Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Two Recycling Bins

A lot of cities and towns, including Durham, have started issuing larger garbage can-sized blue recycling bins to its residents, and letting you put almost anything that can be recycled in them, including cereal boxes and the like.

But, recycling pickup only comes every other week. So is a single recycling bin large enough to fit two weeks' worth of recycled items? Not always. So, we asked Durham for a second one.


Most of the time, we can fit two weeks' worth of recycling in a single bin. But when we have to break out the second bin, it's usually for one of two reasons: 1) we have large boxes to get rid of, or 2) we're out of town on recycling pickup day, meaning we have four weeks' worth of recycling stuff to contend with. (Trash day is Monday, so this seems to happen a lot.)

By the way, we typically only have to put the traditional non-recycling garbage bin on the street every third week. Seems to me that we should be doing recycling pickup weekly and traditional garbage pickup biweekly, rather than the other way around.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Playground Reviews: Star Ratings

When it comes to online reviews, most websites use a "star" system; e.g. 5 out of 5 stars. I think it's time I follow suit with my playground reviews and confirm with the rest of the internet.

Before I get into that, I'm taking this opportunity to tweak my scoring system a little, as follows:
- I've long thought that the "Things to do" category, even though it's always carried the most weight out of all of the categories, still didn't carry enough weight, really. So, I decided to change the "Things to do" score so that it's out of 20 instead of out of 14. All the existing scores have been rescaled accordingly.
- I also rescaled some of the Uniqueness, Crowd, and Upkeep scores, so that a) the average score is closer to 5/10, and b) there's a wider distribution of scores. I did not adjust any of these scores by more than 1 point in either direction.

My scores, which are now out of 55 points, will directly translate into an out-of-5 star rating, as follows:

40-55: ★★★★★
36-39: ★★★★½
32-35: ★★★★
29-31: ★★★½
26-28: ★★★
24-25: ★★½
20-23: ★★
0-19: ★

The star ratings are now featured prominently on my master playground review spreadsheet. There are three 5-star playgrounds, and one 4½-star playground:

Marla Dorrel Park, Cary (★★★★★)
Pullen Park, Raleigh (★★★★★)
Knightdale Station Park, Knightdale (★★★★★)
Kelly Road Park, Apex (★★★★½)

I think I like this better than the rankings, especially since the middle half - the 3- to 4-star playgrounds - was getting kind of muddled. General categories such as these are more meaningful than saying that playground X is the 20th best, for instance.

Let's try this out, shall we?

===

Cedar Falls Park - Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill, NC
Visited: Sunday, July 20, 2014
| Google Satellite

Summary: I know this part of Chapel Hill well from my bike rides as perhaps the hilliest part of the Triangle, or at least that with the steepest hills. But how good are the playgrounds up here? (Literally, "up" here.)

(Note: The individual scores are calibrated so that 50% is an average score. "Perfect" scores are rarely given. The star rating system takes all this into account, such that an "average" playground corresponds to about 3½ stars.)

Things for Marla to do: 11/20. Swings, slides, big kid + small kid areas, all the greatest hits! But it's important to make the distinction that the "big kid" equipment here is accessible to someone of Marla's age, which not all "big kid" equipment is. Basically, that means it has stairs or a ladder. Marla can do ladders now. Most other climbing apparatuses are still out of her reach, so to speak.


Uniquneess: 4/10. Sure, all these types of playgrounds are pretty similar, but mostly I look for design features that make the playground "look" different. Anything that's not just generic green or brown plastic will usually get at least a 3 or 4 here. I have yet to determine whether any of this matters to Marla or not.

Upkeep: 9/10. This park definitely deserves a high upkeep score - no trash at all, and the equipment was in great shape. (But, not quite 10/10 shape.)

Crowd: 5/10. A few other kids - just enough to make it seem like a "happening place", but not enough to keep Marla from having fun.

Marla enjoyment: 4/5.

TOTAL: 33/55 (★★★★). For this playground, four stars sounds just right. I like this star rating system already!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Fuel Light

My Subaru Forester has real-time fuel economy data, and with that, comes an estimate of how many miles I have left on my current tank of gas (rounded to the nearest 10). So, I can take it all the way down to nearly zero before I refuel, right?

In theory, yes. The thing is, though, after the number drops from 40 to 30 (since it's rounded to the nearest 10), the next step below 30 is ----:


By the way, this is well after the traditional fuel gauge went to E. I think that happened with around 40 miles to go. And, the fuel light went on even earlier than that, with still 70 miles to go:


I refueled less than 10 miles after the fuel range indicator went from 30 to ----, and my 15.9-gallon tank took 15.6 gallons. Close! But not that close. I only took it that close because I read that the indication of 30 miles is reasonably accurate, such that you're good for at least another 20 miles after the display goes from 30 to ---- under normal driving conditions. And, I knew I'd be driving by multiple gas stations in another 5 to 10 miles. (Obviously, if you try to go the full 30 after the display goes to ----, that's pretty risky.)

I almost never took my Honda Civic this low on fuel - maybe only saw the fuel light two or three times a year, and only once in the life of the car did I run the fuel gauge all the way to E. I guess I'm more willing to do that with the Subaru since it actually tells me how many miles I have left on my tank (up to a point).

The fuel light in the Subaru comes on with 2.6 gallons remaining, according to the manual. That actually seems kind of early to me, so I'm pretty comfortable taking it down to the fuel light most every time, at least when I'm driving locally. On longer road trips, I'll usually refuel earlier than that.


By the way, continuing the topic of how accurate my car's real time fuel economy data is: my car reported 30.0 mpg for that tank, but my calculator reported 29.4 mpg (459 miles / 15.6 gallons). I'll wait another two or three more tanks before declaring that the Subaru's fuel economy numbers are inflated.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

2014 World Cup

The World Cup is my second favorite once-every-four-years sporting event, behind only the World Cup of Curling (a.k.a. the Winter Olympics). But, I haven't really been able to immerse myself in the last two World Cups. I moved to North Carolina during the 2006 World Cup, and we drove to Alaska during the 2010 World Cup. But this summer, we're basically just sitting around in the air conditioning waiting for the baby to be born. (Well, not completely, but we're not taking any long road trips this summer either. Or in the early part of fall, either, but at least we'll have our hands full then.)

All this means it's the perfect year to completely indulge myself in the World Cup! Especially given that I've been watching more international soccer outside of just the World Cup and can appreciate what I'm watching at another level (in theory). So much so, I don't even watch the games on Univision anymore like I used to, because I'm actually interested in the English language commentary!

Before the World Cup, I thought it might be fun to start a spreadsheet and track how much of the World Cup I watch, match by match, minute by minute. Out of 5,810 minutes so far, I've watched 3,187, or 54.9%:



(Disclaimer: This is all kind of subjective, because I watch most of my sports via DVR and skip through stoppages, and I count stoppages skipped towards my numbers. Soccer doesn't have as many stoppages as many other sports, but there are injuries, "injuries", and it usually takes at least 30 seconds for the teams and referee to set up a free kick in the attacking third, for example. So, I have not actually spent 3,187 minutes of my live watching soccer over the past month. I can watch a 90 minute game in 70 to 75 minutes, so the actual amount of elapsed time I've spent watching the World Cup is probably closer to 2,500 minutes. That works out to an average of 1.5 hours per day over a period of four weeks. Really, that's not that bad, is it?)

After the World Cup was about a week in, the prevailing narrative on social media etc. was, "This is great!" Goals were being scored, underdogs were winning games, the United States team won its first game in exciting fashion, and this was all proof that soccer had finally made it in the United States, of course. (Which, I think our collective interest in professional soccer leagues such as Major League Soccer and the Premier League is a better gauge of our nation's collective soccer fandom than interest in the World Cup is, but that's just me.)

So, things were great, and then...the knockout round started. Teams stopped scoring goals; 5 of the last 9 games have been scoreless after 90 minutes. Favorites kept winning and winning; group winners went 8-0 in the Round of 16, and betting line favorites went 4-0 in the Quarterfinals. And, well, I started getting bored, although I've kept watching. Yesterday's Argentina-Netherlands game was probably the dud of the tournament.

It always seems like the World Cup leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth, and this what's kept me from becoming a real soccer fan in the past, and perhaps other "casual fans" as well. These tournaments always seem to end with a whimper, once the only teams that are left are the ones that can play really, really good defense*, and neither side is willing to attack. That gives us the kind of low scoring, action-lacking soccer that only true soccer fans can appreciate. Apparently, I'm not there yet, because didn't think Argentina-Netherlands was interesting to watch.

(* - Brazil being a notable exception, and we all know what happened to them.)

Soccer is the only sport I can think of where the games become less exciting when everything is at stake. Perhaps this is why European soccer leagues don't have playoffs? And hopefully, they never will! ... Wait, does having that opinion make me a true soccer fan, or do I still need to buy a Fulham scarf or something like that first?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Playground Reviews: Morrisville Community Park, Leesville Community Park

Since Wake County's playgrounds are generally better than Durham County's playgrounds, let's go check out two more in Wake County, shall we?

(Note: The scoring system is designed so that 50% is an average score. "Perfect" scores are rarely given.)

Morrisville Community Park - Morrisville Parkway, Morrisville, NC
Visited: Sunday, June 29, 2014
| Google Street View

Things for Marla to do: 9/14. As playgrounds go, this one has an above average amount of "stuff": standard swings and slides (multiple), and also a sand play area, which is always good for an additional point. (By the way, that is not Marla pictured below - that's someone else's kid.)



Uniqueness: 5/10. I figured it was only a matter of time before I started noticing the same exact design features at completely different playgrounds. Here's a dinosaur-themed set of stairs at Morrisville Community Park:


Meanwhile, this is from Anderson Park in Maumee, Ohio. It's the same exact dinosaur!


Well, I gave Anderson Park a 5/10 for uniqueness, and I suppose I shouldn't penalize Morrisville Community Park just because I happened to visit Anderson Park first. Besides, it's not like every park has a dinosaur.

Upkeep: 6/10. The playground equipment is in good shape, but the trash cans were overflowing and needed to be emptied - badly. (Also: I don't consider the condition of the bathrooms for my ratings, but the bathrooms are in pretty bad shape, more befitting of a gas station than a public park in a nice part of town.)

Crowd: 6/10. A rating of 6 basically means "some other kids, but not too many".

Marla enjoyment: 2/5. It's not that Marla didn't have fun, it's just that she didn't seem as "into it" as she sometimes is. I had been giving a lot of 3/5 scores here, so I thought it was time for a change.

TOTAL: 28/49, ranking 10th out of 34. That's one point higher than the other park with the dinosaur stairs.

===

Leesville Community Park - Country Trail, Raleigh, NC
Visited: Sunday, July 6, 2014
| Google Satellite

Things for Marla to do: 2/14. I didn't properly research this playground beforehand. This playground is small to begin with, but it's also more for older children. No swings, no slides, almost nothing that Marla could climb on herself (all of the climbing stuff was too big for her):


Instead, Marla played with her "car" (a.k.a. the smaller kid play set) most of the time.


Uniqueness: 4/10. Certainly unique, but not really in a good way for someone of Marla's age.

Upkeep: 8/10. The park seems pretty new, but I don't think it's brand new, which means it's kept up well. A couple of small pieces of trash kept the rating from being a 9.

Crowd: 8/10. It was a hot day, sure, but I'm guessing this playground doesn't get a whole lot of use, because there are bigger and better ones elsewhere.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. Marla can do a lot more with less than she used to be able to. I have to give her credit for that. Imagination is key.

TOTAL: 25/49, ranking 24th out of 34. If there's one flaw in my rating system, it's that a small, non-age-appropriate playground can record a better score than perhaps it deserves, just as long as it's clean and not crowded.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Independence Day in Chapel Hill

So, it used to be that whenever we did something interesting and/or different, while I was doing it I would also be thinking about how I was going to blog about it, and would be taking pictures along the way. But priorities have changed, I guess. (In other words, having children with you diverts one's attention from how one might document a certain experience after the fact. Except when it comes to playgrounds, apparently.) Because when we went to see Fourth of July fireworks in Chapel Hill last weekend, I didn't take a single picture, even though picture taking is far more important in today's internet age than it was six or seven years ago. Do people still read words on the internet anymore, or is it all about Instagram nowadays?

Out of my nine summers living in North Carolina, I've only stayed in town for the Fourth on I think three of them. And we've never gone to the same fireworks show twice: we did Clayton once and Fuquay-Varina another time. This year, we gave Chapel Hill a visit on the Fourth. Anything to avoid the crowds of downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham, although Chapel Hill probably wasn't any better in terms of crowds, it turned out...

Chapel Hill does its fireworks show in the UNC football stadium (Kenan Stadium), which is interesting. What is it like to watch fireworks inside of a football stadium? Well, you sit in a grandstand instead of on a blanket in the grass; whether that's better or not depends on personal preference. (I kind of liked watching fireworks this way, but Amber prefers laying out on the grass. A traditional park setting is also a lot more kid-friendly, of course.)

I thought they would shoot off the fireworks from just outside the stadium, but nope - the fireworks were fired from inside the stadium, on the opposite side from where everyone was sitting, of course. But you're still pretty close to the fireworks: you can see them being fired off from the ground (which I liked), and you get a neat echo in the stadium when they explode (which I also liked). But, depending on which way the wind was blowing, everyone may end up with a bunch of ashes in their lap at the end of the show (which is exactly what happened).

One important factor when it comes to fireworks shows for us is the crowd, and the traffic jam leaving the place afterwards. I'll just say this: Chapel Hill was a lot more crowded than I thought it would be (pretty dumb on my part, really), and getting out of the parking garage afterwards took longer than I would have liked. (It's a 15 minute drive to Chapel Hill for us, and after the show ended it took a little over an hour for us to get home.) So, we won't be doing the Chapel Hill fireworks show again. When it comes to choosing a fireworks show, and there are a lot to choose from around here, it's all about striking the best balance between "how good the fireworks show is" and "how crowded it is". We're willing to sacrifice fireworks quality for a less crowded event, more so than most people would, I suspect.

What did Marla think of the fireworks? They were too loud, but once Mommy covered her ears, I think she at least tolerated them, to the point that we'd take her to another fireworks show. Except that after staying up four hours past her bedtime, it took a full three days to get her sleep schedule back on track. (See, folks? This is why we rarely take Marla out at night. Even putting her to bed at 9 pm has its repercussions, but 11 pm? Good thing it was only the first day of a three day weekend.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bicycling Safety

Last week, someone who works on my floor at work, who commuted to work by bicycle nearly every day to and from (10-15 miles each way), had a bicycling accident on his way to work. Tragically, he lost his life as a result of his injuries.

It hit me a little harder than most, because I rode my bike to work that same morning. It could have been me, right?

This has always been an issue with my decision to become a (somewhat) avid bicyclist. Yes, it's great exercise, it's fun, and it's helped me get in the best shape I've ever been in. But, it could also kill me. Running, on the other hand, probably won't kill you. Neither will swimming, as long as you're a capable swimmer. Neither will working out in the safe confines of a public gym. There are lots of safe ways one could exercise. Instead, I chose the one that puts me out on narrow public roads with my only protection being a helmet, but even that won't do me much good if a car hits me, or if I hit a pothole and crash at high speed.

So...is bicycling safe? Should I find a new hobby? Especially given that I'm the father of one, soon to be two, young children?

Any time I see a tweet or something about a fatal bicycling accident, I read up on it, in order to help me stay as safe as possible when I'm on my bike. It seems there are two main types of bicycling crashes.

First, there are car collisions. Most of the time around here, these are actually the bicyclist's fault, either by swerving out into traffic, or doing something else irresponsible, such as riding your bike at night with no lights or reflective clothing. But other times, they're the fault of an impatient driver who doesn't give the cyclist enough room when passing. That last one is what worries me the most, but I now have a helmet-mounted mirror that helps me see traffic coming from behind me. On one hand, the vast, vast majority of drivers who pass me on public roads do so patiently and with courtesy. On the other hand, it only takes one.

Some cyclists feel safer riding in a large pack than riding alone. That helps in terms of the "buddy system", but in some ways, I actually think I'm safer riding alone than in a group, especially a large group. I've ridden in a few large charity bike rides, and I've noticed that drivers are much more impatient with large groups of cyclists than they are with a single rider. Maybe that's because with just one cyclist, a driver will take their time and pass when it's appropriate. But when there are lots of riders to deal with, who may or may not be taking up most of the lane, drivers' patience is more likely to run out, especially when they have to pass their 5th or 6th group of cyclists. The other day, I was riding by myself, when a pack of 12-15 fast-moving cyclists all passed me at once. A minute or two later, after the pack had gotten well ahead of me, a car came up behind us. The car passed me, no problem. But when coming up on the group farther ahead - who were taking up the entire lane, I should mention - the car got impatient, beeped, and made a little more aggressive of a move when passing.

(By the way: sometimes, a car will beep at me when about to pass. I don't know if it's a courtesy - "Hi there, a car is about to pass you, have a nice day!" or something more like "Hey jerk, get out of the way, idiot" - but, to all the drivers out there, please do not beep your horn when coming up behind a bicyclist. All it does is startle us. We can hear you coming already.)

Another thing I've learned to do: Unless there's a bike lane or wide shoulder, I don't ride all the way to the right when I ride; instead, I leave a little room. When a car passes me, then I move all the way to the right, and that way I get more clearance on the left.

I'd like to think I'm among the more careful bicyclists out there when it comes to negotiating traffic. (Don't we all, though?) I now have over 10,000 miles under my belt in five years of regular bicycling, and I haven't had any car incidents yet. Commuting to work may also be the most dangerous type of bicycling, because of traffic, and the types of roads you normally have to take to get to your job, but I don't feel that my work commute is particularly dangerous, no more so than a normal bike ride out of my neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon is.

But besides car collisions, there are also single bike accidents: hitting a pothole at high speed, losing balance on a tight corner, coming too close to a pole, having a flat tire and losing control, that sort of thing. So far, the worst I've done is lose my balance in my driveway at home and scrape up my knees. That was a very (very) low speed crash, and it hurt! I can only imagine what it's like to crash at even 10 mph, let alone 15, 20, or higher. The fastest speed I've ever gone on my bike is 38 mph, and it was kind of scary. If you get a flat tire at the wrong time - right before a long or steep downhill - then it may not end well.

The temptation to take downhills at high speed is always high around here, because downhills are often immediately followed by uphills. (Many of the steeper hills in this area are in the vicinity of creeks or rivers - a long downhill to the creek or river, immediately followed by an equally long uphill.) So, the idea is, let's get as much speed as I can on the downhill so that I don't have to pedal as hard going up! Well, truth be told, that's a bit dangerous if the road is bumpy or in disrepair, as is sometimes the case on the country roads I tend to enjoy the most. But fortunately for me, I don't go as fast as a lot of cyclists do. I'm pretty slow compared to most of the cyclists you see out on public roads on weekends. So, I'd like to think I'm in less danger than most, although maybe only slightly. I have also had plenty of experience with flat tires, so I know what they feel like as soon as they happen.

There is always going to be risk with bicycling. Some of the risk I can control, some I can only try to minimize as best I can and hope for the best. Even in light of recent events, I think the physical benefits of bicycling outweigh the risk of injury or death. And as nervous as both Amber and I might be in the short term about it, most likely, everything will turn out fine.