Friday, May 28, 2010

Toledo Trip #12

It's road trip time again! Amber and I are about to head up to Toledo to spend the weekend with her side of the family. It should be a fun weekend, and the weather looks nice, too. I'll provide updates on Twitter/Facebook throughout the weekend, depending on how interesting our activities are. I think we'll be spending a lot of time outside.

As for the drive there and back, holiday weekend means heavy traffic, right? I'm just not sure how much extra traffic there will be this weekend. This is the first time we've gone to Toledo over Memorial Day weekend (we usually go for the Fourth of July), so I don't have any past experience here. I'm reasoning that we'll be going against the flow of traffic, since most people will be heading towards the beach on Friday, while we head away from the beach and towards Ohio. Also, there aren't as many long-distance travelers this weekend as there are over Thanksgiving or Christmas, or even the Fourth of July. So, I see no need to do the whole "leave at 1:00 AM to avoid traffic" thing, since this drive's worst bottlenecks (I-77 in Virginia and West Virginia) are in places where most traffic is of the long distance variety. We'll save the overnight driving for Christmas.

Now...I've long known what the fastest route from here to Toledo is: US-33 via Athens to Columbus, and US-23 from there to I-75 in Findlay. The last six times we've gone to Toledo, that's the route we've taken, both there and back. But now we have something new to try out: a new 10-mile stretch of US-35 in West Virginia has been expanded to four lanes! Woo!


View Larger Map

Back when all of US-35 in West Virginia was two lanes, I determined that the US-33/Athens route was 8 minutes faster than the US-35/US-23 via Chillicothe route.


View Larger Map

However, re-averaging of segment times in the last two years has reduced the difference to 6 minutes. And, last time we drove US-35 in West Virginia, the first section of the new four-lane US-35 was complete (between I-64 and WV-34), and that alone reduced the time difference by another 3 minutes thanks to the new high-speed I-64 interchange that went along with it. Will the next new section take care of the remaining 3 minutes and give us a second, equally fast, route to Toledo? We'll find out. If nothing else, at least we'll get to do something different this time.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Peanut Butter Conservation

Our marriage must be going pretty well, because this is one of the biggest disagreements Amber and I have at the moment. Is it time to throw out this jar of peanut butter?


Yes, there are still trace amounts along the edges - I think the camera angle makes it look like there's more along the edges than there is - but I don't think it's really worth the trouble. When I made our sandwiches this morning, I broke out the newer, nearly-full jar, in order to save time and effort, and produce higher quality sandwiches with thicker peanut butter. But if Amber had made the sandwiches this morning, surely, they would have been made with peanut butter from the old jar. Her argument: we paid for it, and there are people starving around the world who would gladly accept this amount of peanut butter, so who are we to throw it out when we can still get one - maybe two - sandwiches out of it, albeit with a little effort? A perfectly valid argument, yes. I guess I'm just lazy.

Either way, I'm just curious. Do most people throw out the jar at this point? Am I a bad person for suggesting that this jar has already run its course? Is Amber trying to hold on to something that just isn't there anymore? I don't contest the notion that you could make a "peanut butter sandwich" out of the remaining contents. But is it really worth the trouble, and would it even be a good sandwich?

All I know is that we're not throwing out this jar yet. I'm done with it, but Amber will use its contents, eventually. That's our compromise: I guess it wouldn't be fair to call this a "marriage conflict" after all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grass: Update

It's been five weeks since Amber started her grass-growing effort. Here's how our yard looked five weeks ago...


And here's how it looks now:


You'll have to take my word for it, but it looks more impressive in person. It looks better over here closer to the driveway:


Everything between the closest driveway bump and the camera is new grass. Not bad, eh? From a distance, it actually looks like a full bed of grass. Yes, coverage is thin and spotty, but given that we're only five weeks in, and we got hardly any rain to speak of for the first three of those weeks, I think we're doing okay. Rainfall has been better the last two weeks: 4.5 inches recorded at the airport the last two weeks, and I think we got even more than that at our house.

We're still nowhere near the point where we have to mow it (aww, shucks), but we're on our way to fulfilling Amber's childhood fantasy of having a front yard you can walk barefoot in.

The Cheap-o Theater: Revisited (Literally)

To recap my current general opinion on movies: most of them are rubbish, and I'm not willing to spend money on just about any non-Pixar movie. On the other hand, Amber and I felt like going out on Saturday night, and we haven't "gone to the movies" in a while. Good thing we still have that $1.50 theater in Raleigh! The Garner Towne Square 10 reverted back to first run movies and $7 tickets, but Blue Ridge 14 is still $1.50/ticket, all day, every day.

There wasn't one movie in particular that I wanted to go see. We just thought going to Bob Evans (we still had $30 in unspent Bob Evans gift cards) and then to the cheap-o theater was a cheap way to spend a few hours with each other away from home. (We used to just go for a scenic drive in situations like this, but I think we're saving our driving for the Alaska trip.)

So, anyway...we had a decision to make. What movie do we want to see? Looking at the Blue Ridge 14 movie lineup, nothing stood out, and I had never heard of most of the movies that were playing. (I don't watch commercials, so I don't see too many movie advertisements.) So, that day, I went to Rotten Tomatoes and researched each of the 13 movies that were playing at the Blue Ridge 14 that day, both in terms of premise, and quality. In the order they appeared on the Carmike Cinemas web site:

Option #1: Green Zone (Rotten Tomatoes score: 54%). This is apparently a Matt Damon Bourne Identity-type action movie, except it isn't as good as the Bourne series was. Put this in the "maybe" pile.

Option #2: She's Out of My League (RT score: 54%). A teen romatic comedy of sorts. I think we've outgrown these. Next...

Option #3: Our Family Wedding (RT score: 16%). I didn't do a whole lot of research on this one, because when the Rotten Tomatoes score is under 20%, that means I'm wasting my time. My rule of thumb with Rotten Tomatoes is that when the score is high, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll like it; it depends on the genre. But when the score is low, then it's almost guaranteed I won't like it. Given that we don't go to the movies all that often (once or twice a year) and haven't seen any of the 13 movies that were playing that night, there's no reason to even consider spending money on any of the very poorly reviewed ones.

Option #4: Alice In Wonderland (RT score: 51%). Now...I gave Amber the right to declare this movie the "winner" if she really wanted to see it. She declined that right, however. As for my opinion on this...when I go to the movies, I want to see something new, not something I'm already familiar with. I think that's the biggest problem I have with Hollywood these days. Most of the big-budget films are remakes of older movies, or based on something people are already familiar with. Sure, that's a decent way to ensure a profitable movie - and Hollywood is a business, after all - but it doesn't mean I have to spend any money on it myself. Unless it's based on something I'm really interested in, I'd rather see something new. That, and the reviews seemed to indicate that this movie was mostly about the visuals and less about the "plot", and that's not the type of movie I felt like seeing that night.

Option #5: The Crazies (RT score: 72%). We don't do horror movies.

Option #6: Shutter Island (RT score: 68%). This is a Martin Scorsese psychological thriller of sorts. It has decent reviews, and I like the "psychological thriller" genre, so...hmm. This movie isn't anything to get real excited about, but nevertheless, this movie is the leader thus far.

Option #7: The Wolfman (RT score: 33%): Reviews aren't good enough to make me consider it. Besides, how many werewolf movies have there been over the years? Too many, if you ask me.

Option #8: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (RT score: 50%). A Harry Potter-style kids movie. Amber likes Harry Potter, but I don't think she cares for all of the knock-offs. At least, she hasn't given me any indication that she does. Maybe she just didn't want to make me sit through another one of those weirdo magic movies. Harry Potter is enough for me.

Option #9: The Tooth Fairy (RT score: 14%). NO FREAKING WAY.

Option #10: The Spy Next Door (RT score: 12%). The name alone makes this sound like a bad kids movie that we wouldn't enjoy.

Option #11: The Book of Eli (RT score: 46%). Again, might have considered it if the reviews were better. I haven't seen most of the post-apocalyptic movies that Hollywood has cranked out lately, so I'm not as tired of the genre as most people probably are, especially if the movie is more thought-provoking and less special effects. Don't get me wrong, special effects are cool, but I don't think a movie can get by on special effects alone. (Are you listening, Roland Emmerich?)

Option #12: Sherlock Holmes (RT score: 69%). Eliminated for the same reason as Alice In Wonderland: I wanted to see something new, something fresh.

Option #13: Avatar (RT score: 82%). Alright...now I'm going to try and explain why neither one of us has seen Avatar yet, and why we ultimately decided to pass on the opportunity once again, even for $1.50/ticket. I think my thing with Avatar is that I'm just sick of the hype, and I don't like "giving in". We've been hearing about this movie for months now, and all indications I've seen are that this is yet another special effects-driven, plot-deficient movie. I'm sure this movie isn't as plot-deficient as, say, Transformers, but still. Besides, I already know how Avatar ends. I've heard and read so much about this movie, I don't think I could have possibly enjoyed it as much as some of the other movies that were showing, despite the fact that this movie did get a better Rotten Tomatoes rating than any other movie showing at Blue Ridge 14 that night.

So, anyway...we decided to go see Shutter Island instead. My verdict? Meh. Not bad, but not particularly memorable, either. Which, given how cynical I am towards Hollywood these days, I'll take that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"24": Final Thoughts

***SPOILER ALERT*** for "24". You know the drill.

The series finale of "24" wasn't anywhere near as hyped - or as interesting - as the series finale of "Lost". That means I don't have anywhere near as much to say about it. I'd say we pretty much got what we expected out of the finale. Jack lives, but is "on the run" (called it); the Russian and Charles Logan conspirators eventually got justice served one way or another (although it took longer than I thought); and...that's it. Except for that damn movie, of course, which apparently is going to be set in Europe. So if you're wondering where Jack goes after the clock struck 00:00:00, there's your answer. I can't say it I was disappointed in the finale; it was exactly what I expected. Other than Jack's fate, nothing interesting ever really happens at the end, because the good guys always come out on top at the end of the season. Season finales in "24" have always kind of been foregone conclusions.

I thought it was neat to have the clock count down to 00:00:00 at the end rather than count up to 04:00:00, though. Aside from that, and the ending cinematography (closing on Jack's face, and having the image fizzle out), I'm still not sure they knew this would be the series finale when it was filmed. The ending effects can be edited to give it a series ending effect, but the first 115 minutes of the episode seemed no different than any other "24" season finale. It did seem like an arbitrary place to stop. Closure? Nope. Then again, this is how most television series end, so I guess I can't complain. I also think Jack would have been given a better series-ending fate if it weren't for that damn movie coming up. Or, maybe they would have just killed him off completely. I think Jack himself would have considered that a "happy ending", don't you?

By the way, despite all of the hype that the "Lost" finale got, it really didn't do all that well in the ratings: 13.5 million viewers. To put that in perspective, that's a similar number to the series finales of "JAG" and "The King of Queens". I'm assuming neither the "JAG" nor "King of Queens" finale was promoted by CBS as the "television event of the decade". Think that maybe ABC oversold this a little bit? That's the thing with a serial drama, though: you can't just pick up the series at the end and know what's going on, so the finale isn't going to pull a very big rating. Meanwhile, I haven't seen numbers for the "24" finale yet, but I'm expecting something in the 9 to 10 million range. (UPDATE 5/26/10: The "24" finale had 8.85 million viewers. source)

Alright...and with that, this is the last time I will ever mention "Lost" or "24" in this blog ever again. It's time to find some new shows to obsess over. Any suggestions? My general rules are: no medical dramas, no crime dramas, no courtroom dramas, no "chick shows" (includes "Glee" and "Desperate Housewives" - no offense to any guys who watch either show), no reality shows, and nothing with too much sci-fi ("Lost" is just enough sci-fi; "Fringe" is a little too much for our taste). Yes, I realize I just eliminated most of network television.

Bike to Work Statistics

Last week, I mentioned that I've commuted to work via bicycle 31 times. That got me thinking...since I'm keeping track of this anyway, why isn't this in By the Numbers. Well, now it is. I biked to work twice during Bike to Work week, so now I'm up to 33 bike commutes over the past 11 months. (Actually, today will make 34, but I haven't updated through today yet.)

One of the benefits of biking to work is that I can leave my car parked in the driveway. That's good for me, and for the environment. But how much? My commute is already very short to begin with (6.5 miles round trip), so my actual savings - in terms of miles I put on my car and gasoline consumption - are actually quite small. Those 33 bike commutes have equated to a savings of: 214.5 miles driven, and $18.15 in fuel costs. Wait, that's it? $18? That's not even enough to cover one night of curling!

Depending on the price of gas, driving to work only costs me between 40 and 70 cents per day. Even if I biked to work every day (which isn't practical due to weather and other factors), I'd only save $11/month in fuel costs. So much for saving the environment, eh? The actual savings aren't all that much, but it's better than nothing, and I do it for the exercise more than anything else anyway. Buying a house close to work, and buying a fuel efficient / low emissions car - I've done both - are much more effective ways to "reduce my carbon footprint". Nevertheless, By the Numbers will keep a running total of the mileage and fuel cost savings I've accumulated by biking to work.

Amber, on the other hand, has much more to gain from a statistical standpoint by biking to work. Her round trip commute is almost three times as long as mine (18.5 miles by car), so she would save between $1.20 and $2.00 in fuel costs per day, depending on the price of gas. Just last week, by biking to work four times as part of Bike to Work week, she saved $6.25 in fuel costs. For one week, that's not bad.

I should also note that including our test commute the previous weekend, Amber rode 85 miles in a seven-day period. That's more than I've ever done in a one-week span. Long term, Amber's plans are now to bike to work about once a week. Maybe she should start her own Bicycling Trip to Alaska!

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Lost": Final Thoughts

***SPOILER ALERT*** - if you haven't seen last night's "Lost" series finale yet, this post is not for you.

So, the much-hyped "Lost" series finale has come and gone. What'd you think? Personally, I thought it was good. Not great; just good. It about met my expectations.

Now...for one reason or another, some series finales - especially those for long running, successful, popular series - are met with anger. "What? That's IT?? What the hell was that?" I'm sure the "Lost" finale made a few people angry. I think we can chalk that up to people setting the bar too high, expecting every outstanding question to be answered, and the realization that the show is over, forever. Maybe they feel abandonded? HOW DARE THEY not film any more episodes! As a devoted viewer, I feel they owe me. THEY OWE ME!

Personally, I kept my expectations in check, knew going in that many questions would be left unanswered, and - most of all - realize that this is just a television show. So, Amber and I enjoyed it. We watched the 120-minute preview show (or whatever it's called), plus the entire 150-minute finale, and it didn't feel like we were watching TV for as long as we were. The time just flew by! (We watched both shows via DVR, and were able to skip all commercials, turning what would have been a 4½ hour commitment into a 3 hour commitment. Originally we were going to skip the two-hour recap, but we figured, why not?)

Regardless, I think that's a good gauge for how good a show is: how quickly does it pass the time? I call it the "soda test". Used to be that whenever I went to see a movie, I would buy a soda. The longer it takes me to finish the drink, the better the movie. The rationale is that I'm more likely to drink my soda faster if I'm bored. I don't drink soda anymore, but the "Lost" finale would have certainly passed the "soda test".

However, that's not to say it could have been better. I thought the death of the Man in Black should have been a little more spectacular - for example, Locke's "body" (or "form" or whatever) disappearing or evaporating into dispersing black smoke or something. Instead, his "body" just sat there on the rocks. Is this what happens when evil incarnate dies? I guess so. I also wanted something bad to happen - you know, like the island actually going under water, or something other than the good guys pretty much having their way from start to finish. What would have happened if MiB got off the island? We'll never know, probably because the show's writers never even thought about it. They never needed to. But all that is just personal preference, and the strongest part of the finale wasn't the on-island action; it was the flash-sideways. Those sequences, while completely soaked in sap, did a good job of "wrapping things up". Well done. Some series finales spend too much time reminiscing about the series and/or patting themselves in the back; I think they struck a good balance here. I'm also satisfied with the explanation for the flash-sideways.

So...was that "heaven"? What was that light? What's the deal? Actually, it doesn't matter...the show's over. We are free to interpret as we wish. A series finale requiring at least a little bit of interpretation is good for the series, because it keeps people talking about it for a while. For example, I haven't seen a single episode of "The Sopranos", ever, but I know how that series ended. People are still talking about it, and even though it was kind of a niche show, the show's abrupt cut-to-black ending is now standard pop culture. This ending wasn't quite like that, but still left most viewers wanting more. And that's the key: leave it a little open to interpretation, and leave the viewers wanting more. I mean, who wouldn't want to see what life on the island is like now that Hurley is in charge?

If the explanation for the flash-sideways left you feeling empty inside, confused, and/or asking more questions...sorry! It's done. It's time to let go. Besides, there's another series finale tonight, although the "24" finale is probably going to be a different animal altogether.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sports Saturday: 5/22/10

I'm going to keep it short today, because I think we've reached that time of year. Summer is normally when I take a break from sports and do other things, like go to the beach, go camping, and take road trips. This summer, we have the World Cup, and that will be awesome. And the Stanley Cup Playoffs aren't over yet, but they are starting to lose my interest (see next item). But besides that, what else is there between now and football season? Not much. Baseball and NASCAR will be around all summer, but neither is all that interesting, June through August. I guess what I'm saying is, I don't think I'll be doing a "Sports Saturday" post every week all summer. (There won't be one next week, but that's because we'll be in Toledo for Memorial Day weekend.)

In today's issue: NHL, MLB, NASCAR.

NHL - Why are the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting to lose me a little? I think I'm just burned out on hockey. It's been going on for over seven months now. That, and I'm having trouble getting into either series. Chicago/San Jose is the more interesting series on paper (better teams), but most of the games are on too late, and I don't really care who wins. I do have a rooting interest in Philadelphia/Montréal (go Habs!), and those games are played on the early side, but there are a couple of factors working against that series in terms of keeping my interest. The fact that this is a #7 v. #8 matchup takes away the luster. At this stage of the playoffs, it feels like you should have the best of the best playing each other, and I don't really get that feeling watching this series. Also, watching a PHI/MTL game means listening to Versus play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati (a.k.a. nails on chalkboard) for two hours.

Fortunately, neither the Pacific Time Zone nor Joe Beninati will be a factor this weekend. Both of this weekend's games are on NBC (NBC = Mike "Doc" Emrick), and both start at 3:00 PM. Yay!

Sat 3:00p - Philadelphia at Montréal (Game 4, PHI 2-1), NBC
Sun 3:00p - San Jose at Chicago (Game 4, CHI 3-0 or 2-1*), NBC

(* - Haven't watched the third period of last night's game yet. But unlike last week, I did not have a dream last night telling me in advance how the game would turn out.)

MLB - The Washington Nationals had been doing pretty well, but one five game losing streak later, and I think reality has set in. This team isn't going to the playoffs. That's okay, though. But will I still give a crap about the Nats in August? That is the question. So far, I've been watching around 10 innings of Nationals baseball a week, on average. (I'm not actually keeping track of this; I just guessed. Given the kinds of things I do keep track of, I feel like I have to clarify anytime I estimate a number rather than explicitly calculate it.)

Since I won't have a Sports Saturday post next weekend, I'll also touch on this now: when #1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg makes his MLB debut with the Nationals (June 4th?), it will be must-see TV, at least for me. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a national broadcaster - most likely MLB Network - picks up the game. That's how much hype there is surrounding Strasburg.

Also, I'll talk about this more in a separate post next week, but my interest in baseball goes up when I'm actively playing a baseball video game.

Sat 4:00p - Baltimore at Washington, MASN/MASN2
Sat 7:00p - NY Yankees at NY Mets, FOX (regional)
Sun 1:30p - Baltimore at Washington, MASN/MASN2
Sun 1:30p - Boston at Philadelphia, TBS
Sun 2:00p - Chicago Cubs at Texas, WGN America
Sun 8:00p - NY Yankees at NY Mets, ESPN


NASCAR - Not only is it "All-Star Weekend", but now, it's also "Hall of Fame" weekend! I'm not all that enthusiastic about it - I think Halls of Fame in sports are kind of overrated, and I generally don't care who's "in" or "out" - but I think it was smart to have the Hall of Fame induction ceremony be the same weekend as the All-Star race. (Of course, it was kind of a no-brainer, given that both the All-Star race and the Hall of Fame are in Charlotte.) At least, I'm assuming the plan is for inductions to take place on All-Star Sunday every year. The All-Star race never gets that much traction nationally (no pun intended) compared to other sports' All-Star events; maybe this will help.

The brand new NASCAR Hall of Fame is only 2½ hours away from home, so it's not a matter of "if", but "when". How long before I convince Amber to come with me? How many art museums will I have to go to first in order to balance it out? Actually...I want to wait until the crowds die down and more inductees and exhibits get added. It's not going anywhere, and this is probably the kind of thing you only need to go to once, so what's the rush? Maybe in two or three years.

Indianapolis 500 qualifying is also this weekend, but qualifying is boring, so...meh.

Sat 7:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race (or whatever it's called), SPEED

Friday, May 21, 2010

Curling Recap: 5/20/10

You thought curling was over, didn't you? Nope! Curling is NEVER over. We just don't do it quite as often in the summer as we do September through April.

Last night, we kicked off the Triangle Curling Club "summer season": six pick-up games, a two-game mini-bonspiel, and the club's annual Carolina Classic. Believe it or not, we're only going to attend two of the six pick-up sessions. Shocking! I know it may seem like Amber and I go curling every chance we get, but actually, we don't.

Last night was pick-up session #1, and I was fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough) to get a rematch against Spring League champion Dave:

End.............. 12345678 |TTL
--------------------------------
Allen............ 22002110 | 08
D. Hamilton (UNC) 00120001 | 04

Redemption? Not really...this was just a pick-up game. While most people do worse when they don't care, I think I actually do better when I don't care as much. My all time record in "meaningless" pick-up games is 11-3, so maybe there's something to that. And, aside from the skips (and Amber), the teams were completely different than they were in the May 2nd league championship game, and nobody in the game had curled in two weeks, and...well, you get the idea. Not redemption.

Unlike in the league championship, the lucky bounces mostly went our way this time. For example, in both the 1st and 2nd end, I was lying one with only Dave's last rock remaining, and both times, he knocked one of my rocks into the house, giving me an extra point in each end. Whoops!

Let's talk 6th end strategy. Our very first shot of the end ended up on the button:


If you're the other team, you have to get rid of that rock eventually. Problem is, that rock was sitting on one of those dreaded "zamboni lines", and it was almost impossible to take out. If you threw at it with take-out weight, it would either stay left of the zamboni line, or rapidly fall to the right of it:


It was possible to get to the button if you threw draw weight - rocks curl the most when they're moving slowest, and the only way to get a rock to stop on a zamboni line is to come at it at a sharp angle with lots of curl. But if you throw take-out weight, it's not going to get there. With that in mind, what do you do? Well, there's no use in throwing heavy, because you're basically throwing a rock away when you do that. So, in this case, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to throw rocks into the front of the house, either front-left or front-right of the shot rock, in order to set up an "angle shot" later in the end. Angle shots - hitting one rock into another rock at an angle, or having the shooter "wick" off of a guard at a slight angle - are the only way you can access the button with take-out speed under these conditions. The other is to try to draw in yourself. The other team did get a couple of shots in the house, and even though they didn't score, they were able to hold us to a single point. Sometimes, you just have to "take your medicine", not panic (I have a problem with that sometimes), and move on to the next end. However, once the situation became such that it was basically impossible for us to "go for two" (they placed a rock right next to ours, making it nearly impossible to remove their rock without risking our own), then they started attempting the angle shots. A couple of those angle shots came a little close for comfort. No doubt those angle shots would have been executed perfectly if this were a league championship game...

Next up on my curling menu is the previously mentioned two-game mini-bonspiel, which takes place in three weeks. Now this could qualify as redemption. Maybe.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Random Thoughts on 'Lost' and '24': Series Finale Preview

***SPOILER ALERT*** - if you haven't caught up on "Lost" or "24" through this week's episodes, you've been warned. You are safe to read one section or the other if you've only caught up on one of the two, however.

This is it: The 2½-hour "Lost" series finale is on Sunday, followed by the 2-hour "24" series finale the very next day. Talk about an epic two days of television!

Lost

While I am really looking forward to this, I'm going to try not to hype this series finale up too much, unlike ABC. I always fast-forward through the commercials, but I think I saw a commercial touting the series finale of "Lost" as "THE TELEVISION EVENT OF THE DECADE". I mean, seriously? This is what ABC does, though. When they have a successful show (which doesn't happen all that often, apparently), they overhype and beat it to death. That's what they did with "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" in 1999-2001. At the peak of the show's popularity, ABC decided to put it on three nights a week, and that basically killed the show.

But I digress. I think what I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't let the ABC hype machine determine your expectations for the "Lost" finale. It can't possibly live up to the ABC hype, and as is the case with all series finales, there will be some unanswered questions and ambiguity left over that are sure to fire up the message boards and keep people talking about the show long afterwards. That said, "Lost" season finales always deliver. I don't know what we're going to see, but I think it'll be good. My expectations are high; just not ABC-high.

Here's what I'll be thinking about the most when watching the series finale:

What will happen with "Locke" (a.k.a. "Man in Black", or "MiB" as I'll refer to him henceforth)? Surely, he must be able to die somehow. But how? Maybe water is the key? The smoke monster can't travel across water, so can he drown? But he's not really human either, so does he even need oxygen to begin with?

MiB's demise seems to be the most likely outcome, but who knows? I think the apocalypse would be kind of fun, too - I mean, this is just fiction. If everything goes to hell, that's alright with me. I also think that MiB will realize some form of success in his quest to leave and/or destroy the island. The series finale wouldn't be all that interesting if the primary antagonist didn't have some success along the way, right? ... Well, not if they introduce a major plot twist along the way, which they undoubtedly will. Maybe the death of MiB would actually spell doom for everyone on the island rather than save the island like everyone thought. Wouldn't that be fun?

What's the deal with the sideways flashes? The storylines in the alternate timeline (or whatever it is) have been, for the most part, boring. But given how much time this season has devoted to the sideways flashes, they have to be important. We just don't know why yet. Fortunately, sideways flash closure is all but guaranteed in the finale, we'll see what the point of all this was. Do I have too much faith in the show's writers?

Who else is going to die? They've been killing characters off left and right the last few weeks. That's great, but I was hoping for Sun and Jin (my favorite characters) to make it to the end. Darn it. How come they have to die, but Kate (my least favorite character) gets to live?

Is Richard dead? Yes, the smoke monster pretty much laid him out. But we never saw Richard's body after that, and I was under the impression that MiB couldn't kill him, either because he's an immortal of sorts, because that would violate the "rules", or both.

The farther along we get, I think the less I actually understand the "rules". Did Jacob set all of these "rules"? Is Jack now free to set his own "rules"? Do Jacob's "rules" carry over to the Jack dynasty? I don't expect answers to these questions. Beyond the first two questions I posed, I expect the finale to be mostly action with minimal question answering. I think the writers are done answering questions about the island's history and mythology, and that what we know up to this point is all we're going to get.

Finally, in the Season Five episode "The Little Prince", who were the people shooting at Sawyer/Juliet/etc from that other canoe? Ever since this brief scene from one of those random time flashes last year, I've been waiting for this scene to resurface for the last year and a half. Who were those people? "Lost" will do this - they'll introduce an obscure mystery, then they'll revisit it sometime later and "close the time loop" long after you've forgotten about it. Unfortunately, Cuse and Lindelof have suggested that this scene will not be revisited in the finale. Closing the loop was more trouble than it was worth, apparently. Fail. I don't consider that information a spoiler, because if you've been obsessing over this as much as I have, it's better you know this going into the finale. One less thing to be disappointed about.

24

Unlike the previous 24 episodes (going back to last season), the second half of this season of "24" has been immensely entertaining. Why? Because Jack Bauer is kicking ass and taking names (as they say), and because at this point, there is no clear "good side" or "bad side". Jack is always on the good side, but now he's taking things a little too far, don't you think? Hard to call him a "good guy" at this point. The president certainly isn't a "good guy" anymore either, thanks to her efforts to cover up Russia's involvement. It's been an interesting struggle to watch. When everybody on both sides is flawed, and there is no clear "good side", it's more intriguing. It's also been fun to watch Jack lay waste. Sure, his rampages have been completely over the top the last two weeks (who knew a SIM card would still work after spending a few minutes in someone's stomach?), but so what? It's the end of the series! Go out with a bang! Jack Bauer is the greatest action hero of our generation, after all.

Credit to the writers for making the end of the series worth watching. The end of your typical "24" season usually isn't all that interesting. By this point, we know the terrorists won't get their way, and we know what's going to happen in the last two hours. This year, we know that the Russian conspiracy will come to light, but there's so much more to it than that. While I am curious to see how the president will emerge from all this, really it all comes down to Jack. What's going to happen to him?

We know Jack isn't going to die. They are planning on making a "24" movie, after all. But he's burned too many bridges at this point to just be able to walk away a free man, right? Jack going to prison would be boring, so I think the most likely outcome is for the series to end with Jack "on the run", suggesting that he's going to have to be "on the run" for the rest of his life. Or at least until the movie comes out.

As I've said before, the fact that there's going to be a movie bothers me. I'd much rather the series finale be the absolute end of the Jack Bauer story arc. As a result, there won't be as much "finality" with the "24" finale as there will be with the "Lost" finale. Not just because of the movie, either - while "Lost" is the end of a six-year-long story, each season of "24" - including this one - is self-contained. Will the series finale feel like a proper series finale, or will it just seem like another season finale? Did they even know this would be the series finale when they wrote the episode?

Either way, it doesn't look good for Jack. Does he deserve a better ending than this? Perhaps, but I'd much rather Jack go out with guns a-blazing than end up with a softy "I love you, Kim" / "I love you too, Daddy" ending. Here's hoping Kim Bauer stays a safe distance away from the series finale. I don't have my hopes up, though, since she is probably the one person who can reel Jack back in from the cusp of insanity. And I acknowledge that it can't really be a true series finale without a Kim appearance.

Oh, and one more thing: how many times has Jack been stabbed this season? Are we up to three now?

One more week before my two favorite TV shows of the last few years are gone for good. Better enjoy them while I can! I'll have some closing thoughts on both shows next week.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mysteriously Disappeared: Update

I have a little more information about those neighbors of ours who "mysteriously disappeared" last week. There is now a "For Rent" sign in front of the house: (I blacked out the phone number for security and privacy reasons.)


There is also an orange notice on the inside of one of the front windows. I didn't feel comfortable taking a picture of it, but it basically says, "This property was padlocked by the Durham County Sheriff's Office. If you want your property back, contact your landlord."

Put these two things together, and I think it means a couple of things. Our neighbors didn't buy the house; they were only renting it. And, they probably couldn't pay the rent. Previously, I was dumbfounded as to why someone would buy a house if there was any chance at all they couldn't make the first four payments on it. What were they thinking buying the house in the first place? Indeed, all evidence suggests that they didn't buy it, in fact. Now everything makes a little more sense. Personally, I think all this was bad karma brought on by them not mailing back their Census forms.

So...this means we'll probably get some new neighbors soon, and once again, they will probably be short-term neighbors. I'd rather someone buy the house and have long-term next door neighbors than have the house next door basically be a revolving door of people who either plan on leaving in a year or so, or will as soon as they can qualify for a mortgage.

Actually, I shouldn't talk too much more about this. Who's to say this can't happen to us? How can Amber and I know for sure that 10 years from now, we won't be in a similar financial position as our former neighbors now find themselves in? Things happen, and you just never know.

Alaska Trip Statistics: Before the Fact

Our Alaska trip begins in five weeks! That's still a ways away, but I've already gone ahead and tabulated some useless driving statistics in advance. My "stat projections" are listed throughout By the Numbers, but since I know nobody looks at that page, I'll just put it here, too.

Miles driven: I expect to put 9,800 miles on my car during this trip. My car's odometer will probably be around 43,000 when we start the trip, so it will reach 50,000 in British Columbia or Alberta (probably), and will be all the way up to 53,000 upon our return. That sounds like a lot, but on a per-day basis, we'll actually be doing less driving on this trip than we did on last year's US-50 trip. I mean, we're only doing 544 miles per day, on average. Only!

County visitation: Now...with a trip of this magnitude, you'd think that I would visit all kinds of new counties along the way, right? Well...maybe. I came up with was 53 new counties. (Plus 26 Canadian "counties".) That's kind of disappointing, but not unexpected - driving through Canada and Alaska is not the most efficient way to add to my county map. But that's not the point. The point is, it doesn't matter how many new counties I get on this trip, as long as I get the one new state that has eluded me: Alaska. This trip will also check another four Canadian provinces off my list, leaving only Newfoundland and Labrador (one province), Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Is it possible to drive to Nunavut?

Nights by county: This stat is boring, but nonetheless, here are the counties in which we'll be staying overnight throughout the trip:

Three nights: Yukon (The entire Yukon Territory is one "county"/census division. This will make Yukon the favorite to finish 4th for the year in the 2010 Nights By County battle, which I think is pretty cool.)
Two nights: Kenai Peninsula AK, Denali AK (Alaska has 28 "counties" - like Canada, they call them something else. Of those, we'll visit 9 and stay overnight in 5.)
One night: Hennepin MN, Regina SK, Grande Prairie AB, Skagway AK, Anchorage AK, Fairbanks North Star AK, Peace River BC, Yorkton SK, Dane WI, Ross OH (most likely)

Interstates driven: I plan on getting 1,652 new interstate miles on this trip, including four never-traveled-before interstates (39, 55, 74 West, 88 West). Yeah! And no, even though Alaska technically does have "interstates", they don't count.

It just dawned on me that I've never actually posted the complete trip route. What's taken me so long?


View Actual trip to Alaska in a larger map

Figuring this stuff out in detail five weeks before the trip does take some of the fun out of it. This trip might be a little too "planned" for most people. But what can I say? I was bored. And, besides, this is one less thing to do the week after we get back.

Monday, May 17, 2010

'Bike-To-Work' Week

Apparently, it's "Bike-to-Work" week this week. Woohoo, I guess!

I'd actually have no idea that this was "Bike-to-Work" week if not for the fact that Amber's employer is encouraging participation. I knew about the SmartCommute Challenge, but that just ended last week, and it was only a local thing anyway. "Bike-to-Work" week is more of a national thing, but it's up to local groups to promote it, which is why you probably had no idea, either.

But in any event, Amber's company is encouraging its employees to participate this week, either by actually biking to work, or carpooling, or riding the bus, or some such thing. They're actually keeping track of how much they save in terms of gas or carbon emissions or something. So, really, it's more "SmartCommute Challenge" than "Bike to Work", but still, Amber is going to try riding her bike to work this week. She's excited about it, too. We gave the route a test ride over the weekend (8.5 miles, 40-45 minutes each way), and it's all systems go, at least when the weather cooperates. (Today was a washout, and tomorrow doesn't look good, either.)

I'm going to ride bike to work two or three times this week as well, but I'm already a "bike to work" veteran. My ride is much shorter and easier than Amber's (3.5 miles, 15-20 minutes each way). Over the last 11 months, I've commuted to work via bicycle 31 times. (Yes, I've been counting. Hopefully you're not surprised by this.) Biking to work this time of year (when sunrise is 7:00 AM or earlier) is nice because I don't get home that much later than I would if I drove, and when I do get home, I've already gotten my exercise in!

I try to bike commute once a week, but it doesn't always work out that way. I have a variety of excuses. "It's too cold!" "It's too humid!" "Sunrise isn't for another 30 minutes!" "There's a 20% chance of rain today!" But really, the reason I don't ride in more often than I do is because most mornings, I don't feel like it. I have a hard enough time just getting out of bed some mornings, the last thing I want is to have to huff and puff just to get to work. But this week will be different. If Amber is riding to work, then I won't have an excuse.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sports Saturday: 5/15/10

In today's issue: a discussion of why I don't like the NBA, followed by the usual hockey, baseball, and auto racing banter.

NBA - You may have noticed that I never talk about the NBA here. Why not? Because, quite simply, I'm not a fan. It's my least favorite of all popular sports, and I generally try to ignore it as much as possible.

Here's why I don't like the NBA:

1) The games are boring. I enjoy college basketball, but professional basketball is completely different. It's much more player-oriented than team-oriented. There's a lot of standing around watching the guy with the ball. NBA players don't give as much effort as college players. The atmosphere at a college basketball game is 10 times better. (When you have to pump in music during the play to get the crowd riled up, as you do in an NBA arena, something's wrong.) At times, professional basketball feels more like entertainment than an actual sport. The same could be said for NASCAR, but at least NASCAR is fun to watch. The NBA is not. Just my opinion.

2) NBA games start too late, take too long, and have too many commercials. Stanley Cup Final games start at 8 PM Eastern and are over by 11; NBA Finals games start at 9 PM Eastern and are over around midnight. That's just one example; NBA games generally start later overall. There is no way I am going to stay up until midnight to watch an NBA game, especially given how meaningless the first half is. Other than a spectacular dunk (which looks cool but has just as much impact on the game as two free throws), the only time something exciting ever happens in an NBA game is in the fourth quarter. College basketball games are shorter and have a longer shot clock, which means the first half of a college basketball game carries more weight. The first half of an NBA game? Worthless. Again, the same could be said for NASCAR, but at least NASCAR races exclusively on weekends. (I'm finding a lot of similarities between the NBA and NASCAR here. Uh oh...) By the time an NBA game gets interesting, I'm in bed.

On top of that, there are the commercials. Not counting intermissions/halftimes, NHL games have a total of 9 commercial breaks during the game. An NBA game has 14 commercial breaks. And on top of that, each NBA commercial break is about a minute longer than its NHL counterpart. Add to that all those timeouts and intentional fouls towards the end of a basketball game, and....zzzz....oh, what? Sorry, lost my train of thought. The NBA takes so many long breaks during its games, it's hard to stay focused and motivated. And before you point out that the NHL has twice as many intermissions, let me say this: I'm fine with intermissions. Fifteen minutes is a long enough time for me to get up and do something else, like take a shower or something. If the NBA would consolidate those extra commercial breaks into a second full intermission, I'd like that.

3) The referees have too much influence. How often does the NBA have a controversy involving the referees? Quite often. Every sport has referee controversies, but the NBA seems to have more of them. And due to the frequency of foul calls in basketball and the subjective nature of fouls in general, referees have more influence on the outcome of an NBA game than in other sports. That's not good. It also bugs me that NBA referees don't really enforce the rules as they're written. Rule enforcement in the NBA is fuzzy at best. Traveling, anyone? Again, the NBA is entertainment, not a sport.

4) If you live in the Triangle and have DirecTV or DISH, you can't watch the local team. If you live within 75 miles of Charlotte, then you can watch Charlotte Bobcats games on cable or satellite. But if you live more than 75 miles from Charlotte - as I do - Bobcats games are blacked out on satellite. The team has never reached an agreement with either satellite company to air its games more than 75 miles away from Charlotte. Even if you pay up for NBA League Pass, no Bobcats games for you. Time Warner Cable customers in Raleigh do get to see the Bobcats, but only half of the games. Hard to be a fan when you can't watch. The Bobcats ownership obviously doesn't care if us Triangle folk give a crap about their stupid basketball team.

5) The NBA and the NHL are enemies. You can't like both. Their seasons directly overlap, and the two sports are in direct competition with each other from beginning to end. I think it's pretty much impossible to be a fan of both. You can be a casual fan of both, but you can't be a serious fan of both. I'm a serious fan of the NHL, which means I can't follow the NBA. Any attention I give the NBA takes away from the NHL. It also helps prop up the NBA, which is also bad for hockey. The better the NBA does, the worse off the NHL is. I don't like that the NBA has significantly more fan interest in the United States than the NHL does. (Canada, on the other hand...) I think the NHL would be held in higher regard in this country if it were its own thing with a direct competitor, as opposed to always leaving itself vulnerable to comparisons of television ratings against the NBA. So, as a devoted hockey fan, I can't possibly sport the NBA. Down with professional basketball!

All that said...on Thursday night, there was nothing else on, and there was a lot of buzz surrounding Game 6 of the Cavaliers/Celtics series, so I gave it a shot. It lasted about 45 minutes, and that was it. I couldn't get into it, especially since I never planned on staying awake until the end. The first half is just too boring. An NHL or NFL game can keep my interest for the entire game - a goal or a touchdown is an exciting moment that can happen at any point in the game. In the NBA, you can only score two or three at a time. No excitement.

I know I'm in the minority here - a very high percentage of the people I follow on Twitter were talking about that game on Thursday night - but I just can't get into the NBA. It would probably be different if I lived in a city like Orlando with an NBA team and nothing else, or if I stayed up until midnight every night, or knew a lot of people who followed the NBA, but I don't. So, I apologize to all of my friends who happen to be NBA fans. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with liking the NBA - the fact that I like NASCAR pretty much prohibits me from criticizing anyone for liking any sport - it's just not my thing.

NHL - Alrighty! Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

We're down to two teams! But as of press time, I only know who one of those two teams are. Amber and I went out on Friday night, so I recorded Game 7 of the Bruins/Flyers series, and I haven't watched the whole thing yet. As of now, I'm at the second intermission, with the score tied 3-3. I'm hoping for overtime, because the only thing more exciting than an NHL Game 7 is an NHL Game 7 that goes into overtime. Either way, this has already been a better game than the Penguins/Canadiens Game 7 was. Also, I had a dream last night that the Flyers scored with 8:05 to go in the 3rd period and won 4-3 (true story), and it would be pretty cool of something close to that actually happened in the actual game. (UPDATE: The Flyers scored with 7:08 to go in the 3rd period and won 4-3. Not sure if the goal in my dream was on the power play, though. Partial credit?)

I am glad to see at least one Canadian team still alive. I'm pulling for them the rest of the way. The Americans have won enough Stanley Cups; it's Canada's turn to return to the top. Go Habs Go!

Unfortunately, I think whoever wins the Western Conference will breeze through the Stanley Cup Final. But I also thought the Penguins would sweep the Canadiens (true story), so what do I know?

Sun 3:00p: Chicago at San Jose (Game 1), NBC
Sun 7:00p: Montréal at Philadelphia winner (Game 1), Versus

Auto racing - NASCAR is at Dover this week, which...meh. Just another race that either Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing will probably win.

I think part of the reason my interest in NASCAR fades from time to time is because we've been stuck with pretty much the same drivers for the last five years. There has been very little turnover at the top. Let's look at the drivers who won races five seasons ago: of the 36 races in 2005, 33 were won by drivers that are currently in the top 20 in points five years later (Stewart, Biffle, Edwards, Martin, Johnson, Newman, Kenseth, both Busch brothers, Gordon, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr). Include Kasey Kahne, who is currently 22nd in points but just signed a deal to drive for Hendrick in 2012 (meaning his career is far from over), and you have 34 of the 36 wins from five years ago accounted for. I think NASCAR is in desperate need of some turnover. I'm getting tired of the same old drivers. I think a lot of the fanbase is, too. When are some of these guys going to go away? A few drivers have been able to break in since 2005 (most notably Hamlin, and to a lesser extent, Montoya and Bowyer), but I'd like more change than that. Yes we can!

Meanwhile, Formula One races at Monaco this weekend. Monaco is Formula One's most famous venue and its biggest race (so I'm told). The Monaco track isn't great for racing, and there will be even less passing on Sunday than in your average Formula One race...but that's okay as long as you know that going in, right?

Sat 2:30p: NASCAR Nationwide at Dover, ABC
Sun 8:00a: Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco, SPEED
Sat 1:00p: NASCAR Sprint Cup at Dover, FOX


MLB - Nothing to say this week. Let's go Nats!

Sat 4:00p - Philadelphia at Milwaukee, FOX (regional)
Sat 7:00p - Cleveland at Baltimore, MASN
Sat 7:00p - Chicago White Sox at Kansas City, WGN America
Sat 7:00p - St. Louis at Cincinnati, MLB Network
Sat 8:00p - Washington at Colorado, MASN2
Sun 1:00p - Minnesota at NY Yankees, TBS
Sun 1:30p - Cleveland at Baltimore, MASN
Sun 2:00p - Pittsburgh at Chicago Cubs, WGN America
Sun 3:00p - Washington at Colorado, MASN2
Sun 8:00p - Philadelphia at Milwaukee, ESPN


Horse Racing - I don't really care a whole lot about the Preakness Stakes. But watching the race is, like, a five minute commitment, so why the hell not?

Sat 6:00p - Preakness Stakes, NBC

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mysteriously Disappeared

I don't know if I actually mentioned this or not, but we got new neighbors a few months ago - January, I think. (I know I said that the house next door was for sale, but I don't think I ever said it was sold. It didn't stay on the market for long, which I guess is a good thing.)

Well, either way...just like that, less than four months later, they're gone again. I think. Hard to tell, really. For about the last week or so, there have been no cars in the driveway (they normally have two or three, or at least one at any given time), and there have been no sign of the neighbors themselves. There is also a padlock on the front door. Hmm...are we bad neighbors or something? Seems kind of strange for them to move out so quickly. Maybe it wasn't their choice? If it wasn't for the complete disappearance of all three cars and the padlock on the door, we wouldn't think anything of it and just assume they went on vacation or something. this looks fishy. We may never know.

But one thing I do know is that they didn't fill out their U.S. Census forms. Booooo! I know this because we saw a Census worker at their house yesterday evening. Since the neighbors have mysteriously disappeared, the Census worker obviously had no idea what to do. (This was his second attempt.) So, we helped him out. We told him how many people lived there, and we know for a fact that they were there on April 1st (which is the criteria). So, in a way, Amber and I have filled out two Census forms now. Go us! (By the way, the Census worker also said he saw something resembling a moving truck on his first attempt - more "evidence" that our neighbors may be gone for good.)

But in any event, the house next door may or may not be on the market in the near future, in case anyone out there is interested in buying a house next to some really awesome neighbors.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Kinder, Gentler Jill

I talk about my Garmin GPS (a.k.a. "Jill") a lot. Yes I do.

So, anyway...when I updated my maps last month, I also discovered that there was an update for Jill herself - the voice that gives me turn-by-turn directions as I drive. And believe it or not, I definitely noticed a difference in the "new Jill". And I like it.

The old Jill had a tendency to be a little harsh and mean, especially when you miss a turn. Anyone who owns a Garmin knows what I mean when I say "Recalculating..." When the old Jill says "Recalculating", you can tell she's frustrated with you. "Ugh. Recalculating...again! Why do you even bring me on your trips if you never follow my instructions? Jackass." But the "new Jill"? The infamous word "recalculating" is still part of her vocabulary, but now she says it in a more happy-go-lucky sort of way. Now, it's more like, "Recalculating! Yay! Oh well!" Jill's other instructions are also a little more friendly. Instead of giving commands, now she's just giving suggestions, and she doesn't seem to mind so much when you don't follow them. Maybe Jill had a lobotomy. Or maybe she's developing dementia. Either way, I like it.

While I was on the Garmin website, I also downloaded another voice, in case I ever get tired of Jill: Lee, the Australian. Amber's parents have the Lee voice on their Garmin, and I liked it, so I found a way to get it on my device. But after spending an hour or two in the car with Lee, I decided to go back to Jill. I totally dig the Australian accent, but Lee's accent was subtle at best, actually. Lee is very soft-spoken and, well, boring. If Lee talked like the guy from the Outback Steakhouse commercials (who has a highly exaggerated Australian accent, of course, and unlike Lee is very upbeat and enthusiastic), that would be awesome. Either way, it just wasn't the same. I missed Jill.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lower Class Bicycling

I went for another bike ride last weekend: 42.5 miles (a new single day record) to Falls Lake and back. Here is the SportyPal log and map for those interested.

Taking the direct route to Falls Lake involves driving through some of Durham's more, well, historic neighborhoods. Normally that's no big deal - I've done it before - but this time around, I noticed that the drivers were a little less considerate than usual, especially on Angier Avenue. Most drivers gave me the bare minimum amount of room, and there were probably a couple of instances where if I bobbled just a little bit, there would have been a hit. Drivers in this area are generally considerate, but I couldn't remember encountering so many inconsiderate drivers in a row.

So...what's the deal? Well, before I talk about why drivers seem to be less considerate towards bicyclists in older neighborhoods, I should clarify a couple of things. Because we're dealing with socioeconomic differences, and people often associate those differences with race, this discussion has the potential to get a little sticky if I'm not careful. So, I'm going to make these statements right off the top:
- "Poor people are jerks" is NOT one of the reasons drivers are less considerate towards bicyclists in poor neighborhoods.
- Even though poor neighborhoods are often associated with African-Americans, this is NOT a discussion about race AT ALL. If a phrase like "these people" happens to slip out, please remember that in this context, "these people" simply means "people who live in poor neighborhoods" and is not meant to be a derogatory term.

So, anyway, here's my take. People who live in poor neighborhoods just don't know any better when it comes to sharing the road with bicyclists, and it's not really their fault. Bicycling is more of an upper-class thing, is it not? It's also more of a recent development - only within the last 10 to 20 years have things like bike lanes, dedicated bike paths, and bike route signs started popping up. Upper-class, recently-developed towns like Cary have "share the road" and "bike route" signs everywhere. Poor areas of Durham which haven't seen much development to speak of in the last 60 years do not. Back then, roads were built without bicyclists in mind - very narrow, with no shoulders or anything. There aren't that many bicyclists to begin with in these parts of town, so there is no "share the road" culture to speak of, either. So, drivers probably aren't used to seeing someone riding their bike on a road like Angier Avenue. They don't know what to do. Before I started riding my bicycle on roads, I thought giving bicyclists the bare minimum amount of room was fine. As long as you don't hit them, it's okay, right? Now I know better, of course.

Note that this only applies to more rural neighborhoods. The areas around downtown (for example, Old North Durham) may or may not be poor - hard to tell, because property near downtown is generally of higher value, even if it's old. But regardless, bicycling in the older neighborhoods around downtown is fine. The speed limits are lower, the roads are wider, and there are more bicyclists to be seen in the downtown areas. It's when you get away from the city center and into these isolated pockets of poverty that things get interesting.

I wouldn't say that I feel unsafe riding through here. Durham isn't exactly crime-free, and crime is more common in lower-class neighborhoods, but I've never felt threatened. Riding through poor neighborhoods isn't particularly pleasant, though, and I don't plan on making a habit out of it. The end of the ride at Falls Lake was quite rewarding, though, so I'll probably make this particular ride again at some point.


One more bicycling note, related to my phone's SportyPal app. Sometimes, SportyPal will get stuck on "Initializing GPS..." at load, preventing me from tracking my route. This happened a couple of weekends ago, and I got impatient, so instead I tried another tracking app called "My Tracks", made by Google. Does My Tracks measure up to SportyPal? Uh, no.


View Track 2 in a larger map

This ride was a 38-mile ride to my old apartment in Cary and back. But according to My Tracks, my ride was over 100 miles long, ascended to an elevation of 61,502 feet, and magically teleported to Umstead State Park, then to north of Butner, then all the way south to Lillington. Or, to put it another way....Fail.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kickball: End of Season Report

Co-ed kickball season (previously discussed here and here) is over. A good time was had by all, and we had lots of fun and got good exercise, despite the fact that we lost our last 11 games (not counting a win by forfeit) and lost our final game by a score of 26-2. Go team! Now I know why everybody on our team was so excited after we won the first game. Officially, our record was 2-11 thanks to the win by forfeit, and if you can believe it, we didn't finish last! There were four good teams and three bad teams in the league. I think the three bad teams - including us, of course - all went 2-2 (including forfeits) against the other bad teams, and lost every game against the four good teams. So, there were actually three teams with only two wins. By way of tie-breakers, we ended up 6th out of 7 teams, apparently. Woohoo! Not last!

For us - or, at least for me - kickball is more of a laid back social activity than anything else. I vowed I would never take kickball so seriously that I would feel the need to buy cleats, for example. For most other teams, it's serious business. They all have cleats, and some players on other teams will even go as far as to yell out things like "Got it!" or "Drop it!" when we're fielding to try to distract us. I mean, come on. You're already winning by 10; is that really necessary? Apparently, the kickball culture isn't anything like the curling culture. (What is?) Suffice to say that there isn't much camaraderie to speak of between teams. That's too bad, because we could have gotten a lot of free beers out of this season.

Here are my season-ending stats:

- 11 games played (our team played 13, but I missed two); I pitched in 8 1/3 of those 11 games
- Batting: 28 hits in 41 at-bats (.683 average), 10 runs, 2 RBIs; no extra base hits, walks, or strikeouts
- Pitching: 9 starts, 2-7 record (including one win by forfeit), 68 runs allowed in 66 2/3 innings pitched (9.24 ERA, assuming every run was "earned" - it's too difficult to keep track of errors), 15 strikeouts, 2 intentional walks
Note: 10-run "mercy rule" is in effect after the 5th inning (we were "mercied" four times)

I said before the season that my batting goals were to bat .500 or better (check), average at least one run scored per game (almost - came up just one run short of my goal), and get "at least a couple of RBIs" (two RBIs counts as "at least a couple", right?). Overall, I thought I did well. I bunted almost every time, and when I did it properly (side of the foot, down the 3rd base line, on the ground, no need to do more than tap it), it was a guaranteed hit. About half of my outs were misplaced bunts, and the other half were with runners already on base. (Bunting doesn't work when there's a runner in scoring position, for example, forcing me to actually try to kick it far, which is not my specialty.) I'm sure some people in the league batted .750+, but I'll take a two-thirds average. Our offense also improved significantly as the season progressed, so I think next season, I'll be able to eclipse my one-run-scored-per-game goal. But the thing I'm most proud of is no strikeouts. Whew!

Going in, I had no idea strikeouts ever happened in kickball. But I racked up 15 Ks from the pitcher's mound, for an average of two strikeouts per nine innings pitched. That's pretty good! Even so, while I was able to get a strikeout every once in a while, and infuriate some of the other players with my spin (maybe that's why some of them yelled "drop it" at us?), I think kickball pitching is overrated. I think putting wacky spin on the ball can help, but some guys are going to kick it well no matter what you do with the ball. Fielding, rather than pitching, is the most important thing on defense. It also helps when we had to play against the wind. We had our most success when the wind was blowing towards home plate, because it kept most balls in the infield, and neutralized the other team's strength advantage. Our lone legitimate win was against the wind, and our second-best game of the season (a 5-3 loss against the eventual #1 seed) was also against the wind. Our season-ending 26-2 loss was not against the wind. (By the way, I was not the pitcher in that 26-2 game. We tried putting me in the outfield to run down long fly balls, but that didn't work out so well.)

We're going to try to keep the team together for the Fall season, and we're sure to improve next season, Maybe next time, we can get two non-forfeit wins! One can only hope.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sports Saturday: 5/8/10

Aside from a 42-mile bike ride, I have no plans for this weekend whatsoever. Let's watch some sports! Problem is, there really isn't a whole lot going on this weekend, it seems like. Yes, there is plenty of hockey, baseball, racing, and golf to go around (and I will cover all four, not in that order), but there are no "marquee events". So where do I start?

Well, let's start with this. The Kentucky Derby was last week, and since I didn't offer a take on it last week, I'll do that now. If there was ever a time to record a sporting event on the DVR and watch it later, the Kentucky Derby - any horse race, really - is it. The race only lasts two or three minutes! No need to watch two hours of pre-race coverage, or however many hours NBC devoted to this thing. On the DVR, you can skip all that stuff, and be over with the whole thing in no time at all. I guess the reason NBC devotes three hours of coverage to a two-minute race is because some people actually watch the whole thing, but still. Seems entirely unnecessary.

By the way, had the Bruins/Flyers hockey game gone past 4:00 PM last Saturday, the remainder of the game would have been moved to Versus so that NBC could begin their Kentucky Derby coverage, even though the Derby itself wasn't until well after 6:00 (source). Yay hockey! (And, yay segway to the next topic!)

NHL - I'm a week behind here, so let me start by saying that I am thrilled that Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Washington Capitals lost in the first round of the playoffs. Ha!

That said, I can't lie. The playoffs - in particular, the Eastern Conference side of the bracket - are now less interesting with the Capitals out. Do we really want the Penguins to play in the Stanley Cup Final again? Boooring. That's kind of the feeling I got after the Canadiens finished off the Capitals. Ovechkin lost again! Wooohoooo!! But now this means the Penguins are going to the Stanley Cup Final again, doesn't it?

Or so I thought. The Montréal/Pittsburgh series is now tied 2-2. If you're a hockey fan, the remainder of this series is now must watch hockey if you ask me. I'm also very interested in the Chicago/Vancouver series, but I haven't seen too much of that one lately. Most of their games start late at night. And even though the Sharks seems to have things under control in their series with the Red Wings, given San Jose's playoff history (not so good)...you never know. Better watch that series, too. Every series now has some interest to it (to me), with the exception of the Bruins/Flyers series, which...whatever.

Sat 7:00p - Montréal at Pittsburgh, Game 5 (tied 2-2), Versus
Sat 10:00p - Detroit at San Jose, Game 5 (SJ 3-1), Versus
Sun 8:00p - Vancouver at Chicago, Game 5 (CHI 3-1), Versus


Golf - As said previously, I watch 5½ golf tournaments a year. Tournament #2 is this weekend: The PLAYERS Championship.

Every year when this tournament is played, the "fifth major" debate begins once again. Does The PLAYERS deserve to be a major? Is it still actually the fifth biggest tournament of the year? Personally, I don't really care about all that. There are two reasons I watch this tournament every year. One, the field is very deep and competitive, and golf is more interesting when the world's best players are playing. (And no, I'm not talking specifically about Tiger Woods.) Two, I've been to a few PLAYERS Championships over the years (it's held in the Jacksonville suburbs), and it's the only tournament I watch all year where I actually know the course they're playing. By that, I mean I could do a reasonable job drawing the course on a piece of paper from my head. (For example, here are the pars, from memory: 453444435 454344534.) I think golf is more interesting to watch when you know the "ins" and "outs" of the course. I guess I'm watching more for the venue than I am the participants. So, the less Tiger I have to endure, the better. I don't need to see him, and I don't want him to be the story. I was hoping he would miss the cut again like he did last week in Charlotte, because you just know that when he's on the course, he's going to get a disproportionate amount of coverage.

And in case you're wondering why there aren't any hockey games on NBC this weekend, this is why.

Sat 2:00p - The PLAYERS Championship, NBC
Sun 2:00p - The PLAYERS Championship, NBC


MLB - I've been quite entertained watching the Washington Nationals so far this season. They're hanging in there! I have some thoughts on some of the team's more prominent players:
- Ryan Zimmerman: Supposedly the team's best player, both offensively and defensively, but I'd have no idea if not for the attention he gets on the broadcasts and local media.
- Nyjer Morgan: Your prototypical leadoff guy, whom I think are the most entertaining to watch. Reminds me of Juan Pierre from the Marlins teams of a few years ago.
- Ian Desmond: A developing talent, which means it's only a matter of time (maybe three years or so) before he's playing for somebody else.
- Matt Capps: The Nats' closer, who just so happens to be leading the majors in saves. But since most baseball games end after 10:00 PM, I haven't actually seen him in action all that much.
- Livan Hernandez and Ivan Rodriguez: These guys are still playing? Seriously? And what are they doing with the Nationals?
- Stephen Strasburg: There has been plenty of hype, even at the national level, surrounding last year's #1 draft pick. He's not in the majors yet (he was promoted to Triple-A this week), but it's only a matter of time. Even though he has loads of potential, I can't get all that excited about a pitcher, though. Pitchers get hurt, pitchers have surgery, pitchers can easily go from 16 wins one season to 2 the next. So, we'll see if he's the real deal, or if he's just another Mark Prior. (Can you tell I've been out of baseball for a while? As far as I'm concerned, the last four MLB seasons never really happened. I know nothing about them. All I have are memories of who was good back in 2004.)

Sat 1:00p - Florida at Washington, MASN
Sat 1:00p - Baltimore at Minnesota, MASN2
(I haven't seen the Twins' new ballpark yet, so I might turn this game on just to check it out.)
Sat 3:00p - Atlanta at Philadelphia, FOX (regional)
Sat 7:00p - Toronto at Chicago White Sox, WGN America
(Speaking of which, DirecTV is supposed to start carrying WGN HD as early as this month.)
Sun 1:00p - Chicago Cubs at Cincinnati, WGN America
Sun 1:30p - Florida at Washington, MASN
Sun 1:30p - Atlanta at Philadelphia, TBS
Sun 2:00p - Baltimore at Minnesota, MASN2
Sun 8:00p - NY Yankees at Boston, ESPN

Auto racing - Darlington (site of this weekend's Nationwide and Sprint Cup races) is one of my favorite tracks, but not because it puts on particularly entertaining racing. It often doesn't, and the race is one of the longest races of the season, which means laps 50 through 250 will probably be a tad boring. I like Darlington because it's unique, challenging, and "historic". They could never build Darlington today the way they did in 1950. If they did, the drivers would complain about how awful the race track was, and the owners would eventually give in and reconfigure the track. But because the track is "historic", it's okay! I actually considered going to this year's race (Darlington is a little over two hours from home), but was never really committed to the idea. I guess the idea of being bored for three hours while we wait for the inevitable late race caution flag, then getting home at 3 or 4 in the morning after the race ended, wasn't all that appealing to me.

Meanwhile...Jeff Gordon has to win a race sooner or later, don't you think?

Formula One is also back this week. Based on what I've seen so far, Sebastian Vettel has to be the favorite for the championship. I know he's currently 5th in points, but he's had the most speed so far this season (by far); the team has just had a hard time closing the deal. Mechanical failures, poor strategy, driver error...sure seems like Vettel has given away more races than he's won over the last three seasons. They'll put it together at some point, and when they do, watch out.

As for Lewis Hamilton...why is it that his teammate Jenson Button's race strategy is always so much better than Hamilton's strategy? Doesn't seem right. Come on, McLaren - give both of your drivers a chance to win! (Yes, some of the onus goes on Hamilton, but still.)

Sat 7:30p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Darlington, FOX
Sun 8:00a - Formula One Spanish Grand Prix, SPEED

Thursday, May 06, 2010

VORTEX2

I call myself a weather geek, but compared to many of my fellow meteorological cohorts, my weather geekiness is mild at best. I don't do my own forecasting (never have, really), and my current profession really doesn't have much to do with the weather at all. I studied pollutant dispersion in grad school, and my job has to do with air quality. Booooring. (Well, I don't find it boring. It's just that air quality doesn't exactly capture the public's imagination like other weather phenomena do. It's not good blog material, and that's why I never talk about my job here.)

But when it comes to the two most interesting weather phenomena - hurricanes and tornadoes - geek me up! For example, the research project VORTEX2 - now in its second year - just started back up this past week. VORTEX2 involves a bunch of meteorologists touring the Great Plains with fancy equipment searching for tornadoes, the goal being to collect as much tornado data as possible for research purposes. Sounds like fun! Road Trips + Weather = Win!

Last year, VORTEX2 was covered in detail by the Weather Channel, and I watched Mike Bettes's on location reports on an almost daily basis. This year, I'll be doing the same, in addition to following a few VORTEX2 participants who are providing live updates on Twitter. And, when the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers comes back for another season (which I assume it will), I'll watch that, too. I eat this stuff up. And I'm not alone, either - why else would there be so much media coverage?

Makes you wonder why I studied pollutant dispersion in grad school instead of severe storms, doesn't it? If I had chosen a different research path, that could be me out there. I guess I decided early on in my academic career that I would be best served doing nerdy behind-the-scenes, computer intensive work, because that's what I'm best at. I also discovered that the "glory topics" of hurricanes and tornadoes, which tend to garner the most interest among students, didn't have as much available funding and as many open research associate positions as some of your, shall we say, "less sexy" meteorological topics. In other words, if I really wanted to study hurricanes or tornadoes in grad school, I probably would have had to remain a Teaching Assistant (TA) well beyond just my first semester. And as anyone who went to grad school knows, being a TA blows, and the sooner you can stop being a TA, the better. I guess I took the easy way out.

And, besides, it's not like I was going to stay in academia that long anyway - I decided long ago that I didn't want to stay in academia my whole life. I don't regret the decisions I've made, and my life has turned out just fine. However...when I watch the VORTEX2 coverage, I still can't help but think, "That could be me!" (Yes, I know storm chasing isn't all fun and games. It ranges from extremely dangerous to extremely boring, and you have to spend a lot of time in Oklahoma and Kansas. But still...that could be me!)

By the way, tornado chasing is a great way to add to your county map. Case in point: Jeff Frame's county map.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Curling Recap: 4/29-5/2/10

(If you're interested in my thoughts on Cinco de Mayo, here's something I wrote three years ago.)

Last week was the final "two game" week of the curling season. Amber and I have been curling as much as anyone else in the club over the last month, so...did we pass the "final exam"?

Before we get to that, let's run through the Thursday pick-up game real quick...

Thursday, April 29th

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Allen.......... 23300420 | 14
P. Hamilton.... 00011001 | 03

In the previous week's Thursday pick-up game, my team had a rather unfair advantage, as my team had two experienced curlers (Amber and me) while the other team only had one (the skip). Same deal here, for the most part. And, I once again had the privilege of playing with a good front end. Which is funny, because the folks in charge of picking teams gave Amber and me the least experienced front end of all - this was their first full game ever - to help compensate for the "Amber advantage". I forget their names (Michael, I think, and his girlfriend...darn it, I'm normally really good with this sort of thing), but they played great.

This game was six days ago, so I don't remember much about the game itself. I do know that once the game got to 8-0, I stopped employing "serious" strategy and started throwing "fun" shots (i.e. complicated take-outs). I even hit some of them, including another double take-out. Not sure if I would have tried that shot if the game was close, but...hey, this is just a pick-up game, so why not try the fun shots? These pick-up games don't really count, anyway. (Well, for my all-time stats, they do. My all-time record in pick-up games is 10-3, so evidently, I take these games more seriously than most.)

Now...Sunday's "league championship" game. Recall that last season, my team won its first three games to qualify for the league championship, and then lost big in the final. This season, our team won our first four games. Will history repeat itself? Yes.

Sunday, May 2nd

End............... 12345678 |TTL
--------------------------------
Allen............. 00000200 | 02
D. Hamilton (UNC)* 10214011 | 10

(* - There are two people named "Dave Hamilton" in the Sunday League, so to help distinguish between the two of them, I made up identifiers. This Dave happens to be a grad student at UNC, for example.)

So...you are free to start the comparisons between myself and the likes of Peyton Manning, the early 90s Buffalo Bills, and Alex Ovechkin - sports figures who can't get it done at "crunch time". This year, I have skipped 11 games, and have a 9-2 record; the only losses coming in league championship games. That sounds very Peyton Manning-like, does it not?

Let's make excuses! First off, it would make sense that the two games we are most likely to lose are the league championship games, because they come against the toughest competition. Both opponents were worthy league champions. So, this wasn't like losing to the #8 seed in the first round of the playoffs (ahem, Ovechkin). On the other hand, the combined score of these games was 18-4...but that may have more to do with my comeback strategy than perceived "chokery". More on that later.

And, besides, even though I have been playing skip a lot as of late (Sunday was my 16th game as skip), I still haven't been doing this all that long. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. I probably have no business skipping a team all the way to the league championship anyway. But I've been fortunate to play on some very good teams, and I'm proud of what my teams have been able to accomplish the last two seasons. And, we had fun, too! (Aww.) So much so, that we're planning on teaming up with Justin and Tabby again at a one-day tournament in June. (Hopefully they don't regret that decision at this point.)

Regardless, Sunday was not our team's best game. It happens. The ice was very slow (probably due to the high humidity), and it took a while for us to be able to throw it hard enough to get it all the way down the ice. Case in point: a rare blank end (no points for either team) in the 2nd! As I've discussed before, the Olympic curling strategy of "don't score one with last rock, blank the end instead and keep last rock" doesn't really apply in our games. We want the points. And I assure you, I was trying to score one with my last rock, but I left it short. It took us a very long time to adjust to the ice, and by the time we did (the 5th end, probably), we were already losing 4-0.

Now, about that 5th end. Recall that my general curling strategy is to "avoid the big end", which means avoiding take-outs if possible, in favor of getting rocks in the house. Even if the other team gets one in great position, my strategy usually isn't "take it out right now!", it's "throw one in the house to help defend against the big end, and maybe give us something we can use later". Problem was, we were already losing 4-0, so I had it in the back of my head that we had to score at least one in the 5th end, even though we didn't, really. 5-0 after 5, while not ideal, is not game over. After Erica, the other team's lead, threw one right on the button with one of her rocks, I started going for take-outs. A few missed shots later, and all of a sudden, there were four opponent rocks in the house and at least three guards (some of which were rocks that we left short) in front. We were screwed. The call on my last shot was to get it in the house and cut the other team's score down from four to two, but I left it short, and they scored their four. That was pretty much game over. (I didn't give up, though - if not for a last rock take-out by Dave in the 7th, we would have pulled to 8-4 with one end remaining, which on our ice is not an impossible situation.)

So, here's what I've learned. Once we got behind, I abandoned my usual conservative strategy - go for one or two in every end, guard it, don't throw too many take-outs, and defend against the big end. Instead, I called lots of take-outs, and tried to score big ends (lots of draws into the house) rather than protecting what we had (a couple of draws, then guards). The other team is going to hit something eventually, so you need to throw guards at some point. Most of my teams' high scoring ends have actually come that way - throw guards, and if we get lucky, those guards get bumped into the house later on. No need to panic when down 4-0; just stick with the gameplan.

I also think that the success I had throwing take-outs the last two weeks got in my head, and I forgot how difficult they can be on our ice sometimes. In that respect, playing on Thursday - and winning big - probably did not help my cause on Sunday. I would have much rather had the two Thursday pick-up games (combined score 25-4) be close, competitive games rather than easy victories. It's a lot more exciting that way, and you learn a lot more about strategy, too.

Side note: Scorekeeper Cliff was activated off injured reserve last week, so that'll be it for the player shot percentages for a while, at least for games that I'm playing in. Just as well...

This was pretty much the end of the season, so...what's next? This Friday, I'm going to come out and watch the Friday League championship game, and keep player shot percentages and everything. After that, my next scheduled game is a pick-up game on May 20th.

Thinking ahead...when it comes time for the Fall League, Amber and I will once again ask to play vice-skip and skip, respectively. I have enough experience at this point to at least hang with the "big boys", particularly when I'm teamed with Amber. (We seem to communicate well and play well together. Fancy that! Having never skipped a game without Amber, I actually don't know how well I would do with someone else. We make a good team.) However, I should note that most of the club's best skips played in the Friday League, not my Sunday League, so I haven't had to skip against many of the Triangle Curling Club's best. With that in mind, despite my 11-5 all-time record as skip, I know I stand no higher than 11th or 12th on the Triangle Curling Club skip totem pole. I still have a long way to go, but that's okay, because I have a lifetime to master the sport.