Monday, January 31, 2011

Curling Recap: 1/28-1/30/11

Time to briefly recap last weekend's curling games, both of which were very close, again...

Career game #122: Winter League (Friday), Week 2 - January 28, 2011

End......... 12345678S |TTL
---------------------------
Schoolman... 021000300 | 06
Allen....... 100111021 | 07

My general strategy is to go for a two-point end, and then once I've secured two, guard the heck out of what I've got. In this game, though, I don't think we ever had the two all that often. The other team played us tough, and most of the time, we had to scratch and claw just to get the one.

...until the last end. What changed in the last end that allowed us to get two? Well, I knew one point wasn't going to be good enough (we were down two), so I started playing a more aggressive take-out strategy, because we had no choice. That strategy doesn't always work, and the take-outs we had been trying earlier in the game didn't work out. (I remember one in particular that actually helped the other team. Bad call on my part.) But we played an outstanding final end, made the hits and draws we needed to make, and we got the two points we needed to tie. I actually had a chance to win the game with my last shot in the 8th end, just like last week, but...I was a little heavy. (Okay, a lot heavy.) We won the "Skip Rock Shootout" with what might have been one of my best draws ever, though, so...things worked out. What missed shot?

Amber played in a different game, winning 5-4, also in a "shootout".

Career game #123: Winter League (Sunday), Week 2 - January 30, 2011
(My team: Witcraft)

End........... 12345678 |TTL
----------------------------
Hamilton-UNC.. 01010200 | 04
Witcraft...... 10101011 | 05

If two teams are equal, then you would generally expect the team with last rock to score one point in each end, right? That's exactly what happened in six of the eight ends in this game, and the two exceptions kind of canceled each other out (scoring two with last rock is roughly equivalent to scoring one without last rock). Safe to say this was a very evenly played game. The difference? We won the coin toss. We play Team Hamilton-UNC again later in the season; it'll be fun to see what happens in the rematch.

On a side note, this was my first game of the year not playing as Skip. This was the first time in several weeks that I had to sweep, and...it showed. Maybe I should start working out my arms some during the week. (On second thought, nah.)

So, for those keeping track at home: all four of my games so far in 2011 have been one-point wins. (Amber is 2-0, with one of those being a one-point win.) I know I'd be a bit frustrated if I lost four one-point games in a row, because repeated failures in clutch situations tend to frustrate me more than anything else (e.g. losing three consecutive championship games). I'll just need to remember that this particular streak happened next time I lose four close ones in a row, because that's bound to happen sooner or later.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sports Saturday: 1/29/11

In today's issue...

NHL - The NHL All-Star Game. What else?
College basketball - An idea regarding television coverage of the NCAA Tournament in March.
Auto racing - Yep, racing season is underway. Already. Sort of.

NHL - So...I'm normally fairly "ho hum" about professional All-Star games. Not this time. The NHL All-Star Game is this weekend, and there are two reasons I'm more excited about it than I've ever been about ANY All-Star game in ANY sport: (Which isn't saying much, but still.)

1) The game is in Raleigh. I'm not going to the game or the skills competition or anything, but it's still fun to have it just down the street, and to have friends who are going to the game and are really excited about it. There is certainly a buzz around here, and it's kind of neat. It's also fun for your city (or metropolitan area, at least) to be the center of attention for a weekend. I wasn't in Jacksonville when it hosted the Super Bowl, so I can't compare with that. However, this might even be better than Jacksonville Super Bowl. Why? Because I haven't had to listen and read all week about how Raleigh doesn't deserve to host the NHL All-Star Game. I think mainstream hockey media is actually excited to be here, unlike Jacksonville, which most mainstream football media pretty much hated.

2) The "fantasy draft" format. Unlike most All-Star games, where teams are split up by conference - or sometimes in the NHL's case, by nationality - team captains were chosen, and they pick the teams themselves, as if this were a fantasy league of some kind. I absolutely LOVE this. Nobody gives a crap about "East v. West", but when you leave it up to the players to decide the teams, then you get all kinds of intrigue. Who gets picked first? Who gets picked last? Will the Sedin twins be split up? Will Eric Stall be able to get both of his Hurricanes teammates on his All-Star team? And, ultimately, which team is better? The All-Star game itself usually isn't that interesting of a game, but this time there will be more "bragging rights" on the line, since the players chose the teams themselves. In theory. We'll see how this format holds up over time.

(Note: I wrote prior to having watched last night's fantasy draft, so at press time, I'm not sure how it actually panned out.)

Sat 7:00p - NHL All-Star Skills Competition, Versus
Sun 4:00p - NHL All-Star Game, Versus

College basketball - I'm jumping the gun here, but...here's something I thought of recently. For the first time ever (I assume), every NCAA Tournament game will be televised nationally, on one of four networks (CBS, TNT, TBS, TruTV). That's exciting. Yeah! I'll be able to DVR the Florida State game no matter who or when they play! (If they make the tournament, of course. Still lots of games to go.)

But...here's what would be even more awesome. Used to be, the CBS national feed would frantically switch around between games in the final few minutes so that you can see all of the "defining moments" and whatnot as they happen. Now that there are four separate networks, are they still going to do that? My impression is, no. Then how about an "NFL Red Zone"-type channel that flips around to whichever game is most exciting at that time, so that we don't have to flip around ourselves? How about it, CBS College Sports? What about you, DirecTV? This seems like something you could put together. Now that every game is national, your "Mega March Madness" package is now obsolete, so how about a "Red Zone"-type channel instead? I'd honestly be willing to pay a few bucks for a channel like that. Not $69, of course; maybe $10-$20 if it were commercial-free. ($69 was the old price of "Mega March Madness", I believe.) For all I know, something like that may already be in the works, but I haven't heard.

Why am I thinking about the NCAA Tournament already? Because this will be the first time in FOUR YEARS that we're not going on a road trip of some kind during the tournament.

Sat 11:00a - Temple at St. Joseph's, ESPNU
Sat 12:00p - Florida State at Clemson, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sat 12:00p - Xavier at Richmond, ESPN2
Sat 12:00p - Louisville at Connecticut, MASN
Sat 1:00p - Minnesota at Purdue, WRAL.2 (CBS Regional; some areas get Florida/Miss. State)
Sat 2:00p - NC State at North Carolina, ESPN
Sat 2:00p - St. Louis at George Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic: Sometimes I forget that St. Louis is in the Atlantic 10.
Sat 3:00p - Syracuse at Marquette, ESPNU
Sat 4:00p - Wisconsin at Penn State, Big Ten Network
Sat 4:00p - BYU at New Mexico, Versus: Seriously thought about recording this game instead of Penn State just so I could see what all this Jimmer Fredette fuss was about, but...nah. We'll see BYU in the NCAA Tournament.
Sat 4:00p - Virginia at Wake Forest, WRAZ (ACC Network)
Sat 6:00p - Ohio State at Northwestern, ESPN2
Sat 8:00p - West Virginia at Cincinnati, MASN
Sun 1:00p - Duke at St. John's, CBS: Seems like these teams play each other every year. Why?
Sun 2:00p - Providence at Seton Hall, MSG
Sun 4:00p - Iowa at Michigan, Big Ten Network
Sun 5:30p - Miami (FL) at Virginia Tech, FSN
Sun 6:00p - Indiana at Michigan State, Big Ten Network
Sun 7:45p - Maryland at Georgia Tech, FSN

Auto racing - Two quick thoughts here...

NASCAR made the new points system official: 46 for a win, 42-1 for 2nd through 43rd. Not surprised.

Racing season starts this weekend with the 24 Hours of Daytona. Racing in January? Sure, why not? I don't think I ever actually watch the 24 Hours of Daytona, but it's good to know I can if I want to.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow Shovel

I haven't talked about winter weather in a while, mostly because there isn't been a whole lot to talk about. To summarize the last month or so:
- We got 6+ inches of snow the day after Christmas...but we weren't here for it, and it had all melted by the time we got back home from our trip. Bummer.
- Since then, we've flirted with snow a couple of times. Once, about an inch was forecast, and we only got a trace. Another time, an inch or two was forecast, and we ended up with 0.3" of snow (airport observation) and a thin glaze of ice. Boring. (Well, ice isn't boring, but it's not fun, either.)

And, we're almost guaranteed to not get any more snow again for a while, now that we have one of these.


Why did we get a snow shovel? Not because of any "impending doom" or anything. It just seems like the kind of thing that we'll only actually use once every few years, but will very much come in handy when we do need one. Next time Durham gets over a foot of snow - yes, it can happen - we'll be ready. Of course, now that we have a snow shovel, we're never going to actually need it. That's how these things work.

(Yes, I realize that our ownership of a shovel has zero effect on meteorological conditions, and that we're just as likely to get snow next week as we would have been if we did not have a shovel.)

In the meantime, we might as well make the best of what we're given. This weekend, that will be sunny skies, and temperatures in the mid-to-upper 50s. Aww, shucks...guess I better make some outdoor plans. Darn it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cheese Puffs

(Yeah...I'm really scrounging the bottom of the proverbial barrel for ideas this week.)

Several weeks ago, when Amber and I went and saw the baby doctor, they handed her a list of possible ways to help fight off the symptoms of the dreaded "morning sickness". Among the more peculiar home remedies: Cheetos. Apparently, Cheetos are supposed to help with the nausea. So we were told.

Amber doesn't normally eat Cheetos, or any other "cheese puff" type of snack, so she wasn't really inclined to give them a try. Eventually, I talked her into it. Did they help with the "morning sickness"? No. Well, it was worth a shot.

(Note that these were not the traditional "crunchy" Cheetos, but the "puffs" - kind of like traditional Cheez Doodles. According to the baby doctor, it shouldn't have made a difference, as it's the cheese powder that allegedly helps with the nausea. The distinction between the "crunchy" and "puffed" variety of cheese-powdered snack is key in my next point.)

So it was up to me to finish the bag, which was left open for a day or two, causing the Cheetos to become stale. I then made a revelation: cheese puffs are better stale.

I've gone on record as saying that popcorn is not better stale. (Amber disagrees.) Cheese puffs, however...oh yes. I guess the thing is, I don't like my cheese puffs to crunch. If I wanted them to crunch, I'd just get the crunchy variety. I like my cheese puffs on the softer side.

It doesn't really matter, though, because stale or not, the powder still gets all over your fingers. That's my #1 issue with Cheetos, and it's a deal-breaker.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shopping Carts

Don't you hate it when you go to the grocery store and grab a shopping cart, only to find mid-way through your shopping experience that your cart either has a bad wheel, constantly pulls to the right, or is just difficult to maneuver in general? Yeah...that got me thinking. (By the way, the British and Canadians spell it "manoeuvre", which I think looks funny.)

For one thing, your experience at various grocery stores varies when it comes to the shopping carts. Stores like Harris Teeter and Target appear to have strict standards by which all its carts adhere to. They're all the same color (green at Harris Teeter, red at Target), and all generally ride pretty smoothly. I find I'm far less likely to end up with a bad cart at either of those two places than I am at, say, Kroger. Then again, Kroger is also cheaper, so you get what you pay for.

Our neighborhood Kroger has recently been remodeled. Why not remodel the shopping carts, too? I'd rather have a well-oiled shopping cart than a shiny floor or freshly painted walls. Wouldn't you? But until they do, I'll try to remember to grab a cart from the parking lot and "drive" it (is that what you do with shopping carts?) into the store. The theory is, I should know whether it's a "good" cart or not by the time I get to the front of the store, and can then swap it out with one from inside if necessary. I've also considered marking "bad" carts with a small piece of red tape or something. (Not really, but I think that'd be fun.)

While Kroger's carts don't always run straight, they are much larger than the plastic Target carts, and for that I am grateful. Target's carts are appropriately-sized for a non-grocery store run, which is fine for most Targets, but not for the Meijer-style hypermarkets, a.k.a. "SuperTarget" stores. The size of the carts has not evolved with the stores themselves to reflect the size needed for a typical weekly grocery run. Instead, target carts are pretty much the same now as they were when Targets first started popping up in my area, I'm pretty sure. Some Krogers I've been to have had carts of different sizes available: the traditional kind, one that's shallower but wider, and a much smaller one. The wider carts are easier to load and such, but are obviously harder to navigate through narrow aisles or gaps. I'm not sure which I prefer overall between traditional and wide.

So...in summary: Our neighborhood Kroger recently remodeled, but they're still using the same old crappy shopping carts. Many Targets now sell groceries, but they haven't increased the size of the shopping carts accordingly. Come to think of it, have there been any major advances in shopping cart technology within the last 20 years? Not really. I'm think it's time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Curling Recap: 1/21-1/23/11

Curling is back! Over the next few months, I'll be curling more than I've ever curled before:
- I'm curling in BOTH of the Triangle Curling Club's Winter Leagues. I'm playing Skip on Friday and Vice-Skip on Sunday.
- On top of that, I'm curling in TWO out-of-town bonspiels in February.

Add it up, and that'll be nearly 20 games of curling between now and the first weekend in April. I guess I felt like loading up on curling now while we don't have any kids. Amber won't be curling nearly as much this season; instead, she'll only be playing sparingly depending on how she feels and when spots are available. While I've done pretty well as Skip so far in my brief curling career, I've never Skipped a team without Amber on it, so...it's going to be a bit more difficult this time around.

Career game #120: Winter League (Friday), Week 1 - January 21, 2011

End......... 12345678 |TTL
--------------------------
Allen....... 11300303 | 11
Wright...... 00014050 | 10

There are two main things I want to talk about here. One is this: I've always thought that a primary feature of my General Curling Strategy is to "avoid giving up the big end". Well, here we are, giving up a 4-ender and a 5-ender, in the same game. So much for my strategy, eh? I've been replaying these ends in my mind to try and figure out how they happened and how to avoid them, and here's what I've concluded:
- Early position is important, as always.
- I should be more willing to take out guards. When someone throws up a guard, I'm a little too quick to say "Well, shoot, guess we need to try another line now".
- I should think harder about how to get rocks in the house that can't easily be taken out. In the 7th end, my last shot was a simple draw into the house; I think it cut the other team down from 4 to 2. Problem was, the shot was on a predictable take-out line and was easily removed, scoring 5 for the other team. I should have planned that last draw (and other draws in the late parts of that end) better so that it couldn't have been taken out as easily. Easier said than done, but...still.
- Sometimes, you just get beat. My next-to-last shot in the 5th end was an excellent draw that (unlike in the 7th end) was NOT an easy take-out, but opposing skip Lance made the take-out anyway, squeezing my rock through a narrow gap and out the back of the house.

I would diagram that Lance shot, but instead I'd much rather diagram the final shot of the game. Here's the approximate setup prior to our last rock (our team = red):


We needed two to tie, three to win. We already had two. The only way I thought we could get two was to promote Rock X into the house. Due to the ice conditions and the predictable lines, drawing in between the guards wasn't a realistic option. Rock X was where my first shot ended up, so I figured that if I threw that same line again with a little more weight, I'd bump Rock X head-on and into the house. But was it worth the risk of hitting Rock Y or Z instead, and possibly ruining the game-tying two we had already secured? I decided that "playing it safe" wasn't any fun, so I went for it...and made it. Yay! I wouldn't call it an absolute "clutch" shot since we still would have gone to "Overtime" had I missed, but still, I guess you could call it a "walk-off".

Amber also curled on Friday, but in a different game; she won 14-5.

Career game #121: Winter League (Sunday), Week 1 - January 23, 2011
(my team: Witcraft)

Playing Skip is fun, but it can also be mentally exhausting, so I was actually looking forward to NOT playing Skip on Sunday. Then comes word that Skip Nick was ill and wouldn't be able to make it to the rink, which meant I was Skipping again. And, I'd be up against Dan, the Skip of our league-championship winning team from last season. Great. There would be no shame in losing to Dan, but...we somehow pulled it out:

End......... 1234567S |TTL
--------------------------
Scheck...... 11120000 | 05
Witcraft.... 00001131 | 06

It's taken me 28 games as Skip to learn this, but I've learned not to "panic" when down big. I've seen enough 5-0 leads evaporate (twice just this weekend, in fact, and on both sides of it) to know that you shouldn't try to get it all back at once. Don't play desperate, don't try too hard to get more than one or two, and only in the last end or two should you be "playing the scoreboard".

The difference? Lead Debra was awesome with her draw weight in the second half of the game. Given that the ice was very much NOT take-out friendly (in stark contrast to Friday), that made all the difference. As for me...I didn't actually throw a useful shot until my first shot of the 7th end (which ended up being the 3rd point). Prior to that, I missed every single shot. I had a very tough time with my draw weight that day, but I guess I figured it out just in time for the "Skip Rock Shootout" to break the tie. That was a total fluke, though, because Dan was kicking my butt at draw weight all game long. The 4th end comes to mind: he drew two close to the button (hence the two points) and I drew nowhere near the house on either shot.

So...two nail-biting, one-point, final-end-comeback wins. We're not going to be that fortunate every week, but I'll take them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sports Saturday: 1/22/11

Yeah, I know it's only Friday, but I didn't post anything yesterday, so...here you go. In today's issue:

NFL: I'm already sick of the Jets.
College basketball: Penn State? Close, but no cigar.
NASCAR: A new points system? Bring in the math nerds!
NHL: Saving my breath for next week.

NFL - I'm as sick of the "New York v. Boston" meme as anyone, but last week's Patriots/Jets game was still the most entertaining of the four. I'm going to confess something, though.

At the start of the playoffs, I said that I'd be rooting against what I called "the establishment", which included the Patriots but not the Jets. Based on that, I should have been rooting for the Jets in that game last Sunday, right? Well...that isn't what happened. I don't find the Jets to be particularly likable. I find them arrogant and annoying, and I couldn't bring myself to root for them, even when matched up against the "Evil Empire" Patriots. You know, it's kind of like the 2003 and 2004 ALCSs between the Yankees and Red Sox. It doesn't get any more "establishment" than the Yankees, and conventional logic dictated I should have rooted for the Red Sox in those series like everyone else did, especially given how long it had been since Boston last won a World Series. But...I just couldn't do it. Like the 2010 Jets, the 2003-04 Red Sox were arrogant and annoying, and I was afraid that if they won a title or two, that we'd never hear the end of it and pretty much be sick of them a few years down the road. Well, guess what happened?

So, I guess what I'm saying is this. I think the Jets are the Red Sox of the NFL. They just beat the Yankees of the NFL, and if they win the Super Bowl this year, we may never hear the end of it. Folks, we may be stuck with another annoying team to deal with for years to come. Did we really want the Jets to win last week? I don't think we did. Careful what you wish for!

On a non-playoff note, long-time Jacksonville Jaguars beat writer Vic Ketchman is leaving for a job with the Packers. Ketchman has been with the team since the beginning (I think), and his columns and insight are outstanding, so...this makes me sad.

Sun 3:00p - Green Bay at Chicago, FOX
Sun 6:30p - NY Jets at Pittsburgh, CBS

College basketball -As I mentioned last week, Penn State had two tough games ahead of them: at Ohio State, and at Purdue. A win in either would be "remarkable" and "might even vault them into the NCAA Tournament discussion". Did it happen? No. But, they played tough in both games and only lost by four combined points. So...moral victory? Penn State plays again next Wednesday against Iowa, which should seem like a piece of cake after the last four games.

Meanwhile...Florida State picked up two more wins and is now 4-1 in the ACC, the only loss being a road loss to Virginia Tech, and that's not a bad loss, really. The schedule is shaping up nicely, too: they get Wake Forest twice (Wake is, by far, the worst team in the ACC this year) and they're already done with Duke. The offense is starting to get a little better, too (slightly), so...things are looking up as far as getting the 10-6 conference record I think they need to make the NCAA Tournament. Yes, that is optimism you hear. It does happen from time to time.

Sat 12:00p - Ohio State at Illinois, WRAL.2 (CBS nationally)
Sat 12:00p - Georgia Tech at Virginia, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sat 12:00p - Villanova at Syracuse, ESPN
Sat 12:00p - Richmond at Massachusetts, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sat 2:00p - Charlotte at Duquesne, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sat 2:30p - Clemson at Maryland, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sat 3:00p - Temple at Xavier, ESPN2
Sat 3:00p - Buffalo at Ohio, ESPNU (Normally not a game that would make my list, but how often is an Ohio Bobcats home game televised?)
Sat 4:00p - Duke at Wake Forest, ESPN
Sat 4:00p - Cincinnati at St. John's, SNY
Sat 6:00p - Kentucky at South Carolina, ESPN
Sat 7:00p - Boston College at Florida State, ESPNU
Sat 7:00p - Minnesota at Michigan, Big Ten Network
Sat 7:00p - Marquette at Notre Dame, MASN
Sat 9:00p - Michigan State at Purdue, ESPN
Sun 12:00p - Miami (FL) at NC State, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sun 1:00p - Wisconsin at Northwestern, Big Ten Network
Sun 2:00p - South Florida at West Virginia, MASN
Sun 3:00p - Indiana at Iowa, Big Ten Network

NASCAR - I was going to wait until mid-February to start talking about NASCAR again, but...breaking news! NASCAR is considering overhauling the points system. Calling all math nerds!

The current system goes like this: 185/170/165/160/155 for the top 5, 150/146/142/138/134/130 for 6th through 11th, then -3 for every position thereafter down to 43rd, which earns 34 points. I think there are two main reasons NASCAR is considering changing things up: it's too confusing, and/or the numbers are too big for its math-challenged fan base. The solution? 43 points for 1st, 1 point for 43rd, and one point increments for every position in between. This seems like a drastic change, but it isn't really. The two biggest differences are, not as much of a bonus for winning (which they're supposedly re-thinking), and drivers wouldn't be penalized as much if they have to sit out a race due to injury or something. It would have almost no impact on where drivers would finish in the final standings. Like I said, they're just trying to simplify it, and that's fine.

But since we're on the topic of points systems...what kind of system would I like? I proposed a system a few years ago similar to what is used in Formula One and IndyCar: large gaps between positions near the top, and almost negligible gaps between positions near the bottom. My thinking is that a consistency-based points system, such as both the existing and proposed NASCAR systems, punishes bad finishes more than it rewards good finishes. A staggered point system does the opposite: you have to go out and earn your points, instead of finishing 10th every week and limping your way into the Chase For The Cup. I'd rather 1st+30th be worth more points than 10th+10th, for example. I also don't like the idea of having the difference between 40th and 41st be the same as the difference between 2nd and 3rd. I mean, do we really give a crap whether somebody finishes 40th or 41st? I don't think you should be awarding points outside the top 30 at all, honestly, but I suppose the "top 35 in owner points" rule kind of mandates that even the Kevin Conways of the sport get at least some points each week.

Unfortunately, there are two reasons NASCAR won't go for the kind of highly staggered point system I would like: 1) It makes it easier for someone to dominate and get an insurmountable point lead. In theory. 2) They want every race to be important to everybody, which is why they value consistency so much. They don't want to let anyone take a "week off", literally or figuratively. And, besides, Brian France's top priority isn't that the championship goes to the most deserving driver; it's that the Chase for the Cup is close and "exciting".

So, how about a compromise? By making a couple of minor tweaks to the 43-1 baseline system, we get a point system I think I can get behind:
- Instead of 43 for a win, award 55* for a win. 2nd place still gets 42. NASCAR has apparently suggested that there would be a bonus for winning under the 43-1 system, and that the gap between 1st and 2nd wouldn't be one measly point. (I think I saw that in a tweet.) I'm pretty sure they wouldn't do 55, though; probably something lame like 45.
- Award 10 points to everyone who finishes 34th or worse, regardless of position. Because, like I said, nobody gives a crap whether somebody finishes 40th or 41st.

(* - Why 55? So that 1st+30th > 10th+10th. 1st+30th would be worth 69 points (55+14); 10th+10th would be worth 68 points (34+34). And yes, I know I'm ignoring bonus points for leading laps and so forth; I honestly don't care what they do with those.)

55 for a win, 42-11 for 2nd through 33rd, and 10 for 34th on down. How 'bout it, NASCAR?

(Here is more analysis on various racing series' points systems, for those interested.)

NHL - I'm saving the hockey discussion for next weekend's All Star game.

Sat 1:00p - New Jersey at Philadelphia, MSG Plus
Sat 2:00p - Chicago at Detroit, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 3:00p - Boston at Colorado, NESN
Sat 7:00p - Carolina at Pittsburgh, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - Washington at Toronto, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Anaheim at Montréal, Prime Ticket
Sat 8:00p - Columbus at St. Louis, Fox Sports Midwest
Sat 10:00p - Calgary at Vancouver, NHL Center Ice
Sun 12:30p - Philadelphia at Chicago, NBC
Sun 8:00p - Nashville at Edmonton, Fox Sports Tennessee
(Not listed: NYR/ATL, LA/PHX, MIN/SJ, FLA/NJ, BUF/NYI, ATL/TB, NSH/EDM)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Four Recently Seen Movies

I haven't talked about movies in a while, so here are four that I've seen in the past month: (This post contains no spoilers.)

Inception: Director Christopher Nolan makes good movies. I don't like that he sold out and started doing Batman flicks, but the rest of his stuff is usually well thought-out and of high quality. I've had this one circled on my "must see" list for a while, so when we got James the DVD for Christmas, I then politely asked if we could watch it. Clever, eh?

(Side note: I try to avoid writing movie reviews here. There are already plenty of movie reviews on the internet as it is, and given how few movies I see in a given year - maybe five or six? - so I'm not qualified. Instead, I'm going for more of a "random thoughts" feel, rather than an overall, polished opinion on a movie.)

So, yeah. The movie was very reminiscent of "The Matrix": well done and thought-out, excellent special effects, and I had no idea what was going on most of the time. True story: halfway through the movie, I went on my phone and read a plot summary of what I had seen up to that point to help me figure everything out. I haven't seen the movie a second time, but it seems like the kind of movie that if you watch multiple times, you'll discover something new every time that you hadn't picked up on before. I think that's a sign of a good movie, just as long as it's not too confusing the first time through.

More on that comparison I made with "The Matrix". I'm not big on sci-fi. (I'm a nerd, but I'm not that kind of nerd.) My "suspension of disbelief" only takes me so far, and I end up thinking most sci-fi is dumb. It takes a great amount of effort to produce a sci-fi movie that I would consider "good". In fact, I'd say it happens about once every 5 years or so. I can only think of five such sci-fi movies in the last 30 years:
- 1985: "Back to the Future"
- 1993: "Jurassic Park"
- 1999: "The Matrix"
- 2002: "Minority Report"
- 2010: "Inception"

2008's "WALL-E" would make my exclusive list, but I think of "WALL-E" as animated first and sci-fi second. Suspension of disbelief is far easier when it's animated. So other than that...that's it. That's the list. Everything else is "meh" or worse.

(Speaking of sci-fi that's "meh" or worse, I've given up on the NBC show "The Event". That show is a failure. In fact, the list of "good" sci-fi TV shows is even shorter: "Quantum Leap", "The X-Files", "Lost".)

True Grit: I am generally anti-remake. So why did we go see this movie - a remake of a John Wayne classic - and in a full-price movie theater of all places? Well, we felt like doing something on Christmas Eve night in Toledo, and movie theaters are among the few establishments that are open late on Christmas Eve. And of all the movies that were playing, most of which I had never heard of before ("True Grit" being among them), "True Grit" had the highest Rotten Tomatoes score. Better yet, it was directed by the Coen Brothers, whom I normally give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these things. (When deciding how good or how bad movies might be, I give the director a lot of weight. The Coen Brothers aren't among my favorite directors, but at least they're creative.) When you make an impromptu movie theater trip and are forced to make a decision on the spot, the goal isn't necessarily to see a good movie; it's just to avoid seeing a bad movie.

I'm happy with the choice we made, but I don't like that my $9 admission will be viewed as an endorsement of Hollywood remakes, which may encourage even more remakes. That's the way it goes, I guess. Meanwhile, we have the original John Wayne "True Grit" saved on our DVR - it aired on AMC a couple of weekends ago - so we can compare and contrast, and because I don't think I've ever seen a John Wayne movie.

Inglourious Basterds: Continuing the "directors I trust" theme, I'm also a fan of Quentin Tarantino's work. Nobody does movies like Tarantino. I generally don't like graphic violence, but for some reason when Tarantino does it, it makes me laugh rather than cringe. How does he do it? I also appreciate the dumb little details he sneaks in there, such as the stylish opening credits.

(Side note: SHOWTIME had a free preview over the weekend, during which I set up the DVR to record quite a few movies I wanted to see, including "Inglourious Basterds".)

I appreciated the international flavor of the movie as much as anything. Foreign languages were widely present, which makes sense, given that it took place mostly in France. Many of the actors in the film were foreign, too, which I appreciated. (It's not that I'm anti-American; I just like to see what the rest of the world is doing.) But besides all that, the movie was classic Tarantino, and the last 30 minutes were just great. I'd say more about the ending, but...no spoilers.

The Hurt Locker: The most recent "Best Picture" Oscar-winner was also part of the SHOWTIME free preview. Hey, why not?

I read a lot of background about this movie after I watched it on the DVR, and learned that the filmmakers went to great lengths to make the film seem as authentic as possible in its representation of the Iraq War. Again, I appreciate the details; I can't help but notice them when I watch things (it's a blessing and a curse), so they better be right. It's more than just the details, though...I also don't want to get bored when I watch a movie. This movie was anything but boring. Even when the action was slow, it was still tense.

Given the lengths that the directors went to in making the film "authentic", one thing I was curious about was what Iraq war veterans thought of the movie. From what I gathered, general concensus was that they did a pretty good job with the atmosphere, but that the soldiers' decision making was overly reckless and not realistic in the least. Which, I guess that's what you're going to get in a movie: stupid and overly eccentric characters. That's the Hollywood way!

So, I've enjoyed 4 out of the last 4 movies I've seen. What an incredible streak! I'm a little nervous about the next movie we have saved on the DVR, though: "Zack and Miri Make a Porno".

Shampoo and/or Conditioner

I may not be qualified to discuss this, but I'm going to anyway: shampoo and conditioner.

So, here's what I've learned over the years with respect to hair care, at least as it pertains to me. All the way through high school graduation, I used Head and Shoulders, and also had a sizeable dandruff problem. Head and Shoulders is supposed to prevent dandruff, right? Well, it didn't. Not even Selsun Blue or Neutrogena T/Gel could compete with my itchy, flaky scalp.

Then, at some point, someone - possibly my girlfriend at the time - suggested I start using a cheap conditioner in the shower, in addition to the dandruff shampoo. And, it helped: no more dandruff, for the most part. Hooray! And that's what I still do today, except I use Kroger-brand generic shampoo instead of Head and Shoulders. (Kroger brand is significantly cheaper and contains the same active ingredient as Head and Shoulders.) Sure, it's possible - likely even - that the reason I no longer have a dandruff problem is because I don't have that much hair up there anymore, but my hair is still quite thick on the sides, and I used to get dandruff there, too. So, I credit the shampoo/conditioner combo.

Question #1: Is conditioner necessary? I say yes. Even if you don't have a dandruff problem, I recommend conditioner to anyone with at least some hair.

Question #2: What about that "2 in 1" stuff? You know, the "shampoo plus conditioner" that is supposed to eliminate the need for two separate bottles? Well...I never had much luck with that stuff, either. "2 in 1" shampoo is rubbish, and it's a BS term, anyway.

Question #3: Everybody's hair is different and can react in wildly different ways to the same hair care products, so does it really matter what I have to say? Nope. Trial and error is pretty much the only reliable way to get your ideal amount of shine and bounce.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Ultrasound


So...I debated whether or not I should post this at all. Ultimately, I did, because I figured the family might be interested in seeing it. Sure, it's all very exciting and stuff, but the next baby picture you'll see won't be for another 6½ months, outside the womb. Ultrasound photos kind of all look the same, so once is enough. Not that overkill has ever stopped me before, mind you...but I have my limits.

This all seems kind of abstract to me. Amber doesn't look pregnant, but if you stick some fancy object on her belly, a crude image of an unborn child appears on a screen. Weird. Is that real?

That said...it is kind of exciting. I hope you can forgive me for getting excited and posting it immediately.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ketchup

I don't have any major announcements or road trip recaps lined up this week, so let's talk about dumb topics instead. For example...ketchup.

I was trying to think of an edible, but non-perishable, grocery store item that just about everyone uses. (I can't say why...it's a secret.) Anyway, I came up with ketchup. Everyone likes and uses ketchup, right? I'm sure there are some counterexamples, but I think there's a 95% chance that if I gave a random friend a bottle of ketchup as a gift, he/she would use it. I recognize that I could be totally wrong on this, but I don't think you can do much better than ketchup.

Here's what sets ketchup apart from the rest. Not only does almost everyone like ketchup, almost everyone likes Heinz ketchup. I've never heard anyone say "I don't like Heinz ketchup; I prefer Hunts." Heinz is unquestioned as the nation's leader in ketchup. And, there's one, main variety of ketchup - plain, red tomato ketchup - that everyone likes. It's not like cereal and bread, where there are different varieties. Most people eat cereal, but...what kind? If you got someone a loaf of white bread, they won't eat it if they're "wheat" people, and vice versa. Ketchup is also unlike peanut butter, where many brands - Jif, Peter Pan, Skippy, among others - have a sizeable market share and fan following. Like I said, I don't know of any non-Heinz brand of ketchup with any following.

So, here are my questions for you:
- Do you not like ketchup?
- If someone gave you a free bottle of unspoiled, classic Heinz ketchup, would you eventually use it?
- Can you think of another edible, non-perishable grocery store item that is as universally accepted and used as ketchup? Water is boring, so it doesn't count.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sports Saturday: 1/15/11

In today's issue...

College basketball - Florida State beats Duke, again! Oh, and Penn State had a good week, too.
NFL - This is the most interesting week of the season, if you ask me.
NHL - Are the Vancouver Canucks Canada's best hope for a Stanley Cup in years?

College basketball - Let's start with Florida State, because...we beat Duke! Woohoo! Sure, that's nothing new - FSU is capable of beating Duke at home pretty much every year, it seems - but still, it's always great to beat Duke. The 2003 Duke game in particular is, perhaps, my greatest sports memory while at FSU, even more so than any football game I attended. It's always great to beat Duke. (For the record, I don't hate Duke like most people do - heck, I even rooted for them in the NCAA tournament last year, even against Butler in the championship game - but I like when Florida State beats them.)

Penn State had a good week, too, with two consecutive wins over ranked teams at home (Michigan State, Illinois) to move to 3-2 in the Big Ten. Given how tough the Big Ten is this year, they're going to need to win some of these tough games to even make the NIT, so...good job guys! Keep it up. The next two games are very tough on paper: at #2 Ohio State, and at #8 Purdue. Even winning one of those two games would be remarkable, and might even vault them into the NCAA Tournament discussion. ... Wooooaaahh! Let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

Remember that I only list ACC, Big Ten, and Atlantic 10 games, plus a few other games of interest (mostly Big East and SEC). For a complete list, visit the506.com. Oh, and speaking of the Big Ten: this is football related, but they've decided NOT to scrap the division names "Legends" and "Leaders". Ugh.

Sat 11:00a - Marquette at Louisville, ESPN2
Sat 12:00p - Vanderbilt at Tennessee, ESPN
Sat 1:00p - Maryland at Villanova, CBS
Sat 1:00p - Northwestern at Michigan State, Big Ten Network
Sat 2:00p - Virginia at Duke, ESPN
Sat 3:00p - Illinois at Wisconsin, Big Ten Network
Sat 4:00p - NC State at Florida State, WRAZ (ACC Network)
Sat 5:30p - Penn State at Ohio State, Big Ten Network
Sat 6:00p - Boston College at Miami (FL), ESPNU
Sat 8:00p - Michigan at Indiana, Big Ten Network
Sat 8:00p - Dayton at Xavier, CBS College Sports
Sat 8:00p - Wake Forest at Virginia Tech, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sun 12:00p - Notre Dame at St. John's, MASN
Sun 1:30p - Purdue at West Virginia, CBS
Sun 4:00p - St. Bonaventure at Rhode Island, CSN New England: Do you get this channel, Dad?
Sun 6:00p - Iowa at Minnesota, Big Ten Network
Sun 7:30p - North Carolina at Georgia Tech, FSN

NFL - Why do I think this is the most interesting week of the season? Because it's the most intense. For the four teams who had great seasons, earned first-round byes, and all have home playoff games this weekend, the pressure is never more intense. Lose this weekend, and it will be viewed as a choke, a waste of a good season, and a massive failure. It makes for great television.

By the way...the look on Peyton Manning's face after they lost to the Jets last week was pretty awesome. That's something I look forward to every year.

Sat 4:30p - Baltimore at Pittsburgh, CBS
Sat 8:00p - Green Bay at Atlanta, FOX
Sun 1:00p - Seattle at Chicago, FOX
Sun 4:30p - NY Jets at New England, CBS

NHL - The Carolina Hurricanes are - you guessed it - still in 9th place, so let's talk about somebody else. The Vancouver Canucks, the best team in the NHL right now, are my latest interest. Canada is long overdue for a Stanley Cup (none since 1993), and the Canucks might be our friendly neighbors' best chance in years. I don't get to watch them all that often because they play past my bedtime, but they've been on an East Coast road trip this week, so I've been watching them when I can. So, go Canucks!

Sat 1:00p - Pittsburgh at Boston, NESN
Sat 7:00p - Tampa Bay at Carolina, Fox Sports Carolinas
Sat 7:00p - NY Rangers at Montréal, NHL Network
Sat 7:00p - Columbus at Detroit, Fox Sports Detroit
Sat 7:00p - Calgary at Toronto, NHL Center Ice
Sat 8:00p - Chicago at Nashville, Fox Sports Tennessee
Sun 3:00p - Ottawa at Washington, CSN Mid-Atlantic
Sun 6:00p - Vancouver at Minnesota, Fox Sports North
(not listed: BUF/NYI, NJ/FLA, ATL/DAL, ANA/PHX, EDM/LA, STL/SJ, PHI/NYR, NSH/CHI [Sun.], EDM/ANA)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Natchez Trace Parkway: Part 2

(Click here for The Natchez Trace Parkway, Part 1. We pick up the action at the Tennessee/Alabama state line, heading south.)


The second of my two favorite bridges along the Natchez Trace Parkway, this is the Tennessee River Bridge (Mile 328) in Northwest Alabama. Back in the day, when people traveled along the Natchez Trace, you'd cross the river via the Colbert Ferry, operated and/or owned by a man named George Colbert. Do you like Southern History? Then you'll like the Natchez Trace Parkway!

Two side notes: 1) Back then, the river was nowhere near as wide; the ferry predates the downstream dam. 2) George Colbert's name is pronounced "COLE-burt", NOT "cole-BEAR".


The map's description of Freedom Hills (Mile 317) kind of teased me a little (punctuation is mine): "A steep trail leads to Alabama's Highest Point! ...on the parkway." Dammit! For a half-second there, I thought I was going to get another state highpoint out of this trip. The highest point in Alabama is in the Talladega mountains, nowhere near the Parkway, of course. It was still pretty, though.


In Mississippi now, this is where we stopped for lunch, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Mile 293). I think it's neat how the snow cover lines up perfectly with the shadow of the bridge. Even in Mississippi, there was still some snow on the ground.

One place we didn't stop, but perhaps should have, was the Pharr Mounds (Mile 287). The Pharr Mounds are 2,000-year-old burial mounds against a scenic backdrop. Driving by, it looked interesting.


This is Twentymile Bottom (Mile 278). These views aren't as spectacular as on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but there's also much less traffic and it's much more peaceful, so...you can't have it both ways. Unless you're willing to drive to Alaska, that is, because the Alaska Highway has both the views AND has no traffic to speak of. (Speaking of the Alaska Highway, there were portions of the Natchez Trace Parkway that had less traffic than the Alaska Highway and the so-called Loneliest Road in America, at least that day.)

The park's primary visitor center is the Tupelo Visitor Center (Mile 266), which is a great place to stop, sign the guestbook, and read all about the history of the Parkway. That is, unless you're like me and had already read all about it on the internets prior to the trip. I did learn some things, though. Also of note: the visitor center looked new, or at least recently renovated. Actually, the Parkway wasn't fully completed until 2005. This road isn't just some thing that has been sitting around the 60s and is being ignored today. Natchez Trace fever runs high, even today! Everything is very well maintained and marked.

We didn't go to the Tupelo National Battlefield (one mile east of Mile 260 along MS-6), but it's a popular stop for the more historically-minded Parkway travelers, so I thought I'd at least mention it.


Since this is the Natchez Trace Parkway and all, it is only appropriate to stop and see the actual Natchez Trace, right? There are many places along the Parkway labeled Old Trace to see the old trail; we arbitrarily picked the one at Mile 199 since it was in the middle of an otherwise boring section. So, there you go: the Natchez Trace itself.

By the way...northern Mississippi looks a lot like the flatter inland areas of the Carolinas. Given that's pretty much where I live, I didn't find Mississippi to be all that interesting, at least until it started looking more like Florida.


The Cypress Swamp (Mile 122) is the main point of interest between Tupelo and Jackson.

We didn't make as many stops on the southern half of the Parkway, in part because we were up against the clock.


Uh oh...looks like the sun is about to go down, and with about 100 miles to go, too. We were planning on stopping at the main attraction south of Jackson, the Mount Locust house (Mile 16), but...nope. Driving the Parkway from start to finish in daylight can be done, even with a bunch of stops along the way...but not in December. I think we finished the Parkway in just under 12 hours, including all of our many stops.

Driving the Parkway at night, by the way, is NOT something I recommend. We saw at least 50 deer on the side of the road during the last hour of the Parkway. It was frightening. (That number isn't an exaggeration, but only a few of them - plus one dog - actually crossed the road in front of us.) We drove the last stretch well under the speed limit, with my right foot constantly hovering over the brake pedal. We probably should have just exited to US-61 once it got dark, but darn it, quitters never win! We've come this far, right?

So...let's summarize. This my #1 recommendation for anyone wishing to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway. Frequent stops along the way are crucial to your enjoyment of the Parkway. If you drive it nonstop from end to end and only get out of your car when you have to pee, you'll probably hate it. Worse yet, you might even fall asleep at the wheel and kill yourself. Fact: boredom-induced driving fatigue is the #1 cause of traffic accidents along the Parkway. The boring sections are all in Mississippi, though, so if you only want to drive part of the Parkway, I recommend the northern third (Tupelo to Nashville). That's not to say the rest of the Parkway isn't worth your while; you just need to make sure you stop and see the sights along the way.

As for Amber and me...you know we like driving, so we loved it. We saw some neat stuff along the way, but mostly, it was just the kind of nice, relaxing, stress-free* drive we were looking for. (* "Stress-free" does not apply after sunset.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Natchez Trace Parkway: Part 1

Natchez Trace Parkway - which I've been talking about a lot over the last few weeks, and which we drove from start to finish on Tuesday, December 28th - has an interesting allure to it. Is it as scenic as the Blue Ridge Parkway? Of course not. Is there anything to do along the Natchez Trace Parkway? Who knows? Is there really anything of note along this road at all? Maybe, maybe not. But like that "mystery spot" along the side of the road, you just have to go see it and find out for yourself. Sure, it might be complete waste of time, but...I just couldn't resist.

The road does carry historical significance: it follows the approximate path of the Natchez Trace, a historical path once used for travel and trade by Native Americans, early European explorers, and others in the 18th and 19th centuries. But is the Natchez Trace important enough historically to warrant building a 445-mile, National Park Service-operated scenic road through the middle of nowhere? Well, at least a couple of people thought so.

Really, though, this trip was inspired by a day trip to a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in October. I really like how relaxing the Blue Ridge Parkway is: no traffic lights or stop signs, no commercial traffic, and no commercial activity whatsoever - just you (and a few other people), the road, and nature. The Natchez Trace Parkway is just like the Blue Ridge in that regard, and the north end of the Parkway is less than two hours from Mammoth Cave National Park, so it seemed like a good next stop.

Like I said, the mysterious nature of the parkway was a big draw. What is there on this road? I don't know!* Unfortunately for you, though, I'm going to ruin that aspect of it by describing the road in excruciating detail. Let's go!

(* - Actually, I did do a little research before the trip so that we wouldn't miss the Parkway's main attractions. So I had already ruined that aspect of it for myself, too.)


We'd be driving the road from north to south, the north end being located southwest of Nashville, in a surprisingly pretty part of Tennessee. For some reason I thought Middle Tennessee was flat and boring. Nope! We need to come here more often.

Located near the sign pictured above was a stand with free maps and information about the Parkway. Surprisingly, the map container wasn't empty! I wonder how often they refill it. The map includes short descriptions of every single stop along the Parkway, so I highly recommend getting one if you're going to do this road. They have them at the Tupelo Visitor Center, too.


This is what the northern sections of the Parkway look like. Surprisingly curvy! That would change. Because of the curves and terrain, the northernmost section is one of only a few sections where the speed limit is 40 mph. (The speed limit along most of the Parkway is 50.)


This is at Garrison Creek (Mile 428), after a half-mile hike up a hill. There are a lot of gems along the Parkway, but they take a little effort to find. That's where the free map/information comes in.


If you like scenic, old-style bridges - I do! - you'll love the Natchez Trace Parkway. One of the two most spectacular bridges is this one, as viewed from below on Google Street View.


Jackson Falls (Mile 405) after another short hike. Just like everything else in the South, Jackson Falls was named after Andrew Jackson. It was still very early (not long after sunrise), and it was very cold (teens), so we practically had the entire Parkway to ourselves. It was wonderful.


Close-up of a partially frozen waterfall at Jackson Falls. Neat-o! See what all of you traditional summer travelers are missing out on?


This is Fall Hollow (Mile 392), another of the many waterfalls along the Parkway. None of them are real spectacular, but perhaps the "low key" nature of these waterfalls fits in better with the relaxed, quiet nature of the Parkway.

Our next stop (no pictures) was the Meriwether Lewis grave (Mile 386). Meriwether Lewis, that of the "Lewis and Clark" exploratory tag team, is buried along the Parkway. Why? Because that's where he died. (Pretty lazy, eh? "I don't feel like moving the body, so let's just bury him here." I guess transportation was more difficult back then, which ironically was what made Lewis famous.) At the grave site, they don't say WHY he died; they only say that his death was "untimely, mysterious, tragic and melancholy", or something like that. Oh, how dare you tease me like that! I want to know how he died!

Well, thank goodness for Wikipedia. Lewis was traveling up the Natchez Trace, when one night, he killed himself. Or...did he??? While Lewis's death is widely considered a suicide, it's still kind of a mystery. Where is Robert Stack when you need him?

Part 2 of this post, coming tomorrow, will cover the Alabama and Mississippi sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mammoth Cave National Park

I've gotten a little behind on these trip recaps, so...let's talk about Mammoth Cave National Park, shall we?


Both Amber and I had been to Mammoth Cave before, but not recently. So, it seemed like a logical place to stop on our way from Toledo to Jacksonville. And, Mammoth Cave is a perfect National Park to visit in winter - it doesn't matter how cold it is outside; it's always in the mid-50s inside the caves. But I actually didn't notice the temperature difference as much inside the caves as I thought I would have. It didn't seem all that warm down there; just really, really humid.

So, we did two 2-hour cave tours: the "New Entrance" tour and the "Historic" tour. Mammoth Cave NP offers only a limited slate of cave tours in winter months, so that was pretty much the extent of the cave touring we could have done that day. In hindsight, that's probably for the best, since I made the tour reservations a couple of weeks before we knew Amber was pregnant. Had the Wild Cave tour been available - that's the tour where you wear a hard hat and you crawl through the caves, but in winter months it's a weekend tour only - I probably would have signed us up for it, only to find out that Amber probably wouldn't be able to do it. (There's also an "Introduction to Caving" tour, another more adventurous tour not offered the day we were there. Maybe next time?)

Even with Amber's fancy camera, pictures don't really come out too well inside a dark cave. So I'll only show you one underground picture, the "Frozen Niagara": (At least, I think this was the Frozen Niagara.)


Because of the difficulties of picture taking underground, you'll just have to take my word for it: the cave tours were good. The New Entrance tour is a little more picturesque - more interesting formations and such - while the Historic tour is, well, more "historic". (Meaning that there are a bunch of man-made inscriptions on the walls from before the National Park Service was in control.) Pretty much the only thing I remembered from my last visit to Mammoth Cave was the "Bottomless Pit", which is part of the Historic tour. I don't remember how young I was then, but I was young enough to think that the "Bottomless Pit" was, in fact, bottomless. I probably still believed in Santa Claus at that point, too.

"One question. There are a couple of caves an hour or two away from my house. Why should I go all the way to Mammoth Cave? Is Mammoth Cave really any different?" Well, sure! For one, Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world. Of course, we only saw about 1% of it, if that, between the two cave tours. But the caves are bigger, and you do get the feeling when you're down there that this is no "ordinary" cave. A lot of other caves I've been to - most recently, Penn's Cave in central Pennsylvania, and Linville Caverns in western North Carolina - and they were underwhelming in comparison. So, yes, it's worth the trip. Plus, central/western Kentucky (whichever region this is) is a beautiful part of the country.

The cave tours only took up four hours of our day, so...what is there to see above ground?


While there were more people at the park that day than I expected, they were all there for the cave tours, I assume. (The morning New Entrance tour had about 100, and the afternoon Historic tour had about 20.) So, there weren't too many people on the hiking trails. I love a quiet, peaceful walk through the snowy woods. I'll take that over a walk on the beach any day. (Well, most days. Beaches are nice, too.)


That's the Green River. Wonder how it got its name?


I believe this is a river emerging from underground. Pretty neat. These caves didn't just form themselves, you know.

So...in conclusion: we enjoyed our visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. Hooray for awkward closing paragraphs!

License Plate Registration Stickers: 2012 Edition

Yep...it's time to talk about license plates again.

It's an annual tradition of mine: around the first of the year, look around for the first of the new set of North Carolina license plate registration stickers. What color are they going to be? There is no discernable pattern, so it's usually a surprise.

Well, here's the first of the 2012 stickers.


Red isn't particularly exciting, but it hasn't been used since the 2006 stickers, so...I can't complain. After all, last year's "goldenrod" was a real treat. I mean, who saw that coming? I was hoping for "burnt sienna" this time, but red will do.

I kind of wish my registration month was January instead of July. If it were January, I would renew my registration as quickly as possible, so that I could get my new sticker - which being a January registration, would be for the following year - in the mail likely before I see another one on the road. I would find out what the new sticker color is not by a chance parking lot encounter, but by dramatically opening an envelope, which is way more exciting. Shoot, if I got my registration fast enough, I could even open it on Christmas Day!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let's Have Babies!

Word has been slowly leaking out over the last couple of weeks, so I figure now's a good time to put this on the blog, too: Amber and I are expecting.

(Expecting a baby, that is. I thought that sentence looked better on-screen than if I were to bluntly say "Amber is pregnant".)


This was pretty much the plan, and we're excited. Yippee! Way to go, little spermies! I knew you could do it.

So...let's do a little Q&A:

- "How long have you known?" Since Thanksgiving. But most people wait until the pregnancy is 2-3 months in before it's made public, so...here you go.

- "When's the due date?" July 29th. Place your bets now.

- "Boy or girl?" It's too early in the pregnancy to know, of course. But even when it is discernable from ultrasounds and such, we don't want to know. The gender of our future child will remain a mystery until birth. Yeah, we're going to be one of those couples. (By the way, this is 100% Amber's call. She's carrying the baby, so she calls the shots.)

- "Which would you rather have, then - boy or girl?" I'm not answering that question, because our child may someday go back and read this. Here's the politically correct answer I've been giving everyone: "There are advantages to both."

- "Do you have names picked out?" First names, yes. We have both a boy and a girl name ready to go which meet these criteria. You also won't find those names on these list. (Those lists - the top 5 baby names in each state in 2009 - is really interesting, by the way, when you look at things like "red" states and "blue" states, North v. South, and states with a large Hispanic population.) But, like the "boy or girl" question, the names will also remain a secret until the end. Sorry, folks. We don't have middle names picked out yet, but that process will be a little easier, since middle names aren't subject to my "rules". With middle names, anything goes. Anything.

- "Great, ANOTHER baby. That's, like, all I see on my Facebook these days: baby picture after baby picture. Are you going to be one of those people that insist on posting pictures of your baby, like, EVERY FREAKING WEEK??" Yep. Sorry.

- "You do realize what this means, right? No more long road trips for a while. Are you sure you've thought this through?" Yes, we know, and yes, we have. But when our kids - that's right, we eventually want two of them - stop pooping in their underwear and are old enough to tolerate a long car ride, with any luck, they'll like road trips just as much as we do and will gladly and patiently sit in the back seat while we drive to Arizona. Ha! That's a good one, isn't it? Seriously, though, when we take our kids to the Grand Canyon, we're driving, whether they like it or not. Which, if they're anything like us, they might.

Speaking of which...that's the most exciting thing about having kids, in my opinion. Chances are, they'll be kind of like us. What do you get when you mix my DNA with Amber's DNA? I can't wait to find out!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sports Saturday: 1/8/11

It's been a few weeks, but it's once again time for mindless, uninspired, and mediocre at best - spectacularly mediocre, even - sports commentary. Woo? In today's issue...

NFL - A final look at the Jaguars' 2010 season. And do the Seahawks deserve to be in the playoffs?
College basketball - Conference play begins. Hooray!
NHL - Carolina is still in 9th place. What else is new?

And yes, I know there are two college football bowl games this weekend. Meh. Monday's BCS Championship game isn't necessarily "meh", but the game will end about two hours after I go to bed, and I have no strong rooting interest, so...meh.

NFL - Now that it's over, here's how I see the 2010 Jacksonville Jaguars season.

Pessimistic old me never thought they'd contend for a playoff berth. (I made that abundantly clear throughout the season, did I not?) But in the NFL, you don't have to be good to make the playoffs; you just have to be average and a little lucky. That's what the Jaguars were this season: average at best, and a little lucky. I count three lucky wins (59-yard field goal, the Hail Mary, the six-turnover game) compared to one unlucky loss (OT against Washington - overtime games are basically, sometimes literally, coin flips). Add to that a favorable schedule - the AFC South was down this year - and you turn a 6-10 team into an 8-8 team.

So...did Jack Del Rio deserve another year as head coach? I think so. Firing the head coach is justified if the team is underachieving, and I don't think you can argue that was the case this season. If anything, they overachieved. If you want to fire Del Rio because his teams have "faded down the stretch" the last two seasons, then fine...but I don't think now was the time to fire him. Besides, I like Jack, because he goes for it on 4th down a lot.

So, that's that. Now it's time for the playoffs, in which I annually root against "the establishment" and root for somebody obscure to win the Super Bowl. Last year, that worked out pretty well. The Saints are no longer obscure following last year's Super Bowl win, but I still don't consider them to be part of "the establishment", so...hey, go win it again, Saints! Or Falcons; that'd be fine too. In case you're wondering what teams I consider to be part of "the establishment", they are: Patriots, Steelers, Colts, the entire NFC East, and whichever team Brett Favre plays for. Basically, the overhyped teams. Only two Sunday Night Football games all season involved no "establishment" teams: Jets/Dolphins in Week 3, and Rams/Seahawks in Week 17.

Speaking of the Seahawks...at 7-9, does Seattle deserve to be in the playoffs? I say, yes. If you're going to have divisions and organize schedules accordingly, all division champions should be in the playoffs, even if the division stinks. Just like the NCAA basketball tournament, which invites the champions of even the crappy conferences, that is how you have a fair tournament structure. Those two 10-6 teams that missed the playoffs? They had their chance. Should have won the division, or just one more game. Tough luck. Those are the breaks. (Whether Seattle deserves a home playoff game is another matter entirely, however. Not sure about that one.)

Sat 4:30p - New Orleans at Seattle, NBC: Go Saints! Normally, I'd root for the underdog Seahawks, but the Saints are a realistic anti-establishment choice to win the Super Bowl.
Sat 8:00p - NY Jets at Indianapolis, NBC: Go Jets!
Sun 1:00p - Baltimore at Kansas City, CBS: No preference.
Sun 4:30p - Green Bay at Philadelphia, FOX: Go Packers!

NHL - So, I came back from my vacation, hoping that the Carolina Hurricanes made a big move in the standings, only to find that they're still in 9th place in the Eastern Conference. Boring.

Wednesday's game against the Rangers was as good an opportunity as any to make a move, since the Rangers are likely one of the teams they'll be competing against for the final playoff positions. And, the gap between 8th and 10th is widening, so...they'll be there a little longer. If it's a tight battle for 8th place you want, try the Western Conference.

Sat 1:00p - New Jersey at Philadelphia, MSG
Sat 3:00p - NY Islanders at Colorado, MSG Plus
Sat 7:00p - Tampa Bay at Ottawa, Sun Sports
Sat 7:00p - Florida at Washington, Fox Sports Florida
Sat 7:00p - Boston at Montréal, NHL Network
Sat 10:00p - Detroit at Vancouver, Fox Sports Detroit
Sun 1:30p - Atlanta at Carolina, SportSouth
Sun 6:00p - Dallas at Minnesota, Fox Sports Southwest
(not listed: MIN/PIT, NYR/STL, BUF/PHX, NSH/SJ, TB/NJ, CBJ/LA, NYI/CHI, SJ/ANA. Yeah, that's a lot of games to completely ignore, but...that's the way it goes.)

College basketball - Alrighty! Conference play has started, also known as the real part of the season, when good teams actually have to play road games. If this is the "real" part of the season, does that mean Florida State can ignore Monday night's loss to Auburn? I hope so.

Like last time, games I plan on DVR-ing and (maybe) watching later are in italics. The end of a college basketball game can be excruciatingly slow, so a DVR is the only sane way to watch most games, I think. Due to NFL playoffs, though, I won't be DVRing that many games this weekend. By the way, I'm a big fan of kenpom.com's "FanMatch (TM)".

Sat 11:00a - West Virginia at Georgetown, ESPN2
Sat 12:00p - North Carolina at Virginia, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sat 1:00p - Michigan State at Penn State, Big Ten Network
Sat 2:30p - Wake Forest at NC State, WRAL (ACC Network)
Sat 3:00p - Florida State at Virginia Tech, ESPN2
Sat 4:00p - Georgia Tech at Boston College, Fox Sports South
Sat 4:00p - Charlotte at St. Bonaventure, MASN <-- Look Dad! Sat 6:00p - Miami (FL) at Clemson, ESPNU
Sat 8:00p - St. John's at Notre Dame, ESPNU
Sun 12:00p - Iowa at Purdue, Big Ten Network
Sun 12:00p - Louisville at South Florida, SNY
Sun 2:00p - Dayton at Massachusetts, CBS College Sports
Sun 4:00p - Minnesota at Ohio State, Big Ten Network
Sun 4:30p - Kansas at Michigan, CBS
Sun 6:30p - Xavier at Rhode Island, ESPNU
Sun 7:00p - Indiana at Northwestern, Big Ten Network
Sun 8:00p - Maryland at Duke, FSN

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Hoosier Hill: The Highest Point in Indiana

Way back in 2006, I set a goal for myself: visit the highest point of every state east of the Mississippi River. At that point, I had visited four of the 26 eastern highpoints. As of today, four years later, I have now visited...five. Yeah, that goal kind of got put on the backburner. I guess I've had higher priorities over the years - for instance, visiting as many counties as possible.

But it was on one of those county-inspired drives - US-27 in eastern Indiana - that I realized we'd be passing fairly close to the highest point in Indiana. We had plenty of time on our hands, so...why not???


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Since this was spontaneous, we had to look up the exact location on my phone and type the coordinates into the GPS in order to find it. There were a couple of small signs close to it, so we might have been able to find it without technological assistance, but probably not.

I fully understood going in that this was a mostly flat region of Indiana, and that this "highest point" wouldn't look like a highpoint at all. There would be virtually no "hike" to get there, and once we got there, there would be no spectacular view of the "valley" below. We knew how anticlimactic this was going to be. So...even WITH technological assistance, we had a little trouble finding it. We drove past it the first time, then noticed what looked like a "parking area" and/or turnaround. (The snow cover made everything harder to find than it otherwise would have been.)

So, we got out of the car, walked up a short trail, and found a picnic table, a mailbox, and this marker:


That, folks, is from the highest point in Indiana. Apparently. We'll have to take their word for it.


What's in the mailbox? A guestbook of sorts:


We signed it after we took the picture. "Token no jokin" didn't put a date down, but apparently, nobody came here on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. That does not surprise me. (We visited on Boxing Day, December 26th.) That picture also shows the challenging, strenuous hike required to get from the car to the highpoint.

So, there you go. That's it. That's the highest point in Indiana. Pretty lame, eh?

There are a couple of unsolved mysteries, though, when I compare my experience with what's on the Wikipedia page. First off...where is the sign seen in this picture?


We saw the picnic table and the mailbox, but there was no giant sign. I guess the sign was stolen? In fact, now that I think about it, the wooden marker pictured above is NOT the one in the middle of the rockbed seen above. Based on its location and height, the wooden marker pictured above is actually one of the posts that used to hold up the sign. That's a real shame.

And, here's another mystery. Were we even in the right place? According to the coordinates on Wikipedia (and at least one other website), the actual highpoint is about 700 feet away from where all those pictures were taken. That's if those coordinates are correct, which, who knows if they are or not. Either those coordinates are wrong, or the marked area simply exists as a matter of convenience and to keep people away from the real highpoint, which is privately owned and farther from the road. (The marked area is privately owned, too, but the owners gladly accept the occasional statistically-minded visitor.) Maybe this is like the "Geographical Center of North America", which too was marked nowhere near the actual surveyed location. In that case, the marker was over 10 miles away from the actual location; here, we're only talking about a few hundred feet. Personally, I think the coordinates are wrong and that we did visit the actual highpoint, but it's not like you can tell just by looking at the surrounding terrain where the actual highpoint is.

So...did we visit the actual highest point in Indiana or not? Well, we signed the guestbook, so as far as I'm concerned, it's official.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

More Complaining About Holiday Traffic

Most of the vacation photos aren't ready yet, so in the meantime, I'm going to complain about holiday traffic some more. I sure like talking about holiday traffic, don't I? Why? Because one of my greatest quests is to avoid traffic jams during the busiest driving times of the year (holiday weekends), and still getting to our destinations in a timely and enjoyable manner. I take a lot of pride in that.

So...yeah. Let's recap the last two weeks, traffic-wise:

Wed 12/22, Durham to Toledo: The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is generally not a good driving day. The Wednesday before Christmas? Nowhere near as bad. I think Thursday would have been worse, but Wednesday was pretty much clear sailing, aside from the occasional snow shower.

Virginia speed limits: Last I checked, the only road in Virginia with a speed limit higher than 65 mph was I-85. But now, over half of Virginia's interstates have a speed limit of 70 mph, including a good deal of I-77. Woohoo! Less time in Virginia! I couldn't take advantage of the new speed limit, though, because of the afore-mentioned snow.

Sun 12/26, Toledo to Mammoth Cave: The day after Christmas is usually a pretty heavy driving day, especially on roads like I-95 South. We didn't have any problems ourselves that day, but given that most of Sunday's route consisted of roads we've never taken before, I didn't have anything to compare the traffic load with. I-71 between Cincinnati and Louisville did not have as much traffic as I thought it would, though.

For those who care, here's our route from that day, mostly inspired by gaps in my county map. (Point B is the highest point in Indiana, a somewhat worthwhile side trip that I'll cover later.)


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Wed 12/29, Natchez, MS to Jacksonville: This drive included a heavy dose of I-10, which can be kind of boring. For those who don't like driving, the 360-mile drive from Jacksonville to Pensacola can be loathsome. But the flip side of that is that I-10 in Florida is almost never busy. In fact, I-10 proved to be more enjoyable than US-98 in Alabama:


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In Mississippi, US-98 is a fast road: mostly divided highway, and it bypasses most urban areas. But as soon as you cross the state line into Alabama, you lose the extra lanes, the speed limit goes down from 65 to anywhere from 40 to 55 (the speed limit changes pretty much every 30 seconds), and you're greeted with a lot of traffic lights. I have a small sample space to work with - we don't come down this way all that often - but I'd say that Mississippi is a much better driving state than Alabama. From a purely driving perspective, I like Mississippi, and I don't like Alabama.

Sun 1/2, Jacksonville to Durham: The last day of vacation for most people, this is a classic holiday traffic day. Traffic was heavy but moving until we got to Dunn, NC, when I-95 North traffic pretty much stopped, thanks to a major accident. Rather than come up with a good alternate route ourselves, we pressed Jill's "Detour" button ("Jill" being our Garmin GPS, of course) and let her do the work:


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This was an OUTSTANDING alternate route. All the credit goes to Jill on this one. I think my favorite part was that most of these side roads were directly next to I-95, so we got to watch as we passed all of the stopped traffic on I-95. That's a very rewarding feeling. (Bye bye, suckers!) Then, when we got back on I-95 (we knew where the delays ended thanks to Google Maps traffic data), here's what we saw:


At this point, southbound traffic is stopped, and there is absolutely NOBODY going northbound, except for us. I don't think we could have done much better than that. Jill For The Win!

Here's more "I avoided this traffic jam because I'm awesome" gloating: on Thanksgiving Wednesday, I-95 South was backed up near the I-74/US-74 exit in Lumberton, due to another accident. I knew that the I-74/US-74 exit featured a collector/distributor road that would allow us to exit, pass a LOT of cars while on the collector/distributor road (which had nobody else on it), and then get back on I-95 well ahead of where we originally sat in the queue. So, that's what I did.


Was that a jerk move? Maybe, but it's perfectly legal, and it might have saved 5 minutes. Well...let me back up a little: it's legal as far as I know. I suppose it could be technically illegal, similar to cutting through a gas station at the corner of a busy intersection. But here's the way I see it: corner gas stations and parking lots are private property, while collector/distributor roads are public roads and are just like any other roads. So, it's not the same, and I feel perfectly justified. I slept well that night.

Alright...rambling over. No more holiday traffic talk until November.