Friday, May 30, 2008

WGN America

Recently, Superstation WGN changed their name to "WGN America", and debuted a terrible slogan "TV You Can't Ignore" and a hideous logo. What the hell, WGN?

First, the name "WGN America" implies that there are WGN stations in other countries, kind of like "BBC America". Not true. The purpose of the name is just to distinguish the national cable channel from the local over-the-air Chicago channel. Superstation WGN did this just fine. Why change? "WGN America" is terrible. It's arrogant. At least until they debut "WGN Venezuela".

What is this "TV You Can't Ignore" crap, anyway? I've been practically ignoring WGN for a few years now. Why is it going to be any different from this point forward? What's on WGN besides the Cubs and White Sox, anyway? Anything? Or just a bunch of reruns of shows that are also widely syndicated on other networks?

And as for the logo...that's not a television logo. That's a logo for a Japanese cartoon. Awful.

You suck, WGN America. Prepare to be ignored.

Coupons

Just about every week, when I go to Kroger, they give me a few coupons with my receipt. Sometimes, they're actually for items I buy, so I hold onto them. But then, when I go to the store next time, I forget to use them! Every time. I can't remember the last time I successfully used a coupon.

Bringing them to the store is never a problem. The problem is remembering to use them at checkout. All too often, I don't remember my coupons until I'm walking out of the store.

I guess coupon-using isn't a part of my "checking out at the grocery store" routine. That's what happens when you only use them once a month.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spacious Canadian Maps

In preparation for our honeymoon, we sent away for free travel information from Ontario and Manitoba, including official provincial highway maps. You know how we like those official maps!

(Note: We've added several new maps to the map room since that post; we now have maps for 39 states and 2 provinces. We have a few more than that, including Ontario and Manitoba, but we've decided to save all new maps for our next residence's map room.)

I really like the Canadian maps. Unlike most American road atlases that only show the lower half of each province, these maps show the whole thing, all the way to Hudson Bay and the Nunavut border. And let me tell you, there's a whole lot of nothin' up there. Except for lakes. Lots and lots of lakes.

I'm not sure what there is to do in Manitoba besides buying curling supplies, but that's why we have free travel information! Besides, if nothing else, I think it might be fun to drive to Thompson.

Something About the Stanley Cup Final(s)

First thing's first. This year, the NHL championship series is officially known as the "Stanley Cup Final". It was pluralized last year, right? "Stanley Cup Finals"? I think the plural version is more appropriate. It's not just one game, or one continuous event. It's a best-of-seven series that could last up to two weeks. I guess it sounds more dramatic if you call it the "Final", but whatever. They can call it whatever they want, I'll still watch.

Actually, I haven't stayed up to watch the end of any of the games yet. As the politically incorrect saying goes, I don't have a dog in the fight, so I don't really care. I'm just hoping for entertaining competition, particularly on Saturdays when there's no downside to staying up to watch a triple-overtime game.

Based on what we've seen so far, this might have the look of a "home team wins every game" series. I hope not, because that makes each game too predictable, and that's not entertaining. And even though I've been watching a lot of hockey this year, I don't have any "expert knowledge" to bring to the table. Besides, Detroit and Pittsburgh were two of the teams I generally tried to avoid watching this season.

William B. Umstead State Park

I've always been skeptical of nearby William B. Umstead State Park, located right in the middle of the Raleigh/Durham area. What's there? Anything?

Without having actually gone there myself, I've always thought that this park existed purely for the sake of existing, giving Triangle residents a place to go running or biking. Unlike other parks that have interesting things to see, this park doesn't really have anything special. Before humans came in and built stuff, this plot of land was probably no different than the one next to it. So why set apart this particular area as a state park? Because of its proximity to a large urban population.

I guess there isn't really anything wrong with that. That's why parks exist in the first place, right? For the enjoyment of the human race. Some parks (wildlife refuges in particular) exist for the sake of the inhabiting animal and/or plant life, but in most cases, it's all about us. Why does Grand Canyon National Park exist? So that we can enjoy the scenery.

Now that we've actually been there (last weekend), although we didn't see a whole lot of the park, I didn't really see anything to change my mind. There's nothing exotic about this place, just a bunch of trees and a few dammed-up lakes. North Carolina has a lot of lakes, but most (if not all) of them are artifically created, at least in this area. Are there any natural lakes around here?

The park's location in the middle of a metropolitan area, and right next to RDU airport, definitely takes away from its appeal. Every now and then, you'll hear the loud scream of a commercial airliner.

Wait. Why am I even complaining? Admission is free, and putting a state park here is still much better than extending the boundaries of Raleigh (Cary) and filling up the area with more cookie-cutter housing developments.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Something About the "Lost" Season Finale

As mentioned previously (I think), just about the only primetime network non-animated show we've been watching lately is "Lost". And, tomorrow is the season finale, so I should probably talk about it a little.

Previously in the show's life, I wondered if they were making it up as they went along, or if they had this whole thing planned out from the beginning. At least at this point, I'm pretty sure they have everything planned out until the end, because they know exactly how many episodes they have left (34) before the series is finished. So, I'll give them credit for that. It seems like everything in this season (present time and future flashforwards) is converging towards the point when the "Oceanic Six" leaves "The Island". I can only guess that the season finale will fill in the remaining time gap. But then what? I have no idea where the series is going to go from here.

The show is still enjoyable enough to justify staying awake until 11:00p to watch it, but I guess my biggest complaint about this season is that not much has actually happened in "present time". Since the end of the last season until now, how much time has progressed? A few days? And really, not much has happened. Granted, there have only been 12 episodes so far this season, but still. The focus of the season has been more on what happens in the future or already happened in the past than what's happening "now". Actually, I guess that's how the show's always been. After all, a bunch of people living on a "mysterious island" isn't all that interesting on its own.

On that note, to keep things interesting, the show has been taking a few liberties with subplots that are a little ridiculous. Of course, the "Lost" premise in general is already is kind of ridiculous, and as the series progresses it's only getting more ridiculous, but that's okay. As I see new television series advertised, most of them seem to have really ridiculous premises, prompting me to say, "That's stupid, I'll never watch that." But why? Some of the shows with seemingly ridiculous plot lines are actually the most entertaining to watch. For example, "Quantum Leap" had a rather ridiculous premise, but it was an entertaining show nonetheless, at least in my opinion. I guess a science-fiction premise, or a "dash" of science-fiction every now and then is okay, just as long as they don't take it too far. For examples of shows that take it a little too far, simply turn on the Sci-Fi Channel.

"Lost" hasn't gotten too silly yet, and I don't think they will. Instead, this seems like the kind of show that is still going to leave a lot of things unexplained, or perhaps "up for interpretation", even after the series is finished. I expect that after the series finale two years from now, the general fan reaction will be, "Well, that didn't explain anything! What the hell?" We shall see.

The 2:00 Janitor

Every day at about 2:00p, a janitor comes into our office at work and takes the trash or something. Actually, I don't know what he does, I just see him walk by at about the same time every day.

What does he think about us? Here we are, sitting in (somewhat) comfortable office chairs, working with computers, making much more money than he is. If I were in his position, I would probably think something like, "Rich bastards with their fancy college degrees and fancy computer experience. I wish I had a job like that." Or, is it more like, "I'm glad I don't have a lazy-ass job like that. I'd much rather be active and walk around all day."

I'm afraid to ask him myself - I'm sure he'd rather just leave him alone and let him do his job - so this question will go unanswered.

Offensive Letter Combinations

Like many states, North Carolina license plates feature a three-letter, four-number combination (ABC-1234). At first glance, it looks like this allows for 175,760,000 different combinations of license plates. But does it really?

As far as I can tell, they don't use the letters I or O (except in vanity plates), so we can remove those options. But there are actually many more restrictions than that. There are many three-letter combinations that can be deemed offensive, and thus do not get printed. For example, you'll never see a license plate begin with ASS-. But it also appears that North Carolina has omitted printing any three-letter combination that is also a word, such as "SIT-", "TOE-", or "WAY-". Also omitted are common abbrevations, such as university acronyms. I guess that makes sense. What if you went to Duke or NC State, and the DMV gave you a "UNC-" license plate? Fists would fly! Come to think of it, I think they skipped the U series of plates entirely. The progression of license plates skipped straight from T to V.

(Disclaimer: I haven't verified any of this information, so some of it could be wrong. If you have a counter-example for anything, please comment.)

I thought about this recently because they're currently up to the X series of plates, and they've been stuck on X for quite a while. Unlike with other letters, the vast majority of three-letter combinations starting with X are fair game.

When are we going to see the first Y series plate? Hopefully soon, because I'm anxious to see what they'll do when they reach the end of the alphabet. My guess is that they'll start over from the top, but with four letters and three numbers (e.g. ABCD-123 or ABC-123D).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Driving Around South Durham

It's time for another edition of, "Is this a good part of town to live in?" To recap previous issues:

Hillsborough: Outstanding! A nice rural feel, and excellent highway access.
North Durham: Acceptable, if we find the right house for the right price.

Both of those areas would result in a 20-25 minute work commute for me, and a 25-30 minute commute for Amber. Why do we have to live so far away from work, anyway? Why not look a little closer? As such, we investigated an area of South Durham near the Southpoint shopping area. There's lots of affordable houses for sale in the Parkwood neighborhood:

This area is actually better than the parts of North Durham we looked at, and it's only 3 miles away from my office! I could even bike to work if I wanted to!

This neighborhood also has a major shopping center nearby, much like we have right now in Raleigh (Cary). But it's not as rural as Hillsborough, and is slightly farther away from the interstate. Nonetheless, proximity to work might make up for that. And from what I've seen, there doesn't appear to be much price difference between the two.

Really, this is just going to come down to where we can find the right house for us, at the right price. Whether that's in Hillsborough or Durham, who knows?

I'm starting to get a little impatient with this housing search. I wanna move now!

No Soda for a Week

One of the stats I keep in By The Numbers related to soda cans. When I finish a can of soda, I don't throw it out or recycle it right away. Instead, I keep it in the kitchen, on top of the cabinets just below the ceiling. Then, when that area fills up, I take them all down to the recycling area and start over. The kitchen's "capacity" is 284 cans, and as of last weekend, I've filled it up three times, for a total of 852 cans.

In "By The Numbers", I recorded the date of my last "fill-up", so I was able to calculate how many cans of soda I've been drinking per day, on average: 2.56 cans per day.

I think that's way too many. And that doesn't even count the soda I drink that doesn't make it to the "storage area" (e.g. cans that I take with me on the road). Granted, all of the soda I drink is diet soda, so this isn't a calorie intake issue. Really, the issue is that all of that soda can't be good for me, and it can't be as good as drinking primarily water, like I used to do. Diet sodas don't have any calories, but they do have a bunch of other stuff you don't need.

So, I'm going to go one week without drinking any soda, and see what happens.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Minor League Baseball Recap: 5/24/08

Since we didn't go curling last Friday, I don't have a curling recap for you. Instead, why not recap the minor league baseball game we went to on Saturday, between the Jacksonville Suns and the Carolina Mudcats?

Inning........ 1234567890 |TTL
-------------------------
Jacksonville.. 0020003210 | 08
Carolina...... 3401000001 | 09

The Mudcats almost came from ahead to lose, but were able to win in the 10th inning. I was hoping the Suns would make it interesting towards the end, and they did. (It's easy for me to say, because I didn't really care who won.) Some guy named Aldolfo hit a 3-2, 2-out home run to tie the game for the Suns in the 9th inning, and that was cool. The fans were on their feet, ready to head home, and then...

Actually, many fans went home then anyway. The crowd at a 600p Saturday game is definitely a family crowd, and a "late night" extra-inning game might not be best for the kids. How do children sit through an entire baseball game, anyway? I have a hard enough time with that. I guess as long as you get them Dippin' Dots halfway through the game, they're happy.

During the game, I noticed that both the Suns and Mudcats have a player with last name Mitchell, and that they kind of look alike (Russell Mitchell, Lee Mitchell). Are they brothers? Well...they're both 6'1", play third base, were born in the same general area (Rome, GA and Cartersville, GA) and are three years apart in age. You be the judge.

(Actually, yes - they are brothers.)

Working On Memorial Day

I can't justify taking a three-day weekend when I don't leave town. Two days is plenty. So, I went into work today.

Why did we stick around this weekend? How very unlike us! Well, I could claim "gas prices", but that's not the reason. We just didn't have anywhere to go this weekend. And if we were to make a strictly recreational weekend trip, we'd rather do it on a less popular weekend.

But we'll make up for it this summer. Between late June and early July, we might make three consecutive weekend trips.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Oil Change #1 For Amber

Amber got her new car's first oil change yesterday. Like me, she went to the dealer to get the free oil change promised by the dealership. But unlike me, she won't be going back to the dealer next time.

Like me, Amber waited until she was over 7,000 miles for her first oil change, citing the car manual's advice, and the advice of most people who aren't professional mechanics. (Do a Google search for "oil change intervals" and see for yourself.) However, that didn't stop the dealership from "giving her crap" about it. Do it every 3,000 miles, they say! That 7,500-mile guideline is only for "ideal driving conditions"! Never mind that the Mazda factory suggested interval for "non-ideal" conditions is actually 5,000 miles, not 3,000. The oft-cited 3,000-mile guideline is outdated. These days, engines are better, and motor oils are better. Professional mechanics insist on clinging to the 3,000-mile guideline for obvious reasons.

Besides, Amber's driving is more "ideal" than "non-ideal". Amber's work commute is 14 miles each way, and is mostly highway driving. Combine that with the long weekend trips we tend to make from time to time, and that puts Amber much closer to the "ideal" end of the spectrum than "non-ideal".

Anyway, the dealership's attitude really pissed Amber off, so she's going elsewhere for her next oil change. As for me, I'm glad my car has an oil life feature, so I don't need to worry about what the appropriate interval is for my car. Speaking of which, it's been over 3 months and 4,500 miles since my last oil change, and according to my oil life reading, I still have another 3,000 miles or so before oil change #2. It's also really nice not to have to add a quart of oil to the car every 2,000 miles, like I did with the Saturn. Every time I check the Honda's oil level, it's full. Wahoo! You know, having a new car is quite nice. I would highly recommend it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Amber Expected More Violence

Last weekend, we had free tickets to see the Carolina Rollergirls, a local roller derby establishment. We were probably going to go sometime anyway, so that worked out. Thing is, though, I had no idea what to expect, having never seen a roller derby before, or even watched one of those roller derby movies.

So, I took it upon myself to head to the website first and learn the rules. The basic premise is, each team has one "jammer", and four other people. It's the jammer's job to skate around the track and pass as many of the other team's skaters as possible. It's the four other people's jobs to get in the opposing jammer's way. (It's actually more complicated than that, but that's sufficient knowledge to at least be able to watch and enjoy.) The track is pretty small, and flat. Other roller derbies may take place on banked tracks, but this one does not. From a logistical standpoint, flat-track derby is very easy to set up: just tape some lines down on the Dorton Arena floor, and you're set. Personally, I think banked-track might be a little more fun to watch, because the skaters would be going faster. And they could use some walls, too. As it is, it's actually not as exciting as I would have hoped. Even Amber said, "I expected more violence!" There was a lot of falling down, but not much hockey-style "checking", if you will.

Really, though, the whole premise is silly, and they go out of their way to make it look and feel silly. They don't want you to take this seriously, and you realize this as soon as you see the names of the teams (the "Debutante Brawlers" and the "Trauma Queens"). Plus, the fact that it's a female sport, which I guess goes back to the male gender's obsession with "cat fights". I have to say, watching women do this was probably more exciting than if men were the participants. However, they stress that this is not WWE-style fake entertainment; this is the real deal. But I think their major flaw is having an play-by-play announcer talk the whole time over an inadequate sound system that is both loud and undecipherable.

I don't even remember who won the match, but does it matter? Not really. Regular ticket prices are $14/person, which seems a little steep considering that this is a non-profit organization, but oh well. Minor-league baseball is about half the price, is played outdoors, and is slightly more enjoyable.

The Annual Haircut

I got my "annual" haircut today. Actually, I didn't quite make it a full year, because my last haircut was on May 31st, 2007. Basically, I got impatient, because I realized that there's really no incentive for me to have long hair, even if my hair still had a ways to go before it got to its previous 18-month length.

Once again, I removed almost all of my hair, and once again, I'm going to try to make it another 12 months before my next haircut. Or, maybe I'll move it back to 11 months next year. I guess after years of getting six haircuts a year, I decided I didn't really need to get my hair cut that frequently. Plus, this way, I get lots of strange looks the day after, and lots of "Hey, you got a haircut!" I'm looking forward to getting that at work tomorrow. When you go from a mullet-type thing to a military-style buzz cut in one day, people tend to notice.

(Note: I didn't technically have a mullet. Mullets, strictly speaking, are short on top, long in back. Aside from the rapidly-expanding bald spots, my hair was long everywhere. However, some people have taken a mullet to mean any male-gender hairstyle with long hair. Regardless of whether I had a "mullet" or not, I fit in very well at last week's NASCAR race.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Winston, Or Whatever It's Called Now

NASCAR has an "all-star race" every year. Back when a cigarette company was the Cup series' title sponsor, the race was called "The Winston". Since then, under Nextel and now Sprint, it seems like the race has had a different name every year. I don't remember what it was called this year - I think it was some combination of "Sprint", "All-Star", and "Challenge", quite possibly the "Sprint All-Star Challenge" - but I don't feel like looking it up. Instead, I'll just keep calling it "The Winston". (Disclaimer: smoking is detrimental to your health.)

Anyway, this year's "Winston" was last weekend, and we were there! (Pictures forthcoming.)

Wait - didn't we just go to a race two weeks ago? Yes, we did. Two things: 1) Tickets to "The Winston" were a birthday present from Amber to me. 2) It's not our fault that they schedule all of the North Carolina-area races at the same time of year. The week of the Rockingham race, the Cup series was in Virginia, followed by South Carolina, followed by last week's race in Charlotte, followed by this week's race, also in Charlotte.

The idea behind the "all-star race", I guess, is for fans with short attention spans. I admit, watching a three-hour race can wear on you a little. So, why not have a shorter race, and get rid of all of the drivers that just get in the way every week? And also, don't count it towards the season-long standings, either. In theory, this increases the likelihood of exciting crashes, because drivers are more likely to "go for it" (or other cliché). But, of course, there were no crashes in this year's all-star race. Boring! (Note: there were a couple of crashes in the preliminary "last chance qualifier", but that doesn't count.) The general buzz surrounding the race was that it was extremely boring, especially by NASCAR standards. Well, I have to admit, as a Formula One fan, calling that race "boring" would be rather hypocritical of me. But even Formula One races have at least one crash.

So, it's a shorter race, and it doesn't count, Why even bother? Well, this event is actually more about "the show" than anything else. Prior to the race, they held the first-ever "burnout competition", bascially in an attempt to introduce a slam-dunk-type competition into the NASCAR all-star weekend. Nice idea, but it needs some work. I wouldn't be surprised if they have "celebrity judges" next year, instead of making it a "timed" thing with complicated rules that nobody followed anyway. Jimmie Johnson, for instance, had complete disregard for the rules, purposely knocking down cones and blowing out the rear tires.

In addition to that, this race has the most over-the-top driver introductions that you'll find. Silly, yes, but entertaining nonetheless. So really, if you're going to go to this race, you might as well pay for the front-stretch tickets, or else you're going to miss out on most of the festivities. Good thing that's where we sat!

Now, some comments on NASCAR fans. There are way too many Dale Earnhardt Jr fans. Basically, they're like Yankees fans and Red Sox fans rolled into one. Maybe it's not like this everywhere - this is North Carolina, mind you - but it's ridiculous. And, their strong hatred for Kyle Busch is actually rather humorous. He was easily booed the loudest of all the drivers, and many Junior fans gave Kyle Busch "the finger" as he drove by every lap. I guess they're just having fun, but people need to realize that if you really want to insult the guy, don't boo him. Any noise is good noise as far as they're concerned. Instead, just be silent. Give Kyle Busch the same reaction that you give A.J. Allmendinger. That'll learn him! Personally, I don't really care about this whole thing. It's just funny. I wore my Jimmie Johnson shirt and claimed neutrality.

On that note, here are my approximate "fan popularity" rankings, based on how many t-shirts and hats I saw being worn at the track:
1) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2) Kasey Kahne (mostly women)
3) Jeff Gordon
4) Kyle Busch (he's gaining a lot of fans, maybe because people just want to piss off the Junior fans?)
5) Tony Stewart
6) Jimmie Johnson
7) Carl Edwards
8) Kevin Harvick
9) Denny Hamlin
10) Mark Martin
11) Martin Truex, Jr. (he has more fans than I thought!)
12) Juan Pablo Montoya (the second-most booed driver during introductions)

Those are the only drivers of whom I saw more than just one or two fans at the track. Where are all the Matt Kenseth fans?

My least favorite part of the experience was leaving the track after the race. We left the grandstand at about 10:50p, and it took 2 hours and 25 minutes to get from there to I-85. I guess that's typical, because there were 147,000 fans there, after all. Eventually, we got home, but not until about 3:30a. Then again, part of that is our fault. We parked in one of the far-away free parking lots, which probably didn't empty as quickly as some of the others.

While night races are more comfortable to watch - not as hot, no sunburn - I don't like getting home that late. In that respect, the Rockingham race was really nice: the race started at noon, and there was no traffic jam leaving the track. We were home by dinner time. Wahoo! We'll have to keep that in mind if we decide to go to another race next year, whether it be Darlington, Martinsville, or Rockingham again.

One final note: during the race, I noticed that my AT&T-powered phone had no signal inside the track. Could Sprint have a monopoly on cell phone service during all Sprint Cup events? That wouldn't surprise me.

Valet Recycling Pickup

A few months, I complained a little (imagine that!) about the shortcomings of apartment "valet" trash pickup. One of my complaints was that it discouraged recycling. People are more likely to recycle if they have to walk down to the trash/recycling area anyway, but if they don't have to do that, they're more likely to just throw everything in the trash for doorside pickup. Not too long ago, we actually mentioned this to management.

Well, it's time to give credit where credit is due. Starting this week, they've started including recycling as part of trash pickup. Once a week, on Monday nights, you can put your recyclable trash outside in a separate marked bag, and they'll pick it up and recycle it for you. Hooray! (Will you listen to me? I sound like a hippie. When did that happen?)

Now, how soon before we receive a notice on exactly what we can put in the recycle bag? Most of what we put in there this week was cardboard. There used to be a "cardboard only" bin in our complex's trash/recycling area, but it's not there anymore. However, there is one that looks suspiciously similar in the complex adjacent to ours. Hmm...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Disc Golf Report: Charlotte

Since we were going to Charlotte on Saturday anyway, why not arrive a few hours earlier and play disc golf? There are several disc golf courses in the Charlotte area, some of which have hosted major tournaments. We had time (almost) for two rounds at two courses, so we picked one easy course and one hard course.

First, the easy course - Dickerson Park in Monroe (30 minutes southeast of Charlotte). I don't really have much to say about this course, which I guess is a good thing, because it seems all I've been doing here lately is complain. It's a mostly-open course with enough variety in hole-length and obstacles to make it interesting. Only problem was, they had tee signs and concrete tee pads, but they weren't in the same place! I assume that the location of the tee sign denotes the "white" tee (there is no other marking on the ground to indicate a tee box), while the concrete pads located 100 feet or so away from the tee signs are the "blue" tees. We played the "white" tees, teeing off from whichever side of the tee sign we felt like, because there wasn't any indication where the actual "white" tee was. But hey, whether intentional or not, at least we had a choice!

See what I mean? We enjoyed the course, but instead, I spent most of my time talking about the course's only flaw. Oh well.

After finishing up there, we drove to Hornets' Nest Park, in north Charlotte. This park actually has two 18-hole concurrent courses: a hard one, and a really hard one. We played the hard one.

Unfortunately, we didn't finish the round in time, because I wanted to get to Lowe's Motor Speedway by 530p. But we did play 13 holes (one of which, I later found out, is no longer part of the actual course), and that was enough to form an opinion. Nice course, but there are way too many people at this park, not just disc golferd, but people at the park in general. The course's back nine is secluded, but the front nine weaves its way amongst picnic shelters, fishing ponds, baseball fields, and the main road leading into the park. And on a Saturday afternoon in May, the entire park was full of people, some of which probably have no idea what the concept of disc golf is, or that they're in the freaking way. One hole on the front nine was signed as "closed", probably due to the park's congestion. (My theory is that a non-disc golfer in the adjacent picnic area or fishing pond got hit by a disc.) In addition, we had to skip two other holes because park patrons were standing around right by the target. Rather than ask them to move, the "disc golf code" dictates that disc golfers not disturb the other park patrons, and that they skip holes when necessary, which is what we did. With the "code" in mind, what were they thinking when they built this course? The best disc golf courses are set apart from the rest of the parks in which they lie, so that disc golfers and other park patrons don't constantly get in each other's way. All of my highest-ranking courses are set up this way.

According to another disc golfer playing Hornets' Nest that day, Reedy Creek Park in Charlotte does a very good job with the whole seclusion and separation thing. So, I think we'll have to check that course out next time we have time to kill in Charlotte...whenever that is.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Curling Recap: 5/16/08

End........ 12345678 |TTL
-------------------------
Other team. 10100000 | 02
Our team... 01044112 | 13

Recall that this match was for the league championship. What does the league championship win you? In our case, a large red/blue striped beach towel. Hey, we could use some beach towels, especially given our "vow" to make at least two beach visits this summer, the first of which will likely be during our trip to Jacksonville next month. In addition, Amber won an award for being one of the "best new curlers", based on a club vote. Hooray Amber! Apparently, I wasn't the only person who voted for her.

All this took place at the "after party" at a bar-like establishment adjacent to the ice rink, where the first round of drinks and a large quantity of unhealthy food was paid for by the club. How does the club afford all this, plus all of those prizes? Well, every week, we have a contest called the "50/50". 50/50 tickets are $2 each. Half of that goes to the club (which eventually went towards all of the food and such), and half of that goes into a random drawing that night, for one person to win. Typically, the weekly 50/50 prize is between $30 and $40. I've won it once, and I think Amber has won it twice, which is probably exceeding our expected value of success. Meanwhile, I estimate that the club half of the 50/50 accumulated over $300 over the course of the season. So, there's a little insight into how a curling club works.

Oh, right...the game itself. We scored four in the 4th end by executing a last-throw take-out: (our team = yellow)

I forget how we managed to steal four in the 5th end, but after that, with the game in hand, the goal for both teams was simply to win "the box". I explained the box rules last week, except due to not being able to operate the arena clock, we modified the "end-of-game" rule such that the box competition closes as soon as the first teams complete a full 8-end game. Amber made at least one "box shot" - a draw to the four-foot - but it was too early. In fact, as it turns out, there wasn't a whole lot we could do, because the box-winning team threw their box shot on their very last throw of the game, and their team was the first to finish. I guess that's the curling equivalent of a "walk-off". We'll have to keep that in mind if the rules stay the same for next time - its of your benefit to be the first team to finish, and to have hammer in the last end, because only then do you have a chance for a walk-off box shot. I don't remember what was in the box (whose contents were also paid for with 50/50 funds), but I like our beach towels.

With the "Winter" season over after five consecutive weeks of curling (the longest stretch to date), I'm not sure when we'll be curling again. We'll find out in a couple of weeks, I think.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Weekend Recap: 5/18/08

Just so there's something fresh in my blog between Friday and Monday, here's a quick recap of what we did this weekend, all of which will be written about this week:

Friday: Went curling, of course, and then ate too much food at the after-party.
Saturday: Went to the NASCAR "All-Star" race (whatever it's called now) in Charlotte. Beforehand, we got to Charlotte a few hours early and played disc golf at two Charlotte-area courses.
Sunday: Slept until 11:00a (unheard of for us), then went to see the Carolina Rollergirls that evening.

It was a very busy weekend. I guess we're trying to make up in advance for the fact that we're probably not doing to do much of anything Memorial Day weekend.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wrigley's

As I sit here chewing a piece of Big Red, I have to think. How does Wrigley's make money? Gum is cheap, and not everyone buys it. I might spend $10 on gum per year. Maybe. And it's not like Wrigley makes a whole bunch of other products, either. This isn't ConAgra Foods we're talking about. Gum is pretty much it. And yet, Wrigley profited over $600 million last year (source).

Am I missing something here? Maybe gum is really cheap to make.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

$600 For Everyone!

According to a letter I got in the mail this week, I'm supposed to get that $600 "economic stimulus" check by tomorrow. "So, what are you going to spend it on? Huh? Tell us Chris!"

Well, nothing. I could claim that I'm using it to buy our own washer/dryer later this month. I could also claim that I'm using that $600 to pay for 6,000 miles' worth of gas. But am I really? Nope. If I wasn't getting this $600, then I would still be buying a washer/dryer. I am also not likely to do any "extra" driving because I got this check in the mail. So, I guess this $600 will possibly go towards a down payment on a house next year. That's the most likely scenario.

Boring, huh?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The REALLY Ultimate North Carolina Road Trip

Last week, these guys drove to 48 states in less than five days. Sounds like fun, eh?

Well, that trip's now been done, and I've already been to all 48 states, so there's really no reason for me to make that trip. Besides, I doubt I could improve much upon it. The idea behind their trip was to drive to all 48 states in as little time as possible, and thus set a "world record". This isn't an official Guinness Book record, so I don't know where they keep these records, but supposedly, the old record was over five days, and they broke it. Looking at their route, I don't see any obvious ways to save time. Clearly, they thought this through.

Instead, let's look at a more accessible alternative that wouldn't require us to take any time off work. How quickly could we drive to all 100 counties in North Carolina?

Here's the route I came up with:

This probably isn't the quickest route, in part because I planned the route so it would start and end in the Raleigh-Durham area. A one-way trip across the state, much like the 48-state route, would be faster. I also didn't take full advantage of high-speed expressways, but that's much harder to do at the county level than the state level.

Now, the numbers: according to Microsoft Streets and Trips, this route is over 1,900 miles long, and would take over 41 hours to complete.

This was a fun exercise, but I don't think we'll ever make this trip. We've already driven across North Carolina in one day, and we would just be going to the same places we've already been. And for what? To set some "record" that probably doesn't even exist yet? In my opinion, driving that far for that long without ever leaving the state would be a total waste of time and mileage.

But hey, that doesn't mean you can't try it.

Let's Go Marlins! And Rays!

Yeah, I know. The MLB season isn't even one-fourth over yet. But on the other hand, the season is almost one-fourth over, and not only are the Florida Marlins currently leading their division, so are the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Wahoo! Might I actually have a reason to follow baseball this year?

During the offseason, when the Marlins traded away their two highest-paid players for a bunch of prospects (a standard Marlins procedure), I pretty much gave up on the season four months before it even began. But even now, I'm trying not to get my hopes up, because these things seem to even out as the season progresses. Obviously, any playoff berth would be a massive success, but even if the Marlins were to finish with a better record than the team they made that trade with, the Detroit Tigers, I would still be satisfied, just because of the irony associated with it. Right now, the Marlins' record is 23-16, while the Tigers' record is 16-23. In retrospect, it makes sense. I don't know how well Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis are playing with the Tigers this year, other than the stats, but as their time in Florida came to a close, Cabrera was gaining a reputation as a very talented player with a poor work ethic. Meanwhile, Willis had one Cy Young-caliber season, but since then has been a .500 pitcher at best. I'd have to say that was a smart trade. Meanwhile, the new star of the team is Hanley Ramirez, who was just signed to a $70 million contract. Really? $70 million? From the Marlins? Part of me wants to say "woohoo", but the realistic side of me says "how many years before they trade him too?" Every player I can think of that the Marlins have signed to a large multi-year contract has been traded before his contract was up.

Well, regardless, Ramirez certainly won't be traded this year (I hope), and the Marlins have given me a reason to pay attention this season, rather than almost ignore baseball completely, like I was planning to do this year.

As for the Devil Rays? Well, I don't really care much about them, and I'm certainly not "joining the bandwagon" (if they even have one yet). But any time neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox are leading the AL East, that's a good thing. There's motivation to pull for them right there. I'm also amused that these two teams are at or near the bottom of the league in payroll (Tampa 29th, Florida 30th) and attendance (Tampa 27th, Florida 30th). I'd love to help out and attend some Marlins (or even Devil Rays) games, but living in North Carolina, all I can do is go see the Rays' AAA affiliate (Durham), or the Marlins' AA (Carolina) and A (Greensboro) affiliates. I guess that'll have to do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Nipple Mountain

On Sunday, Amber and I went to Pilot Mountain State Park, because we didn't feel like staying inside all day, despite the weather (cloudy with intermittent rain), and despite the fact that Pilot Mountain is a two-hour drive from Raleigh (Cary). Two hours? Bah! To us, that's nothing.

You get a nice view of Pilot Mountain from US-52:

As such, we've nicknamed it "Nipple Mountain".

Unfortunately, once we got up there, there were a bunch of clouds in the way. Here's a dramatization of our view from the mountainside:

But the walk was nice. The "big pinnacle" (i.e. the nipple) looks much bigger from the road than it actually is. The trail going around all the way around the nipple is a relatively easy 0.8-mile loop from the summit parking lot. And when we started on the trail, we had no idea. The visibility was so low, we couldn't even see the nipple until we were right under it.

We'll have to go back on a clear day. I don't think the mountain is going anywhere in the meantime.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Curling Recap: 5/9/08

End........ 12345678 |TTL
-------------------------
Our team... 00040201 | 07
Other team. 21202040 | 11

Last week, I tabulated detailed curling statistics for the season, and marveled at one stat in particular: our opponents have only scored multiple points with last rock in 3-of-27 ends this season. So, of course, this week, our opponent scored multiple points with the hammer in all three opportunities.

Probably the most frustrating end in the match was the 2nd end. Here's approximately how the house looked at - for lack of a better expression - the conclusion of the end: (our team = red)

To have five rocks in the house, with last rock, and give up one, is frustrating.

Even so, we still qualified for the "league championship" this coming Friday. I'm not sure what the league champion gets, but it probably isn't as rewarding as the infamous "box" that's in play during the last week of the season.

To recap the idea behind the box (which I've mentioned before, somewhere): the "box" contains top-secret prizes that are awarded to whoever is in possession of the box at the end of the night. Whenever a team executed a draw within four feet of the button, or a double take-out or better, that team gets the box, at least until another team takes it away. Now...last time the box was in play, one team took advantage of the rules to win the box. The old rule was, whenever the first of the four games was over, the team in possession of the box at that time officially won the box and its contents. So, one team conceded their match with two ends to play in order to secure the box. Since then, the rule has been changed so that the box is still in play until the scheduled end of curling (10:00p), so that no team can unfairly manipulate the timing, other than to make sure their match doesn't finish 15 minutes early.

History is shown that nobody really cares about the "league championship"; all anyone's really interested in is the box. I'd have to agree. So hopefully I'll have my draw weight next week.
To have five rocks in the house, with last rock, and give up one, is frustrating.

Even so, we still qualified for the "league championship" this coming Friday. I'm not sure what the league champion gets, but it probably isn't as rewarding as the infamous "box" that's in play during the last week of the season.

To recap the idea behind the box (which I've mentioned before, somewhere): the "box" contains top-secret prizes that are awarded to whoever is in possession of the box at the end of the night. Whenever a team executed a draw within four feet of the button, or a double take-out or better, that team gets the box, at least until another team takes it away. Now...last time the box was in play, one team took advantage of the rules to win the box. The old rule was, whenever the first of the four games was over, the team in possession of the box at that time officially won the box and its contents. So, one team conceded their match with two ends to play in order to secure the box. Since then, the rule has been changed so that the box is still in play until the scheduled end of curling (10:00p), so that no team can unfairly manipulate the timing.

History is shown that nobody really cares about the "league championship"; all anyone's really interested in is the box. I'd have to agree. So hopefully I'll have my draw weight working next week.

Driving Around North Durham

This was actually two weekends ago, but that's okay. If I don't tell you, you won't know the difference!

In terms of looking for viable locations to buy a house, we really liked Hillsborough. But we should look around in some other places too, right? Why not give north Durham a shot?

Here's what we generally learned about north Durham: the farther north we go, the better the neighborhood. We found that we basically have to get north of Infinity Rd/Latta Rd/Umstead Rd (yellow line #1) to find neighborhoods that are as good as, or better than, what we saw in Hillsborough. But by the time you get up here, the work commute would be just as long as it would be from Hillsborough, perhaps longer. And in that regard, I'd say anything north of Mason Rd/St Marys Rd (yellow line #2) would be too far away. So, that doesn't leave much room, but who knows - maybe we'll find a good deal on a nice house somewhere in that range. Unlike Hillsborough, north Durham has a Kroger, and it's very close to the Valley Springs disc golf course, so it's worth looking into in the future.

Amber's Italy Photos

Amber posted phots from her trip to the Italian island of Sardinia, in case you'd like to check them out:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoasties/sets/72157604986135221/

Friday, May 09, 2008

Hotmail

Remember Hotmail? Does anyone still use it? Or has everyone who used Hotmail switched to Gmail by now?

I had a Hotmail account "back in the day", but it was one of several web-based email accounts that I signed up purely for the sake of having a bunch of email addresses. My first free email address was actually through this thing called Juno. This was even before the days of webmail. Juno was a separate program that you installed on your computer, and would allow you to send attachment-free text emails - and you didn't even need internet access to use it! Juno had its own set of dial-up numbers that you could connect to and download/upload your emails.

I imagine many people's first email address was _______@aol.com, but not me! My family never paid a dime to America Online.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sunscreen

Several years ago, I had a crappy little website called "Chris Allen's Bad Excuse for a Website". On that website, I had something called the "Chris Allen Files". Basically, it wasn't much different than this blog, except that there was no such thing as a "blog" back then, and I only posted something new every two or three weeks. It didn't last long, because the articles' contents gradually became more politcal and devisive, and that pissed some people off. Hmm...is this blog facing a similar plight?

Well, anyway, the only reason I mention that is because one of my articles had something to do with why you should wear sunscreen. It was really well-written, too. Unfortunately, in a fit of rage, I deleted all records of the "Chris Allen Files" from existence; otherwise I would just re-publish it here.

I think the point of that article was this. Some people object to the use of sunscreen in general. But then, after they get a sunburn, that bottle of aloe is never too far away, and you can never use too much. Why is that? Why not just use sunscreen beforehand, which you only have to do once, instead of using aloe repeatedly for several days after the fact, not to mention being in extreme discomfort all the while? How silly.

My problem is that while I do use sunscreen, I never manage to use it in all of the places I need to. There's always one place I forget to cover. For example, at last weekend's ARCA race, I used sunscreen on my arms, face, and neck...but not most of my legs. The reason? Up to that point, I could not remember ever getting my legs sunburnt. Given that I always wear shorts when I can, my legs have always had a healthy tan, not to mention a thick coating of leg hair on top of that. Well, needless to say, there's a first time for everything. Ouch. Lesson learned.

Two years of wearing long pants to an indoor office every day must have triggered the death of my sun-resistant leg tan. So, I think this means I need to spend more time outside this summer. I am setting a minimum of two trips to the beach between now and Labor Day. And when we go, I'll be sure to bring the sunscreen.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Rockingham Speedway

I really thought I had written a post about my November 2006 visit to the old NASCAR track in Rockingham, NC, but apparently all I did was talk about writing a post about it. Whoops!

Well, anyway, NASCAR used to race at a place called Rockingham Speedway (formerly known as North Carolina Motor Speedway), located near Rockingham, NC. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and it's only 60 miles from Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, so I guess it was inevitable that Rockingham's NASCAR races would eventually get moved to places like Texas and Phoenix. But then, they closed the track! Bruton Smith, the owner of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, bought the track, and basically just let it sit there. Since then, it has only been used for testing and to film movies. He did the same with North Wilkesboro Speedway, buying half of the track and moving one of its NASCAR races to his new track in Texas. North Wilkesboro hasn't seen any kind of racing since then. Why should a guy like Smith own all of these race tracks if he's not going to do anything with them? He doesn't care about these small-town tracks. Why can't these tracks host something like...oh, I don't know, an ARCA race? (To people who don't know what ARCA is, it's basically a minor-league NASCAR, except that it's completely independent of NASCAR.)

Well, Smith doesn't own the Rockingham track anymore, and the track's new owner bought the track specifically to bring racing back there. So, that's what he did, with last weekend's ARCA race, the "Carolina 500". And, we were there! I've always had a soft spot for the "little guy" and the "old school", so I was happy to support this race. Tickets were $30 each (bought at the track with no Ticketmaster "convenience fee"!), less than half the price of equivalent seating at a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. We took some pictures, which I'll have posted eventually. UPDATE (5/7/08 9:08p): I posted pictures in a separate post. Keep scrolling down.

I like that Hillenburg is making an effort to make this race the premier race on the ARCA schedule. It's the longest race of the ARCA season (500 kilometers/312 miles), it had the richest purse in ARCA history, and they started 50 cars! I thought that was neat, even if all those extra cars did nothing more than get in everyone's way.

As for the race itself, the outcome was never seriously in doubt - 17-year-old Joey Logano, touted as NASCAR's "next big thing", was clearly faster than everyone else, and at one point had lapped the 3rd-place car - but it was fun to watch. This was the first time I had ever actually watched a race in person. One disadvantage about watching this particular race in person was that I missed most of the wrecks (you have to be looking in the right place at the right time to actually see the wreck), and I had no idea who was running 6th on back, because the scoreboard only showed the top 5. Sure, the track doesn't have all the amenities of a modern NASCAR track, like video replays, large scoring pylons, or even SAFER barriers, but that's part of its charm. And I also think that trying to figure everything out myself (including keeping track of everyone's pit strategy, and timing lap times and intervals with my stopwatch), instead of just having the TV announcers tell me everything, is part of the fun! (There was a track announcer, but you could only hear him during caution flags, and even that was difficult with my earplugs and all. Earplugs were a wise investment on my part.)

So, I'm glad we went. I think Amber had fun, too. By no means is she the race fan that I am, but walking into the track amongst North Carolina's finest citizens (most of whom will probably be voting for John McCain in November), she said, "This is so much better than Italy."

At less than 90 miles away, Rockingham is closer to Raleigh (Cary) than any track NASCAR currently races on. (Martinsville is 105 miles away. However, if we end up moving to Hillsborough, we'll only be 70 miles away from Martinsville.) So, it's too bad NASCAR doesn't race at Rockingham anymore. But, such is life.

Rockingham Speedway Pictures

And now, a few pictures from the ARCA race at Rockingham Speedway:


It's a lot easier to take pictures of the cars when they're going slow.

You can't tell from the picture, but that's Tony Stewart waving the green flag. Supposedly.

Whoops! Unfortunately, the biggest wreck took place on the backstretch, so we couldn't really see it.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

When In Doubt, Talk About Gas Prices

The price of gas is one of those topics that everyone brings up. It's kind of like one of those "fallback" topics that people lacking in social skills (e.g. me) will bring up at a party for lack of anything else to say. "Hey...um...how about those high gas prices?"

Anyway, I do have a couple of things to say about them. Last week, my gas station sale was over $40 for the first time. Woohoo?

(I apologize in advance for this politically-oriented rant.) I have to say, I'm on Barack Obama's side when it comes to the "Great Gas Tax Holiday Debate". This gas tax holiday is going to provide a proverbial "drop in the bucket" for most people, and it's certainly not going to help long-term. This is just another short-term "patch" to the energy crisis that does nothing more than allow politicans to get up on their pedestals and appear as if they're fighting "for the people", when really, they're not. Why not keep the gas tax, and put that money into funding a longer-term solution? It's becoming quite clear that the sooner we can find something other than gasoline, the better. And besides - if we impose a "gas tax holiday", all that is going to do is encourage people to drive more and use more gasoline, which will increase demand, which will increase the price...and so forth. (And for the record, I don't think ethanol is the answer, either.)

From the oil companies' perspectives, the strategy of raising prices a lot, and then lowering them a little but, is quite effective. Sure, people might start cutting back on their driving and investing in high-mileage cars when the price goes from $3.20/gal to $3.60/gal in two weeks. But then, when they lower the price back 15 or 20 cents, people will forget that gas is still a lot more expensive than it was not that long ago. The reaction will be something like, "Hey, gas is only $3.40/gallon now! That's not that bad. Let's get in the Escalade and drive to Texas! Gas is cheap!" A few years ago, didn't you think a price of $2.50/gal was absurd? Didn't it want to make you cut back on your driving back then? How's that working out these days?

Actually, aside from the Nebraska trip, I have been cutting back on my driving over the last three months. But we'll probably make up for that this summer, gas tax holiday or no gas tax holiday.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Countries I'd Like To Visit, From 1 to 192

When I wrote this post about Italy last week, that gave me an idea. Which countries would I most like to visit? And while I'm at it, why not rank every country as such?

So, here are the ground rules:
1) Only the 193 widely recognized countries are considered (sorry, Northern Cyprus and Kosovo). I'm leaving out the United States, so that leaves 192 countries.
2) Independent overseas territories (e.g. Bermuda, Greenland) are not considered at all, just to simplify matters.
3) Here's a general criteria for ranking: if I was given a free two-week vacation to any foreign country in the world, where would I most like to go?
4) I will disregard how likely I am to visit that country again later in my life. For example, we can make a relatively inexpensive trip to Canada any time we choose, but that doesn't mean I have any less of a desire to go there. "Ease of a future visit" will not factor into these rankings. To put it another way, for the sake of these rankings, assume this is the last trip I'll ever make to another country.
5) For informational purposes, Canada is the only country other than the United States that I have ever been to.

Without further ado...

#1 - Australia
#2 - Canada
#3 - Japan
#4 - Norway
#5 - Sweden
#6 - Finland
#7 - New Zealand
#8 - Switzerland
#9 - Austria
#10 - United Kingdom
#11 - France
(The top 11 countries are the only ones I would seriously consider vacationing in at this time. The next few are either curiosities, or just various European countries that I could possibly have a good time in.)
#12 - Russia (I think it would be fun to take the Trans-Siberian Railway.)
#13 - South Africa
#14 - Ireland
#15 - Iceland
#16 - Greece
#17 - Germany
#18 - Netherlands
#19 - Belgium
#20 - Italy
#21 - Peru (At this point, all six inhabitable continents have now made the list.)
#22 - Brazil
#23 - Chile
#24 - United Arab Emirates (UAE probably isn't much of a vacation destination, but I think it looks like an interesting place.)
#25 - Egypt
#26 - Madagascar
#27 - Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls is along the Zimbabwe/Zambia border.)
#28 - Zambia (By association with Zimbabwe. Grouping like countries together will be a trend throughout this list.)
(At this point, it's starting to get difficult. And there are still 164 countries to go!)
#29 - Ecuador (Includes the Galapagos Islands, which are probably more interesting than the mainland.)
#30 - China
#31 - Spain
#32 - Portugal
#33 - Denmark
#34 - Monaco (I doubt I could spend a full two weeks in a country as small as Monaco, so let me append this rule: I don't have to spend the entire two weeks there if I don't want to. Of course, these rules are completely hypothetical. If I received a free two week vacation in Monaco, why wouldn't I at least cross the border into France?)
#35 - Bahrain (When small countries start appearing on the list, that says a lot about how much I want to go to some of these places. As far as Bahrain goes, it's supposed to be a lot like UAE, only much smaller.)
#36 - Morocco
#37 - South Korea
#38 - Malaysia
#39 - Argentina
#40 - Kenya
#41 - Tanzania
#42 - Nepal
#43 - Hungary
#44 - Ukraine
#45 - Cyprus
#46 - Philippines
(I think it's time to start weaving in some Caribbean and Pacific island nations. They're all pretty much the same in my book.)
#47 - Fiji
#48 - Jamaica
#49 - Barbados
#50 - Bahamas
#51 - Tonga
#52 - Samoa
#53 - Trinidad and Tobago
#54 - Saint Lucia (I don't know a thing about many of these places, so I'm basically throwing darts.)
#55 - Saint Kitts and Nevis
#56 - Grenada
#57 - Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
#58 - Dominica
#59 - Antigua and Barbuda
#60 - Thailand
#61 - Turkey
(Now, back for a few European countries.)
#62 - San Marino
#63 - Luxembourg
#64 - Czech Republic
#65 - Poland
#66 - Mongolia (I read up on Mongolia sometime last week, and I think it has potential.)
#67 - Mexico (Hey, it had to make the list at some point! I think Mexico just seems worse than it actually is, particularly compared to countries on other continents, because it's right next to us. I was initially tempted to place it in the 80s, but that would have been a little biased. Come to think of it, maybe I overrated Brazil at #22.)
#68 - Sri Lanka
#69 - India (Probably too crowded to make a decent getaway, but who knows?)
#70 - Croatia
#71 - Malta
#72 - Israel (Am I a bad Christian if I would rather go to Malta than Israel?)
#73 - Slovakia
#74 - Costa Rica (I'll throw in a Central American country every now and then for good measure.)
#75 - Romania
#76 - Bulgaria
#77 - Latvia
#78 - Lithuania
#79 - Qatar
#80 - Uganda
#81 - Ghana
#82 - Senegal
#83 - Vatican City (See comment on Israel.)
#84 - Kazakhstan
#85 - Tunisia
#86 - Andorra
#87 - Liechtenstein
#88 - Belarus
#89 - Albania
#90 - Estonia
#91 - Slovenia
#92 - El Salvador
#93 - Brunei
#94 - Sao Tome and Principe (Speaking of throwing darts, I'm just going to put all of the African island nations together, along with some more Pacific nations.)
#95 - Cape Verde
#96 - Solomon Islands
#97 - Marshall Islands
#98 - Micronesia
#99 - Seychelles
#100 - Comoros
#101 - Mauritius
#102 - Vanuatu
#103 - Tuvalu
#104 - Kiribati
#105 - Palau (Just for the record, before I even considered ever visiting any of these countries, I would do extensive research beforehand to find out whether that would be a good idea. For instance, I don't know a thing about Palau. For all I know, they could be having a Civil War right now.)
#106 - Nauru
#107 - Saudi Arabia
#108 - Singapore (I guess Singapore is a popular destination for some, but I don't see it. I guess I'd rather go to nearby Malaysia.)
#109 - Dominican Republic (They advertise here, so it can't be that bad, right?)
#110 - Venezuela (One nice thing about Venezuela: cheap gas!)
#111 - Namibia
#112 - Mozambique
#113 - Nicaragua
#114 - Panama
#115 - Vietnam
#116 - Azerbaijan
#117 - Armenia
#118 - Georgia
#119 - North Korea (Sure, we have some disagreements with North Korea, but I don't consider it quite as "dangerous" as the countries towards the bottom.)
#120 - Cuba (I know Americans aren't supposed to go here, but I've heard Cuba is a very popular vacation destination among Canadians. And I value highly the opinions of Canadians. Besides, this is just a list of preferences, not actual intent.)
#121 - Uruguay
#122 - Paraguay
#123 - Bolivia
#124 - Maldives (Maldives has the lowest highest point of any country in the world: two meters above sea level. Sounds like a pretty boring place.)
#125 - Laos
#126 - Cambodia
#127 - Jordan
#128 - Bhutan
#129 - Bangladesh
#130 - Tajikistan
#131 - Turkmenistan
#132 - Uzbekistan
#133 - Kyrgyzstan
#134 - Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo did host the Winter Olympics, you know.)
#135 - Serbia (Includes Kosovo, but I would probably stay away from there.)
#136 - Macedonia
#137 - Montenegro (The last European country on the list.)
#138 - Moldova
#139 - Colombia
#140 - Guyana
#141 - Suriname (That's it for South America, too.)
#142 - Guatemala
#143 - Honduras
#144 - Belize
#145 - Liberia (At this point, I'm basically just going back and forth from one continent to another.)
#146 - Botswana
#147 - Cameroon
#148 - Angola
#149 - Gabon
#150 - Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire)
#151 - Republic of the Congo
#152 - Mali
#153 - Cote d'Ivoire
#154 - Indonesia
#155 - Papua New Guinea
#156 - Syria
#157 - Oman
#158 - Lebanon (Lebanon might not be a bad place, but I'm a little uneasy about it.)
#159 - Nigeria
#160 - Central African Republic
#161 - Chad
#162 - Burkina Faso
#163 - Guinea-Bissau
#164 - Guinea (How did I distinguish between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau? A coin flip.)
#165 - Equatorial Guinea
#166 - Yemen
#167 - Algeria
#168 - Niger
#169 - Djibouti (The best country name in the world, but it's in an unfortunate location.)
#170 - Togo
#171 - Sierra Leone
#172 - Malawi
#173 - Benin
#174 - Gambia
#175 - Swaziland
#176 - Lesotho
#177 - Burundi
#178 - Haiti
#179 - Sudan (At this point, the criteria is which countries are the least dangerous. There are problems here, but it's a big country, right?)
#180 - Pakistan (Pakistan probably isn't that bad as a whole, but still...what do they have that's worth seeing?)
#181 - Iran (My comment on North Korea probably applies here as well, but like with Pakistan, what's there?)
#182 - Mauritania
#183 - Libya
#184 - East Timor (Raise your hand if you've heard of East Timor!)
#185 - Ethiopia
#186 - Rwanda
#187 - Somalia
#188 - Eritrea
#189 - Kuwait
#190 - Myanmar (Last week, Myanmar might have been about 50 places farther up the list.)
#191 - Afghanistan
#192 - Iraq (We hear a lot about Iraq, but that's because we're most exposed to American media. The conditions in other countries might actually be far worse than they are in Iraq right now, but of course, all we hear about is Iraq. I can only work with the information I have. Basically, what I'm saying is, don't take the bottom of this list too seriously.)

Curling Recap: 5/2/08

It appears my blog is no longer on the front page when I do a Google search for "Triangle Curling Club". I think that's more a function of the club getting listed on the websites of other curling clubs, so in my book, that's a good thing.

End........ 12345678+ |TTL
-------------------------
Other team. 011011100 | 05
Our team... 100300011 | 06

I don't have any diagrams this week, because I don't really have any spectacular or interesting shots to show. This match was actually kind of like a "real curling match", in that every end but one featured only one point. Defensive matches aren't as interesting to diagram on a single-shot basis. Instead, here are a couple general curling notes.

First off, what's up with that "plus" end? It wasn't technically an extra end; otherwise I would have labeled it "9". It was a quickie tie-breaker. Since our ice time is limited, we usually don't have time to get in a full extra end. Instead, our tie-breaker is "skip rocks". Each team's skip throws one rock with no sweeping, and closest to the button wins. (The first skip rock is removed from play so that both skips draw to an empty house.) I guess it's the curling equivalent of a shootout. It's kind of a lame tie-breaker, but it's the best we can do given the time constraints, and given that a tie game would be even more lame. Besides, if the game ends in a tie, who buys the drinks?

That was the first match I can recall that went to a tie-breaker, and we were fortunate enough to win, whether we deserved it or not. I thought I played pretty well, especially with my take-outs (my specialty, so it seems), but the other team's second played well too, so we canceled out. But one thing I've noticed this season, is that even though we give up points in a lot of ends, we often manage to only give up one. If you can do that, you can stay in contention, even if you give up five one-enders.

Hey, that gives me an idea. Let's break down the statistics on all of our team's ends this season! Here we go: (The 17-4 match in which I did not participate is not included here.)

With hammer (21 ends)
Scored 3: 2
Scored 2: 2
Scored 1: 10
Allowed 1: 5
Allowed 2: 2
Average result: +0.52

Without hammer (27 ends)
Scored 5: 1
Scored 4: 0
Scored 3: 2
Scored 2: 6
Scored 1: 6
Allowed 1: 9
Allowed 2: 2
Allowed 3: 0
Allowed 4: 1
Average result: +0.44

The good: We've scored points in over half of our ends, both with the hammer (14-of-21) and without the hammer (15-of-27). The bad: we've only scored two or more points with the hammer in 4-of-21 ends. Fortunately, our defense has been even better than that (3-of-27), and that's probably why we're leading the league with a 6-1 record. I wonder what these statistics would look like in the World Championships or the Brier. Do they keep this sort of thing?

Friday, May 02, 2008

No Plans To Go To Italy Myself

(First, two notes: 1) I'm giving in and calling it Italy once again, not its real name Italia, because that's just what English-speaking people do. 2) I use the tag "road trips" to encompass any kind of travel, even if it's not technically by road.)

So, Amber is back from Italy. And based on our conversations, I have zero desire to go there myself. Nothing against Italy; it's just not my thing. Then again, does the island of Sardinia (Sardegna) really count as "Italy"? The mainland is probably a lot more, well, Italian in nature.

Either way, from what she's told me, here's what I think of Italy, and perhaps Europe in general:

- They really like seafood in Sardinia. Makes sense, right? They're surrounded by water. But by the time Amber got back, she was tired of eating fish, and longed for a good old-fashioned American meal, so I immediately took her out to Cracker Barrel. She said she didn't see any Cracker Barrels in Italy.
- There aren't many fat people over there, probably because there aren't any Cracker Barrels in Italy. Some Europeans even like to make fun of fat people. (At least, the person who sat next to Amber on the flight back home did. He was Albanian.)
- It's way too trendy. I like simple things, and staying as out of trend as possible.
- Italians like to eat dinner after 8 pm, and "dinner" can last for several hours. If I'm not done with dinner by 6 pm, I consider that "late".
- Italians like Ferrari. Being a Lewis Hamilton supporter, I can't go along with that.

And besides, in order to get to Italy in a timely manner, you have to fly, and we'd rather drive. If we're going to fly somewhere far away, we might as well fly to Australia, which is far more suited to our style. (Plus, we speak the native tongue, and that helps.) But in the meantime, Amber is sick of flying, and we've decided that we won't be doing any flying on our honeymoon.

Italy is already pretty low on my list of foreign countries I'd like to visit, and Amber's done nothing to change that. Well, it's relatively low on the list, at least. It's still much higher on the list than, say, Sierra Leone. Hey, that gives me an idea for a future blog post!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Hooray Technology!

As I write this, Amber is flying on American Airlines Flight 4540 from Boston to Raleigh, the final leg of her return from Italia.

Twenty years ago, I would probably have to call the airport or the airline to get a flight status, to make sure the flight wasn't delayed, so that I wouldn't get to the airport to pick her up any earlier than I needed to. But now, we can do that online! Better yet, through this web site, I can find out exactly where her plane is. Sweet.

Right now, it's hovering over the eastern tip of Long Island, and it's scheduled to get to RDU in 1 hour, 9 minutes.

If only I had known about this earlier in the day, I could have tracked her Rome -> Boston flight all day while I was at work. Darn.

NASCAR Meets March Madness

What did I do at home all week while Amber was gone? Well, I had time to come up with some crazy NASCAR-related ideas.

In the very early days of the Republic of Chris Auto Racing Association (a childhood racing league of mine, performed with Matchbox-type cars on the living room floor), the "races" weren't actually "races" in the traditional sense. They were bracket-style tournaments. Only two cars raced at a time. At the time, it made perfect sense to do it this way. For one thing, I only have two hands, so how could I race more than two cars at a time? Also, this is how they do it in drag racing; why not carry it over to stock car racing?

This week, with the help of my NASCAR video game and that dumb racing league I operate in it, I resurrected the bracket format, with a 126-car tournament. Here was the basic format:
- Each car runs a qualifying attempt, just like in a normal race. Except instead of determining the starting position, qualifying determines each driver's seed in the bracket, from 1 to 126. The top two qualifiers get a first round bye.
- Each "round" consists of one short race (although no more than 32 cars race at a time). Except instead of racing everybody, each driver only needs to beat one other person (their current-round opponent) in order to advance to the next round, and that's all that matters.

It was pretty neat, but more of a novelty than anything else. It was fun to do once. But it gave me an idea that could be applied to real-life NASCAR.

A few years ago, NASCAR implemented a season-ending "playoff" system to make the end of the season more interesting. Except that it's not really a "playoff" in the traditional sense. What if NASCAR had an actual head-to-head playoff over the last 10 races to determine the champion? Here's a possible format:

- Just like in the current "playoff" format, all drivers race in every race all the way to the end of the season. The races themselves don't change.
- The top 16 drivers in points after the 26th race make the playoff. (Currently, 12 drivers make the playoff, but 16 is obviously better for a bracket-style tournament.)
- Drivers are seeded according to their points position after race #26.
- The first three rounds of the playoffs are "best-of-3" series. Whoever finishes higher between the two drivers in each head-to-head matchup "wins" each "game". The "championship match" is a one-race duel between the top two drivers, where whoever finishes higher in the season-ending race wins the championship. This would guarantee the championship would go down to the last race, and would be very easy for fans to follow - and exciting, too!
- Drivers who are eliminated from the playoff before the championship race fall back on their season-long point totals, for the sake of determining their final points position. In this format, the top two points positions are given to the two finalists, while 3rd on down fall back on season-long points, with no distinction made to whether anyone made the playoff or not. This way, drivers who miss the playoff can still finish in the top 16, and drivers who make the playoff can still finish 17th or worse. This makes each race meaningful for every driver, whether they're still in the playoff or not.

If I applied this playoff to the 2007 season, here's how the bracket would look:

So, this would still have given us the same champion, Jimmie Johnson. But how about all of those first-round upsets? Wouldn't this have been a more exciting way to determine the same champion? I need to emphasize that this system isn't designed to slot all 16 drivers into their system-ending positions. It's only designed be an exciting way to produce a champion. That's why all the playoff losers fall back on their season-long points for their final position. So even though Jeff Gordon lost his first-round matchup with teammate Casey Mears, he still would have finished a respectable 3rd in the final season standings (behind Johnson and bracket runner-up Biffle). Of course, it's possible that someone like Gordon would have been able to finish ahead of Mears in two of those first three playoff races, if his team knew that's all he had to do. These head-to-head matchups could make things really interesting as far as how drivers and teams in the playoffs approach each race.

One issue with this system is that winning a race outright is now far less important than it's ever been. But here's a wrinkle that could be added: if you win a race outright during your 3-race series, you automatically win the series, even if your opponent beats you in the other two races. (Unless your opponent also wins a race, of course.) However, applying that wrinkle to the above bracket would not have changed any of the results.

Now, just to clarify something. Does this system produce a true, fair season-long champion? Of course not. If it were completely up to me, NASCAR would go back to the old system, with no playoff whatsoever. In my mind, a season-long championship produces a more worthy champion than some gimmicky system designed to bump television ratings. However, NASCAR is a business, and their primary goal is entertainment, so this system could potentially be more interesting, not to mention much easier to follow from the fan's perspective. No calculators required.

So, should I forward this on to NASCAR president Brian France?