Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chuck in 3D

Flash Traffic!

I'm posting this out of my usual 7:08 reporting time in order to give you time to run to the store this weekend. I just found out that


Here's the trailer for the show:



It turns out, they're leveraging off the fact that 3D glasses are being distributed everywhere in preparation for the Super Bowl special 3D movie trailer during half-time.

So get thee to your nearest grocery store and pick up your 3D glasses for Chuck on Monday!

Pinewood Derby '09

Today, ES's cub scout pack held their pinewood derby. To see last year's pinewood derby humvee, see this post.

We started off by ES deciding on a design. He wanted to make a bullet train, and we used this image off wikipedia as an initial concept to work from.


ES drew on the sides of the block of wood where he wanted me to cut, and I cut the main pieces off around the nose to make it curved. Then I held our sander while ES rolled the nose of the car around to smooth out the curved nose.

ES sanding the curved nose.

Aside: I really like our Black & Decker Cyclone sander. I've used it a lot ever since my awesome wife bought it for me... I don't remember how long ago. I felt it was pretty safe to use with ES because unlike a belt sander or spinning disk that can rip your finger off, this just vibrates.

Cut & Sanded

We went to Home Depot to pick out the colors that ES wanted to make his bullet train. Once again, I felt like I've spent too much time out at sea (flashback to this post). ES chose purple and yellow, "because [he] wanted complimentary colors." Where did I go wrong??? Anyway, he decided he wanted it to be yellow with purple stripes.

First we put on a coat of purple paint.

After it dried, we put some painter's tape on it where we wanted the purple to stay. I figured it was easier to put tape where we wanted the purple to stay than it would have been to put tape all over except for the areas we wanted the purple stripe.

Then we did a coat of yellow paint.

When we took the tape off, it did a pretty good job, but there were some spots where the yellow paint seeped under the painter's tape. My wife was very kind and touched up those spots with a paint brush.

Ready for the Race

I admit, it doesn't look much like the original concept image from wikipedia, but I wanted it to be ES's car and let him make all the decisions. He decided where to cut, how much to sand and round it, what colors to make it, where to put the stripes... Although I did the cutting and my wife helped with the paint, it's very much his car.

Thanks to those of you who offered advice on improving the performance of the car. My wife went to the hobby shop in Leesburg today, had the car weighed, bought some additional screw-on weights and some graphite lubricant for the wheels.

RACE DAY

Arrival at the track.

If we hadn't all been sick last weekend and this week, and if I hadn't been coming home late from work, I would have gone sooner to have the car weighed and get the weight right. The screw-on weights that my wife bought at the hobby shop worked pretty good and got us pretty close. We ended up weighing in at 4.8 ounces. You really want it to be as close to 5.0 ounces as possible. At the time, I decided that was close enough I was going to go and mess with it. In hindsight now, I wonder if I should have tried gluing a quarter to it.

Computer setup with the results automatically calculated and posted on the big screen.

This cub scout pack is a lot bigger than our pack in McGrew (back in Pearl Harbor). Kudos to the pack leadership for their organization of the event. It was very well run like a well oiled machine. It was pretty high-tech with sensors on the track that automatically sensed which car came in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in each race and tabulated the results on the big screen.

The Wolf Den Lineup.

The moment of truth.

Overall, we did a LOT better this year than last year.

Last year ES's humvee took 4th place in EVERY race and last overall.

This year, he took a lot of 2nd place and 3rd place races. He took 1st place once and 4th place a couple of times. In the end, he came out 13th out of 22 Wolf Den entries. I don't think that's bad, and I told Brian he should be proud of how well he did this year.

This was the one race ES took 1st place.

ES's facial expression after taking 1st place.
That's YB with the camera on the left.

ES had several 2nd place races like this one.

The numbers on top are the lane numbers. The red digital numbers are the place numbers triggered by the light sensors under the finish line.

Action Shot: The last race.
Note YB and ES watching in the background.
That's ES's car about to come in 2nd place again.

Some of the most interesting cars in the Wolf Den were:

Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade Tank
Complete with German soldier fighting Indy and Indy's Dad

The Obama Bus

My eye was drawn to this one due to the colors, but check out the race car in the foreground. It's an Obama race car with an image of Obama and the word "CHANGE", and where they glued some of the money to add weight to the car, they wrote, "BAIL OUT."

The Banana-mobile

Well, the Bears are racing now, then the Webelos will be up. The pack championship is at 4 p.m. and we can go back to pick up ES's car then after they've had a chance to judge the other awards like "most creative" and whatnot.

ES seemed pretty dejected and mad that he didn't win any awards in the race itself, and he didn't want to leave his car there to be judged by others. I told him he should be proud of how well he did this year and how much he improved from last year.

Note to self: Add "good sportsmanship" refresher discussion to list of preparations for next year's pinewood derby.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Be careful what you wish for...

Note to self.
Dear Self,

Please remember that "changing seasons" was one of the reasons you cited for wanting to move back to the east coast.

Then, please note that nobody in Hawaii could have taken pictures like these this morning:

That's a HARD sheet of about quarter-inch thick ice I was chiseling off the car. This came from about 2 inches of soft snow during the day yesterday, followed by sleet all night last night compacting the snow and making it into a hard shell of ice around the car.

Chiseling my way across the back window...

Attempting to shovel the driveway.

It took a lot of hard scraping with the shovel blade to get the ice up off the driveway. I didn't finish the job before sleet started tapping on my head and shoulders, so I gave up and came back inside.

* * * * * * * *

I was pretty annoyed with Loudoun County Transit this morning. Normally, I get email alerts from Loudoun County about traffic accidents that block roads or delays in the buses or severe weather alerts. This morning, I checked my email to see if there were any Loudoun County Alerts.

Nope. Nothing.

I decided to take it a step farther and checked their website to see if there was anything there about inclement weather affecting the buses.

Nope. Nothing.

So I chipped my car out of the ice tomb and carefully drove toward the commuter bus parking lot. I paid the four bucks for the Dulles Greenway becuase I knew it would be plowed and treated and in better condition than the smaller side streets I normally take to the commuter bus parking lot.

I listened to WTOP on the way for any news on bus service.

Nope. Nothing.

I pulled into the commuter bus parking lot looking for the 6:10 bus.

Nope. Nothing.

I wasn't the only angry commuter sitting in the parking lot wondering what the heck. I looked up the phone number for Loudoun County Transit on my BlackBerry and called. THAT's when I got to listen to a voice recording saying ALL Loudoun County bus service was CANCELLED today due to icy road conditions.

Nice.

What the heck?!?!? Thanks for the heads-up Loudoun County Transit! Thanks to you, I wasted $4 on tolls and was 45 minutes late for work. Thbbbbpt! :-P

* * * * * * * *

I hope I provided some Fairfax bus riders a good laugh to start their morning. I had my doubts that the DoD shuttle bus would be running this morning. I had an important meeting at the Pentagon though, so I walked. (Aside: During my walk both to and from the Pentagon, I never saw any of the shuttle buses, but did see lots of people waiting for the shuttle buses.)

Wait a minute... "walked" sort of implies a controlled set of motions doesn't it? More like slid.

As I was walking generally making my way in a forward direction toward the Pentagon, and a Fairfax bus was slowly driving by me, I came to one patch of slick ice along the sidewalk. I was trying to take short steps to keep from slipping, but there was a slight downward incline. Suddenly, I found myself moving forward at a steady course and speed... although my legs were both completely still. I did one of those things you see in movies where I spun my arms around in big spiraling circles saying, "Whoa-Whoa-Whoa-WhoOOOOAAAA!" Luckily for me, I came to the end of the ice and was able to gently stop without toppling over. I think the people on the Fairfax bus next to me were laughing at me though.

* * * * * * * *

Alright, so getting back to the point. Lesson-relearned: There are good things and bad things about every duty station the Navy sends you to. Focus on the good things and make the best of it.

Oh, and if the detailer offers to let you go back to and/or stay in Hawaii, come back and look at the pictures in this blog post. :-) (Reviewing this blog post might be a good idea, too).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

You know your kid is a Navy brat when...


Could you imagine being in an elementary school teacher in the continental United Status (and NOT near a Navy base) and getting an assignment turned in like this?

ES was tasked to draw a picture and write a paragraph about a penguin going on vacation. Here's what he wrote:


In case you have trouble reading it, it says:
Bob the penguin is going on vacation to pearl harbor Hawaii to see the arzona mamorial and missori. Bob is staying at the hale coa in wikiki for 7 weeks. Bob is packing sunglasses, sun tan loation, shorts, short sleve shirts.
See the ARIZONA Memorial on the left side of his drawing and the MISSOURI on the right side? I particularly like the palm trees and the Aloha shirt.

ES said one other kid in his class wrote about his penguin taking a vacation to Hawaii, but he didn't write anything about the ARIZONA or the MISSOURI. Go figure.

Man, I wish I could take a 7 week vacation, don't you??? I'm not sure where he got that idea from. The longest we've ever gone on vacation is for a week. Maybe he was thinking 7 days.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

I've had two new video game addictions lately. Being the nerd that I am, I like brain-teaser puzzles. Here's a quick review of the two games that have been burning some of my spare time:

Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo DS. My lovely wife ratted me out. Yes, I probably would have blogged more the last couple of weeks if I hadn't been completely absorbed in playing Zelda through to completion.

Many moons ago, I loved the original Legend of Zelda video game on the Nintendo.

This game is very cleverly put together. If you follow the story line, it will take you through a series of quests for various tools you need to defeat Bellum, the monstrous beast at the end of the story.

The tools include a boomerang, bombs, a bow and arrow, bombchu's (which are like programmable mouse-bombs that will crawl to where you tell them to and then blow up), a grappling hook, a hammer, and a shovel.

I really like the puzzle aspect of this game. Each time you get a new tool, it will present you with a simple task to accomplish with that tool so you understand the basics of how the tool works. Then, as you progress through the story, you will have to figure out what combination of tools and in what manner you need to use them in order to make it through the obstacles and challenges that impede your quest.

You can play multi-player via WiFi, too. ES and I have been played two-player in the car on the way down to Williamsburg last weekend.

The other new video game addiction I've had is Portal. I've been playing it on the X-Box 360, but it's also available on the PC (for a whopping $9.99). It's also now available as a download on the X-Box 360 for something like $15 but it has a bunch of bonus levels to play.

This started out as a loaner from our friend Vince (thaaaaanks, Viiiiince...). He came over to our house for dinner one night. He handed me this disk with a sadistic grin on his face and said, "Here, you need to try this."

I asked him, "Is it a multi-player game we can play together?"

He smirked and said, "No, I just wanna watch you play it."

"Ummmm, oh... uh... okay... I see."

He watched me discover the rules of this new universe through trial and error - no doubt similar errors that he made in his initial excursion into (and out of) the Portals.

In the game, you are some sort of participant in an experiment. You work your way through these mazes while some computer generated voice offers you warnings and advice. The computer generated voice is actually very funny in the silly legal disclaimers they offer throughout the game.

The game involves using a device that can creat these magical portals in walls. Let's say you had one of these devices in your house. You could create a portal in your basement wall down cellar, then walk up the stairs to your bedroom and place another portal in your bedroom wall. Then you could walk through the portal in your bedroom wall and come out the portal in the basement. Make sense?

You have to figure out where to place the portals and move objects around in order to make it past obstacles and moving platforms. Sometimes, in order to overcome some obstacles, you have to use momentum going through one portal in order to shoot out the other portal. "Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out."

Actually, I went to see if I could find something with a demo video to show you, and I found this on YouTube. This is an excellent introduction to what Portal is all about, and it's only a little over 2 minutes long:



Vince ended up loaning me the disk for the weekend. I managed to finish all 19 levels that weekend and got the disk back to him.

It was actually something both good and bad for doing together with ES. Good in the sense that with puzzles, sometimes two heads are better than one. There were a few times that ES figured out what pieces to move where in order to solve a level. Bad in the sense that anytime I let ES take the controller, I found myself quickly getting dizzy and starting to feel motion sick.

Poor ES didn't get to see the end of level 19 though because I finished it after he went to bed. I promised him we'd get our own copy so he could play through to the end, too.

My awesome wife found out it was available as a download on the X-Box and it came with BONUS levels beyond the first 19 levels. So the addiction was back again this weekend. ES and I spent this afternoon working our way through the first 19 levels again and then played a few of the bonus levels.

So, if you like brain-teaser puzzles and you've got either a PC or an X-Box, then I recommend picking up a copy of Portal and giving it a try.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pinewood Derby Heads-Up

It's that time of year when kids and their parents are starting to work on their cars for the pinewood derby. I've noticed an increasing trend in people coming to my blog by some form of Google search like, "pinewood derby humvee."

Let me just remind you from last year's post: Humvees are NOT aerodynamic and will NOT win the race (if that's what you care about). If you don't care about winning the race and just want to make something that looks cool, then totally go for it!

After our resounding defeat last year, I explained the basic concept of aerodynamics to ES. This year, ES decided he wants to make a bullet train for his pinewood derby car. We worked on it a bit today - got the basic shape cut, sanded it down, and put the first coat of paint on it. I'll post pictures later when it's done.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Reminder: Mass Transit Subsidy

For any of you who might be reading my blog from the Pentagon, remember today is the last day to pick up your quarterly Mass Transit Subsidy.

One of my JOs just shared some gouge with me that there is more than one office in the Pentagon to pick them up, and he said the office on the 5th floor always has shorter lines. I'm headed over there to pick mine up.

For more info on locations and times you can pick up your National Capital Region (NCR) Mass Transit Subsidy, see this website.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Great Wolf Lodge Williamsburg

Tuesday was YB's 5th birthday. He was born at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, CA. I was actually born at the same hospital, but in the older pink buildings that have since been torn down. Last year I wrote a Happy Birthday post for him with a collection of some of my favorite YB pictures.

In honor of YB's birthday, we went down to Williamsburg, VA, and met up with our old friends and neighbors from Hawaii. Their two boys, Z & C, are the same ages as our boys, and our boys were devastated when they transferred to Norfolk. YB has continued to talk about his friend C ever since we parted ways back in September 2007.

We stayed at the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg and had a great time. (Aside: This is actually the second time we've been to a Great Wolf Lodge. The first time was when we stopped at Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City on our way across country.)

Reunion at the Great Wolf Lodge

In case you're not familiar with the Great Wolf Lodge, it's a hotel built around a ginormous INDOOR waterpark.

Obligatory Blunoz Self-Portrait

Many hotels in vacation spots will have a weather report posted in the elevator. I really liked the top line of the weather report in the GWL elevator:


Instead of room keys, they issue these waterproof bracelets with an RFID chip to open the door to your room.


If you stay one night at the GWL, then you get admission to the water park for both the day before and the day after your night's stay. So we went and played in the water park on Sunday, stayed the night, then played in the water park again on Monday.

ES and I enjoyed going down the super-fast double-tube slides like this one:

Yellow Slide forward view:



Yellow slide rear-view:



YB didn't work up the courage to go on the super-fast slides with us. Even so, I think YB enjoyed his birthday weekend...

YB in the little kid's section

YB in the lazy river

The camera wasn't the only one with a dead battery at the end of day two.

YB chose Foreign Residence of Tasty Flatbreads for his birthday lunch.

Other pointers if you are headed for the GWL:

- Attire: Apparently I missed the memo on this one. It seems all anybody else packed for their kids were swimming suits and pajamas. All the kids in the water park were wearing swimming suits (no surprise there). All the kids in the restaurant at dinner were wearing pajamas. After I stopped to think about it, it made sense to me. Spend the day in the water park, go to your room and shower / bath / get cleaned up, put the kids in their pajamas, eat dinner, put the kids to bed. Why wear another outfit just for dinner, eh?

- Food: If you eat in the restaurant, stick to the buffet. If you decide to order something off the menu, be prepared to wait a LONG time. We got there at 6:30. They told us it'd be 20 minutes for a table for 8. We were seated at 7:09. Those of us eating off the buffet commenced stuffing our faces at 7:10. The three orders of food that went with the waitress to the kitchen were not delivered until 7:52. I think they had to go hire a chef, go to the grocery store to buy the ingredients, go to Walmart to buy the pots and pans... Like I said, just eat the buffet.

- Timing: If you have a choice, I recommend going on a weekday for less crowds and shorter lines for the waterslides. Our visit was over MLK Jr. weekend. The lines for the four-person slides (the tornado and the canyon) seemed to take between 20-30 minutes, and the ride lasts about 20-30 seconds (totally NOT worth it - we did each once and didn't bother going back). The lines for the single and double tube slides actually moved pretty quick. I don't think we ever waited more than like 5 or 10 minutes for one of those slides.

- MagiQuest: Not all of the fun things to do at GWL are in the water park. There's a video arcade, there's a big animatronic show around the clock tower in the lobby, there's story time by the fireplace after dinner, and there's MagiQuest.


There are two increments to your investment in this adventure.

First, if you go into the MagiQuest shop, you can buy the base-model, simple magic wand for $14.99.

The Mark 1 Mod 0 Magic Wand

Warning: The MagiQuest shop has all sorts of trinkets and merchandising to further drain your wallet. You might want to just go in and buy the wand(s) for your kid(s) without them so he/she/they don't go nuts wanting to buy capes and amulets and wand-holsters and fancy wand-toppers and wand-chains and higher-end wands. Whoa, I just had a flashback to RIMPAC.

With this basic wand, there are lots of things you can do around the first floor of the hotel. Wherever you see a Q symbol painted on something, if you wave your magic wand at it, you will cause something to happen. For example, you can turn the lights on...

YB turns the lights on with his wand.

The second increment of this adventure costs another $10 to register for the actual adventure quest. On the second and third floor of the hotel are four corridors of things like treasure chests, spell books, crystals, paintings, and other artifacts. There are actually several quests you can do. The first simple one to get you into the game is the quest for the Lightning Rune. You have to find a suit of armor, a shield, and a sword, then you have to go talk to a gargoyle to get your Lightning Rune.

The suit of armor in the first quest.

So you search the hallways of the hotel until you find each item and wave your magic wand at it. It'll light up and play a sound telling you that you found it.

Lesson Learned / A Word of Advice: Overall, I think it's a pretty fun game. However (comma) we paid to register each of the four magic wands for all four boys in our group, and that was a mistake. In hindsight, if I could turn the clock back and have a "do-over," then I would have only paid the extra $10 to register ONE wand as our "team" wand.

By registering all four wands, we all went around together finding all the things, and we had to stand there as each child waved his magic wand and waited for the artifact to light up and play the sound effect, etc, etc. Rotate children, NEXT! Wave the magic wand, wait for it to do light and sound effects again. Rotate children, NEXT! Wave the magic wand, wait for it to do light and sound effects again. Rotate children, NEXT!

That may not be so bad you say. Well, it got pretty frustrating when we got to the gargoyle and it wouldn't give the birthday boy the Lightning Rune because it said he didn't find all the artifacts. So the other three boys took off on the next quest while I went and back-tracked with YB to retouch the first artifacts.

It would have been a lot easier and quicker if we just had one registered team wand (or maybe one registered wand per family - one for our two boys and one for their two boys). OR, I guess the alternative would have been a little more parental QA on the tapping of each magic wand to make sure each one registered at each step.

Update 01/26/10: In case you were wondering, can you reuse the wand / use it when you go back to Great Wolf Lodge another time? Yes, you can. However, when you pay that $10 registration fee, it only lasts for a certain number of days. If you go back a year later, then you'll be able to reuse the wand, and it'll work for the lights and animals on the first floor, but you'll have to pay $10 to register it again to play the MagiQuest game on the second and third floors.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Interruption

I was looking forward to telling you all about the awesome weekend we had at the Great Wolf Lodge down in Williamsburg, but I'm afraid that's going on hold. We arrived home safe and sound from Williamsburg just in time to receive shocking and sad news of the sudden tragic loss of my uncle, aunt, and my aunt's mother.

Uncle Chris and Aunt Elaine were wonderful, nice, loving people, believers in Christ, and respected members of their community. I haven't been in comms yet with my cousins Jon or Gigi, but they must be absolutely devastated. Gigi actually lives in the same town with Uncle Chris and Aunt Elaine, and Gigi's 5-year old son especially adored his Grandma Elaine. It breaks my heart to think of how Gigi is going to have to explain this terrible loss to her son.

In spite of this time of sorrow and loss, I find that I am truly blessed. I was supposed to go to a men's Bible study with my church tonight. When I called Jeff to tell him I wouldn't make it to Bible study, I lost my composure while I was on the phone with him. The next thing I knew, all the guys from my Bible study were sitting with me in my living room, praying with me and providing me support and encouragement.

Thank you, guys. Your fellowship and friendship means a lot to me, and I appreciate you coming over.

My thoughts and prayers are with my cousins, my mom (Uncle Chris was my mom's brother), and my grandpa right now. I've heard that it's especially traumatizing as a parent to lose a child, and this is the second of three children my grandpa has lost.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Web Traffic Analysis Part II

There is another interesting phenomenon I have noticed over time with my blog traffic.

Most hits on a website can be placed in one of three categories:
  1. Direct Traffic comes from someone who has your web page bookmarked or typed the web address directly into their web browser.
  2. Referring Sites come from links that other people have placed on their web sites directing people to your web site.
  3. Search Engines come from someone Googling things like:
  • Poop specific gravity.
  • What naught.
  • Navy officer housing complaints Oahu.
  • What is the nature of the tattle-tale.
  • How to kill Hale Koa trees.
  • Speedo grandpa diving
  • "Did you figure it out yet" Top Gun quotes best pilot
  • How long will doorbells last?
  • old weenie arm George Washington
  • how do handing cap people go pee and poop
  • land shark beer nonprofit for kids
  • fun things to do with a weenie
  • missed toilet pee
  • what is another word for big boobs in hawaii
  • spanking boy scouts
Aside: I kid you not. Those are actual Google searches that brought people to MY blog.

When I first started blogging, most of my traffic was direct traffic from family and friends that I told about my blog.

As time went on, the percentage of referring sites went up as I made friends in the blogosphere and those friends put links to my blog on their blogs. It's either that, or I've written some earth-shatteringly witty and interesting blog post and a bunch of people provide a link to it.

After a while I got bored of looking at my blog stats and just stopped checking for a while. About the time I stopped checking my stats regularly, I was sitting at about 33% direct traffic, 33% referring websites, and 33% search engines.

I recently went back just to take a look at my average daily hits and percentages, and the pie-chart of direct traffic versus referring websites versus search engines was quite different. Now that I've been writing for over 15 months, I have written about enough different topics that my blog shows up in more and more internet searches. I now get about 45% of my traffic from search engines, 30% from links, and 25% from direct traffic.

I know some of you more experienced web designers and bloggers are probably saying, "Well duh!" These are probably basic patterns of web traffic that you'd find in some introductory textbook on running a website and what to expect in your first year online. In the absence of any such formal training on running a website or what patterns to expect though, I found the trend interesting.

(You may now silence the "geek!" alarm going off in the back of your head.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Home Improvements Deja Vu

I look forward to having a house that we plan to keep indefinitely. Each of our previous two houses we purchased anticipating we would sell the house a few years later when we moved on, not sure where the Navy would send us next. We don't know yet if this will be "that" house. Depending on the results of the next two screening boards for me, this could be our house for a long time to come.

With our first house in San Diego, if you had wanted to know which light fixture or water faucet was in our house, just walk through the aisles of Home Depot and whichever one was the cheapest - THAT's the one that was installed in our house. A lot of my home improvement projects ended up being installation of nicer light fixtures and water faucets.

Fast forward to our second house in Ashburn. Ya know what? If you want to know which light fixture or water faucet was in our house, just walk through the aisles of Home Depot and whichever one was the cheapest - THAT's what was in our house. Deja vu! Once again, I spent a good amount of time and expense installing nicer light fixtures and water faucets.

I embarked on a new series of home improvements at our second house though. Our next door neighbor at our second house introduced me to programmable light switches and home automation. He had his house totally rigged with home automation stuff from roof to foundation and it was pretty darn cool. I followed his lead and started a series of upgrades to our light switches and receptacles.

The place it made the most difference for us was in the basement. Neither my wife nor I really like having to go down the stairs into the basement and walk around turning off all the lights the boys left on, or just walking around down there to verify they were all off. I replaced each of the light switches in the basement with X-10 switches (Aside: X-10 were the older generation, the newer ones are called Insteon). Each switch has an electronic address sort of like an IP address for a computer, and they can send and receive control and status signals over the neutral wires of the house. At the top of the basement stairs, I installed an 8-button keypad that showed the status of each of the lights in the basement (on or off), and allowed me to turn them all off, all on, or individually on or off with the push of a single button.

Tangent:
In addition to the remote control, indication, and programming benefits of these switches, they also slowly ramp-up and ramp-down the power. This has a couple of good benefits.

First, it reduces the strain on your lightbulbs and makes the lightbulbs last longer. We had those recessed lighting big lightbulbs in the basement. It seemed like every other time I turned the lights on, one of the lightbulbs would blink out. I was replacing them ALL the time. After I installed the X-10 light switches, I hardly ever had to replace the bulbs anymore. The slow ramp-up and ramp-down of the lights really did make the bulbs last longer.


Second, it reduces the drop in the voltage on the power lines when you turn the lights on and off, which can degrade the major appliances in your house over time. Think about it, if you have ten 60W bulbs that instantly turn on when you flick the switch, then you're putting a sudden 600W load on your house's power. Major appliances like refrigerators don't generally like the oscilating voltage.

Plus, you could program how fast the lights ramped-up or down and set them to automatically go to a preset level instead of going full-bright all the time.
Okay, end of tangent.

Next, I took it a step further and installed a few motion sensors here and there. You didn't have to turn the lights on to the basement stairs, because they would automatically turn on as you approached the bottom or the top of the stairs, and they would automatically turn off after three minutes of not sensing any motion.

We had a problem with the boys going down cellar to the play room, turning on the lights and the TV in the playroom, and coming back upstairs 5 minutes later while leaving the TV and lights on. So installed another motion sensor in the playroom. It controlled the lights the same way as the lights on the stairs (only with a bit longer time delay), but it also controlled the electrical outlet the TV was plugged into. When you walked into the play room, the motion sensor turned on the electrical outlet and allowed the TV to be turned on. After 30 minutes of no motion in the playroom, it turned the lights and the TV off.

Eventually I upgraded the light switches on the first floor, too, so when we're going to bed at night, the single push of a button would secure all the lights. Likewise, when our alarm system said someone was trying to mess with the sliding glass door, a push of a button turned on all the lights and scared the prowler away.

So what brought all this up?

If you've been reading my blog for long, then you know we just bought our third house. Thankfully, this time around, we found a house that didn't require any upgrades to the water faucets or light fixtures. However, we've encountered the same issues as our last house in terms of wishing we didn't have to do the walking tour of the basement to turn off all the lights before going to bed and wishing the boys wouldn't leave the TV and lights on in general.

Thanks to a Christmas gift certificate from my wonderful MIL, I ordered our first shipment of new light switches for the basement. They aren't cheap, so I can't afford to just do the whole house at once. Our first priority was the basement again.

The box arrived a few days ago, so I spent most of the day today replacing the light switches in the basement and installing and programming the 8-button keypad at the top of the stairs. Now, once again, we can push a single button at the top of the stairs and turn off all the lights in the basement. Ta-da! Well... almost anyway. I didn't replace ALL the switches, but the primary ones the boys are leaving on all the time in the play room and the home theater.

This is the 8-keypad. Each of the keys are backlit, but they light up brighter to tell you the light associated with that button is actually on. All the buttons are programmable to control one or more switches or power outlets. You can pop the buttons out and change the labels, I just haven't done that yet.
Well, I'm pleased with what I got done today. While I'm glad to have the programmable light switches again, I'm also experiencing deja vu. I wonder if we'll be keeping this house or if I'll be doing this again at our next house.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Preemption Part Deux

It's Friday.

It's a four day weekend. (At least for those of us in the DC area - Tuesday is a holiday due to Inauguration and the traffic jams to come.)

You know what this means, don't you?

Why, yes, you're absolutely correct! That means it's time for another household casualty! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! Bob, tell the folks in the audience what they've won...

So last night and today it was Arctic polar bear BUTT cold in the DC area. When I left for work at 6 a.m., it was 10 degrees, and -3 degrees with the wind chill. Expecting it to be cold, I wasn't all that surprised when my alarm went off and I didn't want to get out of bed because it was too cold out. It was too early in the morning and I hadn't had any caffeine yet, so it didn't occur to me that it was odd for it to be so cold INSIDE the house.

Later, my wife pointed out to me that the heater was not cutting the mustard. It was set for 67 in the house, but it wasn't even up to like 62. The heater kept starting, running for a few minutes, then shutting down again.

So my wife called for our heating & air conditioning company to come take a look at it. They said they'd be at our house at 1 p.m... not so much. The dude finally got here somewhere in the 4 o'clock hour, and was still here when I got home around 5:15.

Yep, I made it home JUST in time to hear the GREAT news from the heating company guy. His assessment was:

1) The filter was clogged. Now, we just moved in 3 months ago and I changed the filter just after we moved in, so it's not like I'm totally out of periodicity on that MRC. (Sorry, Maintenance Requirement Card for those non-Navy types. In the Navy we have daily, weekly, monthly, semi-annual, and annual preventative maintenance we have to do that are documented on MRCs). Still, he said after he took the filter out, it started right up and kept running for a good 20 minutes afterward and was still running when I got home.
2) The bearings are going bad on the blower motor. He said because of this, the blower motor might be overheating and that might be what's causing the system to shut down every couple of minutes. New blower motor? $500. Cha-ching!
3) Our system is overall a piece of junk that is about to catastrophically fail and cause mayhem in our household any moment. The heat exchangers and piping are corroded. Who knows how soon it'll fail and dump freon into our house. He recommended not "wasting" the money on a new blower motor and just buying a whole new HVAC system for $9,800. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Cha-ching!

Um... have you seen the DOW lately?

I mean, I just got a statement on my IRA for 2008, and it said my net return for the year was - (that's NEGATIVE) 33%!!! Not to mention we just became new home owners and sank all our non-retirement fund money into the down payment on the house. I just don't have $10k laying around to buy a new heating system right now.

As with the previous water heater dilemma, there's the question about the useless home warranty. Should we WAIT for it to FAIL and then ask the useless home warranty company, "Oh please oh please oh pretty puh-leeeeeeeeeeeease won't you replace our heating system?" I predict they'll give us the standard blah blah blah due to paragraph x on page y, this repair is not covered for reason z.

My wife called the useless home warranty company tonight to ask them what they would cover. They said only if there was a MECHANICAL FAILURE due to normal wear and tear would they pay to have it fixed. Plus, we can't just have it fixed and then send them the bill. We would have to:

a. WAIT for the system to fail
b. Put on several layers of clothing, mittens, hats, and wool socks
c. CALL the useless home warranty company
d. WAIT for the useless home warranty company to send one of THEIR representatives to come inspect the failure, see the busted pipe and the water damage and deem, "yes, it is not working" (because our assessment and our HVAC company's assessment aren't good enough). Then he'll say, "Oh, but we don't cover the water damage, only the new equipment." Riiiiight.
e. Huddle together as a family and all sleep in the same bed to share body heat while we wait
f. WAIT for the useless home warranty company to send someone (the lowest bidder with the cheapest parts available) to repair it
g. Go to Home Depot and buy some space heaters while we wait
... and so on and so forth...

Ahhh, the joys of home ownership.

So what do you think? Preempt the failure and rack up the credit card bill? Let it ride and see how long the current system lasts before it dies, and then take a stab at getting the useless home warranty to cover it?

I hope you all have a splendid 3 or 4 day weekend depending on your location. (Or 2 day weekend if you're not even in CONUS - Sorry, John!)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stinky

Sorry no blog posts this week. It's been a very long week with some long days at work. Hopefully things will calm down after the inauguration.

I tell ya, my wife really loves me. She made me tacos TWICE in one week! That's just AWESOME.

Random observation of the evening:

I. Love. Onions.

Especially red onions.

Photo by PhotoBunny

With tonight's tacos, my wonderful wife diced up her own pico de gallo with a bunch of tomatoes and red onions, and it was... wait for it... AWESOME!

It's not just the taste of the onions that I love, but the aftertaste. I love how my tongue feels an hour or so after eating onions.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, it was a roundabout way of explaining my second random observation of the evening:

I really like the sound of ES reading his bedtime story to me while plugging his nose.

...Almost as much as I like the taste of onions. :-)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Follow-Up on Comfy Shoes

One reader wrote to me to ask if I would wear the Deer Stag shoes with my SDB's (Service Dress Blues) and expressed concern over the difference in appearance because of the stitching on the sides.

Answer: Yes, I totally would (and do) wear the Deer Stags with my SDBs. I don't even hesitate to wear them into important meetings with people wearing multiple stars on their collars.

Why?

First and most importatnly, it's totally allowed by the Navy uniform regulations.
Article 3501.54
Description.
a. Males. Plain toed, oxford style black, brown, or white, low quarter, lace shoe, made of smooth leather or synthetic leather. The heel shall be an outside heel 3/4 inch - 7/8 inch high with a flat sole.
Let's see...
  • Plain toed? Check!
  • Oxford style? Check!
  • Black? Check!
  • Low Quarter? Check!
  • Laces? Check!
  • Smooth leather or synthetic leather? Check!
  • Outside heel 3/4 to 7/8 inch high? Check!
  • Flat sole? Check!
Note: Nowhere in the uniform regs does it say, "Thou shalt buy BATES shoes because THOSE are what is sold at the uniform shop." There are also no prohibitions against stitching on the side of the shoes.

Second, even if you ran into someone who didn't know the uniform regs allowed it, it's not like they would be able to tell the difference anyway. I mean, I'd have to stand up on top of the conference table and lift my pant legs for people to realize they AREN'T Bates shoes. Here, let's see if you can tell the difference. Which of these pairs of shoes are the Bates and which are the Deer Stags? (Answer at the bottom of the page)


Shoe A


Shoe B

Third, they are sooooooo comfortable. It brings me joy and puts a smile on my face to go for a walk because they feel THAT good. I've even had to run a couple of blocks in them to catch the bus once or twice.

(Answer to the recce quiz up above: Shoe A is the Deer Stags, Shoe B is the Bates)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dolphin Scholarship Foundation Update

Heads-up! Dolphin Scholarship applications are due 15 March. That's only 2 months away. You can now do the application online at the Dolphin Scholarship website.

Here's the announcement from DSF:

Dolphin Scholarship Application now Available Online!

Students can now determine their eligibility and begin the 2009 application for the Dolphin Scholarship online through the DSF website, www.dolphinscholarship.org. Students may also download a paper application to mail to DSF.

A new requirement this year for all applicants is submission of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Student Aid Report (SAR) showing the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to DSF. Another new requirement for discharged and retired sponsors is submission of the DD214.

The 1000th Dolphin Scholar will be selected in April 2009.

Complete eligibility requirements and applications are available at www.dolphinscholarship.org.

Application deadline is March 15, 2009. For more information, please contact Mary Bingham, DSF Scholarship Administrator, at scholars@dolphinscholarship.org or (757) 671-3200 ext. 111.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pentagon Gouge Index

According to wikipedia, "In U.S. Navy jargon, gouge is --
  • the essential piece of information, the heart of the matter;
  • a crib sheet or other condensed summary of useful information;
  • outstanding test-preparation material such as an old test copy.
A person who is tired of hearing all the extraneous information surrounding a problem might exclaim "Just give me the gouge!"

Similar to my Oahu Favorites and NoVA Favorites lists I keep updated with an index to previous topics in my blog, I thought it would be a good idea to write one for the Pentagon Newbie Gouge I've written so far. Like the other lists, I'll post a link to this post on the right side of my blog and keep it up to date as I add anything new.

Here are the things I've written so far about working in and around the Pentagon.  Note, I was gone from 2010-2013, so a few things have changed.  I am updating the posts below as I discover things that changed since I left in 2010.

- Badge Holders
- Barber Shop
- CAC Cards / Military Dependent ID cards
- Cell Phones
- Comfy Shoes and Follow-Up on Comfy Shoes
- Correspondence Manual
- DMV
- Guaranteed Ride Home, actually NOT-so-guaranteed as it turns out
- Gym Membership in Crystal City (PAC Annex vs. Sport & Health Club)
- Holiday Party Gift Exchanges
- ITT (military-discounted tickets)
- Medical Clinic
- Parking (infrequent parking for those who normally take the bus)
- Pay-and-Display parking meters
- PCS - checking out of the Pentagon and heading back to the fleet
- PHA (Physical Health Assessment - get it done early)
- Pentagon Tours
- Pharmacy refills
- Photo Studio / Service Record Photos
- Post Office
- Safe Ride Home (during holiday season)
- Saluting and Saluting Part II
- Shuttle Bus
- Snow days / Federal Government Closure
- Special Events - locations to have ceremonies
- Uniform Shop (see also this post about Navy Annex)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Advice to Junior Officers: LES monitoring

A few things came to mind that I thought were worth mentioning for the junior officers that read my blog. As I was writing, this started turning into a really long post, so I broke it up into three parts. Part 1 was about tax withholding. Part 2 was about the Nuke Bonus and Thrift Savings Plan.

Part 3
. Leave and Earnings Statements

Nobody likes getting a letter from PSD saying, "We regret to inform you that you have been overpaid $9,999.99, and we intend to deduct it from your next 10 paychecks." This can be a readiness issue for your division, your department, and your command. If a sailor doesn't check his LES, gets overpaid, then all of a sudden gets a letter from PSD saying they're going to dock his pay to recoup his indebtedness to the U.S. government, then chances are he's not gonna be 100% focused on that rig-for-dive checklist... or that electrical safety checklist... or that precrit... or that heavy moving piece of equipment... You want your guys focused on those important things, so it's best if they're not stressed out or worried about being able to pay their bills.

It used to be that your Navy Leave and Earning Statement (LES) was delivered in paper copy to your ship's office. The ship's office would then distribute them to the division chiefs. The division chiefs would then examine their guys' LES to make sure they weren't getting shafted (e.g. overpaid or underpaid) and distribute them to the guys.

In an effort to move toward paperlessness, the Navy no longer provides the LES paper copies, and the division chief and division officer have no ability to get a copy. The responsibility has been completely shifted to the individual sailor to:
  1. Open his MyPay account on the internet once in a while (while you're in port... and he has access to a computer... and he's done reading all his email and facebook and myspace and iTunes and news and blogs and everything else that interests him)
  2. Actually look at his LES
  3. Recognize when something isn't right on his LES
  4. Actually remember the next day to follow-up on it and ask his chief or the ship's office if his pay is messed up.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of young sailors out there who don't know any better to look at their LES, and even if they do look at it they might not have the experience or wisdom to realize when something isn't right.

Whether you're a division officer or a division chief or even a leading petty officer, you should ask your guys to bring in a copy of their LES periodically.

Make it part of your check-in process for a new sailor reporting aboard your boat. Ask the new guy to bring a copy of his LES to his check-in interview with you. This will give you some reassurance that he knows his MyPay logon & password and knows how to access his LES.

Ask each of your guys to bring in an LES. Maybe not every month, but maybe every three months just to check it out and back them up. Heck, make it part of your mid-term counseling. You should pay special attention to this at a few important times when paychecks routinely get messed up.

Okay, so you followed my advice and had your guys bring in their LES. Now what?

Here are a few things to look for when you review a guy's LES:

- What is his withholding status? (See part 1 of this series about not giving the government an interest free loan). Underneath the Entitlements, Deductions, and Allotments blocks, look at the line that starts with "Leave" and scan your eyes over to the right where it says, "M/S" and "Ex". That's either "Marital Status" or "Married/Single" and "Exemptions."

- Is he getting paid what he's supposed to get paid? Hopefully, for the submariners out there, you should see Submarine Pay and Sea Pay in that left hand entitlements block.

- What is his paygrade listed on his LES? What rank does HE think he is? I know this may sound silly, but you would be surprised. I have had sailors in previous commands that either (a) weren't getting paid for their new higher paygrade after a promotion, or (b) were somehow mysteriously promoted in DFAS records and getting paid for a paygrade higher than they were wearing on their sleeve. And yes, I've had this happen and the sailor not realize he wasn't getting paid the right amount. It happens.

- Are there any extra things in the entitlements block that don't belong / aren't on anybody else's LES? Be particularly alert for some of these:

- COMRATS. (Commuted Rations) Normally, the Navy is obligated to provide 3 square meals per day for every enlisted sailor. Your Chop gets money from the Navy to buy food to serve to the crew for this purpose. (Aside: Officers are different. We get paid Basic Allowance for Sustinenece (BAS) and thus have to pay the Chop for the food we eat.) However (comma), sometimes the galley shuts down because you're in the shipyard or some major maintenance availability makes the boat an industrial environment and not safe or sanitary to eat on board. If the galley will be shut down for an extended period of time and it's not feasible for the crew to get to the base galley, then your ship's office will submit the paperwork to get your guys COMRATS. This puts money in their paycheck so they can afford to go out and buy their own food.

The danger is that when the galley reopens and the Chop is providing food for the crew to eat, the COMRATS is supposed to STOP being paid to your guys' paycheck. If you've just come out of a major maintenance availability or shipyard period where your guys WERE receiving COMRATS, then I highly recommend having your guys bring in an LES and prove to you that they're not receiving COMRATS anymore. Likewise, be alert for this when a new guy checks aboard - especially if he is transferring to your boat from a boat that was in the shipyard. It'll save you (and more importantly THEM) the hassle later on by preventing those letters from PSD telling your guys' they are indebted to the government to the tune of thousands of dollars.

- Family Separation Allowance (FSA) is a little extra pay the married guys get when you spend more than month away from home. So a month into deployment, your ship's office will send a letter or message to PSD to start FSA for all the married guys. Again, after you return from deployment, the FSA should stop. If you've been back from deployment for a couple of months and you see one of your guys has FSA in his LES, then you need to contact the ship's office and PSD and get that stopped.


Wrap Up

It would be nice if the Navy would give official command representatives like the ship's office yeomen the ability to print LES hard copies for the guys in your command and distribute them to the crew. Or, in the interest of saving paper, the yeomen or the division officer or division chief could be granted permission to just view the LES online to help their sailors out. In the meantime though, you can help your guys out if you ask for their hard copy LES and back-them up on receiving the pay they deserve and not a penny more - because PSD will eventually find out and come to take it back.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Advice to Junior Officers: Nuke Bonus and TSP

A few things came to mind that I thought were worth mentioning for the junior officers that read my blog. As I was writing, this started turning into a really long post, so I broke it up into three parts. Part 1 was about tax withholding.

Part
2. Nuke Bonus
For those of you who just signed up for the nuke bonus, take heed! Although you commonly hear people call it the "nuke bonus," the actual, official name for it is Nuclear Officer Incentive Pay (NOIP). In other words, cue Arnold Schwartzeneggar voice, "Eets NAUGHT a BOHNUS!" If, like me, you want a chunk of change from your "bonus" to go to the Thrift Savings Plan, then you need to remember it's really a type of PAY.

A common error that many people have made with their first nuke "bonus" (including me) is to enter a number in the "bonus" column on the MyPay website for TSP deductions, and then you are surprised and annoyed when the bonus comes and the DFAS people don't put any of it in your TSP account. You need to go back to the MyPay website and put a number in the "Incentive Pay."

Note there is a link on the bottom for "What is Special, Incentive, and Bonus Pay?" at the bottom of that screen shot.

Also, don't forget to scroll down and click "Save" before you click away from this page.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Advice to Junior Officers: Tax Withholding

A few things came to mind that I thought were worth mentioning for the junior officers that read my blog. As I was writing, this started turning into a really long post, so I broke it up into three parts. Hindsight/Afterthought: This first part is actually applicable to just about anybody, not just junior officers.

Part 1. Tax Withholding.


It's a new year, so you may want to take a quick look at your tax withholding status, especially for those of you who...
  • bought a house
  • sold a house
  • got married
  • had a baby
Back when I was a newly-commissioned Ensign, someone taught me the basics of setting up your tax withholdings. Your objective should be to neither owe taxes nor get a big refund from the government at the end of the year. I know a lot of people like to set it up so they get a big tax refund at the end of the year like some sort of annual "bonus" (initially, I fell into that category as a young ensign).

Here's the thing though. If you are having too much money taken out of your paycheck each month and then getting paid back a bunch of it at the end of the year, you are in essence giving the government an interest-free loan. Now, maybe you find some nobility in helping fund the billion dollar bail-outs of the banking and auto industries, but you're financially better off if you have just the right amount of taxes withheld each month. The extra money that was going to the government could be going into your savings account and earning interest for YOU. ...OR!!! It could be going to paying for a babysitter and a nice dinner for you and your spouse to have a date without the kids each month.

When we lived here in Ashburn before, we were married with two kids and a mortgage, and I had my withholdings set to the maximum (10 on the MyPay website), and we still got a few hundred dollars of a tax return at the end of the year.

While we were in Hawaii living in Navy housing (so no mortgage), I turned our withholdings down to 4 because I expected to pay more taxes.

Now that we're back in Ashburn in a very similar situation as our last tour here, I cranked our withholdings back up to 10.

How do you know how many withholdings to claim? You can use this calculator at the IRS website.

How do you change your tax withholdings? For military service members, go to the MyPay website. After you log in, select "Federal Withholding" from the main menu under "Taxes."

Note this page also has a link to the IRS withholding calculator. At the bottom of the page, you can change your number of exemptions.

Don't forget to click "Save" before you click away elsewhere from that web page.

I periodically get emails from junior officers and midshipmen asking for advice on stuff. If you have a question, please feel free to email me. I might not know the answer, but hopefully I'll at least be able to point you in the right direction where to find the answer.