That's a Lot of Marshmallows!

Each of the streets in our neighborhood has its own park complete with playground equipment and plenty of grass to throw the ball around. And each year a couple of the ladies on our street organize a big Memorial Day block party at the park. Last year was our first year in the neighborhood and although we were hesitant to go, we really enjoyed ourselves. The weather was great, there were over 180 people there, they rented one of those bouncing things for the kids as well as a snowcone and popcorn vendor, and the adults had several kegs of beer from the local brewery. We cooked, we drank, we ate, and we drank some more. The night culminated with me playing poker at some guy's brother's house and riding my bike home at 2 in the morning up a very lengthy hill. I distinctly remember looking over my shoulder every ten seconds to see if I was being stalked by a cougar.

Flash forward to this year. Knowing what we do about the scale of the party and having a lastname in the range of M to Z means that we had to bring a lot of desert. A whole lot of desert. Kristin made one of my favorite deserts last year and it was gone in minutes. An enormous bowl devoured and virtually licked clean before I even got my first hot dog. That wouldn't be the case this year.

I found an ambrosia recipe online that best resembled the one I remember one of my aunts making at family get-togethers in the summer and printed it out. It said it was enough to serve ten people. Double it, I told Kristin. There's going to be a lot of people there and I want to make sure I get some.

Yeah, you know where this was going.

The week of rain didn't stop on Saturday as it was supposed to and, instead, kept on coming straight through Sunday, the day of the party. Now, folks here in the Pacific Northwest are used to having it rain on Memorial Day. It's not that big a deal. So you get a little wet. No problem.

Not if its warm out or just the typical Seattle mist. But no, with temps in the 50's and the rain coming down in buckets, even Washingtonians will look for cover. The party was supposed to begin at noon, and it wasn't until nearly three o'clock before we finally strolled over. Kristin had a serving spoon in her hand, I had what felt like twenty pounds of marshmallows, fruit cocktail, and coconut in mine. There were tents set up across the park with a few adults sipping adult beverages under them, and about twenty kids hopping in the bouncy thing.

We stayed long enough to have a couple beers and talk to some of the neighbors. Which very much brings the Yogi-ism "it's like deja vu all over again" to mind since we don't converse with the neighbors that often. It's a simple matter of logistics, really. They all have kids. We don't. They see each other at the playgrounds and at school and at the bus stop. We don't. Each time we see them, it's for the first time. Oh, that's right, I remember your name now. And, umm, you're a lawyer right? Yes, now I remember. Yeah, we live in the yellow house a few doors down from you. And so on and so forth. There's a few people whose dogs I remember the names of, but the humans? No chance.

So we stood around in the sopping wet grass (sandals were a fine choice, Doug), getting wet and shivering, while sipping our beers. We ate at home prior to coming over, as seemingly everyone else did. Finally, after an hour or so we retrieved our bowl of ambrosia and went home. The bowl was still filled. It's only slightly less full several days later despite me having a rather large helping of the glop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each of the past three days. What did we get for our trouble? A prolonged sugar rush is about it. And further proof that I can't remember any of my neighbor's names.

Sony Style Goes Overboard

We forgot to ask how you say "jump the shark" in Japanese. - Ryan Block of Engdaget

Have too much money on your hands? If so, Sony has just the thing to spend it on -- a $35,000 jeweled case for your PlayStation Portable. But that's not all! How about a matching set of wine glasses? Sure, the PSP might not have many good games to play on it, and major retailers are minimizing space allotted for UMD movie sales, but the PSP as a brand? It's invincible, baby!

Or something like that. Either way, check out all of Sony's silliness right here. Maybe Kutaragi was right, Playstation is not a toy. In fact, it's everything but a toy. Now I just need someone to remind me why I bought one.

Digital Rebel Sensor Cleaning

The time has come to sell my Digital Rebel camera to help pay for the Canon 20D that I'm buying from my wife's boss. I purchased the Digital Rebel in 2003, right after Canon released it, and have shot over 3400 photos with it since then, mostly while travelling. The problem I've come to notice, however, is when shooting with a very small aperture, my photos would have a small black spot on the upper left-hand corner. Being that I'm often taking landscape shots, this would often occur in a portion of sky and be easily remedied with Photoshop's Healing tool. It's something I've come to accept, but I can't in good conscience sell it without cleaning the sensor.

If Digital SLR cameras have a flaw, it's that the changing of lenses often invites dust into the camera chamber, and often that dust accumulates on the sensor. In an egregious case of over-simplification, I'll describe the sensor as the digital film. Having dust on it is a no-no, but usually it's completely out of focus and unnoticeable. It's only when shooting with a small aperture that the depth of field is so great that the dust comes into view. Hence, it's been something that I've been able to live with. Until last month's trip to Costa Rica, that is. Many of the shots I had taken had numerous small dust speckles on them and something had to be done.

My friend Eric recommended buying one of the cleaning kits and very, very, carefully following the directions and cleaning it myself. Others recommended sending it to Canon for a professional cleaning -- not an option given the 6-week turnaround time. So I Googled over to this article here and then read some of the horror stories that are linked to it, and decided that the way for me to approach this is to carefully use a little compressed air and a Q-tip.

To show how well this worked, and how easily, we need photos of the sensor itself. Based on the recommendations of the author of the article linked to above, I photographed a white piece of paper out of focus with an aperture of f22. Then, in Photoshop, I adjusted the levels and dropped the saturation to make the dust stand out as much as possible. I did this before and after each cleaning attempt.

Prior to cleaning, lots of dust present, but that big spot in the upper left has been annoying me for over a year now.

It's imperative that I be extremely careful and gentle when cleaning the sensor as too much pressure or a scratch could instantly reduce the camera to a paperweight in seconds. So, first I grabbed a can of compressed air which I use for dusting negatives and ever-so-gently sprayed the sensor. I kept the trigger slightly depressed and went back and forth side-to-side blasting as much dust off as I could.

As you can see, the use of compressed air can remove a lot of the dust. But that annoying spot on the upper left must have been stuck to the sensor.

I was hoping for better results with just the compressed air, but it was clear that I was going to need to swab. Many of the products on the market contain various chemicals to be used minimally for this task, but even they have claimed their share of sensors from my brief reading on the topic. I decided to gently use a Q-tip and then blast away any remaining lint with a final dose of compressed air.

That's what I'm talking about! That little smudge on the upper left-hand corner is still hanging in there, but nearly all of the rest of the dust was cleaned off.

This cleaning required no special trips to the camera store, no expensive cleaning kits, and no special training. What it did require was a very gentle hand and the good sense to know when to say when. I could have opened the camera back up and went after that little smudge with a bit more force, but that would have likely only made things worse. At this point, I have no qualms with selling the camera, as nothing short of a professional cleaning will make it perfect. And like I said, this was the first time in 3400 shots that I even bothered to clean it. And I guarantee the first time the new owner changes lenses outside, it will likely accumulate even more dust. It's the nature of the beast. But the beast's damage can be minimized with a little canned air and a Q-tip.

For The Love of the X360

I've been writing guidebooks for videogames for 6 years now. It's not a profession that is all that easy to come by, nor is it one that is especially easy to keep. But I'd like to think I'm pretty good at it, and I work hard, and I'm sure my excitement about playing new games has something to do with my success. It's that whole love what you do aspect of it that keeps me positive and under contract. The problem is that over the last few months that excitement has been lessening. The new videogames were failing to excite me, the titles I was really looking forward to playing and writing about were all getting delayed, and the constant focus of attention on hardware instead of software had me wondering if people forgot why we play games in the first place.

Microsoft released their Xbox 360 last November and, for the first time since I've began using the words "videogame" and "business expense" together in the same sentence, I declined to get on board on launch day. This time around, I was going to wait until I really wanted it -- until I wasn't just buying it for the sake of doing so. Sure, the system was releasing with the next installment in one of my all-time favorite series, Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR3), but I didn't care. And for the first half of this year, that sentiment remained strong. And then I attended the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) earlier this month. Much of the post-E3 press centered on the upcoming console offerings by Nintendo and Sony (which I've written about previously), but I kept finding myself with an Xbox 360 controller in my hand. My publisher's booth was smack dab between Sony and Nintendo's in the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, but whenever I had a free moment, I would stroll over to the South Hall, where Microsoft was holding court. Maybe it was the lack of gimmicks or the overwhelming feeling of having been-there and done-that that accompanied the other two console manufacturer's booths, but Microsoft's display made me feel at home.

I bought the Xbox 360 this past Wednesday and can honestly say that I haven't been this excited about a new console since buying the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987.

Having written the strategy guides for Ridge Racer 6 and Full Auto, I was already familiar with the console's new controller -- the best ever -- and the impressive graphics and audio. But I hadn't taken the new system online yet and was still in the dark as to the wonders of the new-and-improved Xbox Live service and, in particular, the user-friendly Dashboard operating system. Within minutes of arriving home, I migrated my old Xbox Live account to the X360 and was online downloading bonus cars for PGR3. I scrolled through the various demos and arcade games, purchased 2000 Microsoft Points to be used as currency for the micro-transactions that I'll make, and was happily cashing in those points on some of the simpler, old-school style games in the Xbox Live Arcade. Yes, I even downloaded my own digital copy of Uno.

I played with my new toy for several hours before even putting a game in the disc tray -- talk about a first! I downloaded demos for Lost Planet and Test Drive: Unlimited, watched movie trailers, purchased some rare cars for a racing game I'd yet to even unwrap, and played the hell out of a puzzle game called Hexic that came pre-installed on the hard drive. And, of course, a couple games of Uno.

Before putting down the controller to call Kristin and rave about how wonderful the system is, I scanned over to the Achievements page on my Gamertag Profile for the first time. Each and every game on the X360 has an accompanying number of gameplay goals called Achievements. Meeting the requirements for each goal nets you Gamer Points. The people you play with on Xbox Live can not only see your total accumulation of Gamer Points, but even check out which Achievements you've earned in each game. There's even a handy-dandy "Compare Games" feature that lets you see how you measure up with someone on your Friends List. It's ingenious, and as someone who routinely shelves games after just a few hours of play, I welcome it with open arms. It's just the carrot I need to lead me onward to the finish line of games (as proof to this, I finished PGR3 after four days of playing, but am still playing it constantly to try and complete more Achievements).

When I finally did slide the PGR3 disc into that machine, I was immediately greeted with the most impressive visuals my eyes ever did see. Hopping behind the wheel of a Ferrari Challenge Stradale, switching to cockpit view, and zipping across the incredibly-detailed Brooklyn Bridge at 170 miles per hour on my HDTV was truly a "next-generation" moment. And hearing the screeching of the tires and the whine of that fine Italian engine surrounding me in all of that Dolby Digital richness just made my day. I didn't buy the X360 until the week of its six-month anniversary, and I couldn't for the life of me remember why I held out as long as I did.

Or was it the wait that helped lead to such a fine first impression? Possible. After all, there have been updates to the Xbox Live service since November. The demos I downloaded certainly didn't exist prior to E3, and unless I'm mistaken, even Uno was a relatively recent addition. Either way, whether it was the Playstation 2, the original Xbox, the Gamecube, or any other console since the NES, I can't recall a time when I happily whiled away so many hours doing so many different things with a videogame console. And there's still lots to be done. And plenty of games to play. My love of gaming has returned and I owe it to the X360.

So You Think You Can... Design Cars?

Gotcha. You thought I was going to post about the new season of "So You Think You Can Dance", but I'm not going to. Instead I'm going to let you in on a very cool contest going on involving one of my most anticipated games for Xbox 360. Test Drive: Unlimited is a massively-multiplayer racing game that pits up to 8,000 people per server on an accurately mapped version of Oahu. There, racers can buy houses, collect cars and motorcycles, and race all day and night in any of the game's career races, or by simply rolling up behind someone and flashing your high beams at them. It's going to be awesome.

And those with some artistic skill can be a part of it. They're having a contest in which people can enter their own car design to be included in the game. So, if you can work magic on a 3D-modeling program, or even just are highly-skilled with Photoshop, this is the contest for you. Not only will the winner have their car in the game, but they'll get $2,500 too (and possibly a job offer, if you're good enough).

Here's a sample from the Test Drive Unlimited website:

Here's the contest link:

BBTC Back in the Papers

The Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club, which I'm a proud member, is one of the nation's largest mountain biking clubs and several times a month, the club offers a "Boot Camp" for beginning mountain bikers. Last year alone, for a nominal fee, the club graduated 170 new mountain bikers in the Seattle area.

And with press coverage like this that number is sure to grow. The Seattle Times has a great write-up about the club's educational program, complete with a half-dozen photos. Be sure to check it out -- it sure beats what you're like to find in the paper most other days.

Southwestern Exposure

We have some pretty hairy trails here in Washington. And by that, I'm referring to narrow singletrack with lots and lots of exposure. Devil's Gulch and Mission Ridge immediately spring to mind.

But Moab's Portal Trail is just ridiculous. I haven't ridden at Moab yet, but I don't know if I have the stomach for a spin on this trail.

See the pic here.

Now, the trail doesn't actually go down the cliff. The biker emerged from the rocks on the right and will be following the trail leading off to his right, but still. That is just plain insanity, if you ask me.

And yes, three mountain bikers have died on this trail (and many more likely came close to upping that number).

And no, when I do get to Moab, there is no chance of me riding this trail.

A Fly In the Ointment

It's Tuesday and it's a bit chilly outside and raining quite heavily. My mountain bike ride tonight has been cancelled on account of several days of rain and the trails being quite sensitive to erosion this time of year, and my desire to go running just hopped the last train out of town. All I want to do is make another pot of coffee and work. Work straight through the afternoon till six o'clock when Kristin gets home then make dinner and flip on the Mariners game.

But I need to train. I took yesterday off as a scheduled recovery day following nine straight days of training, but with an off-road duathlon this coming Saturday, I can't get afford to get too lazy. It's bad enough I'll have to go light on Friday as it is. Perhaps I'll just do 1,000 jumpropes and some light lifting in the garage? I don't know. A thousand is a nice round number. Enough to make me feel like I actually did something today. I hate days like this.

Anyway, for what it's worth, this week's plan of attack:

Monday: recovery day
Tuesday: 4 mile run, 15 mile mountain bike ride
Wednesday: 8 mile trail run
Thursday: 30 mile group road bike ride
Friday: 3 mile run
Saturday: Race Day (10k run - 25k mtn bike - 5k run)
Sunday: 5 mile trail run

Rockstar Presents Table Tennis

I haven't picked up an Xbox 360 yet, but when I do (soon) you can bet that Rockstar Presents Table Tennis will be the first game I buy for the system. And no, I never thought I'd utter those words in my entire life. Not only have I yet to buy a game by Rockstar that I didn't immediately regret purchasing, but ping-pong? Am I kidding you? No, I'm not.

I played the game each day while at E3 and though I never played through the Training Mode and have since learned that there is no Career Mode, I had a ton of fun picking it up and playing it against the nameless attendees beside me at the show. And I expect to do the same at home, online, against nameless gamers around the world.

Rather than try and tell you why the game is great, just go ahead and read this review at and then look closely at the following screenshots. And then imagine just picking up and playing such a beautifully-made, highly-addictive, simple-yet-challenging, fan-hyphen-tastic game like ping-pong.

*All screenshots linked from

The HDCP Plot Thickens

Wow! I just went back to IGN's site to make sure the link was correct for the previous posting and there has apparently been a behind-the-scenes deal struck that has delayed the use of the much-maligned HDCP system till 2012. It's only a rumor at this point, but should this be true and the new digital security protocols not go into place until 2012, it means that you will actually be able to watch HD-DVD and Blu-Ray movies on players that aren't equipped with HDMI cabling. In other words, your Xbox 360 (with not-yet-available external HD-DVD player) and the lesser Playstation 3 will be usable for hi-definition movie viewing in 1080p, supposed you have a tv that supports that resolution. Most don't. Yet.

Here's another great link explaining this all in a better way that I can.


But let's back up a bit, because I know some of my readers probably have no idea what I'm talking about. The other day when my mom was visiting, she was watching "Se7en" on DVD in my living room and commented that Morgan Freeman's complexion was a lot worse on my tv than her's. Was it all makeup, or was she watching a movie in high-definition? Not wanting to try and explain resolutions and progressive scanning to a woman who still prefers the ease of her VHS player over DVD, I told her, that, for her sake, she was watching the DVD in high-definition.

But she wasn't. My six-disc Onkyo DVD player is not an upscaling player, but merely a progressive scan player. So while my tv can support the high-definition resolutions of 720p and 1080i, the DVD player can only output in 480p. Normal, non-HD televisions output in 480i. What's the difference between the "i" and "p"? Well, that's just the difference between an image composed of a series of lines that are Interlaced versus one composed through Progressive scanning. If you want to understand the two technologies more, go ahead and Google it, but trust me that the "p" is better than the "i".

So, that brings us to the notion of watching movies in true high-definition resolutions. Namely anything greater than 480p. There are DVD players out there that will "upconvert" or "upscale" the signal into a faux HD resolution and while not nearly as expensive as they once were, they are pricier than standard DVD players (or even progressive scan DVD players) and they aren't all equal. The problem is that your final image can only be as good as the original source, in this case the DVD. No matter how good of an upconverting DVD player you buy, the image is not going to look as good as, say, Discover HD Theatre which is being broadcast in its native HD resolution.

Hence, the format wars. You may or may not be aware, but DVDs are about to undergo a very slow death as technology shifts towards either HD-DVD or the Blu-Ray format. Now, there's plenty of people who have been following this for years and know far more about it than me, but I also know there's a world of people out there like my mom who love their 15-year old wooden cabinet television that sits on the floor and "gets good reception". Aside from the fact that the government is mandating the switch from analog signals to digital, thereby spurring the populace's switch to HDTV, in a few years time most movies will be sold on either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. Or both. DVD will likely hang around for a number of years, but it will eventually fade away. For two reasons.

The first reason is resolution. 480p just isn't good enough anymore. Anybody who has ever flipped back and forth between a football game broadcast on a local station and one broadcast on ESPN-HD knows that there is a night and day difference in picture quality. And as more and more people look to dispose of their disposable income through home theatre purchases, they're going to want those higher resolutions. Especially since, effectively, 1080p is as high as anyone can see the resolution getting for a very, very long time.

The second reason the switch to HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs is going to happen is because of copy protection. At least originally, but with today's news it seems as if this may not go into effect until 2012. These high-definition media formats, once outfitted with the digital encryption and copy protection would only be playable in their truly high-definition resolutions (1080p) via an HDMI cable. And this brings us back the game consoles as well as some PC drives. Not everything that is planning on making use of the HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs has an HDMI output. Hence the uproar. For example, imagine if you bought the lesser PS3 thinking that you bought a Blu-Ray player, but only came to find out that it played your Blu-Ray discs at half the resolution you were expecting because without an HDMI cable, you couldn't decipher the encryption to prove ownership and legality of your copy of the disc.

Fortunately, it seems as if this "Image Constraint Token" copy protection has been done away with for the near future and those looking to buy the HD-DVD add-on for their Xbox 360 needn't worry about the lack of HDMI.

Of course this brings up the other piece to this puzzle: having a tv that accepts a 1080p signal. If you haven't bought an HDTV yet, I would suggest that when you do, you make sure it supports 1080p, as that's the resolution of the future. It will last you. I bought my HDTV nearly two years ago and it doesn't support 1080p. That's not a huge deal to me, as I don't plan on making the switch from DVD for several years anyway and by then they'll be a lot more affordable. But if I was going to buy a new HDTV today, it would definitely be one with 1080p resolution. Actually, correct that. I'd wait another six months to a year and let the technology solidify a little longer then get one.

But if I were to get one now, I'd take a long look at this one right here.

The $499 PS3 and All it Lacks

By now you probably know that Sony is going to begin selling two different versions of the Playstation 3 console later this year. The premium edition will retail for $599 and the somewhat nutered version will go for $499. Well, unlike the two different configurations of the Xbox 360 that Microsoft began selling last year, there is a lot more missing in the lesser PS3 version than there was in that of the Xbox 360. If you want to know just how much the lesser system lacks and how it could cripple your chances of playing hi-definition Blu-Ray movies in 1080p down the road, you may want to read this article at IGN. Surprisingly, it's actually very good and very informative.

Teanaway Campout with BBTC

Headed east, over the mountain pass to the supposedly drier side of Washington for a couple nights of camping and mountain biking with the BBTC this weekend. Left Friday afternoon and set up camp at the Teanaway Campground, just a few yards from the West Fork of the Teanaway River. One of the club members, Bob, spends much of the summer in this area and although none of the trails are on maps and are all user-made and "unofficial", he practically has a GPS unit for a brain and knows each and every bend of every near-invisible stitch of tread out there.

Friday night, a half-dozen of us set out for a short 5 mile ride after setting up camp. Famous last words. We ended up riding 9.7 miles and getting back to camp at 9pm, with just a few minutes of daylight left. The ride was fun though, as we came across numerous elk and deer, and even got to climb up onto some Washington slickrock and check out the snow-covered peaks framing the valley. I had already run 11 miles earlier in the day and was plenty tired by the time we got back to camp, but sleep never came easy Friday night. The rain did however. I laid in my tent, awak, all night long listening to the rain hammer down atop the rainfly and my truck parked nearby. Kristin slept soundly, as I'm sure my dogs did too. But not I.

Friday night view of the Enchantments.

Morning came and the rain sprinkled on and off, but the sky looked ominous. A dozen or so riders showed up, having driven in from the west and said that there was plenty of rain headed our way. I don't mind riding in the rain, but I certainly didn't want Kristin and the dogs to be cooped up in the truck or tent all day, taking shelter from the rain, so I thought about just going home. Fortunately, Kristin assured me she and the dogs would be fine, and I should go ride. So I set off with about 20 other riders and within a half hour, the sky emptied of clouds and bright sunshine poured into the valley.

Saturday's ride consisted of a lot of climbing, mostly on abandoned double-track logging roads. And although there wasn't a whole lot of singletrack to ride, what we did hit was enjoyable. Bob led us on a 23.8 mile figure-8 shaped ride with 3,000 feet of climbing. I was feeling great despite Saturday being my 8th straight day of riding and pleased myself by doing nearly all of the climbs in the middle chainring. I also spent quite a bit of time racing to the front of the pack, building a lead, and then quickly dismounting and taking photos of everyone else. Rinse and repeat all afternoon. Much of the trails and dirt roads were very loose and sandy which made the going tougher than expected, but it was a fun day with a good crowd.

Bob dropping in on the big rock.

Jeff tackling the big rock.

Who needs Moab?
Chris cruising Washington's slickrock.

Rob zipping along some tight singletrack.

Sue and Brian climbing past the wildflowers.

Wearing a helmet all day does strange things to my hair.

Some of the group had to head home right away on Saturday -- we missed you Saturday night Erik -- but most of the gang hung around the campfire till midnight and indulged in a burrito bar fit for Vicente Fox. An entire picnic table was weighed down in various burrito fixins and fillings including some delicious chicken in mole sauce, shredded beef, home-made (and delicious) guacamole, and plenty of other appetizing offerings, including Randy's famous garlic mashed-potatoes. The night grew old, but the weary mountain bikers continued to consume the adult beverages occupying space in our coolers (there is nothing better after a ride than a nice cold bottle of Moose Drool) and Jeff and I began cramming toasted marshamallows between the double-stuff Oreo cookies for our own s'more variation. Sleep wasn't as hard to come by Saturday night.

Much of the group was feeling some various aches and pains on Sunday from Saturday's lengthy ride, but we nonetheless had another half-dozen or so riders head out for one final two-hour ride. We rode pretty fast on Sunday morning to try and beat the incoming rain and squeezed in a fast 11 miles and 1,200 feet of climbing before breaking camp and heading home. The rain did start to come just as we were finishing the ride, but Kristin and I run a clean camp and had no problem getting on the road with minimal soaking. She had spent three days hiking with our dogs while I was out biking and despite none of the trails being easily discernible, let alone marked on any maps, she hiked well over 20 miles and managed to avoid getting lost. The one time she thought she lost her way, the dogs sniffed out the trail and led the way back to the road. I guess I needn't worry about her after all. She had the camera on Sunday and although she didn't get any pictures of the wild turkey or deer she saw (nor did I get any of the elk I saw), she did take some nice shots of our very tired and very, very dirty dogs.

Annana relaxing in the shade.

Kimo is still exhausted from the weekend's hikes.

Decision Making 101

I'm lying on the couch, exhausted, feigning interest in the Yankees vs Mets game and it's about time for dinner. We were camping all weekend and we don't feel like cooking. But with last week's kayak purchase, our discretionary money is pretty tight until Kristin gets paid this week.

Kristin has an idea: "I'm going to make an irresponsible suggestion and say that we get our shoes on and go to Pho Place for dinner."

I give it some thought, "That would require that I shave my camper's beard and since my laziness trumps your irresponsibility, I say we order a pizza."

It's a push. She doesn't want pizza, but I don't want to shave. She refuses to pick up the pho for take-out, and... well... I'm very lazy.

Two hours later, I eat a stack of Eggos and a cold left-over meatball. Kristin has a bagel and decides to just wait till breakfast to eat.

Experts Shmexperts

I just want to publicly thank The Sporting News, Street & Smith, ESPN, and Yahoo, for all advising their readers to draft Alex Rodriguez with the number one fantasy baseball pick instead of Albert Pujols. It was the biggest question leading up to draft day but your unanimous endorsement of A-Rod made the decision much clearer for me. Having been fortunate enough to get the first overall pick in my league and select A-Rod, I want to now request that you all give me back the $100 I wasted on this year's entry fee. It's only $25 apiece; it's the least you can do.

As of the morning of May 21st, 2006:

Alex Rodriguez - 36 Runs, 9 Home Runs, 30 RBIs, .277 AVG
Albert Pujols - 43 Runs, 21 Home Runs, 53 RBIs, .317 AVG

For those who don't see the enormity of the difference between these two men, Yahoo has Pujols currently (and rightfully) ranked as the #1 player in fantasy baseball. A-Rod is holding down a lousy #35 spot. A couple of the batters ranked above A-Rod include guys with names like Nick Swisher, Hanley Ramirez, and Felipe Lopez -- real household names those guys are. Oh, and we mustn't forget Alfonso Soriano, the player you each said to stear clear of because his move to spacious RFK Stadium was going to hurt his production.

Thank you all very, very, much.

Training Update

So how is training for Mountains to Sound going, you might ask?

Pretty damn well, I do say.

I wasn't concerned at all about the first two legs (23 miles mountain bike, 50 miles road bike) but the 12 mile kayak portion did have me worried. Well, I put in on Wednesday afternoon at the transition area on the race course and paddled the first 2.5 miles of the course. It took me 27 minutes at a comfortable pace, at which time I turned the boat around and paddled back upstream to the landing. The Sammamish Slough has a 1 knot current and, to be honest, it was barely perceptible. It only took me about 12 minutes longer to get back upstream than down and that was primarily because of two short riffles that were hard to punch through.

No longer am I the least bit concerned about missing any of the cut-off times and, to be honest, I think I have a really good chance of finishing in under 10 hours. It's going to come down to race-day nutrition, avoiding blisters, and having the good sense to pace myself and save plenty of energy for the final 19.5 mile run after the kayak leg. The run is pancake-flat along the shores of two lakes near Seattle, so while it may get monotonous, at least there won't be any big hills to contend with. Unlike all of my training runs.

Speaking of which, it's time to lace them up. I have an 11 miler planned for today. I haven't run that far in 4 years. Should be fun.

Have a good weekend.

Gone Campin'

The coolers are packed, the truck is loaded up with gear, and Kristin will be leaving work in a couple of hours to get on the road early. We're headed out to the Teanaway River area north of Cle-Elum for three days of mountain biking and camping with the BBTC. One of my favorite trails is further up the valley from where we'll be -- Esmeralda Basin -- but we can't access it do to current snow levels. But I'm told that there's plenty of great riding lower down, and I can't wait to find out. There's a half-dozen of us headed out tonight and a dozen more showing up tomorrow morning for a daytrip. So long as the dogs all get along and the weather holds, we'll likely stay till Sunday afternoon.

I've been training pretty hard every day since last Saturday so I think after today's double-workout and all of the riding this weekend, I'll be deserving of a day off on Monday. Or maybe I'll just go kayaking. It's so nice to have options again and not just be in a rut, doing the same thing over and over.

Anyway, here's a photo this weekend's ride leader sent me. It's from last year and shows where we'll be stopping for lunch on Saturday during our ride. I can't wait.

Photo by Bob B.

Nintendo Calls Sony a Copycat

Nintendo's U.K head honcho, David Yarnton, had this to say about Sony's sudden inclusion of motion-sensing technology in their controller.

"I'd love to dig up some old Phil Harrison (SCE President) comments and say 'hang on a second - six months ago when we launched our controller you said one thing, and now why are you doing this?'" said Yarnton. "I don't know what their decision making process is but I think if you look back, any innovation that has come in gameplay has come from us."

Read the article here.

And to both of these gentlemen, I'd like to point out the following controller, which was available several years ago for the PS2 and N64:

The Air Racer available for PS2 and N64

The most innovative game controller to hit the market in the last 20 years, Air Racer lets you react to and interact with action games like never before. Using advanced motion sensing technology, Air Racer responds to the natural movements of your hands without using a thumb pad to control the direction, speed and angle of your character or vehicle in Mid-Air.

Air Racer is suitable for all types of action games - flying, skiing, biking, racing, boating, fighting, tank combat, action adventure and more. Its innovative design brings you to the highest level of excitement and realism. Air Racer is... the future of game controllers.

Beyond the awesome playability of Air Racer is technology that enhances game play. Air Racer is the only controller to allow you to incrementally adjust the tilting and steering sensitivity during a game without re-calibrating the rotation - all with a touch of a button. Don't change the way you play... Change the way the game reacts... With Air Racer!

The thing is, I only stumbled across this particular item while looking online for a wheel-shaped motion-sensing controller that I played with at E3 oh, about 5 years ago. I believe it was made by either Logitech or MadCatz although I can't find anything on it anymore. I do recall seeing it on store shelves at Electronics Boutique and Gamestop back a few years ago. Can't find anything about it now though.

Either way, my point is that Nintendo and Sony can call each other names all they want, but this whole motion-sensing technology is about as obvious as obvious can be. And it's not new. That being said, after having played with both Sony's and Nintendo's controllers at E3, so far I must say that Sony's "Warhawk" game put the technology to use best. And by best, I mean in a way that didn't seem like a gimmick. And what I also like about Sony's use of the technology is that they're only utilizing it when it makes sense to. They're not force-feeding the control scheme down developers' throats. Sony's use of the technology, based on Warhawk at least, seems to actually add to the gameplaying experience.

Nintendo's games, on the other hand, were fun for a few moments, but I strongly believe that once you get over the whole "look at me, I'm swinging a tennis racket" you're going to realize that what you're actually doing is playing the shallowest tennis game since Pong. Similarly, once you realize that you've played Metroid Prime 3 for a few hours and have gotten over the excitement of reaching out and twisting door handles with the Wii-mote, you're going to realize that opening doors in videogames was a lot less tedious with a standard controller and button press.

The Tomato Splatteth

Looks like the latest Hollywood Blockbuster has dud written all over it.

"The Da Vinci Code" is pulling in a positively putrid score of 18% at It could be worse: at least nobody has decided to make a videogame based on the movie based on the book.


Read the horror here.

Games For Sale

Just an update on my videogame sell-off.

I've now sold roughly 65 games from my collection for a little over $800 and, according to my list over at IGN, there's still over 300 games left. Some of these are obviously off-limits for one reason or another, but many are not.

Here's the link to the updated collection. If you see anything you like, shoot me an email to with your requests and I'll give you a price quote. You can then send the money via paypal and I'll get the games out to you the day after the payment clears.

So far, the sell-off has not only freed up some space on my shelves for the next generation of games, but it also bought me a kayak. Kristin's boss is selling me his Canon 20D with an 18-55mm lens, so if you'd like to help outfit me with a better camera and also want some well-cared-for games at a good price, send me a request.

What's Wrong With This World

You may or may not have heard the story of the oh-so-pathetic Paris Hilton forgetting the name of her own videogame during an appearance at last week's E3. Well, not only did Ms. milk-my-family-name-for-all-it's-worth show up 90 minutes late and forget the name to the videogame she was supposedly promoting, but she also succesfully snubbed one of the most famous game developers in the industry.

Not that I'm a big fan of Team Ninja's Itagaki-san, but this is just wrong.

As I walked off, with no interest whatsoever in seeing Paris Hilton, I thought about what had happened at the door. It was terribly ironic. I understand that the guard simply didn't know who he was, but still you've got to laugh at the facts: At the largest game convention of the year, we have one of the world's top game developers trying to get in the door, and he's stopped by Paris Hilton.

Here's a link to the story over at

E3 Photos

I know, I know... I still haven't posted the pics from my two weeks in Costa Rica, but here are the shots from last week's E3 expo nonetheless. I didn't take many, as each morning I had a choice between taking the camera or my PSP. I only took the camera on the first day, as Sony had downloadable demos available for the PSP. But they unfortunately uninstalled if you turned the machine off, so I had to download Loco Roco each day.

Anyway, without further ado...

The $599 Playstation 3. Am I the only one who thinks it looks
like the Sega Master System?

Sony's area, as viewed from the upper walkway that wrapped around the inside of their booth. Upstairs had "living room" setups with incredible displays.

Gran Turismo HD looked fantastic in 1920x1080p, but it's
still the same old bumper-car, slam-fest with no damage model.

This crowd at Sony's booth was much smaller by week's end.
$599? WTF?

The outside of Nintendo's booth. Sorry, but I have no Wii pics as I brought my PSP to play while waiting on the line to get in.

The Videogame Pianist, Martin Leung, performing at BradyGames' booth
three times a day. He always attracted big crowds.

Martin playing the Super Mario Bros theme while blindfolded.
Always a crowd favorite.

The Madden jinx will be broken this year -- the Seahawks
arer heading back to the Super Bowl baby!

There were a couple of for-show-only cars made up to look
like the characters from Pixar's upcoming "Cars" movie.

The view from my seat at Wednesday night's Dodger game.
Lots of home runs that night... exciting game.

The main entrance to Dodger Stadium. Anybody else thinking of
John Cusack and the end of "Better Off Dead"? I want my two dollars!!!

From left to right: Me, Michael, Brian, Christopher, and, umm,
two of Brian's WOW Guild-Mates. Crap, I forgot their names.
Ken and Stacey perhaps?

Not Pictured: South Hall where most of the game publishers and Microsoft's booth were. Also not pictured were booth babes who were pleasantly absent this year. I also didn't get any shots of me posing with the legendary Bill Harris of DubiousQuality fame who was nice enough to stop by during my Thursday afternoon booth duty session and say hi. Nor did I get a picture of me with's DTrain who also stopped by to say hi between his shifts at the GameLoft booth. E3 has improved a lot since my last trip there in 2003. The price of an "Exhibits Only" badge went up significantly, which helped keep the crowds down; they put limits on the volume (punishable by $5000 fines), and they also threatened to fine exhibitors who paraded scantily clad booth babes around. Unfortunately, swag was also significantly reduced and the only noteworth freebie I managed to get was a "Full Auto 2" hat I won for schooling a bunch of other gamers in a multiplayer match.

The Forager

I just got back from my run -- a very hot 8.2 miles on trails with 1070 feet of climbing -- and immediately after stretching I opened the refrigerator. People ask me all the time if I get a runner's high. I do, only it's not the type they're thinking of. I get a high from the immense amount of crap I ingest within minutes of finishing my run. Here's what I had today:

  • several tablespoons of left-over black beans & rice (Zatarain's pwns you!)
  • 1 large garlic dill pickle
  • 2 handfuls of Corn Nuts
  • 2 pieces of taffy
  • ham, turkey, and cheese sandwich with mayo and jalapenos
  • large glass of Odwalla tangerine and carrot juice
  • large glass of iced coffee
  • an apple

I have a group mountain bike ride scheduled for 4 hours from now. I know Kristin was planning on making a salad and ziti and meatballs for dinner. Add some wasabi-coated peas, some chips & salsa, and maybe a few Eggos and a beer to that, and I think that should fill me up for the night.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, I've lost 12 pounds eating like this.

It's called E-X-E-R-C-I-S-E. Do enough of it and you too can eat all the crap in the world.

Sloth Bears, the Deadly Sinners

More from

The park confirmed the killing in a statement, saying: "In an area where Sloth bears, great apes and Barbary macaques have coexisted peacefully for a long time, the harmony was temporarily disturbed during opening hours on Sunday."

Bears killed and ate a monkey in a Dutch zoo in front of horrified visitors, witnesses and the zoo said Monday. In the incident Sunday at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park, several Sloth bears chased the Barbary macaque into an electric fence, where it was stunned.

I may not be as fast a runner as I used to be, but I'll be damned if something actually named sloth ever catches me in a footrace. When will those cheeky monkeys ever learn? I guess that small percentage of DNA difference between humans and monkeys is the part that knows about electrified fences. Poor thing. Would have been cool to see live though. Here's the photo.

The Tax Man Cometh

Richard Hatch, the obnoxious, fat, naked guy who won the very first season of Survivor has been sentenced to 51 months in prison for tax evasion.

From's article on the topic:

Hatch sowed seeds of conflict among his competitors, and an estimated 51 million viewers were watching when he received his winning check.

Kind of odd that his sentence would be equal to 1 month for every million viewers that saw him get paid. Irony? Karma? Coincidence? Call it what you will, but I think it's pretty damn funny.

You Deserve That White Glove Service!

Kristin's good friend moonlights as a hostess at a popular Seattle seafood restaurant that has recently become a bit of an upscale national chain. Chances are, if you live in a densely populated area, you have one by you. The place is of good quality, it's not pretentious, the prices aren't too high, and the food is typically pretty good. I don't mind eating there every now and then, but I much prefer listening to the stories from the staff.

1) Like this past weekend, for example. The restaurant's tables are thick, solid wood and add a slightly rustic, or at the least, masculine look to the place. Now, I already told you that this place has managed to strike a balance between quality and pretentiousness, right? Well, that didn't stop a party of four from coming in the other night and demanding white linen tablecloths be placed on their table. They also demanded that their silverware be hand-polished. They were told that the restaurant didn't put linens on the table (other than napkins) yet they persisted. Finally, the restaurant gave in, but that wasn't enough. The group then proceeded to demand that the linens be changed between each course. Change the linens after the appertizers, after the salad, and again after the entree. Each time, Kristin's hostess friend had to stand there holding a new batch of hand-polished silverware for them. And as if that wasn't bad enough, this ultra snobby group then expected their food to be free. It wasn't. And they've also been banned from the restaurant forever.

2) Another horror story from our friend the hostess has to do with an annual promotion the restaurant chain does with Alaska Airlines. Each passenger on board an Alaska Air flight during the holidays receives a $20 coupon to the restaurant. We've all used restaurant coupons before. We all know that only one can be used per table and that if you received 4 of them, you'll have to visit 4 times in order to use them. Right? Wrong. You wouldn't believe how many people come into the restaurant, clearly as a group of 4 or 5, and then proceed to demand separate tables. They each have their coupons and want to use them so badly they'd rather sit by themselves and eat alone than eat as a group and spend a few more bucks. It happens every year, I'm told, and every year our poor hostess friend has to risk life and limb to keep from clogging up the restaurant with lonesone diners... who all came together.

3) And just when you think you've had your fill of odd requests at the hostess station, you have the chance of seeing a naked guy wiggling himself at you. It was the NFC Championship game and the Seahawks were on their way to the Super Bowl. One particular patron at the restaurant bar had been cut off and wouldn't be getting any more booze. He begged, he pleaded, he even offered to pay for the entire bottle of booze if he could just have one more shot. The bartender held his ground and told the man to leave. He did not. Instead, the man went into the restroom, came out naked, and proceed to shake and wiggle in front of the hostesses and all of the people waiting for a table. Thus bringing new meaning to the retalliatory phrase, "I'll show you".

The restaurant biz... I don't know how people do it.

The Total Man

Per my post last night about getting serious about my training for the Mountains to Sound race, I did get my butt out the door and onto my road bike today. It was about 80 degrees here today with a slight breeze and my plan was to ride the same 54 mile loop I've done in the past. The first big hill, Tolt Hill Road, comes 14 miles into the ride and for some reason (probably because I've done very little biking in the past month) I wasn't completely loosened up yet. The road climbs about 440 feet in a mile, with most of the elevation gain coming in the last 50% of the climb. Just as I was about to reach the steepest pitch a car slows down next to me and a few guys in the car, roughly my age, start shouting encouragement and telling me I'm a "total man". They then hand me a 20oz bottle of Cool Blue Gatorade, my favorite flavor. It was unopened and I gladly accepted. I don't know what was better, getting a free 20oz bottle of Gatorade on a warm day or having total strangers riding alongside on a steep hill telling me I'm a "total man". I'm not really sure what that means, but it has to be good, right?

Well, the extra fluids came in handy as I had trouble nursing my two water bottles to the end of the ride. And despite downing a packet of Gu every hour on the hour as I always do, I just about bonked 40 miles into the ride. On my second trip up and over Tolt Hill Road, I was wishing those same guys would drive by and hand me another bottle of Gatorade, but to no avail. I decided to cut out the final loop on Tokul and Mill Pond Roads and just head home. Total distance was 46 miles with 2280 feet of climbing. By far my worst ride on the road bike since I bought it. It took almost 2:45 to finish.

Kayak Training Begins in Earnest

"A boat's a boat, but the mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat! You know how much we wanted one of those." - Peter Griffin

Several weeks ago I decided to place many of the games in my videogame collection up for sale. I posted this link on the message board and within days sold over 50 titles. Although the $600 I received for the games was a far cry from how much I spent on those games over the years, they were simply collecting dust and doing me no good on my shelf. It was time to trade up. What I traded them for was a kayak.

REI's Anniversary Sale came at just the right time and I was able to save 15% off the price of the kayak, 20% off the price of the roof rack (my Element now looks like the ultimate Thule-branded utility truck: cargo case, kayak carrier, bike racks), and 10% off a paddle and PFD. The kayak is the Necky Manitou and it's a 13-foot open-cockpit kayak that is narrow enough to function as a touring boat while being stable enough and short enough to be recreationally-friendly and not too hardcore. It weighs 45 pounds and is surprisingly not difficult to hoist onto the roof of the Element, although being six-feet tall does help.

With only 6 or so weeks until the Mountains to Sound race and its 12-mile kayak leg, it was high time that I start really training for it. I have less than 4 weeks until my trip to Europe and I can't afford any more interruptions. So today I took the kayak over to Rattlesnake Lake for its maiden voyage. The park was filled with hundreds of hikers, fisherman, swimmers, picnicers, and dog walkers. But there was only a light chop on the lake and I was able to get a solid 50 minutes of paddling in before handing the boat over to Kristin for her turn on the water. The boat tracks well, feels very stable, and was very fun to use. And what a workout! I made an effort to paddle hard for nearly the entire 50 minutes and was able to really feel the workout in my upper body.

Upon handing the kayak over to Kristin, I immediately went for a run. Wow, is that Mountains to Sound race going to be tough! Despite only paddling for less than an hour, my upper body was definitely tired, and my legs were also a bit stiff from bracing myself inside the kayak. I loosened up about two miles into my thirty-minute run, but it is going to be very hard to paddle for three hours and immediately transition to a three-hour run. All of this coming after 73 miles of biking. No more screwing around, it's time to get serious.

The week ahead:

  • Monday: 54 mile road bike ride
  • Tuesday: 8 mile trail run in the morning, group mtn bike ride at night.
  • Wednesday: 90-minute kayak session, followed by 4 mile run.
  • Thursday: 30-40 mile fast group road bike ride.
  • Friday: 11 mile trail run in the morning, group mtn bike ride at night. (campout)
  • Saturday: Long, hilly group mtn bike ride. (campout)
  • Sunday: Shorter, less hilly group mtn bike ride.

E3: Tales From the Show Floor

Another Electronics Entertainment Expo has come and gone and everyone wants to know the answer to the most subjective questions of all: Who won? Of course, this simple question refers to the Big Three console manufacturers. For those who haven't followed the gaming industry much of late, Microsoft released their Xbox 360 last fall, Sony is scheduled to release their PS3 this coming November, and Nintendo is planning on releasing their new console, the Wii, sometime later this year as well. I don't really understand the thought process that goes into rooting for a company, nor do I subscribe to brand loyalty. But still, the question is pertinent. After all, this industry thrives on hype and mindshare moreso perhaps than any other industry. So, for those wondering who won, here's my answer...

Not Sony.

Shortly before the gates to the show floor opened and the sweaty hordes spilt forth onto the plush carpeting of the Los Angeles Convention Center, Sony executives released the price-points for the PS3. The premium version of the game console would retail for $599 in the United States and a relatively nutered version would be available for $499. The premium version of the Xbox 360, already available, sells for $399 in the US. That sound you heard early last week was that of corks popping in Redmond, Washington. As Microsoft's Peter Moore said in this interview with, "We had a price drop on Monday when Sony announced their price." Having been playing the wait-and-see game myself, I can tell you that Sony's pricing structure and what I saw on the show floor last week has convinced me to rush right out and buy an Xbox 360 with my next paycheck. There's no need to wait any longer; the decision won't be regretted.

So is my decision entirely based on financials? Yes and no. I played a number of PS3 games last week and several of them were of a very high quality and quite enjoyable. Sony's first-party "Heavenly Sword" looked and played phenomenally and the upcoming "Warhawk" game not only looked tremendous but made wonderful use of Sony's new motion sensing controllers -- to fly the jet you simply tilt the controller, no more relying on Analog Sticks. And there were several other quality titles as well, but the problem was that not only did none of them look leaps-and-bounds better than their Xbox 360 counterparts, but the entire time I was playing them my mind kept coming back to the same number: $599. Ouch. No doubt games like Metal Gear Solid 4 (awesome trailer by the way) and others will soften the blow, but the high cost of admission into the PS3 universe will likely keep the installed user base at a relatively low level compared to previous Playstation launches for quite some time. Thus, Konami and the other game publishers in control of the true killer apps will withold their games until the numbers are up. Which means that it will likely be even longer before a system as expensive as the PS3 is truly worth owning. It's a vicious circle that Sony has snared themselves in. And there's no way out of it without someone losing a lot of money. Namely, Sony.

In saying that I'm going to rush out and buy an Xbox 360, I'm not necessarily saying that I'm not going to buy Nintendo's oddly-named Wii. I'm just not going to buy it any time soon. There was no doubt that Nintendo's booth was by far the most desirable place to be with lines waiting to get hands-on time with the Wii reaching up to 3 hours at times. Fortunately, I was able to use my Exhibitor badge to get in line early Wednesday morning and merely had to wait an hour or so. My opinions of the Wii and it's wand-like motion sensing remote controller are mixed. And for the first time ever, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching others play with something more than I enjoyed playing with it myself. Nintendo has billed the Wii as the game console for the non-gamer. They've scaled back the number of buttons; they added motion sensing technology; and they are purposely shying away from complexity in both control and gameplay. Nintendo employees to a man will tell you this is by design. They speak of wanting my mom to play their games more than they actually want people like me to play them.

And that's good, because I don't want to. Other than the safe-bets in Mario and Zelda, none of the Wii games (of which there were many) were able to interest me for more than 15 minutes. Take the "Wii Sports: Tennis" for example. Everybody acts like they love this game. But I can't help but wonder if they realized that the characters ran to the ball automatically? Did they notice that there was very little control over where the ball went and at what trajectory and velocity? What about the drooled-over "Red Steel"? It's just a freaking light gun game after all, but instead of a gun, you're firing a remote controller. And then there's "Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam". It's a downhill skating game that reduces the Tony Hawk trick engine to just two buttons and uses motion sensing to control the skater. Was I the only one who couldn't hold a straight line or turn without pinballing back and forth across the level? No, I wasn't. Each of the Wii games on display seemed to be designed around using the newfangled motion sensing controller rather than around a concrete game idea. And although the Mario and Zelda games looked very nice and I'm sure they will entertain, I couldn't find a single person who felt that the Zelda game was easier to conrol on the Wii than on the Gamecube. I will be buying it for the Gamecube the day it releases.

So this brings me to the Xbox 360. Microsoft had many impressive titles on display for their system, but none moreso than "Gears of War". This third-person tactical shooter was demonstrated in a theatre setting and, being that I'm most likely (fingers crossed) authoring the strategy guide for it, I was able to stand at the podium and watch over the shoulder of Epic's President as he played through the first area and explained the system mechanics. It was, in a word, awesome. And that was far from the only impressive title. The upcoming massively-multiplayer racing title "Test Drive: Unlimited" pits up to 8,000 racers on the island of Oahu and lets them live out a high-fashion fantasy of collecting cars and bikes, racing, betting, and even upgrading their housing and clothing situations. The cars drove as wonderful as they looked and you were able to go anywhere on the accurately-mapped island. Even offroad. Yes, I did launch my Lamborghini off a vista and proceed to drive it through the bushes and grass downhill towards the rocky beach below. You can go anywhere except the ocean. Other titles that promise to eventually be in my collection were "Lost Planet", "Table Tennis", and "Chromehounds".

But enough about the consoles and the most talked about titles. E3 had plenty of surprises too.

For example, Rare's new game for the Xbox 360 "Viva Pinata" had to be one of the biggest surprises. Essentially a hybrid between "Spore" (also fantastic) and "Animal Crossing", players are given a sandbox from which to design an environment and as they do up to 60 different species of pinata move into town. You can design clothing for them and give them names and build structures to allow them to socialize. But you also must keep them from killing one another. The graphics were amazing and the game looks adorable. Potentially a cult hit. Then again, Rare's track record says that the game won't probably hit retail until 2011.

Also in the cutesy camp, and another game I can't wait to buy is "Loco Roco" for the PSP. Players use the PSP's shoulder buttons to tilt the 2D landscape to roll what is essentially a giant blob through the environment. The catch is that the blob can grow and can also be split into smaller blobs. The level I downloaded through Sony's download station (a wonderful addition to the show floor that was conspicuously absent from Nintendo's booth despite the DS having WiFi capabilities) was far more complex than one might at first think. I spent over an hour bouncing and tilting my blob through the level and still only found a fraction of the rescuees and fruit that makes the blob grow. This is precisely the type of game the PSP needs.

Another pleasant surprise was Rockstar's "Table Tennis" for the Xbox 360. Possibly the only true sport/game simulation that I'll enjoy playing, this simulation of everyone's favorite basement sport was simultaneously beautifully impressive, addictive, and challenging. I never thought I'd say this, but "Table Tennis" may be the first Xbox 360 sports game I buy.

So what else did I play? I played a lot of stuff. Some of which sticks out and some that doesn't. Sega's "Full Auto 2" seemed to be a big improvement over the original (which I enjoyed, but found to be too short) and I'm looking forward to it. "Eye of Judgment" had to be one of the far more uique uses of new technology that I had seen -- it's a card-based battle game where a special camera actually tracks the cards you play on your table and translates them into monsters on the tv. You literally hold physical cards not unlike those in Magic: The Gathering and place them on a special grid playing surface. You can hold the card in your hand in front of the camera and a 3D monster will spring to life on the tv in your hand on screen. Very cool in a very nerdy kind of way, but the game seemed very, very shallow and didn't work well during my time in the demo room. Two or three iterations from now, and it could be a huge hit. Lastly, I also very much enjoyed my time with the multiplayer mode in "Prey", the upcoming PC and Xbox 360 first-person shooter. Having also played the single player game, I can honestly say that for the first time in, well, forever, a game is truly advancing the first-person shooter genre. And I'm not just talking about the running-on-ceilings stuff. Put "Prey" on your shopping lists now.

Well, this certainly got a bit longer than I anticipated. I didn't even mention the fun I had at the Dodger game I went to on Wednesday night with my editors, the great dinner I was invited to by the folks at BradyGames on Thursday, or the good times I had just hanging around with my cross-the-country co-workers. But I will say this: I left E3 invigorated. I'm once again looking forward to playing games, and am very excited about the projects that I'll be working on later this year. Speaking of which... it's time I get to work.

Gone to E3

Sorry for the intermittent posts, but right after spending the majority of the past two weeks writing my travel essay, it was time to host my mother and sister who were in town visiting from New Jersey. We had a nice four-day weekend with them: visited the little Bavarian village of Leavenworth, took my mom to her first Major League Baseball game (the Mariners got shutout 0-2 in a pitcher's duel with Cleveland), and basically hung out around the house and talked and played games. I hadn't seen either of them since a brief dinner visit in April of 2005, so it was good to have some time with them.

But nevertheless, it's the second week of May and that only means one thing -- it's time for the annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles for the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3). Attending E3 is like living inside the world's most complex pinball machine for three days. I will be jostled endlessly while way-too-loud sound effects and music are blasted at me from all directions. If I didn't already have a slight heart murmur, I certainly would come week's end. And the pushing and shoving and body-shaking oratory assault has nothing on the myriad of flashing and strobing and flickering lights. It's like an acid trip without the pleasant sensation. Or so I'm told... But that's actually what's good about E3.

Sure, my sense of touch, hearing, and sight will be run through the ringer -- and my feet will ache by the end of the first day -- but what really makes this show difficult for attendees is the smell. You wouldn't be wrong to think that most stereotypes about gamers are off the mark. For the most part, the idea of the pasty, overweight, unathletic, introvert living in mom's basement no longer applies. And yes, ESPN-televised Madden tournaments and the various "hip-hop" games have certainly broadened the appeal of gaming to the masses. But, for some reason, that doesn't matter come E3, as one can't help but get the impression that most gamers have no concept of personal hygiene or, at the very least, deodorant. It's for that very reason why I only browse the show floor for a couple hours first thing in the morning -- the sweaty masses are literally quite sweaty and smelly. My goal each day is to retreat to the relatively safe confines of my publisher's booth just as the fanboyant excitement of the masses builds into a sloppy, malodorous, froth of socially inept humanity.

But E3 isn't all bad. It is, after all, a chance to get one's hands on pre-release games and also, this year in particular, to play the next generation of videogame consoles months before the public. But, to be honest, what I really enjoy about E3 is that it's my annual chance to actually hang out with my editors and fellow guidebook authors. There's a group of us attending the Dodgers vs Astros game Wednesday night, and an even larger group going to a dinner party on Thursday. Many of the journos will rave about their time at the big Sony and Microsoft parties, but I prefer the smaller crowds. As much as the gamers who flock to sites like every 5 minutes this week like to think E3 is about the unveiling of unannounced games (and it is to an extent), E3 is really about networking and building business relationships. That's the unsexy truth of it. And nothing helps foster a good business relationship than tossing down some cold frosty beers at Dodger Stadium with friends. Friends who happen to be my editors.

In Search of the Pure Life (Part 3)

"You have to slow down." I found the lone bilingual hiker at the Los Crestones Lodge and he was helping to get me fed after my nap. The problem was that I was speaking too fast for him to interpret. I always thought native Spanish speakers spoke at an incredible tempo, but was assured they felt the same way about English speakers. Here was proof positive, for as slow and deliberate as I thought I was being with my words, it wasn't slow enough. "Can you please tell her I'll be happy to eat anything she cooks?" Smiles and nods of the head all around, I connected.

Unbeknownst to me, the Los Crestones Lodge located 5 kilometers shy of the summit of Cerro Chirripo (and built with helicopter support from the US military) has everything minimalist hikers would need to make themselves comfortable for the night. You can rent everything from wool blankets to sleeping bags to campstoves for a nominal fee, and there's also a decent selection of bottled beverages for sale as well. The lodge contains a large mess area with numerous picnic tables and a kitchen area. Further down the hall is a series of rooms, each containing four beds with two-inch thick foam mattresses encased in vinyl. Standard government issue accommodations for sure, but for ten bucks a night at eleven thousand feet, one can't be too picky. There are several bathrooms (cold water only) and electric lighting from 6pm to 8pm, but for the most part this is a rather chilly and arguably quite dreary of a place to spend the night.

Nevertheless, the lodge had one shining beacon of warmth and joy that made my stay, and that of many others, significantly better. She was a petite woman with an infectious smile who was likely in her fifties and she loved to cook for strangers. Again, for a nominal fee. She lived in one of the small villages at the base of Chirripo and spent her time (and made her money) by leading a horse loaded with groceries up to the lodge where she would then cook for hikers. For the equivalent of $4 American, I was treated to a robust casada. It was essentially a mixed-plate meal, complete with a green salad, gallo pinto (of course), Costa Rican sausages, and a large helping of roasted zucchini and other vegetables. And as good as the meal was, it couldn't compare to the coffee. Armed with several pounds of ground Costa Rican coffee and a reusable cloth filter, she poured individual servings of boiling water through the grounds and served up cup after cup of the most delicious joe I've ever tasted. And this is coming from a true coffee snob.

I whiled away the early evening chatting with a Dutch couple who was in Costa Rica hiking with their niece and her Latin husband. They were climbing Chirripo as part of their training for taking on Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Also at our table (and assigned to the same room as me) was a 25-year old Frenchman from Nice who was on a three month long solo tour around Costa Rica. Pascal spoke a fair bit of English and Spanish in addition to his native French and we became friends almost immediately. I can only imagine how funny it must have been to watch us converse, as our dialogue was forever accompanied with a healthy dose of Charades and the occasional splash of Pictionary. At some point while downing one of my four cups of coffee we decided that we should wake up at two o'clock in the morning and push to reach the summit before daybreak. There was no snow and the summit was only at 12,530 feet but it wouldn't keep us from having a true alpine-style ascent -- at least in spirit.

On Top of a Nation

Between the damp and chilly interior of the lodge (inside temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit), the four cups of coffee, and my tremendous excitement, I couldn't sleep at all. I was in bed by 7:30 but spent the entire night reading the giant tome I lugged up the mountain. Unfortunately, the turning of my pages and the snores of one of my three roomies were not the only sounds that night. There was also the constant drum of the rain coming down atop the roof of the lodge.

Two o'clock finally came and I put on the only warm clothes I had brought -- two long-sleeve hiking shirts, a rain jacket, shorts, and the same pair of nylon track pants that I have been wearing since my college days. I would be leaving my pack behind at the lodge and only bringing my camera and a bottle of water for the summit hike. As I made my way down the hall towards the mess area, I noticed the flickering of several small candles. Unbelievable. The woman who so happily prepared dinner for us the previous evening had apparently heard of our plans and woke to cook us breakfast. It was the dead of night and the kindness of these Tico strangers was overwhelming me once again. Fresh coffee, eggs, toast, and fruit all for the equivalent of $2 American. Could a day start any better?

In a word, yes! Pascal and I slipped out of the lodge and onto the trail before the others and there it was -- a full moon and not a cloud to be seen for miles! I had two Petzl LED headlamps with me and didn't need either of them for the first several kilometers. We were hiking above treeline, on the paramo, and a full moon was lighting our way to the summit of this beautiful nation's tallest peak. It was like a dream, only I never dared to think for one second that it could possibly be this good. This is the stuff of fiction or, at the very least, highly embellished travel writing. But it's neither. It's real. I still don't believe my good fortune.

My enthusiasm and fitness combined with Pascal's chain-smoking ways led to us getting separated during the hike. Normally I'm not all that comfortable being in the wilderness alone, and especially at night, but here I felt at home. Maybe it was the knowledge that there were no jaguars or pumas where I was, nor where there any poisonous lizards or snakes at this elevation, but I don't think so. I think it was something deeper. The landscape, the people I met, and maybe even the fact that I hadn't seen an American for three days, all combined to make me feel utterly safe and in control.

There are multiple trails branching off the main track to Chirripo, each leading to other nearby peaks and lakes, but the main path is a short 5 kilometer walk from the lodge. The first three kilometers climb gradually and give your legs plenty of time to wake up. The final two kilometers are a different story altogether. Here the trail kicks up at an angle much like that at the mountain's base and if you hadn't been feeling the elevation's lack of oxygen so far, you will now. The final few hundred meters require a bit of hand-over-hand scrambling up a very steep bit of trail. Although climbing Cerro Chirripo does not require the use of any ropes or special equipment, you certainly don't want to slip and fall.

I reached the summit at 4am and, based on the location of Pascal's headlamp down below, figured I had about 15 minutes alone. I quickly set my camera on the small tripod I brought and photographed myself sitting in front of the summit's signpost and Costa Rican flag. And then it hit me. I made it. I climbed my first semi-major mountain and had ascended to the highest point I've ever been. I was alone, in the night, on top of an entire country, and so long as nobody at the moment was standing atop Guatemala's Volcan Tajumulco (13,816 feet), I was on top of all of Central America.

The full moon was still high in the sky and providing just enough light to make out the silhouettes of the nearby mountains against the blackness of the sky when Pascal arrived. The temperature was still in the low 50's, and my hands were starting to get rather cold, but I was intent on watching the sun rise. A small group of hikers arrived twenty minutes after Pascal, just as the sky started to shift from pure black to a dark midnight blue. To the southeast, a string of mountains rose above a thick blanket of clouds and gave the impression of an fantastical archipelago of sky islands. I stared at them and imagined a distant world with such features, reachable only by personal blimps or hot air balloons. The first ray of the sun over the Atlantic broke the horizon and shined bright in my eye from hundreds of miles away. Thousands, perhaps?

"This is Pura Vida!" I exclaimed. I couldn't help myself and the Costa Rican nephew of the Dutch couple patted me on the back in agreement. "Yes, this is definitely Pura Vida" he said. For the next thirty minutes I worked the summit of Cerro Chirripo taking as many photos as I could from as many different angles and with as many different exposure settings as I could muster. It was a tough shot. The many ridges and peaks of the mountains cast long and hard shadows on the foreground and the sky was ablaze with light. I never had a more challenging scene to photograph. I could have stayed there all day, but reality finally set in. And the reality was this: I was a 20-kilometer hike and an 8-hour drive from where I needed to be by noon the next day. I certainly don't leave much margin for error in my planning. I laughed to myself over this, took one more self photo in front of the signpost for posterity, and headed down.

I was back at the lodge by 7am and after another cup of coffee I packed up my belongings, and bid adios to those who I shared the night with. Most importantly, I found the lady who kept me from dining on Cliff Bars the past 12 hours and thanked her with a tip of 5,000 colones (ten bucks). With any luck, she'll be there cooking for others well into the future and will help to make their time on Cerro Chirripo as comfortable as she did mine.

My descent was pure business. I bundled away the camera, cinched my pack good and tight, and literally ran down the mountain. What took six hours to climb, I descended in less than three. The previous day's rain served to make the middle section of the trail far muckier than it had been on the way up and the number of mosquitoes and other insects had quadrupled. Despite wearing an unhealthy amount of 100% DEET bug-spray, I was bitten several times by the mosquitoes and stung once by what I imagine was a tropical relative of the wasp. This only served to make me quicken my pace and, as my knees can testify, I can assure you that running down a 7,500 feet descent with a thirty-pound pack on your back is not at all good for your joints.

I stepped off the trail and into San Gerardo de Rivas by late morning on Saturday and began the dusty walk back to the Hotel Rio Chirripo where I left my car and some of my travelwear. I stopped at the market with the village's singular phone, but found it in use. There was a teenage girl talking on it and another two of similar age waiting in line. Some things cross all borders and cultures -- I certainly didn't need an interpreter to know that I was not going to be using that phone any time soon, so I continued on. The mercury was soaring by the time I reached the hotel. I let Jose know I was back, took a quick shower, and then went and soaked in the jacuzi before hitting the road.

Time For the Vacation

I was sad to see my time as an independent traveler come to an end, but at the same time I was ready to see Kristin and to spend a week surfing with my friends. I split the drive back to Liberia in two and drove from San Gerardo de Rivas to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital city, on Saturday night. The four hour drive up and over Cerro de Muerto (Mountain of Death) was as nerve-racking as the guidebook lead me to believe, but not as much as getting temporarily lost in the barrios of San Jose while trying to find a hotel. Nevertheless, I knew the airport was northwest of the city and, based on the setting sun's position in the sky, I was able to quickly find my way back in the right direction (although I must confess to running three red lights for fear of stopping in a neighborhood where no gringo should stop).

And although I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, I happily thrust myself back into the comforts of life by pulling into the first hotel I found -- a Ramada Inn. I ate surprisingly good sushi in the hotel restaurant, got an excellent hour-long massage, took a lengthy hot shower, and ordered room service at midnight. I hated myself for going soft and for becoming such a tourist, but damn if it didn't all feel great.

The following week was great. I got to kick it off with some alone time with Kristin and then spent four of the following seven days surfing with friends I've known since high school. When we first started surfing as teenagers we used to look at the photos of the Costa Rican surf in the magazines and talk big about the trips we'd make to ride them. It took 15 years, but it finally happened: we were there. And although we surfed some of the same spots and did many of the same activities Kristin and I did on a previous trip, it was more fun doing it with friends. That's undeniable.

But no trip is complete without expanding one's horizons and scratching something else off that to-do list we all keep tucked away inside our brain. On Wednesday, Dan's wedding day, the five guys in the group chartered a small boat and headed up the coast to surf famed surf breaks Witch's Rock and Ollie's Point. Jumping overboard with a surfboard in hand and paddling into an empty break at Witch's Rock was incredible. There were a few other surfers at different peaks (Witch's Rock is a beach break) but we had our peak right in front of the break's namesake monolith island all to ourselves. And after ninety minutes or so at Witch's Rock, we headed further north to Ollie's Point, one of the world's great point-breaks. Named after disgraced military Colonel, Oliver North, it sits just south of the Nicaraguan border and is believed to be the spot where arms were being smuggled into Central America to aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Regardless of its name and background, the waves were breaking chest to head high with tremendous consistency and we were the only ones there.

We couldn't have asked for a better surf experience: five long-time friends surfing one of the world's great surf breaks completely alone. It was absolutely, one-hundred percent, Pura Vida.