Saturday, January 30, 2010

Snow Pictures, From Home This Time

As of noon Saturday, it is still sleeting outside, but it looks like the storm is pretty much over. So...time to recap!


At our house, we received between 5 and 6 inches. Not bad! Not a personal lifetime record, but certainly a personal North Carolina record. The best news of all, however, is that power outages are only isolated in our area.

(Note - there's a water jug just to the right of the picture, which is why the top of the snow goes up from left to right. The place I stuck the ruler is pretty much a level reading.)

The snow started much earlier than I thought, which made driving back from curling a little dicey, but we made it home safe. By the time we made it back home at 12:30 AM this morning, our house had already received about 2 inches. Overnight, the snow eventually transitioned to sleet, which is what kept our storm total down compared to what some where expecting. Granted, the storm isn't over, but we're not likely to get much more additional accumulation the rest of the day. It's too early to tell whether we'll be able to drive anywhere tomorrow, though.

And now...some more pictures:









Sports Saturday: 1/30/10

Normally I write these posts the day before, but I was so excited about the snow, I forgot! So, this is kind of going to be a hatchet job, especially once we get down to the college basketball section.

NHL - I'm leading off with hockey today because it's my favorite day of the NHL season: Hockey Day In Canada! Every year, CBC goes to a small Canadian town (Stratford, Ontario this year) in a day-long celebration of Canada's favo(u)rite sport. For us, it means 13½ consecutive hours of hockey coverage on the NHL Network, starting at 12:00 PM, and lasting all the way until 1:30 AM tomorrow morning. Woohoo! No boredom for Chris today! (No, I do not plan on watching all 13½.) Given that we have over 6" of snow on the ground and that we're not going anywhere today, I can't think of a better time to have Hockey Day In Canada.

Included in the 13½ hours of coverage are three all-Canadian NHL games:

Sat 2:00p - Montreal at Ottawa, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Vancouver at Toronto, NHL Network
Sat 10:00p - Edmonton at Calgary, NHL Network


Meanwhile, here are the rest of this weekend's NHL games, all of which involve boring American teams:

Sat 1:00p - NY Islanders at Philadelphia, MSG Plus
Sat 7:00p - Chicago at Carolina, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - Los Angeles at Boston, NESN
Sat 8:00p - Columbus at St. Louis, Fox Sports Midwest
Sat 8:00p - NY Rangers at Phoenix, Fox Sports Arizona
Sat 10:30p - Minnesota at San Jose, CSN California
Sun 12:30p - Detroit at Pittsburgh, NBC
Sun 3:00p - Tampa Bay at Washington, Sun Sports
Sun 4:00p - NY Islanders at Florida, Fox Sports Florida
Sun 5:00p - Los Angeles at New Jersey, MSG Plus
Sun 6:00p - Phoenix at Dallas, Fox Sports Southwest
Sun 8:00p - NY Rangers at Colorado, Altitude


Auto Racing - It's the unofficial start of the racing season! Hooray! NASCAR doesn't really start until next weekend, but there are a couple of things going on today and tomorrow.

Sat 3:00p - The 24 Hours of Daytona, SPEED: Hockey Day In Canada is not the only long-running sports broadcast of the day. The 24 Hours of Daytona, a 24-hour sports car endurance race, is basically the first race of the year, so I'm going to watch at least some of it. Just under two-thirds of the race will be televised live, running from 3:00p to 10:00p today, and then from 7:00a to 4:00p tomorrow. I'm guessing the race starts at 3:30p today and ends at 3:30p tomorrow or something? Once NASCAR returns the following weekend, sports car racing will get relegated to the back burner once again, not to be seen again until next year's 24 Hours of Daytona.

Sat 10:00p - NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, SPEED: Even though NASCAR doesn't really start this weekend, there is a NASCAR-sanctioned event going on in Irwindale, CA, called the "Toyota All-Star Showdown". This is basically a minor-league short track race, featuring mostly drivers you haven't heard of from NASCAR's Camping World East and Camping World West Touring Series. Only hardcore NASCAR fans (me) need apply. My plan is to record it and watch it tomorrow if we're stuck at home again.

College basketball - Now 0-8 in the Big Ten, Penn State basketball is, well, not so good. Or are they just unlucky? According to Ken Pomeroy's computer rankings, Penn State is the second most unlucky team in the entire country!

So, are they really that bad, or just unlucky? I'd say both. They'll get big lead in some games, but they can never close the deal, and often end up losing by a couple of points. All but one of their Big Ten losses have been by 10 points or less. Better luck next time?

In the interest of time, I'm only going to list the ACC and Big Ten games today. The Big East and Atlantic 10 will return next weekend.

Sat 1:00p - Duke at Georgetown, CBS
Sat 2:00p - Indiana at Illinois, ESPN2
Sat 3:00p - Florida State at Boston College, WRAL (Raycom)
Sat 4:30p - Iowa at Michigan, Big Ten Network
Sat 7:00p - Northwestern at Michigan State, Big Ten Network
Sun 1:00p - Virginia Tech at Miami (FL), WRAL (Raycom)
Sun 1:00p - Minnesota at Ohio State, CBS
(regional coverage; the Southeast will get Florida at Tennessee instead)
Sun 3:00p - Penn State at Purdue, Big Ten Network
Sun 5:30p - Maryland at Clemson, FSN
Sun 7:45p - Virginia at North Carolina, FSN


NFL - I don't care about the Pro Bowl, so I'm not even going to bother looking up when it's on or which channel has the game.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Sky Is Falling!

I think it's safe to say at this point that the "winter storm" heading our way is the real deal. I'm not saying that WRAL was justified in their 72-hours-out hysteria, but now that we're less than 24 hours out, I think it's safe to call this storm "significant". This will likely be the most potent winter storm I've experienced since I moved to North Carolina in 2006, and will possibly be the most potent winter storm I've ever experienced. (I don't think I ever saw more than 6" at one time in my two years in State College.) Right now, we're looking at a minimum of 4" of snow, possibly as much as a foot. Exciting! Where we land in the 4-12" spectrum will largely depend on how much falls as sleet and how much falls as snow. Thankfully, it appears the ice will stay to our south. (Sorry, Fuquay-Varina! For many reasons, I'm glad we didn't end up moving there.)

The meat of the storm won't get here until the early morning hours Saturday, so tonight's curling will go on as scheduled. Even though the snow is expected to start before then, anything we get before midnight should be on the light side, and shouldn't be enough to adversely impact travel. The way I see it, if Canadians canceled curling every time it snowed, would they ever get to curl?

Saturday, however, will be a good day to stay home. By the time we wake up Saturday morning, there may already be 4" on the ground, with several hours of heavy snow and/or sleet still to come. I think it will be fun to go for a walk around the neighborhood on Saturday and enjoy the snow as much as possible. This kind of storm doesn't happen every year - or even every decade - so we better make the most of it!

The storm is supposed to move out by Saturday evening, but what are our prospects for Sunday? Will we be able to do anything, or will we be stuck at home for another day? Either the storm will wimp out and we'll be able to leave the house on Sunday and go for a drive, or we're going to get completely dumped on and that will be neat in its own right. It's win-win! Well, as long as we don't lose power. If we lose power and we can't leave the house, then Sunday will be a cold, miserable day. And it's not supposed to get above freezing on Sunday, so the roads may still be hazardous even on Monday.

So...yeah. There are still a lot of 'if's at this point, so this is bound to be an exciting weekend, one way or another. I'll be providing live updates and the occasional picture on Twitter/Facebook all weekend. Even if we lose power. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stale Popcorn

I'll talk about the weather more tomorrow, but for today, here's something dumb and pointless. (That is, even dumb and pointless than usual.)

One of Amber's favorite snacks is Smartfood White Cheddar Popcorn. It's a weekly grocery store purchase, and often, she'll open it and have her first serving that same day. Then, she'll leave the bag open on purpose so that in a day or two, the popcorn becomes stale. Really stale.

Now...stale crackers and pretzels aren't so good. People would generally agree that crackers and pretzels need to have a crunch in order to be enjoyable. But with popcorn, apparently, there are some people out there - Amber included - who actually prefer the taste of stale popcorn to fresh-out-of-the-bag popcorn. Chewy popcorn can work on some level, I guess.

As for me, I think popcorn that's a little stale (maybe 24 hours or less) is okay, but beyond that...not so much. You chew it, and nothing happens! There needs to be at least a little give.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The WRAL Winter Weather Hype Machine

Even though I do have a Masters degree in Meteorology from one of the top meteorological programs in the nation, I never put that much time or effort into becoming a good forecaster. (Meteorology - or atmospheric science, if you will - is a lot more than just forecasting.) So, you're not going to get an original forecast out of me. And since I know how difficult it can be to forecast winter storms precisely, you're also not going to see me criticize a specific person or group's forecast if it doesn't verify.

However...I have noticed over the last few potential winter weather events that the most prominent local TV station - WRAL - has tended to overhype the impending winter weather. It remains to be seen whether they're overhyping this particular storm, but they have been guilty of "crying wolf" in the past. For example, a few weeks ago, they used the word "snowstorm" to describe a possible winter weather scenario in which we would maybe get an inch of snow. Even though the forecast itself called for barely anything (which is what we ended up getting), the emphasis and the tone was on the excitement and the possibility of snow - the "best-case scenario", if you will. And you wonder why the public doesn't trust meteorologists? People don't want hype; they just want a realistic forecast. Unfortunately, this is the problem with TV news these days: everything is overhyped in an effort to keep your attention for as long as possible. We may very well get a few inches of snow this weekend, but we're still two to three days out, and given how sensitive winter weather forecasts are (specifically as they relate to precipiation type), who knows? WRAL doesn't do a good job communicating this uncertainty. Instead, they put quotes such as "If the cold air continues to move in as the system arrives, then we could be looking at a significant snow for parts of North Carolina” into their articles. Use of the word "significant" is a deliberate attempt to create frenzied excitement and panic in a part of the country that doesn't handle snow very well. I know enough about forecasting to tell you that it's too early to be throwing around words like "significant", even if it is included with qualifying words such as "if" and "parts of". Again, the emphasis is on the best-case scenario, not the most realistic scenario or the uncertainty. The public will forget all about those qualifiers and run to the local Food Lion as soon as possible and run the store out of bottled water and batteries. Or, they'll remember the last overhyped winter storm forecast, and automatically expect another dud.

I'm sure WRAL isn't the only local station guilty of this, but perhaps this is part of the reason why local school districts are so quick to close schools the day before, even before the first snowflake has fallen. "Better safe than sorry" is one thing, but...come on! Why not wait until 5:00 AM or something? I would think that having school on a make-up day less cost effective and more inconvenient for all parties involved than just waiting until the morning of to decide whether or not to shut down the schools.

Either way...it does look like we're going to get at least a little winter precipation out of this. Whether it's "significant" enough to affect our plans for the weekend (curling on Friday, possible drive on Sunday), or yet another "Trace", remains to be seen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fun With Shazam

Here's another smartphone app I've been having fun with recently: Shazam. You run "Shazam" while a piece of recorded music is playing, and it will tell you the name of the song, the artist, and the album. Pretty cool, eh? I think so.

I rarely have a practical use for the app; however, I have been having fun testing its limits against song for which I know (or at least can get via other means) the title. For example:
- Do you need to put the phone's microphone right up against the speaker? No; it works on a surprisingly low volume. I ran Shazam in a store with gently playing background music, that you wouldn't even be able to hear if you were on the phone with me, and it worked.
- Does it work with background noise? Yes. I've run the app in a loud car, even while Amber and I were talking over the song, and it still worked. This is because the Shazam algorithm is dependent on only a few key frequencies, which are not affected by background noise.
- Does it work if the CD skips? No, because for Shazam to work, the timing of each "key frequency" must be exact. I'm curious as to whether it would work with music on a cassette tape, because cassette tapes don't always play back at the correct speed. The cassette player in one of my older cars, for example, always played music faster than it should have.
- Does it work work live music? No, but they tell you this up front. It only works with pre-recorded music.
- Are there any false positives? I have yet to get one.
- Does it recognize obscure music? Not always. I've been testing it with the local indie rock station (88.1 FM, WKNC), and Shazam has between a 50% to 60% success rate with the standard WKNC playlist. I don't expect it to recognize most local music, but I'm actually a little disappointed in the success rate.

So, what's the verdict? Well, with the exception of the other day when neither Amber nor me could recognize a "Better Than Ezra" song, I rarely have a practical use for Shazam. It's just a neat, time-wasting thing. Which could also be said about my phone in general.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Curling Recap: 1/22/10

It's time for the start of the Triangle Curling Club Winter League! This league is different than our club's normal leagues, for a couple of reasons:
- This league is only four weeks long, and will wrap up before the Winter Olympics start. After the Olympics (and subsequent Learn to Curl sessions) are done, we'll have up to three more mini-leagues, depending on how much interest we get from the Olympic rush.
- Usually, our most experienced and/or best curlers play "skip" in our leagues. In this league, however, since it is a short league, we decided to change it up. Instead, we required that each team field an inexperienced skip, one that has never been a full-time league skip before. This is great for me, because it means that 1) I get to play skip, and 2) I won't be completely outmatched in the process. If I tried playing skip in a normal league, I wouldn't be able to compete. But since every other team also has an inexperienced skip, I think we actually have a realistic chance of winning the league. Hooray!

So, how did the first game go for "Team Allen"?

End............ 1234567 |TTL
----------------------------
Other team..... 0002010 | 03
Our team....... 1420202 | 11

Now...I need to be a little careful here. Other curlers from the club - including people from the losing team - read this blog, so you won't see me "talking smack" or "gloating" here. That's not the curling spirit. Curlers are respectful and polite. With that in mind, here is my polite analysis of the match:

Three of my team's four curlers all played in the Chesapeake "Funspiel" last weekend, while only one curler from the other team had curled the previous weekend. That undoubtedly gave us an advantage. (Our fourth curler was brand new and had zero prior curling experience, but the other team's fourth was also brand new. Both new curlers did very well, I thought.) Speaking personally, I think having played four games the weekend before gave me a huge advantage. I already was very confident in my shotmaking before we even got started, which would not have been the case if I hadn't played the weekend before and was coming off a six-week layoff.

Going back to my analysis of the "Funspiel", I talked about how on quirky arena ice, where stones don't always go the direction you expect them to, take-outs are hard to execute. As such, when playing skip, I generally avoid calling for a take-out, unless 1) there are multiple rocks to hit, increasing our chances of hitting "something"; 2) a take-out is absolutely necessary (i.e. the other team has a rock right on the center button that can't possibly be outdrawn); or 3) the ice is actually behaving predictably, and/or there is at least one predictable "groove" in the ice that is easy to find and use. Instead of relying on take-outs, my general strategy is as follows: put as many rocks in the house as possible, then guard them if we get a definite advantage at some point. Keep as many rocks in the house as possible, and if you must hit something, take a little off the weight so that the rock stays in play in case the take-out misses. Note that on dedicated ice, this strategy would never fly, because you have to make take-outs - if you don't, surely, the other team will. But on arena ice, based on the games I've been a part of - most of which have been as a vice-skip - this strategy, while not foolproof, does give you a good opportunity to win. I thought last week's game wasn't as lopsided as the 11-3 final score indicated, but got some lucky bounces and I made an occasional good

Disclaimer: my strategy is destined to fail in the next match. I should also point out that I have no reservations against revealing my strategy to the other skips in the Winter League, because in our club, helping out and making everyone else a better curler is more important than winning. (Awww.) Besides, I'm not sure there's a good defense against this strategy, other than to essentially try and do the same thing.

That said...I can't lie. It is a little more fun when my team wins. :)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Random Pictures: 1/24/10

Every now and then, I'm going to post a few random pictures, because I can.

I had last Monday off from work, so I went for a bike ride, and took a couple of pictures along the way.


This is the "American Tobacco Trail", a "mixed-use" trail that currently exists in two discontinuous sections, one north of I-40 and one south of I-40. It's a good alternative if I decide I'd rather deal with foot and horse traffic than with car traffic. Most of the south segment is unpaved, and I've since learned that biking on dirt or gravel is much less efficient than biking on pavement. On the other hand, the trail has no steep grades whatsoever, which is nice. (It's built on former railroad tracks.)


This is unincorporated New Hill. At 16 miles south of our house, it's the farthest from home I've ridden my bike to date. (That's not me in the photo; that's another bicyclist. That is my finger, however.)


The "town" - if you can even call it that; it's more like an intersection than anything else - is a little old. How long do you think this gas station has been out of business? I'm surprised the pumps are still there.

The road in the background is Old US-1. Back when it was the real US-1, was New Hill a bustling metropolis? Doubtful, but it probably looked better than it does now.


This is what's on tap at Ziggy's, the traditional after curling drinking hole. I took a picture of it because there are not one, but two spelling errors, and this kind of thing drives me nuts. Can you spot them? Answers below.


It's hard taking pictures at night, especially with a phone.


This is an out-of-order bathroom stall, complete with a Spanish translation (yes, that is an actual Spanish translation - I actually thought it was fake), and even a bonus third language. (Sorry it's so blurry. I have a hard time keeping the phone still sometimes. It says "Kaput" at the bottom in case you can't make it out.)

Ziggy's two spelling errors:
- "Yeungling" (should be Yuengling - I can kind of understand this one, but still)
- "Labatt's Blue" (should be Labatt Blue - NO EXCUSE for this one)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sports Saturday: 1/23/10

Now that we're back in town for a weekend, it's time for more disorganized, amateur sports commentary! I think consolidating my blog's sports content into a single, weekly post is working out well.

NFL - Last weekend, before we went out of town, I decided to record all four of the weekend's NFL playoff games, do my best to avoid the results of the games until I got home, then watch them on the DVR Sunday and Monday. I was generally able to avoid the results of all four games - all I knew was that Arizona/New Orleans was "high scoring" and that Indianapolis led Baltimore 10-3 late in the second quarter - but it wasn't easy. Avoiding the result of an obscure hockey or basketball game is one thing. But the NFL is a big deal. To avoid the result of an NFL playoff game, you basically have to avoid most forms of radio, television, and internet, and that's what I did for three days straight. Was it worth it? In the end...I'd say, no. Three of the four games were blowouts, and by the time I got to the fourth game, I was basically just trying to get the game over with so that I could be "free" again. When watching a game on my DVR feels more like an obligation than a leisure activity, then that means I'm taking it too far. Lesson learned. If the Jaguars were playing, then that would be one thing. But for the Chargers and Jets, it's not worth the trouble.

On the other hand, apparently there are only 11 minutes of "actual playing time" in an entire NFL game (h/t: Erik), which means the DVR is definitely the way to watch football. Just not two days after the fact.

Sun 3:00p - NY Jets at Indianapolis, CBS
Sun 6:40p - Minnesota at New Orleans, FOX

College basketball - A couple of weeks ago, I said that Florida State basketball frustrated me more than every other team I root for combined. That seems like a pretty silly thing to say at first - Florida State is 14-4, has flirted with the Top 25 rankings, and is in position to go to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, Penn State basketball has lost to Tulane and UNC Wilmington, and has yet to win a Big Ten game. The Jacksonville Jaguars flirted with playoff contention only to lose their final four games. And, of course, the Carolina Hurricanes suck. Florida State basketball has been doing better than all of those teams. What's this frustration all about?

Well, it's all about expectations. By now, I know that Penn State basketball and the Carolina Hurricanes both suck, so I don't find the next loss frustrating. In fact, it's expected. When I watch Florida State basketball, I see a lot of potential. The announcers go on and on about how "skilled" the players are. "Oh, that Chris Singleton, he's going to break out any game now!" But, let me tell you, it doesn't show. Head coach Leonard Hamilton - a former NBA coach - seems to teach an NBA-style offense: lots of screens, and dependent on individual ability. In other words, it's not a very team-oriented system. That's fine if you have an NBA-caliber player - which, last year, they did - but this year, it means nobody really knows what they're doing on offense, which leads to lots of turnovers. The NBA system allows FSU to recruit lots of very "skilled" players - year after year, they have a "highly ranked" recruiting class - but more often than not, the team's potential is never realized. Perhaps FSU's best chance for short-term success would be to fire Hamilton after he brings in a top recruiting class and let someone else coach the players up.

In the interest of equal time, let's talk about Penn State too. In the Penn State games I've watched, it looks like their best player (Talor Battle) tries to do too much. He had a good year last year. But it looks like last year's success got to his head, and now he tries to do everything himself, which would be fine if he were an NBA-caliber player, but...he's not. This is hurting the team. It looks like an NIT championship is as good as it's going to get at Penn State for a while.

Sat 12:00p - Michigan State at Minnesota, CBS (nationally); not sure if I get this game locally
Sat 12:00p - Villanova at St. John's, ESPN
Sat 12:00p - Rutgers at Georgetown, MASN
Sat 1:30p - Boston College at Virginia Tech, WRAL (Raycom)
Sat 2:00p - Ohio State at West Virginia, WRAL-2 (locally), CBS (nationally)
Sat 2:00p - DePaul at Notre Dame, MASN
Sat 2:00p - Marquette at Syracuse, ESPNU
Sat 4:00p - Virginia at Wake Forest, WRAL (Raycom)
Sat 4:00p - Michigan at Purdue, ESPN
Sat 4:00p - Texas at Connecticut, WRAL-2 (locally), CBS (nationally)
Sat 4:00p - Massachusetts at Baylor, ESPNU
Sat 6:00p - NC State at Maryland, ESPN2
Sat 6:00p - Dayton at St. Joseph's, ESPNU
Sat 6:00p - Rhode Island at Xavier, Fox Sports Cincinnati
Sat 8:00p - Illinois at Northwestern, 8:00p, Big Ten Network
Sat 8:00p - South Florida at Providence, 8:00p, ESPNU
Sat 9:00p - Duke at Clemson, 9:00p, ESPN
Sun 12:00p - Georgia Tech at Florida State, 12:00p, WRAL (Raycom)
Sun 12:00p - Cincinnati at Louisville, MASN
Sun 2:00p - Pittsburgh at Seton Hall, MASN
Sun 2:30p - Penn State at Wisconsin, Big Ten Network
Sun 5:00p - Iowa at Indiana, Big Ten Network

NHL - As much hockey as I watch, I generally don't have anything interesting or insightful to say about it. Unlike with college basketball, when I watch a hockey game, I'm not automatically dissecting and criticizing the flow of play. It's much more mindless. "Puck didn't go in, aww. Puck goes in, yay!" Maybe that's why I enjoy watching it?

Sat 1:00p - Ottawa at Boston, NESN
Sat 1:00p - Carolina at Philadelphia, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - NY Rangers at Montreal, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Toronto at Florida, Fox Sports Florida
Sat 7:00p - Los Angeles at Detroit, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 7:00p - New Jersey at NY Islanders, MSG
Sat 7:00p - Phoenix at Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sat 7:30p - Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Sun Sports
Sat 8:00p - Anaheim at St. Louis, Fox Sports Midwest
Sat 9:00p - Columbus at Minnesota, Fox Sports North (Why the late start? Minnesota home games normally start at 8 ET/7 CT.)
Sat 10:00p - Chicago at Vancouver, CSN Chicago
Sat 10:30p - Buffalo at San Jose, CSN California
Sun 12:30p - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia, NBC (The NBC game of the week features the Penguins and Flyers? Shocker!)
Sun 5:00p - Boston at Carolina, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sun 8:00p - Dallas at Colorado, Fox Sports Southwest (Dallas Cowboys fans don't get to watch their team Sunday night, but don't despair - there's always the Dallas Stars!)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Does "24" Still Have It?

(SPOILER ALERT)

The show "24" has been one of my favorites for the last few years. But the end of last season left a sour taste in my mouth, so I was actually considering skipping out on this season. But I thought I'd give it a chance. After all, the most interesting part of a "24" season is often the first half, when the terrorists often enjoy a small measure of success, important "good guy" characters may die, and things don't always go according to plan. So if I'm going to watch any part of the 8th season, it should be the beginning, right?

Well, last night, we finally got through the first four hours of the season on the DVR. I had my doubts, but I think the show still has something to offer. First off, Jack Bauer is going to be one of those legendary action hero characters that is remembered for a long time. He's the MacGyver of our generation. When I watch Jack in action, I feel like I'm watching history in the making. Yeah, I know that sounds lame, but Jack is the man, and no matter how unrealistic his abilities are - for example, his uncanny ability to expertly lead counter-terrorist operations within a matter of minutes, even though he's spent most of the last few years in the show's timeline either in hiding or in a Chinese prison, rather than in "active duty". Apparently, saving the country is just like riding a bicycle. But who cares? It's entertainment, and it's obviously fiction. Every time they make up a place name, or provide some other kind of geographical inaccuracy, the show reminds me not to take this too seriously.

So, besides the aura of Jack Bauer, what else does the show have to offer? In past seasons, unpredictability of the show has been one of its strongsuits. But over the last couple of seasons, the writing has gotten lazier, and the show has gotten more predictable, especially as I've started to figure out how the show works. For example, in general, the worst things always happen right at the end of the hour, right? In the closing minutes of hour three, I thought there was a small chance - maybe 5 to 10% - that the plot to assassinate Fictional Islamic Republic President Hassan would be successful, and that this tragedy would set up the rest of the season. We're still very early in the season, so terrorist success is not out of the question at this point, especially considering what's happened the last two seasons (a nuclear attack and a commercial aircraft collision, respectively). But once the clock struck 07:00:00, even though Hassan's safety had not yet been confirmed, I knew he would be fine. If Hassan was going die, surely the writers would end an episode with his death, rather than lead off the following episode with his death, right? (Yes, this was in the middle of a two-hour block, but the show is still produced as if each episode will be shown as a separate one-hour block, under the assumption that the episodes will be shown separately in syndication. This is why you get those "PREVIOUSLY ON 24" segments that recap what you just saw minutes ago.)

So, from that regard, the season hasn't been all that unpredictable so far. Terrorist plots have been foiled, and another layer of conspiracy has been revealed above the initial conspirators, has happens pretty much every season. And, unfortunately, the season will only get more predictable as we go on. We know that by the end of the season, the terrorist threat will be thwarted, and Jack will be on his way to Los Angeles to be with his family. On the other hand, I enjoy disturbed, haunted Renee Walker much more than last season's crying, emotional Renee. And I still don't know what's going to happen next week, and Jack Bauer is still Jack Bauer. All are reasons to come back next week.

Is this the last season of "24"? It's not official one way or the other, but it could be, and I think it should be. (Then again, I also thought the last season of "The Simpsons" would be ten years ago.) But even if it is the last season, don't expect a neat, tightly-wrapped conclusion to the series, because they'll want to leave it open for a movie. "24" isn't like "Lost", where the entire series runs together, all leading up to some dramatic conclusion. In "24", each season is pretty much self-contained. The ending of this season won't be that much different than the ending of any other season.

In past seasons, I've provided "Random Thoughts on '24'" each week throughout the season. I don't know if I'm going to do that every week this season. Maybe every two or three weeks, depending on how the season goes. However, I do plan on providing "Random Thoughts on 'Lost'" every week, all season, because I do know at least some of you watch "Lost", and this is definitely the last season for that show. There's a lot more buzz surrounding "Lost" than there is "24" right now, so I think I'm going to focus more on "Lost" over the next four months.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Alaska Trip: The First Preview of Many

It's pretty much official at this point: this summer, Amber and I are going to Alaska.

Is it too soon to be thinking about trip planning and logistics? Heck no! The trip is 5 to 5½ months away, which sounds like a long time, but that's actually closer than when I started thinking about last year's the US-50 trip (over 6 months in advance). I think now is the right time to start planning.

In fact, given that this trip - unlike last year's trip - is to a popular tourist destination at the peak of tourist season, perhaps we should have starting planning already! By necessity, this trip will be more planned and organized than last year's trip, when we made no advance hotel reservations after the first night and only had a rough idea of where we would be each night. This time around, we'll have a detailed itinerary that will spell out in advance where we will be and what we will do each day. This trip will be a week longer than the US-50 trip, and considering we'll be doing more touristy stuff and will be staying in expensive places, it will probably cost three times as much. But that's okay. I have no problems going all out on this trip. Alaska has always been a goal of mine, and now that I've been to the other 49 states, now is the perfect time to go. (Amber has "only" been to 48 states, but she says "Hawaii doesn't count.") Also, we might not go on another "major" (week or longer) road trip for another several years, owing to our "family plans". So, you had better believe we are going all out with this Alaska trip.

Here are the logistics we've worked out so far:
- We're making the trip in late June/early July in order to take advantage of maximum sunlight. The downside of going this time of year is that it won't be "northern lights" season. But the northern lights are just one thing. While we would like to see them someday, we're not going to center our vacation around them, and I think we'll have a more complete Alaska vacation if the sun stays up until midnight every day. We'll save the northern lights for a more ambitious trip, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now. (Norway, anyone?)
- We'll each have about two weeks of vacation time to spend by the summer, and since this will be our last major road trip for years (probably), we're going to spend all of it. If we incorporate three weekends and the 4th of July holiday into our trip, then we can take a 17-night trip. We'll leave on a Thursday (say, June 24th), return three Sundays later (July 11th), use Monday as a "rest day", and go back to work on Tuesday.

But before we work out the details as to where we're going and what we're doing once we get to Alaska, we need to do some more planning. The dream hasn't just been to go to Alaska, the dream has been to drive to Alaska. No cruises or planes for us! It would almost feel like "cheating" to fly there. For us, the journey is part of the fun. If we just hopped in a plane and arrived in Anchorage the same day, it just wouldn't seem right. "Wait...you mean we're here? Already??" Of course, it takes a day or two to get to Alaska via car, so this will mean we'll have significantly less time to spend in Alaska itself. But that's the way it goes.

How much time will we have in Alaska, exactly? Let's find out! Assuming 12 hours of driving each day, here's how the overnight stops fell:
Day 1: Chillicothe, OH, after a half-day of after-work driving.
Day 2: Sauk Centre, MN (between St. Cloud and Fargo).
Day 3: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Day 4: Dawson Creek, B.C.
Day 5: Watson Lake, Yukon.
Day 6: Glennallen or Delta Junction, Alaska, depending on whether we want to start with the Anchorage side of the state or the Fairbanks side of the state.
Days 7 through 13: Seven days, eight nights in Alaska. Seems like a lot, but when we're there, it probably won't seem like enough.
Day 14: Whitehorse, Yukon.
Day 15: Fort St. John, B.C. (I'm planning on more driving per day on our way back.)
Day 16: Regina, Saskatchewan. (The plan is to take a different route coming home that will take us through Regina and Bismarck instead of Winnipeg, and then Iowa instead of Wisconsin.)
Day 17: Davenport, IA.
Day 18: Home! (Saskatchewan to North Carolina in two days sounds ambitious, but last year we made it from Texas to North Carolina in one day, so we can do it.)

(Disclaimer: We reserve the right to change our itinerary. This is a "first draft" only.)

As for what we're going to do with our seven days in Alaska, Denali National Park is pretty much the only definite destination we have for now. I know many of you have been to Alaska, so of course, suggestions are welcome. Keep in mind that our general interest is "outdoorsy" stuff. For example, if we were to go canoeing or kayaking, what is the one place in Alaska we should go? How much time should we spend in Denali? We also like quirky, funny, and/or nerdy stuff - for example, the Watson Lake Signpost Forest along the Alaska Highway in Yukon. While we aren't going to spend too much time "dilly dallying" on our way to and from Alaska, you had better believe we're stopping at the signpost forest. Anything like that in Alaska? Not specifically a signpost forest, of course, but something that a couple of nerdy people would find amusing or entertaining. Alaska Highway advice is also welcome for those who have driven it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Travelogue: 1/15-1/17/10

So, yeah: I like talking about driving. I have a few random thoughts from last weekend's drive to Maryland and back that I'll share now in a poorly organized format.

I-85 in Virginia is potholey. This might be a recent development due to the recent cold snap and resulting freeze/thaw cycles, but I-85 in Virginia is a mess. Potholes everywhere. I would consider it in worse condition than any other interstate I've driven in recent memory. Now, I know Virginia is having some budget problems - they've closed over half of the state's rest areas, for example - but come on! This is a safety issue. Yes, this is one of the least-traveled stretches of interstate in all of Virginia (20,000 vehicles per day; only I-64 between West Virginia and Lexington, VA has lighter traffic), but this is also the only stretch of Virginia interstate with a 70 mph speed limit. Let's get to work!

Slamming on the brakes when you see a cop car is like saying "I'm speeding and I know it". That's what the car in front of me did on I-85 in Virginia while traveling in the 75-80 mph range (I think) in a 70 mph zone. He was subsequently pulled over. I was doing the usual 5 over the limit and was not pulled over. I guess you have to draw the line somewhere, right? I have a feeling most officers draw the line at 10 or above, but there are some that will ticket you for something in the 7-10 range. This is why I generally keep my speed at 5 over. That's not to say there aren't cops out there who would ticket you for 5 over, but I've done a lot of driving up and down the East Coast in the last 12 years, and I haven't encountered one yet. All I know is that slamming on the brakes probably doesn't help your cause.

Maryland is a real pain in the ass to get around. Excluding the mountainous western portions, it might be one of my least favorite driving states. The reasons are two-fold. First off, a lot of people live here, and they live all over the state. Even the areas around Easton can get congested. I actually had no idea that many people lived on the Delmarva peninsula. But adding to the traffic issues is that there is water everywhere. Water means bridges, and bridges are expensive, and that means there aren't too many of them. If you want to get from Richmond to Baltimore/Annapolis, your only options are the Capital Beltway (yuck), or US-301 via La Plata (see below). Those are the only cross-Potomac bridges south of Washington. Then, if you want to get to the Eastern Shore, you only have one option: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is nightmarishly congested during summer beach season. Even last weekend, it was congested. Where are all these people going? What is there to do on the Eastern Shore in January, anyway? (Other than curling, of course.) There are just too many people here, and there aren't enough ways to get around. I'm glad I don't live in Maryland.

(Since I used the word "ass", maybe now's a good time to recap my blog's profanity policy: if they can say it on The Simpsons, then I can say it here. Same applies to reader comments. I generally avoid using profanity at all here, but sometimes it's needed for emphasis. For example, saying "Maryland is a real pain in the butt to get around" just doesn't get the point across as well. Besides, I think society has progressed to the point where the word "ass" really isn't that bad anymore. You may not hear Brian Williams say "ass" on The NBC Nightly News anytime soon, but they do use it on shows rated as low as PG.)

As a Washington bypass, US-301 via La Plata isn't always the answer.


View I-95 v. US-301 in a larger map

Since I got my new phone, I've been consulting Google Maps live traffic data a lot. On Sunday, it said that I-95 in Northern Virginia was "yellow" and "red", which is bad. Fine, we'll just take US-301 instead! (US-301 is the red route in the above map.) That's great, except we didn't check the traffic on US-301, and we actually encountered a road-blocking accident that delayed us over 30 minutes. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, because the accident and resulting backup occurred in an area without Google Maps traffic information. (And just to clarify, I do not look at my phone while driving. Amber handles that duty when I'm in the driver's seat.) Sure, that's just bad luck, but even so, US-301 from Annapolis to Virginia isn't exactly the most fun road. You don't really clear urban sprawl until you're almost at the Potomac River. Until then, it's traffic light after traffic light. I'll have to remember that for next time. I think US-301 is only a viable option during rushhour. (I also thought about coming back via Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but that's 50 miles longer coming from Easton, and also carries a $12 Bridge-Tunnel toll.)

We don't have another weekend road trip planned for two months. We've gone out of town three of the last four weekends, so I think it's time to dial it down a bit and spend some time at home the next few weekends. We may do a day trip in February or something like that, but there won't be any long weekend trips until we go to State College in March for a wedding.

My car odometer is less than 500 miles away from 40,000, but it might take a while to get there. Recall that the plan in 2010 is to drive Amber's car more and my car less, in order to save my car for the Alaska trip. So, it might actually take me quite a while to drive another 500 miles. It certainly won't happen this month. It may not even happen next month. Then again, I like driving, so do you really think I'll be able to keep my car in Durham County for over two months straight? I have my doubts.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chesapeake "Funspiel": The Curling

I split the recap of last weekend's Chesapeake "Funspiel" into two parts. This part is about the curling; go here for the part about the off-ice stuff.

So, yes...the curling. That's why we came in the first place, right? To go curling!


In case you think Easton, Maryland is a rather random place for a curling club, you're right! Several towns the size of Easton have curling clubs in places like Minnesota, but given that this is the non-traditional curling market of Maryland, it does seem a bit random. But it's all about who you know. In 1979 or 1980, someone donated land to build a skating rink north of Easton, and someone was able to convince the donatee to build a curling facility along side of the skating rink. And thus, the Chesapeake Curling Club was born. Anybody out there willing to donate money to build a curling facility in Raleigh?

This was our second trip to an out-of-town bonspiel on dedicated curling ice. The first trip, to Potomac Curling Club last March, we didn't do so well. Would we do any better this time? The "Funspiel" is a little more laid back and less competitive than Potomac's Cherry Blossom, so I thought we had a good chance to win at least one game. Just not the first game.

Game 1: Friday (1/15/10) afternoon

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Our team....... 0110121i | 06
Potomac III.... 0003000i | 03

Hey, whaddya know! See, just because I set low expectations for ourselves doesn't mean we're destined to fail.

Now...the reason I expected to lose is because I just assumed the other team was a lot better than us, based on what I've seen Potomac teams do at other bonspiels. And I think my assumption was justified, because "Potomac III" then went on to win its next three games to advance to the Second Event finals. (I don't have the finals results, however.) So, I'm proud of our effort in that first game. We played well. As far as I was concerned, our weekend was already made.

Game 2: Friday (1/15/10) evening

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Our team....... 01300020 | 06
Chesapeake V... 10031103 | 09

Despite what the final score says, this one could have gone either way. Since the game was tied going into the final end, it didn't really matter how many points were scored, so we kind of "went for broke" there at the end. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't have given up three. Or, maybe we would have? Either way, I can't chalk it up the loss to not having hammer (last rock) in the final end, because the other team didn't need to take their final shot.

There are some types of shots that we can't even think about attempting on our home arena ice, but are very important on dedicated curling ice - for instance, the "hit and roll":


The idea is to hit the open rock at just the right angle so that it rolls behind pre-existing guards, making it immune to take-outs. Because of how line-sensitive this shot is, we can't even dream of executing this kind of shot at home. For us, just hitting the open rock is considered a success. To execute the "hit and roll", you either need to get lucky, or you need good curling ice. We had good curling ice this weekend, so we were able to do this kind of thing. In fact, our ability to execute this kind of shot was often the difference between winning or losing an end. In the final end of this game, our opponent made a perfect "hit and roll", and we couldn't counter. Oh well.

I also think fatigue was a factor here, at least for me. Fatigue doesn't affect shot making as much as it does sweeping. My sweeping was definitely not as strong in the second game as it was in the first. The same was true on Saturday.

But enough excuses! A win in that game would have advanced us to the semifinals and guaranteed us a prestigious Sunday match, but instead, we were siphoned off to the "Third Event". This meant we were now in a "win or we're out" scenario the rest of the way, and had to win both Saturday games in order to advance to Sunday.

Game 3: Saturday (1/16/10) afternoon

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Our team....... 10004210 | 08
Pittsburgh II.. 01120002 | 06

I've talked about this before, but here's a strategy question. When you have a big lead with one end to play, what's the strategy? Play the end normally, throw guards and prevent the other team from drawing in, or keep the playing surface as empty as possible? On good ice, the latter strategy is definitely best, because take-outs are a lot easier to pull off. The strategy is to throw the first two rocks through the house, so as to leave the playing surface as empty as possible. Then, once the "free guard zone" rule expires, we start taking out their rocks one-by-one. The idea is that as long as you make your take-outs - which we did - the other team will simply run out of rocks, and won't be able to score more than two. This is why teams often concede the match if they're down by four or more with one end to play. However, on arena ice, you can't count on making every take-out, so this strategy can backfire if you miss a couple of your shots. I think playing the end like any other end is the way to go on arena ice if you have a big lead late.

So, we won again. Woohoo! One more win and we make it to Sunday.

Game 4: Saturday (1/16/10) evening

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Chesapeake IV.. 0201104- | 08
Our team....... 1020010- | 04

Technically, I guess you could say that the two games we won this weekend were "neutral site" games. The two games in which we played teams from the host club, we lost. So am I still o-fer "on the road", or do neutral site games count? Your call.

It seems as though no matter when you win or lose at a bonspiel, eventually you're going to be saddled with an "inconvenient" draw time, meaning early morning or late night. That's just the way it is; they have to fit all these games in somehow. The closest we came to an "inconvenient" draw time all weekend was in the 4th game. It wasn't late night (6:15 PM start), but it was during dinner, and it was the last draw of the day, and everyone else was already in "party mode", so...did that play a factor in our defeat? Did the other team simply "want it more"? Hard to say, but I do know that the 7th end did not go well. I had my worst shot of the weekend in that end, and my second one was a little bit off as well. On the bright side, we got to sleep in the next day.

Even though we were done curling for the weekend, we came back on Sunday to watch the bagpipe ceremony.


Traditionally, before the final draw of a bonspiel, a bagpiper leads the teams participating in the final draw onto the ice, and then everybody takes a shot of Drambuie (or ginger ale). Isn't curling silly? Actually, it is kind of neat to watch. It was worth sticking around for, even if we did get stuck in traffic on our way back home.

Our Triangle Curling Club took four teams to the "Funspiel". Two teams went 0-3; our team went 2-2; and the other team went 4-0 and actually won the whole thing. Go us! How often does Triangle win another club's bonspiel? I bet it doesn't happen all that often, but I won't go so far as to say it's never happened. So, that's pretty cool.

Now, the question is this: which kind of bonspiel do I enjoy more? The laid back, casual kind, or the competitive kind? I think both types of bonspiels have their place. Since we are still relative newbies, I think we'll lean more towards the "fun" kind of bonspiel for now, although it will be good to weave in a more "competitive" bonspiel every now and then.

Chesapeake "Funspiel": The Party

I split the recap of last weekend's Chesapeake "Funspiel" into two parts. This part is about the off-ice activities; go here for the part about the curling itself.

So, when you go to something called the "Funspiel", you know it's not just going to be about the curling, right? At any given time, the majority of teams are not on the ice, so it's good to give everyone something to do in the meantime.

Many bonspiels have themes, and the theme of this one was the Olympics. Doesn't seem all that creative at first, but they did a great job with everything. It was a fun atmosphere all weekend long. Sure, the curling matches themselves were more serious, but once you get off the ice, you tend to forget about how the other team ran up the score against you. And, it also helps that the winning team traditionally buys the losing team a round of drinks. Such is the curling spirit.

So...yeah. Saturday night, when we got off the ice, it was "party time"!


Yes, we brought Mo the cow puppet to the curling rink. Why not?

And since I got a picture of the Labatt Blue in there, I should mention that at every bonspiel we've been to, Canadian beers - Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue - are always the overwhelming "favourite" beer of choice. That should come as no surprise to anyone.

The big Saturday night party event at the "Funspiel" is a costume contest. The costumes are always theme-oriented, the theme varying from year to year. I had heard it mentioned that there was a costume contest at the "Funspiel", but I completely underestimated how big it was. I thought wearing a Canada sweatshirt in tune with the Olympic theme was good enough. Of course, there is no obligation to participate in the costume contest, but I got a really good idea Saturday morning: get a red hat, and some kind of white fence-like material around your chest, and you're a shuttlecock! (A shuttlecock, also known as a birdie, is the projectile used in badminton. Badminton is an Olympic sport, and the rules specifically stated that the costumes could be themed with either the Summer or Winter Olympics.) Amber subsequently made a trip to WalMart, bought a red ball and some laundry baskets, and thus the shuttlecock costumes were born.


We didn't make the top 4 in the official judging, but the judging is always controversial and sketchy in costume contests, so I don't take it personally. I think they rewarded effort and team collaboration more so than creativity. The fact that we came unprepared, thought of it just that day, and assembled it in about an hour probably disqualified us from serious contention. Whatever. Many people told us that we "should have won", and according to many we were the "life of the party" (unintentional or not), and that's good enough for me.

After the costume contest, there were a few other silly games, including something called the "javelin":


One person holds a PVC pipe between his/her legs while the other person holds a roll of toilet paper between his/her legs, and the goal is to transfer the toilet paper onto the PVC pipe. Amber and I tried it, but I squeezed the toilet paper too hard.

After that, since nobody was curling then, Amber and I took the opportunity to get some curling pictures. Amber's goal was to get some material for future paintings, while I just wanted to get a picture of Mo the cow puppet holding a curling stone.


I really like that picture. One of my favorites, along with the "javelin" picture.

Now, just so you don't get the wrong idea: the "party" wasn't exactly a frat party. There obviously was drinking, but I'd estimate that less than half of the people who were there had more than one drink that night (conservative estimate, maybe?), and nobody was really seriously drunk or anything like that. It was all in control and in good fun. On the other hand, one person (whom shall remain nameless) actually missed his/her Sunday match due to hangover. Good times.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Curling Preview: Chesapeake "Funspiel"

It's time to go curling again! And it's about time, too.

This weekend, Amber and I are heading north to Chesapeake Curling Club in Easton, MD to play in their annual "Funspiel". Our Triangle Curling Club probably sends more teams to the Funspiel each year than to any other out-of-town bonspiel, and everyone says it's a lot of fun. I mean...it's curling! How can it not be fun? Of course, it's not all about the curling; the social aspect of the sport is also a big draw. And, it means we get to go on another road trip. If we can have fun at a bonspiel in which our team goes 0-3 and gets outscored by a margin of 29 to 6, we can probably have fun at just about any bonspiel. I don't think that will be an issue. We would go to more bonspiels, but vacation and financial constraints basically allow for only one - maybe two - out-of-town bonspiels per year. As far as out-of-town curling goes, this will probably be it for Amber and me until at least the Fall. Better make the most of it!

From a competitive standpoint, the "Funspiel" - and yes, I do plan on using the quotes throughout - is supposed to be a more casual, low key affair than the Cherry Blossom Bonspiel we went to last March at Potomac Curling Club. There are fewer teams (20 instead of 32), and it is supposed to be a little less competitive. That's good news for us! I don't know how our team stacks up - we're curling with Rich and Kirsten Collins in the "Funspiel", for those who know us - but I would like to think that we have a realistic chance to accomplish my goal for the weekend: win a game. Even though my all-time bonspiel record is 9-6, all nine wins came at home; I have yet to win a match "on the road" (0-3). Even if we just win one game this weekend, I would consider it a competitive success. But even if Amber and I put up another o-fer, I'm sure we'll have a good time.

Here is the "Funspiel" draw; our team is "Triangle III" and begins play Friday at 2:00 PM. As is standard at most bonspiels, we're guaranteed at least three games. We can guarantee ourselves a fourth game either by winning the first two games (not likely), or by simply winning the third game. But I'm not too worried about that, because remember: the goal for the weekend (from a competitive standpoint) is simply to win a game. Actually, in the first game - which, based on what I know about our opponent, I do not expect to win - the goal is simply to score. That alone would be an improvement over the opening match from our last out-of-town bonspiel.

I'll provide live updates and pictures on Twitter/Facebook throughout the weekend, and will post a full recap here next week (probably Tuesday). Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Programmable Thermostat

We recently installed a programmable thermostat in our house, and I'm really excited about it. Woohoo! I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but I guess that's what a $200 monthly heating bill will do to you.

The idea is to save money by automatically turning down the heat during the day when we're at work, and at night when we're in bed under four warm blankets. I'm not sure how much money this will actually save us in the long run, but it can't hurt, right?

Using our old traditional thermostat, we kept the thermostat at 65°F in winter. 65°F is already pretty low as it is, and it actually makes me wonder how high our heating bills would be if we set it to 68°F or 72°F like everyone else does. But with our programmable thermostat, we can do better! We now have it set to 62°F at night, and 60°F when we're at work. (We would set it lower than 60°F if we didn't have a cat. That's Amber's call.)

That sounds great, but we're having some problems moderating the temperature at the transition times. The thermostat is located in the middle of the house, not near any vents. So when we reach a transition from one temperature setting to another, the change will be more pronounced in the exterior rooms at first, because those rooms both cool down faster (more windows and exterior walls) and warm up faster (higher vent per unit volume ratio than in the middle of the house). This is causing some issues when it comes to regulating the temperature in our bedroom at night. The logical thing to do is to drop the temperature 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime - our current setting is to drop the thermostat from 65°F to 62°F at 9:00 PM. The master bedroom - which has two windows and two exterior walls - will cool off much faster than the interior of the house, so by the time the thermostat reaches 61°F and the heat starts back up again, the temperature in the master bedroom is probably well below 60°F. Then, once the heat comes back on again, the bedroom heats up quickly, meaning all those blankets we put on earlier are now too much. The issue is complicated by the fact that we have to close the bedroom door at night to prevent the cat from waking us up at 4:30.

Keeping in mind that our thermostat only allows for four settings per day (preventing us from easing into and out of each transition), what is the solution to our nighttime quandry? No matter what we do with the thermostat at night, there will be side effects. There may only be two solutions: 1) keep the overnight temperature at 65°F like we've been doing, or 2) buy a Snuggie.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Elastic Waistband

Ever since I was a kid, I've always preferred shorts and pants with an elastic waistband. I know the elastic waistband is, like, totally uncool, but they're way more practical than "normal" pants. If I lose or gain a few pounds, so what? My pants still fit perfectly, and comfortably. They're much easier to take on and off. No belt is required. And if I don't tuck my shirt in (which I never do when dressing casually), you can't tell the difference, so who cares if they're "uncool"?

Problem is, because they are so "uncool", elastic waistband shorts and pants are notoriously difficult to find in stores. Sure, you can find exercise shorts and pants with elastic waistbands at your average department store. But such garments rarely have large and plentiful pockets, making them impractical for anything other than sitting around the house or, of course, exercising. As such, I generally only buy shorts/pants not when I need them, but when I'm lucky enough to find the kind I want. Given how rarely I go clothes shopping, this hasn't happened in at least four years.

But, unfortunately, the times - specifically, my pledge to wear more pants and less shorts - have required I go clothes shopping once again. I know I can find elastic waistband pants online, but I hesitate to buy clothes online. So, instead, I went to a bunch of stores last Saturday; none had what I was looking for. I had to settle for those "semi-elastic" pants, which look normal but have a hidden elastic part on the side. I guess that's the best I can do. (Also note that I had a Target gift card, so I was slightly more willing to settle for something at Target.)

I don't get it. What's so bad about the elastic waistband, anyway? In light of all the advantages such pants provide, why aren't they more widely available? What makes them so "uncool"? I don't understand. Maybe I just didn't look hard enough. (My search wasn't exactly exhaustive; I had already had enough after the third or fourth store.)

Is it time to give up the elastic pants, just like I had to give up shorts in sub-freezing temperatures? Except this time, the culprit is social trends, rather than weakened resistence to cold temperatures. Now...sometimes when I publish a blog post saying something to the effect of "I wasn't able to find this", at least one person posts a comment to the effect of "Did you look here? I know you can find them here." So...anyone? Anyone?

Monday, January 11, 2010

License Plate Registration Stickers: 2011 Edition

I get excited every December/January when the next year's license plate registration stickers first begin to appear. In North Carolina, it's always interesting (for me) to see what color the new stickers are. The stickers are a different color every year, and there is no apparent pattern or system which automatically determines which color it's going to be next year, so it's often a complete surprise. To recap the colors from the last few years:

2005: blue
2006: red
2007: green
2008: blue
2009: purple
2010: green

And now, the 2011 sticker:


Now that's a surprise - a new color altogether! (Or, at least unused within the last six years.) Would you call that orange or yellow? There's probably some "artsy" name for that color out there somewhere - you know, like "fuschia" or something - but I'm not an expert on that sort of thing, so I'm going to just call it yellow/orange for now, at least until Amber tells me what the official name for that color is.

Also, I need to correct something I said on this post about the first Z-series license plate. I said that the red-letter plates ended with YZZ- and that the blue-letter plates restarted with the first Z plate, but that's not true. Since then, I have seen a couple of red-letter Z plates. According to Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives, the transition from red to blue happened somewhere between ZNC- and ZNE-, inclusive.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sports Saturday: 1/9/10

It's been a couple of weeks since I did one of these weekend sports-related posts, and since I keep changing the format, I had to go back and look at the last one to see what format I decided on for this sort of thing.

NFL - The thing I like the most about the playoffs is that finally, who gets shown on television is determined not by where you live or who the most popular teams are, but which teams are the best. I avoid watching the Dallas Cowboys during the regular season. But I have no issues with watching them in the playoffs because at this point, the reason they're on television is because they've earned it, not because they bring in good television ratings.

My plan is to record all four playoff games this weekend, and watch as much or as little of them as I feel like.

Sat 4:30p - NY Jets at Cincinnati, NBC
Sat 8:00p - Philadelphia at Dallas, NBC
Sun 1:00p - Baltimore at New England, CBS
Sun 4:30p - Green Bay at Arizona, FOX

College basketball - Conference season has started in earnest, which means good teams like Duke actually have to start playing road games! Uh oh! Duke has only played one true road game so far this season, only because they pretty much had to (as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), and...they lost.

I think too many of the early season "marquee matchups" in college basketball are played on neutral courts such as Madison Square Garden. Regular season college basketball needs to be played on a college campus in front of the students. So what if you schedule a road game against a marginal team and lose? This is college basketball, not college football. You can take a road loss to a mid-major and still come back and win the national championship. I'm not saying that UNC will do that this year, but you get the idea.

Local influence must be rubbing off on me, because I just noticed that the only two teams I've mentioned so far are Duke and North Carolina. Noooooo! What's happening to me?!?!

Once again, this is not a list of every game, only those featuring the ACC, Big Ten, Big East, or Atlantic 10.

Sat 12:00p - Virginia at NC State, Raycom (WRAL)
Sat 12:00p - Connecticut at Georgetown, ESPN
Sat 12:00p - St. John's at Louisville, MASN
Sat 1:30p - Purdue at Wisconsin, Big Ten Network
Sat 2:00p - Duke at Georgia Tech, ESPN
Sat 2:00p - Marquette at Villanova, MASN
Sat 4:00p - Boston College at Clemson, Raycom (WRAL 5.2)
Sat 3:30p - Ohio State at Minnesota, Big Ten Network
Sat 5:30p - Michigan State at Iowa, 5:30p, Big Ten Network
Sat 6:00p - Wake Forest at Miami (FL), 6:00p, ESPNU
Sat 6:00p - Cincinnati at Seton Hall, MASN
Sat 8:00p - Illinois at Indiana, Big Ten Network
Sat 8:00p - West Virginia at Notre Dame, ESPNU
Sat 8:00p - Rutgers at Providence, MASN
Sun 12:00p - Xavier at George Washington, Fox Sports Ohio
Sun 2:00p - South Florida at Syracuse, MASN
Sun 2:30p - Northwestern at Michigan, Big Ten Network
Sun 5:30p - Florida State at Maryland, FSN
Sun 7:30p - Virginia Tech at North Carolina, FSN

NHL - A few weeks ago, I said I was actually considering watching the NHL Winter Classic (a.k.a. the outdoor hockey game) on New Year's Day instead of the Gator Bowl (featuring Florida State) and Citrus Capital One Bowl (featuring Penn State), which were on at the same time, out of protest against the bowl system. Did I follow through on that? Well, yes and no. I had the remote handy the whole time and watched a decent portion of all three games. Since it was Bobby Bowden's last game as head coach, the Florida State game got the highest priority in the 1st and 4th quarters. In between, I did a lot of channel flipping between all three. And since I mentioned that I don't like the bowl system and am willing to miss most of the bowl games in protest, I'm proud to say that I did not watch more than a couple minutes of Thursday night's BCS Championship game. I just couldn't get into it. I don't care about either team, and it's not a true national championship anyway. Besides, I watched plenty of college football this season. I don't feel like I missed a thing.

Oh, right...this is supposed to be the NHL section, not the college football section. College football season is over. Sorry.

Sat 1:00p - NY Rangers at Boston, NESN (By the way, of all the U.S.-based regional sports networks, I think NESN does the best hockey broadcasts. The announcing team is great, the games are almost always in HD, there is no overly intrusive advertising, and everything is just very crisp and well done.)
Sat 7:00p - Pittsburgh at Toronto, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Tampa Bay at Philadelphia, NHL Center Ice?
Sat 7:00p - Colorado at Buffalo, Altitude
Sat 7:00p - Florida at Ottawa, Fox Sports Florida
Sat 7:00p - New Jersey at Montreal, MSG Plus
Sat 7:00p - Washington at Atlanta, SportsSouth
Sat 8:00p - NY Islanders at Phoenix, Fox Sports Arizona
Sat 8:00p - Chicago at Minnesota, Fox Sports North
Sat 8:00p - Anaheim at Nashville, NHL Center Ice?
Sat 10:00p - Calgary at Vancouver, NHL Center Ice? ("Booooo" to the NHL Network for no longer showing the full Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader like they did last year.)
Sat 10:30p - Detroit at San Jose, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 10:30p - St. Louis at Los Angeles, Fox Sports Midwest
Sun 5:00p - Ottawa at Carolina, NHL Center Ice?
Sun 7:00p - Anaheim at Chicago, NHL Center Ice?
Sun 7:00p - Dallas at Columbus, Fox Sports Southwest

Friday, January 08, 2010

Miles Driven: 2009 Final

It's time for more dumb statistics from 2009: how many miles did I put on my car last year?

Well, shoot, let's just get right to it: I put 14,775 miles on my car in 2009. That's the lowest annual total out of the last five years:

Miles driven by year
2005: 15,800 miles
2006: 27,190 miles
2007: 32,209 miles
2008: 19,611 miles
2009: 14,775 miles

Why so low? Have I lost my penchant for driving? No, of course not! Don't be silly. Let's look at this analytically to see why my annual totals have gone down so much in the last two years. Really, it comes down to three things:
- In 2006 and 2007, I made frequent weekend trips to State College to see Amber while she was still in school. Each of those trips was 1,000 miles each, and those miles add up fast.
- Before Amber bought her Mazda3 in December 2007, every road trip we did together was with my car, including the March 2007 trip to Nova Scotia (which ended up being a 4,000 mile trip). Now that we both have dependable cars, we try to split the road trip mileage evenly between our cars. This, plus the absence of frequent weekend trips to State College, explains the huge drop from 2006-2007 to 2008.
- When I lived in Raleigh (Cary) from 2006 to 2008, I had a 19-mile work commute each way, for a total of about 9,000 work commute miles per year. After we moved to Durham in January 2009, my work commute became a 3-mile trip each way, for a total of about 1,500 work commute miles per year. This explains the drop from 2008 to 2009. Throw out the work commute miles, and I actually did more driving in my car in 2009 than in 2008.

I don't formally keep track of this with Amber's car, but based on the car mileage log, I can come up with decent estimates for her car's annual mileage: 20,500 miles in 2008 and 15,000 miles in 2009. Both numbers are within 1,000 miles of my car for those years. How about that! It's almost like that was the goal all along.

Evening out the mileage between our cars will again be the goal in 2010. But this year will be our biggest challenge yet in that regard, because we've decided to take my car on the Alaska trip. The Alaska trip alone will put up to 10,000 miles on my car. Why not rent instead? Well, when I bought my car, I had every intent of putting lots of miles on it. From the start, I was actually banking on putting 25,000 miles a year on the car. But I've obviously been well below that so far, so I think my car can absorb a 10,000-mile hit. On top of that, I think we'll have more fun taking one of our cars to Alaska, we'll get better fuel mileage, the trip will be a week longer than the US-50 trip (meaning a rental car would be an extra $200 or so in comparison), and I'm paranoid that the rental car company wouldn't appreciate us taking the car all the way to the Yukon.

Meanwhile, I've developed a plan that will even out the mileage between our two cars, even when you factor in the 10,000-mile hit:
- Amber's work commute is 6 to 7 miles longer than mine each way, which over the course of the year means 3,000 extra miles for her car.
- If we always take Amber's car to curling - a 30-mile trip each way - and we go an average of four times a month, that will give her another 2,500 to 3,000 miles for the year. Four times a month might be a stretch, but given how much help the club will need with Learn to Curls following the Winter Olympics, there will be many instances in which we head over there more than once a week this year.
- That leaves 4,000 to 4,500 miles to go, or about 350 miles per month. I think we can make that up by taking Amber's car on most of our random day trips and an extra weekend trip or two, without having to take her car on every major weekend trip. In fact, the current plan when we go to Maryland next weekend is to take my car.

I'll keep an eye on our car's respective mileages throughout the year and make adjustments to our plan as necessary, but I'm feeling good about this plan. 20,000 miles for each car this year would be perfect.

Finally, just for the heck of it, here's a graph detailing how many miles I've driven in my car in each of the last 68 months:

Thursday, January 07, 2010

T-Mobile

After four years with AT&T as my wireless provider, I've now been with T-Mobile for three weeks or so. I already know that I have a good phone; that's a given. But T-Mobile isn't the only wireless provider that offers Android phones. What about the service?

Well, so far, I'm impressed. Every call I've made so far has been crystal clear - that was not always the case with AT&T. I have always had good reception around the house and around town - that was also not always the case with AT&T. To be fair, the phones I had with AT&T - they weren't exactly smartphones - may have also had something to do with that. T-Mobile is also cheaper than the "leading brand" when you compare similar plans. And, of course, they don't have annoying commercials. Who else is sick of the Verizon and AT&T ad wars? I'm glad I'm not funding those ads anymore.

Now, there must be some negatives, right? Well, the only negative that I've found so far with T-Mobile is that if you leave the country with a phone like mine, you could be subject to hundreds of dollars in data roaming charges unless you turn off data roaming and all automatic notifications, or to be safe just turn the phone off altogether. Considering that I only make one international trip per year (to Canada)...meh. I can live with a few days of no phone, especially if it's going to cost an arm and a leg for all the cool stuff while I'm there. And T-Mobile isn't the only network with excessive international data roaming rates, although T-Mobile may be the only one that sets data roaming to "all" by default in an attempt to screw some of its customers. I did a lot of research on this after discovering that my phone was technically "roaming" all the way through West Virginia - T-Mobile has no service of its own in West Virginia; instead it uses AT&T's signal - but fortunately for me, there are no extra charges for voice or data roaming in the United States. That's good, considering how often I'll be "roaming" on long road trips. And, it means I'll be able to connect at no extra charge when we're in Alaska. Hooray! Meanwhile, from Winnipeg to Whitehorse, I'll be in the dark, just like old times (i.e. last year).

So, to summarize: T-Mobile is great. So far.

Me Me Me!

I like to maintain a decent online presence. And through my blog, I'd like to think that if anyone wants to find me in Google, they can. So, I decided to find out how I was doing by Googling various phrases which people might use to find me, and seeing where my website shows up in the search results.

(Disclaimer #1: it's possible that the search results change from day to day, and it's very possible that this blog entry alone will greatly skew the search results in my favor. So if you try these at home, you may not get the same returns.)

(Disclaimer #2: I feel like I may have already written a blog post like this before, but if I had, you'd think I would have discovered it when I was doing all of these Google searches, right? In any event, if this does end up being repetitive, I apologize.)

Places Associated With Me

"chris allen durham": My blog shows up at the top of the list, #1. If this one didn't work, then either I'm doing something wrong, or there's another Chris Allen in Durham who's way cooler than I am.
"chris allen raleigh": #3, after a different Chris Allen's Facebook page, and an employee of CII Associates. If CAI were his employer rather than CII, that would just be too cool.
"chris allen cary": Still #1.
"chris allen triangle": #6. I'm not all that thrilled with that ranking.
"chris allen raleigh-durham": #3. By the way, for those who aren't aware, nobody who lives here actually uses the term "Raleigh-Durham". Everyone here calls it the "Triangle". "Raleigh-Durham" is the term the rest of the country uses.
"chris allen north carolina": #1. Wow! Totally unexpected. Does that make me the most awesome Chris Allen in the state?
"chris allen jacksonville": Not first page, which makes sense, considering I don't live there anymore, and don't talk about Jacksonville all that much. All this is driven by what I talk about in my blog.
"chris allen fletcher": Fletcher is the name of my high school, and again, this doesn't work.
"chris allen fort caroline": #1. Fort Caroline is the name of my elementary and middle schools. For once, it appears this post I wrote two years ago worked!
"chris allen florida state": #1, surprisingly.
"chris allen penn state": #6, mostly thanks to the basketball player from Michigan State.
"chris allen canada": #10. Given how much I talk about Canada, I was actually hoping for a higher ranking than that. On the other hand, Canada is a big country...

Things Associated With Me

"chris allen blog": #3. I never expected to be the only Chris Allen in the world with a blog,
"chris allen curling": #1. In addition, the Triangle Curling Club website is #3, and my Twitter page is #4.
"chris allen meteorology": Not first page, which means I don't use the phrase "meteorology" enough here.
"chris allen statistics": Not first page. All we get are stat pages for various atheletes named Chris Allen, including a hockey player (who played two games for the Florida Panthers in 1996) and the afore mentioned basketball player from Michigan State.
"chris allen useless statistics": #1. Now that's more like it.
"chris allen nerd": Not first page. Really?
"chris allen csc": #5, which is interesting because I almost never talk about my job or my employer (CSC) here. My LinkedIn page - which I don't upkeep at all and haven't visited in over a year - is #2.

Search items that don't include my name

Given the random nature of my blog content, there are countless random search phrases that will return my blog on the first page, so I can't even begin to find them all. But my StatCounter statistics have shown that I get a lot of hits from people searching for the following things:

- NHL Announcer Rankings
- Kroger Generic Cereals
- Straight Bowling versus Curvy Bowling
- Impossible Trivia
- I-95 Construction in Georgia
- Ohio County Stickers
- Valet Trash Pickup
- The All-Red Pack of Starburst

And, finally, what does plan old "chris allen" get me? #23. Given how common my name is, I'll take it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Lights of Doom


So, you're driving along a major road in rural Virginia. The speed limit is 55, but there is an occasional traffic light. About 1,000 feet before the next traffic light, you see the sign pictured above: "PREPARE TO STOP WHEN FLASHING". Then, just as you pass the sign, the sign's lights start flashing. This means the traffic light - which is still green at this point - could turn yellow, then red, any second now. What do you do? Do you mash the gas and hope you have enough time to clear the intersection, or do you play it safe and start slowing down immediately?

Such is the decision we face every time we travel on roads such as US-29 in Virginia and US-23 in Ohio. As such, I have dubbed these pre-traffic light warning lights the "Lights of Doom". In my experience, if you see the lights flashing, you're doomed. Unless you're already going really fast and can accelerate quickly, if you see the "Lights of Doom", you won't make the light. Sure, you could make the light, but for every time you accelerate and do make the light, there will also be an instance where you accelerate hoping to beat the light, only to have to slam on the brakes once the traffic light turns yellow sooner than you expected.

In general, I think you're better off letting off the gas immediately to save fuel, rather than tempt the "Lights of Doom".