DC 2016: Thursday April 28th

Thursday, I wanted to see a couple of out-of-town museums. One of these was the National Cryptologic Museum, a.k.a. the NSA museum. As befits an until-recently super-secret organization, their museum wasn't reachable via transit or foot. I'd need a ride there.

I rode the Metro out to the end of the line at Green Belt. I'd scouted out this train stop with Google StreetView, and had seen it wasn't just some platform in the middle of nowhere with tumbleweeds drifting past: it had taxis. I walked up to a taxi and was soon toodling along towards Fort Meade and the NSA.

I was also planning ahead: I'd need a ride away from the museum when I was done. There was no way to walk out without risking a walk along a highway (illegal) in the rain (damp) and/or breaking into a heavily-guarded military base (very illegal and maybe also damp if I fell into a puddle while failing to climb over a fence).

I asked the cab driver if he could give me a card with his company's phone number on it. He said: "I don't– You know how I said I lost my phone? Actually, I got robbed. He got my wallet, with my cards." This driver wasn't part of a big company. He was just one guy, one guy who'd been robbed. At the end of the ride, he wrote down his phone number on one of his brother's business cards. I was thinking "This doesn't do me any good. A robber stole your phone, and won't give me a ride away from this museum." But I let him write down his number anyhow, because he probably felt bad enough already.

National Cryptologic Museum

I'd prepared myself for entering this museum. After all, this was the NSA, accustomed to illegal searches. I locked my phone's screen with a passcode I didn't normally use. I mentally reviewed answers to common security questions.

Nobody was sitting at the front desk. Nobody asked to check my anything. I walked on in.

The National Cryptologic Museum has many displays under shiny glass that I didn't photograph well because they were under shiny glass. Sorry. E.g., there were many many Enigmas, but my photo mostly shows a lot of glare from their display case:

But they had The Thing, that infamous wood carving of the USA's Great Seal which had featured some interesting Theremin work; it wasn't under glass and you could touch it.

Some things didn't photograph well but were nonetheless interesting. There was a big StorageTek tape drive, one of the big ones with robot arms inside to switch out tapes. I'd seen pictures of them, but had never seen one in person. A blurb about Gene Grabeel described early days of Venona. There was a display of the US Navy's WWII cryptanalytic bombes; apparently, those weren't just a Bletchley Park thing.

There was a stepping switch from the original Bletchley Park Colossus encased in lucite or something. This was surprising; I thought that the Colossus had been destroyed by sledgehammers because Churchill paranoid-ly didn't want the Russians to ever learn of its existence. But apparently some of it had survived here. And what extremely-important purpose justified preserving this super-secret gadget? A trophy that nobody dared show for many years? Spies are weird.


When I was done looking at NSA exhibits, I walked out in front of the museum. I called the number the previous taxi driver had given me. A recording told me the number was out of service, as you'd expect when calling a stolen phone.

I brought up a DC Taxi hailing app. It said there weren't any taxis in range. Was I too far from DC? Was the app so new that few drivers were monitoring it? I didn't know. I just knew that my Plan B wasn't working out.

I went back in the museum, asked the nice fellow at the welcome desk if he knew any taxi companies. He had a list of them I could try. I called a number. That number was no longer associated with a taxi company. Fortunately, the next number was a taxi. 25 minutes later, I got a ride away from the museum. (While I was waiting, there were spy planes and an NSA memorial grove to see…but it was raining, so I huddled under the museum's entryway awning and read instead).

When this taxi driver found out I was from San Francisco, he revealed ties to the area. His daughter worked for Pixar. And he was related to the Aliotos, a family that's been mixed up in San Francisco politics for a few generations. It wasn't always easy to follow what he was talking about since he spoke so familiarly. Who was "Angie Alioto"? Oh, Angela Alioto. He said the extended family used to get together occasionally, but that had stopped in recent years; the older generation had maintained the family ties, but that generation was gone now.

National Electronics Museum

The National Electronics Museum had the historic WWII radar equipment I'd hoped to see at other places and then some. They were starting to make an exhibit about the Tizard mission. It wasn't ready yet. For many displays, I was glad I'd previously studied up so that I could understand what I was looking at. But given that I had studied, hoo boy this museum had a lot of cool stuff (and probably even more cool stuff than I realized, since I hadn't studied much).

The main thing I noticed was: This was Bring Your Kid to Work Day. Parents who worked nearby at Northrop Grumman didn't want to bring their kids to top-secret areas. But the museum had kid-friendly exhibits out for the day. So I waded through crowds of little tykes. Grown-ups knew the names and numbers of planes that had carried various pieces of equipment; to me it was in one ear and out the other, but some folks obviously lived and breathed this stuff. It was fun to watch them tell their kids about it.

Did you ever wonder where the Emmy award for the Apollo 11 moon landing TV coverage ended up? Here.


I thought there was a walkable route from the museum to a train station, but wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for. I walked along an access road until I spotted a bike path bridge heading off. The bike path looked pretty deserted, but I thought it might lead to the train station.

I followed the deserted bike path. It kept on being deserted. Was I lost? I came to a sign, walked past the sign, and then looked back: wait, which way was the MARC station? Looking back, I could see there was a sticker on the back of the sign. It was a Munzee, a bar code placed there for others to find. I'd found a token in an obscure game I played? Fate. Fate had brought me here; I wasn't lost.

As it turned out, I really wasn't lost. There just weren't any bicyclists on a bike path near the airport on a weekday afternoon; not so surprising. Anyhow, I soon reached the MARC station just in time to hop onto an Amtrak back to DC.

A couple of hours later, I was back at the hotel. Perhaps unsurprisingly after spending the day surrounded by weird electronics and spy gear, my hotel keycards had both been scrambled and I couldn't get back into my room until I got them reprogrammed.

Friday: Basin, Air/Space, Renwick, Cousin Dan [^]

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