Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veteran's Day

To all my current and former shipmates and to all who have served our country on the pointy-end of the spear, thank you for your service.

I attended a really nice Veteran's Day assembly at my boys' school this morning. They sang some great songs and then had all the veterans in the audience come stand on the stage to receive a standing ovation and receive hand-written thank you letters from the students of the school. They did a great job.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

International Spy Museum

It seems a little odd to me that my boys don't have Veteran's Day off of school. They had the Monday and Tuesday off last week though, so I took a day of leave on Tuesday to spend the day with the boys.

We took a trip into downtown DC to visit the International Spy Museum. We've been wanting to go for a while, and this just ended up being a great day for us to go. From talking to other people, it sounds like going on a weekday was ideal. I hear the lines get really long on the weekends, but there was no line for us on Tuesday morning.

In researching the museum on their website, I was excited about all the cool stuff they had listed to see and do. I was thinking we would spend like 2 hours in the museum, eat some lunch, then go to the Spy-in-the-City mission where they give you a GPS with a set of headphones and you embark on a practice mission along a 1.2 mile walking circuit through the city.

My plans didn't work out so well though.

I had no idea how big the museum itself is, or how much time we would want to spend there. There are two floors to the museum. Right after you pay for your tickets, they put you in an elevator to the second floor. When you come out of the elevator, you are in a room with several displays of fake identities of various combinations of age and gender. You each pick out a fake identity and try to memorize as much of your cover story as possible before you embark through the rest of the museum. Periodically as you go through the museum, there are interactive touch-screen displays where you have to apply some knowledge from the tradecraft you just learned about in the museum along with knowledge of your cover story from the very beginning.

As in any museum, there were plenty of static displays, but there were also a lot of hands-on, interactive things to do. For example, there was one section about disguises, and in the interactive computer touch-screen display there, you were supposed to spot the spy in a crowded room. They gave you an identification photo of the bad guy you were trying to catch, but then the bad guy would be wearing a disguise and it was a challenge to figure out which person it was.

My favorite section of the museum was the cryptography stuff. They had some really cool exhibits that explained basic ciphers and the history of cryptography. They had some virtual Enigma machines to practice encoding a German message and then using some code-breaking techniques with a stolen Enigma figure out how to break the message into plain text. Very cool stuff!

Unfortunately, they don't allow photography in the museum and there were museum employees everywhere, so the only picture you get from this field trip is the photo of the boys out in front of the museum.

After the boys and I spent 2 hours just on the second floor, we came down the stairs and saw there was another whole floor for us to explore and learn. So we went out and put more money in our parking meter (actually, we bought another slip from the pay-and-display machine), ate some lunch in the Spy City Cafe, and then went back in to see the exhibits on the first floor for another hour. By the time we got out of there, it was time to head home for the boys swimming lessons, so we didn't get to do the Spy-in-the-City mission. I'd like to go back and do that someday though.

Food-wise: The Spy City Cafe is adjacent to the museum lobby and gift shop. The service was courteous and professional, and the food was actually pretty good. The boys each had a hot dog, I had a turkey reuben, and we shared some french fries and gourmet cupcakes. I suffered a mild-case of sticker-shock when the total amount appeared on the cash register though. In fact, the whole day's outing cost me a bit more than I had anticipated.

Wallet-Hemorrhaging Report:
- $45 on one adult and two child tickets (with the military discount - $17 adult and $14 kids)
- $31 on lunch - the food was good, but they really nickel and dime you. I mean, $3 for a fountain soda??? Common! They give you like an 8 oz. cup for the soda, so you'd have to go back and refill it like 6 times to get your money's worth at $3 per cup. When I saw the size of the cups, I mistakenly ordered 3 drinks, not realizing how much they were charging.
- $8 on parking

Total not including gas: $84 for the three of us to tour the museum and have lunch. Luckily we escaped the gift shop without any souvenirs, and luckily we ran out of time and didn't need to pay for Spy-in-the-City, too.

In spite of the sticker shock, we really enjoyed the International Spy Museum. It was a day of leave very well spent. I'm glad we went, and I hope to go back to do the mission someday.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pentagon Gouge: Badge Holders

Ahhh, badges.

If you work in or near the Pentagon, then chances are you've got AT LEAST TWO badges to either dangle from your neck or stuff in your wallet. I can't for the life of me figure out why your PENTAGON badge can't get you access to the PENTAGON Athletic Center (a.k.a. "PAC"), but there's TWO badges right there.

Depending on where you work though, you may have even more than those two badges to keep handy - such as an IC badge, but then you'd also like to keep your CAC card and Metro SmartCard handy, too, right???

To complicate matters, each badge has it's own special needs...

The Pentagon badge and the PAC badge are both designed to swipe through the bar code reader at the turnstyles, so the hole to put it on a lanyard is off-center to enable you to swipe the card without taking it off the lanyard, but you can't put both on the same lanyard because they would block each other from being swiped. What I've seen some guys do is put the Pentagon badge and the PAC badge on the same lanyard, but back-to-back so one sticks out to the left and one sticks out to the right and you can swipe either one without taking them off the lanyard.

You have to be able to pull your CAC card out to stick it in your computer keyboard. The IC badge can't have anything else near it when you hold it up to the badge readers, so it kind of needs it's own separate badge holder or needs the ability to pull the badge out.

The Metro SmartCard is actually the easiest of all - you can actually leave it in your wallet and the SmartCard readers can still read it. I never actually take my SmartCard out of my wallet - just tap my wallet against the SmartCard readers and keep going.

I know it may seem like a trivial matter, but you will probably find yourself perusing the Pentagon gift shop within a week of reporting aboard and wondering which of the half dozen or so varieties of badge holders works best.

Six to choose from here, plus a couple more around the corner.

In my case, I was looking for one that would hold two badges. Initially, I was using a side-loading one like the one on the left in this picture:

The side-loading aspect was nice because it was easy for me to slide my badge in and out of the holder when I needed it to swipe in and out of the building. However (comma) it didn't work out so well in the end. You see, the little plastic thing in the middle that puts pressure on the badges and keeps them in the holder eventually wears out and breaks off. Then, your badges have a tendency to just slide out and fall on the floor when you aren't looking.

That would be bad.

I suspect the badge on the right in the image above would have the same problem with the plastic tension device wearing out, but at least gravity would keep the badges IN the badge holder for you. The problem with the badge holder on the right is that in order to take one badge out to swipe it, you have to take both badges out, and then you're fumbling around with both badges out of the holder and risk dropping or losing one in the process of putting them back.

The badge holder I'm using now is one of these:

I like it because:
1) It loads from the top, so gravity keeps the badges inside.
2) It doesn't have any plastic tension device to get worn out and break off.
3) It's got convenient finger holes on the front and back that enable you to push up either the badge in the front or the badge in the back without affecting the other badge in the holder.

Here endeth the unsolicited advice on badge holders.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Milestones: Get a Rake

I know I keep saying how much I love autumn.

Raking leaves? Not so much.

Flashback - yes, yes, I know I said last year I didn't mind raking the leaves, but we had just moved back from Hawaii so it was a novelty.

This is just one of those cases in life where you've gotta take the good with the bad. Good = Beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves on trees, pumpkins, that slight chill in the air that nips at your cheeks, and a nice cup of hot apple cider. Bad = Heaps of dead brown leaves a foot deep across every square inch of yard you own and won't just go away no matter how hard you ignore them.

I've been looking forward to the day when the boys would be old enough to start picking up some of chores around the house. First, I was surprised in the spring when 8 year old ES offered to mow the lawn for 50 cents.

Just yesterday, ES and his neighborhood friend P offered to rake the leaves in our yard for a dollar. They drive a hard bargain don't they? Actually, the conversation with ES was something more like this:

Excited ES: "Mommy, Mommy! P said I could have 30 cents if I help him rake the leaves in the yard!"

LW: "What's P getting out of this deal?"

ES: "P said he's charging people a dollar to rake their leaves."

ES's grandma says P is a modern-day Eddie Haskell.

Anyway, we agreed to pay their outrageous price of $1 for them to rake the leaves. Much to my surprise, they didn't do a half-bad job.

ES raking leaves.

Unfortunately, I didn't read the fine print on the contract. Oh wait... there was no contract. It was a purely verbal agreement, and apparently there was something lost in translation. Just in case any of you readers find yourselves being extorted by 8 year-olds, here's a translation guide for you.

When they say: "Will you pay us $1 to rake your leaves?"

They actually mean: "Will you pay us $1 to rake the leaves just in this 20 foot by 20 foot patch of the front yard before we go to the next-door neighbor's house and get them to pay us $1 to rake only one-sixteenth of the total yard area of their yard and then move on to the next house and so on and so forth?"

When ES came in to tell me he was "done" and asked for his $1, I went outside to inspect their work.

Me: "What about the sides of the house?"

P: "We don't do sideyards."

Me: "What about the back yard?"

P: "We don't do backyards. Front yards only."

Me: "What about the front yard portion on the OTHER side of the driveway over there?"

P: "No, we don't do those either."

For a minute there, I thought maybe in his quest to read every book in our house, ES read the chapter of my social psychology textbook on sales tactics and low-balling. They got me to agree to the lowball offer of $1 to start the job, and now they need more money to finish the job. So I offered to pay them another dollar if they raked the back yard, too, but they were already packing up their gear and moving on to the neighbor's house.

Oh well. Chalk this one up to you-get-what-you-pay-for.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Follow Up on Parking Meters

***Updated post 13 Jan 2010 with one more negative (thumbs-down) lesson learned.***

***Updated post 6 Nov 2009 with one more negative (thumbs-down) lesson learned.***

I'm sure you're all waiting with baited breath to read MORE of my observations about the new Pay-and-Display parking meters around Arlington, VA. (They're also using them in DC as it turns out.) SonarMan's comment convinced me I should go ahead and post this - at least I know HE'S reading it. :-)

Observations of Pay-and-Display Parking:

Recently, I had the opportunity to use one of the new Pay-and-Display parking meters in Arlington. Overall, I like them a lot. Here are a few observations about the differences between the old coin-operated parking meters and the new Pay-and-Display machines.

Thumps-Up: Plastic

It's going to take me a while to unlearn this habit. I've been like Gollum in the Hobbit when it comes to collecting and hoarding precious quarters. What has it got in its pocketses??? I intentionally buy things and pay cash to get the change, and I find myself giddy with excitement when a purchase comes out just barely over a dollar amount so I get THREE quarters and some spare change in return.

Yes, sad, I know.

It's not even like I drive to work that often. It's just that on those infrequent days that I DO drive to work, I end up using... let's see... 75 cents per hour, that's 3 quarters per hour times 10 hours (one of the reasons I will drive to work is if I know in advance that I'm going to be late at work and not able to catch the last bus), so that's 30 quarters in one day. So even though I don't drive to work that often, when I do drive, it drains my supply of quarters very quickly, and it generally takes me a week or two to slowly build up my supply to afford another day of parking without a special trip to the bank to buy a roll of quarters.

The Pay-and-Display machines take credit cards - cha-ching! No more hoarding quarters!

Thumbs-Up: No more wasting money before 8 a.m.

Around my office, you have to pay to park in the metered spots on the street between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. If you arrive at work at 7 a.m., then you could choose not to put any money in the meter and run back to your car at 7:59 to feed the meter before your car turns into a pumpkin at 8. If you have meetings to attend and won't be able to get back out to your car though, you end up putting in money and paying for that hour from 7 to 8 a.m. even though you aren't required to pay before 8 a.m. The old parking meters didn't care. They just took your money, displayed the doomsday clock count-down until the parking enforcement officers could slap that parking ticket on your windshield.

That was 3 additional quarters from my precious hoard.

With the new Pay-and-Display machines, it's just a slip of paper you display on your dashboard, no doomsday clock countdown. The slip of paper method doesn't make you pay for any time before 8 a.m., which is a nice segue into my next point...

Thumbs-Up: Expiration Time

I'm not a morning person.

My brain doesn't fire on all cylinders until after the caffeine from my second cup of coffee has seeped through my veins and the sun climbs up over Maryland and peeks over Reagan National Airport and through the blinds of my office. When I'm standing there in the pre-dawn darkness and staring at the parking meter at 6:45 a.m., my math skills aren't the best tools in my toolkit. I'm about as likely to recite the Greek alphabet backwards than I am to correctly add two numbers in hours and minutes format. I end up using the fingers on both hands to count out the number of hours and figure out how much time should appear on the doomsday countdown clock to make my parking meter last until my expected departure time.

The new Pay-and-Display machines are very helpful for the non-morning-people-mathematically-challenged people like me. As you push the buttons to adjust the amount of money you want to put on your little slip of paper, the digital display does NOT indicate the elapsed time for which you have paid. It displays the absolute value, actual-no-shit-clock-time that your parking slip will expire. Viola! No math involved!

Thumbs Down: NO paying before 6 a.m. (Added 13 Jan 2010)

While I like the fact that you can't waste money before 8 a.m. (you just pre-pay for the time after 8 a.m.), I discovered today that the pay-and-display machines will NOT let you pay before 6 a.m.

I had an early meeting at the Pentagon and had to get stuff from my office and book it over there, so I arrived at 5:45 a.m. Unfortunately, nothing on the meter electronic display or printed instructions says anything about the fact that you can't pay before 6 a.m. I inserted my credit card, and it said, "Please withdraw card quickly." I did. It said something like, "Please wait," and I sat there. After like a minute of freezing my butt off in the 22F morning chill, it said something about failing to read the card and went back to the original display screen.

I repeated this process again with the same card.

Then I did it again with a different card.

Then I tried two other pay-and-display machines on either side of where I parked.

All with the same result: Nothing. Then some guy saw me and told me that they won't accept payment before 6 a.m. So I sat there until 6 a.m. and noticed that the display changed from saying, "Free-Parking" to saying, "Pre-Pay Until 8 a.m." like in the picture up above. Then I swiped my card and it went right through. I just wish I would have known - I would have stayed warm in my car and waited for 6 a.m. to roll around instead of freezing my butt off trying multiple cards in multiple machines.

Thumbs Down: No easy extension

I mentioned before that one of the reasons I periodically drive to work is if I know in advance that I will be at work late. One of the other reasons I periodically drive to work is if I know in advance I plan to leave early for some special occasion. Monday was one of those days I thought I would be able to leave work early. Mmmmm, not so much.

With the old parking meters, if I needed more time at work, I could just go out and plug a few more quarters in the machine, and it would wind-up my doomsday count-down clock adding another hour to the display on the meter. It didn't matter when you did this, as long as you did it before the meter expired and the parking-enforcement dude put that ticket on your windshield.

Not so with the little slip of paper on your windshield.

Let's say your current parking slip says it expires at 2 p.m. If you find out that you have an urgent meeting to attend at 1 p.m. and have to leave at 12:30 to head over to the Pentagon, then it doesn't matter that you've still got an hour and a half an hour left on your slip of paper - you're gonna pay for it again in order to get a new slip of paper that lasts until after you think the meeting will be over. Essentially, in order to be able to NOT double-pay for any time, you have to go down and buy your new parking slip EXACTLY when the first parking slip expires.


However (comma), in the grand scheme of things, I can live with this.

Thumbs-Down: No Down Button

When you go down to buy a Metro ticket, there are both up AND down buttons to raise or lower the value of the ticket you are purchasing. Not so with the Pay-and-Display meters. There are three buttons:
- $1
- 25 cents
You can push the button to raise the amount you wish to put on your parking slip, but if you accidentally push the button one too many times, then what do you do? Both me and one of my coworkers discovered the answer the hard way. Interestingly enough, BOTH of us figured that since there is no down button to lower the amount, then we should just keep pressing the dollar button and once it got past the max for the day it would cycle back to the bottom dollar value again (sort of like changing the time on a clock that only has one button for hours and one button for minutes).


If you keep pushing that dollar button and it reaches the max value for the day, then WHAM! it dials into the bank and charges you the max. There's no "are you sure?" or "please press this button to confirm your purchase." It just charges you the max.

So, lesson learned, if you push the button one to many times and have more money / time displayed on the Pay-and-Display termain than you wanted, then your options are:

A) Push the cancel button, get your credit card out of your wallet, and start over again.

B) Suck it up, push the green "print receipt" button and take the additional time on your parking slip.

Thumbs-Down (sort of): No Free Parking

Once in a blue moon, I used to get a visit from the free parking fairy. If you park in a metered parking spot and the parking meter display says, "Out of Order," then CHA-CHING! CHA-CHING! FREE PARKING! You didn't have to pay to park there if the meter was out of order.

Aside: I heard about a guy who used to carry mass quantities of NICKELS to pay for his parking. He would feed them into the parking meter until the meter was full and couldn't take any more coins. Then the Out of Order sign would pop up because the meter was full, and he would (only sometimes, I suspect) have spent less total money on parking for the day than he would have if he had paid the 10 full hours in quarters. That's just a rumor I heard though, who knows if it's just an urban legend.

Anyway, there's no more free parking fairy with the Pay-and-Display machines. The first Pay-and-Display machine I walked up to on Monday was out of order. In my early morning, not-firing-on-all-cylinders-yet state, my initial reaction was one of elation and joy that I got free parking for the day. Then I read the, "PLEASE GO TO ANOTHER PAY-AND-DISPLAY MACHINE" message in the digital window, and I felt like a deflated balloon as my shoulders slumped. The machines are spaced about two per block on each side of the street, so you just have to walk to the next machine down to buy your parking slip to put on your dashboard.

So there you have it. Kevin's not-entirely-useful, totally-random observations comparing and contrasting the old coin-operated parking meters with the new pay-and-display machines.

Overall, the Pay-and-Display machines are clearly a good thing.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pentagon Gouge: Infrequent Parking

When you work in or around the Pentagon, they give you a choice. You can either have:

Option A) A Pentagon Parking Permit


Option B) The National Capital Region Mass Transit subsidy

If you ask me, I think mass transit is THE way to go in the DC area.

However (comma) there will periodically come a time when you will need to drive in to work. When that happens, where do you park?

Around the Crystal City, your options are metered spots on the street or underground parking in the garages. The garage under my building costs an arm, a leg, and my first-born child. Okay, it's not THAT bad. It's like $17 for the day. That's still pretty darn high if you ask me. I prefer to find a metered spot on the street.

There are two types of parking meters around Crystal City: BLUE and GREEN. The BLUE metered spots cost $1 per hour and are limited to 2 hours. The GREEN metered spots cost $0.75 per hour and are limited to 10 hours, so I always seek out the GREEN metered spots because they're cheaper and last longer without having to run out in the rain or snow to put more money in the meter.

Actually, reading the Arlington website description of the parking meters linked above, I learned that it's actually illegal to run out and put more money in the meter. They say it's illegal to park there for longer than the time limit of the meter.

Lately (summer 2009) they have been replacing the coin-operated parking meters with new high-tech Pay-and-Display machines in which you can use a credit card or cash. The new machines spit out a slip of paper that you then display on your dash board, but I think the blue and green color coding of the parking spots (that used to be blue or green parking meters) has remained the same.

Anyway, that was sort of a long tangent and not actually the reason why I started to write this post. I actually learned something new that I thought was worth posting here in the Pentagon Gouge.

You can park in Pentagon parking and keep your mass transit subsidy. The mass transit benefit website says you are allowed to do this up to 5 days per month. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to be in some admiral's office at 0600, so you have to leave home long before your normal bus service starts, then it might be useful to just park in the Pentagon parking lot and get to your meeting with the admiral on time.

IF you need to do this, then you should park in the Hayes Lot. The Hayes Lot is across the street from the Pentagon City Mall, along Army-Navy Drive and Hayes Street, and there is a pedestrian tunnel from the Hayes Lot under I-395 over to Pentagon South Parking. After you get into the Pentagon, you just need to stop by the Pentagon Parking office at 2D1039 (inside the Pentagon Metro entrance, up the escalators, off on the right in the D-ring before corridor 10). There are computer terminals there where you enter your car's license plate and the fact that you parked in the lot for the day. This will prevent you from getting ticketed or booted.

Recap: If you receive the Mass Transit Subsidy, but infrequently have to drive to work, then your options are (listed in order of preference):
1. Park in Pentagon Parking (Hayes Lot) and sign in at the computer in the Pentagon Parking office in 2D1039.
2. Park in a GREEN metered spot around Crystal City. Either bring a bunch of quarters if you find one of the older spots, or find the new Pay-and-Display machines that take credit cards.
3. Park in a parking garage (and go ahead and fill out that home equity loan application).