Thursday, August 31, 2006

"So Bad, It's Good"

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You had to know a post relating to the movie Snakes on a Plane was coming at some point. Well, here you go. But one thing you won't find in my blog is movie reviews. There are a million other web sites out there with movie reviews written by people far more qualified to write them. But what will you get today is some general thoughts on what makes a "bad" movie "good". You see, there is some imaginary line out there in "movie space" that separates "good" bad movies from just plain bad movies. What can help place a movie on the "good" side of the line? Let's see...

Intent. If they're trying to make a bad movie on purpose, obviously that helps. I think this was partly the intent of Snakes on a Plane (they certainly made it seem that way in the advertising), but as is often the case with movies like Snakes and Eight Legged Freaks, they underachieve in this department. I wish they would just make these movies so bad, at no time during the movie would you take it seriously. However, a bad movie can still be "good" even without intent, if they do such a bad job with it that it's humorous.

Bad Special Effects. It doesn't help a movie's cause when the special effects are actually good. The cheesier, the better. Bad and/or cheap special effects are funny. If the effects are good, it makes it appear as though they are actually trying.

Humorously Bad Acting. There's a difference between just bad acting and "humorous" bad acting. It's kind of hard to describe which is which. Purposely bad acting is always funny. There was some dialogue during Snakes that looked purposely bad and/or cheesy, and that was good. Honest attempts at acting that fall short can also be funny. Just plain bad acting, however - that's just painful to watch.

Ridiculous Plot Lines. The more unbelieveable the plot lines are, the better. Large radioactive spiders taking over a city? Excellent. Snakes on a plane? Not bad. Really though, the only modern movies with ridiculously bad plot lines are the ones with bad intent. Lots of old science fiction movies fall into this category, and that's what made Mystery Science Theater 3000 such a great show.

I suppose that in the context of this post, I have to mention The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. This movie just came out a couple of years ago as an attempt to recreate a 1950s science fiction "B-movie". I think they did a terrific job with it - it definitely falls into the "purposely bad" category. But it's not just that which makes the movie entertaining - it's all of the quotable dialogue. I highly recommend it. (Oops...I guess that was a movie review, wasn't it? Sorry.)

So, what are some examples of movies that were actually meant to be good, but were actually "so bad" that they were "good"? Hmm. For one to fall into this category, it can't be just kind of bad. It has to be over-the-top bad. In today's day and age, these movies are hard to find. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is American Psycho - I actually found that movie horribly humorous. (And they made a sequel!) I am (somewhat) proud of the fact that I have actually seen Gigli. Unfortunately, Gigli does not qualify as a good bad movie. Its problem was that the first half of the movie was actually okay. If the whole movie was as bad as the second half, then maybe...just maybe. That's actually another thing bad movies need to be good - the entire movie has to be bad. The key is getting you in the right frame of mind. If 15 minutes in, you know this is going to be a bad movie, then you can start appreciating and enjoying its awfulness. If it actually seems like an okay movie for the first half-hour or so, then it gets bad, forget it.

Inappropriately abrupt endings also help.

Today's random thoughts:

1) In my blog statistics post, I pointed out that I had yet to make a Wednesday post earlier than 600p. Well, yesterday's post was the first. Normally I play disc golf on Wednesdays right after work, but I passed on that this week for a variety of reasons. That rapidly-developing thunderstorm to our south was just one of them.
2) As of 800a Friday morning, the year 2006 is officially two-thirds complete. Wahoo!
3) It looks like I'll be driving through Tropical Storm/Depression Ernesto on my way to State College tomorrow. (Speaking of which, wouldn't "Remnants of Ernesto" be a great name for a band?) To prepare for the wet drive, I applied Rain-X to my windshield. Rain-X is great stuff, especially for interstate driving. One time, I applied Rain-X to only the left half of the windshield, so it would be like in those commercials. "This side of the windshield has been treated with Rain-X. This side hasn't. Look at the difference!" It was pretty sweet.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"Summer 2006: By the Numbers"

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Many of you are aware of "by-the-numbers", a long-running feature of my AIM profile. Basically, I keep track of worthless statistics about my life. But now that I'm on AIM semi-hiatus, not only are my to-the-second stats no longer available to the public on demand, but I'm less motivated to update them to-the-second. I'm still going to continue keeping track of things and publishing them in my profile, but it won't be as...well...high-profile. But one thing I will do is talk about the stats here in my blog. One thing I've always done is keep semesterly totals, and at the end of each semester, I record and reset the totals (with some exceptions). I'm out of school, so the meaning of a "semester" has kind of been lost a little bit, but for by-the-numbers purposes, the Summer 2006 "semester" ended last weekend. Today I will present and discuss the summer statistical totals in no particular order.

Miles driven: This is the longest running stat in by-the-numbers. As long as I have a car, and there is a by-the-numbers, miles driven will be a part of it. Considering how much I drive, doesn't it have to be? And besides - the car keeps track of my mileage for me! So, in Summer 2006, I drove 9,334 miles, unsurprisingly a new semester record. Last summer I drove 5,404 miles, which seemed like a lot at the time - I had no idea what was coming. Why so many miles? Let's recap. While living in PA at the start of the summer, I made trips to North East, PA; New Jersey; and Cedar Point in Ohio. Then I moved to Raleigh (Cary). Then I made two round trips back to State College and one trip to Jacksonville. Factor in the 37-mile round trip work commute and countless other drives I've made since moving here, and you have a recipe for an obscene amount of miles. And there is no end in sight - Fall 2006 could even surpass 10,000 miles. I've had three oil changes in the last three months - I'm pretty sure that's a record. But I haven't had to get two in the same month yet.

Gas money: While we're on this topic, one side effect of all this driving is paying for gas at exorbitant prices. I only started keeping track of this since my move to Raleigh (Cary) on June 19th, but since then, I've spent $447.92 on gas. It's a good thing I have this job of mine, and a car that gets over 35 miles per gallon on regular unleaded. Even with all of this driving, I came in well under budget last month. It's nice to be able to drive everywhere and not have to worry about the price of gas (too much).

Disc golf holes played: Most people don't care about this stat, but some do, so it's been an off-and-on member of the by-the-numbers lineup. This summer's total was 406 holes, which was actually below expectations. I expected this summer to give Summer 2004 a run at the semester record of 519 holes, but I guess that was a lot to ask with this new job, and the fact that I typically only play 9 at the State College "course". In Summer 2004, I had no responsibilities. No school + no work = lots of disc golf. This summer was still able beat last summer's total of 256 holes, however.

Golf holes played: I took this stat off the list because it's too infrequent, but I still keep track. I played a lot of golf last summer. This summer? Not so much. This summer, I played 72 holes. Last summer, I had 72 pars.

Money spent on food: I'm retiring this stat because I think it's boring. I spent $594.06 on food this summer - $366.13 "in" (from grocery stores and eating at home), and $227.93 "out" (restaurants, fast food, etc). I don't have a total from last summer, but I do have a Spring 2006 total: $517.06 ($297.26 in; $219.80 out). One thing you may have noticed is that I like making comparisons between semesters. The numbers don't really mean a whole lot on their own, but once you start comparing, they do. For instance: if I had kept track of gas money for the entire summer, I bet I would have spent more money on gas than on food. There's something unsettling about that.

Dropped cell phone calls: This is a new stat that I introduced on July 1st once I realized dropped cell phone calls were a common occurrence during my phone conversations. Since July 1st, I've had 47 dropped calls, all but one of which occurred at home. Cingular claims to have the "fewest dropped calls" - if that's true, then it's a good thing I don't have someone like Sprint, or I'd never be able to carry on a conversation with anyone.

I also have a "Miguel Cabrera home runs in MVP Baseball 2005" stat, but that won't be complete until I finish the season in about a month or so. The goal is to break the single-season home run record, which I'm currently on pace to tie. I'll probably post a random thought about it once I finish the season, and that'll be it, because I realize video game stories are boring. I mean, it's all arbitrary depending on where you set the difficulty, right? I've also introduced another stat for the fall: "Cockroaches killed in the apartment". This is likely a seasonal thing, which will make future comparisons interesting.

Today's random thoughts: (I realize these have turned more into "shorts about my life" than "random thoughts", but eh.)

1) Next Tuesday is the "final tournament" at Mac's Tavern for the summer. What's the prize? Beats me - if you finish well enough, I think you move on to the "regional championship" or something like that. I'm sure they'll let us know. Will I make the Mac's final tournament? I think so - the top 62 in points qualify, and I've had enough finishes in the points (including 16th last night) where I don't think it will be an issue. Speaking of which, I've gotten very proficient at finishing between 11th and 20th. I guess my playing style is conducive to that. (And it usually gets me home by 900p. Wahoo!)
2) I always have a hard time finding the parmesan cheese at the grocery store. Where is it? The cheese aisle? Nope - that's in the "cold" section near the back of most grocery stores. The pasta aisle? Nope. I usually find it on display at one of the aisle ends - I'm not sure if it even has a spot in the aisles themselves. (I forget the technical term for the "aisle end". I know there's a term for it from back when I worked at a grocery store. Anyone?) Usually, only Kraft is on display in this manner. Parmesan cheese is one thing I don't mind spending Kraft money for, if nothing else because the Lowe's Foods parmesan cheese container doesn't always snap shut properly.
3) Why is it necessary to put hair color on your driver's license? I mean, your picture is right there. Why not just look at the picture? I suppose the same could be said for eye color, too. And with hair color, that's something you can change on a whim, so it's kind of useless information anyway.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Paramount's Kings Dominion"

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First off, why did Paramount name two of their theme parks "Kings"-something? Are they trying to confuse us? Actually, my guess is that at least one of them used to be an independent entity until it was bought by Paramount. In any event, the self-proclaimed "coaster snob" and I made a day trip to Kings Dominion on Saturday. Kings Dominion is located north of Richmond, about 3 hours from Raleigh (Cary). For me, this makes 18 theme parks visited in my life (that I remember). And by the way, I've decided that Marineland is not a theme park and does not count. It's an oceanarium. Sorry, guys. If I count Marineland, I might as well count the Alligator Farm too. I guess it was a "theme park" several decades ago, but by today's Sadly, Marineland's best days are behind it.

Yesterday I already alluded to several of the rides at Kings Dominion by classifying them in a generic sense. But there were a couple of rides that I couldn't really classify generically. One was a new smaller-type roller coaster called "The Italian Job" (after the movie). In terms of size and speed, it falls somewhere in between a real coaster and a Wild-Mouse-type coaster. I don't remember riding that many coasters of that scale at other parks. It was new, and we weren't sure what type of ride it was, so we rode it first thing to "avoid the lines". In retrospect, I don't think that was necessary. We probably should have ridden Hypersonic XLC first. We got in line for that an hour or two after lunch and waited 25 minutes only to have the ride break down on us. We stuck it out for another 20 minutes, and then bailed. Then we came back later, waited just over an hour, and finally rode it. That's a total of about 1 hour, 45 minutes of waiting time for this ride. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Besides, you don't go to theme parks just to ride the rides, you go to spend quality time with friends, family, significant others, etc. If you and your friends are just going to be "chilling" all day anyway, you might as well "chill" in a steadily-moving line at a theme park and ride the occasional roller coaster while you're at it. ("Chill" probably isn't the right term considering how hot it was on Saturday, but you know what I mean.) But getting back on track here: no matter how many times you watch these "Dragster"-type rides take off, it doesn't prepare you for the personal experience. Wow. Like I said yesterday, the most thrilling few seconds at any theme park can be found on these rides. Maybe that's just because I've only ridden two of these. Free fall rides were very thrilling when I first started riding them. But now that I've ridden a whole bunch of them, some of the original thrill is gone. Don't get me wrong - they're still thrilling. Just not as thrilling.

Another classification-less ride at Kings Dominion is Avalanche, which can best be described as a "bobsled" ride. This was the first bobsled ride I can remember riding. I was going to ride one at Opryland, but it shut down while I was waiting in line. I think the one at Opryland was much larger than Avalanche, but that's okay - I loved this ride. There were no rails on the track - the trains freely moved down the "bobsled course". The cars even had national insignia on them, adding to the bobsled theme. We specifically planned out our spot in line so we could ride in the Canada car. (It really wasn't that hard to do - we just picked one of the lanes that led to the Canada car. There were two trains going, so if it was our turn and the Canada car wasn't in our spot on the current train, we were just going to wait for the next one. But we got lucky - we didn't have to do that.) If this ride was open earlier in the day, we might have ridden this one twice. Instead, I think it was the next-to-last ride we went on. In fact, I don't think we repeated any rides - we were pretty tired by the end of the first iteration. Although maybe we should have instead of going on this last ride...

Our last ride was a Pirate Ship. There are two types of pirate ships: ones that go upside-down, and ones that don't. I really enjoy the ones that don't. In contrast, I don't think I had ever ridden on one that did...until Saturday. And, that will probably be my last ride on an upside-down pirate ship. The harnesses were really uncomfortable - not good on a ride where you are completely dependent on them for brief moments. Right-side-up pirate ships, however - still a fan, and I'll ride those any day. While we're on this topic, where you sit on a pirate ship ride says a lot about you. Most people sit at one of the ends in order to maximize the experience of the ride. If you sit in the middle, then...why even bother?

So, where would Kings Dominion place on my theme park rankings? Well, predictably, this park was very similar to the other two Paramount parks that made the list. I'd place Kings Dominion adjacent to them. But where, exactly? Probably above both Carowinds and Kings Island, making it #5 overall - KD seemed to have more fun rides than the other two. But, maybe that's just because I was there most recently. I should go back to the other parks while Kings Dominion still is fresh in my mind so I can provide a direct comparison, and see what kind of new rides they have built since my last visits. I even thought about moving Kings Dominion up to #4, ahead of Hershey Park...but, nah. Not until Paramount comes out with something better than the Reese's Fast Break.

Today's random thoughts:

1) At Lowe's Foods yesterday, I was alarmed to find that they were out of 1% milk. Boo! And remember, it is Harris Teeter that has ½%, not Lowe's Foods. So, given the choice of Skim or 2%, which did I choose? Skim. Maybe that will help offset all of that Bojangles'.
2) I've mentioned that if you want to color every adjacent country (or other area) on a map a different color, you only need four colors. But...that's only if countries are assumed continuous. If a country is split, you may need an additional color. On the world map, Russia is split, but this instance does not require a fifth color. (Believe it or not, I am reading a book about this. Citation. Amber got it for free and is letting me borrow it. Anyone recognize the three counties on the cover?)
3) When I was writing a note to myself, I abbreviated "yesterday's date" as "yesterdate". When you do this, doesn't it make the prefix "yester-" look funny? It is funny, I think. Yester! Kind of like "jester" with a soft 'j'. "Yester" blends in with the word "yesterday" because it is so common, but when used with other base words, it looks weird. Maybe that's because it's not meant to be used with words like "date".

Monday, August 28, 2006

"Generic Theme Park Rides"

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There are a couple of directions in which I could take this post. One is a "this-is-what-I-did-today" account and/or review of Saturday's trip to Paramount's Kings Dominion, north of Richmond. Another direction is a general discussion of theme park rides. I think I actually have enough material for both, so I'm going to do the general theme park discussion first and Kings Dominion account tomorrow.

Go to enough theme parks, and they start to get repetitive. They all have pretty much the same types of rides. Sure, they're all different, but they're all based on the same ideas. So, what are the general categories of rides that can be found at many theme parks? Here's the list that I came up with. For typing ease, I will abbreviate roller coaster as "RC". I'll also give specific examples from the three parks I've visited this year: Busch Gardens - Tampa (BG), Cedar Point (CP), and Kings Dominion (KD).

Old wooden RC: These are among the original roller coasters. You can tell how old a theme park is based on whether or not they have one - they're not exactly building any more of these, in favor of the "modern" wooden RCs. Although bumpy, I still find these rides fun. And no lines! Examples: CP - Blue Streak; KD - Rebel Yell

Old steel RC: Same idea, although these may contain one or more loops. These are often newer than their wooden counterparts, but remarkably less fun. Examples: BG - Scorpion, Python; CP - Corkscrew

Modern wooden RC: Many parks have recently built bigger, faster wooden roller coasters as an "homage" to their predecessors. I am a big fan of these, generally. Examples: CP - Mean Streak; KD - Grizzly, Hurler

Dueling wooden RC: Same idea with the modern wooden, but with two going at once, "competing" with each other. Most "dueling" coasters I've seen are wooden; I can only think of one that is steel (Dueling Dragons @ Islands of Adventure). Bonus points if one of the rides goes backwards. Examples: BG - Gwazi; CP - Gemini; KD - Rebel Yell (Rebel Yell happens to be both old and dueling. Oooo.)

Semi-modern steel RC: These were usually built in the mid-1990s. They were top-of-the-line when they first came out, but now they pale in comparison to the newest coasters that fall into the "modern steel RC" category. They usually contain multiple loops. Examples: BG - Kumba; KD - Anaconda

Inverted RC: No explanation necessary. These almost always include multiple loops. Examples: BG - Montu; CP - Raptor

Fast steel RC: These don't go upside-down, but are built purely for speed. These rides are among my favorites. I don't think there are enough of these. Example: CP - Magnum XL-200

Modern steel RC: These are the newest coasters with the tallest ramps, fastest speeds, and newest innovations. They can include a wide variety of innovations from accelerated starts to a straight-down drop. Examples: BG - Sheikra; CP - Millenium Force; KD - Volcano

"Dragster" RC: There is probably a name for these, but these are the ones that rapidly accelerate you to very high speeds, take you up, and back down. Probably the most thrilling few seconds any theme park can offer. Examples: CP - Dragster; KD - Hypersonic XLC

Stand-up RC: These rides shouldn't even exist. They are not fun for anybody. Blow them up! Examples: CP - Mantis; KD - Shockwave

"Wild Mouse" RC: These go on a small track with a small car that seats four, and either takes you quickly up and down short hills, around tight turns, or both. These coasters seemed to come out of nowhere, and now almost every park has one. The "Wild Mouse" is the Hershey Park ride - a very fitting name, I think. Examples: BG - Cheetah Chase; CP - Wildcat; KD - Ricochet

"Mine Train" RC: These are small-scale wooden coasters, not to be confused with the old wooden coasters - they are distinguished by slower speeds, shorter drops, and a more "woodsy" feel. The "Mine Train" is the ride at Six Flags over Georgia, another name that I think is befitting for the category. Example: CP - Cedar Creek Mine Ride

Indoor RC: I think there are enough of these to warrant their own category, if nothing else just because of Space Mountain. Example: CP - Disaster Transport

Log Flume: Self-explanatory. Every park should have one. So what was Cedar Point thinking when they closed theirs? Examples: BG - Stanley Falls; KD - Shenandoah Lumber Company

River Rapids: These seat about 10 in an inner tube and take you down the river. These rides are good because you get a different experience every time, and they're great for large groups because many people can ride together and interact during the ride. Unfortunately, you can get very wet (or not get wet at all), and there are often very long lines. Examples: BG - Congo River Rapids; CP - Thunder Canyon; KD - White Water Canyon

"Splash Mountain": These drop you down a big hill and make a big splash, often accompanied by a bridge where you can stand if you want to get soaked for some reason. "Splash Mountain" is the Disney World equivalent. Examples: BG - Tidal Wave; CP - Snake River Falls

Free Fall: These take you up, and then drop you. Simple enough, right? There are many ways to pull this off; Cedar Point itself has multiple examples. Examples: CP - Power Tower, Demon Drop; KD - Drop Zone

Twist, Spin, and Loop: I'm placing any non-coaster ride in this category that gives you a shoulder harness and twists, spins and/or loops you. Not among my favorites. Examples: CP - maxAir; KD - Tomb Raider

Theater Rides: These are all indoor rides that in some way involve a short film playing on a screen. There are multiple ways to pull this off, but this is a general category. Some of these movie rides change frequently, so I can't really give named examples.

Other small-scale ride categories: Bumper Cars; Tilt-a-whirl and variants (a.k.a. Spin and Puke); Carousel; Pirate Ship; Antique Cars; Swings; Sky Ride; Ferris Wheel

I've probably left out one or two "major" categories, but oh well. Of course, there are many rides that do not fit in any of these categories. I'll talk about a couple of these rides from Kings Dominion tomorrow.

Today's random thoughts:

1) Just in time for my AIM semi-hiatus, Erik forwarded me to this web site that calculates how "popular" you are on AIM compared to someone else. It calculates how many people have your screenname on their buddy list, and then how many people have those people on their buddy lists, and one more tree iteration to give a "popularity score" considering up to three degrees of separatation. I've always wondered how many people had my screenname on their buddy list. But now that I'm on "semi-hiatus", will my score start dropping? I'm going to keep track of my score each week and find out.
2) Here's a "tall guy" update. Recall that four weeks ago, I started keeping track of how often I see this tall guy walk by my office window. It's hard to believe I've been doing this for four weeks already. (Hooray time perception!) I haven't seen him every day, but (counting today) I have seen him on 18 out of 21 days. And sometimes, he even wears blue. (Maybe I should start keeping track of shirt color, too! Oooo.)
3) I've developed a taste for Diet SunDrop soda. It's kind of like Fresca, except less corporate, which is always a plus in my book. But it's not generic, either - it's on the shelf in the 7-up/RC Cola/Sunkist section. Yum! You may not be able to find it at your grocer, however - I think it's regional. As I started typing this, I realized I could devote an entire post to soda. Expect that next week sometime.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

"Drives By County"

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A while back, Jeff [Frame] suggested I put together a county map of the United States and color in all of the counties that I had been to, just like he did. So guess what I did?

Now, there are some important differences between my map and his. My map only goes back through the year 2000. That's why most states not in the Eastern time zone are blank. Not counting quick drives within Florida, I've only been outside the Eastern time zone twice since 2000: once to Louisiana, and once to Nevada/Utah. Besides that, there are also two different colors on my map. I've driven to/through red counties, but only been to blue counties. I'm not going beyond the year 2000 because I'm not 100% sure about the specific counties I've been to prior to then. So, I'm just going to start at 2000, and accumulate counties during the final 3/4 to 4/5 of my life. (One word about Virginia. Virginia has a lot of "independent cities" that aren't counties, but aren't part of any other county. I don't count these, because they're small and they're a pain. So, I've filled in these cities in black on my map.)

My map is far less impressive than Jeff's, not just because it only goes back 6 years, but because it's incredibly east-coast biased. Like I said, I've only been west of the imaginary Florida-to-Michigan line twice since 2000. But, I have been a lot of places up and down the east coast. My varied routes from Pennsylvania to Florida took care of a lot of counties. My "joy drives" took care of most of Florida, and a good part of Georgia. Vacations in the mountainous regions of the Carolinas took care of a lot of counties there. And during my tenure at Penn State, I may have made one or two trips within Pennsylvania.

How about a quantitative look? Well, by my count, there are 3,096 counties in the United States. Since 2000, I've been to 396 of them, and driven through 362. That's 12.8% and 11.7%, respectively. Not bad. What's a good life goal? I think one-third would be amazing, but I don't see that happening. Twenty percent? Sure. I'm barely halfway there, and I've already been a lot of places. I would have to do a lot of driving in areas I haven't been at all since 2000 to get to 20%. But, I have a long life ahead of me - even though I only get two weeks vacation for the next few years.

How about some state-by-state looks? There is no state in which I've been to every county since 2000. I have been to all three Delaware counties, but that was prior to 2000 and is not reflected on this map. Naturally, my highest percentages are Florida (59/67 = 88.1%) and Pennsylvania (51/67 = 76.1%). North Carolina is currently back in 5th (44/100 = 44.0%), behind South Carolina (29/46 = 63.0%) and Georgia (73/159 = 45.9%). Expect North Carolina to steadily move up on the list, however. My goal is to visit all 100 NC counties by the end of 2010. It really isn't that hard to do - I just need to get in the car and drive. But I'm not going to do this all at once, of course.

One more thing. In a previous random thought, I mentioned that for any kind of map, you only need four colors to avoid bordering territories of the same color. So, I decided I'd try it with this county map, and color in the whole map according with just four colors. If nothing else, this will give me something to do during the dull times at work (besides write these blog entries, of course). I'll post the map when it's done.

Today's random thoughts:

1) I talk a lot about my page-a-day calendar just because it's sitting on my desk in plain sight at work. So, here's another calendar-related thought. When you tear pages off, you never can tear the entire page off - it leaves a little smidgen at the top. As you tear more and more pages off, the smidgens become larger and larger, because the paper tearing is impeded by previous tearings. Eventually, the top of each page becomes slightly obscured by these accumulating smidgens. I thought about leaving them all on for the entire year, but two months into the year, I gave in and ripped off the top part clean. I've been doing this every two months. This means it's time to do it again next Friday. And just in time, too - the day of the week is starting to be covered up a little bit.
2) Let's say you're cooking something in the oven. Often, whatever you're cooking gives the amount of time you're supposed to leave it in the oven. Does this time include the time between when you put it in the oven, and when you start the timer? What about the amount of time between when the timer goes off, and when you remove said food item from the oven? They should have thought about this. It's not like with a microwave, where the timer controls the food cooking duration directly. I'm assuming the pre- and post-times are not included in the food manufacturer's estimates, and thus, I cook everything one minute less than recommended.
3) Why does the English language change the names of foreign place names? The best example is Torino, site of the most recent Winter Olympics. The "English" name for the town is Turin, but the Italians call it Torino. Why? Torino isn't a proper noun. Why translate it? The name of the town isn't Turin. It's Torino. Further more, the country is called Italia, not Italy. Why do we call it Italy? What's wrong with Italia? I can see why other languages translate the "United States" - "united" and "states" are common nouns. But "Germany" is not a proper noun. And every language calls Germany something completely different. I think this is all stupid.

Friday, August 25, 2006

"The Diabolical Scheme Thwarter: Issue #1"

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I'm going to try my hand at something different - fiction. I used to be a pretty good creative writer. Thing is, non-fiction is much easier to write, because you don't have to make it up. But I'm going to try it anyway. But what to write about? I think a superhero stories are a good choice, because they give me almost unlimited freedom. So, I'm going to chronicle the tales of the Diabolical Scheme Thwarter (DST for short). Today I'm just going to set the stage for future adventures. Every superhero needs a start, right? Well, consider this "Issue #1". (By the way, I'm going to be writing this from the perspective that I'm making it up as I go along, and not as if I'm in "full story mode". I'm not exactly trying to win a Pulitzer Prize here.)

So, what does a good superhero need? Let's see...

- Motivation. Every superhero has that amazing back story. Well...the Diabolical Scheme Thwarter doesn't, so much. I guess this guy is one of those conspiracy theorists who's always looking for the "truth" or "deeper meaning" behind everything that happens. When confronted with an oddity, problem, or other indication of a diabolical scheme, he becomes obsessed with finding everything out behind it (and thwarting it, of course). Why? Because of a specific incident that occurred when he was a child. This incident will be revealed in future adventures. (How's that for a cop-out?)

- Super powers. Well...not necessarily. Does Batman actually have any super powers? He just has a lot of cool toys and a sweet car. Personally, I think the DST's ability to repeatedly thwart diabolical schemes is super enough.

- A catch phrase. For the DST, I've decided on "Your time is up!" Why? Because DST also stands for Daylight Saving Time. Of course, I always have the right to change this.

- A sidekick and/or love interest. Right now, the DST has neither. I don't think any superheroes have either when they start out, right? These will develop as the stories progress.

- A villain. Whether you're Superman or Inspector Gadget, every superhero needs that villain whose diabolical schemes are repeatedly thwarted. Preferably with a catchy name, and perhaps a catch phrase of his own. So...introducing the Trauma Llama! I'm still working on his catch phrase. Maybe I'll just go with "Trauma Llama Ding Dong!"

- A costume and/or distinctive look. Problem with this in relation to the DST is that due to the general nature of his job, the DST prefers to do his work on the underground without being noticed. So perhaps a "trying too hard to fit in" look would suit him best. (No pun intended.) For everyday situations, how about a "Gap" t-shirt, name-brand jeans, and an iPod? This is indeed a costume for him - on his off days, he dresses like me. His "costume" might change depending on the situation, of course. But whatever the situation, he will clearly be trying too hard to fit in. (I'm not really going to worry about the costuming that much. But now you know why he has an iPod with him.)

- An unusual method of transportation. Superman flies, Batman drives his tricked-out car, and Spider-Man swings through city skylines. Well, those kinds of things are too outdone. So, I will give the DST a very unusual way to get around: public transportation. As great as the DST's ability to thwart diabolical schemes is, he doesn't have a car.

Hoepfully this will set the stage for future adventures, for those days when I don't have anything "real" to write about in my blog. time is up.

Today's random thoughts:

1) Yes, I am going to talk about Bojangles' again. How long did I go this time? Six days. Well, sort of - I don't know if this one counts. At work yesterday, we had a "potluck" lunch where everybody brought something. One guy brought Bojangles'. Obviously, I ate some. But, I didn't eat as much as I usually eat in a full Bojangles' visit - only one piece instead of three, with no fries. (But I did have 2½ biscuits instead of the usual one.) I don't think this counts as a Bojangles' visit, because I ate less than normal, Bojangles' presence at the potluck was not my choice, and I didn't pay for it. So, the last official Bojangles' visit is still last Friday.
2) Thanks to my page-a-day calendar, I'm starting to grow a little weary of Dilbert. It doesn't seem as funny now as it did earlier in the year. I think it's time for a change. But, as it is, there are still four months left in 2006, so I'll stick it out. Next year, I'll make a different page-a-day choice.
3) What defines a legitimate "big city"? I think the existence of carpool lanes on major expressways is certainly one thing. Surprisingly, Raleigh/Durham does not have any carpool lanes. Maybe they think carpool lanes would just screw up the traffic flow. What about other cities I've been to recently? Washington, DC has many carpool lanes. (They even have carpool roads!) Charlotte also has them. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, I can't remember specifically, but you'd think Philadelphia would have to have one somewhere, right? Jacksonville does not, as it is not a legitimate big city. I guess Raleigh/Durham is not legitimately big either. Sure, it's the 29th largest media market, but that's just because there are so many moderately-sized cities around here - Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, even Fayetteville are all part of the Raleigh DMA. No city in the region is that large on its own.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"AIM Semi-Hiatus"

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Today, I'm going to talk about AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), because I'm about to sharply change my AIM habits. You see, for the better part of the last six years, I've made an effort to stay online all the time and use away messages to dictate my current activities. This way, people always knew where I was and what I was doing without having to get in touch with me. And, through other people's away messages, I was able to do the same with them. This made keeping up with the "college network of friends" easy to do when you felt like finding social activity.

But, times have changed. I'm not in college anymore. I don't have anywhere near as many "active" friends whom my whereabouts may be relevant to at any given time. My day-to-day life isn't very noteworthy - sleep, work, eat. I also don't talk on AIM anywhere near as much as I used to - and even when I am logged on at home, I'm often playing video games or watching TV. And if someone needs to get in touch with me, I now have a cell phone, which I did not until last August. So, here's what I'm getting at: starting tonight when I go to bed, I will change my six-year habit and no longer remain logged onto AIM all the time. Instead, I will only sign on when I'm actually at the computer.

I knew this time would come. But all things considered, why didn't it come sooner? A couple of reasons. This is lame, but I always felt more comfortable at home when signed onto AIM, because it gave me a link to the outside world. Otherwise, it's just me sitting there. I don't really feel that way anymore about AIM - it doesn't matter whether I'm signed onto it or not. Also, I liked to "publish" my by-the-numbers statistics in my AIM profile. But now that I have this blog, I can publish the stats here in occasional posts instead. This will also make it easier for me - I don't have to update them as frequently. The timing on this is good - I split the stats up by "semester", and the summer "semester" ends this week anyway. So, early next week, expect a post recapping the summer statistical totals.

So from now on, I'll only be signed onto AIM when I am actually there to talk. How often will that be? Maybe an hour a day - probably not more than that. Gone will be the days of long-term away messages. No more "all aboard the sleepy train". No more "workie". No more "dinna time, break it down", even. And no more away messages that stay up long past their due. I think last time Amber came into town, I was "around" for most of the weekend. Yeah, not quite. I was actually looking forward to posting that away message for most of the weekend again...but I think I'll just sign off this time.

I'm not giving up AIM completely, of course, but this is quite a change. Will I eventually break down and go back to my old ways? Time will tell. But, it just seems silly to me to post the same away messages at the same times every day. Generally, you should know where I am by now. In case you don't: sleep from 1030p-630a, work from 630a-330p, and ignoring the fact that I'm signed onto AIM from 330p-1030p.

I have a lot of good memories with AIM - particularly, some of the "contests" that I conducted in the past through AIM, most notably the "Longest Online Contest" (LOC) than I ran for three years. I'll talk about the LOC and other contests in future posts.

Today's random thoughts:

1) Yesterday, I played my second round of disc golf at the UNC Carolina Adventures course. My two main beefs with this course were that the tees were unmarked, and I didn't want to play the water holes. Well, when I went back yesterday, the tees were marked! With maps! The maps even pointed you towards the next hole. A vast improvement. Somehow, I feel partly responsible. I also played the water holes this time - they're not as long as I previously thought, it seems. In any event, I had a blast, and I've moved this course all the way up to #1 in my regional rankings. This means my three favorite area courses are the three Durham/Chapel Hill courses. Maybe I should have moved over there.
2) Here's one thing I noticed on the way back to Raleigh last weekend on I-95. It seems like every other exit in North Carolina is for Newton Grove. I've been to Newton Grove; it really isn't anything noteworthy. So why do so many roads go there? Beats me. (Actually, I can only recall three exits specifically that reference Newton Grove: US 13, US 421, and NC 50. I think it's just because these exits span a range of almost 30 miles that I notice it.)
3) How exactly do certain emotions invoke certain muscle movements? I'm sure there is a perfectly good neurological reason, but I don't know anything about that stuff. As it is, I find it interesting that happiness makes you smile, or elation/satisfaction may result in something like a fist pump. (At least with me, it does.) Why is that?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Interstate 570"

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The title of today's post refers to what I think they should have called Interstate 99 in Pennsylvania. I'll explain why by starting with a refresher on the methodical way in which interstates are supposed to be numbered - specifically, "major" interstates (one- or two-digit). North/south interstates are given odd numbers, and east/west interstates are given even numbers. (I can only think of one interstate that violates this, and there's a good reason for it. More below.) And, the numbers increase as you head north and east. This is where Interstate 99 violates the system. It is located between Interstates 79 and 81. So really, there is no available "major" interstate number that would fit into the system. But why should I-99 be considered "major" anyway? Why not make it a three-digit spur, such as I-570? Even when I-99 is finished all the way to I-80, it will still be about 40 miles shorter than I-476 (the PA Turnpike's "Northeast Extension"). I-99 just looks bad and really out of place. If they were to build an interstate on the Delmarva Peninsula, I-99 would have been a perfect name for it. But, not anymore - it's taken by a 53-mile stretch of road that's completely co-signed with US 220 anyway. Why did it get the number "99"? Because some Pennsylvania congressman said so. If I voted in Pennsylvania, this guy (and his son) would never get another vote from me. (Just so you know, this isn't really that big of a deal to me. But I gotta write about something.)

Now, a couple of contrasting views. Long-term plans are to continue Interstate 99 all the way north to I-86, perhaps to join with I-390 to make a complete expressway from Altoona to Rochester. I suppose that would make I-99 "major". As it is, I-99 is still only the 3rd-shortest "major" interstate, behind I-97 (Maryland) and I-73 (North Carolina). Well...I'm not sure if you can count I-73 in there, because it has far greater aspirations. (Michigan to South Carolina, perhaps.) (And, just so you know - I'm not including the Hawaii "interstates" in this discussion.) But, anyway - I-99 isn't the only short and pathetic "major" interstate out there. And with its future aspirations, it may be deserving of a "major" number, and there isn't one available because whoever numbered the interstates in the first place didn't plan ahead. Really, they left no room for new interstates north of I-80 and east of I-75. I think they should renumber the entire system - it's kind of ridiculous to have I-80 end in California. That's why they've had to repeat numbers like I-84, I-86, and I-88. Yeah, but I don't think they're going to be renumbering everything anytime soon.

Now I'm going to talk about I-26 for a little bit, because it's related. Back when it only traveled from Asheville, NC to Charleston, SC, it was already kind of iffy as an east/west road. But now that it's been extended north to Johnson City, TN, it's definitely no longer an east/west road. It's rather confusing when you're turning onto I-26 between Asheville and Johnson City, where I-26 is going pretty much due north/south. What if you want to drive south? Do you take "east" I-26, or "west" I-26? It's not intuitively obvious. (The correct answer is "east", by the way.) At the very least, I think they could change the signage from east/west to north/south north of Asheville. They can't change the number without creating another violation. (The highest available north/south number is 67.) And yes, I realize it's impossible to have a perfect system when roads like I-26 cross other east/west interstates like I-20 and I-40. As we go along, it's becoming more and more difficult to adhere to the numbering system even a little bit, because they didn't plan ahead. It's even harder with US highways, because they criss-cross far more than interstates do. Where are US 52 (North Dakota --> South Carolina) and US 62 (New York --> Texas) supposed to fit into the system? I'm not sure. But they should still do a better job with the three-digit US highways. They should border the "parent" highway, which US 412 (among others) does not. Or, they should at least have a "parent" - US 400 is just stupid. (US 101? I don't consider that a violation. It's clear the intent of US 101 was to be west of US 99, which is no longer in operation.) And why did they decomission US 66? I realize its entire length is paralleled by interstates, but it's easily the most famous US highway. They should have kept it around. (Or maybe it carries a greater status as a "historic" highway?) That reminds me of something interesting - there used to be a US 666 ("child" of the old US 66). It has recently been renumbered to US 491, however. The primary reason? People kept stealing the road signs.

Yeah, so today's post turned into me rambling about interstate and US highway numbers. But you know what to expect with my blog entries by now. Doesn't the word "blog" itself imply "rambling"?

Today's random thoughts:

1) I wonder what Mexican-Americans think of "South of the Border". (For those unfamiliar, "South of the Border" is an old Mexican-themed tourist trap located just off I-95 at the NC/SC border.) Are they offended by all the Pedro caricatures on the billboards? Hmm. Personally, I'm offended by the dirty restrooms.
2) Also, what do Mexican-Americans (or anyone native in the Spanish language, for that matter) think of La Quinta's ad campaign? La Quinta - Spanish for "Free High Speed Internet." Or, La Quinta - Spanish for "We've got Savannah covered." Umm, no. If you made up the word "La quinta", then maybe you could get away with it. Even I'm a little offended. Well, not so much offended as I am insulted. Why don't you educate us on what "la quinta" really means? Hmm? (From a googled web site: "Although there is no direct translation of 'La Quinta', there are several theories as to the meaning including 'country retreat' or 'special place' ... There is no definitive explanation in any records but a concensus [sic] is that it means a comfortable place to be." Sounds like a good name for a hotel chain to me.)
3) When spoken, why does "the Ukraine" sound better than just Ukraine? I guess it's the kind of thing where the more you hear it, the better it sounds. Maybe we should stop referencing Ukraine with an article right now so that the non-article version sounds better. Who's with me? As for other countries, I still think plural country names need the "the" in front, like the United States and the Philippines. Maybe in their native language, the word "Ukraine" is plural? (And, yes: this thought was spawned by news of the plane crash. I didn't watch a lot of news coverage, but I think the media is starting to drift away from "the".)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Traffic Dynamics"

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I've picked up on a lot of aspects of traffic flow during my travels, so I thought I would share them here. For one thing, when I get stuck in a traffic jam, I can usually tell what's causing it in a general sense. Well, I can narrow it down to one of two categories of traffic jams: "lane closure" and "no lane closure". "Lane closure" traffic jams are usually caused either by construction or a lane-blocking accident, and are characterized by a general slowness. Contrast that to "no lane closure" traffic jams, most often caused by congestion, but can be caused by off-the-road accidents (and the resulting rubbernecking). These traffic jams are not generally slow, but quite variable in speed. You'll be going 35 one minute, 10 the next, and then a few minutes later you might be going 50, before having to slow down again. In a "lane closure" traffic jam, you're usually always going slowly.

Sure, you can attribute a "no lane closure" traffic jam to congestion. That's the easy answer. But what really causes the backup? What causes the flow of traffic to decrease from 65, to 55, to 45, and so on? I believe it's the merging of incoming traffic that starts it. A couple of cars dive onto the road, forcing the people behind them to slow down. If the road is crowded enough, the people behind them have to slow down even more. Then, more cars try to merge. It's a slippery slope. Before you know it, everybody is going 20, and we're all screwed. As for the eastbound I-40 "no lane closure" traffic jam that forms every day around 400p, I think what actually causes this is a different form of merging. At the "Wade Avenue split", two of the four eastbound lanes break off of I-40. At this point, many people scurry to change over to the I-40 lanes because they did not plan ahead. This forces cars to slow down to let them in, and the slippery slope commences. I say that is the primary cause instead of merging from side streets because Wade Avenue is almost always where the traffic lets up.

Now, onto "lane closure" traffic jams. They wouldn't be as bad if people knew how to change lanes efficiently. Often, people speed ahead in the soon-to-be-closed lane, and then dive over at the last second. Sure, that's great for you, you jerk, but that's the absolute worst thing you can do to preserve traffic flow. The best thing one can do is move out of the lane at the first available opportunity. If there's a space, take it, and nobody has to slow down. Wait until the last second, and everybody has to slow down. If everybody followed this simple rule, everybody would get where they need to go a lot faster. I try to change lanes in this fashion. You can also apply this to merging, the primary trigger of "no lane closure" traffic jams, but you usually don't have a whole lot of time to merge, so you almost have to cut somebody off to get in line.

I'm going to get off of traffic jams and just talk about interstate driving in general. Most people know this, but rule #1 for interstate driving is to stay in the right lane and pass in the left lane. It doesn't matter how fast you're going. Just because you're going 85 doesn't mean you have the right to stay in the left lane. Someone might be going 90. In which case, he needs to pass you. If you're blocking the left lane, he has to find a space between 70-mph cars to pass you in the right lane. That's hard to do, and often leads to minor backups of cars. Now that I have that out of the way, I'm going to talk specifically about two-lane interstate driving, of which I've found there are two types. One is with little to no traffic - this is when people generally drive right and pass left. But put a decent amount of traffic on the road, and sometimes you might notice that almost everybody is driving in the left lane, and the only people in the right lane are going 10 mph slower than the speed limit. How did it get to this point? Well, because the left lane is so crowded, people are afraid to give up their spot in line. If they move back to the right lane, they'll be stuck behind someone going 50, and may not be able to get back into the left lane for a while. I've found this happens on the PA Turnpike a lot. This is a function of slow-moving trucks and high traffic volume, both of which can be found on the PA Turnpike.

Three-lane interstate driving is a different animal altogether. I find it highly enjoyable - it is much easier to maintain cruise control when everybody has three lanes to work with. Why didn't they make all interstates three lanes to start with? Anyway...a lot of people ignore the right lane altogether, leaving that for slow trucks, and ride the center lane while passing left. This usually doesn't cause a problem, although it doesn't make any sense when there aren't that many slow trucks blocking the right lane. As for me, I try to stay in the right lane, even on three-lane highways. I'll look ahead, and if I see a developing situation in which I may need the left lane up ahead, I'll move to center. I don't take the right lane on four-lane highways, however - I go with right-center. Four-lane highways usually have enough traffic such that there is a high number of slow-moving vehicles riding in the right lane. It is interesting to see the different traffic flows that develop on a four-lane highway. Sometimes, the "average speed" may increase by 5 mph as you move left each lane.

As you can see, I have a lot of time to think about this kind of thing when I'm on the road. Just think how much more enjoyable driving would be if people merged at the first available opportunity and rode in the right lane.

Today's random thoughts:

1) (I didn't realize this until after I wrote it, but this is basically a loose paraphrasing of this post from Jacob's blog. The ideas must have slipped into my subconscious. But I figured I'd post it anyway.) I saw some "organic apples" at the grocery store the other day. Aren't apples organic anyway? Apples are grown, right? Maybe I'm missing something. Actually, yes, I am missing something. In the context of something like apples, "organic" means "grown without the use of synthetic materials such as fertilizers, hormones, or other chemicals." Why does the word "synthetic" get such a bad rap? Is nature better and/or more efficient at making things than the human race is? I beg to differ. (Oh, please let me differ!) And why isn't the human race considered "natural"? If we were non-member observers of the human race, we would look at all of humankind's creations as "natural" much like a spiderweb or anthill. Cities? A natural production of humankind. Fruit Loops? Also a natural creation of humans.
2) On my north/south drives, I like to judge my progress up and down the coast by which US road I am passing. Because, as I will elaborate on in tomorrow's post (the much-anticipated Interstate 99 post), east/west US highways are numbered in order from north to south. Particularly, I focus on the highways that end in 0. The south end of my drives is near US 90 in Jacksonville. US 80 passes through Savannah. US 70 passes through Raleigh. US 60 passes through Richmond. US 50 passes through Washington. US 40 parallels I-70 from Frederick to Hancock, MD. And finally, US 30 parallels the PA Turnpike from Bedford to Breezewood. Again, more on this tomorrow.
3) If you ask someone to use the word "secede" in a sentence, they will likely reference states seceding from the Union to join the Confederacy. Is the word "secede" used for any other purpose in any other situation, other than to describe the process by with states left the Union to join the Confederacy? I don't believe so. (Well, maybe in reference to former Soviet republics. But they don't speak English and therefore do not actually use the word "secede", so they don't count in this discussion.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

"Ten Reasons Why..."

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Today, I'm going to try to find 10 reasons why the drive from Raleigh (Cary) to State College is better than the drive from Raleigh (Cary) to Jacksonville. As I write this currently, I don't have 10 reasons in my mind yet. Let's see how I do. And, I'm only considering the drives themselves, not the destinations. (For typing ease, I will refer to the State College drive as the "north" drive, and the Jacksonville drive as the "south" drive.)

1) Scenery. I think this is the most obvious reason. The south drive is flat. The north drive is not. The lower half of the north drive is flat, but the upper half starts getting into the Appalachians. That's a plus.
2) Fun. Flat, straight, fast roads have their place, but it's nice to put some curves out there. US 522 in Virginia is my favorite part of the drive. When I choose to take it, that is. And that takes me to #3...
3) Available routes. There are many reasonable ways to get from Raleigh (Cary) to State College. Drive through DC, or not? Drive through Harrisburg, or not? It is nice to have options available to me if I'm feeling adventurous. There's pretty much only one way to get to Jacksonville without going really out of the way. (By the way, I did not take US 1 all the way back yesterday. Maybe Thanksgiving?)
4) Road variety. The south drive is basically just two roads: I-40 and I-95. Of the 6½ hours, probably about 5½ are spent on I-95. Boring. One of the north routes I often take is US 64, I-95, I-295, I-95, US 17, I-66, I-81, VA 37, US 522, I-70, I-76, and I-99. That's more like it. You never lose sight of the fact that you're making progress.
5) The Capital Beltway. For some reason, I enjoy big-city interstate driving. Well, if it's moving at or above the speed limit. By now, I have the timing down regarding when I can drive through DC and when I shouldn't. The novelty of the Beltway has worn off a bit since moving to Raleigh (Cary) now that I take a crowded I-40 to work every day. But I-40 still pales in comparison to the DC roads, and I still enjoy driving the Beltway after 730p.
6) Traffic. The traffic on the north route is far more predictable. You know when you should avoid DC. My northbound timing is unfortunate, as it puts me in downtown Richmond between 500p and 530p, but I'm going to try an alternate route (the Pocahontas Parkway, if you recall from an earlier post) to avoid downtown. I'll let you know how it goes in a couple of weeks. As for the south drive, you don't drive through any real cities, so the roads aren't designed to handle rushhour-sized traffic loads. Thus, these roads' maximum traffic loads occur on weekend afternoons, making these roads far more vulnerable to fluctuations in traffic density. Tomorrow's post is going to talk more about traffic patterns.
7) Accidents. My experience driving up and down the East Coast is that there are more accidents on the south drive than the north drive. Accidents can cause traffic jams like the one I got stuck in on my way back yesterday. Why the (perceived) southern bias? I can think of three reasons. 1) Speed limits are higher in the south. 2) Roads are narrower in the south, with respect to the number of lanes. Not only does this cause more accidents, but the accidents also block a higher percentage of the roadway. 3) Because the roads are straight and flat, people generally drive more aggressively (and stupid) in the south.
8) The "back way". US 17 and I-99 are a nice "meal", but the back way to State College is an even better "dessert". There is no back way to Jacksonville. Not only is it a city, but there's a big river flowing through the middle of it, which I must cross to get to my parents' house. This means I'm pretty much forced to stay on the expressways.
9) Temperature. I don't like running the air conditioner in the car if I can avoid it. Obviously, this is much easier to do up north than down south. I have no such issues with running the heater.
10) The driving playlist. This is a lame reason considering it has nothing to do with the drives and is completely due to my free will, but I needed a 10th reason. Recall that I have a distinct CD order that I use every time I drive a certain way. I've found that I enjoy the north playlists more than the south playlists in terms of the CD selection. This is actually unfortunate for the more-boring and more-in-need-of-better-music south drive. Why don't I switch the playlists? Because I make the north drive more than the south drive. And besides, many CDs have already gained their "regional" associations.

To be fair, I suppose I should give some reasons why the south drive is better. Cheaper gas is one. More plentiful gas stations and food is another. The 70 mph speed limits are nice, too. But those reasons don't trump "fun".

Today's random thoughts:

1) How long did I go without Bojangles' this time? Nine days. Nine freaking days. I stopped there for dinner on my way to Jacksonville on Friday. Yeah, I think I'm addicted. Oh well...there are worse addictions.
2) Upon entering Florida on I-95, there's a sign that says something to the effect of "Home of the 1997 World Series Champions". I think this sign is in need of an update. Not only is Florida also the home of the 2003 World Series champions, but also the Super Bowl XXXVII champions, 2004 Stanley Cup champions, 2006 NBA champions, 1999 and 2001 college football national champions, and the 2006 college basketball national champions. But I guess that's hard to fit all on one sign. (South Carolina has an even better sign: "Home of USC Aiken: 2004/2005 NCAA Division II Golf National Champions." Yeah! Go Pacers!)
3) Contrary to popular belief, the word "inflammable" actually means "capable of being lit on fire", not "hard to light on fire". But I guess the "in-" prefix screwed everyone up, so somewhere along the line, "flammable" became an acceptable synonym to "inflammable", and that's what pretty much everybody uses today. What do I think of all this? I think it's good that the English language can adapt to whatever is most easily understood. That is the purpose of language, right? The understanding of communication. Therefore, I don't have a problem with this.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"Your Jacksonville Jaguars!"

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I'm actually posting this on Sunday morning, but I hope none of you mind if I make this the "Saturday" post, since I didn't get a chance to post after the game last night. If you do mind, then, well, that's too bad. Before I get started, I should make a correction from Friday, because like most newspapers, I take corrections seriously: they aren't building something over the little league ballfields on Fort Caroline Road; the ballfields are still there. They are building something over the old driving range (which has been closed for some time anyway). And, it's going to be a shopping center. Boring.

So, last night, I attended a preseason NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers. The Jaguars did not look good. But who cares - it's preseason, right? These games don't count. But really: do any games really count? Count for what? The NFL is an arbitrary sports league; they basically just made up their own championship. And whoever ends up winning It's not going to change my life any. Maybe I don't care about the Super Bowl. Maybe I care more about the preseason games. They shouldn't force upon me what "counts" and what doesn't. It should be up to the fan to decide what "counts", right? (If anything.) Maybe winning the preseason games is very important to me. The woman sitting behind me at the game felt that way, apparently. She seriously needed to shut the hell up. Why did I want to go to this game, anyway? I just wanted to see the team in person and spend some time with the family. That's all.

Seriously, though, why do sports matter? Why does it make any difference to me whether or not the Jaguars win? Well, on an individual game basis, games are always more fun to watch when your team is playing well. But this doesn't explain the discrepancy between regular season and preseason. Sure, I wanted to see the team win last night, but once the game ended, it didn't matter anymore. Why do I care if the team does well in the regular season, and perhaps wins the Super Bowl? Because I want everybody on TV, radio, the newspapers, etc to talk about how great the Jacksonville Jaguars are. That's pretty much it, really. It's the prospects of seeing my team in prominence. My team, which nobody outside of Northeast Florida cares about. My hometown - I'm proud to be from Jacksonville. (But I don't think I want to move back here.) I take pride in rooting for my obscure sports teams that are outside of most national interests.

Why does Jacksonville have an NFL team, anyway? I'm not sure, quite honestly. Apparently we gave quite a sales pitch back in 1993 when the NFL expanded. What were the NFL's other options? I think the five finalists for two franchises were Charlotte, Memphis, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Jacksonville. Charlotte got a team, obviously. Two other teams relocated to St. Louis and Baltimore. And Memphis almost got a team, except they're in Nashville. Close enough. The problem the Jaguars have is they have virtually no "home market". If you look at the Carolina Panthers, not only do they have Charlotte, but they also have the rest of North Carolina and South Carolina as their "home market". The Titans obviously have their entire state, plus portions of others. What do the Jaguars have, outside of Jacksonville? Head down to Orlando, and you're in Buccaneers territory. Head up to Savannah, and you're in Falcons territory. Head over to Tallahassee, and you're back in Buccaneers territory again. (Well, maybe. I think Tallahassee is just the "territory" of whichever Florida team is doing the best at the time, which was the Bucs during my FSU tenure.) I think Gainesville/Ocala is the only media market outside of Jacksonville whose number one team is the Jaguars. That's a problem, when you're trying to sell tickets and develop fan interest. Why are the Denver Broncos so successful? Because they have Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, western Nebraska, and northern New Mexico. I bet a lot of season ticket holders commute from those areas. Jacksonville isn't that big on its own, and it has virtually no regional fanbase to tap into. So, really, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to have a team here. But I'm not complaining. I think it's awesome that my hometown has an NFL team. Our owner is committed to Jacksonville. Hopefully the new NFL commissioner won't force his hand and move us to Los Angeles. I bet the Jaguars sell more tickets in Jacksonville than they would in Los Angeles. But if that does happen, I will boycott the NFL altogether - they can rot in hell for all I care. College football is better anyway. Speaking of which, I bought ESPN GamePlan ($109), which I wasn't going to get originally in lieu of NFL Sunday Ticket, but DirecTV didn't work out, so...I'll concentrate my football watching to Saturdays. The Saturdays in which I'll just be sitting around at home, that is. And for those Saturdays in which I won't just be sitting around at home, that's what the TLD is for. And here's something: Florida State v. Miami (FL) is, to me, the most important single game of my sports year. It's two weeks from Monday. Where will I be during the game? Driving back from State College. Yeah, I could always leave earlier, but I have a rule: never let sporting events dictate my schedule, unless I will actually be attending in person. Especially now that I have a TLD. Isn't that what it's for? I'll watch it the next day, on my schedule. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Today's random thoughts:

1) I lost my "list" of random thought ideas, so today you just get three random thoughts relating to Friday's drive to Jacksonville. I saw a personalized license plate in North Carolina that said "1 URIBE". As in, Major League Baseball player Juan Uribe? Who does that guy play for? I just thought it was creative to substitute "1" for "Juan". Nice.
2) More about those blue interstate signs. How close does an establishment need to be to the interstate to make it onto the sign? I think it should be one mile or less. I don't appreciate it when I see a sign for something and get off the exit, only to find out that it's 3 miles that way. Ugh. Isn't the point of those signs to give places that are right next to the interstate? They should make that a rule. Or, post the mileages on the interstate signs in addition to the ones on the offramps.
3) During our discussion about displaying county names on license plates, James reported that Florida drivers now get a choice between the county name and "Sunshine State". Well, I am proud to report that many of the new Florida license plates I have seen this weekend display the county name with pride. Way to go, guys. Keep it up! But I wish they would do something about the way they display the state name. They've imbedded it inside their website: "". Lame. URLs have no place on license plates. Pennsylvania and Indiana are guilty of this practice as well. But not North Carolina - they've stuck with the same classic design for 25 years now. Good for them.

Friday, August 18, 2006

"Five Months Later..."

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WARNING: Sappy post

(On location in Jacksonville, FL.)

Recently, I decided to make a weekend trip to here I am. It's been a while since I've been here. (Since I'm typing this in Jacksonville, I'll refer to Jacksonville as "here" and other places as "there".) I've never gone this long (five months, for those who didn't read the title) between Jacksonville visits. What took so long? No strong motivation to come here, really. But now, I just felt it'd be good for me (and for others) to see the family and some friends for a weekend.

It's kind of interesting what's happened in the last five months, between since I was last here (March 11th) and now (August 18th - here we go with the 11th and the 18th again). A lot has changed. Let's recap...
- I received my Masters degree in Meteorology.
- I moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
- I started a new job and doubled my salary.
- I shaved my goatee and started growing my hair out.
- My car has new brakes, new rear tires, new rear shocks, a new side marker, and a couple other things I don't even remember.
- Plus other things that are beyond the scope of this blog (but that won't stop me from subtly referring to them).
So, basically, almost every aspect of my life is different now than it was five months ago. And, all these changes in my life have been changes for the better (although you could question the 4th one). I've been making a concentrated effort to keep complaints out of my blog entries, because I don't think I have any right to complain about anything. (Well, I can still complain about trivial things like interstate numbering.)

With this in mind, I wasn't sure how I would react upon visiting Jacksonville again. Jacksonville is part of my "old" life. Even when I was attending Penn State, Jacksonville still felt like home. Upon driving into town tonight, does Jacksonville still feel like home? Nope. For one thing, it felt weird driving an out-of-state car in Jacksonville - that's obviously a first for me. But I really felt like a visitor, or maybe just someone revisiting part of his past, but not part of his present. Maybe I'm over-analyzing this. (Gee, Chris, ya think?) Sure, I'm quite familiar with the city. But it still doesn't feel the same. This is definitely new for me. I'm curious how the rest of the weekend is going to go. Actually, maybe the reason I feel differently now than previous visits to Jacksonville is because before, Jacksonville was the "ultimate" destination - the trips I looked forward to the most. That's not true anymore. There are other places I'd rather be.

So, what's different about Jacksonville since I left? I mean, it's only been five months, so not a whole lot. Well, I did see a couple of new things on my way in tonight. That Sonic on Fort Caroline Road wasn't there before. And what are they building on top of the old little league ballfields across the street? It was dark when I drove by - I'll have to get a better look tomorrow. It's also my understanding that FL 9A (future I-295) is now open all the way down to UNF, leaving just the intersection with Butler Blvd before the full beltway is complete. If you think I'm going to make it through the weekend without checking this out, you obviously don't know me.

One thing I'm going to do while I'm here is go to a Jaguars preseason game Saturday evening. More on that tomorrow.

Today's random thoughts:

1) If you ask most people which day of the week was their favorite, a lot of people would say Friday. I suppose I understand why, but Friday is not my favorite day of the week. I prefer Saturday. It's simple, really: I have to work on Friday, and I don't have to work on Saturday. I won't deny that Friday is the most anticipated day of the week, because the weekend starts on Friday. But I enjoy Saturday much more than Friday.
2) At work, the company I officially work for (CSC) makes us do all kinds of ridiculous and pointless logistical stuff. (What company doesn't?) Recently, this included registering our "skills" into a database that CSC used for employee "relocation" within their company - in case an opening comes up, they look internally first by using this database. (I am not interested in changing positions, obviously, but I had to do this anyway.) But anyway, one of the skills was "genetic algorithms", which I think is pretty funny because my Masters research had a great deal to do with them. I "rated" myself higher in the genetic algorithms category than I did any other category. After all...I'm sure I know more about genetic algorithms than most other CSC employees.
3) Repetition is the key to successful advertising. Case in point: "Head-On. Apply directly to the forehead. Head-On. Apply directly to the forehead. Head-On. Apply directly to the forehead. Head-On." If I ever need to get some Head-On, there will be no question as to what I am supposed to do with it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"Poker Again"

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I touched on poker a little bit in a recent random thought, but I'm going to give it a full post today. And I resisted calling the post "Bar Poker Tuesday, Part 2". Aren't you proud of me? "Poker Again" isn't much better, but anyone who won a t-shirt from the second Bar Bleu final tournament may understand the reference. (The next poker entry after this will be called "Poker Over and Over".) By the way, isn't "second final tournament" kind of contradictory? How many have they had now, anyway? Four? Five? I think it's five. And that doesn't even count the Monday tournaments.

I guess it took almost a year of bar poker to figure it out, but I have the pattern down of how to play these dumb tournaments (or at least, how you're pretty much forced to play). Let's split it up by the "blind levels":
100/200: Play "real" poker.
200/400: Play "real" poker.
400/800: If you have less than 3,000 chips, it's all-in pre-flop or nothing. If you have between 3,000 and 6,000 it's half-in pre-flop, and all-in post-flop unless you're sure you're beat. If you have over 6,000 chips, you can still afford to play a little "real" poker.
[ break and chip-up ]
500/1,000: Pretty much the same as 400/800, except I'd say add 2,000 to the chip totals I gave above.
1,000/2,000: At this point, it's pretty much a pre-flop all-in contest. If you're shortstacked and there's between 21 and 30 people left, you might be better off just trying to limp into the top 20 and the points.
2,000/4,000: If it wasn't an all-in contest before, now it is.
4,000/8,000: Mac's Tavern skips this blind level. I've only made it past 2,000/4,000 twice in seven weeks anyway.
5,000/10,000: At this point they just want to hurry up and finish. Mac's starts a second tournament at 1000p (the first one starts at 700p), so it's understandable. But once you get to this blind level, you're very much at the mercy of your cards. (Pretty much like you have been since 400/800.)

Obviously, "real" poker is much more fun than the all-in contests that follow. I honestly don't have much fun after the break - I'm just hoping I get lucky. At least I have some room to make intelligent poker decisions early on. But the main goal of the first two blind levels is this: win as many chips as you can, but don't get eliminated. You're going to have to get lucky later on anyway, regardless of how many chips you have. The one time I actually won one of these bar tournaments, I didn't have many chips left after the 200/400 level. So really, we're all just playing for fun until the blinds go up. (Aren't we anyway? It's not like there's any money on the line or anything. I'm not even sure if they give out prizes each week. I always leave as soon as I bust out.)

So, from reading this, it doesn't really sound like I'm having a whole lot of fun at these tournaments. But that's not true - I enjoy going to these things. If nothing else, it's something to do. And it's free. (I've yet to buy a drink at any of the Mac's tournaments. Does that make me a bad person?) If I finish well, that's great. If I don't, that's okay too, because nighttime cell phone minutes start at 900p. It's pretty much a win-win situation. (After making the final table each of the first two weeks, I've been eliminated before 900p each of the last five weeks. Is it a subconscious thing?)

Actually, I think this bar poker format works better with fewer players. Mac's usually draws over 60 people, so when the blinds are high, there are still a lot of people left, so people play tighter, and that compounds the problem. But at a place like Hiway Pizza that rarely draws more than 30, people play looser because you're already close to the top 20 when you start. As a result, you often get to the final table before the blinds get too high, and you can actually play more "real" poker later in the tournament. For this reason, I think I had more fun at the Hiway tournaments. That's also where I had my most success - my only win was at Hiway, and I also finished 2nd in a final tournament. (First place in that final tournament was $400; second place was an ugly t-shirt and a hat. But I'm not bitter or anything.)

Mac's isn't the only Cary bar that hosts poker tournaments. Should I try to find a tournament with smaller crowds? Mac's is the only Tuesday tournament in Cary, so I'll probably keep it going - bar poker just "feels right" on Tuesday night. But I might give another Cary establishment a try on a Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday night. I've found the Cary equivalent of Bar Bleu; where's the Cary equivalent of Hiway Pizza? (Yeah, I just realized I'm talking about Hiway Pizza very positively here. How about that?) I'll let you know if and when I find out. I might even try tonight.

Today's random thoughts:

1) In a previous post, I mentioned that I decided to listen to ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike on my way to work in the mornings. I also started listening to a Charlotte-based sports talk show in the afternoon. Well, a funny thing has happened since then: the station went out of business and off the air. Boo! There is another local sports talk station, but I don't like it. They don't even do sports in the morning. And the afternoon guy? He's boring - it's almost as if Pat Boland from Gamenight State College followed me here. So, I'm back to FM: Oldies Radio (Fayetteville! Lumberton!) in the morning, and 96 Rock (everything that rocks) in the afternoon.
2) On the way home from work today, my car reached 125,000 miles. It seems like it wasn't that long ago when I hit 100,000. (There we go with time perception again.) But really, it wasn't that long ago - I'm pretty sure it was near the end of the Spring 2005 semester. So if the next 25,000 miles come as quickly as the last 25,000, I'll hit 150,000 miles before the end of 2007.
3) How did the expression "the bottom fell out" come to be? There must have been some major catastrophe somewhere where the bottom literally fell out of something, thus coining the phrase. I can't even think of any major catastrophes where the bottom would literally fall out of something. (Side comment: doesn't the word "catastrophe" already imply "major"? Is there such a thing as a "minor catastrophe"? You hear the phrase "minor catastrophe" used sometimes, but it's almost always in a sarcastic sense.)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"The Chris Allen Racing League, Part 2"

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Read yesterday's post first - it provides a nice lead-in. (Sort of.) Unless you're the type that likes to be confused, in which case, read on!

When I decided I want to start the "Chris Allen Racing League" in 2004, I needed a long list of drivers - at least 126 to fill the three league tiers (42 in each tier). I didn't want to use real drivers, however. Real drivers already have their own league. It's called NASCAR. (Heard of it?) I also didn't want to make up people - who cares how a bunch of fake drivers in fake cars do? (Fake drivers in real cars? Now that would be something.) But I did have a couple of options present to me, based on "leagues" I've done in the past. Both have interesting stories behind them. Clearly in publishing all of this, I have no shame whatsoever.

Story #1: When I was a kid, I played with Matchbox cars. Eventually I "graduated" from plain old Matchbox cars to NASCAR die-cast replica cars. (That's actually what first got me into NASCAR as a kid - seeing my toy cars on TV. Not the other way around.) This led to me setting up "race tracks" around the house and racing with my toy cars. I even pretended my stuffed animals were driving the cars. It was very exciting when Crabby (the) Lobster won a race. (Not really. Well, I guess it was for me.) Eventually I collected enough cars to run full-field races, and a "league" was born. I called it the "Republic of Chris Auto Racing Association" (ROCARA). (Yeah, I made up my own country too. I was a very creative child.) But the point of this story is, I could make my old stuffed animals the stars of the new "Chris Allen Racing League" - it definitely had a lot of nostalgic appeal to it, especially since most of the cars I played with as a kid, I had recently downloaded from the internet and loaded into the video game. So, that was one option.

Story #2: Sadly, I eventually outgrew ROCARA. But soon thereafter, my parents got a new computer. (It was a pentium! Remember when the word "pentium" had a magical aura about it? Now it's just, "eh".) The new computer gave me the ability to purchase the first of many NASCAR video games. And you never saw Chris again. So yes, during my high school years (before I got any real friends), I played my fair share of NASCAR on the computer. But I thought it would be cool if I "raced" against all the cute girls I knew from high school in my NASCAR game. So before you knew it, I was trading paint with girls I knew from high school on the virtual racetrack. I even "ranked" them so that the girls I liked the most would do the best in the game. Oh yeah. (Did I mention I was a loser? Actually, yes, I did. And I'm speaking as if a lot has changed since then. That's a big assumption.) I kept this "league" going for a while - probably too long. Anyway, the point of this story is that I could go back into the archives and use the drivers I used in that league as the basis for the new league. But, I didn't want to do this if I could avoid it, so I started with option #1, and ran one full season with it.

There were two problems with option #1. 1) Between my brother and myself, we obviously had nowhere near 126 stuffed animals, so I couldn't run a full three-tiered league, instead opting for a two-tiered league. It worked fine for a season, but it just didn't do it for me. Now about that option #2...most of these people I knew in high school, I won't ever see again. Why not let their "memory" live on and give it another try? Except this time, I obviously wouldn't "rank" the drivers - their rankings would be subject to my ranking-development algorithm, which is subject to the random variability present in the game, which I had no control over, and that would make it interesting. If you would recall, implementing this algorithm was my whole motivation for starting the league. How closely could I model a real NASCAR league, where drivers progress and regress as multiple seasons are played out? Problem is, this list of "drivers" still did not get me up to 126. So, I just added in a bunch of people I knew at FSU. Done. Eventually I expanded the list all the way to 200 by introducing a "waiting list" in addition to the three league tiers. To get it all the way up to 200, I eventually just added a bunch of people off of Facebook. So to answer yesterday's question, it's about 75% c), and 25% d).

I guess I should talk about how the algorithm and the league itself works a little bit - it isn't that complicated. (I don't think so, anyway.) The basic idea is this: your next season's ranking is dependent on your last two season finishes. It's best illustrated with an example: if you finished 20th in the season standings last season, and 15th this season, you'll be ranked 10th next season. Or, if you finished 15th last season and 20th this season, you'll be ranked 25th next season. This way, drivers carry "momentum" up and down the rankings. What do the rankings mean? They're used by the video game to gauge how fast the drivers go. They're not exact, of course. Just because you're ranked 20th doesn't mean you'll finish 20th every race. Far from it. But over the course of multiple races, you'll approach an average finish of 20th. It takes much longer than 30 races for every rank to converge, however. Sometimes, someone may "overachieve" their rank by as many as 10 positions in the season standings. (It's far more variable near the bottom than near the top, just because of how I have the points system structured.) This is how drivers gain and lose momentum. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm currently in season 20. Most of the drivers that are near the top right now were nowhere near the top in season 1.

There has been only one major flaw in my algorithm thus far. (Well, I'm sure there are more, I just haven't discovered them yet.) When drivers would drop all the way to the bottom, many of them were experiencing a "rebound" back to the top. It's very easy to acquire a lot of upward momentum when you're at the bottom, because there's only one way to go, what happens at the bottom is more random than at the top, and drivers are continually dropping below you from up above. (That's actually a pretty funny sight, come to think of it.) So, anyway, this means that the easiest way to achieve success was to go to the bottom, and "rebound". I thought this was dumb, and that there needed to be a "penalty" for dropping to the bottom. (Not that any of this matters anyway - it's random. Well...based on an algorithm that essentially runs off of random numbers produced by the video game.) That's the main reason I introduced the "waiting list". If you fall to the bottom, you go on the waiting list. Well, it's not really a waiting list, because the four drivers that "graduate" from the waiting list after each season, that's somewhat random too. Drivers' chances of moving up from the waiting list are weighted by how long they've been on the waiting list. (It's kind of like the NBA Draft Lottery.) So, likely, you'll have to wait well over 10 seasons on the waiting list before "graduating". Since there are 200 - 126 = 74 drivers on the waiting list, the expected value of waiting list tenure is 18½ seasons. (I think. I haven't actually worked out the math on that, but it makes sense: four drivers move up each season, and 74/4 = 18.5.) Each season takes me about 5 to 6 weeks to complete, so that's an average waiting list tenure of almost two years. Now that's a penalty. How long am I going to be continuing this, anyway? Another two years? I'm not sure. (That was a fun little paragraph, wasn't it?)

I really could go on and on about the little intricacies of how the algorithm works. For example, it's possible to win two consecutive championships in the top series, but it's almost impossible to win three consecutive. Before I explain why, I should note that you can't have a negative rank, obviously - they must fall on the interval [1,126], and every rank is filled consecutively. So what happens if someone goes from 10th to 3rd? Really, the ranks are determined by sorting the ranks they "should" get. Everybody gets a number. For the driver that went from 10th to 3rd, their number would be -4. Then, sort everybody's numbers. If -4 is lower than anyone else's number, that driver gets the top rank for the next season, and the best chance at the championship. Or, they may be rank 2 or 3, if other drivers get lower numbers. So, anyway, about the consecutive championships: after somebody's first championship, if they came from, say, 4th (that's about the average), their number will be -2, which will probably be about 3rd. History has shown that anybody with a top 5 rank has a chance at the championship. But after someone's 2nd straight championship, they're 1st to 1st, giving a number of 1. Typically, about 5 drivers have numbers of 0 or below after each season. So, a two-time defending champion will often be ranked outside of the top 5 for the next season, all but eliminating them from championship contention.

Okay, I'll stop now.

Today's random thoughts:

1) This is about those blue signs you see before exits on the interstate. You know, the ones that list the food, gas, and lodging places at each exit. Maybe it's just me, but the restaurant / gas station chains are more represented on these signs than the stand-alones. Who is responsible for putting the particular place names up on those signs? Is it the DOT, merely looking for the most familiar chains that people know? Or is it the places themselves, who are likely paying for the "advertising"? It has to be the latter, right? McDonald's likely spends more advertising dollars than your mom n' pop restaurant off exit 154.
2) I only buy Ritz when they're on sale. Maybe I shouldn't buy them at all - I eat them too fast. The way they are packaged just begs you to eat an entire column at once, and I often do. But that's a lot of Ritz. They should separate the columns further into halves, or even thirds, for a more appropriate serving size.
3) There may be some words that you misspell all the time, but don't realize it. Then it comes as a shock when you find out you've been wrong the whole time, even when it's a really dumb and/or easy word. My latest personal example: "zeros". I kept spelling it "zeroes". It looked right to me. Thank you, Google, for bringing to light the error of my ways.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"The Chris Allen Racing League, Part 1"

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How do I entertain myself when I'm just sitting around at home? Two things, mainly: TV, and video games. Thanks to my tivo-like device, TV is now more enjoyable than ever. Once college football season starts, I'll be watching even more. (ESPN Gameplan, anyone?) In the meantime, video games have moved down on my priority list. I don't play games anywhere near as much as I used to. However, one game has held a steady spot in the rotation for 3½ years: NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. Because of how often I play this game, I feel obligated to give it at least one post. Just a reminder that you can skip to the random thoughts at any time.

It's been well documented that I like driving. I also like racing on the computer. Are the two related? Perhaps, as far as the act of driving is concerned. But there is one key difference. The main appeal of long-distance road trips is that while I am driving (which is enjoyable on its own merit), I'm going somewhere, continually making progress, seeing new things constantly. Obviously, when I race on the computer, I am going nowhere, even in a virtual sense. But racing a (virtual) car as fast as the (virtual) physics allow, and trying to do it better than 41 other (virtual) drivers - I find that highly enjoyable. (I used to race online against actual drivers, but not so much anymore.)

I load up NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (NR2003, for short - that's a long title, isn't it?) almost every day. It's often one of the first things I do when I get home from work. The races I run are 30% of the real-life race distance, and each race takes between 40 and 60 minutes. I've been doing this for a while: since NR2003 came out in February 2003, I've run 785 races, for a total of 66,305 laps, or 76,625 miles. (Yes, I've kept track.) And that's in addition to previous versions of the game, which I've been collectively playing for close to 10 years. Include those games in the count, and I've logged well over 125,000 miles of NASCAR on the computer.

One word about NR2003: EA Sports bought exclusive rights to produce NASCAR games, so no new versions of NR2003 have come out since 2003. NR2003 isn't even available in stores anymore; you have to go on web sites like Ebay to find a copy, as new copies are no longer being produced. What's the going rate for a copy of NR2003 on Ebay right now? About $80. When the game originally came out in 2003, it was $50. When a video game actually appreciates in value, you know it's good.

You may be thinking to yourself, "This has to get old after a while. Doesn't it?" Well, yes, it does. But the appeal of NR2003 goes well beyond the racing itself, and that's where the "Chris Allen Racing League" comes in. I don't just run random races; I formed my own racing league within the game, complete with 30-race seasons, a 3-tiered league system (structured similarly to European soccer leagues), and 200 different drivers that rotate in and out. The other drivers progress and regress in the league each season depending on how they perform, subject to the random variability and luck present in each race. (I have a simple algorithm that calculates how each driver's ranking changes between seasons.) Drivers also move up and down between the "tiers" by finishing near the top or bottom of each tier in any given season. The reason I continue to play NR2003 consistently isn't just because I like racing - certainly that's part of it, but I really enjoy watching the league progress through multiple races and seasons. I started the league in May 2004, and it's currently in its 20th season. What's my role in the league? For the first 14 seasons, I was simply myself: "Chris Allen". I then took myself out of the league, and I now "play the role" of a different league driver each season. (And for the record, I just now came up with the name "Chris Allen Racing League", for the purposes of this post. I didn't really have a name for the league before.)

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about the league drivers themselves. Who are these 200 drivers, anyway? Are they...
a) real NASCAR drivers,
b) made-up drivers,
c) people I know in real life, or
d) random people I pulled off of Facebook?

to be continued...

Today's random thoughts:

1) Lots of people use variations of the expression "dirty as a pig sty", but don't actually know what a "pig sty" is. So as a public service, I am going to give the definition "sty" from "1. An enclosure for swine. 2. A filthy place." So really, "pig sty" is redundant, because "sty" itself already implies the presence of swine. But if you say "dirty as a sty", people won't know what you're talking about, so you pretty much have to say "pig sty". Maybe people would confuse "dirty as a sty" with sty's alternate definition: "Inflammation of one or more sebaceous glands of an eyelid."
2) I had a "triple chocolate" Twix the other day. It seemed highly unnecessary to make such a thing. The chocolate is not the focal point of the Twix; it is the cookie crunch and the filling. I think the filling was caramel in this case, but I don't remember for sure. I honestly wasn't paying that much attention when I ate it. As it is, the chocolate makes up a very low (and almost negligible) percentage of the Twix bar. Why put so much effort into it? And what's so good about triple chocolate, anyway? I like individual chocolate flavors. Stick with milk chocolate, or dark, or white, or whatever - don't mix. If the mixes were better, the mixes would be the flavors themselves. It's possible that "triple chocolate" referred to one chocolate for the shell, one for the filling, and one for the cookie. That would be good. But I'm pretty sure that wasn't the deal here - but like I said, I wasn't paying that much attention.
3) Props to whoever thought of the rotating microwave plate. If you read the microwave instructions on some food items, sometimes it will say to "rotate 90°" at a certain time. Thanks to the rotating plate, this instruction has been rendered obselete. It's a pretty simple implementation, too: place a microwave-safe glass plate (are they glass?) on top of a rotating...thing, that...umm...holds the plate.