Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Male Pattern Baldness

The other day, I was browsing through some pictures from the Vic/Lindsay wedding of two weeks ago. There's the bride, there's the groom, there are the bridesmaids, and holy @#$% where the @#$% did all my hair go?!?!?!

Now...I knew I was going bald, but geez, I didn't know I was that bald already. I never see the back of my head, so I had no idea. I took a picture with my phone to get a better view:

Yep...I'm going bald. Before you know it, I'm going to look like Kevin Martin.

No big deal, really. I knew it was coming, Amber doesn't mind, and I grew my hair out long when I had the chance, once going 18 months between haircuts. (I don't have pictures of that, unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately?) I just didn't expect it to happen this quickly. I admit, it was kind of shocking to see.

My male pattern baldness isn't the main reason I wear a hat most of the time (except at work), but it's all the more reason to.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bob Evans Gift Cards

Apparently, word got out before Christmas that we like going to Bob Evans, because we ended up receiving $110 in Bob Evans gift cards from three different people for Christmas. Apparently, Bob Evans is the new Best Buy.

But that was over three months ago, so when we went to Bob Evans last week, I assumed that the gift card I pulled out of my wallet and gave to the cashier was the last one. I then paid the remainder of the bill with cash...only to find yet another Bob Evans gift card, still with $25 on it, in my wallet after the fact. D'oh! Oh'll get used eventually. And if I get more Bob Evans gift cards for my birthday next week, those will get used, too...eventually. Maybe what I should have done was consolidate the balances among the three gift cards onto a single gift card. They can do that, right?

In any event, just to fill out this post, let's take advantage of that huge spreadsheet I have and talk stats.
- That was our fourth post-Christmas trip to Bob Evans, in four different cities (Jacksonville; Delaware, OH; Durham, and Cary).
- I've been to Bob Evans 23 times in the last four years, spread out among 8 locations: Cary (13), Durham (3), Delaware, OH (2); and one each in Rio Grande, OH; Beckley, WV; Ripley, WV; Waldorf, MD; and Jacksonville, FL.
- Since June 2004, I have been to Bob Evans more often than I have any other restaurant (not counting fast food), once more than Waffle Shop (of State College and Bellefonte, PA - 22 visits).
- The fastest ever Bob Evans serving time (completed order until food reception) is 6 minutes, 15 seconds, at the Cary location. The slowest ever Bob Evans time was 23 minutes, 50 seconds. This was in Durham, and resulted in a manager's apology and a 20% discount. The average Bob Evans serving time is 13 minutes, 29 seconds. Bob Evans has been under 10 minutes four times, and over 20 minutes twice.
- Of the 23 Bob Evans trips, 21 have been for dinner; two for breakfast. The average serving time for the two breakfasts (13:35) is about the same as for the 21 dinners (13:28).
- Of the 23 Bob Evans trips, 13 were just Amber and me. The average serving time for the "parties of two" is 12:17; the average serving time for the remaining 10 trips is 15:03.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Curling Recap: 3/28/10

Curling is back! Hooray!

In case you're wondering what the Triangle Curling Club has been doing all this time, considering that the Winter Olympics wrapped up over a month ago, it's taken that long to meet the demand of interest we've been getting from everyone whose interest in curling was piqued during the Olympics. Over 700 people went to one of our "Open Houses" (5 minute introduction, 10 minutes of instruction, plus one or two full-sheet throws), and of those, over 150 have gone to a subsequent "Learn to Curl" session (one hour of instruction, plus a two to four end mini game). And we're not done! We still have more "Learn to Curl" sessions to go. Where would the Triangle Curling Club be without the Olympics? Probably nowhere.

Even though the Learn to Curls aren't done yet, it was still time to start up the club's "Spring Leagues". We couldn't make each of the traditional Friday night league draws, so we signed up for the new Sunday afternoon league instead. I think Friday night is better for curling than Sunday afternoon, but that's okay. At least it's not a Saturday morning league or something like that. the Winter League, I was a full-time league skip for the first time, as part of the league's "let's get some different people in there playing skip for once" initiative. And, my team did okay, going 3-1 and losing in the championship game. Now that we're back to a more normal league format, I'm back to playing...skip? Again? There are 16 teams between the two leagues, and apparently, I'm one of the club's 16 most qualified skips. That's kind of scary. All the new folks that are curling with us for the first time - over half of the Sunday league participants are brand new - are going to see me playing skip and assume that I've been doing this a while and that I know what I'm doing. But little do they know I haven't even been curling for three years yet. This'll just be our little secret, okay?

The first game of the Sunday league was yesterday:

End........ 12345678 |TTL
Kato....... 00012011 | 05
Allen...... 16100200 | 10

I now know that much of the club reads my blog, so I'm dropping the cryptic "Our team" and "Other team" designations in favor of real, actual names, since the names will actually mean something to some of you. (Curling teams are traditionally referred to using the last name of the skip.) Also, I used to avoid mentioning other people by name "behind their backs", but I now think people generally like to see their names mentioned on other people's websites and such, so I'm going to start using more names. With that in mind...our front end - brand new curlers Justin and Tabby - are awesome. Yeah! (Amber is the vice-skip. Most curling couples eventually split up and play on opposing teams, but we haven't gotten to that point yet. Apparently, it happens to everyone.)

"Wait a second, Chris. You've won four of your last five games as skip. Why must you continue with the self-deprication?" Because I think that's the key to being a good skip. Never get overconfident. Always keep your head in the game, never relax, and assume you're going to have to scratch and claw for every point. I know that score looks impressive, but throw out that 6-point end, and the game was pretty much even. (By the way, I went back through the archives, and could not another game in which my team scored a 6-point end. We have given up a 6-ender, though.) The one game my team lost in that stretch, incidentally, was the game in which I was most confident going in. Coincidence?

Let's talk strategy! I can do that, now that I'm playing skip again. Now...if you've been reading my recaps and have a good memory, then you know that my general strategy is to draw, draw, draw, and only take-out when absolutely necessary. This is an even better strategy is even more useful when you're playing with new curlers, for two reasons. One, take-outs are hard shots, and missing them (as often happens) isn't good for new curler morale. Two, calling the same shot over and over again will help a new curler get better and build confidence. Most often, I gave Justin and Tabby the same exact shot call for each of their two shots in an end. (Calling the same shot consecutively is also more predictable because you already have a read on that part of the ice.)

As much as I try to avoid throwing take-outs (a missed take-out is a wasted shot, and many missed take-outs in a row can result in a big end for the opposition), there are times when it is the obvious call. For example...the 2nd end: (our team = red)

(Disclaimer: my photographic memory isn't perfect, so as always, shot diagrams are only approximate and are often for illustration purposes only.)

This was the (approximate) setup before my first of two shots. Gee, if we could only get that darn yellow rock out of there, we'd be in pretty good shape! This is when you absolutely must go for the take-out. Low risk, high reward. Somehow, I was able to hit the shot it perfectly and leave all red rocks (including the shooter) in the house, leaving us sitting five. My second shot also ended up in the house, and we got our six after a couple of misses by the other team.

See, this is why I've avoided using names. While people like to see their names mentioned, people don't like to see their name mentioned like this: "The only reason we won that game was because [Person X] from the other team totally choked on his last shot. Ouch! That has to hurt." On the other hand, I also can't say things like "the other team completely outplayed us in this game; we just got lucky" or "I certainly don't expect to win our next game", because what about my teammates? Internet slander is certainly not the "curling spirit", but how do I avoid offensive commentary while accurately describing the events of each match? I'll just try to be as delicate as possible here, along with a healthy dose of self-deprication. After all, it's not like I'm that good anyway. (No, I am not going to stop with the self-deprication. Never!)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sports Saturday: 3/27/10

So what if it's not Saturday yet? I usually write this post on Friday anyway, and it's not like I have anything else lined up for today (it's been kind of a slow week), so why not just publish it now?

College basketball - One reason the NCAA Tournament is as popular as it is has nothing to do with the games themselves: it's because of those infamous office bracket pools. Fill out your bracket, put in a few bucks, watch the games, and hey, maybe you'll actually get something right. Thanks to bracket competitions, every game now has meaning, and that makes every game (at least in the first couple rounds) watchable. If not for bracket pools, would anyone really give a crap whether Murray State beat Vanderbilt in the first round? Of course not.

Now, I filled out my bracket too, just like the rest of you. But last night, I realized that the existence of "my bracket" was actually decreasing my enjoyment of the tournament. To illustrate why, let's go back to last night's Butler v. Syracuse game. If not for the bracket pools, I would be rooting for the underdog "mid-major" Butler all the way. Who needs Syracuse? I've seen them win before. Give me somebody different! (Yes, Butler has had a decent run over the last decade, but until now they hadn't translated that into an Elite Eight run.) On the other the back of my mind, I knew that I had picked Syracuse to reach the Final Four, and that a Syracuse win would be better for my bracket. That's typically the problem I face when I watch tournament games. The NCAA Tournament is more exciting if the unexpected happens, Problem is, by definition, my bracket is a reflection of what I expect to happen. So, I can't have it both ways. Sometimes I wish I didn't have a dumb bracket and could just watch the games on their own merits without having to worry about my peers seeing my name at the bottom of the leaderboard, prompting thoughts of, "Why does this guy even bother blogging about sports if he can't even beat his own mother* in a bracket competition?" (* - Actually, my mom knows her stuff, and in fact, she usually wins.)

So...on a related note, I picked Duke to win it all, and they're the local team, so I've kind of been rooting for them. Over the last couple of weeks, I've learned that saying anything to the effect of "Yeah! Go Duke!" in public often conjures up feelings of "booooooo" and "Duke sucks!" from others. Duke is probably the most hated team in all of college basketball, and rooting for them in public is a great way to lose friends, or if you're obnoxious enough about it, get beaten up in a sports bar. I'm not necessarily going to root for Duke in every tournament game from here on out (depends on the opponent), but when I do, maybe I should keep it to myself. You know, for my own safety.

Since I am posting this a day early, I'm going to list Friday night games as well. Why not?

Fri 7:00p - Tennessee v. Ohio State, CBS (locally WRAL)
Fri 7:30p - Baylor v. St. Mary's, CBS
(locally WRAL.2)
Fri 9:30p - Northern Iowa v. Michigan State, CBS
(locally WRAL.2)
Fri 10:00p - Duke v. Purdue, CBS
(locally WRAL)
Sat 1:00p - Division II Championship: Indiana (PA) v. Cal Poly Pomona, CBS
- I'm including this game on the list only because it involves Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Go IUP!
Sat 4:30p - Butler v. Kansas State, CBS
Sat 7:00p - Kentucky v. West Virginia, CBS
Sun 2:00p - Teams TBD, CBS
Sun 4:30p - Teams TBD, CBS

NHL - At last, Versus is back on DirecTV, with a few weeks to spare before the playoffs begin. Whew! Close one. However, if I was a big fan of the Mountain West Conference (talking college sports now), I would be very upset at the timing of all this. DirecTV and Versus parted ways a week or two before Versus's first college football broadcast, and came to terms literally two days after Versus's final college basketball broadcast. So, if you're a Mountain West fan, you basically missed all of football season and all of basketball season, and just barely, too.

I like the NHL playoffs a lot, so I was actually considering my options. If Versus wasn't back on DirecTV by the time the playoffs started, would I have switched to Dish Network? I was prepared to stick it out with DirecTV as long as it was going to take. If Versus wasn't back in time for the playoffs, I was going to call DirecTV and act like I was thinking about quitting, in an attempt to guilt DirecTV into giving me a discount similar to the $50 discount they gave me back in October. But I wasn't actually going to switch. I think DirecTV is better than Dish, and I was afraid that the day after I switched, Versus would be back on the air. I was prepared to miss most of the playoffs, especially considering that the teams I'm most interested (Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay) in won't even be in the playoffs, and that my least favorite team - the Washington Capitals - are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. I don't need to see Alex Ovechkin lift the Cup. Ugh.

That said, once Versus came back on the air, my interest in the NHL playoffs was renewed. Yeah! Anybody but the Capitals!

Fri 7:30p - Ottawa at Buffalo, MSG Buffalo
Fri 7:30p - Minnesota at Detroit, Fox Sports North
Fri 9:00p - Anaheim at Edmonton, Fox Sports West
Sat 1:00p - Calgary at Boston, NESN
Sat 1:00p - Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, Fox Sports Pittsburgh
Sat 7:00p - Atlanta at Carolina, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - Florida at Ottawa, Fox Sports Florida
Sat 7:00p - Tampa Bay at Buffalo, Sun Sports
Sat 7:00p - New Jersey at Montréal, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - NY Rangers at Toronto, MSG
Sat 7:00p - NY Islanders at Columbus, Fox Sports Ohio
Sat 8:00p - Detroit at Nashville, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 9:00p - Colorado at Phoenix, Fox Sports Arizona
Sat 10:00p - Vancouver at San Jose, CSN California
Sat 10:30p - Dallas at Los Angeles, Fox Sports Southwest
Sun 3:00p - Calgary at Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sun 5:00p - Toronto at Pittsburgh, Fox Sports Pittsburgh
Sun 6:00p - Edmonton at St. Louis, Fox Sports Midwest
Sun 7:00p - Columbus at Chicago, Fox Sports Ohio
Sun 7:00p - New Jersey at Philadelphia, MSG Plus
Sun 8:00p - Colorado at San Jose, CSN California

Auto racing - A quick thought from each racing league...

NASCAR: This week, the wing is gone, and the spoiler is back. Yay! I never really liked the wing, but I was never strongly opposed to it, either. And I don't know enough about the aerodynamics to know whether or not this will make the racing better at the 1.5-mile tracks, since I think that's where the "Car Of Tomorrow" racing has been its most boring...we'll see on that one.

Formula One: If the first race was any indication, it looks like we're in for another season of no passing and boring racing. But if you know that going in, then that's okay, right? That's the way I see it.

IndyCar: Versus is back, which means I'll now be able to watch every IndyCar race. Yay! However, due to the fact that I can only record two things at once on my DVR, this Sunday's IndyCar race is getting left out in favor of the NCAA Tournament and the NASCAR race. Too bad! Temporary street circuits often put on the most boring IndyCar races, and I don't know why they race on them all the time. (This season's IndyCar schedule features five races on street circuits, including three of the first four races.)

Sat 2:00p - NASCAR Camping World Trucks at Martinsville, SPEED
Sun 2:00a - Formula One Grand Prix of Australia, SPEED
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Martinsville, FOX
Sun 3:30p - IndyCar at St. Petersburg, ABC

College hockey - Is the NCAA (basketball) Tournament not going your way? Then flip on over to the NCAA (hockey) Tournament!* The hockey tournament gets underway today, and we'll be down to the Frozen Four by Sunday night. That was fast. (* - I guess there is also the NCAA women's basketball tournament, but...meh.)

The list that follows doesn't show every tournament game; only the televised ones. Four of the eight first round games (and all four regional finals) are on ESPNU; the others are on The Frozen Four follows in two weeks. As much as I'd like to get into it, both Michigan State and Minnesota are absent from this year's tournament, and that makes it less interesting in my book. But on the bright side, we do get North Dakota, Bemidji State, Alaska-Fairbanks, Cornell, and even Alabama-Huntsville (whom I'm assuming has zero chance whatsoever of beating top seed Miami (OH) in the first round).

Fri 3:00p - Denver v. RIT, ESPNU (RIT = Rochester Institute of Technology, which I had never heard of until about five minutes ago.)
Fri 6:30p - Cornell v. New Hampshire, ESPNU
Fri 9:00p - Wisconsin v. Vermont, ESPNU
Sat 4:00p - Miami (OH) v. Alabama-Huntsville, ESPNU
Sat 6:30p - Teams TBD, ESPNU
Sat 9:00p - Teams TBD, ESPNU
Sun 5:30p - Teams TBD, ESPNU
Sun 8:00p - Teams TBD, ESPNU

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Active Lifestyle With Strawberries

The other day, it was time for breakfast, so I reached into the cupboard for my box of something called "Active Lifestyle". ("Active Lifestyle" is Kroger-brand Special K.) Then, right before I was about to pour myself a bowl, I caught a glance of the picture on the front of the box, and noticed something was wrong: THERE ARE STRAWBERRIES IN MY CEREAL. What the hell? Did I get "Active Lifestyle With Strawberries" by mistake at the store last week? Dammit!

Actually, my plain version of Active Lifestyle was hidden in the back of the cupboard. Amber must have put the strawberries version in our shopping cart while I wasn't looking last week, and I never even noticed, at least not until I almost poured myself a bowl by mistake. While disaster was averted in this instance, this brings up an important issue. Two important issues, actually. For one, why doesn't Kroger do a better job of distinguishing its normal "Active Lifestyle" box with its "Active Lifestyle With Strawberries" box? There are many varieties of Special K, but each one is a slightly different color. For example, a box of Special K With Strawberries has a light pink tint to it. Active Lifestyle, on the other hand...both the plain box and the strawberries version come in almost the same exact green box. Come on, Kroger! Surely, you don't want your customers to get the wrong one by mistake, right?

But besides that, there's the issue of why this "strawberries" version even exists. The idea of strawberries in cereal, fake or not, seems strange to me. Who wants that? Fruit doesn't belong in cereal! Fruit flavor, yes, but not actual fruit. It's too dramatic a shift in texture, and on top of that, it's just weird. I like my cereal fruit-free, thank you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Co-Ed Kickball

In case you thought curling and disc golf were the only obscure sports I've been participating in...wrong! We have something new. Amber and I recently accepted an invitation from fellow curlers Adam and Maggie to join their co-ed kickball team. Yes, there is such a thing as an adult kickball league.

So, here's why kickball is a better option for us than most other sports. Over the years, I've played basketball, volleyball, and softball competitively (on an intramural level), and I was never very good at any of them. By basketball and volleyball standards, I'm too short, and I've never been good enough at either to make up for it. As for softball, arms are weak and my hands are small, which made hitting, throwing, and catching a problem. Those three things are kind of important in softball, so I've never been a good softball player, either. Most sports require strength and height to be good; I've got neither. I've always been drawn to the sports that require "touch" and "precision" (golf, curling) more so than pure athletic might. Same goes for Amber. We also figured that kickball would be more of a "social" sport featuring people of all athletic abilities who are doing this just to have a good time, rather than a "competitive" sport featuring people who spend an hour in the gym every day and are playing competitive sports as an outlet for their athleticism. And, on top of that, this is a "co-ed" kickball league. (Each team must have a minimum of seven players, at least three of which must be women.)

"But Chris! How is kickball any different? Isn't it a matter of how far you can kick the ball?" Nope! I can't kick the ball very far, but in kickball, that's okay. Here's the general "batting" strategy in kickball, as I've learned so far:
- Keep the ball on the ground. Most outs are made via pop-outs.
- If there's nobody on base, or only a runner on first, a "bunt" towards the third base side is basically a guaranteed hit. (Note that there is a "bunt line" about 10-15 feet in front of home plate that every kicked ball must cross; if a bunt is left short, the runner is out.)
- If there are many runners on base, then you might be better off kicking the ball into the outfield, if you can. Personally, I can't reach the outfield with any consistency, but I'm very good at bunting, and that's why I'm "batting" leadoff.

All this gives me an opportunity to add a new statistic to By The Numbers: kickball batting and pitching statistics! I went 3-4 at the plate in the first game: three bunt singles with the bases empty, and one "fielder's choice" with a runner on 1st. I also scored one run. I don't know what Amber's average was in the first game, but she did have one RBI. Oh, right...we won the game, too (3-1). Woo!

My personal goal for the season is to bat .500 or better, average at least one run scored per game (that's my job as the leadoff guy, right?), and get at least a couple of RBIs. (RBIs are harder to come by when batting leadoff, so I'm keeping my expectations low on the RBI front.) I'm also our team's pitcher, and I'll be keeping pitching statistics as well, but I'll save the pitching discussion for another day, after we get a few more games in. Yes, there is strategy involved in pitching, even in kickball.

Monday, March 22, 2010

State College Road Trip #18: Recap

We're back from our weekend trip to State College (via Brookville), and we had a great time. Let's discuss!

First off...the reason we went to Brookville was to see my cousin Molly and her four-month old baby girl Nora: (Yes, we saw husband Jarrett too, but he works weekends and we didn't see much of him.)

(Yes, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably already seen these pictures. But not everybody who reads this blog follows those sites, and I totally understand that, so I'm going to be posting most of those pictures here as well.)

When Molly (and her sister Emily) gave birth to newborns late last year, it got me thinking: what is the relationship called between you and your cousins' children? It's not "second cousin" - my second cousins would be on the same level of the family tree as me. I didn't think it was some kind of "great-uncle" or "great-aunt" sort of deal, either. So, I did what anyone else would do these days and consulted Wikipedia: my first cousins' children are my "first cousins, once removed". Additionally, I am also the "first cousin, once removed" to the newborns. Apparently.

We stayed overnight in Brookville both Friday and Saturday night. We didn't see a whole lot of Brookville, but there isn't a whole lot to it. When we arrived at around 10:20 PM Friday night, the down was dead. No life whatsoever. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. I think I would like the peace and quiet.

It's a 90 minute drive from Brookville to State College, and we actually made that drive three times (twice Saturday and once Sunday). Along the way, we did what I said I would do and completed my only "missing segment" of I-99, making I-99 the 6th interstate I have completed from end to end. Yay? ... Yeah, I know you don't care, so I'm going to go back to the pictures.

Mo the Cow Puppet is back! The "lion shrine", pictured here, is probably the most recognizeable and/or iconic thing on the Penn State campus, so we brought Mo with us to get the obligatory picture. There were plenty of other people waiting to get their desired picture with the lion as well. Would you believe there was actually a line?

Wedding time! The wedding was on the Penn State campus at Eisenhower Chapel. We thought about starting a "WE ARE" chant with the people on the other side of the aisle, but did not. I'm kidding, of course, but I bet it wouldn't have been the first "WE ARE ... PENN STATE" chant to break out here, even if it is a church.

Also...I like how on the groom's side of the altar, as you move left to right starting with the groom, the groomsmen get progressively taller. Was that planned? (Full disclosure: not pictured is an additional groomsman farther to the right who broke the pattern.)

Here's a closeup of the bride and groom, Lindsay and Victor Yannuzzi, at the reception...with the cow puppet, of course. Are we taking this cow puppet thing too far? Does bringing a cow puppet to a wedding reception make me come across as a "special needs" kind of person?

There were probably between 15 and 20 Penn State meteorology grads at the wedding, plus four faculty members, so this was a reunion of sorts. It was great to see everybody. Any other PSU meteo grads getting married soon? Actually...yes, in six weeks! I think the May 1st wedding will be a little more low key, however. I do not expect as many meteorology grads at the next wedding. That begs the question, will we ever see all these people in one place ever again? Probably not. Oh least we have Facebook. (Actually, if you can believe it, there are still quite a few single men among the Penn State meteorology alumni. So, we might do it all it again in another two or three years.)

Speaking of the upcoming May 1st wedding (Kerrie and non-meteo Dan), I'm going to restart the "what time of day should a wedding start?" debate. Saturday's wedding began at 4:30 PM, and I think that's probably the standard these days. As a guest, that's fine, but as the groom, I think that would have been way too late. For one thing, what do you do all day leading up to the wedding? And when do you finally get to bed afterwards - 2 or 3 AM? Amber and I went straight to bed after we got back to Brookville following the wedding, but I have a feeling Vic and Lindsay did not go straight to bed afterwards. (They were opening everyone's presents, of course!) This is why I talked Amber into having a 2:00 PM wedding. The May 1st wedding, on the other hand, is at 10:30 AM. I didn't know they still had morning weddings! We're actually considering going all the way back home that same day. (We have to be back in town by 4:00 PM Sunday for curling, so it's either that, or leave State College very early in the morning and curl tired.)

The original plan on Sunday was to head back around 10 or so, but...hey, given how often we're here (and how often other folks are here), why not get a quick game of disc golf in before we go? What are we going to do when we get home, anyway? So, we actually didn't leave town until around 12:30 PM.

(Road geek warning!) From the time when Amber lived in State College and I lived in Raleigh (Cary), I have a lot of experience driving from one to the other, and eventually came up with a fun and fast route. We went back to our "roots" and took the scenic route through Pennsylvania on our way back on Sunday. (Pictured above is PA-26 between Pine Grove Mills and Huntingdon.)

But in the three years since Amber joined me in NC, I-99 was completed all the way to State College. So, the "fun" route is no longer the fastest route. But that's fine, because while there are quite a few fun spots the drive through rural south central Pennsylvania, there was also quite a but of slow traffic. Our State College to Hagerstown, MD segment time was one of the slowest ever. I think we'll go back to I-99 next time. I-99 is scenic, too. As I've said before, I definitely took the scenery for granted when I lived there. I miss it. We should go to the mountains more often. Roanoke is only 2½ hours away!

So, that's that. Our next four multi-day road trips are:
- State College in six weeks (May 1st weekend)
- Toledo in ten weeks (Memorial Day weekend)
- Alaska in 14 weeks (June 24th through July 11th)
- Jacksonville in late July or early August? We have time to figure out when, exactly.

Friday, March 19, 2010

State College Road Trip #18

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It's road trip time! Today, we're driving up to Brookville, PA to see cousin Molly/husband Jarrett/baby Nora, then the next day we're going from there to State College for Vic and Lindsay's wedding. (Normally, I try to keep the name dropping to a minimum here, but my guess is that Allen family + Penn State Meteorology grads = half of my blog readership, so the names do mean something to at least some of you.) We haven't met Nora (born 11/23/09), and the wedding will be sort of a Penn State Meteorology reunion of sorts. And, the weather looks great. Should be a fun weekend!

The number in the blog post title isn't made up: this is, in fact, my 18th trip back to State College since graduating from Penn State in May 2006. I was going to go back and count, but apparently I already did that last time we were there. Our 19th trip to State College will come six weeks later for another wedding...then, who knows?

Now...let's talk geeky road trip stats. (You can stop reading at this point if you don't care about this sort of thing.) I've long taken care of all the conveniently located counties between here and there, so I won't visit any new counties on this trip. I will, however, add to my interstates driven record by completing I-99. The only section of I-99 I'm currently missing is from Exit 69 (Atherton St west of State College) to Exit 73 (the US-322 split north of State College). I drove this segment many times when I lived in State College, but it was not officially designated as Interstate 99 until well after I left. I have been back to State College since I-99 was extended all the way north to I-80, but last time we were there, we missed the State College segment. So in order to officially "clinch" I-99, I need to redo those four miles. Well, we'll certainly take care of that! ("Clinch" is the word other road geeks use to talk about roads they've traveled. If you drive an interstate from end to end, you've "clinched" that interstate. No, I am not the only person who keeps track of this sort of thing. Yes, I do plan on adding my stats to that website.)

I might be one of a select few who keeps track of where our cars happen to be at every 1,000th mile, though. And on that front, I'm a little disappointed in the variety we've been getting on that log lately. 14 of Amber's last 17 milestones have all been in North Carolina, and 13 of those have been in between Raleigh and Durham. Booooooring! I don't feel that's representative of the places we've been taking her car. I can guarantee that more than 4,000 of the car's last 17,000 miles have been out of town, and yet, these milestones always seem to happen in stupid Wake County (or Durham County). Continuing the trend, Amber just reached 41,000 miles yesterday. Ugh...this always seems to happen. Rather than reach a milestone somewhere far away from home in the middle of our trip, instead we get one at home right before we leave, followed by another one close to home on our way back, with nothing in between. Boo. At least this won't be a problem when we go to Alaska.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The 2010 Census

As I'm sure many of you have, I got my 2010 Census form in the mail this week. I immediately opened it, filled it out, and put it back in the mailbox. Yay! Three cheers for the Census!

Why all the enthusiasm? Well, as you may know, I like statistics, and that's all the Census is about: statistics. When it comes to statistics, I am more than happy to help.

"But Chris! I think the Census is stupid. The only real purpose the Census is going to serve is to make our national deficit even larger. This is a complete waste of money. Oh, and one more thing: I don't give a crap about your stupid ass statistics." ... Certainly, you are entitled to your opinion. And I can understand why some view the Census as wasteful, given that they sent a rather pointless letter in the mail saying nothing more than "we're sending you something else in the mail next week", and that they are sponsoring a NASCAR team. But I'm not going to try to convince you otherwise.

Before I continue...perhaps now is a good time to rehash my general policy on political discussion (which I don't always adhere to, but try to most of the time): I'm not opposed to heated political discussion, but I generally try to avoid it. While I do have opinions on most political matters, I don't think it's appropriate to discuss them here. This blog isn't supposed to be a place for serious or meaningful discussion. Instead, I'd rather talk about road trips, curling, last week's episode of "Lost", the weather, and my fictional bicycling trip to Alaska, among other things. I think the world would be a happier place if we talked more about dumb crap and less about how wrong other people's opinions are.

So, more do we have to rely on 2000 Census figures and those dumb future year estimates, wherever the heck those come from. At last, we will have current, accurate, precise population figures, at least for a little while. Hip hip hooray! And yes, I actually do look at population data from time to time, and am a semi-regular visitor to Quite often, a situation comes up where I need population data - for example, when I'm trying to spot a license plate from every county in Ohio, and am curious whether there was any correlation between the license plates I had seen thus far and their counties' population. This is important stuff, people! How could I ever possibly get by without the Census?

On another government-related note, we filed our taxes last week. Taxes are boring, and you don't care how large our refund is, so I'll keep this discussion short. If you're getting a large refund this year, and expect a similar situation next year, why not fill out a new W-2, decrease your withholding a little bit, and get at least part of next year's "tax refund" this year in the form of slightly larger paychecks? That's something we may consider, now that home ownership has thrust us into the world of itemized deductions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


We are fortunate to live in a country with seasons, and with varied, interesting weather. It makes me wonder how much interest there is in meteorology in a place like Ecuador, where the weather never changes, and there are no major snowstorms or tropical systems to speak of.

But, anyway...let's do a quick recap of the Chris Allen history of weather preference. When I lived in Florida, my favorite season was always winter. It never got too cold for me in Florida, so I wanted all the cold weather I could get. During my brief stay in Pennsylvania, I definitely got all the cold weather I wanted, so my favorite season was summer. In North Carolina, took me a while to figure this out definitively, but now I know that the best time to be in North Carolina, weather-wise, is early March through mid-May. Thus, spring is now my favorite season. (Yes, I know spring hasn't officially started yet, but meteorologically speaking, March is more of a "spring" month than a "winter" month.) Now is the best time of the year to be outside in North Carolina. (In other words, it's hammock season.)

Now, fall is nice too, and fall is Amber's favorite season. But spring is less humid, less buggy, and the weather is more varied. You can get snow one week and a high of 80°F the next. That probably drives some people nuts, but as a weather weenie, I like that sort of thing. Maybe I should move to Kansas City! Do they have lots of bugs there?

Disc Golf: The Return

Let's do a quick recap of the Chris Allen history of disc golf:
- Spring 2004: Chris is introduced to the game. Upon realizing that disc golf is a fun, cheap, competitive way to spend a couple of hours outside with his friends, Chris decides he should do this more often.
- Summer 2004 through Summer 2009: Chris plays 4,568 holes of disc golf at 62 different courses from Gainesville to Grand Forks.
- Fall 2009: Chris decides that disc golf has finally run its course as an enjoyable solo activity and starts bicycling more often instead.

And that brings us to today. It's been six months since my last round of disc golf. I've long taken my discs out of my car (I used to keep them in the back seat all the time), and I even considered taking the disc golf statistics spreadsheet offline. Then, Keith came up to visit from Jacksonville, and my interest in disc golf was reborn least for a couple of days.

So, yeah. I'll keep this short, since I don't do a very good job of making disc golf sound interesting. My overall take on disc golf remains: I no longer like it enough to play by myself, but will play with friends. Last weekend showed that I don't need to play all that often in order to have a halfway decent game. My disc golf skill has deteoriated a lot in the last 12 months, but if I don't play all that often and only do it as something to do outdoors with other people, does it really matter how good I am at it? Nope! In fact, I'm more likely to enjoy the game if I've already conceded the fact that I'm never going to be good at it anymore.

How long before my next game of disc golf? Who knows?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Google Maps Bicycling Directions

As widely reported by the people I follow on Twitter last week, Google Maps now has bicycling directions. As someone who bikes 30 to 35 miles a week, I'm thinking...woohoo! What took so long?

Bicycling directions differ from driving directions in that they: 1) can use dedicated bike trails; 2) use bike-friendly roads (e.g. wide roads without too many hills) and avoid bike-unfriendly roads (e.g. interstates); and 3) show you a color-coded map of dedicated bike trails, roads with dedicated bike lanes, and other roads that are "preferred for bicycling". Sounds great! Sign me up!

So...does it work? I'm going to test it out using a few bike routes that I'm very familiar with, starting with the work commute. Unfortunately, it won't let me embed the bicycling view of the maps directly into the blog yet, but I can embed the traditional view, at least.

View Larger Map

This one was easy; the best driving route is also the best and most direct bicycling route. But I'm most impressed with the time estimate: 19 minutes is just about right. (My average morning commute time via bicycle is 17 minutes.) More impressive, at least to me, is that Google Maps says the return ride is one minute shorter. That is also accurate, because the morning commute is uphill and the afternoon commute is downhill. Not bad! (By the way, given that Google Maps itself says that the estimated trip times are "conservative", I am relieved that I can at least do a little bit better.)

But really, that wasn't much of a test. Let's give Google a more challenging real-life scenario. Last month, I was trying to figure out the best route to take to Umstead State Park. Here's what Google Maps thinks:

View Larger Map

Google Maps only gets partial credit here, mostly because it included the Black Creek Greenway with my route. The rest of the route is completely different from what I did, a slightly longer route on roads with lighter traffic. A couple of roads on the suggested route have what I would consider to be "too much traffic for comfort". And therein lies the biggest problem with Google Maps bicycling directions thus far. On the color-coded bicycling view, many roads are labeled as being "preferred for bicycling" that I wouldn't actually consider biking on, due to high traffic. (These aren't real major roads, just four-lane roads with steady, but not overwhelming, traffic.) But maybe more experienced cyclists wouldn't hesitate to use these roads, and this is just a matter of personal preference? Are these directions intended for experienced cyclists, new cyclists, or somewhere in between? That isn't clear. Perhaps an option to take a slightly longer route in order to stay away from traffic as much as possible (within reason) would be useful. Almost all of my biking excursions are more for recreation than for getting from Point A to Point B, so I would almost always rather take a slightly longer route if it will be more enjoyable.

Or, maybe just the color-coding is still a work in progress. Info regarding dedicated bike lanes in Durham is incomplete (I reported a few omissions this morning), but that's nothing compared to Jacksonville, which has almost no color-coding whatsoever. Google does advertise that all this is still in beta, after all.

Speaking of Jacksonville...what if I wanted to ride my bike from my parents' house to my high school? I used to think biking that far would be completely and utterly crazy. But I just did a 30-mile round trip yesterday, and a round-trip to the high school would be about 33 miles, so...I could do it. Easy!

View Larger Map

(Google Maps gave me two route options; this is the second option.)

Knowing what I know about Jacksonville roads, is this route reasonable for a bicycle? Actually, for the most part...yes. The only problem I have with it is that even if Atlantic Blvd does have bike lanes (or at least wide shoulders), the idea of crossing the Atlantic Blvd Intracoastal bridge on a bike is rather terrifying. So if I were to actually attempt this - and I'm not going to rule it out - I would take the Wonderwood bridge instead, even though it would make the trip two or three miles longer. The Wonderwood bridge has less traffic, wider shoulders/bike lanes, and a higher guard rail on one side.'s my final verdict on Google Maps bicycling directions. Many bike paths in the Triangle are already recognized, and that's great. Once they add all dedicated bike lanes and bike paths to the database, then this will be really, really nice. But even when that's done, I can't really use the directions as-is, local knowledge is still very important, and this is simply another tool I can use when coming up with a route. In other words, it's just like driving directions.

Daylight Saving Time

According to one of my co-workers, the Monday after the change to Daylight Saving Time is the most dangerous commuting day of the year. Everyone is still kind of asleep because of the time change, and this apparently results in more car crashes. Makes sense to me.

So...why not make the Monday after the Daylight Saving time change a Federal Holiday? Why not move Martin Luther King Day to March? I think everyone would agree that we don't need another Federal Holiday two or three weeks after Christmas and New Year's Day. Everyone would also agree that this time change really, really sucks. It's win-win! I know why MLK Day is in January (his birthday was January 15th), but somehow, I don't think Dr. King would mind if his day were moved to March in the interest of personal safety.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sports Saturday: 3/13/10

College basketball - I am all about college basketball this month, even before the NCAA Tournament starts. Conference tournaments are fun, too, even if they are basically meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Everyone likes brackets, right? I do!

This is also the week when, at least in the Raleigh area, the television deal is most confusing. Friday through Sunday, all ACC Tournament games are broadcast on both the ESPN family of networks, and on Raycom Sports. Raycom's feed is syndicated on various channels throughout the Southeast, including our local CBS affiliate, WRAL. This means a couple of things. First, it means that since we get the ACC Tournament on Raycom, the ESPN/ESPN2 feeds are blacked out locally. Second, it means that since WRAL is the local CBS affiliate, that CBS's regularly scheduled programming must be siphoned off to another station, most often "WRAL.2" (over the air 5.2, or cable 256). So, that's why some games in the list below are on different channels nationally versus locally. While you all get Mike Patrick and Len Elmore, I'll get Tim Brando and Mike Gminski.

So, which do I prefer - the Raycom broadcasts, or the ESPN broadcasts? That's easy: the Raycom broadcasts. I'll take Raycom over ESPN any day. The Raycom broadcasts have more local flavor, and the announcers are dedicated ACC announcers who really know these teams in and out, and you get the idea when you're watching a Raycom game that this is "the main event". Meanwhile, ESPN announcers have more of a national focus, which considering that they're a national network, that's fine. But ESPN has an agenda. Their announcers tend to drift off and talk about (for example) bubble teams in some other conference I don't care about, or promote another upcoming event on ESPN that I don't care about, or talk about how various players would perform in the NBA, which I really don't care about. Hey, how about talking about the game you're watching right now in front of you? And, of course, there's also the Dick Vitale factor. I'm pretty much over Dickie V.

This list includes all conference championship games, plus today's ACC, Big Ten, and Atlantic 10 semifinals.

Sat 11:30a - Conference USA Final: Houston v. UTEP, CBS
(not televised locally)
Sat 12:00p - America East Final: Boston University v. Vermont, ESPN2
Sat 1:00p - Atlantic 10 Semifinal #1: Rhode Island v. Temple, CBS College
Sat 1:30p - ACC Semifinal #1: Miami (FL) v. Duke, ESPN nationally / WRAL locally
Sat 1:30p - Big Ten Semifinal #1: Illinois v, Ohio State, CBS nationally / WRAL.2 locally
Sat 2:00p - MEAC Final: South Carolina State v. Morgan State, ESPN2
Sat 3:30p - Atlantic 10 Semifinal #2: Richmond v. Xavier, CBS College
Sat 3:45p - ACC Semifinal #2: NC State v. Georgia Tech, ESPN nationally / WRAL locally
Sat 3:45p - Big Ten Semifinal #2: Minnesota v. Purdue, CBS nationally / WRAL.2 locally
Sat 4:00p - Southland Final: Stephen F. Austin v. Sam Houston State, ESPN2
Sat 6:00p - Pac-10 Final: Washington v. California, CBS
Sat 6:00p - Big XII Final: Kansas St v. Kansas, ESPN
Sat 6:00p - MAC Final: Ohio v. Akron, ESPN2
Sat 7:00p - Mountain West Final: San Diego State v. UNLV, Versus
(not on DirecTV, of course)
Sat 8:00p - Big West Final: Long Beach State v. UC-Santa Barbara, ESPN2
Sat 8;30p - SWAC Final: Texas Southern v. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, ESPNU
Sat 9:00p - Big East Final: Georgetown v. West Virginia, ESPN
Sat 10:00p - WAC Final: New Mexico State v. Utah State, ESPN2
Sun 1:00p - ACC Final, ESPN nationally / WRAL locally
Sun 1:00p - Atlantic 10 Final, CBS nationally / WRAL.2 locally
Sun 1:00p - SEC Final, ABC
Sun 3:30p - Big Ten Final, CBS

Auto racing - NASCAR is off this week, so let's move on to a couple of other racing series, starting with Formula One. The 2010 Formula One season begins with this weekend's Grand Prix of Bahrain. Bahrain! Woo!

I love Formula One. Sure, I don't like it when they issue retroactive penalties six hours after the race ended, but they haven't done that in a while, so I'm currently on good terms with the sport. No, the racing itself isn't as exciting as NASCAR, but that's not the point. ... You know, I'm not going to bother trying to sell you on Formula One. You either like it, or you don't.

There's a lot of intrigue going into this season, including:
- The return of Michael Schumacher. During Schumacher's heyday, when he won pretty much every race and won the championship every year, I was sick of him. I wanted him to go away. (Funny - that's how most NASCAR fans feel about Jimmie Johnson.) Well, he did go away, and now...he's baaack! But now he's old, and he's not driving for Ferrari, so who knows what's going to happen? Yes, the team he's driving for (Mercedes GP, formerly known as Brawn GP) won the drivers and constructors championship last year, but that was based on a strong early season technological advantage that went away at mid-season once the rest of the field caught up. There is no reason to believe Brawn/Mercedes is still the best team, especially considering how drastically things change technologically between seasons.
- The rule change that will prohibit teams from refueling during the race. This will drastically change the racing, and eliminates a critical strategy element. Last year, fuel strategy was really the only effective way to pass anybody, and that's gone. So now what? There are two alternative views: 1) get ready for a 90-minute parade in which the finishing order is set on lap 1, or 2) now drivers will have to actually do the passing on the race track instead of relying on pit strategy, and this will improve the racing. Which will it be?
- The debut of the USF1 team. ... Oh, wait, scratch that one. A United States-based team was supposed to make its Formula One debut this season, and had secured a spot on the grid. But to make a long story short...FAIL. Get ready for another 100% non-American Formula One season. (But hey, at least the Canadian Grand Prix is back this season.)

Meanwhile, the series now known as the IZOD IndyCar Series begins its season this weekend, too, but...meh.

Sun 7:30a - Formula One Grand Prix of Bahrain, SPEED
Sun 11:30a - IndyCar Series at Sao Paulo, Brazil; Versus
(also available online for those of you who have DirecTV and really, really like IndyCar)

One final racing note: I was going to hold this thought until next week when NASCAR is back in action, but I won't have a Sports Saturday post next weekend (we'll be in Pennsylvania for a wedding), so...what's my take on Carl Edwards v. Brad Keselowski? I'll keep this short: I'm with Ed Hinton. (To summarize Hinton's take, NASCAR handled it right, it's not Edwards's fault that the car went airborne, and most of all, Keselowski deserved it.)

NHL - Sorry,'re taking a back seat to college basketball the next couple of weeks. This happens every March, so don't take this the wrong way, as if to say that I don't care about the NHL anymore. The fact is, the NHL regular season has been going on for five months now, and I'm always kind of burned out by this point in the season. My interest in the NHL will be renewed in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, how about working on that DirecTV/Versus deal so that I can watch the playoffs?

Sat 1:00p - Chicago at Philadelphia, NHL Center Ice
Sat 4:00p - Florida at San Jose, CSN California
Sat 7:00p - Phoenix at Carolina, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - Boston at Montréal, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Edmonton at Toronto, NHL Center Ice
Sat 7:00p - Buffalo at Detroit, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 7:00p - New Jersey at NY Islanders, MSG Plus
Sat 7:00p - St. Louis at Columbus, Fox Sports Ohio
Sat 10:00p - Ottawa at Vancouver, NHL Center Ice
Sun 12:30p - Washington at Chicago, NBC
Sun 3:00p - Colorado at Dallas, Altitude
Sun 3:00p - Philadelphia at NY Rangers, MSG
Sun 3:00p - Nashville at Los Angeles, Fox Sports Tennessee
Sun 5:00p - Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, Sun Sports
Sun 5:00p - Toronto at NY Islanders, MSG Plus
Sun 5:00p - Phoenix at Atlanta, SportSouth
Sun 6:00p - St. Louis at Minnesota, Fox Sports North
Sun 8:00p - San Jose at Anaheim, CSN California
Sun 10:00p - Calgary at Vancouver, NHL Center Ice

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Random Thoughts on 'Lost' and '24': 3/11/10

It's been four weeks since the last one, you go.
The "Lost" section contains SPOILERS (up through this week's episode), but the "24" section actually contains no spoilers at all. (Well, just this one spoiler: JACK BAUER IS STILL ALIVE. Shocking!)


So, anyway...I have some more theories to discuss. That's what makes this show so fun! (Well, one thing.) It's almost like solving a puzzle at this point, and because of the show's outstanding continuity, I actually feel like there is a puzzle to solve, as opposed to some other shows where most things don't make any sense. (I'm looking at you, "Fringe".)

First off...I've alluded to this before, but I'm pretty confident that from the 815 plane crash until the 316 plane crash, the Man In Black (when not in smoke form) took the form of Christian Shephard. Then, after 316 crashed, MIB "switched" to John Locke (however that's supposed to work) in order to complete his agenda. His overall agenda - finding the loophole to kill Jacob - first involved Locke dying, which to accomplish that, meant telling Locke to "move the island", that Locke and Locke only had to be the one to move the island, and telling the real Locke (by way of Richard Alpert during the real Locke's time traveling) that he "had to die". Somehow, MIB knew that Locke's dead body would be returned to the island. Not really sure how, or if Eloise Hawking was somehow in on it (she was the one who said they had to put Locke's dead body on the plane), and I'm also not sure what MIB wants from Claire (he must want something from her, since "Christian Shephard" essentially kidnapped her)...but either way, I'm pretty sure that Christian Shephard on the island = Man In Black / smoke monster.

Another quick Man In Black theory. In the alternate, "sideways flash" timeline, as flight 815 flies over the island's now-underwater location, Desmond appears briefly on the plane. Then, he disappears. Here's my theory on that: in the original timeline, Desmond's sailing adventure goes wrong and he finds refuge on the island. In the alternate, "sideways flash" timeline, the island is underwater, so the island isn't there to save Desmond. Instead, he dies, allowing MIB to "switch" to Desmond's form (however that's supposed to work). So, what I'm saying is that Desmond's brief appearance on the sideways-flash Flight 815 was really the Man In Black. Kind of a stretch, but...maybe? (Speaking of Desmond, the actor who plays him is listed as one of the stars of the season, so we're going to see more of him. Just not sure when, or where, or in what context.)

This goes on my other working theory that the sideways flash is what will happen after the series "ends" - as in, at the very end, time gets reset or something. In this alternate timeline, Hurley is the luckiest man in the world. Is this his reward for saving the world (or something) in the original timeline? We shall see. I wouldn't mind if at the end of the day, Hurley ended up being the hero.

Alright, so, the reason I'm talking theories is because the show really isn't moving along all that quickly. Just one or two things happens per episode. But, that's always been the case mid-season with "Lost". The lines are being drawn, people are taking sides, everybody is getting "in position", a third party is entering the picture (Widmore), and it's all apparently building towards the super duper conclusion. Woohoo!

It really seems like in the timeline of the show, that we're only, say, four or five days from "the end". Are we going to just keep plodding along for the next few episodes, or are we going to have a major plot development in the next few weeks? Hmm...

Finally, about the "Candidates" case you didn't make out all the names from the cave and the lighthouse dial, here is a list of all known Candidate names. Pretty interesting, for what it's worth, and if you think the writers really intended on keeping continuity with the entire list. Now after this week's episode, we know that all these people can't kill themselves. Yay! Yes, Michael from Seasons 1-4 was apparently a Candidate, too. That explains that. What I'm not sure about, however, is if that was the plan the whole time with respect to Michael. Did the writers plan that much detail, that far ahead? "Well, two seasons from now, we're going to have this whole deal with 'Candidates', therefore, Michael isn't allowed to kill himself." Side note - if I understand the rules as I think I do, the Man In Black isn't allowed to kill any candidates, either, according to "the rules". So why was it so important to "protect" the Candidates when the smoke monster went on his Temple rampage if the MIB couldn't kill them anyway? That I don't quite understand.


No spoilers here, which implies that I'm not actually going to talk about the plot. Why not? Because, I don't really care about the plot anymore. Whatever. It's really not all that interesting.

Alright...full disclosure. Another reason I'm not discussing the plot is to hide the fact that I am two weeks behind on my DVR viewing of the show, thanks to the Olympics, and Amber's India trip. "But Chris! Why are you current on 'Lost' but not '24'?" That's easy - because "Lost" is about 50 times more interesting than "24" this season. Like I said, the plot isn't that interesting, and I don't really care what happens. By now, I've figured out the show's formula. Given the constraints of the show's format, there's only so much you can do. And this season is pretty much just more of the same. It also doesn't help that the characters aren't particularly likeable. Jack and Chloe are pretty much the only characters I don't want to die. Kill them all!

So, why keep watching? Two reasons: 1) Jack Bauer, and 2) because this will almost definitely be the last season of the series. Might as well see it through to the end. But since there are plans for a "24" movie or two, as I've said before, don't expect a super duper, ultra dramatic season finale. I don't expect this season finale to be really any different than any other season finale. Any remaining terrorist threats will be thwarted, and Jack will probably be on his way to Los Angeles to be with his family, or something. I don't expect anything interesting to happen at the "end".

That said...I still enjoy watching the creative ways in which Jack Bauer can dispose of various bad guys. I think that's where the show's writers are putting forth most of their creative juices. In what manner will Jack make his next kill? Tune in next week and find out!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Self Checkout

These days, many grocery stores - including our neighborhood Kroger - have self-checkout lanes. These lanes have no cashiers or baggers; instead, you scan and bag your groceries yourself. Sure, it's a little more work for the customer, but the lines are often much shorter in the self-checkout lanes than in the traditional checkout lanes. And, the more people that use self-checkout, the fewer employees Kroger needs to staff at any given time, and that means cheaper groceries, at least in theory. I think Kroger purposely understaffs its traditional checkout lanes in an effort to encourage use of the self-checkout lanes.

Sounds great and all, but unfortunately, almost every self-checkout I've ever used turned out to be a giant pain in the butt. There is a scale underneath the bagging section, and when you scan an item, the scale confirms that everything that's going in the bags is paid for. I guess. Problem is, these things usually doesn't work right. "Please place your item in the bagging area." It's already in the bagging area! Ugh. Many times during my most recent checkout, the system erroneously asked me to either place something in the bagging area that was already there, or remove something from the bagging area that I already paid for, or something. It was a mess. Not exactly efficient. There's also the issue of items not always scanning right away, but that comes with practice.

And it would be a heck of a lot easier if I could put a bag back in my grocery cart as soon as I filled it up, rather than have to leave it in the already-congested bagging area until the very end. I guess that's necessary from a security standpoint. That way, at the end of the checkout, the shopping cart is empty, and Big Brother knows you actually scanned everything you intend on taking out of the store. But there has to be a better way.

If you're going to insist we use self-checkout - which if it were up to Mr. Kroger CEO, everyone would, I'm sure - why not work on making the ultra-sensitive and buggy weight check system work a little better? Or, how about this: designate at least one of the four self-checkout aisles a "reusable bag only" aisle, for people like me who have their own bags and don't need all these plastic bags getting in the way. It can be like an HOV lane, but for grocery stores. Now that's an idea.

So, in summary: I will only use self-checkout if I have a small number of items - say, 8 or less. Otherwise, I'm going traditional. The only benefit I see to self-checkout is to save time, and for high-volume shopping trips, I'd rather leave it to the professionals. (I worked in a grocery store for about three months, but I was a stock boy who worked in the back, not a front end checkout guy.) I think there will come a day when your mainstream, lower-end, "budget" grocery stores will do away with traditional checkout together and go 100% self-checkout. That will be a sad day. I guess there's always Harris Teeter.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Alaska Trip: The Third Preview of Many

(Click here for a preview of the first seven days of this summer's Alaska trip. This post covers the remainder of the trip, and picks up where I left off in rather abrupt fashion. Who needs segways or proper introductions?)

Day 8 - Thursday, July 1st: Happy Canada Day! We're going to celebrate Canada Day by...leaving the country and going to Alaska.

We're skipping Anchorage for now and going all the way down to Seward (734 miles), where we will actually spend two nights. Wow! Two nights in the same hotel!
Your typical Chris and Amber road trip usually involves a different hotel every night, with an occasional two-night stay mixed in. This is one of two two-night stays during our trip; the second will be near Denali National Park. Conveniently, these two places also happen to be the most expensive places we're staying on the entire trip. Oh well.

Google Maps thinks the Haines Junction to Seward drive will take over 17 hours, but I seriously doubt that. In my opinion, 14 to 15 hours, which would correspond to an average speed of 50 mph, is probably more realistic. (Question to people who have driven the Alaska Highway before: am I out of my mind in thinking that we can average 50 mph on this road?)

Day 9 - Friday, July 2nd: No long-distance driving today. Instead, we'll be spending the full day hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park.

If we're feeling ambitious, we'll do the Harding Icefield Trail. From the trail description: "Hikers gain approximately 1,000 feet of elevation with every mile and there are several rocky sections in the first mile that may require a bit of scrambling. The upper portion of the trail is often covered with snow through early July and there may be avalanche danger. Be prepared for storms, high winds, intense sunlight and sudden temperature changes." Sounds like fun!

Day 10 - Saturday, July 3rd: Seeing Kenai Fjords National Park by foot is one thing, but it's another thing altogether to do it by sea - you know, considering that they're "fjords" and all. So, we're going on a three-hour sea kayaking tour Saturday morning. This could be one of the highlights of the trip.

Then, after our sea kayaking excursion, we'll drive north to Anchorage (128 miles), and probably stop at Portage Glacier along the way. Or, maybe we'll go through the tunnel to Whittier just for the heck of it. Why not? I can't say I've ever gone through a car/train combo tunnel. Could be fun! And, of course, if we stumble across anything else interesting between Seward and Anchorage, we'll have time.

Day 11 - Sunday, July 4th: Alright, so, we have the morning in Anchorage. Great! Let's something.

We haven't done quite as much planning with the second half of our trip as we have the first half of our trip. There are still a few holes to fill. For example, what is there to do on a Sunday morning in Anchorage? We'll figure something out. When planning this trip, we've made sure to take care of anything requiring reservations first. The two most pressing issues remaining on our itinerary are "What do we do on our half-day in Anchorage?" and "What do we do on our two-thirds day in Fairbanks?" We'll do a little more research in the coming days to see what our options are.

After we're finished visiting [To Be Determined], we'll head north towards Denali National Park (240 miles), where we'll spend the night in preparation for a full day of Denali-ing tomorrow.

Day 12 - Monday, July 5th: Denali National Park time! Denali is #1 on my list of National Parks I'd Like To Visit But Haven't Yet. Kenai Fjords, which we'll visit three days prior, is #3, and after thinking about it some more, I think we might end up seeing more neat stuff in Kenai Fjords than we will in Denali, and we planned accordingly (1½ days in Kenai Fjords, compared to just one in Denali). Why? For one, I don't actually plan on seeing the top of Mount McKinley. I'm going in fully expecting it to be engulfed in a thick cloudbase. Denali will also likely be far more crowded than Kenai Fjords, especially consdering that we're going to Denali on a federal holiday. But that's okay. The one thing I've learned when planning this trip and talking to others is that when it comes to Alaska, you can't really go wrong. Denali will be outstanding either way. Just being in the Alaska wilderness for a few hours is good enough for us. For Amber's sake, I really hope we get to see at least one moose.

Denali National Park works like this. There is exactly one road in the park. Private vehicles are allowed into the park, but only for the first 15 miles or so; if you want to go deeper into the park (which, if you're going to come in the first place, you might as well), you have to take a bus. You can either take a shuttle bus or a tour bus. Shuttle buses just go from point A to point B, and you can load and unload as you wish; tour buses are structured tours with guides, narration, and everything. We're doing the shuttle bus, because we want to do a little bit of hiking while we're up there. We've already made shuttle bus reservations.

Here's one thing we've heard from multiple sources: bring the best damn bug spray you can find. I always thought Florida's mosquitoes were bad, but from what I've heard, mid-summer mosquitoes in Alaska are much, much, much worse. On a related note, we don't plan on doing any camping during this trip. We're staying in a "cute little cabin" of sorts near Denali, but there will be no tent camping. At least that way, we won't have to bring the tent, air mattress, sleeping bags, and lawn chairs with us everywhere. That will give us a lot more room in the car, which given that we'll be doing approximately 10,000 miles of driving during this trip, is kind of important.

Day 13 - Tuesday, July 6th: Speaking of which, here's one thing I'll have to take care of at some point during the trip: an oil change. Going 10,000 miles between oil changes is probably a bad idea, so I'll need an oil change at some point during the vacation. But where? And when?

Well, I've already worked out the plan. First, I'll get an oil change the week before we leave. According to my car's "oil life" meter, my car can go between 7,000 and 7,500 miles between oil changes. That's more than enough to get us to Alaska, and will allow us to wait all the way until Fairbanks (5,500 to 6,000 miles from the start) before we need to get the mid-vacation oil change. The morning drive from Denali to Fairbanks is only 120 miles, and we haven't made any plans whatsoever as to what we're actually going to do there, so we'll have plenty of time to work an oil change in there. (My first choice was actually to do the oil change Sunday in Anchorage, except that pretty much every car care place in Anchorage - except Jiffy Lube - is closed on Sunday. D'oh! This will work out just fine, though.)

So, if we can find something fun to do in Fairbanks...great! If we end up having to devote the entire day to car repair - which, given our vacation history, wouldn't surprise me in the least - that's okay, too. To be perfectly honest, I'm really not all that excited about Fairbanks. And given how much driving we'll do during these three weeks, I'll be surprised if we don't hit a deer, moose, or bear at some point during the trip.

On the bright side (no pun intended), at least we'll get 20 hours of sunlight while we're up here. July 6th sunset in Fairbanks is 12:24 AM, the latest sunset of the entire trip. And given that sunrise will be just three hours later, I bet it never really gets dark there. It'll be a little weird.

You know...if we can't find anything good to do in Fairbanks, and don't have to devote the entire day to car repair, maybe we'll just head north on the Dalton Highway and see how far north we feel like going. The north end of the Dalton Highway in Deadhorse is nearly 500 miles from Fairbanks on a mostly non-paved road, so we obviously can't make it all the way and back in half a day. But we can at least try! (By the way, almost the entire road to Deadhorse is now on Google Street View.)

On the other hand, maybe we should keep the amount of driving we do this day to a minimum, since that's pretty much all we'll be doing the rest of the way. The plan is to make it from Fairbanks to Durham in five days.

Day 14 - Wednesday, July 7th: We still have quite a bit of driving to do in Alaska, Yukon, and Western Canada. My hope is that we don't take the scenery for granted by this point in the trip, given that we'll have been up here for over a week.

The first day of our absolutely crazy return trip home is a relatively short drive from Fairbanks to Whitehorse (589 miles). We're keeping it "short" the first day to leave a little bit of time for Whitehorse.

Day 15 - Thursday, July 8th: Today's drive: 827 miles from Whitehorse to Fort St. John, BC. Of those 827 miles, we'll have already driven all but 38 of those on the way up to Alaska. (We're taking different roads on our way to and from Skagway, Alaska, and in doing so will miss 38 miles of the Alaska Highway northbound.) But somehow, I doubt our reaction to this drive will be anything along the lines of, "Ugh, been here, done that. Boring." At least, I hope not. I-40 between Durham and Greensboro, this is not.

Day 16 - Friday, July 9th: Next up, a 937-mile drive from Fort St. John, B.C. to Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Yeah, Saskatchewan!

Saskatchewan is supposed to be very flat, and is probably very boring to most. But that's fine with us. For one, we're the same people who thought Nebraska was scenic. But more importantly, this is still Canada, of course, and I like just about all forms of Canadian driving. That's reason enough to enjoy the drive, even if it is mostly a repeat of the northbound drive. (East of Saskatoon will be new, but the rest will be a repeat.)

Day 17 - Saturday, July 10th: Just in case we didn't think yesterday's drive was long's time for an even longer one! It's 999 miles from Yorkton to Madison, Wisconsin. know what just dawned on me? We're going to lose four hours on our way back home. I didn't account for that when I put together our itinerary. Crap! Now our demanding return trip will be even more so. Oh well. I guess we can always cancel our Madison hotel ahead of time (we have until 4 PM that day) and do an all-nighter coming home if we need to.

Day 18 - Sunday, July 11th: 936 miles from Madison to Durham for the grand finale. And in case you're wondering, no, we do not plan on going back to work the very next day.

So, there you have it. Only 107 more days until we hit the road!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Cracker Barrel Breakfast

When Amber came back from India on our Sunday, we continued our tradition of going straight from the airport to Cracker Barrel. Although actually, Amber wasn't craving good old American cuisine as I thought she would; she said she actually had an easier time with the food in India than she did the seafood-heavy diet of Cagliari, Italy.

The only time we ever go to Cracker Barrel is for dinner, but this time, since her plane landed in the morning, we went for "brunch". I've gone to Cracker Barrel quite a bit over the years (12 times since June 2004), but have never tried their breakfast food, even though they serve breakfast all day. Let's try it out!

I have to say, I was impressed. Granted, I only had eggs, sausage, and french toast, but it was very good. Now...eggs are eggs, but both the sausage and french toast tasted a little different than what you'll normally find at a breakfast joint, and in a good way. The sausage was "smoked" sausage, and the french toast was sourdough, I think. Yum! Superb breakfast. Now I can see why Cracker Barrel always has a larger crowd for breakfast than for dinner. I can't, however, put it in the same category of the legendary Waffle Shop (of State College, PA), not after just one visit.

Speaking of Waffle Shop...we will be in State College for a wedding in a couple of weeks, but we're actually staying 80 miles west in Brookville, so I'm not sure if we'll be making the obligatory Waffle Shop stop this time. We'll see.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sports Saturday: 3/6/10

College basketball - It's March! And that means that for the next few weeks, college basketball is my favorite sport. I don't like college basketball enough to follow it in earnest from November to March, but I do like it enough to make it my primary sport of interest for four or five weeks, at least. And that month might as well be the last (and most exciting) month of the season, don't you think?

This time last year, I was all about the "tournament bubble". Penn State was on the "bubble" (and ultimately didn't make it), while Florida State was in position to make their first NCAA Tournament in over 10 years. Back then, I was that guy who scoured the web every day looking at Person X's latest bracket projections to see not only whether Penn State was "in" or "out", but what seed Florida State was looking at getting. (If only I had known about this site this time last year.)

This year? Meh. Florida State doesn't have that "haven't made the NCAA Tournament in over 10 years" stigma hanging over their head anymore, and they're firmly in the field (for now - knock on wood), so...whatever. Does it really matter whether FSU is an 8, 9, or 10 seed? Not really. (Don't take this the wrong way - I am thrilled that Florida State has put together a tournament-caliber team for a second consecutive year. I am very happy with how this season has gone.) Meanwhile, from what I've gathered, the general consensus is that Penn State will not make the NCAA Tournament this year. So instead of checking this sort of thing every day for the next eight days, instead I'll just tune to CBS on Selection Sunday and see who made it where.

As for this weekend's college basketball games...there is that North Carolina v. Duke game, which as a Triangle resident, I feel it's my duty to watch. Meanwhile, in addition to the usual slate of ACC / Big Ten / Big East / Atlantic 10 games, this week (and next) I'm also going to list all conference championship games, because those are fun, too. Let's go, Jacksonville University Dolphins!

Sat 12:00p - Florida State at Miami (FL), ESPN2
Sat 12:00p - Northwestern at Indiana, Big Ten Network
Sat 12:00p - West Virginia at Villanova, CBS
(not televised locally)
Sat 1:30p - Maryland at Virginia, WRAL (Raycom)
Sat 2:00p - Syracuse at Louisville, ESPN
Sat 2:00p - Connecticut at South Florida, MASN
Sat 2:30p - Purdue at Penn State, Big Ten Network
Sat 4:00p - Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, WRAL (Raycom)
Sat 4:00p - St. Bonaventure at Xavier, Fox Sports Ohio
Sat 4:00p - Big South Conference Championship, ESPN2
Sat 4:30p - Rutgers at Pittsburgh, MASN
Sat 6:00p - Atlantic Sun Conference Championship, ESPN2
Sat 8:00p - Ohio Valley Conference Championship, ESPN2
Sat 9:00p - North Carolina at Duke, ESPN
Sun 12:00p - Wisconsin at Illinois, ESPN
Sun 2:00p - Boston College at NC State, WRAL (Raycom)
Sun 2:00p - Missouri Valley Conference Championship, CBS
(locally on WRAL.2)
Sun 4:00p - Michigan at Michigan State, CBS
Sun 6:00p - Clemson at Wake Forest, FSN
Sun 6:00p - Iowa at Minnesota, Big Ten Network

NHL - I have a few things to talk about here. First off...based on the reactions I've seen from other hockey fans, I am apparently the only non-Canadian, non-Pittsburgh fan who doesn't hate Sidney Crosby. I've spent the past week trying to figure out why everyone hates Crosby so much, and honestly, I don't see it. Sure, he's one of the best in the game, he routinely beats [insert your favorite team here], he's talked about constantly, he never really says anything of worth to the media, and is perceived as kind of a "pretty boy". All are perfectly legitimate reasons for you to not like him. But don't all of those things also apply to Tom Brady? Yet, Tom Brady is not hated anywhere near as much as Sidney Crosby is. Maybe Crosby's popularity would go up in this country if he started dating a supermodel. And if he can get one or more of those supermodels pregnant...bonus! (Actually, I think there is something to that.)

I said going into the Olympics that I was rooting for Canada to win in every Olympic sport except curling. That included hockey. But was I really rooting for Canada to beat the United States for the hockey gold medal last Sunday? Well...I thought I was, but a funny thing happens sometimes once the game actually
gets going. When Zach Parise scored the game tying goal for the USA with less than a minute to play, I did a fist-pump. Yeah! Go Team USA! Wait...what? I thought I was rooting for the Canadians here. I guess I have more American Pride than I thought. That said, I'm not all that disappointed in the result, because I still like Canada, and I know how much this game meant to them. I don't think there is an American equivalent.

Well, now the Olympics are over, so it's back to the old NHL. I have to admit, after watching that gold medal final, going back to a few NHL games this week seemed like a letdown. Regular season NHL games seem pretty boring in comparison. Do we really have to wait five more weeks for the playoffs? Let's just start the playoffs now! (Actually, check that...wait until DirecTV and Versus strike a deal, then start the playoffs.)

Speaking of the playoffs, let's talk Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, you heard me. The Hurricanes have won seven consecutive games and are (as of Friday morning) 7 points out of the final playoff spot. You can theoretically make up 7 points in as little as four games, and there are still 19 games to play, so heck yeah, the Hurricanes are in the playoff chase. Of course, that's the "glass half full" way of looking at it. Here's the "glass half empty" way of looking at it: the Hurricanes have been so crappy this season, it took a seven game winning streak, and 9-of-11 stretch, just to pull within 7 points of the final playoff spot. And even after all that, they're still only in 14th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference. They still have to pass six teams in the standings, and in the era of the "overtime charity point", making up 7 points isn't as easy as it sounds, either. And, they've traded away seven players over the last month, and their star goalie could miss the rest of the season due to injury, so conventional logic would seem to imply that they won't be able to keep it up. Playoffs? Please. Not gonna happen. They're better off tanking and getting a higher draft pick out of this season than winning just enough games to narrowly miss the playoffs, or narrowly make the playoffs only to be swept in the first round by the Washington Capitals anyway.

In case you're wondering where I fall between those two extremes...I'm a little closer to the "half empty" side. At least the Hurricanes are making it interesting. I guess.

Sat 1:00p - Dallas at Pittsburgh, Fox Sports Southwest
Sat 2:00p - Boston at NY Islanders, NESN
Sat 7:00p - Carolina at Florida, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - Toronto at Ottawa, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - NY Rangers at Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sat 7:30p - Atlanta at Tampa Bay, SportSouth
Sat 8:00p - Anaheim at Phoenix, NHL Center Ice
Sat 9:00p - St. Louis at Colorado, Fox Sports Midwest
Sat 10:00p - Montréal at Los Angeles, Fox Sports West
Sat 10:30p - Columbus at San Jose, CSN California
Sun 12:30p - Detroit at Chicago, NBC
Sun 3:00p - Boston at Pittsburgh, NESN
Sun 3:00p - Calgary at Minnesota, NHL Center Ice
Sun 3:00p - Vancouver at Nashville, NHL Center Ice
Sun 5:00p - Carolina at Atlanta, NHL Center Ice?
(not sure)
Sun 7:00p - Buffalo at NY Rangers, MSG
Sun 7:00p - Toronto at Philadelphia, NHL Center Ice
Sun 8:00p - Montréal at Anaheim, Prime Ticket
Sun 8:00p - New Jersey at Edmonton, MSG Plus

Auto racing - Am I tired of Jimmie Johnson winning all the time? Most fans are, apparently, but I don't care. Most NASCAR fans have a "favorite driver" that they root for every week. I guess if I had to pick, Jimmie Johnson would be my favorite, but I don't really care. Regardless of who wins, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I just want to watch the race.

Sat 2:00p - NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta, SPEED
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta, FOX

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Mid-Week Thoughts on India

Amber is in India through Saturday at which point she'll begin the long journey home. RDU arrival is Sunday morning, and naturally, I'm highly anticipating her return. The cat, too.

So, here are some random thoughts on India, grabbed from our brief phone calls. Actually...let's start there! When you're 10½ hours apart (Indian Standard Time is UTC+05:30), finding a time in which I'm at home and Amber is in her hotel room, and we're both awake, is difficult. But, we figured it out: our conversations typically happen after she wakes up, which is at about 7:00 AM India time / 8:30 PM Eastern time. There's always a way.

Here are Amber's impressions of India, at least as far as I've gathered:
- Based on one taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, the roads are crazy. You think rushhour in your city is bad? You think the drivers in your hometown are idiots? Your city has nothing on New Delhi. (Side note: last week, I said that if I had a week in India with nothing to do, I would rent a car and check out their roads. I didn't really mean that. If I ever have a week in India with nothing to do, that means I messed up.)
- Construction workers don't wear hard hats. Between that and the traffic issues, personal safety doesn't seem to be much of a thing here. So how is it that so many people are still alive in this country?
- There is a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in her hotel room. (I had to look up what that was.)
- India has lots of slums, which anyone who has seen Slumdog Millionaire (we have not) already knows. I'd go see it for myself, but unfortunately, Google Street View has yet to make its way to India. Meanwhile, the hotel where Amber is staying is about as nice as hotels get. Where's the in-between?
- Neither of us is a fan of Indian food, but rest assured, you can always get a plain piece of chicken. Sometimes.
- Cows are considered sacred in India (or, at least, by Hindus). But while cows are not eaten, they are still milked. After a dairy cow's career is over, cows are sent to some kind of "cow retirement center". No, that's not supposed to be a euphemism for "place where they kill them off", ala Bovine University. They don't do that in India - cow slaughter is illegal in almost every Indian state. What I meant is, the cows go to a place where they can quietly live out their lives. Maybe "cow old folks home" is a more appropriate term.
- It's hot there. (New Delhi's latitude is about the same as Orlando, and is only 700 feet above sea level.)

So, yeah. That's our impression of India, based on a few phone conversations, a short taxicab ride, and a few Wikipedia articles. It's probably all wrong, but I don't care.