Wednesday, October 30, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hill Ridge Farms

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

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

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

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

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

Marla did like the bunnies, though.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dishwasher Detergent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Luray Trip: Day 2 Recap

Playground review: Heritage Park, Broadway, VA

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

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

View Larger Map

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

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

After that, we started driving west towards West Virginia, and stopped at a small park in the town of Broadway (point C on the map) for lunch. (I'll attach a playground review at the bottom here, because it's probably not worth its own post...) to West Virginia for a scenic drive, a.k.a. drive to the Tucker County line and turn around, because when am I going to be this close to Tucker County again? Tucker County was one of only two counties I had yet to visit in West Virginia, and it's kind of a hard one to get to. That, and I thought the somewhat new US-48 highway through Grant and Hardy counties would make for a pleasant drive. This part of West Virginia, around Moorefield - part of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia - has underrated scenery, I think.

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

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

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

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

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


Playground review time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Luray Trip: Day 1 Recap

I had been calling this the "Shenandoah Trip"...but then, the government shutdown happened, and Shenandoah National Park closed. But we had a cabin reserved for last weekend near Luray, and it was too late to cancel, so we were going regardless. There are plenty of other things to do and see in the Luray area, right?

So, we changed our plans. The Blue Ridge Parkway was still open, so instead of driving straight to and spending Saturday afternoon in Shenandoah National Park, we focused more on the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday.

View Larger Map

The 80 miles or so of the Blue Ridge Parkway between I-77 and Roanoke might be the least heralded section of the entire parkway. You don't get the dramatic mountain views here that you do farther north or south. But you still get pretty leaves! And that's why we're making this trip, after all: for the fall foliage. The best color was found in the mountains and at higher elevations; the valleys were still a couple of weeks away from peak. So, the Blue Ridge Parkway? Perfect. (Even the highest elevations weren't quite at peak yet, but they were close.)

Not everything on the Blue Ridge Parkway was open, but some things were. So we stopped at the first thing we saw along the Parkway that was open: Mabry Mill, near US-58 / Meadows of Dan (point B on the map). We were just looking for a good place to stop and eat lunch...but Marla decided she wanted to explore, so she led us this way.

In the end, Marla actually gave us a pretty good tour of Mabry Mill. And she did virtually all of the walking on her own, without us having to carry her or anything. She's growing up! And she even knows to stay on the trail, too (at least when appropriate).

The original plan was to stick with the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to the end. But we spent a lot more time than we originally planned at Mabry Mill, so we hopped back to the interstate for a while and rejoined the Parkway much farther north. We then went to Crabtree Falls (point C on the map), one of Virginia's more accessible waterfalls.

Marla could have done this trail (paved, only a couple tenths of a mile) all by herself, too, but we brought the stroller anyway as "backup". In hindsight, maybe we would have been better off leaving the stroller in the car, because whenever we have it with us, Marla insists on pushing the stroller herself.

Either way, aside from the always nice scenery, my main takeaway from this was learning that Marla is now old enough - and willing enough - to start doing some "hiking" on her own now, at least on paved, shorter trails (under a mile round trip).

Now...a word about GPS navigation. I was looking for a road that would take us northeast from Crabtree Falls - with the ultimate goal of taking US-29 north from Charlottesville - without doing too much backtracking. This being the mountains, there isn't always a road to take you directly from point A to point B. But our trusted Jill recommended we take this road back north to the Blue Ridge Parkway:

View Larger Map

It looks all well and good on a map, right? Even fun! is sometimes the case with map software, the road ended up being unpaved. I wasn't in the mood for a potentially treacherous unpaved road, so instead we ended up going way out of the way, heading back south for a bit before heading back north. Normally I wouldn't have mentioned this, but the shortcut that our GPS gave us the next day turned out to be a huge success! It's always good to at least consider the GPS-recommended route. Sometimes it can be a disaster, but other times it can be tremendous.

A few minutes after sunset, we arrived at our cabin in the woods. (These pictures are from the next day.)

Rental cabins aren't cheap, but is there any better way to do a fall trip? Nope. Well, short of tent camping, maybe, but that's not really an option at the moment. Last year's cabin, and this year's, were terrific. We just got back home yesterday, and I'm already looking forward to our next fall trip, wherever that might be.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Office Desk Pictures

Most parents keep at least one picture of their child, or children, on their desk at work. I'm no exception.

But, how often do most parents update these office pictures? The one on the right is relatively recent (four months ago), but the one on the left is, I think, from 18 months ago.

I think this is what happens with a lot of parents, especially new parents. Within their child's first few months, mom or dad puts a picture of their child on his/her desk at work. And then, as the months and years go by, it may or may not get updated. Maybe five years later, that picture from when little Billy was only four months old might still be sitting there, even though Billy is five years old now and looks quite a bit different. Maybe some parents prefer to have the pictures of when their children were very young? Or, maybe they just never get around to bringing a newer picture of their kid to work with them?

Personally, I kind of like having both an older picture and a newer picture. Regardless, I'm going to try to maintain at least one relatively up-to-date (less than a year old) picture of Marla at work. We'll see if I can do it.

Monday, October 07, 2013

3-D Movies

Just like everyone else, it seems, Amber and I went out and saw the movie Gravity last weekend. (We only see a movie in theaters about once a year, and even then, it's usually the cheap-o theater.)

So, when we were looking up show times and such, we noticed that we actually had three different ways to see the movie: IMAX 3-D, regular 3-D, or "the old fashioned way". Despite the recommendations of pretty much everyone that Gravity makes as good a use of 3-D as any movie ever - a zero gravity environment where everything is floating around lends itself to that pretty well - we opted for watching the movie "the old fashioned way". Why?

Well...a few reasons:
- We're getting old. (Not in general terms, but in terms of the hip Saturday night movie-going crowd, yes.)
- I have poor eyesight, and because of that, 3-D doesn't really work that well for me.
- 3-D gives Amber headaches.
- 2-D tickets were $3.50/person cheaper than 3-D tickets, which in turn were another $2/person cheaper than IMAX 3-D tickets. Movie tickets are expensive enough as it is these days, you know.
- I hate it when 3-D movies fling things at you in an effort to try and scare you. HATE it. I didn't think Gravity was going to be that kind of movie, but I didn't want to take any chances.
- Did I mention that we're getting old?

I can tell that we're in the minority on this, because our local movie theater offers many more 3-D showings of Gravity (7 per day) than 2-D showings (3 per day). Oh well. But we enjoyed the movie regardless, and saved $7 in the process, so there.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Government Shutdown Party Time

I don't talk about my job here much, but with this government shutdown and all...let's discuss.

"So, I think you're some kind of government contractor or something, right? Like, EPA or something?" Yep. Amber, too, although she works for a different company and does different types of work than I do. I know Edward Snowden has given government contractors a bad name and all, but in fact, most of us are not traitors. In fact, I think we're pretty cool.

"So...goverment shutdown. Are you still working?" Yep.

"Are you still getting paid?" Yep.

"What about your government clients?" They're all on furlough. In fact, it is illegal for my clients to even so far as check their work email during the shutdown.

" does that work? How come you get to keep working, with pay, and your clients don't?" Beats me; I just do as I'm told.

The serious answer: some of the contracts / work assignments we work on have been deemed "essential", and that's what we've been working on this week. But, I guess the EPA personnel themselves are not essential? I don't know. Some of our contracts / etc, we have been ordered to stop working on for the duration of the shutdown. But, we can still work on some things.

"Okay, so...your clients, a.k.a. the people who give you work, are out of the office, and can't even send you emails. How do you know what to work on?" They gave us a bunch of new work right before the shutdown, in anticipation.

"What if you have any questions about those work assignments?" Too bad. We're on our own.

"What if the computer systems crash? Are the people who monitor the computer systems on furlough, too?" Yep. So, if the computers crash, we're SOL, as they say. But, so far, so good! (knock on wood)

"How much work did your clients give you before the shutdown?" Hmm...about a week's worth? Maybe a week and a half?

"So if this shutdown lasts into next week, and you finish all of the work you've been given...then what?" Good question! There are little "maintenance" things we could do - file management, etc - but we can't do that kind of stuff forever. Most likely, that means a furlough day or two. Or, at least, a forced vacation day. We'll worry about that next week, if this is still going on.

"What about that trip to Shenandoah National Park you were planning to take over Columbus Day weekend? If the shutdown lasts that long, will you still go?" Well, it's too late in the game to get a refund on our cabin, so we're going whether the National Park is open or not.

So, to summarize: the shutdown hasn't really hurt Amber and me much at all, yet. In fact, I might even say it's added some needed excitement to our lives. But, from our perspective, it'd be kind of nice if they reopened the government within the next few days.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Talking Bad

A lot of people have been talking about the show Breaking Bad lately. But, you know, there aren't nearly enough people talking about the show where they talk about the show Breaking Bad; that is, Talking Bad. That's where I come in!

AMC first did this with The Walking Dead, and it sounds kind of silly at first. Immediately after each episode of Walking Dead, AMC aired a talk show called Talking Dead, in which a few people sit down and discuss the episode of Walking Dead that just aired. Given the big ratings that Walking Dead gets, this was surely just an attempt to milk that cow for all it's worth, right? After all, it's not like AMC has a whole lot of content, or gets a whole lot of viewers outside of that one hour on Sunday night in which they air that single new episode of Mad Men / Walking Dead / Breaking Bad / whatever. worked, because surely, Talking Dead got better TV ratings than whatever else would have aired in its place. (Probably a repeat of the same Walking Dead episode.) AMC's dramas are certainly the "water cooler" conversation-provoking type, so for their shows, it works. So, why not do the same thing with Breaking Bad, they thought? Let's call this one Talking Bad.

I actually don't know how Talking Bad did in the ratings, but I am fairly certain of one thing. Whereas Talking Dead aired immediately following Walking Dead, thus giving the talk show a perfect lead-in, AMC instead decided to sandwich their new show Low Winter Sun in between Breaking Bad and Talking Bad. I'm guessing they'd like to have that one back. I've never seen Low Winter Sun (has anyone?), but apparently it's not very good, and hardly anyone is watching it, either. Low Winter Sun had to have killed any ratings potential that Talking Bad would have had. Actually, instead, Low Winter Sun became a punchline. And, FAR fewer people ended up watching Talking Bad than would have had it aired immediately after Breaking Bad.

But, for the Breaking Bad finale, they finally came to their senses and aired Talking Bad immediately afterwards. And you know what? I actually stuck around and watched it. How about this "show about a show" format?

I'm sure the final Talking Bad had a different feel to it than the ones that preceded it, but here are my thoughts on the idea of following a scripted drama with a talk show in which they talk about what they just saw. When they discuss the background of the episode and talk with the writers / directors / actors about it, and talk about "what they were thinking", perhaps, I think it's great. (For example, the host asked Vince Gilligan why Walter left his watch on top of the phone booth. GREAT question.)

But, after about 15 minutes, the show basically devolved into everyone repeatedly patting themselves on the back, and lame questions such as, "How has this show changed you as an actor?" [puke] In that respect, the final Talking Bad was more like the "retrospectives" that often precede the final episode of a long-running show, rather than a talk show. The prior Talking Bad episodes were likely different, but, still. The behind the scenes stuff is interesting, but all the hugging and emotional crap, I can do without.

In any case, I think what MythBusters does is the gold standard. They post a short epilogue on their website called the "Aftershow", in which they may answer viewer questions, go "behind the scenes", stuff like that. We don't need a 30-minute talk show, necessarily; the "MythBusters Aftershow" format is perfect, and it's usually pretty interesting. For this, five or ten minutes is plenty long. Every big time, "water cooler"-type show should do something like this.