Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Daily Show with John Oliver

Amber and I watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart frequently, and as you may be aware, Jon Stewart is taking the summer off to film a documentary. In his place from now until September comes his top correspondent, John Oliver. This is Oliver's third week in the Daily Show host chair; how's he been doing?

In my opinion, the show isn't really any less funny with Oliver delivering the jokes instead of Stewart. The main differences in the humor content of the show with Oliver hosting are: 1) fewer Jewish jokes, 2) more British jokes, and 3) a host who is nowhere near as good at impressions as Jon Stewart. (But I won't hold that last one against him, just as long as he doesn't try to do Lindsey Graham too many more times.) Other than that, the comedic content is basically the same. Stewart gets a lot of the credit, of course, but the show basically belongs to the writers.

That said...here's the thing. It's no secret that The Daily Show is a liberal-leaning show. And, the correspondents (Oliver included) all lean pretty far to the left. But, I consider Jon Stewart to be more of a moderate. (Or at least, a moderate liberal.) He criticizes liberals when they deserve it, and his critcism of conservatives (and his favorite right-leaning news network) actually has some backbone to it. In general, I think Stewart is pretty reasonable, most of the time - keeping in mind that he hosts a comedy show, of course, and that you can't always be reasonable and funny at the same time.

On the other hand, what you usually get from John Oliver and the other correspondents is just "ha ha ha Sarah Palin is so dumb" type stuff, with no real substance to it. It's just the left criticizing the right only for the sake of doing so. And, I don't see John Oliver bringing someone like Chris Wallace or Donald Rumsfeld onto the show for an interview, for instance. Instead, it's mostly just been actors and stuff so far. Oliver has played it very safe with the interviews, and I don't think that's going to change.

What makes The Daily Show great is that it's funny, AND it has substance. Without Jon Stewart, I think you're missing the substance. Now that we're in week three and the novelty of seeing John Oliver in the chair has worn off, I think we're going to try to catch up on some other shows this summer.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Playground Review: Pullen Park

Marla likes playing at playgrounds - exploring, climbing things, going down slides, etc. And, we like getting out of the house. It's win-win! So, we've been going to a lot of playgrounds lately. Like, a lot of playgrounds. And since I like variety, we've been going to lots of different ones.

So, I decided to start blogging about them, in a "review" or "critique" sort of format. To tie these reviews together, I came up with a scoring system: playgrounds will be scored in five categories, with those scores summed to an out-of-50 score, that will give each playground its final ranking.

First up is one of the oldest parks in the area: Raleigh's Pullen Park.

Pullen Park - Ashe Avenue, Raleigh, NC
Visited: Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summary: Pullen Park has been around since the 19th century, and it's actually more than just a playground. There is a large playground area, but there's also a carousel, a train ride, paddle boats, and concessions. You could maybe consider it an "old school amusement park", back before the term "amusement park" came to mean "a park with awesome roller coasters". Even the prices for the rides are old school: the carousel and the train cost $1, per person, per ride. General admission and playground access are free, though, and that's actually my main criteria for whether a park or playground is eligible for me to review: general admission to the park must be free.

Things for Marla to do: 13/15. So, yeah, there's plenty to do here, even besides the carousel and other pay rides. The playground area has separate areas for children aged 2-5 and 5-12 (which is pretty common, I've noticed), although I thought the 2-5 area was a little small in comparison to the other areas, which were very large. But the playground set had a sunshade covering it, which most don't have - that really comes in handy on a hot day. Win!


(By the way, we recognize that Marla isn't 2 years old yet. But I'd say she can playground at the level of a 3-year-old.)

Uniqueness: 7/10. You'd think a park with a carousel and train ride would be unique, and it is. But the playground equipment itself, at least for the younger children, was actually pretty ordinary, which cost them a couple of points. There was also a play sand area with a controllable water outlet, which was actually where Marla spent most of her time: in the mud. Good thing we had a change of clothes available for her. (If you have a toddler, ALWAYS HAVE A CHANGE OF CLOTHES WITH YOU.)


By the way, we did ride the carousel. Or at least, Amber and Marla did.


This thing is FAST: I timed it at 5.2 revolutions per minute. Apparently, a typical carousel speed is closer to 4 revolutions per minute.


I think it was a little too quick for Marla, because she did NOT want to ride it more than once. (I'm not particularly tolerant of spinny rides, so there's a decent chance Marla will turn out the same way.) We'll try again in a couple of years, maybe.

Upkeep: 10/10. Pullen Park was recently renovated, I think, so everything was in excellent shape, and I didn't see any trash anywhere at all. This place sets the bar for playground upkeep.

Crowd: 2/10. The more crowded a park is, the lower the "Crowd" score. The oldest park in Raleigh may also be the most crowded park in Raleigh. But, it wasn't crazy crowded. We actually had the 2-5 playground set to ourselves for a little bit! Well, for about 15 seconds. (By the way, it is possible to get 0 points in a category.)

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. I'm only making this out of 5 instead of 10 because there are a lot of variables, beyond just how fun the park is, that determine how much fun Marla has at these places. And, this will vary a lot as she gets older. We were at Pullen for between 60 and 90 minutes, which I think is pretty good. But in order to get a score higher than 3 on the "Marla enjoyment" scale, when it's time to leave, Marla has to not want to leave.

Total: 35/50, ranking 1st out of 1. That puts Pullen Park in first place! And also last place.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Interstate 2

Unless you're a fellow roadgeek, then you likely weren't aware that there is soon going to be a brand new interstate called Interstate 2. The signs aren't up on the road itself yet, but it's already on Google Maps:


View Larger Map

So, where is this, anyway? Let's zoom out and get a little perspective.


View Larger Map

I-2 will be all of 47 miles long, and connects the South Texas cities of McAllen and Harlingen...and that's it. On one hand, given the interstate's prestigious number - now the lowest-numbered interstate in existence, excluding Hawaii - I'd think the "I-2" designation would deserve a more prestigious route. But here is why I'm actually okay with this.

South Texas - which I've never been to, and which I'm pretty unfamiliar with - is a bigger deal than you think. One million people live in McAllen, Harlingen, Brownsville, and their suburbs, and another million-plus live across the border in Reynosa and Matamoros, Tamaulipas*. They can have their own major interstate if they want, I guess. Even if it happens to be the second-shortest "major" interstate in the country.

(* - A pet peeve of mine is when people refer to Canadian cities like this: "Kingston, Ontario, Canada." It sounds tacky. I think "Kingston, Ontario" is sufficient. I decided to give Mexico the similar treatment, even though far fewer Americans are familiar with Mexican states than they are Canadian provinces.)

Also, unlike Interstate 99, at least Interstate 2 fits into the system as the southernmost east/west interstate in the country. Besides, where else would you put an Interstate 2? Alligator Alley is pretty much the only other viable option, and that's already part of I-75. If not for South Texas, there would never have been an I-2 anyway...at least, not a valid one. I suppose some dumb senator somewhere could have stuck an I-2 in the middle of Iowa or something. Well, now that can't happen (or at least, it's less likely to happen), because the I-2 designation has already been used, and in a proper location at that. Hooray!

I-2 doesn't actually connect with the rest of the interstate system...yet. Eventually, it will, once I-69 (or I-69E or I-69C or whatever) is built between Corpus Christi and Harlingen. Until then, I-2 will lie in exile.

Nevertheless, I did add it to my interstates driven spreadsheet as another interstate that I haven't driven yet, along with a few other new interstates:

- I added I-49 in Missouri, since that's official now. As of last month, I've actually driven part of it.

- The completion of I-74 between High Point and Asheboro prompted me to finally add parts of I-73 and I-74 in North Carolina to the spreadsheet, most of which I've driven already. I haven't driven the newest segment of I-74 yet (which just opened this month), so technically, this means I haven't driven every mile of interstate in North Carolina anymore...but, whatever. Once a state is clinched, it's clinched. That's my story.

- I'm still not adding I-22 yet, since it's not officially an interstate until the intersection with I-65 is built. I'm also not going to add any part of I-69 south of Indianapolis until a continuous segment of substantial length (100+ miles) is open.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Culver's

On our road trips, when we go out to eat, we usually stick with what's familiar...with two exceptions. 1) Barbecue, because it's really all just meat and sauce, although everyone does it just a little bit differently. 2) Fast food, because a trip to California without a stop at In-N-Out is a wasted trip to California, right? A few fast food joints such as In-N-Out have developed cult-like followings, in part because they aren't all over the country like McDonald's/Wendy's/etc are, and because keeping supply down helps increase demand.

Now enter Culver's: I've heard them described as the "In-N-Out of the Midwest". As in, good unhealthy food, and you can only find them in a certain area of the country. So when I drove through the Midwest on my way back from Colorado, I figured, better take advantage!


View Larger Map

Walking into the Culver's in Urbandale, Iowa (a suburb of Des Moines), my first impression was...well, what the heck do I order? What are Culver's signature items, upon which they've based their reputation? There are a couple of ways one can figure that out without outing yourself as a lame outsider and asking someone (something I always try to avoid when doing this sort of thing):
1) Look at the promotional photos scattered throughout the restaurant, and on the windows. What is most prominently featured? Ignore promotional features that include prices (these are sale items rather than signature items), or say "new".
2) Does the name of anything on the menu have a trademark?

In Culver's case, their burgers are branded as "Butterburgers (TM)". Well, there you go. Let's have one! With a side of fries, of course. (By the way, it wasn't clear to me what was so "buttery" about their burgers.)


Culver's other signature item appears to be their frozen custard, but I passed on that, because I actually get more enjoyment out of a good burger than I do ice cream.

Well, it was delicious! So, yay. I don't think it's really fair to call it the "In-N-Out of the Midwest", though, because the food is nowhere near as greasy as In-N-Out or Five Guys. Which I actually think is a good thing, considering that Culver's didn't give me indigestion or anything. Fries and burgers don't need to be swimming in a puddle of grease to taste good. The 20-year-old me would probably strongly disagree with me on this, but the 31-year-old me says that Culver's is better because of it. (Now, I'm sure Culver's is still pretty unhealthy regardless, but at least I didn't feel like I was killing myself by eating there.)

Next time I'm driving through the Midwest and decide to stop at a Culver's, maybe I'll have dessert, too.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Latest Attempt at Alternative Rock Radio

I've blogged about this a lot over the years, so apologies if I'm regurgitating old content. But, this is basically how mainstream rock radio has progressed over the last 10-15 years:

Early 00s: "Alternative rock" eventually morphs into "modern rock", playing more Nickleback-type stuff, and less stuff that may lean more towards punk (e.g. Blink-182) or pop (e.g. Matchbox Twenty).

Late 00s: Everyone starts getting tired of "modern rock", so rock stations start transitioning to a more-encompassing rock format, playing classic rock alongside Nickelback, etc.

Early 10s: Now everyone is really tired of "modern rock", so 90s alternative rock is making a comeback. Maybe. Or, perhaps a more inclusive style of rock.

I noticed this on our Colorado trip. Pretty much every major city we went through had a station that specialized in 90s alternative. And I don't mean "modern rock", where every band sounds like Nickelback or Creed. I mean, real 90s alternative. In my opinion, if you're going to be a real 90s alternative station, you can't just play Nirvana, Green Day, and Pearl Jam, and call it a day; you also need to be willing to play The Cranberries. I think that's a good benchmark.

Raleigh has been without such a station for a long time...but no more! Some time this year, completely unnoticed until someone told me, a new radio station debuted in Raleigh on the frequency 95.3 FM, called "95X". (Of course it's called 95X. Probably at least half of all alternative rock stations that have ever existed have been called "(something)X".) And yes, they play the Cranberries. By the way...I thought "Zombie" was kind of annoying back in the day. I thought it was cool when stations started playing it again, but by the fourth or fifth time, it started getting annoying again.

And, that's the thing with 95X. I don't think their playlist is quite long enough for my taste. The alternative station we listened to in Memphis (don't remember the name or frequency) had a much longer playlist, to the point where they were playing songs that I may not have heard since the 90s. That's the kind of stuff I want to hear. Don't just keep playing the same songs that have managed to survive on mainstream radio all these years. Sure, you can play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" every now and then, but how about the stuff that didn't make it out of the 90s?

And, sure, you can play some new stuff too. And I don't just mean the latest hit from the Foo Fighters, because I think that's one problem with all those "modern rock" stations of the last decade. Nothing against the Foo Fighters specifically, but stations' catalogues of new rock were mostly just the latest songs from the same bands that we've been listening to for the last 10+ years, all the while failing to introduce us to new bands, or some variant takes on the rock genre, in order to keep our interest. Maybe this is why "modern rock" is trending out: the most popular rock of today - for example, Mumford & Sons, the most recent winners of the Grammy for Best Album - doesn't really sound right on a "modern rock" or "classic rock" station. But on an "alternative rock' station, it fits. As someone who liked 90s rock, but didn't appreciate the direction that the genre took over the last decade, I welcome this. A lot.

I haven't actually listened to 95X all that much or for that long, so I don't really know how good their playlist is. On any given day, if I want music, I'd rather listen to 88.1 (the NC State station, which mostly plays indie rock). But at least it's on my presets now. I'm comfortable saving my 90s alternative fix for road trips, where I usually can't find an 88.1-caliber indie rock station, and have to settle for something else. I really liked the Memphis alternative rock station; the Denver alternative rock station was okay, but I thought they played a little too much Red Hot Chili Peppers. Basically, if you want to keep my attention, variety is key.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Four-Way Stops

There are two prominent four-way stops in my immediate neighborhood, so any time I leave the house, I pass through one. Suffice to day, I am now an experienced four-way stopper.

The general rule is, whoever stops first, goes first. But is that always what ends up happening? Usually, it is, but occasionally you get that awkward pause where nobody is sure what the other driver is going to do. Then, you might actually have to -gasp- make eye contact with the other driver! So, sometimes, the driver who got there first, actually gives way and is the last to leave.

Things get really complicated when two drivers arrive at the same time. The rule is, the driver on the right goes first, but nobody really follows that. Instead, it's a game of chicken. Is the other guy going to give me the "go ahead" wave? Should I? Is he going to go or not? -starts inching forward- Crap, NOW he decides to go? -slams on brakes-

That's a sticky situation, at best. Here's something I've been doing lately to try to avoid that situation: stop early. If stopping right at the white line would result in a tie with another driver, then by stopping a few feet before the white line, I guarantee that I'll be the one that "stops first", and therefore, will get to be the one that goes first. Victory!

But, the other day, I did what was best for the greater good. Consider the following situation. Car 1 gets there first, followed by Car 2 a split-second later, and then Car 3. All three cars plan on going straight.


By the letter of the law, Car 1 should go first, and Car 2 should go after Car 3. However, this isn't the most efficient way to get everyone out of the intersection as quickly as possible. Car 2 has to wait for Car 1 to completely clear the intersection before moving; however, Car 3 does not. So the most efficient way to get everyone out of the intersection quickly is for Car 2 to go after Car 3. This can be important at four-way stops that back up during rush hours.

I was Car 2 the other day, and I let Car 3 go before me. I think that makes up for all those times I've stopped short of the line so that I get to go first.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Embassy Suites

Still trying to wrap up some loose ends from the Colorado trip. Here's one: of the three suite-type hotels we stayed in throughout the trip - StayBridge Suites, Candlewood Suites, and Embassy Suites - which one is the best?

(This post explains why we chose those particular hotels. Basically, with Marla, we needed rooms with a separate bedroom and living area, so that Marla could sleep in a room by herself. Here's what the StayBridge room looked like:)


Here are the key differences between the three hotels, as I saw them:

Kitchen. Our room at Embassy didn't have a kitchen, but StayBridge and Candlewood did. We used the kitchen to prepare dinner once at the StayBridge. Most of these suites come with kitchens because they're designed to be "long term accomodations" (a week or more), but the thing is, we're not getting these rooms for the kitchens. We just want the two separate areas. So, we can do with or without the kitchen. By the way, I think the reason Embassy's rooms don't have kitchens is because they would rather you eat in their in-hotel restaurant. (Embassys aren't really made for week-plus accomodations as much as they are for conferences.)

Free breakfast. Candlewood does not have free breakfast, but StayBridge and Embassy do - not only that, but their breakfasts are really nice! On the other hand, I don't want to put too much weight on free breakfast, because I think we generally tend to overvalue it a bit. For example, everything else being equal, is a hotel that's $115/night with free breakfast really "better" than a hotel that's $100/night without free breakfast? Not really. That "free breakfast" isn't really free. That, and when we have a long driving day ahead of us, we usually opt out of the hotel breakfast anyway. But in-house breakfast is more convenient, and it just isn't a proper road trip without hotel breakfast, no? So I'll still hold the "no breakfast" thing against Candlewood, but only a little.

Bathroom access. The floor plans at StayBridge and Candlewood were almost identical...except for access to the bathroom. At StayBridge, you enter the bathroom from the bedroom area (preferable, since that's where we were sleeping). At Candlewood, you enter the bathroom from the living area (not preferable, since that's where Marla was sleeping). However, at Embassy, there were doors to the bathroom from both the living area AND the bedroom. Winner! Honestly, why aren't all of these rooms designed that way?

Hotel design. If you've ever stayed at an Embassy Suites, then you know the design. It's a square with the middle hollowed out, so that when you walk out the front door of your hotel room, you get a nice view of the ground floor (where they serve breakfast), and of the entire hotel, really. And, the elevators are see-through! I've always been a fan. StayBridge and Candlewood just look like normal hotels from the inside. (Another word about the elevators: Marla was scared of them at first, but apparently the see-through elevators at Embassy completely changed her perspective on them, because now she can't get enough of them. Or, maybe it was when she discovered all the buttons.)

Social hour. I thought this was interesting: StayBridge and Embassy had social hours from 5:30 to 7:30 every day (or nearly every day), with free appetizers and free alcohol provided! We never went to any of them, but if drinking with random hotel guests at 6 PM is your thing, then there you go.

Privacy. On the flip side, if you want to limit your contact with other human beings as much as possible, then Candlewood is the place to be. Every Candlewood Suites I've stayed in (two or three, I think, including the one in Wichita) seemed to have hardly anybody staying in it. In fact, while there were certainly other cars in the parking lot, I'm not sure I've ever seen another actual guest in any of the Candlewoods we've stayed in. No social hours or breakfasts here! Everyone just stays in their hotel rooms, I guess. Not only that, but the front desk didn't open until 7 AM, so if you want to check out at 6 (as we did), you can do so without talking to or seeing anybody at all! We weren't in Wichita very long, but still...a Candlewood Suites seems like it would be a great place to hold a covert meeting of some kind.

Price. Which hotel was cheapest varied according to which city we were in, which is why we stayed in three different ones, and these three in particular. (Homewood Suites and Residence Inns, and maybe a couple of others that fit our requirements, were generally more expensive.) So, it's hard to make a generalization that one is "usually cheaper" than the others. This is more dependent on location and competition than the hotel chains themselves. By the way, I don't think it's a coincidence that in Memphis and Denver, the parts of town with the best hotel rates also had the worst traffic.

Conclusion. If the prices are the same, then for us it's Embassy, StayBridge, and then Candlewood, in that order. Also, we'd be willing to pay a little more for Embassy than StayBridge (maybe $10/night), and also more for StayBridge than Candlewood (another $10/night).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Retirement

Today is a big day for my mom and dad: it's their last day of work, ever. After [redacted] years of teaching high school, they're both retiring.

So, in a lot of ways, my parents have set a pretty high standard for the rest of us. Not only they were among the best at their jobs (and teaching isn't an easy job, either), but throughout life they've made sound financial decisions and kept themselves in good health, which means that they can retire at a reasonable age of [redacted], with lots of good years ahead of them. That's the dream, right?

For me, that's the goal. Stay in shape, stay employed, don't waste money on stupid junk, stay out of debt. And if Amber and I are lucky, we'll be able to retire when we're [redacted], too, and travel together across the continent in an RV*. (That's basically my retirement dream. Of course, gas may cost $20 a gallon by then, so maybe we'll need to re-think our plans.) On that front, so far, so good, I think. Our retirement funds are taking their sweet time growing to anything noteworthy, but the good news (and also the bad news) is that we still have another three or four decades.

Of course, for a lot of people, it's not so much planning that ruins everything, it's just bad luck or circumstances - natural disasters, random health problems, major car accidents, ill-timed economic recessions, and countless other Things That Can Ruin Everything That You Have No Control Over. But I think we do a decent job of minimizing that risk as best we can without making a huge dent in our current quality of life, and that's all we can do. (In other words, I know that once-a-month Bojangles' is bad for me, but it's just once a month. It's the every-day bad habits, such as spending $5 on a sugary, caffeine-laden treat at Starbucks every single day, that I try to avoid.)

So, here's hoping for the best! Because if we end up like my parents, then we did really, really well.

Monday, June 10, 2013

2nd Annual (Wilmington) Beachspiel: Recap

I always have a great time at these bonspiels (curling tournaments). The company is always fun, the food is good and plentiful, and of course, there's the curling, too.

I've been to 10 away bonspiels now, almost all of which required a five-hour drive (often more) and multiple nights in a hotel room. So when I only have to drive two hours to go to an away bonspiel, and don't have to drop any money on a hotel, that's a bonus! Although getting a hotel for a night might not be a bad idea for next year's Beachspiel. It was a pretty long day: left home at 7 AM, got back home at 1 AM.


The format was similar to last year. 16 teams, 3 games for each team, and "points" determine the overall champion: 5 points for a game win, 1 point for each end won, and 1/4 point for each point scored in a game. You need four games to have a full knockout competition among 16 teams, of course, and there was only enough time for three games each, hence the "points". This makes a huge difference on how the games are played. One difference between this year and last is that all 16 teams were re-seeded based on points after each draw; last year, the teams were separated into 8-team pods and only re-seeded within each pod, the idea being so that no team ever had to play back-to-back draws. This year's format resulted in us playing a back-to-back, but it did guarantee that the top two teams after two games would face each other in the final draw...should we be fortunate enough to be one of them.

Last year's championship team returns: Chris J. at Skip, me at Vice, Andrew F. at Second, Sean C. at Lead. Can we repeat? Nope. But even though we lost the first game, we got close!

Career game #220: Beachspiel Game 1 - Saturday, June 8, 2013

End................ 12345678S |TTL
----------------------------------
Potomac............ 013020121 | 10
Triangle (Jaun).... 400203000 | 09

Let's talk ice conditions first. Last year, the folks at the Coastal Carolina Curling Club (who organized the event) had the ice on Friday night to start getting it ready for the bonspiel, and they did a pretty good job. But this year, there was skating on Friday night, so there wasn't as much they could do. So, the result was that the outer sheets had quite a bit of a fall towards the outside. The first game was on Sheet 1, which wasn't quite as bad as Sheet 4 (more on that later). Not that wonky ice is necessarily a bad thing for us, though; we have quite a bit of experience with it. So in the first end, before the team from Potomac (a dedicated ice club) had figured out what the deal with the ice was, we figured we better put up a big number while we still could! And, so, we got out to a 4-0 lead.

And then, they figured it out. By the end of the game, they were even making their take-outs. If you can make your take-outs on arena ice, you'll do well. So, I don't feel quite so bad that we blew our lead here. It was a good game against one of the best teams at the bonspiel (they went 3-0 on the day), decided only by a Skip Rock Shootout.

So, technically, we weren't eliminated from championship contention with the loss. But, we basically were. The way the re-seeding works, the bonspiel would finish with two 3-0 teams at the top of the standings, with a 2-1 team in 3rd. We had the highest point total of all the teams that lost their first game (3 ends won + 9 game points = 5.25 points in the standings), so we sort of had the inside track to make it back up to 3rd if we won our last two. And, while only the champions received fancy lighthouse trophies, 3rd place still got coffee mugs. Something to shoot for!

Career game #221: Beachspiel Game 2 - Saturday, June 8, 2013

End................ 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------------
Coastal Carolina... 00200100 | 03
Triangle (Jaun).... 31023023 | 14

Our Game 1 loss meant we went right back on the ice for Game 2 against the then-10th placed team. Just as well, because we were already warmed up.

We played really well in this game, but I think the game was closer than the score indicates. There were a couple of close measurements, and opposing Skip Brad F. (a talented and well-known curler out of the Coastal Carolina club) actually helped us out with a couple of his shots. His style is very wide-open: throw it hard, have some fun! That style often works out very well for him (see Game 3 here), but against us, his shots actually helped us a couple of times. I suppose we could give ourselves credit for putting the other team in compromising situations, but really, I'll just chalk it up to them having an off game. They saved their best work for their last game, in which Brad made a pretty nice triple take-out, among other shots.

Now, about that pointspiel format. Normally in a bonspiel, you might shake hands and call it a game if it's 9-3 after six ends. You would definitely call it a game if it's 11-3 after seven. But with the pointspiel format, you need to play every end, if you can, because you never know if getting another point in that last end could make the difference between winning the championship or not. (Or in our case this year, coffee mugs or no coffee mugs.) It's generally unsportsmanlike to run up the score, but here, you kind of have to. For instance, Team Jackson from Triangle went 3-0 in last year's Beachspiel, but finished 2nd in the standings to us because we scored a couple of extra points in our last game. So this year, they didn't take anything for granted: they won their second game by a score of 22-1. Normally you would never see a score of 22 in curling (I had never seen anything higher than 18), but Team Jackson did end up winning the championship this year, so...you know.

So, anyway, our big win moved us up to 5th in the standings. One more solid win could move us up to 3rd...maybe even 2nd? It actually depended as much on how we did as on whether Team Jackson won their final game. If they lost, then because their point total was already so ridiculously high, we would almost certainly finish behind them, and the two 3-0 teams, which means no coffee mugs. So, we needed to root for our club mates to win (which they did). And, we probably needed to run up the score again, which is the dirty truth of a pointspiel. (In case anyone from Coastal Carolina is reading, constructive feedback: consider switching the format from three two-hour games with a pointspiel format, to four 90-minute games with a bracket format.)

Career game #222: Beachspiel Game 3 - Saturday, June 8, 2013

End................ 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------------
Charlotte.......... 00001000 | 01
Triangle (Jaun).... 11320211 | 11

This game was on the afore-mentioned Sheet 4, which had a pretty big fall towards the boards, as I'll diagram later. We had four hours to kill before this game, so...we're definitely guilty of over-analyzing everything during those four hours. Which color rocks should we take? What's the key to success on Sheet 4, given the extreme fall towards the boards? After all, that 22-1 game was also on Sheet 4, so there's something non-obvious going on with that sheet. Given that two consecutive games on Sheet 4 were blowouts in favor of the team throwing blue rocks, was their something wrong with the red rocks?

Well, let's start with rock color. Despite those two blowouts, I believe that out of the five games leading up to ours, blue won three, and red won two. I don't think the blue rocks were necessarily "better"; instead, the bigger issue was that some of the rocks were "mismatched", as in, made of slightly different material. You could tell by comparing the rocks with each other. So the most important thing was for each curler to pick two "matched" rocks, regardless of color, so that each curler's two rocks behave consistently with each other. We took a couple minutes before the game to work that out. Normally as the "Vice", I throw the #5 and #6 rocks, but this time, I threw #5 and #1. (Although, it should be noted that we lost the coin toss, and then chose the blue rocks.)

How much of a difference matching up the rocks actually made, we'll never know. This was what really mattered: where you throw the rock. (Well, duh.) Let me diagram: (click for a larger pic)


(First off, the houses were painted closer together than on a normal sheet, so to compensate and have a regulation-length sheet, they moved the hacks farther back. This meant the effective "near hog line", the line before which you have to let go of the rock when throwing, was actually the near tee line.)

As we were told, the key to getting a rock in the house was this. When you let go of the rock, the rock MUST be outside of the blue four-foot circle of the near house in order to have a chance. If you let go inside the blue circle, it has no chance - the rock will fall towards the boards. So while our Skip Chris J. often put the broom around the "X", we never actually looked at the broom when we threw our rocks; we only looked at the near house to gauge our aim. (Really, we would have needed to put the broom over on Sheet 3, but we didn't want to get in the way of the Sheet 3 game, of course.) In other words, we were purposefully ignoring the broom throughout the game, out of necessity, and that ended up being the key to the game. Arena curling!

(Note: even though Charlotte is also an arena club, their rink has a zamboni with a laser level on it, that can guarantee much flatter ice than this. So, they don't have much experience with this sort of thing. Also, I should mention that "negative ice" - throwing the opposite turn than you'd normally throw to get a rock to curl in that direction - was a given.)

So, the worse the ice conditions, the better we do? I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I'd kind of like to see how this team would do in a dedicated ice bonspiel. Maybe we can work that out at some point.

Well, regardless of the ice conditions, we played really well all day long, and all those ends we won were enough to move us up to 2nd place overall. Yep, that's right: the 29 points in the standings we got from our last two games (2 wins + 13 ends won + 24 game points scored) was not only enough to finish as the top 2-1 team, it was actually enough to pass the team from Potomac, even though they finished 3-0 and beat us head-to-head. Whether we actually deserved to be moved up to 2nd is another question, especially since the point we scored in the 8th end to move us up to 2nd was kind of a gift from the other team...but either way, coffee mugs for everybody!

Friday, June 07, 2013

2nd Annual (Wilmington) Beachspiel: Preview

It's June, and that means...curling! Obviously.

Our friends at the Coastal Carolina Curling Club, based in Wilmington, hosted their first ever bonspiel (curling tournament) last year, called the Lighthouse Beachspiel. (Or, just the "Beachspiel".) It was a one-day, three-game event featuring 16 teams. And, we won! It's pretty swell to always and forever be the inaugural Beachspiel champions.

And now, this Saturday, it's time for the Second Annual Beachspiel. Same one-day, three-game format as last year, and we're bringing the same team back with us. Can we repeat?

Well, it'll be a little more difficult this time. The level of competition will be a little higher this time. I suppose word has gone out about the awesomeness of the Beachspiel, so we have more teams from "up north" curling against us this year, and fewer Triangle Curling Club teams. (Half the field last year had at least a couple of Triangle curlers on it; this year, I think it's only three or four. There's another popular bonspiel going on in Knoxville this weekend, which is spreading us out a little.) Our first opponent is, I think, from the formidable Potomac Curling Club. But, we will still have "arena ice advantage" - not quite "home ice advantage", but it's the next best thing!

Should be fun! Don't you wish you got curl three times tomorrow?

===

One more quickie: Since I insist on documenting every game I play, here's a pickup game from a few weeks back, which I lost. We only played six rock ends due to only having three curlers a side, so we had time for nine ends.

Career game #219: Pickup - May 10, 2013
(My team: Self)

End........... 123456789 |TTL
-----------------------------
Crawford...... 021030002 | 08
Self.......... 000201220 | 09

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Durham to Denver to Durham: ALL THE DRIVING

Let's cover all of the driving we did on this Colorado trip in one shot, shall we? This is a pretty long post, but I just felt like getting this stuff out of the way. (And this makes for a good excuse for me to not post anything tomorrow.)


View Larger Map

Day 1: Durham (G) to Memphis (B)

Nothing terribly exciting here. This was the first time I had ever driven I-40 between Knoxville and Memphis before, though, so we got to drive across the Cumberland Plateau, which was nice.


The Nashville-Memphis stretch progressively got flatter and more and more Central North Carolina-like, except with fewer pine trees and more other types of trees. A subtle difference. This is why I think north-south drives are more interesting than east-west drives: usually, you get more striking changes in scenery, terrain, and vegetation going north-south than you do east-west. ... Unless you go way out west, which we happen be doing on this trip. Yes!

Day 3: Memphis (B) to Wichita (C)

My first visit to Arkansas in 20 years! It didn't last particuarly long, but we did find this nice picnic area near the Arkansas/Missouri border.


Woohoo, the views are opening up a bit! I've been waiting for this.


So, on my trip itinerary, I wrote "Leave by 6 AM". But the night before, I said, "I don't think we really need to leave by 6." Yeah, we needed to leave by 6. Especially since I insisted we take the route through southern Missouri and Kansas instead of Oklahoma. By the time we got to Southeast Kansas, we were ready to call it quits, perhaps, but we still had three hours to go. So, we let Marla run around a Cherokee, KS high school baseball field for a bit. (I think school was actually in session at the time. Hope they didn't mind!)


Also delaying us: I insisted on taking several detours to county lines so I could color them in on my map. I call these brief excursions (usually five minutes or less) "county side trips": drive a mile or two off our route, cross the county line, turn around. The county side trips aren't shown on the map, but I did 16 of them during the course of the trip, most of those coming on the return trip when it was just me in the car. Given how infrequently we make it across the Mississippi, I think it was time well spent, even if it started getting tedious around the 11th or 12th one. Given that even getting one new county amounts to a five-hour round trip from home, when I can get a new county in less than five minutes, then hey, why not?

While in Wichita, I walked to the local Walmart (across the street from our hotel) and added a Wichita State hat to my college hat collection. On the return trip, I got a Northern Iowa hat, too. Missouri Valley Conference represent!


Day 4: Wichita (C) to Denver (D)


First stop: Greensburg, KS, destroyed by a tornado a few years ago, but mostly rebuilt since. A lot of the buildings are brand new, such as the grocery store, and the hospital (which looks really nice, at least from the outside), but there were still plenty of empty lots, too, where you could tell something used to be. We just stopped here to give Marla a little playground time, because we weren't sure how easy it would be to find another playground the rest of the way. (Finding local parks and playgrounds is a lot easier when you're actually driving through towns, and aren't just taking the interstate.) Interestingly, unlike most of the rest of Greensburg, the playground (visible in the back of the above picture) wasn't new; maybe it survived the tornado?

After Greensburg, it was lots of flat or rolling, wide open spaces, all the way to Denver. Oh yeah. We love this stuff, because it's different from what we normally see. Also, being weather weenies, it gives us some great views of clouds.

At some point in western Kansas, the "check engine" light came on. (The Honda manual calls it the "malfunction indicator" light, but whatever - it's the "check engine" light.) So once we got to Denver, I took it to a local shop, and they concluded it was either bad fuel (no need to fix anything), or dirty fuel injectors (for which they recommended a fancy fuel system cleaner, the type you just add to the fuel tank, which I bought). And, that was that - the light hasn't come back on since. The bigger car issue from the trip was the crack that developed in my windshield in Colorado at some point, but I didn't get that fixed until we got back home.

Speaking of fuel...in states like Nebraska and Iowa, gas stations offer Octane 87 with no ethanol (E0), and Octane 89 with 10% Ethanol (E10), with the E10 sold at a 20-30¢ per gallon discount. E10 gives about the same fuel efficiency as E0, so given this choice, why does anybody buy E0? Do they just not know any better?

Day 8: Denver (D) to Mount Pleasant, IA (E)

I'm skipping over the drives we took locally in the Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, but let the record show that during the course of this trip, I did drive the entirety of I-76, including the western most sections west of downtown Denver. That took some effort, since the Denver Airport is east of town, so I would have really gone out of my way to get the whole thing on the morning we left. Instead, I only had to go a little out of my way.

So, as well as Marla behaved in the car, keeping a toddler entertained in the car for that long is a lot of work, so we were all kind of glad that Amber and Marla were flying home instead. So, I dropped them off at the Denver airport Sunday morning, and they flew home by way of Dallas, arriving home between 3 and 4 PM. I think I was still between Lincoln and Omaha at that point. Flying saves you a little bit of time if you're going 600 miles, but if you're going 2,000 miles, it saves you a lot of time. Flying is way less fun, though.


(A very dark Interstate 76 in Colorado.)

Now, about this return route I took: I considered a lot of route possibilities, including a route that took me through Texas. I concluded that statistically speaking, the route mapped above would get me the most new counties in the least amount of time, and also give me two completed interstates while I was at it (I-76 in Colorado, and I-72 in Illinois). Taking the direct route - I-70 and I-64 to Charleston, WV - would have only given me 15 new counties; this one gave me 70-something. So, there you go. Now you know why I decided to zigzag my way across Illinois.

(Note: I-72 officially ends one mile east of I-57 in the middle of Champaign, not right at I-57, so that took a little extra effort, too. Statistically-motivated driving isn't easy!)

But before I could get anywhere near Champaign, I had to drive the length of Nebraska and Iowa. They say Nebraska is boring, and they're right, if you only see I-80. I-80 follows the Platte River valley, which except for perhaps the far eastern areas, is by far the flattest and least interesting part of the state. Whoops. The weekend we spent in Nebraska in 2008 proved that there are definitely scenic parts of the state; they're just not along I-80. Iowa was actually more hilly and more forested than I thought it would be, though, which was kind of disappointing in a way.


(I think this picture was taken in Nebraska, but who knows? ... Actually, I can't lie. I know it's Nebraska. But only because of the timestamp.)

So...let's talk weather. There have been a lot of deadly tornadoes over the last few weeks, so it's easy to forget which tornado struck on which day and such. Anyway, today (May 19) was the Shawnee, OK tornado that crossed I-40 and overturned a few trucks and such. If I had chosen a route that took me south to I-40 by way of Oklahoma City, then I would have driven by Shawnee...about when that tornado hit, give or take.

The Moore, OK EF5 tornado was the following day (May 20). But even though I was far from Oklahoma, I had a little bit of excitement of my own; Des Moines was given a tornado warning about an hour after I passed through (although I don't think an actual tornado was reported), and a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for the storm pictured below near Mount Pleasant, IA, which gave me a good excuse to stop for the night.


If I wanted to attempt to make the drive in two days instead of three, though, I likely needed to keep going for another two hours. I was never going to make it all the way home from here. Amber and I have driven all the way home from Wisconsin (15 hours) and Texas (20 hours) before, but when it's just me driving, I need to take longer breaks. About 12 hours of actual driving in one day appears to be my limit.

Day 9: Mount Pleasant, IA (E) to Pikeville, KY (F)

Hey, look! It's I-72. Woo.


Interstate 72 starts in Hannibal, Missouri, noteworthy for being the home of Mark Twain. As a result, pretty much everything in town is named after him, including the local discount motel. (Rated 8/8, and by that I mean that out of 8 reviews, all 8 say "terrible"! Maybe it's good that I stayed in Mount Pleasant instead of Hannibal, because I might have tried my luck with the Mark Twain Motor Inn.)

I didn't take many pictures of Illinois or Indiana, because, well, meh. (Actually, I shouldn't say that; southern Indiana is pretty scenic. There's also the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, which we're taking Marla to as soon as she starts doubting his existence. If Santa Claus wasn't real, why would they have named a town after him?)

But hey, here's downtown Louisville, surprisingly free of traffic given that this was at 4:30 PM on a Monday:


I got to the Eastern Kentucky town of Pikeville around 9 PM, with five to six hours to go. I briefly considered "energy drinking it" and trying to go the rest of the way, but, nah. As for Pikeville, it's exactly what you would expect an old coal mining town in the middle of Appalachia to be. The drives in Eastern Kentucky are really pretty, though, which is something we'll have to keep in mind.

Day 10: Pikeville, KY (F) to Durham, NC (G)

I only had five or six hours to go, but I figured, I have the whole day, so why not take a detour through two counties in Southwest Virginia (Giles, VA and Radford, VA) that have long eluded me? Done!

And, that's it. Home! Until the next one.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Denver

And now, some thoughts on the city of Denver and the surrounding area. One thing that's kind of fun about these vacations is that we get to "fake live" in a different city for a few days - go to the local grocery stores, talk with locals, see the local attractions, watch television in a different time zone, deal with the local traffic, and so forth. Going to the Children's Museum and hanging out with other parents and kids, it were almost like we were pretending to be another couple of people raising a family in Denver. It was fun!

So after four nights in Denver, does it seem like the kind of place I'd like to live? Let's cover several topics, sorted from "the thing I like the most about Denver" to "the thing I like the least about Denver":

The recreation and scenery. Can't beat it. The "bicycling culture" is also great - bike lanes and bike paths everywhere, especially in Boulder, which as often rated as one of the top bicycling cities in the entire country. This place is hikers' and bicyclers' paradise. Durham isn't bad, and I love that our house is only a mile or two from what could be considered "rural", but Colorado is hard to beat. We would also have a good reason to take up skiing if we lived out there.

The Mountain Time Zone. Man, the Mountain Time Zone is great for watching sports. I've gotten used to missing virtually every major sporting event, because they all end after my bedtime (between 9 and 10 PM Eastern). With that sleeping schedule, the Mountain Time Zone would be perfect. On the other hand, it's not so great for watching primetime network television. Shows that are on at 9 ET/8 CT are on at 8 MT, which means that for noteworthy shows like the finale of The Office, all your Twitter friends from the Eastern and Central time zones spoil everything an hour ahead of time. But vacations are pretty much the only time we ever watch network television live, so I would gladly take a 6 PM World Series start instead, even if it meant that NFL games started before we got out of church.

The weather. I think the weather in Denver would drive some people nuts. Bitter cold and snow one week, extreme warmth the next. But I think I would actually like it. My favorite seasons are Spring and Fall, and I get quite bored with unchanging weather. That wouldn't be a problem in Denver! I think I'd embrace the variety, and I can definitely appreciate extremes, as long as the extremes go away after a few days. And while they get more snow than I would like in Denver, it usually melts/sublimates pretty quickly. However, I think I would miss the occasional "fair weather overcast" day. I don't know how often they get that in Denver. It's awfully sunny here, which sounds nice, but I think it's a little too sunny out here.

The people. Let's get this out of the way. Yes, Denver and its suburbs seem more prone to mass shootings than other major cities. But Columbine and the Aurora movie theater were isolated incidents that are very unlikely to happen to you or me, wherever in this country you live. So, it's not that I would fear for my safety living in the Denver area. Overall, Denver is safer than most of the cities I've lived in before.

So, crime isn't a huge issue, and the people that we met in various places seemed more than friendly enough. But, still, it's just that, well...let me put it this way. Denver looks pretty, but I get this uneasy feeling that there's this dark underbelly lurking underneath the surface, that doesn't get to you until you spend a few months here. Like, there's something in the air that drives everybody crazy. Is it the lack of air? Is it the area's more tolerant attitude towards recreational marijuana use? Maybe I am the crazy one here.

The grocery stores. Obviously, Safeway was one of the options, because they're everywhere out west, which I find extremely annoying. The other primary grocery store option was "King Soopers", which is a pretty awesome name, except that it's really just a Kroger in disguise. But you could do worse than that. Oh, right, and there are also a lot of Whole Foods stores around Denver, but that's not our scene.

The vegetation. One of my favorite things about driving out west is when the trees disappear, and you can suddenly see for miles and miles. I love it. It's great for cloud viewing, too. (Speaking of which, you can look forward to lots of pictures of clouds when I get to the post about my drive home.) However...shade is nice, too. The sun is relentless out here. Wear sunscreen, I guess. Also, as much as I love the views, I would miss any semblance of traditional fall foliage.

The lack of proximity to any other cities. Here in Durham, we live 2½ hours from Charlotte, 4½ hours from Washington, 6 hours from Atlanta, 9 hours from Orlando, and not too many hours from any city in the Northeast. Now...there is plenty to see in Colorado itself, and there are cities like Colorado Springs within a short drive. But if you want to get outside the state (and we certainly would, because that's what we do), get ready for a long drive through a lot of absolutely nothing. (Unless you're going west, in which case, enjoy the mountains!) It was kind of surreal approaching Denver from the east: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, hey look a major city! I guess this is why Denver's airport is so big: that is your ticket out of the city.

The traffic. So, you think Colorado is a great place to live? So do a lot of other people! And as a result, traffic is awful. I thought it was just as bad as Washington DC traffic, although the jams may not cover as large an area here as they do in Washington.

Pretty much every major expressway we took had construction somewhere, which is bad for now, but maybe in five years, the traffic situation will be a little better once more lanes open up. ... Ah, who am I kidding? It won't be. That's not how it works. When new lanes open, that doesn't eliminate traffic jams; it just relocates them.

(By the way, I found that the worst traffic in Denver was on I-25 south of downtown. Or, pretty much between our hotel and downtown. Maybe that's why the hotels were cheaper there than they were anywhere else in the city.)

Proximity to our families and friends. Really, THIS is the reason we're not quitting our jobs right now and moving to Denver this very minute. Or maybe Fort Collins - a.k.a. Denver without all the traffic problems.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Garden of the Gods

After scaling Pikes Peak - I'm not sure if driving counts as "scaling", but "scaling" sounds cooler - we headed into Colorado Springs and went to a place called the "Garden of the Gods". I think I was drawn to this place because a) it was free (always a plus), b) it had paved, stroller-friendly trails (definitely a plus given our hiking adventure the previous day), and c) it looked neat in pictures.

Of course, it looks even better in person. It's also much bigger in person. A lot bigger. But, of course, all I can show you is the pictures. If everything looked as good in pictures as it did in real life, why would anyone go anywhere?


This doesn't show in the pictures, because we waited until people were out of the way to take them, but the place was also fairly busy, not too much unlike the local greenways in Raleigh and Durham on a Saturday morning. But hey, if you live in Colorado Springs and are looking to go for a nice walk, this is a great place to do it! So, I can't blame them, and I'm pretty jealous that they have something like this in their backyard. But if we lived here, maybe we would miss the trees or something. ... Actaully, yeah. that is actually one downside to Colorado: it's hard to find shade. We kind of take it for granted that most of of our greenways are shaded.

So, this is one neat thing in Colorado that you don't have to go into the mountains to see. If you're ever in Colorado Springs, go here. No excuses.