Fear of Pickles

Ummm.... I'm utterly speechless.

Pickle Phobia Phreak.

Select either Windows or Macromedia and hit the Save button to view it.

Lara Croft, I Presume? It's So Nice to Finally Meet You

Considering I'm essentially a professional gamer, some find it shocking to hear of the gaping holes in my gaming bibliography. For example, I never played Mario 64. Nope, not even on the Nintendo DS. Nor have I ever played half the games in the Legend of Zelda series or the first several Resident Evil titles, any of the Silent Hill games, the Civilization games, Starcraft, The Sims, Warcraft, Quake, or even any of the games in The Elder Scrolls collection up until my recent foray into the world of TES: Oblivion. Hell, I only ever played one Final Fantasy game too, and they're up to part 12 now!

But arguably my single biggest ommission is the fact that I've never, ever, not even for a moment, played any of the Tomb Raider games. I'll pause to allow you to pick your jaw up off the floor.

There was always something about overly popular games that made me feel that playing them was unnecessary. I felt that the overwhelming amount of hype and media-coverage given to these games made playing them redundant. By the time each of these games would come out, I had already seen hundreds of screenshots, read numerous articles, and heard more than enough people tell me how great the game would be. I would often already know the storyline, know what the boss characters looked like, and would especially be subjected to lengthy conversations about each of these games flaws and strengths. So why play it when the publisher's marketing company already played it for me? And in Tomb Raider's case, there was so much made up out of the main character, Lara Croft's, cup size and other ass-ets that I couldn't bear to play the games anyway out of the fear that I'd have to make fun of myself.

Fortunately, through a combination of cancelled magazine subscriptions and reduced Internet browsing, I have managed to cull the amount of exposure I'm given to unreleased games. And when it comes to the latest installment in the Tomb Raider franchise, everyone's expectations were particularly low anyway. Ignoring the previews was a very easy thing to do.

But when Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend started showing up on the GameRankings.com website with a rather healthy aggregate review score, I took notice. I looked at a few screenshots and read a review or two and, surprise, the game actually sounded pretty cool. And to the top of the Gamefly queue it went!

I popped in this bad boy (or should I say bad girl?) this morning and I'm heavily impressed. The exploration is very similar to the Prince of Persia games and the gunplay segments are nice and easy and clearly not there to provide major hurdles. The game has a definite focus on exploration and the actual raiding of tombs, which I hear has been sorely missing from the series for years, and I'm actually looking forward to going back through levels on different difficulty settings just to find more of the treasure. The added Time Trial mode is a nice touch too.

I can tell you right now that what's going to happen is that I'm going to be overly impressed by this game and will put it on a pedestal that many fans of the series will not think it deserves. And why? Because of absence and unfamilliarity with the series. Take Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for example. I absolutely loved everything about the game, but fans of the series routinely complain about the game. Why do they do this? Because they play every game in the franchise and have built up certain expectations about what the game has to be. Having not played a Zelda game since spending a couple of nights with the SNES one back in 1993, I was a blank slate ready to be impressed. Same thing happened with Mario Sunshine. Fans who wanted more of Mario 64 seemed to hate it, but I liked it quite a bit.

Sometimes we gamers ruin things for ourselves by getting too wrapped up in following a select few game franchises. We try to learn everything there is about them, we play them inside and out, and we whip ourselves into a frenzy over an upcoming sequel. Only to find ourselves being too critical to actually enjoy it. We need to learn to step away from games that receive sequels on an an annual or semi-annual basis and give ourselves some time to make the heart grow fonder.

When it comes to games like Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess and Halo 3 and other major franchises, fans hate to hear of delays in their release. But as much as fans may think they want Halo 3 to release already, the best thing for the developer, publisher, and the fans to do is to take a break and allow for some separation.

And for those of us who have gone decades without ever having played a game in a particular series. Give one of them a shot. The masses who have become jaded with the game's flaws or repetition or... whatever... will miss out on something that very might well be quite fun and enjoyable. I haven't heard of a lot of people talking about Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend and only one or two of those on my Friends list on Xbox Live have played it. But Lara and I have finally met face to face, and so far at least, the pleasure is all mine.

NCsoft Gives Me a Case of the Mondays!

I sold over a thousand dollars worth of unwanted videogames this spring and one of the games I sold was the MMO, Guild Wars. It's the only major MMO to not require a monthly subscription in order to play it, and for sure, I did enjoy it for about 15 or so hours. In other words, I played about .01% of the game and then grew tired of it. But that .01% was pretty awesome and I touted the game's virtues everywhere I went.

I got an email back from the buyer of the game last week saying that he couldn't play the game because the serial number was linked to my account info and he would need my password and username to get it working. I didn't have the info, nor would just hand it over to anyone, so I told him I would call NCsoft, the publisher of the game, to deactivate my account. The day I called I was met with a message that said that nobody could take my call because they were attending a "company function". I immediately thought they were at a summer picnic or perhaps some sort of team-building event. They weren't.

Based on news that circulated around the copy-and-paste videogame journo sites the next day, NCsoft layed off 70 of its 300 employees the afternoon that I happened to be calling. I hate to hear of anybody losing their job and especially in the videogame industry (although I wouldn't mind personally firing -- or at least maiming -- a few of the people my wife has to work with), and I certainly hated to hear that the company that dared not to charge a monthly subscription would be suffering.

So finally, today, after giving some time for the dust to settle I called back and got a live person on the phone. She was polite, but refused to help me as what I was asking her to do -- deactivate my account -- was prohibited. They won't unlink my user information (including billing and credit info) from the account as a measure used to ensure that I'm "the only person who can ever play the game". The lady assured me that she "would like to help me but then she’d be violating her company’s own User Agreement and couldn’t do so”.

Even though I don't have the discs anymore. Even though I never intend to play it again and simply want to delete all records of my information from the game and essentially make the game pre-purchased again, she can't do it. The company doesn't allow it. You buy it, it's yours. Forever.

A company whose product I went out of my way to promote on message boards and on blogs and to fellow gamers I met in my daily travels, was now pissing all over me with a ridiculous rule. A rule that is masked in the guise of being an anti-piracy measure, but is really just a way to combat the sales of used games. Welcome to the future ladies and gentlemen, because don't think for a second this is going to be limited to PC games. As soon as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo find a way to stop used game sales, they will jump at the chance, just as Bill Harris has been saying for quite some time. But for you PC gamers, and especially the MMO players of the bunch, the future is here.

I told the lady that she should please her tell supervisors that Guild Wars was the last NCsoft product I ever buy and that, in the words of Peter Gibbons from the movie Office Space, "Good luck with your layoffs, all right? I hope your firings go really, really well."

Okay, I didn't actually say the Office Space bit to her. But I wanted to!

The Diversification of Xbox Live

Nearly two years ago, at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, Microsoft made a point of saying that Xbox Live was going to be so robust that it would even win the favor of non-gamers. They proposed that, eventually, a system would be in place that would allow non-gamers to create game content and sell and trade it over Xbox Live. Obviously, they weren't suggesting that these people would design mods or make multiplayer maps or anything like that, but rather that they would design character clothing, or snazzy graphics for snowboards, or perhaps maybe even wallpaper to use in a polygonal game house. At the time Microsoft's bold proclamations were met with what may have well been a Guiness record-setting number of people rolling their eyes in unison.

The ability to create user content for the Xbox Live Marketplace hasn't yet come to fruition (although I expect it's on the way for 2007 or 2008) but Microsoft has been making steady progress towards their real goal, and that is to make Xbox Live something people of all walks of life can enjoy. Enter an online match of Spades or Uno and you'll know exactly what I mean.

It's safe to say that in the days of the original Xbox, the online populace was dominated by teenage and twenty-something white males. And I'm sure it still is today. But whereas hearing a heavily accented male voice or that of a woman gamer on the other end of your microphone on the old Xbox was a cause of shock, it's now much more common. And it's not because Microsoft is courting non-gamers with the ability to sell virtual trinkets and widgets for 50-cents a pop, but because of Xbox Live Arcade.

When a lot of people think of Live Arcade, they immediately think of the game Geometry Wars, the futuristic shooot 'em up originally released as a mini-game inside Project Gotham Racing 2. What people may not be aware of is that the Live Arcade also contains Uno, Spades, Hearts, and Backgammon as well as many other fun titles. Players can download each of these games for $5 to $10 worth of Microsoft Points and instantly head online for some pleasant competition and kibitzing. And you'd be surprised by how many people are using this high-end, expensive game console to do just that.

What Microsoft has done is taken their wildly popular "Game Zone" that resides on MSN (and currently has over 105,000 people playing as I type this) and transformed it into something much better -- a way to play and talk without being tethered to the computer. The Zone is a collection of games not unlike the ones listed above that feature ranking systems and statistics and the ability to chat in an Instant Messenger-like setting. I used to play a lot of Backgammon on The Zone at night when I was in grad school and the majority of my opponents always said they were sleepless housewives. I rarely believed them. Based on my experiences playing Spades and Uno on Xbox Live, I'm beginning to think they were telling the truth. My recent Live Arcade exploits have consistently been against women of varying ages, as well as a higher percentage of minority players. And while I have no scientific data to back this up, I guarantee anyone that if they spend some time with these games they'll come to the same realization -- Xbox Live is becoming a melting pot.

In just 7 short months, thanks to Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft has made the Xbox 360 into something the entire family can enjoy individually as well as together. Sure, the console always had four controller ports for the rare instance mom and dad would join in with some split-screen action, but what about just mom? Thinking of my step-mother for a minute, I know she's quite the night-owl and while she does occasionally play Xbox games with my three sisters, she never plays alone at night. Owning an Xbox 360 and gaining access to Live Arcade would give her not only more games to play, but also a social outlet at a time of night when she's most often alone in silence watching television. I know Microsoft tried to spell this out to us so-called hardcore gamers two years ago, but we were too narrow-minded to see it. We, as a group, struggled to see past all the deathmatching and trash-talking to see the real potential of what Microsoft was delivering. That potential is now abundantly clear.

This isn't to say that Live Arcade exists solely for the sleepless moms of the world. By growing the library of games in all directions and not just in the area of mature-themed blockbusters, Microsoft is also cultivating a community that moves the kitchen table online and allows anyone to play the games of their youth, cheaply, any time of the day or night. It's clear from playing the card games on Live Arcade that there are a lot of people who grew up playing these very same games. It's also clear that they did so speaking in accents and hailing from parts of the country you almost never heard represented online two years ago. Now they have games that are appealing to them and they are out there in number having a great time.

Given all of the bells and whistles of the Xbox 360 including high-definition video and surround sound support, connectivity with Windows Media Center, and the included hard drive to name but a few, it can be difficult to justify the $400 cost of the console if all you're going to do be doing is playing $5 downloadable card games -- more than a few of my Uno opponents have laughed at that very observation. But when it comes down to it, what's fun is fun. And just as rental services like Gamefly are making it easier for me to play an abundance of games despite the new $60 sticker price for software, Live Arcade's $5 to $10 price structure is similarly bringing a collection of games -- and experiences -- within reach of those on even tighter budgets.

But ultimately, that $400 entry fee and broadband connection doesn't seem so prohibitive when one realizes that it costs just $5 more to be playing cards and chatting it up with their distant family members like they used to do around the kitchen table on a rainy day. Campbell's soup sold separately.

Mountains to Sound: Race Report

Never before have I stood at a starting line and thought that I was the least fit person in the bunch. Never before have I felt I was in over my head or utterly unprepared. And never in the thousand races I've run, cycled, and swam have I ever thought that "finishing was all that matters". Those were the words for losers. For chumps. For the millions of Oprah fans who decided to run a marathon just like their television heroess. I was always there to win -- and I often did. Sunday was a whole new experience...

Leg 1: Mountain Bike

About to enter the tunnel at the start of Leg 1.

The race began with a brief run on the gravel trail before we were able to mount our bikes and start down the railroad grade trail to Rattlesnake Lake. The ride immediately plunged us into the darkness of the Snoqualmie Tunnel, where even with my HID light system I had to hold my sunglasses in my mouth in order to see. The tunnel dripped onto us as we rode through it, but I had a great pace going on my cyclocross bike and was able to keep it upright for the full duration of the ride. I took turns drafting with a few other guys -- mostly people in the relay -- and held a 23mph average almost the entire way down the trail. Two of the trestle bridges were filled with deep angular scree and were extremely treacherous for those on skinny tires like myself, but I made up lost time on the hard-packed sections.

23 miles
5th Rank Iron Male
25th Rank Overall

Leg 2: Road Bike

Changing into my road biking shoes in the first transition area.

I got in and out of transition pretty quickly and was off on my own for the 50 mile road bike leg. The route would lead right through the roads I train on and I knew the first two-thirds of the course extremely well. Unfortunately for me, I put forth such a good effort in the first leg that I found myself alone for much of the road bike leg. Early in the race I did have a group of four or five guys to draft with which was nice -- especially since they refused to let me take a pull since I was wearing one of the red "Iron" numbers and they were all part of 5-man relay teams -- but I eventually either pulled ahead or dropped off the back. Later in the race several very large trains of racers came cruising by me at about 27 mph, but I lacked the strength to latch on and found myself continuing on alone.

The sun was reaching its highest point in the sky and the promised heat wave was suddenly upon us. I refilled my water bottles at the lone aid station 28 miles into the ride, and continued on towards the day's big hills. Ouch. The hills weren't as bad as the ones I normally train on, but then again I don't always hammer for an hour on my CX bike before I go out for a ride. Fortunately, the descents were refreshing and I caught a nice draft at 44 mph off a Toyota Sequoia. The course wound its way into the city of Redmond and included a mile-long stretch atop a historic red brick road. The race directors warned us of the likeliness of getting a flat on this stretch -- and a couple guys rode cyclocross bikes the whole distance to minimize this risk -- but I lucked out and made it through unscathed.

50 miles
9th Rank Iron Male
86th Rank Overall

Leg 3: Kayak

Near the start of the third leg, in Redmond.

I spent a good ten minutes or so in the transition area loading up on liquids, electrolyte capsules, and lots and lots of oranges. Kristin strapped a 100 water bag to the bow of my kayak and had my gear all ready for me when I got there -- I couldn't have done this race without her. Upon entering the water, I was immediately surprised how tired my upper body was from the cycling. I never noticed that before -- must have been the climbing. Anyway, another racer in the Iron division quickly caught up in the same exact boat as me and together we paddled the 12 miles through the Sammamish Slough. The current was a minimal 1/2 knot which would have helped a slight bit if not for the nasty headwind. But, as my paddling companion noted several times, the wind was a blessing in disguise as the temperature was really getting pretty high. Several racers in lengthy sea kayaks and racing-class surf-skis flew past us, but we held a good pace and passed several racers as well. This being my first time paddling for more than 5 miles I was pretty pleased with my performance.

Moments before hurting myself getting out of the boat.

All went well in the kayak leg until it came time to get out of the boat. Two volunteers held the bow and stern to stabilize it so I can lift myself out. Only, when I did, I strained my pectoral and oblique muscles. I was in agony, almost in tears. It felt like a muscle pull, or maybe even a tear. I couldn't move my arms and my entire torso was screaming. I thought briefly about throwing in the towel and bagging the remaining legs of the race. I stumbled over to Kristin and my running sneakers and with her help was able to dry my feet off and lace up my shoes. I didn't want to sit there too long and think about the pain I was in, so I simply started walking out onto the running course.

12 miles
9th Rank Iron Male
112th Rank Overall

Leg 4: Running

Getting my jog on for the camera and crying on the inside.

It took a long time before I could actually start to run and when I did, it was the dreaded j-word. Never in my life have I called what I do "jogging". I always ran. Well, on this particular day, with an exhausted and depleted body, in temps that hovered around 102 in the sun and 91 in the shade, I jogged. And I barely did that. At no point in the half-marathon portion of the race did I maintain a stride that even resembled a jog for more than 3 minutes time. Instead, I walked. I walked. As someone who once allowed himself to daydream of breaking four minutes in the mile, this is an especially difficult thing to say. But it was either walk or quit and, well, I had done enough of that in my life already. It was time to persevere. After all, that was why I entered this damn race in the first place.

These were the longest 13 miles of my life. But eventually they were behind me. I didn't know if I was in last place or not, by this point in the day I didn't even care. I just wanted to finish because, like me, Kristin was also outside in this heat all day doing a great job as my support crew and, well, we were a team. I wasn't just doing it for me, but for both of us. Not long ago, I was able to transition from a 56 mile bike ride (after a 1.2 mile swim) right into a run and hit a 1:30 half-marathon to wrap up a Half-Ironman. Today, my time in the half marathon would be more than double that. Walking really slows you down.

13.1 miles
14th Rank Iron Male
128th Rank Overall

Leg 5: Running

The final leg of the race was a 6 mile "glory run". I imagine it was only glorious for a handful of people on this day. The course wound from Seattle's Gasworks Park through Fremont -- have fun navigating around the construction -- and along two miles of railroad tracks to Golden Gardens park on the shores of Puget Sound. I can't even tell you if I saw a single person during this final stage of the race. I was sure that I was in the dreaded DFL position (that's Dead F'ing Last for you non-racers) and the thought of that was actually quite comical to me. Yes, that was the first sign that I was losing my mind.

As I got closer to the finish I was able to maintain a steady jog for about 4 or 5 minutes at a time in between spurts of walking. I asked every single pedestrian I saw how much further it was to the finish line. And when I started to see dozens of trucks with kayaks and bikes on them, I knew I was getting close. I began dreaming of taking a dip in Puget Sound and washing the salty crust off my skin; I salivated at the thought of heading to the North Bend Bar & Grill for their awesome nachos and some beer; and above all else, I simply wanted to lie down next to Kristin in bed and hear her say how proud of me she was for not quitting.

6 miles
11th Rank Iron Male
120th Rank Overall

Finish Line

One Day... 100 Miles... Too Many Hours...

The officials said that they would start taking down the finish line at 7pm, eleven hours after the race got underway. I finished in a time of 11:03:10 and came in 10th place of the 15 entrants in the Iron Male division and, fortunately, the finish line was still up. There were a total of 135 teams and solo entrants, of which I only beat 10 of. But I don't care. I finished and that's all I really wanted to do anyway.

And while I didn't take a dip in the Sound and was too tired to go out to eat, Kristin did tell me she was proud of me for not quitting and that made the whole thing worthwhile. Thanks for all the help on Sunday, babe. I love you.

Ultimate Manager Tantrum

This is too funny not to post:

MINOR LEAGUES: Asheville Tourists manager Joe Mikulik will no doubt hear from the South Atlantic League after a fifth-inning blowup in Lexington, Ky. Mikulik was enraged after a call on a pickoff throw at second went against his team. An animated argument quickly led to Mikulik's first ejection of the season.

In quick order, the manager tossed his hat to the pitcher's mound; took a head-first slide into second; uprooted the base, showed it to umpire Andy Russell and tossed it, a la Lou Piniella; grabbed the resin bag and flung it to the right-field bullpen; confronted plate umpire Stephen Barga and kicked dirt on the ump's feet; kicked the batter's box lines; kicked dirt on the plate; went to his knees to further cover the plate by hand; fired four bats from the dugout; returned to "clean" home plate with contents of a water bottle; squatted in the umpire position in a mock glance toward the mound; and spiked the bottle on the plate.

"I could get two mannequins at Sears and umpire better than what I saw this whole series," Mikulik said. The manager was asked what he expected to hear when league president John Henry Moss calls. "I already talked to John Henry. I've got that covered," he said. "This ain't my first rodeo. ... I didn't touch anybody. I never bumped anybody. ... I actually cleaned home plate for them, so they should give me a tip for that."

From the Seattle Times.

MTS: Bite-Size Summary

I finished. Temps reached 102 in the direct sun during the running leg. It took me 11 hours and 2 minutes to complete and I only beat four other solo competitors. I did get injured. I also lost over 9 pounds in 24 hours.

I'll download the photos later and try to wrap my still fuzzy mind around the concept of posting about yesterday. The only other things I'll add at this point are that I truly couldn't have done it without Kristin's excellent support and encouragement -- and no doubt a reason I did finish -- and that I'm pretty sure this was my last race. Ever.

MTS: Prep Time

If you've been reading this blog for any bit of time, you're familliar with the Mountains to Sound race taking place tomorrow in western Washington. I just returned from driving to each of the transition areas so my support team (i.e. Kristin) can get a feel for where she needs to bring my gear. Despite considering abandoning my attempt at the race earlier this week, I'm now a mere 17 hours from its scheduled start time and I cannot wait. But I have a lot of preparation to take care of first. To help me wrap my head around what I need to pack, I thought I'd list the equipment needed for each leg of the race. I'm posting it on the blog on the off chance someone out there actually cares.

Leg 1: Mountain Bike (23 miles)
Surprisingly, this is the leg I'll be strongest in and it was also the one that gave me the most trouble in making an equipment choice. The mountain bike leg is actually on the Iron Horse Trail which is a gravel, rails-to-trails path and has zero technical features other than a pitch-black 2 mile long tunnel. It's wide and it's all downhill from Snoqualmie Pass to Rattlesnake Lake. Although I bought lightweight racing wheels for my mountain bike earlier this season, after much deliberation I decided to ride my cyclocross bike instead of the mountain bike. My mountain bike is a full-suspension rig and even with the front shock locked out, it's still not as fast as my cyclo-cross bike. On the other hand, the cyclocross bike isn't as comfortable (and it's going to be a long day), can get squirrely in loose gravel, and has a greater risk of a flat tire due to it basically being a road bike with skinny knobby tires. I decided the pros outweighed the negative and will take a chance on the faster steed.

- Trek XO cyclocross bike fitted with Time ATAC mtb pedals
- NiteRider HID + LED light system
- Helmet, gloves, mountain bike shoes
- Camelback with water, spare tubes, pump

Leg 2: Road Bike (50 miles)
I'm going to have all of the stuff I need for each leg in separate milk crates and Kristin is going to tie a helium balloon to each crate to help me find my gear as I enter the transition area. The 50 mile road bike leg will be early enough in the day that I don't need to worry about mass amounts of fluids. Although it's supposed to be about 88 and sunny all day tomorrow. Instead, my concerns for the road bike leg center around the cobblestone roads near the end of the course and the high probability of getting a flat tire. In short, I couldn't decide whether to mount a pump to the frame, bring a Camelback, or risk it all with a couple of CO2 cartridges. Fortunately, I found the perfect racing jersey today with pockets for extra tubes, thereby freeing up room in my rather smallish saddle bag (the shirt I was going to wear had no pockets).

In transition I'll be switching helmets to quickly rid myself of the heavy light system and I'll be shedding the Camelback and changing into my Sidi road biking shoes. I'll wear my roadie gloves for the mountain bike leg and will leave them on. I'll gobble down some Cliff Bloks and Gatorade Endurance Formula before heading out on the road bike.

- Scattante R660 road bike w/ 1 bottle of water and 1 bottle of Gatorade
- Helmet, road bike shoes, skull cap for sweat
- Energy gels and Cliff Bloks
- spare tubes, CO2, toolkit

Leg 3: Kayak (12 miles)
No real decisions to make here. I only have one kayak and there's not a lot of room in the cockpit area for a lot of gear. I'm going to drop the kayak off at 5:30 in the morning before the race so Kristin doesn't need to worry about unloading it from the roof of my Element during the race. Instead, she'll just need to bring along my crate full of gear. The only things I'll already have on that I'll need are my cycling gloves (to prevent blisters while paddling) and my sunglasses.

Since this will be roughly 4 hours into the race and the sun will be high in the sky by time I reach Luke McRedmond Park and step off the road bike, I plan to slow down and eat and hydrate well in the transition area. I'll have more Gatorade Endurance Formula waiting for me, likely two small cans of V-8 (sodium, baby!), some beef jerky, raisins, and maybe some fruit. The easy part of the race is done and now it's going to start getting really hot. There's also that little issue of me being a total newbie when it comes to kayaking. I've done it four times and never more than 5 miles. This should be fun.

- Necky Manitou 13 foot kayak, type-3 life vest, paddle
- Merrel water sandals
- mesh hat, sunscreen, bug spray
- Energy gels and Cliff Bloks taped to front of life vest
- 100oz Camelback filled with dillute Gatorade
- bottle filled with Accelerade

Legs 4 & 5: Running (19.5 miles)
The running portion of the race has an aid station ever 6 miles or so, so I won't need to take too much with me. Which is a good thing. All I'll really need to do is put on dry socks and shoes, strap on my fuel belt, and snag some food. I can't drink full-strength Gatorade while running and I definitely can't put down solid food without cramping so transition won't be as much of a feast as the previous one. The only choice to make regarding the running legs is whether or not to bring an MP3 player. I was thinking about it, but I always believed that a big part of endurance racing was being strong enough to deal with the sensory deprivation and I always sneered at those who ran marathons with headphones on. I'll be bored, but I'll continue my no-entertainment trend and leave the headphones for training instead.

- Brooks running sneakers, dry socks
- Fuel Belt with four 6oz flasks of water and/or dillute Gatorade.
- Energy gels & Cliff Bloks

Yikes. That's a lot of stuff to prepare. Time to start packing!

Worst. Game Names. Ever.

Caught the link to this site today from Gametab.com. It's an article listing off the 50 worst video game titles of all time. It's a pretty funny read, even if you don't like games much and it's made even funnier by the screenshots of the games' title screens and witty comments by the writers of the article.


Some people may not think a game's name matters much, but oh yes it does! Before selling off a large portion of my collection recently, I had over 400 games in my possession. I probably had another 120 or so over the years that I have since parted with, not to mention tons that I've rented, borrowed, or simply demoed.

Of all this gaming experience, do you care to guess how many of the games in this list I actually played? Just one. "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" was the only game on the list that I ever played -- it was actually quite good too. For about 15 minutes.

The name isn't everything, but then again it's going to be a long, cold day in hell before I plunk down fifty bucks on a game called "Sticky Balls" or "Tongue of the Fatman".

Danube River Photos

After bringing home nearly 4 gigabytes worth of photos, I spent a couple hours each day this week sorting through them all and getting my favorites added to my gallery at Shutterfly. It wasn't easy settling on which to include and which to leave by the wayside, but the final gallery includes 67 images and each have been assigned a descriptive caption.

The 8-day river cruise included stops in the Hungarian capital of Budapest; the Austrian towns of Vienna, Melk, and Linz; and also the German cities of Passau, Regensburg, Kelheim, and Nuremberg. It was my goal to select a collection of images that display the region's scenic beauty, its architecture, and the many famous cathedrals that dot the landscape. I hope you enjoy browsing the gallery and, should you like any of the photos enough to place an order (or simply forward the link to a friend), I thank you in advance.


Happy viewing!

Big Bavarian Pretzels

Here it is, the first unveiling of one of my photos from Europe. Please hold your applause until the full gallery has been released (thank you). I've been telling people about our day in Nuremberg at the World Cup festivities and the one thing I keep coming back to is the size of the pretzels there! Here's the lovely Kristin modeling this enormous 3-Euro treat. Mustard stage left.

Are You Ready...

For Some Football!?!? (and no, I don’t mean futbol)


ESPN has their pre-season Power Rankings up and guess who’s number one?

X360 Achievements

Came across a couple of cool links regarding the Xbox 360's wonderful Achievements feature. Each game has a series of Achievements in it that earn you GamerPoints, which are displayed along with your Gamertag to everyone playing Xbox Live. It's a brilliant feature because it's a very big source of bragging rights and it's quite easy and quite addictive to compare your own GamerScore with that of your friends.

Well, here's a wonderful site to help you complete all of those elusive Achievements.


Not only is the site well organized, but it's very thorough. They list the requirements for each Achievement in every game out there and even include tips on how to attain them. They even have the Achievements listed for games that aren't even out yet!

And, speaking of Achievements, the f-bombing guys at Penny Arcade have a pretty funny comic up today about that very topic. I stopped going to their site long ago (when excessive profanity replaced wit) but this one is pretty good. Just don't look at it at work.


Photo Update

Just a brief update. I haven't started writing up a travel essay for last week's trip yet, as this time I want to actually get the photos done first. I've gone through the Budapest photos and am currently "developing" the ones from Vienna. I snagged the new version of ACDSee yesterday for its enhanced compatibility with my new camera's CR2 "Raw" format and so far so great! The software can actually view and manipulate the Raw file prior to developing it in Photoshop -- for those who don't know, the Raw format is essentially a digital negative and you actually develop it in a special plug-in program for Photoshop just like film, only I do each one individually.

So, here's what I'm doing.

I transferred nearly 4 gigs of photos onto the harddrive and am currently going through them and rating them. I then go through and develop all of the 5-star photos one at a time in Photoshop. These shots then get given descriptions and copyright info and added to the gallery. Note that I don't manipulate the actual composition of the photo -- I don't do anything you couldn't do in a traditional darkroom. Afterwards, I go through all of the 4-star photos and select any that I want to include in the final gallery for variety's sake. I then develop these, assign the descriptions, and add them to the gallery.

For those who are curious as to how many photos I'm actually talking about, not to mention how critical I am of my shots, here's some stats:

- I delete approximate 3 of every 5 photos I take while "in the field".
- I arrived home with a total of 435 photos (so I probably took over 2000 in total).
- There were 94 keepers from Budapest.
- I assigned 7 of them a 5-star rating and immediately added them to the gallery.
- On further review I decided to include 3 photos that I initially gave a 4-star rating to.

So there you have it. I probably took close to 300 photos while in Budapest, kept 94 of them, and will add exactly 10 of them to the final gallery. Many of the others will be deleted and some more will be used for photo albums and other personal usage. But only 10 will make it to my pro gallery. And that's why I'm so glad I don't shoot film anymore.

9 Time Zones Later...

I'm home.

After departing the river boat yesterday at 7:15 am in Germany, we arrived home at our house in Washington around midnight, 26 hours later. The trip exceeded my expectations and, naturally, I'll be writing about it later in the week. I have nearly 4 gigs of photos with me from the trip and have numerous people from the trip anxiously awaiting my next update of my online galleries, as they want to buy some of the better shots. Or so they say...

It turned out that the terminus of our cruise, Nuremberg, was actually one of the host cities for the World Cup. Although Saturday night's game between Italy and USA was being played elsewhere, we did get to go to Haupt Markt square where the World Cup festivities were being held and watch the game on tv's with about 150,000 other beer-swilling foreigners. Stand in one place long enough and you'll not only see jerseys from a dozen different countries go by, but you'll hear just as many fight songs being sung in just as many slightly-slurred languages. The crowd was awesome, everyone in high spirits, and even rivals were friendly. The town was hosting the Croatia vs Japan game the following day so the crowd was dominated by Croatians, but there were plenty of enthusiastic Italian and American supporters there as well. And considering the game featured an own-goal, three ejections, spilt blood, and resulted in a tie, even the trash talking in the crowd was received with a smile. I'm not a big soccer fan (obvious by the fact that I said soccer instead of footy) but that won't be my last World Cup.

Anyway, I have a small bit of work to do today for work, a lot to unpack, and some dogs to pick up. More to come...

Workout Skippin' & Euro Trippin'

It's June 10th and I haven't run in about two weeks. I've only ridden about two or three times in that time as well. Kayaking? Nope. It's been raining a lot lately and I've been super busy finishing up a guidebook (deadline is today) and getting ready for a trip to Europe with Kristin and her grandmother (departure is today). I'll return from the trip on the night of the 18th, just one short week before Mountains to Sound -- one short week spent trying to cram some training in while getting over a serious case of jet lag. One short week that should have been my week to taper and focus on mental preparation.

Too late.

Mountains to Sound is going to be ten very long hours -- If I'm lucky. I haven't run further than 12 miles or so in over 4 years. Finishing this race with a 19.2 mile run is not going to be easy. Then again, neither will the 12 miles of kayaking that comes before it, considering I haven't paddled more than 6 miles in one stretch yet. Yes, it's safe to say that once I'm done with the mountain biking and road biking, that it's going to be one long suffer-fest to the finish line. I can't wait.

But first there's Europe. Tonight we take a red-eye to NJ, have breakfast with family and relax for a couple hours, then we head to the airport for a second consecutive overnight flight. This time to Budapest. We're taking a 7-day river cruise on the Danube River from Budapest, Hungary through Austria and on to Nuremberg, Germany. I'm a bit depressed that we'll be travelling through Austria and won't step foot on a single mountain trail, nor will we be attending a World Cup game while in Germany, but the trip is more about spending time with Kristin's grandmother so I can deal with it. Besides, she's paying for the trip and I'm young. I can come back another time in life if I want, whereas this may be her last trip, as she's getting on in years.

I'll try to steal away for a half hour to an Internet cafe while in Vienna and if I do, I'll try and post something. Right after I adjust the lineup for my fantasy baseball team...

In the meantime, here's our route:

First Person Window Dressing

One of the most popular genres of videogame when it comes to multiplayer gaming is the first-person shooter (FPS). But have you ever noticed that all of the different character "skins" available to select from in your favorite game are just cosmetic? You can be the alien, the woman in heels, the balding fat guy, or the Marine. It doesn't matter because they're all the same.

Why can't there actually be a short set of advantages and disadvantages associated with the different characters you choose from? Think about it. Everyone logs in to the game and picks a character based solely on outward appearance. And of all the genres to do this, it makes the least sense in an FPS -- you never even see your own character so what difference does it make!

There is no excuse for this. Even back in the days of the original Nintendo system, people knew that Luigi wasn't just a green-clad clone of Mario, but that he jumped higher. Why not bring this to FPS games? It would be so easy too. Give a speed boost to one character, but slighly more gun shake. For another, make him jump higher but take away his ability to crouch. Another might be extremely small and able to hide, but can't use overly powerful weaponry. Perhaps another character has twice as much health but can only hold one weapon. Another has massive amounts of armor but can only use handguns or melee attacks.

Isn't it at least worth having as an option the Host can select when creating the server? It would certainly add some variety to a multiplayer genre that is growing increasingly stale.

The Return of a Killer

This is a public service announcement for western Washington and all surrounding areas: The day we feared has arrived. The Killer from Carolina is back to her old ways and she's making her mark here in King County.

She is said to be no more than 32 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs a mere 54 pounds, but these stats belie the power she holds. Her legal name is Annana, but she often goes by the alias "Pretty Girl". Not one to raise her voice, this calm, attractive female often portends to be quite lovable. Some have even looked into her icy blue eyes and called her adorable. These comments were obviously made by humans of average height or by children. No, humans need not worry in the least because this particular murderer knows not to bite the hand that feeds it. She's after lesser creatures...

Her story begins in eastern North Carolina, in the city of Greenville where she first made her home. It was there, in the sandy backyard of her first residence, where she claimed her first kill. It was a mole. A short while later, obviously smitten with the taste of blood, she leapt in the air and took a bird right out of the sky -- while she was harnessed and under restraints! Yes, that was a dark day for birds indeed. And it's when she got her nickname "Daddy's Little Killer". Shortly thereafter Killer, for short, moved on to lizards and the occasional snake, but it's clear to us now that she never forgot the wonderful sweet taste of bird.

Flash forward to June of 2006. Killer has now lived in Washington for nearly four years and, as far as authorities are concerned, she's not been responsible for any deaths. Apparently she was simply biding her time. It's reported that sometime between 6:30 and 7:55 this morning, a bird entered the Walsh residence through the ventilation of their stove's exhaust fan. Killer was holing up with the Walsh's and is believed to have leapt into action the second the grease screen hit the range. This was the moment she had been dreaming about since that warm summer day in North Carolina, years ago when she bagged her first bird. It was a chance to take another one, to end the life of a flyer. Killer has whiled away many afternoons gazing at these creatures through a window and cursing their mobility. And now one has made the ill-fated mistake of entering her domain.

Based on the relatively few scattered feathers and three small drops of blood on the living room carpet, the five-inch tall starling's struggle for survival was short-lived. Killer, having proven to herself that she hasn't yet lost the touch, was found lying near the corpse with a frighteningly satisfied look on her face. She put up no argument when coroners came to take the body away, as if expecting it to happen. Her work is evil, but at least it's clean.

Experts expect Killer to strike again. If you're neither canine nor human and are under the height of 10-inches tall, consider yourself warned. Killer should not be approached without at least two Snausages or one Pedigree-brand Jumbone. We repeat, do not approach without at least one Jumbone. You've been warned.

Good ol' #2

Next to me is a printed list of enemies that one will encounter in the game I'm currently writing the strategy guide for. I'm using it to make sure I don't leave any out when describing them in the book's obligatory "Enemies" chapter (I don't really call it by such a generic name, but you get the idea). After a few pages of text, I reached up to grab a writing utensil from the cup on my shelf and, without really paying attention, checked off a few of the entries.

But there was a noise that accompanied that act. A strange, muted scratching sound. It was extremely familiar, but one I hadn't heard in a very long time. Years, perhaps. It was that of a pencil being used. I can't tell you the last time I handled a pencil, let a lone worked with one. In all honesty, even pens seem slightly foreign to me. If not for grocery lists, non-disclosure agreements, and monthly payment requests I probably wouldn't use one of them either. And yes, signing my name does often take an embarrassing level of concentration at times. But a pencil?

The pencil is black, lacks the hexagonal shape of the yellow sticks of my childhood days, and has the words "We Promise" emblazoned on it. I have no idea where it came from, how long I've had it, nor who the "we" are and what they're promising. It's probably a marketing handout that fell into a swag-bag at some time, but I can't help but wonder how it came to be in my office. It's eraser has been used -- not by me -- and it is meticulously sharpened. I haven't sharpened a pencil since the eighties.

Using this pencil made me look around my office for other things I can't blieve I still have or would find strange to use. There's not much. A couple of old videogame consoles and maybe a hole-puncher, but that's about it. Everything is new, shiny, has a purpose in today's digital age. Either that or it's simply a memento that fades into the decor of my office: a bottle of black sand from Maui; a stone from the beach at Ollie's Point; an unsmoked Cuban cigar from my bachelor party; and a lifeless Robo-Sapien I won in the silent auction at Penny Arcade's "Child's Play" charity dinner highlight the list.

The room is a veritable shrine to the acts of playing and writing about videogames: the entertainment form of today and tomorrow. But like an understanding captain who finds an amicable stowaway on board his vessel, I can't simply cast the pencil off. After all, it reminds me of my youth. Not the part involving faded green writing paper, workbooks, and reading assignments. But the part about gym class and the last day of school, and eating cupcakes on a classmate's birthday. And learning geography and making friends, and dancing with a girl for the first time. It's funny how much you can be made to remember just by scribbling a few checkmarks. Actually, it wasn't what I was scribbling, but rather what I was using to do it.

Yes, I think I'll spare this pencil and leave it where it was for a while. Or, better yet maybe I'll lay it next to the phone instead. It deserves at least that. No, I deserve at least that.

Colonnade Ride Video

Wondering how the Colonnade mountain bike park in Seattle is coming along? Well, official word is that it's about 25% done, that there's still a lot of work to be done -- and money to be raised -- but it's coming along nicely.

Mike Westra of the BBTC put this video together after a recent work party. Gives you an idea of what they're shooting for.

View the video here.

Speaking of Eating...

I saw this in the paper while having lunch. Very cool story about a young boy from deep within the Ecuadorian jungle who came to Seattle when he was young for an education. He's about to graduate high school, at which time he'll return to his village (reachable only by an 8 hour river trip on a motorized canoe following a 9 hour bus ride from the capital) and prepare to lead his tribe in a class-action suit against Chevron over oil slicks and other pollution.

In his village, the family home is built on stilts because of river flooding. His bedroom there is simple — some shelving, a bed, a mosquito net.

At village gatherings, Lucitante wears a traditional midthigh-length robe, a bandana and a necklace made of wild boar or jaguar teeth, and he paints his face red with the seed of a native plant.

The words "culture shock" just don't seem adequate.

Read the article at the Seattle Times site here.

Can't Talk. Eating.

I leave for Europe next Friday -- my first trip across the Atlantic -- and am only just getting access to the materials that I need to finish my current assignment today. Yes, I do have to finish the book before I leave on the trip. If I want a job to return home to, that is. Fortunately, the game is really good and I've been able to make good partial progress for much of the past two weeks. But I still have a ton to do and not much time to do it.

This means that the lengthy article I was going to post today about our first year with a Hybrid Civic, it's average fuel efficiency and whether or not we bought it to save money (versus just buying it to simply consume less fuel) will have to wait. With gas running about $3.27 a gallon here in Washington and so many articles weighing in on the supposed myths about hybrid cars -- and most of them centering around it not being worth it economically -- I thought I would post something a bit more substantial on the matter. You know, with actual facts. Things like numbers. Things most journalists don't have the time or wherewithall to bother with. At least, that was the plan.

I still might get to it tonight or tomorrow. After all, I can only detail the proper ways to go about killing space aliens for so many hours a day before I need a break.

Tiger Mountain Tent Days

Last night was the Backcountry Bicycle Trail Club's (BBTC) first "Tent Days" event at Tiger Mountain and, from my seat at the burger-flipping, beer swilling membership drive, it was quite a success. The BBTC was founded in 1988 as a grassroots reaction to the growing movement to ban mountain bikes from public land in western Washington and has since grown to be a highly respected organization with nearly a thousand dues-paying members, a small cadre of paid full-time staff, and a ride calendar that averaged just under two organized group mountain bike rides a day for 2005. The club is responsible for the trails at Tiger Mountain being open to mountain bikes and can also be credited with the year-round maintenance that goes into keeping the Seattle area's most heavily used trail system in shape. It was a natural place to begin the series of events.

But before one can get their grub on, they have to earn it.

Jon Kennedy (Volunteer Director), Brian Jones (former President) and myself met at the trailhead around four o'clock to get a quick ride in. The "classic loop" at Tiger consists of a 3.2 mile forest road climb up 1200 feet to the Preston Railroad trailhead. From there, it's a three mile rocky, root-dropping descent to another forest road. A mile or two on a gravel road winds its way over to the Northwest Timber trail, which features about 2.5 miles of flowy singletrack with a couple of small semi-technical features.

This time last year, when first riding Tiger and after coming off my three year hiatus from all-things-athletic, I couldn't make the initial climb without at least pausing to rest once or twice. By mid-summer I was able to climb it pretty quickly, getting my time on the climb down to rougly 28 minutes. After that, I simply skipped the road and pedaled up the singletrack. Well, if I may pat myself on the back for a moment, I must say that I impressed myself yesterday by doing the entire road climb (actually, the entire ride) in the middle chainring. I would have never thought this possible, but it's clear that the road biking is really helping to build my climbing strength. When I bought my road bike in March, it was as a means to an end. That end is here -- I'm a much stronger climber than I was last summer. Go me!

But enough about the riding, this post is about the membership drive. We were fortunate in that the rain held off for most of the night and the six of us in attendance were able to raise quite a bit of money for the club. To help entice people to join, we would lure them over to the tent with the promise of hamburgers and beer and chips after they finished their ride. And I can tell you from experience, that there are few things a mountain biker wants more after a ride, than a nice cold beer. Those who signed up or donated money would have their hunger and thirst sated care of the BBTC.

We had plenty of pamphlets and stickers on hand, in addition to snacks, and even had one of the old-school credit card machines that don't require a phone line and electricity. And, fortunately for us, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. Or maybe it was the scent of the burgers I was cooking up?

Either way, one of the nice things about a membership drive for a club such as the BBTC is that the club's benefits to the mountain biking scene pretty much speak for themselves. Not only is the club responsible for the trails these riders had just finished riding, but many others as well. Not to mention the Colonadde trail system being built under Interstate 5 and the 120 acre skills park that is being planned for another nearby area. And then there's the social benefits. As someone new to the area, I could go on all day about the benefits of being a club member and the friendships I've made and the trails I've ridden thanks to the club. There's no hard-sell needed. Just honest excitement about a mutual interest. And the money and membership applications come roaring in. And the ride calendar grows with new names...