Monday, March 31, 2014

Marla Loves Muddy Puddles

Saturday morning was the Triangle Curling Club's groundbreaking ceremony. My recap of that is over at the club blog (click here for that).

Meanwhile, behind the scenes...


Perhaps encouraged by her favorite cartoon, Marla loves jumping and down in muddy puddles. The grounds at the future curling club site were quite wet and muddy Saturday. Win for Marla! Even after she fell into one of the larger puddles* and got her clothes all wet, she just kept right on going. (Well, after regrouping for a minute or two.)

(* - Some of these "puddles" were perhaps more like small ponds. Seriously, it was like muddy puddle heaven out there.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Dishwasher

Honestly, we haven't done much of anything interesting this month. But we did get a new dishwasher!


We've had our house for five years now, which is apparently when things start breaking, kind of like with a car. For instance, whenever we would run the old dishwasher, it would leak like crazy and create a huge puddle in our kitchen. We had a plumber come and check it out, and his recommendation was that instead of repairing, we buy a new dishwasher.

We went with Sears because they supposedly have the best installation crew. They're not contractors, they work directly for Sears! So we were told. But the folks who came to our house were contractors, and they couldn't even remove the old dishwasher, let alone install the new one. So, we had to call the plumber back and have him do it, which he did, for about $100 extra. And that's even after Sears refunds me the $150 installation fee, which they have yet to do. For our next major appliance purchase, we're going elsewhere.

The old leaky dishwasher was apparently only six years old, which is less time than dishwashers are supposed to last...but here's my theory. The previous owners redid the kitchen prior to selling the house. As part of that, they likely bought the cheapest functional dishwasher they could. And, five years is about how long the cheapest dishwashers on the market will last. Here's hoping we got one that will last a bit longer than that.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Baby #2: Boy or Girl?

UPDATE: It's a boy!

Amber has a lot of doctor's appointments, but today's is an exciting one. It was the one in which doctors may or may not be able to tell whether the small human growing in Amber's belly is a boy or girl. If they are, the plan is to have them write it in a sealed envelope so we can open it together tonight. (Or, you know, tomorrow. I think it might be fun to sit on it for a night. I mean, we've still got five months to go before the baby is born.) With Marla, we did the "gender surprise at birth" thing, and that was fun, but this time we kind of just want to know.

So...do we have a preference? Boy or girl? I can only speak for myself here, but here's how I see it, keeping in mind that I have to be very careful what I write in case baby #2 reads this when he or she is older.

I have gone on the record as saying that one of each - one boy, one girl - was optimal. That way, we get to experience what it's like to have a daughter, and what it's like to have a son. Going along those lines, that would mean we're hoping for a boy.

However...I think having two daughters might be fun. Two sisters generally bond a little better than a brother and sister do. Might be kind of fun to watch their friendship (or perhaps rivalry) grow over the years. And, having another girl would be easier: we already know what to do, we already have a whole bunch of little girl clothes, and the general consensus is that girls are easier to raise than boys are, especially if you've already had a girl.

But on the other hand...do I want that much estrogen in the house? (Actually, I think it could be fun.) Is there a chance we'll give all that money we saved on clothing back when daughter #2 gets married? (Yes.) Does having two daughters limit our ability to go on family curling road trips when the kids are older? (To some extent, because if we have a boy and a girl, we'll be able to enter "mixed" bonspiels as a family, instead of only entering "open" bonspiels. That's assuming both kids are interested in curling, of course. Big if.) Also, there's this: we already have a boy's name picked out from the last one, but we haven't agreed on a second girl's name quite yet. When it comes to baby names, we're kind of picky, so those discussions could be a tad contentious. But if it's a boy, we won't have to have that discussion!

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that there will be nice things about having a boy, and there will be nice things about having a girl, and it'll be great either way.

Many parents make a whole big shindig out of the baby gender announcement by hosting a party or making a cute video or something along those lines, particularly for their first kid. That's fine if that's how you roll, but we'll announce in a little more low key manner. (Probably.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Playground Reviews: Middle Creek School Park; Whippoorwill Park

The Town of Apex is opening a swanky new park and playground soon, and we'll be sure to check it out after it opens. We won't be going to the grand opening, though, because there will be something far more important going on at the exact same time.

Until then, we did visit two very ordinary playgrounds within the past couple of weeks. Let's review them!

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

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Middle Creek School Park - West Lake Drive, Cary, NC
Visited: Sunday, March 2, 2014
| Google Satellite

Summary: Most elementary schools have their own playgrounds that are open to the public on weekends. We never go to school playgrounds, though, and ... we still haven't. This just happens to be a public park that is in the vicinity of school grounds. The park itself is not part of the school.

Things for Marla to do: 6/14; Uniqueness: 2/10. The usual big kid and small kid play areas, plus swings, that you see at most playgrounds.


Upkeep: 8/10. Like most Cary parks, the grounds were clean and well kept.

Crowd: 7/10. There saw a couple other families during our visit, but that was it. I was expecting a bigger crowd, given the nice weather, but then again, this playground really isn't all that big, so maybe it's not one of the more popular ones.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. Actually, the most fun we had at the park wasn't at the playground, it was going disc golfing afterwards. Marla took to walking the course and being my "caddy" a lot more than I thought she would. Huge success! We'll have to take her disc golfing again sometime. (This was the first time I had done any disc golfing in North Carolina at all since August 2011, by the way.)


TOTAL: 26/49, ranking 15th out of 26.

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Whippoorwill Park - Rowemont Drive, Durham, NC
Visited: Saturday, March 15, 2014
| Google Street View

Summary: The main thing that drew us here, as opposed to some other playground in North Durham, was the adjacent greenway. But would the playground alone keep her occupied enough?

Things for Marla to do: 6/14; Uniqueness: 1/10. Another playground with the usual big kid and small kid play areas, plus swings, although this one seemed slightly more generic than Middle Creek (hence the score of 1 instead of 2).


Upkeep: 4/10. So, the playground was built on an old basketball court. Did they remove the basketball court first and put in a mulch-like substance instead? Nope! They just poured a bunch of rubber on top of the concrete. I wasn't particularly impressed. Also, and I typically don't include amenities such as bathrooms in my ratings, but the bathroom building at the park appears to be closed for good, replaced by a portable toilet in the parking lot.* Not a good look, Durham! The playground was at least clean, though.

(* - Many playgrounds even have portable toilets, so I suppose a portable toilet is better than no toilets at all. But my point is that the state of the bathrooms is indicative of how much the city is, or in this case isn't, putting into park upkeep.)

Crowd: 8/10. It was a beautiful day, and yet, we had the playground to ourselves most of the time. This is obviously not the "go to spot" in North Durham when it comes to playgrounds.

Marla enjoyment: 2/5. Did Marla leave the playground and head towards the greenway? Yes, yes she did.

TOTAL: 22/49, ranking 23rd out of 26.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ideal Winter Climate

We all have our "ideal climate" - the type of climate where we're most happy year-round. Personally, I like living in a place with distinct seasons. I like it to get occasionally cold in the winter and to get some snow, but not too much snow, and not so cold that I can't go outside and ride by bike, for instance, for a two-week stretch or longer. In other words, I like the occasional "taste" of "real winter", but I don't want three months straight of it. (By the way, I've gotten a lot better at dressing for cold weather bike rides. A 40°F bike ride is no big deal to me. I won't even hesitate.)

In terms of my "ideal climate", how do the places I've lived so far stack up? Florida doesn't get cold enough, obviously, and summer lasts way too long. A Pennsylvania winter is too long and too snowy for my taste. So if I think Florida is too hot and Pennsylvania is too cold, then it makes sense that I looked for jobs in North Carolina, no?

The average Raleigh winter is close, but it's still a little warm compared to what I would consider to be "ideal". I'd say, Lynchburg, VA might give me the "ideal" winter. ... But what if Raleigh had a colder and snowier than average winter? Would that the perfect winter?

Well, I'd say this winter here was* pretty close to perfect. (* - Even though I'm speaking past tense, I recognize that winter is not over yet. Slim chance of non-liquid precipitation early next week!)

Raleigh hadn't reached the single digits in over a decade, certainly longer than I've lived here. This year? Two mornings in the single digits, and two mornings with below zero wind chills. Hooray! And the nice thing about a North Carolina "cold snap" is that the temperature usually doesn't take long to moderate afterwards. Like I said, I like a "taste" of "real winter", but I don't like it to stick around.

(Disclaimer: What constitutes "cold" or "real winter" varies by location, of course. Someone from Minnesota might not consider a Central Ohio winter, for instance, to be a "real winter". When I say "real winter", I mean, snow, wind, and cold enough for me to wear a heavy coat.)

The RDU airport has reported 5.8" of frozen precipitation this season, which is actually right on the average. But, our house outperformed RDU by a good 2+ inches during our biggest snowstorm of the year, so I'd say that our house experienced above average snowfall. While it was the closest we've ever come, perhaps, I still wouldn't consider it absolutely "perfect". The number of "winter weather events" was plenty, but I'd like to have nudged the amount of snow we got from a couple of them up by an inch or two. Winter weather events that don't produce any meaningful amount of snowfall, but are still enough to close schools / day cares, are annoying. Ice storms, of course, are especially annoying. Winter weather events resulting in several inches of snow, however, are fun!

Maybe my idea of an "ideal winter climate" doesn't actually exist. If I like big snow storms, I have to live somewhere where it also stays cold for long periods of time. with week-long stretches where the temperature never gets above freezing, for instance. Otherwise, I have to live in a place like North Carolina that has a lot of annoying "mixed precip" events. If I like changing weather, then living in the middle of the country - say, Kansas City or Tulsa - might be fun. Those places can experience wild temperature swings over a short period of time. Problem is, a Kansas City winter is probably too cold, and a Tulsa summer is...well, it's pretty brutal. Living in the plains, I'd either have to contend with a summer that's too hot, or a winter that's too cold. Can't have it both ways.

So, it's better to live closer to the ocean where the seasons are a little closer in temporal proximity to each other, but still far enough north such that I still experience four distinct seasons. But not too far north, of course. I think I just described North Carolina! Or maybe Virginia.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wheelchair Curling

For a blog post I wrote for trianglecurling.com a while back, I said that curling wouldn't be nearly as exciting to watch or as television-friendly without sweeping. If there's no sweeping, there's no yelling either, making it pretty quiet. Atheticism wouldn't be as important, either. We'd all just be sitting there watching the rocks slide down the ice. Maybe then, it really would be "shuffleboard on ice". (That's a metaphor I really don't care for, by the way.)

Well, if you want to know what curling would be like without sweeping...watch wheelchair curling! I had never seen a game before, but NBCSN broadcast a game earlier this week from the Paralympics. And since the volume of curling on television still isn't all that high, I'll record and watch any televised curling match, including wheelchair curling. (Speaking of which, Universal Sports Network - DirecTV 625 - is airing some games from next week's Women's World Championships. My DVR is set!)

The basics of wheelchair curling:
- Participants in Paralympic wheelchair curling must use a wheelchair for mobility on a full-time, or nearly full-time, basis. So, someone like me can't go out and say, "I'm going to get into wheelchair curling and try to make the Paralympics." Only actual disabled people may apply.
- Curlers release stones while sitting down, using a stick.
- There is no sweeping, at all.
- You have to have at least one woman and one man on your team, but not necessarily equal numbers of each. Team USA has three men and one woman, for instance.
- Paralympic games are 8 ends, not 10.

If you watched Olympic curling, you often saw shot percentages in the 70 to 90% range, sometimes even higher than 90%. In the Paralympics? Well, first off, releasing a stone from a sitting position is harder. (Well, the act of releasing it might be easier, but releasing it accurately is certainly harder.) But the fact that there's no sweeping, either - which can make a HUGE difference; it's part of what makes the best regular curling teams so very good at precise shotmaking - decreases the shot percentages dramatically. The average in wheelchair curling might be around 50% or so, as opposed to 80% or higher.

Sometimes when I watch Olympic curling, I think, "I can't possibly learn any meaningful strategy from watching this. These guys are way better than I'll ever be." Applying world champion Niklas Edin's strategy in one of my own games - relying on complicated runback takeouts and whatnot - would probably be rather ineffective. (Fun, sure, but ineffective.) With wheelchair curling, however, due to the added level of difficulty, the level of shotmaking is much closer to what I might hope to see myself with regular curling.

When there's more of a question as to whether the other team will make their shots, the strategy is different. For example, challenging your opponent to make that draw for one can pay off much more in wheelchair curling, because that shot isn't as much of a slam dunk as it would be for most Olympic curlers. Also, in the game that I watched, Team USA had a chance to blank the first end, but instead drew for the single point on purpose. When the shot percentages go down, scoring without hammer is easier, and so there isn't as much of a benefit to blanking an end. Take your points when you can get them! That's much more like our club games.

So, in summary, wheelchair curling might actually be more beneficial for me from the standpoint of learning curling strategy. Is it more interesting in general, though? Probably not. I have to admit, the sweeping and the yelling and screaming adds quite a bit to the entertainment value, and athleticism, of curling. But wheelchair curling is something different, almost like a peek at what the curling world would be like without sweeping. (By the way, the wheelchair curlers do yell at the rocks sometimes, kind of like golfers yell at their golf balls after they hit them.)

The Paralympic gold medal game is being broadcast this Saturday at 6:30 PM on NBCSN. Check it out!

Monday, March 10, 2014

AMBER Alerts

I think most people are in agreement that AMBER Alerts are a good thing. When a child goes missing, we should find them. Even though it is a very remote possibility, the thought of my own child being abducted by a stranger is pretty frightening, so it seems like the kind of thing that's appropriate to display on highway message boards and whatnot.

The general thinking is that AMBER Alerts - and their neighbors Silver Alerts - are effective, because why else would we have them? But while there have been success stores, whether AMBER Alerts are actually effective, or just a form of "security theater", is open for debate. Another matter is whether AMBER Alerts are overused, such as in domestic child custody disputes.

So...Friday afternoon, my phone starts buzzing with an emergency alert. Weather bulletin? Nope - it's an AMBER Alert, because a kidnapped child from Maryland might be in North Carolina. My phone buzzed loudly while I was driving, so it startled me, creating a potentially dangerous situation for myself and the other cars around me. That was the only alert I got buzzed with, but my wife's* phone buzzed just like that with the same information repeating every 15 minutes, and on her phone (unlike mine), there is no way to turn the repeat alerts off without turning off the alerts altogether.

(The girl was found safe at a hotel in Florence, SC, by the way. I haven't been able to gather from news stores whether the AMBER Alert was responsible for her safe return. Also of note: the "kidnapper" was actually her father, but he allegedly just murdered the child's mother, so I suppose the AMBER Alert was appropriate, even though it was a sort of "domestic" dispute. On the other hand, if the child was in fact in danger, she may have already been killed before she would have been found. That's another critique of the AMBER Alert system: in cases where children's lives actually are in danger, AMBER Alerts are almost always too late.)

Well, anyway, my wife* and I both decided to turn off the AMBER Alert notifications we get on our phone. Does that make us bad people? Especially considering that we're parents ourselves?

(* - My wife's name is Amber, so I'm referring to her as "my wife" here just to eliminate confusion.)

Here's my take on all of this. I, personally, don't think AMBER Alerts should be sent to phones in the form of an emergency bulletin, the same way that a Tornado Warning would be. An AMBER Alert is not something that you need to STOP YOUR CAR RIGHT THIS MINUTE AND READ, which is what an emergency bulletin should be in my opinion. If you're out driving and a Tornado Warning has been issued for your location, that's something you need to know that very minute for your own safety. But from the perspective of an ordinary civilian, reading an AMBER Alert notification is not that urgent. I think a plain old ordinary text message would be fine, the kind that we can wait to read until it is safe to do so. Making all AMBER Alerts emergency bulletins in this fashion will only irritate many average citizens, resulting in the alerts being turned off, which defeats the purpose.

Here's another thing about AMBER Alerts I don't understand. In Florida, when an AMBER Alert is issued, the license plate and car make/model/color is displayed on highway message boards. Great! In North Carolina, when an AMBER Alert is issued, all that highway message boards will say is "Call 511 for info". I can pretty much guarantee that almost nobody is calling 511 for info. Especially considering that we're supposed to be driving rather than using our phones. How hard would it be to display the license plate / car information directly on the electronic message board? Florida does it. Why can't North Carolina?

Personally, given how often these people end up at hotels, I think broadcasting information, names, and pictures if possible to every hotel check-in desk in the country might be the most effective thing law enforcement could do in these child abduction cases. Does this already happen? If not, it should. But if you ask me, broadcasting this information to everyone's cell phone as an urgent emergency message is certainly NOT the way to go.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

2008 Honda Civic: Three Months Left

Both Amber and I own compact cars - a Mazda 3 and a Honda Civic, respectively. They get the job done for pretty much everything...except, perhaps, for long family road trips. With Marla, we pretty much fill either car to capacity when we leave home for more than a night or two. So can you imagine what it'll be like when we have two kids?

With that in mind, a while back we decided that three months before our next child's due date, I would trade in my Honda Civic for a small SUV (a.k.a. a "crossover"), one that would be a little more amenable to long road trips with two young children. That means that around the end of May / beginning of June, I'll be getting a new car. Exciting! (Amber will hold onto the Mazda 3 as long as possible, because she still likes it. Basically, our arrangement has always been for me to have the "practical" and/or "boring" car, and for her to have the "fun" car.)

Before I talk about what kind of small SUV we'll be getting, or why we've chosen that path in the first place - there will be plenty of time for that another day - let's talk about the Honda Civic a little. Most everything I've had to pay triple-digit money to fix involves tires and wheel alignment, and that sort of stuff isn't really Honda's fault. So, I'm pretty happy with the Civic. The only real annoying problem I've had with it is with their defective sun visors. And, fuel mileage has been good - 37 mpg over the life of the car, although it has dropped off to the low to mid 30s within the past year. All in all, the Civic has been a good car, and I'm not trading it in because I'm not satisfied with it. (Nevertheless, the Honda CR-V will actually NOT be my first choice when I get my next car. Third choice, maybe?)

My original goal was to get 200,000 miles out of the Civic. Despite all of the driving we've been doing with it lately, the car odometer is still only at 118,300. (Over the past year-plus, we've been taking the Civic on virtually every road trip, as part of our planning for the Civic to be the first of our two cars to be traded in. The Mazda 3 odometer is currently well behind at 93,000.) So, that goal of 200,000? Not going to happen, not even close. It probably won't happen for the Mazda 3, either: at our current pace, the Mazda will hit 200,000 in May 2021, at which point Amber will have had the car for 13½ years. Is Amber going to want to keep it that long? Probably not. (My general guideline is 8-10 years per car; I'll have had the Civic for 6½ years, so this will be an early trade-in. But circumstances are dictating this move more than anything else, of course.)

I think 125,000 is within reach, though. That would mean 7,000 miles in three months. Lately my six month totals have been a lot closer to 7,000 miles than my three month totals have been, but we do have a week-long road trip in the works for late April, plus a couple of other shorter road trips. So, I might get there. We'll see. It's not like putting a few extra thousand miles on the car is going to affect the car's depreciation a whole lot at this point in the car's life, right?

One nice thing about seeing the car's finish line, though, is that I have an excuse to pretty much forget about preventive maintenance. When I get my next oil change - which will be the last oil change I get with the Civic - if they say, "You might want to get a new ___", I'll say, "Nope!" Unless it's absolutely urgent or is a safety issue, of course. I haven't had to replace the brakes yet, for instance. If any big repairs are needed in the next three months, though, I'll have a decision to make. Pay up and hope I get that money back when I trade in, or forget it and get the new car right away?

On a related note, my car has an "oil life" meter that recommends when you should get an oil change. I've never taken the "oil life" down to 0%. A few times, I've taken it to 5%, which is the lowest possible reading above 0%. (It drops in 5% intervals once you get below 20%.) What happens when you take the oil life below 0%? I'm going to find out soon, because I'm waiting until the oil life drops all the way down to zero before getting that "last oil change". Why the heck not? The oil life meter recommendations work out to one oil change every 7,000 to 7,500 miles, and I've obeyed that to a T; just this once, I think I can go beyond 7,500 miles.

Should be an exciting three months for my old Civic. Will it get to 125,000 miles?