Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing Checks: 2013 Year in Review

Last January, I wondered how many checks I write in a typical year. So, I started counting.

One year later, the answer: In 2013, I wrote 38 checks. (Note: this only counts my checks, not Amber's checks.)

Those 38 checks can be categorized thusly:

- 20 checks were church donations. At the start of the year, I would give a check every time we went, typically every other week. Then a few months ago, I decided it would be more efficient to give a check every other time we went for twice the amount. So, the number of church donation checks will go down in 2014, although the actual amount of money given will not. I think there might be a way to have our church deduct from our checking account automatically, but...nah. Physically putting something in the collection dish makes me feel good.

- 7 checks were day care "tuition" payments. Amber and I alternate these, usually. Now because we pay a few bucks extra for a sort-of toddler gymnastics program, we actually have to write two checks to day care per month. There is currently not a way to pay either of these electronically.

Note that before we had Marla, we only went to church on Christmas and Easter, and we obviously didn't have any day care payments. So, most of the checks we're writing now, we wouldn't have written prior to having Marla.

The remaining checks:

- 6 checks were for curling or kickball registrations. Our curling club offers an electronic payment option, but it costs a little bit extra (and also costs the club a little bit extra on top of that), more so than the cost of a stamp. Knightdale kickball most certainly does not have an electronic payment option.

- 2 checks were medical bill payments. You know, when the insurance doesn't cover everything, and you get a bill in the mail several weeks later. That sort of thing.

- The remaining 3 checks: one for our homeowner association (HOA) dues, one for a school fundraiser for our niece, and one to the company that inspects our home heating and cooling systems.

And, that's what a year in checks looks like! All the other payments we make, we do electronically, with credit/debit, or with cash.

Monday, December 30, 2013

South Florida Trip

Other than to see my family in Jacksonville, Florida has never really been a vacation destination for Amber and me. Amber generally prefers vacation destinations that are colder, more mountainous, and more Canadian. I generally do also, and that's all well and good, but...maybe just this once, we can go do some sightseeing in Florida?

With Christmas falling on Wednesday this year, and our day care being closed all last week, I thought it made sense to take the entire week off and do a little extra road tripping on top of the usual Jacksonville family visit. And given that we would already be in Jacksonville, I thought we'd go down to Miami and spend a day in Everglades National Park.

"So...why not Disney World, given that you have a 2-year-old daughter and all?" Marla doesn't really know what "Disney World" is yet. Best to save our visit for when it will be more meaningful to her, in my opinion. And I'm assuming that Christmas week isn't really the best time to go to Disney anyway, if you don't like crowds.

So, no Disney World yet. Instead, lots of swamps and birds and stuff.

Those pictures are actually NOT from the Everglades; these were from Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa, at which we stopped on our way down to Miami. Mostly we were just looking for a playground close to I-75, but it turns out they had a nice little boardwalk, too. (By the way, "birding" is a big thing in Florida, which I had never really realized before. "Birding" is the main attraction at a lot of Florida parks.)

View Larger Map

"So...why did you drive to Miami by way of Tampa? And what's with that 'Point C'?" That was all for statistical reasons, of course. Southwest Florida is far away and hard to get to, and there isn't a whole lot there other than beach resorts and retirement communities, really. So even though I grew up in Florida, there were still two counties in Southwest Florida I had never been to. Now was as good a time as any to take care of those, along with the only stretch of interstate I hadn't driven in Florida yet (I-75 between Tampa and Miami, including Alligator Alley).

Really, it didn't take that long to get to Miami via the statistically-inclined route. We were there by 4 pm, at which point, we...didn't do much else the rest of the day, because we were tired, and Miami is a real pain in the butt to get around. It's really no different than any other big city in that regard, though, except that the weather is almost always warmer in Miami.

One thing that's kind of neat about South Miami is just how much different it is from the rest of the country - culturally, ecologically, climatologically. That was kind of the allure, for me. Drive for a few hours south, and you're suddenly somewhere else completely. Want to visit the tropics, but don't feel like going to another country? Go to Miami! (Or Hawaii. Or technically Puerto Rico, but there's a language barrier there; lots of people speak Spanish in Miami, sure, but it's not like you can't get by in Miami with English only.) The tropics (or subtropics, really) have never been a prime destination for us, but it was a nice change of pace, I thought. Next trip, we can go back up north somewhere. But Amber still hasn't been to the Florida Keys (too long of a drive to check out on this little trip) or Hawaii (can't drive there at all, obviously), so there will still be room for the occasional warm weather vacation destination in the future.

The next day, we went to Everglades National Park, and then the day after that we went to a tropical botanical garden in the morning and started driving home in the afternoon. I'll post pictures from those places in a few days. (Amber takes better "scenery" pictures than I do. My specialty is pictures of quirky things like four-digit state highways.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Debt Collection Scam

I don't have any experience with debt collectors, because we always make our payments on time, etc. So...I was a little surprised when a debt collection agency called "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" (more on them later) called me several months ago, claiming I owed $157.97 to "Columbia House" for some DVD rentals or something from 2007. Umm...no?

"But...are you sure? That was a long time ago. Maybe you just forgot?" Umm...no? I've never done business with this "Columbia House", and I don't rent DVDs at all, really. Then, a couple of days after the phone call, they sent me a "bill" in the mail, and mailed another one (the same one) again a week later.

I did a little research before taking my next action. Turns out, there might be a couple of levels to this.

Now...I understand that debt collection agencies aren't the most popular companies out there. Generally, if you research a debt collection agency on the internet - even a legitimate one - most of the stuff you come across will be negative: "these guys are TERRIBLE", "do NOT do business with them", and so on and so forth. I don't hold it against debt collectors in general; getting people who are late on payments to pay up can't be easy, and sometimes the most effective way to get results is to be, well, persistent. I get that. So, just because the internet has a strongly negative view of this "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" doesn't mean they're not a legitimate and law-abiding debt collector.

Besides, maybe this apparent scam is more about Columbia House than the debt collection agency itself. A little more Google research reveals that Columbia House has been involved in some high-profile scams of their own, such as sending you unsolicited CDs or DVDs in the mail, and then billing you for them later. Except that I've never even received any such thing from Columbia House. Maybe the people who lived in our house before us did? Who knows. Either way, no.

Well, my final conclusion was that this is just a scam, initiated by the debt collection agency. It's certainly possible that "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" does, in fact, partake in legitimate debt collection. In fact, I bet they do, if nothing else to help keep law enforcement off their back regarding their bogus debt collection efforts. Naming a company with a particularly shady track record like Columbia House as the creditor? That makes it at least sound credible. That amount of $157.97? That might be "the largest amount that some people are willing to pay without asking too many questions". Any more, and the alleged debtors will put up more of a fight. Any less, and DRS doesn't make as much money off the scam, of course. And of course, a bill of $157.97 sounds more legit than a nice and round $150.00 would.

And here's another fun thing: when Dynamic Recovery Solutions calls you, they fake their caller ID so that it looks like the call is coming from a local number. That way, you're more likely to answer. Because if you get a phone call from an area code you don't recognize, or an "unknown" number, you don't answer, right? (I don't.) And it's a different fake phone number every time, so you can't just block their fake number. (It wouldn't surprise me if all debt collection agencies do this, actually.)

I'm not the only person who has been accused by these guys of a Columbia House debt that didn't actually exist. And I bet some people actually paid up, too, just to get DRS "off their back". But not me.

So, what to do in a situation like this? I sent Dynamic Recovery Solutions something called a Debt Validation letter, or DV. You can find various DV templates online, but the gist of the letter is this: "Provide written proof that I owe this money, or else you are not allowed to contact me again under federal law." After I sent that in the mail, wouldn't you know it, I never heard from Dynamic Recovery Solutions ever again. And that's smart from their perspective: by not chasing after people who are more willing to fight back, they run less risk of someone taking them to court and potentially bringing the entire scam down.

So, be on the lookout for these Dynamic Recovery Solutions guys. If they contact you claiming some BS debt from several years ago, don't pay it. (Unless you actually do owe the money, in which case, maybe you should try to pay it.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bicycling Johnston County

Lately, I've been doing one "long" bike ride per month. Usually, these rides involve 45+ miles of bicycling, plus a drive of 30-60 minutes each way to the starting/ending point in order to take me to more new and exciting places. (I started getting bored riding the same old roads within a 10-mile radius of my house a while ago.) All that bicycling and driving means that these end up being 6 or 7 hour round trips, so once a month is plenty.

Last month, I did a 55-mile ride northwest of the Triangle, starting in Yanceyville and going through Danville, VA, among other places. That's hillier terrain than we have in Durham - the idea was to challenge myself, after all - and so the ride was very difficult. I was more exhausted at the end of that ride than I can remember ever being after a bike ride. Maybe I should have kept my "hilliest ride ever" on the shorter side, instead of going for both length and difficult terrain simultaneously?

Well, after that experience, I didn't feel like challenging myself with hills this month. So I went in the opposite direction: Johnston County. 50 (actually 49.5) relatively easy miles, starting and ending in Smithfield.

View Larger Map

In comparison to Caswell County, this ride was easy. Maybe even too easy. The hills actually do help keep things more interesting, it turns out. (Note - what classifies as "flat" in North Carolina is still hillier than what you'd find in most of Florida, excluding the panhandle.) So while I didn't feel particularly "challenged" out here on the Coastal Plain, if I do ever decide to try a 100-mile bike ride, I think I'll be doing it east of I-95 first.

So, Johnston County cycling is relatively easy, compared to more northerly or westerly locales. But is it as popular here as it is closer to Raleigh? Whenever I ride my bike close to home - pretty much anywhere in the Triangle - I'll always see other bicyclists out and about, no matter how cold or warm it is. (Although Il see more fellow cyclists when it's warmer.) But the farther away from the Triangle you get - in any direction - the fewer and fewer cyclists you see. On my Johnston County ride, I saw exactly ZERO other cyclists, total, all day. I guess cycling is more of a city thing. Normally I'm concerned that drivers away from the city don't respect cyclists on the road as well, since they're not as commonplace, but I didn't have any issues with that on Sunday. (Only real "issue" I had was with unsecured dogs running after me, which is also more of a thing the farther away from the city you get.)

By the way, I've done at least some cycling in 13 out North Carolina's 100 counties. I'm not saying I'm planning on bicycling in all 100 some day, but...

As of today, I'm now only 138 miles away from having to decide whether to call it "Myanmar" or "Burma" in my fictionalBicycling Trip in Asia. (Leaning "Myanmar".)

Monday, December 16, 2013

New Hope Valley Railway

In an effort to do something fun and exciting Saturday morning, we bought some tickets for a Christmas-themed train ride on the New Hope Valley Railway. The train ride has been on our "local things that would be fun to do" list for a while, so why not do it during Christmas season? Especially now that Marla knows what "choo choo trains" are.

So, the New Hope Valley Railway: you buy tickets (we bought ours in advance), and then you go on a one-hour train ride up and back through the woods. The train station is located about 30 minutes south of our house, and the train tracks are actually a southern continuation of the rail line that, farther north, has been converted into the American Tobacco Trail.

To be honest, it's not a particularly scenic route, especially for someone like me who bicycles in this area frequently. As we were boarding the train, I joked, "Which side of the train gives us the best mountain views?" (I don't think they were amused.) But you don't do this for the scenery, you do it because it's a nice, relaxing train ride. I also appreciated how "old school" it was. For example, our train featured a classic steam engine. (They also have a diesel engine.)

What makes the train ride "Christmas-themed"? Mostly, it's just decorations and background music, but Amber said that it was "just right" - not over the top, but just enough to get her in the Christmas spirit. (That's how we like it!) The subtle Christmas decorations along the route were a nice touch, I thought.

And, to top it off, Santa Claus himself rode with us! He gave Marla candy, and Amber got a lump of coal, because I guess she's been naughty. Like the candy, Marla also tried to eat the coal. (But, was it clean coal?)

We're not really the "let's go to the mall and stand in line so that Marla can sit in Santa's lap" type. This is much more our style. Marla doesn't really fully understand who Santa is anyway.

On site, there's also a railroad museum, but Marla was much more intrigued by the model train set next to the parking lot.

Seriously, we had a hard time tearing her away from the toy trains. Maybe we know what to get her for Christmas now?

(Side comment: a couple of the toy trains were Thomas-themed. We actually try to avoid the "Thomas & Friends" show, though. Amber and I pejoratively refer to the show as "trains making bad decisions", because that's basically what it is. I guess the idea is to teach kids lessons on what not to do, because Thomas's friends are really pretty irresponsible. That'd be fine, except that somehow these irresponsible trains have been given really big responsibilities! I feel bad for the people of Sodor.)

So, anyway, it was fun, and I recommend it, mountain views or not.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nexus 5

To make a long story short, I have a new phone that I bought a few weeks ago: a Nexus 5 from Google. I bought it as it was released - actually ordered it before it was released - which is pretty unusual for me.

A lot of people are all about Apple: they always keep up with the latest iPhones, iPads, laptops, whatever, get all excited when Apple announces their next thing, and have stayed loyal to Apple products for years. That's fine, but me? I've never owned an Apple product of any kind - not a Mac, an iPod, anything. Instead, I'm all about Google. Gmail is my primary email, Google Calendar is my primary calendar/to-do list, Google Drive is the place where I keep all my notes and statistics and curling league standings and stuff, and Android is my smartphone operating system of choice. (And, of course, I use Google for web searches and Google Maps for anything map related, but even Apple users do that, right? If you don't, then you really are all about Apple, I guess.) So, a phone you can buy directly from Google, with all kinds of Google gizmos on it? Sign me up!

So, recall that T-Mobile does wireless plans a little differently now. Instead of giving you discounted rates on phones plus a two-year contract, T-Mobile charges full price for their phones (which you can pay over a 2-year period), but also has no contracts, and offers lower monthly fees, which makes T-Mobile cheaper in the long run even factoring in the higher cost of their phones. The idea behind this is is that you can upgrade phones more frequently than two years if you want to. Generally, I think this move has worked out well for T-Mobile.

But...it means that there's really no benefit to buying a phone directly from T-Mobile anymore, versus a third party, provided the phone is "unlocked". T-Mobile marks up the prices of the phones they sell directly, sometimes by a lot; last I checked, T-Mobile still charges more for the Nexus 4 than I paid Google for the brand new Nexus 5. So, buying an unlocked phone from a third party seems like the way to go. The Nexus 5 isn't the best phone out there, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper than the latest Samsung Galaxy or HTC whatever. It's also nice to not have all of the extra crap that T-Mobile puts on all of the phones they sell.

The best thing about the phone is just that it's a LOT faster than the phone I had been using. Smartphone processors are getting faster and faster very quickly, kind of like PCs were doing 15 years ago. This means that if you have a 2-year-old smartphone, the latest versions of most apps will run very slowly on it, because they're all built for faster smartphones. If you're a heavy smartphone user, upgrading every 2 years is almost a must. (That's one reason why I went "cutting edge" this time, instead of buying a phone that was already 6-12 months old.) The Nexus 5 also supports LTE, which my previous phone did not. LTE is really fast compared to what I'm used to; it's even faster than my home wifi, or at least it seems like it. (But I still use wifi at home, for reasons I'll get to.)

So, let's talk features. Google's answer to Apple's Siri - ask a question out loud, get an answer - is...well, I don't know if this thing has a name. But you can say "Okay Google, [question/command]", without pressing any buttons, and it'll do what you say. Sweet! I turned off the "Okay Google" voice recognition part of this, though, because I read that it's not kind to battery life. I can still give voice commands, I just have to press a button first. I'll trade that for some extra battery life.

Google also has this thing called "Google Now", which supposedly tracks your Google searches (through anywhere you have Google Chrome installed, including your PC and phone), movements via GPS, that sort of thing, to try and give you useful information - i.e. tell you there's a traffic delay on your work commute, before you even leave home - without you asking for it. I decided I'd give it a try, although to be honest, I haven't really gotten much of a benefit from Google Now yet. I turned off all sports-related updates, since I watch the majority of my sports via DVR (since we basically live on Marla's schedule), and so I don't want to know what the score of the Carolina Hurricanes game is right now. I'm still 30 minutes behind! The work commute information isn't all that useful for me, personally, since I have a pretty short commute that pretty much never has delays. And the other stuff - Google Calendar reminders (stuff I already check), "hey since you're away from home here's a nearby restaurant with good reviews"...nothing groundbreaking, really. I won't turn Google Now off, but I haven't gotten a whole lot out of it, yet.

Here's one thing that the Nexus 5 does which I really like. Through Google+ (which I don't use all that much - pretty much the only Google thing I haven't latched on to, really), it automatically uploads all of the pictures you take with the camera to an online "backup" server when you're connected via wifi. So should something happen to your phone, all your pictures are preserved, even if you hadn't transferred them over to your PC yet. Also, let's say I want to post a picture from my phone on my blog. I don't have to manually transfer it from my phone to my computer first. Instead, I can just upload "from my phone" on Blogger, and there it is, instantly.


(That's from a random rest area in Ohio. I don't know why I took that picture, but hey, at least I can post it to my blog instantly!)

Speaking of wifi, now that most (all?) wireless providers cap the amount of data you can use in a month, wifi is pretty much a necessity if you want to stay under your cap, especially if you're going to take advantage of things like automatically-updating apps and photo backups. In hindsight, it's hard to believe I went so long - April 2010 - before hooking up my house with wireless internet. On the other hand, it also took me quite a while to even get my first smartphone, compared to most people...but regardless, if you have a smartphone, you should really have wireless internet, too.

So, after all that, I'm sure I've barely scratched the surface of what this phone can do. Hopefully it won't become obsolete too quickly.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Peppa Pig

Let's be honest: if you're a parent, most children's programming is pretty annoying. At least, I think it is.

But, we've found some exceptions. In fact, Marla's favorite cartoon - pretty much the only one she asks for by name anymore - is something that Mommy and Daddy like watching too! (In moderation.) It's a British cartoon called "Peppa Pig". It airs every weekday on Nick Jr. at 5:00 PM and 5:30 PM, and at other times on weekends. Here's a sample episode:

The episodes are only five minutes long, which is a nice length, especially for a two-year old. (As if my attention span is really that much longer.)

In general, I think there's a lot to like about Peppa Pig:
- It's crudely drawn, but in a cute, clean way. (Much preferable to 3-D computer animation if you ask me!)
- The children act like children. Sometimes, they're a bit of a handful. Parents can appreciate that.
- It's not "zany" or "loud". It's pretty low key, and most of the episodes involve the characters doing normal everyday things.
- Not too much singing! Thank goodness.
- Being British, there's a good bit of dry humor that we parents can appreciate as well.

This doesn't come across so much in the above episode - after all, "Daddy Pig's job sounds very important" - but like many successful cartoons (and sitcoms), the patriarch of the family - "Daddy Pig" - is lazy, a self-proclaimed expert at everything (even though he's not, especially at reading maps) and as the Wikipedia article puts it, "round in the tummy". (Although to be fair, every adult male on the show is pretty "round".) Most episodes focus on the Pig family, but there are many support characters, most of whom have personality quirks of their own. My favorites are Pedro Pony (always late), and Miss Rabbit (who works seemingly dozens of jobs simultaneously, which is ridiculous, but it works because the writers are in on the joke).

Why does Marla like Peppa Pig? Hard to say. Maybe because she can relate to the "family unit" (except that she doesn't have a sibling)? Maybe because the animals are cute? Maybe because it's not too "zany" or "loud"? Does she just like the British accents? I don't know what it is. Seriously, Peppa Pig is the ONLY show on television that she'll sit down and watch for more than, say, 10 consecutive minutes. Any other show - even Elmo - and off she goes. Either way, she's made a fine choice, because Peppa Pig is the most entertaining children's show we've seen.

So, yeah, we don't watch it every day, but we do watch it a lot. In fact, I've been keeping track of all of the episodes that I've seen. Not counting the Christmas special, there have been four 52-episode seasons to date. (Each episode being five minutes long.) Of those 204 episodes, I've seen 163...so far. It's my goal to see every single one. That's pretty much only possible via YouTube, though, because I've noticed that Nick Jr. never airs most of the "Season 4" episodes. (There have been four 52-episode seasons to date.) But, most of them - if not all of them - are on YouTube. Even in other languages!

I guess you could say that Peppa Pig is kind of a big deal, actually. But she isn't marketed in the USA anywhere near as much as other children's programs, like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer. Really, I think we stumbled on it by accident, only because Nick Jr. happens to air it at a convenient time. (Although it doesn't really matter when it airs anymore, because we have our DVR record every episode for us.) I wouldn't even know it existed if we didn't have a kid.

Are there other shows on Nick Jr. that I've never heard of, but that we may enjoy as much as Peppa Pig? Perhaps we'll find out some day, if Marla lets us. Until then, let's go jump up and down in muddy puddles! (Muddy puddles are a recurring theme throughout the show, first introduced in the very first episode...)

Sunday, December 01, 2013

No Shave November: Results

Here's what happens when I don't shave for 30 days:

Did I make an animated GIF of my beard growing for 30 days? Yes. Yes I did.

So, the beard looks a lot better than the mustache. I got much more positive feedback this time around, even though there are a few gray hairs mixed in there.

Perhaps you noticed in the GIF that there's a mustache-only frame mixed in there? That's because this morning, when I shaved for the first time in a month, I decided to leave the mustache at first just to see what a full one-month mustache would look like, since last year I gave up on the mustache after 14 days. And...yeah. Never again.

While the beard looked fine, it wasn't the most comfortable. Some days, it was itchy; some days it wasn't. This was the case from about one week in, all the way until the end of the month.

All told, I think the two-to-three week beard is probably the "sweet spot", in terms of comfort and looks. I might even grow it again, perhaps even in a month other than November.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Playground Reviews: Marla Dorrel Park, Anderson Park (OH)

Marla Dorrel Park - Thurston Drive, Cary, NC
Visited: Saturday, November 23, 2013
| Google Satellite

Summary: Yes, part of the reason we picked this playground is because it's named after someone named Marla. But it's actually a pretty good park! It's near our old apartment in Cary, so we're familiar with the area. And, I've biked here multiple times because it connects with a major pedestrian bridge. This isn't our first visit.

(Note: The scoring system is designed so that 50% is an average score. "Perfect" scores are rarely given.)

Things for Marla to do: 12/14. This park is pretty big. Three distinct play areas (the first two of which are pictured): the type of playground set you'd normally see, a climbing thing in the middle, and another play area that has play houses and whatnot. There's also a dragon you can climb on. Of the playgrounds we've been to, only Pullen Park is more expansive or has as much variety.

One thing this playground doesn't have is a really tall slide, but, meh. Maybe that's a good thing.

Uniqueness: 8/10. Big points for uniqueness here, mostly because of what I just said. I also appreciate that this isn't like all the other playgrounds where they just cut down all the trees and stick a set or two in the middle of the cleared area. They kept most of the trees intact here. Lots of shade, and it helps keep each area of the playground separate. That's pretty nice.

Upkeep: 9/10. Another Cary park in great shape. Raleigh and Cary definitely take good care of their parks.

Crowd: 4/10. This park is pretty popular, as you'd expect, but since it's so spread out, it isn't overwhelmingly so.

Marla enjoyment: 4/5. If not for the kid that threw sand in Marla's face, maybe this would have been 5/5? (Can't really give 5/5 here if Marla is grumpy even for just a couple minutes.)

TOTAL: 37/49, ranking 1st out of 19. First place overall!


Anderson Park* - Anderson Street, Maumee, OH
Visited: Thursday, November 28, 2013
| Google Street View
(* - Not to be confused with Anderson Community Park in Carrboro, NC, which we've been to but have not reviewed yet.)

Summary: The closest playground to Amber's parents' house, or at least one of the closest. Amber reports that it was "recently" renovated and revamped - although when you only visit the area a couple of times a year, "recently" could just mean "at some point between now and when I moved to North Carolina." (Google Street View confirms that the current set has been around since at least July 2011.)

Things for Marla to do: 8/14. All of the standard playground amenities are here: swings, slides, things to climb, separate areas for toddlers and older kids. (I only give scores of above 8 here for "special" playgrounds that go above and beyond the usual stuff.)

Uniqueness: 5/10. Hey, look, a dinosaur!

Mostly thanks to her favorite cartoon Peppa Pig (which will get its own blog post sooner rather than later, by the way), Marla knows all about dinosaurs. Roooar!

Upkeep: 2/10. Trash level was average to below average, but mostly this score - my lowest upkeep score to date, unfortunately - is due to a broken toddler swing, plus another broken apparatus. Amber points out that it's harder to keep outdoor equipment in top shape in colder climates; that, and we're kind of spoiled with the playgrounds in Raleigh, Cary, etc. They set a high standard.

Crowd: 9/10. By rule, "nobody else at the playground during the duration of our visit" means a crowd score of 9 or 10. However, I may have to include a "weather" or "time of day" adjustment. Thanksgiving morning + 24°F = not the most popular time for kids to go to a playground. So is this score really indictative of how crowded (or not) this playground usually is? Maybe, maybe not - can't make that call based on one visit. Gotta stick with the system.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. We left once Marla got uncomfortably cold. She held out for between 30 and 45 minutes, though, which was longer than I thought she would.

TOTAL: 27/49, ranking 9th out of 19. That's four playgrounds now with an overall score of 27; of those, Anderson Park is 2nd based on my arbitrary tiebreaker.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Curling Recaps: November 2013

Among the many things I'm thankful for: curling! Here are quick recaps of the four games I played in November.

Career game #234: 2013 Fall Friday League - November 1, 2013

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Mecca......... 00002003 | 05
Allen......... 11110220 | 08

A little commentary on the last end. The previous week - or one of the previous weeks - we had a four-point lead going into the final end, and so I started calling all take-outs, in order to play conservative and "run the other team out of rocks". It worked, and the last end ended up being blanked. This time, I tried the same thing, up 6 this time. Except that this week, we pretty much missed every take-out in the last end, because the ice was not as conducive to take-outs as I thought it was, it turns out. If we were only down 4 at that point instead of 6, that last end really would have been interesting. That's something to consider next time I'm in that position.

Career game #235: 2013 Fall Sunday League - November 3, 2013
(my team: Kato)

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Kato.......... 03010000 | 04
Zwiefel....... 20100321 | 09

This is normally Amber's team, but I curled in her place, given that she had just run a marathon that morning. I wasn't much help as her team's temporary Lead, though; my Lead rocks never really helped us all that much. But that's not unusual; my career record in league games in which I play Lead, is now 4-5.

I suppose Lead isn't my best position. Makes sense, since it's the position in which I have the least experience, by far: I only have 18 career games at Lead, and 8 of those came in my first year, 2007. (By comparison, I have 83 games at Skip, 98 at Vice, and 36 at Second.) At least sweeping was fun.

Career game #236: 2013 Fall Friday League - November 8, 2013

End........... 123456 |TTL
Wright........ 020000 | 02
Allen......... 201313 | 10

Nearly a perfect game on all counts: we had the shot making, the strategy, and the occasional lucky break. This win gave us the #1 seed in the four-team playoffs, scheduled to start the following week. Let's do it!

Career game #237: 2013 Fall Friday League Semifinal - November 15, 2013

Just kidding! We got all amped up to start our playoff game, and the game never happened. As we later found out, the culprit was a compressor failure. (Basically, that's what keeps the ice cold.) Let's try again next week!

Career game #237 (for real): 2013 Fall Friday League Semifinal - November 22, 2013

End........... 1234567 |TTL
Jaun.......... 0310122 | 09
Allen......... 3001000 | 04

Team Jaun played a great game, and we couldn't keep up. Their rocks made it past the guards; ours just barely did not. It was basically that sort of game, although it didn't really get away from us until the 6th end. Actually, in the 5th end, we were sitting 5 prior to the last shot of the end, which opposing Skip Chris made for 1. Then, we couldn't get anything going in the 6th end, and in the 7th (and would-be final) end, we were scrambling to try and score 3, which meant we had to get that darn opposing rock off of the button first, which we were never able to do in the entire end, because we couldn't get the line just right on our hits or draws. Kind of a frustrating end to the season, but at least it was more a matter of the other team winning the game rather than us losing it. This was my 99th career loss, so my next loss will be a major career milestone!

And, that was my last official game of 2013, since I don't have any scheduled for December. My final record for the year: 22-12-1, including 14-3-1 as a Skip (all during league or pickup games at home), and 7-4 in away bonspiels; I also won a league championship trophy (in the Spring) and a bulldog trophy. Pretty good year! Also, Amber won her own league championship this past Sunday, which means that Amber is ahead of me on league titles again (5 to 4).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Holiday Traffic: 2013 Edition

Here's a little synopsis on my thought process regarding driving up to Toledo for Thanksgiving this week.

The plan was to drive up to Toledo on Wednesday, leaving at 4 AM, like we usually do when heading up that way. But, the weather forecast doesn't look particularly hospitable for that. Basically, we'd be driving through West Virginia in the snow, potentially during a significant snow event, and potentially during the brunt of that snow event. (Probably not the brunt of it, but do we want to take that chance?)

(Disclaimer: I have a degree in meteorology, but I'm not much of a forecaster. Instead, I just do what you all do and look at other people's forecasts, although I'd like to think I know how to interpret those forecasts - not to mention, which forecats are trustworthy and which are not - better than the general population. My primary source is the National Weather Service. Locally, I also trust WRAL and @wxbrad, and @capitalweather up towards DC, but that doesn't help me a whole lot in West Virginia.)

Could we avoid West Virginia altogether? And if we do, would the weather be any better? Let's see...
- If we go north first, then west - say, by way of Breezewood and the Pennsylvania Turnpike - then we're basically just trading trading snow in West Virginia for snow in Pennsylvania. And actually, it could be worse there: there are already Winter Storm Warnings in Western PA. So, no.
- If we go west first, then north - by way of Knoxville - then, we might have some better luck.

Problem is...going to Toledo by way of Knoxville is a pretty long drive. We've done it in one shot before, and NOT including stops, it took 12 hours. So, plus stops, and given that we have a kid, we'd be looking at 14 hours. And that doesn't even factor in the weather or holiday traffic. No thanks. So, we're leaving late Tuesday afternoon instead, and spending the night near the Tennessee/Kentucky border along I-75, before finishing off the drive on Wednesday. (We already have a reservation, because I'd rather not be stuck looking for a hotel in the snow, for instance.)

"But...since you're leaving Tuesday instead of Wednesday, won't that put you right back into the middle of the storm again?" Well, yes...however, it's supposed to be mostly rain along I-40 Tuesday, changing over to snow overnight into Wednesday morning as we head north of Knoxville. As long as we get to our hotel before the change to snow, no problem!

"Well...what if it DOES change over to snow before you get your the hotel?" Then, at least it shouldn't be as heavy as it's expected to be from West Virginia north. There's also a chance the snow won't have completely moved out by the time we want to leave Wednesday morning; if that's the case, then we'll just wait it out at the hotel, I guess.
I never said this option was a perfect option. It's just the best one we have, given that we have to work Tuesday, and would like to be in Toledo before dinner time Wednesday. The good news is that once we're north of, say, Lexington, we should be all clear.

"So why not just drive all the way to Lexington Tuesday night?" We're already looking at a 6 hour drive to the hotel on Tuesday as it is. We don't want to push it.

As much fun as all of this sounds, I'd still rather put up with this than try flying. At least this way, we're in control. (Mostly.) If we booked a flight for late Tuesday or Wednesday, who knows what would happen there, with delays / cancellations / etc.

Anyway, after all that, during our visit in Toledo, no snow is expected. That's really annoying.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bicycling Business

At least once during virtually every long (35+ miles) bike ride I do, I have to pee. In a way, that's good, because it means I'm hydrating enough. In fact, if I don't have to pee at least once during a long bike ride, then it means I'm not hydrating enough.

However, it's not particularly convenient, of course. So, what are my options? I think this is an important consideration for longer bike rides. Like it or not, you're going to have to pee in the middle of a ride at some point, at least if you're doing it right.

In order of "most preferable" to "least preferable":

1) Pee in a public bathroom at a public park. When I have to pee, my first choice is to look for a public park with public bathrooms. At a public park, I can generally leave my bike parked outside for a few minutes without fear for it being swiped. Or, if not, I might even be able to take the bike into the bathroom with me. And, public park bathrooms are usually in decent shape.

The problem is, not all public parks have bathrooms, and even the ones that do don't leave them open all the time. Durham parks only seem to have their bathrooms unlocked during the summer. I've had far more success with Cary parks, which are usually open all year. (Just one reason why Cary is more bicycle-friendly than Durham!)

2) Pee in a portable toilet. Some bicycling-friendly organization put a portable toilet on a popular cycling route near Jordan Lake, purely for the purposes of cyclists who need to pee. But that's pretty rare; mostly, I'm talking about portable toilets on construction sites. I've used many of those. Construction sites are usually vacant on weekends, which is when I do most of my rides, so, no problem. Park bathrooms are better, though.

3) Pee in the woods. Now...this is what usually ends up happening, because a lot of my rides end up in rural areas, with lots of secluded areas in which to do your business undetected. I find it kind of stressful to find that place that's "just right", though.

4) Pee in a public bathroom in a grocery store / convenience store / etc. I never do this, because a) I don't like leaving my bike outside unattended at these types of places, and b) sometimes it's a long walk once you're inside to the restroom, and c) I don't like being the bicycling dork among all of the regular customers, wherever I am.

Monday, November 18, 2013

US Olympic Trials for Curling

Lately I've been publishing topics of "general curling interest" on the Triangle Curling Club webpage. But I should probably keep opinion pieces like this here, so...yeah.

Last weekend, NBCSN televised the US Olympic Trials for curling, in which the best women's team directly qualifies for Sochi, while the best men's team qualifies for a qualifier to go to Sochi. (More on that later). I watched pretty much every single end that was televised, plus some of the web-only coverage from earlier in the week. I'm dedicated.

We have two strong established teams on the women's side: Team Pottinger and Team Brown. Between them, they've basically won 7 of the last 8 national championships (save for a lineup change here and there). And, although the 2010 Olympics didn't go particularly well, these teams are generally good enough to compete on the world stage. So, no surprise that the women's final for the Olympic berth featured those same two teams. And given the way Team Brown played both this weekend and at the most recent World Championships (4th place, behind Scotland/Sweden/Canada in some order), I'm pretty confident we'll have a much stronger showing in Sochi than in Vancouver. I feel pretty good about our chances on the women's side.

The US men don't seem to have any dominant teams that win every year, though. We've had three different teams win the last three national championships, and on top of that, a fourth team - led by John Shuster - won this weekend's trials. Unfortunately, I'm not as confident in our men's team's chances as I am the women. I thought there was a noticeable difference in the quality of play on the men's side versus the women's side. Many more missed shots with the men, it seemed. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the men are the ones that haven't qualified for Sochi yet.

Will Team Shuster advance through next month's "Olympic Qualification Event" (8 teams for 2 spots) and make the Olympics? Just as importantly, will we be able to watch the Qualification Event, like we were the Trials? I haven't heard yet; I guess that's up to NBC; I would assume they own the rights since it's Olympics-related. Maybe they'll stick it on that Universal Sports channel or something. Either way, I really hope the men make it to Sochi, because our curling lives depend on it!!!

Perhaps that's a bit of an extreme take on things, but here's the thing. As Amber has a way of reminding me whenever I watch sports, no matter how badly the sports teams I root for do - and most of them do pretty badly - it doesn't really affect my life. The performance of the United States curling teams in the Olympics, however, might be the only sporting event where it does. The better we do in the Olympics, the more members our local curling club might hope to get? Maybe not, I don't know; after all, our club membership nearly doubled in 2010, despite the US teams both finishing in last place in Vancouver. I think as long as we're in Sochi and putting on competitive and interesting games - and that was the case even in Vancouver; despite the dual last place finishes, the games were competitive - it doesn't really matter how many games the US wins, in terms of how many new club members we might hope to recruit. But, not having a United States men's team in Sochi at all might be different. So, no pressure, guys! Every curling club across the country is counting on you!

I will say this about Team Shuster, though: they certainly aren't lacking in confidence. And that could go a long way in this Olympic Qualification Event thingy, in which their competition will consist of teams that they should (hopefully) be able to beat, as opposed to Canada/Scotland/Norway/Sweden/etc. But if Olympic qualification comes down to a draw for the win in the final end of the final game...I might pass out. (Good thing I'm not the one who has to make that shot, eh?)

So, good luck to Team Brown in Sochi! And, good luck to Team Shuster in Germany next month, and (hopefully) in Sochi, too! We're pulling for you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Playground Review: Herndon Park

Lately, we haven't been taking Marla to many playgrounds that we haven't been to before. Sooner or later, we're going to make it out to Knightdale's new playground, plus a few more in Cary. But, here are a couple of reviews in the interim:

Herndon Park - Scott King Road, Durham, NC
Visited: Saturday, November 9, 2013
| Google Street View

Summary: This is the closest public playground to our house - our two neighborhood playgrounds are operated by our HOA - but we don't go here all that often. It's not close enough to walk, and so if we're going to drive, we may as well drive a little farther, no?

(Note: The scoring system is designed so that 50% is an average score. "Perfect" scores are rarely given.)

Things for Marla to do: 6/14. A toddler area and a bigger kid area; pretty standard. No toddler swings (big kid swings only), but there was plenty to keep Marla's attention regardless.

Uniqueness: 4/10. The "bridge" connecting the two playgrounds together (not pictured, because it's behind the front set) was kind of unique, even if it serves as much an obstacle to the parents as anything else. There are also a couple of climbing-type and other things you don't see at every playground. Mostly, though, it's standard.

Upkeep: 7/10. The set has a few years on it, but it's in pretty good shape, and the park is clean.

Crowd: 5/10. At the start, we shared the playground with just one other family of three. Had it stayed that way, I might have scored 7/10...but then everyone else came.

Marla enjoyment: 5/5. I don't throw around scores of 5/5 all that often, but Marla was really, really happy and energetic the whole time. Who needs swings, anyway? Besides, a playground without swings is less work for the parents!

TOTAL: 27/49, ranking 8th out of 17. (Here's the entire scoring spreadsheet.) Remarkably average!

Yeah, these playgrounds are starting to run together a little bit. For the most part, these reviews are going to get less and less interesting, especially for the "average" playgrounds.


Finley Forest Neighborhood - Finley Forest Drive, Chapel Hill, NC
Visited: Saturday, October 19, 2013
| Google Street View

Summary: This is nothing more than a subdivision-scale swing set and slide, and a pretty old one at that. But I've gotta review it! The overall scoring and rankings are most meaningful if I score every playground we go to, even if we're only there for a few minutes. (Provided that admission is free. That's the only requirement, and it's why Hill Ridge Farms isn't eligible. Neighborhood playgrounds for "residents and their guests only", like this one, are eligible.)

Things for Marla to do: 3/14. We've got swings, and a slide. And Marla isn't old enough to get up to the slide by herself.

Uniqueness: 1/10. Hmm...I've got nothing. Seriously, though, as we visit more and more playgrounds, and I start getting the sense that I've "seen everything before", I'm going to have to safeguard against giving progressively lower uniqueness scores. But not today.

Upkeep: 3/10. The set is pretty old and downtrodden, but it was moderately clean, and I'd like to leave room at the bottom of the scale for something in even worse shape and/or trashy. (In other words, for the kind of playground that we would probably never go to anyway, unless we made a wrong turn somewhere.)

Crowd: 9/10. One nice thing about these small subdivision playgrounds is that you usually have them to yourself! Usually.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. Give Marla a swing, and she's happy, usually. We were in the neighborhood for a birthday party, and we would have actually preferred that Marla get bored with the swings earlier so that we could, you know, go back to the party.

Note: while my uniqueness scores may creep downward, the Marla enjoyment scores may creep upward, because as Marla gets older, the more she'll enjoy playgrounds. (To a point, of course, but we're many years away from that point.) But that doesn't bother me so much in terms of the scoring, because "Marla enjoyment" is meant to be the "wild card" in my system anyway. There are a lot of factors independent of the playground that will influence how much fun Marla has; most notably, how well rested she is.

TOTAL: 19/49, ranking 16th out of 17.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Sports: 11/7/13

College football

The past few years, I've longed for the "glory days" of Florida State football, where they contend for national championships, and blow out most everyone in the ACC by final scores of 51-14 and the like. Well, for this year anyway, the glory days are back! In fact, I'm now in a unique position that I haven't been in for a few years, where I'm actively rooting for other undefeated teams to lose - Alabama and Oregon, specifically - so that Florida State can play for the BCS Championship. Oregon plays at Stanford tonight, which is the biggest test Oregon has left, so I'm told. Oregon at Stanford - Thu 9:00p, ESPN

Actually, though, if FSU goes undefeated and doesn't get to play for the BCS championship, would that be so bad? Sure, national championships are nice, but I think I'd rather go 14-0 with an Orange Bowl win, than 13-1 with a loss to Alabama. Besides, these "national championships" are all kind of fake anyway. If it happens, great; if not, oh well. I'll be thrilled if they go undefeated, BCS championship or not. Besides, there is still no guarantee Florida State even finishes the regular season undefeated, even though they will be big favorites the rest of the way, including at Florida. What if Jameis Winston gets injured? Then what? Florida State at Wake Forest - Sat 12:00p, ABC

A quick word about Penn State: I missed the Penn State v. Michigan four overtime game, because it was during our Luray trip. Now that they've played (and lost to) Ohio State, the Michigan game will certainly go down as the highlight of the year, right? What's left on the schedule that could top that? It'd be nice if they beat Minnesota this week, I suppose, but...meh. That's one problem with a bowl ban: it's hard to stay interested once the team's most intriguing games are already behind them. Penn State at Minnesota - 12:00p, ESPN2


Do I have anything to say about the Jaguars? Nope. Jacksonville at Tennessee - Sun 1:00p, NFL Sunday Ticket


When the NHL did the whole realignment thing, and stuck the Carolina Hurricanes with the Penguins, Flyers, Capitals, Rangers, and Devils, I thought, "Well, crap. We've been having enough trouble making the playoffs as it is!"

Well, so far at least, this "Metropolitan Division" - and I kind of like the name, by the way - is actually the weakest division in the NHL. Carolina has only won 5 of 15 games, and yet is only two points behind the Islanders for 3rd place in the division. (Top three in each division make the playoffs, plus two more "wild cards" from the conference.) So, the start to the season hasn't been all that inspiring, and their top two goalies are hurt, but thank goodness for the realigned divisions*! NY Islanders at Carolina - Thu 7:00p, SportSouth

* - Actually, upon further inspection, Carolina would only currently be ONE point out of a playoff spot under pre-realignment (alignment?), not two, since Detroit would be back in the West instead of the East. Actually, who knows what things would look like pre-realignment, since the schedules would all be different. Well, whatever.


Things aren't going well for my soccer rooting interests. Fulham is flirting with relegation in the Premier League (currently two points clear), and they've been noticeably outplayed and outclassed in many of their games this season. They fail the "eye test", for sure, to the point where I'm not overly optimistic about their chances.

Although, it's not like I've been watching much of the other bad teams: Norwich City, Sunderland, and Crystal Palace (the current bottom three). All three of those teams have pretty rancid goal differentials, much worse than Fulham has. Maybe those teams fail the "eye test" even more so than Fulham does? Maybe I'll watch Norwich City this weekend and see. Norwich plays West Ham this weekend, who's currently just ahead of Fulham in the "table" (a.k.a. the standings), and as such will provide a good test. It's one thing to lose 7-0 to Manchester City, but if Norwich flames out spectacularly against West Ham as well, then I'll feel better about Fulham's chances. Norwich City v. West Ham United - Sat 12:30p, NBC

In France, things might be going even worse, though. Marseille has lost all four games in the Champions League, so, there's that. But beyond the league's on-field performance, all of the professional players and teams in France are protesting Fran├žois Hollande's new high income tax bracket (75% on income over 1 million euros, or something like that) at the end of the month, and will refuse to play over the last weekend of November. Without commenting on the politics of taxing the wealthy at 75%, it does put French soccer at a pretty big disadvantage compared to the rest of Europe, I suppose, since it's pretty much all about money. (Isn't everything?) Cancelling an entire weekend of games due to player/team strife doesn't look good, and apparently French people don't really care all that much about soccer to begin with these days, so they say. And it's not like French soccer is all that interesting anyway; Premier League games are far more exciting to watch, no matter how much money the owners of PSG and Monaco spend on their teams. (And they've spent a lot.) So, after 14 months of following Marseille and the French league in general, I'm jumping ship on Ligue 1. Bye! (But, I'm still rooting for France in their World Cup playoff v. Ukraine later this month.)


Last year, I started watching the Charlotte Bobcats, because their games were finally available to DirecTV subscribers in Raleigh. I started watching again this season, to some extent...except that last night's game (unlike the first four games) was blacked out, again. What gives?

So, even though the Bobcats - soon to be renamed the Hornets, which will be awesome - are off to an okay start at 3-2, I don't know why last night's game was blacked out, while the previous four were not. But college basketball season starts tomorrow regardless, so who cares?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

No Shave November

Last year, I started doing the whole "Movember" thing, growing a mustache throughout the month of November. Not for charity or anything, but just for fun. I gave up on November 14th.

This year, I'm trying again, except instead of just growing a mustache - as I learned last year, I can't really pull the mustache off - I'm going full beard. For those unfamiliar with my facial hair history, I had a goatee for the better part of 1999-2006, but have never had a full beard. The goatee will be gone forever; that, I'm standing pat on. And since the mustache didn't work out, full beard is really my only remaining facial hair option.

I've seen this variant on "Movember" called various things - "No Shave November", "Novembeard", and whatnot; I'm going with "No Shave November", personally. Because that's what it is, after all. I shaved on the morning of November 1st, and then put the razor away, not to be seen again until December 1st.

120 hours of facial hair growth later - a.k.a. this morning - here's how we stood:

My mustache hair doesn't grow all that quickly, but the rest of my face? You betcha. This should be a fun month, provided I can manage to make it past the 14th this year. One thing working in my favor this year is that Amber likes the beard. (So far.) One thing working against me, though, is that I do see a gray hair or two mixed in there.

(I'm actually taking a selfie every morning throughout November as the beard grows. We'll see what I can make out of it when I'm done, if anything.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Marathon Spectating

Amber ran (and finished!) a marathon yesterday, her first ever. (How did you spend your weekend?)

I would write more about the race itself, but I obviously didn't run the race with her. Amber actually fell a little bit short of her goal; her goal was 5 hours, and to not stop to walk any part of it, but she finished in 5:11 something, including some walking. So, she's a little disappointed. Of course, even finishing your first a marathon is a major accomplishment regardless of the time, but I understand where she's coming from. (Personally, my strategy is to always set really low goals for myself, but Amber is better than that.)

Well, anyway...while Amber was running, Marla and I (and my parents, who were in town for the weekend) thought we'd go stake out a spot or two along the course and cheer her on. I'll (probably) never run one of these myself, or even anything close, so I can't talk about what it's like to run a marathon. All I can do is talk about the logistics of cheering on your friends and loved ones while they do it. Amber has told me that it helps her motivation and whatnot to see us cheering along the course, especially if it's unexpected, so I'm happy to help. (Although maybe I shouldn't be giving away my strategy here?)

Last week, I did my research to find the best spectator locations, focusing on the second half of the route, for a couple of reasons: 1) the second half is where Amber could use the most encouragement, and 2) the second half is where the route diverges from the half-marathoners, and so would be less crowded. I decided that the best locations would be a more accessible (but likely more crowded) spot at mile 15, and a more secluded spot between mile 22 and 23.

So, when should I get to mile 15? I calculated when she would get there assuming a pace between 10 and 12 minutes per mile (her longer training runs hovered around 11 or less), and made sure I was there in plenty of time. She got to mile 15 about when I thought she would, right on the 11 minute per mile pace. (Her actual pace at that point was faster than that, since she didn't start the race right at the gun time.)

(This is where a picture would go, if I took one. Here's the thing, though: you don't really have time to take a picture during these things. You only have a window of a few seconds to spot your runner among the many other runners out there, grab their attention somehow, and say "Go Amber!" and whatnot. Then, like that, they're gone, because you know, they're running and all. Too much going on at once to try and snap a quick picture, in my experience.)

One of the advantages of having a last name like "Allen"? Low bib numbers! Amber was bib number #9. That made her easier to spot among all of the three-digit bib numbers out there.

After mile 15, I estimated we had 70 to 95 minutes (again, based on a pace between 10 and 12 minutes/mile) to get to the second spot. It was a bit of a walk to get there (after driving most of the way), but I picked this spot because it would be less crowded, and because it was at the end of a very long hill, the most difficult hill on the course, in fact. (How cruel are they to put the toughest hill at mile 22?) If Amber could use some encouragement anywhere during the race, it would be here. While it would have been neat to see her finish, I think it was more beneficial to camp out a few miles before the finish instead.

We made it there in 65 minutes, but...Amber took a little longer than 95 minutes to get there. Like I said, it was a pretty tough hill. Pretty much everyone we saw at the top of the hill was walking. No shame in having to walk, too.

I think that hill is the main reason why if Amber is going to do another marathon - and I suspect she will, despite what she says now, because I know her well - she won't be doing this marathon again. Maybe something flatter, or something that's not 100% paved. It wasn't really her legs that bothered her the most; it was her back. Regardless of when or where, we'll be there for her.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Curling Recaps: October 2013

So, yes...I've now been reduced to only doing one curling recap blog post a month (most months). This generally means I won't be talking about specific shots as much - as much as I'd like to talk about my hit for 3 on October 11, or my draw for 1 in the 2nd end on October 25 that kept us in the game early - but instead, just general stuff. And hey, at least I remembered to note all of the end-by-end scores this month!

Career game #231: 2013 Fall Friday League - October 4, 2013

End........... 123456 |TTL
Foulger....... 100000 | 01
Allen......... 022132 | 10

Career game #232: 2013 Fall Friday League - October 11, 2013

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Chick......... 22100031 | 09
Allen......... 00030200 | 05

Career game #233: 2013 Fall Friday League - October 25, 2013

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Allen......... 01403010 | 09
Witcraft...... 20020100 | 05

I think the key so far this season has been reading the ice. The ice has been pretty consistent this season, in terms of falls, speed, zamboni lines, etc. (That doesn't mean the falls have been the exact same every week; just the fact that there are falls, and that they behave somewhat similarly from week-to-week. That's been pretty consistent.) Generally, I've had a pretty good feel for the ice so far this season, much more so than normal, and as much as any season in which I've played Skip so far. (Experience really helps, too; I'm now sitting on 71 career games as a Skip on our home ice.) More importantly, my team is making a lot of shots, and we've had some fortunate bounces along the way as well (last week in particular), and so we're currently sitting at the top the table* with a 4-1 record.

(* - I've clearly been watching too much European soccer, if I'm now referring to the league standings as the "table".)

With these so-called "consistent" ice conditions, what's been the strategy? There are usually 2 or 3 "predictable lines" that we all use; some are more predictable than others. The straightest lines, if you don't place a guard on that line right away, then the proper strategy is to avoid that line completely until the very end. Put something in the house along the straight line, and the other team can hit it easily - and when they do, they might roll the shooter off of that predictable line, putting their rock on a different line that you can't get to. And then, the rest of the end, you're chasing. The October 11 game was kind of like that, because we were both thinking the same way; we were both trying the crazy, much more difficult routes into the house, all in an effort to avoid giving the other team an easy hit. That's why the 5th end was blanked, for instance.

Anyway, if you make your shots (hitting the broom is important because you don't want to be on the wrong side of the zamboni line), and the other team misses a shot or two giving you a chance to guard, then you can end up with rocks on all of the predictable lines, with guards, and then the other team won't have many options on their last shots. That's a hard setup to get, but when you do get it - once a game, if you're lucky - that's how you score 3 or 4 with these ice conditions. Or, throw one rock down the predictable line into the house, and you give the other team a opportunity for a hit-and-roll that you may never be able recover from.

We'll see how the ice conditions are this month. Will my general strategy keep working? Can we win the League Championship? Will we have to play Team Chick again in the playoffs? (Based on our October 11 game, opposing skip Brian seems to offer the perfect counter for my strategy. That, and his team is good, from top to bottom.)

Statistical notes: My current all-time record is now 135-97-1, so I'll be getting my 100th career loss sometime soon. (But hopefully not too soon.) Meanwhile, Amber's next win - which could come this weekend - will be her 100th career win; she's currently 99-83 all-time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


(This is my 2,000th blog post. Woo?)

I haven't mentioned my Bicycling Trip in Asia in a while. (This is my fake bicycling trip across Asia in which I translate my actual bicycling distance into a trip from Singapore to Delhi to Istanbul.) But, it's still going strong. I've ridden 985 miles in 23 weeks, and I'm currently somewhere in Thailand.

I've actually learned a lot about Thailand as a result of this trip, at least as far as what you can learn from looking at a map, and a few Google Street View snapshots. Speaking of those snapshots, most of the ones I've seen look similar to this:

View Bicycling Trip in Asia: Part 1 in a larger map

It's tropical, as you'd expect, given that my trip started just north of the 1st parallel, and is still only as far north as the 12th parallel. And, lots of old-looking buildings, even though the part of Thailand I've been fake riding through so far - part of the Malay peninsula - is mostly rural. There are also very few "cities"; just lots of small settlements scattered about that barely register on a map. Down here, only the capitals of each province can really be considered "cities", for the most part. From a statistical standpoint, it's actually a pretty boring area to fake ride through. (Although it is nice that Thailand has some Google Street View coverage. Still waiting on India, though.)

Not too much farther to go to Bangkok, at which point the provinces get a LOT smaller, and so I'll be crossing a provincial line every 20 miles or so. Since there aren't too many cities to track, in Thailand I've been settling on provinces. My current province, Prachuap Khiri Khan (just one of many fun place names throughout Thailand!), is the "longest" Thailand province on my route: 130 miles. Then, over my last 421 miles in Thailand, I'll be passing through 14 different provinces. If I wanted to take this farther, I would also track districts (the next level down from provinces) and subdistricts (the next level down from districts), but, nah. I do figure out the exact district and subdistrict that I'm currently "in" each week, though.

I still have a while to go before I make it out of Thailand and into Myanmar/Burma/whatever, but that national border will be interesting, in that it's the first of three times along the route to Istanbul in which I switch from one side of the road to the other side of the road. Thailand drives on the left, and Myanmar on the right; there's a traffic light on the bridge connecting the two countries that controls traffic flow from one side of the road to the other. Once I get to India, I'm back to the left side of the road, and stay there until the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, where I switch back to the right for the duration of the trip, including through all of Europe. From my "fake bicycling trip" perspective, which side of the road the locals drive on doesn't really matter, except to make sure I put my Google Maps markers on the correct side of the road.

As far as bicycling goals for the next year go...I was somewhat motivated by seeing people ride their bikes on the Blue Ridge Parkway and other mountain roads. Not that I'm considering doing something that extreme anytime soon, but I am going to do a ride in a more hilly environment - Caswell County, near the Virginia border - sometime within the next few months. Then, if that goes well, I'll do another ride even closer to the mountains, and then get closer with my next ride after that. And then maybe in a couple years, I'll actually do a for real "mountain bike ride". (Not to be confused with mountain biking, of course. I'm sticking to paved roads.) We'll see.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hill Ridge Farms

We had a pretty fun, but busy, weekend. Among the things we did was take Marla to this place called Hill Ridge Farms, which has animals, pumpkins, fun activities for kids, etc. Sounds like fun! But, of course, how much fun we would have would be 100% dictated by Marla, because "new things" don't always go as we intended.

Once Marla finally started tolerating her required wristband (which took a few minutes), we got inside the farm, where the first thing you come to is this child-sized maze. Looks like fun, eh, Marla? Want to run around in the maze, Marla? Nope. Not when there are swings!

Fortunately, we didn't waste spend too much time on the swings. It's not that we're anti-swing, certainly, but if all we're going to do is play on the swings, why come here?

Once Marla got over the swing, she was drawn to this "bouncy" thing, as she calls it. I think it calls itself an inflatable pillow. This was an extra $4 (just for Marla, not for us), but we paid it, because, well, Marla seemed really excited about it. She had a hard time getting up the thing, though, and couldn't really stand up straight once on top. But still, she seemed to enjoy the ride, even if she was in no control of the "bouncing".

After that, we took Marla over to see the goats and chickens and stuff. But...Marla wasn't that interested in chickens. She decided she'd rather play in the sand.

Marla did like the bunnies, though.

Marla also liked playing in this pile of hay. Now we're talking...Marla actually enjoying the farm-related activities!

After that, we needed to change Marla's diaper, so...we figured it was time to go at that point. Also, so we could get home in time to give her a timely nap well in advance of our our next activity of the day. (They also have hayrides and pumpkins, included in the price of admission, but we didn't get to those. We wouldn't have done much with the pumpkin anyway.)

But before we go...wanna give the maze another chance, Marla?

Marla kind of got tired of the maze halfway through. That's reasonable.

So, in summary: you never know what's going to happen when you take Marla, or any two-year-old, somewhere new. While doing new and different things helps keep us (the parents) from getting bored, will Marla enjoy something like this any more than just going to the playground down the street? Will she not? I'd say that Hill Ridge Farms fell somewhere in the middle. You can make educated guesses, but really, you never know.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dishwasher Detergent

Let's talk about dishwasher detergent! Because, why not.

Back in the day, I used the powdery stuff in my dishwasher. Then, I found that the powdery stuff would leave a residue in the spot where it goes in the dishwasher. At least, it does in our dishwasher. So, I switched to gel stuff:

I think the gel stuff works reasonably well, as long as you use a name brand. I haven't found similar success with store brands, and I've tried both Kroger and Target (both of which have a generally good lineup of store-brand products, except for dishwasher detergent, apparently). There was a noticeable difference in cleaning quality, and the condition of the dishwasher afterwards, when using store brand detergent.

But more recently, I read a Consumer Reports article about dishwasher detergent. They actually recommended these individually wrapped "powerball tab" things, which I had never heard of before, because it's not like I spend a lot of time browsing the cleaning aisle at the grocery store each week.

Consumer Reports gave these their highest recommendation, saying that these things are just as effective as the Cascade gel (if not more), and are cheaper per use. Sounds good to me!

I've been using the Finish(R) Powerballs(TM) for a few weeks now, and I'm sold. No more Cascade for me, probably! Gotta keep these things out of the reach of children, though, because admittedly, they look kind of tasty.

By the way, Consumer Reports is basically the best magazine ever. It's the only magazine I subscribe to.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Luray Trip: Day 2 Recap

Playground review: Heritage Park, Broadway, VA

Aside from visiting Shenandoah National Park, what is there to do in and around the town of Luray, Virginia?

"Oooh, I know I know! Luray Caverns! And aren't there are a bunch of other caverns around that area, too?" Yes, yes there are. However...I don't think Marla is old enough for a cave tour yet. Maybe in another year, once she's able to follow directions a little better. We didn't want her touching all of the cave walls the whole time (a big no-no) or running off towards who knows where, or whining during the entire second half of the tour. So, no caves for us this time.

View Larger Map

Instead, we started by going to downtown Luray, where we had a nice walk on the Hawksbill Greenway (point B on the map).

The greenway follows Hawksbill Creek, which was really roaring - more so than usual, I would suspect, due to all the rain they had gotten within the past week. There were also lots and lots of ducks.

After that, we started driving west towards West Virginia, and stopped at a small park in the town of Broadway (point C on the map) for lunch. (I'll attach a playground review at the bottom here, because it's probably not worth its own post...)

Then...off to West Virginia for a scenic drive, a.k.a. drive to the Tucker County line and turn around, because when am I going to be this close to Tucker County again? Tucker County was one of only two counties I had yet to visit in West Virginia, and it's kind of a hard one to get to. That, and I thought the somewhat new US-48 highway through Grant and Hardy counties would make for a pleasant drive. This part of West Virginia, around Moorefield - part of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia - has underrated scenery, I think.

But the highlight of the drive was the return. We asked our GPS ("Jill") to take us from US-48 to this corn maze we were going to visit, and she got pretty creative with the routing. While the "shortcut" didn't work out the other day, this one - Trout Run Road and Wolf Gap Road from Wardensville, WV to Edinburg, VA - was an outstanding drive. Sure, the road was pretty narrow, and a bit exciting at times when a car drove by in the opposite direction (which didn't happen all that often), but that's part of the fun! At least it was paved the whole way. And actually, this road gave us the best foliage we saw all weekend.

That was great, but it started raining before we got to the corn maze. So for the second consecutive year during our fall trip, our attempt at a corn maze was rained out. I think Marla would really enjoy a corn maze, so maybe we'll look for one closer to home.

After that, we went to a barbecue restaurant in Harrisonburg (point F), and then back to the cabin at a reasonable hour, i.e. while it was still light out.

The next day, we basically drove straight home, except for a stop at a small breakfast diner in downtown Culpeper. Trip complete! It's about a 5 hour drive to the cabin, which, it seems weird to me that we can get to Savannah in the same amount of time as we can Luray.

Last year's fall trip was a full week long, so this one - three days, two nights - flew by in comparison. Our respective vacation time balances at work dictated our taking a shorter trip this year. Although if we had known the government was going to be shutdown in advance and that we wouldn't be missing much at work, then maybe we would have taken that whole week...


Playground review time!

Heritage Park - Turner Avenue, Broadway, VA
Visited: Sunday, October 13, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: Every playground I've reviewed so far has been of a decent size. What if we stumbled upon a "playground" that was nothing more than a swing set in the middle of an empty field? Would that count as a playground? If so, what score would that get? I've always thought about this for the purposes of my ratings. Heritage Park is a little more than the theoretical "swing set in an empty field", but only slightly so. I think it's good to have at least one of these in my ratings.

(General disclaimer: The scoring system is designed so that 50% is an average score. "Perfect" scores are rarely given.)

(Also, I don't mean to be disparaging in my review here. Heritage Park is not trying to be a super fantastic mega large playground. It's just a small little park, and that's fine. Broadway is a small town, and this isn't even the largest playground in Broadway; after we left Heritage Park, we noticed that there is also a Broadway Community Park, which looked more similar in scope to the playgrounds we typically visit.)

(One more thing: These ratings ONLY apply to the small playground at Heritage Park, not the park as a whole. Heritage Park also has a pavilion / picnic area, a 1/4-mile trail, and a baseball field.)

Things for Marla to do: 2/14. A swing set, a couple of bouncy horses, and a tunnel thing.

Uniqueness: 2/10. From the side, the tunnel thing looks more like a worm, which was unique, I suppose.

Upkeep: 2/10. The playground equipment isn't in terrible shape, but there was a lot of trash spilling over from the neighboring pavilion onto the playground itself. In fact, there was even a shoe.

Which begs the question...where is the other shoe? Well, as we were getting ready to leave, we found it:

(Again, the ratings apply only to the playground, not the park as a whole. The accompanying trail is in fine shape.)

Crowd: 9/10. We had the playground to ourselves, but that may have just been because of the weather. And, even Google Street View shows people using the playground. So, I can't give a 10 here.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. Put Marla on a swing, and she's generally happy. As for the bouncy horses, I think the only time Marla is ever interested in those is when we're trying to leave. (But Daddy, I'm not ready to go yet! Look at me having fun on this bouncy horse thing!)

TOTAL: 18/49, ranked 14th out of 14. Again, I don't mean to be disparaging here. This isn't a "bad" playground; it's just small.

Actually, that got me thinking. There are plenty of similarly-sized small playgrounds close to home, I'm sure. But, we never visit them. When we're at home, we can do our research and go to larger playgrounds instead. But when we're on the road and are looking for a place to stop, we typically just settle for the first one that we find, regardless of size or quality. Because of that, I suspect that the lowest-rated playgrounds will always be out-of-town playgrounds. And, since my reviews do not cover a scientific or complete sample - it is not a goal of mine to review every playground in the Durham area, for instance - it's not appropriate to say that Raleigh and Durham have "better" playgrounds just because they have a higher than average score in my ratings.