08 Training Plan Commences

It happened right on schedule. I cut way back on my cycling after TransRockies to make time for my annual fall crunch period with work and, as I expected, I put back on the 15 pounds I lost over the course of the racing season last year. Oh well...

I purposely delayed the start of my training plan for 2008 until today in hopes of delaying the burnout I suffered last June. There's still more than enough time to get in good shape before my first "A" race, the Spokane 24-hour race on Memorial Day weekend, but I'm really glad today finally came. I was starting to get pretty anxious, but then I looked at my training notes from last year and saw that I only biked about 8 hours in a 3-week span in the middle of December. Apparently I haven't missed much this year yet. That said, I am a bit concerned that a big part of my success in the Spokane race last year was due to my 3-day trip on the Kokopelli Trail two weeks prior. I'm going to have to replicate that trip again this year with three 6-hour rides in successive days but finding a place to do so that early in the season in the northwest won't be easy. If only there was a 142 mile snow-free trail in the northwest that had 14,000 feet of climbing... sigh.

Nevertheless, today I begin what will likely be a 35-week training plan to take me through the year to the end of August and, hopefully, the Leadville 100 on August 9th (if my entry gets drawn in the lottery) or the Humboldt 12/24 hour race in California on August 16th (if I don't get into Leadville). I even built a couple weeks of recovery into the tail end of the plan so that, should I manage to temper my enthusiasm early and want to race cyclo-cross this year, I'll be in shape to do so. But that's a long way from now. Not to mention would require yet another bike purchase. Best not to tell tell Kristin about that one just yet...

My first priority is to drop a few of the pounds I put back on over the fall. And the best way to do that is by running. The knees and shins will hurt the first one or two days while my body re-conditions itself to the impact (I never thought I'd consider running an impact sport) but then I'll be fine, as always. I'll back off the running as I get closer to the race season, but for now it is as important to me as time on the bike. I'm also taking core strength training a lot more seriously this year. I didn't have any injuries to speak of last year (aside from one suffered while bowling) but increased core strength, especially my back, will certainly help on those long climbs.

And speaking of long climbs, I registered for the Native Planet Classic in the North Cascades on 6/21. It's a 128-mile road ride round-trip from Winthrop to Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park. I believe it has over 10,000 feet of climbing (follows Route 20) and features some pretty incredible scenery -- I've driven the route twice and it's amazing. The ride is organized by the Native Planet organization and raises money for indigenous people around the world. You can learn more about the award-winning group and sign up for the ride (or a shorter version) at http://www.nativeplanet.org/.

So today it begins. I finished cleaning up the garage yesterday to once again make room for my bike and fuid trainer and I already have the "Bending Crank Arms" Spinervals video cued up in the DVD player. This is the video that makes you get off the bike every 15 minutes and do tons of squats. I hate this video.

But it feels so good when it's done.

Inflatable is not an Ethnicity

Not quite out of the Christmas spirit, yet? Need a good way to waste some time while you wait for the New Year's festivities to begin?

If so, look no further than the Tacky Christmas Yards blog.

Very funny, especially the self-submission from the family in Long Island.

Grand Ridge Trail Work

Met up with the Washington Trails Association (WTA) today to help with some trail building being done on the Grand Ridge trails over in Issaquah. Joined the group at 8:30 this morning and, after the mandatory safety lecture on proper tool usage, a dozen or so folks clad in hard-hats and carrying shovels, grub-hoes and pulaskis marched a mile or so down the trail from the road crossing to the new super-secret not-yet-opened reroute trail.

My oh my, what a nice trail. The country and WTA are working to keep this section of trail off-limits for a year or so, so that it will have time to properly settle before all of the hikers, bikers, and horses hit it. Of course, those who know where it is find it hard to wait. And I can't blame them... it's sweet.

The WTA will back out at Grand Ridge in April to work on a re-route around the major mud-bogs where the trail swerves closer to the houses. This stretch of trail is forever wet and muddy, even in the summer, and I will be sure to be back out there to help with the re-route, as those mud-bogs are the primary reason I don't ride this trail as often as I otherwise would.

Dave Schuldt, another BBTCer, posted some pics from the work party on MTBR today, which you can see right here.

The Essentially Required By Law Game of the Year Proclamation

It seems these days that everyone owning a website that devotes even 1% of its content to videogames is required by law to pick their favorite GOTY (that's Game of the Year for the neophytes among you). Normally I go out of my way to break from conformity -- when I'm not being too lazy to go out of my way, that is -- but picking a GOTY winner is just so much fun I can't resist. Besides it allows me to further delude myself under the false assumption that someone, somewhere, actually gives a damn what I have to say.

Those who know me probably know what I'm going to pick. And you might be correct, but it's not as much of a slam-dunk as you might think. Firstly, if I'm going to do this then I have to do this right.

Before I introduce the finalists, allow me to say that I by no means have played every game that came out this year. I've given up on PC gaming and don't have a PS3 nor a Wii. So no, I didn't get to play Mario Galaxy, nor did I play Uncharted or Crysis. And for that matted I didn't play Mass Effect (hated Knights of the Old Republic) nor have I played Rock Band (I'm sick of guitar-games). But I have played a number of other games this year and several of them stick out much further than the rest in my memory.

And now, without further ado, Randomly Generated presents to you our 2007 Finalists for GOTY... naturally in random order:

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

- Available for PC, PSP, DS, and Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

There wasn't a single game that came out this year that I played more than Puzzle Quest. The idea of taking a Bejeweled-like puzzle game and wrapping a role-playing game around it was genius. Factor it the ease of play with the Nintendo DS and the incredibly addictive style and you have a game that literally did not leave my handheld console once for nearly 8 months. Players start out picking a character class and embark on a journey across lands doing all sorts of quests and forging weapons and participating in battles just like any other RPG. The difference is that in Puzzle Quest, all of the battles and other tasks are done through the grid-based crystall-falling puzzle system.


- Available for Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

This Xbox Live Arcade game is a digital remake of the incredibly popular board game of the same name, a game I have seen in the store countless times and never bought because of the need to have at least 3 players. Bringing this game to Live Arcade was a godsend for people like me. The game consists of a hex-based board divvied up into various resources. Players must place their settlements at the intersections of the grid to lay claim to resources and gradually, through the play of resouce cards, build roads and cities to score victory points. Diplomacy and tact is essential as you must constantly barter with other players for the cards you need. You don't wat to burn a player you may later rely on for success.


- Available for PC and Xbox 360.

It's true that I wrote the strategy guide for this game this year and I might be biased or at the least, unusually high on the game because of the depth at which I had to explore it, but I've never found a game so immediately captivating before. The story, the art direction, and yes the gameplay were all above and beyond what I've seen before from the first-person shooter genre. Those who truly explored the world and allowed themselves the time to soak it all in and listen to the audio diaries and piece together some of the back-story no doubt came away with more than those who blasted their way through at warp speed. Normally I don't care about the story in a game and only find it an annoyance needing to be tolerated. But not with Bioshock. The story here, for me, was better than most of the movies and books I experienced in 2007 as well.


I can find a reason to pick each one of these three games as my GOTY, but I can also find a reason why not to pick each of them. And that's what makes this so tough. Puzzle Quest, at it's core, is just Bejeweled. Catan is ultimately just a digitization of a long-lived board game. And ultimately Bioshock's highly-touted morality system was, shall we say, a bit lacking?

But only one game made me wish to delay travel plans in order to stay home and play it and that was Catan. Catan released on Live Arcade the day I was heading off to Utah for a 10-day multi-sport trip and Kristin practically had to unplug the Xbox on me to get me out the door for our 17-hour drive. I don't believe I stopped talking about the game until the Idaho border and even then continued to think about it throughout the week. Catan is the perfect board game involving luck, strategy, and skill. Games can be played in 30 to 40 minutes. Games can be played against human opponents or against AI players of various difficulties. It's a total gem of a game and even if it is just a digital version of an already-existing game, it took this reinventing of it to get it played by people like me -- folks who don't have a couple of roommates sitting around waiting to play games with them. Never was I happier this year with a controller in my hand, then when I was playing Catan.

And because of that I choose Catan for Game of the Year.

Erik in China

My ride-buddy Erik is in China this month for work and had a heck of a day at the Great Wall the other day. He has an interesting post with pictures on his blog which you can read right here.

Get back soon, Erik. We miss you on Tuesdays!

The Colorado Epic?

Now this could be something worth getting excited over, a Colorado multi-day mountain bike race with some support, but not the three-headed monster that is TransRockies.

From cyclingnews.com:

The popularity of multi-day off-road stage racing is on the rise, with events in Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, South Africa, France, Austria and Italy, just to name a few. Soon the United States may be able to add to the list. Planning is underway for a new event in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

"We've been talking about it for 18 months. We're far along in the planning work," said Michael McCormack, Director of Bigfoot Productions, the same company that hosts the Mountain States Cup Events in and near Colorado. "We're in Colorado and the whole state is a destination in mountain biking. There are amazing trails with unbelievable access."

A first edition of the race is possible for 2008 or 2009, but whether it happens at all hinges on winning the approval of land managers and the local trail user community.
"To operate from the position of a done deal is counterproductive," said McCormack about trail access. Referring to the land managers, he added, "They hold the keys."
"There are amazing trails with unbelievable access. We don't have a lot of user conflict like the West Coast has. It's a let's get along kind of dynamic. Here in Breckenridge where I live, every trail group is recognized. Mountain bikers are the largest perhaps."

McCormack explained that some portions of the trail are endangered when it comes to mountain bike access - largely because mountain bikers were not around when many of the trails were created in the 1970s and some of the language used to define or protect endangered areas therefore does not explicitly consider bikes.

McCormack is planning an approach to the race very different from that of the Mountain States Cup (MSC). "It will be small, unlike most of our other events which are participation based. Most events are participation based or sponsorship based.
The MSC has always relied on participation numbers. The Colorado epic can't have big numbers because the impact on other user groups would be inflammatory."
"What we'd like to do is stay small, keep our costs down and keep participation to a size that the trail network can sustain and that is not alarming to other [user] groups. We think we can make it work."

"We're probably not going to subscribe to the model like the TransRockies where there are a lot of a la cart options," said McCormack who envisions that racers will
do a lot of self-supporting between stages. "We think we can provide people with the great information on how to get around within the local community - things like where they can get organic coffee, where they go can go to get Torx bolts for their rotors, where to get the best burrito, etc. We want people to have the info they will need."

A few route options are under consideration but at least one will have to win approval by the forest service in order for the race to happen. McCormack would like to change up the route every year to keep it interesting. He's looking at five days of cross country riding. Getting approval for a race can be a long process. "There are a lot of race promoters out there running races and not everyone is well organized and accountable. One bad promoter out of 100 good ones can really color a land manager's perspective. We battle that perception at every venue and every race. Everyone in our company has put in their time on advocacy over the years and we are brothers in arms although we're not always looked at that way."

So how does a promoter reduce potential user conflict? Plans for the Colorado epic include staging the race Monday through Friday and early morning starts - before many other users are out and about and in time to beat the afternoon thunderstorms. "Some of the terrain we'd like to race is popular and sees 95% of its use on the weekend." In addition having time to travel to and from the race on bookending weekends means easier travel for those coming from afar.
"We have no doubt in our ability to execute a great race on, but we're in the stage of navigating the political waters. We're at a point where we need to fish or cut bait in the next four weeks. We need to have endorsement, if not approval [from land managers] within four weeks. If they say it is possible … then we'll officially announce. If we can't get that, then we'll start planning for 2009."

Expect a race of almost all singletrack covering 250 to 300 miles sometime in late July. The organizers are looking at possible trails in Summit County, Park County, Chaffee County and Eagle County. Thanks to the legacy left behind by those in pursuit of precious metals in the 1850s and 1860s, there is a network of roads and trails throughout the area."I think that our chances of having the race in 2008 are modest. If we can't feel good about everyone being happy at the end, we'll pull back and give ourselves more time," finished McCormack.

My fingers are crossed for a 2009 event. Kristin will be done with school by then and would be able to come along to support, err, cheer me on too. I better plant the seed in Brett's head now so that if they require teammates, I'll have someone I can rely on.

Achievement Guidebook Giveaway Winners

My copies of the "Achievements Unlocked" book arrived today and I searched everybody's Gamertag's on www.mygamercard.net and decided that the owners of the following 5 Gamertags will likely benefit most from the wisdom found within these books.

- Awesomated
- Dack Montana
- Seattlechronic
- SleepyBalrog (yes, I'll even send one to Germany)
- Cyclochip

And now that I have seen the finished product, let me say that I'm really excited about this book. I didn't do it alone, but I'm very proud nonetheless. The book is 320 pages and is roughly 8.5" x 4" in dimensions. It's an unofficial guidebook so it doesn't have any screenshots, but there's plenty of info to help you unlock a ton of Achievements for the best games on the Xbox 360.

In fact, the book covers the following 20 games in detail: Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Conan, Crackdown, Dead Rising, Forza Motorsport 2, Gears of War, Guitar Hero 3, Halo 3, Half-Life 2: Orange Box, Lego Star Wars II, Madden NFL 08, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, NBA 2K8, NCAA Football 08, Overlord, Project Gotham Racing 4, Oblivion, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, and Virtua Fighter 5.

It also includes a chapter I wrote detailing how to score over 10,000 Gamerscore in two weeks with tips on which games to play, which Achievements to focus on, and how many "points per hour" you should be able to average.

I hope everyone finds the book useful. Those who didn't win a copy can get one at Amazon.com via this link. And no, I don't work on royalties. Bummer.

And Now We Wait...

50 miles out and back. Start/Finish in the heart of Leadville @ 10,200’. 90%+ dirt or double track dirt roads. Steep climbs: serious descents. 7 mile climb to the 50 mile turnaround at 12,600 ft. Approximately 14,000’ elevation gain. Greater than 65% average finish rate under the 12 hour limit. Excellent support stations.

Race mementos and t-shirts to all entrants. Under 9 hours – handcrafted gold and silver trophy belt buckle, under 12 hours – handcrafted silver belt buckle. A medal to all finishers and a hooded sweatshirt to finishers under 12 hours. Fantastic awards for gender and age group top finishers. Unique ore cart trophy to the first male and female finisher. Awards ceremony Sunday.

And no, I didn't forget the stamp but thanks for asking.

Also, I should mention for those looking to race in the PNW area, the online registration for the Test of Metal in British Columbia begins at 6pm on January 1st (PST) and they expect to fill all 800 slots in the first hour. Entering may prove more difficult than the race. The same might be said for the Cascade Creampuff 100 in Oregon too which opens registration on January 22nd.

Still no word on registration info for the Ore Crusher race in Squamish. That race is scheduled for May 10th and is the first let of the Squamish Triple Crown series. You can begin registering for GearJammer, the third race in that series, on March 1st. Find info for all three races (including the Test of Metal) right here.

Lastly, the Spokane 24-hour race will be May 24-25th in 2008, but there's no further info available just yet. I was in a conversation on MTBR with one of the race directors and let it be known that the race entry for solo riders was too high considering we can't partake in any of the amenities they offer (too busy racing). I know others feel the same too, especially compared to cheaper events such as the Coolest 24 in Cool, CA. Hopefully they come down off that $250 entry fee for solos this year. I doubt they will though, after all they're the only show in the PNW (outside of Whistler) now that the Oakridge 12/24 hour race has been terminated.

The Hardy Boys

I anticipated writing a post today about my inability to work due to the sound of having our roof pressure-washed and treated. But I simply can't complain about the noise without feeling rather soft. After all, how bad can it be for me inside, wearing slippers and sipping coffee, while staring at a pair of computer monitors and an Xbox 360?

Compare that to the two guys climbing around on our slick-as-snot cedar roof. A roof that is roughly 40-degrees steep and home to several patches of moss.

And did I mention that it's 34 degrees outside and sleeting?

Make all the noise you need to guys. Better you than me.

The Christmas Rundown

It's an odd-numbered year which traditionally means that Kristin and I go away someplace and do what the main characters in John Grisham's book couldn't do. We "Skip Christmas". Well, that's what we have done in the past on these odd-numbered years, but not anymore. This time we opted for pure merriment. Even if the gifts we got for one another never saw any wrapping papers or the under-side of any evergreen trees.

We had a few friends over Monday night for some drinks and games and for the always entertaining sharing of embarrasing stories. My friend Eric and his girlfriend were able to make it on short-notice, which was really great cause I don't see them that often since they moved to Bothell (not to mention his riding style shifted fully to the dark side. He has a disdain for lycra and uphills that matches my own feelings about body armor and "gaps". We are at a friendly impasse). Also in attendace was Kristin's workout buddy and a couple that lives down the road from us, who Kristin knows from work. It was a fun group and we all had a good time skipping ahead to the funny songs on the Flight of the Conchords DVD and playing the game Apples to Apples. And, basically, just standing around talking and getting fit-shaced. The sugar-plum martinis were more of a hit than I expected and I actually ran out of mix. Oh, the humanity!

Flash forward to Christmas morning and Kristin and I did what all couples without children do: we slept in. We had already set up the HD-DVD player we got from Santa on Sunday during one of my daily bouts of procrastination and although we did opt to get one another new snowshoes on Sunday when we returned the rentals, neither of us felt the need to wrap them. So gift-giving was already done. That said, we did get quite a few very nice gifts from visiting family members the previous week. Mostly travel books and various movies in the HD-DVD format. All of which was perfect since they packed well and are what we really wanted.

Anyway, so we had a late breakfast then settled into the couch yesterday morning to watch Shawn of the Dead. We had seen the movie a couple years earlier when it was in theatres and were both super excited when my sister gave it to us as a gift. It's a hysterical take on the zombie movies of yore, set in present-day London. It also gave us a chance to use some of the HD-DVD players' new features, like the ability to "bookmark" favorite scenes on the fly by pressing the "B" button on the remote control while you watch the movie.

Once the movie was done, we harnessed up the dogs, donned our snow-gear, and drove up towards Snoqualmie Pass for some snowshoeing. We had to be careful and go someplace where the snow wouldn't be too deep, otherwise the dogs wouldn't be able to handle it so we parked near the Annette Lake trailhead off Exit 47 on I-90 and hiked up to the Ironhorse Trail and continued east as far as we could go before the snow got too deep for the dogs. The Annette Lake trail was very well-travelled and all of the snow on it was packed firm, but the Ironhorse Trail was another story. There was one set of snowshoe tracks from someone who had been out earlier in the day, but that was it. The dogs would do fine for a while then their strides would require them to step on unbroken snow and cause them to quickly face plant into belly-high snow. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, but we had to eventually turn around and cut the hike to just under 4 miles. This was a good thing since the snow was really coming down and the drive home was starting to get a bit dicey. Lots of spun-out cars and one small collision involving a Camry and Hummer H3. Guess who hit who.

Back home and showered we returned to the proper viewing position in our living room and turned on the movie 300 that came along with the Bourne Supremacy with the HD-DVD player (5 more free coming in the mail). I know I may lose my gamer badge for admitting this, but I never had any interest in seeing the movie 300 and must say that the more I saw gamers posting on message boards about how great the movie was, the more I was certain that it must be awful. Well, I can admit at least in this instance, that sometimes the masses may be worth listening to. The movie wasn't bad. Actually, it was pretty good. Extremely violent with very little plot or dialogue, but well-done. And even Kristin liked it (although I think that had more to do with the dozens of chiseled chests & abs on display).

And if you're wondering, the decision to watch two of the most violent films made in recent years on Christmas wasn't intentional. Kind of ironic and funny, but not intentional. Or was it the suppressed Catholicism in me bubbling to the surface? Moving on...

Unfortunately, we ended up watching so many of the behind-the-scenes bits and bonuses after the movie that we didn't leave the house for dinner until a little after 7pm. The steakhouse we were intent on going to and feasting on appetizers at was already closed. As was every other restaurant we drove past in Bellevue. It seemed the only businesses open were movie theatres and the 7-ll. We were having such a great day, but we suddenly felt like total losers with no place to go.

Sorry, but the world is closed. Please come agan.

And then it hit me. A Christmas Story. Chinese. The Chinese restaurants will be open and I don't care if I have to cut the head off a goose, I'm eating some dinner! It's a Christmas miracle!

Not that we have anything against Chinese, but we opted to call Thai Ginger and sure enough, they were open. Actually, they were packed (and with a very non-Jewish looking crowd, I must add). So we dined on Tom Yum soup and Phad Thai and sticky rice and settled for a Thai iced tea instead of the bourbon I was looking forward to having, but at least we weren't the only people in the place.

And even if we were, we can't be alone as long as we have each other...

And a Thai waitress.

Adults at Play: Snowshoeing!

"Well you guys are the first to hit it this season and we've got over 27 inches of fresh snow for you. You're going to have some fun out there," said one of the instructors at the Steven's Pass Nordic Center. Both he and the woman who sold us our passes ($10 each) were super friendly and very helpful. Kristin and I rented our snowshoes from the new REI in Issaquah the night before and they pointed us in the right direction, gave us a map, and told us to watch for the orange & black streamers and to stay off the cross-country ski trails.

We strapped into the MSR Denali snowshows, put on our Camelbacks, and started the trek into the wild white yonder. We rounded the corner as instructed, saw a pair of snowshoe tracks, and immediately started following them. The guy in the shop told us to be careful where we go since everyone would likely follow the trail we broke throughout the weekend. Well, wouldn't you know it, but a couple that started just minutes before us had already gone the wrong way.

And yes, we naturally followed them.

We rapidly caught a 50's-ish couple making slow progress through thigh-deep snow and took over trail-breaking duty. They were happy to see us pass them and after a few strides, I knew why. The going was slow, challenging, and I could most definitely "feel the burn" from this intense workout. Did I mention we never did this before? Did I mention the reason we specifically went to the Nordic Center was for an easy introduction to snowshoeing on tampered-down trails? This wasn't full-on backcountry (no avalanche concerns) but it was a lot more than we bargained for on our first outing.

And it was awesome.

The Nordic Center may have only received 27" of fresh snow in the past couple days, but that didn't keep me from sinking to my knees, thighs, and occasionally up to my waste (and higher) with every step. And I knew this would happen. Rented equipment is never foolproof and in our case the snowshoes were one-size-fits all. Kristin was getting plenty of float from her shoes, but I outweigh her by roughly 70 pounds and was sinking with every step. This was exhausting work.

"I haven't seen any of those orange and black ribbons yet," Kristin said as if reading my mind. We were supposed to come to a 4-way intersection with a trail sign almost immediately after starting out but following this other couple's tracks had us off target. We didn't know where we were in relation to the trails, but we knew we weren't on any particular routes. Not that there really are any "trails" in the woods in the winter -- you just sort of go where you want and follow the path of least resistance. The forest was absolutely beautiful and although it was cloudy and snowing hard (the mountains would get another 10" of snow today), I just kept post-holing and toe-kicking upwards towards the sound of a creek. I figured it didn't really matter where we were, as long as we stayed off the XC Ski trails.

Kristin and I paused every few minutes to catch our breath, take in the scenery, and strategize about the next direction to go. It was just us, an otherworldly blanket of snow, and a moderately dense forest of evergreens straining under a white fluffy burden. We eventually came to a red streamer tied to a tree, then another, and another and after a glance at the map we realized that we were on an unmarked trail following a creek up to Latham Lake. We finally, after an hour of beautiful but exhausting climbing, came out on an XC trail and made a plan. Kristin's altimeter revealed that we were at 3,300 ft elevation, about 800 feet below the elevation of the lake, so that was a no-go. We decided to push on down the XC trail (we stayed to the edge and there were no tracks) to meet up with a trail called Clickity-Clack, and take that over to the Steppin' Stoker trail. A great plan, albeit a bit ambitious given the conditions and our singular hour of experience.

The going was terrifically easy on the side of the groomed XC trail. It was essentially a forest road with just 4 or 5 inches of snow on it and very compressed. We made great time down this section and were soon back in the woods, "breaking trail" en route to the creek shown in the picture above. The trail rose and fell wildly in short bursts and although the elevation change was seldom more than 20 feet at once, toe-kicking and stepping up what amounts to a 20-foot wall of snow is not easy. Coming down was a blast, but going up was actually kind of scary. At one point I stepped through the snow into a hole and sank all the way to my armpits in snow. I had to dig out my snowshoe and pull my left foot out with my hands because the weight of the snow on top of it was too much to budge. I had been in worse situations snowboarding off the groomers in a blizzard and didn't panic, but there is a distinct helplessness one feels when stuck in extremely deep snow. I imagine it's very much what falling into quicksand would feel like.

Kristin eventually insisted on taking the lead and breaking trail to give me a breather, but I had already post-holed over 2 miles and was ready to poach an XC trail back to the car. She'd lead just long enough to let me catch my breath and take a photo of her -- she was truly beaming with joy the entire 3+ hours we were snowshoeing -- then I'd take over. Much of our hiking was done in silence (aside from the plastic-slapping of the rented shoes) but when we did speak it was with a youthful exuberance that is often missing from our adult lives. Here we were playing in snow up to our waists! Falling over in it, sliding down hills in it, and laughing and smiling throughout it all. Our smiles persisted while our leg muscles screamed; they stayed put on our faces even when confused about the route or unsure of our location; and they even remained in place when a snow-covered log tried to steal the shoes off our feet.

As difficult and tiring as this was, I can't wait to go again. There's a serenity and a beauty to walking through the deep forest in the winter that simply can't be described. To see nothing but your tracks, those of a bobcat or snow hare, and the green and white of a snow-covered evergreen woods is a wonderful thing. And one of the best sights we came across was a singular strand of spider silk hanging down from a branch of a tree with dozens of perfectly-shaped individual snow flakes stuck to it in a row. If this wasn't the most delicate and strikingly beautiful thing in nature, then I want to hear what is.

Nearly 3 miles later, we got back to the car, changed into dry clothes, and realized we forgot jackets for the ride home. Oh well, time to head towards the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth for lunch. We positively nailed the clothing-component of our snowshoe foray and were plenty warm (but not too warm) while snowshoeing but now that we were done, we were cold and hungry. And without coats. Newbies! A hot bowl of winekraut soup and a cup of hot spiced cider provided a quick remedy and as we continued our clockwise tour of the Mountain Loop that connects Steven's Pass, Blewett Pass, and Snoqualmie Pass we continued to witness more and more great scenery. And as we drove through orchard country the sun broke free of the clouds and lit the snow-covered and gnarled pear trees just long enough to make these otherwise grotesque creations look positively beautiful against the mountain backdrop.

Tomorrow we return the rented snowshoes -- which we both felt were lacking in both form and function -- and will likely put a couple pair of Atlas snowshoes into Santa's bag of toys for a holiday trek with the dogs Tuesday morning.

Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park Officially Announced

It's a Festivus Miracle!

Those of us in BBTC have known this was in the works for a while now, but now it's official! Congratulations to the BBTC, King County, and mountain bikers throughout western Washington, as this is going to be an awesome spot to train, race, and have all sorts of two-wheeled fun. And that it will connect with the Grand Ridge trail -- which connect with trails steps from my front door -- makes this even sweeter.

From http://www.bbtc.org/:

Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club (BBTC) is pleased to announce that we have received $150,000 in grants from King County to build a new mountain bike skills course at Duthie Hill Park on the Sammamish Plateau. Design work on the course will start in January, which will include input from both the local riding community and the neighbors surrounding the park. Groundbreaking is scheduled for summer 2008.

This new 120 acre mountain bike course will have something for everyone. There will be a range of new trails and technical features, dirt jumps, a pump track and a cross country race loop. In addition, the new trails will create access to already existing trails at Grand Ridge.

This park will be another first of its kind designed and built by BBTC. This park will become the hub for mountain biking races and events in Western Washington. Duthie Hill Park represents the newest trend in mountain biking-- skills parks close to communities where kids and families of all abilities can ride. Following BBTC’s success with the Colonnade Skills Park in Seattle, we now have Duthie Hill. Soon we hope to have parks like these in every community in Washington State.

You can view more info about the Duthie Hill project, including illustrations detailing TTFs and possible course routes at the Trail Wiki here.

Tomorrow: Something New

For one reason or another, Kristin and I have lost interest in downhill skiing and snowboarding and after taking a year off from winter sports (actually, I mountain biked nearly every day last winter), we've decided to finally give snowshoeing a try. So, tonight we head down to the new REI in Issaquah to pick up our rental shoes (MSR Denalis) and in the morning we're going to head to the Steven's Pass Nordic Center to give it a go on their maintained network of snowshoe trails.

If we enjoy it as much as we expect to then we'll likely hit a little bit of the backcountry on Tuesday morning and then maybe make the drive to Mt. Rainier on New Years Day. Considering the mountain passes around here have gotten over 47" of snow in the past week, we figure the prospects for a white Christmas in the Cascades will be 100%. Pictures will follow!

There's not a lot of snowshoe-specific trails,
but plenty for a couple newbies like us.

American Fake Vomit Business Isn't What it Used to Be

More than you ever wanted to know about the fake vomit industry, care of the Seattle Times:

Especially at a time when the American fake vomit business is not what it used to be: In the 1960s, upward of 60,000 fake vomits were produced annually. These days, Fun Inc. brews up the recipe only a few times a year, making around 7,000 latex barfs annually, as tourist gift shops and joke stores look overseas for cheaper versions (though for $15 a dozen wholesale, Fun Inc.'s prank puke is still a heck of a deal).

Still, Putnam proudly pointed out, "It's the best vomit on the market."

Set your eyes on Fun Inc.'s 5-inch disc of latex and colored foam, marketed as "Whoops — The Most Disgusting Laff Getter," and savor the realism: It is amber-colored and translucent, with tiny bubbles. The texture is soft and sturdy, pliable and complex, with ridges of multihued solid chunks looking like a jagged lunar landscape. It is, the package suggests, perfect for the bathroom, refrigerator, auto seat or sidewalk.

And what other fake vomit comes with this suggestion: "Sprinkle with water to make it look more realistic"?

Fake vomit's pop-cultural significance earned it a reference on "The Simpsons" during Season 4 in the "Last Exit to Springfield" episode. Nuclear plant owner Mr. Burns shuts off power to the city. When he turns it back on, production at Fake Vomit Inc. resumes. Mechanized fake vomit machine squirts; workers rejoice.

"What is the greatest gag of all time? This is it. It is literally a gag item because people react with a sympathetic real gag," said Erick Erickson, a toy historian and former toy designer at Chicago-based Marvin Glass & Associates.

"It's as gross and vile as you can imagine. It's flawlessly convincing. You can't name one that's better."

Although fake vomit is immersed deep enough in the pop-culture zeitgeist to warrant its own Wikipedia entry, its ambiguous history exists only in tales passed around factory floors.

Read the full story (it's chunky) right over here. Just watch where you step.

Broken Guitars, No Wiis, a Trip to NYC

Two of the biggest news stories this holiday season relating to gaming is the shortage of the Nintendo Wii games console and of the startling frequency at which Rock Band guitar controllers break.

On our marathon walk through New York City last Friday, Kristin and I stopped in at the Nintendo World store that opened uptown. The store occupies two floors and is very clean, white, and bright and not wholly unlike the Apple stores you see in malls. The lower floor contains plenty of games, a collection of wildly-colored GameBoy SPs, a Pokemon section, some Nintendo DS stations, and enough accessories and Nintendo-themed watchamacallits to outfit a legion of Nintendo fanboys. There was even enough 8-bit era clothing and jackets to not only make you long for the days of the NES, but to make you think Molly Ringwald was still cute. Long Duk Dong would have loved this place.

Attention Gamer Nerds: You must get the girl
BEFORE wearing jackets like this. And even then, only for laughs.

The second floor of the store was reserved for a number of Wii demo stations. I tried my hand at a number of different stations but, I have to admit, am still utterly uninterested in the Wii. I'm sure I'll eventually have to write a guidebook for a Wii game and perhaps my appreciation will grow when forced to really dive in and get familliar with the controls, but for now, I must say I still find it utterly gimicky. But I am clearly alone in this as the Wii has become the hottest must-have gift since dolls sprouted from cabbage.

So how dire is the Wii shortage? Well, let's put it this way. I was in a store called Nintendo World. To my knowledge, it's the only one in North America, and not only did they not have any Wiis on hand, but I heard the sales clerk refer people to Best Buy. Actually, he recommended going to Best Buy and waiting in line for them to open. Of course, anyone interested (or uninterested but innocently within earshot like myself) has known this has been the situation since the console launched in November of 2006. I've seen one Wii in the wild. The console has been out for over a year and I've seen one. I believe Nintendo does deserve some congratulations for that.

Later in the day we made our way over to Times Square and after a mandatory dash through the Hershey store, we continued south to the MTV store which, oddly enough, seemed to be little more than a hole in the wall with a "stage" set up to promote the game Rock Band which MTV partnered with Harmonix to make. Yes, the same Harmonix that once upon a time created the Guitar Hero franchise. There were a bunch of people in the delapidated space milling around outside the roped off stage and a few clerks/roadies picking people to get up on stage and play the game in the windowfront. One guy jumped up for drums, another grabbed the bass, and I stepped forward to play guitar. I tried to get Kristin to take over vocals, but she refused. It didn't matter though because we couldn't play.

Remember when I said the other major news story in gaming this holiday season was the unreliability of the Rock Band guitars? Well, as it turns out both guitars in the MTV store were broken. This wasn't like some Gamestop-babysitting-kiosk where hundreds of kids are left to play the game all day while they're parents go shopping. This was the MTV Store in Times Square. It was a display roped off and actually managed by people paid to make sure people treat the controllers with care. And both guitars were broken.

I believe that's what we in the biz call "no sale".

So lets recap my NYC trip: Nintendo World doesn't sell Nintendo Wiis. The MTV Store doesn't have working guitars for their own game. But a guy selling scrap-metal statues in Bryant Park has an awesome looking 16" Big Daddy on sale for $300 (my 10" one cost $70, by the way).

Incredible GH3 Story

Thanks to Bill Harris for linking to this. Gamers With Jobs used to be one of my daily reads, but for one reason or another I fell out of touch. I missed a couple days here, a week or so there, and before you know it, I would have totally forgotten about the site, if not for the coffee mug I have.

Nevertheless, the story "Best Buy Bodhisattva" is a terrific reminder for how excellent the quality of writing on that site is and why I need to return. So much great reading online, so little time...

Any fan of Guitar Hero 3 needs to check out this story.

Travels Less Interesting

I'm just about done reading Michael Crichton's book "Travels" and the end can't come fast enough (I'm currently stuck on a story titled Life on the Astral Plane. Yeah, go figure). It's a memoir/travel book with collections of stories from his time in Harvard Medical School and, later, globetrotting around the, er, globe as a slightly confused and dejected man of the 70's and 80's. Mixed in with the travel tales are far too many stories about his fondness for psychics, auras, chakras, and channelers. Not to mention a lengthy essay about his love affair with a cactus.

The book opens with a number of stories about life in medical school and although I didn't believe so at first, this ended up being the most interesting part of the book. From these opening essays (which admittedly do set the stage well in that they give us a real insight into the famed author/director) he begins a series of travels and failed-relationships that are far less interesting than they ought to be. And the reason for this, judging by his own writing, is that Crichton comes across as a whiny, ignorant, confused man. He used his money to travel whimsically to numerous far-flung destinations but apparently refused to do any research or preparation and, ultimately, seems to have no appreciation for where he ever was or what he was doing.

His preparation for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro consisted of buying a new pair of boots (that he didn't break in) and giving up smoking the two days prior to the climb. This story about climbing Kili was one of the ones I was looking forward to reading the most and instead of being a story of adventure and natural beauty, it was just a story of another fool disrespecting the magnitude of what he was trying to do and then whining about his blisters. On another trip Crichton got the privilige of standing atop a hill looking out over the Kali-Gandaki Gorge, the deepest gorge on earth measuring nearly 4 vertical miles from the river below to the peaks of the two mountains flanking it. Instead of being awed, taking a photo, or simply enjoying the view, Crichton simply asked "When's dinner?" And perhaps the coupe-de-grace of his ineptitude was his decision to drive to the very wrong part of Jamaica and allow a convict in line awaiting sentencing at the courthouse to escape into the backseat of his car. He then blamed this on his girlfriend.

And speaking of his love-life, the book is filled with tales of his relationship woes. In fact, the best relationship he seemed to have during this period of his life is the one with the aforementioned cactus in California. I never met the man and I do respect the work he's become a household-name from (i.e. Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain) but not only do I find this book rather unineteresting, but it's written in a very self-destructive tone. Maybe Crichton is aware of this and chose honesty over a facade, but this book makes it very hard to like the man, and even harder to respect him as a traveler.

As someone who enjoys writing travel essays and looks forward to one day publishing my own collection of stories, this book was a good example of how not to go about it. It's whiny. It's boring. And it's clear that without that name on the cover, it would certainly not be getting the shelf-space it's receiving.

Guidebook Giveaway: Achievements Guide

If you've been to Gamestop in the past two months you may have seen a book that listed the Achievements for about 200 or so Xbox 360 games. It was big and bulky and contained lots of cheat codes for PS2 games too. This is not that book. That book merely listed the same in-game information that anyone can gleam from countless websites or by simply popping the disc in and looking at your tv. It didn't actually help you unlock any Achievements, it just told you what they were. It was useless.

No, the book I'm happy to give away four copies of is the one I and my co-authors Joe Epstein, Brad Gallaway, and Jim Morey wrote. Rather than list Achievements for a ton of games that you no longer care about, we wrote detailed Achievement Guides -- 20 to 30 pages per game in most instances -- for the twenty hottest X360 games of winter, 2007 (provided they released before mid-November). The Achievement Guides in the book contain all of the informaition you need to unlock each game's Achievements as fast as you can. Yes, we even tell you about exploits, cheats, and how to boost. We also painstakingly provided lists of item locations for those bastardly collect-a-thon Achievements that are so popular.

I also wrote an additional chapter for the book that covers how to "Earn 10,000 GamerScore in 2 Weeks" for those of you who may be just getting an X360 for Christmas or who never mined any of the older games for quick Achievements. This chapter shows you which games to play, how to play them, and what Achievements to target. Rent or buy used copies of the games mentioned, follow the book's advice for 50 hours, and you'll have an extra 10,000 GamerScore guaranteed (Guarantee void in the case that you really suck at videogames. Or live in Guam.).

If this sounds like a book you're interested in, shoot me an email telling me your X360 Gamertag. I'm going to look up everyone's Gamertags on Xbox.com and the four people who have played the fewest number of games covered in this book will be notified of their winning status and sent a free autographed copy. I haven't received my copies of the book yet. The contest is open until I receive them which should be by the end of the week.

Big Daddy Metal Art

Part of our whirlwind tour through New Jersey this weekend had us walking from 53rd street in New York City (near Rockefeller Center) down to 4th street (near NYU) and along the way, in search of a bathroom -- a theme that would repeat itself many times throughout our epic journey -- we landed in Bryant Park. The sign welcoming visitors to the park informed us that while the park allowed blankets on the "great lawn", plastic tarps were prohibited. A rather peculiar disclosure since a complete circumnavigation and bisection of the park revealed not one solitary blade of grass, let alone anything approaching a lawn. As it turns out, the great lawn is but a fantastic mystery. I digress, as usual...

That didn't mean the diversion into this park wasn't a welcome respite from our beating of feet in the downtown direction. Oh no! Not only were the public bathrooms in the park meticulously maintained and, dare I say, pleasantly aromatic (a theme that would certainly not repeat itself during the day) but the dozens of gift shops and kiosks had many interesting items on display. One such shop sold metal art. You've likely seen them before -- pieces of art resembling dogs or cats or snowmen figures comprised of hundreds of tiny pieces of scrap metal ripped from a junkyard.

Although the highlight of this particular shop was a 7-foot tall Darth Vader that weighed 800 pounds and cost $7,000, what caught my eye most was much smaller and staring from a shelf in the window. At first I refused to believe it was real.

"Is that a Big Daddy?" I said aloud to nobody in particular.

I couldn't believe that mixed in with all of the Star Wars and Aliens figurines would be a Big Daddy. It's just too new. Too niche.

Kristin said she believed it was in fact one of Bioshock's Big Daddies. We went into the tiny shop and found another Big Daddy, albeit a smaller one, on a different shelf near a lamp. It had to be a Big Daddy! What other character has a diving bell, a large tank on its back and massive guns for arms? The guy manning the shop confirmed that it was in fact a Big Daddy. His friend makes the sculptures and was a big fan of Bioshock.

Who isn't?

I really liked the statue but when I went to pick it up and realized it weighed about 12 pounds, I put it right down and was set to leave. There was no way I was going to carry that thing around the city all day.

Kristin would have none of that. "Just get it. You loved that game and you wrote the strategy guide for it. It would look awesome on your desk."

She had a point, but I was still unsure I wanted to splurge for it.

Then she offered to carry it for me, if I was too tired. Mockery is a powerful tool in our relationship and it works well.

Naturally, if I was going to get one of them I would want the larger of the two, but that wasn't going to happen. The larger Big Daddy weighed 30 pounds and cost $300. No thanks, the smaller statue would have to suffice. And I did carry him all day and then through the airport on Sunday and back home to where he now sits on my desk.

I'm not one for action figures or dolls on my desk, but I do enjoy looking at the detail in this Big Daddy. Here's a photo of him near my mouse and keyboard for scale.

You can check out the shop I bought the Big Daddy from at http://www.metalpark.org/. The website shows many of their creations but don't expect to find a Big Daddy on their site just yet. That said, I may be convinced to part with mine for the right price. Hint, hint.

Update: I just noticed that the business card I took from the shop contains a description of the process on it. The sculptures are recycled motorcycle parts and other scrap metal. They're ARC-welded piece by piece and polished with a wire brush before being coated with lacquer.

The Worst Hard Time - DQ Style

I've been meaning to write more about this book since October, but instead all I succeeded in doing was convincing Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality to read it. He did and, as I expected, he enjoyed it very much. And lucky for me, he even beat me to writing up a great summary about it on his site so now I don't have to.

So if you've been waiting for me to get around to posting final impressions about the book, I'm happy to direct you here so you can read Bill's take. And, yes, I liked it every bit as much as he did.

Speaking of reading, I'm currently halfway through "Travels" by Michael Crichton and will no-doubt have a lengthy post about it in the coming week or so.

Are You Saying I Could be Stuck in Wichita?

We leave tonight at 10:05pm for the red-eye to Newark, NJ and wouldn't you know it, but there are two big wintery storms headed towards the northeast.

The "Double Dose of Northeast Storms" article is front-and-center on Accuweather's website. D'oh.

Aside from flying into Newark (and departing on Sunday) right when the two storms should be at their fiercest, we're also planning on taking the train into NYC to meet Kristin's sister for breakfast on Friday. Then renting a car to drive to the northwest corner of NJ for a wedding at a ski hill.

Why do I have this feeling that I'm going to wake up yelling, "Those aren't pillows!" sometime during the next 96 hours? I better keep Kristin close just in case.

Driving in the snow and sleet and whatever doesn't faze me in the least out here. I have my Element and everyone is required to carry chains and/or have studded tires for the mountain passes. But in NJ? In a rental car?

This should be an interesting next couple of days. Fortunately, most of my friends are headed to the hotel for a last-rites pre-party on Friday, then there's an open bar at the wedding, and the after-party is already sounding like it could be the highlight of the weekend.

I just worry for some of my friends making the drive with very-pregnant wives (the guys who got married in Hawaii (2005) and Costa Rica (2006) are already expecting). Speaking of those guys, what's with this wedding being in NJ? In December? I was really liking going to all of these destination weddings. Much better than a banquet hall. Less crowded too!

Oh well, this will be the first traditional wedding we've gone to in about 8 years. I just hope I'm not stuck sitting next to somebody's 80 year-old uncle with a drooling problem. After all, I believe the bride's family is from Tennessee.

Don't Try This With Shaving Cream

From Yahoo:

BERLIN - A man nearly died from alcohol poisoning after quaffing two pints of vodka at an airport security check instead of handing it over to comply with new rules about carrying liquids aboard a plane, police said Wednesday.

The incident occurred Tuesday at the Nuremberg airport, where the 64-year-old man was switching planes on his way home to Dresden from a vacation in Egypt. New airport rules prohibit passengers from carrying larger quantities of liquid onto planes, and he was told at a security check he would have to either throw out the bottle of vodka or pay a fee to have his carry-on bag checked.

Instead, he chugged the vodka — and was quickly unable to stand or otherwise function, police said. A doctor called to the scene determined he had possibly life-threatening alcohol poisoning, and he was sent to a Nuremberg clinic for treatment. The man, whose name was not released, is expected to be able to go home in a few days.

Thank you Remy for passing this along prior to my flight tomorrow night. I'm planning on bringing a bottle of scotch for the wedding after-party and no doubt would have forgotten to put it in my checked luggage.

K1ll U5 All

Merriam-Webster annouced their "Word of the Year" today and would you believe that they are actually taking the idiotic, juvenile, gamer "language" l337-speak seriously? Thank you Kotaku for giving me nightmares.

Yes, that's right. The "Word of 2007" actually has numbers in it.

It's W00t. With zeroes. And essentially boils down to an exclamation of happiness. Webster says it's also an acronym for "we owned the other team" but I have never in my life heard anyone provide that explanation before.

Kristin's mother asked me the other day if I was a gamer. A strange question considering my line of work, but I must say that it's little stories like this that make answering that question in the affirmative all the more difficult. Actually, scratch that. I can't fault gamers for this. After all, they can't help acting their age. Or half of it. No, I blame this on Merriam-Webster. Here's a company specializing in reference books that manages -- err, tries -- to stay relevant in the 21st century in spite of the Internet and what do they do? They puke all over their credibility by making their word of the year a non-word. Yesterday Webster was a household name. A brand you can trust, sort-of-speak. And now?

Let's just say I think they owe the Ebonics people a big apology.

X360 iPod Connectivity Issues

I'm really hoping someone else has this problem and can email me a solution. My sanity is in your hands.

I'm having a bit of a problem with my Xbox 360 as it relates to the music on my iPod. It seems that the console took a bit of a "snapshot" of my iPod when I first connected the two for our Labor Day party and now, no matter how many songs I add to the iPod, no matter how many new playlists I create, and even if I rename the iPod, everytime I reconnect the two the X360 only sees the music and playlists that were there back in September.

I've since added a fair number of songs and albums, created new playlists, and even renamed the iPod device in iTunes in hopes that it would cause the game console to refresh, but no. None of my new content appears in any of the search fields on the X360 dashboard display and none of my new playlists even show up on the list. It's as if my console grew very attached to the order of things back on Labor Day and doesn't dare want to allow them to change. I've tried rebooting the iPod while it was connected; I've tried logging out of my gamer profile and seeing if that would cause it to see it for the first time, and I've even rebooted the X360 while the iPod was connected, but nothing seems to matter.

Please let me know if this has ever happened to you and what you did to fix it. Thanks.

Reason to Smile

I was flipping through the Reuters photos on Yahoo tonight and came across a photo that you may have seen -- it's of a two-year old Indian girl who has four arms and four legs. There's no way to put it mildly, her condition is extremely unsettling and most unpleasant to witness. Yet, I couldn't help but notice how pretty the little girl was and what a nice smile she has. And I thought that if this little girl -- who many would consider a genetic mistake or worse -- could sit and smile for the camera then really what reason does anyone have to be upset?

See the photo here.

It seems a lot of people, myself included, all too often get disproportionately upset about the most inconsequential of tribulations and annoyances in our lives. We grit our teeth, we fume, we complain, and we become momentarily overwrought with sadness, madness, frustration, and anger. And, if we're to be honest, we do it over nothing.

And yet here sits a little girl with four arms and legs, smiling at the world and seemingly not knowing that she should be sad. You just never know when inspiration will cross your path.

How the West Was Won

Again, and again, and again, and again.

The Seahawks clinched their 4th consecutive NFC West Divisional title yesterday with a 42-21 beat-down of the Cardinals (and the game wasn't as close as the score would lead you to believe) and the uncomfortable coughing you heard yesterday was that of the so-called experts who predicted that the Cardinals would win the division this year. The same folks who said the 49ers were primed to win it last year. The Seahawks finished their divisional series with a 5-1 record and were just a single botched handoff away from running the table on their divisional foes for the second time in three years.

Looking ahead, the Seahawks have three games against east-coast teams, all of which have spent much of the season doing their best doormat impersonations. It's on the road to Carolina next week, then home for Baltimore, then back on the road to Atlanta. There is still the chance for a first-round bye if they win these three and Green Bay loses their final three games, but that's highly unlikely. Green Bay should win 2 of their final games barring a catastrophe.

So that means the Seahawks, in all likelihood, will be the 3rd seed in the NFC this year and hosting the second Wildcard team which, as of now, will be the Vikings. Frankly, I'd much rather see us play the Giants or, although unlikely, even the Cardinals again. The Giants will lose in week 17 against the Patriots and should they lose one other game they'll likely fall below the Vikings in the standings and become the 6th seed. They have the most sacks in the league, but the Seahawks are close behind, ranked second. Seattle is also ranked second in interceptions. And we all know how Eli tends to forget which team to throw it to. I'm a whole lot more confident in the Seahawks ability to manhandle the Giants than the Vikings. But I'm still hoping Arizona somehow slips in for that 6th seed. That'd be as good as a 1st round bye. Oh, and before you write me to tell me the Giants are 6-1 on the road, remember that the Giants also had 11 false start penalties the last time they played in Seattle.

And speaking of the Cardinals, the Seattle Times ran a commentary from an Arizona Republic sportswriter about yesterday's game. I'll tell you what; no amount of home-town reporting can make you feel as good about your team's performance as reading the demoralized criticism from the opposing team's columnists. You can read the loser's point of view here.

Lastly, Kristin and I just want to thank the NFL for taking our busy schedules into consideration and for pairing the under-performing Saints (minus Reggie Bush) against the hapless Atlanta Falcons (who are starting a QB who was selling insurance last year) tonight on MNF. For those of us without Tivo, we genuinely appreciate the week off and look forward to watching again in the future.

Tis the Season

We headed out this morning to finish up our Christmas shopping so we'd have everything ready for our drive-by gifting next weekend. We're flying to New Jersey Thursday night on a red-eye for a Saturday wedding and coming home Sunday evening. Aside from going into Manhattan Friday morning for rush-hour breakfast with Kristin's youngest sister, we're hoping to basically see and exchange gifts with most everyone in both our families. And, of course, make it up to a ski hill where the wedding is being held.

Our fingers and toes are already crossed that it's an open bar -- we're going to need it.

So, anyway, the first stop today was the Samsonite outlet store in North Bend. Last year Kristin surprised me with a pair of large luggage pieces and now it was time to get the carry-ons. The guy who runs the store remembered storing the bags for her last year and was a big help. Unfortunately, that didn't keep it from getting weird at the end. First he starts telling us how we remind him of the couple that was arrested recently for identity theft "Really attractive, young couple like yourselves. Looked like they had everything going for them, and it turns out they were thieves. You guys aren't planning on stealing anybody's money are you?" He didn't stop there. He then launches into a rather odd tirade about good-looking people not having to work as hard and that they ruined everything and that if he were governor he'd build as many prisions as there are houses and there'd never be a prison over-crowding problem because he would... I think you get the idea. It's bad enough when people you know start going off on a tangential rant like this, but the salesman at a luggage store? He couldn't hand us the receipt fast enough.

I wish that was the only oddity in today's shopping trip, but oh no.

Even though we live no more than 5 miles from the outlet shops in North Bend, we only every stop in once every year or so. Because of this we kind of felt obligated to at least browse each of the stores. That was, until we noticed the stink. Every store we went into seemed to have an odor. And not a good odor. A stink that doubled in power to the point that as I walked into a puzzle and games store I had to actually spin a 180-degree turn and walk right out. It was a punch in the gut and I nearly gagged. Kristin thought it was just the smell of the bread baking at the Subway sandwich shop and to that I say Quiznos 1, Subway 0.

We continued the parade in and out of the stores looking for the perfect gift but seemingly not really using our heads -- brain damage from the skunk-wheat baking down the hall -- and eventually wandered into a Black & Decker shop because Kristin thought she might be able to find her mother something fun inside. To this my normally sarcastic and chatty self was simply dumbstruck. "Your mother? Something fun? In a Black & Decker factory store?" We left shortly after and eventually made our way to the Kay-Bee Toy Hobby which may have been fun to wander around had it not been for the impenetrable and dare I say visible wall of body odor that greeted us inside. We soon fled to the safety of the gourmet food store and foraged on some fancy pretzels and dips while catching our breath. A nice raspberry-horseradish dip was the precise antivenom for the olfactory dillema we found ourselves in.

Kristin wasn't so sure that the smells were as bad as I thought they were, but she knows I have an extremely acute sense of smell and an equally strong gag-reflex (true story: I once fled a friend's house and threw up in their flower beds because his wife was washing whites... the bleach just about killed me. I was only in their house for about 5 seconds.)

"I swear my sense of smell and taste are so strong, I feel like a blind person sometimes. All of the benefits with none of the annoying side-effects like loss of vision."

We left North Bend and headed down to Bellevue for lunch at The Pumphouse, one of our favorite haunts. We hadn't sat at the bar inside this place in quite a while. The last time we did a guy way to old to be flirting with the waitresses asked the bartender how many months pregnant she was. She wasn't. Good times at The Pumphouse, let me tell you!

After that it was to Circuit City to see if they had any HDMI switcher devices. Our tv only has 1 HDMI input and we currently use it for the DirecTV receiver. Santa is bringing an HD-DVD player that I would like to connect to the tv with an HDMI cable. I'd like to get a switcher so that I can eventually connect my Xbox 360 via HDMI as well. Circuit City had two such projects. Neither had a price tag so we were forced to do the only thing one can do in Circuit City during the holiday season -- we called in a Masai warrior experienced in tracking the elusive beast known as the Circuit City Salesman. He eventually picked up the scent and lead me to a large cardboard box where the wily creature was trying to convince a woman that "Vanilla Sky" is a very, very good movie.

The salesman took the two items and went to scan them for a price. Shortly later he returned to tell us that one switcher was $119 and the other didn't show up in the system so he would check with a manager. He returned five minutes later to tell me that the device I really wanted didn't exist in the store. It was supposed to only be available on the website. They couldn't sell it to me and had to take them all down. They couldn't sell me the item because it didn't exist. The item I was holding. In a store. The item that I was willing to pay up to $100 for. The one that they had several of on the shelf. And in my hand. Didn't exist. And could not be bought.

You would have thought that after all the time I spent looking at the device and reading the package description that I would have noticed the long spiraling horn sticking out of the box's top, but I didn't.

So we handed him back the other switcher and, instead went across the street to Radio Shack to see if they had an HDMI-to-DVI converter (I suddenly remembered our tv had a vacant DVI input). We parked the car and stated to go inside just as Kristin commented that she hates Radio Shack because of how obnoxious all the clerks are.

Sure enough, truer words were never spoken. They had the converter we wanted and I bought an extra HDMI cable as well (Santa opened the box and the HD-DVD player didn't come with any cables; two free movies, but no cables). The cashier tries to sell me on an HDMI cable that can handle up to 1440p. I tell him there's no such thing as 1440p, to which he tries to tell me they'll be widespread within a year. Rubbish. I just sort of smiled and gave him the friendly "you never know" that should have ended the conversation. But no, that didn't work. He then asks what kind of LCD we have. I tell him we have a Samsung DLP even though I know I should have told him it was none of his business what kind of tv we have. So then he starts in with the geekier-than-thou commentary about how "cheap" those types of tvs are and "how it really stinks that you can't hang them on the wall". And that we should have bought an LCD. I would have gotten angry if I hadn't found it terribly amusing that this hotshot Radio Shack cashier was trying to dress me down about my electronics.

In hindsight, I should have asked him what kind of tv his mom had for him in the basement, but the whole time he was talking, all I kept thinking about was Kristin's comment on the way in and a Simpsons episode from years ago where they are about to launch a search for Milhouse (I thnk) and I believe Chief Wiggum says "We need to search every place a lonely, maladjusted kid would ever hang out" and Lisa exclaims that she'll begin the search at Radio Shack.


We eventually finished the rest of our shopping, some half-dozen stores later and had a really good time despite the oddities. We were out all day and really needed to take the dogs for a walk when we got home so we took them the long way over to the coffee shop. There's a restaurant across the street from the Zoka Coffee shop that always has a water bowl out for dogs. Without fail, my dogs rush up to the water bowl, sniff it, then kind of wrinkle their nose and walk away. Apparently our dogs are too good for a communal water bowl. It could be the middle of summer, 90-degrees outside, and their tongues will be hanging on the sidewalk, and they will still not touch the water in that bowl. I've seen it happen. They'll jam their face into a sprinkler, they'll lick from a muddy puddle, but they will never under any circumstance drink from the communal water bowl outside the restaurant. Reminds me of my friends and the bowl of mints at the diners in NJ -- they had some pretty strict rules about those mints. Dog rules.

So we eventually went and got our tree and came home and made dinner. Then we sat around talking for a while. In what's become our typical style of late, we started decorating at 11:30 at night. We eventually finished decorating the tree and putting out all of the decorations and Kristin wanted to know if I was going to hang the lights outside. "Umm, babe, it's two in the morning." Ever understanding, she reminded me that we have floodlights and that I should be able to see just fine.

Ah yes, the holidays. They're officially here.

A Culdcept Miracle Come True

I get out of the shower this morning and Kristin says just matter-of-factly, "So I was talking with this woman at school yesterday about Culdcept SAGA and videogames and I thought she might really be interested in Pikmin. What console is Pikmin on?"

Understandably, I was in mild shock. Sure, Kristin and Ihave played some Culdcept and she was even pretty into the demo of Culdcept SAGA the other night, but the jump from her playing the occasional battle with me to actually talking about the game at biz school with one of her middle-aged female classmates is quite grand. We're talking Snake Canyon gorge (RIP Evil Knievel). After all, Kristin has seldom played any videogame not named Tetris.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up. You were talking with a woman at school about Culdcept? How is this possible?" I was stunned as you can probably imagine. Culdcept is a game so undeniably niche that I would bet 90% of gamerdom hasn't even heard of it. I expect to sell the copy I have for the PS2 for a tidy sum one day -- at least enough for a few extra days in Morocco or some other far-flung locale.

So Kristin explained to me that they there were talking about games and that the woman has some kids who are into games and she's pretty active in monitoring what kinds of games they play and that, from time to time, she enjoys playing with them. They talked about Pikmin and Animal Crossing and Kristin told her all about Culdcept SAGA's blend of luck and strategy and that it was a fun multiplayer game that had the ease of Monopoly with the strategy and collecting-aspect of Magic: The Gathering. I can envision the words rolling off Kristin's tongue even though her only encounter with Magic the Gathering was the one night she and I fumbled around with a starter kit a decade ago.

We continued talking about games with mostly me asking questions about the consoles the woman and her kids have and making recommendations. Later she had me double-check an email she was sending the woman relaying what I presume will be seen as my "expert opinion" even though, frankly, I was just pretty psyched to hear about two adult women talking about videogames not as frightened parents, but as two people genuinely interested in them as a totally normal form of entertainment. Imagine that. Two women taking a break between class at business school talking not about "American Idol" but about Culdcept SAGA.

And Tycho thought he was the only one who cared...

And speaking of women playing games, Kristin's mother really seemed to get into the Big Brain Academy game on my Nintendo DS while she was here visiting last week. Every time she or her husband put it down, the other would quickly grab it and try to better their score. It was pretty coincidental that the day after the left, I log onto Penny-Arcade and see this comic.

Biking In the New Year

No, this isn't a post about going for a midnight ride on New Year's Eve (although now that I mention it...), instead it's about 2008 in general. My self-imposed "mellowing out" period is coming to an end and I'm getting really excited about the upcoming racing year and have planned out a tentative race schedule for next year. There are a couple of question marks on the list thanks to the extreme popularity of some events and my ability to win a lottery spot and/or register in time, but not including any Indie Series events or roadie century rides, this is what I'm tentatively planning:

5/10 - Ore Crusher (Squamish, BC)
5/24 - Round the Clock 24-Hours of Spokane (Spokane, WA)
6/14 - Test of Metal (Squamish, BC)
6/29 - Cascade Creampuff 100 (Oakridge, OR)
7/23 - Gear Jammer (Squamish, BC)
8/09 - Leadville 100 (Leadville, CO)

That will sure keep me busy from May to August and if I mix in a few century rides and maybe, just maybe, RAMROD or STP (going back on everything I said last year), then I might even be able to finish some of them. Maybe. By the way, the three BC races are part of a new series called the Squamish Triple Crown which other than being very hard to enter, should be a lot of fun.

I also just posted the first months-worth of rides in the Endurance Training Series (ETS) that I'm going to be leading through the BBTC. The rides will be each Saturday (unless the Seahawks playoff game is on Saturday) at 10am and those interested can check them out here. I'll be riding several other times each week too, but either on other peoples' rides or by myself.

The first few rides are as follows:

1/05 - Fall City to Tolt-Macdonald Park
1/12 - Snoqualmie Ridge to Tokul West
1/19 - Fort Ebey
1/26 - Snoqualmie Ridge to Grand Ridge

Hopefully the weather cooperates and I get a few other people to show up and suffer along through the rain and mud with me. And hopefully some will show up on a single-speed so I don't have to lead from the rear the whole time.

Forget Fuel Cells, How About Some Brain Cells?

Two driving-related posts in a single day. Go figure.

From http://www.king5.com/

BELLEVUE, Wash. – An Eastside driver stalled the morning commute Wednesday when his Maserati sports car ran out of gas on the middle of the Evergreen Point
Floating Bridge.

The driver called 911 for help since his vehicle was blocking the left lane on the 520 Bridge, according to Washington State Patrol. Dispatchers were told the gas gauge on the Maserati showed empty, but the low fuel light hadn't activated. The driver of the Maserati was unsure which gauge was more accurate.

He requested that fuel be delivered to his sports car. A WSP trooper pushed the Maserati off the bridge and offered to call a tow truck, but the driver declined, and instead walked to a gas station to get fuel.

There's an exotic sports car shop that advertises in the sports section of the Seattle Times every day. Their ad usually lists a dozen or so Ferraris and Maseratis that they have on the lot. The cheapest I've ever noticed was a 2002 Maserati selling for about $47,500. It was in a paper last week. So, for argument's sake, let's just assume that the guy's car was worth between fifty and eighty thousand dollars. Possibly quite more if it was new.

Maybe it's just me, but I would imagine if you've found a way to have that kind of money laying around to invest in an Italian sports car, you'd probably be smart enough to, I don't know, not need a stupid light to tell you when you're about to run out of gas!

Something tells me the humiliation he suffered from having to have the State Patrol push his car across the bridge in the middle of the morning commute will be enough to make sure this guy doesn't go below half a tank ever again.

Enhanced Driver's License

Saw mention of this on the BBTC Listserve and thought it warranted repeating. Washington State is making it possible to purchase an Enhanced Driver's License that doubles as an acceptable passport for crossing back into the US by land/sea, assuming your port of entry is in Washington. There's been a lot of confusion about the deadlines for needing a passport to get back into the US by ground-based transit and whether or not a driver's license and birth certificate will suffice, but this should take a lot of the guesswork out for those who travel by car or ferry to BC frequently. Which many people do because of the proximity to mountain biking and snowboarding in Whistler and beyond.

The following security enhancements included in the EDL/ID are industry best practices:

- An icon on the front of the card to indicate that it is an EDL/ID.

- The back of the card will have a Machine Readable Zone, just like a passport, that can be scanned at the border.

- Passive vicinity radio frequency identification (RFID) will be embedded in the card. This RFID is required by the federal government to facilitate rapid identification checks at the border.

- The RFID tag embedded in the EDL/ID will have a unique reference number and will not contain personal information.

- Data encryption, secure networks, and firewalls will protect the transmission of EDL/ID information.

Not sure if other border states are going to do this, but I imagine if it's successful here in WA, that it won't be long before the more populated states like Michigan and New York follow suit, if they haven't already. The EDL/ID will cost an additional $15 over the price of renewing a regular old driver's license, but it's definitely worth it for those who want the convenience of not bringing a passport along on road-trips to Canada or for those who have no need or desire to have a real passport.

Get more information about the EDL/ID here.

Real Guitars are for Old People

I don't normally watch South Park, but my sister called me up raving about the "Guitar Queer-O" episode so when I saw it available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace, I had to give it a whirl. Glad I did. Kyle and Stan get so good at Guitar Hero that they actually get signed by an agent who plans to help promote them on their way to 1,000,000 points. Before you know it, the two boys are attending "sex and coke" parties with all the famous people in Colorado (i.e. people in furniture commercials) and blowing off Broncos QB Jay Cutler. Eventually the fame becomes a wedge that drives them apart and while Stan turns to the new game Heroin Hero to dull the pain (because, Guitar Hero is naturally just a gateway game), Kyle finds himself playing Guitar Hero ballads in a run-down bowling alley. Every bit as funny as the World of Warcraft episode. Definitely give it a download if you missed it.

In other Xbox Live Marketplace news, I have the HD version of the "Transformers" movie downloading tonight. Last week we downloaded the movie "Next" starring Nicholas Cage, Jessica Biel, and Julianne Moore. Never heard of it before but it was pretty high on the download list, the trailer looked interesting, and did I mention it had Nick Cage and Jessica Biel? It was actually a pretty cool movie. Short, but entertaining.

And if you ever wanted to know what kind of stuff I try really hard to put into my strategy guides, there's a scene in the movie where Cage points to a balcony and tells the FBI guy he's with to aim at the crack between the door and the wall. It's about a two-inch opening and Cage (who can see up to 2:00 into the future) tells him to hold his aim there for the guy who's about to emerge from the door. That's precisely the type of guidance I try to provide in my books. In a way, that's what these books do. We go ahead and explore every possible outcome so you don't have to. We walk past the door and get shot so we can then show you how not to.

And lastly, completely unrelated, but Kristin played a 2-player game of Culdcept SAGA with me tonight. She not only remembered how to play from when we used to play the original 2 years ago, but she was even doing pretty good. I so can't wait for this game to come out!

Handmade Gamer Holiday Cards

Now this is just fantastic. She goes by the handle BSAngel and she's created a series of very artsy handmade greetings cards for gamers. Some of them are romantic such as the "You Are My Favorite Player 2" and the "May I Add You to My More Than Friends List?" ones while others are quite funny. Nothing says my deepest condolences like a Red Ring of Death card made with beads. And what better way to dish out your heartfelt holiday wishes while offering up a couple teabags to your friends? That's right, some of the cards do have gamer-only 1337-speak and teabag references, but all of the cards are very fancy.

Check out BSAngel's card shop here.

Something to Think About

An interesting article about "extreme early retirement".

Read it here. Just don't hold me accountable for any daydreaming-related losses of productivity you suffer afterwards.

Crayon Physics Deluxe (aka Why I Don't Need a PS3)

I have to admit that all of those videos floating around for Little Big Planet had me reconsidering my console monagamy, but not anymore. Crayon Physics Deluxe may not be coming out any time soon (or it might, who knows?) but this nominee for Game of the Year at the Independent Game Festival not only looks to do many of the things LBP can do, but would also be the perfect companion for my new HP fliptop laptop/tablet-PC.

Here's one of the neatest game videos I've seen in a while being demoed on the same HP laptop I recently bought. Way cool.

Aquaria This Week

Aquaria is a 2D underwater adventure game that won last year's grand prize at the Independent Games Festival and is one that I've been secretly hoping would be announced as an XBLA title. No word on a console version just yet, but the game will be available for download on PC this Friday for $30 (which probably rules out a potential XBLA release).

Nevertheless, this game looks fantastic. It has very pleasing visuals, a soothing musical score, and quality voice-acting. Check it out in this new video which even includes a boss battle against "Nautilus Prime".

Ranked Match Achievements -- Just Stop It!

Being that I don't hesitate to sing the praises of the Xbox 360's Achievements system, I feel compelled to give equal time to a very big annoyance that I'm continuing to notice. That is the trend to link multiplayer Achievements to Ranked Match multiplayer play, only then to have to make players leap and dive through hoops in order to actually find a Ranked Match to join. It's been going on since the release of Gears of War, but now it's getting pretty problematic.

Case in point, I was trying to play PGR4 today but instead of enjoying the lush visuals of my Ferrari FXX racing through Shanghai's neon-lit streets, I instead spent nearly 30 minutes staring at a "Please Wait" screen. No exaggeration.

I love this series; it's easily one of my favorite gaming franchises and has been since it was on the Dreamcast. But it's nearly impossible to find a Ranked Match to enter. In order to enter a Ranked Match you have to let the game's matchmaking service pair you with other gamers in a particular format of your choosing. Being that I couldn't ever find anyone to race against when I chose a specific type of event like "Team Championship", I begun selecting the Quick Play option so that I had maximum chance of finding a game. Any mode, any car type, any city. I don't care; just get me in a race.


I succeeded in entering a team race yesterday with two Swedes and a Brit. This morning I entered another match with a couple of French guys and a German guy. Both events were good fun, even though nobody could understand what the other was saying. And I did get to unlock the "Giant Killer" Achievement, but when these events were over I spent the next 30 minutes waiting and waiting and waiting for the matchmaking service to find me a race to enter. I turned the machine off and came back later only to have the same problem. You mean to tell me that at 5pm, PST there isn't one single Ranked Match available for me to play in the entire world? For a game as popular as PGR4? How can that be?

I refuse to believe that I'm the only one in the world suffering from this problem. And making matters worse, a number of the Achievements are linked to Ranked Match play. Just like in Undertow, another game I can't find any Ranked Matches to enter. Both games have plenty of people playing Player Matches, but nobody in Ranked play.

The reason for linking Achievements to Ranked Match gameplay is so that, theoretically, everyone is a stranger and matches are completely random so that everyone has to earn the Achievement without "boosting" for it by trading wins/kills/widgets with a friend. This line of thinking is bogus. Those who feel the need to boost their way to an Achievement are going to find ways to do it no matter how many layers of super-secret protection the servers try to place over the host's name. And who cares? I know this is rather self-contradictory, but who cares if people want to cheat their way to a couple of extra Gamerscore? I don't. I care about Achievements only in that they are a welcome source of positive feedback. I enjoy being told by my Xbox that I'm getting better at a game. And I do love to hear that pop-up box chime. For me, most Achievements provide an ancilliary goal that I actually enjoy trying to earn. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. It doesn't bother me to not earn an Achievement, nor does it bother me if others cheat/boost their way to a high Gamerscore. What does bother me is when a game has a series of Achievements that I can't even attempt to earn. And that is what I'm facing right now with PGR4. And the reason is simple: people want to play with their friends without hassle. Not to single out PGR4, but finding a race to enter today was about as user-friendly of an experience as trying to renew your license at the DMV. I only continued to wait and renew the search over and over because I do enjoy playing the game so much. There's no way I would have waited this long for a game I was only half-interested in.

And yet more and more games are linking their Achievements to Ranked Match play even though the percentage of games being played in Ranked Matches compared to Player Matches is grossly unbalanced. Achievements don't cost the developer anything. They don't matter. They're just something for people to strive for. I don't want them made easy, but I would like them at least accessible. And while I understand that those who like the game will play with or without the Achievements, it does indeed bother me that all of that time I spend playing Player Matches doesn't earn any extra Gamerscore. Especially if I do exactly what the Achievement requires and do it without boosting or cheating.

No, it doesn't matter. And yes, the game is still fun. But isn't it bad enough we have to fork over $60 to play these games; why go and make it impossible for us to get the most out of them?

San Juan Island

Went out to San Juan Island last week with Kristin and her parents who were visiting from NJ. Didn't bring my 20D, but I did have my point-and-shoot with me and got a couple shots I like which you can see below. We spent Friday browsing the shops and galleries in Friday Harbor then did a driving tour around the island to see the American and English Camps from the "Pig War", an alpaca farm, and a vineyard. The islands are definitely more fun with a bike or kayak in tow, but it was a nice way to spend the day nonetheless.

Had dinner at Vinny's in Friday Harbor -- a very good Italian place two blocks from the ferry landing -- and stayed at Harrison House, a B&B with suites instead of singular bedrooms. All in all it was a good trip. We were going to head to Orcas Island on Saturday but the snow was already starting to fall and with zero chance of enjoyable views from atop Mt. Constitution, it really wouldn't have been worth the separate ferry trip. So we took the 11:10 ferry back over to Anacortes and promptly drove to the Skagit River Brewery in Mount Vernon for lunch. I'm not sure how it happened, but I somehow managed to steer us to three different breweries in three days for lunch. Fortunately, the food was very good at all three spots and none of the non-beer drinkers staged a mutiny against my plans. Although I must say that I could do without another pint of the "Watermelon Pislner" at the San Juan Brewery. Everytime I order something different, I'm left wishing I hand't. Oh well...

Here are the photos. Click to see a larger version at my Flickr site. I'll probably add a couple more later, but these are my favorites.


Kristin at Lime Kiln Lighthouse.


Tree at sunset at English Camp.