Pokemon Aren't Chew Toys

I made my first visit to Nintendo of America's offices in Redmond roughly eight years ago this month. It was to co-author the strategy guide for Banjo-Tooie, one of my all-time favorite games. While I was there, I picked up a couple of tennis-ball sized Pokemon stuffed animals from the Nintendo company store.

I self-consciously told the cashier who was ringing me up that my dogs were going to love them; I had to make sure she knew that these little things weren't for me personally. Her response was one of, dare I say, shock and awe. Actually she seemed personally offended and uttered the words I used for the title of this post.

Nevertheless, chew toys are indeed what they become and because Balthazar's uniquely compact shape, the dogs have not only enjoyed playing fetch with them, but they haven't been able to tear them limb from limb. They're still in great shape, despite being their favorite toys. Every other stuffed animal we give them has made frequent trips to Kristin's operating room, where Kristin has performed miraculous surgery to fix those poor creatures suffering from double-amputations, sucking flesh wounds, and significant hemorrhaging of stuffing.

Despite all the disfigured stuffed animals in our house (my favorite is the reindeer with no eys, no legs, and only one arm, and half a rack of antlers) I can say that none of these animals has ever caused me fright. Until last night.

I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and, rather than risk waking Kristin with the light in our bedroom bath, I walked down the hall to use the other one. And thats when I saw, directly beneath my falling foot, what I thought was a giant pile of poo. Yet, I was committed to taking that footstep. I was in a groggy, half-asleep, almost zombie-like state and, well, the foot was coming down. And I was horrified. It was 2am and I was about to have a foot covered in dook.

Nope, it was just Balthazar. He was on his side and the shadows made him look a little darker and a little more spiraled than he really is.

But if it's any consolation, I did almost roll my ankle on him.

Groovin' in the Rain

Last night brought, for me at least, the return of the Tuesday at Tolt rides we often do throughout the year. It also brought the first bit of rain we've had in these parts in over a month or so. We were six-strong and had a fantastic ride. Only one or two brief stops to regroup, then it was onward again at a very nice solid pace.

I seldom ride Tolt in the summer, so the sporadic showers, puddles, and mud made it feel very much like an October or November ride. The only thing that was missing was that I didn't have a few pounds of HID lights hanging off me, and I could still feel my feet. We only covered 9 miles, but it was a fast ride and I came home feeling fresher than ever for tomorrow's RAMROD.

And I'm actually really enjoying the Kona Unit 2-9 singlespeed I bought this past winter. I even made it up IAB except for the part near the tree stump where it's really loose, steep for a few yards. Good times!


In other news, I must give credit where it's due. I was pretty annoyed with Chris King for the problems my hub was giving me, and even moreso at how long it was taken for them to make the repair. Well, I got my wheel back. They replaced the internals of the hub, packed it good and tight with their special sauce, and overnighted it back at no extra charge. I was only charged for the initial shipping of the wheel to them and the stainless steel spindle they put on to replace the aluminum one that my cassettes had torn up. So even though the hub was over a year old, they honored the warranty and refurbished the hub at no cost. And that makes them quite alright in my book.

Race Report: GearJammer

After far too many late nights and missed bike rides recently due to work, I anxiously loaded up the trusty Element on Friday afternoon and drove north to Squamish, British Columbia for the final race in the series. Stefan, a German working on his post-doc at the UW and member of BBTC, came along with me and offered great conversation and a tank of gas. I had ridden with Stefan twice before (the first time being the infamous 5 Drainages ride last summer) and was glad to have someone I knew out on the course with me who had a similar fitness level.

The GearJammer is a 45-kilometer (28 mile) point-to-point cross-country mountain bike race with roughly 4100' of elevation gain. It uses a heaping dose of the most gnarly and technical singletrack Squamish has to offer. In fact, seventy percent of the race is on singletrack. I looked at last year's race results and saw that they mirrored the finishing times of this year's Test of Metal, a race that is 14 miles longer than the GearJammer! I finished last month's Test in 4:07 (was recovering from a mild case of pneumonia) and was told by veteran's of the GearJammer that 4:07 was a good time for my first Test and that I should expect to finish around 4 hours at the GearJammer. Then they looked at my bike, smiled, and added, "but probably a bit longer."

When people hear the words "cross-country racing" they often think of spandex shorts, 20-pound carbon fiber bikes, and buff, non-technical singletrack. Not the case in Squamish. Standing at the starting line of the GearJammer, I was surrounded by bikes with 5 to 6 inches of front and rear travel. Stefan, on his burly Santa Cruz Nomad, was surprisingly right at home in the crowd and didn't stick out like he expected. Me, on the other hand, with my 80mm of front travel and 1" spring in the rear, had brought the proverbial knife to a gun fight. The emcee made a point of pointing to the guy to my right, riding a fully-rigid Salsa El Mariacchi, and basically laughed at him. One guy rode a singlespeed and he too was given his metaphorical last rites before the start of the race. With memories of the Powerhouse Plunge fresh in my mind from the Test, I asked the guy next to me if there was any trails on the course as technical as the Plunge. "Oh yeah, a couple of them. There's some really technical steeps on this race."


The race started out with a few miles of gentle road climbing. Stefan passed me about three miles into the race as I sat and spun, trying to conserve energy and mindful of how much climbing is going to come in the final 8 miles after the Plunge. We were nice and spread out for our first section of singletrack and it was excellent. Intermediate tech, rolling hills, and what I estimate to be a ladder bridge at least 50 meters in length. Yes, meters. It was about 15 inches wide and probably 150 feet or so long and about 2 feet above a bog. I was cruising along it at a fast clip and was feeling really comfortable... right until a photographer's remote flash unit blinded me from a log in the bog. I nearly recoiled from the flash and ended up in the drink, but I corrected the steering and made it across in one piece.

Fast forward through some gentle singletrack climbing, some fast descending, and some really fun trail, we eventually came out to a lengthy roller-coastery road leading to a prolonged climb. We were about 12 miles into the race now and I could see Stefan up ahead of me. I was slowly catching him, but not before we reached the Skookum and Psuedo Tsuga trails. The trails were super dry and dusty and quite loose. They were also every bit as steep and technical as the Powerhouse Plunge, except even more difficult because of how loose the tread was. I ended up crashing into a guy who stopped on the trail. Ended up twisting my handlebars which forced me to spend a minute or so trying to get them lined back up -- you can't risk crooked handlebars and stem on trail this steep and technical. I made my way down most of the rock-drops and around all of the switchbacks, but my nerves were frayed. I had never, ever, felt like I actually needed a full-suspension bike before. I've never actually been on trail where I thought having more than 3" of front travel was necessary. To be honest, I think most of the people I ride with regularly are way over-equipped for 99% of the trails they ride. Well, I can honestly say that I would not have minded a nice solid 5x5" travel bike for these trails on Saturday. I got down the Skookum and Pseudo Tsuga with a few dabs and only a couple of steps of walking, but my bike was taking an absolute beating and I was certainly making it far more difficult for myself than I needed to. I was a bit scared as well, I have to admit.

My fright was partly due to a crash I heard occur behind me. The guy was screaming in agony at a volume and effort I previously would have only imagined possible during an un-anaesthetized amputation. I was already two switchbacks below him and his profanity-laced screaming was enough to drown out all other noise. Thirty seconds and two switchbacks further down the trail, his screaming continued to echo through the woods. The sound of his pain was enough to make me queasy. I can only hope he's going to be okay.

Speaking of fear and injury, this is a good time to discuss two other notable log crossings. The first of which, at the bottom of Skookum (not to be confused with the far more tame Skookum Flats trail here in WA) I believe, was a log about 20 feet long, about 16 inches wide, and oh, about 15 feet above a rocky creek. You can be sure I slammed the brakes and walked over that thing. As did everyone else around me. The other one, perhaps on Pseudo Tsuga, was a ladder bridge about 12 feet long or so with a little pyramid-shaped apex in the center. It was about 14 inches wide. I rolled out onto it and was doing fine, slowed to a near-stop as I was going over the peak and made the mistake of looking down... that's when I realized I was 8 to 10 feet above a rocky creek. Clipped in, no armor, just giving it a go. Yeah, I made it across, but again, I was a bit on edge and was kicking myself for looking down (I thought I was only about 3 feet off the ground).

All of this crazy beyond-XC technical riding did have a funny effect on me though: I ended up cleaning the Powerhouse Plunge. Seriously. The other trails were so steep and rocky and treacherous that, even though the Plunge is every bit as tough, I was so comfortable dealing with it by then that I was able to make it all the way down with just one brief dab at the very top. And that was in traffic. I imagine the knowledge that I had already "survived" it once before helped soothe my nerves, but I'm definitely proud to say that I cleaned every rock-drop, every switchback, and every bundle of roots. It was a minor victory for me, but I'll take it.

I passed Stefan at the aid station after the Plunge. We were 20 miles into the race and he had stopped for water. I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon without stopping and pedaled off to the Far Side and Farther Side trails. Still had 8 miles and quite a bit of climbing left to do, including a lengthy climb (w/hike-a-bike) up a ridge under the power lines but I kept enough in reserve to ride the final section strong. Passed a lot of people here and only got passed back in the final quarter-mile... once my tank was empty.

Finished in 3:40:18 and took 14th of 35 in the Male 30-34 age group. Stefan finished just 5 minutes after I did and came in 19th in the same age group. The winning time was 2:21 (which I'm not sure I understand how is possible) but it was only 10 minutes faster than the winning time of the Test of Metal. And again, this race is 14 miles shorter. My time was 27 minutes faster than my Test time--I guess those short rides on the single-speed lately were helping me out after all!

The GearJammer is a great race for those who want to do an epic mountain bike in a competitive environment. It's not the Test. The Test of Metal is an event. It's something you have to do, and honestly, it lives up to even the loftiest of expectations. The GearJammer has about one thousand fewer competitors (I think 225 started the race) and doesn't have the throngs of spectators and the pomp and ceremony, but it's a great at doing what it does. It's a fun, friendly race on some incredibly epic trail and plenty of sponsor-provided food afterwards.

Special thanks to my sponsors BradyGames and Singletrack Cycles. It was a long, hard month of work, but BG is a great company to write for and their involvement in my cycling helps make attending these races possible. What also makes it possible, particularly this race, is people like Brandon at Singletrack Cycles who dropped everything to get my new bottom bracket installed last week and even helped me wrestle with that stubborn tire! Thanks everyone!

Double-Dose of Good News

Found out that my wheel shipped out today and I should have it by next Thursday, just in time to leave on Saturday for Colorado.

Heard that RAMROD entry was closed and they had notified all of their wait-listed people who got in. If you hadn't heard, you didn't get in. I hadn't heard anything, but logged in to check my status anyway, just in case the email filters ate the confirmation and, sure enough, I was selected.

Next week, RAMROD!

First things first... gotta survive another trip down the Powerhouse Plunge. Have a good weekend everyone; I'll be in BC enjoying the first weekend out of my office since June.

The Casual Gamer Myth

Note: I'm wrapping up the last bit of text and maps on a guidebook today and have to get ready to head to BC tomorrow for this weekend's GearJammer race. I'll be back to a more normal posting regimen next week, hopefully with an interesting race report and (finally) some impressions of all the new whiz-bang games releasing on XBLA (like a couple of remakes of some of my favorite NES games). In the meantime, enjoy a link or two...

Bried Dudley of the Seattle Times has an article in today's paper about the "myth" of the casual gamer. He attended a conference for casual games developers in NYC recently and apparently some of the keynote-types are finally realizing that pigeonholing gamers into the simplistic "hardcore" and "casual" camps is really inappropriate, as gamers of all demographics and interests often play games in numerous categories.

It's an interesting article, particularly since the stats do well to dispell the image of who a "gamer" is. I know, I know, it's 2008 and the stereotype of who a gamer is has long been shattered... but there are still those who refuse to believe that there are gamers living outside of their parents basements, let a lone the fact that many gamers are parents. After all, somebody is buying all those Nintendo DS consoles.

There's also word that Microsoft is co-producing a series of short films to be available over Xbox Live. The hope, it seems, is that one or two of them will become a hit that could be spun off into a full-feature movie or television series. The shorts will be available for free and, get this, are being developed by producers of the movie "Scary Movie" and "Meet the Spartans."

This should actually work. I know I just said that stereotyping gamers is passe, but if there is one stereotype I know that could apply to the majority of gamers (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and as if it's really necessary, Exhibit C) it's that they're overly sarcastic and not averse to gore. Spoof horror movies should be the perfect genre for this audience. I was about to blow this announcement off as much ado about nothing, but it seems MS may have actually partnered with just the right people to pull this off. And they definitely got the price right!

The curmudgeon in me says this is just Microsoft's way of creating an excuse for continuing to charge for Xbox Live membership. Personally, I think the $50 I spend on XBL each year is far better spent than half the games I end up buying, so I don't mind. But they are under pressure to remove/reduce the fee and adding "free content" (even if nobody really wants it) is just another value-added bulletpoint they can check off when explaining the need for the subscription fee. And at 12 million subscribers, they aren't about to let that sweet, sweet, money pie slip off the windowsill.

Come to think of it, I bet Sony is kicking themselves for never implementing a subscription service for their own plan. It's far easier to increase/decrease an existing subscription charge than it is to suddenly start charging for something that was always free. Then again, that assumes the Playstation Network is actually worth paying for. The phrase "you get what you pay for" is all too appropriate when it comes to going online with the PS3.

Any Day Now, Chris

Had the good folks at Singletrack Cycles put a call in to Chris King on Monday to see if they had a tracking number for my wheel, but they hadn't even gotten around to looking at the broken hub yet. It was sent back 3 weeks ago. They said it would be a 2 week turnaround, and now I may not have it for another 1 -2 weeks.

I understand they get busier in the summer, but don't tell a customer the service will take 2 weeks if you really mean "at least 4 weeks." Barring a delivery miracle, I'll be racing the Leadville 100 on my back-up wheels... which cost half the price of the rear hub that's being serviced.

They might be a little heavier, but at least I'll know the rear hub won't give up the ghost.

Olympic Architecture (and a Twisted Doughnut)

Pretty interesting photo essay on all of the new architecture in Beijing. Most of it is for the Olympics that start in a couple weeks, but the first building -- that appears to be two buildings holding onto each other -- is the new building for their national television network.

Incredible design and every one of them is a real marvel.

Photos here.

Maybe Musicals Don't Suck, After All?

Oh what a day Friday was. I woke early and camped myself at the nearby Starbucks so I could finally finish the essay portion of the grant proposal I've been working on for the South Fork Snoqualmie Trails project, then hurried home to work so that I could spare a few hours to take Kristin to the play Friday night. We were supposed to go on Saturday, but she had a combination bridal shower and bachelerette party to go to for a co-worker. The lady's wedding isn't until November and it's her second wedding at that; maybe it's just me but I would have held off the celebrations until the fall just to be on the safe side. I wish her the best of luck, but if they call the wedding off, she better give back those fruit-flavored condoms Kristin gave her. Unused, please!

So, back to the play... This month's play at the Taproot Theatre was Big River, a play about Huckleberry Finn and his pal Jim going down river on a raft. Now, you might be apt to call me poorly read or even possibly un-American for the confession I'm about to make, but I think in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you right now that I've never read "Tom Sawyer" or any of the other Mark Twain books for that matter. Too many n-words for the school system, I guess. I know, I know, I could have read them as an adult or on my own outside of school as a kid, but I didn't. And on Friday night, at the theatre, I was kind of glad. I might have been the only person learning the Huckleberry Finn story for the first time, but it was nice to not already know how it turns out.

That wasn't the only I thing I learned that night. I also learned that the "play" I got us tickets for was actually a "musical". I hate musicals. Maybe it's a lingering effect from having to watch "West Side Story" as a schoolboy, but the idea of people spontaneously breaking into song -- when they were supposed to be stabbing one another, no less -- is just preposterous. Nobody in real life just starts singing. There are no choreographed dance numbers at the office. Not at the grocery store either. And certainly not on the sidewalk downtown. If I saw this kind of behavior, I think I just might punch someone. In the face. Hard. To shut them up.

Spontaneous singers should be treated no better than smokers. They should be banished from civilized society and be forced to remain at least 25-feet from all places of employment, enjoyment, and err, yes, even cement too. Or any other -ments as well. No, they shall not even be able to unlock Xbox 360 Achievements!

Or, in keeping with the theme of Big River, be shackled together and forced to live in a barn.

Our tickets were front row on the corner of the stage. And when I say on the corner of the stage, I mean it. I had to continuously remind myself not to put my feet on the stage or stretch out, else I would have tripped an actor. This was particularly hard to do since I spent the first act asleep. The air conditioning wasn't working; I was pretty tired from working late the previous few days; and I was also pretty disappointed that I brought us to a musical. Let's see: tired, hot, and pissed-off. That's a great combination for sleep.

Except I couldn't really sleep because of all the damn singing!

And that was what finally woke me up. While the guy playing Huck Finn reminded me of Shaun White with better compexion (and shorter hair), Jim stole the show. Geoffrey Simmons was incredible. Everything about his performance was impressive. From his blank slave-stares out into the distance to his big dumb grins to his heartfelt sorrowful singing, every aspect of his Jim was amazing. Most of all his voice. Granted, I was sitting close enough to see his droplets of sweat splatter on the stage, but I had never been near such a powerful vocalist before. No microphones necessary, I'm sure the people in the "cheap seats" could even hear him well.

That's a joke, by the way, as all the tickets at this theatre are less than $25.

I downed a can of coke during intermission to help wake myself up and was really enjoying myself during the second act. The story and acting was great, and I must admit the singing was pretty damn good too. And not only Jim's (who apparently honed his craft singing backup for Mariah Carey... go figure) but also these two young teenage boys playing supporting slave roles. One of the boys was probably no older than 16, was thin and wiry, and had this incredibly deep baritone voice. It was amazing to see such a deep, mature voice coming out of this, well, this kid!

The play also had its funny parts... especially when playing up the 19th century rivertown hicks from Mississippi, but it's not a play that's supposed to be funny and primarily wasn't. The director didn't shy away from showing the perceptions of slavery from both sides during the play and while the idea of buying/selling other humans can be uncomfortable for today's audience, as is hearing people call one another "nigger", you got a sense you were seeing the world through Mark Twain's eyes, as it was. Nothing about Big River seemed sanitized for 2008, but rather as an honest telling of a fictitious pair of lives on the Mississippi River in the 1840's.

It was very well done and, in the end, I wound up enjoying it. This isn't to say I welcomed the singing, but rather that I was so greatly impressed by one or two of the actors abilities to sing. To be honest, I wasn't even paying attention to the words, but more their presence and power. It was, well, it was very impressive.

But no, this doesn't mean I want Taproot adding a bunch of musicals to their line-up for 2009. Hell no.

The Death of an Xbox

I thought I was one of the lucky ones. Alas, there is no escaping faulty manufacturing practices. There may be an occasional lemon in a crate of mangos, but there is no such thing as finding a diamond in a box of lemons.

For two and one quarter years, I sat comfortably in my couch enjoying my Xbox 360 whenever I wanted to while friends and strangers alike watched their systems succumb to the vicious red rings of death. Those who have been plagued with this merciless killer know it simply as RROD. A plague so heinous it has even spawned its own greeting card.

Well, friends, the diagnosis isn't pretty. I have early-stage RROD. Oh, the console's immune sytem is fighting a valiant battle to keep the lights green, but constant screen freezes and the outbreak of red checkerboard-shaped rash tells me the end is near. Countless posters across the internet tell me that this is but a sign the RROD are on their way. Would xx!uSuxBallz!xx and Ma$TerCh!EF lie to me? I don't think so.

The irony in this is that since I don't technically have RROD -- yet -- the extended warranty Microsoft made universal to cover up this little embarrasment of theirs doesn't apply to me. So my choices are to 1) pay a $99 repair charge, send the system back on my own coin, and wait 2 to 3 weeks for it to come home, 2) sit and hope RROD one day finally shows itself, despite not being able to play for more than 2 minutes before the screen freezes, 3) go and buy one of the new Elite units with the HDMI output and the 120gig harddrive, or 4) take advantage of the recent price drop to repurchase the same damn console I have now and hope that MS truly did fix the bloody problem.

I've had to turn consoles upside down to get them to work, I've had to blow in them, I've had to tap them a few times, but I've never, ever, had to repair or replace one before.

Oh, wait, yes I did.

I had to send my original Xbox back for repairs too. Congratulations Microsoft, you're 2 for 2.

Stop, Drop, and Roll!!!

Been listening to the Foxboro Hot Tubs album Stop, Drop, and Roll!!! almost daily for the past few weeks and am completely comfortable recommending it to anybody who considers themselves a fan of Green Day. Why Green Day, you ask? Because Foxboro Hot Tubs is Green Day.

That's right, it's Billy Joe, Tre Cool, and Mike Dirnt, etc., playing what they call "garage music".

The album is an unmistakable off-shoot of Green Day -- Billy Joe's vocals give it away in seconds, even if you didn't know who Foxboro Hot Tubs were -- but it's not nearly as polished and, dare I say, as mature as their last album American Idiot, which I thought was one of the best albums in recent memory (of any band).

If you're an iTunes kind of person, you can get the 13-track album for $9.99. Check out the free previews for "Mother Mary", "Ruby Room" and "Pedestrian" to get a good feel for the album. I could best describe the sound (something I'm admittedly not very good at) as a sixties-rockabilly translation of older Green Day with a touch of lounge-music thrown in. It didn't blow me away from the first listening like American Idiot did, but it definitely grew on me. Give it a whirl.

RAMROD Waiting List Update

Unlike for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, I didn't win a lottery spot for RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). In fact I was originally #248 on the waiting list. I was told to not worry, that a lot of people decide to cancel, and that almost everyone on the waiting list gets in. Albeit, with 3 days notice.

With the bike ride just two weeks from today, I decided to check my status. I'm up to #118 on the waiting list. I suspect as the day draws nearer, more and more folks will realize they're not in the shape they wanted to be in for it and decide to withdraw. That's probably what I should do -- my mileage has been scant -- but I've already had to miss CCP, so I might as well struggle through RAMROD.

How hard can it be?

Year of the RPG

For me at least.

I've only written guidebooks for a scant few role-playing games over the 8 years I've been authoring these books, but this year is a whole other story. It's all I've done with the exception of The Club.

My current project is an absolute beast -- great game, but huge -- and it's keeping me from posting much and for that I apologize. If it's any consolation it's also keeping me from bicycling, sleeping, watching Le Tour, doing any volunteer work, and maintaing more than the bare minimum of personal hygiene. It should all end next week (if not, I'm in deep trouble) and once it does, I have not one but TWO other RPG guidebooks to get started on.

Fortunately, neither one of them should take 100 hours to play through.

I'll have a couple of good guidebook giveaways in August though, both of them weighing in at over 200 pages and one should approach 300 pages. Can't say which ones they are just yet, but both are for RPGs, arguably the genre of game most deserving of a strategy guide.

And no, I'm not doing the book for Fallout 3. I wish. But I do expect to update my Bioshock book for the rumored downloadable content for the PS3 version. We'll see...

Structural Engineering Done Red Faction Style

Very cool video showing the engineering behind the destruction engine in the upcoming Red Faction: Guerilla game, a sequel to a game I thoroughly enjoyed on the PS2 some years ago.

Watch it here.

E3 Summary in Comic Form

Penny Arcade nailed it.

See for yourself right here.


Like countless other people who used to go to E3 each year, I'm now (thankfully in some ways) limited to scouring the internet for streaming video and live bloggers. Sites like 1up.com did a fairly good job of live-blogging the pressers from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. Their minute-by-minute updates of what was going on and their immediate impressions were almost as good as being there.

Microsoft went first and, to be honest, left me wanting a bit more. The upcoming games look great, to be sure, but there weren't any surprises other than Final Fantasy XIII not being a PS3 exclusive and the press conference focus too much on the new Xbox Live update coming in the fall. Those who know me, know that I absolutely love the Xbox Live service and I'm thrilled the worst-kept secret about Xbox Live partnering with Netflix for video-on-demand turned out to be true. But the rest of the stuff? I don't know, but it strikes me as a bit too kiidii. I think Microsoft is trying to be all things to everyone and I'm just not so sure that's going to work. I play as many XBLA games as anybody I know and am genuinely looking forward to some of the offerings, particularly the 1 Vs 100 game-show game, but Live Party and many of the other features just seem rather unnecessary.

Microsoft was the only one to have their press conference on Monday and provided us with a nice opening act. I can't wait to play Fallout 3 and Gears of War 2, and I'm even looking forward to the new Banjo Kazooie game as well. But I couldn't help but feel that come Tuesday, Sony and Nintendo would elevate their positions and finally show me something that would make me want to buy a Wii or a PS3.

Nope. I didn't think it was possible, but the rather non earth-shattering conference Microsoft provided on Monday actually ended up being the most interesting and impressive.

Nintendo's big highight was the Shaun White Snowboarding game which uses the "bathroom scale" accessory that comes with Wii Fit and the inevitable Wii version of Animal Crossing which really looks exactly like the very first Animal Crossing, only with online gameplay. That was their big Wii announcement. That's it. Oh, sure, they also announced ports of Call of Duty 4, which everyone played last year as well as Wii Band, which was demo'd at E3 2006. The rest of their talk was numbers and DS games. In fact the only true surprise from Nintendo was the announcement of a DS Grand Theft Auto game that, frankly, I don't care about.

As lackluster as that was, Sony's conference simply seemed depressing. Aside from the video of Reistance 2 which does look great, the general vibe I got from watching their conference was that the wait (for Home, GT5, and games in general) will one day pay off. Far too much of their press conference centered around Gran Turismo 5, a great game no-doubt, but also one I played at E3 two years ago and there's still no release date for it. Sony also had several me-too moments about their online service (movie downloads... just like Microsoft, Trophies... just like Microsoft in particular) that did not so much as make me think for one second about abandoning my console monagymy.

Basically what I got out of the these three events was that my choice of sticking to an X360 and a DS is still more than enough. I'm very worried that I may completely come to hate the mandatory fall update for the X360 thanks to the new layout, but I'm willing to give it a try. As it was, the online marketplace on Xbox Live had gotten so much content that it's become nearly impossible to find things on it with ease.

I downloaded a dozen or more game trailers today and watched them at dinner with Kristin. Fallout 3 is definitely the most impressive of the bunch, but Lips has potential to steal Kristin away from me (for those who don't know Lips is a karaoke game that seems to be able to work with any song on your Zune... and hopefully your iPod too).

Can't wait to see what updates and new trailers are released tomorrow. Hopefully another Xbox Live Arcade mash-up like last year!

For the Dog Lovers

A too-sweet story from the Daily Post, of all places.

Lost beagle is returned 5 years after getting loose.

Not an Eruption

My friend Ed and his brother steered their Harley-Davidsons into my driveway late Saturday night, having driven 3500 miles since June 30th. Original plans called for me to meet them near Mount St. Helens, but my workload made that impossible so they decided to come stay for two nights at my house. The one condition was that I took them to Mount Rainier on Sunday to do a little hiking.

We got down to the Sunrise viewpoint area of the park before 10am and started hiking up and over Dege Peak and onwards to the Sunrise Visitor Center. The weather was perfect, the views spectacular, and there were surprisingly very few people on the trail. We took our time and hiked just over 5 miles round-trip while spending plenty of time atop Dege Peak soaking in the views and at the visitor center staring through the telescopes at the climbers descending from the summit.

We exited the visitor center and immediately noticed something wasn't right -- there was a massive cloud exiting what appeared to be the flank of Mt. Adams to the south. Mt. Adams is another one of the volcanoes in the Cascade Range and we at once thought the volcano was experiencing a rather large steam eruption. It was all the buzz. Everyone we met on the trail on the return-trip was staring off at Mt. Adams wondering if it was about to blow... and wondering if we were safe. This is what we saw.

Easily mistaken for a steam eruption.

I was wondering how such a large steam eruption could have possibly happened so close by without us hearing it. The reason we didn't hear it was because it wasn't a volcanic eruption. It was, instead, the rapid spreading of a once-tiny wildfire on the south side of the volcano.

According to reports that night, the fire was two acres in size about the time we started our hike, but grew to 400 acres by Sunday afternoon. Hence, the sudden appearance of the large plume of smoke. We zoomed in with cameras from our perch on Sourdough Ridge and one could see ash falling closest to the volcano and even a faint red glow. It was ash alright, but from burning wood.

From the SeattlePI.com, as of 10pm Monday night:

TROUT LAKE -- The biggest fire to strike Washington's South Cascade Range in decades continued to grow Monday, as weather forecasters warned of hazardous fire conditions for most of the east side of the state.

The Cold Springs Fire had burned about 9 square miles, or more than 6,000 acres, in south-central Washington near Mount Adams, the state's second-highest peak. The fire was burning in timber, some beetle-killed, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

No homes were threatened, but firefighters wrapped a historic guard station built in 1909 with a fire-retardant material and built fire lines to try to protect it, said Chris
Strebig, Gifford Pinchot spokesman.

Yesterday morning the fire was just 2 acres in size and it's now burned over 6,000 acres. I wish nothing but the speediest and safest containment of the fire and am glad that there aren't any homes or personal property in danger. That said, mistaking this fire for a steam eruption added an unforgettable chapter to the cross-country trip my friends are taking. Having never been anywhere near volcanoes before, seeing Rainier so close was a huge treat for them and watching what we thought may have been another volcano mid-eruption less than 100 miles away only made it that much more memorable. Even if it wasn't.

The view from the trail wasn't too shabby.

30 Days to Go

That's how many days I have left to prepare for the Leadville 100. Ideally, I'd have tons of base mileage logged and be readying myself for a nice 2-3 week taper leading up to the event. Unfortunately, the word ideally does not carry the same meaning as the words in reality.

The reality is that I'm feeling pretty strong right now (thanks in part to the rather hilly rides i've been doing on my singlespeed lately) and am pretty confident that I could struggle through the 100 miles and finish it, but I've only briefly climbed above 5,000 feet in elevation this year and really don't have the huge bank of miles I would have liked to have had by now. Actually, I should say that I'm confident I'd be able to finish this race if it were at sea-level. But it's at a starting elevation of 10,200 feet and climbs nearly to 13,000.

I feel like a college kid about to cram for a final exam... while simultaneously trying to finish a couple of papers for two other classes.

And the test is in Latin.

But my ride-buddy Erik of Ride, Rinse, Repeat fame posted this video (see below) of the race start and it has me tapping my feet in anticipation. That's a whole lot of riders in that race, probably even more than in the Test of Metal. In 30 days I'll be one of them.

At least the views at the turn-around point will be pretty incredible.

WTF Imagery

There's just no escaping Yankees fans.

I did a Google image search on the acronym "WTF" today (don't ask) and the very first picture to pop us was this one right here.

This is one of those times when I really don't have anything else to add. Just thought you'd want to see a funny photo.

24-Hour Photos... Finally

That's me before my cough-till-I-puke lap during the 24-hour race in Spokane this past May. The DRC finally got the photos up on their website.

And in case you're wondering, no the entire course isn't this rocky. There's no way I could have managed 200+ miles last year if the entirety of each 15-mile lap was this rocky.

More photos of me here.

And also some shots of my friends as well: Joe Martin, Frank "Nando" Benish, and the "Master Says Faster" team.

Chopstick Crazy

One of the skills I've mastered since moving to the greater Seattle area is that of using chopsticks. Kristin and I love the diversity of the area and have a favorite restaurant in each of the major Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Thai flavors. And as a result we've become fans of the chopsticks, even so much as to know that we prefer the throwaway wooden ones to the fancy (but slippery) porcelain ones. We've come a long way since the days of "experimenting" at the barely-edible Panda Express in Bridgewater Commons.

But, as I learned today, there is such thing as too much chopsticks.

My friend Derek and I capped off a rather tough midweek mountain bike ride tonight with a trip to the Rogue Brewery in Issaquah. It was a perfect night for dining outside and Derek snagged us a table on the sidewalk so we could watch the bikes and stretch out -- and by stretch out, I really mean air out. Derek still had his Shimano SPD shoes on and, as for me, no amount of wet-wipes and deodorant could be sure to eliminate the stench I was undoubtedly emanating.

Rogue has some pretty good beers -- you may have seen their Dead Guy Ale or Old Crustacean barley wine in a micro-brew store near you -- but their guest beers list is sometimes even better. Today they had the Avery Maharaja that recently came recommended by the biggest beer afficionado I know. It was superb. Expensive, but excellent. And 9.7% in alcohol.

So Derek and I ordered up some Maharajas and a couple of Kobe beef bacon cheeseburgers and I splurged and had a cup of the Kobe beef chili. Those who have yet to visit us out here should know that the food in many of the local breweries is as good if not better than most proper restaurants. Certainly better than the TGI McApplegans.

We drink our beers, talk about mountain biking, cars, videogames, and compare and contrast various Toronto strip clubs. You know, your basic guy talk. Then the food comes out and on each plate is a pair of chopsticks.

Derek's plate is put down first and I can immediately sense his mind shifting into overdrive. His brow furrowed, he adjusts his posture in his seat, and his laid back appearance becomes slightly more inquisitive. My plate is put down shortly after and although mine also has the set of chopsticks, Derek doesn't see it. He thinks that only he received the chopsticks. He thinks that only his bacon cheeseburger has come with a pair of chopsticks.

Derek is Chinese.

"What's with the chopsticks?" he asks. There's a slight trace of angst or defensiveness in his voice.

The waitress stumbles over her words. "Um, yeah, umm, I don't know." She seems to sense the possible insult or that she's perhaps been caught in a bigoted practical joke and she's visibly uncomfortable.

In hindsight, I could have kept my mouth shut and carefully hid my pair of chopsticks and sat back and watched the fireworks (no Chinese pun intended) unfoil, but I couldn't do it. I was too hungry to suffer the delays, however funny they may have been.

"I have a pair too. What is it, because we ordered Kobe beef, the chef thinks we want to eat our burgers with chopsticks?" I was the only one who made the connection.

The waitress was thankful of the out I had given her, perhaps sensing how insulting the harmless decorative utensil may have been perceived by someone of the Asian persuasion. Especially if that person is the type who sees insult where there is none.

"Yeah, that must be it. I really don't know," the waitress said. She couldn't get away fast enough.

"I thought it was because I was Chinese," Derek said.

I'm pretty sure he was joking. Actually, I'm all but certain he was joking. But I was too busy shoveling french fries into my mouth to tell... with my chopsticks.

Rude Tourists and 95 Year Old Road-Tripper

A couple of interesting stories I came across this morning:

First, Time magazine (via Yahoo) has an article up about the best and worst tourists in the world and, surprise, the "ugly American" isn't the worst domestic or foreign tourist. A survey of thousands of hotel workers in the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Canada and the USA found the French to be the rudest of tourists. Americans weren't far behind.

The chase:

De Roux explains how external factors similarly account for why Americans wind up as the biggest-spending and best-tipping tourists, while Germans and the French are among the worst penny-pinchers. "Our findings show the average French employee will get 37 vacation days spread over seven trips in 2008, versus 14 for an American - who won't even take them all," de Roux believes. "That means the French tourist will more tightly budget his or her spending over more trips, while the American spends freely on the one or two vacations taken all year."

By contrast, poll finds the French and Americans similar in being perceived as critical and rude when they travel - though for different reasons. The same local attractions that make France the world's top destination for 92 million foreign visitors each year, says de Roux, also explains why over 85% of French vacation in-country - and wind up spoiled by it when they leave. "When they go abroad, French travellers demand the same quality they'd get at home," de Roux says. "Americans, by contrast, demand the same exceptional service they are used to at home, which is why they rank as the loudest, most inclined to complain, and among the least polite."

Makes sense to me.


Now, for something truly impressive, the Seattle Times has an article today about a 95-year old man who, two years ago drove his Cadillac from Washington State to Panama. Then, this spring, drove that same Cadillac all the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

"I don't drink whiskey, chase girls or bark at the moon anymore," said George, who lives in Lynnwood. "There's no place else to spend my money."

And as a widower, "I have no wife to say you can't do it."

"This car has been as far south as you can go and as far north as you can go," said George, who was raised in Kansas but moved to Seattle while serving in the Navy and never left.

George, who lost one of his eyes in a kamikaze attack on his warship during World War II, pulls out his Alaska maps, where he scratched the mileage as he completed his nine-day adventure: Lynnwood to Prince George, B.C., to Watson Lake and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Tok Junction, Alaska, to Fairbanks. Up the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay. And back home.

He figures he put 600 miles on his car each day. Asked how much his trip cost, he said it's all on plastic and he won't know until the bills arrive. "If I'd added it all up, it
would have spoiled the trip."

Now that's an elder we can all respect. Read the full account of his story right here.

Massive Lightning Storm

The storm that rolled through Wednesday night was unlike any I had experienced since leaving North Carolina in 2002. The meteorologists recorded 3,000 lightning strikes in 24 hours and let me tell you, three of them couldn't have struck more than 1/4 mile from my house.

Thunderstorms are one of the things missing from life in the Pacific Northwest, we just don't get them too often up here. And I miss that. I love the sound of the thunder, the flashing of the lights, and the smell of electrified rain. On the rare occasion that we do get a thunderstorm, it's typically a rather mellow event and over within minutes.

And then there was the storm on Wednesday. It went on forever, as if the cells were circling above our neighborhood. The bolts were massive, the house shook, the rumbling came instantaneously after the crackling flash of light. My friend Erik (who posted an awesome photo here), who lives down the road, says his smoke detectors went off several times that night.

Sleep was hard to come by, and the storm was bad enough to warrant unplugging the computer and monitor, among other things. When I finally did fall asleep sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken just two hours later by yet another storm. And another bolt that I can only assume touched down somewhere on my block.

It was an absolutely amazing storm. I was too tired to even think about taking photos but some Snoqualmie Ridge residents were more motivated than I.

See some pretty great photos of the lightning right here.

Have a Better Weekend than Me

Last week it was missing the Cascade Creampuff 100, this week it's cancelling the backpacking trip Kristin and I were going to do around the Loowit Trail on Mount St. Helens.

Although it appears this route may not have been doable anyway.

I don't mind having to cancel the occasional weekend getaway for work, as I'm fortunate to have a pretty damn flexible schedule much of the year. And being willing and able to work when the work is there is a hallmark of life as a freelancer, even one under contract like myself. It's a fair trade-off to a life of being "on call" 24/7.

That said, I do get annoyed though when I clear the schedule for work and am stuck with inoperable equipment. That was the case this past weekend -- the devkit I was using had outdated firmware on it which brought my progress to a screaching halt Saturday afternoon. Too late to drive down to Oregon for the CCP100 and too deep into the weekend to get the firmware update. Yes, a few expletives were uttered.

This weekend will be different though. Much progress has been made since I got the updated code on Monday and everything is going well. I might steal away to go to the Mariners game tomorrow, or perhaps to go mountain biking on Sunday, but other than that I'll be right here behind the desk working.

And I'm going to try not to daydream about the trip to Switzerland and Italy my sister-in-law is embarking on Saturday, nor will I wonder how my friend Ed is doing on the 40-day motorcycle tour he's taking around the country with his brother. No, instead, I'll be grinding away in hopes of actually finishing this book in time so I'll be able to able to hang out when Ed and Dave pull into Washington on their Harleys later this month (they left New Jersey this past Monday).

In the meantime, Kristin has her marathon training to keep her busy as well as a bit of sleep to catch up on. So, to my American readers, have a great three-day weekend everyone. Enjoy the holiday and have some fun for the both of us.

In Hot Pursuit

As you are likely already aware, the World Values Survey released the results of their annual World Happiness rankings yesterday and we Americans found our beloved USA ranked 16th out of the 97 countries included. Denmark took top honors, followed behind by Peurto Rico, Iceland, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, and even Columbia.

That's right, even Columbians are happier than we are!

[insert nose candy joke here]

The survey is done in the same manner it always has been: two questions about happiness and satisfaction are asked to a number of respondents from each country and they are given the same Very, Somewhat, Neutral, Somewhat Un-, Very Un- options you get when the movie ratings people call during dinner.

There's a lot of interpretation being done about what the results mean. There are those who point to the role having a peaceful nation plays in leading to happiness -- none of the top ten countries are at war -- and I think that could definitely be a big part of it. Others look to the top ten countries and see lands where people live and let live. Places where people don't waste excessive energy trying to impart their own belief systems on others. Perhaps our country's tendency to try and govern morality keeps our happiness in check? Maybe this would be a more pleasant place if we'd just allow people to live their lives? You know, maybe if we just let the gay couples marry, legalized marijuana, stopped the bickering over abortion, allowed prostitution, etc., etc., then everyone would lighten up and just enjoy themselves. Oh, who am I kidding, I'm sure someone would find another crusade to carry the torch for and the arguments would rise again... especially if votes were to be won.

What's most interesting in all of this is that, despite being ranked 16th, the USA is the only country on the planet who actually has "the pursuit of happiness" written right into our nation's Declaration of Independence. Think about it: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are our inalienable rights. They are what led our ancestors here from across the oceans and what leads so many more immigrants here today from all corners of the globe.

But how can a nation who all but demands its citizens to pursue happiness, not be happy?

I blame the obesity rate.

Have your ever seen a fat man run? A thinner, fitter, more spry America is far more capable of giving chase than the bloated 2008 model we see before us today. How can people obtain happiness if they're too out of shape to catch it? One can only imagine how many hearttacks this so-called pursuit of happiness has led to!

Which of course immediately begs the question: is it possible to sue the founding fathers?

This is America afterall.

Life, liberty, and the waddle-after of happiness.


For some serious reading on the subject -- which this post clearly isn't -- I blindly recommend The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. Amazon link. I listened to a pre-recorded interview with the author last week and heard several excerpts from his book. My copy is already ordered and I'm looking forward to getting it, especially in light of the recent rankings. I think anyone with an interest in sociology and travel will find it pretty interesting.

Into the Wild Tourism Increases

As predictable as snow melting in spring.

"That's sort of the heart of the story," said Alexander, 44, of Arlington, Virginia. "It's almost like a Jim Morrison grave site, where people just want to go see it."

This is exactly what residents in the interior town of Healy, 25 miles east of the bus, feared with the release last fall of the movie adapted from Jon Krakauer's best-seller of the same name.

They envisioned hordes of copycats making dangerous pilgrimages in the footsteps of a character often seen as a spiritual visionary rather than an ill-prepared misfit, as many Alaskans view McCandless.

People from all over the world have journeyed to the rusted bus over the years. But there are signs this could be a boom year for those captivated by a college graduate who turned his back on his wealthy family for his restless wanderings.

The local chamber of commerce has already received a few dozen e-mails from would-be visitors wanting to track the unmonitored route taken by McCandless to the 1940s-era bus, used for decades as a shelter for hunters and other backcountry travelers.

Read the full article at CNN right here. And that sound you hear is that of Jim Morrison rolling in his grave.