Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Curling Recap #3"

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I don't know how high-quality these "curling recap" posts are, but oh well. This one is a little different than the last two, because last Friday's curling was more of a practice session. People who just wanted to curl could curl, but people who wanted practice and instruction (Amber and I) had that opportunity as well. So, we took it.

The stone release is complicated. There are a lot of things to remember. I'm going to try to recall everything I need to remember about the right-handed release mechanic:
- Clean off the bottom of the stone before releasing.
- Prior to the "backswing", the stone should be lined up with the center of the hack, and your left foot shouldn't be too far out in front.
- On the "backswing", put your weight on your right foot.
- Release from the hack towards the target, not towards the center. (Here, the "target" means where the skip wants you to aim.)
- Stay low to the ice, but don't drag your right knee.
- While sliding, keep your left foot flat on the ice, and keep it centered under your body.
- Don't balance your weight on the stone, because you're not holding onto that thing forever.

- Keep your eyes focused on the target.
- Make sure you rotate the stone in the proper direction upon release.

While practicing, I tried to focus on one thing at a time, but I always forgot something. Oh well. With practice, hopefully all of these things will come second-nature. It's a lot like a golf swing, isn't it? Well, the good news is, there's no one way to release a curling stone. So if I find something that works, regardless of how many of those "rules" I may violate, then I'll stick with it. It doesn't matter what I do as long as the stone gets down there, right?

Well, not included among the "release tips" was anything about the weight of the stone (i.e. how hard you throw it). So, when we suited up for a short 3-player, 4-end game, my weight was totally off. Most of the time, my throws went all the way through. It was probably my worst outing thus far. I guess the more I focus on mechanics, the less I focus on actually making a good throw. But like I said, the feel should come with time, and I'll get better at judging how hard to throw the stone also. Our next scheduled curling opportunity is Friday, August 10th.

While I struggled, I thought Amber did pretty well. But still, my team beat Amber's team, 3-2. Woo.

Last Year: "303 Miles to a Bunch of Places". This was just something I threw together after the weekend, which I elaborated on later in the week. But I'd like to emphasize the random thought: Eckerd, JC Penney, and Ruby Tuesday do not have an 's' on the end of their names!

Tomorrow: "Why I'm Not Going To See The Simpsons Movie Yet".

Today's random thought:

- With multiple choice quizzes and such, I generally follow this rule of thumb: if "all of the above" is one of the answer choices, it's usually the correct answer. (There are exceptions, of course. This only applies when "all of the above" is a seldom-used choice.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

"Is It Fall Yet?"

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I was having a hard time coming up with a post topic for today, and then I remembered this post that I wrote about one month ago. In that post, I said, that while I was content with summer at the time, "...don't be surprised if you see a post entitled 'Summer Sucks, I'm Sick Of It' in about a month." Well, one month later, here we are, except I wouldn't say that at the "summer sucks" point yet. (Maybe in one more month.)

What's changed since June? Well, for one thing, it's more humid now than it was then. The humidity makes a big difference with my comfort level. The heat doesn't bother me as much as having a soaked t-shirt after an hour of outdoor activity. I don't like being "rushed" in the mornings. If we want to play disc golf, we better get it in early in the day before it gets hot. (Well, that's not a necessity, but it's the smart thing to do.)

Then again, with humidity, you get more thunderstorms, and we have had more thunderstorms in July than we did in June. At least, more "severe" thunderstorms. RDU received more rain in June than thus far in July. But when we get rain now, it comes with sound effects. More than a third of the June rain came from the remnants of Tropical Storm Barry, which didn't exactly provide the most potent thunderstorms we've seen this summer.

The weather pattern has settled into "boring" lately. Low around 70, high around 90, slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Whatever. It reminds me of the old days of watching Weather Channel Local Forecasts in Jacksonville. During the summer, you could almost always count on a low of 75, a high of 95, and either "isolated" or "scattered" thunderstorms. That said, I'll take Raleigh (Cary) weather over Jacksonville weather most of the time, the exceptions being those rare upper-90s days. You can see upper 90s in Jacksonville if you have a west wind, but it's more common in Raleigh (Cary). I'm just a little disappointed we haven't hit triple-digits yet. Last summer, either. If it's going to be hot, it might as well be hot.

That's about all I have today. This post doesn't really have a point, except that I wouldn't complain if we just skipped the next two months of weather and went straight to October. (Well, except for the hurricane activity we'd then miss out on.)

Last Year: "Interstate 10: Tallahassee to Jacksonville. I-10 was boring, but in a way, I miss it. Maybe if I ever have 6 hours to kill while I'm in Jacksonville (which is unlikely, especially this weekend), I'll drive it to Tallahassee and back just to reminisce.

Tomorrow: "Curling Recap #3".

Today's random thought:

- There was a huge, fiery accident involving a tractor-trailer on I-40 last Friday afternoon. Fortunately, I received word about it while at work so I could seek an alternate route home. However, the route I was scheduled to take according to my "afternoon commute route competition" incorporated I-40. According to my rules, when a route is closed for whatever reason, it receives a time of "infinity". (I can do that because I use the median to rank routes, not the mean.) This is the first time I've ever had to invoke that rule. The reason I don't just time another route that day is because if the route I'm supposed to take is closed, that should count against it, right? What good is any route if it's closed sometimes?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Raleigh (Cary) <--> State College: The Soundtrack, V2"

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Since I began making regular drives from Raleigh (Cary) to State College and back, I've been listening to the same CDs in the same order each time (for the most part). I've documented this before, and the reasons for it.

The drives to State College won't be as frequent now that Amber lives here, but they will be nonzero. Now that Amber will be in the car with me on each drive, I figured it would be good to come up with a new "driving playlist" that incorporates the more memorable CDs from my old playlist, and fills in the gaps with her CDs (while trying to make it 50/50).

So, here are the new northbound and southbound playlists! Your job is to guess which CDs are mine, and which belong to Amber. (Answers are below the random thought.)

1) Mad Caddies - Just One More
2) Anti-Flag - Culture Revolution
3) The Ventures - Walk, Don't Run
4) Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production of Eggs
5) Dance Hall Crashers - Lockjaw
6) Neutral Milk Hotel (self-titled)
7) Sonichrome - Breathe the Daylight
8) Lit - Atomic
9) Chicago - Chicago II
10) INXS - The Bext of INXS

1) Mustard Plug - Pray For Mojo
2) Sum 41 - Does This Look Infected?
3) Rolling Stones - Through the Past, Darkly
4) Sponge - Rotting PiƱata
5) Gob - Foot In Mouth Disease
6) Blue Oyster Cult - Superhits
7) Less Than Jake - Anthem
8) Pearl Jam - Ten
9) Alien Ant Farm - ANThology
10) Seven Mary Three - American Standard
11) Avail - One Wrench

I'm planning on doing the same kind of thing with the drives to Jacksonville and Toledo. So will there be two more posts like this? Well, that depends on what else I have to write about those weeks.

Last Year: "Raleigh Radio". Hmm, I just brushed on this topic this week, didn't I? Going back, it's amazing how much has changed since last year. (Well, I wouldn't call it "amazing". More like "interesting". Or maybe "non-negligible".)

Tomorrow (Monday): "Is It Fall Yet?"

Today's random thought:

- Maybe it's just me, but apple-flavored stuff (apple sauce, apple juice, apple candy, Apple Jacks, etc) doesn't seem to taste anything like apples themselves. What's up with that?

Answers to the CD "guessing game": My CDs are northbound 1, 2, 5, 8, and 9, and southbound 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, and 11. The rest are Amber's.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Cute Baby Pictures"

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WARNING: Sappy post

I became an uncle this week. Wahoo! I suppose there are three ways to become an aunt/uncle: 1) One of your siblings has a kid. 2) Marry someone who is already an aunt/uncle. 3) If already married, one of your spouse's siblings has a kid. Well, I didn't get married this week, so that means it must have been option #1.

Introducing Paige Abigail Allen, born on Monday, July 23rd to parents Amy and James Allen:

Cute, huh?

It's hard to imagine that my parents are grandparents now. Or, even more so, that my grandmother is now a great-grandmother. Woah. (Paige is my grandmother's first great-grandchild.)

Next weekend, I'll get to see little Paige for myself. I suppose now's as good a time as any to make that Jacksonville trip, eh?

Last Year: "TV Ramblings". My TLD recording patterns haven't changed a whole lot since last year, except that I don't watch poker anymore, and I now record the Simpsons daily. (Both of them! But I have it set up to only keep two at a time.) And since Amber moved in with me, I've been watching more "nerdy" type stuff from the Discovery/History/Nat'l Geog./Travel genre of channels.

Tomorrow: "Raleigh (Cary) <--> State College: The Soundtrack, V2".

Today's random thought:

- Watching a sports-related show like SportsCenter used to be sort of an "escape" from the bad news you get on local and national news shows. But now, SportsCenter is all bad news, too. Dog fighting, gambling, doping...what happened?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Kroger Generic Cereals"

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Many grocery stores have an extensive collection of generic cereals that they manufacture themselves. (Cereal must not be that hard to make.) And some of them have funny (or at least interesting) names.

Kroger has quite a selection of Kroger-brand cereal. So, when I went to Kroger this week, I brought a pen and paper with me and wrote down the names of all of their names. Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Active Lifestyle
Apple Cinnamon Toasted Oats
Apple Dapples
Bite Size Frosted Wheat
Bran Flakes
Chip Mates Cookie Cereal
Chocolate Marshmallow Cosmos
Cinnamon Swirls
Cocoa & Peanut Butter Fusion
Cocoa Crispy Rice
Cocoa Crunchies
Corn Bitz
Corn Flakes
Crisp Berry Crunch
Crisp Crunch
Crisp'n Fruity Rice
Crispy Rice
Frosted Flakes
Frosted Wheat
Fruit & Frosted O's
Golden Corn Nuggets
Honey Crisp Medley
Honey G Rounds
Honey Grahams
Honey Nut Bitz
Honey Nut Toasted Oats
Low Fat Granola
Marshmallow Treasures
Raisin Bran
Rice Bitz
Toasted Oats

That's 32 varieities of generic cereal. (And that doesn't include all of the flavors of Bite Size Frosted Wheat.) Try them all!

Some comments:
- Evidently, "frosted flakes", "corn flakes", and "raisin bran" are generic enough names such that Kellogg's can't trademark them. Instead, they market those products as "Kellogg's Frosted Flakes", "Kellogg's Corn Flakes", and so forth.
- I think my favorite name is "Honey G Rounds". What is that, exactly? Well, I think it's Honey Comb. But where did 'G' come from? Are they trying to be hip? "Yo, hook me up with some Honey G Rounds, G." I also like "Golden Corn Nuggets" (Corn Pops). But my favorite generic cereal name of all time is Crispy Hexagons, a generic Crispix that can be found at Publix and Weis (among others, I'm sure). Kroger does not have a generic Crispix, sadly.
- The only cereal I couldn't come up with an obvious name brand equivalent was "Chocolate Marshmallow Cosmos". Is there a chocolate-flavored Lucky Charms? Or a variety of Cocoa Pebbles or Cocoa Puffs with marshmallows? I didn't see one on the shelf.
- Aside from that one cereal, I think it's pretty easy to tell which cereal they're attempting to mimic, just as long as you understand all of their names. For example, "toasted oats" = "cheerios", "bitz" = "chex", "crispy rice" = "rice krispies".

Of those 32, I think Amber and I have purchased 5: Active Lifestyle ("Special K"), Cocoa Crunchies, Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes, and Raisin Bran. I may have forgotten about one or two that Amber put in the grocery cart. She eats more generic cereal than I do.

857a update: Amber has informed me that it's actually called "Honey Go Rounds", not "Honey G Rounds". That's too bad.

Last Year: "Emissions Processing: Explained". One of my few posts where I talk about work. A quote from that post: "I bet in a year, I'll barely have to think." Wow, I was wrong on that one. If I did the same stuff at work I did a year ago, then I wouldn't have to think. But I do a lot more at work now than I used to.

Tomorrow: "Cute Baby Pictures".

Today's random thought:

- Most interstates have a high quantity of billboards, but it doesn't really bother me. While other forms of intrusive advertisement can be annoying, interstate billboards seem acceptable to me. I guess billboards are just part of the interstate landscape. That is, except in Vermont, Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii, four states that have outlawed billboards completely. That's funny - I drove almost the entire length of I-95 in Maine four months ago, and I didn't even notice the lack of billboards.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Even More Pennsylvania Backroads"

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Yesterday's post was just about the northbound drive. What about the southbound drive? Well, we didn't go the same way, because we stopped at Codorus State Park in Hanover, PA for a round of disc golf. (A round that we didn't even complete due to time constraints, mind. We may have spent more time trying to fish discs out of trees than we did actually playing. Oh well.)

I've made the State College-to-Codorus SP drive before, but I took the "fast way" - US-322 to Harrisburg, then US-15 and PA-94 from Harrisburg to Hanover. (I-83 and PA-116 from Harrisburg to Hanover is another option. I didn't go that way the first time because my return route, which stopped at another disc golf course at Gifford Pinchot State Park, was more along that side of the route.) But this time, Amber and I got a head start on Jeff [Frame] and Walter so we could take a fun route:

PA-74 goes over not just one mountain ridge, but two mountain ridges. (It's pretty easy to tell where they are on the map.) The first one was really quite amazing. The ridge was basically staring us in the face with no obvious gap for the road to go through. But, with a few switchbacks and a lot of "up", we made it over, along with all of the motorcycles that were also out on the roads on this Sunday. They were out in force. But that's okay, I can't blame them, considering how nice of a day it was. And because we had a head start, we could take our time, I drove the speed limit instead of the usual 5-over. So, that's partially responsible for me getting passed by three cars on PA-74. (Two of those were motorcycles.) Personally, I think all three would have passed me even if I was going 5-over; they were in kind of a hurry.

PA-74 was really the only fun part of this route. PA-75, PA-34, and PA-94 were nothing special, and each had a decent amount of traffic. Driving through Carlisle was also a bit slow. Even so, this route was remarkably shorter distance than the US-15 route, and if memory serves me right, it took approximately the same amount of time to get to Codorus as it did on my first drive there almost three years ago. I think it took me 2h30m that time; this time it was about 2h35m. With the head start, we still got there first, even with a stop for lunch at a gas station. (We were in the mood for cheap hot dogs, I guess.)

Taking random roads through Pennsylvania can be far more interesting than in other states, because of all the mountains. On any given Sunday, I'd rather make a scenic drive through Central Pennsylvania than in Central North Carolina. But at least they have Bojangles' here. And Piggly Wiggly.

Last Year: "Raleigh (Cary) --> State College". This post is sorely outdated; it came before I started taking US-29 through Virginia and US-522 through Pennsylvania. So, maybe the most notable thing from this post is the thread of comments about John Glenn Sanitation. Not included in that thread is that they did eventually write me back, basically saying "Thanks, but we already have a slogan like that."

Tomorrow: "Kroger Generic Cereals".

Today's random thought:

- Asking for birthday and Christmas presents can be tricky. You don't want to ask more than one person to get you the same thing if you don't need more than one. But what if they may not get you exactly what you want? I guess you can only trust the important only-one-needed items with the close relatives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"More Pennsylvania Backroads"

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Taking the "back way" to State College (US-522 from McConnellsburg to Mount Union, plus surrounding routes) can be faster than the interstate, but it isn't always faster, because of the amount of (slow) traffic US-522 carries. That makes the road not a whole lot of fun. So, before last weekend's trip to State College, I was thinking: are there any lesser-known roads that parallel US-522? You betcha - PA-655 and PA-829:

Thing is, with some of these three-digit Pennsylvania state roads, you never know what you're going to get. You might get a very fast through road, or you might get a twisty road with no shoulders where you can't break 45 mph. Either way, we win, right? (Just as long as we don't get stuck behind any slow cars.) Let's split up the "recap" into segments:

1) PA-655, US-30 (Harrisonville) to PA-475. This part of the drive really had me wondering what we were doing. The road often had sand and/or dirt on it, it was narrow, and it was slow. But it was fun. That kind of road is okay in small doses.
2) PA-655, PA-475 to PA-829 (Saltillo). This road was slightly more of a through road, and in much better shape. And still with a sufficient amount of curves, too. This was probably the best part of the drive.
3) PA-829, Saltillo to Cassville. This was more like the first segment, particularly after PA-655 broke off, but that's okay. Going over mountain ridges is always fun. (Part of this segment is multiplexed PA-655 and PA-829.)
4) PA-829, Cassville to US-22 (Mill Creek): First off, a word about Cassville. Most of the towns along this route were old and run-down. Cassville looked that way at first, but then as soon as we hit "downtown", we were greeted to a multitide of new-looking houses! Where'd this all come from? Did Cassville strike oil or something? As for PA-829, north of Cassville, it was a pretty fast road with ample passing opportunities. It was hard to pass on much of this route, but there wasn't that much traffic, so it was okay. In all, I passed one car on this route and was passed once. (I also passed one car on PA-416, and one car on PA-16.)

Sure, the route was fun, but on an 8-hour drive that's being crammed into the weekend, the most important thing is the stopwatch. The result: 2h56m from I-81/I-66 (Front Royal, VA) to State College. The other "back way" US-522 route has gone as low as 2h51m, but averages the same 2h56m. (The I-99 route averages 2h59m.) So, on average, this way wasn't any faster. But it was more fun. I'm sure we'll do it again next time.

Last Year: "Fisherman's Paradise, PA". If I keep this up, I may have gone everywhere there is to go in Pennsylvania. (Actually, I still have 10 whole counties to visit in the state, so I still have a ways to go. And in case you're wondering, those 10 counties are: Armstrong, Beaver, Delaware, Fayette, Northampton, Potter, Somerset, Sullivan, Tioga, and Wyoming.)

Tomorrow: "Even More Pennsylvania Backroads". Ha.

Today's random thought:

- I've long praised the merits of State College's Waffle Shop, particularly their fast service. But most of the times I've gone, it's been a party of 2 or 3. Could they duplicate their fast service with a party of 12? Well, I'd say so: I got my meal in 13m46s as part of a crowd of 12, and some got theirs sooner. Waffle Shop has earned their reputation, and they are quite worthy of the all-time record (4m00s). Other Waffle Shop stats: The West College location averages 9m23s in 12 visits. The slowest was 16m11s with a party of two; the fastest was the afore-mentioned 4m00s. The Bellefonte location's average is slower at 11m33s, but three of its five visits (including the slow mark of 19m13s) were with parties of four or five. The two "party of two" visits to Bellefonte were quite fast (5m54s, 8m11s). Courtney's, the closest thing to Waffle Shop that Raleigh (Cary) can offer, averages 10m28s in 11 visits.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"Raleigh Radio Update"

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Because I had to write this post before the weekend, and because I couldn't think of anything else to write about, here's the current status of my "radio station rotation":

FM-1) 88.1 (WKNC, the NC State radio station). I've talked about this station a bunch in my random thoughts, but it's excellent. During daylight hours on weekdays, they play indie rock type of stuff that you don't hear on a station like 96.1. And unlike on pretty much any other radio station, I can go a week and not hear the same song twice, even if I listen to the station for a few hours at work each day. (Which, I do online, since my work radio can't pick it up. The signal doesn't reach Durham County very well, despite their strong signal.) And, their commercial breaks are short. 88.1 is also the station my alarm clock is currently set on. While it's good during the workday hours, it's hit-or-miss other times, because the overnight and weekend time slots usually have specialty shows that I may not care for. (For example, they usually play hardcore rap from midnight to 500a. Which, I'm never awake during those hours, so who cares?)

FM-2) 96.1 (96 Rock, "Everything that rocks!"). 88.1 has replaced this station in the top spot of the rotation, because it's getting too repetitive. (As will any station if you listen to it long enough, especially one like 96 Rock that rarely plays a new song.) But they do have something that 88.1 will probably never have: Brian LeBlanc with traffic. This station gets played when 88.1 is in commercial, and on weekends.

FM-3) 106.9 (Oldies 106.9, "Fayetteville!"). Goldy in the morning used to be how I drove to work every day. But then inexplicably, after I returned from Spring Break, their signal wouldn't come in well enough on my work commute to listen to them for more than a couple of minutes. So this station is more of a novelty now than anything else, because I can only rarely listen to it. But it's still on my presets for those occasions when I drive south.

FM-4) 105.5 (Oldies 105.5, "Sanford, Siler City, Southern Pines, Pinehurst!"). Another oldies station that doesn't come in very well in Raleigh (Cary), but at least it comes in better than 106.9. These stations down here only get airtime at the "last resort" (other stations are in commercial, out of range, or playing music I don't like). Strangely, Wikipedia doesn't even recognize this station's existence.

FM-5) 101.1 (News/Talk). I don't think I've talked about this station any. This is a news/talk station based in Burlington that I found by accident, and kept on my presets because of a couple of semi-interesting shows that provide a nice change-of-pace for when I need to make it all the way to preset #5. On weekends, they play "smooth jazz" or something. I think a better description is "Weather Channel Local Forecast music".

FM-6) 102.9 (Y102.9, "Carolina's Greatest Hits"). The closest thing Raleigh (Cary) has to an oldies station has fallen almost all the way out of my rotation, because they seemed to be playing stuff that isn't old enough to be "oldies". They always have, but the proportion has been higher lately. Then again, the few occasions I have listened to them lately, they have been playing more oldies, so good for them. And I have no idea if Robert Hill is still their morning traffic guy. Quite frankly, I don't want to know. But no matter what music this station plays, as long as they're still the radio home of the Carolina Hurricanes, I won't take this station of my presets.

I also have another group of FM presets in my car, but I don't know what's on them. I think they're leftovers from other cities. Here are some possibilities:

- 107.3, Jacksonville ("Planet Radio"). This station used to be "the thing" back when I was in high school (when it was 93.3). I wonder if they've done like almost every other alternative station has and go to an "all rock" format. I'll find out in a couple weeks.
- 97.1, State College ("WOWY"). The State College oldies station, which like 102.9, has been playing too much new-than-oldies stuff.
- 103.1, State College ("Quick Rock"). It's "rock that really rocks"! When I visited State College the first time, this was the station I found on my radio dial. Except back then, Quick Rock was 97.1, and WOWY was 98.7 (?), and 103.1 was a pop station or something.

And, finally, AM stations, which don't get nearly as much play in my rotation as they used to:

AM-1) 620 ("The Bull"). Mike and Mike (ESPN Radio) in the morning, which used to be a good show, but now I think they've gotten too deep in the type of typical morning-show "schtick" that you get on other stations, so I don't listen to them. But I do listen to "Primetime with the Packman" in the afternoon, because they talk about college football and NASCAR (among other things).
AM-2) 850 ("The Buzz"). Another sports talk station, but about the only thing I listen to on this station is the Jim Rome show.

I was going to look on my car presets sometime over the weekend to see what other stations I had saved up, but I forgot. Oh well.

Last Year: "Theme Park Rankings" - Part 1, Part 2. I took some crap from New York natives for ranking Darien Lake last, but hey, those are the breaks.

Tomorrow: "More Pennsylvania Backroads".

Today's random thoughts:

- How would you quantify "usually" 60%? 70%? 80%? I'd say at least 80%, because I feel "usually" means "there aren't many instances where it isn't the case". But the actual definition suggests it has nothing to do with frequency, but just whatever is normal, which could be closer to 90%.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Harry Potter: The IMAX Experience"

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I just don't get this Harry Potter thing. Prior to Wednesday, I had read 0 pages of Harry Potter books, and seen approximately 2 minutes of Harry Potter movies. (That was a few years go. My roommates at FSU were watching one of the movies. I have no idea which. Probably the first one, considering how long ago it was.) Why have I ignored the phenomenon? Well, I just don't care. I don't get that excited about wizardry and magic. I'd rather watch the football game. I guess I just don't have the imagination for it.

Well...unlike me, Amber is one of the millions of Harry Potter followers. And Wednesday was her birthday, so I thought I'd take her out to go see the latest Harry Potter movie. But not just anywhere...I took her to the IMAX theater. Raleigh's Exploris museum has North Carolina's only IMAX theater. Sure, it's kind of expensive (adult tickets: $12 each), but it's Amber's birthday, and she was excited to hear the prospects of seeing the movie in IMAX. And from my perspective, my chances of enjoying this movie are higher if I see it in IMAX. If I can't follow the plot and/or think it's stupid, at least I'll still get amazing visuals and stunning surround sound.

So, the verdict is in: IMAX is "friggin' sweet". I've seen IMAX before (the last occasion being three years ago, with - surprise - "NASCAR 3D"), but I don't think I've ever seen a box-office film in IMAX. A movie like Harry Potter is perfect for this sort of thing. Then again, you kind of forgot you were in an IMAX theater about halfway through. Modern movie theaters do a pretty good job with the surround sound and everything, and after a while, it just seemed normal. Then, about 30 minutes from the end of the movie (32, actually), the green "glasses" symbol flashed for a few seconds at the bottom of the screen. Time to put on the 3D glasses! IMAX (or whoever) redid the final 20-minute action sequence in 3D. Now that was cool. It was kind of hard to keep my eyes focused for that long, actually, but I highly enjoyed those 20 minutes. The end of the movie is supposed to be the best part, right? Well, mission accomplished. (For those of you who saw the movie: the flying shards of glass were really cool in 3D.) The rest of the movie wasn't bad either. But, as per my blog policy, I'll refrain from giving you a full review.

A few random thoughts on all of this. Did they go up to Daniel Radcliffe (the actor who plays Harry) a few years ago, and say, "Hey, Daniel! Do you have any plans for the next 7 years?" Talk about giving up your entire childhood. Also, pretend for a second that the books don't exist, and that it's only the movies. Would the Harry Potter movies still be as popular (and profitable)? I doubt it. And I think it was good planning on J.K. Rowling's part to have Harry age between books in a way that allows all of these movies to be made. (I'm assuming she did, anyway. I haven't read the books.)

So, now that I've experienced Harry Potter, what do I think of it now? Well, seeing this movie didn't really change my opinion of the Harry Potter franchise any. I can understand why it's so popular, but...it's not my thing. Then again, I'd rather go see a Harry Potter movie than the latest Jennifer Aniston chick flick. (Or Adam Sandler "comedy".)

Last Year: "Time Perception". This is one of my more thoughtful posts, I think.

Tomorrow: No post tomorrow; I'm spending the weekend in State College. Monday's post will be called "Raleigh Radio Update".

Today's random thought:

- My North Carolina license plate starts with 'V', as do many of the plates that were distributed last year. The first red-letter license plates to arrive this year started with 'W', and just recently, I've started seeing plates that start with 'X'. This begs the question, what's going to happen when we reach the end of the alphabet? (Pennsylvania still has a ways to go; they're only up to 'G'.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"The Swimming Pool"

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I remember back when I was a kid, I loved the swimming pool. The golf course (err, "country club") down the street had one, and we went there a lot before they made the pool public. It was pretty sweet. And on family vacations, my parents would often make sure our hotels had a pool. Good times.

Now, I live in an apartment complex with a pool. And, I think I've only been a handful of times (four?) in the year-plus I've lived here. And when Amber and I do go, we don't stay long. I guess it's hard to get excited about the pool anymore. You get in, you swim a little bit, and then you get bored. What happened? How could we spend hours in a pool when we were kids, and barely be able to spend 15 minutes in one now?

Well, here's the biggest difference. Kids have cool stuff to play with. Diving sticks, balls, floaties, you name it. When you're a kid, you can spend hours with that stuff. When you're an adult, it looks kind of silly when you're playing with anything in the pool, outside of lying on a raft or tube something. And even if I were in the privacy of my own backyard, I still wouldn't get that excited about a pool that's only four feet deep. The pool we used to go to had a 12-foot deep end. We truly were spoiled. Kids don't even need toys, really. But a bunch of kids together, and they can keep themselves entertained in a pool, no problem.

For adults (without children), the swimming pool serves three purposes: relaxation, tanning, and exercise. It's nice place to go lie down outside and read a book. It's also a place where tanning is accepted. (As opposed to just lying out on your front lawn, for instance.) And, swimming is good exercise. But that's about it. It's not "play time" anymore.

That said, I think I could still find some fun with the ocean. The ocean has waves (sometimes), and that makes things interesting. I've always had more fun swimming at the beach than swimming in a pool. Unfortunately, now, the ocean is now over two hours away. Oh well. Maybe we'll go to the beach upon our next Jacksonville visit.

Last Year: "Fuquay-Varina, NC". What's my obsession with Fuquay-Varina about, anyway? Well, it's an interesting place name, and it still has a small-town feel, at least for now. In 20 years, it might just be another Cary. Let's hope not.

Tomorrow: "Harry Potter: The IMAX Experience". I can't say I ever anticipated writing a post about Harry Potter. Oh well.

Today's random thought:

- I've come to the realization that everything is more expensive in Cary. Maybe that's why everything seems so cheap at Kroger - Kroger is in Apex, not Cary.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"How To Shop At Best Buy"

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I remember back when Best Buy first opened stores in Jacksonville. It was a very exciting time. Finally, a one-stop shop for all of our video games and cheap CDs! (Wal-Mart and Target aren't the same.) Best Buy was instantly the Coolest Place Ever.

Now? Well, I wouldn't go as far to say I hate Best Buy, but I really don't enjoy going there anymore. But I've found that in order to best enjoy your Best Buy experience, you have to follow some guidelines.

First off, don't look lost. As soon as you look lost, one of their employees will pounce on you. (Not literally, of course. Actually, that would be kind of funny.) Always have a purpose. It wouldn't be so bad, but there are so many employees walking around there, and they all want to sell you something you don't need. I don't want to be harrassed when I go shopping, I just want to do it on my own terms. Wal-Mart's "customer service" is laughable, but at least they leave you alone. If I need your help, I'll ask for your help. Otherwise, please go away and let me meander in peace.

Best Buy customer service doesn't really help you a whole lot either. Their main goal isn't to do what's best for you, it's to sell you something more than you need. Example: Amber went there one day by herself asking for help. "I want to hook up two computers in my apartment to the internet. What should I get?" Their response: a $50 wireless router. Sure, that would work, but we won't need wireless internet. We just want the cheapest way to get both of our computers on the internet at the same time. After a little internet research (this is a topic neither Amber nor myself was that familiar with before), I found that all we need is a $20 hub. So, we went back, didn't talk to anybody, got our hub, and went home. And the hub works great. The router would have worked too, and probably with slightly higher performance, but I haven't noticed any problems with our internet connection. And we don't need wireless, especially since my desktop doesn't have a wireless card. That would be dumb. Thanks for nothing, Best Buy customer service.

It's also good to know what you should buy in Best Buy. From everything I've heard, Best Buy is not the place to buy a computer. You'll pay too much, and it may not work, thus forcing you to consult "Geek Squad" and pay them even more money. I don't know how good Geek Squad is, but I hope they're nothing like the computer help Best Buy had before. It was terrible. I didn't have any personal experience with it (I purchased my computer online from Dell), but I heard lots of stories.

So, what's good to buy in Best Buy? Well, CDs and DVDs can be cheap. I haven't bought a CD in a store in probably four years, but Best Buy was always a good place to get a $15 CD for $10 or less. And, sometimes, you can get good deals on DVDs, too. The morning after Thanksgiving one year, I went to Best Buy and bought the first three seasons of "24" for $20 each. (The normal price is $60 each.) What's in it for them to give you cheap CDs and DVDs? To get you in the store, on the chance that you might buy a "big ticket item", such as a plasma TV. If you go to Best Buy a lot to buy cheap stuff, and if you ever want a plasma TV, the first thing you may think is this: "Hmm, where can I buy one? Well, I know Best Buy has them. Let's just go there." Now that's marketing! Fortunately, I'm smart enough to avoid falling into that trap.

Computer accessories are sold at Best Buy too, but not for the best price. Online is usually the best place to buy that sort of thing. Then again, I've bought many computer accessories at Best Buy, but most of the time, that was done with gift cards (including the internet hub). And, Best Buy is more convenient than doing it online, especially if it doesn't work and you have to take it back.

Most of you know this (I hope), but please don't get the service plan. I heard that according to some Customer Reports-type establishment (this was a while ago), there are only three things that break frequently enough for it to be worth getting the service plan. One was plasma TVs, one was treadmills, and I forget the third. But I'm pretty sure the third wasn't anything that's sold at Best Buy. (Unless it was a home appliance. Speaking of which, does anyone go to Best Buy to get a refrigerator? Some people must, or else they wouldn't sell them.) Oh, and don't get the Best Buy credit card either. I heard their credit cards come with an absurd interest rate.

I go to Best Buy a lot (although not as much as I used to), so they must be doing something right. Then again, Amber did have a mammoth Best Buy gift card. But now that there's less than a dollar left on it, maybe we'll just go to Circuit City next time.

Last Year: "Answers To Random Questions". Blogger includes an option to have your answer to one of their "random questions" appear in your profile. Unfortunately, most of their random questions were stupid, so this post didn't really work out so well.

Tomorrow: "The Swimming Pool". Much like Best Buy, the swimming pool used to be the coolest thing ever. What happened? (Obviously, the title "coolest thing ever" is not exclusive.)

Today's random thought:

- The new section of NC-540 opened at last Saturday afternoon. We took it back from the disc golf course on Sunday. I really have nothing noteworthy to say about it, except that based on what I saw (and heard via Brian LeBlanc) yesterday morning on my way to work, it isn't really helping out the backup of cars merging onto I-40 a whole lot. Which makes sense, because of the three new exits, only the Davis Dr exit really gets a lot of people close to their jobs. The NC-54 exit is useless, and the NC-55 exit still leaves you with a ways to go from most RTP jobs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"Curling Recap #2"

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It's curling time again!

Did Amber and I do any better this time? Well...maybe a little bit, but there wasn't any huge improvement. Then again, it was the first time in a month. There isn't going to be a lot of improvement until we start playing every one or two weeks (or a bunch in one day), two things which we should have opportunities to do in the coming months. The hardest thing to pick up is judging the weight of the throws, because the ice is always changing during each match. And, I don't have my release perfected from a mechanical standpoint to be able to compensate for anything. It's pretty much just a guessing game. It's actually a lot like judging the speed of putts in golf. With putting, I've been able to judge the speed fairly well by controlling how far back my "swing" goes. Maybe I should do the same kind thing with curling, and as I play more, I'll start to develop a "feel" more akin to what I have on the putting green. And now that I have two games under my belt, I know more of what to expect with respect to the ice conditions next time. So maybe then, I can start concentrating more on the line, which admittedly has been kind of an afterthought up to this point. (Which, being the lead, you don't have a bunch of other stones in the way, so the line isn't really that important.)

The people who organize the "pickup" curling do a good job of evening out the teams. So, that's why Amber and I haven't been on the same team yet, instead being the leads of opposing teams. So now, here's your half-assed match recap, where I only remember numbers, not actual throws:
- Amber's team, with last rock in the first end, scored two in the 1st and one in the 2nd to take a 3-0 lead.
- My team scored in the next four ends, with two, one, one, and one (not necessarily in that order), to take a 5-3 lead with two ends to go.
- Amber's team scored one in the 7th, setting up my team with last rock and a one-point lead heading to the 8th end. But instead of "holding serve" (which doesn't happen as much here as it does in Olympic-level curling), Amber's team scored 3. And since we had extra time, we went ahead and played a 9th end also. (Two hours is usually just enough time for 8 ends, but I guess we played abnormally quickly.) But my team only scored one in the 9th, resulting in a final score of 7-6, with Amber's team winning. So, with two nights of curling under our respective belts, each of us have a one-point win.

On our end, Amber and I each had some good throws once again. Our best throws were often kind of lucky, usually consisting of at least one "bounce" off another rock. It was frustrating at times, because as soon as I thought I figured it out, I throw one right past the target. I don't know if it's like this every time, but early on the ice is slow, and then it picks up speed as the match progresses. I'll have to remember that for next time.

Curling was Friday night, and on Sunday, my arms were sore, particularly my upper arms. But I don't think that's from throwing the stones, but rather from sweeping. You only throw two stones per end, but you sweep six times. (At least, the leads and the seconds do. The thirds sweep four times, and the skips never sweep.) It's a good workout, especially for someone with weak, girly arms. (I'm referring to me there, not Amber.)

Future curling events: two more pick-up curling sessions this summer, followed by the "summer mini-bonspiel", an all-day event on August 18th. (That's the same event that I went to last year just to see what it was all about.) There's also going to be a fall league (13 weeks, with each team playing in 9 of those) that Amber and I intend to sign up for. Maybe by the time that league is over, we'll be a little bit better.

Last Year: "Raleigh Disc Golf, Part 2". Many of the "predictions" I make in this blog don't hold any water, but the ones I made in this blog have. I have played the Cornwallis Road course many times after work. And, I haven't been back to the Buckhorn course since then. See, sometimes, I'm not full of crap. Regarding to the random thought on the colors of milk at different grocery stores, Kroger is another store that uses light blue for skim and green for 1%. I've yet to notice what colors they use for 2% and whole.

Tomorrow: "How To Shop At Best Buy". Best Buy used to be the coolest thing ever. Now? Well...you just have to know what you're doing in there.

Today's random thought:

- While at curling, someone gave us a couple of free tickets to see the Goo Goo Dolls in concert on Sunday night. (With "special guest" Lifehouse!) But, we didn't feel like going. Can you blame us? Part of the problem was that on the Walnut Creek Amphitheater web site, it said that due to the heavy crowds that most concerts attract and the resulting traffic delays, you need to plan on arriving 1½ to 2 hours before the concert begins. Yuck. That just isn't worth it, at least not for the Goo Goo Dolls.

Monday, July 16, 2007

"Where's Dopey?"

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If you get bored today (or any other time, I suppose), here's a fun activity to keep you occupied.

Try to count the number of times Dopey (of the Seven Dwarfs) appears in my parents' vacation photos (albums rockies1, rockies2, rockies3) from their recent trip to the Canadian Rockies. Sure, it sounds easy...but there are a lot of pictures. And I mean, a lot of pictures. Unfortunately, I don't know the correct answer (I don't think anyone knows for sure), so it's kind of for naught, but oh well.

Why do my parents put a Dopey puppet in some of their vacation photos? Well, I think the answer to that question is obvious: Why not?

(This was a short post, but I think that in order to keep six posts/week, I'm going to have to keep some of the posts on the short side.)

Last Year: "Triangle Curling Club". My first post about curling, upon discovering the existence of the TCC, of which Amber and I are now members. Regarding random thought #2, I am now at the point where I can order my shopping lists according to where the items are located in Kroger. Random thought #3 (about colorblindness) garnered quite a bit of discussion in the comments section. That's another topic that could have been its own post, I suppose. Back then, I think I actually put more effort into the random thoughts than the posts themselves.

Tomorrow: "Curling Recap #2". Amber and I are back on the ice once again!

Today's random thought:

- Remember this post from April 14th? I knew the second disc tournament would take a while to complete, but I think it's kind of died. When I play disc golf now, I'd rather play for my own personal glory (and often at a different course each time) than plod along with the tournament. And when I do progress the tournament, I can only play one round per visit to the hot weather. But the tournament's been dormant altogether since May 26th, and there are still 6 matches remaining, so I'm calling the rest of the tournament off. Everyone's a winner!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"The Republic Of Chris Auto Racing Association"

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When I started this blog, I had a bunch of material to work with. I had a new job, lived in a new apartment in a new city, and had a new Tivo-like device. But now...not so much. So, you get posts like this one. Six posts/week is probably a bit ambitious these days, but it's not like I don't have time to write them.

So, when I was a kid, my mom bought me some Matchbox-type cars. Eventually, I graduated to toy NASCAR replica cars, which you could get them for about $1.49 at Wal-Mart or Target. Naturally, I started to conduct races with these cars. Then, I made up my own tracks, and placed them in the Republic of Chris. And once I assigned each of my stuffed animals to one of my cars, a league was born, which I called the Republic Of Chris Auto Racing Association. Because, of course, any racing league with the word "CAR" incorporated into its acronym has instant credibility.

I don't remember everything about ROCARA, but I was able to find some old statistics. Here's what I do know. Before each race weekend, I would get out the old poker chips and set up the race track, either in my bedroom (short tracks) or around the pool table in the living room (superspeedways). Then, on Friday after school, I would have the "Grand Republic" race (a.k.a. the Busch Series). Then, on Saturday, I would have the "Republic Cup" race. As for the races themselves, I got on my hands and knees and moved all of the cars around the track. The average race was 10 laps long or so and took about an hour. (Eventually, I transitioned from a fixed number of laps to a strictly timed race.) Each season consisted of between 30 and 36 races, and I would work the schedule around family vacations and Boy Scout camping trips. It was pretty sweet. Of course, I was in direct control of the outcome, so that took a little bit away from it. Although I did write a computer program in Pascal to produce semi-random qualifying results. I ran the league for 3 complete seasons, and one incomplete season. I don't remember quitting in the middle of the 4th season, but I don't have any stats beyond the 26th race. Bah! What happened, Chris?

I wasn't the only Allen brother with a racing league. James had one too, called the "James Republic Auto Racing Corporation" (JRARC). The only "tussle" between our leagues was after the second season of ROCARA. In order to fill out an entire two series' worth of drivers, I had to include some of James's stuffed animals in my league as well. But he wanted some of them back for his league. So, I released three drivers from their ROCARA contracts, and they defected to JRARC. Even I was a driver in the league for one season. I was in the Grand Republic series, and as you would expect, I won the championship. How lame is that? I removed myself from the league after that.

Once I "outgrew" the league, I tried to keep the league going by simulating the races on the computer, either with simple programs written in Pascael, or in the "NASCAR Racing 2" video game. But it just wasn't the same. I think James kept JRARC going longer in computerized fashion, though. He even kept his website going. Such was the life and death of ROCARA, the product of a child with an obsession with auto racing, stiff knees, a minimal knowledge of the Pascal programming language, and nothing better to do on weekends.

But wait...there's more! In 2004, I thought I'd try to resurrect the series in the NASCAR Racing 2003 Season video game, with a simple "ratings algorithm" that I developed to progress and regress drivers up and down the rankings between seasons. It was fun, and it lasted one 36-race season, but afterwards I decided it might be more fun to race against real people I knew in high school and in college. Thus, I started the Chris Allen Racing League, and it's still going today in it's 27th season. (Which, I actually call this season "season 28", because that first season with the ROCARA crowd was "season 1", and I didn't start over when I ran the first CARL season. Thus, the first season of CARL was actually "season 2". Oops.) Next time I can't think of anything else to write about, I'll get into the "nitty gritty" of CARL, because as I may have mentioned in this blog from time to time, I think it's really umm..."neat". (If you don't, well...you're more than welcome to e-mail me with blog post ideas.)

Last Year: "47 Down, 3 To Go - Part 2". A recap of states 26 through 47 that I visited in my lifetime. Since then, I've also visited state #48, Rhode Island. Apparently, I wrote that blog post long before the Nova Scotia trip was planned. I've also stayed overnight in Maryland since then, so now I know I've spent the night in at least 35 states.

Tomorrow: "Where's Dopey?" If you get bored at work on Monday, maybe this will help.

Today's random thought:

- I could have put this in "Last Year", but...eh. In last year's random comment #1, I talk about the Baltimore Orioles games that are shown locally in Raleigh (Cary). Well, they haven't been shown locally this year, I think because MASN (the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network) now has exclusive rights to show their games. And since Time Warner doesn't carry MASN, I now receive no local baseball on television. (Not like I watched that many Orioles games last year, but still, it's nice to know I could if I wanted to.) I think I could get MASN if I had satellite, and I think they're trying to get into the North Carolina market (they advertise at the Carolina Mudcats games), but it's not on cable here, at least yet.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Which Way?"

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I'm rather anal about finding the best way to get from point A to point B. So, I thought I'd summarize some of my findings. And as to not alienate anyone, I'm going to include examples from Jacksonville, Raleigh (Cary), and Central Pennsylvania. They're rather specific to my experience, but that's what I have to work with. (Some of these may overlap with things I've said before in this blog.)

1) Jacksonville - Merrill/9A to University/Fort Caroline:

This is how to get from the expressway to my parents' house. But which way? Stay on Merrill Rd all the way to University? Or take Hartsfield up to Fort Caroline and take Fort Caroline the rest of the way? I've found that during the daytime and early evening hours, Hartsfield/Fort Caroline is the choice. Fort Caroline has fewer traffic lights and less traffic than Merrill. However, late at night (after about 900p), Merrill is probably the best bet. Merrill/University is about a half-mile shorter than Hartsfield/Fort Caroline.

2) Jacksonville Beach - Beach/3rd to JTB:

JTB (the common name for J. Turner Butler Blvd, FL-202) is an expressway linking I-95 with the beach. So, it's a good road to take if you're heading inland from the beach (or vice versa). But if you're in north Jax Beach or Neptune Beach, which road should you take to get there? 3rd St (FL-A1A) all the way to JTB? Or should you cross the Intracoastal on Beach Blvd (US-90) and take another road down to JTB? I've found that the best way to go is to take Beach across the Intracoastal, and take San Pablo (the first major road west of the Intracoastal) south to JTB. 3rd St is slow, and beyond that, you want to get to JTB as quickly as possible. However, last time I took Beach Blvd, they were beginning a massive construction project and a new Intracoastal Waterway bridge, so I don't know what traffic is like there.

3) Raleigh (Cary) - US-1/Tryon Rd to Cary Pkwy/Tryon Rd:

This is one I've been investigating as of late. Tryon Rd is a straight shot. But US-1 is an expressway, and it doesn't make you wait at the Kildaire Farm traffic light. So is it better to forego the Tryon Rd exit and just get off at Cary Pkwy? Well, I've found it depends which way you're going. If you're going west, US-1 is generally as fast. But if you're going east, it's much better to be on the Tryon Rd than on Cary Pkwy at the Tryon Rd/Cary Pkwy traffic light.

4) Raleigh (Cary) - Kilmayne and High Meadow: (I discovered the custom "A" markers in Microsoft Streets & Trips halfway through preparing the maps for this post.)

This can apply to many cities. Some major intersections have "shortcut" roads that you can take around, and may save you some time if you're just going to be turning right anyway. Kilmayne and High Meadow are two such examples in Cary. But are you better off taking those roads than just going to the Kildaire Farm traffic light and turning there? Depends on which way you're turning! If you're turning right, then yes, you're better off taking the "shortcut". But if you're turning left, then you should probably stay on the main road. By taking the "shortcut", you have to make two left turns, and that's not worth it unless the main intersections have major backups.

5) Richmond, VA - I-95 or I-295:

I've actually found that with no traffic, I-95 and I-295 take the same amount of time. I-295 is longer, but has higher speed limits (65 instead of 55 or 60). Given my 5-over-the-limit driving policy, the higher speeds make up for the distance. And that's with no traffic. During rushhour, I-95 through downtown Richmond is often slower, making I-295 the choice. I've never encountered any traffic problems on I-295. So, I always take I-295 - in the worst case, it takes the same amount of time as I-95, and it's a much better road.

6) Winchester, VA to Hancock, MD - I-81/I-70 or US-522:

I've worked this choice out to a science. For me, US-522 is 5 or 6 minutes faster than I-81/I-70. Exceptions are during times of heavy traffic in Berkeley Springs, WV. The only times I've had trouble with Berkeley Springs traffic are when the schools get out (between 300p and 400p) and during Friday evening rushhour.

7) Breezewood to Bedford, PA - US-30 or the Turnpike:

For those wishing to connect from I-70 to I-99, US-30 is a viable alternate route to the turnpike. You don't have to pay a toll (it was $1.25 from Breezewood to Bedford at last check), and there's less traffic. But there is construction on US-30 in Bedford. (Where isn't there construction in Pennsylvania?) On average, I've found that US-30 is two minutes longer than the Turnpike. I'll gladly save $1.25 just to add an extra two minutes to my drive. (Most of the time.)

8) State College - White Course Apartments to North Atherton:

Downtown is slow. Blue Course Dr is fast, but it's out of the way. Is it worth it to tack on the extra mileage just to avoid downtown? In general, no. But during heavy traffic times ("rushhour", if you can call it that in State College), Blue Course might be a better option. Now, if your drive originates closer to Blue Course than where I lived, then absolutely, Blue Course is the way to go. But from the WCAs, not so much. (Just so you know, I've never heard the White Course Apartments refered to as the "WCAs". I just wanted to reduce confusion with Blue Course.) Also, on a related note, I've never found Martin St to be a better choice going north than just taking Blue Course all the way to Atherton. Going the other way, however, you might stand to gain something by taking Martin.

I have others, but this post is already long enough as it is, eh?

Last Year: "47 Down, 3 To Go - Part 1". A recollection of the first 25 states I visited.

Tomorrow: "The Republic of Chris Auto Racing Association". Yep, it's come to this.

Today's random thought:

- Chick-fil-A has successfully used a cow as their mascot, based on the idea that the cow doesn't want you to eat him, he wants you to "eat mor chikin". But it seems that barbeque restaurants do not follow this approach. Instead, most of them use the pig as their mascot, the very animal that many fine barbeque items are made from. Why is that?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"The Rock Paper Scissors National Championship"

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ESPN must really be struggling to fill their summer programming lineup. So much so that last week, they showed something called the "Rock Paper Scissors National Championship". But is that really surprising? Their trend of late has been to get away from actual sports and show more stuff like this. Poker, competitive eating, original movies, the ESPYs, you name it. What happened to the good old days of Australian Rules Football and the NHL? (Speaking of which, why doesn't an upstart sports network like Versus pick up Australian Rules? Then again, even if they did, most of you still wouldn't be able to watch it.) ESPN seems more interested in promoting crap like "Bonds On Bonds" than showing you live sports anymore. And that's too bad. Ah, well, only a few more weeks until Thursday Night College Football resumes.

That said, I had to watch this Rock Paper Scissors nonsense. I recorded it on the TLD over the weekend and watched it on Tuesday. Your host? Trey Wingo, a respected ESPN anchor. How did they convince him to do this? I doubt he really wanted to. He sounded rather disinterested the whole show, while the color commentator was really into it, of course. He was an RPS "expert" who really came across as more of a caricature of the whole event. Whether that was by design or not, I don't know. It was really hard to figure out if they were trying to make fun of it, or really chronicle it as an event. They were kind of in-between. Is this a serious event, or is it a joke? ESPN didn't lean one way or the other. The telecast would have been far more enjoyable if they were clearly on one side or the other. Another thing I didn't care for during the telecast was the predictable player background stories. It wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't just their excuse to show attractive women on the screen more often. (Not that there's anything wrong with attractive women, of course. But I wasn't watching this for eye candy.)

So, what's the deal, anyway? Well, apparently Bud Light has been promoting a nationwide RPS tournament, and these were the finals. I (vaguely) remember participating in an RPS tournament at a bar in State College one night. Whether or not that was part of this tournament, I'm not sure. (It would have had to have been last year's tournament, though. The tournament I watched this week was the 2nd annual.) But, 128 people made the finals. The matches were structured this way: 2 games wins a set, and 2 sets wins a match. So, if you beat the other guy four straight times, you win. If you lose three straight times, you have to win the next two, and then two of the next three after that. They're fairly short matches. So when the color commentator talked about "fatigue" because one guy had a longer last match than the other guy, I don't know if I buy that. Mental fatigue may factor in a single match, if one guy gets frustrated because he keeps tying the other guy.

What kind of strategy is there? Well, the way I see it, the first throw is random. Beyond that, it's trying to figure out if the other guy is going to repeat his throw, or think you would repeat his last throw, or what. But given how short the matches are, it's luck. Quit kidding yourselves, guys. Poker is luck, but there's certainly skill involved too. One guy did seem to have a decent strategy in the PSR tournament, though. Before each throw, he would say something that started with either the letter "P", "S", or "R". (Example: "Rock and Roll!") The idea is, by doing that, the other guy is more likely to throw whichever item begins with that letter. So if you say "Rock and Roll", you should throw paper, anticipating rock. This guy made the finals, but I guess the other guy caught on, and he couldn't keep up the strategy. Instead, he pretty much went random. Now, everyone who watched that show will probably try to do that next time they take on someone in RPS. You've been warned...

Another possible strategy ploy is to try to pick up the player's hand motion. If he always does the same motion when throwing paper, then when you pick it up, you should audible to scissors. But you can't pick up that sort of thing in a short match. If each contestant had a "scouting report", then maybe there would be some strategy involved. For example: "This guy throws 50% rock." "This guy only repeats his throw 10% of the time." "This guy repeats the other guy's throw 45% of the time." Instead, nobody knew anything about anybody, and it was just a crap shoot. I appreciate that the color commentator tried to make us think there was strategy involved, but in an event like this, I don't think so. Except for the afore-mentioned "Rock and Roll" guy, I don't think anyone had an effective strategy. And even his day spelled doom in the end, as it did all of the other "favorites".

I guess the official name is "Rock Paper Scissors". I've always called it "Paper Scissors Rock". Many others call it "Paper Rock Scissors". I don't know, to me, it just seems like the one-syllable word should go last. Apparently, most others think the plural word should go last. (There are probably also the same people that call it "Eckerds" and "Ruby Tuesdays".) Either way, the disagreement on the order of the words kind of goes back to the concept of the game, doesn't it? All items are equal, and there is no hierarchy.

Well, whatever you call this game, I don't think I'll be watching this next year.

Last Year: "See You in 47 Months". I wasn't too thrilled about how last year's World Cup ended, so I took my frustration out on soccer in general. Also, random thought #1 talks about which states require a front license plate and which do not. These days, I would make that into an entire blog post, but back then, it was just random thought #1.

Tomorrow: "Which Way?" We have many route choices when driving. With my stopwatch, I have figured out the best ones. This post will cover route choices from Jacksonville to State College, and many places in between.

Today's random thought:

- I drove through Bojangles' the other day and ordered "the usual". (Well, Amber was driving, but that's beside the point.) Normally, my three piece dinner comes with a leg and two thighs. But this time, it came with three thighs! An "all-white" dinner is supposed to cost extra, but this dinner was the same price as always. So did they screw up, or what? I don't know. I can normally finish a one leg/two thigh dinner (plus fries and biscuit), but I guess three thighs is too much. I couldn't finish it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"I-540...err, I Mean NC-540: Four New Miles?"

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Back in January, they opened up a new 9-mile stretch of what will (eventually) become a new outer loop of Raleigh, I-540. And last week, they opened up a new 4-mile stretch of I-540 on the west end of the highway. Well, that was the plan. It's not open yet. Delayed construction work is nothing new in any part of the country, so I suppose this isn't that big of a deal, but there were a couple of "blunders" associated with this road's completion. And before I continue, my sources for much of the information contained within this post are here and here.

Here's a map I posted a couple of weeks ago, with the new western I-540 segment (approximated) in solid black:

Now, let me reference something I said in my January I-540 post, in reference to the new exit numbers that will be part of I-540's newest segment: "...you can see the exit signs for the NC-54 exit driving underneath the overpass, and it says NC-54 is 'exit 50'. Does that mean the full beltline will be 50 miles long? The existing 26-mile segment doesn't even make a full semicircle, so how is that even possible? Well, the full beltline is supposed to be approximately 72 miles long, so that exit number doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Maybe they're just waiting on the finalized route to post a precise exit number, and they picked "50" because it's a nice round number. I expect that once the full beltline is closer to completion, they'll renumber the offending exits." Well...when (if?) I-540 opens this week, NC-54 won't be exit 50, it will be exit 69. It turns out the DOT screwed up when they were calculating the projected exit numbers, which are based on the projected path of the complete loop. It took an email or two from fellow road geeks for them to realize their error, and that didn't happen until months after I pondered the thought in my blog. And to think, I could have taken the credit for unearthing their mistake. Instead, I gave the DOT the benefit of the doubt. I won't make that mistake again.

The other "blunder" regarding the new stretch of highway was its name. It was originally going to be called I-540, just like the rest of the highway. So, a bunch of signs were posted on the approach routes with interstate shields. But then, last week, I noticed that the signs on NC-55 (which will be the highway's west end) didn't have interstate shields anymore; they had state route shields. In late May, the DOT decided to call the new highway NC-540, not I-540. (I think that only applies to the western three miles. Actually, there's some confusion to that as well. From what I've read, I think the interstate shields will extend past I-40 to NC-54.) The reason is because this portion will eventually be part of a toll road called the Triangle Expressway, scheduled to open by 2011 (read: 2013), that will incorporate the next part of the 540 loop. And, I guess the DOT decided they didn't want to make an interstate a toll road. But for now, it's a free highway. I don't have much use for it anyway, but if I ever get a house south of Apex (in a place like Fuquay-Varina, perhaps?), I certainly will have use for the Triangle Expressway. NC-55 is a nice highway, but the drive through Apex is slow, and that's what slows down the commute to RTP from Fuquay-Varina the most. But with the Triangle Expressway, surely, that will change. I expect it to reduce commute times from Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina to RTP by 5 minutes. And for anyone who commutes from HS or F-V all the way to Durham, with the southern extension of the Durham Freeway, that would save even more time. But I would never commute from Fuquay all the way to Durham. That would be a bit much. On a side note, I always wondered why the southernmost exit on the Durham Freeway was "exit 5". Now I know - it's to allow for a southern extension. (Or, maybe they screwed up again.)

But this Triangle Expressway stuff is all a pipe dream for now. What is this new NC-540 going to do for me now? Well, for me, probably nothing. It might actually be a disservice to me. I like to take roads other than I-40 home from work from time to time. NC-54, Davis Dr, and NC-55 are among the roads I take in lieu of the interstate. All three of these roads will have a new exit with NC-540, and thus, I expect all three roads to get more traffic as a result, plus an extra traffic light. (Davis Dr isn't getting an extra traffic light, I don't think; instead they're using an already-existing intersection as the NC-540 junction. But the other two roads will have new traffic lights.) On Monday, I took NC-55 home, and I set a record for the shortest commute time without using the interstate (24m30s). Once NC-540 is open, I think I'm going to have a hard time duplicating that effort. But it seems like they've adjusted the timing of the traffic lights on NC-55 recently; lately it just seems like it's moved me along much more swiftly than ever before. Maybe that's because they adjusted the traffic light timing on the road to account for NC-540's impending opening, and the extra traffic that will result from it. Just a theory...

But, believe it or not, it's not all about me, and the new NC-540 extension will (hopefully) mean a shorter backup of cars exiting from I-540 onto I-40 westbound. So good for them.

Last Year: "Nights By County. The first of many posts devoted to my tally of where I spend each night of my life in a given year. Last year, it ended in a tie between Wake NC and Centre PA. This year's count is remarkably less interesting. Wake leads Centre, 168 to 13.

Tomorrow: "The Rock Paper Scissors National Championship", which was shown on ESPN2 last Saturday night. (And probably a few other times.)

Today's random thought:

- I played my 3,000th recorded hole of disc golf on Sunday. Wahoo! The hole was #17 of the Steed Park course in Richlands, NC. The course was new to me, and I enjoyed it. It had hardly any trees, but they did have quite a bit of "rough" (read: unmowed grass and weeds). Supposedly, the rough is played as OB in tournaments, which I think is a but much, considering how narrow some of the "fairways" were. I didn't play the rough as OB. They had enough areas marked OB as it was.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"The Ups and Downs of Roller Coaster Operation"

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I didn't feel like writing a post today, so I asked Amber to do one. She even wrote her own random thought! And just to clarify, in today's post, "I" refers to Amber, not me.


For two, non-consecutive summers, I was employed as a "Ride Host" at a nifty little amusement park called Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?) I belonged to a small, privileged group of idiosyncratic, garishly uniformed roller coaster operators who spent too many hours a day with a monstrous pile of wood called the Mean Streak. It is my intention here to give you an overview of what this was like. However, before I delve into the joys and sorrows of coaster operation, allow me to give you a brief introduction to this particular ride.

Designed by Curtis Summers and manufactured by Dinn Corporation (both based in Cincinnati, OH), Mean Streak opened in May of 1991 as the world’s tallest and fastest wooden coaster. The first hill is 161 ft., the drop 155 ft. At one time, the trains would go about 66 mph (since then, however, they’ve had to add “trim brakes” to the first hill, slowing the train down because it was putting too much pressure on the wood – this has been a constant annoyance to the serious coaster buffs who want the original speed). The track is nearly a mile long, and the ride takes about 3 minutes and 10 seconds to complete. Woohoo!

Built from over 1,700,000 board feet of treated southern yellow pine, it shamelessly occupies over five and a half acres at the tip of the Cedar Point peninsula. One board foot, by the way, is equivalent to a 1-inch thick, square foot of lumber (i.e. 144 cubic inches). It’s the most beautiful wooden structure I’ve ever seen, although a view from the outside doesn’t quite do it justice. Perhaps I’ll have Chris include some photos I took while sneaking around under the ride. (Shh... don’t tell.)

The ride hosts have a number of positions through which they rotate throughout the day, spending 30-60 minutes at each:

1) Entrance Host. This is the person you see when you first get in line. He carries a length of pvc pipe wrapped, candy-cane-style, in colorful electrical tape. This measures the little kiddies and, for the Mean Streak, is 48 inches in length. The entrance host generally has no sense of humor, because he is sick of people crouching down, pretending to be too short to ride because they think it’s a new joke that the entrance host has never heard before. Additionally, he must turn away the short kids and their angry parents, the cheaters, and the drunks. The entrance host also has to answer stupid questions. Often, a top-ten list is made for the day’s stupidest questions. Among those that I recall:

Is this a wooden coaster?

Is that Canada? (In reference to Marblehead, less than 5 miles away. Admittedly, it’s cute when children ask this, but not anyone over the age of, say, 12)

When is the 10:00 Laser Light Show? (I’m serious.)

2) Crowd Control. This is the person who tells you when you can go through the turnstile just as you get onto the platform. Not much else to that.

3) Platform Hosts. Before there were air gates, there was just a yellow line. Two of these platform hosts spent their time trying to get people to back up and stay off the handrails. “Could you please stay back from the yellow line? Please do not stand on the yellow line. Please stay off of the handrails. For the love of god, get your feet off the yellow line and get your butt off our handrails.” Once we got the gates: “Please don’t shake the gates. Please stay away from the gates. Please get off the handrails.”

Platform hosts are more commonly known for checking seatbelts and lap bars, loading and unloading riders, and putting their thumbs up before the train is dispatched. And, in our case, squeezing the fat people in or rejecting them if we couldn’t get their belts fastened. This was both annoying and said, depending on the situation. Among other responsibilities: cleaning up vomit, unlatching jammed lap bars, etc. One time, I checked Joey Fatone’s lap bar. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently he’s a member of N Sync. Yeehaw.

4) Spiels. Mean Streak was one of the few rides left that didn’t have automated “spiels”, so there was generally someone on the platform with a mic, essentially giving ride stats and telling riders that Cedar Point is not responsible for, well, anything really. Sometimes we would speak in funny accents. Sometimes we would make stupid jokes. When you see these people in an amusement park, please don’t give them a hard time. They are bored out of their minds and they’re just trying to pass the time.

“Oncoming riders, welcome to the Mean Streak. Please listen carefully to the following instructions, or you might die.”

“Please secure any loose or valuable articles you may have with you, such as hats, glasses, wallets, pagers, cell phones, toupees, dentures, or bras.”

(For the record, supervisors were not within earshot during these instances.)

5) Control Host. The control host hangs out in an air conditioned booth, pushes buttons (i.e. controls the ride), monitors the trains’ locations, answers the phones, and says ‘Clear’ before dispatching the train. Sometimes, when rider numbers are low, this person also writes stupid notes to the person on spiels, outside of the control booth, between trains. Sometimes, when the crew is short a few workers, this person does spiels from inside the control booth.

6) That extra person. This is the employee who has just gotten back from break and has nothing to do before the next rotation. Usually, he performs odd jobs, like walking underneath the ride to clean up trash and recover lost objects (this task is referred to as ‘garbo’). Hey, if no one claims these items by the end of the day, they’re up for grabs. Garbo finds:
- Hats and loose change are the most common. The change gets put in a bucket and saved for some charity.
- Bolts and screws (Don’t worry, maintenance replaces any missing equipment on their three-hour track walk every morning)
- There is a stuffed cat nailed to a support beam underneath the ride. It’s been there for as long as any employee can remember.
- Used condoms (your guess is as good as mine). These are rare, thankfully.

The ride has a relatively common safety system. It can run up to three trains, but to make sure that there is no chance for one to run into another, there are proxy switches, photo-eyes (sensors that register whether or not a train is stopped on a particular section of track), and safety brakes. Also, the lift chain can stop, allowing a train to stop on the hill if the previous train hasn’t passed the first set of safety brakes. So, contrary to popular belief, when a train is “stuck” on a hill, it typically does not mean that the ride is broken. A more likely explanation, for example, might be a spider crawling across a photo-eye, making the ride think there’s a train where there’s not, so it blocks the next train from getting that far. Yes, this happens more frequently than you might think. Also, these photo-eyes are the main reason why the ride can’t run in heavy rain.

Before one can join this crew, it is essential that he or she be capable of climbing the lift hill. This isn’t particularly scary, as there is a decent rail and the steps are wooden slabs. A bit exhausting, yes, but a spectacular view from the top. One also must be able to climb the 120 ft to the first set of safety brakes. This is done every morning when the ride is being tested. If a car gets stopped there, a worker must be up there, ready to release it when the controller gives the signal. A good workout, and a good view. Though, not many people volunteered for this post in the mornings. Not only do you climb about 14 flights of stairs- you are also excluded from being one of the three test-riders for the day.

So, what can go wrong while you’re working Mean Streak? Well, she is a stubborn old coaster. She shuts down at random whenever she feels like it. This isn’t horrible. When this happens, it’s generally just a matter of restarting the lift, testing the trains again, and dealing with angry guests. What else?

Rollback: If the air is cool enough, and there isn’t enough weight in a train, there’s a chance it won’t have the momentum to make it over the next hill. Thus, it rolls back and eventually settles in a track valley. This is bad. Not dangerous, exactly, but bad. This has happened twice in my two summers of experience; one it was unloaded (this is usually the case), and once there were riders involved. The ride has to be shut down for some time, while they bring in a crane to remove the train from the track, one car at a time. Oy.

Severe weather: The view over Lake Erie from the Mean Streak platform is superb, and often this is the best location to spot approaching inclement weather. Most of the time this is a good thing. The ride shuts down and the workers have their fun cleaning trains and taking pictures and making jokes and acting stupid. In the case of a tornado warning, however, we were told to go under the platform and take shelter in the electrical room. That’s safe, surely.

And now, as this has become much longer than I’d intended, let me sum things up. If you’re ever at an amusement park and you are tempted to pester the employees, please stop and think about what they may already have had to endure that day. I can almost guarantee you’re having more fun than they are. However, don’t let this deter you if you ever consider becoming a rides operator; the ups are worth all the downs, I assure you. If you haven’t ridden Mean Streak, go do it. Or at least go look at it.

Today's random thought:

- If birds and insects and, well, all forms of flying creatures never existed, would man have come up with the idea of flight? I think so. The more interesting question, to me, is, how long would it have taken us to think up flying machines? And what the heck would they look like?


Now, to stay consistent: (I gave Amber the opportunity to write these too, but she declined. She said she couldn't come up with anything as clever as me. Pfft...)

Last Year: "Stickin' With The Pig". One of the nice things about living in North Carolina is easy access to the fine grocery establishment known as Piggly Wiggly. I haven't been to a Piggly Wiggly in a while, though. I think that needs to change.

Tomorrow: "I-540...err, I mean NC-540: Four New Miles?" The new section of I-540 was supposed to open last week, and I was going to write about it this week. Unfortunately, they haven't opened the road yet. But that's not going to stop me from writing about it tomorrow.

Monday, July 09, 2007

"Independence Day In Clayton, NC"

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This is a silly country of ours. To celebrate the greatness of our country, we go outside and watch pretty explosions. Make sense to you? (There's a good Simpsons quote that applies here, but I couldn't smoothly incorporate it into that last sentence.)

I think fireworks are a little bit overused these days. They used to be reserved only for special occasions. Independence Day, New Year's Day, and that's it. Now, anytime you go to a minor league baseball game on Friday night, you get fireworks. That's fine, I guess, but those types of fireworks shows always stink, and I'm just not in the mood to see fireworks in May. But when you go to an Independence Day fireworks show, you know it's going to be a good show. None of these 5-minute crappy-ass shows you get at minor league baseball games. They break out the heavy artillery on the Fourth. And it doesn't seem to matter where you go, either. I've never been disappointed by an Independence Day fireworks show.

So, where do we go? Amber and I didn't want to go to the Raleigh or Cary shows. Boring. If they had a strong reputation, that'd be one thing, but we didn't really hear that the Raleigh and Cary shows were "can't miss". Instead, we wanted to look for some "small town flavor". Fuquay-Varina was the obvious choice, but they had their celebration the day before. Chapel Hill is sort of a small town, but they were having their celebration at the football stadium. Eventually, we found a potential winner: Franklinton. 40 minutes north of Raleigh, the small town of Franklinton was having their first-ever Fourth of July celebration. We could be part of history! Let's go!

We got to Franklinton around 700p (I think), and we couldn't find a thing. The web site we looked at said it was supposed to be at the high school, but there was nothing going on around the high school. There were no signs or anything. And, the town of Franklinton is...well, it's not a place I'd like to raise a family. Time for Plan B: Clayton. Clayton is supposed to have "the area's best fireworks show", so they claim. What area are they referring to, exactly? Raleigh-Durham? Johnston County? The parking lot? Well, it Thankfully, there was significantly more buzz surrounding Clayton than in Franklinton. And, without knowing exactly where we were supposed to go (we only wrote down where the Franklinton stuff was supposed to be), we found the fesitivites with no problem. And, the fireworks show was pretty good, lasting the full 20 minutes. (No smiley-face fireworks, though.) There were a lot of people there, but we had plenty of room to pick a good spot. And I wouldn't be surprised if we're back in Clayton next year.

About these fireworks shows: do these towns buy their entire shows "pre-packaged"? In other words, could you see the same exact show in two different towns? Or is every show different? And how much does a fireworks show cost? I'm guessing that an Independence Day show costs on the order of a million dollars.

One more thing about Independence Day. You probably had to listen to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The U.S.A" song at least once last week. I can't think of anyone else who has done so much with just one song. Lee has made an entire career out of it. When he does a live concert, does he even bother singing any other songs? Or does he go on stage, sing the only song anyone in attendance has ever heard, and leave? Because that's probably all anyone in attendance wants to hear from him. As for me, I'm pretty much sick of hearing that song. Get out of my head, Lee Greenwood!

Last Year: "Interstate 95: The Soundtrack". I kept using the same soundtrack for my drives to and from State College until the very last one. But now that I don't make any single long drive repeatedly, I don't know of a good way to incorporate another driving soundtrack. That's too bad.

Tomorrow: A guest post by Amber called "The Ups And Downs Of Roller Coaster Operation". Haha, get it?

Today's random thought:

- Amber and I went to the Carolina Mudcats v. Jacksonville Suns game on Saturday night, and we were going to get our tickets online beforehand, because we noticed that they were $1 cheaper if purchased beforehand. That is, until we got towards the end of the ticket purchase routine, and they tacked on a $1.25 "convenience fee" at the end. So, walk-up tickets are cheaper after all. Oh well.