Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 Traffic Report

It seems to be common knowledge that Thanksgiving Wednesday is the "busiest travel day of the year". But is it really? Because I saw a LOT more traffic on Thanksgiving Sunday this year than I did on Thanksgiving Wednesday.

Of course, they're just talking about travel in general, including air travel. The focus of most news stories last week was air travel rather than ground travel, thanks to those TSA full-body scanners, pat-downs, and such. I bet airports are in fact busier on Thanksgiving Wednesday than on Thanksgiving Sunday. But in terms of ground travel, I'm not so sure. Last Wednesday's drive from Durham to Jacksonville was surprisingly easy: only a couple of brief delays in North Carolina, and smooth sailing all the way down I-95 to Jacksonville. Even with the delays, it was several minutes shorter this time than it was when we carried the bikes with us in August.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, we left I-95 at Brunswick and took U.S. routes from there to Durham (I'll talk more about that drive tomorrow), but I kept an eye on Google Maps traffic info just out of curiosity. And according to Google, there were scattered delays on I-95 in South Carolina, and extensive delays on I-95 in North Carolina (especially around Lumberton). Nothing like what we saw on Wednesday. I-95 in Georgia was already fairly busy when we exited, even in the morning. Later in the day, I noticed a much larger than normal amount of traffic coming from US-74 in Rockingham, suggesting that a lot of I-95 travelers had their fill and were seeking an alternate route.

So, does this mean Thanksgiving Sunday is a busier driving day than Thanksgiving Wednesday? Maybe, maybe not. Here's my main conclusion: a higher proportion of people leave for their Thanksgiving destination earlier in the week (say, Tuesday), or the previous weekend, than they used to. Thanksgiving Wednesday used to be a regular school day and a regular work day, and everyone treated it as such. Not anymore. The sports column "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" calls this "The Unified Field Theory of Creep": it expands on the "Christmas Creep" theory that Christmas-related events and activites start earlier every year: for instance, Christmas parades in November, radio stations playing holiday music in October, and holiday decorations in September (all of which are absolutely ridiculous, if you ask me). I think the same applies to Thanksgiving. People are starting their Thanksgiving vacations earlier than ever before.

Here are some other possible explanations:
- During the recession, a lot of people drove instead of flew, right? Well, the recession's over, so I think the balance is shifting back away from the interstates and towards the airports.
- In my experience, the end of a holiday weekend is ALWAYS a busier travel day than the last work day before the weekend. Like us, most people probably wait until the last possible day to head back home.
- Speaking specifically about the drive to Jacksonville, the I-95 construction in Georgia that has been going on for what seems like 20 years is almost done. There are now only seven miles of I-95 in Georgia that are not three lanes in each direction, and that's a huge help in terms of traffic. The Georgia portion of I-95 used to be the primary bottleneck, but now it isn't.

In any case...I think we just got lucky last Wednesday. Our next Thanksgiving Wednesday drive to be "back to normal", but at least now we know that we shouldn't necessarily avoid the interstates entirely like on Thanksgiving Sunday.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mass Statistical Updates: 11/29/10

Many of the statistics I keep track of in By the Numbers are related to driving and road trips. So whenever we go on a road trip, even when it's as routine as last weekend's trip to Jacksonville, there are always plenty of updates to be made. Let's discuss! Starting with one that has nothing to do with driving...

Restaurant serving times - James invited us to a local breakfast joint called University Diner on Sunday morning. Not only was the food excellent (watch your back, Waffle Shop!), but it was fast: 11 minutes and 14 seconds for a party of 7. Because it was a party of 7, it was eligible for the Top Ten Fastest Restaurants, party of 7 or more table, where it ended up in 2nd place all time*, only seven seconds off the record. Well done! And to think, it would have been even faster were I not the first one at the table to order, as well as one of the last ones at the table to get my food. (* - When I say "all time", I mean over the life of the serving times spreadsheet, which goes back through June 2004.)

County visitation - There aren't many new counties to be had between here and Jacksonville; I've pretty much got all the ones I can get without going really far out of the way. But after I got home last night, I discovered that US 301 (the road we took through much of South Carolina on Sunday) passes within 1½ miles of Barnwell County, SC; Barnwell is among the 6 South Carolina counties I have yet to visit. Missed opportunity! If only I had known, I would have made a little detour yesterday. But I did pick up 8 new counties for my car, at least.

Car mileage log - My car odometer is now over 57,000 miles, having reached that mark on I-95 in extreme northern Jacksonville (two miles south of the Nassau County line) Sunday morning on our way back home. The thing that I find most interesting about keeping track of when/where all of these "milestones" happen (a "milestone" being when the odometer in my car or Amber's car reaches a multiple of 1,000) is the frequencies page. This page provides a crude approximate for when and where we do most of our driving. For example, according to that page...
- ...we drive most on Sunday, Saturday, and Friday (in that order), and drive least on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Monday (in that order, with Tuesday being the least). Makes sense to me.
- ...we put in a lot of miles on I-40, I-95, I-77, and I-540. Again...makes sense, although I'm surprised I-77 has as many milestones as it does.
- ...over the last few years, we've put in more miles in Wake County than in Durham County, even though we've lived in Durham County for the last two years. That's probably still the case even now. Amber works in Wake County, curling is in Wake County, kickball is in Wake County, and most of the social things we do are in Wake County. We're also very close to the Wake County line. I'd be curious to see how many days out of the year I cross into Wake County. Hmm...
- ...other than North Carolina, we drive more in Virginia than we do in any other state, by far. Now that I think about it, I agree. Not only do we make a lot of day trips to Virginia, but when we go up to Maryland, Pennsylvania, or anywhere farther north, we get a lot of miles in Virginia.
- ...the four biggest car mileage contributors are work, curling, and trips to see family in Toledo and Jacksonville. Sounds right to me, although the work commute is much shorter now than it used to be, so I don't expect work to stay at #1 on that list forever.
I also find it interesting that...
- ...Toledo is a frequent destination, but no milestones have occurred within Toledo city limits. (Lucas County, which includes Toledo, has one milestone.) We don't do that much driving around Toledo itself when we go up there, though, so that makes sense.
- ...of the five counties that border Durham County, Wake County has 44 milestones, but the other four counties (Orange, Chatham, Granville, Person) have a combined total of one.
- ...Wythe County, VA (along I-77 and I-81) has three milestones, but none of those were credited to its county seat, Wytheville, even though Wytheville is directly on our route.

Two-lane passing - I noticed a lot of aggressive driving on I-95 on Wednesday. I'd say the proportion of drivers going more than 10 mph above the speed limit was much higher than normal. Was that also the case away from the interstates? Maybe...maybe not. On two-lane roads on Sunday, I passed 8 cars, and was passed by 6 cars. That's lower than my usual passed/passed by ratio, but not by much. (On average, I pass 10.7 cars for every 6 cars that pass me; in GA/NC/SC, it's 8.9 cars passed for every 6 that pass me.) So...inconclusive.

Nights by County - Unless our Christmas and New Year's plans change, Duval County, FL (Jacksonville) will finish ahead of Lucas County, OH (Toledo) in 2010. I will have spent 10 nights in Duval County this year, compared to 9 nights in Lucas County. (Right now, Duval leads 7 to 5.) This will be the first year since 2006 in which I've spent more nights in Jacksonville than in Toledo. (Lucas County won 11 to 8 in both 2007 and 2008, and they tied last year.)

North Carolina ZZ- license plates - Finally, there's this. I spotted a ZZB- plate and a ZZV- plate on I-95 during our travels, meaning I've now spotted almost half (10 of 21) of the ZZ_ combinations. Alphabetically speaking, ZZV- is the latest plate I've seen so far, and I have yet to see any AA_ plates. But according to an anonymous commenter, the ZZZ- plates are out there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Holiday Traffic: 2010 Edition

It's that time of year once again: time to hit the road and see the family for Thanksgiving. This year, we're spending the weekend in Jacksonville; we're leaving Wednesda yafternoon and returning on Sunday.

While we are really looking forward to the trip, we're not so much looking forward to the drive on I-95. Every time we go to Jacksonville for the holidays, we're faced with the same decision: do we stick with the interstates, or do we get creative?

There are a lot of ways to avoid all or part of I-95. The last two Thanksgiving Wednesday drives to Florida (2006 and 2008), we took US 501 through North Carolina and picked up I-95 at South of the Border, which we took the rest of the way:

View Larger Map

That's worked out pretty well, resulting in a total trip time of 45 to 60 minutes longer than average; on Thanksgiving Wednesday, I'll take that. Whether we take that route again, keep farther west through South Carolina or even Georgia, or just take I-95 the whole way, will depend on what Google Maps traffic tells us. This fancy phone really does come in handy sometimes...but I have a feeling that we'll end up taking the same route we've taken the last two Thanksgiving Wednesday drives to Florida.

As for Thanksgiving Sunday...we've gotten a little creative the last two times, taking US 1 the whole way in 2006, and a similar route in 2008. We'll probably do something like that again, in order to avoid traffic and have some fun along the way. Right now, I'm thinking US 301 to US 601 to US 1, which is the route that Google Maps gives you if you select "Avoid Highways" and is probably the most direct non-interstate route.

View Larger Map

I'll be live tweeting the drive in both directions, in part so that interested family can keep tabs on our progress and know when to expect us, and in part to annoy the rest of you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Curling Recap: 11/19-11/21/10

Career game #116: Fall League Week 7 - November 19, 2010
(our team: Scheck)

End......... 12345678 |TTL
Scheck...... 12304020 | 12
Mitchell..., 00010103 | 05

We had already clinched a playoff spot in the league, so this game was basically meaningless, at least as far as our League Championship aspirations were concerned. I always do really well in so-called "meaningless" games, as evidenced by my 14-3 all-time record in pick-up games. Does that mean I'm at my best when the pressure is off? I don't know, but we just got lucky in this game. Early on, we were the beneficiary of a few lucky bounces - specifically, the other team promoting our rocks into the house. Throw those shots out, and the game would have been much closer than the final score indicates.

Career game #117: Fall League Week 7 - November 21, 2010
(Amber and I both spared on Team Wright in the Sunday league)

End......... 1234567 |TTL
Wallace..... 1500054 | 15
Wright...... 0031200 | 06

Our Friday league skip Dan and our Sunday skip of the day Lance are basically polar opposites in terms of strategy. Dan almost never calls take-outs; I've thrown fewer take-outs this season than I think I ever have. Meanwhile, Lance calls lots of take-outs. It's definitely more fun to play that way (and how!)...but is it more effective?

It depends, of course. I think the biggest factor might be, simply, which kind of shots your team is better at making. For example, if somebody is struggling with their draw weight but has the correct line every time, the skip might be inclined to ask for the take-out. Sometimes, when I'm the skip, I'll ask the shooter: "Hey, would you rather throw a draw, or a take-out?" It's all about giving your team the best opportunity to succeed.

But let's get back to the original question. On our ice, a draw strategy is the safe strategy. A take-out strategy has the potential to be more effective, but is high risk, high reward. If you miss two or three take-outs in a row (which happens quite a bit on our ice), then you leave yourself vulnerable to the "big end". As you can see in the box score above, that was our downfall on Sunday. I am proud that we were able to come back from 6-0 to tie it up, though.

The Friday League playoffs begin a week from Friday; will we play in our third consecutive league championship?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sports Saturday: 11/20/10

In today's issue:

College football - The season's almost over? I guess so.
NFL - That Hail Mary was awesome.
Auto racing - The last NASCAR race of the season. I'm rooting for Jimmie.
NHL - I have a "blowout rule" when I watch hockey games, but I'm currently re-thinking it. Also...Steven Stamkos!
College basketball - Yes, the season has started, but...

College football - Only two and a half weeks left to go! Championship Week is only a half-week, really, and I don't watch many bowl games anymore, so college football season is almost over. Maybe that's why it's so popular: unlike other sports, college football ends before you get sick of it.

Sat 12:00p - Indiana v. Penn State, Big Ten Network: I think this is supposed to be an Indiana home game, but instead, it's being played at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. I guess the rationale is that the DC area has a lot of Penn State alums, so let's bring a game to them! A long time ago, I think I remember Duke playing a "home game" or two against Florida State in Orlando. I guess this is similar. I haven't done any research, but I assume Indiana is getting a check for this?
Sat 12:00p - NC State at North Carolina, WRAL (ACC Network): Locally, this is THE college football game of the year. And with NC State "controlling their own destiny" in the ACC, this is a big game for them regardless. And for Florida State, too, because they need NC State to lose at least once. I'll be watching.
Sat 12:00p - Pittsburgh at South Florida, ESPN2: The BCS dream is still alive for the USF Bulls, I think. And even if that doesn't work out, they're already bowl eligible, so there's always the St. Petersburg Bowl. Yeah! (That is, if the St. Petersburg Bowl still exists, and if it accepts a Big East team. Yes, I admit, I've gotten really lazy with these sports posts as of late and haven't been doing my research. If you're looking for in-depth sports analysis, discussion, and information, this ain't the place to find it. All I'm interested in doing is adding a few dumb sports-related thoughts to the blogosphere.)
Sat 12:00p - Purdue at Michigan State, Big Ten Network: I don't know whether this game or the Penn State game is the "national" Big Ten Network game, but it doesn't matter for me, because DirecTV gives me both anyway.
Sat 12:00p - Wisconsin at Michigan, ESPN: The early time slot is loaded today, at least if you're me.
Sat 12:00p - Virginia at Boston College, ESPNU: Must be a slow day in the ACC, because this matchup has "ESPN3.com" written all over it.
Sat 12:00p - West Virginia at Louisville, MASN: I think it's time to pay more attention to the Big East. Their schedule is very much back-loaded towards the end of the season.
Sat 12:00p - Yale at Harvard, Versus: Why not?
Sat 3:30p - Virginia Tech at Miami (FL), ESPN: This game could be fun, but the middle time slot is probably when I'll get errands done today.
Sat 3:30p - Ohio State at Iowa, ABC
Sat 3:30p - Illinois v. Northwestern, ESPNU: Live from Wrigley Field. I find football games in baseball stadiums to be oddly intriguing. Especially when they're only using one end zone.
Sat 7:00p - Army v. Notre Dame, NBC: Live from Yankee Stadium. Ditto, except for the whole "one end zone" thing.
Sat 7:00p - Arkansas at Mississippi State, ESPN: The SEC is mostly taking the week off today, but this game has potential.
Sat 8:00p - Florida State at Maryland, ABC: I was going to complain about all the late night games Florida State has been getting lately, but it's better than ESPN3.com, so...I won't complain. Any TV is better than no TV. Haven't seen much of Maryland this year, but apparently they have a good turnover margin. That means Christian Ponder will probably be good for...oh, two fumbles and three interceptions.
Sat 10:00p - Utah at San Diego State, the mtn.: Looks like that #5 ranking Utah had a couple of weeks ago was, shall we say, a bit lofty. I don't know if they're still ranked, but they shouldn't be.


Sun 1:00p - Cleveland at Jacksonville, DirecTV 707: So...the Jaguars' Hail Mary pass for the win last week was pretty awesome. The thrill of watching that play live is why NFL Sunday Ticket might, just might, be worth the money. (Still haven't made a sure decision on that, by the way.) But in case I decide it's not worth the money next year, I will always have that play saved on my DVR. I've watched it about a dozen times, and I'm not tired of it yet. And how awesome was it that Gus Johnson happened to be the play-by-play guy that day? ... Oh, you mean the Jaguars are playing another game this weekend? Darn, I was hoping we could end the season on that note.
Sun 1:00p - Oakland at Pittsburgh, DirecTV 708: Oakland is 5-4 and tied for the AFC West lead. But can they beat the Steelers? Up-and-coming team v. estabilshed team makes for good TV, so...gooo Raiders!
Sun 1:00p - Buffalo at Cincinnati, DirecTV 706: Now that the Bills have won a game, I don't think they're as interesting to watch anymore. There's a big difference between 0 wins and 1 win, but that 2nd win? Meh. Doesn't matter.
Sun 1:00p - Washington at Tennessee, WRAZ 50: Kind of a weak slate of early games this week, to be honest. Or, maybe I'm just not feeling it this week. I'm actually considering flipping to NASCAR (see below) instead of other NFL games during Jaguars' commercial breaks this week.
Sun 1:00p - Houston at NY Jets, DirecTV 705
Sun 1:00p - Arizona at Kansas City, DirecTV 712
Sun 1:00p - Green Bay at Minnesota, DirecTV 709
Sun 1:00p - Baltimore at Carolina, WRAL 5
Sun 1:00p - Detroit at Dallas, DirecTV 710: I'll get more than my fill of these two teams on Thanksgiving Day. No need to watch them today.
Sun 4:05p - Tampa Bay at San Francisco, DirecTV 715: Sure, Tampa is 6-3, but...I still don't take them seriously. It's going to take a win against a good team to do it, and San Francisco ain't it.
Sun 4:05p - Atlanta at St. Louis, DirecTV 714: Atlanta might be the best team in the NFC. But does anyone without NFL Sunday Ticket ever get to watch them? Nope.
Sun 4:15p - Indianapolis at New England, WRAL 5: Ah, the annual Colts v. Patriots "rivalry" game. Is the rivalry still strong? I don't know, because I try to ignore it, and I want both teams to lose.
Sun 4:05p - Seattle at New Orleans, DirecTV 713
Sun 8:20p - NY Giants at Philadelphia, NBC: I never talk about Fantasy Football, because generally, nobody cares about anyone else's fantasy football team. I kind of hold fantasy football stories in the same category as poker "bad beat" stories. But I'm glad I had Michael Vick in my lineup last weekend. Six touchdowns!

Auto racing

Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead, ESPN: The final race of the 2010 NASCAR season. Three drivers have a shot, and a realistic shot at that, at the Sprint Cup championship. I'm really looking forward to it, so much so that I'm even going to make time during the NFL window for it.

So...yeah, Jimmie Johnson has won the last four championships. Given that I usually take an anti-establishment stance in sports, you'd think I'd be rooting against Jimmie here, but...nope. I don't like Kevin Harvick (arrogant), and I don't really like Denny Hamlin, either (dumb). So, come on, Jimmie! I'm looking forward to seeing what the #48 team brings to the table in the final race of the season, given that they actually have to race hard for the championship this time, as opposed to just riding around in 9th place like he usually has to.

NHL - The Carolina Hurricanes aren't on TV this weekend, so I'll put my Hurricanes random thought here. They've had a lot of blowout wins and losses lately, so much so that I've had to rethink my "blowout rule". Typically, when I'm watching an NHL game, and one team gets a lead of three or more goals, I'll change the channel. I get enough hockey games with my TV package, there's no need to waste time watching a blowout when I can watch a close game instead.

However, scoring is up this season (or at least it seems up; I don't know if it actually is), so three-goal margins are becoming quite common, especially with the Hurricanes. Lately, the "blowout rule" has meant missing a lot of Hurricanes hockey. I don't know if three-goal comebacks have been more common this season, but I'm starting to wonder whether I should change the "blowout rule" to four goals. Or, how about this: four goals in the first two periods, three goals in the third period. I think I'll try that. (I also have a "blowout rule" for football: 24 points for college, 21 points for NFL. That's worked pretty well.)

Finally, in the interest of time, laziness, and clarity, I'm no longer going to list every NHL game here. Only ones I might actually watch will make the list, along with nationally televised (NHL Network) games. I'll run through unlisted games at the end in short form.

Sat 7:00p - Tampa Bay at Buffalo, MSG Buffalo: Steven Stamkos is part of this recent scoring explosion, and he's turned the Lightning into the must-watch team of the season. I caught the end of their 8-7 win over the Flyers on Thursday night; that's a game I kind of wish I had watched from the beginning. Ever since I got into hockey, I've been waiting for someone to score 76 goals in a season, ala Mogilny and Selanne in 1992-93. Stamkos is currently on pace for 82 (one goal per game); is this the year?
Sat 7:00p - Toronto at Montréal, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Los Angeles at Boston, NESN: The Kings have been one of those early hot surprises; better take advantage while they're on the East Coast, or else I'll never see them. (Side note: I like the Kings' uniforms. I kind of hope they keep the purple, instead of going back to the classic black/gray look.)
Sat 7:00p - Philadelphia at Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sat 8:00p - New Jersey at St. Louis, Fox Sports Midwest
Sat 8:00p - NY Rangers at Minnesota, MSG
Not listed: NSH/CAR (no TV), FLA/NYI, COL/DAL, CHI/VAN, CBJ/SJ, and all four Sunday games. I can watch hockey any day of the week; why watch it on an NFL Sunday?

College basketball - So, it appears college basketball season has started. I tried watching a game this week, but I couldn't get into it, so I don't think I'm ready for it yet. I think the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the week after Thanksgiving is a good time for me to start paying attention. (Side comment: when Nebraska joins the Big Ten, will there now be 12 ACC/Big Ten Challenge games? If so, what'll happen in the event of a 6-6 tie? Will it be like the Ryder Cup, where the defending champion keeps the title in the event of a tie? Or will it simply be a tie, since there isn't actually a trophy or anything anyway [at least not that I'm aware of]?)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Top Gear Ruined?

One of my favorite shows is "Top Gear", a goofy BBC show (aired domestically on BBC America) about cars. Given the massive worldwide popularity of the show, I figured it was only a matter of time before an American version surfaced. There actually have been a few failed attempts at an American version before, but only now is one making it to the air. This Sunday, at 10 PM (9 Central), the History Channel presents...the premiere of the American version of "Top Gear"!

As a fan of the BBC version, I'm not sure if I should be excited or frightened about this. "Top Gear" is a British show, and it works because it caters to a British television audience, which is notably different from an American television audience. My biggest fear is that History will ruin the show by making it too loud, "in your face", arrogant, and obnoxious...or, in other words, too American. The three presenters they've chosen (Tanner Foust, Adam Ferrara, Rutledge Wood) do nothing to quell that fear. I admit I don't know a lot about those three, but I'm afraid that they basically chose three Jeremy Clarksons to host the show, rather than three people with different personalities. Who's going to be the "Captain Slow" of the group? Anyone?

I admit, not every segment on the BBC "Top Gear" works. Sometimes, the car reviews are boring. And, we typically skip the celebrity interviews, otherwise known as the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment. We don't know who these British celebrities are, and we don't really care, either. (Apparently, the U.S. version will call the celebrity interviews "Big Star in a Small Car". Ugh. See what I mean by "Americanizing" the show? Is "reasonably" too big of a word for an American audience? Are we going to have to limit ourselves to one-syllable words from now on?) The most entertaining segments on the BBC version are their "challenges", and they're entertaining because they're funny and often humiliate the presenters, not because they contain a lot of crashes and explosions. Sure, explosions and destruction are great, but...I'm afraid that the American version will have too much of that, without putting any real thought or effort behind it. It may not be fair to judge the U.S. version by subjecting it to constant comparisons with the BBC version, but when you use the same logo and everything, that's the way it's going to be.

In summary...the U.S. version of "Top Gear" could be anything from excruciatingly painful to watch and a massive failure, to almost as good as the BBC version. (I don't foresee a scenario in which the History version is actually better.) I owe it to myself to at least watch the premiere, even though I may regret doing so.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Competitive Flossing

The other day, I asked Amber if she had flossed her teeth that day; she said "Yes, but it wasn't the most spectacular flossing job ever". That got me thinking. How would one judge the most spectacular flossing job ever?

So...that gave me an idea: competitive dental floss competitions. Floss all you can in a fixed amount of time - say, two minutes - and whoever removes the most tartar/plaque/whatever buildup wins! Wouldn't that be fun? They have competitions for the strangest things these days; why can't we compete to become the best flosser?

I was thinking that there are a couple of ways to do this:
- Prior to the competition, everyone bites into a mouthpiece or something that transfers a certain amount of fake, harmless buildup into their teeth. Each contestant will then attempt to floss as much of that fake bad stuff out of their teeth as possible. Then, somehow, we'll measure how much fake stuff is still left on the teeth afterwards. (I'm not sure how that last part could be done, but I'm sure there's a way. I don't think measuring how much was transferred onto the floss itself is a legitimate test, because some gets swallowed.)
- Or, to eliminate some of the variables or complications, administer the competition "dentist style" and have contestants floss somebody else's teeth - a dummy, of course - like at the dentist. That way, the test subjects, fake plaque, and so on could be more fairly distributed and prepared, and measuring the amount left over afterwards would be easier, too. This would, however, give a distinct advantage to professional dentists and hygenists, as they floss other people's teeth on a daily basis, while the rest of us never do. (Dentists would probably have the advantage either way, since they no doubt take care of their own teeth better than us muggles do, and can likely be considered "expert flossers".)

So...whaddya think? Do you have what it takes to be America's Next Top Dental Flosser?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Curling Recap: 11/12/10

Sometimes, I think that Curling Recaps and Sports Saturdays make up too large a percentage of my blog content, and that I don't really need to write a recap after every single curling game I play. Other times, I think...why the hell not?

Career game #115: Fall League Week 6 - November 12, 2010
(our team: Scheck)

End......... 12345678 |TTL
Scheck...... 00201221 | 08
Witcraft.... 21020000 | 05

This one didn't come easy. Here's an overly simplistic recap: on the first half of the game, opposing skip Nick made several excellent draws early in the game to help build a gap. In the second half, we started making more shots and getting a few lucky raises (bumping rocks that had been left short into the house on prior shots). The 7th end was the pivotal end here; I'll diagram the last rock from that end shortly, after I explain something.

The ice conditions - a huge fall towards the center of the rink - dictated that there were really only two options: draws into the house, or very light take-outs. If you try to guard, the fall will carry the rock well inside of the primary line, and you'll end up not blocking anything at all. Throw a heavy take-out, and you're likely to miss completely and waste a throw, because attempting take-outs on ice with a lot of side-to-side movement is like trying to hit a moving target. At least with a light take-out, even if you miss the target rock completely, you might still end up in the house. We're hoping that the folks we rent the ice from will level out the ice in the coming weeks, but until then, this is the way to play on the two outer sheets.

This meant that unlike in our last couple of matches, due to the lack of effective guards, there were always shots available for the skips. Here was the approximate setup prior to the opposing team's final rock of the pivotal 7th end, with the game tied: (our team = red)

(Or something like that. All I really remember is the location of the two red rocks.)

One shot remaining for yellow. If they hit either of the red rocks and stick, or simply draw to the button, they'll score one...but that's not as easy as it sounds, given the huge right-to-left fall. (To give curlers from other clubs some perspective, we were putting the broom 6 to 12 feet outside the house, to the right.) The key to this shot is to absolutely not be light; if you're a little heavy, you might hit and stick, but if you're light, you have no chance. So, opposing skip Nick erred on the side of heavy, and it ended up going directly between and behind the two red rocks. Two points for the red team. That was basically the game, and we got a little lucky there.

Our team's two-game losing streak (if that can be called a streak) is over, and we've now clinched a spot in the league playoffs, which take place after Thanksgiving. Will Amber and I finish 2010 as league runners-up for the third consecutive season? Or will something else happen?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Follow the Green Arrows

Recently, while riding my bike to work, I noticed arrows such as these spraypainted on the road:

Roads have a lot of spraypainted messages, arrows, and other markings on them, usually having to do with utilities and such. I had never noticed these particular arrows in amongst the clutter before. But I recently participated in a charity bike ride, in which the route was marked on the pavement with arrows very similar to the ones shown above. Hmm...are these "IC" arrows for some other charity bike ride? Based on a little bit of internet research, I discovered an annual charity ride called the "Ice Cream ride". Hey, I bet that's what "IC" stands for. Ding ding ding!

So what would happen if I just got on my bike and followed the arrows? Where would it take me? I thought that would be a fun game, so on Saturday morning, I...got on my bike and followed the arrows. All I knew was that the length of the route would be within my range (based on internet research), and I assumed the route would be bike-friendly, given that this is for a charity bike ride and all. But I had no idea where they would take me.

The arrow-designated route passes very close to home, so I picked up the route there, and followed the green arrows all the way around the loop. The green route ended up being 20 miles long:

View Larger Map

So...here's the problem with just blindly following bike route arrows like these. While adventurous and fun, there's always a chance that one important arrow has disappeared or has been paved over. This happened at one major intersection, where after a lot of backtracking and second-guessing, I eventually "gave up", turned left, and started heading back home...only to be re-united with the green arrows immediately after the intersection. Whew! (It pretty much had to be a left turn, though; straight went nowhere, and a right turn would have returned me to an earlier segment of the route.)

That was fun, but...there is still more arrow-following fun to be had. The green arrows were fun, but what about those orange arrows? My assumption is that the orange arrows are for a longer route, and internet research indicates that the orange route is either 45 or 62 miles long, depending on which year this is for (I don't know). This route's length could be well outside my range, but I still want to find out where the orange arrows go. So, next weekend (or some other weekend), I'm going to skip the first several miles, go straight to the intersection where the green and orange arrows split, and follow the orange arrows from there. Where will the arrows take me this time? Who knows?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sports Saturday: 11/13/10

Sure, I watch a lot of sports on television, but I rarely attend games in person. Here's everything I don't like about attending sporting events in person: game tickets cost money, sometimes a lot of money, and I already spend a lot of money on my television package, so I might as well take advantage of it and stay at home, as opposed to getting there an hour or two early, sitting around waiting for the game to start, finally watching the game from a less-than-ideal perspective, getting annoyed by some obnoxious fans a few seats over, being unable to change the channel once the game turns into a blowout, and of course, sitting in a long traffic jam after the game is over.

I pretty much just listed every negative I can think of about attending a sporting event in person. But it's not all bad, right? There's something to be said for actually being there instead of watching images on a screen (something we do far too much of as a society these days). Being part of a large crowd can be fun, too...sometimes. Spending time with friends before, during, and after the game is also a plus. And with some sports, hockey and NASCAR in particular, being there gives you an entirely different perspective. That's enough to get me to attend at least two or three non-minor-league sporting events a year, and in fact, I'm attending two just this week: the Carolina Hurricanes hockey game on Thursday night (which ended in an 8-1 loss...ugh), and today's Wake Forest at NC State college football game. As a sports fan, I think it's good to actually go there every once in a while, even if I generally enjoy the game just as much, if not more, at home.

Finally, if you want to win stuff at a sporting event and/or get on the jumbotron, get there early. We arrived super early for a Marlins v. Mets baseball game a long time ago, and my brother James won an autographed bat and got his picture up on the jumbotron. We arrived somewhat early for the hockey game Thursday night, and Adam won $40 in gift cards for a local pizza estabilshment and embarrassed himself on the jumbotron in the process. (Well, I wouldn't call it embarrassing...he had to sing a little. No big deal, but I wouldn't have done it. I want NO PART of the jumbotron.)

So, for those of you who are staying at home this weekend...

College football

Sat 12:00p - Miami (FL) at Georgia Tech, WRAL (ACC Network): ESPN wasn't very nice to the ACC this week; three of the six games are ESPN3.com games (online only). As a Florida State fan, this makes the pressure that much greater every week, because every loss makes FSU a little less likely to be televised in the future. Aaaaaaahhhhhh!
Sat 12:00p - South Florida at Louisville, ESPNU: I haven't watched USF all that much so far this year - this is their first Saturday game in five weeks - and what I have seen of them hasn't been all that impressive. But apparently they're 5-3 and only one game out of first place in the Big East. Wow!
Sat 12:00p - Iowa at Northwestern, ESPN: I don't care who they're playing or how good they actually are...every time I see "Northwestern" on the schedule, I'm thinking upset.
Sat 12:00p - Michigan at Purdue, Big Ten Network
Sat 12:00p - Indiana at Wisconsin, ESPN2
Sat 12:00p - Minnesota at Illinois, Big Ten Network: Did I seriously think Minnesota could beat Penn State a few weeks ago? Wow...
Sat 2:30p - Utah at Notre Dame, NBC
Sat 3:30p - Penn State at Ohio State, ESPN: I'm not expecting good things in this game from a Penn State perspective...maybe it's a good thing I won't be home. (The Wake Forest v. NC State game starts at 2:00p.)
Sat 3:30p - Virginia Tech at North Carolina, ABC
Sat 3:30p - Georgia at Auburn, CBS: To be honest, I haven't been paying much attention to the Cam Newton stories. I just like to watch the games and ignore the off-the-field stuff as much as possible in college football, because it's really kind of a turn-off.
Sat 7:15p - South Carolina at Florida, ESPN: The winner advances to the SEC Championship game. And you know who I'm rooting for.
Sat 8:00p - Clemson at Florida State, ABC: Such a promising season for FSU. A fumble at the 4 yard line one week, and a missed field goal the next...they're that close from being 8-1 instead of 6-3. And now Christian Ponder is hurt, too? Ugh. Well, it was fun while it lasted. See you on ESPN3.com next year, Noles!


Sun 1:00p - Houston at Jacksonville, DirecTV 707: Time to begin the second half of the season. The Jaguars are 4-4 and in the hunt. I still think they have a 6-10 look to them, but I can be (and often am) wrong, so...maybe they can do it? (I'd go into more detail regarding why I think they only have two more wins in them, but I'd like to keep this short.) Let's go Jaguars!
Sun 1:00p - NY Jets at Cleveland, DirecTV 705: How about those Browns?!?! Yeah!
Sun 1:00p - Detroit at Buffalo, DirecTV 708: Lions and Bills. Aww yeah. Somebody's got to win! (The Lions aren't all that bad, actually...well, by their standards.)
Sun 1:00p - Carolina at Tampa Bay, WRAZ 50: Another opportunity for the Bucs to get a win against a bad team.
Sun 1:00p - Cincinnati at Indianapolis, WRAL 5
Sun 1:00p - Tennessee at Miami, DirecTV 704
Sun 1:00p - Minnesota at Chicago, DirecTV 709
Sun 4:05p - Kansas City at Denver, DirecTV 711
Sun 4:15p - Dallas at NY Giants, WRAZ 50: The Cowboys stink, but they still get nationally televised games and produce good TV ratings. Is that because everyone likes watching them lose?
Sun 4:15p - St. Louis at San Francisco, DirecTV 714: You know, I'm getting kind of tired of seeing the same NFC West teams play at 4:00 every week. I know they have to play at 4 because of time zones, but still. How about somebody else? Why do all of the 4:00 games have to be either overhyped teams or AFC West/NFC West teams? Why can't we move Tennessee at Miami to 4:00 this week, just for the hell of it?
Sun 4:15p - Seattle at Arizona, DirecTV 713
Sun 8:20p - New England at Pittsburgh, NBC

Auto racing

Sun 8:00a - Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, SPEED: The F1 season finale, and the championship is still up for grabs. This is must-watch TV for me. Come on, anybody but Alonso!
Sun 3:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix, ESPN: Last week's NASCAR race was quite entertaining, and I missed it...oh well. I'll try to make time for this one.


Sat 7:00p - Carolina at Montréal, Fox Sports Carolinas: The Hurricanes seem to be remarkably average this season. Beat the bad teams, lose to the good teams. Hey, that might be enough to make the playoffs!
Sat 7:00p - Vancouver at Toronto, NHL Network: Hey, remember a few weeks ago when I said that the top three teams in the Eastern Conference were Toronto, Tampa Bay, and the New York Islanders? Well...the Leafs and Islanders suck again, but at least we still have the Lightning. They're legit (I think), they have one of the league's best young players in Steven Stamkos, and I'll be watching more of them.
Sat 7:00p - Florida at Philadelphia, Fox Sports Florida: And, I'm going to stop it here, in the interest of time. Does anyone other than me actually use these schedules I type up every week?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hot Dogs

Do you like hot dogs? I do.

Yes, hot dogs get a lot of crap from people, and the common joke is that nobody really knows what's in them. (Not only do they get a lot of crap, they also contain a lot of crap. Zing!) But, I mean, it tells you right on the package! Beef, pork, turkey, chicken, or some subset of that. So what's the problem?

I'm reminded of a Modern Marvels episode about Cold Cuts (a.k.a. lunch meat). The process that goes into mass processed meat preparation is, quite frankly, kind of disgusting. I think we're more likely to enjoy food - meat in particular - if we try not to think too hard about how it got there. I think hot dogs fall under the same category. Some people can't get past that, and that's probably why many people don't eat hot dogs or are straight up vegetarians. Does my attitude towards meat - I like it, and I don't want to know how it got here - make me a bad person?

Well, anyway...hot dogs come in all different varieties. We normally either buy Ball Park (they plump when you cook them! or so they say) or Oscar Meyer, which we got one week when Kroger ran out of Ball Parks, only to discover that we liked them, too. In fact, Oscar Meyer now wins the tiebraker with both brands are priced equally. Hebrew National hot dogs are quite good, but they're expensive. Kroger brand hot dogs are cheap, and the ultra-generic brand (packaged similarly to the 99¢ corn flakes) are VERY cheap, but...my experience with cheap hot dogs hasn't always been good.

But there's more to it than just brand. Bun-length or regular? For us, it's bun-length all the way; why wouldn't you buy a hot dog that was tailored to fit your bun? All-beef, all-turkey, or the chicken/pork/turkey/beef/whatever variety, which Oscar Meyer simply calls "wieners"? Wieners for us. We got the all-beef ones by mistake one week, and...wow. Really, really, greasy. We won't make that mistake again, as long as we remember the following: Packaging for Oscar Meyer wieners features red lettering; all-beef features blue lettering. For Ball Park, red means all-beef, and blue means the other kind. Are they trying to confuse us?

Perhaps my favorite thing about hot dogs: they're easy. Pop them in the microwave, and they're ready to eat. Woo! No need to cook tonight, Amber...I got this one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Another Dumb License Plate Game

Now that North Carolina license plates are approaching the end of the alphabet, it's a very exciting time to be a license plate geek. I can hardly contain myself!

It's been a while since I completed the Ohio County Sticker License Plate Game, so I think it's time for a new game. And since North Carolina license plates are now in the ZZs, which will soon be followed by the AAs (makes perfect sense, right?), now is as good a time as any.

So, here's my new game. It has to do with the first three letters of standard, non-specialty, non-personalized North Carolina license plates (e.g. the "ZZA" part of "ZZA-1234"):
- Spot at least one license plate representing all 21 letter combinations that start with ZZ, from ZZA to ZZZ. (The reason there are only 21 combinations instead of 26 is because standard North Carolina plates do not use the letters G, I, O, Q, or U.)
- Also spot at least one license plate representing all 21 letter combinations that start with AA, from AAA to AAZ.

So far, I've spotted 4 of the ZZs (ZZA, ZZC, ZZD, and ZZM), and none of the AAs. ZZs only started surfacing two or three weeks ago, so we're probably another month or two away from the first of the AAs.

I think the two most intriguing things about this game are:
- I've hypothesized before that all plates representing a particular three-letter combination are issued in a particular part of the state. If that's true, then all of the ZZFs may end up belonging to drivers living in, say, Hickory or Wilmington...and that's going to make spotting all 42 combinations more challenging. I could end up seeing hundreds of ZZMs before I see a single ZZF, for instance. (I've seen multiple ZZMs already, which would seem to support my theory.) But we go traveling a lot, so I think I'll get all 42 regardless.
- ZZZ and AAA are the big ones, of course. I'm hoping to get clear pictures of those, as opposed to just catching a glimpse of one on I-40.

You can follow my progress via By the Numbers. Or, you could just wait for my head to explode, and assume that means I spotted a ZZZ- or AAA- license plate.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


I was originally going to make two separate posts here, then I discovered they're kind of related.

Recently, we went out to eat at Ruby Tuesday, a restaurant I hadn't been to in five years. It was much nicer than I remember. By "nicer", I don't necessarily mean "better", though. The food selection was much more interesting than I remember, going well beyond the simplistic burgers/sandwiches/chicken types of stuff I remember them having (and almost always end up getting anyway, so...meh). And, of course, "nicer" also means "more expensive", which is the main reason we likely won't be going back any time soon. Ruby Tuesday's target market is no longer younger folks who are interested in appetizers and a modest upgrade over fast food. Now, they're targeting older people who might like something a little more sophisticated than the Applebee's/T.G.I. Friday's slate, and don't mind paying for it, either. The clientele that were present reflect that.

Anyway, here's what to take away from that: "nicer" isn't always "better", and renovations and/or attempts to attract a more sophisitcated crowd might actually leave you worse off than you were before, if nothing else because it may mean higher prices.

That's why I'm not all that excited about our neighborhood Kroger's recent renovations. Our local Kroger has always been a nice store, but it wasn't overflowing with, say, fanciness and snobbery. And, it's cheap. They provide a better combination of quality and price than any other Triangle grocery store. So when I walk into the store and I see things like this...

...I can't help but get worried. (That's the produce section, which is now called "The Garden", apparently. Ugh.) Our neighborhood Kroger has been undergoing renovations as of late, and the "new" Kroger looks much more fancy. Renovations are one thing, but this is a complete overhaul of the store's appearance. One could even say they're trying to emulate the Harris Teeter across the street.

But dammit, Kroger, I don't want you to be Harris Teeter! If I did, I'd just shop there instead, and the reason I don't is because they're too expensive. If Kroger is trying to look like Harris Teeter, can a price increase be far behind?

I'm hopeful that's not the case, considering that Kroger is a large corporation (one that can absorb the cost of a renovation or two), and that grocery store prices at my Kroger and other area Krogers are - I believe - generally the same. And a small price jump would be fine if the quality of the store improved to Publix or Wegmans levels, but I know that won't happen, so...I think I'd rather they just maintain status quo.

We'll see how this works out. I just don't want Kroger to go too far - you know, like Ruby Tuesday did.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Curling Recap: 11/5-11/7/10

So, here's something I've noticed over the last couple of weeks of curling. I haven't been getting much better as of late, suggesting that unless I make drastic changes or start practicing a lot, my curling ability is close to peaking. Everyone else in the Triangle Curling Club, on the other hand...

Career game #113: Fall League Week 5 - November 5, 2010
(our team: Scheck; I'm going to put my team in boldface from now on to make it easier to tell which team I played on)

End......... 12345678 |TTL
Scheck...... 00101000 | 02
M. Jackson.. 12020533 | 16

Career game #114: Fall League Week 5 - November 7, 2010
(I spared on Team Zwiefel in the Sunday league; Amber played in a different game and lost 9-8)

End......... 123456 |TTL
Zwiefel..... 010010 | 02
Franklin.... 102302 | 08

I have noticed improvement in general quality of play as of late. Maybe that's just because we're several weeks into the season now, but still...it's great to see, and it's great for the club. Yes, it means it's harder to win games now than it was earlier in the year when we had a lot of new post-Olympic curlers. But my all-time record is still 20 games above .500 (67 wins, 47 losses), and I've been on the winning side of more blowouts than on the losing side as of late (those games in Connecticut don't count)...so, don't worry about me. :) I can stand to take a few losses, and it's cheaper, too. (Curling tradition dictates that winners buy losers a drink after the game.)

So...about that first game. I looked back through my records, and that was, in fact, the worst loss in my curling career. (Previous worst was a 15-2 loss.) When one team can consistently make its take-outs on our ice, it's hard to beat, and they made just about everything. Similar deal on Sunday, too. When the other team makes two raise double take-outs in the same game, chances are, you're going to lose.

(A "raise double take-out" goes like this: shooter hits one of your guards, guard hits an opponent rock, opponent rock hits another opponent rock, and both opponent rocks spill out of the house.)

(I should probably give Adam credit for those, so...good job!)

Maybe it's time we rethink our usual take-out-averse strategy, because it hasn't worked the last couple of weeks. Everyone else is making crazy take-outs, so why can't we have some fun too?

On second thought...nah. You shouldn't let a couple of bad games make you rethink your entire strategy, right? Let's stick with the proven gameplan. It's taken us this far.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sports Saturday: 11/6/10

Yes, last week's 100% positive "Sports Saturday" was kind of ridiculous. Let's try to find a happy medium, shall we?

College football - If you're the type of person who follows the race for the "national championship" and doesn't much care for games such as Wisconsin at Purdue, there's really only one game to watch today: TCU v. Utah. There's a lot at stake: not only will the winner earn the right to complain about the BCS, but they might even get to play another BCS-shafted team (Boise State) in the Fiesta Bowl! Or, better yet, the Big East champion! That's my guess, anyway. I mean, who wouldn't want to see Utah play Pittsburgh again?

Well, anyway...don't watch TCU/Utah because of "BCS implications". Watch because it'll be a great game between two undefeated teams, and because it's a de facto conference championship game. (Unlike the BCS, conference championships are fairly determined and are legit, so I pay attention to those championships.)

In other action...

Sat 12:00p - NC State at Clemson, ACC Network (WRAL): For Florida State to "control their own destiny" in the ACC, NC State needs to lose. Could be today. Could be any Saturday the rest of the way, really.
Sat 12:00p - Maryland at Miami (FL), ESPNU: Maryland is actually doing kind of well this year. Their record is a solid 6-2, 3-1 in the ACC. Weak schedule, yes, but a weak schedule hasn't stopped them in the past. How many times did they lose to Middle Tennessee, anyway?
Sat 12:00p - Minnesota at Michigan State, Big Ten Network: Michigan State had a tough week last week, so if there was ever a good time to play Minnesota, this is it.
Sat 12:00p - Illinois at Michigan, ESPN
Sat 12:00p - Iowa at Indiana, Big Ten Network
Sat 12:00p - Wisconsin at Purdue, Big Ten Network
Sat 3:30p - North Carolina at Florida State, ABC: With Florida State, Penn State, and TCU/Utah all at the same time, I'll be doing plenty of channel changing throughout the afternoon. UNC has definitely underwhelmed this year, so this is a game I'd think the Seminoles "should" win...but those "should win" games are usually the ones I get most frustrated with, so I'll try to go into this game without any preconceived notions about how it will play out.
Sat 3:30p - Northwestern at Penn State, ESPN2: Two weeks after I actually considered the possibility of Penn State losing to Minnesota, they've reeled off two solid wins. Woohoo! Quarterback controversy??? (I don't read any news about Penn State football mid-week, so I actually don't know who's going to start today.) The next win will be Joe Paterno's 400th, and that's about how many times I expect the announcers to mention that during today's game, too.
Sat 3:30p - TCU at Utah, CBS College: So...I kind of take these obscure sports channels for granted now, but how many of you don't get the CBS College Sports Network?
Sat 3:30p - Alabama at LSU, CBS: Oh yeah, this game...this could be a good one too. (Side note: I think after this season would be a perfect time for Verne Lundquist to retire. You can tell his skills and perception are starting to deteriorate a little.)
Sat 3:30p - Navy at East Carolina, MASN: I guess at some point, I decided to put ECU games on this list. Why? Because they're sort of local, and they get a decent amount of local press.
Sat 7:00p and later - nothing: No teams of personal interest play this evening. That actually works out great, because we're going to a fake wedding reception tonight anyway.

NFL - After a very entertaining and satisfying blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys, it's now the Jacksonville Jaguars' bye week. That gives me the opportunity to do something different. Rather than list games in order according to time and personal priority, I'm going to rank them based on the play-by-play announcers calling the games. NFL Sunday Ticket has allowed me to sample each of the CBS and FOX announcers, and I've gotten to the point where deciding which game to watch sometimes comes down to who is calling the game.

So now I present to you, My NFL Play-By-Play Announcer Rankings. (Emphasis on "my". I'm not ranking "best" to "worst", just "favorite" to "least favorite".) Everyone who has broadcasted a game on TV so far this season will be ranked, including those not broadcasting a game today. I'm also listing the game that each is calling today, if any, according to the506.com.

#1 Kevin Harlan, CBS (Kansas City at Oakland, Sun 4:15p): I know this is kind of an "off the wall" selection for #1, but...I love his voice. What can I say? Also note that I'm ranking only the play-by-play guy, not the analyst; Harlan's analyst (Solomon Wilcots) is not one of the best.
#2 Ian Eagle, CBS (San Diego at Houston, Sun 1:00p): The most underrated of the bunch, if you ask me.
#3 Greg Gumbel, CBS (Miami at Baltimore, Sun 1:00p): My criteria for a good play-by-play announcer are: professional, accurate, gets excited when appropriate, has a good voice, and most importantly, not annoying.
#4 Mike Tirico, ESPN (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Mon 8:30p): When I can't think of much to say about an announcer, that's a good sign, because that means they're professional and not annoying.
#5 Gus Johnson, CBS (NY Jets at Detroit, Sun 1:00p): Johnson is famous for his "blow ups", and that makes him great to some and annoying to others. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. He also says dumb things sometimes, like when he said Chris Johnson (I think) had "running from the cops speed".
#6 Kenny Albert, FOX (Arizona at Minnesota, Sun 1:00p): Albert does a good job, but...I don't know. I can't bring myself to rank him any higher. Maybe it's the "FOX Stink". (I generally prefer CBS over FOX; the bottom four announcers on this list are all FOX announcers.)
#7 Jim Nantz, CBS (Indianapolis at Philadelphia, Sun 4:15p): CBS loves shoving Nantz down our throats, yes. You might think he's annoying. Personally, I don't think he's that annoying, and he does a good enough job. #7 sounds about right.
#8 Al Michaels, NBC (Dallas at Green Bay, Sun 8:20p): Universally considered one of the best, sure...but I can't get behind the really big name announcers too much.
#9 Sam Rosen, FOX (Chicago at Buffalo, Sun 1:00p): I'm not sure if I like his accent or not, but I'll take Rosen over most announcers.
#10 Dick Stockton, FOX (New Orleans at Carolina, Sun 1:00p): Stockton is getting old, and his accuracy has suffered as of late. In his younger days, I'd rank him higher.
#11 Don Criqui, CBS (none): Some of these announcers are low on the totem pole and aren't used every week, so when you do see them, you know it must be a pretty meaningless game. Criqui is one of those guys. Being a Jaguars fan, I've seen him a lot over the years.
#12 Spero Dedes, CBS (none): Dedes is the new guy on the scene and is even behind Criqui on the CBS totem pole. "Small sample space" applies here, but from what I have heard of his work, I like. Why isn't Dedes used more?
#13 Bill Macatee, CBS (New England at Cleveland, Sun 1:00p): I've always thought of Macatee as a golf announcer first. His skills don't always translate over to football.
#14 Ron Pitts, FOX (none): Pitts is another one of those "low on the totem pole" guys, but regardless, I think he's boring and adds nothing to the telecast. If he suddenly stopped talking during a game, I may not even notice.
#15 Joe Buck, FOX (NY Giants at Seattle, Sun 4:05p): I've gathered that a lot of you think Buck is annoying. Personally, I think he comes across as elitist. He never sounds like he's having fun, and when he does joke, it's always with a "well, haw haw" tone. He's too professional, in fact. Whatever it is, he just saps all the fun out of a game broadcast.
#16 Chris Myers, FOX (none): Those of you who watch NASCAR on FOX will say that Myers is anything but professional. That's not the problem here; Myers is plenty professional when he's asked to be. He's just miscast as a play-by-play guy. Like NASCAR on ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch, he's a much better host / sideline reporter than he is play-by-play. With play-by-play, he has a tendency to fall a little behind the action and not get excited when something big happens. FOX knows this, and sideline reporting is what Myers does most of the time; they just needed someone to fill in for Joe Buck during the baseball playoffs.
#17 Thom Brennaman, FOX (Tampa Bay at Atlanta, Sun 1:00p): Brennaman is, without a doubt, the most annoying announcer of the bunch. Not only does he have the same elitist attitude as Joe Buck, he also goes WAY overboard with certain star players. Whenever the game features a big, overhyped superstar (e.g. Tim Tebow or Brett Favre), Brennaman just WON'T SHUT UP about how great he is. It's nauseating.
--- Chris Rose, FOX (none): Rose is rarely used for play-by-play. I never heard him do it, so I don't know where to rank him. (Note that Rose is "unranked", not "last". Brennaman is definitely last.)

Auto racing - Two races remaining in the Formula One season, and five drivers are still mathematically alive for the championship. That's a refreshing change from last year, and all of those Michael Schumacher years, in which the championship was basically wrapped up by the halfway point.

So...who ya got? Sebastian Vettel has been my predicted champion all season long, so I'm sticking with him until he's no longer mathematically alive. As far as who I'd like to see win it...basically, anybody but Fernando Alonso. I don't like him, and I don't like Ferrari either, but I will give Alonso and his team credit for being pretty much the only contender who hasn't crashed or broken down as of late.

Meanwhile, I'm skipping this week's NASCAR race, because I don't think I'll have time to watch it...but I'll put it on the schedule anyway.

Sun 11:00a - Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix, SPEED
Sun 3:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Texas, ESPN

NHL - No hockey for me this weekend...it's a long season, you know.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Outlet Malls

A brand new outlet mall opened today in nearby Mebane, just off I-40/85 (Exit 154). (That's pronounced MEB-bin for the non-locals.) Apparently, this is such a big deal, people are suggesting that if we want to avoid massive traffic jams, we should AVOID THE AREA ENTIRELY this weekend.

I'm not exactly the "shopping spree" type, so I don't understand what the big deal is. It seems like outlet malls have a devoted cult following, as compared to regular shopping centers or malls, and that when an outlet mall opens, it's a MUCH bigger deal than when a regular old shopping center opens. Why? What's so great about outlet malls, anyway? Are prices better at outlet malls than regular shopping centers? Is the selection better? Do outlet malls have a redneck stigma surrounding them that appeals to a certain sector of the population? I don't know, but I'm guessing it's a combination of all three, in particular, price. Personally, Target works just fine for me, and I don't feel the need to drive all the way to Mebane to buy clothes. (Clothes is mostly what they sell at these places, right?)

However...let me try to think about this from a different perspective. For me, going to a bunch of different grocery stores and buying all kinds of different brands of generic Oreos (for example) is really exciting! When you go to a brand new store, you never know what you're going to find. And if what you find also happens to be super cheap, bonus! I suppose the same is true for many women (and some men) as well, except they don't get excited about generic Oreos; they get excited about clothes. I can see that. You never know what you're going to find at these places, right? Now that I think about it some more, I can definitely see a woman (or man) getting really excited about clothes shopping in much the same way that I get excited about grocery stores, counting counties, and other "collect them all"-type activities.

Under the assumption that there is some kind of massive Grand Opening Sale at this new outlet mall in Mebane this weekend - that's pretty standard with Grand Openings - I can also see why so many people will be there this weekend, as opposed to waiting a week or two for the crowds to die down. So, I take back what I said about not understanding the outlet mall craze. If the new outlet mall included a brand new Publix or Wegmans, you can bet I'd be there too, traffic and all...especially if they had a Grand Opening Sale.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Mammoth Cave and Natchez Trace

The last three years, our Christmas road trip plans have gone something like this:
- Christmas weekend, spend three or four nights with family in Jacksonville or Toledo.
- The following weekend (New Year's), spend three or four nights in the other city with the other side of the family. (We alternate which side of the family gets to see us first.)
- In between, spend two or three days at work, because vacation time is too precious to be able to take that entire week off every year.

Ah, but times have changed: now I get three weeks vacation, not just two. We're taking advantage of that by taking the entire week after Christmas off from work. Yeah!

So, what are we going to do with our extra time off? It won't mean additional time in either Jacksonville or Toledo (no offense), although we will get a full four-night stay in both cities as opposed to three nights. Instead, we're going on a mini-vacation.

As far as deciding where to spend our mini-vacation, there were three basic criteria:
- We have four days between when we leave Toledo (Sunday morning, 12/26) and when we arrive in Jacksonville (Wednesday night, 12/29).
- We don't want this to be a strictly driving trip. Christmas week isn't the best time for that regardless of whether you're north (snow) or south (traffic). So, relatively far away places such as Québec and Texas are out of contention.
- But we don't want to stay east of I-75, either, because most of that falls under "been there done that", "close enough to home we could do it any old weekend", or both.

So, here's the itinerary we decided on:
- Sunday, December 26th: Drive from Toledo to Cave City, KY (~400 miles).
- Monday, December 27th: Spend the day at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
- Tuesday, December 28th: Drive from Cave City to Natchez, MS (~550 miles); along the way, drive the Natchez Trace Parkway from end to end.
- Wednesday, December 29th: Drive from Natchez to Jacksonville (~650 miles).

Yes, three of those four days are driving days. When I say I didn't want this to be a "strictly driving trip", I meant no 800+ mile drives in consecutive days. 400 miles? That's easy! That barely even counts as a "driving day". (Weather pending, of course. I do recognize a chance of snow, which could turn a 400-mile drive into a full day.) And the Natchez Trace Parkway day doesn't count as a driving day either, because the drive itself is the destination. So really, there's only one full driving day in the equation.

Why Mammoth Cave National Park? Amber and I have both been there before, so why bother going back, and in December of all months? Well, it's neat, and it's been a long time for both of us (15+ years?). And, the location just made it a logical choice. It's not too far out of the way, but it is in my "unfamiliar zone".* It's a National Park; usually, you can't go wrong there. And - I made sure to check - they still do cave tours in December. They don't offer the full slate of cave tours every day all winter long, but there will be enough cave tours that day to make it worth a one day visit. (Sadly, the intriguing "Wild Cave Tour" - the one where they give you a hard hat - is only offered on weekends in the winter. I think Amber would have really enjoyed that one.)

(* - The "unfamiliar zone" is the part of the country I don't visit all that often and which seems "new" and "fresh" when I'm there, in comparison to my well-worn paths up and down the East Coast. In the past, I've defined it as everything west of I-75, minus NW Florida and SW Georgia, plus New England. However, Indiana has been trending towards "familiar" as of late - a wedding last year, the US-50 trip last year, two Alaska trip drive throughs this year, and the Toledo-to-Mammoth Cave route I have planned also includes a hefty dose of Indiana - so I'm not sure Indiana qualifies as "unfamiliar" anymore. So my new "unfamiliar zone" definition is this: everything outside the Eastern Time Zone, plus New England, plus all of Michigan north and west of I-69.)

Back to Mammoth Cave. Here's another thing with visiting a cave in the winter. I'm pretty sure every time I've ever done a cave tour, the underground in-cave temperature - which, as they'll brag about on just about every cave tour, stays about the same all year long - has been cooler than the outdoor temperature. I don't think I've ever been inside a cave when the cave temperature is actually warmer than the outdoor temperature. That might be kind of neat. (The average high that time of year in nearby Bowling Green, KY, is 45°F; Mammoth Cave underground temperatures are usually in the 50s.)

Now...why the Natchez Trace Parkway? Well, our drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway a few weeks ago inspired me. Like the Blue Ridge, the Natchez Trace is a scenic limited-access road operated by the National Park Service. The scenery is much different on the Natchez Trace, of course. There are no mountains, but there are cypress swamps, historical things, and even a waterfall or two. The biggest draw isn't so much the scenery. Even if the surroundings are different, the Natchez Trace Parkway should still have the same feel as the Blue Ridge: completely uncommercialized, a slow pace, and just a nice, relaxing drive through the rural South.

The "Deep South" isn't exactly the first place that comes to mind when it comes to vacations and scenic drives. In fact, Mississippi ranks 46th on my list of favorite vacation states (was 45th before I upgraded Connecticut). But then again, as was the case with Connecticut prior to last month's trip there, I've never actually done anything in Mississippi other than drive through. As a result, I have what is, I'm sure, a completely unfair view of the state.

Here's what comes to mind when I think Mississippi:
- old Southern planations
- white houses that look like the one from Forrest Gump
- Confederate flags
- trees
- swamps
- racism (I blame A Time to Kill for that one)
- insects
- Brett Favre

Like I said, I'm sure that's a completely unfair characterization of the state, but that's part of the reason I'm so excited about it. We haven't had near enough "Southern charm" in our vacations. Let's experience Mississippi! For one day, anyway.

(Note: when Amber thinks Mississippi, the first thing that comes to mind for her is Elvis Presley. She's visited the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo - I guess it's a museum or something? - and she also vaguely remembers taking the Natchez Trace Parkway with her parents an ex-boyfriend (corrected) from there to Nashville. But that was long enough ago, I'm hopeful all of this will still seem "fresh" to her too.)

Another thing I'm excited about is that our Natchez-to-Jacksonville drive to take us by Tallahassee. I haven't been to Tallahassee in six years, so I'd kind of like to see how much the city and the FSU campus have changed since then.

Combine this little journey with the Toledo and Jacksonville see-the-family-for-Christmas stops, and we have a full-length, 11-night vacation on our hands. Yay! Let's go!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Charity Bike Ride #1

A while back, I said I was going to participate in a 32-mile charity bike ride benefiting Durham Habitat for Humanity on October 30th. I almost backed out, citing the fact that one of the main draws of bicycling - at least for me - is the solitude of it. However, I followed through and participated, and I'm glad I did. Amber came along, too!

This was our first organized bike ride ever, so I was worried that we'd be much slower than everyone else and bring up the rear. Fortunately, my fears did not materialize; there were actually quite a few riders of similar skill level to Amber and me. I think we were well back in the second half of the field - there was no "official scoring", so there's no way to tell. But there were always lots of people behind us when I looked back. My biggest fear was that we'd finish the ride alone, well after most everyone else...but we actually finished just ahead of a group of 20 or so riders. Whew! (I wasn't paying much attention after we finished, so I don't know how many more there were behind us.)

We also passed quite a few people early in the ride, in part thanks to the pessimistic starting position (near the back) we gave ourselves. I did almost all of my passing uphill, which I thought was interesting. (Passing uphill is great for self-confidence, by the way. Anyone can go fast downhill, right?) So, I'm in better bicycling shape than I thought. Sometimes I get discouraged when I'm riding around the neighborhood, struggling to make it 40 miles...then I get passed by someone who (as I learned during a stoplight conversation) is riding all the way to Greensboro. And back. (He was doing it over two days...but still.)

Amber doesn't ride anywhere near as often as I do, so...did she hold us up? Nope! Maybe up some of the hills, yes, but she can still keep up with me when we ride together, even with her hardcore mountain bike. The only real question was the distance: 32 miles was farther than Amber had ever ridden before, but she did great. But Amber says she'll only do future charity rides if she gets a road bike; going up hills on a heavy mountain bike adds an unnecessary level of difficulty.

So...I originally predicted that serious bicyclists would make up the "vast majority" of the field. Majority, yes, but not the vast majority. The people we rode with most of the time were somewhat-experienced, not all that serious bicyclists, who had regular-looking bikes, and wore regular clothing and shoes. Like me! So, that was good. (I don't see myself ever buying bicycling shoes, by the way. Maybe a jersey, but not shoes.)

Unfortunately, now I have to get the negative of organized rides out of the way. Despite police support at busy intersections and such, I actually think that participating in an organized ride is more dangerous than riding solo. Why? There's the obvious bike-on-bike collision danger, of course, but I also think you're more likely to have a bike-on-car collision in an organized ride. Some bicyclists insist on riding double-file in rides like this, making it hard or impossible for car traffic to pass. There are also a lot more of us, which means cars have more riders to pass. The result? Drivers either get impatient and pass dangerously, or they get pissed off and throw things at the riders. (Yes, that does happen.) I try to stay as out of the way as possible when I ride, but when I'm part of an organized ride, I'm not in complete control of the situation. I was much more nervous during Saturday's ride than I am on any of my solo rides. I was also unimpressed with some riders' courtesy, especially those who looked like they should know better.

Anyway...that's really the only negative about it. Being part of a big pack also has its perks:
- It was kind of cool to have police wave you through the first few traffic lights, which they pretty much had to do given how many of us (several hundred) there were.
- The route was very well-marked with pavement markings and signs. I had a directions sheet, but never needed it. Of course, following the people in front of us would have also sufficed. It was nice to just ride and not worry about "oops, did I miss my turn?" (I always plan out my routes in detail before I go, and in my quest to avoid busy roads and intersections, they can get quite complicated.)
- A designated rest stop, complete with bathrooms, peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, and water refills. (The cookies were my favorite part.) I only have one water bottle carrier attached to my bike, so for my longer rides (25+ miles), I have to carry additional water or Powerade in a backpack. Not today! That was nice.
- There was even more food available at the end, including two free beers for everyone! Free if you paid for the ride, of course. I actually didn't cash in on those, because alcohol after exercise just didn't seem right.
- The route also went through a nice area of rural Durham that I never ride in (west of 15/501 between I-40 and I-85). There are some nice roads back there, but the problem is simply getting there: there aren't many bicycle-friendly routes between here and there. But that isn't as big of a deal when you're part of an organized ride.
- Watching the field gradually thin out was also pretty neat. It stayed together much longer than I thought it would.

It was definitely an experience, one Amber and I are glad we did, and will likely do again. I think one or two organized bike rides per year is a good number.

(Side comment: my fictional Bicycling Trip to Alaska is now in Saskatchewan. Woo! Yeah, that seems far, but we drove that far in just two days this summer.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween 2010: Non-Participating Observers

We made quite a splash with our Halloween costumes last year, if nothing else because it gave you all the opportunity to see me in a dress. (WARNING - the pictures contained within that link are quite scary. You've been warned.) What could Amber and I do for an encore?

Well...nothing this year, unfortunately. We didn't feel like going to Chapel Hill again this year, because that proved to be a lot of trouble logistically, and it's probably one of those things you only need to do once anyway. We didn't know anyone hosting a Halloween party, either, so...we didn't really have anywhere to go. We saw no point in getting costumes purely for our own enjoyment, so no costumes for us this year.

Meanwhile, we just stayed home and greeted trick-or-treaters. Last year, I think we only had 6 kids total. This year, I actually lost count - maybe 20? We even ran out of candy! (We basically assumed we wouldn't get more than a dozen, and we planned accordingly.) Either the dwindling trend of traditional trick-or-treating is finally starting to reverse itself, or we just advertised the house better this year with lights and decorations and such.

As for us...maybe we'll do the costume thing again next year. I think it would be kind of fun to be a cow. Or a roundabout.

Curling Recap: 10/29/10

Career game #112: Pick-up - October 29, 2010

End........ 1234567 |TTL
Jaun....... 0210400 | 07
Allen...... 2002032 | 09

Normally on pick-up nights with the Triangle Curling Club, we have a few experienced curlers and mostly new curlers. I always get to play with Amber while other teams often only have one experienced curler, so our team usually have a strong advantage. This time, though, the club tried to split us up by choosing teams based on a random draw...only to have Amber and I end up on the same team anyway by chance. You can't mess with fate. Fortunately, though, the teams were pretty even this time. (Win or lose, close games are more fun.)

The way our ice works, it's usually either very take-out friendly (rocks always converge to the same lines) or very take-out unfriendly (lots of swing, hard to get any consistent line). In this game, we had both! When throwing from the far end to the near end, it was take-out friendly; going the other way, it was take-out friendly, as the center line was situated in a small valley and was very predictable and repeatable. It was fun to have a little variety in there, because different strategy was needed going each way.

5th end: This was the take-out unfriendly side of the ice, but I think we still tried a couple of light take-outs after the other team got early position. Those shots didn't work out, and neither did my last two draws (much too light with the first, much too heavy with the second), so...whoops! It was a well-earned four points on their part, though. No luck involved.

6th end: There was some luck involved here, though. This was the take-out friendly side with a predictable line. When the ice has one of these "valleys", the best thing you can do is make a hit, and then roll just off that line into an area away from the valley that is much harder to access.

Getting that beneficial roll on our ice is almost impossible to plan for. Rocks don't just ride the predictable line; they sort of wobble back and forth on either side of it. Are you going to hit that yellow rock head-on, or a little to the side? Really, it comes down to luck. So, lucky us! (Besides getting lucky, we did play very well as a team in that end, and made most of our shots.)

7th end: Tie game; one end to go. Traditional curling strategy says that when you don't have last rock (we did not) and need to steal, you should throw guards, so that you don't give the other team a wide-open shot for the win on their last rock. That's one curling strategy that actually does work on our ice, although we didn't start throwing guards until after we got one on the button. On real curling ice against a team that can easily make its take-outs, you'd have to use the free guard rule and do it in the opposite order: throw the guards first, then draw around them.

(Note: I'm pretty much assuming that most, if not all, of the people who read these curling recaps anymore are other curlers, so I generally don't feel the need to explain rules and terms and such anymore like I did when I first started blogging about curling. But I do still have that Wikipedia link over there on the right for those of you who don't know what the "free guard rule" is.)

So...is my confidence back? Sure, why not?