Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Road Tripping Still Fun?

Even though we had a great time in Jacksonville over the weekend, Amber, Marla, and I were all a little cranky when we got back home from Jacksonville yesterday afternoon. Last Friday's drive to Jacksonville was great, but yesterday's drive back home was nearly the "worst case scenario" when it comes to long drives...

- Holiday traffic. I'm sure Monday was a busy travel day, but Tuesday? I didn't expect traffic to be an issue, but it was enough of an issue for me to say "screw this" and leave I-95 altogether once we got to North Carolina. I-95 traffic was much worse on the Tuesday after Christmas than it was on the Friday before Christmas, and in both directions, too. Then again, maybe this next point is to blame for the traffic...

- Weather. Well, I guess the worst case scenario would have been snow, not rain, but a heavy downpour will still cause its share of accidents. There were multiple accidents yesterday in South Carolina; thankfully, none involved us. We even pulled off and waited for a few minutes, which we almost never do because of rain.

- Marla turns five months old today, which is still a relatively easy road trip age, really. Friday's drive was smooth sailing; "stoppage time" (non-driving time between the start and end of the drive) only totaled 47 minutes, which for a 450-mile drive with a baby, is great! The return trip had 87 minutes of stoppage time, and most of that was a bit, let's say, "frenzied". We had to give Marla a new change of clothes twice mid-drive, for instance. And since the drive took longer than anticipated, we didn't have enough milk ready to go at the end, so we had to listen to a hungry screaming baby for the last 15 minutes of the drive. When you're only 15 minutes from home, you might as well just keep going, right?

So, yesterday's drive was not fun at all, but...let's not get discouraged. Road tripping with a kid or two can still be fun. (Given how much Amber and I enjoy it, it had better be!) The key is being prepared. Here's what we learned yesterday: 1) One backup change of clothes for the day isn't enough, apparently. 2) 'Tis better to have too much milk ready to go than not enough milk. 3) Between Christmas and New Year's, there will always be a lot of traffic on I-95 heading to and from Florida, even on Tuesday. 4) I was kind of in a hurry to get home yesterday, and that was a mistake. Being in a hurry takes all the fun out of a road trip, especially when you have a little one with you.

And that brings us to our next road trip...in two days! On Friday, we drive to Toledo for Christmas Part Deux, and on Monday (New Year's Day), we drive home. Both drives will start at around 4 AM on those days. And, we won't be in a hurry this time, so that maybe we'll enjoy the drive! This might be the last year we do back-to-back, Florida/Ohio road trips on Christmas and New Year's weekends, however.

In part two of this "road trip" post, I bring you random and statistical and "road geek" notes from the weekend.

Marla visited 3 new states and 26 new counties over the weekend, bringing her total to 8 states / 85 counties. That's a lot! How many additional counties she gets this coming weekend will depend on which routes we take to/from Toledo, but I can virtually guarantee she will get more than zero. She may even get a new state or two (Michigan? Kentucky?).

It takes about seven minutes longer to get to my parents' new house in Neptune Beach, than it took to get to my parents' old house in Jacksonville's Arlington neighborhood. (The numbers: from the I-95/SR 9A junction north of town, it was 19 minutes to the old house, on average. From that same junction to the new house, it took 27 minutes on Friday afternoon, and 24 minutes on Tuesday morning when there wasn't as much traffic.)

Road geek notes! There is always something new to check out when I go to Jacksonville, to the point where I'm starting to lose track. Was the I-95/I-10 junction finished last time I was there? I don't remember. The I-95/I-10 junction is the second picture posted here, as pictured from Margaret Street, which used to have a direct exit from I-95 Southbound before the interchange was rebuilt. I was hoping that there would still be at least a trace of evidence that Exit 351C (is that right?) once existed, but nope. Meanwhile, the eastern half of Jacksonville's beltway is still signed as State Road 9A almost everywhere, except (according to James) for a few I-295 signs in a few random places along the roads it intersects with, such as Atlantic Blvd.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jacksonville (Neptune Beach)

Way back when I lived in the affluent Raleigh suburb of Cary, for blogging purposes I used to refer to my hometown as "Raleigh (Cary)". The reason is because as far as everyone from out of town was concerned, I lived in Raleigh. But as far as locals were concerned, I lived in Cary. With the "Raleigh (Cary)" designation, I satisfied both the out-of-towners who think of the entire metropolitan area as Raleigh*, and the locals who actually do make the distinction between Wake County's various communities.

(* - There's nothing wrong with that, by the way. That's just the way it is. Regardless of the metropolitan area, we all do it. For instance, when somebody says they're from "Atlanta", the odds that they actually live within the Atlanta city limits - or even within Fulton County - are probably pretty small. But it is kind of annoying with Durham, because I feel like Durham is well known enough to stand on its own. I tell people I'm from Durham, and at some point "Durham" must morph into "Raleigh" in their heads, because later on they'll say, "You're from Raleigh, right?" And I never know how to answer that follow-up question, whether to correct them and say "Durham", or just go along with it.)

The reason I bring this up is because a few months ago, my parents bought a house in Neptune Beach, FL, which is where we'll be staying when we visit from now on. So is it still accurate or appropriate to say "We're going to Jacksonville"? Would it be better to say "We're going to Neptune Beach"? Or, should I revive the old Raleigh (Cary) style and say "We're going to Jacksonville (Neptune Beach)"?

For blogging purposes, my decision is as follows: occasionally, I will slip in a "Jacksonville (Neptune Beach)" reference, but mostly, I'll still say "We're going to Jacksonville". For one, it's not like we're going to stay in Neptune Beach (or the other beaches) the whole time we're there. We will be spending plenty of time in Jacksonville proper, I imagine. But the thing with Neptune Beach is, when Duval County and the City of Jacksonville consolidated, Neptune Beach technically became part of Jacksonville, although it - along with Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach, and Baldwin, too - kept, their own sort-of "city" status in the process. So basically, I can't go wrong by saying "We're going to Jacksonville". It's still accurate, anywhere in Duval County. (Orange Park or Ponte Vedra would be a different story, however.)

Enough semantics! We'll be in Jacksonville (or Neptune Beach or whatever) Friday afternoon through Tuesday morning, including on Christmas Day. There's a lot to get excited about with this trip. Marla hasn't been to Jacksonville (or Neptune Beach or whatever) yet. Shoot, Marla hasn't even been to South Carolina yet. (Three new states for Marla!) We haven't been to Jacksonville in any capacity since January (which has to be the longest span of time I've ever gone without a Jacksonville visit), and we haven't seen my parents' new house yet, either. And, of course, it will be Marla's first Christmas. Lots of firsts coming up this weekend.

So, Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays! Until next time, we'll see you on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Toll Transponders

So, about that new road (the Triangle Parkway) that opened up two weeks ago. Starting January 3rd, it will be a toll road. It will be one of a few toll roads in the country that will be tolled exclusively on an electronic basis, with no toll booths. That means it's time for North Carolina to set up its own brand of on-the-fly "E-Z Pass"-type tolling. Introducing NC Quick Pass!


Amber and I received our toll transponders last week. That means on local toll roads, we'll get the cheaper "NC Quick Pass" toll rate, instead of the higher "Bill By Mail" toll rate. (Cars without transponders will have their license plate snapped, and will get a bill in the mail.) But the reason I got the "hard case" transponder instead of the less-of-an-eyesore, and cheaper, sticker transponder is because, unlike the stickers, my transponder will be compatible with the Northeast's E-Z Pass, Florida's SunPass, Texas's TxTag, and Illinois's I-Pass. No longer will we need to bring six $1 bills with us every time we take the West Virginia Turnpike, because we'll be E-Z Pass people! … Well, eventually. They don't work out-of-state yet (or vice-versa), and I read somewhere that it will be a few more months, potentially not until next summer, before our transponders will work out-of-state. That was kind of a letdown, because I was hoping this would be in place before this season's holiday driving. If North Carolina wasn't instituting its own toll roads, then I would have actually gotten an out-of-state transponder years ago. But instead, I waited patiently all these years in order to get a North Carolina one.

That said, here's a point of contention I have: we were charged $20 each just to get the transponders, and we won't get that money back. Other states give out toll transponders for free. On the other hand, I don't know if all E-Z Pass states offer cheaper rates to those with E-Z Pass than to those who pay with cash. I know some do, but not all...I think. Either way, I guess it could be worse. For example, Colorado's E-470 tollway, which leads to the Denver airport, is one of the most expensive toll roads in the country. After driving a rental car on it one time, my parents received a bill in the mail for $25.

Is having this thing on your windshield a distraction when you're driving? Not really. It's mostly hidden behind the rear view mirror. Not an issue.


So, Amber and I now have $20 in our account balance. I'll drive down the Parkway once next month just to make sure it works. After that...well, we may not need them again until next time we're on the West Virginia Turnpike.

Monday, December 19, 2011

When Indoor Cats Go Outdoors


Our cat, Rolo, is an indoor cat. She only goes outside when the door is slightly ajar and we're not paying attention. Like last night, for instance. Usually, we go fetch her and bring her back inside immediately. This time, though...

Apparently she was outside all night long, for about 14 hours, and we had no idea until we couldn't find her in the house this morning. Fortunately, we know where she usually goes when she darts outside (under the back porch), so we found her this morning and brought her back inside. That was a relief, because when she wasn't waiting outside our bedroom door waiting to be fed this morning, we figured there were only two possibilities: 1) she was dead; 2) she had gotten outside somehow.

How did we go 14 hours without realizing that Rolo wasn't inside the house? Well, not to make excuses, but when you have a kid, it's much harder to keep track of everything else that's going on.

Normally when Rolo gets a taste of the outdoors, she spends the next two days looking outside, meowing incessantly, asking for more. But after spending all night out there, on the coldest night of the season to date (27°F this morning), I hope she's had her fill. No more sneaking out the door while we're trying to carry our baby inside, you hear?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Company Christmas Lunch

See below for an UPDATE following the Christmas Lunch.

Let's talk restaurant serving times!

There are only two weeks left in 2011. Ideal Hot Dog has a virtual stranglehold on "fastest restaurant serving time of 2011" honors. The "honor" of "slowest restaurant serving time of 2011", however, is a different story.

Applebee's of Knightdale, NC, at 29:43, is currently the slowest restaurant of the year. That's a pretty tame number for "slowest of the year", though. There is still plenty of room at the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) for another slow restaurant or two to sneak in there. Since I started the spreadsheet in 2004, only once (2009) has no restaurant all year long gone over 30 minutes.

Tomorrow, in particular, is a big day, for it is the day of the annual company Christmas lunch. The company Christmas lunch is all you could ask for if you're looking for a slow serving time: 1) a large group (15 to 20 people), and 2) a fancier restaurant than I would normally go to on my own. (By "fancier", I mean "more expensive", of course. Thanks, Lucille!) Here are the restaurant serving times from past company Christmas lunches:

2010 - 36:39 at Pop's (annual rank: 2)
2009 - 29:03 at Tosca (annual rank: 1)
2008 - no Christmas lunch
2007 - 31:21 at Cheesecake Factory (annual rank: 2)
2006 - 19:44 at Kemp's (annual rank: 12)

Throw out the Kemp's time, and you have an annual contender for slowest serving time of the year. This year should be no different, as we head to a "contemporary Mexican" restaurant called Mez for our Christmas lunch. Mez is a huge wild card, and here's why: out of the 265 restaurant serving times in my spreadsheet, exactly ONE is for a Mexican restaurant. That means I have virtually no feel for how fast or slow the Mexican genre is, let alone "contemporary Mexican".

That one, lonely data point can provide some insight, though. I don't know if Mad Mex of State College, PA, is considered "contemporary Mexican" (as opposed to plain old Mexican), but my guess is that Mez and Mad Mex are similar. And, like tomorrow's trip to Mez, the January 18, 2006 trip to Mad Mex was with a large group (party of 15). Mad Mex's time that day nearly six years ago was 31:07, which would be good enough for slowest of 2011. Could one argue that the odds of Mez eclipsing Applebee's as slowest of 2011 are over 50%?

But regardless of the time Mez posts tomorrow afternoon, with holiday family trips to Jacksonville and Toledo coming up, the "slowest time of the year" won't be decided until New Year's Day. That is, unless Mez posts a really slow time tomorrow (45 minutes plus), in which case...congratulations, I guess?

UPDATE: One thing I like about this "restaurant serving times" nonsense is that I never really know what to expect. Mez clocked in at 16 minutes, 47 seconds, much faster than I expected, and the 9th fastest "party of 7+" serving time on record. I attribute it to three factors: 1) We only had 10 people in our party, as opposed to 15 or more. 2) Appetizers are usually standard at the company Christmas lunch, but this time, they gave us our appetizers before we had even ordered our main dish. (This is something I discussed a couple of months ago.) 3) We ordered off the shorter lunch menu rather than the longer, more complicated dinner menu, which has to help, right?

Rolling Over

Marla can roll over on her own now. Hooray! (That's a link to a Facebook video, but it is publicly viewable even for the non-Facebook types.)

When it comes to baby milestones, I've resisted the urge to look up the average age for milestones such as "able to roll over", "able to crawl", "able to walk", "first word". I don't want to get disappointed or stressed or anything in case Marla is "late" on any of these things. But we have the first roll-over out of the way, so now I can look!

The general consensus is that babies can start rolling from back to belly on their own at 5-6 months. So, Marla (at 4½ months) is ahead of the game there. Yippee! However...one thing we haven't seen Marla do yet is roll over the other way (belly to back). That's interesting because the general consensus there is that babies should be able to go belly-to-back before they can go back-to-belly. I think the issue here is that we aren't giving Marla near enough "tummy time". Sure, we've been giving her some, but not enough for her to learn motor skills in that orientation, apparently.

Forgive me for being overly excited about this. It takes a few months for babies to start doing anything interesting. Maybe now is a good time to finally get around to baby-proofing the house?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hand Towels

I'm going to wait a few more days to blog about this, so instead, here's something far more trivial.

In our home bathrooms, and in many home bathrooms everywhere, the hand towel is kept on a rack, like so:


You're done washing your hands, and it's time to try them. Do you: a) take the hand towel completely off the rack and use it to dry your hands, or b) leave the hand towel on the rack as you dry your hands?

Without putting much thought into it, I usually choose option b), mostly out of laziness. But now that I have thought about it, I've consciously been choosing option a). It doesn't seem like it's a more efficient way to dry your hands, but it is.

That is, assuming the towel of choice is sized similarly to the one pictured above. If the only available towel is a larger towel designed to be used after a full-body shower, such as this one...


...then I think it's more efficient to leave it on the rack. These bigger towels obviously take more effort to get off and back on the rack, and they have more surface area, so there is less to be gained by taking it off the rack to dry your hands. Sometimes, the only towel hanging in the bathroom is indeed one of these larger ones.

So, there you go.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Holy Grails of License Plates

My ZZ-/AA- North Carolina license plate game still isn't done yet; I have yet to find an AAS- license plate. Apparently, they do exist, so I haven't given up hope yet. In any license plate game, that last one is always hard to find.

But I do have another license plate quest, one that I almost surely will never complete. There are two North Carolina license plates that I consider to be the "Holy Grails" of license plates. One is ZZZ-9999, the very last in alphanumeric order. The other is ABC-1234, which I just think is a neat plate. If these two plates are like their ZZZ and ABC brethren, then they were likely issued about a year ago, so they're out there.

(Why don't I consider the first license plate in alphanumeric order to be a "Holy Grail"? Because according to this, North Carolina started with AAA-1001, rather than AAA-0000 or AAA-0001. So when you see AAA-1001 on the road, it's not obvious that it's "first", and therefore not as awesome. Whereas, ZZZ-9999 is obviously last.)

Of course, finding a specific license plate is like finding a needle in a haystack. You have to be VERY VERY LUCKY to even come close. The odds would suggest that the owners of ZZZ-9999 and ABC-1234 live nowhere near me. Maybe one of them is in, say, New Bern (a city I almost never visit), and the owner is an 80-year-old who never even leaves town, let alone crosses I-95. If that's the case, it's never going to happen.

While my chances of spotting either "Holy Grail" are indeed very slim, based on some recent developments, I think this is worth talking about. I have actually come reasonably close (numerically speaking) to both plates. A few weeks back, while pulling out of the parking lot at the curling rink, I spotted the ABC-1324 plate. So close! (Closer in a dyslexic sense than a numerical sense, of course.) I have seen several other ABC-1XXX plates in the Triangle as well, suggesting that most or all of the ABC-1XXX plates were issued locally. So ABC-1234 has to be around here...somewhere.

ZZZ-9999 is going to be a little more tricky, though. I haven't noticed a pattern with the ZZZ- plates. They're all over the state. They're even in other states as well; once I saw a ZZZ- North Carolina plate on a rental car in Maryland. (One of the other teams at The Kayser in February had one, which is how I knew it was a rental car.) In fact, I had only seen one ZZZ-9XXX plate to date at all. That is, until I went to Charlotte on Saturday. There, I spotted ZZZ-9995, and hurried (safely and without endangering myself or others, of course) to get the best picture I could:


I didn't think I'd ever get this close to ZZZ-9999, so...yeah! And if you squint, it kind of looks like ZZZ-9999, doesn't it? I thought about following this person to his/her parking spot to get a better picture, but decided that would only be worth doing if the plate were the "Holy Grail" itself.

The ZZZ-9995 car proceeded towards a shopping center parking lot, so it's highly probable that the owner is local to the Charlotte area. The way North Carolina license plates are issued, if ZZZ-9995 is based in Charlotte, then ZZZ-9999 is probably in Charlotte too, right? You'd think so. But like I said, ZZZ- plates have been spotted all over the place, so I don't know if this was an isolated find, or if there are many ZZZ-9XXX plates in Charlotte. (I forget where I saw the other ZZZ-9XXX plate, but I think it was in the Triangle.) Regardless, there's really no way for me to know whether there are more ZZZ-9XXXs to be found in Charlotte without going back and driving up and down South Boulevard a bunch of times in order to gather more data. (That's not something I recommend, by the way. There are a lot of things I like about Charlotte, but traffic isn't one of them.)

Even though I think I've figured out where each plate is located, the chances of me finding either ZZZ-9999 or ABC-1234 are still very long. But it is promising that ZZZ-9999 might be in a part of the state I do occasionally visit (as opposed to, say, Hendersonville), and that ABC-1234 could literally be right around the corner. It could happen!

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Triangle Parkway

You know me. Whenever a new road or highway opens nearby, I have to drive it as soon as possible. Yesterday, part of the Triangle Expressway - which connects I-40 with I-540 in Research Triangle Park - opened up. (Here is a map from NCDOT. The section of the TriEx that opened yesterday is Toll 147 between '1' and '5'; this section is also known as the "Triangle Parkway".) This new freeway practically begins right behind my office building, which meant I felt obligated to take it the day it opened.

In fact, I tried to go there the hour it opened, but I was a little early.


I had read on Twitter that the road was "officially" open. Whoops! I guess the orange barrels and barricades didn't all just magically disappear when the clock struck 10:30. No big deal; I just came back after the end of my work day, at which point I drove the entire 3.4 miles of the Triangle Parkway...twice! Once in each direction.


If I hadn't done it in both directions, then I wouldn't have noticed that the combined Davis Drive/Hopson Road exit (one exit serving two roads) has a different exit number northbound (2) and southbound (3). I guess that makes sense, given that Davis Drive and Hopson Road are about a mile apart...but still. I thought it was interesting.

I also looked for other signage oddities, because that's what I do. I can't help it. For example, the speed limit on the TriEx is 65 mph, but they have yet to remove the now obsolete "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign on southbound Durham Freeway approaching the beginning of the TriEx. Also, as Brian LeBlanc (still the best traffic reporter ever, although he's since moved on) pointed out to me at the Triangle Expressway Trot, according to this sign, the NC 147/540 interchange at the south end of the Triangle Parkway is where NC-540 changes designation from north/south to east/west.

And, one more thing I noticed. There are some hanging and/or unfinished ramps at the NC 147/540 interchange. Why? Well...I don't have a picture, but on my bike rides, I've seen a sign at the intersection of McCrimmon Parkway and Town Hall Drive in Morrisville that says something to the effect of, "Eventually, a ramp will connect this intersection directly with the Triangle Expressway". Anyone know anything about this? It's been a while since I've been down that way, so I'm going to bike there tomorrow morning and see if that sign is still there, or what else I can find. But in the meantime, I found a six-month-old message board discussion regarding the extension to McCrimmon/Town Hall. Based on that discussion, the hanging ramps at 147/540 are indeed for a possible extension to McCrimmon Parkway...BUT, the extension likely won't actually be built any time soon, if ever.

So, this is great and all, but is this road really going to help me? Directly, no. It's a north/south road located east of my house, and therefore, I'll never really have a reason to take it. And since it is a toll road, I'm not likely to take it just "for fun". (Aside from yesterday, of course. Tolls start January 3rd, so yesterday's joy ride was free.) But if the TriEx's existence means less traffic on T.W. Alexander Drive through Research Triangle Park (where my job is) - which, it might - then this road will help me indirectly. Alexander Drive traffic went up when the southern tip of the Durham Freeway closed (to facilitate TriEx construction), so will it go back down again now? We'll see.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Mr. Pig

Often times, when I talk about the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, I can't help but mention their store-brand version of Dr. Pepper: "Mr. Pig". Mr. Pig isn't available in every Piggly Wiggly, and at one time, some (including me) considered its existence a myth. So in 2003 (or thereabouts), when I found the elusive Mr. Pig for the first time at a Piggly Wiggly in the Florida Panhandle, I bought a bottle.

Actually, I bought two bottles. One, I drank - and quite frankly, and it wasn't very good. The other, I kept. Eight years later, I still have that second bottle. It has NEVER been opened. Here it is:


As time has passed, the bottle has shrunk. I guess air can get out, but it can't get in? Regardless, I'm sure this "soda" is now flat as water. If it tasted bad right off the shelf, I can only imagine what it tastes like in its current condition.

And yet...I can't help but be curious. Eight years is a long time to have an unopened bottle of soda sitting on top of your fridge. Is it time?

Maybe it's time I find another bottle of Mr. Pig and start fresh. I'll likely have to go to South Carolina for that, though, as I have never seen Mr. Pig in North Carolina. If there is such a thing as "Diet Mr. Pig" now, then that would be even better!

Random Thoughts on Sports: 12/7/11

I usually save my sports commentary for Friday or Saturday, but...well, whatever. Let's tackle the last couple of weeks in chronological order, which as a Jacksonville Jaguars / Carolina Hurricanes fan have been very interesting:

Carolina Hurricanes fire head coach Paul Maurice: Hooray! The team is going nowhere, and I was kind of getting tired of seeing Maurice on the bench back there, anyway. Bring in first-time NHL head coach Kirk Muller, who - and this is unusual for GM Jim Rutherford - came from completely outside the organization and as far as I know has never been affiliated with the Hurricanes in any capacity. Rutherford is taking his share of blame, too, but he's not going anywhere...yet. One at a time, people.

But as we're now finding out, fixing the Hurricanes isn't as simple as changing the head coach. As former Jaguars beat writer Vic Ketchman liked to say: "players, not plays". I think that's as true in hockey as it is in any sport. How much difference does the coach make, really?

Jacksonville Jaguars fire head coach Jack Del Rio: I figured this would happen after the season, not during the season. I almost don't see the point in firing him now. The NHL season is still young, and there is time to turn it around. But the NFL season is basically over. Unless they plan on making Mel Tucker the permanent coach (I doubt it), why do this now, and not after the season? So that it would coincide with the change in ownership?

I agree with James that the Jaguars' struggles this season are not Del Rio's fault. But he's been here long enough, and he only made the playoffs twice in nine seasons (including this season), and never won the division. Time for a change.

Jacksonville Jaguars sold to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan: For me, this came out of nowhere.

You can look at this from any number of angles. Predictably, the national media started talking relocation, because the national media hates Jacksonville and loves big cities in non-southern locations like Los Angeles. But let's look at this logically for a minute. Why did soon-to-be former owner Wayne Weaver keep it secret all this time? Make it public that you're trying to sell the team, and all the people who want to buy it and move it elsewhere come out of the woodwork. (As an NHL fan, I know how this usually goes.) Keep it quiet, and you can better secure an owner whose first option is to keep the team at home. And there are other reasons why the team probably isn't moving any time soon, such as the stadium lease.

But here's why I'm excited about this. Everything I've read about Khan indicates that there is no ulterior motive here. He's just an excited football fan with a few hundred million dollars to burn and a dream of owning an NFL team. What's not to like? Everything I've heard about the guy sounds fantastic. And have I mentioned the moustache? The fan base certainly seemed pumped about the Jaguars' soon-to-be owner on Monday night, and that was great to see. I can't wait to see what he brings to the team.

Jacksonville Jaguars lose 38-14 to San Diego on Monday Night Football: In the meantime...yeah, the team still isn't all that good. The one thing the Jaguars have done fairly well this season is play defense, and that's kept them in the game almost every week. But, like, half the Jaguars' defense is injured now, so...that's over. They may not win another game the rest of the way, and that includes Week 17 against the Colts. That Week 17 game will truly be awful, by the way. I can't wait!

Did the Carolina Hurricanes get screwed by NHL divisional realignment?: The solution to the whole "Winnipeg in the Southeast Division" crisis? Start over! The Southeast Division will be disbanded, and the Carolina Hurricanes will now be in a 7-team conference with some of NBC's favorite teams: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, both New Yorks, and New Jersey. The biggest part of this is that playoff spots will be determined by conference standing ONLY, independent of how your record compares to the other 23 teams in the league. (That's the proposal, anyway. This isn't finalized.)

The good news: the Hurricanes are in one of the 7-team conferences (as opposed to the two 8-team conferences), increasing their playoff odds at the start of the season. The bad news: they have to compete with the same big budget, big market teams for playoff spots (and in the playoffs themselves), every single year. It's easy to say that there's no way the Hurricanes will ever compete with the likes of the Penguins/Flyers/Capitals/Rangers/Devils every year, but this sort of thing is cyclic. Before Crosby and Ovechkin came along, Pittsburgh and Washington were terrible. Remember those days? The Flyers and Devils have also had their share of clunker seasons, and the Rangers have never really been that good. Right now it looks tough, but things change. Five years from now, we could be talking about how the Hurricanes are lucky to be in a weak conference, instead of the other way around. And besides, it doesn't really matter what conference the Hurricanes are playing in this year. Speaking of which...

Carolina Hurricanes lose their first four games under new head coach Kirk Muller: Players, not plays.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Curling Recap: 12/2/11

Career game #161: 2011 Fall League - December 2, 2011

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Allen........ 0000010 | 01
K. Jackson... 2122103 | 11

Aww, do I have to talk about this?

Yeah, there isn't a whole lot I can take away from this game, so I'll just tip my hat. The other team played an outstanding game, and I was very impressed with their Vice and Second, Patrick and Amy, who simply didn't miss. And this is only their 2nd year of curling, too, so I think they are our club's next great young curlers. I'm encouraging them to attend "The Kayser" before their five-year eligibility runs out. Put them together with fellow 2nd-year curlers Justin and Tabby (who have curled with Amber and me multiple times, including at the most recent "Kayser"), and you have yourselves a very solid Kayser team that would represent our club really well. Maybe in 2013? My 5-and-under eligibility runs out after the Spring, so after that, I'll have to live vicariously through others.

(Speaking of "5-and-under" bonspiels, I'm going back to "The Dykes" in February, in what will be my last 5-and-under bonspiel ever. More on that in the weeks to come.)

Next week is "wacky rules curling", which doesn't count in my stats, so this was the last game of the season and my last official game for seven weeks. Our team finished 3-5 and in 6th place out of 9 teams. I was hoping for at least 4-4. But darn it, our team was fun, and that's more important, even if you can't quantify "fun".

Here is a record of my team's finishes in each of my Triangle Curling Club leagues: (Records shown are team records, independent of whether I curled in every game.)
- Fall 2007: 5-4, 3rd place (out of 8)
- Winter 2008: 7-2, 1st place (out of 9)
- Fall 2008: 3-6, 8th place (out of 10)
- Winter 2009: 5-3, 3rd place (out of 11)
- Spring 2009: 2-3, 5th place (out of 6)
- Fall 2009: 4-4, 6th place (out of 9)
- Winter 2010: 3-1, 2nd place (out of 8)
- Spring 2010: 4-1, 2nd place (out of 8)
- Fall 2010: 7-2, 1st place (out of 8)
- Winter 2011 Friday: 7-2, 1st place (out of 8)
- Winter 2011 Sunday: 5-4, 2nd place (out of 6)
- Fall 2011: 3-5, 6th place (out of 9)

So, my streak of playing in five consecutive League Championship games is over. But I did keep alive my streak of never finishing a league in last place, which might be more important. The League Championship game streak was bound to end eventually; there are too many good curlers in our club.

I do think I have regressed in skill from where I was in April, though. I simply haven't been curling as often. January through April, I curled 27 games; September through December, I'll have only curled 10. Believe me, it makes a difference. (Darn parenting!) But here's the exciting part, for me: how good will I be when I'm 45 years old and have 20 years and 500 games of curling experience under my belt?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Possibly Unnecessary Health Care

Four months is probably younger than the ideal age for a child to contract chickenpox, if there is such a thing. We're ready to rerun to normalcy. Fortunately, Marla appears to be ready, too! We took her back to day care for the first time today. The rule is that the lesions have to be all "crusted over" (as opposed to be completely gone), which means they're not contagious anymore, which at a day care is kind of important. (Even if that's apparently how we got in this mess in the first place.)

So, now Marla's stronger for it, I suppose. But according to the doctor, they're still going to recommend she get the chickenpox vaccine in another year or so. Ummm...sure, precautionary measures, and so on. But is this a good example of why health care is so expensive these days? Here's a child who has already had chickenpox. Let's give her the chickenpox vaccine anyway! You know, just to be safe.

Another example: Marla had a bruise on her leg a while back, so we took her to the doctor. It was Friday, and the blood test results weren't ready by close of business, so the doctors recommended we take her to the emergency room. Multiple "tests" and about $500 later (Marla hasn't hit her deductible yet), everything turned out to be fine, of course. But was that ER visit really necessary? I don't think it was. But how could we possibly have said no to the doctor's recommendation? This isn't like your car mechanic telling you that you need to flush your transmission, even though you don't. You can always fix your car after the fact, or just buy a new one. It's a heck of a lot easier to say no to a car mechanic than to a doctor. (I do it all the time!)

Here's another personal example of unnecessary health care. My dentist noticed I had a freckle on my lip (which I've had pretty much as long as I can remember), and said, "That's a sensitive area, and you might want to have that looked at. Here, let me recommend a dermatologist." I can't say no, right? So I went to the dermatologist, they tested it, and of course, it was nothing. But that whole procedure wasn't free, you know. I'm still bitter about this. I have to wonder if the dentist and dermatologist have some kind of arrangement going on. "Hey, I'll recommend you to my patients if you recommend me to your patients."

Being a parent in the 21st century, this is a huge concern of mine: doctors recommending tests or procedures that aren't actually necessary, but that they know we can't possibly refuse because 1) we love our daughter, and 2) we don't know any better. How many thousands of dollars are we going to spend over the next 18 years (or more!) on health care that Marla doesn't actually need? Given that Marla's pediatrician and our hospital of choice all part of the same health network, how do we know we can trust our doctor and that there isn't a conflict of interest? I guess what I'm saying is, I have a hard time trusting health care providers.

Who would you trust more to handle your health care: a) private corporations, or b) the government? In general, conservatives choose option a), and liberals choose option b). But I'm a disenchanted moderate, so I choose option c): neither.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Ideal Hot Dog

The other day, Amber told me a story. One time, at a Toledo restaurant called Ideal Hot Dog, she embarrassed herself by accidentally blowing her straw wrapper across the aisle, which landed in someone else's spaghetti. My response: "There's a restaurant in Toledo called 'Ideal Hot Dog'? Can we go there?" And it was done.

First question: is Ideal Hot Dog eligible for my restaurant serving times competition? Yes, it is! It is a regular sit-down restaurant, in which a waitress comes to your table, takes your order, and brings it to you. Barbecue and breakfast restaurants have long dominated the restaurant serving times competition, but I've long wondered how a "hot dog" restaurant would perform. This was, in fact, my first.

So, what did I have? A hot dog, of course.


Ironically, this is not what I would consider to be an "ideal hot dog". I prefer my hot dogs with no toppings whatsoever other than ketchup. But I figured if I was going to go to "Ideal Hot Dog", I should have the house special chili cheese dog. (Actually, I think the restaurant's trademark menu item is the "Chili Mac". But I wanted a hot dog.) Meanwhile, Amber ordered grilled cheese. It's not like we were trying to make it as easy as possible on them, but that's how it worked out.

How quickly did Ideal Hot Dog bring us our food? From order to food reception: 3 minutes, 39 seconds. That's the second-fastest serving time EVER. Only Stamey's BBQ of Greensboro (a record that may stand forever) was faster. Well done!

The restaurant wasn't busy when we showed up (which contributed to the quick time), but it was filling in pretty well by the time we left. This restaurant must have a good reputation, because it's the kind of small-scale restaurant I'd have thought would have gone out of business a long time ago. I mean, the Toledo economy isn't exactly booming these days. But maybe that's why Ideal Hot Dog does such a good business: the food is super cheap!

Ideal Hot Dog will most likely end up being the fastest restaurant of 2011. A few days later, Bob Evans of Maumee, OH made a run at the slowest mark of the year, but at 26:44 came up about three minutes short of Applebee's of Knightdale. But it did end up being the chain's slowest serving time ever out of the 30 times I've gone there. (Have I seriously gone to Bob Evans 30 times now? Wow.) Chalk the slowness up to the crowd (Bob Evans is much more popular in Ohio than it is in North Carolina), and our party of 7 (although in 2009, the Jacksonville, FL Bob Evans served our party of 7 in 13:48).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bowling Green Hockey

Of the sports that I watch (most of them), I think hockey might be Amber's least favorite. But somehow, I was able to convince her to go to a hockey game while were in Toledo for Thanksgiving. Maybe she was just excited to get a night out together; we don't have any family in town, so we better take advantage of the free babysitting while we can!

We actually had two hockey game options on Friday night: we could go see the minor-league (ECHL) Toledo Walleye, or we could go see the Bowling Green State University hockey team take on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. We chose Bowling Green, because: 1) cheaper tickets; 2) I had never been to a college hockey game before; and 3) Amber used to go to the Bowling Green ice rink a lot to watch her sister figure skate, so it would be a bit nostalgic for her.

NOT a consideration was the quality of the hockey we were going to see. I've watched sports enough to notice a discernable difference between the college game and the pro game. Generally, the pro game is more entertaining to watch than the college game, because all of the players are more skilled, and the games are usually more competitive. (Basketball is an exception, because NBA players are so skilled that teammwork isn't needed like it is in college basketball, which hurts the quality of the game.) Minor league sports play much closer to the major professional level than the collegiate level, so if I wanted to see a better-played game, the correct thing to do would have been to attend the Toledo Walleye game.

Thing is, though, college hockey is hard to find on TV, so I haven't watched enough college hockey to know how different pro and college hockey are. But having now attended a college game in person, I can now tell the difference. The game is nearly as fast, but the passes aren't as crisp, there are far fewer odd-man rushes, and most goals are of the "grind it out" variety (rebounds, deflections, etc) rather than a fancy deke, one-timer, or something that would make the SportsCenter Top Ten. In other words, the pro game is definitely more entertaining to watch.

But there is still plenty to like about college hockey. Find me a professional game at ANY level where you can get ice-level seats for $5. (Full disclosure: $5 isn't the normal price; this was part of a holiday special or something since most of the students were home for Thanksgiving.)


We didn't sit ice-level, of course; I like being farther up.

And, I can only assume that at a college game, you stand a much better chance of catching a wayward puck in the stands than you do at an NHL or minor league game. In fact, look what I got!


The atmosphere at a college sporting event is almost always going to be better than at a pro event. Smaller, more enthusiastic crowds; less annoying piped-in music and advertisements, and in the case of college hockey, almost no fighting! I know that's a major draw for Amber. (Fighting is Amber's least favorite thing about hockey. I'm not a big fan of it either, but I understand why it's there, and I can live with it.) Amber also feels she can relate to the college players a little more than the professional players.

And, how about this: a handshake line after the game. The NHL only does this at the end of a playoff series.


I think Amber's second least favorite thing about hockey is the obnoxious goal horn. I would talk about Bowling Green's goal horn here, or whatever they do after they score. But Bowling Green didn't score a single goal that night, even though they were playing a relatively weak opponent (Alaska-Fairbanks). They even didn't score in the rematch the next night, either. So, I can only assume that there is a goal horn of some kind when Bowling Green scores, followed by the Bowling Green fight song over the PA system. Either way, I feel cheated whenever I go to a hockey game and the home team doesn't score. What gives, BG? Maybe the Alaska players were just happy to be in a warmer climate for a couple of days. Or, maybe this Bowling Green hockey team is just plain lousy. No wonder the tickets are so cheap! They haven't always been this bad, though. They won the 1984 national championship, and they've churned out quite a few NHLers over the years. Hopefully they'll get it turned around soon.

Going into the game, I thought, "There probably won't be that many Alaska fans here. I mean, it's not like they're going to make the trip all the way from Fairbanks, right?" Wrong!


Did these people seriously come all the way from Alaska to Ohio, just for a hockey game? That's insane. Then again, after a week of record low temperatures (which, for Fairbanks, really means something), maybe they jumped at the opportunity to get out of town for a couple of days. If I had to spend the winter in Fairbanks, I might have done the same thing.

Here's something I was curious about before the game. Do college games go to a shootout to break ties like in the NHL? The answer: only in Bowling Green's conference, the CCHA. Every other NCAA Division I conference has ties. And actually, officially, the CCHA scores a shootout game as a "tie". They award three points in the standings for a win, one point for a tie, and one additional point (for a total of two) for a shootout win. I kind of wish the NHL did the standings this way. (My official take on the shootout: from a competition standpoint, I don't like it, but from the standpoint of entertainment and the value to the consumer of having a definitive "winner" and "loser" at a sporting event, I support its existence in the regular season.)

Here is the truly awesome video that plays prior to every Alaska-Fairbanks game. Bowling Green does not have a video board. The ice rink is pretty old school; everything in there looks like it's from the 70s or 80s. The building was recently renovated, but the rink itself was kept in "old school" condition, which I actually like. Who needs a big fancy scoreboard, anyway?

One more thing. Located in the same building as the hockey rink is...the curling club!



As I understand it, the Bowling Green Curling Club used to have dedicated curling ice, but now it's basically an arena club. The curling ice was being used as a free skate on Friday, which was sad to see from my perspective. But I know how that goes.

While the level of play is lower, there is a lot to like about college hockey. I wish one of the Triangle universities had an NCAA Division I ice hockey team. How about it, Duke?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chickenpox

A while back, a sign was posted at Marla's day care alluding to the fact that one of the other infants recently had the chickenpox. Two weeks later...ta da!


Marla turned four months old yesterday, so she's getting this at a much younger age than many, and several months before we would have been able to vaccinate her. She started showing the first rashes on Saturday, and was handling it pretty well until it became more of a full-blown thing yesterday. Hey, at least it wasn't full-blown when we were on the road!

Personally, I had chickenpox when I was 3 years old (I think), and don't remember much about it. But based on how Marla's acted the last couple of days, it's pretty miserable. Hopefully by the end of the week, she'll be done with it and return to her smiley old self, and promptly resume her quest to roll over on her own. (She's getting there. It's pretty cute to watch.)

Well, I guess it's good to get it out of the way, right? It was going to happen eventually, probably, although it is making for a rather unpleasant week so far. Fortunately, both of our employers are very accommodating, because obviously, we have to keep her at home until the chickenpox is gone. Unless we want to get a bunch of other babies sick, too, which...we don't.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Travelogue: Thanksgiving 2011

We're back from our weekend excursion to Toledo, and we are exhausted. With young children, I think we can forget about the idea of coming back from a vacation "refreshed". We did have a good time, though, and did enjoy showing off Marla to the Loucks side of the family.

I was going to cover the entire trip today, but that was before I wrote several paragraphs about just the road trip portion. Whoops! The rest of the stuff will have to wait.

The road trip portion: We won't be going on as many road trips now that we have a kid, of course. So in my quest to increase my counties visited count and such, I talked Amber into adding 30-60 minutes in each direction this weekend. On the northbound drive, we took OH-60 and some other roads through Southeast Ohio so that I could visit four new counties:


View Larger Map

Then, on the southbound drive, we took I-90 into Cleveland so that I could drive the northernmost 17 miles of I-77. This was the only portion of I-77 I hadn't driven before, so this makes I-77 the 8th interstate I've driven from end-to-end (10, 16, 68, 84 [east], 88 [east], 97, 99).


View Larger Map

This actually proved to be kind of tricky. There is no direct ramp from I-90 eastbound to I-77 southbound. So to officially "start" I-77 at the north end, I had to exit into downtown Cleveland and take one of several ramps that lead directly from downtown (near the Indians ballpark for those who know the city) directly onto the beginning of I-77. Normally this wouldn't have been a big deal, except that all those onramps were closed for construction! I eventually found my way onto I-90 westbound, east of the intersection, and took the I-90 West --> I-77 South ramp.

There will be more side trips on our drives to and from Toledo. But we've already done this sort of thing between here and Jacksonville and have already taken care of most of the scenic routes between here and there, sadly.

Of course, while we were at it, Marla visited all kinds of new counties. She's up to 59 counties in 5 states! Not bad for a four-month old. I don't think she'll get to 100 before the end of the year as I remember predicting, but she'll be above 80.

And finally...the traffic. Well, we left Durham at 4 AM Wednesday morning, and we left Toledo at 1 AM Sunday morning, so except for the roads leading north out of Columbus on Wednesday, we avoided traffic issues of any kind this Thanksgiving weekend. Yay! On the way back on Sunday, though, I was thinking that I would have rather slept in and gotten stuck in traffic, than left at 1 AM and had a free-flowing drive all the way home. But then after we got home, I kept an eye on Google Maps traffic just to see what it would have been like had we left Toledo at 4 AM instead of 1 AM, and...yikes. Apparently there was an accident on I-77 near Hillsville, VA, causing a massive traffic jam that surely we would have been stuck in had we left three hours later than we did. That stretch is already the most congested part of the drive, so having an accident there is pretty much the worst case scenario. Leaving at 1 AM was definitely the right thing to do, then.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's That Time Again

Fun fact! The last time I did NOT travel anywhere on Thanksgiving weekend was in...1999. The streak continues this year, along with our family visitation system that has worked out pretty well since it was implemented in 2007: one family gets Thanksgiving and New Year's, the other family gets Christmas, and it alternates every year. This year, Toledo gets Thanksgiving and New Year's, and Jacksonville gets Christmas.

Last time we drove to Toledo for Thanksgiving, we left home at 1 AM Wednesday morning, and that worked out pretty well. This year, we're going to do that in both directions. We're leaving Durham between 3 and 4 AM on Wednesday morning, and then starting the drive home at around 1 AM Sunday. All in the name of timing it so that we'll be on I-77 in Virginia and West Virginia outside of peak travel hours.

Of course, this time, we'll have a buddy with us! (Wow, she's grown a lot in the last three weeks.) Basically, Marla will dictate when we leave in the morning. She wakes up once or twice in the middle of the night anyway, and when she does, that'll be a perfect time for us to hit the road, I think. In theory. Or, if she doesn't wake up, we'll have to wake her up and put her in the car seat. Otherwise, we wouldn't get to our destination before sunset (preferable when you have an infant riding with you as we learned on our Cherohala Skyway trip). And we'll be far more likely to experience traffic, and I know Marla wouldn't like that. Traffic jams are bad enough without having a crying baby in the back seat.

The drive will probably be a bit of an adventure, but that's what we're all about! If it goes well, we might even take some side trips in Ohio in order to either visit some new counties (still plenty of gray to work with here), or perhaps finally clinch I-77 from start to finish (I'm only missing the northernmost 17 miles in Cleveland).

We haven't been to Toledo since last Christmas, so it'll be nice. I'm sure Amber's side of the family is looking forward to seeing nearly four-month-old Marla. (And to seeing us too, I suppose.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Triangle Expressway Trot

I'm not a runner. As far as I'm concerned, bicycling > running. But if I were a runner, I definitely would have participated in yesterday's Triangle Expressway Trot. Amber was running in it, though, as were a few of our friends, so it was a good opportunity to come to one of Amber's races (for once) and show my support.

What's so special about the TriEx Trot? It's a race along the yet-to-be-opened Triangle Expressway, which will become North Carolina's first toll road in another month or two. Exercise and roadgeeking, together at last! I mean, how often do you get to hang out on a major freeway? Will there ever be another opportunity for me to get a picture of Marla and her stroller in the middle of a road like this?


This was actually the first running race of any kind that I can remember going to. Here's how it works from the perspective of a spectator: 1) You watch everyone go. 2) For the next 15 minutes, you're bored. (The Marla picture was taken during those 15 minutes.) 3) At the 15 minute mark, you start looking for the winner to make his (or her) way back. 4) For the next 30 minutes after that, you start looking for people you know to finish, trying to get a picture of each of them at the finish line.

So, here's the winner:


Yes, I got the timer in the picture by design. But from that point on, there were people were standing between me and the timer, so I wasn't able to get the timer in anyone else's picture.

And, actually, I wasn't able to capture everyone I know on camera at the finish line. I was usually too late. I also tried to give everyone I know a high-five after the finish line, but you see, here's the thing with that. Running a 5K is hard, and when you're finished, you're exhausted, and you're not exactly interested in high-fiving any of the spectators, or even looking at the spectators. See why I don't run? I never feel like that when I'm done with a bike ride.

Well, anyway, I was able to get a picture of Amber at the finish line, and right under the arch, too:


This was Amber's first 5K since before she was even pregnant. She did great! She ran the whole thing. The only other people I was able to get pictures of at the finish line were Maggie and Adam, who are somewhere in these two pics:



What is it like to run on an expressway? According to the runners, it was hot (race time temperature 73°F, dew point 55°F, with the sun out) and spacious. And with the wide, straight freeway, you could see the finish line from very far away, which was kind of a tease.

One more picture: the official mascots of the Triangle Expressway Trot.


Maybe I'll have to take my bike out on the TriEx before it opens, if that's possible and legal.

Curling Recap: 11/18/11

Career game #160: 2011 Fall League - November 18, 2011

End.......... 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------
Allen........ 00212200 | 07
Chick........ 32000022 | 09

So...in last week's recap, I went on and on about what we could do to avoid giving up a big lead early in the game. So what do we do this week? We go down 5-0 in the first two ends, again. Ugh! Then, we came back (again), and then lost it at the end (again). Didn't I learn anything from the previous game?
Well, I thought I did...but the ice conditions were challenging early on. The ice started out VERY slow, much more so than normal. And as evidenced by our weekly slow start, the slow ice conditions of the first two ends do not benefit our team's style. And while I said last week that take-outs in the first end might be a reasonable strategy because they're not as weight dependent, take-outs were simply impossible in the first end. I gave my first shot a HUGE push, one that would be classified as "crazy insane take-out weight" later on in the game, and it didn't even make it to the house. I also have zero confidence in the line early in the game. If there are guards in front, I kind of just shrug my shoulders and say "let's throw it and hope we either miss the guards or hit one of our guards on the nose, because I have no idea what the ice is going to do yet". Well, we'll try again next time, and hopefully we won't give up 5 points in the first two ends again.

Once the rocks cooled down and the ice sped up, we were able to get our weight dialed in, resulting in some extremely well-played middle ends. All of us were making our shots, and there was more than one occasion where the other team had absolutely no option on their final shot.

And we were about to head into the final end with a three-point lead, until opposing Skip Brian made this shot: (our team = red)


This might have been another one of those situations where the other team had no option on their final shot, but they did have one option: a long "raise take-out". Hit their #2 into our #1 and stick for a game-tying two points. Hey, it happens. Some of these guys are really good.

But perhaps the biggest strategy failure on my part is in the final end, more so than the early ends. This is the 2nd week in a row in which we needed to score in the final end, and did not. Last week, we did not have last rock; this week, we did. My general strategy was to keep everything as open as possible; the center line was very dependable and take-out friendly, so I was planning on having a wide open take-out for the win on my final shot. But in order to do that, I basically had to call a take-out on every shot. I think I called for a draw one time, and that allowed them to get a second rock in the house. And eventually, that led to this setup, prior to my last shot of the game:


So much for the open take-out for one. If I hit rock #1 on the nose, #2 scores, and vice versa. Or maybe rock #2 was well-guarded. I don't remember. Regardless, my ONLY play was the straight draw, out turn (right-to-left curl), to the left of #3 and the right of #1. I thought I had the weight perfect, but my shot didn't curl soon enough and nicked the #3 guard. Game over.

This stinks, because I feel like we wasted a very solid effort. This was the most frustrating loss of the season, for sure. Oh well - one more chance in a couple of weeks to try and finish the season at 4-4.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sports Saturday: 11/19/11

NHL

(Note: This was written prior to Friday night's Carolina Hurricanes v. Buffalo Sabres game.)

The Carolina Hurricanes have had better weeks. As of Friday afternoon, they have lost six out of their last seven games (all in regulation), and...well, they just stink. Fire the players! Fire the GM! Fire the coach!

Let me talk about the last of those. Head coach Paul Maurice is once again on the "proverbial hot seat". You can count me among the many Hurricanes fans who are tired of Maurice's coaching and would like him gone as soon as possible. Maurice is not the only problem, but he's clearly not the solution.

This brings up an interesting dilemma that can apply to pretty much any sports team, college or pro. Let's say your favorite team has had the same coach for a while now (note: three years is considered "a while" in pro sports), and, well, you're pretty much sick of him. The team is going nowhere, you're tired of his coaching habits, and, well, you just want someone new and fresh. And unless your favorite team is among the snobby "one championship every five years is NOT GOOD ENOUGH" types (Nebraska football, the Boston Red Sox, etc), then the only way the coach is going to be fired is if the team starts playing badly. Like, really, really badly.

The Hurricanes aren't one of those teams, so it's going to take a long, sustained losing streak - kind of like the one the team is in now - to convince GM Jim Rutherford that the time is right to fire the head coach. Shoot, even if the Hurricanes finish 10th in the Eastern Conference this year, that will probably be good enough to keep Maurice around for another year. Hey, can't really fault the organization for aiming low. I do it all the time! But still...back to the original question. Should those of us who want Maurice to be fired ASAP actually root for the Hurricanes to lose their next few games as the means to an end?

My take: NO. We sports fans tend to get a little too pre-occupied with the "future". Let's lose a bunch of this games this season so that we can get a new head coach / get a higher draft pick! But we don't really know how the future is going to pan out. What about the present? Sure, I'm tired of seeing Paul Maurice's face behind the Hurricanes' bench. But the best case scenario in the short term is, of course, for the Hurricanes to go on a long winning streak starting RIGHT NOW and make the playoffs, all with Paul Maurice as coach. Besides, there is no guarantee that another coach will do any better. He could even do worse. So, root for your team to win their next game, regardless of the circumstances. Ultimately, that's what you want to see, right? But at least in this case, there is a silver lining should the Hurricanes keep losing.

This is normally where I would list the Hurricanes' next TV game, but there are no Hurricanes games on local TV this weekend. Instead, we only get the following NHL Network games: Sat 4:00p - DET/LA; Sat 7:00p - NYR/MTL.

NFL

I touched on this last week and in some prior weeks, but I will be really annoyed if the Indianapolis Colts turn their one and only putrid season in a decade into the #1 draft pick in next year's draft, and get their next franchise quarterback as a result. On the other hand, I'm tired of the Colts, and I've enjoyed watching them suck this year. And getting back to what I just talked about, I should train myself as a sports fan to be more interested in the present than the future. And in the present, the Colts suck. Lose them all, I say! Ha! Besides, Andrew Luck could end up being a bust anyway, and that scenario would be even better from a Jaguars fan's perspective.

As for the Jaguars...I imagine there is a portion of the fanbase - just like with the Carolina Hurricanes - that are tired of their head coach, want him to be fired, and thus wouldn't mind it so much if the Jaguars lose the rest of their games and get head coach Jack Del Rio fired. I know it would annoy the heck out of a lot of people if the Jaguars finish 8-8 allowing Del Rio to keep his job, but that wouldn't bother me. Either way, in the short term...go Jaguars! Jacksonville at Cleveland: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 707

Both Detroit and Buffalo are, predictably, fading down the stretch. Was it too good to be true? Both teams have weak opponents this week, so we'll know. There is no bigger test for a struggling team than when they play a perceived doormat. Carolina at Detroit - Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50; Buffalo at Miami - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 706

(Other locally broadcast games: CIN/BAL - Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5; SD/CHI - Sun 4:15p, WRAL 5; PHI/NYG - Sun 8:20p, NBC)

College football

The takeaway point from my rant last week should be this: let's not take college football so seriously. Among things we should take seriously: child rape. Among things we should not take seriously: whether or not your favorite college football team wins or loses. Last week, I started an effort to detatch myself emotionally from the outcome of college football games. This week, I hope to continue that trend. I've gotten a lot better at this over the years. We should all do the same. There would be less corruption in college football if the fanbase wasn't go so bat-s#!@ crazy about it. Sports should be entertainment, not an obsession. (Note: having a child is a great way to reinforce that point.)

Still...I don't think I can bring myself to watch the Penn State/Ohio State game this week. But I will watch Florida State, which hasn't had a scandal of any kind in, like, at least a year, right? This is actually a big game for Virginia, who "controls its own destiny" in whatever division of the ACC they're in. Virginia at Florida State - Sat 7:30p, ESPN2

South Florida is getting totally screwed by all of this conference realignment business. And as much of conference realignment is based on money and "television markets" rather than on-the-field performance, I have to wonder if South Florida would have gotten, say, an ACC invite had they managed to win a Big East title or two over the years. ... Actually, I know the answer to that. Of course not! The ACC already has two Florida teams. USF wouldn't expand their "geographic footprint" at all! Duh. Hey, maybe USF could join the Mountain West. Miami (FL) at South Florida - Sat 3:30p, ESPNU

Auto racing

So, I clicked "publish post" and totally forgot to mention the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship battle. (It's been a tough week.) Carl Edwards v. Tony Stewart. Don't really feel like giving any kind of analysis here, so I'll just close with this: go Carl! NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead (season finale) - Sun 3:00p, ESPN

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jack in the Box

Back when I would regularly drive between State College and Jacksonville, I had a minor obsession with "Jack in the Box" fast food restaurants. Jack in the Box is primarily a west coast chain, but for some reason, they have a few restaurants in the Charlotte area. So, often times, I would make it a point to stop at one on my way through Charlotte. Eventually my "Jack in the Box" obsession became a "Bojangles'" obsession, but I made sure to revisit an "old friend" last time I was in the area.

I think Jack in the Box generally elicits the following response among most people: "Jack in the Box? Ewwww! I'm going to go throw up now." Is that because of the restaurant's E. coli outbreak of 1993, in which four children died? Maybe. I don't think Jack in the Box is so gross. I mean, it's fast food. What do you expect?

The best thing Jack in the Box has going for it is variety. Burgers? Obviously. Chicken strips? Yep. Tacos? Sure. Curly fries? You betcha. Breakfast sandwiches served all day? Hey, why not? I mean, this place has just about everything.

Are any of its menu items really that good? No...obviously, a chicken-dedicated restaurant will make better chicken than Jack in the Box. But their stuff is passable, and it's reasonably priced. And I'm sure this is all very unhealthy. But again...this is fast food. What do you expect? Why does Jack in the Box have such a bad reputation, anyway? I think it's undeserved. Maybe the chain actually has a good reputation out west, where people are actually familiar with the product.

I also think Jack in the Box has the best commercials out there among fast food restaurants. But we don't get them here because we do not live in a Jack in the Box market. They're basically just a "vacation novelty", for me. As in, "Hey, I just saw a commercial for Jack in the Box. I must be on vacation! Hooray!"

There's no real point to this, by the way. I just wanted to help refute the reputation that Jack in the Box is garbage. If such a reputation actually exists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Motherly Instinct

This blog post would be very appropriate on or around Mother's Day. But I've always thought that recognizing the importance of parents (Mother's Day / Father's Day) or love (Valentine's Day) only on those "special occasions", and only because you feel obligated to, really isn't all that thoughtful. How about we pay tribute to mothers on a random Tuesday in November?

Ever since we had our daughter, I've noticed something. The vast majority of the people who give our daughter "oh how cute!" attention, are women. The majority of the baby pictures I see on Facebook are posted by women. All of the employees at our day care are women. Why is this?

There are exceptions, but I think most women are hardwired to like babies. I call this the "motherly instinct", and I've noticed it more now than ever. Women are drawn to babies. It's like they have a "baby radar" or something. And once they have had one, they need a fix. Older women, especially, can't get enough when it comes to babies. But it applies to younger women, too. Many women our age who are married without children - and this certainly applied to Amber back before she was pregnant - see a baby and think, "I want one!" And thank goodness for the "motherly instinct", too, because otherwise the human race would be doomed. Sure, some men want kids, but not as badly as the women want kids. If reproduction were entirely up to the men, we wouldn't have near as many babies.

This isn't to say that men aren't capable of being good parents, and that a motherless household is "no place for children". Male domestic partners, for example, have every right to raise a child of their own. (I just wanted to make that clear.) It just doesn't come as naturally for us men. Parenting takes a little more thought on our end because we don't have the "motherly instinct". Thankfully, in the internet age, anybody can do just about anything these days.

But the "motherly instinct" is both a blessing and a curse. Ask the parents of a six-month old. Who is getting less sleep, the mom or the dad? Who is more stressed out, the mom or the dad? Chances are, it's the mom on both counts, especially in today's era of families with two working parents. The fathers can help out all we want, but regardless, the mother will always be thinking about the child. The "motherly instinct" can be quite a burden on a young mother, as I've seen first hand. I encourage Amber to go running without Marla every once in a while, just like I go bicycling; but sometimes it's hard for her to "detach", even for a little bit. (Or, more accurately, she's usually rather sneak in a nap.)

So, we should be very grateful for our mothers and wives. They have a gift. Oh, and there's that whole pregnancy and childbirth thing, too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Curling Recap: 11/11/11

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Scheck....... 2302206 | 15
Allen........ 0020050 | 07

This wasn't the case last season, but this season, my biggest weakness as Skip has clearly been the start. My team has been outscored 13-5 in the first two ends this season; from the 3rd end on, we're about even (32 for, 31 against). Maybe this week's game, in which we trailed 5-0 after just two ends, is a good case study. So...how do we keep this from happening next time?

The first two ends are unique because we haven't figured out the ice conditions yet, and the ice is much slower in the first two ends than it is in the rest of the game. Maybe we're "too light" for our own good in the first two ends? Maybe I'm too afraid to call "taps" or take-outs early in the game because I haven't figured out the ice yet? Could be. Maybe I should call for more "back line" or "hack" weight shots early in the game; that way, if we're light, then we'll simply draw into the house. In theory. This applies to my shots as well, because I'm almost always light in the first two ends..

Starting off well was especially important in this game because we were playing against a good team. Opposing Skip Dan is one of the top Skips in the club, and he can usually pull out his final draw to the button when he needs to. And he generally calls a quiet game...except when he has a big lead, apparently. When we got a rock in the house, out it went! That is certainly what happened in the 7th end, when we absolutely had to score. (If we didn't have to score, my strategy would have been different, and I'd like to think that we could have held them to, say, two.) But in the 6th end, we were able to get lots of rocks in the house, their last take-out attempt missed everything, and we scored five. But that was the exception to the rule. I've gotten away from throwing guards once we get "early position" in the house, and I need to get back to that. I know I've played pretty well as Skip over the last two years, but this is the kind of game that makes me really think about what I'm doing out there. Maybe I should get go back and see how I called the strategy last season, when my team won the championship. If only I wrote up a detailed description of every curling game I ever played...

On the other hand, this other team is the first place team, having outscored the opposition 67-39. Maybe the fact that I'm even discussing strategy after this game, as opposed to shrugging my shoulders and saying "Well, they just played better than we did", means that I've come a long way. And even though we're a long shot to win the league championship at this point, we're still 3-3, and I'll take that. After all, it is kind of awkward when the League Coordinator (that's me) wins the league championship.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sports Saturday: 11/12/11

College football

There are approximately 10 million opinion pieces floating around on the internet right now regarding the Jerry Sandusky child molestation charges, the Penn State football program, the university itself, and of course, Joe Paterno. But I'm not going to get into all that, though, because that's all been beaten to death by people who are better at writing than I am. Instead...well, as someone who has followed college football closely for well over a decade now, I've reached my breaking point. I was already getting there when the season began, but now, I've had enough. Basically, it comes down to this: college football has gotten WAY too big. This idea that a university's football program, the money that comes with it, and the people that are associated with it, are somehow so important that it makes it worth repeatedly violating NCAA rules, or - worse - covering up child rape for a whole decade...well, it makes me wonder. How can I even watch college football, knowing what goes on behind the scenes?

I had already kind of resigned myself to the fact that all of the successful teams in college football are breaking NCAA rules in one way or the other. When it's just a matter of secret "under the table" payments or benefits to players, I can live with that. Can't really fault individual programs for trying to gain a competitive edge when the only penalty is "vacated wins". I mean, what is that? And college football is hardly the only sport with occasional widespread rule-breaking. Rampant cheating goes in cycles; eventually, the governing body (in this case the NCAA) will catch up and get everyone in line (e.g. MLB with steroids). I can also live with the NCAA pretending that college football is an amateur competition, when really, it's not. (Except in that the players don't get paid, of course. At least not officially.) College football is big business, now more so than ever. It's almost as big as the NFL is these days. Conference realignment was cool and interesting at first, but now it's just getting annoying, and when you have Boise State joining the "Big East", it only reinforces the whole "big business" aspect of the sport. And the BCS has always been crap, since the day it was born. But I've lived with all of college football's flaws for years, because 1) I have pride in my two alma maters, both of which have good college football teams, and 2) because football is entertaining to watch.

But now...yikes. Penn State was supposed to be one of the "good schools" that didn't live on the fringes of the NCAA rulebook and/or moral compass. So much for that, eh? And for what? To protect the football program? Regardless of whether the football program or the university administration are to blame, the way I see it, this is directly tied to football. Let's say Jerry Sandusky was a trusted, tenured university professor with zero impact on the football program. Do his child raping habits still get swept under the rug? Maybe, but probably not. God forbid we let this affect our storied football team! And it's not as if things like this happen outside the football department, right? Or do we just not hear about those? Is the will to win in college football so important that some people in positions of influence are even willing to overlook this? If so, then that is very, very sad.

So, I guess the point I'm trying to get across is this. I've had it with college football, and I am no longer emotionally invested in it. Sure, it would be nice if Florida State beat rival Miami (FL) today (Sat 3:30p, ABC), but the winner of that game will probably wind up vacating the win at some point anyway, so who cares?

As for Nebraska at Penn State - Sat 12:00p, ESPN: yeah, whatever. I'm kind of ashamed to be a college football fan at this point. But I am NOT ashamed to be a Penn State alumnus. I met a lot of great people at Penn State University, all of which uphold the highest moral standard, and none of which are affiliated with the football program.

College basketball

While still profitable, college basketball isn't quite the corrupt beast that college football is. And, they actually have a playoff at the end of the season! I don't think I'm even close to the breaking point with college basketball yet, so it's still more than watchable. Which is good, because part of the reason I didn't renew NHL Center Ice for 2011-12 was because I planned on watching more college basketball instead.

But aside from Friday's "aircraft carrier" game between North Carolina and Michigan State, I don't really see anything on the calendar that is all that appealing to me this weekend. So...we'll wait another week for this.

NFL

I am looking forward to this Sunday's Jaguars/Colts game way more than I should. Either the Jaguars win (which is always good to see), or the Colts win and decrease their odds in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. It's win-win! But for the record, "Jaguars win" is a more preferable outcome. In fact, if they lose this game, I think they might as well fire Jack Del Rio now. Jacksonville at Indianapolis - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 708

Other games of interest:
Tennessee at Carolina - Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5: Watching the Panthers, sometimes I forget that they have the same miserable record as the Jaguars. I guess good offense + bad defense looks more impressive than good defense + horrible offense.
Buffalo at Dallas - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 704: Is the Bills' season going up in smoke?
Detroit at Chicago - Sun 4:15p, DirecTV 711: With the Lions actually playing well, football on Thanksgiving won't be so bad this year.
New England at NY Jets - Sun 8:20p, NBC: Hey, look, the Jets are on national television again! Barf. And next week, not only are the Jets in the NFL Network Thursday night game, but it's against Tim Tebow! Barf.

(Other locally televised games: NO/ATL - Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50; NYG/SF - Sun 4:15p, WRAZ 50)

NHL

Time for my half-assed Carolina Hurricanes analysis of the week! Thank goodness for Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward (the latter of whom I think is a little underappreciated - do Hurricanes fans take him for granted?), because I think the Hurricanes would be a hopeless bottom feeder without them. Eric Staal has been a colossal overpaid disappointment so far this season. How the heck do you accumulate a plus/minus rating of -16 by the first week of November??? Well...still plenty of time to work this out, I guess. Pittsburgh at Carolina - Sat 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

I'm very disappointed that NHL Network has opted to stop airing "Hockey Night in Canada" and instead air more of the American teams that Versus already shows plenty of as it is. Is this to spite me for opting out of Center Ice for this season? New Jersey at Washington - Sat 7:00p, NHL Network

Finally, there is Wednesday night's Philadelphia/Tampa Bay game, in which the Flyers' response to the Lightning's "neutral zone trap" defensive scheme was to stand there and do nothing. Who looks worse here - the Lightning for playing boring defense, or the Flyers for not advancing the puck? My take: the Flyers look worse. Both teams were within the rules, but I don't see how doing what the Flyers did actually helped them win the game. (The Flyers ended up losing.) Obviously, the NHL will need to do something about it if this becomes a chronic thing.

Auto racing

Yep...I can't help myself but talk about the points system again. Carl Edwards has zero wins in the Chase; Tony Stewart has four. But who's leading the points? Edwards is! And it's not like Stewart's non-win finishes have been terrible, either (7th, 8th, 15th, 25th). Even if Edwards wins the Cup with no wins (and only one on the entire season), I don't expect any retalitatory point system changes like we saw after Matt Kenseth won the Cup in uninspiring fashion in 2003. Fact is, if you're going to heavily stagger the points system at the top (which I have always been in favor of) and reward winning more than you penalize a bad finish, then you're leaving the door open for somebody to dominate and get a big points lead. I don't see anything wrong with that, but NASCAR seems insistent that EVERY championship battle come down to the final race. And that's why the point system is how it is. NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix - Sun 3:00p, ESPN