Friday, March 29, 2013

Sports Friday: 3/29/13

College basketball

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I probably knew that Florida Gulf Coast University existed before you did. Although, despite being a Florida native, I hadn't heard of it until, maybe, two years ago? (Basically, whenever they joined the Atlantic Sun.) I also don't know anyone who went there. My senior year in high school - at that point, FGCU was only a couple of years old - I knew of at least one person going to most every state university. UF, FSU, UNF, UCF, USF, FAU, FIU, you name it. Shoot, even West Florida was represented among our senior class. (Yes, there is such a thing as the University of West Florida. Maybe they'll move up to Division I and crash the NCAA Tournament in a few years, too!) But back then, not only did I not know anyone going to FGCU, I didn't even know it existed. It's too bad, really.

Well, tonight, Florida Gulf Coast - located near Fort Myers (and yes, I did already know that, too; or at least that it was Fort Myers/Naples/ish) - plays Florida. Wanna guess who I'm rooting for? Go...Eagles? Is that it? I may have known where the university was located, but I didn't know what they called their sports teams. Seriously? "Eagles" was the best you all could come up with? Florida Gulf Coast v. Florida - Fri 10:00p, TBS

One other tournament thought. Some are saying that the tournament hasn't been that good this year. I say, rubbish! There have been plenty of upsets, and some buzzer beaters (or at least near buzzer beaters), too. What more do people want? I think the weekend TV schedule - while planned to maximize ratings - might have something to do with that. On Saturday and Sunday, from noon all the way until 6 pm, there is no more than one game on at a time. So if those two early games are blowouts - as they were on Saturday afternoon (Michigan/VCU, Michigan State/Memphis) - then you get a bunch of bored basketball viewers. We need more early games on Saturday and Sunday. Obviously, it's nice to have every game nationally televised, but it was also nice to have every game over and done with before 60 Minutes.


Hey, remember when the Carolina Hurricanes were leading the division, and everything was great? That is but a distant memory: the Hurricanes are now riding a seven game losing streak. I don't have any meaningful analysis as to why they suck all of a sudden, but I'm sure the injuries to their top two goaltenders aren't helping. Third string goaltender Justin Peters, who has been getting most (all?) of the work as of late, is not an NHL-caliber goaltender.

Well, on the bright side, according to Sports Club Stats, Carolina still has a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Of course, it might help if they win another game or two. Carolina at Winnipeg - Sat 3:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas


Hey, baseball season starts next week! As a Washington Nationals fan - and let the record show that I am not a bandwagon Nationals fan, because I started following them back when they sucked - you'd think I would really be looking forward to the 2013 MLB season. And, you're right! Not only are the Nationals expected to do well, they're expected to be a solid World Series favorite. Of course, that means nothing, really, but it's nice that one of my teams is expected to do well, or is even a topic of discussion among people outside the city where the team plays. I'm not used to that. Miami at Washington - Mon 1:00p, MASN

Auto racing

A quick note in defense of NASCAR. Typically when there's a fight of some kind, the reaction among fans is, "Yeah! Woo!", and the reaction among non-fans is, "Stupid rednecks." First off...Joey Logano is hardly a redneck. (Punk kid, yes. But that's about it.) But the reason you see these things more in NASCAR than in other sports is because you compete against the same people every single week, and as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. You see this in the NHL playoffs; the longer a playoff series goes, the more fights you tend to see. If the NFL playoffs had 7-game series and a more lax attitude towards fighting, you'd see the same exact thing. It's not because NASCAR drivers are "rednecks", per se; they're just human beings, just like the rest of us. And, human beings - the men especially - are idiots. (And yeah, some of them are rednecks, too.)

Formula One: I'm assuming none of you watch Formula One - no, no, keep reading! - so a quick recap of last week's race:
- Red Bull teammates Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel led the race, with Webber leading. With a few laps to go, the team instructed its drivers to conserve fuel, tires, etc so that they could safely make it to the end. Webber heeded the orders. Vettel ignored the orders, and went on to pass Webber for the win.
- Meanwhile, Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were 3rd and 4th. Rosberg was the faster of the two cars late in the race, but like with Red Bull, the Mercedes team also told its drivers to stand down late in the race, and told Rosberg not to pass his teammate for 3rd. Unlike Vettel, Rosberg obliged.

I'm really not that bothered by the whole "Team Orders" thing, but if it's in the best interest of teams to conserve and limp to the finish line at the end of these races, the rules are flawed. Should we go back to mid-race refueling, perhaps?


Hey, if you get Universal Sports Network (DirecTV 625), there's more curling on television next week! I enjoyed watching the Women's World Championships last week, and the Men's Worlds start this weekend. Yeah! Here's a schedule. And no, I have no idea why they're showing so many Sweden games.

By the way, I'm still trying to figure out why Canada's Rachel Homan opted for the double take-out instead of the draw on her final shot of the semifinal v. Scotland. You're the Skip of the Canadian team! You, of all people, should have the confidence to make an open draw to the button for the win. Chalk it up to youth and inexperience, I guess.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Colorado Trip: By the Numbers (Preview)

So, we're driving to Colorado in a couple of months. Let's talk about something very important: what are the statistical ramifications of this trip?

First off, here is the route we're planning to take to get out there. This is pretty much set, except for the part west of Wichita: (I'd prefer to go via Dodge City, but we'll go via Salina instead - one hour shorter - if the driving isn't going particularly well.)

View Larger Map

In terms of places visited, this will give us a few statistical firsts:

Marla's first time across the Mississippi River. To date, the farthest west Marla has been is just west of Uniontown, Alabama. Uniontown was memorable for the wrong reasons, so I'm excited to be giving Marla a new westernmost point. (Marla's other directional superlatives to date: southernmost - Jacksonville; northernmost - near Granby, Québec; easternmost - Conway, NH.) This will also be Marla's first visit to the Mountain Time Zone (my favorite time zone!).

Marla's highest elevation...and maybe mine, too! (Excluding air travel, because that doesn't count.) I'm actually not sure what my highest ever elevation is, but I don't think I've ever been above 14,000 feet. We're likely to drive up either Pikes Peak (14,115 feet) or Mount Evans (14,265 feet) while in Colorado - or maybe both - and either of those would do it. (The road up Mount Evans is actually the highest paved road in North America.) Regardless, we'll have no problem giving Marla her highest ever elevation, although that will actually require going into the mountains. Just going to Denver and Boulder won't do it, because Marla has already been over 6,000 feet twice (Clingmans Dome, Mount Washington).

The first time Amber and I have ever been to Arkansas together.. I've been to all 50 states, of course, and Amber has been to 49 (all but Hawaii). But, we've only visited 43 of those states together. Long-neglected Arkansas - which I haven't been to myself in almost 20 years - will be #44. Yay Arkansas! (The other six: Oklahoma, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii. We'll get close to Oklahoma on this trip, but, nah.) Marla will get four new states out of this trip (Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado), giving her 24 states visited before her second birthday.

For me, 50% county visitation nationally. As of today I've visited 1,507 counties nationwide (out of 3,142); I need 64 more to reach 50% nationally. And according to my calculations, this trip will do it. Exciting! Exactly how many I get - it could be anywhere from 60 to 120 - will mostly depend on the route I will take back to North Carolina. I'm leaving that undecided until the very end, but it will likely involve I-80 through Nebraska and Iowa. That's a hopelessly boring drive (so I've heard), but we largely avoided I-80 when we did our Nebraska trip five years ago (five years ago??), so it will be county gold. Also, depending on which route I take back, I may complete two interstates end-to-end: I-76 in Colorado/Nebraska, and I-72 in Missouri/Illinois. (The latter will require a little more creativity in my routing.)

100,000 miles on the car odometer. A major car milestone, and just like 50,000 miles (which happened during the Alaska trip), it'll happen in the middle of a long road trip. Sounds great, but as I've recently realized, having a high mileage car means I'm also going to start to pay more - a lot more - on maintenance. I'm already starting to feel that, actually; just this week I dropped several hundred dollars.

I was going to dedicate a blog post to that topic, but here's the basic idea. A lot of preventative maintenance stuff comes up in the 90,000 to 120,000 range. Cars also generally start to noticeably wear down around now; in other words, you can tell my car has some miles on it when you drive it. The ride isn't as smooth, the fuel mileage isn't as good (I only get 35 MPG now, compared to 38 MPG three years ago), and so on. And since my goal is to get 150,000 miles out of the car, that means whatever comes up over the next year or two will be worth the investment. Different story once I get past 125,000 miles, however.

Now that I have the statistical mumbo jumbo out of the way, maybe in a week or two I'll talk about what we're actually going to do out there?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tying Shoes

I buy a pair of work shoes once every 18-24 months. This new pair, I'm not sure I chose wisely.

You see...I keep my shoes tied when I take them off, and don't re-tie them when I put them back on. I think I save a lot of time this way, and my shoes don't fit me any worse because of it. If a shoe is designed well, you shouldn't have to untie them in order to take them off or put them on.

These new work shoes (on the right), however...I have to untie them in order to put them on, and then tie them back once they're on. And this takes me one whole minute! That's one minute wasted, for no reason, every single day I wear them.

I'll just have to pay more attention next time I go work shoe shopping. If someone could remind me 18-24 months from now, I'd appreciate it.

(By the way, practical or not, I'm not a huge fan of shoes that don't have any laces at all. So, no.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Co-ed Kickball Season 7: (Sort Of) Preview

Hard to believe I've been doing this kickball thing for over three years now. Wow! (Actually, it's not hard to believe, given that I'm an obsessive stat tracker and all.)

I normally write a kickball preview, you know, before the season begins. I didn't do that this time, because I couldn't think of anything interesting to preview. The rules are the same, the teams are all returning teams (although one of the five didn't return, leaving us with four), and, well, we know how this works by now. I don't preview the curling season, so why should I preview the kickball season?

Well, we're two games in, so now I have something to talk about! We're 1-1, and that's about right.

This certainly won't be our team's worst ever season - I mean, we've come a long way - but as for me, it looks like this season is when my bunt-dependent offensive numbers will finally take a hit. Every team is a returning team, they all have the scouting report on me, so I'm not going to start the season 8-for-10 or something like that. In fact, two games in, I'm 2-for-5 at the plate. Uh oh. (But do have a walk on top of that, and I have come around to score all three times I reached base safely.)

But hey, there's a lot less pressure when you're the defending champions. Now, it's back to just being another team. When we win, great! When we don't, well, no need to get our panties in a wad over it.

Speaking of which...I didn't get a good look at it, but in the game prior to ours on Wednesday night, there was a bit of a physical altercation, both on the field and in the parking lot afterwards. Let me just get this out there: if our team ever becomes the type to play dirty and get into fights and such, then I'm going to go find something else to do.

So, yeah, the novelty of playing co-ed kickball has worn off a bit, but it's still fun. And although my defense left a lot to be desired on Wednesday, I think I'm still a decent pitcher, too. (Two strikeouts in two games!)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

NCAA Tournament Survivor Pool

NCAA tournament time, fill out your brackets, blah blah blah. I love the tournament, but in some respects, the whole filling-out-your-bracket thing gets kind of repetitive year after year.

So how about something different? Hat tip to Adam M. for pointing me to an "NCAA Tournament Survivor Pool". It's kind of like an NFL Survivor Pool; in those, you pick one team to win each week throughout the season, and you're only allowed to use a team once. Once your pick for the week loses, you're out of the pool; last man standing wins.

The NCAA tournament version of the Survivor Pool works like this:
- Pick three teams to win in the Round of 64 (or whatever the NCAA is calling it these days).
- Pick two teams to win in the Round of 32.
- Pick one team to win in every subsequent round, through the Championship game.
- You may only use a team once throughout the tournament.
- If one of your picks for a given round loses in that round, or you don't have any teams left to pick (i.e. you use every eventual Final Four team prior to the Final Four), you're out. Last man standing wins.
- The tiebreaker - and ties are pretty likely here depending on the size of the pool - is higher "seed total"; i.e. the sum of the seeds each person successfully picked throughout the tournament. This is an incentive to make more risky picks.

I didn't enter, mostly because the entry fee is $25 (or, about $24 more than I'd be willing to spend on it). But, I am going to play along at home and see how I do, because I'm fascinated by it.

So...what's the strategy? Before we get into that, let's look ahead to the end, because you really have to think ahead here.

Let's say the Final Four is Louisville v. Ohio State, and Florida v. Indiana. You've already used both Florida and Indiana, but not Louisville or Ohio State. Therefore, you have only one choice: whoever you think will win Louisville v. Ohio State must be your National Semifinal pick. (For the purposes of this exercise, let's pick Louisville.) After that, one of two things will happen: 1) Ohio State wins. You lose! 2) Louisville wins, then giving you a championship game between two teams that you've already picked, and thus can't pick again. You lose! So, basically, it's in your best interest to hold off on the best teams as long as possible.

You only have to pick 9 teams throughout the tournament, so you could get away with only taking teams seeded 3 or better. But that wouldn't set you up very well for tie-breakers. Instead, here's my strategy:

Round of 64: There is (normally) a big drop-off between the 12 seeds (usually the last at-larges) and 13 seeds (usually automatic qualifiers). Everyone who follows the tournament knows the history of 5/12 upsets. With that in mind, I think taking any team seeded 5 or worse in the Round of 64 is an unnecessary risk, and besides, you're better off saving those guys for the Round of 32 anyway (as I'll explain below). Therefore, I think the thing to do in the Round of 64 is to pick the #3 and #4 seeds with the best odds of advancing to the Round of 32, excluding teams that have a solid chance of going deep in the tournament. I consider #3 Florida to be a team with a solid chance of going deep, and so my Round of 64 selections are #4 Syracuse, #4 Michigan, and #3 New Mexico.

Round of 32: I'm lazy and don't feel like crunching the numbers on this, but there is a good chance that at least one team seeded 13-15 pulls a Round of 64 upset. If that happens, then that makes that team's Round of 32 opponent a virtual no-brainer. That opponent will be a) a solid favorite, b) seeded no better than 5, which is good for tiebreaking purposes, and c) unlikely to advance particularly deep in the tournament. This is another reason why I think it's best to save all teams seeded 5 or worse for the Round of 32, in case they get an easy Round of 32 matchup.

Of course, the fallacy with that argument is that a 13-15 seed upset could screw you over completely if you pick 3s and 4s in the Round of 64. Guess who those 13 and 14 seeds are matched up against? But that's why you take the 3/4 seeds with the highest chance of victory, as opposed to, say, Marquette. (For simplicity's sake, I've been using the Nate Silver numbers to gauge relative chances of victory.) If everything lines up right - the 3/4 seeds you picked all win, and at least one of the 3/4 seeds you didn't pick lose - then you're looking great at this point.

But if all 1-4 seeds win their first game, then this won't be easy. Then, you have to look for teams that have a good chance of victory, but not a good chance of advancing deep. I'm thinking 2 and 3 seeds will be the best choices in that case. Right now, I think #2 Georgetown is a good pick here, unless #3 Florida (their would-be Sweet Sixteen opponent, at which point we would certainly not want to pick Georgetown) somehow loses their opener, in which case Georgetown would have a relatively easy Sweet Sixteen matchup, meaning you'd want to save them for the following round. #2 Duke and #3 Michigan State might also be good options here. But it all depends on the upsets that happen in the Round of 64.

Sweet Sixteen: Now, it's time to start thinking about who you want to save for the end. Between the first Sunday and second Thursday, I'm sure TV pundits and online columnists will anoint one team as "the hottest team in the tournament". My advice is to ignore all of that completely, because playing well the first weekend is often just 1) noise, and/or 2) the result of drawing weak opponents. (Exhibit A: Florida last year.)

Instead, this will again be dictated by upsets in the first two rounds. If there is a #2 versus a #6 matchup in this round, and you don't think the #2 seed is one of the favorites to win the title, perfect! That's your pick. A #3 v. #7 game is also one to look at. Or, you could get really lucky and get something like a #1 v. #13 game, like last year with #1 North Carolina and #13 Ohio. But again, you might want to save that #1 seed for later depending on how good they are. Ideally, you want a team that is a solid favorite here, but that will be a solid underdog in the next round, but that might be hard to find. So much can happen in the first two rounds, it's hard to know where we'll stand at this point.

Elite Eight: Now you must have the following to consider. If one of the Final Four matchups features two teams that you have both picked previously, it will not be possible for you to make it all the way to the end. (See my example above.) If you've already used both East Region finalists, for example, then do not pick either of the South Region teams to win in this round (the East and South are on the same side of the bracket), or else you're setting yourself up for failure.

That's one restriction on your pick this round; the other is, as usual, to pick the team with the best odds of winning, but the worst odds of winning once they get to the Final Four. For example, if you have a regional final that's a #5 versus a #3, or something like that, that's a perfect time to use the #3. (If they're still available, which they may not be if you followed my advice in the first two rounds.)

Really, I think it will mostly come down to luck at this point anyway. All the games from here onward are likely to be competitive and come down to the end. So, maybe your best bet in this round, if you think you can predict how the other people in your pool will lean, is to go contrarian and hope things fall your way.

Final Four and Championship: Congratulations on making it this far! But now, it really comes down to luck, because you may not have much of a choice in who you pick. If you played your cards right, you'll have one of two scenarios:
- You've used two Final Four teams, one in each Final Four game. Then, the strategy is simple: take the team least likely to win the title first, and take the other team in the Championship game. This is assuming the goal is to make it to the end; if you could win the pool without going all the way to the end, then take the biggest favorite here and now.
- The only Final Four team you've used is the one you picked to win in the Elite Eight. In that case, and provided the the Final Four teams are all relative equals (which they may or may not be), the optimal strategy is to take the team playing against the team that you've already picked, right now. (Let's call this Team X.) This way, you only need two games (one Final Four game + the Championship) to go your way instead of three (both Final Four games and the Championship), and regardless you need Team X to win here to have a chance anyway, so you may as well make them your official pick. If Team X is a heavy favorite to win the title, though, and are reasonably confident about the outcome of the opposite Final Four game, then maybe you could justify taking the winner of the opposite Final Four game first followed by Team X in the Championship. But again, under that scenario you need all three Final Four games to go your way.

How would this strategy have panned out in last year's tournament? Let's go back and look:

Round of 64: Among 3/4 seeds, the heaviest Round of 64 favorites according to KenPom were #4 Wisconsin, #4 Indiana, #3 Baylor, and #4 Louisville. Wisconsin was a decent relative favorite to go all the way, though (4.2%), so I would have saved them, and instead used the other three. All three won. Next! Hey, good thing I didn't take #4 Michigan, amirite?

Round of 32: Any big upsets? Yes - in fact, TWO #15 seeds won! That makes their second round opponents - #7 Florida and #10 Xavier - virtual no-brainers. Both won. Next! (#13 Ohio also won, but they drew #12 South Florida instead of #5 Temple, so Ohio's opponent wouldn't have been a good pick.)

Sweet Sixteen: We have three double-digit seeds still alive: #10 Xavier (versus #3 Baylor), #11 NC State (versus #2 Kansas), and #13 Ohio (versus #1 North Carolina). I've already used Baylor, so that leaves UNC and Kansas. KenPom had UNC as the weaker of the two (making them a better pick in this round), but taking Kansas is more beneficial for tie-breakers, so I'm not sure what I would have done. In hindsight, UNC would have ultimately been the better pick here, because Kansas ended up beating them in the Elite Eight. But to make this exercise a little more difficult, let's use up #2 Kansas here and see what happens.

Elite Eight: Of the eight teams remaining, I've used four: #4 Lousville, #7 Florida, #3 Baylor, and #2 Kansas. And, Louisville and Florida play each other. Uh oh. That means I don't have much of a choice here. The Louisville/Florida winner plays the Kentucky/Baylor winner next, so I can't take Kentucky yet, or else I'm automatically screwed. So, I must take either North Carolina (v. Kansas), or Syracuse/Ohio State (v. each other). Based on the logic I outlined in the "Final Four" section above, the correct pick is to not depend on the outcome of the Syracuse/Ohio State game, and instead pick North Carolina.

North Carolina loses. Game over! Note that had I picked Ohio State (who beat Syracuse) instead of UNC, I still would have been screwed, because then Kentucky would have been my only unused Final Four team. The key selection was the Sweet Sixteen selection, in which I should have chosen UNC instead of Kansas. Then, I would have taken Kansas in the Elite Eight, and Ohio State in the Final Four (saving Kentucky for the end)...and still lost, because Kansas ended up beating Ohio State. In hindsight, the correct order for my last four picks would have been UNC, then Ohio State, then Kansas, and finally Kentucky. But the only way to know that would have been to know the outcomes of the games in advance, which of course we don't. See what I mean when I say it comes down to luck towards the end?

I can think of two lessons learned here:
- Don't worry about the "seed sum" tiebreaker at all from the Sweet Sixteen onward; just take the team that makes the most sense, independent of their seed. (Unless there are two equally optimal options, in which case, take the lower seed.)
- It is VITALLY important that you save the best teams for the end. If you use a team early and they end up advancing to the Final Four, or farther, it can really mess you up.

I'll update this post once throughout the tournament with my Survivor picks in each round. Enjoy the games!

Round of 64 (conservative): #4 Syracuse, #4 Michigan, #3 New Mexico
Round of 64 (aggressive*): #8 North Carolina, #8 NC State, #4 Michigan

(* - UPDATE: I did a quick Twitter search and found that the winner of last year's pool had a seed sum of 43. Even if I had gotten UNC/Ohio St/Kansas/Kentucky in the correct order, my seed sum would have only been 34. Based on that, maybe the optimal strategy is to go higher risk in the Round of 64 and shoot for a seed sum of 20+ with your first three picks, and hope for the best? By the way, according to Nate Silver's probabilities, the most likely seed sum of 20+ to verify in the first round is #8 North Carolina + #8 NC State + #4 Michigan, at 42.4%. Another decent option, at 40.0%, would have been #11 Minnesota + #6 Arizona + #4 Michigan, but I like the NC State option better because it doesn't use any potential Round of 32 opponents for 13-15 seeds.)

UPDATE Friday 3/22: New Mexico loses to Harvard! See why I didn't pay the entry fee? :) If UNC and NC State both win then I'll keep the "aggressive" picks going, otherwise, well, that was fun.

UPDATE Saturday 3/23: NC State loses to Temple, which isn't all that surprising, really. But hey, that Minnesota/Arizona/Michigan parlay I considered would have worked out okay, so let's see if I can keep that thread going. By the way, 78% of pool entrants are already eliminated.

Round of 64 (revisionist history): #11 Minnesota, #6 Arizona, #4 Michigan
Round of 32: #7 San Diego State (v. #15 FGCU), #4 Syracuse (v. #12 California)

UPDATE Monday 3/25: Well, that was fun.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Random Adventure Saturday

Unlike last March, this March has become one of those months in which we don't go anywhere particularly interesting. Not only are we not leaving the state this month, we may not even leave Durham/Wake/Chatham counties. (Financially speaking, maybe that's not such a bad thing.)

But hey, there are plenty of interesting places around the Triangle that we could explore! Normally I do my local exploring via bicycle, but there are some places I can't go by bicycle.

The list of roads close to home that I haven't ridden my bike on yet is pretty short these days, so some of my recent rides have consisted of me riding down a bunch of dead-end roads that don't go anywhere. One such dead-end road near New Hill is called Barker Road. It ends with a gate and the above sign, but the road keeps going beyond the gate. Technically, I could have walked my bike around the gate and kept going, but the road beyond the gate was in disrepair and wasn't really bicycle-able, at least not with my fancy new road bike.

According to Google Earth, beyond the gate, the road disappears into the lake!

View Larger Map

That there is Jordan Lake, which - like pretty much every other lake in Central North Carolina - is an artifically dammed lake. So, I guess this road at one point was a through road, until the dam was built and Jordan Lake was filled in.

Well, that sign does say "foot travel encouraged", so why not bring the family down here and do a little exploring?

It's about 3/4 of a mile from the gate to the water.

I was hoping this place would be a nice little secret that nobody knew about or went to, but...nope. It's a popular fishing spot, and apparently also an unofficial shooting range:

In honesty, the climax of this adventure left a lot to be desired. There was lots and lots of trash down here. I see no need to also explore the other side of the road, where it re-emerges from the lake.

But that's what happens when you explore. Sometimes you strike gold, sometimes you don't. That's part of the adventure!

Maybe in April, we'll go somewhere a little farther away. I have some ideas. We do need to keep Marla in road trip shape, after all.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Curling Recap: 3/15-3/17/13

A two-game weekend!

Career game #214: 2013 Winter League - March 15, 2013

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Scott......... 2010200i | 05
Allen......... 0202022i | 08

(The 'i' means we started, but did not finish, the end. At the point we stopped, there were no rocks in the house, so it didn't affect the scoring.)

This was a pretty big game in terms of the league standings - pretty much a "must win" to keep our championship hopes alive. So, yay!

I said last week that I've had a lot of success against opposing Skip Keith, even though he's one of our club's best Skips. This might just be one of those cases where my typical strategy "matches up well" with his. I like throwing guards once we get a rock (even just one rock) in good position, and Keith rarely tries to get rid of guards (instead opting for another route into the house, or a raise opportunity), so once we get a rock with cover, we're all set. But, I don't know. It's probably just one of those statistical noise things. (As in, out of all the Skips in our club, you'd expect me to do well against one and not well against another, for no reason at all other than luck.)

Really, though, this is the kind of thing that decides these games anymore. This was a key shot, made by my Vice (our team's usual Second) Steve in the 7th end, which ultimately gave us our two points: (our team = red)

Just like on the previous Friday, there was a zamboni-induced ridge in the ice that rocks would "bounce" off of. If your shot "bounces" in the right place, and the right amount, you're golden! I haven't quite figured out how to get the bounces to happen the right way yet (it's weight-dependent as much as it is line-dependent), other than "try it and hope for the best". Last week, our opponent got the best bounces; this week, we got the best bounces. (Not to say the shot diagrammed above was entirely lucky; the weight had to be right, too.) And that's good, because my draw weight wasn't there this week like I had been the last few weeks, stopwatch or not.

I also made a rare appearance in the Sunday League and played Lead on Amber's team this weekend:

Career game #215: 2013 Winter League (Sunday) - March 17, 2013
(our team: Kato; not really sure about the end-by-end scores)

End........... 1234567 |TTL
Scheck........ 2021011 | 07
Kato.......... 0200100 | 03

I pay less attention to strategy (and the scoreline) when I'm not Skip or Vice, so no strategy discussion here. Instead: how much difference does the Lead make in our games?

Well, the Lead can always make a difference, but it also depends on ice conditions. With "non-take-out-friendly" ice, the Lead can make a huge difference if (s)he puts a rock or two in the house, because often times, that rock will remain for the rest of the end. With take-out-friendly ice, the Lead is slightly less important because his/her rocks aren't as likely to last the entire end, but can still set up the rest of the end with a good guard or two and/or force the opponent's hand. But I think the Lead's job is even more crucial on dedicated curling ice, because whether you get your guards in play while the "free guard zone" is in effect will completely change the end.

So, I just concentrated on my weight here, and I think I did okay, although not good enough to make a real impact on the game. I honestly paid very little attention to whether I was "on the broom" or not. (That's important, too, but when you're the Lead, weight is far more important.) My all-time record in games as a Lead is now 10-7 (59%), which is about the same as my overall winning percentage (57%), for what it's worth.

The club takes the next two weekends off, so no more curling until the first weekend of April. Until then, I'll just watch other people curl. Seriously, mostly thanks to the Universal Sports Network (DirecTV 625), which aired two games from U.S. Nationals and is airing multiple games from the Women's World Championships this week, there has been more live curling on American television this year than ever before outside of the Olympics, which is a great trend!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hotel Suites

Being veterans of the whole "road tripping with a very young child" thing, we've learned something. It's best for everyone involved - parents, child, every other person in the hotel, etc. - if Marla gets her own separate room, with a closeable door separating her from us. Otherwise, she won't go to sleep until we go to sleep. This wasn't necessarily true when she was younger than six months, but now it is definitely the case.

Obviously, this is a little tricky with it comes to hotels. Most standard hotel rooms are just one room. Even many "suites" don't have closeable doors inside the room. Apparently, the word "suite" doesn't mean what it used to.

So, when it comes to planning for our Colorado trip in May, we decided that every single hotel room we get throughout the trip would have at least two separate areas - one for Marla to sleep in, and one for us to sleep in, with a closeable door separating the two. I've gotten tricked by the whole "suite" thing before (thanks, Comfort Suites), so I decided to do more research this time.

First off, if a hotel reservation lists a "studio suite", then stay away! These "suites" - like what you'll typically find in a Comfort Suites - are just a little bigger and have a few extra pieces of furniture, such as an extra desk or a sofa, and may have a small kitchen. But what they won't have are separate closed-off sleeping areas. That little wall divider between the sofa and the bed is hardly sufficient.

So, basically, here's what I've learned. "Studio suite": no. "One bedroom suite": yes, although it helps to find a floor plan on the hotel website if you can.

If we had more money, then this would be easy: we'd just stay in a Residence Inn every single night! Of all the "nice" hotels that are out there, Residence Inn is the only one in which the rooms themselves are significantly better. Most 4- and 5-star hotels that I've stayed in (never my choice) just have extra services and amenities elsewhere in the building, while the rooms themselves aren't really that much different than the rooms at the half-price Super 8 just down the street. But I've always been extremely satisfied with my Residence Inn stays. Unfortunately, yes, they are expensive (usually in the $150 to $200/night range), and as such, out of all the road trips Amber and I have done, we've only stayed in a Residence Inn once: our wedding night.

For the Colorado trip, I had a reasonable amount of luck finding "one bedroom suite" accomodations in the $100 to $150 range. And so for this trip, instead of the usual Sleep Inns and Super 8s, it'll be Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites, and Embassy Suites. This will add about $500 to our total trip bill, but such is the cost of vacationing these days. It'll be worth it.

This is also why the Amber/Marla fly home + I drive home plan is reasonably cost effective. Even though we save nothing on gas doing this, we'll save on hotels, because when it's just me on the road, I obviously don't need to spend "one bedroom suite" money on a hotel. That should save us at least $100 on hotels over the course of those two nights, as opposed to if we had gotten two additional nights of "one bedroom suite" accomodations for the return trip. That won't cover the entire cost of the plane ticket, but it helps.

Another potential solution would be to book two normal rooms with an adjoining door between the two. If you can get two rooms for $50-75/night each, then this might actually be cheaper than the "one bedroom suite" option. But I don't think that's the kind of thing that you can always guarantee with a reservation. As in, "Oh, sorry, we weren't able to give you adjoining rooms, but we can give you two rooms across the hall from each other". That would be a deal-breaker, because I obviously wouldn't be comfortable leaving Marla alone in a completely separate hotel room across the hall from us. So, that's not an option we pursued. I actually don't know how common adjoining rooms are anymore. (Seems like most newer hotels don't have them.)

I guess you could say that by abandoning our usual hotel choices, we're all grown up now! But this is mostly out of necessity.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sports Friday: 3/15/13

NBC Sports Network

I'm going to go all 'sports media nerd' on you for a bit to start here. At some point within the past few years, network executives decided that live sports programming was the thing, resulting in skyrocketing sports rights fees - all of course passed on to you, the consumer, whether you watch sports or not - and a steadily increasing number of sports networks. For instance, FOX recently announced that they would be converting SPEED over to an all-sports channel called "Fox Sports 1", the centerpieces of which will be college football, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR, I think.

Well, another one of those new (but not really new) sports networks is NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus, and before that, OLN). Turns out, they're having a bit of trouble getting their foot in the door. And I'm here to offer my support. Yeah!

The blog Awful Announcing did a good piece on why NBC Sports Network is struggling. Sure, they have the NHL and a few other things, but they've competed for and lost pretty much every major college sports rights battle over the past couple of years. I mean, they couldn't even score Big East rights. (No, not the "Catholic 7" half of the Big East. I'm talking about the remaining half of the Big East that USF is stuck in. In other words...ouch.) So, that's forced NBC Sports Network to find other opportunities for live sports, including the English Premier League (which they apparently grossly overpaid for), and starting this weekend, Formula One. They've also aired things like Major League Soccer, the Canadian Football League, non-major-conference college football and basketball, and a bunch of studio shows that nobody watches.

First off, let's ignore the fact that NBC Sports Network is owned by Comcast, and also forget about that whole DirecTV/Versus carriage battle from a few years back. I'm no fan of Comcast, but as evil conglomerates go, Comcast really isn't that bad. In fact, I prefer them over Time Warner, AT&T, Disney, and especially News Corp.

And, I like the way that NBC presents their sports. It's classy. None of the annoying FOX attitude, no brain-dead "cheerleader" announcers, no gimmicks, no deplorable debate shows. Just the sports, accompanied by intelligent commentary and analysis. Oh, and there's this: NBC SPORTS NETWORK AIRED LIVE CURLING LAST MONTH.

Perhaps their no-nonsense approach to sports is why NBC Sports Network is struggling. FOX and ESPN do things the way they do them because the "lowest common denominator" approach is usually effective. Well, I'd like to lend my support to the way NBC does things. They do it right. And, I'd like to encourage you to change your sports viewing habits. Most sports fans are conditioned to just turn on ESPN when there's "nothing else on" out of habit. Why not try NBCSN instead?

In fact, let's take a look at what NBC Sports Network is airing this weekend, starting at 4 PM this afternoon:

Friday 4 PM: Three hours of studio shows. Nobody watches these, because sports studio shows are not appointment television, and people are conditioned to turn on ESPN first when looking for that sort of thing. Well, give NBCSN a try! They're way better than the crap ESPN is airing these days.

Friday 7 PM: A college hockey game. While ESPN is showing college basketball conference tournaments all week, NBC Sports Network has been relegated to showing college hockey conference tournaments. Well, college hockey is pretty cool, too!

Saturday morning: Hunting and fishing shows! Hey, ESPN used to show a lot of hunting and fishing shows on weekend mornings, too. For all I know, maybe ESPN2 still does. I don't hold this against them one bit, because these shows get surprisingly good ratings. Some weekends, the morning hunting shows are the highest rated programs NBCSN airs all week (which is just sad).

Saturday 1 PM: Re-air of Formula One qualifying (which aired live overnight). I'm a big Formula One fan, and I am thrilled at what NBC Sports is doing with F1. They are promoting it heavily and going "all in" with it, much more so than FOX/SPEED did. It's not that FOX/SPEED did a bad job - they were fine - but I really like the level of attention that F1 is getting over at NBC. They're actually trying to make it a centerpiece of their lineup.

Most impressive is that they're going to air the Grand Prix of Monaco live on NBC in May. Not on NBCSN; NBC network. Live on a Sunday morning. Wow! The FOX network never aired live races on a Sunday morning (only Sunday afternoons, often on tape delay). Also, NBCSN hired most of the F1 announcing crew away from SPEED, which was the smartest thing they could have done. Great move. Of course, when they actually start airing the races this weekend, we'll see how good a job they do it. But I'm very optimistic, perhaps much more so than I should be. If it doesn't work out, it won't be for lack of effort.

Saturday 3 PM through the evening: NBCSN is doing another thing today that I'm curious about: an NFL Red Zone-style "whiparound" show (airing 5:30 to 8) for that will cover four Major League Soccer games simultaneously. Not unlike F1, NBCSN is going "all in" with MLS; between NBC network (which is showing a game at 12:30) and NBCSN, they're airing three live MLS games today, PLUS 2½ hours of the "whiparound" show on top of that. Impressive, if you like MLS. (I've been watching a lot of European soccer lately, but am still 'meh' on MLS.)

Mostly, I'm curious how you do a Red Zone-style show for soccer. Soccer isn't like (American) football, where you move slowly down the field, allowing the Red Zone channel plenty of time to jump in once a team gets close to scoring. In soccer, scoring chances can develop much more quickly. (Yes, really. Multiple times while watching a soccer game on the DVR, I've thought "clearly, nothing is going to happen for at least the next 60 seconds", and ended up missing a goal.) How do you apply a Red Zone-style approach to soccer coverage? I honestly have no idea, so I'm curious. What they'll probably do is just arbitrarily switch between games, and then break in with highlights (goals, almost goals, etc) as they happen.

Sunday 2 AM: I was worried that NBCSN would Olympic-ize their F1 coverage and tape delay everything, but no, thankfully, everything is live. Not that I'll be up at 2 AM to watch the Australian Grand Prix, but I am recording it, and since it's on live, I'll be able to watch it right when I wake up Sunday morning, instead of having to wait until the Sunday afternoon re-air to watch it.

(By the way, in between the 2 AM live airing and the 1 PM replay, NBCSN is airing more hunting/fishing shows, of course.)

Sunday 4 PM: Boxing? Hey, NBCSN, why not air the women's curling world championships (starting this weekend) instead?

Sunday 7 PM: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals. I've been effusive in my praise of NBC Sports Network in this post (on purpose), but in regards to their NHL coverage, a couple of things bother me. a) Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire. Don't care for either of them. b) No Carolina Hurricanes games on NBCSN this year. Zero. Given that they air three games a week, the Hurricanes - who are a) based in the United States, and b) leading the Southeast Division - should be part of the national television package at least once. (NHL Network doesn't count.)

Now that I look at the programming schedule as a whole, it's obviously why NBC Sports Network is struggling for viewers. MLS, F1, and even the NHL (thanks, Bettman) are all "niche" sports. But that's okay with me, because NBCSN gives all of their "niche" sports the attention their fans want. They deserve a home, too! NBCSN turning itself into the "home for niche sports" - by choice or not - may not be the best approach, but it's great for someone like me. And if it means they're more likely to air live curling again sometime, even better! Because let's face it, the better NBCSN does going forward, the less likely they are to air things like curling and the Grey Cup. But we don't want them to do so poorly that they drop out of existence altogether. It's unlikely they'll disappear altogether, but as it stands now, a "niche" sports network like NBCSN is 100 times more vulnerable to another carriage dispute than a "must have" sports network like ESPN.

Sporting events on networks other than NBC Sports Network

I suppose there are some college basketball games on CBS and ESPN this weekend, and the NASCAR race on FOX, and there's probably some golf on somewhere, too. But who cares, right?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Video Game Difficulty

I've played a lot of video games over the years, mostly (but not entirely) sports and racing games. And I've noticed something, especially with the sports games: I really suck at them now! Why is that? Are the games getting harder, or my ability getting worse? Or was I never really that good to begin with? I think it's a little of all three, so let's start with the most obvious reason:

"Surely, you don't play video games anywhere near as often as you used to." This is true. I do still play that now-10-year-old NASCAR game quite a lot, and my skill level hasn't detereoriated noticeably in that game over the last several years. (I hit a plateau about four years ago and have been pretty consistent since.) So maybe if I still played video games as often as I did in college - I'm sure Amber and Marla appreciate the fact that I don't - I'd still be as good.

"Maybe you were just never that good to begin with, Chris. Remember that guy you played against in Madden several years ago?" Funny story: I used to think I was pretty good at Madden NFL 06 back in the day. Then, I played a game against someone from the floor above me in my apartment building. I think the score at halftime was...oh, I don't know, 49-7? That sounds about right. (I had the 7, of course.) And there was also that Super Smash Brothers tournament I entered at FSU, in which I got creamed. (By the way: want to meet some nerds? Attend a Super Smash Brothers tournament.) So, yeah, perhaps I've never really been that skilled a video gamer to begin with.

And that's the thing with video games, especially sports games. You set the difficulty. And that means you can easily fool yourself into thinking you're better than you are, especially the way that I normally set it up. I've found that I have the most fun with sports games when I win between 80 and 90% of the games I play, and I try to set up the difficulty level accordingly. You see, my idea of a fun challenge isn't so much winning the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup - I mean, winning the championship should pretty much be a given, right? - instead it's more like, can I break Drew Brees's single season passing yards record with Blaine Gabbert? Or, how does the scoreboard graphic handle it if I score over 100 points in a game? (That's far more doable in NCAA Football than in Madden, by the way, but it's been a while since I've pulled it off in either.)

"But didn't you win every single game in a full season of NHL 2002 on the hardest possible difficulty?" Yeah, well...that's just because I took advantage of "glitch goals". Used to be, sports games were filled with easily exploited flaws - a spot on the ice you can almost always score from, a offensive play that almost always fools the defense, etc - that allowed one to win consistently, even on the hardest difficulty levels. (In the case of NHL 2002, it was deflection goals. Hold down the deflection button, fire from the blue line, and...score! Most of the time, anyway.) Game manufacturers are getting better at avoiding glitches, though. They're also getting better at programming opponent AI in general. So, yes, sports video games have gotten harder over the last decade.

On the other hand, and while I don't play them anywhere near as often, I actually think other types of video games - the type that has "levels" that you progress through, and a well-defined endpoint, at which point you have "beaten the game" - have gotten easier. Video games of 15-20 years ago were occasionally very difficult to beat all the way through. Now - and I'm pretty sure James will correct me if I'm off-base here - I think games are designed so that even a schlub like me can "beat" it. Meanwhile, they also add additional achievements or side quests to keep the more skilled players interested. Most of all, online play is now often the main focus of game developers, rather than making a sufficiently challenging single player mode.

So, anyway, the end result of all this - less time played video games, more intelligently designed AI - is that while I used to put just about every sports game on the hardest possible difficulty, now, I most often use the second-lowest difficulty. It's actually kind of depressing, and frustrating, too; in fact, a few months ago, I resigned myself to defeat and stopped playing sports games altogether. If I can't win 80% of my games even on a relatively easy difficulty setting, then, well, @#$% it! I'm going to go find something else to do.

Well, that lasted about four months. Looking for a new (old) challenge, I've fired up the Xbox and started playing FIFA 12 again. But this time, I've adjusted the "CPU speed" slider downward so that when I give up a breakaway (is that a proper soccer term?), I'm not automatically screwed; maybe now I'll hopefully give up fewer than five goals a game. Progress! (That's an exaggeration, by the way. It was more like two or three goals a game. That's still a lot considering that we're talking about soccer here, but it doesn't sound as impressive.)

So, the moral of the story is this: if at first you don't succeed, take the easy way out! It's way easier than being persistent and, you know, "not giving up". ... You know, maybe that's why I'm not very good at these games.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Curling Recap: 2/22-3/8/13

Career game #212: 2013 Winter League - February 22, 2013

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Scott......... 00111000 | 03
Allen......... 11000112 | 06

I like to say, "low scoring curling is well-played curling". I'd say that applies here, although it was very close to not being low scoring curling. The other team had some opportunities to score big, but we managed to make the key shots when we needed to make them. (Opposing Skip Keith is probably the club's most experienced curler, and he's quite good, but for some reason, I've always played well against far. We play again this coming Friday.)

Also, I'm seeing some big dividends with my stopwatch timing. I time every opponent rock with a stopwatch (and every rock from our team in my head) from the far hockey blue line to the hockey red line. (Those lines are easier to see from a distance than the curling lines.) And now, I have a good idea of what the times mean, and how to translate that into my weight when I'm throwing, which is exactly the reason I do it. Yes!

Here's what the stopwatch says. Early in the game when the ice is slow, a time of 3.5 to 4 seconds corresponds to tee line weight. (Last Friday, the ice was as frosty at the start as I've ever seen it, so it was actually more like 2.5 to 3 seconds.) Later in the game once the rocks get colder and the frost gets worn down, tee line weight is closer to 5 seconds. That's a pretty big difference in terms of how hard you need to throw the rock. Late in the game, a 4 second rock is solid take out weight, not draw weight. So, it's absolutely important to keep tabs on the speed of the ice throughout the game as the ice changes.

Complicating matters is that the speed is often line dependent - much faster down the middle late in the game than on the outsides, which haven't been used as much and may still be a bit frosty. For example, in last Friday's 4th end, my draw for 3 used an outside line and ended up being a 4 second rock, which was just what I needed for that particular line. Had I thrown the same weight down the middle, it would have sailed on through the house, and then some. Arena curling isn't easy, folks!

Career game #213: 2013 Winter League - March 8, 2013
(Disclaimer: Not 100% sure about the end-by-end scores in the second half of the game.)

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Allen......... 00030000 | 03
Witcraft...... 12201321 | 12

Frustrating game. Early on it was setting up like a "predictable line, throw lots of takeouts" type of game, and so that's the strategy I called. And I made two double take-outs in this game (and didn't score in either end as it turns out), and let that get to my head in terms of the appropriate strategy, I think. However, while the line down the center (the most important one, of course) was predictable in the sense that the rocks always stayed close to the center, it wasn't so predictable that take-outs were automatic. Most ends played out like this:
- They put a rock in the rings
- We try to hit it immediately
- Eventually we either miss the opponent rock completely, or tap the opponent rock enough so that it's now out of the somewhat predictable line, making it even harder to hit next time
- They put up a guard, and then we're chasing for the rest of the end

So, poor strategy on my part. When in doubt, call for draw weight, and things will work out more often than not. Calling mostly draw shots also helps the team later on the game, because it's easier for someone to make a draw late in the game if they've been throwing mostly draws so far, as opposed to heavy take-outs. Lesson learned, and we'll try again this week!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Colorado Trip: Preview 1 of Many

Alright...I can't think of anything else to write about today, and I don't feel like writing a sports post, so it's time to spill the beans on this next big road trip we're planning.

One of our friends from Penn State (Jared L.) recently invited us to his wedding this coming May. It's been a while since we've had a Penn State Meteorology Department reunion of sorts. Yeah! We're really looking forward to it. (Weddings are pretty much what it takes to put something like that together. And I can only assume that if we made the cut, that at least a few other Penn Staters did as well.)

Now...the way my brain works, whenever I first hear of the possibility of an out-of-town wedding, a conference for work, a curling tournament, or whatever, I immediately start thinking, "ROAD TRIP!!!" And the thing is, when we first knew we were getting an invite, we didn't yet know where the wedding was going to be. And really, it could have been almost anywhere! Jared is originally from Wisconsin, went to college in Minnesota, went to grad school in Pennsylvania, finished his doctorate in Colorado, and now lives in California. And that doesn't even consider his fiancee, whom Amber and I don't know much about, other than that she must be a pretty swell person. For all I know, she could be from Pocatello, Idaho, and insist that the wedding be held there. "Dammit, Jared, we're having the wedding in Pocatello, or I'M CALLING THE WHOLE THING OFF!!!" (I kid. I'm sure she's not like that. I mean, in every single picture I've seen of her, she's smiling!)

In our younger days, Amber and I would go anywhere, anytime, no problem. We're a little more restricted in the kinds of road trips we can do now, of course. So let's analyze the potential destinations: (In a nutshell, this is basically what went through my head.)
- State College: Driveable, obviously. For a time it seemed like we were attending a wedding in State College every other month, but now it's been almost three years since my last State College visit.
- Wisconsin or Minnesota: Also driveable; it's a comfortable two-day drive each way. We've actually done a Wisconsin-to-home drive in one day before. Twice! (Once from Madison, and once from Sheboygan.) But with Marla, it's two days.
- California: Yeah, this would be a definite flying situation. With Marla, a California round trip drive would have to take a full two weeks, at least, for us to keep our sanity. Even without Marla, it took 10 days last time we did it.
- Colorado: Hmm. With Marla it's a three-day drive each way, which is pushing the limits of what we'd be willing to do with a 1½-year old. But it's not so far away that maybe we wouldn't be willing to try it. We could go either way on this one.

Well, guess where the wedding is? Colorado! Boulder, specifically. And that is actually what I would have guessed, because that's where Jared met his fiancee.

You all know we like driving, so I decided to figure out a way to make this work without having to fly both ways. And I actually think we have something that could work. After much analysis and discussion, here's the plan we decided upon that gives us the best of everything, and is also reasonably cost-effective:

- Four days to get to Colorado. That includes three reasonable days of driving, plus one day of sightseeing in Memphis to help break things up.

- Three days, four nights in Colorado. Colorado is one of my favorite places to visit, so if we're going to make the effort to go out there, we may as well spend a few days there too, right?

- Then, Amber and Marla fly back home, and I drive the car back home. This is the craziest part of the plan. Amber thought six days of driving with Marla, PLUS any driving we do in Colorado, might be a little much, and I agreed. On the other hand, driving > flying, so we don't really want to fly both ways, right? A one-way rental car sounded like a decent option, except for the price ($700/week for an RDU-to-DEN rental, compared to $275/week for an RDU-to-RDU rental) and the logisitcs (do we buy a car seat just for this trip and then leave it in Denver?).

And so, the I-drive-back-they-fly-back option is the solution we came up with. It's the best of both worlds! We get a reasonable amount of fun family road tripping in - the Total Marla Car Time under this plan will be close to the same was it was in last Fall's Vermont/New Hampshire trip - and, Amber only has to take five days vacation (as opposed to seven or eight) and can go back to work the very next Monday after the wedding. (My work vacation time balance is currently higher than hers, so I can more easily take an extra two days off than she can.) And yeah, we'll have to leave Amber's car parked at the RDU airport all week to make the logisitics work, but we would have had to do that anyway (save for the all-driving plan).

Of course, this introduces an entirely new variable (cue dramatic music): flying with a child. Amber has done a lot of research on the topic of flying with someone of Marla's age, and is willing to give it a try, even with me on the road. Note that Marla has never been in an airplane. (By the way, this basically means that I owe my wife big time.)

Southwest offers nonstop flights from Denver (DEN) to Raleigh-Durham (RDU), but Amber thought it might be better to have an hour layover halfway through in a relatively kid-friendly airport than to endure a 210-minute nonstop flight. Apparently, Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) has a child play area in four of its five terminals (including all of American Airlines' terminals), whereas Chicago O'Hare (ORD) only has a play area in two of its terminals. See what I meant when I said that Amber "did a lot of research"?

Sample phone conversation from the evening after Amber and Marla's flight, while I'm still out on the road:

"Oh, hi, Amber! Glad to hear you and Marla made it home safe. ... Yeah, my drive's going okay, although a funny thing happened. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, because somehow I ended up in British Columbia. Whoops! I guess what I'm saying is that I might be another few days."

Okay, that's not actually going to happen. I promise I will take a reasonable route home from Colorado - while I concede that my plan is not to take the absolute fastest route, it will be reasonable - and make it home in less than three days, maybe even two days depending on my driving stamina. (I'll talk about specific routes later.)

For lots of reasons, I'm very excited about this trip! I thought it would be years before we would even cross the Mississippi River again, let alone make it to a place like Colorado.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Free Stuff

The Carolina Hurricanes have a bunch of promotions going on this season of the following form: "If the Hurricanes do [some in-game accomplishment], the next day, you get a free [food item, usually] at participating locations of [local establishment]!" For instance, last Saturday, the Hurricanes scored five goals, and that triggered a Subway promotion where we could all get a free cookie at Subway the next day, no additional purchase required. (Triangle locations only, of course.) Subway cookies are pretty good, so, yeah! I actually went out on Sunday and got my free cookie.

Sounds great, and everyone at the game on Saturday was really excited, but the actual retail value of one Subway cookie is only 60 cents. Which begs the question: why bother? How much does a free (something) need to be worth for it to be worthwhile to go out and get one?

It all depends on the (something), obviously. On Sunday, I was driving by a Subway anyway, and I wanted a cookie. But most of the time, these promotions sound better than they actually are. Out of all of the Hurricanes' promotions, 50% off Papa Johns is almost certainly the best one, because a) 50% is a decent discount, and b) it applies to online orders, meaning you don't have to leave the house to redeem it! The rest are like the Subway promotion: barely worth the gas that your car burns en route. Or maybe even the printer ink that you use to print the coupon. (Tip: when redeeming one of these offers, bring proof that the offer exists, because the restaurant employee probably doesn't even know about it.)

And that's why so many local establishments have these offers. They get their name mentioned during game telecasts and whatnot, hardly anybody actually takes them up on the offer, and the few that do often end up buying other stuff while they're there. Now that's marketing!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Cheap Mass-Produced American Light Beer

Those silly rules for beer consumption that I came up with a couple of years ago? Yeah...I kind of forgot those existed. Suffice to say, my 1-3 drink per week average has been working out just fine over the last year-plus.

Now, I'm going to opine in defense of a particular kind of beer: cheap, mass-produced, American light beer. Specifically, the Bud Light/Miller Lite/Coors Light category. Not to be confused with the even cheaper "Natty Light" category. I don't hate myself that much.

(And yes, I do recognize that both Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are currently owned by non-American entities. When I say "American", I mean some combination of "traditionally American" and "American-style", I guess.)

"Craft beer", "home brews", and so forth, are trendy these days. It's much more "hip" to order one of those than a Miller Lite. On top of that, people who drink Bud Light are a) uncivilized, and b) just falling victim to the billions of dollars that Anheuser-Busch spends on advertising every year. They don't know any better, and they don't know what they're missing. Fact is, there are so many other great beers out there, some of which are brewed right in our own backyard. Why should anyone waste their time with the mainstream garbage? Nobody drinks Coors Light because it's better, they drink it because they don't know any better, right?

That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. My opinion on this is actually similar to my opinion on restaurants. When we go on the road, wherever we go, there are always plenty of local food options. But you know, we usually just end up going to a familiar place like Cracker Barrel. (Except when I'm craving local barbecue, that is. That's one thing the national chains just can't compete with.) that I think about this some more, it's not the same. The reason we go to Cracker Barrel is because of familiarity. We know what we're going to get. Amber and I are hardly adventurous eaters, so when it comes to dinner, we prefer the known quantity over the wild card. But with beer, the thing is I'm familiar with all those "craft" beers. And you know what, I don't really like most of them. Especially the dark ones. So there. I've even turned against beers like Yuengling.

(Side comment: Pennsylvania's own Yuengling was, naturally, very popular at Penn State. So, I grew to like it. But in hindsight, I don't think it was ever really one of my favorites. I just drank it because that's what everyone else was drinking. There, I said it.)

Going to a local brewery-type place and trying something different can be fun every now and then, and I do still think standard Canadian beer is generally better than standard American beer, for instance. But lately, I've been moving more away from "regular" beer and more towards light beer, because it's less likely to give me those immediate headaches, and has a (slightly) lower calorie count. And, I think the massive American conglomerates do light beer the best. (Perhaps that's because the United States is a bigger market for light beer than other countries.) Just about anyone can make a decent regular beer, but making a decent light beer is very difficult. And based on my tasting experience - which is somewhat limited, mind you - light beer is best left to the conglomerates.

Maybe I am falling victim to the billions of dollars in marketing, I don't know. But hopefully this explains why I've been opting for Miller Lite (my favorite of the three Big American Light Beers) instead of a more "complete", "fulfilling", or "socially accepted" beer as of late. And if you think any less of me for it, then, well, that's your problem.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Metric Century

Ever since I started bicycling, a 100-kilometer ride - the "Metric Century" - has been a pseudo-goal of mine. "Pseudo" meaning that four years later, I still have yet to even attempt it. Well, it's time! (Almost. Next month.)

I think Spring is the best season of the year for bicycling, mostly because it's when the weather is best for cycling. I think I'm in pretty good bicycling shape right now, and now I have a bike capable of a super long ride, so I've put it on my Google Calendar. (That makes it official.) The first weekend of April - or the second weekend if the weather mandates it - I'm doing a 100K bike ride. No more procrastinating! I was originally going to save my first 100K for an organized charity ride, but I don't know of any 100Ks coming up that soon, and I don't feel like waiting. Now - well, next month - is the time.

It turns out that a bike ride starting and ending at my house, and going all the way around Jordan Lake, is about 100 kilometers long:

View Larger Map

Sure, Google Maps tells me that route is exactly 100 km, but what happens if I get back home after my ride and my odometer tells me that it was actually only 99.2? Do I go back out there and ride another kilometer? I suppose I would have to, but when I get home after an extremely long bike ride, it is very difficult to motivate myself to go any farther. (That, and I usually have to pee pretty bad.) So, to prevent that from being an issue, I'm going to add a mile in the middle somewhere and shoot for 63 Google Map miles. (Often, the distance according to the bike odometer ends up being a few tenths of a mile shorter than what Google says.)

My longest ride to date is 55 miles, and that was on my heavier and slower "hybrid" bike. (Still hard to believe I rode that thing 55 miles in one shot.) With my new faster bike, I've already done two 50s in the past four months. If I plan ahead, I can do the 100K, although you never really know how your muscles are going to behave on any given day. So, we'll see how it goes.

Meanwhile, in my Bicycling Trip in Australia, I've set another goal for myself: complete the ride by May 8th. (I picked May 8th because we'll be on the road the following week, and so it would make sense to finish one fictional bike ride before we leave town, and start the next one after we get back.) I have 388 miles to go as of the last update (335 miles to go as of today), so my current pace of 40 miles/week will be more than sufficient, especially if I'm planning to knock out 63 miles in one day. But hey, at least it's in writing now.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Sports Friday: 3/1/13

NASCAR - If you're tired of hearing about Danica Patrick, I advise you to skip down to the "End of Danica Patrick discussion" label a few paragraphs down.

Pretty much all of the post-Daytona 500 discussion reagrding Danica Patrick's performance - the pole, and an 8th place finish - has been positive, obviously. It's a major milestone in NASCAR history and a victory for women trying to make it in NASCAR! Girl power! Then again, most NASCAR journalists are male. What about the female perspective?

I'm not going to attempt to speak on behalf of women, but here's my interpretation of Patrick's success: "If you're a woman and a talented race car driver, you can succeed in NASCAR...but only if you're attractive and an expert at marketing yourself as such." Because let's face it, she wouldn't be here otherwise. It does bother me how women are often judged based on their apperance first, and everything else second. (That's especially true of women on television.)

Now...I recognize that Danica Patrick is a talented race car driver. In fact, she's at least as talented as a lot of the other "pay drivers" - those who get rides because they have large amounts of sponsor backing, and not because they're the best free agent driver available at the time - that keep popping up in NASCAR. For instance, Danica Patrick's NASCAR career trajectory may end up being very similar to that of, say, Paul Menard.

Menard is the son of the owner of Menards home improvement stores, and as such, Menard has had automatic sponsorship everywhere he's gone throughout his career. He had a decent amount of success moving up through the ranks, but he landed a Sprint Cup ride much sooner than he perhaps deserved to because of the family sponsorship. His first couple of years in Sprint Cup were mostly a struggle, aside from the occasional pole and top ten finish (sound familiar?). But thanks to the family money, not only has he managed to stick around, he actually keeps landing progressively better rides. He now has 220 career Sprint Cup starts, and all that experience - and a ride with one of the top teams, Richard Childress Racing - has allowed him to win a race and develop into a solid top 20 driver.

The same will probably happen with Danica five to six years. But despite her Daytona 500 result, she has a long way to go. Those who follow NASCAR already know this, but restrictor plate racing is far more about the car than the driver. And, we had very little passing at Daytona this year, and lots of follow-the-leader single file lines. Basically, all Patrick had to do to finish where she did on Sunday was stay behind the car in front of her all day long and not do anything stupid. Well, I guess I can give her credit for not messing it up, but my point is, her 8th place finish is hardly a display of "real driving skill" or a sign of things to come. Outside of Daytona and Talladega, she will struggle this season. And next season. And likely the season after that.

Anyway, to put a bow on this: I think there are a lot of talented female race car drivers out there that you may have never heard of, who would have just as much success in NASCAR as Danica Patrick, at least, given the same opportunities that Patrick has had. But why aren't they getting the same opportunities? Is being a "GoDaddy girl" the only way a woman can make it in NASCAR?

--End of Danica Patrick discussion--

One more NASCAR item I want to touch on: the massive crash at the end of the Nationwide race that sent over a dozen spectators to the hospital, some with life-threatening injuries. (They all survived, thankfully.) I have a young daughter, and I would maybe like to take her to a NASCAR race at some point. Does this incident change that?

Nope. Even in light of this incident, the odds of getting hurt in the stands at a NASCAR race are still extremely small. How many people attend NASCAR races every year, and how many of those get hurt by crash debris? Maybe 20 out of two million? I already engage in activities that are far more dangerous than that (i.e. bicycling, driving to work without completely defrosting your windshield first). The threshold for how much danger I'm willing to subject my daughter to is obviously much lower than that for myself, but still, the numbers suggest that attending a NASCAR race is still reasonably safe. That, and I prefer to sit up high anyway - not for safety reasons, but because you get a better view of the entire track that way.

NHL - Here is your "ill-informed Carolina Hurricanes report"! Last time, I said that if the offense could keep up with the lack of defense, that the Hurricanes could make the playoffs. Then, a few players got hurt, Cam Ward had a rough stretch of games, and as of now, the Hurricanes are doing just enough to stay inside a playoff position. They're leading the Southeast Division, but would be 7th in the conference otherwise. And, they're actually closer to last place (six points ahead of Washington) than they are first place (eight points behind Montréal).

As well as Carolina has played offensively, this isn't a deep team, so I think it's most important that the top five forwards (both Staals, Skinner, Semin, and Tlusty - breakout season for Jiri Tlusty, no?) stay healthy. That could be the difference between playoffs and no playoffs.

College basketball - I've mostly transitioned into "When does the tournament start?" mode, but I did have time to watch Penn State win their first Big Ten game of the season against Michigan on Wednesday. Yes! I think I'll let that be my lasting image of Penn State basketball for the season. No need to watch the team again until next year.