Thursday, September 30, 2010

F1 2010 (as in, the Video Game)

I rarely buy video games the week they come out. Why? Because a) they're expensive, and b) there's always a chance that the brand new game I just bought will turn out to be rubbish. I prefer to let a game's months- or years-old legacy help me decide whether it's worth my money and/or time. (I do the same thing with TV shows, actually. Speaking of which...the second episode of "The Event" was kind of disappointing, and the show's long-term future on my DVR "always record" list is uncertain.) Or, I just wait until the price goes down so much, it doesn't matter if the game blows.

So, why did I break my rule and buy F1 2010 - a simulation racing game based on Formula One - for my Xbox 360 the very week it came out? Because I love Formula One, I enjoy racing games, and it's been eight years since the last good Formula One video game came out. I got impatient.

(Side comment: F1 2010 is selling very well in Europe. In fact, I read somewhere that it even outsold "Halo: Reach" over there last week. But in North America, nobody gives a crap about Formula One, so I had to order it online. Side comment #2: I never would have thought that walmart.com would have given me both the best price and the fastest delivery out of all the online retaliers I searched, but sure enough! The game arrived in my mailbox just three days after I clicked "order now", and that was with $1 cheap-o shipping. I am normally very anti-Walmart, but I have to give credit where credit is due.)

I don't want this to sound like a video game review, so I'll keep this portion short. F1 2010 is a lot of fun, the driving especially. But the game has a few bugs and/or flaws. And thus ends the "video game review" portion of this post. Now, let's talk about racing games in general.

Isn't every simulation racing game flawed? One thing that simulation racing games - at least the ones I've played - have had a really hard time with is computer pit strategy. Often, it's too easy to "outsmart" the computer and win the race on pit strategy. It's much more fun to win the race on pure speed than by "outsmarting" a predictable computer, so I usually just use the same pit strategy as the computer cars do in order to eliminate that variable. I was hoping that with F1 2010, the AI pit strategy engine would be smart enough, and that I wouldn't be able to easily outsmart the computer. But four races into my first season, I already figured out the winning pit strategy (pit late, not early), and won two races because of it.

Another thing that simulation racing games have a hard time with is calibrating the speed of the computer-controlled cars to match human ability. In many games, I'll win the race at one track, then run 20th the next week, simply because the speed of the computer cars isn't calibrated properly between tracks. NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (still my favorite, and BY FAR my most played, video game of all time) solved this problem by introducing an automatically-adjusting AI difficulty level that varies individually at each track based on your ability. No longer would I lap the field at Atlanta and
finish 40th at Watkins Glen the next week. With NR2003, I can finish 12th everywhere! (Or, if you don't like the game-given setting, you can override the track-specific settings yourself in a text file. That's what I do. They range from 103% to 91%.) Why more simulation racing games haven't employed this feature is beyond me, especially considering NR2003 came out seven years ago. I guess most newer racing games just "punt" with respect to a solid offline experience and put most of their effort into the online multiplayer experience. (That's called taking the easy way out.) F1 2010 really tried to make the single player experience as solid as possible, and they did a good job for the most part, but like every other racing game ever created, it also suffers from AI calibration issues between tracks. And, really, it'd be nice to have more than FOUR difficulty settings. Why no percentage-based difficulty slider?

Oh, yeah, and the game is kind of easy. I started my "career" with the Lotus team, which in real life hasn't finished better than 13th in all of 2010. I have no business even finishing in the top 10, let alone winning a race or two, with this team; yet on the "Hard" difficulty setting*, I'm currently leading the championship standings. I won't give myself too much credit, though, because I'm a sissy and race with most driving aids (traction control, anti-lock brakes, etc) on. That, and the general message board consensus is that the AI is too easy to beat.

There are more issues with the game (not enough stat tracking for my liking, a little more customization would be nice, and a few bugs ranging from minor to "how the hell did this pass their quality assurance checks?"), but I don't want to dwell on the negatives too much. The fact is, the driving is a lot of fun, and it's quite an adrenaline rush. I've missed that. Weee! I fully intend on completing my seven-season driving career on "Hard" difficulty (my goals are to win 75 out of 133 career races, and 5 out of 7 driving championships). After that, I'll probably start over and do it again, except likely on "Expert" difficulty, where I'll probably only win, say, 25 races and 2 driving championships.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Downsizing at the Tropicana Factory

A couple of years ago, Sunshine started selling Cheez-Its in slightly smaller boxes, kept the price the same, and hoped you wouldn't notice. Now, Tropicana is doing the same thing with its orange juice. A "half-gallon" of Tropicana orange juice is no longer a half-gallon (64 fluid ounces). Now, cartons only contain 59 fluid ounces of orange juice. The outrage!


I don't look at the fine print on the bottom of the carton every time I buy orange juice, of course. So how did this orange juice tomfoolery come to light? Well, here's the carton for the competing Kroger-brand "premium orange juice", complete with a not-so-subtle jab at one of its competitors:


The gig is up, Tropicana. From now on, it's Kroger-brand orange juice for me! At least, until they start doing the same thing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Captain's Choice" Golf

A few weeks ago, Amber came to me with a proposition. "Hey, Chris!" (Note that these aren't direct quotes. I'm using quotation marks for dramatic effect.) "My company is having a golf tournament in a few weeks. Want to play? I'm even thinking of playing!"

Now...normally when I think "company golf tournament", I'm thinking of a bunch of corporate well-to-do 40-somethings who play golf regularly, take the game very seriously, and insist on placing large bets on even the most trivial of things throughout the round. If we'd be playing with a bunch of "golf snobs" (as I call them), then I'd want no part of this company golf tournament. Fortunately, this would be a mostly younger crowd that doesn't take golf as seriously (for the most part). On top of that, the format would be beginner-friendly, so I wouldn't have to worry about finishing, say, 35 strokes behind. Sign me up!

I used to play golf a lot. My golf interest and skill peaked several years ago while in grad school. Back then, I had a full student membership at the Penn State course and played once or twice a week. I consistently shot in the 90s, and my golfing career culminated with career-low 78 in July 2005 (including a front-nine 34!). Then, I started working 40 hours a week, and decided continuing an interest in golf wasn't worth the time commitment. As a result, I haven't played a full round of golf in over three years.

Fortunately for me, the tournament format was ideal for someone who hadn't played in a while. It was something called "Captain's Choice" or a "Four-Player Scramble": on each hole, each team of four players tees off, the group decides which of the four drives was best, all four players take their "second shot" from the approximate spot where the best drive landed, the group decides which "second shot" was best, and so on. (There were a few other quirky rules, but they're not really important.) So, if I hit my drive into the woods or into the water - which I did plenty of times during the tournament - who cares? That's what my teammates are for! I figured I'd hit a good shot every once in a while, and that would make it worth my while. Just to make sure, and to ease my fears that I had completely forgotten how to hit a golf ball, I went to a driving range 10 days before the tournament to "warm up".

Is playing "Captain's Choice" golf like real golf? Uh, no. In fact, I think it's less fun. Part of the golfing experience is recovering from a bad shot. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it can also be very rewarding. But in "Captain's Choice" golf, there is no scrambling. Every now and then, everyone on the team will drive it into the rough or miss the green, but a shot from the light rough was as close to a "challenge" as we got all day. Did we ever have to hit out of the woods? Nope. Did we ever have to hit it out of the sand trap? Nope. Boooooring. Sure, it was fun to post a bogey-free round of 66, but that's not real golf.

On my team, we had Amber (who actually made a decent contribution despite her almost-nil golfing experience), and two serious golfers. (I was hoping my teammates would tilt more towards the "young" crowd rather than the "golf snob" crowd, but that's my fault for understating my ability and experience level.) Our team was actually tailored pretty well for the "Captain's Choice" format: the two serious golfers would hit it 250 to 300 years off the tee (I can only hit it 200-225, and usually not in the fairway), then I'd hit a short iron onto the green (short irons were undoubtedly my strength), then we'd all miss the putt for birdie. And when we all hit our drive into the woods or rough, we'd take Amber's 100-yard drive from the ladies tee down the center of the fairway.

I was impressed at how little my golfing skill had dropped off Of course, my short game was rarely tested, and I think that's what you lose the most by not playing: touch. My lack of driving accuracy - which was never good to begin with, and now is even worse - also didn't matter. But short irons and approach shots? Oh yes - I can still hit those. In fact, I won the "closest to the pin" competition on three of the four par 3s, beating 15 other golfers each time. Shoot, I even won some prizes: 9 golf balls (3 for each "closest to the pin") and three bags of golf tees. (Hey, Dad - want some tees?)

Problem is, now all of Amber's co-workers think I'm a really good golfer, purely based my excellent performance on the par 3s. But they didn't see my drives. If I played the round like a "real round", by myself, I estimate my score would have been in the 105 to 110 range. Sure, I would have had a birdie on the par 3 10th, but I would have also had to hit 3 and 4-irons with my second shots instead of 8 and 9-irons, if I was even lucky enough to hit my drive onto the fairway, which usually, I wasn't.

So, was this enough to get me interested in golf again? Am I going to start playing every week now? ... Nope. For one thing, it took us just over FIVE HOURS to play 18 holes, and that's way too long. I've played 36 holes in less time than that. I also spent more time than I'd like to admit looking for my ball, often unsuccessfully. But I did learn that I can at least not embarrass myself only playing occasionally. Maybe I'll even bring the clubs down to Florida for Thanksgiving and New Year's this year.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Curling Recap: 9/24/10

In an effort to "be nice" and "not gloat", I'm going to try and keep it brief this week.

Career game #105: Fall League Week 2 - September 24, 2010
(Our team = Scheck)

End........ 1234567 |TTL
------------------------
Collins.... 0000000 | 00
Scheck..... 5113222 | 16

Would-be opposing Skip Rich C. was on vacation last week, and the resulting shuffling around of the other team's roster gave us a pretty solid (read: unfair) advantage in experience. In some sports, you can make up for a lack of experience with athleticism or "raw ability", but not in a feel-based sport like curling. On top of that, we played really well (Amber especially). But...I felt kind of bad. We do want our new curlers to come back next season, right?

So, I don't want to dwell on this game too much, but I can't help but talk stats. This was my second career shutout victory (minimum 6 ends), my largest career margin of victory (win or loss), and my highest career point total. All of those also apply to Amber except for the highest career point total; she was on the winning side of a 17-4 game a few years back.

Moving on...as you may know, whether it's curling, kickball, or whatever, I'm usually a bit pessimistic about our chances before each game. That attitude helps me get in the right mindset, the mindset being that I need to play my best in order to win. I guess it's more psychology than it is real, actual pessimism. (Well...with kickball, it is actual pessimism. We truly stink.)

Given the situation going into the game, I couldn't really convince myself that we were the underdog last Friday. Next week, however, it's a different story. Our team's Skip Dan can't make it this coming week, meaning I'll play Skip in the next game. While I do have a good career record as Skip (15-6), I normally lose when I skip against the prestigious Friday League "big guns". And, this will be our fourth consecutive Friday night of curling, which based on experience is normally when we start to tail off, especially compared to the rest of the club, who is no doubt up to full song by this point in the season. So, we're going to lose. I'm sure of it.

Psychology, pessimism, or both? You decide.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sports Saturday: 9/25/10

In today's issue:
- College football: Fans of the Big Ten might as well find something better to do today.
- NFL: The Jaguars play the Eagles this week. As a Jaguars fan, would I rather face Michael Vick or Kevin Kolb? Hmm...
- Auto racing: Despite the 150-point penalty, does Clint Bowyer deserve to keep last Sunday's win? Sure!
- NHL: Are preseason games worth watching? Nah.

College football - The last weekend in September is, traditionally, the least interesting weekend of the college football season. Nowhere is this more true than in the Big Ten. The Big Ten begins conference play next weekend, making this weekend basically their last "preseason game". So who are the Big Ten's 11 teams playing against this weekend? Temple, Ball State, Bowling Green, Toledo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Northern Colorado, Akron, Austin Peay, and Bye Week. Not a single "BCS conference"* opponent in the bunch. Oh, and did I mention all of those games are home games?

(* - I've noticed that ESPN is now using the term "AQ conference", where AQ = automatic qualifier, to refer to the six major conferences whose conference champions automatically qualify for a BCS bowl game. I guess they're trying to get away from the term "BCS conference".)

Because of this, I'm choosing to ignore the Big Ten this weekend. You won't find any Big Ten games on the schedule below. Unless it's close late, I don't even plan on watching the Penn State game. I'm not saying the Big Ten is a lock to go 10-0 this weekend. But if Northern Illinois beats Minnesota, for example (which is entirely possible)...meh. The Big Ten will return next week, when they start actually playing real games.

But while the Big Ten is taking the weekend off, there are still some interesting games today. Let's have a looksee! (For a complete college football TV schedule, go to lsufootball.net or the506.com.)

Sat 12:00p - NC State at Georgia Tech, ESPN: You know me and my ACC crap-fests! Seriously, though, this is a big game for NC State. They're one of only two ACC teams that hasn't lost yet. Safe to say NC State will probably lose a couple this year.
Sat 12:00p - Virginia Tech at Boston College, WRAL (ACC Network): The other still-undefeated ACC team? Boston College. Does anyone care? Nope.
Sat 12:00p - Florida International at Maryland, ESPNU: You know it's a slow week when this game is on television. In fact, this is it for the early time slot. What's next?
Sat 3:30p - Wake Forest at Florida State, ABC: HUGE game for the Seminoles. They've had some trouble with Wake over the last decade. If they're a serious threat to win the ACC, this is a game they have to win.
Sat 3:30p - Alabama at Arkansas, CBS: One or two SEC games per week is enough for me. How about this one?
Sat 3:30p - Stanford at Notre Dame, NBC: If Notre Dame loses this game, too, then I think they can forget about salvaging this season.
Sat 3:30p - North Carolina at Rutgers, ESPNU: The ACC's troubles in non-conference games have been well-documented. But fortunately for the ACC, there's always the Big East. According to my count, the ACC has a winning record against the Big East so far this season (2-1).
Sat 6:00p - Nevada at BYU, the mtn.: Since there are so few games of interest this weekend, I'm breaking my usual rules and adding a couple of extra games that I normally wouldn't pay attention to. Like this one, which I find oddly compelling.
Sat 7:00p - Western Kentucky at South Florida, MASN: USF's quarterback, B.J. Daniels, isn't very good. That is all.
Sat 7:45p - South Carolina at Auburn, ESPN: The other SEC game I'm going to pay attention to today.
Sat 8:00p - Oregon State at Boise State, ABC: Another game that I normally wouldn't put on the list, but come on...it's Boise State! Against a team that might actually be able to hang with them! For at least one half, anyway.

NFL - So, the Jacksonville Jaguars pretty much fell flat on their collective face last weekend. Oh well - it happens.

This week, they'll no doubt be overshadowed by the opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. Being an NFC East team, the Eagles get enough hype as it is, but especially this week now that Michael Vick has been declared the starter. As a Jaguars fan, being overshadowed by the opponent is nothing new. I'm used to it. If the Jaguars win, the story will be "Eagles lose, Vick stinks, who did they play again?" If the Jaguars lose, the story will be "Eagles win, Vick is awesome, lots of empty seats in Jacksonville, AGAIN (regardless of how many empty seats there actually are on Sunday, and independent of the fact that Sunday's game, like the season opener, will not be blacked out)".

But as a Jaguars fan, would I rather face Michael Vick or now second string QB Kevin Kolb? I'm tempted to say Kolb, but...here's the thing. The Jaguars' biggest weakness thus far this season has been the secondary, and logic would seem to suggest that a traditional pocket passer (Kolb) would be better at exploiting that weakness than an occasionally running quarterback (Vick). But either way, Vick's criminal history is a good reason not to like him. Shoot, because of his dog killing, he's one of the few NFL players Amber has actually heard of. Boooooo!

Anyway, here's my prediction. The Jaguars' secondary will allow Vick to put up some big passing numbers, prompting the national media to say "Vick has changed, he's a much better passer than he used to be, empty seats blackouts Los Angeles blah blah blah", only for Vick to fall flat on his face when he plays a team with a good, or even average, pass defense.

Sun 1:00p - Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, DirecTV 708: The Bucs are 2-0! Yeah! Sure, those wins came against the always-bad Browns and the apparently-now-bad Panthers, but still. Now's their chance. I'll be pulling hard for them, especially given who the opponent is.
Sun 1:00p - Dallas at Houston, DirecTV 709: Another game featuring a 2-0 team with a small fan base up against a team with a very strong national following (and whom I don't particularly care for). Let's go Texans!
Sun 1:00p - Buffalo at New England, DirecTV 706: Yeah...not real high on the Bills' chances here.
Sun 1:00p - Cleveland at Baltimore, DirecTV 704: From Amber's perspective, there's a lot to like about the Browns: their colors are Brown and Orange (Amber's favorites!), they're called the "Browns" (Amber likes humble nicknames), they play in Ohio (Amber's home state), their logo is a helmet (again with the humility), and they stink (Amber likes rooting for bad teams because it's more rewarding when they finally do win, which is kind of how I feel also). I admit, I'm warming up to them too. Let's go Browns!
Sun 1:00p - Atlanta at New Orleans, DirecTV 712: The Saints' first Sunday game of the season. Definitely a headliner.
Sun 1:00p - Cincinnati at Carolina, WRAL 5: Five games at once is pretty much the most I can try to follow at one time, so these last four? Meh.
Sun 1:00p - Tennessee at NY Giants, DirecTV 707
Sun 1:00p - Detroit at Minnesota, DirecTV 711
Sun 1:00p - San Francisco at Kansas City, DirecTV 710
Sun 4:05p - Philadelphia at Jacksonville, DirecTV 713: In all honesty, this is the only late game I'm going to be paying much attention to today. I'm considering watching it DVR-style.
Sun 4:15p - Indianapolis at Denver, DirecTV 716: I'll root for the Broncos here.
Sun 4:15p - San Diego at Seattle, WRAL 5: The rest of the East Coast is getting Indianapolis at Denver. Why is this game being being televised locally here? I assume because of OMG PHILIP RIVERS BEST NC STATE PLAYER EVER. But last week's Chargers game against the Jaguars - also the second half of a CBS doubleheader - was not televised locally, of course. This is the kind of thing that would drive me nuts if I didn't have NFL Sunday Ticket.
Sun 4:05p - Washington at St. Louis, WRAZ 50: Actually, the reason OMG PHILIP RIVERS BEST NC STATE PLAYER EVER didn't get local airtime last weekend is because they were up against the Redskins, who it appears are still the #2 team around these parts.
Sun 4:15p - Oakland at Arizona, DirecTV 715
Sun 8:20p - NY Jets at Miami, NBC

Auto racing: I devoted exactly one hour to NASCAR last weekend: the last hour of the Sprint Cup race. I think it was time well spent. I don't feel like I missed anything by skipping the first 200 laps.

So...yeah. Clint Bowyer won the race, then mid-week, was deemed to have an illegal car (barely) and was penalized 150 points. But he gets to keep the win and the trophy. Does that seem fair? Maybe not, but I like the way NASCAR handles these things. I feel like I've talked about this before - more than once, most likely - but I don't like it when series like Formula One change the results of races after the fact. When I turn the TV off, I like knowing that the person I saw win the race is the real, actual, winner.

But still...is it fair? I think so. I'm pretty sure every team in the "Chase for the Cup" would say the 150-point penalty offsets the fact that they won the race, and that it isn't worth sustaining such a large point and financial penalty just to take home the trophy. Teams that are outside the "Chase" may feel differently, but I don't think Bowyer got much of an advantage from...whatever the penalty was levied for. I don't even know the specifics, other than the car didn't fit the template, or was too high or too low after the race, or something. Whatever. I just like to watch the races.

Meanwhile, in Formula One...Lewis Hamilton had another one of his patented WTF moments last race, driving too aggressively on the first lap and crashing his car. He never seems to crash in the middle of the race. Seems like it's always at the very beginning or the very end. WTF, Lewis? Meanwhile, there are still five drivers in the hunt for the drivers' championship, and Sebastian Vettel is still my pick. I mean, I might as well stick with him.

Sun 8:00a - Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, SPEED
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Dover, ESPN

NHL: Tuesday night, I happened to notice that there was an NHL preseason game on TV. Yeah! Hockey's back! Sort of.

My general take on preseason games is this: I'll turn it on for a few minutes just to get a "taste", but I can't get into these games. I'll watch my team in the preseason to get a preview and to see some of the younger guys battle it out for the last few roster spots, but beyond that, I generally just skip out on the preseason. I'll be watching plenty of hockey over the next few months. I don't want to fill up on breadsticks and salad before the steak gets here.

So...are there any NHL preseason games on TV this weekend? I don't know, and I don't feel like looking.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Route

The word "route" has two accepted pronunciations: root, and rout. Both are correct. But which one do you use?

Personally, I've been rout most of my life, but I'm trying to convert myself to root because I think it sounds more Canadian.

I was curious how the standard pronunciation for "route" varied by region, so I found this map. It looks like root is more common in the Northeast, and rout is more common in the rest of the country. Preference for rout in the rest of the country is not as strong as the preference for root in the Northeast, however. I was hoping that the regional division would be as clear-cut as the old Pop/Soda debate, but it appears people don't feel as strongly about the pronunciation of the word "route" as they do the name of a carbonated beverage. That's too bad.

Actually...I take that back. I like that both pronunciations of "route" are generally accepted anywhere you go. There's enough disagreement in the world as it is; surely the last thing we need is yet another thing to argue over, right? I'm still trying to convert myself to the more Canadian-sounding pronunciation, though.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Event

(This post doesn't contain any spoilers, so if you're planning on watching the series premiere of "The Event" but haven't yet, you're safe. That is, unless you're like me and like to watch these shows with NO prior knowledge whatsoever.)

I've been talking about life after "Lost" and "24", and our quest to find suitable replacements for those shows in our television lineup, for months now. Turns out at least one show is trying very hard - perhaps a little too hard, in fact - to fill that void: NBC's "The Event", which debuted on Monday.

Going in, I didn't know a whole lot about what "The Event" would be. All I knew is that based on advertisements, they were clearly going after the "Lost" and/or "24" crowd. (Well, it worked!) Amber's prediction for the plot was that a smoke monster would have 24 hours to...

While Amber's silly prediction didn't pan out, indeed they are blatantly trying to be "Lost" and "24" rolled into one. The show started by showing the time...sort of like "24". There's a black president, and an apparent terrorist plot to assassinate him...just like the first season of "24". (I mean, exactly like the first season of "24".) Shoot, the credits for "The Event" even use the same exact font that "24" used for its credits. But unlike "24", this show will include some minor sci-fi elements...like "Lost". Apparently, this show will be more character-driven, with some characters' backstories revealed through flashbacks...like "Lost". And each episode (or at least the premiere) ends abruptly with a quick screen shot displaying the name of the show...just like every episode of "Lost". (Well, it's not exactly the same: "The Event" closing title shot is black text on a white background; with one exception, "Lost" always ended with white text on a black background. So...it's different, but it's the same.)

Given the popularity of "Lost" and "24", looking to them for inspriation isn't a bad idea, especially because both shows are now off the air. But do they really have to be so blatant about it?

And you see...here's the thing. "Lost" and "24" were cultural phenomenons with strong cult followings. Some people had nothing better to do than dissect every second of "Lost" footage or count how many people Jack Bauer has killed. I don't know if the creators of "Lost" or "24" intended for their shows to be such cult hits from the beginning, but if they did, they got lucky. Most of the time, it doesn't work out. You can't plan for your show to be a cult hit. It just happens. If you try too hard, you'll almost always fail. That's the vibe I'm getting from "The Event". I think they're trying too hard to be "big". Hopefully they don't sap all the life out of the series in the first six episodes.

Really, it comes down to this: as long as the writing is sound, the characters and actions are believeable (within the framework of the show), and the show is entertaining and exciting, everything will work out just fine. When things start moving too slowly, or we find ourselves saying "well, that's stupid" every five minutes, then we're in trouble. Personally, I think the "expected value" or "over/under" for "The Event" is a lifespan similar to "Heroes" (which I never watched): a good first season, followed by a failed second season, followed by two more seasons that hardly anybody watched or cared about. But it could go anywhere from a first season failure to an eight season success. We'll have to see.

The pilot episode had its flaws, and there were a couple of "well, that's stupid" moments. But Amber and I both found the plot interesting and entertaining enough, and I admit I'm very intrigued, so we're going to stick with it for a while. "The Event" has a lot of potential, and I really hope its potential is realized. But I'm trying to keep my expectations low in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Curling Recap: 9/17/10

It's the official start of the Triangle Curling Club Fall League! Yippee! As I said last week, I'm back to playing Vice (Third) this season, and I think we have a chance to go all the way.

Career game #104: Fall League Week 1 - September 17, 2010
(our team: Scheck)

End........ 12345678 |TTL
-------------------------
Scheck..... 01022211 | 09
Kato....... 20200000 | 04

This was my first game playing as a Vice-skip - of any kind - since April, so I kind of forgot some of the Vice's responsibilities. For example, it's up to the Vices from each team to come to a consensus on the score after each end. After the first end, I kind of forgot about that and just started clearing rocks away. Whoops! (For those curious - if the Vices can't agree which of two or three rocks is closest, then you measure. I don't have official numbers - I don't keep track of everything, you know - but I'd say we average one measurement every three games.)

Playing Vice rather than Skip also meant sweeping (which can be fun), not really paying attention to the strategy, and being free to concentrate strictly on my shot-making, which I thought was pretty good from the 4th end on. I was concerned about my draw weight after last week's pickup game, but I had it this time.

So...the game. The ice was tricky - as usual - which meant very few take-outs were attempted or made. Since most rocks generally followed the same line, there were also quite a few instances where one team promoted another team's rocks into the house. Mostly, that went in our favor. This was the type of game where it was imperative to get in the house early in the end, which seems to be the case in most Triangle Curling Club matches. Get in the house early, clog the guard area, and watch them hit your guards in. And that's how it's done.

That is not how it is done on dedicated ice, though. I'm getting a chance to skip in a bonspiel on dedicated ice in a few weeks, so I'll talk more about real curling strategy later. In the meantime, I'm quite content letting someone else with much more experience do the skipping for me. Now that I have a few games as Skip under my belt, I think I'm now in a better position to learn from another Skip. So, that'll be the plan this season. Act like a sponge!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Allen Wrenches

I've quickly learned that no home tool kit is complete without a set of Allen wrenches. But I've decided that I don't like them. I don't like that they bear my name, either. (By the way, Allen wrenches were not invented by a guy named Allen, at least according to Wikipedia.)

What's my beef? My biggest beef is this: why do there need to be so many different sizes? In order to have a "complete" set of Allen wrenches, you need, like, 20 different wrenches. I use Allen wrenches most frequently with my bicycle, and the set of 12 we had wasn't even enough for that, because one of the hex sockets was a metric-sized socket (measured in tenths of millimeters) rather than an American-sized socket (measured in 64ths of inches). Ugh. And why must botg a 5/32-inch wrench and a 9/64-inch wrench be considered "standard"? Why don't the makers of the sockets just stick with 1/32-inch incremements, or even 1/16-inch increments? Is the functionality of the screw (or bolt or whatever) really going to be that much worse if the size of the socket is 1/64th of an inch bigger or smaller? I think we could seriously consolidate the number of "standard" sizes here. There is too much precision.

And why do Allen wrenches even exist in the first place? I'm no engineer, but there must be a reason why a hex is a better fastener option than the more common and more flexible (in terms of the tools required to tighten or loosen them) flat or Phillips head screws, right? Why not just use Phillips head screws for everything? Maybe someone can explain. Or, maybe it's just a conspiracy by the manufacturers of such tools to require us, the consumer, to have to buy more of them.

Or, maybe this is just the sort of thing that wasn't standardized that well from the beginning, and because of that, now we have a mess on our hands that we can't really fix at this point. You usually can't just buy one Allen wrench; you need to buy a whole set. And for a set to be a whole set, you need to include wrenches sized to hit all of those unnecessarily obscure and over-precise sizes, because they do exist, and without them, your set won't be complete. And as long as these obscure sizes are included as part of a standard Allen wrench set, there's really no incentive for manufacturers to stick with 1/16-inch or 1/32-inch increments. As long as 9/64-inch sockets are sold alongside 5/32-inch sockets, from the manufacturer's perspective, why not use them? So, we're stuck.

Unless we just do away with Allen wrenches altogether, that is. But of course, the consumer has no power here. As long as manufacturers continue to use hex sockets, we'll need Allen wrenches, whether we like it or not. Conspiracy!

(Yes, I know this post is absolutely ridiculous, and that I'm fighting a losing battle. I don't really care that much. I just didn't feel like writing about sports or curling today. Curling tomorrow, though. Or Wednesday.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sports Saturday: 9/18/10

In today's issue: college and pro football (surprise!), and just for fun, NASCAR.

College football - Going into last Saturday's games, it was already kind of in the back in my mind that last week's games probably wouldn't go too well for me:
- Penn State? Blowout loss on the road to heavily favored Alabama. Not real surprising.
- Florida State? Blowout loss on the road to somewhat favored Oklahoma. Going into the game, I kind of forgot how awful the defense was last year. Looks like 2010 is picking up right where 2009 left off, new head coach or not.
- The rest of the ACC? Sucks as usual. Although to be fair, most of the ACC's losses were on the road to favored teams. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, has no excuse. Georgia Tech also should have won. But still, the perception is that the ACC sucks at football. And in college football, perception can be more important than results, especially as it pertains to which games get shown on television (more below).
- Notre Dame? I don't always root for them (sorry Amber), but against Michigan, I most certainly do. That didn't work out, either.
- I never expected South Florida at Florida to pan out, but...sure, I'll add it to the list of misfortune. But hey, at least Utah won! Woo.

The schedule gets a little easier for Penn State and Florida State this week. They are favored in both games, but I don't think either game is a guaranteed win. All either team has on its resume so far this year is a win over an FCS/I-AA team and a loss to a top 10 team. Can either team contend for the conference title, or will they struggle for bowl eligibility? We don't have enough data points to know yet, and I think both scenarios are equally likely at this point in the season. But this week's games against Kent State and BYU, respectively, should give us a good idea.

Now...about that "which games get shown on television" point. Over the last couple of years, ESPN has resorted to showing many ACC games only on ESPN3.com, reserving much of their Saturday programming for important SEC matchups such as Mississippi State v. Vanderbilt. We all know why things are that way, of course: because the ACC craps the bed in football every year, and nobody really cares about Maryland v. Virginia, anyway.

"But Chris! Why don't you just watch your beloved ACC crap-fests on ESPN3.com? You get your internet through Time Warner, right? Didn't Time Warner agree to start carrying ESPN3.com a couple of weeks ago?" Well...yes and no. Yes, Time Warner and ABC/ESPN did ink a new carriage agreement two weeks ago, and it includes ESPN3.com. But is ESPN3.com available to Time Warner customers yet? Nope. They're still working on it. But even once they're done "working on it", I think I'm still out of luck. I've read from multiple sources that only people who subscribe to cable television through Time Warner will be able to access ESPN3.com through Time Warner's broadband service. I hope I'm wrong on that, but given that this is Time Warner, the worst cable company ever (even surpassing Comcast, or Xfinity, or whatever the hell they want to be called now), it wouldn't surprise me. They are truly evil.

So, in short...I still don't have access to ESPN3.com, nor do I expect to get it. But I don't need East Carolina/Virginia Tech or Nebraska/Washington in order to enjoy my Saturday, right? Let's see...

Sat 12:00p - Kent State at Penn State, ESPN2: Like I said above, I don't think this game is a gimme.
Sat 12:00p - Maryland at West Virginia: ESPNU: Another case of the ACC "crapping the bed"? Most likely, but hopefully not. Besides, the Big East is the one BCS conference the ACC can actually compete with, right? Case in point: NC State 30, Cincinnati 19. Boo-yah!
Sat 12:00p - Georgia Tech at North Carolina, WRAL (ACC Network): Yep. I love my ACC football.
Sat 12:00p - Ohio at Ohio State, Big Ten Network: These teams played a couple of years ago and the game was surprisingly close. Can lightning strike twice?
Sat 12:00p - Northern Illinois at Illinois, Big Ten Network: Hey, at least some of these Big Ten teams are actually playing FBS/I-A opponents this week. I'll put those Big Ten games on this list, but not games against FCS/I-AA opponents (e.g. UMass at Michigan).
Sat 12:00p - Ball State at Purdue, Big Ten Network: These MAC v. Big Ten games - there are four of them today - can actually be quite interesting. Sometimes.
Sat 3:30p - BYU at Florida State, ESPNU: FSU is favored, but I'm still nervous about this one.
Sat 3:30p - Alabama at Duke, ABC (regional): Why is Alabama playing a game at Duke? Seems kind of weird.
Sat 3:30p - Florida at Tennessee, CBS
Sat 3:30p - USC at Minnesota, ESPN
Sat 3:30p - Arizona State at Wisconsin, ESPN2
Sat 5:00p - Indiana at Western Kentucky, Big Ten Network: Western Kentucky is a I-A team, right?
Sat 7:00p - Clemson at Auburn, ESPN: Most likely, another dent in the ACC's armor. And why does it seem like all of these ACC/SEC games are played in SEC stadiums? No wonder they always win! (Alabama at Duke doesn't count.)
Sat 8:00p - Notre Dame at Michigan State, ESPN2: Who has the upper hand in this year's "Mom v. Wife" grudge match? Beats me. Actually, I can't say I have any idea who's going to win any of these games, given where I stand with my Dirty Dawg college football picks so far this year.
Sat 8:00p - Utah at New Mexico, the mtn.: Wait...New Mexico is the team that lost by 72 to Oregon, right? Better tune in early, then. (And yes, I have been getting "the mtn." games in HD so far this year. Woo!)
Sat 8:00p - Boise State at Wyoming, CBS College: This game doesn't fit my criteria for what goes on the list, but I find it strangely compelling. I might need something to switch to during the commercials, anyway.
Sat 10:30p - Iowa at Arizona, ESPN: Bed time.
Sat 11:15p - Wake Forest at Stanford, ESPN2: Double bed time.

NFL - How did my first full weekend with NFL Sunday Ticket pan out? There was some good and bad. The good: I got to watch both the Jaguars win and the Colts lose. Yay! The bad: the late time slot wasn't great. Two of the three games were blowouts, and the third - Cardinals at Rams - was really tough to watch. It seemed like there was a penalty in, like, every freaking play in that game. Plus, it was the Cardinals and the Rams. And, I made the mistake of watching an hour of pre-game, which emptied my tank a little sooner than it would have if I had kept the TV off until 1:00.

That's the thing with NFL Sunday Ticket: in order to get my money's worth, it almost feels like an obligation to keep watching. The jury is still out on whether I think it's worth the money. I don't think watching the Jaguars alone is worth $315, so the question is whether I can get enough enjoyment out of it when the Jaguars aren't playing. The next three weeks will be a good indication of that, since the Jaguars play at 4:00 PM each of the next three Sundays.

On another note, I found that in order to avoid commercials, I sometimes needed to go five games deep in my rotation. NFL games have a lot of commercial breaks, but at least they're short (less than two minutes each). So, yes, I do feel it's necessary to list every game. I'll probably need them all.

In priority order by time slot:

Sun 1:00p - Buffalo at Green Bay, DirecTV 706
Sun 1:00p - Philadelphia at Detroit, DirecTV 712
Sun 1:00p - Tampa Bay at Carolina, WRAZ 50
Sun 1:00p - Miami at Minnesota, DirecTV 707
Sun 1:00p - Kansas City at Cleveland, DirecTV 705
Sun 1:00p - Baltimore at Cincinnati, DirecTV 704
Sun 1:00p - Chicago at Dallas, DirecTV 711
Sun 1:00p - Arizona at Atlanta, DirecTV 709
Sun 1:00p - Pittsburgh at Tennessee, WRAL 5
Sun 4:15p - Jacksonville at San Diego, DirecTV 716
Sun 4:15p - Houston at Washington, WRAL 5
Sun 4:15p - New England at NY Jets, DirecTV 715
Sun 4:05p - Seattle at Denver, DirecTV 713:
Sun 4:05p - St. Louis at Oakland, DirecTV 714
Sun 8:20p - NY Giants at Indianapolis, NBC

Auto racing - It's time for NASCAR's Chase For The Sprint Cup! Do I care? Kind of.

NFL games are, of course, the priority. But the nice thing is that an NFL broadcast will not give away the outcome of the NASCAR race, so I can record the NASCAR race and watch the last hour or so of it later. Since all NASCAR races from here on out are on ESPN or ABC, the opposite will certainly not be true.

The "Chase" is in its 7th year. Since it's no longer new, I think the general attitude among fans towards the "Chase" at this point is, "meh". Is it time to scrap it? Of course not - you know they're not going to. But the fact is, I don't need a gimmicky points system as long as the racing itself is interesting. The racing itself is what makes NASCAR, not the points system. The points system is just there to hold the season together and to declare a champion. It doesn't make the racing itself any better; drivers will race hard for the win whether there are points involved or not. In fact, a points system like NASCAR's, which rewards consistency above winning, might make the racing worse by encouraging a conservative strategy and discouraging "going for it". That's one reason why I think the best races of the season are the last five races before the "Chase" starts.

By the way, for the rest of the season, NASCAR Nationwide and Truck series races will no longer make my lists. I've basically tuned those series out. IndyCar (which has been surprisingly good lately) and Formula One, however, will still be listed.

Sat 11:00p - IndyCar at Motegi, Versus
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at New Hampshire, ESPN

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pretzels

I got a few responses from my solicitation of blog post ideas: our cat Rolo, the blog itself, and pretzels. Pretzels it is! (By the way, I've written about the cat before, although that post was more about pets in general than Rolo specifically. The most interesting thing about that post was the rather harsh comment by someone named "April". Did my ex-girlfriend April actually leave that comment herself, or was it an imposter? I think some mysteries are better left unsolved.)

So, yeah...pretzels. I eat them, and I enjoy them.

Oh, you want more? Okay. :) I estimate that Amber and I, between the two of us, go through between two and three pounds of pretzels per month. The national per person average, according to Wikipedia, is 1.5 pounds of pretzels per year. I guess that makes us above-average pretzel eaters. And then some!

Pretzels come in many shapes, sizes, and varieties, of course. And, really, they're all good. Soft pretzels? Yum! I get one almost every time I go to a baseball game. Sourdough pretzels? Yum! I rarely eat sourdough pretzels, though, because it doesn't seem worth the calorie intake. (I think typical sourdough hard pretzels have something like 80 calories each pretzel.) But while I highly enjoy both of those varieties, the vast majority of pretzels I eat are the traditional thin kind.

But even then, there are still many different varieties to choose from. Mini-twists? Large twists? Thin sticks? The waffle kind (i.e. snaps)? However do we choose? I've eaten plenty of all four of those varieties, and I'll buy any of the four at the store depending on my mood. But I think I buy the thin sticks most often, followed by the mini-twists, snaps, and large twists. I tend to get the most mileage out of a bag of sticks. Since indivdual pieces are thin and small, a pound of think sticks takes longer to eat than a pound of any of the other varieties. And I think that's the best thing with pretzels: they have a low calorie-per-minute ratio is low. (As in, it takes longer to consume X number of calories while eating pretzels than it does eating, say, cookies.) I can spend 15 minutes eating pretzels and not really feel like I pigged out. 15 minutes of chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand...not so much.

Let's talk brands. Rold Gold is the most prominent pretzel brand, but I don't like them. I think people just eat Rold Gold pretzels because they're available practically everywhere. Quite frankly, I don't think they're that good. And yet, they have a significant market share. I think the reason Rold Gold has such a large market share is because they're part of snack conglomerate Frito-Lay, not because the pretzels themselves are good. I have to wonder if Frito-Lay's retailing contracts go something like this: "Sure, you can sell our more popular snacks - Lays, Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, Ruffles, Tostitos, and so on - but only if you also agree to sell our crappy pretzels!"

Some places I've been, Rold Gold pretzels were the only pretzels available - for instance, in Canada. We've had a lot of trouble during our Canadian road trips finding non-Rold Gold pretzels. Pretzels must not be as big a thing in Canada as they are in the United States.

I admit I haven't sampled all that many different pretzel brands, but my favorite pretzel brand is Snyder's of Hanover. Pretzels are a type of food where you can get away with the generic brand, and Kroger pretzels are certainly good enough, but I think Snyder's pretzels are worth the extra money. Amber, on the other hand, actually prefers Kroger brand pretzels over Snyder's of Hanover due to the salt content. Snyder's of Hanover pretzels don't have a whole lot of salt. They have just enough. The pretzels themselves taste good enough, they don't need salt. Kroger's pretzels, on the other hand, probably wouldn't taste as good if not for all that salt. They probably use salt as a masking agent.

Hmm...I think I'll go have some Snyder's of Hanover pretzels right now!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Curling Recap: 9/10/10

I know I said I would post this yesterday, but...well...that's the way it goes.

It's time for the Fall season of curling! The official Fall League doesn't start until this coming Friday, but the season unofficially began last Friday night with a "preseason game" of sorts:

Career game #103: Pick-up - September 10, 2010 (I'm going to start labeling my box scores this way, because I'm proud of the fact that I've now played over 100 games.)

End........ 1234567 |TTL
------------------------
Allen...... 1220021 | 08
Jaun....... 0001100 | 02

This was a pick-up game, which I've done very well in throughout my curling career (13 wins, 3 losses). Why? Because I always get to play with Amber! It isn't fair, really. The last few pick-up sessions have had mostly new curlers and only a few experienced curlers. So while most pick-up teams (including Team Jaun from last Friday night) only have one curler with more than a couple of games' experience, my teams always have two curlers with experience, because I'm always allowed to curl with Amber. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

Given that this was a "preseason game" (not officially, but that's basically what this amounted to), everyone in all the games was a bit rusty. And to be honest, I wasn't really thinking all that hard about the strategy, even though I was playing skip. I didn't see any need to overthink it: take-outs were very difficult given the ice conditions, so my strategy was just to try and put the next rock in the house, every throw. It worked out.

In fact, in the 4th end, it worked out too well. Our first six rocks all landed in the house, so with only skip rocks remaining, we were lying six. Which is funny, because earlier that day, I was browsing the Potomac Curling Club website and reading up on their storied history of eight-enders. A perfect 8-point end has only happened five times in their 40-plus year history, and I've never heard of an 8-point end in Triangle Curling Club history. But here we are, sitting six, with two rocks to play. Let's go for it! I subsequently booted my two throws, of course...but it didn't matter anyway, because we didn't have last rock, and opposing skip Chris made a good last shot to score one.

Last Friday's game was an educational experience, though: I learned that I still can't hit draw weight consistently enough to be a really good Skip. Yes, I have a pretty good record as skip (15 wins, 6 losses), but that's mostly due to having good teammates. Against a good team and a good skip, I don't think I can get the job done, yet. So, that's why I've decided to play Vice rather than Skip in the upcoming Fall League.

Well, actually...Skip was, in fact, my first choice for the Fall League. I just don't have enough seniority yet (I've only been curling for three years, after all), and I skipped all throughout the Spring. But this is fine, and actually might be better. My main weakness as Skip isn't the strategy, it's the clutch shot-making. I can practice my shot-making just as well as a Vice, and I won't have all that added pressure to deal with. I don't think I'd do all that well as a Skip in the more prestigious Friday League anyway, going up against the club's "big guns" every week. Instead, with Dan as Skip and Amber and I taking the two middle spots, I think we're good enough to win the league championship. Or at the very least, finish 2nd, as has been our custom lately.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Generic Stat Update

It's looking like it'll be a slow blog week. Generally, my policy is this: when in doubt...talk about statistics!

Let's see if I can scrounge up anything interesting from the latest issue of By the Numbers:

CAR MILEAGE: After the Alaska trip, my car had about 5,500 miles more on it than Amber's car. Now, the gap is down to 3,400, and that's after we took my car to Pittsburgh. If we get it down to 2,000 by the end of the year, then both my car and Amber's car will have gone the same number of miles in 2010, even though my car went to Alaska and back.

GASOLINE STATISTICS: My car got over 40 mpg on the Alaska trip, but I struggled to get 40 on the Pittsburgh trip, even though we took a lot of slower roads. Maybe all that mountain driving is to blame?

TWO-LANE PASSING: My "aggressiveness score" seems to have reached an equilibium of around 65%, which means that on two-lane roads, I pass two cars for every one car that passes me.

COUNTY VISITATION: I'm still 242 more counties away from achieving 50% nationwide visitation. Given that I've already taken care of all of North Carolina and most of Virginia and South Carolina, that might take a while. Meanwhile, my car needs to visit 144 more counties before it ties my old Saturn with 522 counties visited nationwide; whether or not that will happen probably depends on how soon we have a kid.

CURLING: Career game #103 was last Friday night. I'll recap it tomorrow, as well as preview the upcoming "Fall League", which begins this coming Friday.

NIGHTS BY COUNTY: Our next overnight trip will be the second weekend in October, to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Why are we spending two nights in my 49th-favorite vacation state? Curling!

BICYCLING: For no apparent reason, my bike odometer crapped out during last weekend's ride, then started working again a few minutes later. I estimated that there were 0.8 miles left unaccounted for. I'll have to keep an eye on that. If odometer troubles continue, I may get an old school odometer, because those are way cooler than the digital ones.

KICKBALL: We actually won a second game after I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, and convincingly, too (7-0). But then we lost the next one 10-2. Back to reality. Tonight, a rematch against the team that we beat 6-4. Given that they're probably a better team than us and will no doubt be looking for sweet revenge, I expect to be "mercy ruled" tonight.

OIL CHANGE HISTORY: Looks like I still have about 1,500 miles remaining until I need my next oil change. That's not bad, considering my last oil change was in Fairbanks.

POWER OUTAGES: No power outages in eight months. Not bad!

CAR STALLS: This is a boring stat. I'm thinking of removing it.

DIRECTV PHONE CALLS: Might remove this stat, too. I half expected something to not quite work right with NFL Sunday Ticket yesterday, but no phone calls were necessary. I'll talk more about my Week One NFL Sunday Ticket experience in the next "Sports Saturday".

BOWLING: We haven't gone bowling since January. I'll have to keep that in the back of my mind next time Amber and I are bored.

CANADIAN COUNTY VISITATION: When will we be back in Canada again? Good question. Again, that'll depend on when we have that kid. Actually, having a kid with us might make it EASIER to get through customs.

RESTAURANT SERVING TIMES: With 3½ months remaining in 2010, the fastest and slowest restaurant serving times of the year still both belong to Alaska restaurants. My prediction is for both marks (5:08 and 42:22) to stand up through the end of the year. Even if it doesn't stand up, given that it was only a party of 3, Gambardella's of Fairbanks should truly be embarrassed for themselves. Gambardella's time of 42:22 is the worst time ever for a party of 4 or less, by more than 10 minutes! (The second-worst time ever for a party of 4 or less belongs to Olive Garden of Cary - 31:37 for a party of 2.) Meanwhile, we've already gone out to eat more in 2010 (29 times) than we did all of last year (25 times), but we're still well short of 2007 (50 times).

INTERSTATES DRIVEN: North Carolina is still the only state in which I've driven every inch of major interstate highway. I have South Carolina on my radar screen, though. Day trip to Charleston, anyone?

DISC GOLF: Here's another thing we could do next time we're bored. Unlike bowling, it's free, and it's outside!

As for the rest of this week...anyone got any ideas? I'm very open this week. If there's any topic that you'd like me to blog about this week, let me know, and I'll do my best. And I mean, ANY topic, even something I know nothing about.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sports Saturday: 9/11/10

Chances are, for the next few months, most of my "Sports Saturdays" will really just be "Football Saturdays". No NASCAR or Formula One chit-chat today - it's all football. Woooo!

With lots of big college football games on tap for Saturday, and the season opener for most NFL teams on Sunday, it should be a good weekend to sit on the couch, watch some football, and do my best to ignore everything else going on in the country right now. At least, that's the plan.

College football - Last weekend, the two best games were both 8 PM starts (LSU v. North Carolina on Saturday, Boise State v. Virginia Tech on Monday), so I missed the exciting second halves of both. Here's hoping the best games this weekend are played at more Chris-friendly times. Unless Virginia at USC ends up being the best game of the weekend (ha), then I shouldn't have to lose any sleep in order to catch the best football of the weekend. Yay!

It seems like this is the week that most schools have decided to schedule their biggest non-conference opponent. Makes perfect sense - start soft with a cupcake game, play a big game, get another cupcake or two in after that, then start conference play. That's how college football scheduling is done these days.

Remember that this isn't a complete list of televised games. If you want a full list, I recommend either lsufootball.net or the506.com. These are only the games I'm going to pay attention to.

Sat 12:00p - South Florida at Florida, MSG (SEC Network): The game I'll be paying most attention to during the first time slot. Let's go Bulls! It could happen, right?
Sat 12:00p - Duke at Wake Forest, WLFL 22 (ACC Network): Is this the year for Duke? Will they finally go to a bowl game? I can't wait to find out. By the way, "ACC Network" is the new name for "Raycom Sports". Same deal, just a different brand name, at least for this year.
Sat 12:00p - Georgia Tech at Kansas, FSN
Sat 12:00p - Georgia at South Carolina, ESPN2: Decent third and fourth options for the early time slot.
Sat 3:30p - Florida State at Oklahoma, ABC: Alright, here we go. This applies to pretty much every team in a big game this week, but this will give us a good indication of what Florida State has to offer this season. Of course, this could also end up being another bad week for the ACC.
Sat 3:30p - Michigan at Notre Dame, NBC: Amber's Dad, a devoted Notre Dame fan, is in town this week. (Amber's Mom is here too, but she doesn't care about football.) With Notre Dame and Florida State playing opposite each other, it'll make for an interesting afternoon...
Sat 3:30p - Miami (FL) at Ohio State, ESPN: Believe it or not, I'm actually rooting for Miami (FL) in this one. A truly rare occurrence. Of course, the ideal outcome would be a 0-0 tie.
Sat 3:30p - Iowa State at Iowa, ESPN2
Sat 3:30p - Kent State at Boston College, ESPNU
Sat 4:00p - UNLV at Utah, the mtn.: Looking forward to finding out whether I get the mtn.'s games in HD this year. I think I'm supposed to.
Sat 7:00p - Penn State at Alabama, ESPN: Another big one. No early bed time tonight!
Sat 7:00p - Oregon at Tennessee, ESPN2: Almost kept this game off the list, but I might need something to flip to during commercials.
Sat 7:30p - NC State at Central Florida, CBS College: You better not lose this freaking game, Wolfpack. The ACC will be very mad at you if you do.
Sat 10:30p - Virginia at USC, FSN: No, I'm not considering this a cupcake game. Close, though.

NFL - I am really excited about my purchase of NFL Sunday Ticket this year. You'd better believe I'm going to make the most of it. While most college games last weekend were cupcakes, in the NFL, we get going right from Week 1. Local Jacksonville media are already saying this is one of the biggest games in Jaguars history.

Yes, they are. True story! The idea is that a win will help ticket sales at a time when the Jaguars really need it, and that with a game at San Diego next weekend, a loss this week will basically mean an 0-2 start. Either that, or the non-Gator fans just want to stick it in the face of everyone who thought the Jaguars should have drafted Tim Tebow. (Yes, it's pretty rotten that my first Jaguars game with NFL Sunday Ticket has to be a Tim Tebow fest. Whether he plays at all or not, he'll probably be pictured and/or mentioned every five minutes anyway. Ugh.)

Adding to the intensity is that the Jaguars and their fans are also feeling a little frustrated. The national media loves to pick on the Jaguars and their small fan base, more so than any other team with a small fan base. But why? The Jaguars weren't last in attendance last year; they finished ahead of Detroit and Oakland (source). Why aren't people saying the Lions or Raiders are going to move to Los Angeles? The Jaguars aren't the least popular team in the NFL according to the Wall Street Journal; they're ahead of St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Why aren't people saying the Rams or Bucs are going to move to Los Angeles? The Jaguars aren't the only team who had most of their games blacked out last year, you know. Why does everyone single out the Jaguars? Because it's the "trendy" thing to do? Well, as a Jaguars fan, here's my response to all of that: F@#$ YOU.

(Sorry. Had to get that off my chest. I feel better now.)

Despite my fan enthusiasm, I don't have high expectations for the Jaguars this season. I haven't seen any indication that the Jaguars are capable of winning more than, say, 6 games. But right now, they're undefeated, and they're actually a slight favorite against Denver this weekend. I have no idea why, but there is one good reason why I don't bet on games: most of the time, I have NO CLUE who is going to win. And I like it that way. In most cases, I have more fun watching a game without the weight of a preconceived notion regarding what is "supposed" to happen. Of course, when what is "supposed" to happen actually doesn't happen, then that can be very interesting. Watching a heavy favorite lose is always fun (as long as you're not a fan of the heavy favorite, of course). But there are no heavy favorites in the NFL like there are in college, so for the NFL, I'm happier assuming that no team is a "favorite". For now, every team is tied with no wins and no losses, which for me makes even the Cleveland at Tampa Bay game worth watching. Who knows - maybe one of these teams could go to the Super Bowl! Who are you to say they won't? Until they actually start losing games, we don't know for sure.

Anyway, what I meant by all that is this: there is still hope, for now. Let's go Jaguars!

Oh, and I'll probably check out a few other games this weekend, too. I paid for that privilege, so I might as well. 49ers at Seahawks, anyone?

Sun 1:00p - Denver at Jacksonville, DirecTV 707
Sun 1:00p - Indianapolis at Houston, DirecTV 706: This will be my "option two" during the first time slot. I'm curious to see if the Texans can finally beat the Colts, for once. Let's go Texans!
Sun 1:00p - Miami at Buffalo, DirecTV 705: I know a lot of Bills fans, and before the Jaguars were created, I was one myself. I'll rank the Bills fairly high on my priority list most weeks. At least, until mid-November, at which point they're usually out of it.
Sun 1:00p - Cleveland at Tampa Bay, DirecTV 704: If Amber had to pick a favorite NFL team, it would probably be the Browns. I don't think she really cares, though, especially that Brady Quinn isn't there anymore.
Sun 1:00p - Atlanta at Pittsburgh, DirecTV 711:
Sun 1:00p - Cincinnati at New England, WRAL 5: I paid a lot of money to NOT be stuck with the same old teams every week, so I probably won't watch the regular broadcast games all that much. At least, not this week.
Sun 1:00p - Carolina at NY Giants, WRAZ 50: Same goes for the Panthers. I just can't get into them. They're Charlotte's deal.
Sun 1:00p - Detroit at Chicago, DirecTV 708
Sun 1:00p - Oakland at Tennessee, DirecTV 712
Sun 4:15p - San Francisco at Seattle, DirecTV 715: Two teams that I rarely get to watch. Let's check them out!
Sun 4:15p - Green Bay at Philadelphia, WRAZ 50
Sun 4:15p - Arizona at St. Louis, DirecTV 714
Sun 8:20p - Dallas at Washington, NBC: Most weeks, I'll likely be all footballed-out by the time Sunday night rolls around. I don't expect I'll ever stick around for the Sunday night game. I usually won't watch on Monday night, either.

Enjoy!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Travelogue: West Virginia and Pittsburgh


Road geek time! To some extent.


View Larger Map

As I posted last week, this was the route we planned to take to Pittsburgh and back, except that I wasn't sure how long the northbound drive along mountainous West Virginia roads would take, and if we'd feel like doing the whole thing. Well, we did, and it didn't take that much longer at all! The drive to Pittsburgh should normally take 7½ to 8 hours, and the scenic route took 9½ hours. Given how curvy and slow these roads are - and believe me, they are - I was actually expecting a 11-12 hour drive. But I guess the fact that this scenic route is shorter, mileage-wise, makes up for it.

So, here's a question. Whose mountains are prettier: Virginia, or West Virginia? There is a distinct difference between the two. West Virginia definitely has more mountains, but that also means you don't get as many good, long views as you do in Virginia. Virginia's mountains also appear taller because they're often situated against wide valleys. For those reasons, I prefer Virginia.

But that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had in West Virginia. If you like long, curvy roads and rustic towns, then West Virginia is for you! We encountered plenty of both along our scenic route. There aren't many straight, flat stretches of road along WV-20, which we took all the way from Charmco (Jct US-60) to Clarksburg (Jct I-79), a distance of 135 miles. Of course, this also means there aren't many places to pass if you get stuck behind a slow local. I'd have thought that the local West Virginia drivers would zip around these curves as quickly as possible, but instead, they all just drive 35 to 45 mph the whole time. I guess they've learned that because the roads are so curvy, it's easier to just keep an overall slow pace. West Virginia's roads (interstates aside) are also not built for speed: everything in rural West Virginia is built right up next to the side of the road, with little to no shoulder.

VA-311, which we took from Roanoke to its junction with I-64 near the VA/WV border, had more spectacular views and switchbacks, though. Virginia's mountains are truly obstacles; West Virginia's mountains are just part of the terrain.

Speaking of those "rustic towns", we stopped by a local grocery store in a town that shall remain nameless, because I don't want to slander its residents or reputation on the internet. They may very well be nice people, but they were truly ugly. And scary. I won't be stopping there next time. (If you're curious what town this was, shoot me an email or other private message.) The towns themselves weren't that scary looking, though. They actually looked kind of vibrant, relatively speaking, in stark contrast with the extremely poor coal mining areas of Southwestern West Virginia along US-52, which are pretty much abandoned and/or dead.

I don't mean to be too hard on West Virginia. We love it there. Even if Virginia has more spectacular views, it is still a beautiful state. It's not their fault the economic deck is stacked against them. It's hard to develop a modernized economy when you have West Virginia's reputation. Companies would rather open new branches in places that already have an estabilished technological infrastructure, in terms of potential employee base, nearby universities, and other similar companies. There are plenty of smart people throughout rural West Virginia, but if they want a good job, they have to move on. Which means the only people left in [town name redacted] are the ugly, undereducated people. There are ugly and undereducated people everywhere, but in towns like [town name redacted], they just happen to make up a higher percentage of the population, because the educated people can't stay. It's sad, really, and it's not West Virginia's fault.

And I shouldn't be too hard on them, because someone has to mine that coal, and I'd much rather it not be me. Coal mining in West Virginia gets a lot of press and attention, but only 4% of West Virginia's labor force works in the "mining and logging" industry (source). What do the other 96% do?

Okay...got off topic again. I've been doing that a lot lately. Anyway, I have a few more road trip notes:

- I said we were going to take a portion of the not-yet-completed Mon-Fayette Expressway, between Morgantown, WV and Uniontown, PA. The southernmost stretch of the road has a $1 toll booth which is easily bypassed. Just get on or off at Big Six Road / Exit 8 and take PA-857 from there to the southern end of the existing freeway stretch. Does anyone actually pay that $1 toll? If so, why? That stretch of expressway saves one minute at the most. The toll will make more sense once the expressway is completed all the way to I-68 (next year sometime?), but for now, it's kind of silly. And no, we did not pay the toll.

- While in Pittsburgh, we took a brief side trip to previously unvisited Armstrong County, PA. Armstrong County was one of 10 new counties I visited over the weekend. I now have only 6 counties to go in Pennsylvania, two of which I plan to visit next month (Northampton and Delaware). Woo!

- We would have gone to Beaver County, too, but that would have meant more driving through Pittsburgh, which I got tired of after a while. I'm normally very good with directions, but I really had a hard time in Pittsburgh. Roads are tight, and I never know which lane I should be in. Then again, the deck is kind of stacked against Pittsburgh as well. The terrain in and around Pittsburgh is really challenging (albeit interesting), there's lots of traffic, and you can forget about widening any of these roads. There's no room.

- Speaking of Pittsburgh, it seems like every time I go here - and I've been several times - I end up going to downtown. I don't like big city downtowns in general, and I try to avoid them at all costs, so how is it that I always end up in downtown Pittsburgh?


Actually, I know what it is. Pittsburgh has more than one downtown! Pictured above is not the primary downtown, but is the Oakland neighborhood. This looks like a downtown to me, but it's not downtown Pittsburgh. Downtown Pittsburgh is over there somewhere. Oakland is only the city's "third-largest" downtown. Bah! I think the moral of the story is, if you go to Pittsburgh, chances are you'll end up in at least one of its who-knows-how-many "downtowns", whether you like it or not. Bah!

Bicycling Trip to Alaska: Now Going Canadian!

My fictional Bicycling Trip to Alaska started 11 months ago, and at last, I've made it somewhere. 1,600 miles later, I've made it to Canada. Yeah!

Of course, I could have made it to Canada a lot sooner had I crossed the border at Detroit or Buffalo instead of North Dakota. But this is just an intermediate step on the way to Alaska, so I felt no need to cross the border any sooner than I needed to. Besides, Alaska is still another 2,400 miles away, and I plan on continuing the trip another 634 miles after that, all the way to Homer, AK.

"Chris! Why are you going to Homer and not Deadhorse? Why not take the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Ocean instead? That would be way cooler." Yes, but...the drive to Homer is more statistically interesting than the drive to Deadhorse, in that there are many more towns along the way. Given that I only ride 30-40 miles a week on average, the Dalton Highway would be a pretty boring stretch, statistically speaking. The towns are 100 to 150 miles apart up there, for example. Without too many landmarks along the way, it might be hard to keep myself motivated. Remember, the primary purpose of this fictional Bicycling Trip to Alaska is to motivate myself to exercise.

But the real reason I'm ending the Bicycling Trip to Alaska in Homer instead of Deadhorse is because I have some grand ambitions. After the Bicycling Trip to Alaska is complete, next up will be the "Bicycling Trip in Australia", a fictional ride from Sydney to Perth. Since my next trip will start along the Pacific Ocean*, it makes more sense to end this trip along the Pacific Ocean as well*, hence my decision to go to Homer instead of Deadhorse. My longer term plans are to eventually do a fictional bike ride on every non-Antarctic continent, the sum of those rides exceeding 24,901.6 miles (the circumference of Earth at the equator), allowing me to sort of claim that I've biked all the way around the world.

(* - Technically, neither Homer nor Sydney is on the Pacific Ocean. Homer is on Kachemak Bay, and Sydney is on the Tasman Sea, neither of which is officially part of the Pacific Ocean according to the IHO. But I believe "close enough" applies here.)

But hey! Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, right? We're only in year one still, and Homer is still another two years away. Maybe by the time I reach the Homer ferry terminal, I won't feel like doing this anymore. But I'm in great shape, it's fun, and I'd like to keep bicycling as long as possible and see this fictional "world tour" through.

My initial goal when I started the Bicycling Trip to Alaska was to average 30 miles of bicycling per week. I'm meeting that goal, and over the last 24 weeks, I've averaged 35 miles per week. I've been getting stronger, but I think I'm starting to peak. While I'd like to shoot for 40/week, I don't think I can average much more than 35/week long-term, especially in the winter. Instead, my goal will be to average 36-37 miles per week for the remainder of my Bicycling Trip to Alaska. Or, to put it in more dramatic terms, my goal is to make it to Homer before my 30th birthday (April 8, 2012). Can I do it?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Primanti Bros.

I don't know who specifcially I heard this from, but at some point, likely from multiple people, I heard that Primanti Brothers of Pittsburgh makes a good sandwich. So, I made it a point to stop there during our visit to Pittsburgh last weekend.

But first, I'm going to give you an idea of what I was expecting here. Several years ago, I was in Philadelphia with some friends, and we decided to stop by Geno's and/or Pat's (I don't remember which, they're practically right next to each other) and try one of their original famous cheesesteaks. Unfortunately, the lines at both Geno's and Pat's were extremely long, so we bailed on our cheesesteak quest and instead ate dinner at a Roy Rogers along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

So, using the analogy "Pat's/Geno's is to Philadelphia as Primanti Bros. is to Pittsburgh", that's kind of what I expected with Primanti Bros. But unlike Pat's and Geno's, neither of which has multiple locations, Primanti Bros. has branched out and opened 15 locations throughout the Pittsbugh area, including one less than a half-mile from our hotel in the suburban neighborhood of Harmarville. Yeah! While the original Primanti Bros. location in the Strip District could very well have insufferably long lines most of the time (I don't know if they do or not), surely we'd be able to grab a meal at one of the distant suburban locations, right? Indeed we did! We didn't even have to wait for a table.

(Side note: I was also expecting Primanti Bros. to be a stand up and order at the counter sort of restaurant. While the downtown locations may be that way, the Harmarville location was a regular sit-down restaurant, and was therefore eligible for my restaurant serving times competition.)

What does a Primanti Bros. sandwich consist of? Meat (good), tomato (that's fine), french fries (directly on the sandwich...interesting), and...cole slaw (dammit!). You had me up until the words "cole slaw". I don't like cole slaw, and I hate that the standard practice in North Carolina is to put cole slaw on barbecue sandwiches and not on the side. Fortunately, Primanti Bros' cole slaw is nothing like the crap they put on barbecue sandwiches in North Carolina. It's vinegar-based, and it really just tastes like lettuce with a vinegar taste. I actually kind of liked it. I'm actually proud of myself for trying it in the first place. I normally steer clear of all things cole slaw, but since Primanti Bros. sandwiches have such a good reputation, I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. Glad I did!


(Once again, I apologize for the lack of picture quality.)

I had a genoa salami sandwich, and it was truly excellent. The reputation is well deserved. Most impressive to me, more so than the taste, was the fact that the sandwich stayed together the whole time. With this much loose crap piled on top of two thin slices of bread, I expected this thing to fall apart completely, and end up having to eat most of it with a fork, or at the very least, most of the fries by hand. Nope! How the sandwich manages to stay intact from start to finish is beyond me. It's probably one of their best kept secrets. Whatever it is, it's brilliant sandwich engineering.

While I had the trademark sandwich, Amber had chicken fingers and fries, and for once came across as the more boring eater between us. (Believe me, that is a huge departure from the norm. Pittsburgh must be some kind of bizarro world, where I'm the one being adventurous and trying new things.) But it did give me a chance to try their fries off of the sandwich, and they were also excellent. The fries are extremely greasy and soft, and are quite similar to the fries served at other renowned grease joints such as Five Guys, In-N-Out Burger, and The Varsity. (I've never actually been to Five Guys, but Amber made that comparison.) Seems like all of these trademark burger and sandwich joints follow this standard french fry recipe, doesn't it? I'm thinking that these restaurants all prepare their fries - and all their food, really - in the most unhealthy way possible. Calories? Oh yeah! Sodium? Lots! Trans fat? Probably! These places didn't earn their reputation because they're healthy. Save the salads for Wendy's, folks. If you want something that just tastes good, regardless of the health consequences, then Five Guys/In-N-Out/The Varsity/Primanti Bros. is for you!

I actually don't know how healthy or unhealthy a Primanti sandwich is. I couldn't locate any nutritional information about Primanti Bros.' sandwiches, but I'm guessing - and hoping - that my genoa salami sandwich had fewer calories and less fat than the In-N-Out Double Double combo I had last year (burger + fries = 1,070 calories and 59g fat; source). But even if it did, at least my Primanti Bros. sandwich did not result in two days of explosive diarrhea. Take that, In-N-Out! ("Explosive diarrhea" is an exaggeration, but my Double Double combo did not sit well.)

So, in conclusion: Primanti Bros. wins my seal of approval. Its reputation is deserved. But there is one thing I don't like about this place:

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Civil Marriage

(Disclaimer: I don't know the specifics of Jon and Stephanie's marriage, beyond that they were legally married in a courthouse in May and had a celebratory reception in Pittsburgh last weekend. I'm only going to speak in generalities here, and it'll be your job to NOT assume that everything I say applies to their situation.)

Here's a scenario. Let's say you've found your soulmate, and you both want to get married. Congratulations! But for one reason or another - for example, health insurance or tax purposes - you don't want to go through the months-long process of planning a wedding. (Don't forget the disclaimer...) So, you decide to do as many do and get legally married as quickly as possible, at a courthouse or in a place like Las Vegas.

I don't see anything wrong with the "civil marriage" approach, when there's a good reason for it. But this approach does raise a couple of issues. For one, you miss out on an official wedding. Do you have a "fake wedding" instead, with flowers, bridemaids, a full-scale reception, and everything else - that is just like a real wedding in every way except from the legal standpoint? And, for the religiously minded, does the civil marriage approach "count" as a true marriage in the eyes of the Christian church?

First, about the "fake wedding" approach. There are two reasons why I favor it. For one, weddings are a great excuse to get friends and family together. Many friends and family, I only get to see at weddings. (Or funerals, but those aren't as fun.) And, it was kind of neat to have, for example, my Penn State friends and my aunts and uncles in the same place at the same time. That was kind of neat. If not for our wedding, surely that would have never happened, ever. But it's not just that. Getting married is also a great way to get lots of gifts! And, some people - mostly women - start thinking and/or planning their wedding at a very young age, and you won't get to see that dream through with a courthouse wedding. So if you do the courthouse or Vegas route, you're missing out on a tremendous opportunity. Unless, of course, you do a "fake wedding".

But is a civil marriage legit in God's eyes? Does the actual marriage have to happen in a church in order to "count"? First off, here's another disclaimer: I am hardly a religion expert, and when it comes to church, I am currently a "CEO" (Christmas and Easter Only). All I really have to go on is the sermon that the Episcopalian priest gave during Sunday morning's "blessing of the civil marriage" (I'll get to that). As far as the Episcopalians are concerned, a civil marriage is considered a legit Christian marriage if both bride and groom have been baptised in a Christian denomination church, and if the required intent is there - "until death do us part", etc. Las Vegas intoxicated drive-through weddings, for example, are not considered legit Christian marriages, but Jon and Stephanie's marriage - along with many other civil marriages - are considered legit Christian marriages. Which is good, because it would have been kind of a bummer if the topic of the sermon was why their marriage wasn't legit.

Now, that's just how the Episcopal Church feels. Certainly, the Episcopalians are a tad more progressive than, say, the Catholics. Shoot, Episcopalian priests are even allowed to wed homosexuals! (Not that you care, but I am a strong supporter of gay marriage, and of LGBT rights in general. It's one of the few political issues I don't consider myself a "moderate".)

I don't know this for sure, but I have a feeling that the Catholic Church disagrees with the Episcopal Church on this one. Heck, I don't even think my marriage is officially recognized by the Catholic Church, considering that I married a Lutheran in a Presbyterian Church. Then again, the Catholic Church and I haven't always seen eye-to-eye on everything over the years... I guess what I'm saying is, Amber and I do not plan on raising our future children Catholic. We'll go with a more moderate Christian denomination, possibly Episcopalian, possibly something else. ... Woah! I got way off topic there. Let's get back to weddings.

I'll never forget my wedding day. But would have it been the same if Amber and I were already legally married prior to September 27, 2008? Would it had been as memorable? Maybe, maybe not. I think it would have taken a little bit away from it. A real wedding is definitely preferable to a fake wedding. But if you have reason to get that marriage certificate ASAP, then a fake wedding is better than nothing, and it's the best you can do given the circumstances.

===

Now, part two. Everything in part two does apply specifically to the Jon and Stephanie fake wedding last weekend.

So, this wasn't a "fake wedding", really. Sunday morning, during a regular Episcopalian church service, the priest took a few minutes to perform a "blessing of a civil marriage". That basically meant doing the standard wedding vows, plus other priest-y bless-this-marriage stuff. Apparently, this specific sort of thing is actually quite rare, and it was the first in this particular church's history. Obviously, this wasn't a real wedding, or even a fake wedding, because here are Jon and Stephanie chatting it up beforehand:


(Yes, it's blurry. That's what happens when you try to take live-action shots with a camera phone.)

And, here's a pic from the blessing itself:


The wedding reception was later that day - much later, in fact - at the PPG Aquarium:


James (my brother) and Amy's wedding reception was at the same venue eight years ago, and I remembered it well. Even the dance floor was in the same place, if I remember correctly. James and Amy claim to have been the first couple to have their wedding reception held on site at the aquarium. It seems it's caught on!


And, of course, we brought Mo the Cow Puppet with us. He makes for a great conversation piece, which for me is good, since I think my conversation skills have deteoriated significantly since I left college.

The reception was completely informal. No announcements of any kind, no formal dances, no best man toasts, no wedding cake (! - but there was cake after the church service that morning). Jon said he just wanted it to be a party. I guess getting the full wedding day experience wasn't a priority for them. Fine with me! It was kind of weird having seven hours of time to kill between the morning church service and the evening reception, though. We all changed clothes in between, in fact.


So, there you have it. I don't know of any other impending marriages between now and October 2011, so that might be it for a while. Who's next? Anyone?