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 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.


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.


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 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.


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...


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.