Monday, November 24, 2014

Arena Curling: A Tribute

Big day in the history of the Triangle Curling Club yesterday: our last ever game on rented arena ice. The club has been around in some form for 19 years, and every single game the club has ever played (at least at home) has involved renting 2-hour blocks of ice time from a local arena. For at least the last 8 of those years, we've curled at the Polar Ice House in Wake Forest.

We're still on track to open the new building in January (it'll be here before you know it!), and Sunday marked the last game of the Fall League, our last league on arena ice. I wasn't there, but Amber tells me there was a full ceremony prior to the last game, not unlike what you'd see before the last draw of a bonspiel, except that the bagpipe music was piped in (no pun intended) over the loudspeaker instead of via an actual bagpiper.

Curling on dedicated ice is better than curling on arena ice in almost every way. (Why else would we be going through all this trouble?) But, there are some things I'll miss about curling on arena ice:

- Reading the ice conditions. This is a game in and of itself. Where are the "zamboni lines"? Where are the grooves in the ice which will dictate where the rocks will go? Can you actually throw both turns and get the rock in the house? It's different every week! Kind of frustrating at times, sure, but reading the ice was the #1 challenge for a Skip, and I think I was actually pretty good at it. On arena ice, I can beat a much better Skip head-to-head, if I'm better at reading the ice. I've had a lot of success on arena ice in the seven years I've been with the club. On dedicated ice, not so much. I've always had a harder time calling strategy on dedicated ice, because there are many, many more shots available to you - and to your opponent. If you ask me, "real" curling is a much more complex game than what we play on arena ice.

- Totally dominating dedicated ice clubs at arena ice bonspiels. This kind of follows from the first point. If you've never curled on arena ice before, then you have no idea how to read arena ice. So, when teams who are quite excellent on dedicated ice come down to an arena ice bonspiel and have to play a "home team", they usually struggle. That was always fun. Of course, I'm kind of joking here...I'm more than happy to trade a slight (and perhaps unfair) competitive advantage at arena ice bonspiels for the opportunity to curl on dedicated ice every single week. And as much as dedicated ice teams struggle on arena ice, we've always struggled even more when we go up to compete on dedicated ice. Maybe now when we travel up north to compete, we'll actually stand a chance!

- Friday night curling. As long as we've been with the club, we've always curled on Friday night. (Except for this last season.) Friday night curling was something to look forward to during the week. Hey, it's Friday, and that means CURLING! In the new building, we won't have a Friday night league, so I'll be curling on Monday and Tuesday instead. People generally have other things to do on weekends, so weeknight leagues are more practical, but I'll miss the old Friday night league. Maybe once our club grows and we can sustain more than just a few leagues, we can bring back a Friday night league of some sort.

- Curling in August. Our new building is not going to be open year-round. Maybe 8 months at the most. So, that means no more curling in the summer. Our traditional August "Carolina Classic" bonspiel? Not in August anymore. Now if we want to curl in the summer, we'll have to travel to places like Wilmington and Knoxville. (Although we've already been doing that anyway, because summer bonspiels are fun. Also, see my second point.)

- The GNCC Arena Club Championships. That bulldog trophy? I'll never see it again.

Except for the occasional away bonspiel, my career curling on arena ice is now over. I played 209 games at the Polar Ice House in Wake Forest, winning 126. Here's the box score from my last game:

Career game #254: 2014 Fall League - November 9, 2014
(my team: Wright)

End............ 12345678 |TTL
----------------------------
Zwiefel........ 00502011 | 09
Wright......... 24020200 | 10

Should I start my career game count over at #1 in the new building? Because in a way, it's like I'm starting my curling career over. Sure, I do have some experience on dedicated ice, but only 28 games' worth, and none since February 2013. ... On second thought, nah. My first game in the new building will count as game #255. But I will track my stats on dedicated ice separately.

Can't wait!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Snow Day Forecasts

It was cold this week. The Raleigh-Durham airport (RDU) recorded a record loW of 19°F Wednesday morning. That's plenty cold for mid-November, but cold enough to cause the local schools to delay opening? ... Nope, not even close. If last winter is any indication, it takes, at minimum, a "Wind Chill Advisory" - issued for wind chills below 0°F - for schools to delay simply because it's "too cold", and even then, not every Wind Chill Advisory results in a delay.

Speaking of which...last winter was cold, too, and there were plenty of school delays and closings. Wake County schools had 9 snow days last year, delayed opening twice, and closed early twice more. (None of those were in November or December, by the way.) Schools farther north in Virginia had even more snow days than we did. And in the lead-up to each winter weather event, of all the meteorologists I follow on Twitter and read on the internet, this question generally went unanswered: "Given the forecast, how likely is it that schools will be closed or delayed?" The excellent Capital Weather Gang communicates the likelihood of school closings on a scale of 0 apples to 4 apples, but that's the closest thing I've seen, and I'd prefer something more percentage-based anyway. (And, of course, something local to the Triangle.)

I actually thought about doing this myself. I could start up a Twitter feed and/or blog and/or something that specializes in "snow day forecasts". I wouldn't be forecasting the weather itself, because I know I couldn't do any better than NWS Raleigh or the local TV meteorologists. Instead, I'd read all of the forecasts and technical discussions, compare that to past events - I chronicled each potential event last winter in order to determine the thresholds for school delays and closures - and combined with the uncertainty in the weather forecast itself, come up with something like, "Durham County Schools are 40% likely to be closed for the day on Thursday, 60% likely to have at least a delay". I think I could make snow day forecasts as well as anyone. Maybe even better than the school systems themselves!

Forecasting snow days might even be harder than forecasting the weather itself because of the element of human behavior, on top of the already uncertain weather, so I expect this to be a bit challenging. Maybe that's why nobody does it!

So, what's stopping me from starting now? Well, first off, given that we just had our second child a few months ago, now is probably not the best time to start a new project. But also, I think I need one winter to "practice". So, maybe I'll tweet out some "beta" snow day predictions this winter on my personal Twitter. We'll see how it goes, and if it goes well, maybe I'll start something a little more formal the following winter. Hopefully I'll get plenty of opportunities this season! But not too many.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

#sports: 11/11/14

Having a two-month old baby at home actually means I've been watching more sports - more time at home, much of which needs to be spent with somebody holding and/or feeding a baby, which a lot of the time can be done in the room that has the television in it. But, this will swing wildly in the other direction once Bruce starts walking, 6-12 months from now.

College football

Due to a combination of on-field success and off-field news, everybody hates Florida State now, right? Other FSU fans encourage that we "embrace" the villain role. That would be perfectly fine - fun, even - if the hate were strictly football-related. But, hey, we've gone several Friday afternoons in a row now without any new New York Times anti-FSU hit pieces! Instead, the most recent anti-FSU stories have had absolutely zero substance. (By the way, any journalist/columnist who runs with a story like that, you should probably not trust them in general.)

So...the football: I really thought Florida State would lose to Louisville, but for some reason I'm more confident about the Miami game, even though FSU is favored by (slightly) fewer points against Miami than they were against Louisville. Eventually, this win streak will come to an end - most likely this season - and that would be okay. (Just as long as the streak doesn't end against Florida. That would be awful.) Especially considering the Clemson and Notre Dame games, the Seminoles are very fortunate to have won this many games in a row. Whether or not a 12-1 ACC Champion Florida State would make the 4-team playoff probably depends on what happens in other conferences. I think it's better than 50/50, but not guaranteed: if Mississippi State/Alabama/Oregon/TCU all finish with one loss, then do they all finish ahead of a 12-1 FSU? Do one or more 2-loss SEC teams end up ranked ahead of a 12-1 FSU? Thing is, though, at this point in the season, we just kind of assume teams like Oregon and TCU will win out when making bowl projections, but then they end up losing a game or two.

Might Penn State actually be better off if the bowl ban were still in effect? It appears their best hope at this point is one of those crappy bowls that pits two 6-6 teams against each other. And given how awful Penn State games have been to watch lately, does anyone really want an additional Penn State game on the calendar? (Seriously, though, the bowl ban being rescinded is good for the program.)

NFL

In hindsight, maybe it was unrealistic to expect the Jacksonville Jaguars to have success this season. Sure, last year was rebuilding, but this year is really re-rebuilding, with rookie quarterback and other fresh young players. It's hard to predict when teams that are as far off as the Jaguars will "turn the corner", or whether it will happen at all without getting rid of the GM/coach/QB all over again. We're still at least 2½ seasons from the point where the team should consider any front office firings, I think; hopefully by then, Blake Bortles will quit throwing so many interceptions. Without the interceptions - 14 on the year, by far the most in the league, even though Bortles hasn't played every game - I think he's actually playing pretty well, but turnovers are killer in the NFL. The Robinsons (Denard at RB, Allen at WR) look good, and the defense is improving...or, I thought it was, prior to the Dallas game. Pretty much any attempt to find positives with the Jaguars is a reach until they start winning more games. 1-9.

(So, right after I wrote this...Allen Robinson: out for the season with a foot injury. Ugh.)

NASCAR

I can't lie: this NASCAR "Chase" elimination-style format has been pretty entertaining. I'd still prefer a 36-race "no chase" championship format, if nothing else to make the first 26 races of the season more meaningful, and because I like the idea of the best driver over the course of a 36-race season being the champion. But once this elimination format gains credibility, I think the fans who don't like it will stop complaining about it.

Here's why I say that. Out of the major sports, Major League Baseball has the most random and/or arbitrary post-season: after a 162-game season, you play a wild-card elimination game, then everybody must win a best-of-5 series to advance. Baseball is pretty random to begin with - even the best teams only win 60% of the time - so the outcome of a 5-game series against two good teams is pretty random, even if one team is slightly better over the course of a 162-game season. And yet, the reaction when the Washington Nationals lost, was, "they just didn't get it done in the playoffs", without acknowledging the inherent randomness of MLB's playoff format. Yet, in NASCAR, when two of the best drivers get eliminated while two others who have had much less successful seasons advance, then it's just because the format is broken?

There are many difference between baseball and NASCAR, but the reason the fans react the way they do is this: MLB has had 5-game divisional series for the last 20 years. The format has been around for a while, and so fans have accepted it (perhaps begrudgingly). So when the Giants win the World Series despite being the 5th-best National League team over the course of the season...oh, that's not luck, that's CLUTCH! This is year 1 for the NASCAR format. By year 20, people will talk about how "clutch" Ryan Newman was in the Chase despite not winning a race all year. (Except that Newman hasn't really been that "clutch"; he's just avoided bad finishes. That's REALLY what this Chase is about: avoiding bad finishes. Or, win races, but only one guy can win each week.) For a somewhat arbitrary playoff format to gain acceptance and credibility, it just takes time. Hopefully Brian France realizes that, and that his best move at this point is to not tinker with it anymore and keep it the same for the next 20 years or longer. Or...if there are 10 laps to go and it looks like winless Ryan Newman is going to win the championship, throw a debris caution! (Seriously, watch for that, because it is in NASCAR's best interest for Harvick or Logano to win.)

NHL

Due to injuries to some of its best players, and the fact that they didn't really improve the roster in the offseason, I had zero hope for the Carolina Hurricanes this season. And, they responded by losing their first 8 games. Season over? Time to start positioning for a top draft pick? Apparently, there are two "can't miss" prospects in the upcoming draft, so if you're going to tank for draft position / lottery odds, this is the season to do it.

Well, the Hurricanes won 5 of their next 6, so it appears they are, in fact, too good to get a top draft pick next season...but still not good enough to make the playoffs, probably. In other words, this season is shaping up to be just like every other damn season! ARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH.

I guess what I'm saying is, I'm finding it hard to truly celebrate the team's recent success. Maybe if their Sports Club Stats playoff odds ever get back over 50%, then I can start really cheering the wins in earnest again. Still reading this streak as false hope for the time being.

NBA

The Charlotte Bobcats are now the Charlotte Hornets. I tried to coax myself into being a "Bobcats fan" multiple times in the past, but it never stuck, mostly because the team has been terrible. But, the Hornets name and colors have plenty of positive equity - not just in Charlotte, but in the whole state of North Carolina. And, unlike the Hurricanes, the Bobcats/Hornets have turned it around and are coming off a playoff year, and actually have a shot at going back this year too. So, count me in!

I've always thought the key to NBA success was one of the following:
- Be the type of "glamour" franchise that is attractive to superstar free agents (not the Hornets)
- Suck for several years in a row and get a bunch of top draft picks, or if you're really lucky, an MVP-caliber player

The Bobcats have done plenty of sucking, and so they have some decent talent on the roster...I would assume. Actually, their best player - Al Jefferson - was signed as a free agent. So, I don't really know what I'm talking about here. I've never really followed the NBA that closely. But, safe to assume that the Hornets will stink again in a few years' time (maybe sooner?), so if I'm ever going to follow the Hornets, now is the time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"Time-Speed-Distance" Road Rally

A while back, somebody on a roadgeek Facebook group that I follow posted about an upcoming "road rally", just east of Raleigh, organized by the Tarheel Sports Car Club. The premise: given a set of complicated driving directions, follow the directions as best you can, and pass through each of several checkpoints not in the shortest amount of time, but in a precise amount of time, based on the directed average speed. (According to Wikipedia, these types of rallies are called regularity rallies, or time-speed-distance (TSD) rallies.)

Anyway, this combines three things that I am very good at: following directions, road navigation, and math. Sign me up! Fellow roadgeek Adam will be the driver, I'll be the navigator (since I'm good at math), and Amber will stay home and watch the kids for the day. (This is the kind of thing Amber would enjoy, too, but she encouraged me to go. The rules allow you to bring children under 10 with you, but...no.)

Now, before we begin...when we signed up, we had the option of two different "classes". One where you can use as many aids as you want - including smartphone apps built for the specific purpose of "cheating" in a TSD rally - and one where the only allowable aids are the equipment on your car, pen, and paper. Naturally, we signed up for the second category, a.k.a. the "fun" category. (We also used my wristwatch, which I think was accepted because we had to know what time, to the second, to leave each of the checkpoints. I only used the standard clock, though, not the stopwatch functionality.)

We had no idea what to expect, but the event started by us pulling into a gravel parking lot across the street from a Hardee's in rural Nash County. Doesn't sound sketchy at all, does it? But, several other teams and cars were already there, and so it looked legitimate enough. Turns out, 15 teams entered, including us. Not bad! First up was the competitors meeting, in which they gave us the driving instructions along with some VERY IMPORTANT HINTS (more on those later). Then, starting at 1:30 PM, cars began the rally, one per minute. We were car number 14, so we started at 1:44:


Being the 14th car to go is better than being the first car to go, because it made the timing checkpoints much easier to spot from a distance: we'd always see several other cars there already. The disadvantage is if we're behind on time and get stuck behind another competitor farther ahead, but that only happened to us once. And I think we did it to someone else, too, who made a wrong turn and got stuck behind us. But that's their own fault.

(By the way, this kind of event is very difficult to pull off logistically, if nothing else because you have to staff each of the checkpoints. You need at least a dozen volunteers for something of this scale. They even went so far as to mow the grass at each of the checkpoints! And, of course, putting together a good route and directions takes a lot of work, but I think aspect of it would be fun.)

Here is a sample of the driving directions. Three or four pages like this:


It's not just "turn left on [name of road]", because that would be way too easy to follow on GPS. (Again, we didn't use GPS at all; we did it the hard way.) It's also "turn left after [landmark]", or "take second turn after bridge", or "turn right at STOP". Still, none of it was really that hard to follow as long as you were able to spot the landmarks, but they did throw us some curveballs:
- One direction referenced "Hardee's", but it turns out, this was NOT a Hardee's restaurant. It was a sign with the name "Hardee's" on it (in reference to a construction company or something by the same name). So if you kept cruising down Highway 97 looking for a Hardee's restaurant, then, whoops!
- For the purposes of the rally, dead end streets and dirt roads do not exist. So if you come to a stop sign, and your only two options are "turn left on a dead end road" or "turn right on a road that isn't a dead end road", you have to turn right, and THAT TURN DOES NOT COUNT AS ONE OF THE INSTRUCTIONS. (That last part was one of the things they made clear during the competitor's meeting. Glad we were paying attention!)
- Sometimes the direction was just "Turn". As in, turn at the next available opportunity, where an "opportunity" (this was clearly defined in the rules) means a legal turn on any non-dead end, non-dirt road. And if it just said "Turn", not "Turn left" or "Turn right", that meant it wouldn't be a crossroad; it would just be a left-only or right-only option.
- If a name was on quotes, like "Hardee's", that meant look for it on a sign, and that it wouldn't be the name of a road. ... Or was it? One direction referenced "Ada Taylor", in quotes, except that this WAS the name of a road in this case. Better yet, if you missed the turn, it would take you straight to the next checkpoint...except that you'd get there a few minutes too early. But if you turned down Ada Taylor like you were supposed to, and the instructions that followed, you'd end up right back down the same road again, except now you'll get to the checkpoint on time. Fun, eh?

There was also the average speed component. The directions would say "average 44 mph" or something like that, then a few directions later, give you a new average speed. I was expecting round numbers like "45" or "50", but nope - 42 mph, 36 mph, 47 mph, whatever. Also, the directions also occasionally directed us to pause for 45 seconds or a minute. All this made the timing math much harder to do with pen/paper (easy with a smartphone, but what fun would that be?), but basically I thought of it this way. When traveling at 45 mph, one mile takes you 80 seconds; at 40 mph, 90 seconds. So if the directed average speeds over the last 10 miles were somewhere between 40 and 45 mph, then we should have completed those 10 miles in more than 800 seconds (13:20) but less than 900 seconds (15:00). It was hard to do precise calculations on the fly, but I did my best to give meaningful input to make sure our timing was at least in the ballpark as we approached each checkpoint. (They didn't tell us where the checkpoints would be, by the way.) I think we were slow more often than we were fast, because maintaining an average speed of 45 mph means you have to drive faster than that most of the time, when accounting for stop signs and turns and whatnot. In general, it's best to go faster than you think you need to go, because you can always slow down again before the next checkpoint.

(One side note: the first 10 miles was a "odometer correction section", designed to get you up to speed, and also for you to check your odometer accuracy. Turns out the odometer on Adam's Ford Escape is a bit slow: it read 9.8 miles at the 10.00 mile mark. This info helped some, because some of the instructions referenced a specific mileage.)

Roadgeeking knowledge came in handy, but not as much as I thought it would have: even though the route was 75 miles long, it doubled back on itself multiple times and largely avoided roads that we would know anything about (with the exception of NC Highway 97). In hindsight, this makes sense: a route that revisits the same landmarks multiple times (but with different instructions each time so that it all seems fresh) is a lot easier logistically, because the same people can staff multiple checkpoints without having to drive far. One part of roadgeeking that did come in handy was road signs: where to find four-digit state road numbers on signs, and also what something like "BAILEY 9" might mean. (Those are white signs at intersections that mean "9 miles to Bailey if you turn down that road". A common sight in rural North Carolina.) This brings up another fun "curveball": One instruction was 'turn right at "BAILEY 9" after "45 MPH"'. There were two roads with "BAILEY 9" signage, but only the SECOND one came after a "45 MPH" sign. The first one came after a "35 MPH" sign; turn down that road instead, and a few instructions later, you'd still end up at the next checkpoint...on the wrong side of the road. Penalty! (At least two teams did this.)

Not everyone was able to follow all of the instructions. We know this for a couple of reasons: 1) Someone made a wrong turn in front of us, taking the first left after a bridge instead of the second left (as clearly directed - I mean, how hard can this be?). We didn't let that fool us, though: we were confident. 2) Even though we were the 14th car in line, we beat several cars to most of the checkpoints, despite never passing anybody directly.

The scoring: at each of 6 checkpoints, you get 100 points for each minute that you're early or late. (Points are bad; lowest score wins.) There were also some questions which, if answered correctly, would reduce your score by 50 points. (For example: "To whose memory is this road dedicated?" Look for the "Adopt a Highway" signs. Or, "What do you put a HOTT DOGG in?" We thought we missed that one, until we came upon a cemetery featuring tombstones inscribed with the name "BUNN".)

So...did we win? We don't know! We had to leave the after party early, before all of the scores were tabulated. The organizers said the results would be posted online, but I don't seem them yet. Regardless, I'm very confident we finished top 5 out of 15 (electronic aids or not), at the very least. There's a chance we might have even won the thing. I think we averaged less than 1 minute off per checkpoint, including one checkpoint where we were within 6 seconds of the target time - that's pretty good, right? Doesn't really matter, though, because it was a lot of fun! Great mental exercise for the navigator, too. Apparently they don't have these TSD rallies all that often around here - this was the first one in six years, apparently - but we'll be on the lookout for the next one.