Thursday, January 30, 2014

Snow Pictures: January 2014

Mostly for the out of town folks, here are some pictures of the snow from this week. I measured between 1.25" and 1.5" at our house. Wee!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Playground Review: Knightdale Station Park

Knightdale Station Park - North 1st Avenue, Knightdale, NC
Visited: Sunday, January 19, 2014
| Google Street View

Summary: Knightdale Station Park opened late last year, making it the newest playground I've reviewed so far. It's so new, it's not even on Google Earth or Google Street View yet! (The above Street View link only shows a sign that says "Future Site of Park".) The playground is supposed to be really nice, they say. Is it?

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

Things for Marla to do: 9/14. Swings, slides, things to climb, places to hide, other miscellaneous things. Although not the most complete playground I've been to, it's got all of the standard stuff and is definitely in the top quarter. (9/14 doesn't seem like a high score, but it is - only four playgrounds out of 22 have gotten 10/14 or higher, and the average to date is 6.64.)

And, there's also this little seat that you can sit in and spin. Fun!

Never seen this anywhere else, which leads me to my next category...

Uniqueness: 10/10. Alright, so I've been saving the 10/10 uniqueness for "the type of playground that I haven't seen yet, or even know exists." Is this that? Well...I had been setting a pretty high standard for that elusive 10 rating, and I don't know if Knightdale Station Park meets that, but I will say this: it's probably the most interesting park we've been to. The design - elements of railroad and farm themes - is very creative, and is almost children's museum-ish. And, there's that seat spinny thing. So it's time to hand out the 10.

Now...anyone who's been to Pullen Park - my first review - might say, "How can Pullen Park not have gotten the uniqueness 10/10??? They have a freaking carousel! And a REAL train!!" Well...those things aren't free to ride, and my reviews consider free playgrounds only, so I didn't really count the carousel and train towards Pullen Park's score. And most of the playground equipment at Pullen is actually of the generic plastic variety you see everywhere. So, even if I were to go back and re-rate playgrounds - something I don't do or ever want to, because it's a slippery slope; much easier to just say "what's done is done" - I think the 7/10 uniqueness for Pullen is about right.

Upkeep: 8/10. Being a new park, everything is obviously in great shape. But given how new it is, would it really be fair for me to give a top upkeep rating here? I don't think so. I think 8/10 - still a high number - is appropriate. Trash level is better than average.

"So, are you basically saying that there's absolutely nothing a brand new park can do to get an upkeep score higher than 8/10?" Pretty much. An old park that looks great is more impressive to me than a new park that looks great. Every new park looks great.

Crowd: 3/10. As soon as it opened, Knightdale Station Park became the best - and most popular - playground in Knightdale. It's the 3rd busiest playground we've been to so far, and apparently, it's always this busy. Where did all these kids play before?

Marla enjoyment: 5/5. Winner winner chicken dinner!

OVERALL: 35/49, ranking 3rd out of 22. So, there you go: Knightdale Station Park is indeed one of the best, trailing only Raleigh's Pullen Park (on a tiebreaker) and Cary's Marla Dorrel Park in my rankings. Hooray.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

License Plate Registration Stickers: 2015 Edition

It's that time again: time to talk about license plate registration stickers!

I blog about this every year, but to recap: In North Carolina, the license plate registration stickers are a different color every year. Other than the fact that colors are never used twice in a three-year span, and that red/green/blue are the most commonly used colors, I haven't detected a pattern yet. And that's what makes this so exciting!

Going back as far as I have data, the sticker colors in North Carolina have been as follows:

2001: black
2002: red
2003: green
2004: orange
2005: blue
2006: red
2007: green
2008: blue
2009: purple
2010: green (darker green than other green years)
2011: goldenrod
2012: red
2013: blue
2014: green

As I said last year, the color for the 2015 stickers could be almost anything. They could go red again, which would perhaps signal that we might be settling into a permanent red/blue/green three-year pattern. (That would be truly devastating.) They could reuse one of the other non-primary colors from recent years, such as purple. Or, they could go in an entirely different direction.

Entirely different direction, eh? Sounds good to me!

Yes, this year's stickers are pink. If you ask me, that is pretty freaking awesome. Fabulous, even.

But that's not all! Last year's post spawned a thread in the comments about these orange "temporary" stickers that get issued with license plates on brand new cars. Here's a picture of one of those:

In North Carolina, it used to be that a few months after you renewed your registration through the state DMV, you would get a separate car "property tax" bill from your county of residence. Starting last year, North Carolina consolidated the county property tax + state vehicle registration process, so that you now do it all at once. As part of that, when you buy a new vehicle and get a new license plate, it comes with one of these orange temporary stickers. Only when you pay your county property tax bill will the state mail you your permanent registration sticker.

What color will 2016's stickers be? Well, because of the new temporary stickers, we can now rule out orange. Since 2000, North Carolina has never gone consecutive years using colors other than red/blue/green. So normally I would think 2016 will feature a return to red, which is the least-recently-used of the red/blue/green trio. and pink are too close to each other to use them in back-to-back years, since the point of using a different color every year is to make it easier for law enforcement to spot expired registrations. (Right?) Green was the 2014 color, so it shouldn't surface again until at least 2017. So...back to blue? Probably. Or, maybe they'll surprise us again next year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Weather Channel Versus DirecTV

I think I speak for all of us when I say I'm pretty tired of all these television network vs. cable/satellite provider pissing matches. Most of the time, it goes like this: the television network asks for an increase in subscriber fees, the provider balks, and then the network goes on a PR campaign along the lines of, "Don't miss your favorite shows! Tell [cable/satellite provider] you don't want them to drop [network]! Switch to [competing cable/satellite provider] so that you don't miss your favorite shows!" I'm sick of it. It's the same thing over and over again, and it doesn't matter whether you have cable, satellite, or whatever. They're all basically the same.

The latest such network v. provider pissing match might be a little different, though: it's The Weather Channel versus DirecTV. According to the Wall Street Journal (via the Capital Weather Gang blog, which is one of my favorite weather blogs, by the way), DirecTV is actually asking for a 20% drop in subscriber fees, while the Weather Channel asked for an increase of 1¢/subscriber/month.*

(* - According to this, the current TWC fees are in the neighborhood of 11¢, so a 1¢ increase would be around 10%. And that reported "20% decrease" that DirecTV is asking for, then, is likely a decrease of 2¢. Generally, whether these numbers are reported in whole pennies or as percentages depends on how the author is trying to spin it. Which sounds like a bigger deal, a 1¢ increase, or a 10% increase? Those pennies add up, you know.)

I don't know what a fair market value for The Weather Channel is these days, but DirecTV obviously caught TWC off guard by asking for a cut in its fees. Apparently, all those infamous reality shows that TWC airs these days must not do very well in the ratings. I don't know if those reality shows pull better ratings than a traditional live weather broadcast would on a routine night with no severe weather, but even if they don't, cutting live camera time almost certainly helps TWC defray costs, right? That's probably why TWC airs reality programming in the first place. And they air it in primetime and on weekends because that's when it would get the best ratings compared to their usual fare.

With this in mind, perhaps asking the Weather Channel to reduce its fees isn't all that unreasonable. I really need to know more information to make that call. However, what is unreasonable is all of the yelling from both sides. Enough!

Note to the Weather Channel: No, this is not something we should call our local Congressman about. Sure, you provide a valuable service during severe weather outbreaks, but you're also in this for profit. Besides, there are other ways to get timely weather information, especially in 2014. Easy for me to say that since I'm much more weather-savvy than your average American, but the truth is, there is less need for a 24/7 Weather Channel in 2014 than there was in 1994. And if we are going to take this to Congress, maybe we shouldn't allow networks to bully providers into accepting higher fees which then get passed on to consumers, as has become the recent trend.

As for you, DirecTV...sure, it would be nice for us weather weenies if The Weather Channel aired less reality television. But is that really what this is about? Taking a "stand" because you don't approve of how a privately-owned television network fills its air time? Seems kind of silly to me. (Although, the referendum on The Weather Channel's programming choices that's resulting from this isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Even DirecTV must admit that the Weather Channel is an important channel to have in your lineup. Regardless, I think it's unprofessional for you to take cheap shots at them. I'd much rather you guys have taken the high road here.

I don't actually watch the Weather Channel much anymore, so I'm not losing any sleep over this. (That's a separate discussion, and it's not just about their reality programming.) But this "Weather Nation" channel that DirecTV put in its place, if only on a temporary basis? I'll at least have to check it out. If nothing else, that's one thing that TWC's shift to reality television, combined with the DirecTV dispute, has done: it's opened the door for competition.

It's always hard to tell how long these network v. provider disputes will last, but given the level of rhetoric from each side stands at the moment, this might go on for a while. Or, they'll kiss and make-up tomorrow, at which point I'll refollow all of the TWC personalities on Twitter that I've had to unfollow this week due to all of the anti-DirecTV PR they keep tweeting. (Seriously, it's gotten annoying.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Curling Recap: January 2014

Curling! I'm super excited about the upcoming Winter Olympics, obviously. But let's play a few games ourselves first, starting with a one-day, two-game tournament on New Year's Day, in which Amber and I got to curl together on the same team for once (yay!):

Career game #238: 2014 New Year's Pointspiel - January 1, 2014
(our team: Jaun)

End........... 12345678 |TTL
Jaun.......... 31001011 | 07
Wright........ 00110000 | 02

The basic rules for the two-game "pointspiel": a match win is worth 5 points in the standings, each end you "take" is worth 1 point in the standings (points for blank ends carry over into the next end), and the team with the most points in the standings after two games wins. Some pointspiels also give you something like 1/4 point in the standings for each point scored in the game, but not here. So, outside of winning the game, it's more important to simply win as many ends as possible, as opposed to scoring a lot of points in those ends.

With that in mind, I don't think we could have executed the game plan a whole lot better in Game 1: 11 points earned in the standings out of a possible 13. On to Game 2!

Career game #239: 2014 New Year's Pointspiel - January 1, 2014
(our team: Jaun)

End........... 12345678 |TTL
M. Jackson.... 00233631 | 18
Jaun.......... 24000000 | 06

So, we got off to a good start, and then...??? Well, fatigue started to hit Amber and me once we passed the halfway point, I think. We weren't much use. That wasn't an issue for the other team. Actually, I think the MVP of the other team was their lead PJ, who was using a stick to deliver her rocks. Second half of the game, nearly every single one of her rocks was perfect: center guard, just in front of the house. That forced us to scramble for the rest of the end, every end. Not that we were guilty of this, but never underestimate a stick curler!

This game was significant, statistically speaking, for many reasons:
- 18 points is the most either Amber or I has ever given up in a single game. (Previous record: 16.)
- 18 points is the most scored by one team in any game I've ever played in, win or lose. (Amber scored 18 in a game last Fall, but prior to this game, I had never scored or allowed more than 16.)
- 24 combined points is the most scored in any game Amber or I has ever played in. (Previous personal record: 22, in a 15-7 loss. Although, I have witnessed a 13-11 final score in our leagues before.)
- The 12 point margin of defeat is NOT a record, however. My standing margin-of-victory records are 16 for a win (16-0) and 14 for a loss (16-2); Amber's are the same.
- Adding salt to the wound, this was also my 100th career loss.

Still, we finished in 3rd place out of 6 teams in the pointspiel, which isn't awful.

Career game #240: Pick-up - January 10, 2014

End........... 1234567 |TTL
Allen......... 0102003 | 06
M. Jackson.... 2020310 | 08

My career record in pick-up games is pretty good, perhaps because I take them more seriously than most people do. But, my head wasn't really in this one. Couldn't read the ice, couldn't really make my shots. Oh well. Career loss #101.

The Triangle Curling Club is separating the usual 9-week Winter League in half this year: a pre-Olympic half which starts a week from Friday, and a post-Olympic half that hopes to capitalize on the "Olympic rush". Then, maybe in the Fall, we have a new building to curl in...? So, this could be a very exciting year for our curling club!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Bicycling Rear View Mirror

When it comes to thinking of ideas for a Christmas list, I can usually think of bicycling accessories. Because there is so much bicycling stuff out there that I could get.

Among the things I got for Christmas this year was a rear view mirror that attaches to my helmet:

This allows me to see the traffic coming up from behind me. If I tilt my head slightly to the left, I get a view of the entire road behind me. This thing really comes in handy when making left hand turns, among other things. Actually, how did I possibly get by without one?

(Well, what I did is I turned my head around a lot to get a view of oncoming traffic, and had to be extra careful about it. Now I can negotiate traffic more confidently and safely, which is good.)

So, that's good. The mirror makes riding on busy roads much more tolerable and enjoyable. It also makes me look more like a bicycling dork than ever before. Since I first started riding in 2009, it's been a slow, but steady, degeneration.

I also got a basket of sorts that attaches to the back of my bike, so that I don't have to wear a backpack on my longer rides. This should be a lot easier on my neck and back. Hooray!

And, unprompted, Amber also got me a portable bike pump, in case I get a flat tire in the middle of Johnston County or something. I guess that's pretty smart, especially if I'm going to do more rides farther from home.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

BCS Champions Hooray

I've mellowed out a bit with my sports rooting interests over the years. I've been watching this stuff long enough, I know that teams are good sometimes and bad other times, and that it goes in cycles. Heck, I remember when the Jacksonville Jaguars went 14-2, won a playoff game 62-7, and hosted the AFC Championship game. Sure, the Jaguars stink now, but give them enough time, they'll be good again. (No, really! I believe.)

And, just because Florida State happened to soundly beat both Florida and Miami (FL) this year doesn't really make me want to gloat about it. FSU, Florida, and Miami have all won their share of games over the years. Things could be completely different next year. And, all this stuff is just silly anyway.

That said....WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! Go Noles!!

I figured Florida State had a good chance at winning last night, but that there was also a good chance they might get down early, or that Jameis Winston would force throws and put up a couple of costly interceptions or something like that. He didn't end up throwing any picks, but the team wasn't exactly playing well in the first half, either. I was ready to give up on it at 21-3 and go to bed, and then...hey, fake punt! Sweet. Touchdown! Still in the game, I guess I have to stay up past halftime and stick with it. Kick return TD for the lead! Nice, but they left an awful lot of time on the clock. Touchdown Tre Mason. Well, alright, but I think this FSU offense can do it - as bad as they looked in the first half, they're plenty capable of driving the length of the field in 1:20 (or however long it was). Touchdown Kelvin Benjamin! Yes!!! But, Auburn could pull another stupid miracle win or something. Uh oh, here comes a variant on the stupid Frank Wycheck play...he's down!!!!

(I suppose that was my "live tweet" of the game, after the fact. I normally watch sports on DVR delay, so I can't really live tweet these things. That's why this came about 20 minutes after the game ended.)

Here are my Top 4 most exciting sports moments since I moved to North Carolina (6/19/06*), a.k.a. the kinds of things that have me dancing and/or yelling with joy in the living room. In order:
1) Last night
2) Scott Walker's Game 7 overtime goal (5/14/09)
3) Florida State basketball wins the ACC (3/11/12; honorable mention for their last-second win at Duke that season)
4) David Garrard to Mike Thomas hail mary for the win (11/14/10; winning at Pittsburgh in the 2007 playoffs is certainly the "best" Jaguars moment of the last 8 years, but the hail mary was more exciting, for me)

(* - I moved to North Carolina on the same day that the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Sure, it was nice to see them win it that day, but I wasn't invested in the team enough at that point to be that excited about it, compared to in 2009.)

And hey, Florida State football might be good again next year! Sweet. I don't know if I can handle two playoff games, though. (That is, if I'm lucky. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Road Trips: 2013 Year in Review

Let's wrap up some road trip statistics for 2013, shall we?

Nights by county - Since 2006, I've kept track of where I sleep each night throughout the year, by county. Generally, Durham County (a.k.a. home) gets around 320 nights; Duval Co, FL (Jacksonville) and Lucas Co, OH (Toledo) get around 10 each, and then it varies depending on where we go on vacation.

This year's final numbers:

Durham, NC - 325
Duval, FL - 10
Lucas, OH - 9
Denver, CO - 4
Montgomery, PA - 3
Four-way tie - 2 (Onslow, NC; Page, VA; Shelby, TN; Miami-Dade, FL)
Six-way tie - 1 (Nottoway, VA; Pike, KY; Whitley, KY; Oakland, MI; Henry, IA; Sedgwick, KS)

I spent 40 nights away from home this year, compared to 41 last year. Consistency! I don't necessarily plan it this way, but I think 40 is a good number to shoot for, generally, and with about half of those being with family (my parents, Amber's parents, or other relatives). Five of my 40 nights away from home were without Amber and Marla: two nights on the way back from Colorado, and three nights curling in Pennsylvania.

Counties visited - We drove to Colorado and back - well, I drove there and back; Amber/Marla drove there and flew back - and I planned my return route specifically to get as many counties in as little time as possible. So, that was fun. That put me over 50% nationally, which is something I used to consider to be a lifetime goal. (I'm now at 52.6%, having visited 1653 out of 3142 counties in the US.)

Thanks to other trips I managed to work in throughout the year, I've also now visited every county in the following four states: South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and most recently, Florida. That makes 8 states in which I've visited every county; that number was only 4 prior to this year.

Marla won't be finishing off any states any time soon - except maybe Delaware, but Delaware is lame - but, she has visited 24 of the 50 states. Pretty impressive for an almost-2½-year-old!

Interstates driven - Not only was that Colorado trip return route designed to visit lots of new counties, but I also wanted to drive all of I-76 (the western one) and I-72 from end-to-end. So, I did, and that makes 16 completed interstates, nationally. Those were the only interstates I finished from end-to-end this year, although I also finished all of the interstate mileage in Florida.

US routes driven - According to my arbitrary rules, the fact that I've now visited every county and driven every interstate in Florida, means that I can start keeping track of US highway mileage in Florida. Hooray!

Driving all of the US routes in Florida would take a very long time, in part because Florida doesn't believe in urban bypasses for its US routes. Instead, all of its US routes go right through the center of pretty much every city they encounter. I can't even imagine how long it would take to drive US 1 all the way through West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Yikes. So I guess what I'm saying is, 100% ain't happening in Florida.

Back in North Carolina (really the only state in which I care much about my US route completion), I finished off US-1, US-15, and US-601 this year. I have 1,922 miles to go in the state - that's a lot, especially since much of that is out in the mountains.

So, yeah, I went ahead and added Maryland and West Virginia to my US routes spreadsheet, too, because while I haven't completed all counties/interstates in those states yet, I'm very close. And besides, my rules are arbitrary anyway.

Miles driven - I put 22,785 miles on my car this year, which is the most since I bought it (November 2007). A lot of that has to do with giving my car the lion's share of the road trip mileage, compared to Amber's car; our plan is for me to trade in first, so we'll need Amber's car to last longer than my car.

Here is the average number of miles I've driven in each month, going back through 2005. July is my most active month; April is my least active.

January - 1,494 miles
February - 1,234 miles
March - 1,895 miles
April - 937 miles
May - 2,154 miles
June - 1,727 miles
July - 2,238 miles
August - 1,714 miles
September - 1,432 miles
October - 1,768 miles
November - 2,168 miles
December - 1,994 miles

Road trip outlook for 2014 - Our road trip destinations in 2014 are to be determined, but if we go somewhere in the first half of the year, it will likely be somewhere up north. Maybe even Canada!

I think it's unlikely that we're going to go west of the Mississippi again this year. That is, unless we get invited to another wedding out west somewhere. Anyone getting married in Boise this year? How about Portland? Portland would be nice.

This will depend on where we go this year, but I think these are a reasonable set of goals for 2014:
- Visit Jefferson County, WV (the only West Virginia county I have left)
- Visit at least 3 of my 8 remaining Ohio counties
- Visit at least 3 of my 11 remaining Virginia counties
- Take at least one road trip that will give me 20+ counties on its own (can't be done in a day trip starting/ending at home)
- Drive I-83 inside the Baltimore Beltway (the only I-83 mileage, and also the only Maryland interstate mileage, I have left)
- Finish off at least one other interstate (I-66 in Virginia and I-78 in New Jersey might be the best remaining candidates)
- Finish off at least two US routes in North Carolina
- Spend at least 2 hours in Canada (didn't visit Canada at all in 2013)

Friday, January 03, 2014

Playground Reviews: Streets at Southpoint; Cofrin Nature Park

Streets at Southpoint Play Area - Fayetteville Road, Durham, NC
Visited: Saturday, December 14, 2013
| Google Satellite

Summary: All of the playgrounds I've reviewed so far have been outdoor playgrounds. This one is indoors. It's inside the Streets at Southpoint Mall located not far from our house. Being an indoor mall play area, it can get kind of crowded.

Things for Marla to do: 4/14. Compared to most playgrounds, there really isn't that much here: a small slide, some things to climb on, and some little things along the walls. Meh. Beats shopping, though.

Uniqueness: 9/10. Have we been to another playground like it yet? Nope. I'd give 10/10 here, but I'm leaving room at the top for the type of playground that I haven't seen yet, or even know exists.

Upkeep: 9/10. Everything is in great shape, but I can't give 10/10 here. It wouldn't seem fair, given the advantage this playground has being an indoor playground. Outdoor playgrounds take much more effort to keep up.

Crowd: 1/10. We were here on a rainy Saturday afternoon in December. Can you think of a busier time to be at the mall? (It's unlike us to go to the mall at a time like that, but we really wanted to get out of the house.) On the basis of this visit alone, the proper crowd score would be 0/10, because it was truly crazy in there. Much crazier than any other playground visit to date, anywhere. But we've also been here on quieter Saturday mornings before many of the stores inside the mall open, and it's actually kind of nice then. So, 1/10.

Marla enjoyment: 2/5. Despite all the older kids running around without regard for Marla's safety, she enjoyed a point. She had no problem leaving when we were ready to leave.

TOTAL: 25/49, ranking 14th out of 21. It's a nice change of pace from the usual, and makes for a good break during a longer shopping excursion, if nothing else.


Cofrin Nature Park - NW 8th Avenue, Gainesville, FL
Visited: Monday, December 23, 2013
| Google Satellite

Summary: We traveled from Jacksonville to Gainesville to see some Penn State friends during our Christmas trip, and had some playground time while we were down there. This playground is on the smaller side of the average. There's a much bigger playground (albeit a much more crowded one) just down the street at Westside Park, but this size was probably more appropriate given that we had a one-year-old who had only recently started walking with us.

Things for Marla to do: 5/14. Swings, one playground set with multiple slides (and good ones!), no separate "small kid" versus "big kid" areas, plus this teeter totter type thing:

Uniqueness: 4/10. Just like you don't see merry-go-rounds at playgrounds much anymore, you don't see teeter totters anymore either. But this was something I had never seen before: your partner isn't the person directly across from you, it's the person diagonally across from you. This alone was worth at least a couple of points.

Upkeep: 6/10. The condition of the equipment, and the trash level, were both about average.

Crowd: 7/10. A few other people surfaced every now and then, but not many. I suspect this playground does not get heavy use, but it does get some.

Marla enjoyment: 2/5. In addition to the playground, there are also some nature trails and other things which might look interesting to a two-year-old at this park. And, that's where Marla headed after only a few minutes on the playground. (When Marla wanders off elsewhere in the park after only a few minutes, I usually give a score of 2 if she was generally happy, 1 if she was generally unhappy, or 0 if she completely ignores the playground from the start.)

(Who says Florida doesn't have Fall?)

TOTAL: 24/49, ranking 15th out of 21. The rankings ended up being very similar to our neighborhood playground: same "Things to do", "Uniqueness", and "Crowd" scores; one higher for "Upkeep"; one lower for "Marla enjoyment"; same overall score. I didn't realize that until after I assigned the scores, but that actually sounds about right. Although, I gave this playground the tiebreaker.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Everglades National Park

We went to Everglades National Park on the Friday after Christmas. Fun! Here's what we did:

1) First thing, drove to the end of the park road in Flamingo, ~40 miles from the entrance near Homestead.
2) Took a 105-minute guided boat tour.
3) On our way back out of the park, did two quick (less than a mile) boardwalk walks.

I thought a boat tour might be fun. The Everglades is a swamp, so touring by water is probably the best way to go, no? As far as Marla is concerned, she's done reasonably well on our train rides, so I figured a boat tour isn't really all that different, except that we couldn't really let Marla roam in the cabin. But, she did pretty well, all things considered. (Being able to bring food with us was key.)

It's hard to get pictures of wildlife if you want to actually enjoy the tour, but we saw several birds, one baby crocodile*, and lots of plant life that you don't see much anywhere else, of which the most interesting was an incredibly poisonous tree called the manchineel. (* - I'll have to take the guide's word that it was a crocodile and not an alligator. This is apparently the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist.)

There are many short boardwalk paths along the Main Park Road. We had time for two of these, including the "Anhinga" walk, which is both the most recommended and the easiest to get to (right near the entrance), and is therefore VERY popular.

If we had two days here, or if we didn't do the boat tour, we would have had time for most (probably all) of the Marla-friendly walks. But what we saw is fine. Although, I think if you really want to experience the Everglades, the thing to do is to get a canoe or kayak. There are also other park entrances; I've only ever been to the main entrance, but there are other areas accessible from US 41 (Tamiami Trail) on the north end of the park. There's a nice bike path at the Shark Valley Entrance, apparently.

The weather was warm, of course, given that the park is just north of the 25th parallel. (80°F, occasional light showers. Seriously, though, if I were a weatherman in Miami, I would be bored as hell.) It was certainly warm enough for shorts, if not for fears of mosquitoes...

Notice that the lowest level on the scale is not "no mosquitoes". There are always some mosquitoes. Apparently this was as good as it gets. Generally they were fine, no bug spray required, although we did get kind of swarmed once.

As much traveling as we've done, and even though I've been to 30 myself, Everglades National Park is only the 5th US national park Amber and I have visited together. We need to work on that. (Would have been 6, if not for that stupid government shutdown last October...)

Restaurant Serving Times: 2013 Year in Review

Another year of timing how fast restaurants serve me my food is in the books.

(Don't know how this works? Here are the rules. Basically, any time I go to the type of restaurant where a waiter or waitress takes my order and brings me my food, I time how long it takes to get my food. I have a spreadsheet that lists every such restaurant I've been to, and its time, that goes back through June 2004.)

Fastest restaurant of 2013: Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, NC (2 min, 53 sec). Barbecue restaurants tend to be among the fastest, because depending on the style, the food has already been cooked before you order it. All they really have to do is plop some meat and a side or two on a plate, and bring it out. Still, though, in the nearly 20 years I've been doing this - the spreadsheet goes back through 2004, but I've been timing since 1994 - this is only the second time a restaurant has gone under three minutes: Lexington Barbecue.

Ideal Hot Dog in Toledo, OH had taken "fastest restaurant" honors each of the past two years with times of 3:39 and 4:38, but I think a sub-3:00 time is out of their league. Nevertheless, I at least gave them an opportunity for the three-peat in November. Sadly, their time wasn't even close: 10:48, good for only 7th fastest of 2013.

I think this means I need to visit both Lexington Barbecue and Ideal Hot Dog at least once per year, every year. Lexington isn't exactly conveniently located, though: it's a 90 minutes drive from home, and while it's sort of on the way to Charlotte, we don't travel down to Charlotte all that often anymore. So there's no guarantee I'll make it back to Lexington in 2014, but I hope I do.

Speaking of which, you know what would be awesome? If we could find a way to get to Waffle Shop in State College, PA again. Haven't been since March 2010. It's a bit longer of a drive than Lexington is, though.

Slowest restaurant of 2013: Olive Garden in Willow Grove, PA (36 min, 17 sec). Just as barbecue restaurants can be fast, Italian restaurants can be slow. Among parties of four or fewer, the three slowest serving times of all time are all Italian restaurants. Two of those are Olive Garden, including this year's visit in Willow Grove, north of Philadelphia, and sort of in the general direction of the Bucks County Curling Club. The time of 36:17 was not only the slowest of this year, it's also the slowest of the last three years.

I don't know exactly what did it this time, but we were sitting at a table closer to the bar, instead of in the traditional seating area. Maybe that means that bar-area service is slower? Perhaps. Olive Garden might have the highest variance of all the chain restaurants I go to regularly. Even though they've gone over 30 minutes three times in nine visits - that's a pretty poor ratio if you ask me - they've also posted times of 13:08 and 8:21.

Speaking of restaurants we go to regularly, Cracker Barrel was the restaurant we went to the most in 2013: five times. And we still have another $10 in Cracker Barrel gift card money left! Cracker Barrel (5) and Olive Garden (3) were the only restaurants I went to more than once this year, and with the exception of the Morrisville Cracker Barrel (twice), all of those visits were to different locations.

National chain restaurants - Olive Garden, Applebee's, Red Lobster, etc - have been slowest of the year three times now, but have never been fastest of the year. Surprised? I'm guessing no.

Looking back, neither Amber nor Marla were present for the fastest OR the slowest times of the year in 2013. They missed out!

Other noteworthy times: Page Road Grill in Durham posted the 5th fastest "party of 7 or more" time on record (since 2004), at 13:13. That was about the only other noteworthy time posted this year, beyond the fastest and slowest. Fact is, most restaurants I go to clock in at between 10 and 20 minutes, and it's usually pretty boring.