Friday, March 30, 2012

The Marla Picture Dump: March 2012

It's time for the monthly Marla picture dump! I started doing this last month, because friends and family like seeing pictures of our little one, and unloading many of my Marla pictures from my phone at the end of each month seems like a good way to provide for that.

Last time, I posted all of the pictures in a blog post, but from now on I'm going to just upload them to my long forgotten Flickr site and put them in albums and stuff. Because that makes a heck of a lot more sense, and it allows me to publish more than, like, 10 pictures. (A single blog post shouldn't really have more than 10 pictures in it. Although, I think 10 pictures is all I'm uploading this month anyway, since some of the Marla pictures were already posted with various road trip recaps.) And, I can add captions, too! If I feel like it.

So, here is a link to the Marla picture dump for March.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cracker Barrel Statistics

Sometimes on our road trips, we're feeling adventurous and go out to eat at a restaurant that we've never heard of before. Other times, we wimp out and go to a place like Cracker Barrel.


Yes, all Cracker Barrels are the same. But that's why we go there! Whether you're in Alabama, Utah, or wherever, can be assured that the Cracker Barrels are just like they are at home.

Cracker Barrels are often located near interstates and clumps of hotels, so this isn't the first time we've gone to a Cracker Barrel while on the road. And thanks to my Restaurant Serving Times spreadsheet, I can quantify exactly how many times we've eaten at one while on a road trip. Yeah!

Since June 2004 (when I started the spreadsheet), I've been to Cracker Barrel 18 times. The serving time is in parantheses; last Saturday's visit in Montgomery fell six seconds short of being the fastest Cracker Barrel on record.

6/18/04: West Valley City, UT (14:27)
7/24/04: Jacksonville, FL (15:16)
3/12/05: Jacksonville, FL (18:17)
6/17/07: Morrisville, NC (16:40)
9/15/07: Gaffney, SC (11:36)
5/1/08: Morrisville, NC (17:10)
6/23/08: Morrisville, NC (26:11)
11/16/08: Morrisville, NC (16:45)
1/30/09: Morrisville, NC (10:22)
9/13/09: Morrisville, NC (15:17)
10/13/09: Morrisville, NC (10:39)
11/14/09: Morrisville, NC (10:27)
3/7/10: Morrisville, NC (12:58)
7/17/10: Morrisville, NC (19:40)
12/27/10: Cave City, KY (8:28)
2/23/11: South Hill, VA (19:17)
12/18/11: Morrisville, NC (13:42)
3/24/12: Montgomery, AL (8:34)

The home location (Morrisville) obviously has the lion's share of the visits, with 11. It used to be a tradition of ours that whenever Amber returned from an international business trip, we would head straight for Cracker Barrel. Amber doesn't travel internationally for work anymore, so we've only gone to the local Cracker Barrel three times since January 2010. (As opposed to seven times in 2008-2009.)

But as for the other locations, I'm counting 7 different states represented here: North Carolina (of course), Utah, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama. Not bad!

Cracker Barrels are a lot easier to find in the South, so I've never been to one in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or anywhere north or east of there. Although apparently, State College has one now.

18 visits sounds like a lot, but that number still falls well short of Bob Evans. My Bob Evans count is 31 visits in 8 years, including 14 visits to the Cary location alone. (We used to go to Bob Evans a lot more when we lived in Cary. We've "only" been to the Durham location 7 times.) Bob Evans restaurants are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and aren't as nationally distributed as Cracker Barrels, so those 31 visits are only spread out among 5 states (North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Maryland, West Virginia), as opposed to 7.

It's not a goal of mine to go to Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans in as many states as possible; it's just a by-product of our road trip habits.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alabama Trip: Day 2 Recap

So, we're in Alabama. Where to?


View Larger Map

We started Day 2 (Saturday) at point E, just outside Gadsden. This put us about an hour away from...

Point F: Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama. This was pretty much a must as far as I was concerned. The nice thing about visiting state highpoints is that being mountains, they are often surrounded by some really nice scenery. (Except in Indiana.)

Here is Cheaha Mountain from a distance:


The thing with mountain pictures is that it's impossible to relay perspective. How tall is this mountain, anyway? Well...all I can say is that the mountains of northeast Alabama were a lot more impressive than we expected, and that the mountain roads were quite pleasant. You'll have to take my word for it.

Many highpoints, you at least have to hike a little to get to. Not this one. The parking lot is on the summit.


That's an old observation tower at the summit, which - much to my surprise - was open. Hooray!



It's unfortunate that the TV tower (licensed to the Birmingham FOX affiliate according to a posted sign) obscures the view. Did they really have to put the tower on THE highest point? Why not the next mountain over? Still, the second picture helps give a good idea of the lay of the land around here. There is basically one tall mountain ridge that towers above everything else, and down below, you have smaller hills and rolling terrain. So, no, I wouldn't call this "mountainous terrain". Hilly, with an occasional mountain ridge here and there, sounds about right.

(By the way, that may or may not be Talladega Superspeedway in the distance in the first picture. Hard to tell.)

Joining us at the highest point in Alabama on this fine Saturday morning were some runners participating in a 5K. Combining a 5K with roadgeeking is one thing, but combining a 5K with highpointing? That might be even better! This run was nowhere near as popular, however. Maybe 20 runners total?


This was my 6th state highpoint, and Marla's 2nd. (I've also been to the highest point in Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Indiana. South Carolina is the only one of those that I haven't visited with Amber.)

So, that's that. Time to get out of the mountains and explore "the other side of Alabama".

Point G: Middle of Nowhere, Alabama. This wasn't necessarily the plan, but most of the rest of the day would be spent in Alabama's Black Belt: originally named for the region's rich black soil, but whose name may now also refer to the predominant demographic in the region. It's a lot like southwestern West Virginia in terms of the economics: once a booming area (coal mining in West Virginia, cotton in Alabama) whose economy has sharply declined over the last few decades, leaving behind what is now one of the poorest areas not only in the state, but in the country.

So what does this mean for us? Well, it means that we could pretty much forget about finding a gas station with a diaper changing table. But that's alright. Rural Alabama is what we wanted, and that's what we got.

I thought - hoped - that traversing the Black Belt would mean that we would see lots of Piggly Wiggly stores. After all, there are more Piggly Wiggly locations in Alabama than in any other state. But apparently most of them are not in the Black Belt, because the only Piggly Wiggly we saw on the entire trip was in Anniston, just north of the highpoint. How disappointing! (We did see a "Piggly Wiggly Express" somewhere west of Montgomery, but that doesn't count, because it looked to be more of a convenience store.)

Well, in any case, we found this fine establishment across the street from the Anniston Piggly Wiggly:


Point H1: Selma. Selma is at the heart of the Black Belt, and has an important place in civil rights history. I thought it might be kind of interesting, although in hindsight, I'm not really sure why.


Yay, history! So, besides this here historical marker, what is there in downtown Selma, anyway?


Not much of anything, in fact. I thought there was supposed to be a riverwalk or some kind of walk or something (someone else did, too), but all we found was one little place where you could see the Alabama River.


We should have known downtown Selma wasn't really the place to be as soon as we parked the car. In downtown Selma, even the ILLEGAL parking is cheaper than the legal parking is in many downtowns. Oh well - hit some, miss some.


Point H2: Cahaba. Fortunately, we had a Plan B. (See? We did do some planning on this trip.) Just southwest of Selma is the ghost town of Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba): capital of Alabama in the 1820s, major cotton transporation center along the Alabama River in the mid-19th century, and then by 1900, completely gone. Today, it's home to the Old Cahawba State Historical Site (maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission), and inside this building, one very, very bored state employee. (Poor guy. He was so excited to talk to us.)


So, here's what Cahaba looks like today. Dirt roads, trees, and the occasional informational marker.



(For the record, that's not how we carry Marla on our walks. We had the same baby carrier we used on the Hanging Rock trip. They were just having a little fun when I snapped that picture.)

If you look hard enough, you can in fact find some remnants of old buildings.


Almost all of the buildings in Cahaba were completely dismantled and sold for materials. But according to the guy in the visitor center (did I mention he was very excited to talk to us?), these columns couldn't be dismantled and sold for scrap, or something. So, the columns remain, perhaps just to serve as proof that there actually was once something here.

This is the kind of place we were hoping to find in Central Alabama. Southern history! Way off the beaten path! Yeah! More importantly, it was a great place to get out of the car, walk around, and allow Marla to stretch her legs for a little while.

So, it's about 3 PM (Eastern Time - as I mentioned yesterday, we didn't bother changing our clocks to Central Time or anything). We had already decided that we'd be spending the night somewhere near Montgomery. I didn't want to just go straight there, though. So what do we do? Let's go county counting!

Point I: Near Uniontown. I saw on the map that by going about 30 miles west on US-80, and then a mile or two north on AL-25, I could pick up three very quick and easy counties. So, that's where we went. (County totals for the trip: I visited 21 new counties; my car visited 53 new counties; and Marla visited a whopping 56 new counties.)

Along the way to Perry, Marengo, and Hale counties, we passed through the town of Uniontown, and stopped to change Marla's diaper in the parking lot of the town's main gas station. (We've become accustomed to back seat diaper changes on these road trips. They're not ideal, but they can be done.) I didn't snap any pictures of Uniontown, but...let's just say the town is a bit impoverished. According to Wikipedia, nearly half of the town's population is below the poverty line. Many people wouldn't dream of going anywhere near a place like Uniontown, let alone stopping there. But when Marla needs a diaper change, she needs a diaper change.

Point J: Montgomery. After that little excursion, we turned around and took US-80 back to Montgomery, and found a hotel a few miles east of downtown in the suburbs. While much of the Black Belt is poor, Montgomery seems to be doing okay, at least where we were. East Montgomery is home to a relatively new shopping center and a bunch of recently built restaurants and hotels. So, Alabama is just like every other state, really: all of the new construction is happening in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. And in the rural areas, not much is going on.

On Sunday, we drove straight home on I-85 and didn't really stop and do anything along the way. So, that's pretty much that. But even after all that, I still can't really say that we've "visited Alabama" on the whole. We went to the state highpoint, and the central part of the state, but that's it. Along the way, we only went to one of the state's four biggest cities. We did not go to Birmingham, and didn't go anywhere near Mobile or Huntsville. But when you basically only have one day in a state, you do what you can. And we did enough driving as it was. I would guess that Alabama has some nice beaches, if they're anything like Panama City's beaches...but that's down there a ways.

Let's go through a few more items of personal interest:

Hotels with Marla: Amber and I used to go fairly cheap when looking for hotels on road trips. No more! With Marla, we definitely prefer to have a reasonably-sized room, and hopefully one with a fridge. So, yeah, road trips are more expensive now than they used to be.

License plates: I noticed something with Alabama's standard issue license plates. Wherever we were, most of the surrounding license plates on the road seemed to have the same first two digits. Could it be that the first two digits of Alabama license plates correspond to the driver's home county? According to Wikipedia, YES! If I had known that prior to the trip, I would have kept track of all the ones I saw, and then put a map together like this Nebraska one. Missed opportunity!

Mile markers: All federal and state highways in Alabama have posted mile markers that denote the full distance of the road within the state. But the road to Cheaha Mountain, AL-281, had mile markers in the 400s (e.g. Mile 481), even though the road is nowhere near that long. Why? Once again, Wikipedia has the answer! It's because AL-281 may be extended: "ALDOT uses Mile 500 as a "countdown" mile marker, since the eventual length of [State Route 281] is not known." (License plates, mile markers...yeah, these are things I can't help but notice when I'm on the road.)

Road construction: Prior to the trip, I said that in my experience, Alabama was like "Pennsylvania south" in how they handle road construction and the like (read: not well). What's my opinion after spending 36 hours there? Well...lots of work zones? Check. A ridiculous number of orange signs for every work zone? Check. Ridiculously low work zone speed limits? Check. Not much actual work going on? Check. There are subtle differences in how Alabama and Pennsylvania handle their construction, but generally, I think the approach is the same. If there's a road problem, put up a ton of orange signs, lower the speed limit, close a lane or more, and worry about the actual construction later. "Pennsylvania south" sounds about right. But I will say this: this wasn't always the case, but many of the roads we took in Alabama, including some of the state highways, were in excellent shape.

Well, that trip was fun, but it was also exhausting. We're not doing another one like that for a while, I think.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Alabama Trip: Day 1 Recap

First, a little background on what this road trip was all about, and why we took it. (Yeah, I've gone through this before, but I like having self-contained posts.)

In March 2008, we spent the weekend driving around Nebraska. We had a great time, even though Nebraska doesn't really have a reputation as a vacation destination. But the thing is, most people haven't been to the real Nebraska; they've only driven by on I-80, which of course can be very boring. If the Nebraska trip taught us anything, it's that you can find interesting things almost anywhere, and that perhaps we should take some time to "stop and smell the roses" in some of these states that we only ever drive through on the freeways. New Jersey and Alabama are two states that I've never really "visited" or done anything in except zoom past on the freeways. Both were considered as potential weekend road trip destinations last weekend, but we ultimately chose Alabama based on the weather forecast. (That decision worked out great, by the way. Absolutely no regrets.)

So, on Friday, we drove down to Alabama, on Saturday we spent the day touring Alabama, and on Sunday we drove back from Alabama. And it didn't hit me until after I started tabulating statistics and such that, perhaps, this was kind of crazy. We drove 1,500 miles in three days. With an 8-month old! (Well, almost 8 months.)

We shouldn't make a habit of this, but once in a while, I think this is okay. We are trying to raise a "road trip baby", after all, so regular road tripping is a must...but at the same time, she's at an age where she needs to roll around and try to crawl and stuff, rather than spend most of a three-day stretch in a car seat. So, this may not have been the best time for such a road trip. But all the while she was very, very well behaved...except when we tried to get her to go to sleep in the hotel. (Maybe we should have just kept driving! In all seriousness, though, I imagine that trying to sleep in unfamiliar territory is hard on an infant.)

So, here's where we went and all:


View Larger Map

This is too much to cover in one post, so I'll just tackle the first day for now (up through point E).

Point B: Gate City, VA. Why Gate City? Two reasons: 1) Counties! My first visit to Scott County, VA. 2) Interstates! I had never driven the northernmost 8 miles of I-26 in Tennessee (north/west of I-81), and this side trip allowed me to check that off my list and declare I-26 "complete". Getting to Gate City along US-58/421 through the mountains was a nice diversion from the interstate, too, so this wasn't just about dumb road geek stats.

"Wait a second. You drove to Alabama by way of Virginia? Why?" Because! We don't like taking the same roads both ways. You know that. I certainly didn't want to take I-85 there and back. Booooring.

Point C: Chattanooga, TN. This was the first time I had been to Chattanooga in any capacity since, I think, 1994. I didn't remember a thing about it, or that there's a giant mountain overlooking the city named "Lookout Mountain" there, either. (Now I know where the local minor league baseball team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, gets their name.) This was the best picture of Lookout Mountain we could get, with I-24 passing by at the base of the mountain:


We arrived in Chattanooga in the late afternoon, which wasn't the best timing. Turns out that Chattanooga at rush hour can be pretty brutal. Who knew? Must be that Atlanta influence. (Or the fact that I-24, the only freeway through town, doesn't have enough capacity.)

Fun road geek fact about I-24 in Tennessee: I think it's the only major interstate in the country that leaves, and then re-enters, a state. (I-86 in New York sort of does, but not enough to really matter.) Mile markers and exit numbers normally reset at a state line, but what do they do if you're only temporarily leaving a state? In this case, where I-24 spends four miles in Georgia before re-entering Tennessee, the exit numbers do not reset - Georgia's exits use Tennessee-based exit numbers. But the Georgia section does have separate mile markers (0 through 4). I assume that Tennessee's mile markers include the Georgia section, so that mile markers 166 through 170 (or whatever the numbers are) are basically skipped altogether; that way, the exit numbers and mile markers (in Tennessee) are in sync.

One more note about Tennessee. I saw lots of these gas stations:


Weigel's looks kind of nice from a distance, and there are a lot of them. Is this the Sheetz of Tennessee, perhaps? ... No, not quite. Sheetz, this is not. (Is anything?) And, no, they did not have a diaper changing table in the bathroom at this particular location in Loudon, TN. So, this is just another chain of gas stations. Nothing special, really.

Point D: Trenton, GA. Holy crap is that a Guthrie's???


Guthrie's is a chicken joint that serves, in my opinion, excellent chicken fingers. I made it a point to stop at the Tallahassee location (which is where I discovered Guthrie's) when we drove through in December 2010. Guthrie's is based in Alabama and has several Alabama locations, but this seemed like a pretty obscure place for one. It was a complete, not to mention pleasant, surprise! Yeah, we stopped.


Trenton is actually a pretty obscure place in general. It's in Georgia, but the fastest way to get there from anywhere is probably via either Alabama or Tennessee, because it's surrounded by mountains on either side. In any case, we really liked what we saw of it. And not only do they have a Guthrie's, they have an Ingles, too! (And a BI-LO. It is a very un-Georgia like place.)

Amber expected the mountains up here and in northeastern Alabama to be pretty pathetic, but she was surprised. These are legitimate. (Well, by Appalachian standards.) And is Alabama a place you think of when you think mountains? Of course not. I bet there are a lot of nice places to go up here. But, we were on a schedule, of course.

Point E: Attalla, AL (near Gadsden). This is where we stopped Friday night. We've learned on prior road trips that when traveling with Marla, we should plan on getting to our hotel between 6 and 7 PM, certainly no later than 7. (Eastern Time, that is. Even though Alabama is in the Central Time Zone, we did not adjust our clocks or timing, because we knew we'd be giving that hour right back on Sunday. No need to make things more complicated than they need to be.) Marla had been sitting in the car most of the day, so we wanted to at least give her a chance to roll around a bit before trying to put her to bed.


The original plan was to drive I-59 all the way to Birmingham on Friday and thus "clinch" the entire interstate, but the clock ran out on us. Oh well. No big deal. The Gate City side trip was a higher priority anyway.

Tomorrow: Alabama itself.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alabama Trip: Preview

A few weeks back, we said that we were going to go to road trip to New Jersey this weekend. Now, at almost the last minute, we're calling an audible and going somewhere else completely: Alabama.

Why? The weather. It's not that the weather forecast looks bad in New Jersey this weekend, it just doesn't look all that good. My interpretation is this: while the drive up Friday would be nice, and Saturday morning (which we would have spent in the northern part of the state) would probably be dry as well, Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday (including the ferry ride) could be mostly wet. The most likely outcome in New Jersey this weekend is probably "a little rain here and there but not a complete weekend-long washout", which ordinarily wouldn't justify us changing our plans completely...but the thing is, we never really had much in the way of "plans" to begin with. A strict itinerary? Nope. A significant amount of planning that would be going to waste? Most certainly not. All our hopes and dreams of a wonderful weekend in New Jersey washed away? Not really...I mean, it's not like New Jersey was that exciting a road trip destination to begin with. (Aww, that's not fair. We'll make this trip some day. Maybe.) The only thing we really lose here is the $5 cancellation fee on our Cape May ferry reservation, but we'll make that up (and then some!) simply by missing out on New Jersey's toll roads this weekend.

So, why Alabama? Because in some ways, it's a lot like New Jersey: it's a state I've driven through several times, but haven't ever actually stopped and "visited". (The Natchez Trace Parkway cuts through extreme northwest Alabama, but that doesn't count.) The drive time to Alabama is about the same as the drive time to New Jersey, so it's no more or less practical a destination. And, more importantly, the weather on Saturday and Sunday (particularly Sunday) is far more likely to cooperate in Alabama than it is in New Jersey. (Friday is a different story, but we can't possibly get three dry days this weekend, no matter where we go. Well, unless we fly, I guess.)

What is there to do in Alabama? Well, like in New Jersey, I have two primary destinations in mind:
1) The town of Selma, mostly for historical significance (civil rights, etc.) and such. And there's a ghost town nearby that might be interesting.
2) Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in the state. And, it appears to be just as easy as the New Jersey highpoint. Yeah! We'll definitely be doing some driving in the "mountains" of Alabama. (I use quotes because I don't really know how impressive these mountains will be. We'll keep our hopes down. This ain't the Smokies.)
Likely not featured will be Huntsville, as we'll be focusing our trip on the center of the state and aren't likely to make our way up to the northern part of the state.
Along the way, as we traverse through rural Alabama, we'll probably stop at least one Piggly Wiggly. And who knows what else we'll see. This is the rural Deep South, after all. We could see all kinds of crazy things.

Road geek statistical notes! I stand to get far more counties overall on this trip than I would have going to New Jersey, although I will miss out on the prospect of clinching an entire state this weekend. But I could clinch three interstates from end-to-end this weekend: 59, 85, and if we have time for a quick diversion, 26. Oh, and Marla is going to get a TON of counties out of this. A TON.

I haven't driven through Alabama a whole lot, but my impression thus far is that they might be "Pennsylvania south": road construction everywhere, stupidly low speed limits, and despite all that, generally sub-par road conditions. (I mean, seriously, who decides the best course of action following a fatal accident involving a pothole is not to fix the road, but to lower the speed limit? Come on now.) But having never really "visited" the state, my impression may not be accurate. And one thing is for sure: the drive to Alabama is much more enjoyable than the drive to New Jersey.

Apologies to those of you who are partial to New Jersey and were looking forward to us helping dispel the notion that the state is nothing more than one giant dump, but this is the way it goes sometimes.

By the way, I've decided to take this weekend off from social media, so I won't be live-tweeting this trip or anything like that. I'm going silent from Friday morning through Sunday evening, and will blog about our Alabama trip next week. If that's where we end up going, of course. Who's to say we won't change our mind a second time?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Raven Rock State Park

My parents were in town over the weekend, which made it a good opportunity to continue my quest to go to as many different North Carolina state parks as possible. Next up: Raven Rock State Park. Woo!


View Larger Map

I figured Raven Rock might be our next state park after going to Hanging Rock last month.

What do they have there? I actually did little-to-no research before we went, so going in, I had no idea! (Other than that it probably involved a rock or something.) Amber did do some research, though, and found that there was an easy two mile trail that would be perfect for our little jogger stroller type thingy.


I forget if I've mentioned this thing before, but a few months back we bought a fancy jogger stroller that could also be converted into a bike trailer, so that Amber can take Marla jogging, and I could take Marla bicycling. We haven't taken it bicycling yet, but will soon. Apparently it can be used on some trails, too, so that's what we did. I think it worked out great.


Most of the trail we took is in the woods, but there are two main attractions. One is an overlook of the nearby Cape Fear River:


We used to put Mo the Cow Puppet in a lot of our pictures, but we've gotten away from that over the last year or two. Marla does makes a better picture caddy, after all. (Sorry, Mo.)

I've noticed this a lot in North Carolina. Even in areas of fairly flat terrain, you can sometimes get some steep cliffs near rivers. It kind of sneaks up on you if you're not expecting it. Hooray geology!

Besides that, there is, of course, the namesake of the park. What is Raven Rock? It's a rock formation along the Cape Fear River. Hooray!


The rock pictures aren't all that great up close, but you can't really get a good view of it from a distance because of all the trees. Unless you're on the other side of the river, perhaps.

Two more pictures: an interesting tree, and an "End of Trail" sign beneath Raven Rock that I thought was humorous. Usually they put "Keep Out", "Danger", or something like that to keep rowdy teenages away from unsafe areas. Here? Nope - "End of Trail" will do just fine, I guess.


So, another one down! Which North Carolina state park will we take Marla to next?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Curling Recap: 3/16/12

Career game #177: 2012 Winter League - March 16, 2012

End.......... 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------
Riveron...... 00100642 | 13
Allen........ 00011000 | 02

This might be one of those weeks where it would serve everyone's best interests to keep the curling recap on the short end. You don't click to my blog to hear me mope, right?

This game does have some incredible statistical oddities, though, and as a stat guy, I can appreciate them. No scoring after two ends? That's gotta be a first. 2-1 after five...immediately followed by a 12-0 run to close out the game? Crazy!

I can explain it, though. It was a warm, humid night outside, and that normally means the ice is slower than usual, especially at the start. The result: neither team had any rock in the house at any point in the first two ends. But we both had plenty of guards!

Things did speed up once the rocks cooled down, and we finally did start getting rocks in the house in the 3rd. The middle ends were pretty normal. Then, once the 6th end rolled around, the other team really had things figured out - draws, take-outs, you name it. As for us...oh, right, I said I was going to keep the recap short this week.

The curling leagues are off this weekend, which is good, because I could definitely use a break. This season, I've realized that if I curl too much - especially as a Skip - that I start taking the game too seriously, and become a grouchy, generally unpleasant person to be with. Curling is supposed to be fun first and foremost, and recently I've lost sight of that, so...time for a break! Well, for one week, anyway. When curling returns on March 30, I'll think more about having fun than I will about whether to call more draws or take-outs, or whether I have my draw weight. And with that mindset, our team morale will improve (in theory), and I'll probably play better, too! Except that last part isn't what is most important, of course.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bojangles' Yellow Boxes

I see a lot of things on my bike rides that I wouldn't notice if I were in a car - for example, litter. All in all I'd say that the roads around here aren't too bad as far as litter goes, but one particular piece of litter always stands out: a yellow Bojangles' box.

Along with beer cans/bottles/cases/whatnot, fast food probably makes up a significant portion of roadside litter. But unlike McDonald's bags and the like, which are bland and generally just blend in with the rest of the trash, Bojangles' boxes are bright, yellow, iconic, and really stand out.


Every time I see one, I have to wonder. Is this all part of some master scheme? The folks at Bojangles' have to know that many of their food containers will end up on the side of the road, so by making their boxes as bold and iconic as they are, a discarded Bojangles' box can serve as a form of advertising, can it not? And, would a local Bojangles' franchise even go so far as to plant discarded boxes in the grass nearby their restaurant on purpose?

(Somewhat related question - do other chicken places serve their food in boxes, or is it just a Bojangles' thing? I rarely get chicken from anywhere else, so I don't know. I know KFC does buckets, but that's just for chicken; I don't know what they do if you order fries and cole slaw, or whatever sides KFC serves, along with it.)

By the way, since we're talking about Bojangles'...I do still eat there from time to time. As someone who loves Bojangles' but had never really lived near one prior to moving to North Carolina, it was kind of an obsession of mine when I first moved here. (Bojangles' has since opened multiple locations in Jacksonville. No Tallahassee locations yet, but they have Guthrie's instead, so that's okay.) In fact, "By the Numbers" once tracked how often I ate at Bojangles'. I don't do that anymore, in part because tracking it actually resulted in me eating there more often. (For example: "Hey, I haven't been to Bojangles' in nearly a month. I'm due!" Given how unhealthy the food is, the longer I can stave off a craving, the better.) And, after living here for nearly six years, the obsession has worn off over time. But I do still get the craving every once in a while, and on more than one occasion, that craving has been spawned by seeing a discarded box on the side of the road.

Yes, it's true. Advertising by littering works, unfortunately.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NCAA Tournament Yay

I call this "Sports Saturday", even though 100% of this is about the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And, of course, even though today is Wednesday.

Most of my favorite sports teams suck, but Florida State basketball has been the exception the last few years, culminating this year with an ACC Tournament title. Yes! I think they were VERY VERY FORTUNATE to win the ACC this year, but that's what it takes. Acquire enough talent to contend, put your team in position, and if the breaks go your way, great! Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't. This year, they did, time and time again.

But it's not just Florida State that's doing well. Fact is, this might be the best season ever for the immediate Allen family. Not only is my alma mater in the field, but so is Amber's alma mater, Ohio; my mom's alma mater, Michigan State (sure, they're always in, but this year they're a #1 seed); my dad's alma mater, St. Bonaventure, and my brother (and his wife)'s alma mater, South Florida.

This is USF's 3rd-ever tournament, so this isn't really much of a stretch, but this is the first time ever that all five of those teams have been in the same NCAA tournament. Which is going to make the annual family bracket pool interesting. How far is each of us going to take our respective teams? I'm pretty sure at least two of us are going to pick our team to go all the way. As soon as Ohio made the tournament, I knew that effectively eliminated Amber from contention, because if given the opportunity, she always picks Ohio to go all the way. And I will be shocked if my mom doesn't take Michigan State all the way. The USF fans in the pool may not have that opportunity, though, if they lose tonight's First Four game.

Not me, though. I'm pretty sure Ohio State will beat Florida State, if FSU even makes it that far. Oh, did I mention that Florida State is paired up against St. Bonaventure? If the Bonnies win, I'll never hear the end of it. But as someone who has watched a lot of the Seminoles and some of the Bonnies this year, I actually think the Bonnies have a real shot. Still, though, if you're FSU, this is preferable to a matchup against at least two of the other three #14s (annual computer rankings darling Belmont, and the BYU/Iona winner). I thought an FSU/USF first second round matchup was more likely than an FSU/Bona first second round matchup, but maybe it's a good thing that the basketball world will be spared a potential matchup between defensively-oriented Florida State and slow-oriented South Florida. First one to 30 wins!

It's a little strange - and nice at the same time - to see some well-known pundits pick Florida State all the way to the Final Four. It's interesting how people tend to overreact to what just happened last weekend. Easy, folks...let's not get carried away here. If not for a couple of close victories against good teams that weren't at their best, Florida State would be a #5 seed and wouldn't even be looked at as a potential Final Four team. I'm not saying it can't happen, but let's be realistic here. No matter what happens in the tournament, it has still been a wildly successful season - couple of seasons, actually - for Florida State.

Well, either way, tournament success - whether you're a team in the field, or a fan filling out a bracket - mostly comes down to luck. Which is why I don't really put much effort into my bracket picks anymore. I'll never again achieve the greatness that was the #1 overall ranking on ESPN.com on the first Saturday of the 2005 or 2006 tournament (37/38 correct to start the tournament, if I remember correctly). So now I refuse to spend more than, say, five minutes on this each year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

That Social Scrabble-Like Word Game Which Shall Remain Nameless

Over the last few months, I've noticed that many of my Facebook and Twitter friends are playing a game called...well, actually, I'm not going to mention the game by name. It's like Scrabble, except you play it online or through your smartphone against people you know. You know what game I'm talking about. (If you don't, then, good! Let's keep it that way.) I don't want to mention the game by name because then I would be perpetuating the problem. (What problem? I'll get to that.) Instead, I'll just call it "that word game".

I started out playing "that word game" a lot, then slowly started becoming less active and losing interest in it, and eventually just stopped altogether.* Along the way, I completed eight games against four people, going 4-4 in the process. (Yes, I kept stats. I also kept separate won-loss records against individuals, but I won't publish those. Let's just say that some people are better at Scrabble than others.)

(* - You know, this is exactly how things are going with this blog, too, although on a much, much longer time scale. The frequency and/or quality of my blogging will eventually reach zero, will it not? But that's okay, because the nice thing about Facebook/Twitter is that you can get away with infrequent posting. You can go quiet for long periods of time, and your "friends" and "followers" will still be there when you come back. Prior to Facebook/Twitter, you pretty much had to blog frequently in order for people to keep coming back to read your stuff.)

I think I have still have four or five active games, and maybe an outstanding invite or two. But at some point a few weeks back, I just stopped playing. Why? Because it was taking up too much time. To play it well and not, you know, lose every game by 100 (I have some really smart friends), I had to concentrate and really think about every single play. That takes time and effort, which are things I have less and less of every day, it seems. A lot of people play these types of games at work, but I can't really do that. And when I'm at home, there's almost always something going on, and the fewer distractions and/or obligations I have (darn those pesky notifications!), the better. So, yeah, there you go. It was fun while it lasted. Like many things, board games are still far more fun in person. After three our four weeks of inactivity, I uninstalled "that word game" from my phone today.

In any event, don't take it personally that I quit playing our game, or never even got started in the first place. It's not you, it's me. I don't think I can keep up with these types of online social games. But, hey, it was worth a try.

So...why won't I mention "that word game" by its actual name? Mostly because I'm not a big fan of the software company that develops it. (I won't mention the company by name, either, but I will say that it starts with 'Z'.) Their goal is pretty much viral internet domination. If there aren't 20 different messages on your Facebook news feed talking about how all your friends are playing these games, then that's not good enough! I don't really know how good their products are compared to the competition, but I do know that they are expert marketers and have a strong foothold on the industry, and that's why they're doing so well. Their efforts at turning their games into viral obsessions that consume our lives have proven to be quite successful. And, I don't want to contribute to that success. Hopefully this paragraph balanced out the fact that I'm blogging about this at all.

Speaking of online social networking...five months in, I'm still doing Foursquare. My efforts proved to be worthwhile when I became 'mayor' of the Polar Ice House (home of the Triangle Curling Club) last week. Yesss!!!! I'm also the 'mayor' of our church even though we only go every other week (on average), but given the typical demographic that attends church on a weekly basis, I don't have a whole lot of competition there. I'd like to be 'mayor' of our local Kroger, but it appears one grocery trip per week is not good enough to earn mayorship of a grocery store.

No, none of this stuff really matters one bit in the end...it's just a fun thing. I think the key is to not make these social networking things feel like obligations. As in, "Ugh, I'm way behind on 'that word game'", or, "Crap, I haven't checked in here yet, can we wait another minute or two?" Because that's when they stop being fun, and at that point, why bother? I guess it really comes down to how much spare time you have.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Curling Recap: 3/9-3/11/12

I've curled 11 games in the last 5 weekends, which really isn't that many (I played 12 in 3 last year)...but I think I'm a little burned out. Or maybe that's just the Daylight Saving Time-induced tiredness I'm feeling.

Career game #175: 2012 Winter League - March 9, 2012

This was my team's bye week, but Mario asked me to spare for his team this Friday, so I did, giving me another crack at one of the undefeated teams...although this time, as a Lead rather than a Skip.

(my team: Riveron)
End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Scheck....... 0101010 | 03
Riveron...... 1030301 | 08

First off, kudos to our Skip Ryan, who obviously has much bigger balls than I do. "Conservative" could not describe his strategy any worse. We went for it! For example, here was the approximate setup prior to our last shot of the 5th: (our team = red)


The safe play is to draw for two. But, the FUN play is to try to hit the yellow out for THREE, with the obvious risk being that you jam the yellow onto the red. It wasn't a huge risk, but you could end up giving up one in the process when you could have had an easy two, and considering we were leading 4-2 at this point in the game...well, maybe this is why this team was able to beat the mighty Dans, and mine wasn't? I probably have been a little too conservative in my strategy as of late.

I don't think my shot-making as Lead was all that good on Friday, but there's more to playing Lead (or any other position) than just shot-making. I'll get to that later.

Career game #176: 2012 Winter League - March 11, 2012

Amber's second (and perhaps last, at least for a little while) game as Skip! Could she go to 2-0?

(our team: Howard)
End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Hamilton..... 0101032 | 07
Howard....... 1010200 | 04

Not this time, sadly. The ice was much harder to read this week compared to last week, and that's hard for an inexperienced Skip. But really, this game was decided because the other team made their shots when it counted in the last two ends. It was a pretty even game up to that point. Regardless, I'm still really proud of Amber. Fun stat: out of the 14 ends I played over the weekend, only ONCE - in the final end of the weekend - did the team without last rock score a point.

So...let's talk positions! Now is a good time to talk about this after having played Lead on Friday, and Second on Sunday. (11 of the 15 games I've curled this year have been at Skip.) I made an observation this past weekend related to that. On a team with one or more inexperienced curlers - and most teams in our leagues have at least one curlers with less than a year of experience - I can help out a lot more when I'm not the Skip. The Skip is way down there on the other end of the ice, while the Vice and Second are right there and can say things like, "Your weight was pretty good last time, but maybe try this..." Anyway, that sort of thing can really help out our young curlers, and it's rewarding to be a part of that. As Skip, I miss out on that. I also think I'm better than average at sweeping and judging the weight, but the thing is, this is probably like driving. Everyone thinks they are an above average driver, right?

Anyway, the point is, everyone on the team has a role, and I'm trying to figure out which role suits me best: Lead, Second, Vice, or Skip. Where is my ceiling the highest? Let's see if my all-time records by position can help me figure that out...
Lead: 10 wins, 4 losses (winning pct .714)
Second: 15 wins, 12 losses (winning pct .556)
Vice: 43 wins, 32 losses (winning pct .573)
Skip: 35 wins, 25 losses (winning pct .583)

My career winning percentages at Second, Vice, and Skip are remarkably similar! And my winning percentage at Lead is...well, I'll be honest. I think Lead is boring, and it's my least favorite position to play. But given my record at Lead, is it my ideal position? I can't really make that claim, because of the relatively small sample space (14 career games, versus 75 at Vice and 60 at Skip).

And, well, there is just a lot of variability in these records. Let's try splitting it out by local club games (league plus pickup) and competitive bonspiels (including home bonspiels):
Lead: 7-3 club, 3-1 competitive
Second: 10-7 club, 5-5 competitive
Vice: 30-24 club, 13-8 competitive
Skip: 32-15 club, 3-10 competitive

Based on this, I'd say my ideal position is Skip in our club leagues, and Vice at competitive events. I'd say that's about right, and that's a good place to be, too.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Hooded Sweatshirts

Winter's pretty much over around here. But there's still time to extoll the virtues of my new favorite winter clothing item: the hooded sweatshirt with hand warmer.


Are they fashionable? Of course not. But that's never been a priority for me anyway.

Are they practical? Heck yeah! Why wear and/or carry around an extra hat or gloves when a hooded sweatshirt with hand warmer can cover both bases, on demand, whenever you need them?

Are they comfortable? You know it!

Sadly, hooded sweatshirt season is just about over. Even though it still gets cold in the morning, jackets are more practical this time of year, because they're easier to remove once it warms up above my 60°F threshold in the afternoon. But that's okay, because hooded sweatshirt season will soon give way to hammock season.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Curling Recap: 3/2-3/4/12

Two games to recap this week. I'll try to get through the first one quickly:

Career game #173: 2012 Winter League - March 2, 2012

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Allen........ 0000220 | 04
K. Jackson... 2113001 | 08

To give you an idea of how this game went, here is the last rock of the 1st end: (our team = red)


It's shots like these that make me question my ability and worthiness as Skip. I can't make, or even call, these types of shots. It was a big shot, too, because instead of scoring one, we gave up two. In the next three ends, both teams made their share of shots, including me...but every time I would make a shot, opposing Skip Kathy would make an even better shot that I couldn't touch. (For example: I'll draw to the button, and then she'll draw to the button and tap my rock just far enough so that I can't possibly get rid of her rock with my final shot.) The only real important shot that I completely whiffed on was my last rock of the 4th end, which I threw through the house. But really, when you have to make every shot just to keep the game close, and missing a single shot means giving up a back-breaking three, that means you're getting outplayed at some level. We were never in position in the first four ends to score more than two, or maybe even one.

We did play well the rest of the way, but by then, it was too late. I've had some impressive comebacks in my career, but not this time. (Part of me thinks Kathy was being nice to us towards the end, too.)

Now...the Sunday game. The usual Skip and Vice of Amber's Sunday League team (the Howards) were out of town, which meant two things: 1) The reunification of The Underdogs team from last year's Kayser (and other bonspiels and leagues)! 2) According to Triangle Curling Club league rules, substitutes (Justin V. and me, both of whom are Skipping in the Friday League) are not allowed to play Skip, because that could potentially give their team an unfair advantage. (Whether a team would truly benefit from having me come in off the bench as their Skip is debatable. but those are the rules.) So, who played Skip for us on Sunday? Amber! This would be her first ever game as Skip.

Career game #174: 2012 Winter League (Sunday) - March 4, 2012
(our team: Howard)

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Howard....... 1200004 | 07
Franklin..... 0011110 | 04

Since this was her first time calling the shots, I offered to help her out, and I gave her some tips before the game. But once the game started, Amber didn't want to feel like her every move was being scrutinized or critiqued throughout the game*, so from the first shot onward, I never questioned a thing, I kept my mouth shut, and simply let her call the shots. And, that was the right thing to do. She did a great job with the strategy, certainly a heck of a lot better with strategy than I did in my first game as Skip (November 21, 2008), in which we missed take-out after take-out after take-out, usually due to me having no idea where to put the broom, and we gave up some big ends in the process. (You know, not much has changed since then!)

(* - Yes, I realize that her knowing I would blog about it afterwards in detail probably didn't help, either. This is the life I've chosen for myself. Everything must be documented.)

Calling the strategy is only half the battle, of course; there's also the shot-making. Now, when I miss a shot as Skip, especially a big shot, I get pretty frustrated, and usually walk away muttering obscenities to myself or something. (That's what happened on Friday, anyway.) Not Amber! If she misses a shot - and let's face it, everyone misses shots - no big deal, she moves on. And that better prepared her for the GAME WINNING TAKE-OUT. The setup prior to the last shot of the game:


Sure, it looks easy, BUT...this is arena ice, where no take-out is easy. And, the ice was more swingy in this direction than usual, so you didn't have much room for error. If you're off the broom by even a little bit, you're toast. Oh, and did I mention this was FOR THE WIN?

Amber made the shot, and we ended up scoring four points for good measure. Victory! Amber's career record as Skip is now 1-0!

Amber said she had a lot of fun, and she might just do it again next week! And more power to her, because if recent trends continue, I might want her to Skip our bonspiel teams this summer.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Contagiousness

The curling recaps will have to wait another day, because, well, I don't feel like it. I have some kind of cold or flu or something.

(Actually, it's not the flu. The flu test at the doctor's office came up negative. In a way it was a disappointing test result, because now I don't feel as validated.)

Well, anyway...I used to almost never get sick. One sick day per year, maybe two, was all I needed. But since we had Marla, it seems like I've been getting sick an awful lot. Coincidence?

Having another human germ carrier living in the house with you, one who regularly attends a school or day care, can't help. Schools and day cares are basically cesspools of germs. How else would Marla have gotten the chickenpox at a mere four months?

But at the same time, chickenpox aside, I don't think Marla has gotten sick as often as many babies. So, who knows. Maybe she just handles adversity better than I do.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Sports Saturday: 3/3/12

Outside of football season, I think once every two weeks is about right for this.

College basketball

Oh, to be a Florida State basketball fan this season. Three wins at the buzzer! They won't always be this fortunate. It's a good feeling to be solidly in the NCAA Tournament at this point. If they lose this weekend...meh, no big deal. I may not even watch. Sure, this Sunday's game will theoretically affect their NCAA Tournament seeding, but I don't think there's much of a difference between a 5 and a 7, which is where the Seminoles are projected. Regardless, to be merely worried about seeding at this point in the season is a luxury. Clemson at Florida State - Sun 12:00p, ESPN2

With the tournament coming up, I don't want to overload on college basketball too much right now, so I have to pick and choose:

North Carolina at Duke (Sat 7:00p, ESPN): I know someone who somehow scored a free ticket to this game...and then sold it for $3,000. Yeah, I'd have sold it, too.
West Virginia at South Florida (Sat 12:00p, MASN): I don't think I've said a thing about USF all season, but as a team squarely on the tournament bubble, they've been the most fun team to watch the last few weeks.
Any conference championship game: Because these can be fun, too...
- Big South Championship: Sat 12:00p, ESPN2
- Ohio Valley Championship: Sat 2:00p, ESPN2
- Atlantic Sun Championship: Sat 7:00p, ESPN2
- Missouri Valley Championship: Sun 2:00p, CBS

Auto racing

When the Daytona 500 was rescheduled for Monday at 7, I was a little concerned. One thing I like about NASCAR is that they race when I'm awake, and never late on a school night. If the Monday primetime Daytona 500 did well in the ratings, then would this mean more weeknight NASCAR racing in the future? Nooooooo! Well, fortunately, the Daytona 500's final TV rating was actually worse than last year's Sunday afternoon number. Perhaps I can thank Danica Patrick (who crashed on lap 2) and Juan Pablo Montoya (we all know what he did) for that. Don't get any ideas, NASCAR! Stay on Sunday afternoons where you belong, please.

Daytona is fun, but it is its own separate entity, so you never really know what everyone's got until you get to a real race track with real racing. That's why I always look forward to the 2nd race of the season, especially with as many changes as we've seen since last year. I've always wondered how a champion driver would perform with a low budget team. With Kurt Busch and Phoenix Racing, now we have that opportunity. NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix - Sun 3:00p, FOX

NHL

The trade deadline came and went, and the Carolina Hurricanes - who are in no position to make a run at a playoffs and thus would have been a 'seller' - did absolutely nothing. I could criticize, but...as a Florida Panthers fan way back when, I would always get frustrated when the team would always trade its best players at the trade deadline, make no attempt to re-sign them, and forever be a young team in rebuilding year after year. You've got to try to pay some of those players, right? So, at least the Hurricanes aren't letting everyone walk. Fact is, I don't know a thing about how one would assemble a winning NHL team, so... Tampa Bay at Carolina - Sat 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

Unless the Hurricanes make a surprise run at the playoffs (ha!), hockey discussion will return once the playoffs start.

Soccer

Soccer is pretty much the only sport where exhibition games (a.k.a. "friendlies") are watchable, and actually matter. Does the United States beating Italy on Wednesday (which I watched, by the way) matter? Well, certainly more so than if your favorite NFL team wins its first preseason game.

So, that's one random thought on soccer. Here's another. I think Raleigh should pursue a Major League Soccer expansion team. We could totally support it. Support for the minor league Carolina Railhawks is pretty good. Double or triple the capacity of WakeMed Soccer Park, and we're all set. How about it? I might pay more attention to the MLS if we had our own team.

Speaking of the MLS, I think it's interesting that English Premier League games currently get more attention and better ratings in the United States than Major League Soccer games. Is that the MLS's fault?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Marla Picture Dump: February 2012

I take a lot of pictures of Marla on my phone that never get posted, tweeted, or anything. Amber posts a lot of Marla pictures on Facebook, but not everyone gets to see those.

So now I present the "end of the month Marla picture dump"! At the end of every month (approximately), I'll upload a few Marla pictures from my phone that I've taken over the past month. (This and this can serve as a January picture dump, perhaps.)

It looks like all I have from February are a bunch of pictures from the neighborhood playground, plus a token picture or two from today. I'm not even going to try to order them. This is a "picture dump", after all.








We were originally going to take Marla (who is now 7 months old, by the way) on a mini road trip last weekend, but Mommy and Daddy didn't feel well, so we scrapped those plans. Maybe this weekend? We need to get one or two more mini-drives in before we try going all the way to New Jersey near the end of March.