Thursday, August 27, 2009

And...We're Off

Our vacation officially begins at 2:30p today. Despite my paranoia, Tropical Storm Danny is not going to have any obvious effect on our trip, so we're all systems go!

In the meantime, there won't be any blog activity for the next week and a half, but I will be giving occasional updates on Twitter/Facebook. I recently upgraded my text messaging plan, so that will allow me to go beyond the one or two updates per day I was planning on, if I want to. I'm not going to worry too much about it. If I go 24 hours or longer without any updates, that doesn't mean I'm dead. Instead, it means that either the drive is boring, or we're in Nevada. The "Loneliest Road in America" wouldn't be all that lonely if I had five bars the whole way, would it?

Or, if you're anti-social networking (which I totally understand) and have a lot of patience, everything I put on Twitter/Facebook will be posted here, eventually. Speaking of which, our rental car ended up being a Chevy Cobalt. And 12 hours in, and we've already gotten our first warning light: low tire pressure. One thing that's nice about the Cobalt is that it can display actual tire pressure readings, so we knew which tire was low, by how much, and that it was already nearly too low when we drove it off the Budget lot. (The Cobalt also gives fuel mileage statistics, and you know I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.) All indications are that the tires are fine, and that the reason for the light is that the folks at Budget topped off the right side tires but forgot about the lefts. Whoops! If that's the only car problem we have the whole trip, I'll consider it a success.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

City Market

I'm a little obsessed with grocery stores, partly because many of them are regionally-based. If you go to Florida, Publix is the most prominent grocery store. If you go to the Midwest, you'll see lots of Kroger stores. Keep going farther west, and eventually you'll see lots of Safeways. It's different everywhere. So seeing lots of different grocery stores, and going to some of them, only adds to the fun of a road trip.

But there is one grocery store I expect to see that I am really looking forward to: City Market. I've told this story before, but here it is again. On a family vacation, we went shopping at a City Market grocery store in Moab, Utah. I signed up for their discount card, just for the hell of it. Hey, why not? I then discovered that City Market was owned by Kroger, which means my City Market discount card could also be used as a Kroger discount card. So when we started shopping at Kroger on a regular basis in Raleigh (Cary) and Durham, rather than get a new Kroger card, I kept on using my City Market card, because I could. This often confuses the cashiers. About 20% of the time, the cashier will disregard the City Market card I gave him/her and look through my keychain for the nonexistent Kroger card, at which point I have to explain that the City Market card works just fine.

I haven't been to, or even seen, another City Market since that visit to Moab five years ago. But that's about to change. City Market was founded in Grand Junction, Colorado, which US-50 passes through. I have confirmed that there are at least two City Market stores right along US-50 in Colorado, one in Grand Junction Google Street View) and one 30 miles south in Delta. (On a side note, I really like that Grand Junction uses fractions in road names, such as "27 3/4 Rd".) And if we need some food, we might even stop at one of them, and use my City Market card for its intended purpose instead of just using it to confuse the Kroger cashiers.

I'm also a little excited about which fast food restaurants we'll see out west, specifically In-N-Out. I've never been to an In-N-Out, and I believe the chain is legendary and iconic in California, so I think it's a must stop when we're out there. Also, when driving westward, eventually Hardee's turns into Carl's Jr, and the first sight of a Carl's Jr will undoubtedly be very exciting, even though I already know exactly where that will happen - at the Kansas/Colorado state line.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

92L

I'm not the type to start sweating bullets every time a tropical wave in the Atlantic Ocean starts showing signs of development into a depression or tropical storm, but when it might affect a vacation we've been planning for months, I'm going to pay a little more attention than I would otherwise.

So, as of 8:00a this morning, there was a "greater than 50 percent chance" of this tropical wave - which all the weather nerds are calling "92L" - developing into a tropical depression. Sixty hours after this was issued is when we plan to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on our way to Ocean City and the beginning of US-50. So is our friend 92L going to pay us a visit?

My main two concerns are as follows. 1) The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel - not to be confused with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which we're taking the following morning - will close to all traffic if the bridge experiences hurricane force winds, or "other inclement weather conditions". 2) If a strong hurricane threatens Delaware and Eastern Maryland, we might get stuck in evacuation traffic, which could potentially put us behind one full day from the get go.

I think I can rule out #1 at this point, because 92L isn't going to make it that far by Thursday evening. The timing could work perfectly against us for #2, but only if the storm becomes a major hurricane and heads directly towards the Ocean City area. This also appears unlikely, because the consensus at the moment is that the storm will only barely attain hurricane status, if it even gets to hurricane status. And the storm's trajectory means if Ocean City does get a "direct hit", it won't come from the east, but from the south or SSW, after the storm passes over eastern NC and Norfolk. Ocean City may get a tropical storm out of this, but unless we get rapid intensification and a major hurricane makes landfall in North Carolina, Ocean City isn't getting a hurricane out of this. (Notice that I'm not too concerned about how this storm may affect our house; the model consensus appears to direct the storm well east of the Triangle.)

Am I being overly paranoid here? Probably. But it's good to be prepared.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ford Focus or Similar

Rather than put 7,000 miles on one of our cars over the next two weeks, we've decided to take a rental car on our cross-country drive. We're picking up the rental Wednesday evening, and I'm already excited about it. What kind of car will we end up with?

We have a reservation, but just about all rental car places don't give reservations for specific cars. Instead, you reserve a general class of cars - in our case, a compact car. "Ford Focus or Similar" is how Budget describes it; other car companies may call it "Chevrolet Cobalt or Similar". Both of our cars - a Honda Civic and Mazda3 - fall under this class. They have enough room for our purposes, generally get over 30 miles per gallon, are safer than the sub-compacts, and are cheap to rent. But exactly which car model will it be? There are lots of compact cars out there, and I'll be excited to find out exactly what we end up with. It's probably not like finding out whether your unborn child will be a boy or girl, but...it's still kind of exciting.

So, what are the possibilities? Here are all the likely candidates, ranked in order of most preferable to least preferable:

1) Mazda3. Amber really likes her Mazda3. I like my Honda Civic too, but while the Civic is more practical, has better features, and likely to last a little longer, the Mazda has a few extra horsepower and is a more fun road trip car. The fuel mileage isn't as good with the Mazda3 as with the Civic, but it's good enough.

2) Honda Civic. The plus side to renting a Mazda3 or Civic is that we would already be familiar with the controls!

3) Ford Focus. I'm more curious than anything else about the Focus. I've never driven one, but if I were bent on buying American, I definitely would have at least test drove one.

4) Toyota Corolla. I don't think we're likely to end up with a Corolla, because they're a little more expensive than other compacts, and we are renting from Budget, after all.

5) Nissan Sentra. We had a 1985 Sentra growing up, and it was junk. If we end up with a Sentra, let's hope their quality has improved dramatically over the last 24 years.

6) Hyundai Elantra. I'd be fine with a Hyundai, because we don't have to drive it 100,000 miles.

7) Chevrolet Cobalt. Reviews of the Cobalt aren't good, but this is probably the second most likely candidate, behind the namesake of the category, the Focus.

8) Mitsubishi Lancer. Never been particularly excited about Mitsubishi anything.

9) Kia Spectra. Been there, done that. I would be very disappointed to end up with another Kia.

I browsed Wikipedia looking for all entry-level compact cars sold in the United States in 2008, and found a few more possibilities. However, I don't think these are very likely possibilities:

Subaru Impreza: I guess it's possible Budget has some Imprezas in their lot, but I don't think it's likely. Which is too bad, because this would rank the Impreza near the top, probably right below the Civic. I'm also not entirely sure whether the Impreza qualifies as a compact or a mid-size.

Volkswagen Jetta: Probably too pricey for most car rental companies, especially Budget. This one would also rank high.

Saturn Astra: Too obscure. However, there were apparently a lot of unsold Astras, so maybe some of them ended up with car rental companies? I'd rank this one in the middle.

Suzuki SX4: Also too obscure, but has potential.

Dodge Caliber: Technically a compact car, but doesn't seem to fit the "Ford Focus or similar" mold. Seems a little big.

So, which will it be? We'll find out Wednesday evening...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Stay Out of the Water

I wimp out on a lot of stuff, it seems, so I wouldn't blame you if you also thought I would wimp out on and not go to the beach yesterday, during what could have been the peak of the Hurricane Bill-inspired surf. Well, we actually followed through on it. Generally, if it involves a lot of driving, we don't wimp out. We're far more likely to wimp out if it involves a lot of money. Well, anyway, the whole point was to see this super-dangerous surf for myself. And it did not disappoint.

So, we've basically been bombarded with "dangerous rip currents" and "stay out of the water" warnings all week. (Or at least, I have, because I've been reading a lot of hurricane-related stuff online.) But I couldn't come all this way and not get in the water at least a little bit, right? So, I did. First off, you could tell right away there was a lot of action going on, because there was foam everywhere. This wasn't exactly clear water. There were actually three levels of waves as you moved away from the beach. Each level looked more and more impressive, and even the first level carried a good whallop. It's hard to judge wave height from a distance - the waves always look smaller from the beach than they do when you're right next to them - but I'm guessing the "third level" waves were about 8 feet high. But that was way out there, and we didn't get that far. We didn't make it past the first level, actually. The first level waves weren't that high, but they were powerful, and the currents were very strong. I watched at least one guy get knocked on his ass, even though he was only about 10 feet away from the edge of the water. So, they weren't kidding about these warnings.

I think the most dangerous area is closest to the shore, where the water is shallowest, and you're most likely to fall hard and break something, no matter if you're standing up or swimming. The water doesn't hurt as much as the ground. If a wave hits you hard in 7-foot deep water, so what? Just go with the flow and you'll recover. But the problem was getting out there and coming back. Making matters worse was that the slope of the beach sand was much steeper than usual, making the currents and waves that much stronger. So, we didn't take a chance, and only went in the water a little bit. But I did see more surfers out today - some more successful than others - than I may have ever seen at the beach at once.

So...in other words, I guess I wimped out after all. But to be fair, it was never my plan to do that much swimming.

Side note: our usual beach destination is Topsail Island, but we decided to change it up a bit and try something in the Atlantic Beach (NC) area, and ended up in a place called Pine Knoll Shores:


View Larger Map

The verdict? The public bathrooms are nice, but it's more crowded and farther away than Topsail. The water was also much dirtier, but I don't know how typical that is, given the conditions. But it was worth a shot. We also thought about going to Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, which is closer to home (by driving time) than any other beach, but they charge $1.50/hour for parking. Boo!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

US-50 Trip: Preview

How many "previews" can I have for one road trip? Well, this is #3. (#1, #2) The key is going just a little more in-depth each time.


View Larger Map

To rehash the purpose of this road trip, the idea is to take U.S. Highway 50 from beginning (Ocean City, MD) to end (Sacramento, CA). I left the specific dates out of the last "preview", so...we're leaving after work next Thursday (8/27) and are returning on Labor Day (9/7).

Are we ready? Oh yeah. Are we prepared? You betcha. I put together a detailed account of US-50's route from beginning to end, so we'll know where to go with or without our GPS ("Jill"). But we are bringing Jill, of course, and I've loaded hundreds of reference points into her to help us find our way. In addition, we have AAA maps and TourBooks for every state along our trip, both along US-50 and our eventual return trip.

What can we expect to see and encounter along US-50? Let's break it down by state...
- Maryland: If we wake up early enough, we might catch the Ocean City sunrise. But the problem with that is, the earlier we wake up the first morning, the more likely we are to hit morning rushhour in DC.
- District of Columbia: After my last experience driving through downtown Washington, I was quick to say that there was no way we would be taking Route 50 through downtown Washington on this trip. Well, cooler heads have prevailed since then, and we're planning on doing the full official route, which includes Constitution Avenue. If it takes us a while, so what? It's a vacation! I'll talk more about the DC route afterwards in my full trip recap.
- Virginia: I'm guessing we'll be tired of city driving by the time we cross the Potomac. But, we still have to contend with Arlington, Falls Church, Fairfax, and Chantilly, which could end up being even worse than down Washington was. But that's okay - it's all part of the experience of following one road for 3,000 miles. Beyond the urban sprawl, a short stretch of US-50 is closed for construction. So, I guess we'll have to settle for taking only 99.9% of US-50, rather than 100%. Oh well - on a drive of this magnitude, we expect to encounter enough orange barrels to fill a football stadium.
- West Virginia: I'm really looking forward to the West Virginia part of the drive. Mountain driving at its finest. But maybe it's good that we're doing West Virginia before Colorado, because Colorado is probably going to blow us away in comparison.
- Ohio: Now that I've finished my Ohio license plate quest, I can actually concentrate on the scenery instead of looking at every license plate that drives by. Hooray!
- Indiana: Apparently, southern Indiana is quite hilly and scenic. I'll believe it when I see it.
- Illinois: Moving on...
- Missouri: I have reserved expectations for Missouri. But even if it ends up being suffocatingly boring, it only gets better from here.
- Kansas: As someone who has spent his whole life in the Eastern Time Zone (except vacations), I enjoy tree-less, Great Plains scenery. So, I'm actually really looking forward to Kansas.
- Colorado: Aside from a slight mountain diversion during our Nebraska trip, I've never driven through the Rocky Mountains. Should be fun! Colorado is the longest state along the route, so it better be good.
- Utah: Get the camera ready! Even Utah's interstates are exceptionally beautiful.
- Nevada: The "Loneliest Road in America" can't possibly disappoint, can it? Only as long as the car doesn't break down. (I don't know if I've mentioned this yet, but we're taking a rental car. I think putting 7,000 miles on either of our cars will depreciate our car's value more than the 12-day cost of a rental car.)
- California: I've never been to Lake Tahoe. I'm curious to see if it's overrated as a vacation destination.

Then, when we're done with US-50, the plan is to head towards Monterrey, then take the Pacific Coast Highway down to Southern California the next day, time permitting. And if we're feeling brave (or stupid) enough, we might take the PCH all the way to Santa Monica, and then take I-10 all the way through downtown Los Angeles in the middle of afternoon rushhour - for the experience. I think it would be fun to experience some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, just once.

Then, from there, it's back home, via I-10 or I-20 in order to check Louisiana off Amber's list of unvisited states. We still haven't decided for certain whether we're doing I-10 or I-20, and we may not decide until we get to the split itself in West Texas.

Although I have mercilessly ridiculed this in the past, I'm not going to rule out an occasional Twitter/Facebook status update during the trip, because I have now realized that vacation tweets can be entertaining if done well. I won't commit to anything, but it wouldn't be more than one or two a day, and may not see any replies or comments until we get back. (I have a bare-bones cell phone without all of those fancy apps, but I'm assuming I will find my way to a computer at least once during the trip.) And then once we get back, I'll start working on a full, detailed recap, complete with lots of meaningless statistics and plenty of pictures of our cow puppet.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Disc Golf Tournaments

I still think disc golf blog talk is boring, but it couldn't hurt to have at least one disc golf blog post this year, right? After all, it is still my second favorite obscure sport. (I'll let you guess what my favorite is.)

I've long resisted playing in organized disc golf tournaments, for several reasons: 1) I think I would finish last or almost-last most of the time; 2) tournaments cost money; and 3) I don't think I fit in very well with most other serious disc golfers. But I have actually started reconsidering as of late. Disc golf tournaments do cost money, but not much - only $5 or $10 for the more casual ones. I think I can afford that. Also, I am a better disc golfer than I used to be. I actually think I could compete and not finish last!

Or...could I? To find out, I looked on the Durham's Bull City Disc Club website for some sample tournament scores. And, if I shot an average round, it still looks like I would still finish near the bottom most of the time. That would be okay if I still thought I would have a good time, but due to reason #3 above, I may not. And I don't like the idea of redistributing entry fees to the winners. If the money went to support the club in a non-profit kind of sense, that would be fine. With poker, redistributing entry fees to winners is okay, because poker is gambling, and anyone can win. But disc golf is a game of skill, and the same few people - not including me, of course - are probably going to take home the money most of the time. I would pretty much feel defeated before I even started, every week. I think this is preventing these tournaments from attracting more recreational players than they do now. Yes, there are different classes, but it looks like just about everyone who shows up is either "Pro" or "Advanced". Hardly anyone ever plays in the "Intermediate" group. And, I don't like disc golf enough to dedicate more time to it than I do now. Like I said, it's only my second favorite obscure sport. Really, to me, disc golf is just an inexpensive and interesting way to spend an hour or two outside, and I doubt it will ever be more than that.

Hurricane Bill + Beach = Fun!

Are we seriously considering going to the beach on Saturday? Seriously?

Well, maybe. The idea is to check out what kind of waves Hurricane Bill can produce. Obviously, if Bill takes a more western path than is currently forecast, we'll stay home. But if Bill stays a safe distance offshore, and the weather is good on Saturday, we're heading to the beach.

I probably won't actually go in the water - apparently, that would be "stupid" - but it would be fun to watch if we really get the 15-20' surf that one website somewhere (forget which) predicted. I would actually have to see that to believe it; those numbers seem a bit exaggerated to me for distant offshore hurricane, even a distant offshore major hurricane. But having never paid attention to this sort of thing in the past, I actually have no idea what to expect. Which is why I want to go!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hurricane Tracking

Uh oh - there's a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean! EVERYBODY PANIC! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

Sarcasm aside, there is just something about hurricanes that gets the general public's attention, much more so than any other type of weather. Hurricanes are perfect news makers. Not only are they very powerful can threaten life and property, but their lifespan is well-defined[1], look really nice on television, can provide news for several consecutive days (but not for too long so that the public won't get tired of hearing about it). We even give them names! If there was ever a made-for-television weather phenomenon, hurricanes would be it.

But I think the most news-friendly thing about hurricanes is their uncertainty. The National Hurricane Center's forecasts - although quite good - aren't perfect, and the infamous "cone of uncertainty" emphasizes that. If we knew exactly where a hurricane was going to land five days in advance, it wouldn't be as interesting. On the other hand, NHC forecasts are always in a state of flux, based on what actually happened in the last six hours, combined with the results of the latest model runs, which can change dramatically from run to run. And this is what has me checking the NHC website three times a day. Hurricanes are the gifts that keep on giving, at least for weather nerds like me.

Not only am I interested in hurricanes as a weather nerd, but when they might head our way or affect our vacation plans - as Hurricane Bill could - then I'm definitely going to pay attention as Bill nears the East Coast. Bill could head straight for us, or it could head towards Norfolk or Ocean City and affect the first day of our vacation (which begins a week from Thursday), or it could miss the East Coast entirely and have no effect whatsoever on our plans. Sure, the latest "cone of uncertainty" suggests Bill will stay east of the Mid-Atlantic, but I think of many reasons why I'm not willing to trust the "cone of uncertainty" as fact:
1) The cone only means is that there is a 60-70% chance that the storm will lie within the cone after X days;
2) The cone width is based on average errors from historical forecasts, and fast-moving storms such as Bill are probably subject to even larger errors;
3) Forecasts are updated every six hours, and so is the cone;
4) The cone only concerns the location of the storm center, not the full width of the hurricane (this map accounts for that, but isn't that meaningful this early on)...
5) and so on.

So, in short, I'm going to be paying lots of attention this week and next. And even if Bill misses the United States completely, I'll still be visiting the NHC website thrice a day, based on my fear that a strong hurricane will hit Louisiana or Texas next week and cause gas prices to jump over $4/gallon just in time for our cross-country drive.

[1] - The exact moment when a tropical cyclone forms and dissipates really isn't that well-defined. Only if you consider Hurricane Center advisories as absolute fact is the lifespan of a tropical cyclone well-defined. Fact is, there is a gray area, but when it comes to the advisories, the Hurricane Center always must declare something "a tropical cyclone" or "not a tropical cyclone" with no in-between. Often times, they may not declare a system as a tropical cyclone until after they send investigative aircraft that proves the existence of a tropical cyclone, even if the system was already technically a tropical cyclone 12 hours prior, for example.

Not Crime-Free, But Not Too Bad

In our area, Durham's reputation is one of relatively high crime. So, maybe that's what our community newsletter's authors were thinking about when they penned the headline "Not Crime-Free, But Not Too Bad" when discussing our neighborhood's crime trends. Sure, there have been a few break-ins and even a sexual assault or two this year, but that's nothing compared to the rest of Durham!

In all seriousness, though, our neighborhood's crime rate is probably close to average among comparable middle-class neighborhoods.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Deodorant

For lack of anything better to write about, here's a history of my personal deodorant use. Hooray!

I don't remember when I started using deodorant. If I were to guess, I'd say...6th grade? Maybe 7th grade? I feel like deodorant had to come before shaving was necessary.

My first and long-time brand of deodorant was Speed Stick. I don't remember if my parents asked me what brand/type I wanted, or if they just bought something random. But either way, it worked just fine, for the most part. Throughout my life, I've tried all kinds of Speed Stick varieties, including the white stick, clear stick, and gel. I don't have any preference between the white and clear sticks - I don't really care if my deodorant/anti-perspirant leaves a white residue, as long as it works - but I have never liked the gel. I definitely like that "goes on dry" feeling. I have never tried spray deodorant. Do they still widely sell spray deodorant? Speaking of which, whatever happened to "Raise your hand if you're Sure(R)?"

Recently, however, I gave up my long time allegiance to Speed Stick and switched to Old Spice. The reason actually has nothing to do with NASCAR Sponsorship, but is just because one day, Amber mentioned that she liked the smell of Old Spice. I have never had any strong allegiance to Speed Stick - I just bought it was easier to buy the same stuff every time than to think about it - so I gave Old Spice a try. Turns out it doesn't work any better or worse than Speed Stick, plus Amber likes the smell, so now Old Spice is my deodorant of choice. It might as well be the same stuff, except for the smell. Maybe my armpits aren't that stinky after all, and I could get away with using just about any FDA-approved deodorant.

I hope this post was enlightening and informative for you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Choice v. Choice Xtra

Yesterday's USA v. Mexico soccer game (a World Cup qualifier) was on some obscure channel I had never heard of before called "mun2". (Apparently "mun2" - pronounced "moon dos" - is Telemundo 2. Whoopee.) But in the process, I came to a realization. I get waaay too many television channels on DirecTV. Am I paying extra for channels like mun2 that I never watch (or in this case, watch once every four years or so)?

Well, anyway, here's the deal. DirecTV has two primary programming packages, "Choice" and "Choice Xtra". I get Choice Xtra, which means I get a lot of channels. But how many of these channels do I actually watch? Could I get by on Choice alone and save some money? Let's find out!

I went to the DirecTV website and grabbed the list of channels that are part of Choice Xtra but not Choice. I then organized them into a few categories:

Channels we've never watched, and probably won't ever watch: Chiller, FOX Business, FOX Reality, Great American Country, Logo, Ovation TV, Oxygen, Style, Sportsman. I can't ever forsee a situation in which I'd ever watch these channels.

Channels we rarely watch, if ever: DIY, FOX Movie Channel, Fuel TV, G4, Golf Channel (sorry, Dad), History International, Investigation Discovery, Military, Nicktoons, Sprout, Planet Green, Sleuth, Tennis. These channels I can also do without, but have the potential to show something interesting every once in a while.

Channels that are nice to have every once in a while, but could still live without: Boomerang, ESPN Classic, National Geographic, VH1 Classic, WGN. Amber and I generally watch these channels for one or two hours per month, I'd say. (Side note about National Geographic: I used to watch this channel more, but the majority of its content is now "social science" as opposed to "physical science", which is less interesting to me.)

So, now that we've gotten all those channels out of the way, what's left? Four channels: NHL Network, Science Channel, Speed, Versus. Do I watch all of these channels enough to make it worth the additional $10/month, or however much Choice Xtra is compared to Choice? Most definitely. Well, that's that.

Operating an obscure Cable TV channel must be profitable. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be so many channels! And when was the last time you heard of a channel going under? The only instance I can recall of a television channel actually going out of business and being eliminated is when G4 bought TechTV and combined the two networks' content into one channel. But that's just one out of hundreds. Are we on the verge of a TV "bubble burst"? It's got to happen sooner or later, right?

SAS: The Power to Make Elaborate Lunches

I've been purposely light on details as to exactly what I've been doing this week, but now that it's done, here's the full scoop: I've been going to the SAS Campus in Raleigh (Cary) to attend a training seminar. Scandalous!

The SAS Institute is probably one of the more prominent corporations in the area, and is headquartered in Raleigh (Cary). And, I've noticed they have quite a reputation in the area, as a good company to work for and a company with a lot of money. Their seminars also have a good reputation, not as much because of the seminars themselves, but because of the food, especially lunch. No boxed turkey sandwiches for us! Instead, we get a full four-course buffet - salad, meat, side, vegetables, followed by some kind of pie or cake for dessert. It seemed a little much for lunch (to say the least), but hey, why not? If you're SAS, going all-out on the lunches is good business practice, because even the people who don't give a crap about the training seminars themselves will be more than willing to go anyway, just for the food. And given the price of the training seminars (they're NOT cheap), the more people you can bring in, the better it is for SAS. If their seminar lunches are any indication, SAS is a very well-run business.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Uh Oh...

Within the last 24 hours or so, I have posted three Twitter/Facebook updates, and...zero blog posts. Uh oh. That's not a good sign...

But have no fear, fellow fans of the blog. It's just that this week's abnormal "work schedule" (which ended today - back to normal tomorrow) hasn't given me quite as much time to write blog posts. Meanwhile, writing something quick on Twitter/Facebook is, well, quick. I think it, I post it, done. Maybe two minutes. Maybe that's why it's caught on?

So, anyway, don't take this to mean I'm trending towards fewer blog activity and more "tweets". I promise I'll have two - maybe even three! - normal blog posts tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Inner/Outer v. East/West


View Larger Map

Once upon a time, somebody decided it would be a good idea to label the directions of travel on the Raleigh Beltline not as north/south/east/west, but as "inner" and "outer". I guess the idea was so that your direction of travel would never change as you kept driving on the beltline. But in my opinion, inner/outer is nowhere near as intuitive as north/south/east/west. It makes you think just a little bit harder about which way you want to go. Further complicating matters was when I-40 was extended south from Raleigh to Wilmington, meaning that half of the beltline was also now also the I-40 through road, at which point most people (I think) stopped referring to the southern half of the beltline as the beltline, and started calling it plain old I-40. Meanwhile, the other half of the beltline, I-440, was still being called the "beltline". Can the term "beltline" only apply to half of the belt? (Note that despite what the Google Map may indicate, the southern half of the beltline is no longer officially part of I-440.)

Well, anyway, NCDOT decided it was time to drop the inner/outer designations and go with east/west just like most other cities. They should start updating the signs any minute now, and if you ask me, the sooner the better. I never liked the inner/outer designations, and have always thought of the two halves of the beltline as two separate roads, I-40 and I-440. I think it's much simpler to refer to each road separately and use east/west directions for each. Not to mention, the terms "inner beltline" and "outer beltline" are going to be further complicated once I-540 is completed. So, it's just bad terminology overall.

"But Chris! I've lived in Raleigh for 30 years, and as far as I'm concerned it's always the beltline, and it will ALWAYS be the beltline to me. You and your east and west designations and I-440 terminology can go to hell!" Fair enough. You can keep referring to I-440 West as the "Outer Beltline" if you want to. I'm not stopping you. But I still think it's dumb. If you're offended by all of these northerners coming to your town and changing the names of roads at will, I can totally understand that. But that doesn't change the fact that the inner/outer designations are complete rubbish. On behalf of everyone who's reloctaed to the Triangle over the last decade, I apologize for forcing better terminology on you all and ruining your wholesome community.

Monday, August 10, 2009

9 to 5

Normally, I work 7 to 3 (or thereabouts), and it takes me less than 10 minutes to get to and from work. But this week, or at least through Wednesday, I'm "working" (well, attending a training seminar) in Raleigh (Cary) that runs from 9 to 5 each day. That means a few things.

Instead of getting home by 3:30, I may not get home until after 5:30, which means I'll be much less productive at home. This will probably mean fewer blog posts.

Do I get to sleep in? Well...not really, because Amber is still working the same hours, and I can't really get much extra meaningful sleep in that extra hour. Maybe I'll just get up when Amber gets up and use that extra 60-90 minutes I have in the morning to do what I would normally do between work and dinner (e.g. exercise, computer stuff, television and/or video games).

I get to drive in the middle of rushhour on I-40! Hooray! Fortunately, I'm going the opposite way of the traffic jams, but this morning I still learned that I wasn't used to I-40 rushhour anymore. I forgot how crazy everybody is.

And, finally, by the end of Wednesday, I'll probably be eager to go back to my usual 7-3 schedule.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

2009 Carolina Classic (Curling): Recap

Amber and I - and I can only assume, everyone else - had a lot of fun at this weekend's Carolina Classic bonspiel at the Triangle Curling Club. And our team defied expectations - well, my expectations, at least - and actually did pretty well, too! So, let's get on with the recap...

Game 1 vs. Team Dunnam from Philadelphia, 6:15p Friday
End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Other team... 01040001 | 06
Our team..... 10201120 | 07

First off, a few general thoughts. In my preview, I said that home ice advantage would be a huge help for us. What I didn't mention is that it's also a huge help when the opponent hasn't curled in months. I am assuming that the majority of out-of-town curlers in the Classic hadn't curled in months. Most clubs with dedicated curling ice only operate from October to March (or so) with no curling the rest of the year; that way they don't have to maintain the ice during the hot summer months. (The Green Bay club, who brought one team to the Classic, is one exception. They have year-round dedicated ice, in part to help their Olympian hopefuls practice as much as possible.) So, even though we were completely outclassed at Potomac in March, everyone was a little rusty this time around.

That said, the game was still pretty close. I thought we were very fortunate to win after giving up a 4-ender. The pressure was off this match anyway, because the way the bracket was structured, the first match wasn't all that meaningful, as winning did not give us more favorable draw times and did not increase our chances of playing in the Sunday finals. The second match was the one we needed to win.

Game 2 vs. Team Bykowski from Potomac, 9:00a Saturday
End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Other team... 0002000i | 02
Our team..... 2110111i | 07
(The 'i' means we started the 8th end, but the match was conceded before the end was completed.)

The reason this match was so pivotal was because a win guaranteed us at least one game on Sunday. If we lost, we had to win at 8:30p later that day, and even if we won that one, we would have to play again at 8 AM the next morning. For one, I wasn't too excited about the prospects of playing a game immediately after the Saturday night party. For another, I wanted to play on Sunday, and I wanted to at least get some sleep Saturday night. So, the pressure was on. I probably felt more pressure during this match than in any match I've played up to that point. It was exciting!

I wasn't all that optimistic heading into this one. In general, I assume that if our opponent is from another club, in particular a club with dedicated curling ice, chances are they're better than us. My logic is that the only people who will travel to curl are the most serious, and therefore, best curlers from the club in question. And, other clubs have more practice and play time than we do.

Despite my pessimism, we still won the game. But I still think the other team is a better team. Not only did we get lucky a time or two, I think if we played them on dedicated ice in the middle of curling season, we'd lose. Hey, maybe we'll get that chance at a future bonspiel...

Game 3 vs. Team Ettlin from Potomac, 4:00p Saturday
End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Other team... 1031200i | 07
Our team..... 0100031i | 05

By winning the second game, we made the "Final Four", and clinched a "prestigious" Sunday game. But as a main event semifinal, this was still a very important match. A win sends us directly to the championship game; a loss dumps us to the "fourth event" (one of three consolation brackets) and gives us an 8:00a draw Sunday morning. And once again, I was pessimistic, but even more so given that the other team had won three games up to that point. So even if they were rusty when they first got here, they've probably gotten comfortable by now.

So...they were good, and we were completely outplayed. There was a glimmer of hope in the 6th end, though, despite being down 7-1. The only way to score a lot of points is to get lucky, or hope the other team screws up. With only our last throw remaining in the 6th, we were lying four (meaning we would score four points if nothing else happened in the end) had a reasonable opportunity to score five. Instead, the shot was a little offline, and we hit one of their guards into the house, reducing our score from four to three. That still got us back to 7-4, but we needed a little more at the time. Oh well - can't make every shot, can't win every game. And we still had the fourth event.

Game 4 vs. Team Macaulay from somewhere in Ontario (Whitby?), 8:00a Sunday

Before I get to the game...some thoughts on curling families. Both Team Dunnam and Team Macaulay were whole families, with two parents and two children. (Team Dunnam actually had three children with them, for a total of five teammates. Only four would play in a given match, and they rotated who had to sit out.) I think having a curling family would be pretty cool. If you live up north somewhere, and you're going to take a family vacation down south somewhere, why not stop at a bonspiel along the way? And the kids are usually pretty good, too. Large, established clubs such as Philadelphia and Whitby have full-blown junior programs and junior leagues, complete with smaller "junior" rocks that give children as young as 6 or 7 the opportunity to play. I'm a bad judge of age, but I think the youngest curlers on the Dunnam and Macaulay teams were 10 or 11, and I'm pretty confident in saying they already have far more curling experience than I do now. When our Triangle club gets our hands on some junior rocks, we'll know we have arrived as a curling club.

A little more information on this "fourth event" that we were relegated to. Basically, the fourth event is a four-team mini-tournament, featuring the semifinal losers from the main event, and the semifinal losers from the "second event". The fourth event semifinals were at 8:00a Sunday, and the fourth event final was at 10:45a Sunday.

End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Other team... 3100000- | 04
Our team..... 0032112- | 09

Now, let's talk about the ice. I can imagine it's a little bit of a shock to northern or Canadian curlers to come down here and watch their stones behave so strangely. Despite our best efforts to level out the ice as much as possible - and believe me, we tried really really hard - arena ice is just going to have some undulations and slopes to it that you can only discover from trial and error. So, it's a little frustrating for a team used to near-perfect curling ice to have their perfectly lined up take-out make some crazy turn and miss completely. That was definitely a factor in this game. Teams used to relying on take-outs will have some problems on arena ice. Instead, our general strategy - especially in this game - was to keep as many rocks in play as possible in front of the tee line, like so:


The main idea is to give you lots of chances to get lucky. If a shot is missed by either team, chances are your team will benefit from an unintended (or intended) bump. That happened several times in this match. You also dare the other team go for take-outs, which don't always work and are completely wasted shots if they're missed, and even if they do take you out, they're not going to sit very close to the button after the shot. Our skip Brian won our club's league championship in the Spring using this strategy. And we had been curling so much up to that point, we knew exactly how hard we needed to throw the rocks to get them to land in that area, and could do it almost perfectly with almost every throw. The second and fourth games might have been my best-played games ever.

Side comment: in an incredible stroke of luck, we started all five games with the hammer (last rock of the end). We actually lost one of the five coin flips, but in that instance the other team decided to have their choice of rock colors rather than take the hammer. They "never play with yellow", they said.

So, our fourth game win means we get a fifth game, the fourth event final! Working on not a lot of sleep the night before, and lots of prior curling, I was pretty tired at this point. But our opponent in the fourth event final had played just as many games and also curled bright and early Sunday morning, so there was no advantage or disadvantage either way. Yes, curling does wear you out, particularly the sweeping. Bending over to throw the rocks, and even just moving rocks around after each end is complete, can also wear our your arms and back. I am anticipating a very sore day tomorrow.

And now, the exciting conclusion...

Game 5 vs. Team Hartman from Triangle, 10:45a Sunday
End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Other team... 01021001 | 05
Our team..... 10100330 | 08

Fourth event champions! I don't remember a whole lot about the final game, actually. I was pretty tired at this point, but we obviously still had enough energy at the end to score three points in the 6th and 7th ends. But I do remember the final end. We actually came pretty close to blowing a four-point lead in the 8th, but obviously did not. We made the shots we needed to make.

So, what do we get for winning the fourth event? Some gold pins, that's what. The main event winners and runners-up got plaques, and the main event winners also get their names on a permanent plaque to be displayed near the ice rink. The second, third, and fourth event winners all got gold pins, and the runners-up of those events got silver pins. Everyone else? They got to eat cookies and brownies while watching the championship games. Not a bad consolation prize. There will likely be pictures of our team and our pins floating around in cyberspace (send me one if you have one!), so when I get my hands on one I'll post it here.

One of the best things about playing in bonspiels is meeting, playing against, and chatting with teams from other clubs. That said, there's nothing wrong with playing a team from your own club in a bonspiel (in moderation), especially in one of the final games. Overall, our Triangle club did pretty well. In addition to our team winning the fourth event, our club also won the main event. Isn't it bad manners to win your own event?

Bonspiels aren't just about the curling; there are also side games, including a raffle, a silent auction (featuring a very popular painting of Amber's that she donated to the club), and a game called "Calcutta" that provided an interesting sub-plot. In short, one team would have won $80 if they lost the second event final, and won $0 if they won the second event final, and they knew this going in. But pride took over and they won the game, so someone else got the $80. Would you rather win a curling game or win $80? I imagine most of us would rather win the game. (Keep in mind that the $80 would have been split between the four team members, so $80 was really $20.)

The camaraderie in and between curling clubs and their members is definitely one of the best things about the sport. So not only is curling itself fun, the social aspect of it is a huge draw for me. It turns out that curling attracts lots of people like me. We had a great time all weekend, and we're definitely going to stick with curling. But for now, I'm going to try to catch up on sleep.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Spam

Back in 2004 and 2005, my Yahoo email account, on average, 25 to 30 spam emails every day. And although I stopped keeping a running total, I think it actually went up in the next year or two.

But now, spam is down. Way down. Now, or at least over the last couple of weeks, I'm averaging 25 spam emails per week, a significant decrease.

Why the decrease? Am I using my Yahoo email account less than I used to? (Yes, but not one-seventh as much.) Or, have spammers finally given up? I doubt that, because my Google mail account actually gets twice as much spam as the Yahoo account now (50 per week or so), even though I am very protective of this email address and NEVER give the address to ANY website. So, go figure.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

2009 Carolina Classic: Preview

This weekend is the signature event of the Triangle Curling Club, the "Carolina Classic" bonspiel. Hooray! (For the uninitiated, bonspiel = curling tournament. And just as a reminder, I have a permalink on the right to the Wikipedia "Glossary of curling", in case I ever throw in curling terminology without definition.) The "Classic" is pretty much the only time all year when people come from out of town to curl with our club. So, as what is still basically an "upstart" curling club in a non-traditional curling market, putting on a good event is very important if you want your Southern curling club to be anything other than the butt of jokes. Basically, making a good impression comes down to having (in no particular order) friendly people, good food, alcohol, and good curling ice.

Now...last year, the format of the event was as such: all 20 teams played exactly three games, and a wacky points system helped determine the overall winner. This year, we again have 20 teams, but we're actually running the bonspiel the way everyone else does: bracket style. The bonspiel is one day longer this year, which means we have time for more games, allowing us to forego the wacky points system and have a true single-elimination tournament, plus three consolation tournaments, as most other clubs do with their bonspiels. The consolation tournaments serve two purposes: 1) it gives every team a "three-game guarantee", and 2) it allows for four simultaneous "championship matches" on our four curling sheets. Having a bracket style tournament instead of a World Cup-style round-robin also eliminates the importance of margin of victory, which is important in a sport where teams routinely concede defeat before the match is over. In a round-robin format, you can easily end up with a three-way tie for first, forcing you to use margin of victory - or BCS Standings - as a tie-breaker.

Alright, so, enough logistics. (I was somewhat involved in the bracket setup so I know a lot about this sort of thing, or at least I'd like to think I do.) Let's talk curling! My team is 3/4 the same (including me) as the team that flamed spectacularly at a bonspiel in Maryland four months ago. The afore-mentioned 3/4 team was also intact last Friday night for a pickup game, which we also lost:

End.......... 12345678 | TTL
----------------------------
Our team..... 00120001 | 04
Other team... 13001110 | 07

But on the bright side, we have home ice advantage, so I'm optimistic. (Home ice is a huge advantage in curling, especially if you curl on arena ice.) Once again, the goal is to win a game. Just one game. I suppose it would also be nice to not lose 13-0 again, but if we do, the good news is that the beer has already been paid for.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Raleigh (Cary) Driving: Part 3

Among the first few things I did after first moving to Raleigh (Cary) three years ago was to go exploring. I've always taken pride in knowing my way around town better than most, and I also like driving in new places, so that was two good reasons to do a lot of city driving during my first few weeks in town. Then, at some point, I stopped doing that sort of thing. Urban exploration used to be my thing, especially when I lived in Jacksonville, and to a lesser extent in Tallahassee. (There isn't a whole lot of exploring to be done in State College. There isn't much to it.) I've been just about everywhere in Jacksonville and Tallahassee. But now, all of my scenic/fun drives are in rural areas, as if I've already been everywhere in Raleigh, Cary, and Durham. Well, have I? Nope. Not by a long shot.

I proved that point last weekend on our way to the IMAX theater in downtown Raleigh. I first made a very poor choice of roads to take east into downtown. Hillsborough Street is a two-lane road with heavy construction and many traffic lights with no left turn lane. But I didn't know that, because I had never taken Hillsborough all the way into downtown before. The result is that we got stuck in traffic, forcing me to bail out and drive through the NC State campus.


View Larger Map

I had virtually no familiarity with the NC State campus, except that if I kept straight I would eventually get to Western Blvd, which I did. But for some inexplicable reason I took the westbound ramp instead of the eastbound ramp. Whoops! One U-turn later, my next wrong move was at Dawson Street. Dawson will get me to downtown, right? Yes, if you're coming from the north; Dawson is a one-way street in the direction I didn't want to go; I should have taken the very next exit for the northbound one-way street, McDowell. Duh, Chris! I should know these things, but I don't, because I stopped exploring. (That's two U-turns for those keeping score.)

Why don't I feel like exploring the cities I live in and around anymore? I blame technology. Between Google Maps, Google Street View, and my GPS, all of which I've used and looked at extensively, I already feel like I know all the roads in the area. However, Saturday's adventure proved that I don't, and that unless you want to rely on your GPS for the rest of your life, the only way to learn how to get places is to drive there yourself and get experience. There is no substitute for first-person experience.

So, it's time to do some driving!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Harry Potter: Confusing for the Uninitiated

I took Amber to see the latest Harry Potter movie in IMAX over the weekend, as I did two years ago. Since then, I still have read exactly zero pages of Harry Potter books, other than what I happen to read by chance looking over Amber's shoulder. That "by chance" did give away a certain character's death for me; oh well. It's not like 95% of the audience hadn't already read the book.

Actually, that prior knowledge provided a rare bit of clarity in what I found to be a very confusing and hard-to-follow movie for people like me who have read none of the books and have only seen the most recent movie. I thought they didn't really take the time to explain anything enough for "Muggles" like me to understand what was happening, or more importantly, why. (The "why" is very important in a fantasy universe, where all the "rules" are made up.) I guess they did what they had to do to compress a long book into a 150-minute movie, but it was all a blur for me. I really feel like you had to have read the book to be able to follow everything in detail. In other words, you had to already know what was going to happen in order to know what was happening. Despite the fact that the visuals were outstanding and that IMAX is "friggin' sweet", I guess that means it wasn't a very good stand-alone movie. In general, I'd say that they had no business trying to make this into one medium-to-long movie. But given how much money they're making off these movies, why wouldn't they? And like I said, I'm assuming that 95% of the audience had read the book.

So...the moral of the story is that I should do a little research before the last book's movie comes out (which as a good husband I will no doubt be obligated to see). I've heard the last book will be split into two movies. If you're already making seven movies, why not make it eight and rake in another $500 million? And no, "a little research" doesn't mean I'm going to read any of the books. As I've stated before, wizardry isn't my thing. In fact, neither is reading.