Thursday, July 30, 2009

Xbox 360? Nope...Not Yet

Life hasn't been particularly eventful lately. We've already gotten married. We've already bought our house. We're not planning on having kids until at least another year plus nine months. So, what's left is the basic routine. Maybe that's why I've started playing more video games lately.

I'm still using my old PlayStation 2 that I bought five years ago for $150. The price is now $100, at least at some stores I've been to, so it's only depreicated in value by 33% in five years. Now that's a good buy! How long did it take to depreciate in value by 33% when it was new?

Now...that PS2 of mine is pretty old, outdated, and let's face it, I can do a lot better. I have thought about upgrading. A lot. The Wii is tempting, but I think the majority of games I play (sports games) are more tailored towards the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 than the Wii. I don't envision myself putting in a lot of hours on the Wii. So, that's out. If I'm going to spend over $200 on something, I want it to be something I know won't be sitting in the closet collecting dust in two months. The PS3 is also out, because the Xbox 360 is cheaper and, apparently, better.

Now, about that Xbox 360. My excuse for not upgrading has always been, "It's only a significant improvement over the PS2 if you have a high definition television." Well, now we have a high definition television, so what's my excuse now? Really, it comes down to money, and nothing else. (Doesn't everything?) $300 isn't that much to spend on an Xbox 360 if that was all I had to spend. But then there are the games, and other things I would have to buy that I haven't even thought of - for example, an HDMI cable, so that I wouldn't have to constantly switch back and forth between the DirecTV receiver's component cables and the Xbox's component cables. (My understanding is that $300 Xbox 360 comes with component cables but not an HDMI cable, although HDMI is supported.) Meanwhile, I already have the PS2, and games are dirt cheap now, so I don't have the motivation to upgrade...yet.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gillette Fusion? Nope

It's pretty obvious from commercials and other advertising that Gillette really, really, really wants me to stop using the "Mach3" I've been using for 9 years and switch to the "Fusion". Well, it's not going to happen. Mach3 replacement blades are expensive enough as it is, and they work just fine. Why switch to something even more expensive?

Even with the Mach3, it's tough to drop $20 on just one item. Replacement blades seem notoriously overpriced to me. But I guess it's still cheaper than to get disposables or something from the bargain bin, because those don't last as long as the Mach3s do, which I've been replacing about once a month. (I know this because I made a note on my computer last time I bought an 8-pack of blades. That was last December, and I've just now made it to the last cartridge and needed to buy another pack.)

Gillette also likes to advertise that with their blades, you know when it's time to change the blade, because this blue indicator strip will disappear. As you might expect by the fact that I only go through one blade per month, I haven't been following the advice of the indicator strip. Not even close. I think the indicator strip is like a car mechanic saying you need to change your oil every 3,000 miles. How about just changing the blade when it starts to hurt or doesn't work that well anymore? That method works just fine. No indicator strip required.

New Construction in Durham? Really?

A couple of weeks ago, Amber and I rode our bikes on the American Tobacco Trail, which goes through a good chunk of Durham before ending in downtown. So, we got to see a lot of the city we call home. And let me tell you...there isn't a whole lot going on in these parts. Very much unlike Raleigh (Cary), there isn't much new construction going on here. (Actually, they are building a Lowe's here, but that's the exception rather than the rule.)

It seems that one of the few places in Durham where they're actually building new stuff is Highway 55, right near home. We're getting a Walgreens and a new strip mall or two, but the thing I'm most excited about is this: they're building a new AAA office right near our house. Wahoo! No more driving to Raleigh or US-15/501 for travel information! And yes, this will be a full-fledged AAA office, not just one of those car care places, at least according to the sign.

So, it's good to know we don't live in a part of Durham that's going to look exactly the same 40 years from now, only older.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Travelogue: 7/24/09 - 7/25/09

Surprise - we went on a road trip last weekend! What an unusual thing for us to do.


View Larger Map

This trip had two objectives: 1) visit some family (point 'B' on the map, where we we stayed overnight Friday), and 2) visit a few counties in Virginia we hadn't been to yet.

Now...first off, speaking of counties, since my Aunt Wendy and Uncle Doug were nice enough to let us stay overnight, it was important for me to verify which county they lived in for statistical purposes. For as long as I've been coming here (once a year in the 1990s), it was understood that the house was legally part of Amelia County. But when I find the house in Google Earth, I get a different story:


So, what's the deal? Well, to make a long story short, the house was legally part of Amelia County until January 1st, 2006, at which point things were resurveyed and the house reassigned to its "rightful owners", Nottoway County. The reason it was considered part of Amelia County at first wasn't strictly due to a surveying error, but...well, it doesn't matter. I obsess too much over counties.

(Just a reminder that I've updated several statistics in my "by-the-numbers repertoire, including all of this county-related junk.)

Before moving on to the rest of the drive, let me clarify something. The reason for this long drive was NOT just for personal pride, to say that I've now visited 100 of Virginia's 134 counties. (Virginia's "independent cities", which are separate from counties, are considered "county-equivalent".) The fact is, we like driving, and we like rural road trips, and we really like road trips in places we haven't been before. So when we're looking to take a road trip in a place we haven't been before, the easiest thing for me to do is to look at the trusty county map and see which counties I haven't visited yet. And, along the way, I'll be a little farther along in my quest to visit as many counties as possible. It's win-win! We'd have just as much fun whether I kept track of counties visited or not - well, maybe 98% as much fun - but it's a nice bonus.

So, anyway, we really liked the drive. These were definitely some of the more rural parts of Virginia. Not many people live here, and the only towns that exist in many of these parts only exist because they had to stick the county court house somewhere. This is a general theme in Central Virginia. For many counties, the county seat is a town called "[name of county] Court House", or just "[name of county]". This was also the case with Lunenburg County, which we visited two years ago. (Really? That was two years ago? Wow.) And besides the court house, there isn't much to these places, which makes for a nice drive.

And just so we weren't sitting in the car all day, we acted like good American citizens and visited the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. The park was basically a mostly-reconstructed version of the original town and the buildings where the events took place. It wasn't a bad way to spend 30-45 minutes, if you don't mind spending $4/person.

After that, we drove towards Martinsville, and stopped at one of the more redneck gas stations I've been to, just north of Martinsville. Cigarettes, fried chicken, and check cashing, all in one place! In fact, if you cashed your tax refund check here, they'd give you 8 pieces of chicken, FREE! Dang, why didn't I cash my $8,000 first-time homebuyer check here? Totally missed out on free chicken. (Speaking of Martinsville, the town looks like a complete dump at first glance, so the NASCAR track doesn't appear to be doing a whole lot for the town itself.)

So, that's that. We're probably done road tripping until our cross-country journey on US 50, which begins in 31 days. Not that I'm counting or anything.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Grocery Store Numerical Harmony

Often times, Amber and I will have some frozen waffles. Always, it's two for me, two for Amber. So it's a little inconvenient that Eggos come in packs of 10 instead of 12, because we always end up two short at the end, forcing us to either only have one each instead of two, or one of us to forego having waffles altogether. Bah!

(Side comment: as you may already know, I've already posted the above thought as a Twitter / Facebook update, but I'm reposting it here for two reasons. One, I don't have anything else to write about today. Two, I've made a pledge that any "random thoughts" that I post to Twitter / Facebook will eventually appear on the blog as well, at least in some form. For the record, I still think Twitter is kind of dumb, but I have found a use for it, and it does provide a good outlet for random thoughts that I may otherwise forget I had in the first place.)

Now...I could prevent our waffle conundrum by buying a new box of Eggos when we're down to two. Then, when we run out of the next box, we'll have the perfect number. This is what I do with almost everything else we buy at the grocery store. As soon as we have less than one week's worth of something, I'll put it on the shopping list; this way we'll never run out of it as long as we go shopping every week (which we do for the most part). For some reason, I don't do this with waffles. Why not? I guess I don't care about waffles that much. Waffles aren't necessarily a weekly thing with us like hot dogs are.

Speaking of hot dogs, I have found it very convenient that the hot dogs we buy come in packs of eight, and the hot dog buns we buy also come in packs of eight. So as long as you're "in sync" with dogs and buns, then you'll always need to buy more dogs and buns at the same time. But if you're "out of sync", it's a little more complicated. We've actually been "out of sync" for quite some time, always having different numbers of dogs and buns. I don't know how we got out of sync, but the only way to get back in sync is either to eat a dog-less bun or a bun-less dog. After a couple of bun-less dogs, we're back in hot dog numerical harmony again. Whew!

While I'm on the topic of grocery stores, here's one more random grocery store thought. I have noticed over the last few weeks that the checkout lines at our neighborhood Kroger have been very slow. Almost always, the problem is that they don't have enough cashiers on staff. Who do they think they are, Wal-Mart? Furthermore, when they have three cashiers working, they inexplicably have two of the three working in express lanes. That means if we have more than "about 20" items we have to wait in by far the longest line, unless we want the cashier to give us crap about taking 40 items into the express lane. (We did that once, at the instruction of another cashier, and we still got crap about it.) If you're only going to have three cashiers working, why are you going to put two of them in express lanes? That's dumb. Are you trying to encourage us to buy less than 20 items? Hey, that's fine; we'll get everything else we need at your competitor across the street. I blame the cashiers for being lazy and choosing to staff the express lanes, because from my experience working in a grocery store. I know everyone would rather work the express lanes. (But actually, it was the afore-mentioned express lanes cashier who called the normal lane cashier "lazy" by sending our full cart to the express lane. Who's being lazy here, really?) Anyway, in summary, I'm unhappy with our neighborhood Kroger at the moment, and as a result we're doing our grocery shopping at SuperTarget next week.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Electric Bill Moment of Truth

With the privilege of owning a stand-alone house comes higher energy costs. For instance, the February gas bill - $180 or so - was a little higher than I would like, despite having the thermostat set to very Snuggie-like reading (65°F). But you didn't hear me complain, because I like living in a detatched single-family dwelling.

So, I was a little nervous when I opened the electric bill for this past month. I'm always a little anxious, but especially so this month. (Note - our heater runs on natural gas but our A/C is electric.) But what's this? A bill of less than $60? In the middle of the summer? Sweet! Now...I know that the temperatures have been below average on the East Coast lately. But I doubt an extra 5°F average would have tripled the electric bill.

I can draw a few conclusions from this: 1) Our house keeps heat out better than it keeps heat in, which makes sense considering it's well shaded, and because it has an attic but no basement. 2) Maybe natural gas is more expensive than electricity? 3) Or, maybe it's just because the difference between Durham's winter temperatures (32°F low, 52°F high) and our winter thermostat setting (65°F) is much greater than the difference between Durham's summer temperatures (87°F high, 67°F low) and our summer thermostat setting (78°F). See, kids? It pays to turn up the thermostat in the summer.

Now, let's not get too cocky here. I'm fully prepared for ten straight days of triple-digit heat and an electric bill well over $100 next month.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tired of Your 2008 Honda Already?

I got a letter in the mail from my Honda dealer yesterday, with the following offer. If I trade in my 2008 Honda Civic (purchased November 2, 2007) and get another new car, they'll give me back 78% of the car's original MSRP, if I act before the end of the month. Is that a good deal? Let's work out the numbers. By the end of the month, my car will be 21 months old. My plan is to keep the car for a minimum of eight years, so if I stick to that, my car is 22% through its lifespan, which meshes exactly with the 78% offer. Then, when you also consider that I paid less than MSRP for my car, that cars depreciate in value more quickly in the beginning, and that maintenance costs are much higher later in the car's life, this actually sounds like a good deal. Maybe they're having trouble selling new cars and are trying to expand their used car inventory?

On the other hand, I like my car. And, there's this fine print at the bottom of the letter which suggests that I'm not guaranteed to receive 78% of the car's MSRP. Given that my car already has 32,000 miles on it, there's no way they would give me the full 78%. I would probably have to have under 20,000 miles to get the full offer. And, there's taxes and "documentation fees" and all that other junk they tack onto the price. So, it's not gonna happen. But I will admit, I did think about it. If I could have traded in and gotten a brand new 2010 Honda Fit for $1,500, I might have done it.

Curling Recap: 7/16/09

End......... 1234567890 |TTL
----------------------------
Other team.. 0004200100 | 07
Our team.... 1310011011 | 09
(Only six rocks per end instead of the usual eight.)

Maybe next time I'm bored at work (tomorrow?), I can verify this, but for now it's just a "hunch" based on how the above match transpired. When both teams are of nearly equal skill level, as was the case last week, the first half of the match tends to be higher scoring than the second half. My reasoning is that in the first half, we're still getting used to that day's particular ice conditions (which vary greatly on arena ice such as ours), which means there are more missed shots, which means there is a greater opportunity for one team or the other to score big. By the 6th end, both teams have figured it out, and the ice has stabilized, so the ends from that point on are much lower scoring if the teams are equal. At least, that explanation makes sense in my head.

Actually, who scored in the last few ends had more to do with who got lucky, rather than who made the best shot. In general, at least in our club, "lucky" trumps "good" most of the time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

NFL Sunday Ticket: 2009 Edition

Ah, July. The most boring sports month of the year. About now is the time most mainstream sports fans are counting down the days until football season starts. I'm not among those counting the days - the way I see it, football season started over two weeks ago (see below) - but I have noticed those commercials for NFL Sunday Ticket. "The Early Bird Special ends July 31st! Order now! Don't miss out! This is why you got DirecTV in the first place, right? So that you could watch your beloved Jacksonville Jaguars every week? Come on, Chris! Do it! DOOOOO IIIITTTTTT!!!!" (That's not how the commercials go, but that's what I've been basically hearing Peyton Manning say in my head.)

There were four main reasons I didn't get NFL Sunday Ticket last year: 1) the price, 2) the fact that we were going to be out of town for about a third of the Sundays anyway, 3) my belief that at a few Jaguars games would already be on local television, and 4) I'm more of a college football fan than NFL fan anyway. This year, the price is a little bit higher, but not much - $280 for the season if I order before July 31st, still much more than any other professional sports package despite having significantly less content. But unlike last year, we are not going on any long vacations during the season, so I will be home for 13 or 14 of the season's 17 Sundays, accounting for our usual holiday trips, as opposed to just 10 or 11 Sundays. Also, the Jaguars stunk last year, so I'm working under the assumption that if I don't get Sunday Ticket, the only Jaguars game I'll get to see this season is when they're on NFL Network. So, this is tipping the scales in Sunday Ticket's favor a little bit.

On top of all that, I now have a high definition TV. But here's the catch: in order to get NFL Sunday Ticket games in HD, I have to fork over another $100 to get the "SuperFan" add-on. And the price gouging continues. All other professional sports packages include HD games as part of the standard deal. (Speaking of which, I'm really excited about NHL Center Ice in HD this coming hockey season, which I am definitely renewing regardless of what I decide here.) The NFL is really arrogant, aren't they? I was actually considering putting down the $280 if that included games in HD. Now you want me to put down $380? For me, if I'm going to do this, I would have to get the upgrade to get the games in HD. I'm either going to go all the way, or not get it at all. There is no middle ground.

But the thing is, I'm actually still considering it. I can sense my interest in college football waning a little; perhaps the BCS mess is finally getting to me. My plan is to not watch as much college football this season as I have the last few years (although I will still watch plenty), and instead watch more NFL. (I've also been watching the Canadian Football League, which started its season two weeks ago. I was so excited about finding CFL games on my channel lineup, I even 'tweeted' about it!) And besides, even when putting down the extra money, NFL Sunday Ticket + SuperFan is still cheaper than the least expensive Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets (although not by much). But really, the main reason I'm actually still considering this is because I haven't done it yet. I feel like I should get NFL Sunday Ticket at least once, right? If I feel like it was a mammoth waste of money after the fact (or, most likely, after the Jaguars start the season 1-5) then I won't have to think so hard about it next season. Besides, I'm pretty sure we haven't spent all of our $8,000 tax refund yet. And something tells me the price will only go up in the years to come.

So, should I do it? Right now, I'm thinking "no". I'm not spending $380 on anything unless I am 100% convinced that I want it. I guess Peyton Manning isn't as persuasive as he needs to be.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Cheesecake Factory

I took Amber out to dinner yesterday for her birthday, giving her the choice of venue. Her choice: The Cheesecake Factory. She was more interested in a yummy dessert than anything else.

So, perhaps you would think that a restaurant that specializes in dessert would have smaller portions, in order to almost force you to leave room for dinner. That's what I would think. But that could not be further from the truth. Their portions are actually larger than most restaurants. What are they thinking? Do they want people to fill up on their entree and not feel like having their trademark desserts?

Actually, I think this is what happens. Most people probably go to the Cheesecake Factory knowing ahead of time that they are going to order dessert. So, they force themselves to not finish their gargantuan entree in order to leave room for dessert. In the end, they've ordered a $10-15 entree that they didn't finish, and a $6 dessert. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the Cheesecake Factory to me. They've figured out a way to encourage people to buy dessert without sacrificing any profits on the entree side.

As for me, I wish the portions were smaller, and the Cheesecake Factory is a little too far on the "upscale" side of center for my taste, so I'm never going to suggest going their on my own. But if Amber says the word...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Really, Really Generic Corn Flakes


I've always been impressed with Kroger's collection of store-brand products. In fact, Kroger has two separate "classifications" of store-brand products. First, they have the normal generic stuff, that is of similar quality and price to store-brand products at most grocery stores. Then, they have ultra-generic "Value"-branded products, like the 99¢ box of Corn Flakes you see above. Ohhh yeah. I mean, that's generic. In fact, it's actually a little scary. The box is almost like a giant warning label. Sure, it's dirt cheap, but beware...

But the important thing is, is this ultra-generic "Value" stuff any good? Well, just like with anything else, it depends. It's hard to mess up corn flakes, so the 99¢ box was actually a good buy. I've also found that the ultra-generic hot dog buns are good enough. Some of the other ultra-generic stuff, however, I'm not going near.

On another Kroger-related note, I was in the bakery the other day, and happened to notice a container of bakery-made chocolate chip cookies (18-count) on "manager's special" for 75¢. The regular price is $4.60. Uh oh...what's wrong with them? Why are they being sold for so cheap? At the same time, how can I not buy them? The cookies were extremely stale from the get-go (surprise!), but I discovered that if you stick them in the microwave for a few seconds, then they taste almost as good as the fresh-from-the-bakery cookies. And two days after finishing off the cookies, I haven't gotten sick. So in the end, I decided those cookies were an even better buy than the corn flakes.

Bicycling Distance

When I was writing that AOL Instant Messenger post and referenced the "old school" by-the-numbers stuff I used to do, I realized that I haven't really added any interesting statistics to the lot of late. It's car mileages, road trips, and license plate stickers. Boooooooring. (Well, I'm only assuming that 95% of the population would find my statistical lot boring. I obviously do not.) So, I figured I should start a new statistic. But rather than start something interesting like "how many times I sneeze", it's another distance-related statistic: how far I ride my bicycle. Yeah, I know. Boooooooring.

Basically, I'm just going to post my bike's odometer reading, if it had one. Buying an odometer for my bicycle is on my to-do list, but I've been lazy, so I haven't done it yet. But I generally ride around the same places all the time, and when I do I make a note of how long it took me, so I can extrapolate a distance traveled from that information, at least until I get an actual odometer. Maybe I'll do that this weekend.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

EOL for AOL Instant Messenger

I haven't heard of any plans to discontinue AOL Instant Messenger. I also don't know if the web community in general is trending away from it, or if it's just that the people on my Buddy List use AIM significantly less now than they did five years ago. Is that just because nearly everyone on my buddy list is 25 or older, or has everyone moved on to text messages/Facebook/Twitter for instant internet friend access? Is AIM still widely used by high school and college students? All I know is that I don't use AIM anymore. In fact, today, I uninstalled AIM from my PC.

So, I guess it's time to give an AOL Instant Messenger eulogy, just like I did with GeoCities yesterday. I first started using AIM in, I think, 1998 or 1999 (junior year of high school). Back then, your screen name could only be 10 characters long, and you could "warn" people if they pissed you off, which would restrict the frequency at which you could send messages, or even look at other people's profiles and away messages (although the latter was fixed after a few years). Once I got to college and figured out how to keep my PC from crashing if I kept it on for more than 10 hours straight, I became like so many others did and leave my computer logged onto AIM all day and night, constantly updating my "away message" with real-time info as to my location and activity. (Hey, that sounds a lot like what Twitter wants to be, doesn't it? "Tweets" are the new "away messages", I suppose.) AIM was a vital link to the outside world, especially since I didn't get my first cell phone until 2005. AIM also served as a platform for various competitions, as well as my "by the numbers" feature. (That was back when I actually kept interesting statistics, such as how much snack food - in pounds - I would eat in a month.) Then, I graduated, moved to North Carolina, and stopped using AIM for the most part.

As for now, I haven't logged onto AIM in months - maybe even longer than that - so it's officially reached its End-Of-Life (EOL), at least for me. I don't have any use for it anymore. Am I alone, or is AOL Instant Messenger still widely used and relevant?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

RIP: GeoCities

Apparently this was announced a few months ago, but I didn't know about it until they emailed me directly: GeoCities is closing in October. (Yes, I know it's called "Yahoo! Geocities" now, but it'll always be GeoCities to me.) GeoCities was one of the first websites to offer free web hosting, allowing losers like me to have their own free web page. I was there back waaaaay back when GeoCities tried to market itself as a full online community, complete with "cities", "neighborhoods", and "addresses", resulting in some really long and impossible-to-remember URLs (e.g. http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Arcade/1234/). I forget what neighborhood and address I had, but I was in there somewhere, with a website called "Chris Allen's Bad Excuse for a Web Page". (It seems I've always had a thing for self-deprication.)

What could you find on "Chris Allen's Bad Excuse for a Web Page"? A few things...
- The "official" home page for "Chris Allen Industries", which included - among other things - simple graphing calculator games available for download;
- a "road atlas" for the fictional "Republic of Chris";
- eventually something called the "Chris Allen Files", which was a lot like my blog is now except longer form and less frequent;
- and probably some other stuff that I've long forgotten about.

But at some point in college, I decided I was ashamed of 95% of the website's content, so I deleted all of it. I didn't even think to archive it, either. D'oh! That's too bad, because I'm not really ashamed of anything I do anymore, and it would be fun to look back. Oh well.

Anyway, moving forward. The only thing left on my GeoCities website these days is a list of personal bookmarks that I can access from anywhere, and I don't really use that anymore, so I guess I don't need GeoCities anymore. As everyone moves their "personal web space" to a handful of social networking websites, GeoCities isn't really needed anymore, in general. I can only assume that Yahoo! is cutting it loose purely as a money saver, and I guess I can't blame them, because I wouldn't be surprised if 90% of the websites on GeoCities haven't been updated in over five years. As for the other 10%, here's hoping that websites like this one can find another home.

Monday, July 13, 2009

NASA TV

Space Shuttle launches used to be a big deal. Back in the 1980s, news stations stopped would stop everything to broadcast a Shuttle launch. These days, I don't know which news stations - if any - continue to broadcast Space Shuttle launches live. (Maybe it's because their television ratings are worse than "A Connie Chung Christmas"?) So, it's a good thing NASA has its own television station, where they can show whatever they want.

Most of the time, at least when I've turned on NASA TV, they've been showing some nearly-static image from somewhere on the International Space Station or something. I don't really know It isn't particularly interesting television, and as such, I've dubbed NASA TV "C-SPAN for nerds". But it does come in handy when they're having a shuttle launch or something. So, NASA TV has about 40 hours of interesting programming per year, combined with 8,720 hours of programming I can do without. With that in mind, maybe it I should call it "NFL Network for nerds" instead? (Actually, that's not a fair comparison to NASA TV, under the assumption that NASA TV is not having contract disputes with cable companies or is charging exorbitant fees to its carriers over what basically amounts to 40 hours of worthwhile programming - in the NFL Network's case, live football games - per year.)

I find it interesting that NASA has been able to get its own television station as widely distributed as it is. How did they do that? Why do some television stations have so much trouble getting nationwide carriage, while NASA TV - which I can only assume, outside of shuttle launches, hardly anybody is watching at any given time - has been able to distribute itself so widely?

Actually, here's the deal. It's pretty easy to get widespread distribution for your station when you don't have to worry about making a profit. NASA TV is a public television station, and NASA is a government-funded agency, so profit is not an objective. I can only assume that NASA TV is made available to cable and satellite providers for next to nothing. NASA TV: Your federal tax dollars at work!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Harry Potter v. Optimus Prime

Two years ago, I took Amber to see the latest "Harry Potter" movie in IMAX. It worked out well, because the movie came out about a week before her birthday. This year, the same thing is happening again: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince comes out three days before Amber's birthday, and again, it's being shown in IMAX theaters. How convenient! (Amber already knows this is one of her birthday gifts, in case you're worried that I just ruined the "surprise". No surprise here.)

Problem is, Harry Potter isn't going to appear in IMAX theaters for another two weeks after the movie's July 15th release, not until July 29th. Why not? Wouldn't they make a lot more money having this movie in IMAX during its first two weeks? Most definitely. So what are they thinking? It turns out that IMAX is under contract to keep Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in its theaters for a full four weeks, and there are still two weeks left on that agreement (source). Oh well - as long as Amber doesn't mind. (I gave her the option of an earlier Harry Potter showing in a normal theater versus a later Harry Potter showing in an IMAX theater, and she chose IMAX.)

And for the record, we are not going to see the latest Transformers movie. I'm not a Harry Potter fan, but I would still rather go see a Harry Potter movie than the latest Transformers offering.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Syfy

I was browsing through my DirecTV channel guide the other day and noticed a channel that I didn't recognize: "Syfy". What's that? Did "Sci Fi" change their name or something? Indeed, that's what happened. In addition, they name a new slogan: "Imagine Greater".

Apparently, the idea behind the name change is to distance themselves help from science fiction so that Star Wars geeks aren't the only ones watching (source). But I don't think your average television watcher is more likely to watch "Syfy" than "Sci Fi". If you want to change the name of your network, then freaking change it! "TNN" to "Spike TV"? Now that's a change. "Sci Fi" to "Syfy"? That's not a change; that is meaningless corporate rebranding. Instead, all this change may accomplish is to alienate (no pun intended) the network's hardcore audience, and keeping them happy should be the network's top priority, in my opinion. Instead of being a staple of the basic cable lineup that everyone knows with a name that actually describes most of its content - what a concept! - we get another obscure channel with a dumb, trying-too-hard-to-be-hip name.

And as for their new slogan, "Imagine Greater"....ugh. That's almost as bad as WGN's one-time slogan, "TV You Can't Ignore". (By the way, WGN America has since done away with that awful slogan and the even worse logo that went along with it, so I'll give them credit for that.)

Well, anyway, it doesn't matter what they call the channel. I have long maintained that Sci Fi's lineup - in particular, Sci Fi's original programming - includes some of the worst, dumbest, and most shake-your-head-awful shows on television. I'm assuming that hasn't changed.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Chris's New Bike

When Amber got a new bicycle a little over a month ago, one that was vastly superior to my cheap Wal-Mart bicycle, you had to know it was only a matter of time before I also upgraded. Well, that time has come. That time actually came two or three weeks ago, but I didn't want to have two bicycling blog posts in such close proximity to each other. (I haven't had the same regard for posts about Ohio license plates.) Now, I have a bicycle of similar quality to Amber's. Her bike is more off-road oriented, while mine is designed to be ridden mostly on roads. I don't regret my decision to get the cheap Wal-Mart bicycle originally, because the idea was to not spend a whole lot of money at first before I knew whether or not I would ride it consistently.

So, now that I have a real, actual, legitimate bicycle, I can engage in real, actual, legitimiate bicycling activites such as riding the bike trails in Umstead State Park or biking to work! Yeah! I've commuted to work via bicycle three times now. At 15 to 18 minutes, my commute via bicycle is actually shorter than it used to take me to drive to work from Raleigh (Cary).

Now, let's look at the pros and cons of biking to work:

PROS:
- No wear and tear on my car; no pollution; no gasoline consumption.
- When I get home, I've already done my exercise for the day.
- I think it looks cooler to ride into work on my bicycle, as opposed to arriving in a boring Honda Civic.
- Bicycling is fun, most of the time.

CONS:
- In the summer, it's hot.
- In the winter, I won't be able to leave for work as early, unless I want to ride in the dark (which I don't).
- I have to bring a change of clothes to the office with me.
- I'm a lot safer in my boring Honda Civic, especially when crossing major intersections. On a related note, I can't trip traffic lights with my bicycle, which forces me to either wait for a car to show up (which sometimes takes a few minutes) or run the light.

One more note. I've stated that I'd like my car to reach 200,000 miles. I actually think biking to work instead of driving will help, not hurt. How? Here's my reasoning. I have a very short work commute (3.5 miles each way), so driving to work means making lots of short trips. On a per mile basis, making a bunch of short trips puts more wear and tear on your car than making one long trip. So by leaving my car in my driveway when I go to work, I'll cut down on the number of short trips, which will extend the life of my car, which will allow me to keep the car longer, which will allow me to make more long trips later in the car's life, which will increase my car's mileage more than would making a bunch of short trips to work and back every day.

So, should I keep biking to work, or not? I'm going to try doing it twice a week for the duration of the summer, then I'll re-evaluate after our vacation.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Beep

Ah, home ownership. You never know what kind of strange things will happen inside your house. And when something does happen, you have to diagnose and fix it yourself.

So, at some point after we got back home from Toledo last weekend, we started hearing this occasional beeping sound in our house. It was very infrequent, maybe one beep every couple of hours or so. Since it was so infrequent, we couldn't narrow it down to a particular area of the house, let alone a particular piece of machinery. After a day or so, I discovered that the beep happened every two hours, at around :54 past the top of the hour. Then, we discovered that it was actually every hour, not every other hour. Bah! What could it be?

Late yesterday evening, we figured out the area of the house where the beep was coming from. Could it be the smoke detector? Something left over from the previous owners' security system? Maybe the furnace is beeping for some reason? So, at :50 past the hour, both Amber and I went up close to the alleged beeping objects in order to see if they beeped as scheduled. The verdict: nope. None of the above. Ugh. Now what? Did someone plant a bomb in our house while we were gone?

Well, I sought my good friend Google to see what I could find. Do other people encounter strange hourly beeping noises that can't be diagnosed? Is it an issue with inactive ADT security systems? Nope. For one person, the culprit ended up being a recently purchased watch still in its package. The chime was on, hence the hourly beep. But we didn't purchase any watches recently, so that can't be it. Or...can it?

Fiftenn minutes later, I suddenly remembered that Amber got a handheld stopwatch as an early birthday present over the weekend. The time on the watch was about 6 minutes fast, explaining why the beep happened at :54 after the hour every hour. Mystery solved. No bomb.

This begs the question: why is chime=on the factory setting? That's dumb.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Uncool Socks

While visiting Toledo, we went to Cedar Point. Some of the park's long lines gave me time to look around and observe. Most of the people standing in line on a ride like Millenium Force are much younger than I am, so perhaps they can provide a good sample of what is "in" and "out" with respect to fashion. I normally don't give a crap about fashion, but I did notice that most guys wore socks that barely extended above the shoe, if at all. Meanwhile, I'm standing there with the same type of socks I've worn for the last 10 or 15 years, that stop about a third of the way from the ankle to the knee. Apparently, nobody under the age of 20 wears socks like this anymore. I guess that means my socks are "uncool". Now...I know that I am uncool - I mean, do you read my blog? - I just didn't ever think to realize that included my socks as well.

So, it's a good thing I don't give a crap.

My Last Ever Post About Ohio County Stickers

After nearly 21 months of habitually looking at the lower left corner of every Ohio license plate that passed by on the interstate, my quest to spot license plates from all 88 Ohio counties is complete!

Now, I probably wouldn't have just talked about this two weeks ago if I thought I would have finished this quickly. Given how long this has taken, I certainly did not expect to spot the remaining three stickers, all in one day. But sure enough, on the way up to Toledo, I spotted a #38 sticker on I-77 in West Virginia, a #58 sticker on US-33 southeast of Columbus, and finally a #36 sticker on US-23 just north of Columbus to finish the deal. It was as if God just wanted me to quit obsessing over something as dumb as this and get on with my life. (For the record, I was not driving, so I could devote 100% of my attention to license plates.)

So, this means the last county to be checked off the list was precisely the county I said wouldn't be last two weeks ago: Highland County. In honor of Highland County's achivement, here's a quick snapshot of Highland County, courtesy of its Wikipedia article (which anyone can edit, of course). Highland County is located in southwestern Ohio, about an hour east of Cincinnati. Highland County is the 15th largest county in Ohio by land area, and with just over 40,000 people is 57th most-populous county in Ohio. Its county seat is Hillsboro. I've never been to Highland County, but will pass through on our US-50 trip at the end of August.

Now that I've finished this ordeal, what's next? I guess I could do the same with Indiana license plates, but...nah.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Toledo Trip #8½

We're heading to Toledo for the holiday weekend, in the second half of our traditional summer weeked-drives-to-see-family.I'm calling this trip number 8½ because the wedding was sort of a half-trip since we didn't come back through Toledo.

I know I've been pretty heavy on the nerdy statistics lately in this blog. But if I've got them, I might as well publish them, right? That said, here's how long it typically takes us to get to Toledo and back, split apart by segment:


View Larger Map

Segment A-B: We've only done this segment once to/from our house. It took 1:06, which is also the average from my work, where we'll be leaving from on Thursday.
Segment B-C: The average is 3:26, but we've done it in as little as 3:15 or as high as 3:52. It all depends on the traffic. Downtown Winston-Salem and I-77 in Virginia are particularly prone to congestion.
Segment C-D: Average is a very consistent 2:25. In eight trips, this segment has always been between 2:23 and 2:27.
Segment D-E: Average is 1:41.
Segment E-F: Average is 0:43.

OVERALL AVERAGE: 9 hours, 21 minutes, not counting stops.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Virtual Road Trips

I recently discovered that with my Garmin GPS (a.k.a. "Jill"), I can turn off the satellite positioning and take a virtual road trip in real-time. I've also been spending more time than I'm willing to admit playing around with Google Earth and Google Street View, where you can do the same sort of thing (although in "fly over" mode and not in real time), and even look at a picture of what the road actually looks like at the surface, as if you were there. And when I discovered that Street View had extended to places like France, Japan, and even Australia...ohhh, man. It's like they designed this stuff just for people like me - that is, road geeks with desk jobs.

Google Street View is nice, but you can't really simulate a road trip with it, unless you have a LOT of patience and/or spare time and don't mind going a few miles per hour. Someday, I'm sure Street View will be able to progress much more quickly, perhaps to the point where it can create a video of a drive by interpolating between the pictures, or by creating some kind half-real, half-computerized universe in which to "drive". The next step would be to have the videos respond to user commands, such as "turn left", or "stop at the next rest area". Then, you could add actual cars and car physics to the mix, and allow the user to hook up a steering wheel and pedals, and actually drive a car in real time within the Google Street View interface. Once you get that far, you could add some computerized traffic (with full collision detection, of course) and maybe even traffic lights. You could also have the volume of traffic be realistic for the time of day, perhaps tied in with real-time traffic info. You could also add in real-time weather, so that the current weather conditions wherever you're driving on the computer match the conditions at that location in real life. Or, close off the streets to public traffic and race virtual Formula 1 cars on public roads anywhere in the world, against real people or computer opponents. The options are limitless! And many of the pieces already exist. It's just a matter of integrating them, right?

So, how far away are we from having the ability to make virtual road trips anywhere, anytime on our computer? My guess is 20 years. I think creating a virtual, realistic road in real time that matches what you see and experience in real life (to a reasonable approximation) is a major hurdle that will take some time to overcome.