Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bike Races, Fireballs, 4th of July, Kim in Wax...and traffic from California (??!!)

Haven't figured out why, but my site is getting an inordinate amount of traffic from California. Certainly not complaining! Just leaves me scratching my head, especially since it's fairly evenly distributed around the state with a slight clustering in the LA area. So if you're in CA, drop me a line at and tell me how you landed here. Small aside - if you have a website but don't use Google Analytics, you really should if you want to track visits to your site and just about any other metric you can think of.

On a related note, you may have noticed in the last couple of months, any books I discuss (and other items) are now accompanied not only but a pic of the cover but a link to the item on Amazon so you can click through and buy it. Had my first commission from Amazon recently from a book I recommended, Enough by John Bogle. I don't think I'll be retiring just yet...however that $0.28 is a start! 

Fourth of July - Summer is full-upon us with the Fourth of July weekend in a couple of days. Due to the tough economy many localities have canceled fireworks displays; sad but if it means keeping a few more cops on the beat or teachers in the classroom I'm all for it. However, there are still fireworks shows to be found; here is a partial listing of where to find displays around the country:
USA (another list)
Dallas region
Disney World (Florida)
Los Angeles area (since I'm getting a lot of traffic from there!)
 Tour De France - This weekend also starts one of the great annual athletic and spectator events of the world, the Tour de France - otherwise known as "Le Tour". This year marks Lance Armstrong's finale in the sport (or so he claims...for the second time), but at nearly 39 years old, he's got to be nearing the end of his ability to win despite his otherworldly cardiovascular system. Look for a major battle between Armstrong and Alberto Contador (winner in 2009 and 2007 and Lance's former teammate).

With 21 stages, including the Prologue, taking the cyclists along speedy flats, rolling hills, and lung-burning, leg-searing, unbelievably steep Alpine roads, it's a true test of endurance with only two rest days along the way. It winds its way across France (and this year the Netherlands), totaling a mind-numbing 2,263 miles in length (that's further than riding your bike from Atlanta to top only three weeks).

Some people might find the sport a bit mystifying or even boring. What can be so exciting about watching a bunch of skinny guys ride bikes? The same might be said of baseball - what's so exciting about watching a bunch of (sometimes) fat guys stand around watching another guy hit a ball? Here's the catch - they both can be likened to a game of chess, requiring strategy, cunning, skill, and an ability to read not only the current situation but see several steps ahead. Le Tour offers the viewer wild crashes, crazy sprint finishes, white-knuckle mountain road descents, drama, and amazing feats of endurance and gamesmanship. Not only that but there are few other world-class sporting events (if any) where the spectators can literally reach out and touch the athletes. Add to all this the spectacular scenery of the French countryside and you have a recipe for great viewing.
Here's the link to the official Tour website and here is my favorite website from Yahoo-EuroSport for following le Tour during its annual three-week run. The Eurosport site provides not only great coverage but a fantastic real-time race follower (should you be trapped in the office or away from Versus television channel). While there are other Tour-like races such as the Giro d'Italia (Italy) and the Vuelta a Espana (Spain), le Tour c'est le Roi (the King)!

In a very small nutshell, here's the gig (if you want a better primer that explains not only the rules but the history and strategies try Tour de France for Dummies) - it's a team sport with 22 invited teams, each with 9 riders (no substitutions allowed). The big, obvious goal is to win the entire freakin' thing, earning the top rider the Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey - yellow because that's the color of the newsprint the original sponsor of the tour, the newspaper, L'Auto, was printed on...they think. Same reason the winner of the Giro d'Italia wins a pink jersey - the sponsor's paper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, is printed on pink paper). Each team has a leader who is generally expected to compete to wear the yellow at the end with the other 8 riders supporting him along the way. You win by having the lowest cumulative elapsed time for all the stages. That's the ultra-simplified version.
Of course there are other jerseys and awards besides the yellow jersey: the green jersey for the best sprinter (determined by winning points at various intermediate sprints along each stage as well as at the end of stages, the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains (the best climber), the white jersey for the best young rider (under 26), the most combative rider (the rider who brought the most excitement to the race the previous day), the team prize (awarded by adding the times for each teams best three riders each day; lowest cumulative total at the end wins) and finally, Lanterne Rouge (red light) for the rider with the overall slowest time. However, given the extreme difficulty in actually finishing the race, this is not wholly a bad award and all the riders completing le Tour pay respects to the man awarded la Lanterne Rouge.

On any given day, depending on the standings, the weather, what day on le Tour it is (a factor with respect to endurance), and what type of stage (mountains, flat, time trial, etc) you can expect to see different cyclists taking center stage. If it's a sprint day expect to see the sprinters - guys like Cavendish, Hushovd, McEwen, and Boonan - featured front and center. Sprint finishes can be pretty exciting to watch. If a mountain stage, look for riders like Contador, Fedrigo and Martinez as they push their bikes at unreal speeds up slopes you might want climbing gear to get up. This year there is only one time trial, an individual one, set for the 19th stage. Given the next day (the final, 20th stage) is usually nothing more than a ceremonial victory ride into Paris for the winner, having a time trial the day before could prove to be high drama if the race is still close at this late stage, especially if it's raining.

So if you've not ever watched le Tour, I highly recommend you do this year (it's broadcast live in the US on Versus - formerly Outdoor Life Network). The excitement builds over the three weeks of competition and you'll witness one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

Star Gazing - I recently took my Cub Scout Den Star Gazing - well actually more like moon gazing since the night I had planned was the evening before a full moon. Luckily I thought about the lunar calendar a week or so ahead of time, then checked my family's summer schedule and realized it was pretty much that night or not since two weeks later during the new moon we would be out of town. Then we'd have to wait another full month until the next new moon.

Anyway, it turned out to be just fine since I have a telescope and turned it into a night of moon gazing instead. Most of the boys (and their parents) had never looked at the moon through a telescope. That night they were able to see mountains and craters as well as identify features shown on the moon maps I had printed out. Mars was also out that night and they got a chance to see it, although through my telescope it just looks like an orange circle. Due to the nearly full moon and relatively early hour after sunset, few stars were visible except for the brightest ones. Not surprisingly, most of the 8-year-old boys did not know even the most basic constellations; more surprisingly, most of the parents didn't know the major constellations visible. Nevertheless, everyone enjoyed learning how to locate and identify the Big Dipper and North Star.

If you've never been star gazing, I highly recommend you do. You can find a listing of top-notch star gazing locations here. A few things have to line up in order to make the most of it: the night (or a day or two either side) of a new moon, no clouds, and be far enough away from light pollution. Visit to print out a star chart for the correct month (in the northern hemisphere), bring a compass along to get your bearings and a red-light flashlight to read your star chart. Make sure you DO NOT use a regular flashlight; the white light will really screw up your night vision. You need to be outside in the dark for 20-30 minutes before you really are able to see well at night and any white light will set you back.
If you take the time to allow your eyes to adjust to being in the dark, lay back on a blanket (put on bug spray!), and then find the easy stars and constellations, pretty soon you'll be able to identify the more obscure ones or even find your Zodiac sign (if it's out that time of year). No doubt, if you watch the heavens for more than 15-20 minutes you'll also see a shooting star or two. I've spent many nights outside looking at the stars and so have seen countless meteors over the years (even two fireballs), and I'm always surprised when people tell me they've never seen one because they're actually fairly common.

Wax Museums - I've never had much interest in visiting Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, but now that Kim Kardashian is being memorialized in wax...nah...just not the same. Nevertheless, it's true..odd but true. Wonder if she'll be too hot and the wax will melt...?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A new layout, travel movies and Michael Jackson's kids.

New look to The Balanced Guy. Not sure I'll stick with it, might even try a few other of the available formats. I know I do have to fix the title block, but I'll get to that later. Let me know what you think.

For worthwhile and (usually) humorous sports analysis, visit my buddy Dave over at The Savage Truth. He does a far better job than I ever could.

Movie Review - What do you get when you throw together two guys, some video cameras, a loose concept for a story line, a sense of adventure and a bit of luck? The answer...a great weekend movie called Last Stop for Paul. In a nutshell, Cliff and travel-hound Charlie work together. When Cliff's childhood friend Paul dies (who was planning an around the world trip), they decide to take his ashes and spread a little bit here and a little bit there around the world.
A low-budget sleeper with absolutely no stars (and actually very few professional actors), the movie is unique in its composition. It's a fictional story about a fictional trip but was filmed on a real trip using real people as actors. The writer/director/actor, Neil Mandt, simply recruited people he came across to play parts in the movie as he traveled around the world on his real/fictional trip. If for nothing else, the film's unusual pedigree should pique your interest. While the acting is at times not Hollywood-polished, the charm of the overall story and sense of adventure more than make up for it.

Last Stop for Paul left me wanting to pack my bags, ready for whatever I might come across, and it makes for a great watch-with-your-gal or even buddies movie while you quaff a beer or two...or three.

Michael Jackson - OK. Let's get something straight here. This guy is supposedly the father of these kids, Paris and Prince (Blanket too).

Not claiming he was biologically incapable of it, I'm just saying that when you take a look at what Michael Jackson looked like as a kid (pre-pre-pre-pre-pre plastic surgery, skin lightening, and God-knows-what else), I'm having a hard time believing he's their biological father. I dunno...

Basic Tree Identification- Growing up I didn't know a maple from an oak tree but a summer job while in college working for a tree pruning company changed all that. Today I enjoy knowing the majority of common native trees in the region to the point that my friends will ask me what tree this one or that one is. It's also a point of pride for me that even my young sons have picked up a bit of that knowledge by knowing the basic trees in our area as a result of me pointing them out over and over on our hikes and walks in the woods.

You might think "What's the point? They're just trees." Well for one, it makes a walk in the woods with your children more interesting by having knowledge to share with them as you point out various trees. It can also be helpful in figuring out why all the bushes or other trees in your yard around that one tree seem to do poorly or even die (the reason: it's a Black Walnut and secretes the chemical juglone into the soil which can inhibit respiration in other plants). If you want to buy a load of firewood for the winter it's good to know you aren't buying any pine or fir (the resin in the wood can gum up the flue with creosote even more so than hard woods and result in chimney fires). If you have to have a large tree in your yard taken down, it's nice to know if it's a valuable species or not. If it is, you might be able to negotiate to have it taken down for a reduced cost or free while the tree service gets to sell the lumber.
There are a number of ways to identify trees with the most common being its leaves. But during the winter it may not have leaves and you have to reply on the bark, size, location and general shape to identify a tree. Following are the leaves of a few basic trees in the Mid-Atlantic Region; notice I've included several species of some types of trees so you can see the family resemblences. In other cases, some leaves look similar (such as maple and sycamore) so you need to rely on other factors to help identify the tree.

From top to bottom, left to right: 

Silver Maple, Norway Maple, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Striped Maple
Pin Oak, Burr Oak, Chestnut Oak, White Oak, Red Oak
American Holly, ??? (honestly, this one stumped me), Sassafras, Bass, Sweetgum
Wild Cherry, Locust

Book Review - 13 Bankers If the financial crisis has left you scratching your head wondering how the heck it happened, I submit to you 13 Bankers by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. While there are undoubtedly some who will disagree with the conclusions, it's hard to argue with the facts presented especially with respect to the slow-but-steady dismantling over the last 30 or so years of financial regulation put in place after the Great Depression. As said John Adams, our 2nd president, "Facts are stubborn things..." The book has been generally well-received on both sides of the political aisle and by pragmatists. Digging a bit deeper into the problem, management guru Bill George at Harvard Business School simply stated "This crisis wasn't caused by subprime mortgages; it was caused by subprime leadership." Read the book and draw your own conclusions, then vote according to your conscious.

Tubing the Delaware - If you are busy putting together your summer family calendar (or even if you're a last-minute kind of guy), think about tubing down the Delaware as a great summer activity. I've done it a few times in the past and we're planning on taking the kids later this summer.  There are several outfitters ready to help you have a day of fun, two of the local ones are: Bucks County River Country (in PA) and Delaware River Tubing (in NJ). After arriving and picking up a tube, a bus takes you upstream to one of several drop-off spots (depending on how long a trip you want to take). You hop in your tube and away you go floating lazily down the river! In most places the river is shallow enough to stand and moves along at a leisurely pace. The scenery is very pretty with older summer cottages, woods, fields and even some rocky cliffs along the way. Bring along a cooler with drinks & lunch (and rope to tie it to your tube) or stop off at the River Hot Dog Man ( to grab a bite along the way.

Stupid Is... I've decided to begin including with each posting something stupid I've done lately. It came to me that I should share my hiccups as a "lesson learned" section in the hopes you might avoid the same mistakes. A couple of postings ago I talked about opening my pool for the season. Having come from Florida where our pool was open all year, the spring opening was something new to me. So in undertaking it I ignored one of my rules of pool care - don't overdo it. Messing with the water chemistry too much can cause wild swings in one direction that tempts you to jack around, spend stupid amounts of money and dump even more chemicals into the pool, resulting in a wild swing back in the other direction. Long story short - the pool looked pretty good (albeit a tad cloudy) and chemistry seemed right  for our Memorial Day opening party. Obviously not as after a couple of hours of kids jumping around in it the pool turned green, green, green. How'd I solve it? I left it the heck alone for a few days...and it turned crystal clear.

And of course I'm heartbroken now that Kim has a new beau...just when I thought I had a chance (of course, not sure what the wife would say!)

Monday, June 14, 2010


If you haven't figured it out already (at least for those of you who've actually visited The Balanced Guy more than once), I'm a DIY kind of guy. As he champions DIY in his article, blogger Mark Frauenfelder explains the nature of DIY is an inherent willingness to screw up and (most importantly) learn from the process. Lord only knows the number of times I've screwed something up while doing it myself, but none of it has been least not yet. I've never burnt down the house, seized up my car engine, or cut off a finger (although I've hit my finger with a hammer so hard I was literally crying at 3 AM because it hurt so badly...this led to a visit to the ER where the Dr. drilled a hole in my nail to relieve the pressure caused by blood under it - instant pain relief).
It doesn't hurt that I come from a long line of DIY'ers and grew up helping my father with projects around the house just as he did with his father. However, I've expanded beyond what my father taught me simply by my willingness to try whatever and possibly screw up. No doubt I've done some stuff the hard way or the wrong way, not knowing the "tricks of the trade". A career spent in real estate development and construction has given me a healthy appreciation for carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers and the like and I've always taken time to talk to them and ask questions as they go about their jobs, gleaning those tricks that make the job easier and provide better results. I can't emphasize how important it is to admit your ignorance and simply ask questions - a little honesty goes a long way as people usually enjoy talking about what they do (and these guys are going to know immediately if you are tying to BS them).
And I've learned not only the need for having the right tool for the job but just as important about the need for quality tools (if you're going to attempt anything more than tightening an occasional loose screw, those "handyman specials" with 35 tools in one kit are more often than not, going to get you into more trouble than they are worth). You don't need to go out and spend thousands to outfit yourself with every top-of-the-line tool, hoping to eventually use them. Buy what you need for the particular project in question. And NEVER, EVER get rid of tools - I guarantee you'll use them again. My tool collection has grown over the years and there are very few I've not used more than once. If it's a power tool that comes with directions, for crying out loud read them - you'll probably learn something about using it more effectively that is not readily apparent.
A skilled craftsman makes his job look easy (actually, anyone good at anything makes it look easy) and you'd be hard-pressed to match him at the most difficult tasks. However, more often than you think, a lot of what they do is fairly easy to accomplish and difficult to screw up...even if you claim to be "all thumbs". It simply takes (I sound like a broken record here) a willingness to screw up to get over the initial fears. I also highly recommend you buy a general "how-to" home repair book like Home Depot's Home Improvement 1-2-3 as a reference guide.
A classic example of an incredibly easy project that people often feel is beyond them is changing the color of their electrical outlets. For one reason or another they want to go from bone to white or black or brown. They hire an electrician and for a room with 8 outlets he charges them a couple hundred bucks. This is mind-blowing to me. The cheapest standard outlet and it's cover, together, cost less than one joke. Once you flip the correct circuit breaker(s) on the panel in the basement or garage to kill the power, it takes about 5 minutes to replace each outlet and the only tools it takes are a regular and phillips screwdriver.
So buck up, find a project, buy some tools and DIY!