Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

Went with friends to see BBVD last night at the new Snoqualmie Casino that opened up down the road and man can those guys put on a good show.  Hard to believe the band will be turning 16 years old already this February, but, judging by the three new songs they played from the album they recorded in November, they don't seem to be slowing down much. As an aside, to my Garden State readers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will be playing at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City on January 10th.

The Snoqualmie Casino's ballroom is a nice enough place, but the lack of a dancefloor made the venue a little odd for a swing band. Seats were lined up 21 rows deep and although we had decent seats (row 19 -- there are no bad seats in this place), the four of us chose to stand in the back so we weren't packed in like sardines. Not to mention this gave us more room to dance (i.e. sway back and forth in traditional white-folk fashion). Other than the lack of a dancefloor, the room was good. Nice and cozy, great acoustics, and a pretty large stage with plenty of lights. Drinks were cheap too.

As for the music, BBVD is obviously struggling with the success of the holiday album they released three years ago because they were practically begging to not have to play any holiday songs. It's primarily all they play from November through Christmas, so they were anxious to play some other stuff. Nevertheless, they did play "Mr. Heatmiser", "Is Zat You Santa Clause" (which was actually far less annoying live than on the holiday album), and a BBVD version of "Frosty the Snowman".

Much to Kristin's delight, they also played "I Wanna Be Like You" which is a super-catchy take on the song from The Jungle Book and I was happy to hear "You & Me & the Bottle Makes Three Tonight" which is one of my favorites of theirs. They also played "Minnie the Moocher" and -- I didn't catch the name -- the first song they ever wrote as a band. And they recorded a new album right before going on tour and played three songs from that. One was a bit slow, the others were more up-tempo.

What really stands out about this band, aside from the singing, is the extraordinary horn section. The five guys on sax, trumpet, and trombone took turns rotating to the front of the stage for a nonstop series of phenomenal solos, at one point straying into what can only be described as dueling horns. Not to be outdone, the pianist, drummer, bassist, and, of course, Scotty on vocals/guitar all had their shining moments too.

They're a really fun band to see and certainly attract a wide range of showgoers. I spotted people in the crowd ranging from the barely-legal age of early twenties to more than a few couples of retirement age.

Check them out at www.bbvd.com or look to Ticketmaster for show times.

Challenge Savant and why Rock Band 2 is my GOTY

I just unlocked the "Challenge Savant" Achievement for Rock Band 2, an Achievement I honestly never thought I would come close to popping. This particular Achievement, the loftiest of those relating to the game's Challenge Mode requires completing 25 separate Challenges on Expert difficulty. This might not sound that hard to the truly talented GH/RB veterans, but just two months ago I was barely able to play the easiest songs on Hard mode. Seriously, even the pedestrian "Eye of the Tiger" gave me fits on Hard mode. Expert mode seemed something reserved for true musicians and thirteen year olds with six fingers. It was something I only dared glance at via Youtube.

And it was hearing that oh-so-lovely Achievement Unlocked chime this afternoon that made me realize -- and I was struggling to come up with a choice, trust me -- what my Game of the Year pick would be: Rock Band 2.

The game's greatness has been sung on this site and countless others, but allow allow me to elaborate nonetheless. And if I sound like a broken record (antiquated pun intended), well you have my apologies.

See, here's the deal with RB2. I skipped the first one on account of the drum noise, the price, and the fact that Guitar Hero 3 had completely killed my joy for music games. I played it a ton, but seldom did I turn the game off wanting more. Instead, I typically turned it off uttering a spew of profanity and coming all-too close to throwing the guitar through the television. I can't tell you how many times Kristin had asked me why I continued to play the game if it always makes me so mad. And no, I never did have an answer for her. Short-term memory loss, perhaps?

So my first reason for GOTYing RB2 is that I never turn it off frustrated. Never. I turn it off because I either have to go out, get work done, or -- and this is the most common reason -- because my arm is going to fall off if I play another song. I've played the game for countless hours (hundreds, I'm sure) since the day it released in October and the fact that I have yet to even touch the drums (one 4-song set is all I've done) gives me goosebumps. This is the game that keeps on giving. Glancing at the Achievements list, I still need to complete an "Impossible" Challenge on guitar and vocals and, assuming I ever learn the drums, them too. But then there are still so many Achievements left to go after in Drum Trainer mode, not to mention the "Steel Bladder" Achievement which I'm still trying to convince my friend Allan to tackle with me (84 songs, no pausing, no failing). So the game has staying power.

Another reason I love this game is because of the DLC. At $170, RB2 isn't cheap, but Kristin and I have probably spent at least another hundred dollars on top of that in downloadable music. No other game gets me to do this. When the DLC for GH3 came out, I balked at the price and inflexibility of the song packs being sold. With RB2 I find myself anxiously looking forward to each Tuesday to snag another song or two or ten. Combine the never-ending supply of fresh music with the ability to import 95% of the music from the original Rock Band for $5 and you have a game that we can grow with for the life of the Xbox 360.

Lastly, and this is the most important reason, the game helps you get better. Sure, most games have different difficulty settings and have a curve that ramps up gently then a bit steeper, but they always plateau. Not so with RB2. The game is the porridge to my Goldilocks. No matter how skilled I am or aren't with an instrument there is always a song or a difficulty setting that is too hard, too easy, or just right. And that's so important. With most games, you basically get to a point where everything is either too easy or too hard. With hundreds of songs, four instruments, four difficulty settings, a guitar practice mode, and the drum trainer mode, there is always something too hard and, more importantly, a way to improve. Kristin likes to just play for the sake of having fun and says she doesn't really care about getting better, but I know from watching her that she was stoked to finally be able to play on Medium mode... just as I was to be able to play on Expert. And even though some may not agree, I like to be challenged by my games but I also like for there to be an obvious path to improvement. RB2 has it in spades.

It quite literally just may be the perfect game, and it's definitely the Game of 2008.

Would You Please Get Your Snow Off My Front Porch

Had a spontaneous blizzard party last night with friends of ours who live in the neighborhood and didn't want to brace for the power outage alone, so they came up the hill to our place for drinks, pizza, and presumably, some board games-by-candlelight.

The snow started falling around 4pm and the winds started to pick up shortly thereafter, hitting the expected gusts of 50 to 70-mph after 7pm. The house went dark around 9pm. The power came back on for ten minutes an hour later then went back out for good. We expected it to be out for several days and were stocked up on everything we'd need to get through the long days ahead: three boxes of Zatarain's Dirty Rice mix, a couple pounds of ground beef, and a bottle of 16-year old scotch.

We tipped back our beers, spiked our hot cocoa, lit plenty of candles, and played Cranium until midnight. Just to make it seem like we were taking the situation seriously, we wound up the crank-able emergency radio and tuned in to the emergency weather stations. Yep, high winds and lots of snow. Got it.

With the temperature in the house starting to drop, our friends decided to try and go home to where their own stash of warm clothing and battery-operated DVD players awaited them. Only problem was the near-hurricane force gusts had buried their Jetta in drifts of snow. Always looking for a reason to go and play in the snow, I quickly volunteered to drive them home in the Element.

If you have the opportunity to go driving around at night in a blizzard, I highly recommend it.

The wind was howling, the snow was coming down with such force you couldn't even see the house across the street, and there was nobody on the road. The snow at the end of the driveway was pretty deep, but the main streets were blown free of snow. All except for the road at the base of our friends' driveway. Good times were had, alone on the road in a blizzard at midnight, spinning donuts and powersliding in the snow. Yes, with the top-heavy Element! Although I must say, my snow tires might be a little too good, as it was a bit harder to slide than in Kristin's Civic (yeah, nothing like powersliding on the snow in a hybrid to make the kids point and stare!).

The power company was hard at work all night long, in the cold, during the blizzard, and somehow got the power back on by 5am. Major kudos to the guys from Puget Sound Energy -- those guys rock!

Anyway, I woke up this morning to find 8 inches of snow on our covered front porch and drifts of snow up to three feet high on our front steps. Across the street, the neighbors have barely a trace of snow on their grass or in their driveway.  The cars don't have snow on them. The rooftops are snow-free. It's all in our front walkway. All of it.



Note the lack of snow across the street.

I broke my main shovel digging out the front walkway this morning, then proceeded to break the emergency telescoping shovel I keep in my truck. Nothing like breaking two shovels in twenty minutes shoveling snow that nobody else seems to have.

Now I have to shovel out the garage, and no we didn't leave the door open. The wind was so steady and the snow so light and fluffy, that it blew in from the tiny gap on the side of the garage door. That was a first.




Fetch in the Snow

Reason #238 why dogs are not the top of the food chain.

I was in the yard, playing in the snow with my dogs and decided to throw a snowball at the tiki at the end of the yard. The dogs immediately thought I had a ball and wanted to play fetch, so they gave chase. So, naturally, I made another snowball lobbed it up into the air and watched as Kimo, our male, opened wide for the catch.

He snapped the snowball out of the air and the surprise of getting a mouth of ice-cold snow was instantaneous. And judging by the look on his face, I just know he was thinking, "What have I ever done to deserve that?" He wasn't happy.

Unable to stand missing out on anything, our female started barking and hopping so I threw her a snowball too. 

And this is how jealous our male dog is. Moments after spitting out a snowball and giving me a rather nasty look of disdain, he leapt into the air and intercepted the snowball I threw to Annana.

Then he proceeded to spit it out, bark, and give me another dirty look.  

It doesn't matter how much he doesn't like something, he'll eat/take/hoard anything so long as it means Annana can't get it.

If only he knew how much more he stands to get by sharing with the ladies...

More on Newspapers

Detroit Free Press cancels home delivery.

"We're fighting for our survival," said David Hunke, publisher of the Free Press and CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership, a joint operating agreement between the two papers. "We think its time to take a geometric leap forward in what we've known as newspapers."

Beginning sometime in the first three months of 2009, the two newspapers will provide home delivery on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays only, Hunke said during a news conference in Detroit, Michigan. Papers will be on newsstands every day, and the papers' online offerings will be expanded, he said.

"The dynamics of delivering information to audiences has changed forever due to technology," Hunke said in a statement on the plan.

Costs for paper, ink and fuel to deliver papers were forcing the papers into cuts in newsroom talent that would damage their abilities to report the news, Hunke said. Paying for delivery vehicles to cover 300,000 miles nightly, he said, did not make economic sense at a time when 63 percent of readers have broadband Internet access.


Full story at CNN right here.

Wow. A major (sort-of) US city without a daily newspaper. Who would have thought the day would come?

On the bright side, at least GM and Ford can finally stop all of the "bad press".

Test of Metal Race Course to Become Official Park?

Oh, Squamish, how I love thee...

Test of Metal, Inc. president, Cliff Miller announced this week plans to work to have the Test of Metal race course in Squamish declared the TOM Sports Park.

“We've had a small committee working on this idea for several months,” Miller said, “it is time to get some public support for our proposal.”Miller, who credited long time Test Pilot Richard MacKellar with developing the concept, hopes the creation of the sports park will protect the race course and ensure its long-term viability in Squamish.

“People who mountain bike in Squamish know that our trail system is under constant pressure. This will help to protect for years a piece of the resource that we've developed here,” Miller said.

The 67 kilometre Test of Metal route runs on both private and public property which poses unique obstacles to the plan.

“We've sat down with landowners and explained our concept, and their feedback has been very positive,” said MacKellar.

He said that in the short term, the goal is to have some sections of the trail on public lands in the District of Squamish declared parks and work with private landowners to try secure an uninterrupted route for the race.


Full story here.

And while I'm in the middle of my first mountain-bike related post in quite some time, let me alert everyone that registration for the Test of Metal goes live at 6pm on January 1st. It will fill up in an hour or two, so be at your keyboard with credit card in hand! The race is 6/20/09 and, if the weather is anything like it was last year, it should be another unforgettable event. If you've never done it, sign up. It's unlike any other mountain bike race I've ever seen.

And if you haven't seen it, here's my report from the 2008 race.

Holmgren's Last Game... Down the Drain

The New York Bretts come to town this weekend for what should have been a very significant game between two division leaders. It's not. Instead, it pits the woefully injury-plagued Seahawks at home against a team unable to beat really lousy opposition on the west coast.

But that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of drama. There is a strong chance of snow Saturday night and the temperature will not be much above freezing, two things which always make for unique football. And then there's the fact that this will be the last game (barring unforeseen miracles) that Mike Holmgren coaches in Seattle. Against the QB whom he'll forever be linked to.

Too bad I gave away our tickets to the game.

Well, gave might not be the best word. Bartered is probably a better description.

Flash back a week or so to when we were having the house painted. Kristin was at a study group late one night and I was giving the downstairs bathroom a makeover. I was replacing the cheapie chrome fixtures and hardware with some nice bronze stuff. I did the towel rack, the TP holder, even replaced the vanity light fixture. Now it was time for the faucet. I've swapped out faucets before, it's really not hard, but the builder who did up the pedestal sink muscled the funky wingnuts that hold the faucet in place on so tight that I couldn't possibly get them off. At least not without taking the sink off the wall. Which, of course, would have ruined the new paint job.

So, before I got too pissed and gave up, I called a plumbing company. They send a guy out about 45 minutes later and he tells me to take the sink off the wall and replace the faucet and the pop-up drain would be about $600. He also tells me he won't put back on the cheapie piping and valves that the builder used, but would have to replace it for liability reasons.

I tell him I really don't care if the pop-up drain doesn't match perfectly, it's not worth the money it would cost to take the sink off the wall (pedestals are mounted). All I want to do is to get the faucet off and I was hoping he had some special tool that could get the damn wingnuts off without taking off the sink.

He does in fact have precisely such a tool. And he tells me that he's glad to see someone trying to do it themself and that half of his calls are from people who have a clogged toilet and need him to plunger it. You read that right.

So he tells me that he'll go ahead and get the wingnuts off and give me the new valves and tubing I need to hook the faucet up without using the crap the builder used (which apparently is good for one connection only). He says he'll even show me how to hook it up. I then watch as this big Kevin James looking guy wrestles under the sink for about 15 minutes before he can finally get the wingnuts off.

I'm suddenly feeling a whole lot better after seeing with the right tool and far more strength, the nuts still gave this guy fits. The guy was from New Jersey and we get to talking and as we talk, he generously tells me he's going to help me out a bit more and a bit more.

So then, totally forgetting that it would be Holmgren's last home game as coach of the Seahawks, I offer the tickets to him in exchange for getting the faucet installed and working. He was there. He was already doing half of the work anyway, and at this point, I just wanted it done before Kristin came home.

It was a deal and fifteen minutes later, I gave him a small check for the amount required for the house-call, he told his dispatcher that I refused his services, and he went his way with the tickets. I stayed put with the new faucet and a promise to him that if I ever really need a plumber, he'd be the first I'd call.

Kristin came home an hour later and loved the new makeover I gave the bathroom. I confessed to having to call for a plumber, and she was sad that I traded away the Seahawks tickets to Holmgren's last game, but I'm pretty sure she'd rather have the new faucet.

And, as it turns out, we'll be a lot more comfortable watching from home this week than we'd be out in the cold.

I haven't convinced her yet to turn the heat off this weekend so we can suffer along with the rest of our seatmates. Still working on it.

Home Sweet Home

My buddy Erik who lives a couple blocks over from me took some pretty awesome photos of the 'hood and surrounding mountains today.

See the photos here.

He's been experimenting with HDR photo editing which involves taking multiple photos of the same image and adjusting the tonal curves in Photoshop to get a wide dynamic range. Although it was colder today than it was yesterday, I bet he's glad the wind finally died down so he could get these shots. Wind rustling the trees or flapping a flag would render this technique all but useless.

Good job Erik!

I Actually Watched the VGAs

So you didn't have to...

The annual SpikeTV Video Game Awards show were on tonight and unlike in years past, I actually wanted to watch it this year. Mostly because of the special Gears 2 announcement (new maps available midnight tonight PST), but also because of the Mafia 2 trailer. So I made sure we were home from Christmas shopping in time to watch. I gave myself plenty of time cushion because I had to sort through the hundreds of channels on DirecTV to find out what the hell channel SpikeTV was.

I assure you it wasn't, nor ever will be, in my favorites list.

The show began with a horrendously embarrasing opening musical number of all things that make me hesitate to mention I work in this industry. Jack Black knows no shame. The Gears 2 announcement actually came in the opening minutes -- before Rod and Cliff even accepted the award for "Best Shooter" -- and revealed three new maps. One of them was actually included with the PC version of the original Gears of War, but the other two are new and they look excellent.

Speaking of Best Shooter, the presenter of the award, some UFC guy I think, had the best line of the night when he said, "Well we know the award ain't going to Plaxico Burress." I'm sure the joke went right over the heads of most of the stuffed-in-lockers crowd watching at home, but Kristin and I got a huge laugh out of that one. And it actually seemed a few in the audience did too.

Speaking of which, the audience was seated on couches. A nice classy touch, I thought. Now if only they could get the presenters some envelopes so Doogie Howser doesn't have to stand there like a complete jackass when he forgets the name of the winner. Seriously, he had no idea who won the award and about eight of the most agonizingly long seconds ticked by before the Voice of God blurted out a name. Then again, it was for the Indie Game award so it's not like anyone really cared anyway.

I kid.

The producers of the show made obvious efforts to make this "awards show" more about what was coming out in 2009 (available for pre-order tonight at Gamestop dot com) than what we played in 2008. And by that I mean the highlights of the night were the 20 seconds of pre-rendered, no-way-in-hell-is-it-gameplay-footage promotional videos they showed for games like God of War 3, Fight Night Round 4, GTA IV: something-and-something and a bunch of other shit.

Fight Night Round 4 actually looks pretty good, if only because we can finally play as Mike Tyson back in the era when he was just a rapist and not a face-painted, ear-chewing, child-eating, sideshow. EA is smart to play up the Ali Vs Tyson angle.

Busta Rhymes came on stage to trash-talk pre-rendered trailers and introduced a trailer for Uncharted 2. Okay, so the trailer was all beautiful and rendered within-game-engine. It was still cinematic and wasn't gameplay footage. If it's not player-perspective gameplay footage with HUD, then it's marketing bullshit. I want to see the game advertised as I'll see it when I'm playing it. Everything else should be ignored.

And that includes one of my most-anticipated titles of 2009: Mafia II. The PC version of the original Mafia was one of the best PC games I've ever played (bugs and all) and I'm super excited about the sequel. But there wasn't a millisecond of footage in this trailer that was from player-perspective gameplay. It looked awesome, no doubt about it, but this is a GAME being shown at a game AWARDS show. Either petition the Golden Globes for a special CGI-as-Trailers award or show some damn gameplay!

Before I conclude my rant about the trailers, let me mention the awards for a second. For starters, Pure was robbed. I don't know who the nominees for Best Racing Game were, and if Pure was even nominated, but it should have won it by a mile. On the other hand, I was very happy to see Media Molecule win Best Studio for Little Big Planet. I don't have a PS3 and have never played LBP, but I know about it, I've seen the trailers, I know what the game is capable of and what the goal of the game is and I don't think there was a more ambitious project than LBP, perhaps ever. Then there was the coveted GOTY award. Fallout 3 had already won for Best RPG and Gears of War 2 won Best Shooter and Best Xbox 360 game. That could only mean one thing. You guessed it, GTA IV won Game of the Year. The nominees were all pretty stellar, but I did feel like Fable 2 should have at least been nominated.

But back to the real reason we were all here: the trailers. I wasn't surprised to see/hear no preview of Bioshock 2 at this year's show after Ken Levine was Gamecocked while accepting last year's GOTY, but I was surprised to see the colossal letdown the show wrapped up with. Jack Black, Tim Schaefer, and the dude from Judas Priest were on stage hyping the hell of Brutal Legend. Jack had a flamethrower, Priest was screaching, and Tim Schaefer was apparently there to be martyrd.

How such an incredibly creative industry could allow their big nights to play out in such cheeseball, humiliating ways is beyond me. Heads should roll.

Anyway... Schaefer gets them to roll the most over-hyped trailer in the history of gratuitous self-promotion and my initial reaction? I thought it was a joke. I know people think Schaefer is a freaking mastermind and a creative genius and all, but this looked like nothing but a hodgepodge of simplistic platforming/action/racing gameplay bits taken from a series of Jack Black's own personal wet dreams... dreams about himself. I am one-hundred-percent not kidding when I say that both Kristin and I thought the trailer was a sort of gotcha-joke. And the real trailer was going to roll afterwards.

It wasn't a joke. But I bet I'm not the only one who had their best WTF face on after that. Judging by the crowd's rather tepid response to the trailer, I'm sure of it.

So there you have the 2008 VGA awards in a nutshell. The awards themselves took a major backseat to C-list celebrities (can somebody please tell me who the Kardashians are and why the one named Kim is a presenter?) and over-hyped marketing (available for pre-order tonight on Gamestop dot com), but the awards went to deserving recipients (except for Best Racer) so I guess, at least in that respect, the show was a success.

Oh, and I almost forgot, Peal Jam's entire album "Ten" will be available for Rock Band 2 in March. And that little bit of news was worth watching for.

Groove Assassin

My arm is about to fall off. Who knew playing fake instruments could be so grueling?

I just completed the "Impossible Bass Challenge" on Rock Band 2 (on Hard mode) and, frankly, I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing a song by Dream Theater again, particularly their song "Panic Attack".

How bad was it? Well, let me say that Megadeth and Metallica served up the warm-up songs.

The folks at Harmonix consider "Panic Attack" the hardest song in any Rock Band game so once I saw it on the setlist I dropped down from Expert difficulty to Hard to see what it was like. I already knew "Battery" by Metallica had given me fits on Expert, so there was probably no chance of me passing "Panic Attack" anytime soon.

First attempt: 6% completion.
Second attempt: 73% completion.
Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth attempts: 6% completion each.
Finally, on my seventh attempt, I managed to Overdrive myself to the finish line with a three-star rating.

And yes, the beginning is the hardest part of the song.

I realized afterwards that I could have gotten the Achievement while playing on Easy or Medium difficulty, but honestly, where's the fun in that? If you're going to sidle up to the bar of Impossible Challenges, then you should probably at least be playing with all 5 fret buttons.

But don't set it to Expert unless you have some serious chops, and some mighty strong forearms.

Now it's time to focus on passing 25 challenges on Expert to get another Achievement. 12 challenges down, 13 to go. Unfortunately, I'm running out of challenges I can pass solo while using the bass. I can't play guitar or sing on Expert except for the easiest sets of songs and my drumming ability is non-existent. Also, the band challenges are a no-go since Kristin can't handle higher than Medium mode on guitar and Hard on vocals (primarily because she doesn't know any of the songs).

I'm working on talking my friend Allan into going for the Steel Bladder Achievement -- play the entire on-disc 84 song setlist without pausing. I figure we can pass the guitar back and forth (CAREFULLY!) after every 4 songs or so. It apparently takes 7 hours to complete. Maybe after that I can have his wife do some expert singing for me so I can polish off the other band challenges.

This Holiday is Brought To You By the Following Paid Sponsors...

Friends of ours dragged us (well Kristin did the dragging, I was the dragee) to Redmond Sunday night for their annual holiday extravaganza, Redmond Lights, which, in all honesty, is little more than the Redmond Town Center Stimulus Package dressed in holiday lights. With Microsoft as chief poo-bah. Or Santa. Or God. I couldn't tell.

The reason I say dragged me there is because I have a stubborn inability to see past the commercialized outer layer of these tradition-as-promotion events. I'm not easily fooled, nor do I want to be. Now, maybe I was still just in a foul mood after the Seahawks found yet another heart-rending way to lose a game with a last-minute turnover, but I'd rather spend a night on the Island of Misfit Toys than put on a pretend smile and join in the quote-unquote merriment of this scripted direct-marketing campaign, otherwise known as Redmond Lights. I struggle to "just enjoy myself" in these situations. I place too much value on authenticity for my own good, sometimes.

In all fairness, I imagine even back in the time of our fathers -- the folks who walked uphill both to and from school in shoes with no soles -- that the local town holiday festivals were even then sponsored by Woolworth's or the local pharmacy. I understand that somebody has to pay for the generators powering all of those lights and speakers. I get that, but I'd like to believe they at least tried to hide their intentions back then.

Allow me to elaborate...

We find a parking spot near the Claim Jumper restaurant at Redmond Town Center and promptly get in line near Ruby's Diner to board the shuttle (yellow schoolbus) to the City Hall complex. There are carolers dressed in Dickensian fashion and free hot cocoa (sponsored by Ruby's) and candycanes for the kids.

Redmond has a many-miles long paved riverside trail called the Sammamish River Trail and the mile or so portion from City Hall back to the Redmond Town Center area was lined with electric luminaries, rope-lights, lights displays, and assorted carolers. We make our way past a small Hawaiian ensemble playing island-themed Christmas tunes, past the Mexican mariachi band on the too-loud stage, and over to where the tables at the head of the trail were. We saw people with cups and figured we'd be able to get some hot cocoa for the stroll. After all, it was 40 degrees outside.

That would have been nice. The table was sponsored by Whole Foods and instead of a cup of hot cocoa, we were handed a cup of their new organic butternut squash soup. And a coupon.

Up ahead someone is handing out blinking red lights for us to clip onto our jackets or hats. We continue on down the trail, following the electric luminaries that light the way to a bell choir lined up under a bridge. They were really good and we stood, under the bridge, listening for a couple of tunes. Up ahead was an equally-talented barbershop quartet singing old-timey renditions of Christmas classics.

Onward we marched, finally coming to a large manger-esque construction where a church group was handing out cups of hot cocoa and pamphlets. Heavy on the cocoa, hold the literature. Thank you. The choir was taking a break so we continued on, pausing ever-so-briefly to see the goats in their corral -- Live-action nativity at eleven. Be there! -- and continued on.

Considering the title of the event -- Redmond Lights -- the amount of lights on display and the creativity and scale of those displays was rather abysmal. And what was there hardly justified the noise of the generators. They could have very easily handed out a walking map to different neighborhoods where there were sure to be far better and more abundant lights displays. The portion of the Sammamish River Trail that was used for the event had the lights displays spaced nearly 100 yards apart, and few if any were more than a single yard decoration.

Back at the Redmond Town Center shopping mall things got really interesting. We immediately came across a massive line of people. What sort of holiday cheer could be garnering this many people, we wondered. The answer? Free sushi. Cause nothing says "Seasons Greetings" like a piece of rice-covered raw fish.

The great thing about the friends we were with is that they too value their time and, like us, would rather pay for dinner than wait 20 minutes in a line for consumable swag. So we were able to bypass the many, many lines of people waiting for the free samples of food being handed out (with coupons and flyers, naturally) for each of the RTC restaurants.

The main intersection at RTC had a giant stage and a number of musical acts playing. The stage bore no holiday decorations, no wreaths or lights to speak of. I guess because the decor would have obstructed the public's view of the massive Microsoft banner hanging behind the musicians. Just a theory... Either way, we watched a Jamaican steel-drum band play "Under the Sea" in floral-print Caribean shirts and couldn't help but marvel at the oddity of standing outside, at night, in 40-degree weather, listening to calypso music. At a holiday festival.

We heard a Japanese taiko drum group in the distance, on the corner in front of Macy's, and continued our trek down the road in their direction. And here, at last, we found not one, not two, but three things that truly made the night worthwhile. First, I love taiko drum groups and this one was fantastic. The four of us had no qualms about listening to this group play for several songs. Secondly, they were playing right near the Panera Bread and REI booths and we were able to load up on free (excellent) chocolate chip cookes and cofffee, as well Chukar Cherries from REI while listening to them. And no, I certainly didn't mind the $20 off coupon for REI.

But lastly, perhaps the best part of the whole night, was watching this little two-year old boy as he watched the taiko drummers. He would spend a couple minutes running around in circles and dancing up a storm, then would sit down as close as he possibly could and just stare at the drummers with complete concentration. Then he'd get up and dance some more. The Japanese taiko drummers maintain very stern faces while playing and their routine is almost dance-like. I have no idea how they didn't start laughing or at least crack a smile watching this little boy, but they had to be enjoying it. I know we were.

And maybe that right there is why towns and companies do this sort of thing. Sure, it's easy for a jaded childless thirtysomething like me to find the flaws in promotional events like this and wish things were a bit more genuine -- and I imagine few towns collect as much tax revenue as Redmond does and I'm sure they could, if they wanted, be able to afford to put this on without such heavy reliance on stores and restaurants hawking their wares -- but seeing the little kid dancing was enough of a reminder that even I could realize that kids don't see the coupons and the banners and the blatant attempts to sell, sell, sell. They just see the lights, taste the food, listen to the music, and know that it all means one thing...

If only we could all still be young enough to believe in Santa.

The Death of Print

I recall vividly, some 15 years ago, sitting in a conference room at the Newark Star Ledger, a prominent east coast newspaper, and hearing one of their editors tell a bunch of us "future journalists" that newspapers and magazines would cease to exist in as little as 10 to 15 years. It was 1993, I was the Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper, and I hadn't heard of the Internet yet. Nobody had. But yet, it was sensed.

The editor who spoke to us that day may have been a bit overly pessimistic in his prediction, but here we are, 15 years later, and the Tribune Company (owner of the major papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore) just filed for bankruptcy. They cite drop in readership and advertising as the primary factors for their lack of success. Naturally, the Internet is the root cause of this.

Closer to home, The Seattle Times, a newspaper I have come to admire in the 6+ years I've lived in Washington, is having hard times of its own. We subscribed to the daily paper the week we moved into the duplex we used to rent in Bellevue and I have enjoyed reading the paper every morning since, even if sometimes I only have time for the Sports section. The paper isn't what it was five years ago and I'm sure long-time readers would tell me how unrecognizable it was to them even back then.

It started earlier this year (or was it last?) when the paper made the decision to include more syndicated columnists and to "share" stories from newspapers around the country. I understand the practicality of this. I felt sorry for the journalists who were undoubtedly being laid off, but it makes sense to not re-invent the wheel on ever article. But although I understood the decision, I didn't expect to see stories from outside the Times staff on the front page, and certainly not articles not by Reuters or the AP. As anyone who has ever travelled to the Pacific Northwest knows -- and the Pemco Insurance commercials like to revel in -- people see things a bit differently here. Sure, some stories might be national or global in scope, but the reason we turn to the Seattle Times, or any regional paper for that matter, is to hear the news from someone who sees it through the same lens. Yes, you might call it bias, the f-bomb of journalism, but it's there, even if only through shared-experiences. Reading articles by editors from the New York Times or the Miami Herald just isn't the same. We turn not to CNN or MSNBC, but to the Times for precisely that reason, to get a local's take. At least we used to.

The next big change to the Seattle Times was to the Travel section, or what used to be the Travel section. Now it's the NWTraveler section, or some such thing. The focus shifted a bit more towards close-to-home trips (probably not a bad idea given the economy), but more importantly it shrunk by a couple pages and what is still there is largely advertisements and large photos.

Earlier this fall, the Business section was axed and given a few pages at the end of the front-page section. Sports, mercifully, is still in-tact.

But what might have been the last straw came yesterday. Gone is the Local section. Not entirely, heaven-no. Where else would you put all of those mushy feel-good stories about pets and children? No, they're still there, but the Opinion pages were moved (you guessed it, to the ever-crowded front-page section) and the newly dubbed NWMonday, NWTuesday, etc., etc., section is all about classifieds, comics, and lifestyle fluff pieces. Yes, they do give half-a-page to news from "Around the Sound" but it's certainly not what it was last week. Most of what remains, based on yesterday's and today's examples, feature giant graphics and pictures and very little text. It's like the USA Today. Or Highlights.

Yes, I went there.

Kristin has what is called a "capstone" project for her E-MBA program. It's a year-long project that requires her to spearhead something pretty big at her company. For this project, she has a peer-group with two other students, both of whom are involved in their own capstone projects. One of the women in Kristin's group works for the Seattle Times and, from what I gather, is centering her project around trying to make the paper profitable while also trying to maintain what remains of its once-proud journalistic pedigree. Knowing I'm a daily reader, the woman asked Kristin not to tell me about this week's changes and to report back with my reaction.

My initial reaction wasn't fit for print, that's for sure.

To be perfectly blunt about it, the changes are dumb. The Seattle Times has lost roughly 50% of its subscriber base in the past year or two and advertising is plummeting. Advertisers don't believe that people want to read real news and don't like to advertise in the front-page section nor the business section. They want to advertise near the travel section, movie listings, and next to the photos of kids and bunnies. But the paper can't win. The people that actually give a damn about those fluff pieces and human interest stories can skim a year's worth of them online during their lunch break. Newspapers can't compete in the oddball/sentimental news category with the Internet. Point, set, match. It's over. Promoting those sections of the paper might draw more money in advertising, but it's certainly not going to bring back any readers. Those people are gone.

But what newspapers can do, and need to do for the goodness of the community, is report. Sure, it might be the "boring" section of the paper, but the front-page section and a strong local section, are paramount to retaining readers. I get it, advertisers don't want to advertise there, fine, but if you shortchange these sections, then you're going to kill off the single-best remaining reason to subscribe. And guess what, companies won't advertise if there aren't any subscribers.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The Wall Street Journal may cater to a rather niche market, but last I checked they do get advertisements without running giant fluff pieces. They do it by doing serious news, and by doing it well (albeit with a hefty conservative bias). My point is, if the paper has already lost half of its subscriber base, being more like the Internet to appease advertisers isn't going to keep the subscribers you do have. The herd has been culled, the fittest remain. And those people -- or me at least -- want to read serious articles about real news by Seattle reporters.

If God wanted us to read stories about kids and pets and washed-up celebrity dancing, he wouldn't have invented YouTube.

It Bears Repeating

Leave work and go home to your Xbox and download Blow at once.

You'll be a nicer, happier person for it.

And if that isn't enough reason to do it, then let me assure you that there is a whole lot of game packed into this little $5 Community Games download. The sample you see in the free trial runs out before you even scratch the surface of the game.

Seriously, it's better than many of the XBLA games that cost 2-3x as much. Get it.

Now.

Need More MS Points, Stat!

Between the No Doubt "Singles" album coming out on RB2 tomorrow and Wednesday's release of necessary-download Meteos Wars on XBLA, this is going to be a costly week for those of us peddling in the currency of Xboxdom. Meteos was one of my favorite puzzle games on the Nintendo DS and is a definite play for anyone who enjoys games like Tetris, Bejeweled, or, well, any other game in the falling-blocks category.

Read about it on Eurogamer here.

Also, I just want to take a moment to encourage everyone to check out the Community Games page on the NXE marketplace on their Xbox, particularly the game Blow. Don't even bother with the free trial, just pony up the 400 points and get it. It's the most relaxing, soothing, and utterly beautiful game you might ever play. It's better than many of the full-blown XBLA titles, only it's a part of the XNA service.



The object of the game is to place fans around the area to blow bubbles across the map to an exit. You can adjust the angle, speed, and temperature of the air (to make the bubbles rise and fall) of the fans and get points for being as efficient as possible. All the while an absolutely beautiful soundtrack is playing in the background with a new track for every level. It's a fantastic little game and it's only flaw is that NXE games don't have Achievements. When they're this good, I have no idea why not.

BLT-In-a-Bowl

Step 1: Gather the finest ingredients.

Step 2: Layer croutons, Baconnaise, lettuce, tomato, more croutons,and even more Baconnaise in the bowl.

Step 3: Mix thoroughly.

Step 4: Enjoy while watching your favorite mid-afternoon
television programming.

Baconnaise is manufactured in beautiful Seattle, WA.
I don't feel so well.

Could a Trip to South Korea Be in the Future?

Completely tangential to me posting about the S. Korean student we'll be hosting next month, I saw on Kotaku.com today that the South Korean government is about to pump 350 billion worth of their currency (the won) into the South Korean videogame industry.

The government will invest W350 billion in the computer game industry until 2012 and expand exports to W5 trillion a year.

Culture, Sports and Tourism Minster Yu In-chon in a meeting on Wednesday discussing mid- and long-term plans to develop the game industry said the emerging industry had proved to be a future growth engine by accomplishing its billion-dollar export goal for the year 2010 two years early.

Yu promised to draw up 60 projects including a US$200 billion game fund and help the country become one of three countries with the world's largest game industry together with the U.S. and Japan.


This is a nice change from the typical games-related press coming out of South Korea which usually involves an imbalanced twenty-something dying during a days-long marathon session of Lineage II. Now we just have to hope that they use some of that money to create games that people outside of the peninsula actually want to play... and that piracy doesn't do most of them in.

Color

When we decided to have the entirety of the house interior painted, I didn't foresee this turning into a massive spring-cleaning-in-December undertaking, but that's precisely what it has become. It started Monday afternoon when, without provocation, I decided to start cleaning the windows and blinds. From there, dusting and scrubbing the surface of frames, mementos, and books was next. Then furniture, computer equipment, and appliances. And down the rabbit hole of OCD-ination we tumbled.

The master bedroom and bath are the only rooms left to be painted -- our painters (one of whom I learned was a former professional soccer player who played for the minor league Seattle Sounders) should be here to tackle the job shortly. My office was first on the list and is completely back together and while this is going to sound odd, painting a stark white room a chocolatey brown has actually somehow made the room feel larger. We took the guest bedroom down a couple of shades from burn-your-retinas Crayola yellow and had them paint the main upstairs bath to match it. The kitchen, halls, and bonus room (unlocked via the warp-pipe on 5-3) have received a pleasant coating of a color Mr. Benny Moore calls Goldtone. The master bedroom and bath are going tanning today, while the wall behind our bed will be painted a burgundy color. I expect it to look very nice.

But as I learned yesterday, expectations are not always met.

Take the downstairs bath for instance. Some may call it a powder room. I don't, but you can if you want. Regardless what you call it, it's bright. And green. Not as bright as the white it was yesterday morning, but bright enough to bring up memories of lime-flavored LifeSavers.

I wanted something more akin to a moss green. Kristin wanted something a bit lighter. We compromised. Neither of us hate it. Neither of us love it. It just doesn't seem to match paint chip we selected, although our footy-loving painter assures us it does. I double-checked and he was right. It was the color we picked.

I also realized that a name can be pretty revealing. For example, the name of this rather startling color is "Aurora Borealis". Why we thought a color with that name would be subdued and mossy is beyond me.

It's a lot of things, but subdued is not one of them.

Breaking News

I received word from my colleagues on the east coast this morning that...

BURGER EXPRESS IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!!!!!!!!!

Now Doug has a new reason to visit Carteret again besides dredging up repressed childhood traumas.


You may recall my reaction to this landmark eatery's closing last year. (Surprisingly, that article is the top response when you Google "Burger Express" and has provided a steady stream of visitors to this site, to whom I say Welcome!)

Turkeys and Movies... Surprisingly Not One in the Same

Posting (and working) in the kitchen today. It's barely after 8am and the painters are already here, taking down the window blinds, laying drop cloths and getting ready to paint. I asked them to do my office first so I could move back in as quickly as possible.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Kristin and I spent it at the childhood home of a friend of ours. She grew up on a small farm about 90 minutes northeast of Seattle. Last year our friend had to go up a few days early to slaughter the turkey. There was no killing this year -- the family farm is currently without pigs, turkeys, and cows -- but livestock weren't the only things being shown some mercy this holiday. Thanks to our hosts not having a television, Kristin and I were spared the horror of watching the Cowboys trounce the Seahawks. The Seahawks haven't played on Thanksgiving Day in 20 years. Way to make the wait pay off, boys.

Kristin had a pretty bad cold all weekend and had a ton of schoolwork to get done so I spent most of the weekend playing Gears of War 2 with friends and watching a bunch of movies through the Netflix streaming service on Xbox Live. Not sure what happened, but the picture quality has increased dramatically over the past few days. We watched "Rushmore" one night last week and the quality was borderline unwatchable. Not so this weekend.

Here's what we watched:

Unforgiven - I'm probably the last person to finally see this western starring Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, and Morgan Freeman, but it's worth giving a tip of the ten-gallon hat to. It's not my favorite western -- "Tombstone" still takes that honor -- but it was certainly a good movie. Only thing I thought was a bit odd was how introspective Eastwood's character seemed at the start of the movie. He didn't seem the type to sit around a campfire and talk about his feelings so much, but the writers used these fireside chats as a mechanism for providing the backstory. It works, but it was a bit awkward. People don't often provide detailed accounts of their past when they're sitting next to the person they lived through it with.

Supersize Me - Yes, we all know that eating McDonalds 3 times a day for a month is not good for you. Anybody with two brain cells and a spark can tell you that. Nevertheless, this documentary is still a good watch. The facts and figures were rare, but adequately shocking (i.e. premium salad with dressing has more calories than a Big Mac) and thanks to the filmmaker's decision to go on a nationwide tour of Mickey D's while making the movie, he was able to squeeze in plenty of local tales from around the country without them seeing out of place. Personally, I try to limit my consumption of fast food to just 1-2 times a month. I know it's not good for you and it's very high in fat and calories, but gawdam is it good. Those 99-cent double cheeseburgers at McDonalds are just too damn good and cheap to avoid forever. Skip the Coke.

Fifty First Dates - This was actually on USA, a channel neither Kristin nor I could remember watching in about ten years. There's something about Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore that really makes for a nice rom-com. They were perfect in "The Wedding singer" and they were equally adorable in this movie. That aside, I never had any interest in watching this on account of the marketing for it making it seem far more goofball and "zany" than it really was. The trailers made the movie look really stupid and shallow (and it was to an extent), but we thought it was a lot better than that. Barrymore's character has short-term memory loss and essentially relives the same day over and over every day with the help of her father and brother who painstakingly recreate the same day for her every time she wakes up. This changes when Sandler's character falls for her at a diner. Unfortunately for him, everytime she goes to sleep she wakes up with no recollection of what happened the previous day and with no knowledge of who she met. You can see how this would pose a problem for a guy falling in love with her. Anyway, it's a stupid lighthearted movie with plot holes galore, but it was actually quite enjoyable... at 1am at least.

Life & Debt - Wonder why people get so passionate about the World Trade Organization and "Fair Trade" policies? If so, watch this movie. This documentary covers decades of decline in Jamaica on account of the WTO, International Monetary Fund, and a wealth of bad decision-making and greed on account of Jamaican leaders, international corporations, resorts, and tourists. It's a pretty one-sided portrayal and a bit heavy-handed with the guilt-trips, but it's also very easy to understand the Jamaicans bitterness: they can't possibly compete. I sat there watching the movie and thinking how "easy" the solution is: the Jamaicans simply need to boycot international products and buy local, but that's pretty naive. They live on $2/day and everything that comes off a ship is sold at a fraction of what it would cost to produce it locally. They're in a tough spot, for sure, and while the movie offers no solutions (other than wishing international companies would go away), the movie will definitely help those who don't bring their conscious on vacation with them perhaps travel with a bit more of an open-mind and bit more fairly. Recommended to those who care about what goes on outside our borders.

Solid Gold, Baby!

Longtime Rock Band veterans won't be too impressed by this, but let me just say that I am very prooud of my recent unlocking of the "Solid Gold, Baby" achievement in Rock Band 2. The achievement is unlocked by earning a gold-star rating on a song. Unlike in the Guitar Hero franchise, however, you can't get a gold-star rating by simply getting 100% note completion on any song in any mode (normally, Easy). RB2 only gives out a gold-star rating if you play on Expert mode and earn a score roughly equal to 1.5x the score necessary to trigger a 5-star rating. In short, this requires near-perfect play. You have to not only hit almost every note (certainly can't drop a combo), but you have to also know precisely when to use the Overdrive multipliers to chain them together.

I earned my gold-star rating on "I Think I'm Paranoid" by Garbage, playing Bass on Expert mode. I finished with a 414 combo (entire song) and got the Gold-Stars to trigger on my 4th to last note in the song. That's probably the easiest song to get this achievement on, especially on bass, But it still took my about 6 or 7 tries, not to mention a lot of time spent playing other, harder songs to get my skills up.

I was so excited about my combo, score, and the gold stars that when the song was over I ran up the stairs to get my camera to take a photo of the tv for this inevitable blog post. Unfortunately, I bumped the guitar as I ran up the stairs and advanced past the score screen.

Stupid wireless controllers.

Chainless Single-Speeds

My brother sent me this link to a CNN article about Trek's introduction of two chainless bicycles this winter.

Bjorling said the new belts are a low-maintenance solution to a chain, which has roughly 3,000 parts including all the links and connectors.

Aside from the whisper-quiet ride, the lighter and longer-lasting carbon-fiber composite belts won't rust, can't be cut, won't stretch or slip and won't leave grease marks around your ankles. A guard over the belt-drive and the construction of the system makes getting your pants stuck an unlikely scenario, Bjorling said.

One version of the chainless bike, called the District ($930), is a single-speed, complete with a silver body, orange accents and brown leather seat and handles. The other, called the Soho ($990), is an eight-speed bike that uses an internal hub to adjust the speed rather than gears.

Bicycles have come a long way from the "boneshakers back in the 19th century," said Orin Starn, a professor at Duke University who teaches a course on the anthropology of sports. Some companies have used direct drive or drive shaft bikes that provide some of the same benefits as Trek's chainless bikes, but those models have yet to replace the age-old chain.



It sounds like they're going to primarily be for commuters and cruisers, and not necessarily for mountain biking (not even for single-speed mountain bikes -- my guess is the torque we would apply is just too great), but I like where this is heading. Anything that could reduce maintenance and weight is worth pursuing, so long as the price is reasonable.

Full article here.

Good Things Come in Fours?

Received a bit of great news to cap off the week last week.

First, my trip to Japan is back on. It's beeen pushed out to January and will likely involve a day or two in San Francisco first, then we'll move on to Osaka. I guess it was a good thing I paid the extra bit to expedite my passport renewal, after all.

Second up on the train of good news is that BradyGames renewed my contract for 2009 as-is, without the cuts I was bracing for. I was half-expecting the contract to shrink by one or two books on account of the size of the projects these days and the fact that so many games bunch up into two or three release windows now and don't dribble out all through the year like they used to. It's simply getting more and more difficult to author the quantity of books I've grown accustomed to putting out each year. Getting re-upped at my 2008 numbers was very good news. I'm already working on two titles for 2009 so hopefully it all works out.

In light of the good news about the contract, we decided to finally -- and I really mean finally -- get the rest of the house painted. We painted some accent walls and a guest bedroom over the years, but most of the house is still builder's white, and we both hate it. Problem is, we have a very open floorplan and didn't want to start painting one room (the kitchen for example) because before we knew it, we'd be painting the stairwell and the bonus room upstairs. So I had some guys in for estimates last week and wouldn't you know, the guy I liked the best came back with the cheapest bid. Score! He'll be here the Monday after Thanksgiving to start!

We capped off the run of good luck at the new Snoqualmie Casino Friday night. Things didn't start out too well over at the three-card poker table, where I was down $180, but I rallied on the craps table and came home $300 richer than we left with. For a tribal casino (Connecticut casinos aside), the new Snoqualmie Casino is really nice. Much nicer than the Tulalip and Muckleshoot. I wouldn't say it feels like a Vegas casino or even an Atlantic City casino, but it's much closer than the other local tribal ones are. I will say this about it: everyone was dressed a lot nicer and the bar and lounge were packed at midnight on Friday. The proximity to Seattle and Bellevue is going to be a boon for this place. Everyone was dressed far nicer than I've ever seen people dress at the other casinos around the area (or in some Vegas casinos for that matter), and the ballroom has some pretty good shows already lined up. We're going with friends of ours on December 30th to see the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies, which should be fun.

Oh, and how about a couple of side-notes regarding the estimates we got for the painting.

The first guy to show up actually recognized me (and I recognized him). We've gone mtn biking once or twice together and have seen each other in the bike shop. We got to chatting, talking about bikes and whatnot, and he gives us a bid nearly double what the other two contractors eventually bid. So I'm thinking he's either just really pricey or that he clearly doesn't like me, or maybe because of the Moots, he thought I could afford a bit more. Not sure, but he was way out there with the bid. He did kind of raise his eyebrows and said, "Oh, you have a Moots!" really oddly. I couldn't help but remember an episode of The Cosby Show from the 80s when Bill was trying to buy a new car and his son slipped and let word slip that Bill was a doctor. You could see the dollar signs in the salesman's eyes. Anyway, I'm probably imagining things with the painter, but I can't think of any other reason why he would bid twice the amount of the other guys.

Another snippet from the estimates. Do you want to know how bad the economy is? The Irishman underbid the Mexican.

True story.

Brenden Stuffs the Truck

My plan was to try and write up something poignant and maybe even inspirational about Brenden Foster, but I just don't know what to say that his actions don't already shout. His story goes so far beyond what we expect of ourselves and one another that before you can begin to understand the breadth of his selflessness and the tremendous poise he shows, you have to trick yourself into forgetting he's only eleven years old. And even then, it's still difficult to comprehend. And even harder to believe.

Brenden Foster is an eleven year old in western Washington dying of Leukemia. He suspects he'll be dead within the week. When given an opportunity to have a final wish, Brenden gave it some thought and instead of choosing a trip to Disney Land or a chance to meet his famous athlete like so many other boys his age, Brenden wished to feed the homeless.

His wish was heard around King County and, last Thursday, together with KOMO News, Fred Meyer, and Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline food banks, hundreds of people filled three semi-trucks with food donations and donated over $60,000 in cash... in a single night.

You can read several stories about Brenden's wish here, here, and watch a video here.

The manager of the food bank where I volunteer on Fridays said it best when he said, "I hope my kids grow up to be one-tenth the kid Brenden is."

The world is going to lose a good one this week. Remember Brenden and remember the less fortunate this week of Thanksgiving and give what you can.

Are You Experienced?

November 19th has come and gone and for those of you with an Xbox Live membership, you know what that means: the New Xbox Experience is here. I wasn't aware that NXE was actually an official name for the update, but apparently it is. No longer will we speak of blades and dashboards. Instead, umm, what exactly are we supposed to call this now?

I don't know, but I do know that I like it. As Microsoft has been fond of pointing out over the past 6 months, NXE represents the first time a piece of hardware has gotten what amounts to a complete operating system overhaul -- for free. Those of us who logged on yesterday were greeted with a 7-minute update that completely revamped the interface, streamlined the Marketplace, made navigating our game collections easier (not to mention photos and music), and the ability to create avatars (a system that even an X360 fan like me has to admit pales in comparison with that on Yahoo... and don't get me started on MS wanting to charge for extra clothing and accessories).

The biggest addition, in my opinion anyway, is the partnership between Xbox Live and Netflix. Those with an $8.99 monthly subscription to Netflix can now instantly stream any move from their Netflix instant-play queue directly to their Xbox 360 and start watching it within about 30 or 40 seconds. This is an absolutely phenomenal feature. I may be a bit behind the times when it comes to on-demand programming and instant-play movies, but this is the first time I'm taking advantage of any such service and I have to say the results are mind-boggling. For nine bucks a month we can watch as many movies as we want, when we want, and we only need to wait half a minute for them to start playing.

Of course Sony had to go and play sore-loser and make sure Netflix pulled all of their Sony/Columbia movies from the service, but that's alright as I'm pretty sure if I made it this long without seeing "Spiderman 3", I can go on living without it.

The one drawback to the Netflix streaming is, naturally, your broadband speed. When you select a movie to watch on your Xbox 360, Netflix spends the half a minute or so determining the quality of video it can stream to you. The icon shows four bars and, unfortunately for us, our DSL speed only nets us 2 bars out of 4. Enough to watch the movie instantly, but the video signal is highly compressed. I watched Warren Miller's "Cold Fusion" last night to test out the system and the picture quality left something to be desired. Granted, the film was made in 2001 and wasn't shot in hi-definition, but the picture quality was somewhat disappointing. Certainly watchable -- and enjoyable -- but not the HD movie-watching experience I've gotten used to.

I'm going to update my queue to include some newer movies, hopefully one or two we actually own on HD-DVD (epic fail) to get a sense for the video quality degradation. Either way, it's not the end of the world if the quality suffers. We still get unlimited one-at-a-time discs in the mail with the $8.99 membership and could always just make sure to save the big blockbuster movies for hard-copy rentals and rely on the instant-watching for the movies that don't necessarily need to be seen in HD with surround sound.

What's that you say, all movies need HD and surround sound? I feel ya, bro.

Anyway, I was going to post all of this yesterday but I didn't. And the reason for that is the other aspect of the NXE that I have yet to talk about. As limited as the initial avatar-creation mechanism is (literally about 1% of the options on Yahoo) and as much of a blatant milking of people's MS Points as this is going to be, the inclusion of your avatars as playable characters in some games is an excellent addition. Sure, those of you with a Wii have been able to do it for a while with your Mii characters, but guess what, that meant you had to play the Wii. Now we can do it on the Xbox too.

And the first new game to include the feature is my new BFF, A Kingdom for Keflings. If ever there was a game that made me want to pack a bowl full of tree and just sit and mellow with a bag of Doritos and some Red Vines, then this is that game. KfK is a game that pits you as a giant charged with building a, you guessed it, Kingdom for Keflings. As the giant, you pick up your Keflings and carry them to resources you need harvested. You tell them where you want them to chop wood, mine rock, shear sheep, etc., etc., and show them where to carry said resources when they're done. You then use these resources to build the various parts needed to construct any one of several dozen different building types. There is no combat. There is no adversity. Your kingdom (for Keflings) is never attacked. You just build, grow the town, build some more, re-assign your Keflings to new jobs, and keep on building. Every now and then the Mayor will give you a small quest to complete, but these seldom require anything more difficult than delivering 75 bricks to the factory.

If the game sounds rather boring, it isn't, but you certainly have to be the right type of gamer and in the right mind to play it. Yes, it can get repetitive, and there is absolutely no pressure while playing it, nor is there anything to do that requires any reflexes (save for manipulating the camera) or skill. Like I said, feel free to inhale deeply when playing this game.

Despite the simpleness of it all -- and the fact that the closest I've come to any illegal substances in the past eight years is my old scratched-up copy of a Cypress Hill album -- I played it for four hours yesterday. Two hours in each of two sittings. The game has a therapeutic quality that I find very endearing and, dare I say, addictive. I haven't even touched the multiplayer mode yet (up to four players can work on the same kingdom simultaneously) nor have I played in the sandbox mode just yet. I'm still on that first "New Game with Tutorials" working towards building a castle for my little Keflings.

Hits & Misses

A quick rundown of some movies and games that I really enjoyed or feel currently miss their mark:

HIT
  • The Gears of War 2 single-player campaign was a lot of fun. I played through it on Hardcore mode and there were a few bumps in the road, not to mention a couple scenes in Act 5, but it was very doable without bringing in a co-op partner and quite enjoyable. The final couple of chapters were very fun to play in particular. Definitely a big improvement over the campaign in the first game, even if the dialogue and "story" are still a bit underdeveloped.

  • The Motorcycle Diaries was a really enjoyable movie about Ernesto Guevera and the trip he took when he was still in medical school. He and his cousin traveled from Bueno Aires through Patagonia, and up the eastern coast of Chile to Peru. And let me tell you, these guys were not very well prepared. But the trip was remarkable and quite an awakening for Guevera. It's in Spanish with English subtitles, but very much worth watching.

MISS

  • As much as I absolutely love playing Gears of War 2 with friends on Wednesdays and Friday nights, playing public matches is abhorrent. Not because the game is any different -- it's still the same fantastic gameplay -- but the matchmaking system takes between 2 and 25 minutes to find a game (a game that might only last 4 minutes), the experience is often laggy because of the need to connect people from around the world, and then when you are connected you have to actually communicate with these people. It's a team game so I leave my microphone on in hopes of talking to my teammates, but if ever there was a reason to fear the future of the free world, it's the inane, offensive garbage that gets spewed from the tween-age set on Xbox Live.

  • Talked a friend into going with me to see Quantum of Solace on Saturday on account of me having enjoyed Casino Royale so much and both our wives together at a "crafts party". What a mistake that was. QoS was a huge disappointment. Oh, sure, the action scenes were great but for those of us not needing a Ritalin prescription, it was a huge letdown. It jumped schizophrenically from scene to scene and location to location with little narrative, zero character development, and no backstory. If you didn't see Casino Royale, like my friend Alan didn't, you were completely lost. If you did see Casino Royale, you were probably still more than a bit confused. Casino Royale was an excellent, outstanding stand-alone movie. Quantum of Solace is an MTV-inspired smash-up of fight scenes thrown together with little reasoning and seemingly no connection to the Bond lore. It was a travesty and I have no idea how it is receiving the revies it's getting, other than the reviewers still being in love with Daniel Craig. I also have a newfound reason to be wary of fuel cells.

  • Hate to admit it, but I think I might be done with Fallout 3. Oh, don't get me wrong, the game is absolutely fantastic. It's the save system that I hate. Or my inability to deploy it correctly. I'm not sure what happened -- I saved regularly, trying to cycle through the numerically-ordered saves and overwriting ones I didn't need anymore -- but for whatever reason I now have an Autosave in a very sticky spot with little chance of staying alive and my most recent save other than the AutoSave is from 4 hours prior to where I am in the game. Who knows where my other saves are, but if there's one thing I hate doing, it's replaying portions of a game that I've already completed. Sure, 3 or 4 hours might not be a lot in a game that takes 60+ hours to complete, but the magic is lost. The suspension of disbelief has been shattered. The game became a frustration.

Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go downstairs and continue to frustrate myself with one of the above-mentioned games.

Big Time Bummer

The Japan trip has been canceled. There's a chance we go in the summer, but I would say there is little to no chance of me going in December as planned. The developers we were going to be meeting with had winnowed down the meetings from two solid days of discussion in Osaka to 1 day in Tokyo to 3 hours in Tokyo... as they were getting ready to go to a party.

Not exactly worth the company's time and money to fly us halfway around the world for a three-hour meeting that could probably be accomplished over email. I'm bummed, as I was really looking forward to meeting these guys (creators of some of my favorite games) and, naturally, sight-seeing in Kyoto and Nara would have been cool (had my hostel stays already booked), but I understand. It just doesn't make any sense.

They have two games coming out in 2009, one in February and the other in September. Both are going to be pretty cool, but the September title is going to be huge so that's the one we'll hopefully go to Japan to meet about.

Oh well, I might not be going to Japan in 2 weeks as planned, but all of that time I spent with my nose in the guidebook at least improved my sense of Japanese geography.

Recession Proof?

For all the doom and gloom we heard in October about the economy, it's nice to see that things are not as bad as they could be.

The videogame industry had an 18% increase in net revenue compared to October, 2007.

NPD, which tracks US sales of videogame-releated software and hardware pegged the total sales for the month at $1.3 billion.

Moral of the story: A brand new videogame might cost $60, but it's a far cheaper form of entertainment per hour of enjoyment than anything else. Play it for more than 12 hours and you've already saved money than had you have gone to the movies. Play it for 30, 40 or 50 hours and, well, now your'e talking only $1-2 per hour of entertainment. Keep on playing it and, well, it becomes cheaper than a depression-era trip to the playhouse.

That all said, if I was Sony, I'd come off that $399 pricetag for PS3 right-quick.

Source.

The Gears 2 Guide I Wished I Could Have Written

I'm embarrassed to even link to this article for fear of calling attention to the fact that I do in fact go slumming from time to time, but it really is a diamond in that cesspool of otherwise wasted html.

The article in question is all about how not to be a [genital] while playing Gears of War 2. And it's definitely NSFW. But it's also quite funny.

Consider it mandatory reading for everyone who wants to play online. Especially those of you on my friends list.

I Heart Washington

Being a transplant from the east coast, I get asked all the time if I like living in Washington and the answer is always a resounding YES! And it's for a lot of reasons, really, but here's one from today:

I went into Winthrop today for lunch. Much of the town was shuddered on account of it being "between seasons", not to mention the town having, as of the 2000 census, just a paltry 349 residents. I strolled along the wooden sidewalk to Three Finger Jacks, the oldest saloon in the state. They're open today till 7pm.

I'm nearly four hours from Seattle, clear across the North Cascades and closer to Canada and Idaho than my home. The radio in the bar is playing country music, there's a half-dozen rough-looking locals at the bar, an older couple at one of the tables, and me. I walked through batwing doors to enter.

Everyone is fixated on the monster truck racing on the television. And I mean fixated. They're hooting at the spills, hollering at the massive jumps, and, I'm serious now, actually critiquing the driver's skills. Monster trucks. Seriously.

I overhear the guy with the cowboy hat explain to his friend that almonds have a shell and a skin, to which his friend responded with a rather timeless soliloquy about learning new things every day. They appeared to be about 45 years old.

The bartender, clearly someone's grandmother, wore a relatively short skirt with dark black nylons and a loose-fitting top, and she wore it with a swagger. The phone rings. She answers it, "Hey dear, whazzzzuuuuuup?"

Yes, just like in the commercials from, oh, about 6 years ago.

The cheesesteak I ordered left a lot to be desired. The fries, not too bad.

So, with all of these strikes going against it, how could having lunch in this place possibly give me another reason to be glad to live in Washington, you ask?

The beer.

No matter how far you are from "civilization" in Washington, no matter how low-brow the establishment, no matter how awful the food, and how sketchy the clientele appears, you can always, ALWAYS, count on a better selection of beers on tap than any urban hot spot anywhere else in the country. Good, full-bodied, northwest-brewed beer. No fizzy yellow beer. No mass-produced gimmick beer with novelty containers. Just fresh, locally-brewed, hoppy, goodness.

I mulled over my choices and settled on Deschutes Brewery's Obsidian Stout, on nitro. It's from Oregon (pronounced Or-e-gun, not Or-e-gone).

And as I sipped my pint and ate my sandwich, I too took an interest in the monster trucks on the television. And when one of them flipped and caught fire, I joined the gang in the hurling of mockery and insults at the television.

And when the guy in the cowboy hat complained of his head hurting from learning too many new things today, I nodded along in agreement. I hear you pardna', learnin' can be pretty hard work. Best to ease the pain with another fresh pint, perhaps I'll try the Boundary Bay next...

Surprisingly Tasty

Oh, Maruchan, where were you when I was in college?


Not exactly "camping food" but if there's a better meal out there for a dollar, then I'd like to see it. This noodles and vegetables meal seriously kicks the MSG out of ramen and while the seasoning leaves a little to be desired, it was tasty enough that I actually wished I had bought a second box. I guess I'll just have to eat the Entenman's... sigh.

And for no reason in particular, the official Maruchan commercial:

Thank You Veterans

I was listening to a call-in radio segment on NPR about Veteran's Day yesterday that really got me thinking: aside from my young cousin Ronnie (who I probably shouldn't call Ronnie anymore) who is currently in Officer Training in the Marine Corps at Quantico and my grandfather who sailed in WWII, my family is devoid of people who served in the military. And I'm not talking just about my immediate family, but also my numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, friends, kin-of-friends, and so on. I know for me, while growing up, the military wasn't even something that was considered. Not because I looked down at it -- if I ever did actually give it some thought, I imagined I'd have been scared to death (thank you Hollywood) -- but because it just wasn't something any of the people around me even thought about.

We were on the conveyor belt that carries you from high school right to college and then straight off into either graduate school or the workplace.

Many of the callers on NPR yesterday were very proud of their service but nearly every one of them said that, if asked by a young person today for advice about enlisting, they'd tell them no on account of misguided war policies and lack of care for veterans when they return. What a shame.

One caller though really stuck out. He was a lifer in the Air Force who recently retired and although he too was hesitant to endorse enlisting in the military, he did suggest that many of the social gaps in this country could be gradually filled in if service to the country was mandatory, as it is in Switzerland and Israel. He wasn't talking about a draft, but rather a requirement to commit time to the Americorps or Peace Corps instead of the military. About there being avenues to link all 280 million of us in a common shared-experience; something besides the Super Bowl (my words).

Kristin and I had been talking for a while about possibly entering the Peace Corps after our RTW trip, but I never thought of it as a way to serve the country that has given us so much. I always looked at is as a mechanism to volunteer in a foreign land and gain some unusual life experiences and perspective. I forgot that it is actually designed to help serve America's interests abroad -- and what a nice alternative to bombing runs and sanctions!

I used to compete as a civvy in numerous triathlons and mountain bike races at Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg when I lived in NC and there was a part of me that, after spending a day on the base and seeing the comaraderie shared amongst the enlisted, that was ashamed for having not considered a stint in the military. I was considering joining the National Guard for a while to help out the local area after disasters, then September 11th came and a short while after the National Guard starting being deployed to Iraq. Talk about bait-and-switch!

But current situations aside, what is it about so many of us that grow up in societies that don't even consider giving anything back to this country? What is it about ourselves that makes us think paying taxes is all we need to contribute to the country's security? What is it about so many who think buying a yellow bumper sticker is all they need to do? What is it about the rest of us who don't even do that?

I don't know. I certainly don't have the answer to that one. But I think it's worth giving some thought on this day of honoring those who risked and gave everything for this country -- those who helped make it possible for me to do something so self-absorbingly as to while away the week in a scenic cabin working on a novel.

So, to everyone who served, is serving, or like my cousin, a willing enlistee who looks forward to serving, THANK YOU.

Guidebook Giveaway: Gears of War 2

It's that time again, I have a box of strategy guides for Gears of War 2 sitting here and I'm going to give away three signed copies to the three lucky people whose names I draw from a hat on Friday. I co-wrote this book on-site at Epic Studios (specifically the multiplayer coverage) back in August and if you're interested in securing a copy for yourself, then shoot me an email between now and Friday.


The book is massive (302 pages) and we packed over a hundred pages worth of maps and strategy into the guide just for the multiplayer portion of the game! There's also a fold-out poster with some pretty awesome artwork and all of the biographical info from the in-game collectibles.

I'll be out of town until Friday but will pick the winners when I get home so look to your inbox Friday night to see if you won. Good luck.

Games, Games, and More Games

What a couple of great days it's been. Gears of War 2 came out (officially) at Thursday night, at midnight, and not only did several of my friends rush out and wait in lines with 75 other people to snag a copy, but six of them took Friday off of work to play it all day. And play it we did. For at least 12 hours on Friday. I admit I felt bad about canceling my shift at the food bank on Friday to stay home and play videogames all day, but it really was like a holiday.

My east-coast friends had gotten online at 8am their time and leapt into a game of Horde before I woke up and could join them, so I spent much of Friday morning working through the single player campaign on Hardcore mode. There were a few tricky spots, but I've so far made it to a pretty significant boss battle at the end of Act 4, Chapter 6. The rest of Friday and all day Saturday (quite literally, all day) was spent playing online with the gWp crew I've been inducted into. I had accumulated 1400 kills by Saturday night, before turning it off when Kristin got home from school.

It's really a fantastic game. The story campaign is very well done, with excellent pacing, well-placed checkpoints, and even a bit of emotion which I wasn't expected. Horde mode (5 player co-op) is absolutely fantastic and probably worth the admission fee alone, and the various 5 vs 5 multiplayer modes are a blast. I have to say that between Fallout 3, Rock Band 2, and Gears of War 2, I really don't see me needing to buy another game for six months. Well, maybe Mirror's Edge, but nothing else!

Speaking of Rock Band 2, Kristin and I played for several hours Saturday night after dinner and it's absolutely amazing how much better she has gotten. She now plays guitar on medium difficulty and other than struggling with the guitar solo at the end of "Alive", she's really doing quite well. I was a bit rusty the first couple of sets on guitar while she experimented with the drums, then we switched off. By the end of the night, we each played all four instruments and completed several challenges in the game. It's truly great to have a game that both of us can play, that has such great music, and that has a difficulty curve that isn't only beginner-friendly, but one that really helps you get better. I know I'm probably sounding like a broken record by now, but I have no idea what I was thinking in buying Guitar Hero 3 instead of Rock Band last year. GH3 made me all but give-up on this genre of game -- now I couldn't be happier. And I'm really looking forward to this Tuesday's release of the Foo Fighter's track-pack coming this Tuesday for RB2.

Of course, this all means that my Fallout 3 time has dwindled to nothing. I have to get back into it before I forget what I'm up to in that game and/or forget how to play. It's such a great game, but it's just a testament to how fun and addictive (in a good way) the multiplayer aspects of RB2 and GOW2 are.

Sumimasen, Eigo Wo Hanasemasu Ka?

I came upstairs to write a post about the surprisingly powerful emotional scene I just experienced in Gears of War 2 and to then make my standard Guidebook Giveaway offering (I co-wrote the multiplayer coverage and purposely avoided the single-player during my 10 days at Epic Studios in August), but I instinctually first checked my email. And boy am I glad I did.

I didn't want to say anything until it was a bit more definite, but the election wasn't the only thing that had me lying in bed, smiling all night on Tuesday. I found out earlier that day that there was a significant chance I'd be going to Japan in December for work. And I just got the confirmation.

Japan!!! JAPAN!!!

I always knew there was a possibility with this videogame guidebook-writing gig that I'd possibly get to go overseas, but man was it a bolt out of the blue!

I can't mention which company I'll be visiting or for what game(s) I'm going to be discussing, but I can say that I have a couple days worth of meetings scheduled in Osaka. And will be getting to meet some of the lead designers of a couple of my favorite games. I'm very excited about this.

What I can say, however, is that I can tell Kristin is very jealous and because of school, work, and airfare running about $1300, she won't be able to come along with me. Last week, I was actually a tad bit jealous that she might have to go to Vermont later this month for work, now it turns out I'm going to Asia. Kristin loves to travel every bit as much as I do so I have to try and temper my excitement so as to not rub her nose in it. Which wouldn't be intentional -- she knows I wish she could come along -- but still, I'm going to JAPAN!

Of course, I ran right out on Tuesday afternoon and picked up the Lonely Planet guidebook to Japan, as well as their phrasebook and the Japan edition of the Culture Smart! book. My plan is to see how hectic my schedule becomes between now and the end of the month and try and extend between 3 and 5 days on the backside of the trip to go to Kyoto and Nara to do some proper sightseeing on my own.

Wow.

Excuse me, do you speak english?

Learning to Write

I'm trying to take this novel-writing thing seriously, rather than having it just be another lofty, unchecked task on my lifelong resolutions list like running a four-minute mile, learning a foreign language, or visiting all seven continents. And taking it seriously means that I'm trying to hold off putting black to white for as long as I can, so as to give myself a fighting chance that the ink I spill won't prove insulting to the tree whose pulp now sits in my printer's feed-tray. I don't want that tree to have died in vain, nor do I want to end up one of those whiny unpublished writers you see on message boards who can't get published, but think it's because they don't know know anyone, rather than because -- gasp! -- what they wrote might not be any good.

I realized pretty quickly last week that the aspiring novelist of my teenage years was probably, in some ways, a bit more capable than the thirtysomething version sitting behind the desk today. Eight years of strategy guide writing prefaced by a year of technical writing and six years in college and graduate school doing research in the sciences has left me with a bit more of an analytical mind than I used to have. I've expelled most of the adjectives and adverbs that I once knew and I learned to write in shorter, some might say, choppier sentences. In fact, you could even say that nearly all of the writing I've done over the past fifteen years has purposely run counter to the old writer's axiom of show don't tell. The purpose of a strategy guide is to tell; showing equates to spoilers. It's time to stretch this writer's creative legs and crack open that thesaurus that's been sitting on the shelf, barely touched for the past ten years.

All is not hopeless though. I have a topic, I've mapped out the plot -- it's an adventure-thriller and that's all I'll say -- and I've already come up with names for the characters and begun work on character profiles. The King County Library System is currently gathering up a half-dozen books for my research and I spent an hour last night on O-Net, the government's occupational information network, doing some extra research on job tasks/requirements for my protagonist and one other character. The goal is to have a detailed outline and all character profiles completed, along with quite a bit of research, before I head to my isolation-cabin in Winthrop on the tenth. It helps that I've been mulling this plot over in my head for three years and have been to the location where the story is set.

Of course, every author has to do this sort of groundwork before beginning their tale. The fact that the last time I've written fiction was back around the same time I was making my first early attempts at unhooking a girlfriend's bra doesn't bode well. And though I can't say I gave up the former for the latter, I'd bet on my talents at removing undergarments before I would lay coin on my ability to referee troublesome characters with interesting dialogue. And I know this. That's why I've spent the past few days studying the craft. And man do I hate using pretentious words like that.

My first step was to quickly re-read Bob Mayer's "The Novel Writer's Toolkit", then set to scavenging all of the writing articles on Suite 101. This raised more questions than yielded answers, but at least it left me somewhat aware of where my weaknesses would be: beginnings, characters, and dialogue. Oh, that's all?

This brought me to Barnes and Noble where I quickly read the "Characters & Points of View" book by the Writer's Digest over coffee and decided it didn't warrant a purchase -- it wasn't different enough from Mayer's book that I already owned. Instead, I picked up the outstanding book "Hooked" by Les Edgerton and proceeded to read, highlight, flag, and take notes from all 240 pages over the next 18 hours -- with some time thrown in for playing Rock Band and the honing of my aforementioned skills at taking off woman's underwear.

"Hooked" is an entire book devoted to perfecting the beginnings of short stories and novels through the use of dozens of examples of successful stories. Not only does Edgerton really do a great job of conveying what should and shouldn't appear in the opening sentences from a technical and stylistic point of view, but the lengthy Q&A he conducts with a number of literary agents and editors in the back of the book really adds some heft to what he's saying. And the drumbeat throughout the entire book is that you essentially have one or two paragraphs to grab the agent's attention, or you're thrown into the rejection pile. This really hit home: one agent said her relatively small agency receives up to 1500 manuscripts to read every month and according to Edgerton, 90% of manuscripts being written are fiction but publishers only devote 20% of their printing schedule to fiction. The competition is extremely fierce. If the first sentence or two don't immediately grab the reader's attention, you haven't got a chance.

So "Hooked" was great, but I also picked up "Plot & Structure" and "Dialogue", both published by the Writer's Digest. These are more technique books, both of which include some short exercises and plenty of examples. It does feel a bit like I'm back in college taking a creative writing course (which I never did, so I don't really know what that would feel like, but I can guess) but I can already feel the benefits in the way I think about my story as I lay in bed at night.

One last thing: I've decided to give myself some daily homework. I've created a form in Excel that I'll be using to deconstruct the opening chapter from some comparable books in the library or on my bookshelf so that I can better see how each of the techniques Edgerton spoke about in "Hooked", if any, are being put to use. I'm trying to go back and re-read some of my favorites with a more analytical eye to see what the pacing was, how the story began, when the inciting incident was, how long each scene was, and so on and so forth.

I think I'll start with "Water for Elephants" and "Life of Pi", two of my favorite books that I've read in recent years.

But first I need to play a little more Rock Band.

Oh, and for those keeping score at home, the answers are: 1) 4:10, 2) three years to pass two and don't remember anything, and 3) 2 of 7. In other words, a strike-out so far.