Monday, October 31, 2011

Curling Recap: 10/28/11

I like to do these things in chronological order sometimes, so before I talk about the road trip, let's talk Friday Night Curling!

Career game #157: 2011 Fall League - October 28, 2011

End.......... 12345678S |TTL
----------------------------
Allen........ 001100031 | 06
M. Jackson... 010012100 | 05

The game started with a rare (in arena curling) blank end, because, well, none of us could get it in the house. Opposing Skip Chris J. (subbing for the usual Skip) had last rock in the first end and chose to throw it away, rather than try to score one with hammer. Yes, that is standard curling strategy...but that move is rarely seen on arena ice, where last rock is less of an advantage, and teams almost always take the points. But if I remember correctly, given all the junk that was out in front of the house, I think he was just as likely to bump one of our rocks into the house as he was one of his own. I probably would have done the same thing, especially in the 1st end. We made up for it in the 2nd end, though, when both teams had plenty of rocks in the house.

This was an incredibly well-played game. Unlike in a lot of arena club games, I don't remember any "lucky shots". Everything was earned. And that's why there were only two multi-point ends. In the 6th end, the other team had two open rocks that we could get to...except for the perfectly placed guards they kept putting in the way and blocking both of their rocks. And that's your two points.

Now...the 8th end. This is where it all came together. Our team's first four shots put us in position; at that point, we had one rock in the house and some other rocks in play (on both sides) that we could work with. Then, our last four shots of the game were absolutely perfect. Here's the APPROXIMATE setup prior to my first of two rocks: (our team = red. The key rocks are 1, 2, 3, and 4; the others, I really don't know where they were)


We're sitting two, the other team had a rock in there that we couldn't touch, and we needed three to tie. (Note: the ice had a right-to-left swing going in this direction, so we could only get rocks to curl in that direction.) Two options with my first shot: Try to get a third rock in the house right now, or guard the wide-open port to the button (to the right of rock #3) and then try a raise for three with my last shot. I chose the second option, and left a rock just at the top of the house, perfectly guarding our shot rock. If I remember correctly, opposing Skip Chris then left a rock inside of the two front-right guards (don't remember if his call was "get in the house" or "guard my final shot"), which meant that rock #3 (which was still wide open) was a better raise opportunity than my previous rock. Which...that wasn't the first raise I had attempted in that game, but it was the first one I actually made. Good timing! #3 went right to the button, too, for good measure. We then won the tiebreaking shootout afterwards. Come from behind win!

They say that the two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey; I think the three-point lead is the most dangerous lead in curling. Just enough to give you a false sense of security, but not enough to really be safe. I've been on both sides of it. Actually, a four-point lead can also be dangerous.

All four of our games this season have been decided by two points or less: 7-5 loss, 7-5 win, 7-5 loss, 6-5 win. And last season, my team's first three games were all one-point games as well. Just call us "Team Excitement"!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cherohala Skyway / "Tail of the Dragon": Unnecessary Preview #2

I guess I've already previewed this weekend's road trip to western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, but I left out a few things, and it only seems right to have my last blog post before a road trip be about the road trip itself.

So...I originally said that the trip would either be this weekend or next weekend. The plan was, we'd do this weekend unless it looked like it would be rainy all weekend, in which case we'd postpone it until the following weekend. This weekend it is! We're leaving Saturday morning and returning Sunday evening. The drive may start out wet Saturday morning, but by the time we get to, let's say Hickory, we should be in the clear. It'll be cold, too: highs in the 50s, and lows around freezing. We're going to be bringing lots and lots of blankets for Marla.

I'll try to post pretty pictures / updates on Twitter throughout the trip, provided we have cell phone reception. Some of the roads we'll be on, I'm not so sure. I originally posted a map with the two primary targets (Cherohala Skyway and the "Tail of the Dragon"); now, here's a map of what could be our full route.


View Larger Map

The first stop of interest will be Clingmans Dome at the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Marla's first state highpoint! I'm pretty sure Clingmans Dome was my first, too. How much additional time we spend in Great Smoky Mountains will depend on time. And we have no idea, this being our first real road trip with a kid. I tried to work a lot of extra time into the schedule, to the point where we don't really have anything else planned the rest of Saturday, aside from driving from there to our hotel in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. We're saving the main attractions, Cherohala Skyway and the "Tail of the Dragon", for Sunday morning. Sunday morning is the best time to go for a drive, I think. Maybe we'll get lucky and beat all of the motorcycles! It should be a gorgeous morning, too. Although, we are going to be driving directly into the sun along the Cherohala. Oh well.

Let's talk stats! Marla is, obviously, going to get a lot of new counties out of this trip, given that she's only been to 10 so far and has yet to even go as far west as Greensboro. I'm counting at least 15, and up to 17 new counties for Marla, plus her third state (Tennessee). But I'm going to get some new counties, too! I've already visited every North Carolina county, but I'm missing quite a few in eastern Tennessee. I'll get Blount and Monroe counties at a minimum, and if we make a couple of short side trips, I'll get Loudon and McMinn counties, too.

(In case my aunt and uncle who live in Loudon County are reading this: our schedule was too tight to go far enough west to visit for more than, say, 10 minutes. It also would have been a little too far from home to make that the overnight stop on this trip. We'll be back in the area, I promise you.)

Tennessee is a state that I feel I have done far too little exploring. Kentucky, too. There is lots of potential here for future trips, and I planned the trip so that we would spend a decent amount of time in Tennessee, as opposed to North Carolina. Nothing against North Carolina, but...I like other states, too. But we will experience parts of North Carolina that I've never experienced before, such as Graham County, NC, which is where the Cherohala Skyway and "Dragon" begin or end (depending on your perspective). Sure, Graham County is colored in on my county map, but I've only spent about 30 seconds total in Graham County, EVER. I've frequented the area between Asheville and Great Smoky Mountains bunches of times, as well as the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge side of the National Park. But I rarely do I go west of, say, Bryson City.

We've been looking forward to this one for a long time. Are you ready, Marla?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crossdressing

Monday is Halloween. We're going to put Marla in a chicken suit. It will be awesome. As for me...well, we'll get to that.

So...two Halloweens ago, I donned a Little Red Riding Hood dress and took to the streets of Chapel Hill on Halloween night. It was fun. Interesting, too.

Fact is, that actually wasn't my first attempt with crossdressing. Or the last. I think it's fun. If you're a man and you're married to a woman who is roughly the same size as you (and who is fairly open-minded), you're going to have some fun with that, right? No shame here. I mean, it's just clothes. Who cares?

But most men won't admit to having such a curiosity, or to trying on their wife's clothes, and especially wondering what one would look like fully "made up" as a woman. Crossdressing, and gender-bending in general, is a pretty taboo thing, and I think that's too bad. I can't speak from the woman's perspective, but from the man's perspective, men are taught to be manly men, and God forbid we cross that boundary. You see this in society nearly every day, whether it's the controversy over the "boy with pink toenails" J. Crew ad, or the "That's not the least manly thing you've done today" beer commercials (which I am not a fan of, for the record). Since when were boys not allowed to have painted toenails? And since when was it a bad thing for a man to cry before his wife/girlfriend leaves town? Women actually like a sensitive man, you know. Why are guys such jerks? Because of the pressure society puts on them to be "manly". It's not like this everywhere in the world, though. For instance, Russian male ballet dancers are national heroes. But if a little American boy wants to do ballet, well, he's a "sissy". You don't want to do ballet, son. Ballet is for girls. Why can't you participate in a MANLY activity, like FOOTBALL!!!! I don't know if crossdressing is as taboo in Europe as it is here, but it's definitely taboo here. I think there's also a Bible verse which says that crossdressing is an "abomination", or something like that.

On Halloween, all that goes out the window. It is the only day of the year in which you can crossdress in public and not be judged for it. (Or, at least, not near as much.) Wear a dress to the mall on October 31st, and it's, "Hey, nice costume!" And it doesn't really matter how much effort you put into it, either. You don't even have to shave! Anything goes on Halloween. But wear a dress any other day, and...well, that's "weird", right? Strangers may or may not judge you (depending on how convincing you are), your friends will definitely judge you, and God forbid your parents ever find out!!!

Perhaps the same could be said for any Halloween costume...or, perhaps not. Consider the following two hypothetical scenarios, both of which take place in the middle of April:

1) I show up to a social function dressed as a pirate. People look at me weird, ask what the pirate costume is about. I say, "I just felt like dressing like a pirate today. We've all had those days, right?" People say, "Ha. Okay...whatever", maybe have a good laugh, and move on. Depending on what kind of social function this is, not that big a deal, really. People's perceptions of me have not been adversely affected.

2) I show up to a social function dressed as a woman. People look at me weird, ask what the women's clothing is about. I say, "I just felt like dressing like a woman today. We've all had those days, right?" People are shocked and don't know what to say at this point. Some people are very offended by the idea. Depending on what kind of social function this is, I may risk losing friends over it, or being asked to leave altogether. People's perceptions of me have been adversely affected.

Well...there's always Halloween. In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm considering wearing a dress on Monday. I mean, it's just clothes. Who cares?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The New New Falls of Neuse Road Bridge

Being a "road enthusiast", I get excited whenever a new road opens. I haven't been doing this as much lately, but if it's local, I usually try to drive the road at the first available opportunity. And when the new road benefits me directly, bonus!

A new bridge opened in North Raleigh on October 15th, and I drove it en route to curling on October 21st. Google Maps doesn't recognize it yet, but trust me, it's there. You can now go directly from Point B to Point C along what I think is called "New Falls of Neuse Road", as opposed to the old "Falls of Neuse Road", which now takes a left turn just before the bridge before continuing northward.


View Larger Map

The curling rink is near point D on the map in the town of Wake Forest. When going to curling, I normally come from I-540, near point A. Used to be, we had to route options when heading from Eastbound I-540 to Wake Forest. Capital Blvd was for sure the fastest route, but it's often busy and isn't particularly fun to drive. As an alternative, you could have taken (old) Falls of Neuse Road bridge over the Neuse River, and then taken Wakefield Pines Drive from (old) Falls of Neuse to New Falls of Neuse. This route is a bit indirect, and therefore, slower. But now that you can go straight from point B to point C, that begs the question: is New Falls of Neuse Road now a faster route to Wake Forest than Capital Blvd?

Having taking it to the rink twice and from the rink once last weekend, I can definitely say that it's less annoying; there is far less traffic than Capital Blvd. As for whether it's faster than Capital Blvd...it's close. Very, very close. By a stroke of luck, a fellow curler passed me on I-540 a few miles before the Falls of Neuse Road exit the other day. I took New Falls of Neuse to the curling rink, and he took (I assume) Capital. In theory, if New Falls of Neuse were faster, I would have still made it to the curling rink before my fellow curler, despite his passing and pulling away from me on I-540, right? Well, I didn't get there first, but he was still just getting out of his car in the parking lot when I pulled in. It must have been close.

Stopwatch numbers also tell me that this new route might be a little bit slower overall, but not by much. So, here are my preliminary conclusions. At best, New Falls of Neuse is equal in time to Capital. At worst, New Falls of Neuse is a viable alternative route when Capital is busy. Even though New Falls of Neuse is much more direct than Capital Blvd, the reasons Capital is still just as fast, if not faster, are a higher speed limit (55 instead of 40/45), more beneficial traffic light timing, and a free-flowing exit ramp from eastbound I-540 to northbound Capital.

And the construction project isn't done yet. Part of the original Falls of Neuse Road south of the new bridge is still two lanes. They're working to widen it, but it won't be done for a while - not until Spring 2013. But once it's four lanes all the way from I-540 to Wake Forest, that may be enough to push New Falls of Neuse Road over the top! At least until the secret gets out and everybody starts taking New Falls of Neuse Road to Wake Forest. Which, I suppose I'm not helping, am I?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Foursquare

So, I've given in to temptation and created a Foursquare account.

For the uninitiated: Foursquare is a social networking website / smartphone app, in which users "check in" at various establishments across town when they go there, and compete to earn "points" and "badges" and "mayorships" or some such thing. I see three uses for it: 1) you can follow your friends around (if they want to be followed), 2) it's sort of a game, and 3) sometimes you're alerted to "special deals" at certain places through Foursquare that otherwise you wouldn't know about. (For example: "Don't forget your free orange juice sample at the Florida Welcome Center!" Or something like that.)

It also annoys the hell out of people that don't do Foursquare. For instance, I've never been big on the whole "Let's post all of my Foursquare check-ins to Twitter!" thing, but I suppose I feel the same way about Foursquare check-ins as I do general "this is what I'm doing right now" tweets. When doing ordinary things, such as going to work or the grocery store, it's not particularly interesting. When on vacation, it is interesting. And I suppose having a Foursquare check-in go straight to Twitter is easier than, and achieves the same result as, going onto Twitter separately and saying "We made it to [destination]". That said, it will be my rule to keep Foursquare and Twitter separate.

Why start Foursquare? Well, why not? Maybe I'll like it. If not, then oh well - nothing is lost. I'm going to have to get used to "checking in", though. As someone who generally likes things to be as efficient as possible, the "checking in" process takes longer than I would like it to. So far, I've only checked in three places in four days: the Bojangles' in Mebane (part of a Saturday evening family drive), the curling rink, and the bar adjacent to the curling rink. (I thought the Bojangles' in Mebane made for a perfectly random debut check in.)

Since then, I've also gone to work, the grocery store, and of course, home...and this is where it gets tricky. I've long felt that publishing to the world that "I'm at work" or "I'm at home" is not only overkill, but...I'm just a little uneasy about that in general. I guess I just like to maintain a healthy level of privacy, and publishing "I'm at work" or "I'm at home" seems like a little much, for me. But I don't think the usual internet sharing rules apply to Foursquare. The general population doesn't care that I'm at Kroger or CVS, but the people on Foursquare might actually care. I mean, that is precisely what Foursquare is for, right? Otherwise, why be on Foursquare in the first place? I guess what I'm saying is, I'm still undecided exactly how much of my real-time location I'm going to be sharing here.

It seems to me that to properly enjoy Foursquare, you have to really get into it, and you have to have a lot of friends who do it, too. I think I have the second part of that down, but the first part...we'll see. This deal may or may not be worth the effort. But I'll try to have some fun with it over the next few weeks, starting with this weekend's trip to the mountains, and see what I get out of it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Curling Recap: 10/21/11

(Disclaimer: Things are kind of crazy at the moment, now that we're both back to work and taking Marla to day care. So until things settle down a little, I make no promises regarding blog quality or quantity.)

The Triangle Curling Club Fall League took two Fridays off before returning last weekend. Last week was a bye week for my team, so I played on Team Scheck instead:

Career game #156: 2011 Fall League - October 21, 2011

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Wright....... 0001001 | 02
Scheck....... 3220110 | 09

I've been playing Skip in the league, but since I was only a substitute in this instance, I played Second. This was my first time playing Second since the last game of the 2010 Carolina Classic, over 14 months ago. Playing Second differs from the positions I've been playing over the last year-plus (Vice and Skip) in that...

You sweep six rocks in every end. (Vices sweep four; Skips sweep none.) I hadn't even played Vice in four months, so this was the first time I had been a sweeper in any capacity since June. And as a result, my arms are kind of out of "sweeping shape". If only there was a way to call the strategy and sweep.

On most of our club teams, I think the Second is the best person to be in charge of judging the weight. He/she is sweeping six rocks per end, and is usually (but not always) more experienced than the Lead, so I think calling the weight of each shot is the Second's primary responsibility. I know people who are better, but I'm pretty good at judging the weight.

And, your shots are waaaaaay easier than the Vice's or Skip's shots. When you're a Skip on non-take-out friendly arena ice, there is usually a lot of clutter by the time your turn comes up, and you're left with some very difficult options. But when you're the Second, you have a lot of options, and you don't have to worry about strategy either, so I played well. I made more shots than usual. And the Second gets enough shot variety to keep things interesting, as opposed to the Lead who throws the same shots most of the time. I think Lead is boring. Some people really like Lead, but it's not for me.

Of course, being the Second means you don't really have much to do with the strategy, but that was fine. Being our first week of Marla day care, I was quite alright with having a game where I didn't have to think too much.

So...the game. Skip Dan (whom Amber and I have won the league championship with before) generally calls a quiet game, but he seems to always know the right time to call a take-out. We were very successful with the take-outs that we did attempt, and that made all the difference. I didn't think the ice was particularly take-out friendly, either, so I don't know how we did it. Like I said, I wasn't really paying that much attention to the strategy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sports Saturday: 10/21/11

Auto racing - This first part is, of course, going to be about Dan Wheldon, the IndyCar driver who was killed in a crash last Sunday.

I've been a racing fan for, let's call it, 17 years. (1994 is about when I really started paying attention.) So I've seen a lot of drivers get killed, tragically, in all kinds of motorsports. But this one was different, in that I think the circumstances could have, and should have, been avoided.

In general, racing is dangerous, and "these things happen". Using perhaps the most well-known driver death as an example (in the United States, anyway - Ayrton Senna is more well-known in other parts of the world), Dale Earnhardt's crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 looked surprisingly ordinary for a fatal accident. It was easy for me to chalk it up to "a racing accident" and "bad luck" that he hit the wall at the angle he did. (Thankfully, those in charge did not simply see it as "bad luck" and successfully and substantially improved driver safety over the next decade.)

Then, there's the Dan Wheldon accident. Yes, this is the beauty of hindsight, but I think the circumstances of the crash were unnecessarily dangerous: 34 cars running in one large pack, 3-wide, at over 225 mph (or whatever it was) with no room for error. I think I said earlier in the season when IndyCar started doing double-file restarts that they were trying to be too much like NASCAR. Problem is, IndyCar is not NASCAR, where everybody has a roll cage and slight contact doesn't always result in a big crash, even at high speed. Unless they can figure out a way to separate these large packs of cars, IndyCars should never again race on high-banked 1.5 mile ovals like Las Vegas and Texas.

I wasn't watching the race, but I did watch the last hour or so of coverage, including the live announcement and the subsequent 5-lap silent tribute. It was an absolutely heart-wrenching hour of television that I may never forget. And that's another thing that separates this from other sports tragedies. Even in racing, these things usually aren't carried live on television. (Many fatal racing accidents occur in practice.) Thank goodness there isn't live video of the Lokomotiv plane crash, for instance. Maybe this is a reason September 11th is such a vivid memory for so many: these things are much harder to stomach with live video.

But life must go on, and NASCAR is racing at perhaps its most dangerous track this weekend. Perfect timing, eh? I wonder if this race will be a little tamer than the typical Talladega race. (Ha. No chance.) NASCAR Sprint Cup at Talladega: Sun 2:00p, ESPN

NFL

This is turning into a tough season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. But thanks to the much improved defense (Paul Posluszny, baby!), I still think they have the potential to win just about any game they play. Blaine Gabbert is improving, although he still throws more incompletions than completions. And in a weak AFC South where the best team is only 3-2, I suppose it's still possible they could win the division. Unlikely, but not impossible. (Sports Club Stats gives them a 10.6% chance.) Jack Del Rio will perhaps, once again, do just enough to keep his job. That's how it seems it's gone the last few years, anyway. If the Jaguars finish 7-9 after starting 1-5 (unlikely, but not impossible), does Del Rio still get the axe? (For the record, I hope so.) Baltimore at Jacksonville: Mon 8:30p, ESPN

The Jaguars don't play until Monday, so what will I watch on Sunday instead? I would normally watch Buffalo, but they're off this week (of course). Instead, I'll probably choose between these three games:
Houston at Tennessee: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 706 - The battle for the AFC South division lead!
Washington at Carolina: Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50 - The Panthers still stink, but Cam Newton is fun to watch.
Seattle at Cleveland: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 710 - Amber is likely to hang out in the room a little longer if I put the Browns on. (She doesn't care enough to watch the game from start to finish, but if she's in the room anyway, it might grab her attention...briefly.)

There is one early game I will definitely NOT be watching. I'm really getting tired of the overhyped Jets. Booooo! San Diego at NY Jets: Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5

There is one new starting quarterback I'm very interested in seeing this Sunday. Not the Raiders' new starting quarterback (Carson Palmer), and certainly not the Broncos' new starting quarterback (whom shall remain nameless). I'm talking about Christian Ponder. Skol, Vikings! Green Bay at Minnesota: Sun 4:15p, WRAZ 50

Finally...I really hope the Indianapolis Colts do NOT end up with the worst record in the league. I have waited over a decade for Peyton Manning to go away. The last thing I want is for another highly touted quarterback (Andrew Luck) to step in immediately after Manning leaves. I don't care who ends up drafting Luck...just as long as it's not the Colts. Anyone but the Colts! Surely, you are going to win some games this season, right? Indianapolis at New Orleans: Sun 8:20p, NBC

NHL

The Carolina Hurricanes (as of Friday afternoon, before the St. Louis) game are doing great. Three straight wins, including two over the defending Cup champions! I think the free agents that the Hurricanes brought in this offseason are actually helping the team, as opposed to in 2009-10 when they brought in a bunch of old guys.

I especially like defenseman Bryan Allen, who they traded for last season. The trade: Allen to the Hurricanes, Sergei Samsonov to the Panthers. (I'll tell you, the Panthers make the DUMBEST trades.) I do not own any Hurricanes jerseys, but I am seriously considering buying a Bryan Allen #5 jersey. It's a "jersey foul" to put your own name on a jersey, but not if someone who has the same last name as you is actually on the team! (Perhaps I should also get a Russell Allen #50 Jaguars jersey while I can, if such a thing exists.)

Carolina plays the Winnipeg Jets tonight. I really really want to like Winnipeg, but I watched their home opener a couple of weeks ago, and I was really turned off by all of the subtle Atlanta-bashing that the CBC announcers were doing. I've been to Winnipeg and I like the city, but...I don't know. The Atlanta deal hits a little too close to home to really be able to embrace the Jets. Carolina at Winnipeg: 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

Finally...I learned this week that DirecTV and FOX are in a contract dispute that could result in DirecTV dropping (among other channels) Fox Sports Carolinas on November 1st, which would mean no more Hurricanes games. (No more Formula One on SPEED, either.) This would be far worse than losing Versus for a few months, but there is a lot more at stake here than there was with the Versus deal, which increases the chances of an 11:59 PM agreement, or at least a resolution within a week or two after the fact. In theory. And if not, maybe I can talk the customer service reps into giving me NHL Center Ice for free so that I can at least watch the other 29 teams.

(NHL Network games: Sat 4:00p - MIN/VAN; Sat 7:00p - DET/WSH.)

College football (In case you haven't figured it out by now, I did not adhere to the usual 30 minute limit.)

The thing I don't like about preseason polls is that even if Florida State runs the table, beats Miami (FL) and Florida, and finishes 9-3, the season will still be viewed as a disappointment because of the preseason expectations. And that's dumb. Still a lot of football to be played. Maryland at Florida State: Sat 3:30p, ABC

Weak schedule, sure, Penn State is 6-1, which is awesome. They're just like the Jaguars (bad offense, good defense), except they're actually winning their games. Penn State at Northwestern: Sat 7:00p, BTN

Elsewhere...
North Carolina at Clemson - Sat 12:00p, ESPN: When will Clemson lose their first game? Will they lose? Sure, they beat FSU, but I hope they run the table.
Cincinnati at South Florida - Sat 12:00p, MASN: USF is 4-0 out of conference and 0-2 in conference. They do this every year. Despite all the success they have had out-of-conference, they have never finished better than 4-3 in the Big East. They're like the opposite of Wake Forest, as I will explain now...
Wake Forest at Duke - Sat 12:30p, ACC Network (WRAL): I don't like Wake Forest. Why? Because every year (well, not every year), Wake Forest loses to a bad team or two in non-conference (see Syracuse this year), and then makes the ACC look bad by beating its better teams. They never made the ACC look worse than when they won the conference, and then lost in the Orange Bowl in unspectacular fashion to...who was it? Iowa? Louisville? Whatever. (Side note: despite living in North Carolina, I know exactly ZERO people who attended Wake Forest.)
Auburn at LSU - Sat 3:30p, CBS: I think I said this last year, but the SEC is too top-heavy for its own good this year. When do Alabama and LSU play? (In two weeks.)
Wisconsin at Michigan State - Sat 8:00p, ESPN: Wisconsin and Clemson may not make the BCS Championship game even if they go undefeated, which - just like the BCS itself - stinks.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cherohala Skyway / "Tail of the Dragon": Preview

I don't have anything else to blog about today, so let's talk about a road trip we're currently planning for either the last weekend of October or the first weekend of November, depending on the weather.

So far, we've taken our nearly three-month-old daughter as far north as Danville, and as far east as Johnston County (map). But that's nothing; I mean, Danville is only an hour away. In a couple of weeks, we're taking Marla on her first real road trip.

The basic idea can be summed up in three bullet points:
- This trip will have about 400 miles of driving, each way. We're going to Toledo for Thanksgiving, and that would be a pretty big leap if we had only taken her as far as the Virginia state line prior to then. 400 miles is still big step up from Danville, but that's how we roll.
- We're going to spend one night in a hotel, which will be a first for Marla, the first of many. Gotta start somewhere.
- Fall foliage!!! I think I get more excited about Fall every year.

There are two roads deep in the Appalachians of western North Carolina that have been on my "road bucket list" for quite a while, and will allow us meet our Marla "road trip test" objectives at the same time. One is the Cherohala Skyway; the other is commonly known as the "Tail of the Dragon".


View Larger Map

The "Tail" boasts 318 curves in an 11-mile stretch. I'm a little skeptical about that number, but I'm not going to ruin the scenery for myself by counting the turns. The nearby Cherohala Skyway, which cost $100 million to build, is supposed to be simply incredible. So, yeah...that's where we're taking Marla. Hope she likes lots of sharp curves!

Along the way, we're also planning on:
- Going on a couple of short hikes using the "baby backpack" (or whatever it's called) where you basically strap the baby to your chest. Hey, we've seen other people go hiking with these things.
- Stopping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Depending on how we're doing on time, Marla might get her first state highpoint out of this (Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee).
- Staying overnight in Tellico Plains, TN, located near the western end of the Cherohala skyway. I'm really excited about the place we're staying, too.

We haven't gone on an overnight road trip in FIVE MONTHS, which is unheard of for us. We can't wait! Road trips are more difficult when you have a little one (or two) with you, but my hope is that they're not so much more difficult that we won't really want to do them so much anymore after this. But knowing Amber and me, I doubt that will be a problem. I'm already having visions of the three of us going on a week-long road trip next summer sometime. I mean, what else am I going to do with my three weeks vacation?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kickball Season 4: Season-Ending Report

Last night, my fourth season of Knightdale co-ed kickball came to an end with losses (7-3 and 3-2) to each of the two league finalists. But given the double elimination playoff format (a first for this league), everyone except for the league champion ends their season with a loss, so I am not ending the season in disappointment. This was the best season of kickball yet, both from a competitive standpoint and from a fun standpoint.

Two weeks ago I talked at length at how and why our team has improved competitively over the last two years, let's delve into the stats. I played in 10 games this season, which is comparable to the number of games I've played in the previous three seasons (11, 10, 9).

(Green = career high; Red = career low)

Season batting: 25 H in 34 AB (.735), 0 RBI, 11 R, 2 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 0 BB, 0 K. We typically had between 12 and 15 players per game, which is more than we've ever had; of course, that's going to mean fewer plate appearances. But our lineup might have been planned out better than ever before, which means the lead-off hitter (me) is going to score more runs at the expense of RBIs.

That "slump" I was in a few weeks ago? I closed out the season by going 9-for-10 with 5 runs scored in the playoffs, so...slump over.

Season pitching: 10 starts, 5-5 record, 2.30 ERA (22 ER in 86.0 IP), 16 K, 2 BB (2 IBB). (For ERA, green actually means "career low", because low is better.) The 2.30 ERA is by far my best yet (previous: 6.51 last season), which - as I say pretty much every time I talk kickball - has far more to do with solid defense than anything I do on the mound. Our defense has never been better. But I think my pitching is getting better, too...

Team results: 5-6 record (I missed one game), 3rd out of 5 teams in the regular season, 3rd out of 5 teams in the playoffs. We also finished 3rd last season, but that was in a four-team league instead of a five-team league, so this was our best result.

This kind of takes me back to playing organized basketball as a kid. From 5th through 7th grade, I played in an organized youth basketball league through the local YMCA. Each year, I was on a different team, and each year, we sucked. I went 2-6, 2-6, and 1-7 in my three seasons of youth basketball, as we continually got our butts beat by the teams that stuck together year after year after year. And that's the key to succeeding in a league like this: stick with it and keep the team together for multiple years, and eventually, you'll start contending. In fact, there are scenarios in which we could have potentially won the league title. We split the season series against the 2nd place team (two wins each), and we played the 1st place team to a 1-0 loss in the regular season. They'll still beat us 90 to 95% of the time, but at least we're not like "let's just try to keep the mercy rule out of play" like we were in Season 1.

I had originally planned on only playing "part time" this season in order to spend more time at home with Amber and Marla. That meant no more than one night of kickball in any given week. But thanks to some extremely well-timed rain-outs, we only had one multi-night week all season. So, I only ended up missing one game. Yeah! Now that's a kickball schedule I can go along with. Having two, and sometimes three games in one week, usually results in kickball fatigue. That didn't happen this season.

Sure, it's fun to get my competitive juices flowing, and it's great that we're playing well. But the main reason I play kickball is to hang out with friends. I'm going to miss that. When does next season start?*

(* - That's a rhetorical question. I know when next season is.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day Care Day One

It's been a while since I've talked Marla or posted pictures because things have been status quo, more or less. Well, first, here's a picture...


But the "status quo" of the last few weeks is over this week. Amber has been off from work for the last 12 weeks, but today is her last day of maternity leave, and she returns to work tomorrow. That also means it's time to start taking Marla to day care, and in fact, today was her first day. (Well, Amber too her on Friday for a preliminary visit, but today is Marla's first day of real day care.)

Why take Marla to day care the day before Amber goes back to work, instead of the day of? Well, we're paying for this week anyway, and we're treating today as a "trial run" without the added pressure of going back to work for the first time. And, this way, Amber will be able to get a nap in.

(Speaking of "the pressure of work", studies have shown that stressed-out mothers are more likely to have girls than boys, possibly because high levels of a stress hormone called cortisol make it harder for a male embryo to grow in the womb and be born, as opposed to a female embryo. It does seem like we know a lot more baby girls than we do baby boys, and we personally know a couple of working mothers who miscarried with boys, so...hmm.)

Amber has been dreading this day for quite some time. She's been taking care of her for over 11 weeks now, so the idea of giving your baby to someone else for 40 hours a week can be tough, but she handled it pretty well today.

It's not as hard for me, because I've been working for the last 7 weeks or so anyway. The way I see it, more than anything else, today is progress. We've made it through the first 2½ months, and the next step is for both of us to return to work, for Marla to go to day care, and for our savings account to stop growing. (Day care isn't cheap.) I'll feel the same way when Marla goes off to college; that too will be progress.

That's not to say I'm constantly looking forward to the next milestone, and that's it. I make an effort to savor every moment with Marla along the way. (Well, most of the moments.) But I do like my milestones, you know. Over the first couple of months, there really aren't that many "big moments", as in, "Wow, she's doing that for the first time!" Everything is very subtle at this point. She can support her head pretty well, which wasn't always the case. She is now somewhat more interactive than she was a few weeks ago. She cries less, which is always good. And, of course, she's growing: 12.5 pounds as of last Friday. (That's in the 67th percentile! I told you she was getting a little tubby.) But she can't roll over or crawl yet. I don't know when those milestones usually happen, and in fact, I don't want to know until after it happens. If Marla is three weeks late with something, I don't want it to be like, "Well geez, it took you long enough, miss 14th percentile."

It might take us a while to settle into the two-working-parents routine, but we'll get there. And that too will be "progress".

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Last Wedding Live-Tweet Ever?

First, here's a quick summary of what I would write about were I to do a "Sports Saturday" post this weekend:
- The local CBS affiliate, WRAL, is planning to air Jaguars-Steelers on Sunday. Why not Bills-Giants? Are the Steelers really that much of a draw?
- Florida State football has once again proven the worthlessness of preseason polls. See why I was so "yeah, well, whatever" before the season?
- Penn State might be the ugliest 5-1 team in college football history.
- Carolina Hurricanes: let's wait another month or two before we jump to conclusions.

In the meantime...it's another wedding weekend, as Adam and Maggie tie the knot in downtown Raleigh on Saturday evening. The plan is to once again live-tweet it (unless I'm asked not to), at least to some extent. Adam and Maggie are both heavy users of Twitter, so it's only appropriate that tweet the wedding and subsequent reception, right?

Good news if you're tired of hearing me talk about weddings: after this, we don't have any more weddings lined up. This might be it for a while, and I'm talking, years, maybe. Nobody in the family is getting married anytime soon (that I know of). We don't have any friends who are engaged or otherwise "close" to getting married (that I know of). And given that weddings are the kind of thing that usually have a long lead-up (emphasis on "usually"), I don't see another one on the horizon. And by the time the next wedding comes up, maybe the whole "live-tweet" thing will have run its course. Or, maybe not. Either way, it's been fun.

We've been to so many weddings over the last few years, I've lost count! For me, that's saying something. (I think Amber and I have been to 8 weddings since we started dating in 2006, not counting our own: four in Pennsylvania, three in North Carolina, and one in West Virginia.) And I've talked about them enough here in the blog, I have retroactively added a new post tag called other weddings. (As opposed to the "wedding/honeymoon" post tag, which only relates to our wedding.) Just in time for me to not go to any more weddings for a while!

Looking back, not every wedding we've been to was blogged about. The West Virginia one, for example, took place two weeks after we got back from our honeymoon. From a blogging perspective, the timing wasn't ideal, because I was still in the midst of talking about honeymoon-related things like the fake geographical center of North America. And, my infatuation with analyzing other people's weddings didn't really start until the first half of 2010. That's kind of unfortunate, considering the West Virginia wedding (featuring Amber's college friends Julianna and Chris) was a Greek Orthodox wedding and perhaps the most unique one of them all. I should have started this sooner.

The drive to Beckley did make it into the Car Mileage Log, however, which means that the exact date of that particular wedding has been documented. So, that's something. ... Actually, come to think of it, I blogged about that particular milestone. Why? Because not only did my car reach 19,000 miles while in a tunnel, but it did so in a tunnel that happens to cross a state line, making it not so obvious in which state the milestone took place. So I didn't blog about the wedding itself, but I did blog about my car odometer. That doesn't seem right.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. As for this particular wedding: I think it will certainly be the largest wedding we've ever been to. Will there be enough cake for everybody? There will also be at least one "special guest" at the wedding, apparently...but I won't spoil the surprise.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NC Quick Pass

North Carolina gets its very first toll road in a few months when the Triangle Expressway opens. I'm going to skip over the political discussion that goes along with making a few miles But before I talk about the transponders that will go along with them and are now available...

I may or may not have gone through this before (I don't feel like looking), but my political take on toll roads is this. It does not seem fair for some roads (I-540 in northern Wake County) to be untolled while other roads (the new NC-540 in western Wake County) are tolled. In my ideal world, every limited-access freeway or expensive bridge would be tolled. The toll amounts would be far less than the current rates on toll roads, which we could get away with because we're now tolling every freeway everywhere. Of course, taking something that's free (even though it isn't really - we're paying for this already with tax dollars) and making it not free is unpopular politically and can't really be implemented at this point. Raising taxes to cover the costs of new roads is also currently taboo. (I still think that federal gas taxes should be much higher than they are.) So when it comes to building new roads that we can't afford to build, we are left with two choices. 1) Build the road as a toll road. 2) Don't build the road. Because these are the only two choices, I suppose building a few miles of tolled expressway amongst hundreds of miles of free exprewssway can be justified.

These new toll roads will be tolled electronically only, which means that you'll either get a bill in the mail, or you'll need to buy a transponder to put on your windshield. As someone who frequently travels out of state (although not as much this year), I've actually been looking forward to buying such a transponder for quite a while. No more paying with cash along the West Virginia Turnpike or all of those pesky toll roads and bridges in the Northeast, because I'll have an E-Z Pass compatible transponder. Yeah! I've considered buying an E-Z Pass from another state, but have held out knowing that I would eventually be able to get one directly from North Carolina. Well, that day has arrived.

North Carolina's new "NC Quick Pass" will be E-Z Pass compatible (as well as with Florida's Sun Pass, and probably others)...eventually. From here: "North Carolina is working with other toll agencies (E-ZPass, SunPass, etc.) to allow NC Quick Pass to be accepted for payment of tolls on other states' toll roads and out-of-state transponders to work in North Carolina. Currently, NC Quick Pass will ONLY work for payment of tolls in North Carolina." Given how long they have had to plan this, I think these things should be compatible with E-Z Pass from DAY ONE. No excuses. Also of note is that you can get a sticker transponder for $5 or a hard case transponder for $20; only the hard case transponders will be compatible with E-Z Pass. Which, I think that's more a function of the fact that E-Z Pass is based on older technology, than any fault of North Carolina's. But still...why isn't this ready from the beginning?

I was looking forward to using the E-Z Pass lane on our way to Toledo for Thanksgiving, but it sounds like we'll have to wait for that. And I don't plan on taking the new Triangle Expressway all that much, because given where we live, the new road will not benefit us. I'm still going to get my transponder sooner rather than later, though.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wells Fargo

This just in: there have been a few bank mergers in this country over the last few decades. Pretty soon, we'll all be Bank of America customers, whether we like it or not. (Just like we'll all be AT&T customers.)

I've been a customer of Wachovia since I moved here. They do not charge me any monthly fees, and they are convenient, so I am reasonably satisfied with their banking services, even though they are one of those big, evil, major banks. (Although I am not 100% satisfied with their home mortgage division.) But starting this weekend, thanks to a recent acquisition, I will now be a customer of Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo is an even bigger bank. But are they more evil?


(It's hard to make out, but that's a picture of a crane installing a makeshift "Wachovia" sign over a more permanent "Wells Fargo" sign, which will become visible starting this weekend.)

Well, we'll see. They sent me detailed information on how the switch would affect our accounts, and as far as I can tell, we will still enjoy free checking and everything else. So, I see no reason to switch...yet. But the tipping point might be the debit card $5 monthly fees that Bank of America plans on implementing, and even Wells Fargo is implementing in select locations. If Wells Fargo starts charging me a new monthly fee, even if it's only a few dollars a month, I will switch to a credit union.

Now...about credit unions. I don't know much about them, but if I understand it correctly, then credit unions are just like banks, only better! If that's the case, then why isn't everyone with a credit union? Is there something bad about credit unions that I don't know about? Why does anyone bank with Bank of America, anyway?

Well, that's obvious: advertising. Do big banks advertise? Yes. (Maybe a little.) Do big banks sign agreements with universities around the country, encouraging college students to bank with them? Yes, they do. When students graduate from college, do they then gravitate towards the big banks out of familiarity, and because they don't know any better? You bet. Did I just sum up why I ended up with a big bank? Why, yes, I did.

Familiarity is the key word here. Big banks have a pretty tight grip on most everything, and would like us to believe that big banks are all that's out there. This generally works pretty well. Credit unions don't advertise, because why should they? Advertising costs money, and besides: the goal of a credit union isn't to turn a profit or grow its membership, it's to serve its existing membership. They're quite content lurking in the shadows. Meanwhile, not only do big banks advertise excessively (sometimes without us even realizing it), but like other large corporations, they are somewhat effective in lobbying lawmakers into bank-friendly legislation.

So, anyway...it's probably only a matter of time before I switch to a credit union, most likely this one. But the ball is in your court, Wells Fargo. Are you going to give me a reason to switch or not?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Best Available Seat

When you to go to a live sporting event, you have a choice. Where do you want to sit?

Or, let's ask this another way. Generally speaking, the more you pay for a ticket, the better the seat. So what section of the stadium or arena gives you the best value for your ticket? Sure, it would be nice to sit 10 rows up at the 50 yard line, but would you really enjoy the game twice as much from those seats as you would sitting in a half-price seat, 50 rows up on the goal line? This is the conversation I always have with myself before buying sports tickets. (Which, to be fair, isn't that often these days.)

This question depends on the sport, of course, so I'm going to go through each sport one-by-one: hockey, football, basketball, baseball, auto racing. (I've never attended a soccer game beyond high school level, so I don't know anything about that.)


Hockey

I've attended, let's say, 15 to 20 hockey games in my life, and I've sat all over the arena. And my favorite place to sit is where I sat at Friday's Carolina Hurricanes game: top level, center ice.

Why? Because you can see the whole game. I've sat at ice level a couple of times, one time sitting right behind the glass at a minor league game. Sure, it's cool to see the players up close, but for the most part, I hated it. When you go to a hockey game and sit at one end or the other, it always seems like all of the goals are then scored on the opposite side of the ice. The thrill of seeing the puck go in the net is the highlight of a hockey game, and when you're top and center, you see it wherever it happens. You can see everything else, too - hockey is one of the few sports where you get a better perspective of the game in person than you can on television, as long as you sit in the right place. A hockey game in person is a totally different experience than a hockey game in television, much more so than with other sports.

In some sports, the downside of sitting "way up there" is that you're so far away from the action, you don't feel like you're actually rhere. That's definitely an issue in outdoor stadiums; see "Baseball". But not so with hockey; in a 18,000-seat arena, even the upper bowl isn't that far away from the action.

Even though top and center seats are cheaper than, say, lower bowl "end zone" seats, I'd much rather sit top and center, even if the prices were the same. Middle and center would work, too, but those seats are very expensive; top and center is a much better value.

Football

I've attended more football games than I have any other sport. I had Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets growing up (my parents still do), and we've sat both in the "cheapest seats available" (which are now covered up), and end-zone ish, about two-thirds up from the bottom. Which seats are the better value?

Well, the cheapest seats available are the better value. I think the best value seats are, just like with hockey, top and center. End zone seats aren't bad, though. If the prices were the same, I'd probably take end zone seats over "cheapest seats available". Being closer to the action is more beneficial in football than in hockey because there isn't a large sheet of glass and/or a large net between you and the action. End zone seats don't detract as much from "watching the game", except as far as being able to tell whether Team X got the first down or not.

But in terms of BEST value, I'm going to go with the "200 level", corner of the end zone - for example, Section 230. I like those seats better than the 200s directly behind the goalposts because of the afore-mentioned "first down" issue. (My parents currently sit a couple sections over from that, I think in 227, the "family section".)

Basketball

With basketball, I don't think the perspective is that much better on the sidelines, compared to being behind the basket. It doesn't matter where you sit; the closer you are, the better.

But which seats offer the best value? I don't know...I've never actually had a choice. The only basketball games I've ever gone to were as a college student. At Florida State, the seats were free. At Penn State, the seats were $5/game, and it was general admission. I don't know how the price structure works at basketball games because I've never had to look, but I think I would take the cheapest available lower bowl seats. Atmosphere is important in a college basketball game, and you don't get that as much in the upper bowl.

I've never been to an NBA game, and I don't really like the NBA anyway, so for that, the best value seats are definitely "cheapest available", no matter where they are. (Unless they are "obstructed view" seats.) I don't ever see myself paying for an NBA ticket, though, so whatever.

Baseball

I've attended several minor league games and major league games, and I have a different answer for minors versus majors.

Major leagues: the best ticket value is in the upper bowl behind home plate. This gives you a great view of all pitches and hits, and tickets are usually pretty cheap. Lower bowl seats, anywhere from 3rd base to home plate to 1st base, obviously give you a better view. But in most major league ballparks, the extra price isn't worth it. I've also sat in the upper bowl near the foul poles at major league games, and those seats were terrible. When you're that far away from the game action, it's almost as if you're not even at the game. Why even go?

Minor leagues: There is no upper bowl at a minor league park, of course, so the question isn't how far away you sit, but where. I think anything from 3rd base to 1st base is fine. Even the seats directly behind home plate are fairly inexpensive at a minor league baseball game, so why not? At a Durham Bulls game, if I remember correctly, tickets are $10 directly behind home plate, and $8 between 1st and 3rd base. (I think.) I've never gotten the $10 tickets, so I don't know if they're worth the extra $2. They must not be, or else I would have gotten them at least once by now, don't you think?

NASCAR

NASCAR is the only sport (if it can be considered one) that I know of where the most expensive seats are farther up. Seats 30 rows up are more expensive than seats in row 1, anywhere around the track. Why? Because if you sit in row 1, you can't see anything. Apparently, the people who go to NASCAR races are actually interested in watching the race. What a concept!

That said, it's hard to generalize where the "best value seats" are with NASCAR. Every track is different and gives you different sight lines, so I can only speak from my personal experience at Charlotte and Martinsville. In general, I think the best value seats are the cheapest upper level seats that give you a view of the last bit of pit road, wherever that may be.

As for other motorsports like IndyCar and Formula One that race on road courses...I don't know, but I don't think I would get my money's worth about only seeing the cars race by every 90 seconds throughout the day. A ticket to a road course race would be a tough sell for me, regardless of the series or the price. I'd almost rather sit in the front row at a hockey game. Almost.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Bicycling Trip to Alaska: 45.7 Miles to Alaska

My fictional Bicycling Trip to Alaska, in which I translate my bicycling distance into a fictional road trip to Alaska, turns two years old today. But that's not the biggest news of the day. As of this morning, I am 45.7 miles away from the Alaska state line. And, not coincidentally, I have a 45.9-mile bike ride planned for today. Yes, I'm going for it. All of it.


View Larger Map

This has been two years in the making, but I thought this would take me even longer at first. A lot longer. So, I'm proud of my would-be accomplishment. The Bicycling Trip to Alaska has been a huge success. My weekly distance averages have steadily gone up throughout the trip.

This isn't the end of the Bicycling Trip to Alaska, though. While I'm only going to make it as far as the border today, the ride will take me to the tip of the Homer Spit, which is another 633.8 miles away. I should get there in about four months at my current pace, at which point I will magically teleport myself to the east coast of Australia and start another fictional ride, this time across the Australian continent.

It's been hard to find time lately to go on long rides. And even when I did find time last Saturday, I ended up with a flat tire, forcing me to stop the ride after only 20 of my planned 40 miles. (That was the first time I had gotten a flat tire in the middle of a ride in all of my miles of bicycling, so no big deal, really.) So, as much as I'd like to reach Alaska exactly two years to the day after starting the trip, there is no guarantee that I'll get to Alaska today. The weather will not be a factor, though, because today will be a fantastic day to ride.

I will be live-tweeting today's ride. To Alaska we go!

Friday, October 07, 2011

Sports Saturday: 10/8/11

Saturday could be a groundbreaking day in the statistical life of Chris Allen, so let's get the 30-minute Sports Saturday special out of the way this afternoon, shall we?

NHL

We interrupt the usual football discussion for this special announcement. Hockey is back!

Let's begin with a bit of a flashback. The year is 2005. The NHL has just emerged from a season-cancelling lockout with a hard salary cap, allowing traditionally lower-budget teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes to compete for the Stanley Cup. Alas, in the first year after the lockout, the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup. But now, league revenues are now high enough such that not every team can spend up to the salary cap. Carolina, certainly, is a team that is not spending up to the cap, and as a result, the Hurricanes only have one playoff appearance in five seasons since winning the Cup. It's much harder for a team like Carolina to compete with the I-95 corridor now than it was fresh out of the lockout, when the cap was low and nearly every team was maxed out.

So how can the Hurricanes win a second Stanley Cup? I see two paths to Cup Glory for a low-budget team:
- Suck for a couple of years and draft a game-changing player or two, such as Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos. Then, hurry up and win the Cup before they demand big contracts! Jeff Skinner was a nice find, but it's going to take another one of those, I think.
- Even a low-budget team will make the playoffs once in a while. Get something like the 7 seed every few years, and hope you get lucky in those years, because anything can happen in the playoffs. Make a trade or two at the trade deadline if you're feeling really ambitious.

Such is life when your team is $12 million under the salary cap and is forced to rely on AHL-caliber players to fill out the 4th line. But hey, at least they aren't the Panthers. And I'm still as excited as ever to be going to tonight's Hurricanes season opener against Tampa Bay, which will be my first season-opening NHL game. Tampa Bay at Carolina: Fri 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

As for every other night this season, after four years subscribing to NHL Center Ice and watching lots and lots of hockey, I'm dropping my subscription this year. The main reason is the new Versus/NBC TV deal, in which all playoff games will now be nationally televised. Even though we get a two-week free preview, I'm only going to list non-Center-Ice games on my list of games, in order to get in the habit of only having limited viewing options each week.

Other locally televised games (non-Center-Ice): NYR/ANA (Sat 1:00p, VS), CAR/WSH (Sat 7:00p, FS Car), TB/BOS (Sat 7:00p, NHLN), MTL/WPG (Sun 5:00p, NHLN)

NFL

Last week's Jacksonville Jaguars game went about the way I expected it to. The defense kept them in the game, but the offense never got it going. I expect this pattern to continue, although I do recognize that Blaine Gabbert will get better as the season progresses. Cincinnati at Jacksonville: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 707

After a last-second loss to the Bengals (of all teams), this week will give us a good idea of whether Bills' dream season will continue...or if they'll sputter back to 7-9. Philadelphia at Buffalo: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 709

Has the "OMG Cam Newton is so awesome" euphoria worn off? Seems like the Panthers are coming back to reality. Just like the Jaguars, they are only 1-3. New Orleans at Carolina: Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50

Six teams are on bye this week, which means I might go find something else to do during the late games. Tampa Bay at San Francisco: Sun 4:00p, DirecTV 712

Other locally televised games: TEN/PIT (Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5), NYJ/NE (Sun 4:15p, WRAL 5), GB/ATL (Sun 8:20p, NBC)

College football

Every week, I go through the same routine with college football. First I say, "You know, I think I'm going to more or less take the weekend off from college football, except for the Florida State and Penn State games." Then I look at the schedule and think, "You know, there's a lot of potential here."

FSU had better be careful here. This isn't last year's Wake Forest. Trap game! Florida State at Wake Forest: Sat 12:30p, ACC Network (WRAL locally)

Meanwhile, Penn State is making the Jacksonville Jaguars look like an offensive juggernaut. I can't remember the last time I was this "blah" about the Nittany Lions. Iowa at Penn State: Sat 3:30p, ESPN (ABC regional)

If Clemson is as good as I think they are, and as good as their wins over Florida State and Virginia Tech suggested, then they will win this game by 30. Boston College at Clemson: Sat 3:00p, Fox Sports South

I'll admit, having to play Alabama and LSU back-to-back is pretty brutal. Florida at LSU: Sat 3:30p, CBS

Still waiting for Utah's first win in the Pac-12. (I think. I'd look it up, but I'm up against my 30-minute limit.) Arizona State at Utah: Sat 3:30p, FSN

Remember when these teams were good? I kind of miss that. Georgia at Tennessee: Sat 7:00p, ESPN2

Wisconsin is the must-watch Big Ten team of the year, all thanks to Russell Wilson. I was wrong - the Wilson hype is warranted! But they're off this week, unfortunately. Ohio State at Nebraska: Sat 8:00p, ABC

Auto racing

NASCAR and Formula One in action Sunday, but I'm going in a completely different direction this week. Australia's top racing series is something called V8 Supercars, and their biggest race of the year is being broadcast live in the United States for the first time ever (according to a SPEED advertisement) this Saturday night. I've never watched V8 Supercars before, so I'm going to check it out. I'm assuming it will not be in high definition, but that's okay. V8 Supercars Bathurst 1000: Sat 7:00p, SPEED

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Breaking Bad

Television dramas are pretty formulaic. Most scripted dramas involve one of the following:
1) A crime was, or will be, committed. Who is guilty, and can they be brought to justice?
2) Mr. Ill has a serious medical situation. Better call Dr. Fix-em-up!
3) Mr. Lawyer is, like, super awesome. Watch him work this court case!

CBS currently has 13 hour-long dramas in its primetime schedule, and by my count, only one of them falls outside the above categories. There is obviously a big market for the above three genres - why else would there be so many of them? - but I typically stay away from those types of shows, because going through the same basic routine every single week just isn't that interesting to me.

Thank goodness for cable! Cable networks can afford to cater towards a niche audience rather than the broad appeal that the above genres offer. This brings me to the AMC drama "Breaking Bad".

Note: if you've never seen the show, don't worry. I know some people are catching up with older seasons on Netflix, but other than my Dad, I don't know who else is actively watching the current season as the episodes come or will watch this Sunday's season finale. So, there will be NO SPOILERS in this post. Except that the main character, Walt, and his sidekick, Jesse, are not dead yet, which should be obvious anyway.

"Breaking Bad" has a fairly unique, although contrived (only because it has to be for the show to work), premise. High school chemistry teacher is told he has terminal cancer, can't afford to pay for his treatment, wants to support his family, and is generally frustrated with never being able to "cash in" on his genius. His solution? Cook methamphetamine! (Duh.) But while the business of large scale methamphetamine production is extremely profitable, it's also dangerous, not to mention illegal...and that's what makes this a viable television show.

The show is incredibly well done. Few television shows are as acted, directed, produced, and scripted as well as "Breaking Bad". They have earned every award they have won. And best of all, they have never resorted to supernatural or otherwise ridiculous storylines.(Contrived, sure, but not ridiculous. The Mexican drug war, which is a central storyline in the series, is real. In general, I think the show is very realistic, given the premise.) I think it is the best drama on television right now. In fact, I think the show might be a little too good.

How can a show be too good? While Amber acknowledges the high production value of the show, she doesn't watch it with me anymore. She says it's "too tense". Amber also tends to not like shows as much where the main characters aren't particularly likeable. Every character on the show has some serious flaws. But that's something I really like about the show: it's "human". The character development, all the way down to the supporting characters, is terrific. Walt, the teacher-turned-meth-cook, started out the series as an obvious protagonist, but now, I'm not so sure. Unlike, say, Jack Bauer, Walt does not always do the "right thing" or make the correct logical decision. "Cool under pressure" does not describe Walt in the least. On the other hand, Walt's actions make perfect sense in his head, and many of us would probably make the same choices under the same circumstances...but I'd like to think that many of us wouldn't have put ourselves in his situation to begin with, either. Should we be rooting for him at this point or not?

The last couple of seasons have been a little less light-hearted and a little more edge-of-your-seat, which has turned Amber away for the most part. Lately, "Breaking Bad" has been edge-of-your-seat ALL THE TIME. But given the premise, I think it has to be at this point. That's how it's supposed to work, right? The longer you stay in the methamphetamine business, and the higher up the food chain you go, the more complicated things get. Nothing is easy anymore. When I first started watching, I wondered, "How long can they keep this up? Walt's lifestyle is not sustainable." Well, they recently announced that next season will be the last of the series, and that will give us a total of 62 episodes, start to finish. I think that's a good number. I can't wait to see how it ends.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Urinals


The bathroom is normally a very inquisitive place, so a thought occurred to me when I was in there the other day. Many public men's restrooms have urinals in addition to standard toilets, where if you only have to go "number one" instead of "number two", you don't even have to sit down. That makes them rather convenient. They save time, and they save water. And although I won't get into the details, there is also less potential for a mess with a urinal.

But I'm pretty sure I have never seen a stand-up urinal in somebody's house. And why not? Can you go to Lowe's and Home Depot and buy one for you to install in your house? Is that even a thing? How hard is it to install a urinal in your house, and why hasn't anyone I know ever done it?

There might be some issue related to plumbing that I don't know about, given that urinals drain out the back while traditional toilets drain out the bottom, and that's how houses are designed when they are built. But I think the main reason people don't install a supplementary urinal in their house is because, well, where would you put it? Most bathrooms in private homes are kind of small, and you still need the traditional toilet in there either way. And I don't think a urinal really meshes all that well with the stereotypical image of a "pleasant home bathroom". Maybe some of the really big houses that are out there do in fact have a urinal. I mean, if your house has five bathrooms, why not?

If child #1 ended up being a boy, then maybe I'd do a little more research here...but, nah.

When to Serve an Appetizer

Let's talk restaurant serving times!

A few months back, I talked about the impact that ordering an appetizer has on restaurant serving speed. The theory is that if you order an appetizer, two things happen. They start preparing your appetizer before they start preparing your main dish, and they wait until you have finished the appetizer before they bring out the main dish.

But there are a lot of variables here. Specifically: exactly when do they take your order for, and then serve, the appetizer? Do they...
1) ...take your appetizer and main dish orders at the same time, which is also when I start my timer. The appetizer comes after a few minutes, and then the main dish comes later.
2) ...take your appetizer order first - say, along with your drink order - and then come back a few minutes later, while the appetizer is still being prepared, to get your main dish order (which is when my timer starts)? This method allows them to get you the appetizer sooner than under option #1...in theory, of course.

We don't order appetizers very often, but I think it's usually split evenly between #1 (all food ordered at once) and #2 (appetizers ordered separately). But wait! There's more! They could also...
3) ...take your appetizer order first, and then wait until AFTER you've already received the appetizer before they take your main dish order.

On Sunday, Tyler's Tap Room (downtown Durham) took option #3. We were already eating our soft pretzels before they had even taken our main dish order. I don't think I've ever seen a restaurant use option #3 before.

From a statistical standpoint, my question is this. Based on the theory that appetizers delay the serving of the main dish: is that still the case when the appetizer is already out of the kitchen and on our respective plates before we order the main dish? In this situation, it's almost like we didn't even have the appetizer, and it shouldn't affect the time as a result, since we already have the appetizer by the time my stopwatch starts. This is why there is an asterisk in the "Appetizer" column of my serving times spreadsheet next to Tyler's Tap Room.

I don't ever expect to acquire enough data to be able to prove that options #1/#2 are slower than option #3 (with respect to the main dish timing only, order to reception), and that option #3 is statistically equal to ordering no appetizer at all. But it would be interesting to know.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Kickball Season 4: Mid-Season Report

This isn't really "mid-season" from the standpoint that we're halfway through my fourth season of co-ed kickball. In fact, we only have one game left in the regular season (which I am sitting out tomorrow night). But I suppose anything between now and the end of the season is still "mid-season".

So, anyway...how's our team doing this year? How about, the best we've ever done? Right now our record is 4-3, which is already more non-forfeit wins than we've ever had, at least since I joined the team. The biggest difference is discliplined and solid defense. Through seven games, we have only given up nine runs the entire season. Compare that to my first season, when we averaged over nine runs allowed per nine innings, and were "mercy ruled" more than once. Needless to say, we've come a long way. (I'll talk about my pitching later.)

As for the offense...well, let's talk about my bunting, which is still the only way I can consistently reach base. And now I present to you, my first-ever kickball diagram:


This is how a typical defense will set up when I'm at the plate. The 3rd baseman will stand as close to home plate as the rules allow, directly behind that line along the 3rd base line. (Side note: the quarter-circle in front of home plate is the "bunt line"; if a ball comes to rest before it reaches the bunt line, and stays fair, it is an out.) The best place to bunt is down the 3rd base line in order to make the throw to 1st as long as possible. So, the 3rd baseman's job is to get a running start, pick the ball up quickly, and either throw it to the 1st baseman before I get there, or peg me from behind if that's easier. Other teams are getting better at this, so I've struggled in my last two games, only going 2-for-7 following a 14-for-17 start to the season. I knew this would happen eventually, so it's time to adjust.

Other people's tactics are not as memorable, so normally, the 3rd baseman will stand a bit farther back. But when I'm at bat, they know what's coming, so the 3rd baseman stands right on that line. That leaves a rather gaping hole in the defense if I can get the ball over the 3rd baseman's head. I've hit that hole a couple of times, but it's hard: you have to keep it fair, but not so fair that the shortstop can catch it, and not too far so that the left fielder (who is required to stand in the grass) can catch it, either. I tried this a few times last night and failed; instead, I was able to reach base twice by kicking it hard enough down the third base line such that the 3rd baseman wasn't able to react quickly enough to field it. That's the downside of standing so close to home plate: if the kick comes right at you, with speed, you may not be able to react. But my usually effective bunting

Another way pitchers have gotten me out in the past is to pitch to the right side of the strike zone, which more often than not results in a kick towards the pitcher or down the first base line, which is an easier throw-out. That's something I've been getting better at, taking a right-side pitch down the 3rd base line. But I also learned from that and started incorporating that into my pitching. Let's say we have runners on 1st and 2nd, and a fast runner at the plate. By pitching to the 3rd base side, we're more likely to get a kick down the 3rd base line, allowing us to get the force out at 3rd. Or, let's say we have a runner on 2nd with two outs, and we have a slow runner at the plate. Then, I pitch to the 1st base side of the strike zone in order to give us an easy play at 1st for the third out. Every season, I try to add something new to my pitching arsenal, and this tactic has definitely helped when combined with pitching to the kicker's opposite foot, and my general late-breaking and deceptive pitches. I might be overthinking this whole pitching thing, but this has been our best defensive season by far, and I broke my personal single-season strikeout record last night (16 Ks; previous record was 15), including one strikeout with the bases loaded and two outs that I'm really proud of, so you can't argue with the numbers. (Regarding the strikeouts: I also think the umpiring has been more forgiving than usual with respect to the strike zone. They're giving me the corner every time! But to be fair, it goes both ways.)

Oh, I haven't mentioned this yet. When I first started playing kickball, I vowed that I would never take this sport so seriously that I would feel the need to by cleats. Well, I have failed myself, because I went out and bought some. I bought cleats for safety than anything else after having slipped and fallen more than once, and they were only $20, so I didn't beat myself up too much over it. But let me tell you, they help, a lot. Given how much I rely on speed, both on offense and defense, how did I ever get by without them?

Even though I'm making our team sound, like, totally super awesome and stuff, we are still quite beatable. When the league's defending champions have their full lineup, they are very difficult to score against, because there are no holes in the defense. And, every team we've played has played much better in the second game, compared to the first time we played them. So even though our team is as good as it's ever been, now that our opponents have figured out how to play defense, the runs have not come easy as of late. (Stat: after scoring 5 runs in my first 10 at-bats this season, I now have scored only 1 run in my last 17 at-bats. And that run was as manufactured as they come: lead off hit, bunt hit to set up 1st/2nd, sacrifice to move us to 2nd/3rd, sacrifice fly to score me from 3rd.) I picked up my 100th career hit a few games ago; how long will it take me before I get my 200th hit? It depends on how many new teams we get each season, I suppose.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Curling Recap: 9/30/11

Career game #155: 2011 Fall League - September 30, 2011

End.......... 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------
Schoolman.... 01131001 | 07
Allen........ 10000220 | 05

What's my excuse this week? I have several, actually.

I think the game can be best personified by this setup, prior to my final shot of the 5th end: (our team = red)


Opposing skip Brian's last rock was rock #2, and you could not have placed it better. That left us with one option: the only way we could score a point here was to remove both yellow rocks with one shot. A nose hit on either rock would have still given the other team one point, because the untouched yellow rock would still have been closer. The double was not impossible here, but on our ice, it's certainly a low percentage shot. Perhaps I should be happy that I was at least able to hit one of the yellow rocks and at least hold them to one, as opposed to missing everything and giving them two.

Where were all the red rocks in that end, anyway? They're all gone! I forget what happened in this end, specifically, but the other team made two double take-outs during the course of the game. That's four points down the drain right there. Tough to compete with that. They were pinpoint accurate in the first five ends, and the ice conditions were good enough to reward that.

Usually when we win, we'll make a "killer" shot or two during the game that the other team can't do much with: a draw behind a well-placed guard, a perfect raise to the button, or a perfect single or double take-out. We never really had a shot like that in this game. The precision wasn't quite there. In the 4th end, I had an open draw against four yellow rocks on my last shot, and was a little too heavy, resulting in a steal of three. In the 8th end, we had the would-be game-tying rock in the house, but we could never get it guarded. We were close to pulling off the "killer" shot on a lot of occasions throughout the game, but could never quite get there. And I don't think I called the best game, either. I was too aggressive with take-outs and didn't call enough quiet shots early in the game, and what cost us in the 4th end. We needed more rocks in play.

I fall into this trap sometimes when I'm playing against a team that is calling, and making, a lot of take-outs. I see take-outs being made, and I decide to start calling a bunch of take-outs myself, because I have visions of making the same shots that they're making. This often ends up costing us. When you're playing a take-out-proficient team, the correct strategy is not to try to beat them at their own game, but to start with guards and then put as many rocks in play as possible. Once I remembered this, I went with a more quiet strategy in the 6th and 7th ends, and that's how we got back in the game.

Random statistical curiosity: all three of my Fall League games so far have ended in a 7-5 score.

And with that, it's time for a mid-season break. (Mid-season? Already? Well, sort of.) The Friday League takes the next two weeks off and then returns on October 21st, which also happens to be my team's bye week. So unless somebody needs a spare, I might not curl again until October 28th. That's kind of sad, really.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Sports Saturday: 10/1/11

We're on the clock! Once again, I'm only giving myself 30 minutes and counting to write this.

MLB

Wednesday was the last day of the regular season, and it was shaping up to be an exciting day, with two teams tied for the Wild Card spot in both leagues (Atlanta/St. Louis in the NL, Boston/Tampa Bay in the AL). I devoted my sports evening to watching the games. Then, with Tampa down 7-0 and Atlanta and St. Louis somewhat comfortably ahead, and a complete lack of interest in seeing Boston win, I went to bed. And, of course, I missed one of the most dramatic days in regular season baseball ever, with the Rays coming from behind to win, and the Red Sox and Braves coming from ahead to lose.

Oh, that would have been fun to watch. Problem is, most of this happened around well after 11 PM. And this is one reason why I can't really get into baseball. The games take too long, and most of the exciting stuff - especially in the later rounds of playoffs - happens well past my bedtime. I don't have the patience to sit through hours of boredom waiting for that amazing payoff in the end, which is what Wednesday night was for many. Exciting moments are made even more exciting when they're against the backdrop of what is usually a rather boring sport. As a fan of Formula One, I know this. Holy crap, a pass for the lead on the last lap! Best race EVER!!!! Except that this kind of thing happens in other sports on a regular basis.

Really, more than anything, I just feel kind of left out. It's been far too long since a team I cared about even got close to making the playoffs, and for me, that has always been the key to enjoying baseball: I have to care. If you care who wins, it's tense; if you don't care who wins, it's boring. When are the Washington Nationals going to make a playoff run, hmm?

As for the teams that are left, I'd like to get behind the Tampa Bay Rays if I could...but I make no promises that I'm actually going to get around to watching any of their games. Rays at Rangers, Game 2: Sat 7:00p, TNT

NFL

It was especially fun to watch when it was pouring rain, and the last-second first half touchdown was exciting. (Is anyone better than Jacksonville at scoring touchdowns with no time left?) But other than that...I think last week's Jaguars v. Panthers game showed that it's pretty hopeless for the Jags. They are 32nd in the NFL in passing offense, which these days is the most important stat. (Here's a stat I like: the Jaguars have 380 passing yards total through three games; Tom Brady has thrown for more than that in every GAME so far.) It's too bad, because they have a running game, and they have a decent defense. But they aren't good enough to carry their terrible passing game, so I think the season is hopeless. The decision to cut David Garrard before the start of the season has never looked worse than it does now. Although to be fair, it's not like the Jaguars are loaded at wide receiver, either. Chances are, even with Garrard, Jacksonville would still be 1-2. And crazy as it may sound, I think they have a chance - a small chance - of winning this Sunday. Why? Well, why not? New Orleans at Jacksonville: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 711

As for Carolina: Cam Newton played only slightly better last Sunday than he did in the preseason, which is why I said he wasn't ready at the time. See? I'm not completely clueless here. Carolina at Chicago: Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50

How about those 3-0 Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions? Both teams are must-watch from here on out. Unfortunately, just like the Jaguars, pretty much all of their games are 1:00 games. Side note: CBS has assigned Andrew Catalon to do the play-by-play for the Buffalo at Cincinnati game. You may remember Catalon from NBC's Olympic curling coverage in Vancouver. Yay curling! Buffalo at Cincinnati: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 704; Detroit at Dallas: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 707

(Other local TV games: PIT/HOU, Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5. DEN/GB, Sun 4:15p, WRAL 5. NYJ/BAL, Sun 8:20p, NBC.)
(Other games: Sun 1:00p - TEN/CLE, WSH/STL, MIN/KC, SF/PHI. Sun 4:00p - ATL/SEA, NYG/ARI, MIA/SD, NE/OAK.)

(College football is farther down. I saved it for last this week.)

Auto racing

On the NASCAR front, I liked this article which talks about (among other things) the balance racing leagues must find between "parity" and "innovation". Allow teams to innovate in secret too much, and you get Formula One, which has zero parity and in which Sebastian Vettel wins practically every race. Allow teams to innovate too little, and you get NASCAR (and perhaps IndyCar as well), in which all the cars pretty much run the same speed, and teams must resort to strategy in order to gain an edge. Most recently, this has meant that NASCAR teams are relying heavily on fuel mileage and pit strategy in order to win races, as you can gain far more track position that way than you can by, you know, having a faster car. There has to be a happy medium somewhere, don't you think?

I think the Atlanta race was the most entertaining NASCAR race in recent memory (since the summer). Why? Because the track was loose and the tires wore out quickly, and that combination makes for some great racing. The other NASCAR tracks, and tire supplier Goodyear, should have taken note of that. Create a tire that drops off quickly (but not to the point of wearing all the way down the cords or blowing out), and/or make the track rough so that it wears the tires quickly, and you'll have yourselves a great race, as opposed to the fuel mileage derbies we've been having. I personally don't mind a strategy race, but much of the NASCAR fan base thinks the fuel mileage game is getting old. NASCAR Sprint Cup at Dover: Sun 2:00p, ESPN

College football

Five more minutes! Starting with Clemson/Florida State from last week: as I suspected, it looks like FSU is indeed back to the "status quo" of the last few years. I think 8-4 is a reasonable expectation from here on out. Meanwhile, if Clemson wins today, I think the sky is the limit for them. They really impressed me last week; Clemson won that game more than Florida State lost it. I'm not saying they'll go undefeated; there are too many decent ACC teams for that. But Clemson can definitely compete for the ACC title. Clemson at Virginia Tech: Sat 6:00p, ESPN2

I'm glad Penn State is done with their MAC portion of the schedule. Time for some real football. Although Indiana can easily be mistaken for a MAC team at times. Penn State at Indiana, Sat 12:00p, ESPNU

Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska! As your welcoming gift, we're going to make you play your first conference game at Camp Randall Stadium. Oh, and did we mention that it would be at night? Have fun! Nebraska at Wisconsin: Sat 8:00p, ABC.

At last: Florida's first ranked opponent of the season. Alabama at Florida: Sat 8:00p, CBS

Other games I'm semi-interested in:
Georgia Tech at NC State: Sat 3:30p, ABC (Regional)
Michigan State at Ohio State: Sat 3:30p, ESPN (Regional ABC)
Washington at Utah: Sat 7:00p, FSN
North Carolina at East Carolina: Sat 8:00p, CBS Sports