-or-treating with the boys. We ended up on the same rotation from one house to the next with a father and daughter who lived three houses down from us, so the other dad and I got to talking while the kids were going up to each house to ring the doorbell.

So through the course of our conversation, he found out I was in the Navy. "Oh, my father-in-law was in the Navy," he said.

I thought to myself, "Self, ooooooh-boy, here we go. The fact that he WAS in the Navy makes it a bajillion times LESS likely that I would know him than if he IS (were) in the Navy NOW." My response was something innocuous and please-don't-ask-me-if-I-know-him like, "Oh, that's nice."

He asked what I did in the Navy. I told him I was a submarine officer. "Oh, my father-in-law was a submarine officer, too."

I thought to myself, "Hmm, that's mildly interesting. Even so, the odds I know him are slim to none." My response was again something innocuous like, "Oh, that's cool."

My neighbor proceeded to tell me his father-in-law still worked for the Navy in San Diego. I thought to myself, "The coincidences are mildly interesting, but there's NO WAY I know this guy." He said, "Yeah, he does some sort of range safety for some weapons test range out there."

[insert cracking-whip sound-effect as my head does a double-take snapping left to look my neighbor in the eye] "Wait, say what??? What did you say your father-in-law's name was?"

My neighbor was probably thinking to himself, "Self, awww geez, here goes one of those nutty people who thinks maybe he knows my father-in-law just because he was in the Navy, too." He sorta nonchalantly said, "Washington*," as if to convey he doesn't think there's any chance I really know him.

I said, "CAPTAIN Washington???"

He said, "Yeah!"

Man, talk about a small world! Yep, I knew him alright. What are the odds?!?! He runs the SOAR (Southern California ASW Range) where we shoot exercise torpedoes. Before we go out to the range (several times per year - either as the shooter or as the target), he comes down to the submarine wardroom and gives a brief to all the officers on range safety. After you finish on the range, he comes down again to brief you on how you did.

I told my neighbor that not many people knew his father-in-law by his real name. Most people know him as "Sunshine"** because that's his call-sign on the range-control communications circuits. As the Navigator, I got to interact with him before and after our range briefs in order to schedule our times and coordinate our activities, but people still addressed him by his call-sign in face-to-face meetings.

It was quite a surprising end to what I thought was going to be one of those typical, "Nnnnnope, never heard of him" conversations.

Disclaimer: that's not his real name.
** D
isclaimer: that's not his real call-sign. Those of you who have been out on the SOAR know his call-sign and have probably met him before.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Zoom zoom zoom

Ya know... I don't consider myself a speed demon.

As a matter of fact, people have made fun of me for driving too slow. For instance, one of the guys I sometimes carpool with to the Pentagon is a naval aviator. When he drives, I have to change my shorts after I get to work. He doesn't drive, he flies at really low altitude - Mach 2, zipping back and forth, weaving in and out of traffic. My right foot instinctively taps the floor for the ghostly passenger-side brake pedal that isn't there.

When I drive, he offers to pay me for the extra gas I'll burn if I at least go the speed limit. (He exaggerates a bit).

During our family road trip drive across country last summer, I commented on how I felt like a boulder in a vast river gushing around me as people passed me on the left and on the right as if I were standing still. The same is true on the occasional days that I have to drive in to work on the Dulles Toll Road. The speed limit is 55 mph, and I'll got a little bit over that, but people will fly past me on the left and right as if I'm standing still.

Segue into last night. After a looooooong day at work that started off with several middle-of-the-night phone calls and getting up to go to work at 4 a.m., I came home to find an envelope waiting for me on the table.

I said to myself, "Self, why is there something from the District of Columbia addressed to YOU on the table?"

[pregnant pause]

Then I said to myself, "Self, that's odd. It kinda looks like there's a picture in the envelope from the District of Columbia."

Oh fudge.

I opened the envelope to find a speeding ticket from a camera in the District of Columbia. Darnit. $50 if I pay within 30 days, $100 if I wait. It's actually very easy to pay the ticket on the DC DMV website.

Yep, they got me.

It's frustrating because I had no clue there was a speed trap in there. Today I happened to have to drive the same stretch of road to go to a meeting across town, so I kept a close eye out for the speed trap. I saw it alright. A coworker of mine was driving, and I took a couple of pictures on our way driving back to the office.

You can't even read it in this photo, but the little yellow rectangle under the SPEED LIMIT 40 sign says, "Photo Enforced."

Low and behold, about a quarter mile past the 40 mph speed limit sign, there was this white van parked on the side of the road with a radar gun and camera contraption on the dashboard. There were no markings on the van whatsoever, so you wouldn't even know it was law-enforcement related.

It seems clear to me that this is purely a revenue-generating venture for the District. By using the sneaky methods (small warning sign, unmarked van, wide-open stretch of road with no apparent reason to limit the speed to 40 mph), I suspect this has little impact on the actual rate of people speeding on this stretch of road.

If they genuinely wanted to get people to slow down, they would post one of the speed limit signs along with the "YOUR SPEED IS: XX" readouts that publicly declares you're speeding. Or they could put a lot bigger, more obvious warning signs that they're photo-enforcing the speed limit.

They didn't do any of that though. By doing it on the sly, it seems to me their intent is merely to generate revenue, and the website sure made it very quick and easy to pay the ticket - cha-ching!

Anyway, I'm not overly upset about this, other than my lovely wife pointing and laughing at me. You can't argue with the photographic evidence, though. I mainly share this for my DC readers to beware lest you find a surprise envelope from the District of Columbia in YOUR mailbox.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blogger is having problems again

It seems Blogger is having problems with scheduling posts again and erroneously published a post that I was nowhere close to done writing. If you read my blog in an RSS feed reader, please disregard the unfinished and unedited post about awards.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kayaking Logistics

I won't pretend to be an expert at kayaking. I'm far from it with only 11 entries in my paddle log as I type this.

Even so, I've learned a few things along the way, and I thought I'd jot them down as tidbits of gouge / lessons learned / oolies about kayaking. These things may be old hat and/or pretty obvious to those of you who have been kayaking a while, so you will probably laugh at these trivial matters. For other beginners like me, you might read some of these, slap your forehead and say, "ooooooooh!"

Part 1. UEOs (Unidentified Elastic Objects)

My kayak has these mini-bungie-cord things on the side:

For a while I didn't have the foggiest clue why they were there. I asked some other kayakers on the Goose Creek group paddle and I asked a few of the staff members during the Jack's Boathouse guided paddle on the Potomac, but nobody could tell me what was their intended purpose. I even checked the Ocean Kayak website to see if they labeled them.


Then it just dawned on me when I was getting ready to paddle on Newfound Lake. They're to hold your paddle while you're getting in or out of the water, like this:


**Now, in hindsight, I went back to the Ocean Kayak website. If you click on the "features" tab, you will see one of the features is "paddle keepers." A-ha! There's no explanation WHAT a paddle keeper IS, but my kayak sure has them alright!

Part 2. Got dirt? Bring rinse water.

This is a practice I adopted in the course of scuba diving from the beaches near Monterey, CA. We saved a couple of large plastic jugs from orange juice or iced tea and saved them to fill up with water.

Bring a couple of these with you in the car. When you get back to the car and your feet are all muddy or there's clumps of mud or dirt on the boat, you can use these to rinse off your feet before you get in the car, or wash the dirt off your boat before you put it on top of your car. Oh, and the water will be nice and warm from sitting in your car (in the right season).

Part 3. Twisting your tie-down straps.

The guys at EMS taught me this trick. I'm actually very glad they did because I'm the anal retentive type who would have made all the straps nice and orderly and flat if they hadn't told me otherwise.

The problem is, if you do a very orderly, anal-retentive job of putting the tie-down straps on your kayak, wind flowing over the flat straps will induce a resonance that will cause the straps to vibrate and make a lot of annoying noise while you drive. What the EMS guys taught me was to intentionally put twists in your tie-down straps to prevent that resonance and annoying vibrating noise.

Flat = Bad . . . . .Twisted = Good

Part 4. REI Videos

I found that REI has some useful pointers in the expert advice section of their website. They have both articles to read and videos to watch. For example, check out this one about kayaking with kids.

That's all for now, but I'm sure I'll have more to share later on as I continue to learn through experience.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Printer

Can you believe how much computer printers have advanced over the years?

It blows my mind thinking back to 1993. My wonderful and generous grandpa had bought me a new super-whamodyne 486 computer (oooooooooh, aaaaaaaaah). That fall, I passed my interview with Admiral DeMars (a.k.a. Director of Naval Reactors) and was accepted in the Nuclear Propulsion training program. When you pass your interview with Naval Reactors, you get an accession bonus. I went out and spent $2,000 of my accession bonus on an Epson ActionLaser 1500 laser printer to go with my top-o-the-line 486.

That was one of the best purchases I've ever made. I certainly got my money's worth. I still have that Epson printer and it still works like a champ. It has become harder and harder to find ink refills for it over the years, but Epson earned a great reputation with me by virtue of the 16 year old printer that's still my old-reliable printer.

A few years ago, we picked up an HP All-in-One printer that was a COLOR printer, fax machine, and scanner. It was a nice capability to have, but it had its limitations. I have my Epson connected to a print server so that any of the computers in our home network can print on the Epson. I could do that with the HP, but it would not work as a fax or scanner over the LAN. In order to use those non-printer functions, I had to actually plug the printer's USB cable into a computer.

With the advent of wonderful new capabilities like depositing checks at home using a scanner, each time we get a bunch of checks for the boys' birthdays or Christmas, I would gather up all the checks, set up a chair by the HP printer, plug my computer into the HP and sit there scanning checks to deposit.

Likewise, anytime I have scanned a piece of the boys' artwork, I carry my laptop over to the HP and plug it in so I can scan the picture.

To tell the honest truth, we didn't use the HP very often unless we really needed something printed in color. I used it more for the scanner function. Segue into a big frustration of mine with the HP: When one of the ink cartridges runs out and it displays the error message telling you to load ink, it ceases to function as a scanner or fax machine. Of course, this happened at the most inopportune moment when I really needed to scan something like an important realty document to email back to our realtor, but the HP wouldn't let me scan it because it was out of ink.

Fast forward to present day Ashburn, Virginia.

The catalyst that drove us to search for a new printer was that my wife's new computer with Vista would not recognize the old print server and old Epson printer connected to it, so she couldn't print anything.

I had heard there were printers available now that would connect wirelessly to your LAN. I hadn't really looked into it because our setup was functional and my old reliable Epson was still chugging away in the basement.

Then one day, my wife and I were in the Buy More**, and we saw the price tags on the printers. Oh my! They had some really nice looking wireless printers for about $200! The printer the salesman at the store had recommended was an Epson WorkForce 600. It's a color printer, scanner, fax machine, has a memory card reader for printing out pictures, and it's wireless!

Not one to make big purchases like that without doing some research first, I came home and checked user reviews and prices on epinions and pricegrabber. I saw positive user reviews on the web and comparable prices to what they were offering at the store, so a couple of weeks later I went back to pick one up.

When I went into the store the next time, the printer was marked down on clearance AND they gave me the military discount, so I ended up walking out of the store with my new printer for $120!!! Cha-ching! Cha-ching!

So far, I LOVE the new Epson. It was very easy to setup on each of our computers to link wirelessly and print. It's awesome to sit here in the comfort of my chair in the family room and scan and work with an image of something I just tossed in the scanner as I walked by. No more lugging my laptop over and holding it there while I plug it in to let the scanner run. My only complaint so far is that it's pretty loud when it prints. It remains to be seen if it will continue to function as a scanner if the ink runs out. We shall see. So far though, I like it.

** Speaking of the Buy More - can you believe we have to wait until MARCH for the new season of Chuck to start??? That's just cruel making us wait that long.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

God Bless America... and Borders

It was a busy week for us with school and extra-curricular activities all starting up again. Wednesday night was our first Cub Scout den meeting of the school year.

Taking advantage of the nice weather while it lasts, we did most of the outdoor requirements for the Bear Badge (requirement #16) - stretching, calesthenics, relay races, pushups, and two-man wrestling-type games. I was very proud of ES for not only participating in each of the activities, but also doing more than what was required. He consistently came in last in the relay races, which is to be expected from his gene pool, but he gave each of the exercises 110% and did more than what was required.

After the outdoor activities, we went inside to work on one of the other Bear Badge requirements (#3 I think):

What do you like most about America?

Each boy was given a piece of paper to draw a picture of what they like most about America. ES had a hard time figuring out what to do. I tried to help him out and rattled off a whole list of ideas about what he might like most about America, and his den leader told him it could be a PLACE. Nowhere in my list of suggestions did this come up, but this is what ES drew...

Yep, that's my book-worm. It's become a lot easier to shop with him lately because he just sits in the cart and reads.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Save the Date: Dulles Day Plane Pull

Dulles Day Plane Pull is 3 October.

Think you can pull together 25 of your closest friends or coworkers and pull a big FEDEX jumbo-jet across the Dulles tarmac? Sign your team up for the Dulles Plane Pull on 3 October!

It's for a good cause!

Even if you aren't entering a team, it's kinda fun to watch, and they have lots of static aircraft displays and antique cars to check out. Last time I took my boys, we became local celebrities by virtue of the fact our picture was in the newspaper and coworkers of mine noticed. (Yes, yes, I'm famous. Sorry, no autographs.)

Or better yet, lend a hand! Special Olympics needs volunteers of all ages to help out the day of the event.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ode to my GPS Receiver

If you've been reading my blog for any period of time, then you already know this. Before we even start, for the benefit of any new readers, let me just state this right up front:

I am an electronic gadget nerd.

In response to a recent post of mine, David from Pearl Harbor asked how I like my GPS receiver. Short answer:


I use it almost anytime I leave the house for any activity.

Driving Across Arizona

- In the car, I use it for car navigation. I bought the Garmin North America database. It does route calculations and guides you to your destination. It doesn't talk like a lot of other fancy GPS receivers do that are specifically designed for car navigation, but that's okay. It gives me a warning beep when I'm coming up on a turn, and it gives me a "turn now" beep when I am at the turn. The North America database comes with business listings, so I can search for nearby restaurants or gas stations or whatever else, and then have the GPS guide me there.

Hiking Diamond Head

- On the trail, I use it to keep track of the mileage and altitude profile of our hike, and sometimes to help me find my way back to the car. Note the "S" in 60CSx means that it has a built in barometric altimeter and magnetic compass. The altimeter gives me nice altitude profiles of our hikes like this one:

Geocaching around Beaver Creek Dam Reservoir

- Geocaching, the compass helps guide us to geocaches when we're close to the hiding spot. Without that "S" in the model number, the GPS would just tell you bearing and range to the geocache, and you would need a separate compass to figure out which way to the geocache.

Plus, this GPS receiver was built with geocaching in mind. If you download all the geocaches within a certain radius of your home or along a route you plan to drive, they will show up as little treasure chest icons on the geographic display. After you have found the geocache, you click "FOUND" and it changes the symbol from a closed treasure chest to an open treasure chest. Looking at my GPS map, I can easily tell which geocaches I have found and which I have not. Alternatively, I can delete waypoints of a certain type. So if I don't care about the geocaches I've already found and want to clean up the screen, I can delete all found geocaches and all the open treasure chest symbols will go away.

- On my bike, it easily clicks into place on my handle-bar mount. It helps me keep track of where I am, how far I've gone, and what my average and max speeds were.

- On the water, I use it both out boating and kayaking for navigation, keeping track of where I am, where I've been, and statistics like mileage, elapsed time, and average speed. When we take the boat out to our favorite cove on Lake Winnipesaukee to go swimming, there is an unmarked rock in the middle of the cove. I swam over to it with my GPS and marked it as a waypoint with a stay-clear warning radius around it, so it will beep at me if we get too close to it. Likewise, after we set the anchor, I set another radius circle warning to tell us if we're dragging the anchor.
The 60CSx is waterproof and has gaskets around the battery compartment and external cable connections. I don't think I would ever intentionally submerge it, but I have had it out in some pretty torrential downpours hiking in Hawaii, and it's gotten plenty wet out kayaking lately with no problems.

Other features: This is the Xtreme version that came out in January 2006. When they added that little "x" to the model number, they added a couple of very important features: the SiRF III chip and expandable memory.

SiRF III: The SiRF III chip is a super-sensitive receiver that enables the 60CSx to pick up very weak GPS signals bouncing off of tall city buildings or trees. The result is that I can sit here inside my house in my comfy family room chair and get a GPS fix. Or, I can get a fix under a heavy tree canopy in the summertime. Or, I can get a fix in a busy downtown city environment surrounded by tall buildings.

Expandable Memory: The x version of the 60CSx also has a microSD card slot. I put a 2GB microSD card in there, and I was able to load ALL the road maps for everything from Norfolk, VA up to Lake Winnipesaukee, NH (along with the accompanying business database for restaurants, gas stations, etc). During our drive across country last summer, I loaded it with all the maps for the west coast from Oregon down to San Diego, then most of the maps for the drive across country. (I think the microSD card was full at about Ohio or so, and I had to empty the maps and reload it with the maps for the rest of the trip.)

In summary, the Garmin 60CSx is a rugged and reliable workhorse of a GPS receiver, and I use it for just about everything I do outside the house. I would highly recommend it for anyone who likes doing outdoor activities - whether it's running, hiking, biking, geocaching, kayaking, boating, or driving your car around town.

Aside about running: I did, in fact, use this GPS for running, too. It's a little bulky and I carried it in my hand as I ran. I mainly used it for running unknown paths like the first time I ran the trails in Eleanor Lawrence Park over in Chantilly, VA. Once I was familiar with the route and the mileage, then I wouldn't continue carrying it around with me.

Click here to visit the Garmin web page for the 60 CSx specifications.

Note: Garmin didn't pay me a dime to write this blog post. These are all my own opinions from owning and using my Garmin 60CSx.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DC Car Free Day

Car Free Day is 22 September.

If you visit the website and pledge in advance that you will eliminate or reduce use of your car on 22 September, then you could win some free stuff.

Note: Even if you are already a car-free commuter, you can still pledge to be car-free on Sept. 22.

As for me, I normally drive my car a few miles to the Dulles North parking lot and take the Loudoun County Bus from there. On 22 September though, I plan to completely eliminate use of my car. I can walk 0.8 miles from my house to catch the Ashburn Farms shuttle bus to Dulles North and then catch the Loudoun County bus in to the Pentagon like I normally do.

Why not? Give it a try!

Monday, September 7, 2009

C&O Canal Bike Ride

A friend from church invited me to join him for a 13-mile bike ride along the C&O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal - for reference, see National Park Service site, Wikipedia article, C&O Canal Bicycle Guide).

It was a great ride, and I'm really glad I went.

My friend's wife drove us up and dropped us and our bikes off under the Rt. 15 bridge that goes over the Potomac River at Point of Rocks, MD. She drove back down to the White's Ferry landing and read a book while she waited for us.

Starting off under the Point of Rocks bridge.

The trail was all hard-pack dirt and gravel, and almost entirely under a tree canopy.

The trail is well-marked with mile markers like this. They're actually telling you how many miles you are from Washington, DC. We stared off just before mile marker 48 and got off after mile marker 35.

The first highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Monacacy Aqueduct.
(National Park Service and Wikipedia references)

The aqueduct was built in 1833 for the canal barges to travel over the Monacacy River.

In 2005 it was refurbished to look like it did back in 1833, but there were some parts that showed definite signs of age as if they were the original.

You could tell some sections of the iron railing were newer than others. This section looked pretty old.

Old stonework

The second highlight of the trip was seeing the locks and the lock-keepers house.

Lock 27 and Lock-keeper's house

You can still see some of the hardware and
the curved stone for the gate hinges.

Panorama of Lock 26 and a magnificent maple tree.

We spotted a woodland duck and some sort of egret or heron.

There were a few camping sites along the path, and each had a well like this and a port-a-potty (didn't think you needed a picture of that).

End of our trip for today. Note the line of cars waiting to board the ferry across to Virginia.

When we got to the end of our trip at White's Ferry, we found this list of rules for bicycles on the path. Sound producing devices required - who knew?

Trip Stats:
13.3 miles
Moving time 1 hour 52 minutes
Stopped time 52:27
Average speed 7.1 mph

Boarding the ferry ($4 one-way)

The weather was perfect for our ride today. It was probably mid-70s out and overcast with a 50% chance of rain. It didn't rain at all on us during our bike ride, but it rained after we got off the ferry and started driving back home. Perfect timing!

I'm really glad I got out to see the C&O Canal. I look forward to exploring more segments of the canal path in the future.

DC Sightseeing

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend with your family and friends.

I did.

We had friends come down to visit from NY, so we did the DC sightseeing thing.

We started off with a picnic at the Iwo Jima Memorial. The last time we had a picnic together was at the top of Makapu'u Ridge in July 2008 (blog post and pictures here).

In the past, our usual sight-seeing routine has been to take the Metro in to the Smithsonian station, then walk down the mall to the Lincoln Memorial and back. Unfortunately, that route does a good amount of back-tracking and recovering the same ground you walked to get to the Lincoln Memorial.

This time, we tried something different, and I think I'm going to make it my new standard sight-seeing route. We parked at the Arlington National Cemetery Parking lot (which ended up costing us $15 for the day). This afforded us the opportunity to use the very nice, clean restroom facilities at the visitor's center after our long drive in from Ashburn. As we walked from the parking lot toward the metro (our original intent had been to ride the metro to Smithsonian), I looked at the Lincoln Memorial just across the Memorial Bridge in front of us, and I said to myself, "Self, that sure looks close by. I wonder how long it is to walk directly there across the Memorial Bridge?"

So I consulted my handy-dandy GPS.

Survey says: 0.8 miles from the parking lot to the Lincoln Memorial, or 1.1 miles from the Smithsonian Metro back to the Lincoln Memorial.

[Brakes Screeching Sound Effect] [Lightbulb goes off over head]

Change of plans.

So we walked directly across the Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial and continued eastbound from there along the reflecting pool, the WWII Memorial, the White House, the Washington Monument, over to the National Air and Space Museum.

YB on my shoulders as we cross the Memorial Bridge.

ES and I had recently been talking about "with malice toward none, with charity toward all," so it was neat to stand in the memorial and read Lincoln's second inaugural address together.

Tangent: Respect Part I. As we walked up the steps into the Lincoln Memorial, my friend E very appropriately told the boys to all take off their hats. No, not required, but certainly a good idea. I was a few steps behind them because I had stopped to take a photo. As I walked up the steps, I overheard an older lady nearby gasp in surprise and I heard her whisper to her friend, "Did you see what that man did? He told all his boys to take their hats off. Now THERE'S a man who's teaching his kids RESPECT and MANNERS." I couldn't agree with her more - good job, E! (Or "Bee-Zee" as we say in the Navy. Bravo Zulu is the signal flag code for "Well Done.") End of Tangent.

Believe it or not, for a fleeting moment, the idea had crossed my mind, but the adult in me said "no" right about the same time I read the sign.

It was a gorgeous day out.

The boys checking out the geese, and
YB cools off by lifting his shirt up.

Self portrait in the WWII Memorial.

Tangent: Respect Part II. While we were at the WWII Memorial, I was surprised to see some USNA plebes out there in their whites. I didn't think they were allowed out on liberty this early, but what do I know?
     The mids got suddenly visibly annoyed and staring off in one direction together. I followed their gaze and noticed a couple of morons wading through the WWII Memorial reflecting pool and splashing around in the fountains. They were grown adults, both men in their late 20s or early 30s. One of the mids yelled in a deep voice "get out of the pool!" The morons didn't seem to notice, and the mids decided to let it ride and walk away.
     There are several small wooden signs around the pool that say, "Please respect this memorial, do not wade in the pool." So I walked to the edge of the pool, picked up one of the wooden signs, yelled, "EXCUSE ME!" to the morons and pointed at the sign. They looked at me with half sheepish-guilt because they knew what they were doing was wrong and half annoyance like who does that guy think HE is. They stopped splashing and waded back to the edge of the pool. Several people around the memorial thanked me and gave me thumbs-up signs afterward, so I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one annoyed by the disrespectful morons wading in the pool.
     My thanks to the mids who pointed out the morons and had the courage to confront them - your hearts were in the right spot. End of Tangent.

YB hanging out at the WWII Memorial
with the Washington Monument in the background.

I won't inundate you with photos of the rest of our walk past the White House and over to the Air and Space Museum. We ended up logging 6.2 miles of walking on my GPS receiver and were pretty exhausted by the time we got on the metro to ride back to Arlington.

Sunday we went to church and had an AWESOME dinner at home with Caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella slices with basil and balsamic vinaigrette), steak and asparagus on the barbecue grill, and corn on the cob.

Monday morning after our friends left to head home, I headed out for a 13-mile bike ride on the Chesapeake & Ohio ("C&O") Canal trail, but I'm going to write a separate blog post about that one.