Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cars 2?

When it comes to movies, you can't go wrong with Pixar. I have never seen a Pixar movie I didn't like, and nearly everything they've put out over the last decade-plus has done well not only at the box office, but also with critics. Even with increasing competition from wanna-be Pixar computer animation studios, Pixar has been able to maintain a high standard of excellence for a very long time. When you go see a Pixar movie, you know you're going to see a quality product. So when I discovered that the reviews for "Cars 2" are on the rotten side...I was a little surprised.

First off, I have seen, and highly enjoyed, the original "Cars". I like Pixar, and I like racing, so when you combine the two...I mean, as far as I was concerned, it was a slam dunk. (Also, it was the first movie Amber and I saw on a "date", if that outing could have been considered as such. Speaking of which, did you realize that "Cars" came out half a decade ago?)

But while I thought "Cars" was fantastic, it wasn't necessarily thought of as Pixar's best work. In fact, it was actually one of Pixar's LEAST profitable movies at the box office. So let's try and figure out why Pixar decided to make "Cars 2" in the first place.

"Toy Story" and "Cars" are the only Pixar movies that spawned sequels. What do "Toy Story" and "Cars" have in common? Merchandising!!! Based on how much I see this stuff everywhere, Disney (or whoever) has probably made a crapload of money selling toys from "Toy Story" and cars from "Cars". I think that's why these sequels exist. Not because "Toy Story" and "Cars" were necessarily the best Pixar movies, but these movies are the most toy-friendly movies in their stable. Will we see an "Up 2"? Probably not; kids don't want bedsheets or toys featuring fat Boy Scouts or old people. Will we see a "Ratatouille 2"? Doubtful; know any kids who like to play with toy rats? Toys and cars, on the other hand...the merchandising potential is nearly limitless. I think merchandising is the only reason "Cars 2" even exists.

And it's too bad, really, because it seems as if Pixar was rushed and/or forced into releasing a shoddy movie with a weak premise, damaging their sterling reputation in the process. And for what? So Disney could sell more Lightning McQueen toys to 6-year-olds?

That's my theory, anyway. Maybe I would actually like "Cars 2". Although from what I hear, "Cars 2" features a little too much Larry the Cable Guy, so...perhaps not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Honda Civic Sun Visors: Settled

Last summer, the driver side sun visor on my 2008 Honda Civic snapped open. I then discovered that sun visor failures such as mine were very common among 2006-09 Civics. By refusing to offer free "good will" replacmenent for cars out of warranty (like mine), Honda was probably making decent coin off this apparent "scam". And, there wasn't a thing I could do about it, other than pay out of pocket for a replacement visor.

One year later...we have closure! As first reported to me by an anonymous commenter, and confirmed by a letter I received in the mail this week: a group of people out in California known as "Cooper et al." filed a class action lawsuit against American Honda Motor Company, claiming what I already knew - that sun visors on some Honda Civics are defective. Rather than take it to court, Honda and "Cooper et al." reached the following settlement:
- Honda agreed to extend the warranty on all eligible Honda Civics to seven years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. (See question 6 on the FAQ for which years and models, a.k.a. the "Class Vehicles", are eligible. Basically, it's all 2006, 2007, and 2008 Civics, plus some 2009 Civics.)
- The settlement also retroactively covers anyone who has previously paid out of pocket for a sun visor replacement that would now be covered by this settlement.

Hey, that's me! I own a 2008 Civic, I paid out of pocket for a new sun visor last summer, and my car was under seven years / 100,000 miles at the time (and still is). So, I'm eligible for reimbursement. Woohoo!

(Personally, I think "Cooper et al." could have - and perhaps should have - gotten lifetime replacement included in the settlement rather than just 100,000-mile replacement. But I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know. And they could have walked away with nothing. So, I can't criticize.)

All I have to do to get reimbursed is fill out a form, include a receipt, and send it in. And apparently, I'll get a reimbursement check in the mail within a few weeks.

... Well, maybe. The only thing I have resembling a receipt is the email confirmation I received from the third-party website where I bought my replacement sun visor. (I saved up to $30 by ordering a replacement online and installing it myself, as opposed to having a Honda dealer replace it for me.) The email confirmation doesn't list some of the information the claim form says needs to be on there, such as my vehicle identification number (VIN), or anything else about my car, of course; all they know is that I ordered a new part. Beyond what I wrote in my blog last summer, I don't have any documentation that the original sun visor was in fact broken. Will my internet order confirmation be good enough?

The worst thing that will happen is that I simply won't get a reimbursement, so it's worth trying. Given that the amount I'm asking to be reimbursed for will be lower than pretty much every other claim, some of which will include claims for multiple replacements costing hundreds of dollars, you'd think they would just give my claim the "rubber stamp" and move on, right? Besides, they can always contact the afore-mentioned third-party website themselves - the website has a phone number and everything! - if they want to verify my purchase. Either way, I'll find out in a few weeks.

I was absolutely thrilled when I found out about the settlement. Closure! Justice! Hooray! Even if I get nothing out of it, at least Honda is finally "getting theirs". And I'll have peace of mind that if the passenger side sun visor now breaks, I can now go to a Honda dealer and get free replacement. That is, unless the visor breaks at mile 100,001, which is probably what will happen.

UPDATE 8/15/11: Honda sent me a check for 50 dollars. Hooray!!!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Curling Recap: 6/26/11

I've documented every single curling game I've ever played, all 151 of them, right here. Sure, this is just a meaningless mid-summer pick-up game, but why stop now?

Career game #151: Summer Pick-up - June 26, 2011
(Note: Teams had three players each instead of the usual four, and as a result, we played six-rock ends instead of the standard eight-rock ends.)

End.......... 123456789 |TTL
----------------------------
Allen........ 120210201 | 09
Kato......... 001000020 | 03

The ice conditions are always tricky in the middle of summer, but I thought we had pretty good ice, all things considered. (The same could not be said for some of the other sheets, however.) The ice was fairly quick, which is usually the biggest issue in mid-summer. And, we could even make take-outs when we had to. It wasn't quite to the point where every shot converged onto the same line, making take-outs incredibly easy; but it was close. Many ends were decided by who could get a rock on the predictable line first. But not close enough so that the other team could make a hit-for-three on their last shot of the 1st end. We got kind of lucky on that one.

One thing that's nice about pick-up games is that there is no pressure. And since I was the skip, that means I can give myself the "fun" shot rather than a smarter shot. In the 5th end (I think), they had a rock on the button, and a guard a couple of feet in front of the house. (I'd draw up a diagram, but I'm short on time today, and I pretty much just described the setup anyway.) For my first of two rocks, this might have been the correct play either way, but what play do I have other than to throw it as hard as I can and hope to raise the guard into their shot rock, and spill both? I almost pulled it off, too. The shot rock stayed in the house, but it wasn't on the button anymore at least. And if that was in fact the 5th end, that means we were able to get one point out of that end.

Once we got a lead, most ends went something like this: we would throw rocks onto the predictable line and try to prevent the other team access to the house along that line. The other team would try to get rocks in the house using other lines, with not as much success. There wasn't much use in them putting a rock on the predictable line, because we would just hit it out as soon as possible. Finding other ways into the house was the only way they could score multiple points. So, given the ice conditions, getting the early lead was more important than ever.

This improves my all-time record in pick-up games to 15-3, which is just ridiculous. (I'm 76-57 in all other games, which is still pretty good, but reasonable.)

But when will I be curling again? The next pick-up game is two days after the baby due date, so...safe to say I won't be curling that day. My next game probably won't be until the Fall season begins in September. But that's fine - Amber hasn't curled in over three months now, so I can deal with it. (She really misses curling, by the way. Running, too.) And, yeah, we haven't quite figured out what we're going to do regarding "the baby" when curling season starts back up again. We have time to figure that out.

In the meantime...want to watch curling this weekend? If so, the Pittsburgh Curling Club is doing live webcasts of this weekend's 48-team mega-bonspiel called the "TropiCurl". I might have to go check that out. Speaking of which, I think Amber and I are going to find a way to make it to next year's TropiCurl. But for now...we'll have to live vicariously through others while we wait for that thing in her belly to come out.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Outer Banks v. "Southern North Carolina"

I'd say we had a successful "last chance" road trip on Saturday. We went all the way to the Outer Banks, spent three nice hours at the beach, saw absolutely no fire smoke whatsoever (not even on the drive), and afterwards, we took our sweet time coming home.

However...while the drive out there and back was fun, part of me wishes we had gone to Oak Island instead. Some of our friends were down in Oak Island last weekend, but there's more to it than that. While there is a lot to like about the Outer Banks, for me there's one big problem: the water is too cold. I've noticed from looking at maps and such that the water temperature is often as much as 10 degrees colder at an Outer Banks beach, compared to a Southern North Carolina beach. The posted water temperature at Coquina Beach (the first public beach you see heading south on NC-12 from US-64) was 64°F on Saturday. Not only am I a wimp when it comes to cold water, but I'm a wimp who grew up in Florida. So for me, 64°F is much too cold. I never even got waist-deep. And I enjoy the beach much more when I can actually go in the water, so I don't feel like I got the full beach experience on Saturday. Totally should have gone to Oak Island, where the water temperature was - I assume - at least 70°F.

(Side comment: is there a collective name for North Carolina's non-Outer Banks beaches? That is, from Morehead City south to the South Carolina border, including Wilmington? While the term "Crystal Coast" covers some of it, I don't know of a single term which covers that entire stretch, so I'm going to refer to these beaches as "Southern North Carolina beaches".)

The main reason why we didn't go to Oak Island to begin with? The drive. The drive to the Wilmington area is pretty boring. I-40 most of the way, and there's no real change in scenery. That's as opposed to the Outer Banks drive, which goes through a barren, desolate, swampy region, and gives you the impression that you're going somewhere different. That's the main draw of the Outer Banks, to me: they are way the heck out there.

Nevertheless, the Outer Banks are quite popular, which means unless you go all the way to Ocracoke or something - I still think Ocracoke Island is the best place to spend a full beach weekend, by the way - you're going to see a lot of other people. Sure, we stopped at the first public beach we saw once we entered Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but I figured every other public beach along Highway 12 was going to have its share of Ohioans and Michiganders and the like, too. I didn't feel like spending an hour or two finding the beach with the least number of people, when really, once you find your spot on the beach, it doesn't matter a whole lot how many other people are out there. Coquina Beach wasn't that crowded, by any means, but there were more people there than any other North Carolina beach we've been to thus far.

(The main point I was trying to make in that last paragraph is this. Just because the Outer Banks are "way the heck out there" doesn't mean they're not popular.)

For us, the bottom line is this. If we're looking for a "routine beach trip", then Southern North Carolina - specifically, Topsail Beach, at least when there isn't a giant wildfire nearby - is still our best option. If we're feeling adventurous or "road-trippy", or just want to go some place "exotic" or "different" or that "doesn't feel like home", then the Outer Banks are good for that. Saturday morning, we woke up early and felt like "going far", so we did. The Outer Banks aren't really that much farther than, say, Oak Island - maybe 30-45 minutes extra? - but they feel a lot farther, because you have to pass through a giant desolate swamp to get there. From a road trip standpoint, the impression that you're going somewhere far definitely adds to the experience.

In case you're wondering what route we took back home...


View Larger Map

Once we got to Washington, NC, our stated goals were "no more freeways the rest of the way" and "let's try to keep the planning to a minimum". So, yeah, it took a little while. But that's okay, because for our next road trip, we'll have a baby riding in the back seat with us.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Annual Beach Trip

This coming weekend is our last chance to leave town before the baby comes. Starting the following weekend, and lasting until then baby is born (due date July 29), we'll be under "lockdown", which means never going more than one hour away from Duke Hospital. Why? Because you never know.

So...how about we use this opportunity to go to the beach? We typically do so once or twice a year. We haven't been so far in 2011, and the weather forecast for Saturday looks good....sort of. That is, no rain is expected, and temperatures will be seasonable. Wildfire smoke, however, is expected in some areas of coastal North Carolina. Okay, pretty much all of coastal North Carolina.

(This map is from the North Carolina Division of Air Quality, with points A through E2 labeled by me.)


This smoke forecast is for today. Their map has since been updated to tomorrow, and the map looks pretty similar.

The beach we go to most often is Topsail Beach (point C). We like it because parking is free and plenty, isn't overly commercialized or crowded, and is within a reasonable distance (about 2½ hours). However...one of the two major coastal wildfires is, like, right there. It doesn't matter which way the wind is blowing on Saturday; Topsail Beach will likely be in the "purple", which basically means, "don't go outside". But I bet it won't be crowded! (Locals pronounce it "TOP-suhl", by the way, which I have a really hard time with.)

How about the Outer Banks? Amber and I have been there before, but not to go to the beach. Problem is...there's a huge wildfire out there, too! And, it's a bit of a drive. We would go at least as far as Rodanthe (point E), and even that is 3½ to 4 hours each way. Due to the shift in winds, Rodanthe is also likely to be in worse shape tomorrow than today. "Code orange" would be fine, but Rodanthe might be in the "code red" tomorrow due to the winds. We could go farther down the Cape towards Avon (E1) - or, if we're feeling really ambitious, Ocracoke (E2) - and get out of the smoky area completely, but then we're talking about a 4 to 5 hour drive each way, plus a ferry if we go all the way to Ocracoke. Then again...maybe it will be worth it. When is our next road trip going to be after this one? Not for a while.

If we don't feel like driving quite that far, we could always head down towards Wilmington. Wrightsville Beach (point B) is the closest beach to home, but it's also the closest beach to everyone else who lives near I-40, so I assume it's crowded. And, parking isn't free (not anymore). Those are the two main reasons why we've never gone to Wrightsville, and probably won't. (Aside from Topsail, the only other North Carolina beach we've actually been to, in terms of actually going out and spending time on the beach, is point D - Pine Knoll Shores.)

Or, there's Oak Island (point A), which we've never even considered as a possible beach destination before. I'm not sure why not, because it's only about 15 minutes farther than Topsail. Based on the map, this looks like a no-brainer, don't you think?

One thing I'm not sure about is how knowledgeable the beach-going crowd is regarding the wildfire smoke. There's no question Topsail Beach will be less crowded than usual because of the smoke. But will other beaches just outside the smoky area be more crowded as a result? Here's another question: will the sea breeze be strong enough to keep most of the smoke off of the beaches themselves?

So, in conclusion...if we only feel like driving a little, then it'll be Oak Island (or somewhere in that general area). But if we feel like driving a bunch, we'll go all the way out towards Cape Hatteras.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Random Topic Generator

I have absolutely nothing to write about today, so I consulted an online random topic generator to help me out. Isn't the internet wonderful?

But rather than write a full-length post on one random topic, here's what I'm going to do. The random topic generator gives you several categories to choose from. I'm going to choose each category once, take the first topic that comes up after selecting each category (no throwing away of topics allowed, I must take the first one!) and write no more than a paragraph on each topic. I have no idea where this is going to go.

(Disclaimer: I've probably done something like this before.)

Category: Opinion. Is baseball America's favorite pastime? ... Popularity can be measured, so why is this an "opinion" topic? Well, regardless, the answer is no. Sure, the NFL is far more popular than baseball these days in America, but that's not the question. The question is "pastime", which simply means "something to do", and it doesn't have to be a sport. I think America's favorite pastime is watching television. And by the way, I think it's silly that the word "pastime" only has one 't'.

Category: Health. Workplace wellness programs ... I have no experience with this sort of thing, so I had to Google it. Apparently, the idea is to encourage healthy habits among your co-workers, in terms of diet (e.g. subsidized lunches) and exercise (e.g. a gym discount program through the company). Why do these things exist? Not because companies are strictly interested in "goodwill" towards its employees, but because healthy employees will be more productive employees. Just like everything else in Corporate America, it's all about profit. The fact that these things exist must mean one of two things: 1) they actually offer a return on investment to the company, or 2) they're new, and nobody knows yet.

Category: Religion. Why do animals not have religion? ... How do we know they don't have religion? Maybe they do.

Category: Science. Nuclear physics ... I think this means that the person who came up with the "random topic generator" must not be much of a science person. When someone who isn't "good" at science thinks "science", perhaps they may think "nuclear physics", because it sounds...umm...sexy or something. (Same goes for "rocket scientist".) For example: "Let's write a sitcom about science nerds. How about we make them nuclear physicists? That sounds smart." Meteorologists are smart, too, you know.

Category: Art. How to create your own comic ... Grab a pencil and some paper, or your favorite image editing software on your PC, and start drawing. Actually, this reminds me...in 8th grade, I did, in fact, create my own comic strip. I think it was called "Dorkland". Based on the name alone, you'd have to think that I was the main character, right? If only I had held onto those...

Category: World. The smallest country in the world ... Wait, is this a trivia question generator, or a blog topic generator? Well, anyway, the answer is Vatican City. I knew that without having to look it up on Wikipedia, but I did double-check that Vatican City does in fact qualify as a "country". I also looked up what the next smallest independent nations were. Monaco is #2 (I might have been able to guess that), and the Pacific island nation of Nauru is #3 (never would have come up with that one). Fun fact: the name "Nauru" is derived from a word which means "I go to the beach".

Category: Music. Musical theme and variations ... Yeah, the person behind the random topic generator is definitely more of a liberal arts guy than a science guy. Let's move on.

Category: Business. The desire to spend money ... It's not strictly "spending money" that people like to do. It's the stuff they get in return. Right? This should read "the desire to acquire goods and services". Society as a whole - at least in this country - doesn't seem to be able to manage that desire very well, which is why so many people are in debt. I'm very conservative with my money, but that's easy for me to say, given that Amber and I have both had good jobs for almost four years now.

Category: Personal. Moving out of your parents house ... When did I officially "move out" of my parents house, anyway? When I went to Tallahassee for college? Not really, because I "lived" back at home every summer while I was at Florida State. When I went to grad school? Maybe...I always went back for Winter Break and such, but does a few two-week periods scattered throughout the year count as "living"? I don't know, but here's another point. You don't always know when you "move out of your parents house" for good. You might think you've moved out, only to move back in sometime later. It's easy for me to say "Amber and I own a house now in a completely different state, so there's no way we'll ever move back in with our parents!" But you never know...

Category: Technology. Converting symbols to digital form ... I guess the creators of the random topic generator assume that if you're selecting the "technology" category, that you run a technology blog. Reasonable assumption. When I think "converting symbols to digital form", I think of an ASCII chart. Maybe they mean something a little more complex, such as converting a scanned image to text, or the various image file formats that are out there (GIF, JPEG, etc). I don't know how that all works.

Two more to go...

Category: People. Albert Einstein's early life ... Hey, that sounds like something that can be easily "researched" on Wikipedia.

Category: Recreation. Hunting in the winter ... You know, I'm being awfully harsh on the creators of the random topic generator. Fact is, it gave me something to write today. As for hunting in the winter, summer, or any other season...never done it, never will. Y'all have fun with that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lean Pockets Flavors


I've been a long time consumer of Lean Pockets. I eat two or three every week for lunch - it's actually every third day according to my daily lunch rotation, if you're curious - and I have for over a decade. I started out with Hot Pockets, and then switched over to Lean Pockets at some point, maybe around grad school.

(By the way, I pretty much take them at their word that "Lean" are healthier than "Hot". I don't look at the nutrition facts. Still, I realize that even Lean Pockets aren't really that "lean", which is part of the reason why I only eat two or three a week, as opposed to every day.)

So, anyway...as a long time customer, it kind of bugs me that every week I go to the grocery store, they've replaced one flavor with another. I don't know if it's a Lean Pockets thing or a Kroger thing, but Pepperoni Pizza Lean Pockets - one of the trademark flavors, if you ask me - haven't been available at Kroger for a long time. Why the heck would you get rid of one of the trademark flavors?

Were they simply struggling to compete with the other microwaveable pizza products that are out there? If so, that's unfortunate. The nice thing about a pepperoni pizza Lean Pocket is that you can have one for lunch without the guilt that goes along with having pizza for lunch. It's win-win! Or, more likely, I think they just wanted to make room for some other dumb, new flavor like "turkey bacon cheese" (sounds like it might be good, but trust me, it's not) or "spinach and who gives a crap". This makes me worried that they could yank one of my standby flavors at any time, without warning.

With that, here are my favorite flavors of Lean Pockets: (These aren't the official names, by the way.)

1) Chicken parmesan, which I thought had been yanked recently, but thankfully reappeared on the shelf this week. Whew!
2) Pepperoni pizza, which I haven't been able to find in stores in a while.
3) Cheeseburger, another Lean Pockets classic.
4) Sausage/egg/cheese, which I almost always forget about because they're hidden over by the waffles. I liked it better then the "breakfast" Lean Pockets were located right next to all the other Lean Pockets.
5) Chicken quesadilla, which was renamed "chicken and cheese" at some point. Maybe they're not allowed to call it a quesadilla, given that "quesadilla" isn't really a "flavor". But I still call this flavor "chicken quesadilla", because the chicken and cheese quesadilla was obviously the inspriation here. And as long as it still says "Mexican style" on the box, it still is.

Before I finish the list...Here's another thing it says on select Lean Pockets boxes: "SATISFYINGLY DELICIOUS". Ha!


As you can see in the first picture at the top, above, the turkey/bacon/cheese Lean Pockets are, accurately, not labeled as "satisfyingly delicious".

Now, the rest of the flavor list:

6) Ham and cheddar, which I normally only buy when they're out of some of the above flavors.
7) Meatballs and mozarella. Not bad, but not great. I'll eat it.
8) Four cheese pizza, which I almost never get. I mean, I want a little meat in these things, because otherwise, I'm basically just eating a grilled cheese sandwich in a slightly different form.

And those are the flavors that come to mind. What do all of these flavors have in common? No vegetables! Yeah, I'm kind of picky like that.

Memo to the makers of Lean Pockets: please don't mess with flavors 1 through 6. I like them. I don't necessarily feel that you owe me, but I have been a loyal customer over the years. And what happened to pepperoni pizza, anyway???

(By the way, thanks to the world of Twitter, there is a chance that someone from Lean Pockets will in fact read this.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Long Distance Bicycling

On Sunday, I had nothing better to do, and I was feeling motivated, so I went for a really long bike ride. 54.4 miles, my longest single-day ride ever. (See the Sportypal log here, although my phone battery only made it 98% of the way.) I'm proud of my effort, so...please excuse me while I take a "victory lap" of sorts.

So...here's the thing with going on a long bike ride. Some days, I feel great, and I can easily ride over 50 miles. Other days, by the time I get to 30, my leg muscles have had enough. Amber has reported similar findings with her jogs; some days, 5 miles is easy; other days, 3 miles is difficult. What's the difference between those days? It's not just how much I'm in shape. I don't think I'm in that much better shape now than I was last summer, but Sunday's ride felt a heck of a lot better - especially over the last 10 miles - than my two most recent 45+ mile rides. There are a lot of variables to consider when approaching a long bike ride (or a long run), and I like to pay attention to the details, so that's what I'm going to talk about here. Besides simply "getting in shape", what can I do to maximize my bicycling endurance on any given weekend morning?

But first, a disclaimer: by NO MEANS is this supposed to be a "how to" guide. This stuff only applies to me. People who are in better shape than I do not need to take as many breaks as I do, or take as many days off before going on a long ride. That said, being able to go on a four- to five-hour bike ride has as much to do with preparation and tactics as it does how much I'm in shape, at least based on my experience. Maybe some people can just get on a bike and ride 50 miles without three days of planning.

Now, in order of importance, from "most important" to "least important":

Prior inactivity - Aside from the occasional commute to work, I will rarely ride my bike on consecutive days. If I've ridden my bike the day before, at all, anything over 25 miles is out of the question. But even one "day off" from bicycling isn't always enough for these longer rides. I've found that my longer rides have been much more successful when I take two days off before the ride, instead of just one day off. In general, I won't attempt a 40+ mile ride unless I have two days of cycling inactivity beforehand. I took Friday and Saturday off before riding on Sunday.

Weather - In terms of comfort, I'd say 65° is probably the ideal bicycling temperature. But is that also ideal in terms of long distance endurance? While it may not be more comfortable, it seems like it's easier to ride when it's hotter. That makes sense, since air temperature and air density are inversely proportional. So, maybe the real ideal bicycling temperature is closer to 80°, maybe even 85°.

But a bigger factor is the wind. Bicycling into a strong head wind really, really sucks. So, calm days are more ideal than windy days, unless you're planning on riding in one direction only and catching a ride back to the ststarting point some other way. Wind is more effective on cold days (see "inversely proportional" above), so a cold, windy day is the worst day to go for a long bike ride. (Aside from a rainy day, of course. I don't go there.) If I must contend with the wind, I've found it's best to take the tail wind first and finish with the head wind, so that I don't wear myself out too soon. The perfect day to go for a long ride might be overcast, 80°, little to no wind. Sunday was sunny to overcast to sunny, with temperatures warming from 70° to 85° during my ride, and 5-10 mph winds.

Pace - Everybody has their own pace. I have two "standard" paces. On short rides (30 minutes or less), I'll push a little bit, and typically average around 14-15 mph. On longer rides, I'll take it easy and almost never pedal downhill, resulting in a pace of 11-12 mph. That's a good pace for me if I want to go a long way. (According to Sportypal, my pace on Sunday was actually closer to 13, which is impressive for me considering the distance.) It's important to not get carried away too soon on a long ride.

Breaks - This is what sets me apart from a lot of bicyclists. Many bicyclists can just keep going and only take a break every hour or two. Me? Nope. On Sunday, I took a break every 30 minutes, throughout the entire ride. The breaks weren't long - usually between two and five minutes - but they helped a lot. I just can't do long, sustained, non-stop riding. (One reason I don't like running. I'd have to stop and walk a lot.)

Powerade slushies - Obviously, rehydrating yourself during a long workout is important. I don't know if Powerade (cheaper than Gatorade!) helps much more than water, but...I guess this is a case of doing something strictly because of the common perception.

But one thing I've really grown to appreciate, especially in the summer, are "Powerade slushies". The night before, I'll put one or two Powerade bottles in the freezer. On ride day, I'll stick them in my backpack, and maybe cover them with a towel to keep them frozen. One-third to one-half of the way through my ride, I'll remove the towel, let it slowly melt in my backpack, and shake the bottle at every stop along the way. Shaking is very important, as it causes the ice to break up into a slushie rather than simply melt on the outside. Keeping it in my backpack is also important - if I put it outside on one of my bicycle bottle holders, it'll have almost completely melted before my next stop. If I execute these steps properly, then soon enough, I'll have a Powerade slushie! I can't even begin to tell you how good a Powerade slushie tastes in the middle of a hot summer bike ride.

Route - I'd estimate that about 75% of my bicycle mileage comes on public roads, with 25% coming on greenways. Which is better for long distance bicycling? The biggest difference is that greenways are slower pace - there are a bunch of pedestrians in the way, and I don't feel "rushed" like I do when I'm riding on a semi-busy public road. I think it's best to schedule the greenways for either the beginning or the end of the ride (or both), when I'm most likely to want to go slow. Miles 3 through 8 on Sunday were greenway miles, and that worked out pretty well.

Another route-related note: I like to rest my legs on the downhill portions, so I like routes with some hills, so long as the uphill parts aren't ridiculous (which around here, they aren't, except in areas of Chapel Hill). I do not like completely flat routes, because they're boring, and I feel like I have to keep pedaling all the time.

Time of day - I've never started a long ride late in the day (after 2:00 PM). Usually, especially in the summer, I'll wake up early and get on the road as soon as possible. But that's not so much because I want to maximize my endurance as it is things like "gotta get out before it gets hot and/or stormy" and "let's get this over with so I can watch football all afternoon".

Abrupt ending!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Five Years in North Carolina

Five years ago yesterday, I moved from State College, PA to a lonely one-bedroom apartment in Cary, NC. Five years later, I'd say that decision has worked out pretty well. I love it here, and I'd like to keep living here until I retire. (By "here" I mean "the Raleigh metropolitan area, a.k.a. the Triangle". I don't live in Cary anymore, of course.)

I feel like being all sappy and nostalgic today, so let's reflect on my time in North Carolina, shall we?

June 19th, 2006: This was a pretty easy move, in hindsight. Everything I had fit into two cars! It's a lot easier to move when you don't have any furniture. (I remember buying a bed that day, I think from "Fred's Beds" or something. I don't remember when I got the rest of my furniture.) That bed is now serving as our "guest room" bed, by the way. That night, I watched the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup. That was pretty awesome, but I couldn't fully appreciate it at the time having not been here for the entire season, so in hindsight, I wish they had waited a year.

June 21st, 2006: The day I got internet access at home, two days after moving here, I started this blog. This means I've pretty much documented my entire stay here in North Carolina, which begs the question: is this here blog post really necessary?

June 26th, 2006: My first day on the job. I still have the same job today, which is good.

June 30th, 2006: I head back to State College for the weekend to see Amber. This is a trip I would make 12 times between now and when she moved here 11 months later. (Our relationship was still in the very, very early stages at this point, by the way, so we didn't really have a plan, but we both liked driving, so it worked out.)

Given that I knew basically nobody here, what did I do during my spare time that first year? During the week, I would occasionally play in free "bar poker" tournaments, which I stopped going to after a few months. On weekends, I'd usually go drive somewhere, whether it be to a random disc golf course, a Piggly Wiggly in Eastern North Carolina, or just somewhere I hadn't been before. From a road geek standpoint, moving to a new state is very exciting! Oh, the miles I put on my car that first year. So, while I was pretty lonely, I didn't really have any trouble finding things to do that first year. And, besides, I saw Amber every two or three weekends anyway.

Side note: It doesn't seem strange that this was five years ago. What seems strange is that I was five years younger back then than I am now, if that makes any sense. Was I seriously only 24 years old when I moved here?

April 21st, 2007: I move from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom apartment on the other side of the complex, to prepare for this:

May 21st, 2007: Amber moves to North Carolina. Hooray! Weather-wise, North Carolina was a tough sell for her, but she's warmed up to it (pun intended) since then. South Carolina, however, would have been completely out of the question. Gotta draw the line somewhere, I guess. (Side note: This Friday will be 1,000 days since Amber moved here.)

September 2007: This is about when we "officially" joined the Triangle Curling Club. I'm glad the curling club is here, because not only is curling fun, the majority of our local friends have come directly, or indirectly, from the curling club. Poker and disc golf did not prove to be good ways to make new friends, but curling...yes.

September 27th, 2008: Amber and I get married! This doesn't have anything to do with North Carolina, really - the wedding was in Ohio - but I had to put something down for 2008. As anyone who has or is planning on getting married knows, an upcoming wedding will pretty much dominate your consciousness for the 6 to 12 months leading up to it, which is perhaps why nothing else really "notable" happened that year.

January 15th, 2009: Amber and I buy a house! Now we've really settled in. When you have an apartment, there is still a feeling of, "If things don't work out here, we could always move somewhere else". (We had quite a few conversations to that effect the first year after Amber moved here.) But once you buy a house, I guess that means things did work out, because that's a big step. Not only do we live here, but now we own property! Or, at least, a small percentage of it.

2010: Aside from a vacation to Alaska, life in 2010 proved to be quite ordinary. I think it takes about four years to fully integrate into life in a particular city - that is, have enough friends and activities planned that you actually have to routinely turn down opportunities to do things, because you're too busy or have other plans. Well, it took me four years to get to that point. Some people might reach "calendar capacity" six months after moving somewhere. Other people may never get to that point. Everyone is different.

July or August 2011: Now that we're officially fully settled in, how about we get even more settled in by having a baby?

Circa 2046: I'm very happy in North Carolina. Amber is too. All things considered, we can't do a whole lot better than the situation we have now. And given how long it takes for people like us to reach "calendar capacity" after moving somewhere new, we certainly don't plan on packing everything up and moving again. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that we'll live here until we retire. That's dependent upon jobs, of course, and that's often why people move in the first place. But as long as we have good jobs here in North Carolina, we'll be here. Once we retire, however - 2046 is a fairly optimistic retirement year, by the way, given recent trends - I imagine we'll want to move to the mountains or something. But we have a while to figure that out.

Circa 2020: However...that's not to say we won't want to move to, say, a bigger house or a different school district in about ten years. So our current house isn't necessarily our final destination, and neither is Durham, although I'd like the Triangle to be our final pre-retirement destination. Again, we have a while to figure that out, although not as long as we have to decide where Amber and I want to live when we're 65.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sports Saturday: 6/18/11

In today's issue...

NHL: Shame on the people of Vancouver.
Golf: Watch Rory McIlory implode again! Or not.
Auto racing: A Formula One race featuring a last lap pass for the win?!?!
College baseball: The College World Series starts today.
Soccer: What is the CONCACAF Gold Cup?

NHL - Time to wrap up hockey season. Yeah, I was rooting for the Vancouver Canucks to give a Canadian team its first Stanley Cup in 18 years. Didn't happen. As I watched Game 7, which - like many games throughout the series - was completely dominated by the Boston Bruins, I thought: how did this series go seven games? Vancouver was lucky to even make it that far.

Or were they? Would the now infamous post-game riots in downtown Vancouver been as bad if Boston had won the Cup in six? Most certainly not.

I'm as pro-Canadian as any non-Canadian, but I can't defend Canada here. We Americans are fortunate to have lots of different sports to follow. If you're a Boston sports fan, and the Bruins lose Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, then oh well, you still have the Red Sox, Patriots, and whatever their NBA team is called. (Whatever the NBA is.) If you're Vancouver, you have...not much else. (Go B.C. Lions!) Hockey is such a dominant sport in Canada, just like soccer is in Europe, there is no comparison here in the United States. We don't care about anything as much as Canadians care about hockey, or Europeans care about soccer. And that's why they have riots. I'm not defending it by any means - we've had riots, too, you know. It's just sad. It looks bad for Vancouver, and it looks bad for Canada. I'm feeling a little dispirited as an American-who-likes-Canada. This is a sad way to end hockey season for sure.

Golf: On a brighter note...let's watch golf! As of press time, Rory McIlory is completely dominating the U.S. Open. But after what happened at the Masters, it doesn't matter how big of a lead McIlory has going into Sunday. It's going to be must-watch TV regardless.

The rise of McIlroy is good, because I think golf could use a dominant player besides Tiger Woods. Somebody who can consistently contend and win majors for a period of a few years. Aside from Woods, the winners of major championships over the last few years have been far too random. Y.E. Yang! Lucas Glover! Louis Oosthuizen! Are any of these guys going to win a second major? Probably not. The viewing public can't get behind that. We don't need another Tiger Woods; we just need another Tom Watson or Nick Faldo, somebody who can put up 6 or 8 majors in his career. (Phil Mickelson is sitting on four, by the way.) But golf is a very difficult game, and it's as competitive as ever, so players like that are rare. Golf is a little too random for its own good, which makes it the exact opposite of men's tennis, in which there are only three or four guys with a realistic chance of winning any given major. But that also makes it more interesting to watch. What's going to happen? Who knows?

Sat 2:00p - U.S. Open, NBC
Sun 1:30p - U.S. Open, NBC

Auto racing - Last week's Formula One Canadian Grand Prix was certainly unique. Due to a long rain delay (wimps!), the race took four hours to complete. And due to a late-race "safety car", varying tire strategy, and a crucial mistake by Sebastian Vettel - it's been a while since we've seen a Vettel mistake, but it's good to know he's still capable of wilting under pressure - we saw the rarest thing of all in Formula One: a last lap pass for the win. Wow! I don't know how rare that is in F1 exactly, but I would guess that happens, on average, once every few seasons. If that. It was far more interesting of a race than the NASCAR race at Pocono.

Speaking of which, how many career wins is Jeff Gordon going to end up with? 85? 90? 100? I think it's unlikely, but I hope he can get to 100. That would be incredible to see. 90 might be a realistic "over/under".

The IndyCar race last week was also unique. The track president of Texas Motor Speedway (or whatever his title is) decided to split the IndyCar race at Texas up into two half-length races. I like the idea of shorter races, especially at Texas, which is pretty much the Talladega of IndyCar. (The racing actually underwhelmed in comparison to past Texas races, I thought.) But like Dario Franchitti, I don't like the idea of setting the starting grid for the second race by random draw, especially for a short race, where starting position actually means something. I think the idea was to make the qualifying draw into some kind of "show" to fill in the one-hour gap between Race 1 and Race 2, but inverting the field, as Franchitti suggested, would have been more fair and more interesting. Is IndyCar trying a little too hard to generate excitement this year? I think so.

Sat 3:30p - NASCAR Nationwide at Michigan, ABC
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Michigan, TNT
Sun 3:30p - IndyCar at Milwaukee, ABC

College baseball - The College World Series begins today. Florida State came within one win of getting there, which...doesn't it seem like that's what happens every year? They get a top 8 tournament seed, then they flame out at home in the Super Regionals. The rumor is that FSU is going to fire the pitching coach as a result. Is pitching the reason Florida State has still never won the College World Series after all these years? Sounds reasonable to me.

As for the other teams...how long will ESPN wait this weekend until they break out the "Did you know that the ACC has only won the College World Series once, ever" stat? Virginia seems to be the ACC's best chance this year, but they needed a 9th inning, come-from-behind win just to get this far. So, who knows.

Sat 2:00p - Vanderbilt v. North Carolina, ESPN
Sat 7:00p - Texas v. Florida, ESPN
Sun 2:00p - California v. Virginia, ESPN
Sun 7:00p - Texas A&M v. South Carolina, ESPN2

Professional baseball once again gets pushed to the backburner, even though the Nationals have actually been playing pretty well as of late. But they're still a few games under .500 and several games out of the playoff picture.

Soccer: Why am I talking soccer? Because while we can't have a World Cup every summer, there is still at least one more obscure international soccer tournament every year to fill the void. This year, two come to mind. The Women's World Cup starts next week - soccer is pretty much the only women's sport I'll consider watching - and the CONCACAF Gold Cup is going on right now.

What is the CONCACAF Gold Cup? It's like the World Cup, except for North America and the Caribbean. Remember the "FIFA Conferedations Cup" in 2009, in which the United States played a memorable game against Brazil in the final, losing 3-2? If the United States wants to qualify for the 2013 Conferedations Cup, they need to win this year's Gold Cup.

The United States advanced to the knockout stage, which starts this weekend. It seems like an almost certainty that the Gold Cup final will be United States v. Mexico. And since the Gold Cup is being held here at home - the Final is a week from Saturday at the Rose Bowl - we might even stand a chance! But the Americans did lose to Panama last week (!), so you never know.

Only the USA game this weekend is being broadcast in English, as far as I know. Can you say, "GOOOOOOOOOOOL!"

Sat 5:00p - Costa Rica v. Honduras, Telefutura
Sat 8:00p - Mexico v. Guatemala, Univision
Sun 3:00p - Jamaica v. United States, Fox Soccer Channel / Univision
Sun 6:00p - Panama v. El Salvador, Univision

Thursday, June 16, 2011

ZZ- and AA- License Plates: The Final Four

It's hard to believe that my silly ZZ- and AA- license plate game has been going on for seven months now. To recap: North Carolina reset the license plate alphabet a while back. Once they got to ZZZ-, they started over at AAA-. My goal was to find at least one license plate representing all ZZ_ and AA_ letter combinations in circulation - ZZA, ZZB, ZZC, and so on through ZZZ, and then AAA through AAZ. North Carolina skips over the letters G, I, O, Q, and U, so there 21 ZZs and 21 AAs to find.

Surely, I thought I would have had them all by now. Nope. I have yet to spot a ZZX- plate, along with AAS-, AAT-, or AAV-. I haven't spotted any new combinations in seven weeks (AAF- on April 28th). Meanwhile, North Carolina has already moved on to the AE- range. So, what gives? What happened to ZZX/AAS/AAT/AAV? They have to be out there somewhere, right? Why would North Carolina just skip over them? (I can kind of see the DMV skipping over AAS, but I still expected them to be printed.) It's especially curious that AAS/AAT/AAV are consecutive.

I thought this might happen, because some letter combinations all get issued in one area of the state. But I've driven by way of Greensboro and Charlotte multiple times this year. I haven't been to Wilmington or Asheville in a while, but surely, people who live there occasionally jump on I-40 and head our way as well. Is that where all of these license plates are hiding? Or are they buried in some DMV office somewhere in the state, still yet to be issued, even though plates as late as AEF- are already on the roads?

Or, have I just been unlucky? I have to wonder about that, because if not for a chance stop at a Wendy's in Laurinburg a few months back, I'd still be missing ZZS- as well. The only two ZZS- plates I have yet to see anywhere (prior to today, that is - I saw my third about 20 minutes ago) were in that one Wendy's parking lot. So, maybe I just have to get lucky with these remaining four letter combinations. I'm not giving up yet, but who knows how long it will take to get the final four.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Circumcision

(Disclaimer: This blog post is slightly more explicit than normal, but you probably figured that out already based on the title.)

We don't know if our baby, "due" to be born 44 days from today, will be a boy or girl. But if it's a boy, we will have an important decision to make. Should we have his penis circumcised?

(By the way, that's the first time in the history of my blog that I've used the word "penis".)

Until recently, I was under the impression that circumcision was simply something that everyone did, and that if we had a boy, that we would do the same by default. I mean, all men undergo circumcision, right?

Actually...no. It turns out that circumcision is quite rare in some parts of the world (Europe). Here in the United States, circumcision was definitely the norm 30 years ago, but it has become less popular in recent years. I had no idea.

I've had a hard time finding reliable statistics on the subject, for a variety of reasons. Some report "circumcisions for newborns only" versus "circumcisions at any point in life" and don't make it clear which statistic they're reporting, while others simply have a pro-circumcision or anti-circumcision agenda they want to promote and distort their statistics to support it. But here are what I consider to be reliable statistics on the subject:

- According to the CDC, the rate of newborn male circumcision in the United States was 56.1% in 2006, compared to 64.1% in 1995 and 64.7% in 1980.
- Circumcision is most common in the Midwest, where the rate has stayed fairly static, and least common in the West, where the rate decrease has been by far most pronounced and is now less than one-third.
- Some are reporting a very sharp decrease beyond the end of the CDC study (from 2006 onward), all the way from 56% down to 33% at the national level in just three years. However, I haven't seen this number backed up by anyone else, and it seems hard to believe, so who knows.

Well, regardless, circumcision for newborns seems to be trending out. At the heart of the "anti-circumcision" movement in San Francisco, they're even trying to ban it altogether. But we live a few thousand miles from San Francisco, so we have a choice. As future parents, what should we do?

Well, here's my take. Based on the research I've done, the medical and physical pros and cons of circumcision seem to cancel each other out. There are also no religious considerations on our end. So really, it comes down to this: Which is most socially accepted? If circumcision was simply what everyone did, then we'd do it too. We'd also do it right away, because it's the kind of procedure that's best done when the kid won't remember it taking place (so I've heard). But if it's no longer the social norm and is more an old fashioned relic of 1950s medicine than anything else, then in that case, we wouldn't want to circumcise. I don't want our son to be an outcast because he is or isn't circumcised. Maybe it doesn't matter, but I know from personal experience that little boys like to, umm, "compare", so this will come up. And, I want to give our son the best chance with the women - or men, you know, whatever floats his boat* - that I can, because if he turns out to be anything like me, he's going to need all the help he can get.

(* - I originally typed "whatever tickles his pickle", but then decided that phrase was inappropriate given the subject matter.)

I don't have a strong opinion on this issue one way or the other. I don't really care whether circumcision is "the thing" or "not the thing". I just want to know what "the thing" is, so that our son will not be subjected to ridicule or embarrassment. … Speaking of embarrassment, it's probably also best for our future (potential) son that I not publish whether or not he will be circumcised. Sorry, folks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

GNCC Arena Club Championship: Recap

Why did it take me two days to write this up? Because I went a bit long.


Oh, did we have a good time at last weekend's GNCC Arena Club Championship. Here's my preview from last week, in which I explain what the GNCC Arena Club Championship is. Or, I'll just explain it again here: it's a curling tournament where the only invitees are clubs without their own dedicated curling facility, and who are members of the Grand National Curling Club, which is a consortium of 20 so-called "arena clubs" from New England to Florida. (Yes, there's one in Florida. More on that later.) This year's Championship - the 2nd annual - was hosted by our very own Triangle Curling Club, which means...home ice advantage! (More on that later, too.)

Let's start with our first game:

Career game #147: 1st Event, Round of 16 v. Pittsburgh 2 (Ashford), June 10, 2011
(our team: "Triangle 3")

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Pittsburgh 2... 130510xx | 10
Triangle 3..... 002001xx | 03

Opposing Skip Rich A. is the defending Arena Club Champion, and although he had a completely different team with him this time, I knew we'd have our hands full. Indeed. In my bonspieling experience, I've noticed that the teams we struggle with the most with are those who throw, and make, lots and lots of take-outs. This was one of those teams. We couldn't keep a whole lot in play, and our draws weren't as good as they needed to be. In the 4th end, for example, we couldn't get anything in a "protected" position (covered behind a guard or frozen to another rock), so they scored what was really a pretty easy 5-ender for them. (That was the only end in the entire game in which they had last rock, by the way. And look what happened!) A team that is proficient at making take-outs isn't going to let you recover from a 9-2 deficit, so I knew that was pretty much the game. I'll recap how Pittsburgh 2 fared later in the tournament, along with some of the other teams, towards the end.

So...about that draw v. take-out strategy. I've said time and time again that on arena ice, you should keep the take-outs to a minimum. While this was technically "arena ice", it wasn't, really. Our club brought down an "ice crew" just for this event and had them work on the ice off and on for an entire week, getting it as flat as possible. They did an outstanding job. Our "arena ice" has never been better than it was last weekend, and you could make take-outs on all four sheets. A dedicated ice strategy, one featuring more take-outs, is more effective under these conditions. However, we've also found that being an arena club, a draw game gives us a better chance to win in a typical bonspiel, even when we're playing against another arena club. So, that's what we stuck with, for better or for worse.

My curling dream is to have a team that throws lots and lots of take-outs at bonspiels, blanks ends frequently, and wins games by scores such as 5-3 and 6-2. I think that's a fun way to play (albeit less fun to watch), and from watching other games at bonspiels, I think I have a better understanding of that kind of strategy. Problem is, that only works if you're very good at making take-outs, which being an arena club, we are not. Maybe some day, we can be one of those teams. (I define "very good at making take-outs" as being able to not only hit the rock, but hit the rock at a precise angle, allowing you to consistently make double take-outs and hit-and-rolls behind guards. If you're going to rely on take-outs as your primary tactic, then you absolutely must be able to make doubles and hit-and-rolls.)

That loss put us in the "2nd Event", along with the other 10 teams that lost their first game. Despite the early setback, I still thought our team could compete. And now that we're in a bracket with a bunch of other 0-1 teams, many of which lost to weaker opponents than we did...could we run the table from here on out? Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we had to start by taking down one of our club's own:

Career game #148: 2nd Event, Quarterfinals v. Triangle 5 (M. Jackson), June 11, 2011

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Triangle 3..... 123030xx | 09
Triangle 5..... 000102xx | 03

"Triangle 5" were the favorites going into the Club Playdowns in April, but...oh, I don't know. Many times in sports, you'll see a bunch of great players team up, and despite looking good "on paper", for whatever reason, it doesn't work. Then again, luck was definitely a factor here. We made more than our share of lucky shots. Also a factor was that in most of our games, especially this one, we had the ice conditions figured out before the other team did, and that allowed us to jump out to an early lead in each of our final three games.

But still, we played significantly better from top to bottom than we did in Game 1. This was about the point where our "team chemistry" started to come together - that is, understanding each other's strengths and weakness. That's kind of important in curling. Who's best at throwing take-outs? Who's best at judging the weight? Should we really trust Howie's strategy? (I don't always agree with his shot calls, but his teams always deliver, so I've learned to just swallow my pride and trust what he says, because it usually works out okay in the end.)

The Lead on "Triangle 5" was actually not from Triangle, but from Panthers Curling Club in Coral Springs, Florida (Broward County). They curl at the same facility that the Florida Panthers practice, hence the name. They're struggling for members, so if you live down there: curling is fun! You should try it. Panthers CC is the only active curling club in Florida, and another of my curling dreams is to curl in my native state some day, so I hope they can survive. Curling in Florida has always been a tough draw (no pun intended) over the years.

On to the 2nd Event semifinals...

Career game #149: 2nd Event, Semifinals v. Anthracite 2 (don't remember the Skip's name), June 11, 2011

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Anthracite 2... 000210xx | 03
Triangle 3..... 413002xx | 10

Anthracite is a club based in Wilkes-Barre, PA. If only they existed when I was at Penn State!

Curious start to this game. Anthracite won the coin toss, but rather than take last rock advantage to start, they chose rock color instead. We then took last rock into the 1st end, and immediately scored four. Why did they choose rock color over hammer? This actually isn't unheard of, even at a bonspiel. Some curling rocks are better, meaning more consistent, than others. They must have heard something to the effect of "avoid the blue curling rocks on Sheet 4" from another team. But having home ice advantage, we knew better. I do think that the yellow rocks and blue rocks on Sheet 4 are different, and at one time, I too thought that yellow was "better". But I've won and lost games with both colors before, so I know what the deal is with these rocks. One set isn't necessarily "better" than the other, but they do behave differently, so it can seem like one is "better" if you don't know that in advance. This is part of where home ice advantage comes into play at a bonspiel. It's not just the ice, it's also the rocks. Home ice advantage definitely shows in my curling statistics: including last weekend, my career bonspiel record on home ice is 17-6, while my career bonspiel record at other clubs is 6-14. Level of competition may have something to do with that, too - the competition is stiffer at other bonspiels than it is at our home bonspiels - but home ice advantage is real.

Back to the game: we played very well, especially early. This may have been our most complete game of the weekend. I even made a take-out or two, which I struggled mightily with in Game 1. Anthracite played well from the 4th end on, but it was too late, as we were already ahead 8-0 by then.

With that, we move on to the 2nd Event Final on Sunday morning. The "final draw" of any bonspiel is prestigious, because at most bonspiels, you get "bagpiped" onto the ice.


This was my 3rd appearance in a bonspiel "final draw", all on home ice. Amber and I won the 4th Event in the 2009 Carolina Classic, and lost in the 1st Event Final in the 2010 Carolina Classic. If I could improve my "final draw" record to 2-1, we would get our names engraved on the official Arena Club Championship 2nd Event Trophy:


That's a traveling trophy, kind of like the Stanley Cup, so we would also get to keep that for a year, apparently. That's pretty cool. I'm pretty materialistic when it comes to trophies, as it turns out. Let's go!

Career game #150: 2nd Event, Final v. Virginia (Cooke?), June 12, 2011

End............ 12345678 |TTL
-----------------------------
Virginia....... 03102020 | 08
Triangle 3..... 30050202 | 12

During the semifinals the day before, I occasionally glanced over at the other 2nd Event Semifinal, which featured the Virginia team (club based in Richmond) against a team from Long Island. Every time I looked over there, Long Island was the only team with any rocks in the house. Yet, Virginia ended up winning. How? I figured they must have a good Skip that rescued them a few times, and that Virginia may have been employing a take-out heavy strategy and not leaving many rocks in play as a result. After playing Virginia in the final and listening to some accounts of other games involving these teams, I concluded that I was half right. Good Skip? Yes. Take-out heavy strategy? Actually, no; it was Long Island who was the take-out heavy team. When we played Virginia, it was definitely a draw game from start to finish. The first three ends were simply decided by who was better at making their draws. (That would be us in the 1st end, them in the next two ends.)

Then came the critical fourth end. We were out-drawing them in the fourth end from the start, giving us an opportunity to put up a big number. But they did get one rock in a decent position, and on one of my shots, I accidentally promoted their rock from a decent position to a very good position. Did I just throw this end away for us?

(Disclaimer: diagrams are approximate and are based strictly on memory. Our team = yellow.)


Fortunately, the red rock was only partially guarded, and we had last rock in that end, so Howie simply needed to make a take-out on his first shot, followed by another take-out on the final shot (pretty much a repeat of the first shot), and bam, five points. After the decisive 4th end, we simply traded deuces, and that was that. Victory!


But enough about us. What about everyone else? How did my pre-bonspiel predictions pan out?

I predicted that one of the five Triangle teams would win the Championship. Instead, none of the Triangle teams even made it past the quarterfinals. For one, the two Pittsburgh teams aren't just good; they're very good. Pittsburgh 2 (whom we lost to in Game 1) went on to win the Fourth Event, taking down two Triangle teams along the way, while Pittsburgh 1 won the whole thing. But perhaps more importantly, I greatly underestimated the ability of the four Charlotte teams. Two of the four semifinalists were from Charlotte. One Charlotte team knocked out what I thought was Triangle's best team (just my opinion) and Pittsburgh 2, before losing a hard-fought championship game to Pittsburgh 1. Impressive. Triangle, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh made up half of the teams (11 of 22) in the Arena Club Championship, and 7 of those teams advanced to the "final draw". (Virginia was the only other club represented in the final draw.)

So, if we were to rank the GNCC Arena Clubs based on curling ability, I think Pittsburgh is the undisputed #1. But who is #2? Triangle, Charlotte, or someone else entirely? Tough to say, given how many teams each club took to the Championship. Triangle and Charlotte definitely had advantage in numbers here, and being geographically close allows you to put your best curlers together, rather than just take whoever is able to go to the bonspiel. And normally each arena club is only permitted two entries in the Arena Club Championship, but most clubs did not fill their quota, leaving room for several additional local teams. (That's how our team got in.) Many of the New England clubs, such as last year's runner-up (Green Mountain), didn't make it down this year. I guess what I'm saying is, I don't know how to rank the Arena Clubs once you get past the clear #1. But Triangle did pretty well in last year's Championship too, so I think we have to at least be top 5, maybe top 3. (Note that other arena clubs such as Knoxville and Dallas are not GNCC members, and thus are not considered here.)

But really, it doesn't matter. Many of the arena clubs participating in the Championship are less than two years old. And that's really what this is about. It's not about "who's the best". (Although it is fun to find that out, I admit.) Primarily, this is about helping these new arena clubs grow. It's tough for a team from a brand new club like Atlanta to go to a "regular bonspiel" and put up with "arena curlers don't know what they're doing" comments all weekend. (We deal with that, too.) But they can come to this here Arena Club Championship, learn and absorb information from other arena curlers, and maybe even win a game! (Atlanta did win a game, by the way.) Starting and growing an arena-based curling club is hard, so we have to stick together and help each other out. Then, maybe before too long, we can head down I-85 to Charlotte and Palmetto (Greenville, SC) once they're established enough to start hosting their own bonspiels. Or, better yet, down to Florida.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Miniature Golf Statistics

My weekend curling adventure doesn't begin until tomorrow, so in the meantime, let's talk miniature golf statistics.

Amber and I go miniature golfing about as often as we go bowling. Over the last four years, we've gone mini-golfing 14 times, which includes 21 rounds played; over the same time period, we've gone bowling...14 times. Funny how that works. However, at least one mini-golf excursion didn't make it into my mini-golf spreadsheet for whatever reason, so it's actually at least 15, maybe 16.

"Wait...did you say you had a mini-golf spreadsheet?" Yep. On said spreadsheet, I record the date of each mini-golf excursion, the location, Amber's total score, my total score, occasionally front and back nine scores, and how many holes-in-one each of us accumulated throughout the round. I don't publish these stats in By the Numbers, though, because mini-golf stats aren't really portable. Much like disc golf courses, mini-golf courses vary wildly. An 18-hole score of 46 might be a very good score at one course, but not so good at another course. And, the "par" system isn't standard, either. Many mini-golf courses, regardless of how difficult they actually are, just assign a par of 2 to every hole. Because of that, it wouldn't mean a whole lot for me to say that I average 43.0 strokes per 18 holes of mini-golf.

But that is my average, by the way. In 21 rounds of mini-golf (all 18 holes), my average score is 43.0, my median score is 41, and I have 34 holes-in-one (one per 11.1 holes played). My personal bests are a low score of 34 (achieved at a really easy Putt-Putt course that no longer exists) and 5 holes-in-one in one round (achieved just last weekend at Frankie's Fun Park).

Amber's stats are: 46.0 average, 44 median, 29 holes-in-one (one per 13.0 holes played); career bests are low score of 38, and 6 holes-in-one in one round, both achieved when we went to Myrtle Beach in 2009. The head-to-head competition between Amber and me goes 14-6 me, with one tie. That's probably the main reason we don't go more often. :)

Sometimes when we go mini-golfing, we play two rounds. Other times, we'll only play one. Why? Two factors at play: who we're with, and whether or not the course offers a discount for a second game. Some courses will let you play a second 18 for only a dollar or two, rather than full price. At those places, we almost have to play two. Speaking of which, $6 or $7 seems to be the going rate for a round of mini-golf these days.

Mini-golfing and bowling are the types of activities that will likely require a three-year break with our kid on the way, to be immediately followed by more mini-golfing and bowling than ever before once the kid is old enough to want to play him/herself.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

GNCC Arena Club Championship: Preview

Remember back in April, when I failed to qualify for a bonspiel (curling tournament) called the "GNCC Arena Club Championship"? Yeah...a funny thing happened. They needed a few more teams to fill out the bracket, so we ended up qualifying after all. Hooray!

What is the GNCC Arena Club Championship? The "GNCC" (Grand National Curling Club) is a consortium of East Coast curling clubs; the GNCC also organized those "5 & Under" bonspiels I participated in back in February. And the "Arena Club Championship" is a weekend bonspiel where only GNCC member clubs without dedicated curling ice, a.k.a. arena clubs, are invited. Hey, we're an arena club! Not only that, but we - "we" being the Triangle Curling Club, of course - are hosting the event this coming weekend.

Now, I'm going to handicap the 22-team field. Given that this is restricted to arena clubs only, the "usual suspects" that we normally see at bonspiels - Potomac, Plainfield, and so on - won't be there. Instead, here's where the teams are from:
- Triangle (that's us), 5 teams
- Charlotte, 4 teams
- Pittsburgh, 2 teams
- Palmetto, 2 teams (Greenville, SC)
- Anthracite, 2 teams (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area)
- Ocean State (Rhode Island)
- Coastal Carolina (Wilmington)
- Atlanta
- Woodstock (Vermont, the hosts of last year's Arena Club Championship)
- Richmond, VA (not to be confused with the Richmond Curling Club in British Columbia)
- Bucks County, PA (From what I understand, the Philadelphia Curling Club is close to capacity, so some folks decided to start a second Philadelphia-area club last year on the other side of town)
- Long Island

So...here's what I think. For one, there are some huge unknowns here. Many of these clubs, in particular the Southern ones, are only a year or two old, if that. How good will these guys be at curling? I have no idea. One of these teams could be completely stacked for all I know. And, given that this bonspiel is in the middle of the curling off-season, nobody will be playing their best.

That said, I think that with home ice advantage, and advantage in numbers, that one of the five Triangle teams will win the bonspiel. It could very well be us! (For those who know the club, the team is Howie Z. at Skip, me at Vice, and Chris and Andrea H. on the front end.) If not Triangle, then I'm going with the defending champions, Pittsburgh. Speaking of which, I think the defending champions are our first opponent, so we'll know right away if we have what it takes to go all the way. Playing one of the favorites in the first game doesn't bother me like it did at, say, "The Kayser". At "The Kayser", I was the Skip, I needed some early confidence, and I just wanted to win a game at some point, darn it. Here, I think there's a chance we could win the whole thing, so I don't mind playing a tough opponent in the very first game. (By the way, Ocean State is my "dark horse" pick.)

One more thing I want to talk about here. Anyone who has curled on both arena ice and on dedicated curling ice knows that it is a completely different game, in terms of the strategy and the types of shots you can make. Given that this is the "Arena Club Championship", then maybe the ice should be prepared like it was "arena ice", right? If we want full authenticity, then we should warm up the rocks off-ice and send the zamboni out there after every single draw! But, of course, that's not how it's going to work. Much work has gone into ice preparation this week, and the goal is to make our "arena ice" play as much like dedicated curling ice as possible. No team is going to pay $400, plus hotel, plus transportation, to come down to North Carolina in June and play on crappy zamboni-lined "arena ice". Still, though, I think it would be fun to have a true "Arena Ice Championship". I would do well in it.

Our first game is 1:30 PM Friday. Updates throughout the weekend on Twitter/Facebook. Full recap next week. Woo!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Point Inflation


I don't know if it's always been this way. You'd think that if anyone would remember how many points each ring was worth in skeeball 20 years ago, it would be me. But in 2011, at least here, even the lowest-valued ring is worth 1,000 points. 1,000 points! The lowest! Look around at other games throughout your neighborhood arcade, and you'll find a similar situation. This kind of inflation also manifests itself in terms of the prize-redeeming tickets these games often spit out as a reward. No longer are 10 tickets worth much of anything. Instead, there are games that will reward you over 1,000 tickets at once. And what can you get with those 1,000 tickets? Not much.

I call this "point inflation", and I think it points to a bigger problem. Is the self-esteem of today's youth so low that we have to tack on a few useless zeroes at the end of their point totals in skeeball just to make them feel better about themselves? Do we really have to award them 1,000 tickets at a time? What is this, Zimbabwe? Why not reduce everything by a factor of 100? (By the way, it takes quite a while for an arcade game to spit out 1,000 tickets.)

As a soon-to-be father, these are the things I think about.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Hypnobabies

One of Amber's co-workers teaches a birthing class called "Hypnobabies". It came highly recommended, so we took it. The class ended yesterday.

So...here's the basic idea behind "Hypnobabies". Everyone says that giving birth is painful, right? Well, fiddlesticks! Just because that's the perception, and is how live births are often portrayed on television, doesn't mean it has to be your reality. Fact is, giving birth is actually pretty uneventful, and through self-hypnosis, you can actually have a wonderful, completely natural, and fairly pain-free birthing experience. Yeah!

"Self-hypnosis", eh? Alright...let's back up a minute. Going into the class, I had no pre-conceived notions regarding what "hypnosis" is aside from the well-known cliches - you know, the swinging watch, "you are getting very sleepy", "you will now cluck like a chicken", etc. I figured that stuff is all for show and wasn't really how hypnosis worked. Indeed, a swinging watch is NOT how you bring someone into "hypnosis", at least not here.

I think pretty much everyone is skeptical going into their first "Hypnobabies" class, but I was relieved to find out the first day that the science and psychology behind all of this is solid. And, if you think about it, I undergo "self-hypnosis" almost every day. For example, suppose I'm watching television, and Amber says something to me. One minute later... "Oh, did you say something?" Or, in more extreme cases, "Oh, how long have you been in here?" That's a form of hypnosis. My mind is focused on the television, and I'm pretty much ignoring all of the other things I would otherwise be sensing.

During birthing, you can apply self-hypnosis to stay relaxed throughout the process. I won't go into the details, but the basic idea is that if you expect something to hurt, it probably will. But if you expect to feel pressure rather than discomfort, all while staying calm and relaxed throughout the whole process, but not so relaxed that you're unaware of your surroundings and unable to respond when necessary, then you'll do great, because really, giving birth is a lot nicer than the common perception. To facilitate this the class uses positive terminology only. Labor? Nope. We call it "birthing time". Contractions? Nope. We call them "birthing waves" or "pressure waves". Those are just a couple of examples. Yeah, it sounds silly, but now I use the Hypnobabies terms without even realizing it. (That, and when I think "contraction", the first thing I think of is "a convenient way to combine two commonly grouped words into one", rather than something related to giving birth.) Like I said, the science behind this is solid. This isn't like some "herbal remedy" that some 13th century society thought was a cure for the common cold, or something dumb like that. This is legit. And we know that because of first-hand accounts. Some people, including some of our classmates, will even give birth at home. (Prior to the class, it had never occurred to me that some people actually choose to gave birth at home, rather than in a hospital. Interesting. They'll hire a midwife to help, of course.)

Meanwhile, the role of the "birth partner" (that's me!) is to take care of the details so that Mommy can stay relaxed throughout the process, and of course, to be there for her. For instance, we've been practicing some "hypnosis scripts" that are designed to help Amber turn her "switch" off ("switch off" means "hypnosis on"), and which include some verbal (e.g. special words) and physical cues (e.g. placing my hand on her shoulder) that can also help. How effective these will be, we'll have to see. But the key behind all this is that since this is a strictly mental exercise, you have to buy into it. So, we're going "all in" with this. We won't know for sure until the time comes, of course - Amber is now in her 33rd week, by the way - but I'm already convinced that this will help.

If all of this sounds crazy to you, and you think we're nuts because we think it's possible to have a "easy and comfortable birthing" without using drugs, well...excuse us while we hide inside our "Bubble of Peace".

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Sports Saturday: 6/4/11

NHL - I've recently made a big decision regarding my hockey fandom. The last four seasons, I've purchased NHL Center Ice. Each season, including this past season, I feel I've gotten my money's worth. However, I'm pulling the plug. The other day, I called DirecTV and asked that Center Ice be removed from my account. (It will automatically renew if I don't proactively cancel it over the phone.)

Why? Simple, really. My favorite team, Carolina, is on local TV anyway. But more importantly, we're about to have our first child. I can't imagine I'll have much time, or the desire, to watch a random Thursday night Panthers/Devils game, for instance. (Catch the fever!) If it doesn't work out that way, I can always go back and sign up for it later. But I think it's unlikely I'm going to change my mind, at least for the 2011-12 season. There will still be plenty of hockey to watch; I'll just have less choice. And, I'll be able to put that $179 (or whatever) towards day care. (I am renewing NFL Sunday Ticket, however. Speaking of which, DirecTV sent me an email this week assuring me that I would not be charged for Sunday Ticket until it's confirmed that they are actually going to play this season. Well isn't that nice!)

Meanwhile, I wish I had stayed awake for the end of Game 1 Wednesday night. Usually during the Stanley Cup Final, due to the slightly later start, I'll only stay up for the end of the game if a) I have a strong rooting interest (e.g. Carolina); b) I don't have work the next morning, or c) either team is one win away from winning the Cup. Game 1 on a Wednesday night did not meet either criteria, so I missed the climactic, game-winning, scoreless-tie-breaking goal with 18 seconds remaining. Oh well. Either way...Go Canucks!

(Full disclosure: I stayed up for the end of the National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, which actually ended later than Game 1 did the night before. The difference is that there is only one Spelling Bee all year. That was just Game 1.)

One more hockey note, now that the Atlanta Thrashers' move to Winnipeg is official. Even though I like Winnipeg a lot, and a team in Winnipeg will certainly find more support than a team in Atlanta, as a hockey fan living in the Southeastern U.S., I can't help but feel sad for Atlanta more than I do happy for Winnipeg. Had it been Phoenix that moved, however...different story.

Sat 8:00p - Stanley Cup Final, Game 2: Boston at Vancouver (VAN 1-0), NBC

Auto racing - Did you see the finish of last Sunday's Indy 500, in which the leader - J.R. Hildebrand, a rookie - squandered certain victory by crashing on the last turn of the last lap?

I couldn't believe it. This sort of thing NEVER happens in racing. Chokes are common in other sports, but not in racing. When somebody takes the white flag with a large lead, the only thing that can stop him is some kind of mechanical issue - out of fuel, a flat tire, and engine problem, something like that, all of which are out of the driver's control. If he doesn't make it back around that last lap and take the win, it's never because the driver simply screwed up. I don't think I've ever seen such a blatant choke in ANY race, EVER.

The margin for error in an open-wheel car is much, much smaller than in a stock car. Stock cars are probably harder to drive overall, but they're much more forgiving if you make a slight mistake. Make even a slight mistake in an IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and you're going to pay. In Hildebrand's case, his slight mistake was misjudging the lapped car on the inside. He tried passing him too high in the corner, got out of the groove and into the "marbles", and that was that. Chances are, he was thinking "HOLY CRAP I'M ABOUT TO WIN THE INDY 500" and totally lapsed when it came down to negotiating the lapped car. It was a completely unforced error, and a total choke.

The Coca-Cola 600 had an interesting finish too, but that Indy 500 finish is going to stick with me. Wow.

Sat 2:00p - NASCAR Camping World Trucks at Kansas, SPEED
Sat 8:00p - NASCAR Nationwide at Chicagoland, ESPN
Sun 1:00p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Kansas, FOX

College baseball - It's NCAA Tournament time! Here's the full broadcast schedule. Let's go Seminoles!

Tallahasee Regional (Florida State, UCF, Alabama, Bethune-Cookman): All games on Sun Sports (Sat 12:00p, Sat 6:00p, Sun 12:00p) or Fox Sports Florida (Sun 6:00p), maybe.
Gainesville Regional (Florida, Miami (FL), Jacksonville, and Manhattan): All games on ESPNU. Sat 12:00p, Sat 4:00p, Sun 12:00p, Sun 4:00p.
Fullerton Regional (Cal State Fullerton, Stanford, Kansas State, Illinois): All games on ESPNU. Sat 7:00p, Sat 11:00p, Sun 7:00p, Sun 11:00p. It seems like the Fullerton Regional is on ESPNU every year. Why is that? Does Cal State Fullerton really have that many fans?
Atlanta Regional (Georgia Tech, Southern Miss, Mississippi State, Austin Peay): All games on Comcast Sports Southeast.
Charlottesville Regional (Virginia, East Carolina, St. John's, Navy): All games on NCAA.com. Fresh off a victory in the ACC Championship last weekend, Virginia is the #1 overall seed.
Fort Worth Regional and Corvallis Regional: All games on ESPN3.com.
The other nine regionals: Too bad!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The National Spelling Bee: Revisited

It's National Spelling Bee day! Yippee! I love the Spelling Bee, and I watch it every year. I seriously thought about copying this blog post from four years ago (to the day!), re-publishing it with some of the names changed, and seeing if anyone noticed. But I'll just link you to it instead, and provide some updates on how the Spelling Bee has evolved since I wrote that post four years ago. (Note: As of press time, I have not yet watched any of this year's Bee. It's waiting for me on the DVR.)

But has it really evolved that much? Prior to 2007, when it was in the process of becoming more mainstream, the finals were moved to primetime, and what seemed like a dozen different movies (both fiction and non) about the Bee came out, yes...the Bee evolved quite a bit. I thought it was on the verge of "selling out" completely. However, that hasn't happened. As a "fad", the Bee has kind of faded. This year, the finals are back on ESPN instead of on ABC, although that has more to do with something called the "NBA Finals" (whatever that is) being on ABC at the same time than anything else.

Regardless of whether the fad has passed, I still love the Spelling Bee, and I plan on watching every second of today's coverage (except perhaps some of the personal stories) on my DVR today. I'm rooting for Laura Newcombe, whom CNBC's Darren Rovell dubbed as the favorite. Why? Because she's Canadian. (Hopefully they won't ask her to spell "honor" or "color".) I don't think Laura is an avid curler like 2007's Nate Gartke was - chances are, she likes playing the violin or something - but that's okay.

Since Amber and I are having a kid soon, it must be asked. Our kid will probably be smart and nerdy. But will (s)he be Spelling Bee material? Probably not - neither of us were, and I just don't see us pushing our kid that hard in the world of competitive spelling. There is a chance our kid will be Geography Bee material, however. I certainly was. (I finished 45th in the Florida Geography Bee in 5th grade.) Or maybe there's a math competition out there for our kid that I don't know about yet. Pretty much whatever our kid is good at, we'll encourage, whether it's spelling, math, gymnastics, the piano, football, whatever. (Although it is extremely unlikely that our kid will be good at football.) Not for our sake, so we can live vicariously through our kids' glory - that's something I'm sure some of the Spelling Bee parents are guilty of - but because I know I always have more fun doing something when I'm good at it, and our kids probably will, too.