Thursday, August 30, 2012

Co-ed Kickball: Season 6 Preview

(First off, we'll be spending Labor Day weekend in Jacksonville, a trip that will include Marla's first ever beach day. Enjoy your weekend!)

Two months ago, our kickball team - whose all-time record is still well under .500, mind you - won our first league title. Now it's time to defend!

The "regular season" doesn't start until after Labor Day, but we did play two "preseason" games this week, denoted as such because both practices were rained out. "Preseason" or not, I still counted them in my stats, because the games were still officiated normally (for the most part), and whether a game "counts" or not is kind of arbitrary, to me. Fact is, we're out there regardless, and it's not like the town of Knightdale really publishes the standings anyway, so just because the town says a game "doesn't count" doesn't mean I shouldn't count it. I mean, it's still kickball. (Mid-season forfeit games are usually not played "normally" or "seriously", and so I don't count those.) Well, anyway, we won both games this week by wide margins (5-0 and 12-1), but that's usually how it goes early the season with us. The challenge will come later on. I mean, we are the defending champions. Everybody will be gunning for us! Or, instead, maybe we'll intimidate them all into submission. (Ha!)

Actually, our biggest challenge might just be fielding a legal team week in and week out. Since this is "co-ed" kickball, each team must have three females in the field at all times, and if you don't have three females with you on any given night, you forfeit. That's how we "won" our first playoff game last season, but it could work against us this season, because we only have four women on the roster, and one of those four is Amber, who won't be there every game. So...hmm. (Note: the three female rule wasn't enforced in preseason, and we only had two females last night, so you could argue that since I am counting the game in my stats, that I should have counted it as a loss...but, no, I'm not doing that.)

I guess as long as we have enough females in the playoff games, that's all that really matters, since everybody makes the playoffs no matter what. But it does make me wonder what the future of the team is. The women keep getting pregnant and having kids, and while our roster is growing, all of our new recruits are men. How long can we keep the team together?

The only major rule change this year was supposed to be a slight shift of the bunt line back a few feet, but that wasn't the case last night, so...who knows? Let's assume the bunt line is moved back. Can I still bunt! Sure! I just need to bunt it a little bit harder. Just "tapping" it down the line may not always be enough anymore. I learned that in my first at-bat of the first preseason game (in which the bunt line was moved back). We'll see at the end of the season how much it affects my batting average, which is still a healthy .704 career.

(Other statistical notes: last night I played in my 50th career game and scored my 50th career run; my next RBI will be my 10th career RBI; and my next at-bat will be my 200th career AB. I also need two more strikeouts to reach 50 for my career, but due to the smaller strike zone - retained from last season - I may not get that for a while. I'm also likely to play fewer games this season than in any other season, even counting the preseason games; between Marla duty and an upcoming vacation, I'm only slated to play in four of our eight regular season games.)

That should just about do it. Goooooo team! Let's get two in a row!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Car Stereo Volume

One day, I was curious about something. How high does the volume on my car stereo go?

I wasn't thinking so much in terms of "how loud can I get it to go"; I was actually thinking in terms of numbers. Normally I keep the volume somewhere between '4' and about '14', depending on what I'm listening to ('4' to '7' for CDs, '9' to '11' for music on the radio, '12' to '14' for talk radio). But how high does it go? Surely, there must be a maximum volume, right?

Well, to find out, I tuned it to a low volume radio station, rolled down the windows, and turned the volume up to the max and then back down really really quickly so as to not bust my eardrums, but long enough to find out what the maximum available setting is. Ideally, the thing to do would have been to insert a CD with a long silent stretch, skip to that part of the CD, and then perform the experiment, but I didn't feel like going to that much trouble.

So, anyway, it turns out the maximum volume setting on my car is 40. Woo. Not that I'll ever need to turn the radio that high, but it's good to know I could if I wanted to.

On Amber's car stereo - in which the volume increases much more rapidly with each tick, to the point where we almost never use a setting higher than '7' or '8' - the maximum is 34. Although it doesn't actually say '34', it just says 'MAX', and 'MAX' happens to be one tick above '33'. It's possible that '33' and 'MAX' are actually the same volume, and that the 'MAX' message that appears is really just the car telling me "33 is as high as it goes, sorry", but trying to determine if there's a difference between '33' and 'MAX' isn't something I was interested in doing. I think that decreasing the volume from 'MAX' resulted in a '33' setting, which would imply that 'MAX' was indeed '34', but I'd have to double check that.

But wait, there's more! Both Amber's car and my car feature speed-sensitive volume controls. The faster you go, the louder the volume on the stereo gets, to compensate for road noise; this way, you don't have to keep adjusting the volume when you stop and go. I think it's a great feature. But does this particular setting affect the max volume? Because '40' with speed-sensitive volume on is going to be a heck of a lot louder (in theory) than '40' with that setting off. So if you can crank it up to '40' with speed-sensitive volume off, maybe it only lets you go up to '30' with that setting on?

I didn't have a chance to test this in Amber's car, but in my car, the maximum is '40' regardless of the speed-sensitive volume setting. That means if I were interested in experiencing the true maximum volume of my car's stereo, the thing to do would be to turn the volume to 40, set the speed-sensitive volume setting to 'HIGH' ('LOW', 'MED', and 'OFF' are the other available settings), and drive as fast as I can! And wear earplugs, perhaps.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Toll Roads: North Carolina v. Florida

Another section of North Carolina's first toll road opened up at the beginning of the month. As you might expect, I drove it the very day it opened! (That's covered here on another blog.) Of course, I also had incentive not to wait another day to drive it; tolls on the new section didn't start until Day 2.

The first section of North Carolina's first toll road, which has been open since last December, has had some trouble getting people to, you know, drive it. Every time I pass by it, there is hardly anybody on it, especially on weekends. This "Phase II" section solves more of a need, though, and has already been getting more traffic than "Phase I". (Disclaimer - that's the first of many unsourced claims I'll be making in this post.)

View Larger Map

A to B is Phase I; B to C is Phase II, if you ignore the blue line. It's interesting that even though the new expressway appears on Google Maps, its driving directions refuse to use it. Is Google as anti-toll as most of the Triangle appears to be?

On that front, let's shift gears and head down to Central and South Florida, where toll roads are pretty much everywhere.

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If I'm not mistaken, every single expressway on the map above, aside from I-4, is a toll road. Seems to me that this is how you have to do it if you want people to use them. You can't just have one toll road; if you just have one, it's too easy to avoid, and it comes across as "unfair" to those that do have to use it. (It is a major point of contention among Western Wake County residents that their section of 540 is free, while the Western Wake 540 is not.) One way around that is to make nearly everything toll. Or, if you have a major river or other waterway in the middle of your city, you could do like in New York City and only place tolls on all of the bridges, thereby making tolls unavoidable. You have to cross that river somehow, you know. a perfect world, having lots of toll roads instead of just one would allow you to decrease the price on all of them, compared to what the Triangle Expressway is costing ($2.35 for a 10-mile journey, or $1.53 if you have a transponder). But...that's not really what happens, of course. I drove the Central Florida GreeneWay (SR 417) on my way back from Tampa, and the 54-mile journey on that road cost me $8.25 (that's the non-transponder rate), which is only slightly cheaper per mile than the TriEx.

Was it worth the $8.25? Well, no...the idea was to bypass I-4 through Orlando, which is hardly an enjoyable drive. But is I-4 even less enjoyable than having to stop and pay at five toll booths? Not so much. Once North Carolina's transponders work in other states, including Florida, I might consider taking the GreeneWay again, because SR 417 does support high speed tolling...if you have a transponder. But until then, forget it. The way North Carolina does it - no toll booths at all, transponder or no transponder - is obviously the future, but I imagine it's hard and/or expensive to retrofit a system such as Orlando's.

But while North Carolina's tolling system is more high tech, Florida's toll roads get far, far more traffic. I guess it doesn't really matter how high tech your tolling system is if people don't want to pay, or if the toll roads don't satisfy a widespread need. "Phase III" (opening by the end of the year) extends the expressway down to Holly Springs and bypasses a major bottleneck that badly needs circumvention: two-lane NC-55 through downtown Apex. Certainly, the opening of "Phase III" will result in many more toll-paying customers.

I imagine that Florida's toll roads faced a similar plight to North Carolina's once they first opened. It takes several years for toll roads to become "part of the local culture" and/or "grudgingly accepted" to the point where people just take them without thinking about it. So, we'll see how much traffic the Triangle Expressway gets long term, and how long it takes North Carolina to pay off their debt via toll revenue. (Hint: it'll probably be a while.)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sports Saturday-ish: 8/24/12

Normally I wait until college football season begins to start these back up, but I'll be out of town next weekend, so...yeah.

MLB - The Washington Nationals not only made out of my self-imposed "Olympic Break from all non-Olympic sports" in first place, they're in even better position now. They have the best record in the Major Leagues, lead the division by 6.5 games, only have one real threat to win said division (3rd place in the division is 19.5 back), and have a 99.7% chance of making the playoffs according to Sports Club Stats (93% of winning the division). Now I have a reason to keep watching! This time of year, that's unusual, being a Nationals fan.

So...let's talk about Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' star pitcher. Since he's still only two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the team is "shutting him down" for the rest of the season in mid-September (ish). This is what most national media outlets talk about when they talk about the Nationals (well, that and Bryce Harper). Let him play, they say!

Personally, I think we're overblowing this a little bit. (The national sports media overblowing a storyline? Never!) Let's even disregard the medical implications. We're talking about, what, two or three regular season starts? No big deal. Of course, the playoffs - should the Nationals make it, of course - are a bigger deal, but the playoffs are kind of a crap shoot to begin with. And you only need four starters in the playoffs anyway, and I think the other Nationals starters are more than capable. I guess what I'm saying is, it is very unlikely that sitting or playing Strasburg is going to be the only difference between winning the World Series and not, so you may as well follow the doctor's advice.

But is it that pitchers could pitch 300-plus innings back in the early 20th century, but now, even 200 innings is considered a heavy workload? Did those guys just have shorter careers back then as a result, or more frequent career-ending injuries, compared to now? I'm honestly curious. Also, if the team going to be giving Strasburg this treatment, then they better be prepared to keep him around into his mid-30s, as opposed to letting him, you know, sign with the Yankees as soon as he hits free agency.

Washington at Philadelphia - Fri 7:00p, Sat 7:00p, Sun 1:30p; MASN

NFL - It's time for obligatory words regarding Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout!

Sure, it'd be nice if your team's most recognizeable player, and the NFL's leading rusher from last year, was on your team, rather than holding out for a better contract. But running back is one of the more easily replaceable positions on the team, the offense has looked pretty good in preseason without him (through two games - haven't watched last night's Baltimore game yet), and the Jaguars seem to hold most of the leverage in the negotiations here. Jones-Drew will be back. Probably. This would a bigger deal to me if Jacksonville were on the cusp of a Super Bowl run. But I would consider an 8-8 season in 2012 to be a success, depending on how improved franchise quarterback Blaine Gabbert is throughout.

This week, the team announced that starting next year, they'll be playing one home game in London each season through 2016. Well, it makes sense to me. If ticket sales aren't where you want them to be, then decrease supply! That's basic economics. I'm sure that's part of it, but according to owner Shad Khan, this is also about increasing the visibility of the franchise worldwide, which I think is also a good thing for the team. It is, however, also important for me that this team remain the Jacksonville Jaguars, because that's the only reason I root for them. Shipping one out of eight home games overseas doesn't make this any less Jacksonville's team, but could one non-Jacksonville home game per season lead to two or more non-Jacksonville home games in future seasons? I guess we'll revisit this issue in four years and see where we are.

Jacksonville at Baltimore - Sat 12:00a, NFL Network (tape delay)

College football - My college football preview is going to be pretty short.

Florida State is being picked by many to win the ACC, and by some to win the National Championship. In other words, this preseason is just like every other preseason, which means these "predictions" have absolutely no bearing on what might actually happen...just like every other year. Yawn. Let's just play the games already. (FSU starts with two cupcakes, and doesn't really start their season until Game 3 versus Wake Forest.)

Penn State, of course, is basically just playing for fun this year. (And the next year, and the year after that...) In a way, I'm actually kind of looking forward to watching the team without the pressure of, you know, everything hanging in the balance. On the other hand, it'll probably be hard to get excited about all those games against opponents not named "Ohio State" or "Michigan" (the latter of which they don't even play this year). Purdue? Illinois? Iowa? You know what, guys, y'all can have it...this year. Maybe even next year, too.

Soccer - Last year, I watched several English Premier League games for the first time...but that interest only really lasted for a couple of weeks. Well, August is traditionally one of the deadest sports months of the year, so it's a great time to get back into the EPL! Except...I've found something even better. (Or worse.)

This week, I discovered a brand new soccer channel deep in the depths of the DirecTV Sports Pack called "beIN Sport". It's owned by Al Jazeera (yes, that Al Jazeera), and it just launched, like, last week. (Or maybe the week before?) Apparently Al Jazeera decided some time ago they wanted to start up an American soccer channel, and they then proceeded to buy up a bunch of the rights to various European soccer leagues (including the top leagues of Spain, Italy, and France, and the next level down from the EPL, the "Football League Championship"), plus various other soccer rights, including South American World Cup qualifiers. And, bam, new TV station! They're already on DirecTV and DISH, but I'm not sure how much cable coverage they have yet (if any).

So, anyway...while I've been unable to really get into the English Premier League (which, should be noted, is still on ESPN and FOX Soccer just like last year), I think I might be able to get into the beIN Sport-televised French league, "Ligue 1". Why? Because I like France. It's more interesting for me to watch a game between, say, Lyon and Marseille, then a game between Manchester Whatever and one of the two billion London-based teams. And that's even when considering that the picture quality on the Ligue 1 games is far inferior to what you get with an EPL broadcast. (Sure, they say it's High Definition, but...I'm skeptical.)

Ligue 1 isn't getting off to a good start, though. So far I've watched two games (one of which was not a Ligue 1 game, technically, but did involve a Ligue 1 team), and both games ended 0-0. That's 180 minutes of scoreless soccer. Yuck. You guys do occasionally score, right? Right?

Turns out that, according to Wikipedia, not only is Ligue 1 often lower scoring than other European soccer leagues such as the EPL, but Ligue 1 teams usually flame out spectacularly in major European tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League. So evidently, if you like crappy soccer, Ligue 1 it is! In a way, all this actually makes these French footballers a little more endearing, to me. But we'll see how long this infatuation lasts. (Probably just until American football season starts.) many of these games will end 0-0? (No, I certainly do not plan on watching all of them, but dammit, I am going to see at least one goal scored in a Ligue 1 game this weekend.)
Fri 2:30p - Evian v. Lyon, beIN
Sat 7:00p - Nice v. Lille, beIN
Sun 3:00a - Valenciennes v. Ajaccio, beIN
Sun 8:00a - Montpelier v. Marseille, beIN
Sun 11:00a - Paris Saint Germain v. Bordeaux, beIN

Auto racing - One quick thought here: I'll be interested to see how the racing is on the recently re-re-configured Bristol. That is all.
Sat 7:30p - NASCAR Sprint Cup at Bristol, ABC

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Lame Uncomprehensive Tour of Tampa Bay

Last Monday evening, while in Tampa for work, I had some time to kill, and a rental car. Let's go somewhere! But not somewhere too far, because I only had a couple of hours; otherwise, I might have gone all the way down to Naples or something.

I've been to Tampa a lot. My brother went to the University of South Florida and met his wife there; and, of course, there's Busch Gardens; and it it's only 3½ hours from Jacksonville. There was actually a time where I knew the road layout of Tampa Bay - Pinellas County in particular - better than any other area in which I've never lived. (Today, Toledo is the city I know the best among places I've never lived. Charlotte comes next, followed by Tampa/St. Petersburg, Washington, and then Pittsburgh.) So, there isn't really a whole lot of "exploring" for me to do in this area. I know the area fairly well for someone who's never lived there.

But, actually, I don't think I've spent much time in downtown Tampa itself. Why? Well...I don't like downtowns in general, for starters, because they're too crowded, and it's too hard to find parking. As far as Tampa's downtown goes, it just seems...generic. Just down the road, downtown St. Petersburg has a little more character, and also not so many skyscrapers, so I think it's a little more interesting. (Downtown Tampa does have Ybor City, but I've never been there, and don't really know what the appeal there is. But I could have walked there from my hotel, which actually made it a less appealing place to go given that I had a car.)

With that, here is my two-hour "Lame Uncomprehensive Tour of Tampa Bay", in which I take a bridge I've never taken before to downtown St. Petersburg, and then go back by way of a different bridge (two bridges, actually) and a certain Florida-based grocery store:

View Larger Map

Point B - The Gandy Bridge, a.k.a. the "other" bridge-slash-causeway over Tampa Bay. Locals don't refer to it as the "other" bridge (as far as I know), I'm just calling it that because while I've taken SR 60 and I-275 over Tampa Bay a bunch, I don't think I've ever taken US 92 over Tampa Bay. And I thought I'd take Bayshore Blvd while I was at it, because I've never really been down the "Interbay Peninsula", either.

You know...having this giant body of water right in the middle of your major metropolitan area is kind of inconvenient, isn't it?

Point C - The IndyCar race track, near (in?) downtown St. Petersburg. IndyCar has raced on a temporary street circuit here for a few years now. I didn't think I would be able to drive the length of the race track given that part of it is on an airport runway, but hey, it was worth a shot, right? Pictured below is Turn 10, which leads onto the recently renamed Dan Wheldon Way.

This area of town (also known as Albert Whitted Park) was quite busy with joggers and such. The folks pictured above were in the midst of guided tour of St. Petersburg by Segway. (Good to know those things are still in use, somewhere.) I overheard the tour guide mention that St. Petersburg recently extended their contract with IndyCar to host the race through 2017 or so, in part because the race is very profitable.

(Side comment about IndyCar: I think street circuit races are boring and that there are too many of them, but if the St. Petersburg race is "very profitable", then that must be why there are so many of them now.)

Point D - The Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Yeah, I've crossed this bridge before, but I've never driven over the bridge. Besides, why not go back into town a different way?

Point E - Publix (Riverview, FL). While everyone else at the conference likely went to some trendy restaurant for dinner, I got fried chicken and chocolate chip cookies from Publix. You know you're jealous.

After that obligatory stop at my favorite grocery store (no Florida trip is complete without one!), my Garmin GPS (a.k.a. Jill - still going strong!) really, really, really wanted me to take the Selmon Expressway, a toll road, back to the hotel. But I refused. Not because I'm against toll roads, but because the Selmon Expressway is an electronic-only toll road, and I was driving a rental car, and I didn't want to get a ridiculously high bill in the mail some time later, or in trouble with my employer for incurring unnecessary toll charges with my rental car. Maybe if/when we come back to Tampa with our own car, then we can take the Selmon Expressway. Surely, NC Quick Pass and Florida's Sun Pass will be compatible by then, right?

And that is my Lame Uncomprehensive Tour of Tampa Bay. In conclusion, here are some storm clouds.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Work Travel

Last week, in my first work-related travel in over six years on the job, I spent two days in Tampa attending a conference.

(Note #1: this was completely unrelated to the upcoming Republican National Convention. In fact, given that the conference consisted mostly of EPA employees, EPA contractors (that's me), and state air quality agencies, perhaps the conference I attended is the polar opposite of the Republican National Convention.)

(Note #2: I also attended a conference in Chapel Hill for work a couple of years ago, but that doesn't count.)

Why did I go six years without traveling for work? Well, with my job, there's really no need. We deal with regulatory stuff rather than research, so it's not really appropriate for us to present our work at conferences. (Our EPA clients often do, but that is appropriate, since they're the decision makers.) And the EPA folks we work with are all right down the street, so there's no need for big "get togethers" and whatnot for business purposes. In fact, the main reason I went to Tampa was for a training seminar, rather than to attend the conference itself.

Amber, meanwhile, used to travel a lot for work, both domestically (Green Bay, Baltimore, maybe a couple of other places?) and internationally (Mexico, Switzerland, India, Italy). She got off of those projects once we started our family, which in a way is too bad, because only after she stopped traveling did conferences in really nice places like Vancouver and Sydney come up on the would-be itinerary. I never went to any of those places with Amber, but I might have gone to Vancouver or Sydney with her.

Pretty much everyone from the Triangle who attended the conference flew to Tampa, of course. But I like driving, and the cost of a rental car plus fuel would be about the same as the cost of a round trip plane ticket, so my company let me drive. Hooray! But if the conference were any farther away, I think I would have opted to fly; at 650 miles, Tampa is about the farthest away conference location I can justify driving to instead of flying, unless we were going to take the entire family and extend our stay or something. (Statistical note: I haven't flown in any capacity since March 2008.)

Given that it took six years to attend my first out-of-town conference, it'll probably be a while before number two comes up. But suppose I do travel again for work sometime. Where in the country would they send me? (It's practically an impossibility that they would send me out of the country.)

Well, here's where the last several of EPA's "Emission Inventory Conferences" have been held, prior to this year: San Antonio, Baltimore, Portland (Ore.), Raleigh, New Orleans, Las Vegas, San Diego, Clearwater, Atlanta, and Denver. You know, except for Baltimore - and, let's be honest, Raleigh - they usually put these conferences in some pretty nice places. Let's go! (Although thanks to the GSA, it'll probably be a while before we have another government-sponsored conference in Las Vegas.)

Actually, once every six years is fine. I'm glad I don't have a job that sends me somewhere every single month. I'd miss my family too much.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Curling Child Care

This post really isn't so much about curling as it is about logistics. When you're a couple of parents who enjoy curling, and also happen to enjoy curling with each other (that's not true for every couple), how do you make that happen? And is it worth it?

I've talked about this before, but we've decided it's not worth it to get a babysitter every week during the "regular curling season". So, I curl in the Friday league, and Amber curls in the Sunday league. (By the way, we're very fortunate that the Triangle Curling Club can now support two leagues. What would we have done pre-2010 when the club only curled once a week?) But during this month's bonspiel adventures, we did want to curl together; same goes for the other half of our team, Justin and Tabby, who also have a young child (8 months old).

How'd we work that out? For the Carolina Classic (at home), our first game was Friday at 11 AM, so we simply took Marla to her normal day care in the morning, just like always. Easy! But for the remaining four games, since Amber and Tabby were alternating games, the plan was for whoever was sitting out to watch both kids during the game.

That worked out...okay. The nice thing was that occasionally, other people from the would be around and want to help out with the "baby care" so that the designated babysitter wasn't too overwhelmed. (A big thank you to those that did!) But once the games are over and we're off the ice, it's back to being parents, and as such, we didn't really have a chance to socialize after the games as much as we otherwise would have. And, we hardly helped the club out at all with the running of the Classic, which we did quite a bit in years past.

When we went to Charlotte, we had a different plan, one that might help us "enjoy" the bonspiel experience a little more. Even though there was on-site day care within the rink, we decided it might be better to get an "off-site" babysitter so that we could socialize more before and after the games. (Socializing is one of the best parts of bonspieling.) This was a bit more expensive, but we were able to share the cost between all of us, at least ($12/hour for the two kids, and we ended up doing about 16 hours total for the weekend). I think it was worth it. Things didn't seem quite as overwhelming in Charlotte.

However...if you have an 8 PM game (as we did on Friday), then you're going to mess up bed time a little bit. Marla's usual bed time is 7, and she apparently slept pretty well from 7 until 11. But once we had to pick her up after our game and take her to back our hotel for the night, well...she did not want to go back to sleep. Maybe by 2 or 3 AM or so, we finally got her to sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time. So, the result was (at least) two pretty tired parents on Saturday. Aside from losing both of our Saturday games, we also feel like we missed out on, you know, being "awake and alert" that day.

Saturday night was better for Marla's sleep schedule, because we picked up Marla around 6 PM and took her to the bonspiel banquet with us, but since Marla was with us, that also meant leaving the banquet at 8, much earlier than everyone else. But she did sleep better the second night.

You always hear about "the sacrifices" parents make, right? Well, here you go. From 2007-2010, 102 of my 119 games (86%) were with Amber on my team; in 2011-2012, only 15 of my 75 games (20%) were with Amber (7 of 66 before this month). And leaving the banquet early really felt like we were missing out on all the fun, but you know, I think we're still doing a lot more than many young parents do. Some couples that were in our curling club stopped curling altogether once they had kids. And it's not that we're curling less post-Marla, necessarily; it's that we're able to curl together much less, and that traveling out of town to curl together is now much harder, to the point where we need to re-evaluate things. When will we go out of town to a bonspiel again? I'm not sure.

Also, I'm pretty sure I was a better curler pre-Marla than I am now, perhaps due to sleep deprivation. My career record as a Skip - the position where concentration is, by far, most important - is 27-13 pre-Marla, and 8-17 post-Marla. Maybe it's not fair to blame Marla for that,! Well, regardless, Marla is worth it. But I think the moral of the story is, if you're my age and want to be a really good curler, don't have children. (Note: Debbie McCormick does not have any children.)

Well, maybe one day, Marla and kid number two* will be able to go curling with us when we travel! That'll be fun.

(* - There was some confusion last time I made a reference to "kid number two", as if we were already preheating the oven, so to speak. So just to clarify...NO, Amber is NOT pregnant again, and it'll be a while.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Charlotte "Grits 'n Granite" Bonspiel: Recap

We had a great time curling at the Charlotte Centre Curling Club's inaugural "Grits 'n Granite" bonspiel last weekend. Hooray! It's great to see our neighbor club prospering.

Now, before I go any further, the usual "this post isn't my best work" disclaimer. (This time, I really mean it!) Usually, I write these curling recaps the Monday or Tuesday after, while everything is still fresh in my mind. But since I went straight to Tampa from Charlotte last Sunday, I didn't have time to write this up (or even think about it, really) until I got back on Thursday. And, so, some of the details of our four games have escaped me. (Although I do have the end-by-end scores, which I write down immediately after each game.) And, given that we've played nine games in two weeks now, these games are all starting to run together a little bit. Which game was that crazy triple takeout in, again? (Actually, I do remember which game that was in, but I don't remember the shot well enough to diagram. It might be a different story if we got the triple instead of our opponent, photo! Same as last week, except without our "hired gun". (The on-ice photos are courtesy of the Charlotte Centre Curling Club. They took a staggering number of photos, all of which are posted here.)

Our "hired gun" from last week (Debbie McCormick) was also here in Charlotte, and also curled with an auction-winning team (although with her husband Pete at Vice).

So, first off, how well did we do without Debbie, compared to with? Well...last week, we went 4-1 and won the "bronze medal" of sorts (lost in the semifinals, won the subsequent consolation game). This week? 1-3. Now...sure, home ice advantage is also a factor here, but I think Debbie was a bigger factor.

Meanwhile, Debbie's Charlotte team went 3-1 and won the "silver medal" of sorts, losing in the final. On paper, that's one spot better than we could do the previous weekend. But I think it's pretty much a wash, when you consider that both of Debbie's teams last week and this week lost only to the eventual champion, and nobody else. (I'd love to see the Carolina Classic champions and the Grits 'n Granite champions face off against each other, by the way.)

Game one!

Career game #191: Charlotte Grits 'n Granite, first game
Friday, August 10, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (Vos)......... 00300010 | 04
Plainfield (Baird)..... 21011201 | 08

In my preview, I gave us a 20% chance of victory in this first game; in hindsight, I think that was a fair assessment. They're better than us, but it did take them a few ends (four, specifically) to find their "curling legs". From the midpoint on, we had a hard time getting anything going, although the game did technically come down to the last shot (or at least the next-to-last shot). We had a difficult hit for three in the 8th end that didn't quite work out, and even if it did, we didn't have last rock anyway.

That's the extent of my analysis of Game 1, but I'll also say this about the other team. I think that curling even twice a week is a luxury, but one of their curlers (Carl? Mark? See, these are the details you lose when you wait several days to write these up) said that during the season up at Plainfield, he would curl in four separate leagues, Sunday through Wednesday. And then on weekends in which he curled in bonspiels (most weekends), he would also then curl Thursday through Saturday, giving him seven days of curling a week during the season! Wow. Safe to say he's likely curled far more in just 18 months (that's how long he's been at it) than I have in my five-plus years. Someday, we'll have daily leagues, too, and the rest of us can go nuts with curling, too.

Career game #192: Charlotte Grits 'n Granite, second game
Friday, August 10, 2012

End....................... 12345678 |TTL
Pittsburgh (Marchitelli).. 0000013- | 04
Triangle (Vos)............ 1421100- | 09

Let's talk ice conditions, always an unknown heading into an arena ice bonspiel. While we here at Triangle have four sheets painted into the ice, Charlotte has five sheets set up. You can fit five curling sheets onto a sheet of hockey ice with room to spare, but we kept ours at four because the ice conditions on the outer sheets are usually pretty questionable as it is, and would be even more so if you tried to squeeze an extra sheet in there. However, the Charlotte ice rink does have a better zamboni than we do, which is supposed to help.

Game 1 was on the middle sheet (Sheet 3), and I thought ice conditions were great! You could make every shot. However, Game 2 was on one of the outside sheets (Sheet 1), and that was a pretty interesting sheet, as were the sheets we played on the rest of the weekend. It wasn't just that there was a standard fall; it's that there were certain spots on the ice where rocks would do "funny things". Fortunately, both teams in this game were arena club teams - every game except the first was actually against a fellow arena team - so neither side was at an advantage or disadvantage. We know what to do here. It was a different story when Debbie McCormick (non-arena curler, obviously) played on this sheet in the previous game; she called it "frustrating". (But she still won, of course.) However, I should mention that I'm sure the ice was still better than it was for our first Carolina Classic!'d we win this one? Well, like in most arena ice games, takeouts were difficult, and the key was to get "early position" and then guard the predictable lines. I don't have any shots to diagram, but I do have a picture of me throwing a rock in this game with the scoreboard in the background:

("Tired Parents" was our team name, which for Amber and me was very accurate, especially on Saturday. More about that in another post.)


Brief timeout from game recaps. Given that the name of the bonspiel is centered around food, I have to talk about food, at least a little.

This is the macaroni and cheese from, I think, Saturday's lunch. And, wow! Really good, and really greasy. And, of course, there were grits for breakfast, plus other "Southern" food items throughout the weekend. ("Southern" doesn't always mean "greasy", but...sometimes it does.)

Charlotte tends to pride itself on being "more Southern" than Raleigh, and they're right. Raleigh and Durham aren't really like the rest of the state.

Career game #193: Charlotte Grits 'n Granite, 2nd event quarterfinal
Saturday, August 11, 2012

End...................... 12345678 |TTL
Coastal Car. (Forrest)... 3110311- | 10
Triangle (Vos)........... 0004000- | 04

Not only did Team Forrest make a back-breaking triple takeout in this game, they also made three double takeouts throughout the game. All that despite the still-quirky ice! We were doomed. Although we kind of did it to ourselves in one of these ends (maybe the 6th?).

I always say this, but this time I really don't know exactly how the setup looked, or exactly how we managed to screw it up, except that we were a little bit heavy and ended up spreading these rocks out a little bit, and opened the door for a double takeout (which they made, of course). Or, something like that. Did I mention I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last weekend?

So, anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is this. If you're wondering what the difference between having Debbie McCormick as your Skip, or anyone else - and I should mention that Justin did a great job Skipping his first bonspiel (much better than me!) - it's the little things. Give Debbie a good setup, and she'll close out the end. The rest of us curling laymen? Well, our games are a little more interesting, usually.

Well, regardless, even if we did end up with three or four in the 6th, we wouldn't have deserved to be that close; the other team was better. Two of our four opponents in Charlotte went on to win an event; these guys were one of them. (Team Marchitelli from Pittsburgh was the other.)

Meanwhile, we were now in the quarterfinals of the "3rd event"; next loss, and we're done. I thought we had a pretty good chance to win the first "3rd event" game, but...

Career game #194: Charlotte Grits 'n Granite, 3rd event quarterfinal
Saturday, August 11, 2012

End.................. 1234567 |TTL
Triangle (Vos)....... 0031200 | 06
Palmetto (Fort)...... 1200022 | 07

First off, in a mild fluke, this is the first time I've ever played against a team from the Palmetto Curling Club (Greenville, SC). Sure, they've only been around for a couple of years, but we always see them; yet, this was my first head-to-head against them. (I don't think I've played Atlanta, either, but Atlanta usually just sends one team to the various "Southern bonspiels", while Palmetto often sends two or three.)

So, this kind of stunk. Really thought we should have won this one. They struggled in the middle frames, but had their draw weight at the beginning and at the end, and on interesting ice, draw weight was key. One shot here, and one shot there, made the difference. I'd love to have another shot at this one with a little more rest.

I'd also love to diagram our last shot attempt of the game, which basically amounted to a "hail mary"...but it was far too complicated for me to even try to approximate. Basically, they had two rocks in the house, both very well guarded, and our best option was a tight angle raise on one of our guards to try to cut them down to one and force a tiebreaker. We hit the rock we needed to hit, but it was a little too heavy, so it didn't stay in the house (or at least not close enough to cut them to one).

This loss might have stung a little more if I were the Skip, but that's actually one reason why I didn't want to Skip this weekend. :-) Fact is, more often than not, your last game of the weekend is going to be a loss.

And as such, I still have yet to accomplish my goal of playing in the final draw at an away bonspiel, but that's okay. I've got time. But I'm kind of exhausted, so my next bonspiel won't be for a while. I've curled in four bonspiels (three away) this year, and that's plenty. I mean, my rule used to be, no more than one away bonspiel in any given year. So, no more curling travel this year, unfortunately. (I must enjoy bonspieling, otherwise I wouldn't do it at all, right? There's just something about it.)

Instead, I'll close out the year simply by curling in the Triangle Curling Club Fall League, which starts in mid-September. The Fall League will feature two statistical points of interest:
- My 200th career game! I'm currently sitting on 194. There's a chance I'll miss two of eight league games this Fall, but that will be enough to get me to 200 this year.
- My won-loss record so far in 2012 is 16-17. In my curling career (going back to 2007), I've never finished the year with a sub-.500 record. Is this the year? I know it'll happen eventually.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Charlotte/Tampa: By the Numbers

A quick recap of the past few days:
- Friday and Saturday: Took the family down to Charlotte, and went curling! Had a great time, even if I only got four hours of sleep (if that) each night I was there.
- Sunday through Tuesday: Amber and Marla went back home, but I went down to Tampa for a work conference. This is the first time I've ever been sent anywhere in my six-plus years on the job. And my company let me drive rather than fly, so I did!
- Tuesday and Wednesday: I left the conference Tuesday evening and stopped in Jacksonville to see my parents on my way back up, and then completed the trip home on Wednesday.

I'll write about all (or most) of that...eventually. But for now, let's talk statistics. Why is my first blog post after a long trip often about statistics? Because that's usually the first thing I update when I get back, and so, the work's already been done!

This was a pretty loaded trip, statistics-wise. Full update here; here are some points of interest.

When driving more than 100 miles away, it's cheaper for my company to rent me a car than to reimburse me for the mileage I put on my personal car. So, I ended up with a Nissan Altima (again - ugh), and proceeded to drive it for 28 hours, 12 minutes, and for 1,665 miles. (The car keeps has a resettable "trip time" meter, which I appreciated, although I just left it running for the entire week in order to get a trip total.) Note that if I had strictly driven from Raleigh to Tampa and back without any side trips, I would have put 1,350 miles on my car. I made sure not to bill my employer for the gas I used on those extra 300 miles. (Speaking of gas, my actual gas mileage was about 1.5 mpg less than the in-car telemetry was reporting.)

Speaking of those side trips...I visited nine new counties along the way, eight in Georgia on the way down (see dark purple counties here), and one in South Carolina on the way back (Barnwell). While I was down there, I also made a brief drive around the Tampa Bay area that I'll cover in a future blog post. (If I had more time, I would have gone to Collier and Hendry counties. But that would have been a five hour round trip from my hotel, and I didn't have the time or energy for that.)

Marla didn't come to Tampa with me, but she did get her first new county of "Year 2" (which started on her 1st birthday a few weeks back): Union County, NC. Hooray! The curling rink was located in Union County, but both our hotel and the babysitter we used were in Mecklenburg County, so it wasn't a guarantee that Marla would get Union County that weekend or not; but she did.

Another roadgeek quest complete: Interstate 4 end-to-end (my 13th completed interstate), finally! Back in 2003, I drove I-4 from end-to-end...except for a three-mile stretch just east of Tampa where I had to bail and take side roads due to, I assume, a major accident. It took me nine years to come back and redrive the three-mile stretch of I-4 that I missed. (Florida isn't really Amber's ideal vacation destination, so we don't venture south of Jacksonville very often.)

One more note about the rental car: "odometer milestones" (when and where our car odometers reach multiples of 1,000) I reach in rental cars count for the purposes of my car mileage log, and my rental car ended up giving me two milestones, barely. (The second milestone occurred just seven miles before reaching the car rental place.) Amber's car reached a milestone yesterday, too (76,000), making yesterday - I believe - the first time that both Amber and I reached a multiple of 1,000 on the same day! (Although it comes with an asterisk, because one of the two was with a rental car and not my personal car.) We've never had more than one milestone on the same day with the same car, though, because that would obviously mean driving more than 1,000 miles in one day, my younger days, sure, but not anymore, and certainly not with the whole family in tow.

So far in 2012, I've spent seven nights away from my family (four for the Dykes bonspiel in February, and three on the Tampa/Jacksonville portion of this week's trip). And that'll be that for 2012. Seven nights away from my family is too many for one year. But we still have plenty of family trips planned the rest of this year: two to Jacksonville, one to Toledo, plus one to a to-be-determined Fall Foliage destination.

And, that's that. Sooner or later, I'll get around to writing up a polished Charlotte bonspiel recap. (It's important that I actually try to write good bonspiel recaps, because they often get read by the people who run them and/or play against us while we're there. No pressure, Chris!)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Charlotte Bonspiel Preview

For those of you who don't care, sorry for all the curling talk. But you see, we're curling once again this weekend!

The main reason we signed up for Charlotte's inaugural "Grits 'n Granite Bonspiel" this coming weekend, the weekend immediately after the Carolina Classic, was as sort of a "backup" in case we lost both the Classic lottery and the Debbie McCormick auction. Well, we made it into the Classic after all, but we figured we might as well still curl in Charlotte anyway! I mean, this is the inaugural event we're talking about. And this way, we get to complete the "Carolina Triple", curling in all three North Carolina summer bonspiels - Wilmington, Raleigh, and Charlotte. (Justin and Tabby also complete the Triple this weekend, although we curled on separate teams in Wilmington. Chris J. and Kalon S. are other Triangle curlers who are completing the Triple this weekend. A couple of curlers from the Charlotte and Wilmington clubs are, too.)

Our team will be the same as last week, minus Debbie, plus Amber and Tabby in every game instead of alternating. I'll be playing Vice, which I think suits me best. This will be Justin's first ever bonspiel as Skip.

As always, we're sure to have a good time, regardless of how well we do. And, we're getting a babysitter this time, which will help a ton. But I have a hard time relaying "how much fun we'll have" into a blog post, so instead, I'll devote a few paragraphs to detailed tournament analysis! How well should we expect to curl? What's our easiest route to the final draw?

(Begin detailed tournament analysis)

It's a lot harder for me to handicap the field here than it was at the Classic, because about half of the 24 team field, I'm unfamiliar with. For example, there are three teams from Indianapolis (not sure I've ever been to a bonspiel where anyone from Indianapolis was present), plus a team from Mankato (you'd think that a team from Minnesota would be pretty good, no?), two from Ontario, and many other curlers I've never met or anything. But based on my initial analysis, it's likely we won't play any of those guys, because they're all on the other side of the bracket. Most likely, here's what I think will happen.

(Oh, right: team rosters, full draw. I forgot to send the bonspiel coordinators our updated order, so it still says I'm the Skip.)

Our first opponent (a team from Plainfield, NJ) is good will probably beat us; I give us a 20% chance in Game 1. It would be about 5% if we were playing on dedicated curling ice, but at an arena club bonspiel, especially an inaugural arena club bonspiel, ice conditions are always going to be a wild card.

Assuming we do lose Game 1, then Games 2 and 3 would both be against teams that a) I know from past bonspiels, and b) I think we can at least have a competitive game against. I think we have an 80% chance of winning at least one of our first three games (slightly less than coin flip odds, which would be 87.5%). Anything but an 0-3 start would guarantee us a fourth game, and maybe more if we keep on winning. One potential path through the brackets would give us seven games (including three on Saturday).

However, if my Game 1 assessment is wrong and we do in fact open the weekend with a victory, then Game 2 would be against...Debbie McCormick! Wouldn't that be fun?

(I had written a long paragraph here with REALLY detailed bracket analysis, but it ended up being a little too much. Suffice to say, our easiest route to the final draw is actually if we lose our first two games and end up in the 4th event, which is completely different than the Classic 4th event.)

I've had a pretty good record in the first two legs of the Carolina Triple, winning the overall title in Wilmington, and the 4th event at the Classic. However, the the third and final leg will be the toughest of the three. Not only do we not have Debbie on our side this weekend, but we lose home ice advantage; also, the Grits n' Granite field is deeper than the Wilmington Beachspiel field (where literally half the teams were Triangle teams). Can we do it?

(End detailed tournament analysis)

If you're going, see you there! If not, then enjoy your weekend off!

(Note: I'm going straight from Charlotte to Tampa after the bonspiel for work and won't be back until Wednesday, so it might take a few days for me to post the recap. In the meantime, there's always Twitter!)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sal's Italian Restaurant

Since the closing of "Oh! Brian's", I've long lamented the lack of a good non-chain restaurant just down the street, for which to take guests to. There are a lot of restaurants at the intersection of Highway 54 and 55, but none really have what I'm looking for.

Maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough. We've avoided going to "Sal's Italian Restaurant and Pizza" because we thought it was simply a "pizza joint". Nope! It's actually a good, run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant with a full menu. We tried it out over the weekend, and it gets my seal of approval.

Most notable is that unlike at, say, an Olive Garden or Carrabba's, there is lots of available seating!

If you read the note on the restaurant website, you'll see that the "restaurant history" is written not by Sal, but by Sal's cousin, Joe. What happened to Sal?

(Side note: "Sal's" makes for a much better Italian restaurant name than "Joe's".)

So is this our new "fallback" non-chain restaurant of choice to take guests to? Well, only if they're in the mood for Italian. Otherwise, I still think it's worth the 20 minute drive to Danny's BBQ.

(Oh, and by the way, the serving time was 23 minutes, 40 seconds. That's slower than the 19:09 posted by the comparable Rosie's Italian Grille in Toledo earlier this year, and once again shows that serving speed often has nothing to do with how crowded the restaurant is.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

2012 Carolina Classic: Recap, Part Two

Carolina Classic Recap, Part One was posted yesterday, in which I talk about in general terms about curling on the same team as former world champion / Olympian Debbie McCormick. Today: game-by-game recaps, which are typically among the least-read posts in my entire blog. (But I've got to do them! I just do!)

Career game #186: Carolina Classic, first game
Friday, August 3, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (McCormick)... 1214011- | 10
Charlotte (McKee)...... 0000100- | 01

(For those unfamiliar with my curling box score conventions: the team with last rock in the first end is listed second; teams are listed as "Club Name (Last Name of Skip)"; '-' indicates an end that was not played either because the game was conceded or because time ran out; 'i' indicates that the game was conceded mid-end once victory became mathematically impossible for the trailing team.)

I wasn't really sure how much of a difference having Debbie McCormick on our team would make going into the weekend, but now I know: it makes a difference. Even when we struggled, Debbie bailed us out. In the 2nd end, for instance, I think the rest of us might have missed all of our shots; and yet, we scored two. Want to guess which one of us threw the two scoring rocks?

But that's not to downplay the contribution of the rest of the team. As the Second, I bestowed upon myself the duty of calling the weight of each shot while sweeping. I thought I did a pretty good job. It's definitely easier than calling the strategy. Burns more calories, too!

I don't have a shot to diagram from this game, so instead, here's a picture of our club's fancy new rings and lines and such:

Prior to then, we only had outlines of rings, kind of like in my shot diagrams (see below). But the Ice House took the ice out a couple of weeks ago and let us paint in full rings and lines and everything, all of which help a LOT when you're out on the ice. And we don't just get that for the weekend, we'll have those rings and lines all next season, and beyond! That's exciting. Lots of arena clubs have been able to paint permanent rings and lines (to some extent) into their hockey ice, which is great.

Career game #187: Carolina Classic, second game
Friday, August 3, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Knoxville (Hooper)..... 003000-- | 03
Triangle (McCormick)... 220241-- | 11

I think this was when I had my shot of the weekend (not necessarily the team's shot of the weekend, I'm just talking about me here): a raise take-out that rolled to the button behind cover: (our team = yellow)

And the best part was, this shot was called! Debbie definitely wasn't shy as far as calling difficult, fun shots went. What ended up happening a lot of times on those shots was that a "Plan B" came about and helped us anyway. I don't know if Debbie really considered those Plan B shots, or if we just got lucky, but we seemed to benefit from a Plan B shot an awful lot throughout the weekend, to the point where, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. (Except for a particular shot in the 5th game that I'll get to.) One thing experienced curlers like Debbie can do on these long raises and take-outs is to know where to put the broom and when we need to sweep to a high level of precision, which is important, because one or two inches can make all the difference on shots like this.

Like most "really good curlers", Debbie called lots and lots of take-outs. But I wouldn't consider her strategy to be "wide open", just typical of a good curler. We usually started out by throwing guards, which is how she likes to play. Then, after Lead rocks, do we start throwing the take-outs. Sometimes I would go two or three ends without throwing a single draw or guard, which I think plays to my strengths, but it also makes it harder for me to make a draw or guard when we do need one.

By the way, here is the full draw from the weekend, if you're curious about how some of these other teams did. Charlotte (McKee) went 1-2 on the weekend; Knoxville (Hooper) went 2-2. (Note: Charlotte (McKee) is actually listed as Charlotte (Klein) on the bracket, and many teams - including us - have unofficial names outside of the typical "Club (Skip)" convention that I like to use here.)

Career game #188: Carolina Classic, 1st event quarterfinals
Saturday, August 4, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (McCormick)... 33032004 | 15
Columbus (McGrady)..... 00300110 | 05

First off...opposing Skip Hal turns 80 years old next week. If I'm still curling as well at age 80 as he is (his team won its first two games of the weekend), then I'll have done well.

Let's go straight to the 8th end, which we figured, we might as well finish to completion, even though the game was pretty much over after our first two take-outs of the 8th end. It wasn't until each team had one shot remaining did I finally notice what was developing. After the other team sailed their final shot down the middle and through the house, we had this setup: (Our team = red; we had last rock)

Disclaimer: this is an APPROXIMATE diagram only; I only really know where red rock A and the yellow rock were located, because those were the important ones on our final shot. The important detail is that there were 7 rocks in the house, and that an open hit on the yellow rock would give us an 8-ender.

Now...some general words on 8-enders. Scoring 8 points in a single end is extremely rare, so much so that 1) an 8-ender has never occurred in the Triangle Curling Club, and 2) Debbie McCormick has never scored an 8-ender in her entire career. World Championship? Check. Olympics? Three of them. National Championship? Seven of them! But the 8-ender has always eluded her.

Well, here's her chance! Problem is, this is a more difficult shot than it looks, due to the ice conditions. We were playing on Sheet 1, which had a bit of a fall towards the outside, and that's where this rock was located. And it doesn't matter how many national championships you've won, hitting take-outs on a sheet with falls is never a gimme, especially when you consider that we absolutely had to hit the yellow rock on the inside. Hit the yellow rock on the outside, and the shooter might roll out of the house, or the yellow rock might jam on that rock I labeled with an "A" back there.

And, that's ultimately what happened. The shot looked good halfway down, but once the fall to the outside kicked in, there was no saving it, and the yellow rock jammed on red rock "A", giving us a measely four, instead of the 8-ender and the curling immortality that went along with it.

I mean, can you imagine? Debbie McCormick scoring an 8-ender at our bonspiel would have made headlines! (At least, in curling circles.) Given the choice between winning the bonspiel and having that 8-ender, I'd take the 8-ender in a heartbeat. I mean, the odds of one of my teams ever getting that close to another 8-ender, ever, are probably slim.

Still, Debbie was taking the missed opportunity harder than the rest of us, as you'd imagine...but as Justin pointed out, if you're three games into a bonspiel and your main regret is that you just missed an 8-ender, you've done pretty well. And now we're in the semifinals!

Career game #189: Carolina Classic, 1st event semifinals
Saturday, August 4, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (McCormick)... 0100000- | 01
Pittsburgh (Ashford)... 1011113- | 08

This team from Pittsburgh is good. Very good. They made last year's Classic final and lost on the final shot of the game. And I've played them before, at last year's Arena Club Championships, and they absolutely creamed us. (Not only that, but that ended up being our only loss of the weekend.)

This time? Well, we hung in there for a little while longer. But they were absolutely deadly with their take-outs, and the only way we could set something up was to try to draw around guards, which we struggled with. And when we missed a draw, they were able to immediately guard. And by the time Debbie's turn came up, she didn't have much to work with and was often left with some very difficult shots. She missed a raise take-out that would have given us two badly needed points in the 4th end, but if you're having to rely on raise take-outs to score points, then that means the other team is playing well.

And, there was this sequence of events in, I believe, the 5th end. On her first of two shots, Debbie made a nice draw behind guards to set up a potential two: (our team = yellow; there were other rocks in the house at this point, but they were irrelevant)

Looks good, but that rock was just behind the tee line, opening the door for the other Skip to put one right on top of it. I mean, it was perfect. That forced us to draw for one on our last shot, and I think we were heavy or something, and gave up another steal. (Debbie had a pretty funny reaction to the other Skip's shot: "Well, he out-drew us...jerk.")

So, now I'm 0-2 career against Team Ashford. Both times, the games weren't even close. And both times, it was my only loss of the weekend. Will I ever beat these guys? How many world champions would it take to beat them? Anyone have Kevin Martin's number?

Team Ashford did go on to win the Classic title, in a championship game that was even more of a blowout than our game against them was. As for us...we could still win the "bronze medal" of sorts, the 4th event.

Career game #190: Carolina Classic, 4th event final
Sunday, August 5, 2012

End.................... 12345678 |TTL
Potomac (Anderson)..... 2000101i | 04
Triangle (McCormick)... 0114030i | 09

Team Anderson was one of the better teams here, and they had a very tough "strength of schedule" at that (every team they played all weekend made the final draw). I'd be interested to see what would happen if we played them again (same lineups), because this game turned on two key moments that could have easily gone the other way and changed the game.

4th end: We were lying four with only last rock remaining, and their Skip was just a little bit too heavy, allowing us to steal four. I was surprised, but it happens to the best of us. Debbie was too heavy on her final draw in the 1st end, too, allowing a steal of two.

6th end: The luckiest shot of the weekend! (our team = yellow)

The call was, of course, to hit the red rock and score three. It looked good about of Debbie's hand, but halfway down the ice, it "picked" (dug into the ice a little bit) and went way offline and to the right. But then, it ended up hitting that yellow guard in front at just the right angle so that it went into the red rock and bumped it out anyway. A rock "picking" is bad luck, but the result was perhaps the greatest bit of good luck I've seen. Now...earlier, I wondered if Debbie had some of these "Plan B" shots worked out; this one, I know she didn't have worked out. That was just plain luck, and by putting us up 9-3 with two ends to go, that was pretty much that.

So, there you go. What does having Debbie McCormick on your team get you, in terms of results? In our case, instead of going, say, 2-2 (which I think is our most likely outcome if we didn't have Debbie), we went 4-1 and won the 4th event! Hooray! Amber and I also won the Carolina Classic 4th event back in 2009, obviously without a "hired gun" on our team, but the Classic field wasn't nearly as deep then as it is now.

We're curling again this weekend in Charlotte; preview on Thursday. In Charlotte, we might actually have to play against Debbie McCormick. (But probably not.)

Monday, August 06, 2012

2012 Carolina Classic: Recap, Part One

Last weekend's Carolina Classic was probably the most fun I've ever had curling. I look next to me, and there's my wife Amber sweeping next to me, who I haven't been able to curl with much lately (this was our first bonspiel together in 18 months). Then, I look down the ice, and there's 2003 world champion / three-time Olympian Debbie McCormick calling the shots. Awesome! (Read my preview from last week for those unfamiliar with how we managed to get on a team with Debbie McCormick.) And we played well, too, going 4-1, and winning the "Fourth Event" (i.e. the "bronze medal").

(Left to right, including the kids: Amber, Marla, me, Debbie, Tabby, Sydney, Justin. Note: picture credits throughout go to the Triangle Curling Club / Joe M., P.J., and Debbie herself.)

There's a lot to talk about here, so I'm going to have to split this up into two parts. Part Two will feature game-by-game recaps, including the game in which we came ohsoclose to scoring an 8-ender. As in, it came down to the final shot of the end, and two or three inches made the difference. Part One will mostly be about curling with Debbie, because that's probably what you're most interested in, right?

One of my goals of the weekend was to not ask Debbie any "dumb questions" that she's been asked a million times. For example... "So...umm...what's it like to curl in the Olympics?" I think I accomplished my goal, but I'm sure something "dumb" slipped out without me realizing it. But the thing is, it wouldn't have really mattered anyway, because Debbie is unbelieveably nice. She's a pretty big celebrity in our circles, of course, so every time she turned around all weekend, someone was wanting to have a chat with her or something. She never stopped smiling, and she gave everyone their five minutes and/or picture with Debbie and/or whatever they asked. Even if she was on her way to the bathroom, she would stop and chat. Debbie also did numerous interviews and such throughout the weekend. (See the end of this post for a collection of links.) Keeping that in mind, I tried not to bug her too much while we weren't playing. But we did chat some about her career, why she's here, and so forth.

She's currently the Vice on a competitive team with Skip Erika Brown, and they have every intention of making it to the 2014 Olympics. Their team finished in 5th at this year's national championships, a result Debbie classified as "disappointing". (The remnants of Debbie's 2010 Olympic team, with Allison Pottinger at Skip, won this year's national title.) So even she doesn't give off a vibe of uber-competitiveness on the ice, I could tell there's a fire burning in there. She wants it.

Part of the reason she goes to these summer bonspiels (such as Knoxville in June, Cape Cod in July, us, Charlotte next weekend, and Fort Wayne the weekend after that) is to stay fresh, because curling year-round is a must if you want to compete nationally. But she's also here to sell curling supplies. Most curlers need full time jobs on the side in order to, you know, live; Debbie's job is to sell curling equipment for Goldline*. And what better way to sell curling equipment than to bring a giant trailer of curling equipment to a bonspiel, where nearly 100 curlers will be in one place at one time? And what better way to stay in curling shape than to curl yourself while you're there? And while you're at it, why not put yourself up for auction and help raise money for the local club? It's win-win-win!

(* - I thought about buying a new broom or shoes or something, but didn't pull the trigger. Both my shoes and broom are adequate and get the job done, and I'm not a good enough curler such that an extra-thick slider, for instance, is going to make that much of a difference. Amber did get a new broom, though, and it looked like Debbie did a pretty good overall business this weekend.)

I think the question I was asked the most this weekend was what kind of strategy tips I learned. Well...for one, I suggested that Justin play Vice this weekend instead of me, while I moved down to Second. Due to my recent realization that I have far more fun at Vice than Skip, and because, well, Justin is pretty good, I asked Justin to Skip our team when we curl in Charlotte next weekend. Because of that, I figured Justin would have more to gain by being Debbie's Vice this weekend than I would. So, I wasn't really involved in most of the strategy discussions.

Well, okay, here's one thing. Recall that in one of my Olympic recaps from 2010, I had the audacity to question Debbie McCormick's strategy. Basically, with one shot remaining (and without last rock), she was staring at three opponent rocks, all behind the hog line (like this). I said, "Why not try for the freeze and force them to draw for one?" But instead, her call was a double take-out, which if made would likely cut them to, at best, two; or three if you only hit one rock out instead of two (which is ultimately what happened in that game). I thought the freeze was the correct call.

Well, now I get it. As luck would have it, we faced an eerily similar situation in one of our games this weekend! And Debbie made the exact same call that she did in Vancouver. Why? Because sometimes, giving up two, or even three, is most acceptable. Freezes are tough, and if you miss, then you give them an opportunity for four. (Note that at least a couple of you said something to that effect in the comments back in 2010.) You shouldn't always go for the steal. Perhaps that's why I've given up so many big ends (as in, 4 points or more) in my games as Skip. In my efforts to maybe steal one or cut them to one, I went for the high-risk shot that ultimately allowed them to get a big number, when I could have easily cut them to a more manageable number, like two or three, with a much easier shot (i.e. a simple take-out).

Another thing: we all need to lay off of the Skips sometimes. They unfairly take all of the criticism. (And yeah, I'm guilty of that, too...even pertaining to Debbie in Vancouver! Whoops.) I say this mostly because of our semifinal game this weekend. We lost that game by a pretty wide margin (8-1). Sure, she missed some shots, but the rest of us missed plenty of shots, too, and we often left Debbie with some really, really tough situations. (I'll get into more detail in Part Two.) Sure, the other team can now say that they beat Debbie McCormick, and if the media were reporting the outcome, they would say that Debbie McCormick lost, without really making mention of the rest of her team. But of course, I know that doesn't tell the whole story, now so more than ever. It's a team game. Let's all lay off of John Shuster already, okay?

(Based on our facial expressions, you'd think that picture was taken during the game that we lost...but Tabby played in place of Amber in that game, so it couldn't have been.)

That said...having a good Skip on your team makes a pretty big difference. Would the rest of us have won the "bronze medal" without her? Probably not. (I'm thinking, 2-2, maybe?) We played well, but having someone knowledgeable tell you what to do makes all the difference. And that's something I'll never really be able to "learn". Sure, I know the by-the-book strategy, but in game situations, how do I know what shot to call, when? My main weaknesses as Skip - thinking 3-4 shots ahead and setting an end up, and putting the broom in precisely the right place on take-outs - are things that Debbie excels at, and they aren't things you can really "learn". It takes experience, and the right kind of brain, I guess. (I'm very good at analyzing past events in detail, but as far as predicting the future, or, say, the weather...not my specialty.) Debbie also had confidence that her teammates (even us!) will make the shot that she calls, and sometimes, we did! She even notices things like "this rock behaves differently than that other rock". I've played dozens of games with each set of our rocks, and she already knew more about them after playing just one game! So, yeah, she's pretty good. Her attention to detail, and her "curling IQ", far surpasses anyone else I've ever played with. (Obviously.)

(Oh, and in my preview, I said I was curious how well she would be able to read our imperfect ice; well, she had no problems with that at all. And in hindsight, it was crazy for me to think otherwise. She's seen it all.)

If Debbie comes back next year, will I bid on her again? Well, no...we've had our fun, and I'd like to see someone else get to curl with Debbie, because it was a blast. Best curling weekend ever!

Many local news organizations came out and interviewed Debbie McCormick. Here's an incomplete list of links, which may be updated later on (WRAL, ABC 11, and 99.9 FM also interviewed Debbie):
- News and Observer (text)
- News 14 Carolina (video)
- Triangle Curling Club interview (video)
- 99.9 FM (audio)

Also, if you're looking for more pictures, the club's Facebook page is the place to go.

Tomorrow (or the next day if I don't get to it tomorrow): Recaps of each of our five games at the Carolina Classic.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

2012 Carolina Classic: Preview

It's time for the Triangle Curling Club's biggest event: the annual Carolina Classic bonspiel, now in its 5th year! We missed last year's Classic, because Marla was barely out of the womb then. (At this point, that seems kind of weird.) Otherwise, Amber and I would have been eligible for a "five year pin" as curlers who have participated all five years.

Recall that a few months back, a random drawing was held - which my team lost - to determine which four of the six interested local teams would get a spot in the Classic. So we decided to enter an auction instead - which we won - to curl with former Olympic and world champion curler Debbie McCormick.

What happens when you stick a world class curler like Debbie with three, well, average curlers? Will we be any good? I really don't know. I mean, we could go anywhere from Classic champions (5-0) to...well, I'd like to think having Debbie McCormick on your team is good for at least one win, even under the worst case scenario. The biggest wild card will be the ice conditions, and how well Debbie is able to read our arena ice. Granted, our ice will be in much better shape than your typical league night, but it won't quite be dedicated ice, and I really don't know how much experience Debbie has with imperfect ice. She has curled at the Knoxville summer bonspiel the last two summers, but they put a lot of effort into ice prep for that bonspiel to the point where it's nearly dedicated-ice-quality, so I'm told.

I also don't know how well Debbie's "auction teams" typically do. She's done this at Knoxville the last two years, and I don't believe she won the overall bonspiel either time, certainly. And this year's Classic field might be the deepest yet, despite the fact that the two-time defending champions from Detroit couldn't make it back this year. (Team rosters here, full bracket here.) So I guess what I'm saying is, there are a lot of unknowns here, at least in terms of the competition. Regardless, it's going to be fun! (But hopefully one that will last for more than three game minimum. Gotta get our money's worth!)

And although she's only playing in half the games, this will be the first bonspiel in which Amber and I are playing together since Marla was born. That'll be fun too. (And if you're wondering who is going to watch Marla while we're on the ice, Amber and Tabby - whom Amber is alternating with - are in charge of that, and I assume everything is under control. I trust them.)

Our first game is Friday at 11 AM, and our second game (win or lose) is Friday at 6 PM. I'll be posting Twitter updates throughout the weekend. I admit, I'm kind of nervous. What will she think if I misjudge the speed of one of her rocks and mistakenly sweep it all the way through the house? (Surely, that will happen at least once.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Newspaper Paywalls

I've never subscribed to the local newspaper. I can read everything online for free, and the online version of the newspaper is more convenient for me than the hard copy anyway, so what's the point? And even if the newspaper did put up a paywall and start charging for online access, I can get my local news elsewhere, right? Such is the plight of newspapers these days.

It's too bad. While local and national news broadcasts (and their corresponding websites, many of which don't have much more than transcribed versions of their on-air stories) often appeal to the "lowest common denominator" and focus too much on crime, fear, and sensationalist stories in order to maximize ratings, newspapers still (mostly) focus on on "real issues", "actual news", and "good journalism", Thus, I believe a newspaper is still the best source for news, even today.

Fortunately for me, the three newspapers I read the most online - the (Raleigh) News and Observer, Washington Post, and (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, have avoided paywalls. But that's about to change, because the News and Observer website is putting up a paywall later this year.

Will I pay? Depends on how much it costs, of course. I don't know how much online newspaper access (or even a hard copy newspaper) costs these days. But long term, it will be interesting to see how well the quality of the News and Observer's reporting holds up over time. It's not like local newspapers everywhere are experiencing financial booms post-paywall and are suddenly rehiring all of the staff they've laid off over the last few years. At best, the new revenue source is just enough to stay barely afloat for another year. Unless you're one of a handful of nationally known newspapers with a nationwide reach (New York Times, Washington Post, etc), your days are numbered. Paywall or no paywall, local newspapers' financial resources - and thus, the quality of their reporting - will continue their steady decline.

Not only that, but when you end unlimited access for everyone, you're likely going to become less relevant, and that continues the cycle. Instead of being a relevant local news source that most in the area have heard of and are familiar with, now all of a sudden you're the Durham Herald-Sun. (Anyone read the Herald-Sun? No? Didn't think so.) The "metered paywall" approach, which I believe the News and Observer plans on implementing (X free articles per month, then the paywall kicks in) helps that some, in part by allowing article content to be "Googleable" and read by people from other parts of the country and world who will obviously never pay for a subscription to a Raleigh newspaper. But is it enough?

So perhaps the question I should be asking is not "How much will it cost?", but instead, "Given the current state of the newspaper industry, will it be worth it?" I don't know the answer to that yet.