Play Ball!

Well this was certainly an opening day to remember. For starters, and perhaps most importantly of all, nearly every MLB team played today except the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. That right there is reason to celebrate, although it was unfortunate to see ESPN cancel Baseball Tonight in response to the seeming lack of content. Fortunately they were able to make it up to us by taking the time to actually explain the bottom scroll on the new ESPN NewsHD channel. Which is good, because as I type this their screen is blank.

My fantasy team, Nun the Wiser, racked up 30+ points today in our 13-team roto league on the arms of Zambrano, Penny, and to a lesser extent, Meche. Not to mention the 3-3 performance of Cubs rookie Fukudome. Lucky for Webster they don't include proper nouns in their dictionaries, I'd hate to see them spell that one phonetically.

Kristin is out of the house this week for her biz school immersion. Poor girl is in class from 8am till 8:30 each day this week. No, not a half hour. Since she's gone (staying at a swanky lodge 2 miles away), I've taken the liberty of arranging a bunch of folding snack tables as a makeshift desk in front of the downstairs television so I can work and watch the ballgames. The Mariners won their opener against the Rangers to a score of 5-2. It got off to a rocky start with Michael Young taking Bedard deep in the top of the first. I hate when guys on my fantasy team hit a home run against Mariners pitchers. It creates a very awkward situation for me. I usually end up celebrating like a stroke victim -- one side of me gets excited and fist pumps the air while the other half of me just sort of hangs there immobile and emotionless.

But enough about the minutia of the baseball season getting underway. It's really about the beginning of spring. And not just the metaphorical sense of the word as it relates to hope and other flowery things, but the actual weather. That's why I was so excited to take the dogs for a walk when the game was over. After all, it was only 7pm and it was still plenty light outside.

So I pulled on a winter coat, gloves, and hat and lead the dogs out into the blinding snow. What better way to cap the opening day of baseball season than by stomping through the slush, coughing on an inhaled snowflake, and dodging errant snowballs from a couple of kids with really poor aim.

And no, that isn't Cracker Jack next to the yellow snow.

Class is in Session

I've been looking for a new game for the Nintendo DS for a while and finally decided to give Professor Layton and the Curious Village a try. Ignore the pukey-sweet title of the game, this is one that everyone with a DS ought to try. Actually, despite the name sounding like a Disney after-school special, the game is most certainly not for young kids. And that's what makes it great. You see, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is essentially a collection of hundreds of brain-teaser puzzles, many of which wouldn't be out of place on an IQ test or, perhaps, the SAT. And some of them are downright hard. Damn hard, in fact. It's not everyday I keep a pen and paper handy when I'm playing a game just so I can do some rough calculations on the side.

The game is a point-and-tap style adventure game with charming Rockwell-esque graphics that occasionally come to life in the form of full-motion cartoons. You control Professor Layton and, together with his child protege, you search a village -- yes, a curious one -- for clues concerning a number of mysteries that arise. You move from one static background to another and tap the stylus on the screen in search of puzzles, clues, and Hint Coins. Hint Coins can be exchanged to unlock clues for the individual puzzles (each puzzle has 3 hints that can be unlocked to help you solve it). In addition to solving the mysteries, there are side-quests such as assembling a robot of sorts with a number of gizmos that are found; arranging furniture in an inn to suit the tastes of both Layton and the boy; and also a jigsaw puzzle that can only be completed once you find all of the pieces.

While the game presents a number of mysteries for the prof-turned-detective to solve, it's really just an excuse for finding more puzzles. Make no mistake about it, the story and detective aspects of the game are all but on rails: the gameplay is all about solving the brain teasers. Each puzzle is worth a particular number of points called Picarats and every incorrect try reduces the number of points available. Naturally, you want to solve the puzzle in as few tries as possible to get the maximum number of Picarats, which can then be used to unlock various bonuses.

So what do the puzzles look like? Here are a couple examples:

Imagine a digital clock like the one shown below. How many times will the clock display three or more of the same number in a row over the course of one day? In case you were wondering, the clock in this puzzle displays time on a 12-hour scale, not on military time.

The lower screen shows a standard digital wall clock and you write in your answer using the stylus.

How about another one:

Here we have an eight-quart pitcher filled with juice, an empty five-quart pitcher, and an empty three-quart pitcher. The pitchers are unmarked, and your task is to divide the eight quarts of juice so that both the five-quart pitcher and the eight-quart pitcher are each holding exactly four quarts.

To solve this one you simply tap-and-drag one pitcher to another to pour as much of its contents as will fit into the next pitcher. You have to go back and forth to sort out the volumes until you have only 1 quart in one pitcher, then can ultimately split the 8 quarts into two equal portions. It's tricky, but not that hard. Other puzzles get a lot harder and are often visual in nature. The mathematical ones, for me at least, tend to be a bit easier.

Anyway, if you have a Nintendo DS and want a game that can hold your attention a bit longer than the various Brain Age and Big Brain Academy games, then this is for you. It's a game with a really charming style and one that will certainly make you think. A lot.

Guidebook Giveaway: Final Fantasy VII - Crisis Core


If anyone was wondering what I was up to the month of February, this is it: this massive 282-page strategy guide. Although I certainly didn't do it alone -- my co-author Joe Epstein handled the Bestiary and Materia and Items sections of the guide -- I did ultimately submit roughly 450 pages of manuscript and about 350 maps... and countless screenshots.

For those unfamilliar with Crisis Core, it's a game for the Playstation Portable that serves as the official prequel to Final Fantasy VII, arguably one of the most popular, and loved, games of all time. If you enjoyed FFVII, then you have to play Crisis Core. And not only because of the background story, but because it's probably one of the best games available for the PSP. The game is an action-rpg that features a main story arc that takes roughly 18 hours to play through, but there are a total of 300 side-missions that really serve as the game's main mechanism for leveling up and earning the best items. To complete the story and all 300 missions takes upwards of 58 hours. Having written the walkthrough and mission guide sections of the book, I should know.

The first four people to email me about the guide will get a free autographed copy sent to them. But please only send the email if you really intend on playing the game or if you're a diehard Final Fantasy fan -- these books are quite heavy and shipping ain't gonna be cheap. For those who fit the latter category, I suspect the artwork section and poster to be every bit as valuable as the reams of text so do enjoy (especially the beautiful full-page photo of Aerith in the back).

If you're late in getting to this post, know that you can always pick up the book at your favorite store or online at http://www.bradygames.com/ or at sites like http://www.amazon.com/. Speaking of which, here's a link to some reader reviews at Amazon's site. And no, I didn't write them. :-)

Giving Back: The V-Word

*This is a lengthy post about our getting involved in volunteer work and, as the title suggests, giving back. It's not intended to be preachy, but more about a degree of self-discovery we've been going through these past few months and certain ideas for the future.

Kristin and Business School

Back in August, when I sat at the welcoming dinner for Kristin's Executive MBA (EMBA) program at Seattle University and listened to various speakers drone on and on about caring about the whole student and about being stewards for the community, I couldn't help but raise a disbelieving eyebrow or two. After all, this was business school. This is where people come to learn how to maximize profits and advance their careers. This is for the alpha employees. The Type-A personalities who rise in the ranks and ultimately serve only to fill the daily newspapers with reports of their greedy and immoral wrongdoings.

Yes, I can sometimes paint with a broad brush, but I can also admit when I'm wrong. And I was... at least so far.

One of the courses Kristin recently completed as part of the Executive Leadership Program (ELP) component of the degree was called "Social Justice" and it challenged small groups of students to address a need in the community. They were given free-reign to pick the area of concern, but they had to not simply complete a task for an existing agency; they had to come in from the outside, identify a need, and take the lead on filling that void. When it first began, Kristin didn't really think much of the assignment. It was a group project, which meant an abundance of meetings and conference calls, so she was already a bit down on the idea. She also didn't expect to get attached to the people or project she would be working on. Her initial expectations were that it would be just another class project, and she would simply move on to the next one when it was done. It's not that she's an unfeeling person -- quite the contrary -- it's just that serving as Operations Manager (and QA Manager) for a biotech company while also taking 20-credits of classes tends to not leave much room for unnecessary emotional involvement on one's plate.

She, too, can admit when she's wrong.

Kristin's group decided they wanted to get involved with women who suffer from domestic abuse. Together they came up with an idea to create a mentoring program that would train "graduates" from women's shelters to go back and mentor new arrivals on life's basics. Many of the women who arrive at these shelters are, for all intents and purposes, like hatchlings escaping the nest for the first time. They are not unlike a high school graduate heading out into the world on their own -- there's a lot they don't know. They need training in things like balancing a checkbook, home finances, putting together a grocery list and learning how to cook, and so on and so on. They also need specific mentoring in areas of surveilance and ways to protect their privacy from the abusers they seek to distance themselves from.

So Kristin and the three other students in her group came up with this concept and proceeded to shop it around to some of the Seattle area womans shelters. Many were simply either too understaffed or too unbelieving to welcome their suggestions, but they ultimately found a partner. This began back in late September and for the next five months, Kristin's group went to work. They identified the areas of highest need, created training modules, and found experts in the community who would be willing to train the first batch of mentors. All pro-bono of course. They routinely met with the Director of the shelter and her staffmembers, and made sure pamphlets and other materials were all in order. And throughout the process, Kristin got to meet the women who would be learning from the mentors and got a chance to hear their stories. Kristin gave her final presentation to her class and professors a couple weeks ago and the Executive Director of the shelter was given time to address the class. Kristin says hearing her gratitude and astonishment at what they were able to accomplish in so little time while working full-time and going to school really hit her. Here she thought this was just another group project and it ultimately really impacted people's lives and is going to help a lot of women.

The project is technically over -- Kristin got an A -- but she's not done. To her own amazement, she wants to continue working on this idea and return to the other shelters and hopefully help them implement the program there. A couple of her group-mates also want to continue working on it and they hope to even add additional mentoring modules and get more people involved in the mentoring program.

I mentioned the oxymoronic nature of the phrase "corporate responsibility" a week ago, but maybe for the right people, there's something to it? After all, consider this tale of irony: Kristin went to business school at her employer's request and now thinks she might want to work for a non-profit. In her words, "I think I'd rather work to help people directly than by way of a bottom line."

Working With the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club

I'm coming to realize that one of the things that separate our relationship from that of many other couples (dare I say most) is the amount of time Kristin and I spend talking. We routinely find ourselves sitting on the kitchen counter talking for hours about all sorts of things: the future, kids, politics, work, travel, finances, etc. And one of the topics that has come up more and more over the past couple years was the concept of volunteering. We both felt like we wanted to alter our pattern of constantly taking, but weren't really sure where to begin. There were a few obvious options but they didn't really appeal to us.

Then a couple things happened. First, Kristin saw the impact she was having with her Social Justice project and realized that there are a ton of different ways to volunteer that we never thought of. And, secondly, I learned that the Board of Directors for BBTC was ponying up the money to pay the salary of the Interim Executive Director. This blew me away. The club, err Organization, had grown so much under the previous Director's five-year tenure, that we needed increased funds to attract a qualified replacement. The BBTC had grown large enough to actually have to compete with the private sector for candidates (as an aside, for those who wonder why the top people at non-profits have six-figure incomes, this is why. They have to be paid comparable to private-sector talent). And, presumably, the new full-time ED will command a much higher salary than the Organization could previously offer. So, unlike a corporation's Board, our Board not only doesn't get paid for their time, but they are practically required to make very substantial donations. And their dividends are in miles of trail, not stock bonuses.

And here I was, chipping in my measly $25 annual donation and doing nothing but riding, riding, and riding. Mountain bike advocacy needs both money and people on the ground building and maintaining trails, but I couldn't help but feel that my paltry donation and relatively few hours spent working on trail was accomplishing neither. I suddenly felt very dirty.

It's no secret that I don't enjoy trail work. I try to attend at least 4 work parties a year, but I'll never say I enjoy it. For me, it's like going to the dentist -- another thing I don't do as often as I should. But, as with Kristin and her Social Justice class, I realized that there are other ways to get involved than cutting new trail. As you may have read, I went to a meeting in the fall about a certain State Parks and National Forest project right in my area that could possibly open up 20-30 miles of new mountain bike trails. How could I not get excited about that? I jumped at the chance to get involved -- you might even say forced myself into the process -- and am very happy to now be considered BBTC's point-person for these two projects. And it's been quite an experience so far. I've gotten to meet the Director of State Parks two weeks ago and, just this past Tuesday, got to sit down with many of the land use managers in the area for a group round table discussion, two of whom we're working closely with on the aforementioned project. Additionally, the former Executive Director of BBTC, the awesome Justin Vander Pol, is coming over today at 3 o'clock to spend a couple hours training me on the relatively peculiar grant-proposal software the National Recreational Trails Program insists its applicants use. And next week we hope to get out on the ground and look at the terrain in question more closely.

I'm also hoping to be more involved with the Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park being built in Sammammish and other projects, both on the ground where needed, and perhaps also from a behind-the-scenes role as well. And it's gotten me really excited. Granted, this isn't the same as helping battered women get back on their feet, but it's what I'm (hopefully) good at and we are working to create trails that will be ridden for many generations of mountain bikers and recreationists to come. Surely, that's got to count for something, right?

After all, regardless of how en vogue it is today to bash government-works projects like the CCC, the truth is bikers and hikers like us use many of the trails and lodges they built over 60 years ago. And that's what I try to remind myself when I get frustrated with the slow process of getting things done in today's world. We're not building for us, we're building for the future. Who knew back in the 1930's that the CCC would contribute so directly to a guy like me, in 2008, enjoying his quality of life so much thanks to their projects? With any luck, somebody in 2050 will love being a mountain biker in Washington thanks in part to what the BBTC helps to accomplish now. Just like we enjoy the trails built decades prior.

But, like everything else in this world, it also takes money. Not everyone has some to give, especially these days, but when being honest with myself I have to admit that I could definitely give a lot more than the token $25 donation I was giving. After all, each year when I do my taxes and I see the demographics report TaxCut spits out about those in our income range, we're always way below the national average for charitable giving. And, frankly, it got kind of embarrassing. So I decided this spring to make a much larger donation. A ten-fold increase, which I also hope to give again in the fall for a total of a 20x increase. It's still not a whole lot of money, but I think it's enough to make more of an impact. I've gotten a few nice kudos from BBTC members about the increased donation, but it's not really necessary. Anyone with a bike collection like mine -- and I know more who fit that bill than don't -- should really consider donating more each year.

The Future

Although I haven't posted about it lately, Kristin and I have been talking quite a bit about our RTW trip. We spent quite a few hours this weekend going through guidebooks we have looking at options for the British Isles and jotting down places we think we want to visit and others we think might not be worth the travel costs. I must say that planning a trip where time is of little concern is really fun. I'm also excited about the likelihood that my sister and her then-husband will join us in Edinburgh for the Scotland, Wales, and Ireland portion of the trip. The company will be great to have and being able to split a car rental four ways will be wonderful!

But, more importantly, we've spent a lot of time over the past few months talking about the trip in terms of taking time to volunteer and, also, about what happens when we get home. Kristin and I met today with the people at Village Volunteers, a Seattle-based NGO that organizes 2~8 week volunteer programs in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Nepal. Admittedly, the trip isn't for a number of years, but we're pretty intent on spending as many 6~8 weeks in Kenya with Village Volunteers. We've read a large number of reports from people who have used their agency and have yet to find one that raised any red-flags. The conditions will be pretty spartan -- this isn't one of the ritzier Volunteer Vacations outfits -- but it gets more to the point of the trip: a life-changing experience and a chance to truly meet our global neighbors. We're not as foolish enough to dive into a 2-month committment without first testing the waters, hence our meeting today. We're hoping to begin volunteering at the Seattle location to really get a feel for the agency and start helping their cause on the front-end. We also plan to spend 1~2 weeks next year when Kristin finishes her EMBA program volunteering either here in the US or in Mexico. The group Global Volunteers has programs based in the US where you can help in various native american communities, and that's something I've long been interested in doing.

So what about afterwards? Well, nothing is definite now. We're enjoying the now and particularly enjoying the endless conversations and verbal daydreaming we partake in about the trip, but I'll be honest and say that, depending on how the Kenya and/or Nepal experiences go we may very well sign up for the Peace Corps. That's a 27-month comittment (with training period) and aside from the $5000 they give you upon completion, it's unpaid. But the potential is huge, especially for people with the skillsets that Kristin and I bring. One assignment we saw was in Mongolia -- they were looking for business/leadership people to help former nomads get their micro-businesses started -- and the same area was also looking for, essentially writers/editors to help write travel brochures and work on doing tourism marketing. Kristin and I saw these two tasks next to one another and felt as if they were almost written specifically for us.

But, again, this is all very pie-in-the-sky right now. Kristin and I daydream a lot and we daydream out loud. Sometimes we follow through, sometimes we don't, but so far it has always worked out for the best.

The point of all of this was to say that for a DINK couple like us, it took a while but we finally see ways for us to get involved and give back rather than be constantly focused on ourselves. We don't have limitless resources or time -- who does? -- but we can finally say where our passions truly lie and what it is we want to do, or think we want to do.

And if it took a business school to kick us in the ass and get us to give back, then so be it.

Any Day Now, Spring

It was snowing this morning.

Maybe I'm getting soft, but I'm ready for spring. And I think my dogs agree... they seem to be really enjoying the brief bit of sunshine we're getting today.

Ninja Masks and Plate Helms

One of the fun aspects of playing Culdcept SAGA is trying to collect the many "parts" bonuses (i.e. clothing accessories) that are awarded to your cepter for meeting some very challenging requirements. There are dozens of these bonuses in the game and many of them fall under the category of what I would consider nearly impossible to get.

Or so I thought. I just unlocked the Ninja Mask (awarded for winning a game without paying a single toll) and the Plate Helm (awarded for winning a match without engaging in any battles) and the way I did it was actually very straightforward. I was playing on the map Zanador, the one you must complete right before reaching the Altar of Darkness stage, and this map is very conducive for avoiding battles. The map features a small square-shaped path in the center and then four additional square-shaped paths, one on each side of the main central ring. The central path has a Castle in two of the corners and although all four outer rings have Forts, there are two East Forts and two West Forts.

So what I did was I immediately headed to the outer loop on the lower portion of the screen, tagged the fort, then headed to the ring on the right-hand side of the screen. Since they're loops and the Castle is right between them serving as a connector, I was able to go back and forth from one loop to the other without having to step foot on the northern half of the map. Similarly, the two AI-controlled cepters both stayed to the two rings on the upper half of the screen. So while they continued to battle one another, I simply kept on looping back and forth, leveling up my land, and buying tons of Symbols.

Things got a bit dicey at the end, as one of the AI-cepters finally started to loop down towards my area right as I had started on my way to the Castle to win the game (I had the necessary 12,000 total magic). At first he landed on an empty square, then he landed on one of my spots that had a moderately high toll. I was certain he was going to challenge me in battle, but I lucked out -- he had no creature cards and had to pay the toll without fighting! I ended up rolling high enough on the next roll to zip to the Castle and win the game.

I collected 1 toll in the entire match, engaged in zero battles, paid zero tolls, and only lost 2 creatures due to the AI-cepters repeated use of the Acid Rain spell (-30 HP to Defensive creatures; this killed my Leshy) and Lunatic Light (swaps ST and HP values; this killed my Wall of Ice).

I'm still really enjoying the game and am certain to unlock another Achievement tonight at the Altar of Darkness. Even if I lose the match, I'm guaranteed to unlock the Achievement for collecting 500 cards, as I currently have 499 right now and will no doubt get at least 5 or 6 cards even if I lose the next match. I also finally got the Ogre Lord Achievement last night for winning a match with all 5 Ogres in play at the end of the game.

Map-a-Day

Saw this on National Geographic's website and was instantly blown away. Each day, they post a high-resolution historical map along with a brief background and a trivia question about the area in question. They have a very nifty zoom tool that allows you to change the magnification and pan around the map and the image quality is startling.

Today's map which you can see here is the original plan for the city of Annapolis, Maryland dating back to 1718. It's in honor of the anniversary of Maryland's founding which is this weekend.

If you have even a passing interest in old, historic maps, then you'll definitely enjoy this. There's a different map each day (hence the title) and you can browse all the maps posted from earlier in 2008.

The Praying Dog

No, it's not a new yoga pose (at least not that I know of) but rather just a very neat photo I saw in today's paper. And I just can't resist posting it.

From the Seattle Times:

NAHA, Japan — At a Zen Buddhist temple in southern Japan, even the dog prays.

Mimicking his master, priest Joei Yoshikuni, a 1 ½-year-old black-and-white mixed breed named Conan joins in the daily prayers at Naha's Shuri Kannondo temple, sitting up on his hind legs and putting his front paws together before the altar. It took him only a few days to learn the motions, and now he is the talk of the town.


Click here for the full story.

Drier Sheet Saboteurs

Kristin walked up to me while I was in the kitchen last night. She had a smirk across her face and moved close to hug me. But instead of a hug, she shoved a used drier sheet up under my shirt and started rubbing it across my chest.

"Now you smell nice," she said. She was laughing. She thought she was so clever.

I took the sheet and pretended to throw it out, but hid it in my back pocket waiting for her to be distracted. Once she was sufficiently preoccupied, I put the drier sheet in the hood of her sweatshirt, but she saw me at the last second so I had to take a different tact.

So I retreated to the office and hurriedly put it in the open binder on her desk, about two or three pages past the one she was open to. Not exactly an in your face prank, but she was seconds from entering the room.

An hour later (she reads slowly) she found the drier sheet, gave a quick chuckle, and disappeared into the bedroom. I didn't think she would continue to elevate the drier sheet situation any further, but was pretty sure she wouldn't throw it out just yet. When she came back into the office smiling, I knew she had hidden it somewhere.

"You put it under my pillow? Is that it? That's fine, my pillow will just smell cleaner."

We didn't go to bed until midnight or so and by then I had forgotten about the hidden drier sheet. Turns out she tied it in a bow to my bottle of mouthwash. Not only a clever hiding spot, but it gave the bottle a rather unpleasant taste. Sure, Bounce smells nice and clean, but that doesn't mean you want to lick fabric softener. She was winning. This couldn't be.

I carefully snuck the drier sheet over to the bed while she wasn't looking and stuffed it under my pillow for the right moment. Kristin, like clockwork, smeared a gob of vaseline across her lips (she has an unnatural fear of chapped lips) and settled in to sleep. I layed awake reading The Dark Tower VII (only another 200 pages to go!) until she was mere seconds from falling asleep. Then I quickly folded the drier sheet lengthwise twice and slapped it against all of that vaseline -- What a nice mustache you have sweety!

She snapped awake before I could take a photo which was unfortunate, but seeing her make the precious yuck face at that taste of fabric softener was worth it.

Although now it's almost time for bed and I know that drier sheet is somewhere. Waiting. Hiding. Making something taste a bit worse than it should...

More Card Gaming Goodness Coming to XBLA

As if learning of an expansion pack to Puzzle Quest wasn't good enough news, I saw today that there's also a full-blown sequel in the works that takes the gameplay to space (the final frontier, I'm told) and semi-radically turns the gameboard and features on their head. It's called Puzzle Quest Galactrix and you can see more about it here.

But that's not what has me excited. Not only are the makers of the hit XBLA game, Uno, making a Gin-Rummy based game, but there is also a version of Lost Cities coming to XBLA this spring. Lost Cities, like Carcassonne, is another one of those games I've picked up countless times in the store and for one reason or another never actually bought. It's a two-player card game that doesn't really seem a whole lot different than Solitaire, except of course for the requirement of having a second player. Anyway, you can read about the XBLA version of Lost Cities right here or watch the admittedly rather corny video-review of the boardgame version below.




Oh, and one other thing... for those who never played the Centipede-turned-RTS game Darwinia before, that too is coming to XBLA soon. I'm not sure I'll pick that one up again, having already played it a bit on the PC, but it's certainly another great addition to XBLA and I'm glad to see it get the larger audience it deserves.

Best Buy Rewards HD-DVD Customers

I'm a firm believer in buyer beware and knew full well the risks involved in buying an HD-DVD player this past December. I'm sure there are those crying foul about "being stuck" with brand-new obsolete technology and are looking for someone to blame, but in this day and age there's just too much information too readily available to not take responsibility for your actions when it comes to consumer decisions. And although I naturally wish the format would have been given more of a chance, I don't regret the purchase. And I certainly don't feel mislead in my purchase. I'm still glad to finally have an upconverting player, not to mention a killer version of the BBC's Planet Earth production, thanks to my sisters-in-law.

That said, I received an email from Best Buy tonight letting me know that they will be sending a $50 gift card to everyone who bought an HD-DVD player from them before February 23rd. The email doesn't explicitly offer an apology -- which it shouldn't -- but they mention being dedicated to making sure their customers have the "right technology." They also offer a trade-in program for the HD-DVD players and used HD-DVDs. Clearly they're hoping we use the gift card and/or trade-in program to buy a Blu-Ray player.

We won't be doing that just yet, but I'm sure there's something in Best Buy we can spend $50 on [Insert maniacal laughter here]. And I appreciate the gesture, especially since it's completely unnecessary in my opinion. Way to go, Best Buy!

For months, there has been much debate surrounding the two competing high-definition video formats: Toshiba's HD DVD and Sony's Blu-ray Disc. Recently, Toshiba announced that they will no longer produce HD DVD players, and movie studios have decided not to release new titles in the HD DVD format.

As the owner of an HD DVD player, you may have concerns about these developments. At Best Buy, we are dedicated to making sure you always have the right technology for you. That's why we're offering you a complimentary $50 Best Buy gift card for each HD DVD player you purchased from Best Buy before February 23, 2008. (See details and qualifying models.) Use the gift card to treat yourself to anything you want in our stores or online. Most qualifying customers will automatically receive their complimentary gift card by mail in the coming weeks. If you qualify and haven't received yours by May 1, 2008, please call us at 1-888-BEST-BUY to verify your eligibility (have your receipt handy, if possible).

Firmware Update for the Win

Thanks to RG reader Jeff Carter for knocking some sense into me and reminding me that these newfangled next-gen DVD players need periodic firmware updates.

Turns out that our player was running firmware version 1.1 and Toshiba had already updated all the way to version 2.0. I couldn't get the HD-DVD player to communicate with the server no matter how many different times I tried going online with it, but fortunately Toshiba had very detailed directions for making your own update disc. So, one 38-meg download, a quick burn of a CD-R, and then voila! The system was updated to version 2.0 and our Netflix copy of Syriana on HD-DVD played all the way through without a single hiccup.

The disc itself did look a bit cleaner than the previous discs we got from Netflix, but I'm sure the firmware update deserves more than a small bit of the credit for our uninterrupted movie-viewing experience.

But this raises an important question: are the majority of consumers ready for products that require frequent updates? It's one thing to upgrade computers and videogame consoles which are essentially designed for online use, but I don't think most people are going to anticipate having to update such benign equipment as DVD players. What's next, televisions? Refrigerators? Microwave ovens?

For all these years that we've had DirecTV, I've never once hooked the receiver up to a phone line, regardless of how many times DirecTV has asked us to do so. It just never seemed necessary. I know the true winner of the next-gen formats isn't going to be HD-DVD nor Blu-Ray, but rather downloadable content and I suspect at that point we'll all be used to everything being connected, but until then, I wonder? I have a hard time believing that most people are ready to not only make sure their computers are online with broadband, but that their movie players are too.

I'm pretty into the technogear and even I think the whole idea is a little odd.

Yesterday Coyotes, Today Pirates

Took the Moots out for a spin up to Rattlesnake Lake today and on the way back, amongst the dog-walkers and bikers, I quickly came up on a couple walking hand-in-hand down the trail. The lady wasn't terribly easy on the eyes and the guy had that frustrated Vietnam Vet look to him -- you know the one -- but they were smiling and seemingly having a nice walk on a cold, but sunny day.

And then I noticed... he had a peg-leg.

Not a prosthetic. Not a stump or a nub or a gap. No, an actual wooden peg-leg. And it looked exactly how the cartoons and Hollywood always made pirates look. It was dark brown, appeared relatively weather-beaten, and perhaps even a touch splintery. And it had brass buttons around the top of it. Probably functional, but undeniably decorative as well. It was both surreal and classy at the same time.

Normally I pride myself on not staring at people who look a little different. In fact, not only do I try not to gawk at those with missing limbs or other disformities, but I also make a point of not looking at the "hotties" I see either (although that's simply to deny them the satisfaction of looking, not because I'm afraid of hurting their feelings). But today, on this trail, with this man, I couldn't resist. I uncontrollably did the most obvious -- and completely rude -- double-take in the history of polite human society. Cat-calling construction workers would say I could have been more subtle.

But I couldn't help it. It's not that I meant any disrespect -- quite the contrary because now that I think about it, he probably was a Vet -- but the dude had a freaking peg-leg! How cool is that?!?

And, besides, it's not like I yelled Argggh! or asked him for some grog.

(although that would have been totally awesome)

...and yes, I know I'm going to hell.

Bikes With Coyote

Move over, Kevin Costner now there's something spandexier.

Yesterday's weather brought temps in the forties, occasional hail-showers, and periodic bursts of rain so my original plan of doing two laps around the Thrilla in Woodinvilla course on my single-speed was called off. Instead, I managed to sneak an hour of relatively dry, sunny riding in on the trails on Snoqualmie Ridge.

This time, however, I decided to go exploring and see where the new woodchip trails leading off into the Deer Park neighborhood lead. The answer was not very far. Right now the new trails pretty much just lead around a couple retention ponds and dead-end where houses are going up, but I have faith that in a year's time these trails will make for a nice addition to the existing system.

Anyway, as I was making a right-hand turn back onto the trail near the business park, I spotted a coyote atop the berm alongside the trail. At first it was just trotting along, then as I started to ride closer to it, it sped up. The little bugger dropped off the berm towards me and was actually keeping pace with me, about 5 yards to my left. So I kept on riding and the coyote ran practically right next to me for about 40 yards before finally turning on the speed and crossing the trail in front of me. From there, it disappeared into the woods and I didn't see it again.

So, for the next twenty minutes or so I was having an internal debate about whether or not to mention the sighting on the neighborhood message board. Even though people choose to come out into the foothills and live in such close proximity to wildlife, many launch into hysterics whenever there is a bear/cougar/coyote sighting in the area. My opinion on the matter is simple: take reasonable measures to protect yourselves, your children, and your pets when out of doors and enjoy where you live. If you still don't feel safe, move closer to the city. But whatever you do, don't demonize the animals we chose to live near.

Every trailhead in the neighborhood (almost every one of them in the region in fact) has signs warning of bears and cougars and sightings are made public in the local newspapers and in occasional public service announcements, so nobody can claim they didn't know these animals are here. Everyone is aware of the very small risk of an encounter when playing in the woods, or going hiking, or walking the dogs. People with cats and small dogs have to know that there is the chance that if they allow their animals to roam free, especially at night, they may be eaten. And the same with small children. But this is all very unlikely. Far more likely is to have an experience like I had, where you get lucky enough to spot the animal and coincidence has you both headed in the same direction. And instead of a glimmer of an animal from far away, you get five good seconds of up close "interaction".

I couldn't feel my fingertips and my feet were getting pretty cold, but getting to ride alongside a running coyote for those few short seconds made me glad to have gone for a ride.

On my way back past the business park twenty minutes later, I spotted an older lady walking with her dog. It was a tiny beagle, either very old or very young I couldn't tell, and it was off-leash. She was less than 1/4 mile from where I saw the coyote so, naturally, I told her about it. She appreciated the tip and said that she was on her way back home. She scooped up the dog though and uttered a comment about wanting to keep her little one around for a while. She didn't act surprised at the news or seem all that concerned. Instead, she just put the dog on a leash and kept on a walking. As she should...

Puzzle Quest Expansion Pack Coming to XBLA

I held out from downloading Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords on XBLA on account of having spent 8 months playing it almost every day on the Nintendo DS, but now that news is out that a rather massive expansion pack is on the way, I might just have to dive back in. The expansion pack is currently being referred to internally as "Puzzle Quest 1.5" but there's a name-the-game contest taking place right here, the top three suggestions will get the download for free and the winner's entry will be used.

As for the expansion pack, this is what the official site has revealed:

Story Overview
After gaining a reputation for battling Undead in northern Agaria, you are approached to help with a similar infestation in the southern lands. It seems that Ghouls, servants of the Lord of Plague, have been increasing in numbers and attacking towns and villages throughout Colis Tarn and Lysea.

With the aid of Helden, leader of the Ghoul Knights - protectors of the southern lands - your Hero sets about discovering the true source of this infestation. Deep within the marshes of Malbec, an ancient Sorceress has returned from her grave and uncovered a secret source of power allowing her to control the Ghouls. Now you must track her down and confront her to stop the Ghoulish uprising.

But the defeat of the Ghouls will only be a temporary thing if their true master—Antharg, the Lord of Plague—is allowed to remain in power. So with the Sorceress defeated, the Hero must set out to destroy Antharg, the brother of the infamous Lord Bane.

Basic Features

- Four New Hero Professions - Bard, Rogue, Ranger, Warlock
- An entirely new part of Agaria to explore with all new quests
- More than 50 New Spells including Bullseye, Corruption, Darkness, King of Thieves, Song of Pain and more
- More than 40 New Magic Items including the Stormhammer, Stormshield, Darkblade and Dragonslayer
- New Monsters
- New Bosses
- New original Music


Puzzle Quest was one of my favorite games of 2007 and by the sounds of it, this expansion pack is going to add a ton more content. Sign me up.

Winner of the 2008 Best Dad in the World

Would definitely be Bill Harris, if there was such a contest.

A week ago his young 6 year old son, Eli, was home from school and mentioned that he wished he had a "big adventure" to go on. They had been playing a lot with pirates lately and that gave Bill an idea.

You can read about the masterful adventure Bill has planned for his boy right here. And if that isn't the coolest thing I've ever heard of a father doing with his boy, then I don't know what is.

Random Quick Hits

I got on the scale this morning, as always, and saw that I finally got back below a certain magic number. I'm not quite at my ideal "race weight" yet, but I'm within striking distance. Anyhow, I immediately threw my arms in the air and began singing the chorus to We are the Champions. There's really no good transition out of that, so I'm just going to move on and leave you with the image...

Kristin sent word that the Executive Leadership Program she just finished up at Seattle University was recently rated as a top ten program in "corporate responsibility" of its kind in the USA, right along with Duke and Harvard and other schools of that caliber. The ranking was done by the Corporate Resposibility Officer, an online magazine located at here. When I saw this my first reaction was, isn't corporate responsibility an oxymoron? My second was The CRO must be based in Seattle. They're not, they're actually based in Edison, NJ -- the town where I was born. Coincidence? I think so. Kristin starts the proper Exec-MBA portion of her coursework next week at a weeklong retreat at the four-star Salish Lodge located two miles down the road from us. Yes, I have every intention of stowing away with her.

Is the writer's strike really over? I think someone needs to let Lorne Michaels and the folks at SNL know they don't have to smuggle scripts in from their children's 8th grade creative writing classes anymore. Hey SNL, you really have a staff of writers? Seriously? You actually pay professionals to write jokes? Seriously! You mean to tell me that you don't turn them in for burglary whenever they cash their paychecks? You didn't ever want to first maybe see if the scripts they wrote were funny? Seriously. Seriously? Seriously!

(actually, the Seriously sketches and sometimes Weekend Update are about the only thing funny on that show anymore. Pains me to say, but I can't say I'll be watching again.)

I had to dig my PS2 out of the closet the other day to put something together for work. Fortunately the system decided to actually work, unfortunately I forgot how bad the games look on it. I was actually playing one of the prettiest PS2 games, but being that it's been a year since I've touched a console other than the Xbox 360 I wasn't ready for the visual shock. The jaggies were burning holes in my eyes! Actually, what was even more shockingly apparent was just how much I've come to dislike the Dualshock 2 controller. I used to consider it one of the best controllers ever, but now it just feels flmsy and imprecise. And those analog sticks? How did we ever like that design? Since the game I had to record some videos of could have also been played on a PS3, I briefly considered buying one. Then I looked at the available games for it and the price and I thought to myself, Now why the hell would I want one of those? Maybe one day, but not today.

Lastly, I just want to give a big shout-out to the Federal Reserve! I hope the bankers and millionaires really appreciate the rate-cuts you've been doing lately because now not only are all of our mutual funds in the toilet, but the rates on our savings accounts have joined them. We were getting close to 5% interest just last summer on the account we use to save for our RTW trip. Now we're barely getting half that. Thanks, dude.

The Path of Light

I've been continuing to play Culdcept SAGA every morning while I have my coffee and although each game takes almost 2 hours, I'm really enjoying it. I'm up to 407 cards (total, not individual types) and just won the match at the Altar of Light. That was a really fun map with four distinct areas. I lead that match wire-to-wire by a wide margin so it didn't pack the drama of yesterday's match. I was about to turn the game off yesterday (something I've never done when losing) as I was down in score like 7,800 to 2,900 with the match being to 12,000 but would you believe I came back and won? I notice the AI is a lot more aggressive with symbol-purchases in this game than in the previous game so you really have to watch what colors they buy and level up territories appropriately. I've played 35 total matches now and am still enjoying it. Best of all, Kristin even likes to play against me on the weekends and then we get to trade duplicate cards to one another afterwards. Great fun.

I still have an unopened copy of Assassin's Creed in the drawer that I really do want to play, but I just can't take myself away from Culdcept SAGA to do so. In fact, the only other games I've been playing outside of work are Fairway Solitaire (a golf-themed version of Solitaire recommended by Bill Harris, and for good reason. The game is brilliant!) and the casual-game, Breakout-esque masterpiece Peggle. And a few XBLA games, but not with any real frequency. I was probably the last person to have ever hear of Peggle but when Yahtzee did his video-review (excellent commentary, but probably NSFW) of the game I became intrigued. Then a few weeks later I was in Indianapolis visiting the folks at BradyGames and one of my editors was playing it. And I was jealous. So I came home and downloaded it and was instantly hooked. I would love to see an XBLA version of that game just for the Friends Leaderboards and Achievements and to not have to play it at my desk.

Memo to self: download Peggle onto laptop!

As for work, naturally I can't mention what I'm working on, but I can say that I will be having another guidebook giveaway and this time it's for a 272-page guide to
Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core for the PSP. That's right, this was the game I was cranking away on throughout the month of February and yes, it is the very book that I sent in over 400 pages of manuscript for. And my co-author sent in nearly as many pages of various items, weapons, and enemy data. Amazing how that all shrinks down, eh? Anyway, anyone who has ever played Final Fantasy VII (which I'm guessing is every gamer reading this blog) should really play this game. It serves as the prequel to the main game and not only shines a big bright light on the backstory for FFVII, but plays very well on the PSP. And the cinematics are top-notch. I'll write more about it next week when I post the Guidebook Giveaway.

Welcome to the Neighborhood!

Never mind the fact that we've lived in this house for nearly 4 years now, we not only continue to get people calling and asking for the previous people at this phone number, but we also still occasionaly receive welcome packages from local businesses.

We got one such package today from a dentist in a neighboring town. It was a small cardboard box filled with green tissue paper. Under the paper were several advertisements and notecards about his practice (new patients get a $25 Starbucks gift card!) as well as a free toothbrush...

And a one-pound bar of Hershey's chocolate.

The dentist mailed us a block of candy large enough to be used as a lethal weapon. Maybe it's just me, but this kind of gesture seems on par with your life insurance agent inviting you to go skydiving, or for your doctor to be buying you a pack of cigarettes, or for your stock broker to suggest buying, well, just about anything these days...

I really can't think of a better way for him to say, "Hey, I'm really just after your money" than by sending huge chunks of candy to total strangers. It's like guys who show up with roses on a first date. It's not like the women don't already know what their goal is anyway, the roses just make it obvious.

This is like that. Only with a cheaper up-front cost.

Netflix Update

I love this company.

We called them today to complain about our run of bad luck with their HD-DVDs. The customer service person who answered claimed to have not heard many complaints of this sort (clearly he didn't field the call from our friends with the 5 unplayable Blu-Ray discs) but nevertheless, apologized profusely and not only credited our next 3 months of membership for free, but even sent out the next two movies in our queue just in case one of them doesn't play (we recently downgraded to a one-at-a-time plan, instead of having three movies out at once).

This doesn't really address the fact that their packaging is damaging the discs, but if it really is just bad luck and most people aren't having this problem, then this gesture makes up for the frustration.

Olympic-Sized Breathing Concerns

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has apparently determined that air quality in Beijing is acceptable for endurance events, but they have apparently drawn up contingency plans just in case the air quality makes it too dangerous to hold long-distance events. This issue got put on the front-burner when World Record Holder Haile Gebrselassie opted out of his preferred race, the marathon for concerns the air quality would be too much for his body to handle. Gebrselassie has exercise-induced asthma and expects other top endurance athletes to opt out of the Olympics or to follow his lead and focus on shorter events such as the 10k run.

BEIJING -- The IOC's top medical officer says Beijing's air quality is better than expected, although a study shows there are risks to athletes in outdoor endurance events and conditions may be less than ideal during this summer's Olympic Games.

Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission, said Monday that an analysis by four independent experts of data supplied by Beijing organizers found heat and humidity might be a greater threat to athletes than the city's noxious air.

IOC President Jacques Rogge has repeatedly said that outdoor endurance events would be postponed if the air quality is poor, which would be a huge embarrassment for organizers hoping to feature a clean, modern city.


Full article at ESPN.com.

Just when you think the Olympics are too corporatized to bother watching anymore, Beijing comes along. Oh, I'm sure NBC will once again manage to ruin their coverage of it by focusing more on the talking heads and "human-interest" side of the games instead of the actual contests, but I think that the pollution, the lack of civil rights, and the ongoing protests with the oppressed Tibetans can really combine to add some drama.

I'm very excited about the potential for someone to unfurl a string of Tibetan prayer-flags while taking a victory lap around the track (of course, we can't expect an American athlete to be this brave; Nike wouldn't like it). Or just imagine if someone literally coughed up a lung during the triathlon? Or maybe Katie Couric will
get deported for uploading footage to Youtube?

With possiblities like this, this whole Summer Olympics thing just might be worth waking up at 3am to watch after all.

2008 Fantasy Baseball Draft

Spent nearly 4 hours on AIM yesterday doing our fantasy baseball draft. This year's draft took longer than usual thanks to nearly an hour of AIM connection problems -- one of the guys finally had to call in -- and the fact that we had 13 teams instead of the normal 10 or 12. It doesn't sound like much, but over 21 rounds, that extra team or two makes a big difference.

We roll dice to determine the draft order and lucky me got to go last, so I had the 13th overall pick. But since we use a serpentine draft order, I also had the 14th pick. As nice as it would have been to have had the first overall pick and gotten A-Rod, I think I'd rather have the 13th and 14th picks than, say, the 3rd and 24th.

Round: Player Name (Pos), 2007 Final Position Ranking, Pick Number

01: Prince Fielder (1B), 2nd, 13th Pick
02: Ichiro Suzuki (OF), 3rd, 14th Pick
03: Aramis Ramirez (3B), 9th, 39th Pick
04: Dan Haren (SP), 9th, 40th Pick
05: Brian McCann (C), 4th, 65th Pick
06: Carlos Zambrano (SP), 30th, 66th Pick
07: Scott Kazmir (SP), 22nd, 91st Pick
08: Ian Kinsler (2B), 9th, 92nd Pick
09: Michael Young (SS), 8th, 107th Pick
10: Manny Corpas (RP), 11th, 108th Pick
11: Kosuke Fukudome (OF), N/A, 133th Pick
12: Brad Penny (SP), 20th, 134th Pick
13: Jack Cust (OF), 51st, 159th Pick
14: Jeremy Bonderman (SP), 138th, 160th Pick
15: Jose Guillen (OF), 25th, 185th Pick
16: Jeremy Accardo (RP), 16th, 186th Pick
17: Pat Neshek (RP), 28th, 211th Pick
18: Masa Kobayashi (RP), N/A, 212th Pick
19: Gil Meche (SP), 44th, 237th Pick
20: Adam Jones (OF), N/A, 238th Pick
21: Richie Sexson (1B), 26th, 263rd Pick

And speaking of fantasy baseball, one of the players not drafted by any of the 13 teams was Kazuo Matsui, the former Met-turned-Rocky-turned-Astro. The poor guy is having some problems, ahem, down there, and the following is the official player note (with injury) for Kaz for today.

Mar 17 Brian McTaggert, of the Houston Chronicle, reports Houston Astros 2B Kazuo Matsui (anus) is likely to begin the season on the disabled list.

There are so many ways to make a joke about that, I think I'm just going to leave them up for your imagination.

For Next-Gen DVDs, Look Beyond Netflix

Well this is rather unfortunate. It's not bad enough HD-DVD, as a format, has gone to the big Beta-Max in the sky, but the sleeve packaging that Netflix uses to mail out their DVDs are damaging both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs during shipping. We've encountered numerous problems with 4 of the 5 HD-DVDs we rented from Netflix and friends of ours had issues with all 5 Blu-Ray discs they've received from Netflix.

The problem is that the information on these discs is much closer to the actual surface of the disc than standard DVDs or CD-ROMS and, therefore, is much more prone to being damaged. The fibrous sleeves that Netflix uses to mail their discs are causing loads of minute scratches in the read-surface of the discs and rendering them inoperable. Our friends with the Blu-Ray player were barely able to get past the opening credits in each of the five movies they rented and while we were able to get much further into the movie, we would often have to skip ahead to get past trouble-spots in the disc.

It's clear to me that Netflix needs to change their shipping packaging to something a bit sturdier, perhaps a plastic hard-back with the circular snap-in piece to keep the discs from sliding back and forth. This will no doubt increase the cost of shipping, but not more than repeatedly sending unplayable movies back and forth through the mail, which is what's going on now.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who also uses Netflix for HD-DVD or Blu-Ray and seeing if we've just had really bad luck, or if it's more commonplace than Netflix is letting on. Personally, as much as I love the Netflix service, I can't really recommend them for next-gen formats until they change their packaging.

My Mom, the Redneck

You've all heard the various Jeff Foxworthy You know you're a redneck if... jokes, right? Remember the one one about being a redneck if you buy a new television and sit it on top of the old, broken one? Yeah, apparently my mother and step-father didn't think was actually redneck enough and, as the ballers like to say, the decided to elevate their game a bit.

They've taken redneck decorating to new heights.

Rather than place the new 32" flat-panel LCD tv on top of the 20-year old wood-framed cabinet tube television (which looked more like a piece of furniture from the 1960's than a tv from the 1980's), they decided to cut out the old tube, and put the new Sony LCD inside the RCA funiture-vision relic. That's right, they hacked apart the old wooden cabinet -- which sits right on the floor at about knee-level -- and put their brand new HDTV inside it.

Welcome to the 21st century, Clampett family.

If there is a God in this world, my sister will visit my mom next weekend and email me a photo so I can post it here. For as embarrassed as I am, I'm also completely un-surprised.

Fort Ebey

Went to Fort Ebey State Park with Joe M. and Doug C. today to ride the very hilly singletrack out on Whidbey Island. The rain was coming down in buckets when we woke up this morning, but northern Whidbey Island sits in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and is usually dry. Not only did we stay dry today, but the sun even came out for a couple hours too!

A common misconception for people who've never been to Fort Ebey is to think that because one never gets higher than 300 feet above sea level, that the ride won't be hilly or that large elevation gains will be impossible. Wrong.

Even though the highest elevation we reached today was a scant 264 feet above sea level, we still racked up 4,289 feet of climbing! Simply put, there isn't a flat stretch of trail in the park. We rode roughly 29 miles of singletrack and were in the saddle turning the pedals for 4:05. While there we rode nearly every trail two or more times and made a point of doing them all in both directions. The only trails we encountered that definitely had a "right way" and a "wrong way" were Cedar Hollow, which should always be ridden clockwise, and Hokey-Ka-Do-Do, which should always be ridden downhill away from the Bluff Trail. Riding either of these in the other direction is just stupid. A case can be made for every other trail in either direction, but these two should be one-way only.

Click the following pics to see the larger version of our elevation profile from today and a trace of the route we took. Keep in mind we rode nearly every trail at least twice and some as many as four times each.


Elevation Profile: 4,289 feet cumulative. Represents the total time in the saddle, excluding paused time.


Map of our route

The Irony

I was out and about today making some follow-up visits to local businesses I'm trying to secure sponsorship from for the upcoming race season and one of those businesses is the local brewery.

So here I am trying to get the brewery to sponsor my mountain bike racing while simultaneously enjoying so much of their fine product that riding my bike today in any meaningful way is an impossibility.

Oatmeal Stout > sweat

Activist in Training

One of my goals this year is to get more involved with the advocacy side of BBTC, as it relates to mountain bike trail access on public lands here in Washington. One project that has been in the works since well before 2002 and is finally almost ready to come to fruition is a mountain bike trail near Mount Washington at Olallie State Park in North Bend. This trail would only be 6 miles in length, but will ultimately connect with more than 20 miles of trails on Forest Service land. Those 20+ miles of trails currently don't exist but a multi-agency push is underway to remove existing forest roads from the FS database and convert them to mountain bike trails (i.e. multi-user trails with a design focus on mountain biking).

The trail and road-to-trail conversion will take place within biking distance from my house and will help fill a gaping void in nearby high-altitude, backcountry-style singletrack. This system, once done, has the potential to be unlike anything else on the western slope of the Cascades, along the I-90 corridor. Naturally, I became immediately interested and wanted to get involved. I met with the Advocacy Team back in October and met with Mountains to Sound representatives in November, but it wasn't until yesterday that I really started to get a grasp, albeit a tenuous one, on the many agencies and faces involved.

Yesterday, former BBTC Executive Director Justin Vander Pol, Volunteer Director Jon Kennedy, and myself drove to Olympia for a much-anticipated meeting with the Director of Washington State Parks, as well as the Puget Sound Region Manager and the parks planner who serves as our primary contact. We were there to express the importance of this project within the mountain biking community and to assess the status of the project and the security of the funding. In short, the meeting was a success. The funding for the project is secured, and although certain delays do exist that must be worked through, the tentative schedule is to have it designed and bidded out by the end of 2008 so construction can begin in the spring of 2009.

The meeting also provided us with a great opportunity to educate the Director on what singletrack is and what mountain bikers are looking for in a singletrack trail experience. Director Derr appeared genuinely interested, asked many questions, and is committed to making this trail a reality. It's not everyday we get to sit down with State Parks leadership and I must say that we tried to make the most of it. We came away not only happy to see State Parks dedication to creating the Mt. Washington trail, but also hopeful that this meeting could be the beginning of a healthy relationship between BBTC and Washington State Parks.

As for me, Justin and Jon are helping me transition into the role of point-person for the Olallie/South Fork projects. It's clear from listening to Justin talk yesterday and in previous meetings that I have a lot to learn about the various agencies and advocacy groups at play here in Washington, not to mention the regulations and protocols, but so long as they promise to be my training wheels, I'm up for learning. The next step, for me, is to get to work with Justin on a grant proposal to help fund the road-to-trail conversion. With any luck, the road decommisioning will begin this spring and by next year or 2010 sometime, we'll have one heck of an epic backcountry trail system right outside of North Bend.

You can read more about the Olallie State Park and South Fork of the Snoqualmie projects by following those links to the ever-impressive Trail Wiki (which I'm finally going to start contributing to, by the way).

Freedom From Behind the Handlebars

Now this is what I call finding inspiration in your elders!

A California couple, age 62 and 48, took off on their bikes in 2002 and spent four years travelling [half of] the world. They pedaled through 57 countries on four continents, taking everything they needed with them on racks and paniers.

Read their story and see the map of their route on CNN right here. Click on the map-points to see small video clips from that area.

The Zen of Ichiro

You don't need daylight savings, nor a groundhog, nor the scent of fresh lawn clippings to tell when spring has so-called sprung. All you need is a couple of crazy quotes from Ichiro, the Mariners' star center fielder. Or, as I like to say, the modern-day Yogi Berra.

Despite racking up over 200 hits in every season he's been in the majors and in spite of just being a few short years removed from breaking the single-season hits record, a mark that stood for over 60 years, Ichiro is in an 0 for 21 slump in spring training. But is this man known for being as serious as an assassin concerned?

From MLB.com:

Facing the Rockies on Tuesday, Ichiro gave Mariners fans little to cheer about, grounding to the pitcher to lead off the game, lofting a couple of fly balls to left in the
third and sixth innings, and coming closest to breaking his Cactus rut with a hard grounder to third to lead off the ninth, snared by Rockies prospect Ian Stewart.

"Part of me said, 'Go through, so it can be a hit,' " Ichiro said through an interpreter. "But the other part of me said, 'Make this an out so the streak can continue.' "

Oddly, Ichiro is convincing those around him that it is an altogether enjoyable experience for him.

"To tell you the truth, some of this is kind of fun," Ichiro said. "To be in a situation this early in Spring Training and have this kind of a bit of intense environment is something that I couldn't experience before. Basically, it's a situation where I need to battle within myself, mentally. "That's something that I haven't experienced at this time of year, and I get to experience that right now, and that is great for me. Once I get a hit it might actually make me sad that this experience isn't going to be here any more. But at the same time, I understand I need results."

Manager John McLaren may not be taking quite as much pleasure in the artificially intense atmosphere as Ichiro is, but he is every bit as carefree when it comes to the fortunes of his leadoff hitter.

"I told the Japanese press he's going to [Triple-A] Tacoma in a couple of weeks, and they looked at me like I was nuts," McLaren joked.

"His stroke's coming, believe me. He's going with the pitch, he's not in a pull mode or anything. He's hitting the ball hard. He's just that much off," McLaren said, holding his fingers centimeters apart. "He's fine. Put him down for the batting title. Put my name with it, please."

The Long-Awaited Culdcept SAGA Post

I've been meaning to write this post for weeks yet everytime I sat down to do so, I decided to go downstairs and play the game instead. After all, let's be honest, the Internet needs another wannabe game reviewer like Xbox Live needs another pre-buscent, homophobic, xenophobe with a microphone. Nevertheless, I've spent years praising the game's earlier iteration and another year anxiously awaiting this sequel, so how could I not write about it?

And besides, a few glances at the quote-unquote professional reviews is all I need to know there is plenty of room for my words in this timesink of a digital world.

The series of tubes aren't full yet, right?

I digress. The game in question; the game I've been looking forward to playing for over a year; the sequel to the only game I didn't sell from my collection of PS2 games goes by the name Culdcept SAGA and, as you've no doubt heard me say before, it is very much an amalgamation of Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering. Simply put, it's a board game combined with a card collecting game. Players "buy" properties by placing creature cards on them and they try to get out "paying rent" by summoning creatures to battle those occupying the territories. A plethora of cards representing weapons and armor and magic attacks can be used in combat, all of which is geared towards collecting enough "money" to win the game. Of course, there is no money (it's all magic) and the game is far more complicated than Monopoly, but this should give you a general visualization.

[Warning: Gross over-generalization coming]

Oh, if only it were that simple. Well, it sort of is, at first glance at least. The game is actually a multi-layered symphony of strategy and manipulation. It's easy to learn at the elemental level. The tutorial and basic common sense is all it takes to figure out how the fundamentals work (familiarity with either of previously mentioned tabletop games helps tremendously) but to excel at the game requires the use of complex cards and sophisticated combinations. In fact, just understanding not only how each card works, but how it compliments other cards is one of the trickiest parts of the game. And this all comes to light in your deck (i.e. "Book") creation. Although you will eventually amass hundreds of different cards, not to mention duplicates, you can only enter a game with 50 cards at once. So, it's up to you to build a good deck. Do you focus on certain elements? Do you like to use lots of items and tough-as-nails creatures? Do you prefer to cast lots of spells and be more crafty and manipulative? You must ask yourself all of these things and more when building a deck. Personally, I tend to make very subtle changes to my deck as new cards are acquired (you earn new cards whether you win or lose, fortunately) but primarily just keep one deck active at a time. This way I get very familliar with that deck and know exactly what it can do and what it can't. That said, it's possible to customize up to ten different decks and assign different names and book covers to them.

So, the game plays out with your avatar (Cepter) going around the board and collecting properties and battling other enemies with the cards in your respective decks. Those who have played the first game, simply titled Culdcept, will know exactly what to expect. The games are almost identical. But there are differences and while they are subtle, they are powerful.

For starters, Culdcept SAGA contains 498 different cards and a great deal of them are not only new to the series, but are far more complex and powerful than the cards seen in the earlier game. A great number of cards now have their own unique territory abilities and lots of cards are multi-element. Another nice change is that the levels are more complex as well. Many are larger, new special spots have been added (like a Fountain that allows you to draw a new hand and reset your Book), and the background graphics have indeed been spruced up. Lastly, the other big change is the addition of online multiplayer and Achievements. This is really two separate things, but they're both fundamentally Xbox 360 features so I group them together. This is the type of game that I just play for the sake of playing and am almost entirely focusing on the single-player offline mode first and, to that extent, I'm not even focusing on earning any Achievements.

I did play some online matches however and when there weren't any connection issues (which happened in 2 of 4 matches I played) the game was great fun online and I look forward to expanding my card collection and playing online each night once I'm done with the single-player campaign. Aside from the occasional connection issues, the only other thing I can ding the game for is that too many of the single player matches take far too long. Most matches are played to 10,000 total magic and this can take 2 to 3 hours if you don't luck into a good draw and a few fortuitous rolls of the dice early on. I played a game after dinner tonight that took 2:40 to complete... and I ended up losing. I was happy to still get a half-dozen cards (three new ones too!) but win or lose, that's simply too long. But, seriously, these are very minor quibbles. I have no doubt that this game will ultimately slide in next to the original in my top ten list of favorite games of all time.

But that brings me to the main point I wanted to make in writing about this game. This is a game that you either get or you don't. If you allow yourself to look past the admittedly lofty geek-factor involved in playing a game that resembles Magic: The Gathering, and learn how to play the game, it's a work of art. Many of the reviews I've seen for the game either understand and appreciate the game and score it very high or they focus their negativity on the game's graphics and nerdy inspiration and they score it low. But their reasons are unjust; they're simply scoring the game based on their own preconceptions instead of what the game's goals and merits are. The game makes very clear what it's trying to be and it accomplishes those goals superbly. The only criticism that I've seen that I feel has some justification behind it is that the depiction of combat is outdated and rather too simplistic or lame (the game shows the two creature-cards side-by-side and a simple weapon or claw strikes for an attack). I admit that it is kind of laughable, but anything more involved would likely take too long and the same people who find the current battle system too simplistic would be mashing their buttons in hopes of speeding through a lengthier but prettier combat display.

The reason this game works, both for single player and multiplayer, is that the action is fast. Turns are short and to the point, the interface is clean and easy to navigate, and the numerous info-panes are just a button press away. What makes this one of my favorite games of all time is that it is wonderfully balanced and grows with the player. Beginners can get their feet wet with very simple cards and small boards and intermediate and advanced players can progress through the single player campaign to build their card collections and master the nuances of the gameplay. It's a game that rewards dedication and constantly provides a challenge. It's a game I can continue to have numerous "firsts" even after months of steady gameplay.

And all without having to buy a single booster pack.

The Tough Love That Never Came

The weathermen predicted all sorts of heavy rain and wind for the early half of this week and as recent as Sunday night it looked like my only chance for some outdoor dry-weather cycling would be on Wednesday or Thursday. So I took this into account when laying out my training plan for this week and for Tuesday I scheduled the grueling 3-hour Spinervals video, Tough Love. I did this video two or three times last year and I absolutely hated it each and every time. But it's beneficial so I continue to do it. And hate it.

Yet, as I sat on the couch playing Culdcept SAGA and watching "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN today I noticed that the rain was going more than it was coming and that, finally, by 3pm it was so bright and sunny out I couldn't ignore it. It was windy and a bit chillier than I like for road biking (much warmer in the woods on a mountain bike), but with the alternative being a 3-hour suffer-fest in the garage, some numb extremeties seemed like a small price to pay. Factor in daylight savings and it was an opportunity I couldn't refuse.

I stayed relatively close to home and chose to work on some of the short-steep hills I've seen but never rode before. I did eventually get a bit cold and wanted to get home by 5:30 so I cut the ride to just 29 miles, but managed to rack up 1815 feet of climbing.

I did a 3-lap hill-climb time trial last year on Snoqualmie Parkway and wanted to see where I was at this year so I tried to push it a bit on the final climb up the road. It's exactly two miles from the railroad tracks near Railroad Road to the new library on the corner of Center Blvd and it climbs 480 feet over that distance. I pushed it pretty hard for the 90 minutes prior to hitting this climb, but still managed a somewhat respectable 9:52 for the Parkway climb. It felt a bit odd to only ride for 1:41, but I have a pretty long week ahead of me on the bike, not to mention I really worked hard on some short, steep climbs today.

All in all, an unexpectedly nice day on the bike. And it sure beat riding the trainer for three hours.

Analysis: Three Years With a Civic Hybrid

Eager to embrace new technology and the shift towards alternative fuels and high-efficiency vehicles, Kristin and I bought her a Civic Hybrid three years ago. At the time, everyone we knew saw fit to let us know that it would take years for the savings at the pump to offset the increased cost of the car over the standard internal-combustion model. Unable to think beyond their wallet -- or ours, -- many of these same people, not to mention columnists and television reporters, even said buying a hybrid was an un-economical choice for most people.

Now, if we were buying a hybrid purely as a means to hedge against rising gasoline costs, then yes I might have been apt to agree with the naysayers. But that wasn't the only reason we bought the car, nor was it the primary one. We bought the Civic Hybrid because first and foremost, Kristin liked the standard 4-door Civic and we all know Honda makes a damn fine car. Secondly, we wanted to encourage conservation efforts and reduce the amount of gasoline we were consuming; in other words, we wanted to simply support the technology even if it meant more out-of-pocket costs up front. So we did want to get a hybrid, but neither of us liked the look-at-me aspect of the Prius. We don't care if the neighbors know we're driving a hybrid; the Civic Hybrid looks like a normal Civic and that was important to us. And, yes, it does get much better mileage than the standard sedan.

Kristin has been driving her 2005 Civic Hybrid for three years now, to and from Seattle five days a week. During that time she's kept a detailed diary of the car's fuel consumption, mileage, and the price of gas. Tonight I took that data and entered it into Excel and ran some calculations to see exactly what the savings have been thus far.

First, let me say that the point of this is not necessarily to try and prove anyone wrong, but to answer my own questions. I paid $3.92 a gallon the other day and, well, when you start doing that, you start asking yourself a lot of questions.

Particularly, "Have we saved money by buying the hybrid version?"

So, an apples-to-apples comparison (prices from Cars.com):

2005 Honda Civic 4dr Sedan EX: $17,510 MSRP
2005 Honda Civic 4dr Sedan Hybrid: $19,900 MSRP

Kristin goes to school with a guy who has the non-hybrid version of the 2005 Civic 4dr Sedan and says he has averaged 30.5 miles per gallon with it. We see no reason to doubt his claim, so this is the number I used in my calculations.

Civic Hybrid data collected from 123 fill-ups between 3/26/05 and 3/04/08

Total Miles: 53,089
Total Gallons of Gasoline: 1,284
Average Price: $2.75 per gallon
Total Fuel Cost: $3,552

Three-Year Real-World Average: 41.3 MPG

The real-time mileage display in the Civic Hybrid really makes the driver aware of how increased passenger/cargo load and bad weather impacts the mileage of the vehicle, not to mention seasonal changes in gasoline formulas. Kristin has averaged as high as 45.7 MPG on several tanks of gas over the years, particularly in the dry summer months, and her lowest was 36.7 MPG on the very first tank of gas when the engine was still breaking in (car was purchased new).

If we take the data she collected with her Civic Hybrid and compare it to the 30.5 MPG average we know the non-hybrid version of the same car gets, then we can extrapolate the following information:

By buying the hybrid version, Kristin consumed 337 fewer gallons of gasoline in three years and saved $928 in gasoline costs. That's a savings equal to roughly nine months worth of gasoline. Also, it's worth noting that the average gas price she paid was only $2.61 for the first two years of this data period. She paid an average of $3.10 per gallon in the third year. Therefore, with oil prices over $100 a barrel and the dollar continuing to plummet in value, I think it's very safe to say that her fuel savings will only increase in the months and years to come.

But what about that initial $2400 outlay? Many experts back in 2005 predicted that an average consumer would reach the break-even point in roughly 5 to 6 years. We're already close to surpassing it when you factor in the $928 savings shown above, the $2,000 tax credit that was available, and the increased sales-tax credit we got to claim.

But lets focus on the $928. It's true that for most people it will likely take at least 5 to 6 years to reach a point where their savings at the pump will offset the increased price of the car, but not everyone. Kristin averages nearly 18,000 miles a year in her car and that makes a huge difference in how fast one can notice the savings. Another factor that makes a huge impact is the price of gas. Washington state is typically second only to California in gasoline prices in the continental US. For those who combine higher gas prices with longer commutes, the hybrid is an attractive choice. Especially if you still want a relatively nice, comfortable 4-door sedan and not a no-frills economy compact.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking that this is all fine and good but the real issue is the 18,000 miles she's driving. And you're right. Kristin spent two years riding the bus to work when we lived in Bellevue and has contacted King County Metro on several occasions to lobby for an express-route from our neighborhood to Seattle. They've recently made changes to their routing and schedules and are slowly inching in that direction, but not with an ideal route. So, ideally, she would like to once again take the bus and minimize her commute, but that's not an attractive option right now. Another concern is that while hybrids do consume less fossil fuels, their batteries pose another environmental concern. We know this is true, but we have faith that technology will evolve over the coming years to make battery creation/disposal/recycling far friendlier to the environment than it currently is. Some would make this out to be a huge crisis, but compared to the millions of years it takes to make oil, the few years it takes to develop safer battery disposal techniques are inconsequential.

So what I'm saying is that buying the Civic Hybrid has made sense for us both from a philosophical standpoint as well as from a monetary one. Or at least it will have by the time we're ready to sell the car when we embark on our trip in a few years. As the Starbucks cups like to say, the way I see it there are a lot of companies out there willing to buck trends and make a product in a way that is simply a bit nicer for the planet. And doing things these ways usually costs more money. Whether it means buying free-range beef, eating organic produce, using recycled printer paper, or driving a hybrid car, sometimes we just got to support their efforts. Even if it means a bit more money up front. Because ultimately the only way these things -- and their benefits -- can become commonplace and affordable is if enough people step up and provide the demand.

And if we just happen to get a little healthier and save a little money over the long-term, then that's cool too.

Snowshoeing at Mt. Rainier


View looking south from Mt. Rainier to the Tatoosh Range.

Had a great weekend out of doors this week. I spent Sunday doing a 53 mile mountain bike ride with friends and Kristin took the dogs snowshoeing back near Talapus Lake where we went last weekend, but the real treat was on Saturday. We woke up bright and early (actually it was still dark) and made the drive to the Paradise area at Mt. Rainier National Park. Neither of us hadn't ever been to the south side of Rainier before, but we really wanted to get some snowshoeing in there. Most of all, we just wanted to wander around where there weren't any trees and, if we were lucky, no people either.


We were second in line at the park entrance when the ranger opened the gate and before long were walking around the parking lot at the Paradise Visitor Center trying to find the trail -- things that are very straightforward in the summer become a bit trickier in winter, especially when surrounded by walls of snow. We eventually found our way up out of the lot and headed off to the east towards Edith Creek. It was snowing lightly and we were in the clouds so visibility wasn't very good. But we didn't mind and just started hiking uphill through a half-foot of fresh snow.

Kristin enjoying the early-morning tranquility on Mt. Rainier.

Being unfamilliar with the terrain, I tried to commit the topo map to memory and go by what I felt like made sense. I pointed to a ridge and traced a loop in the air with my outstretched hand. I wanted to avoid the steeps for fear of avalanche and get up onto the ridge and loop around to the west from the top. It was a good plan and worked well, but Kristin was having a bit of trouble with the elevation and was moving a bit slower than normal. We weren't in a hurry though so I just continued on ahead, breaking trail, and taking photos. Once we got to the top of the first ridge I noticed that another pair of snowshoers were following our tracks.

Either I plotted a good route or they were even more clueless than us. Or they just wanted the comfort of following someone else's tracks... Probably a little of all three.

Visibility got laughably poor just below glacier vista and, for a brief moment, I wasn't sure whether my plan would find us a safe route down. I soon spotted a pair of backcountry skiers shoeing their way up the mountain about 100 yards away -- my route had an exit! Excellent. We thought about continuing the climb towards Panorama Point at about 6800 feet elevation (we started at roughly 5500) but between the poor visibility and Kristin's trouble with the altitude, we decided to descend. Next time, I'm packing my snowboard with me for the descent!

We meandered back down the mountain, across the snowplay area, and over to the Nisqually Vista trail. We followed the trail for a while but then went off exploring in some untracked snow just in time for the sun to pop out. A fine time to stomp down the snow and take a rest. Snowshoeing is pretty exhausting and we ended up doing 1100 feet of climbing through fresh snow. It's not a lot of climbing, but we're still getting used to these things so it was a lot for us. We eventually shoe'd our way back down to the large UFO-shaped monument and walked the road a short way back to the truck and called it a day.

Highlight of the day: Breaking fresh trail with Kristin early in the morning when virtually nobody else was out on the mountain.

Lowpoint of the day: Paying $3.92 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline in Elbe on the way home.

Click here for photo slideshow.

Highs and Lows

HIGH: I was wearing an old gray hoodie today that happens to have one of those large hand-warmer style pockets in it. This was fantastic design, not because I wanted to put my hands in it, but because I realized that it was deep enough to hold half a bag of circus peanuts in it. So I poured the bag of candy in the pocket and had the tasty sugar-clumps at my disposal wherever I went. Whether it to be to the Fed-Ex store, to my office, out to the truck, and yes, even while in the bathroom. Circus peanuts are good anytime, even while peeing.

LOW: I learned tonight that it's impossible to talk with a mouthful of mouthwash. At least not with your mouth open. You might think that I would have worked out the rules of talking and gargling much earlier in life, but you would be wrong. And I have a greenish-blue stain on the bathroom carpet to prove it. I think my mistake was in tilting my head sideways to try and hold the mouthwash in my cheek while I talked. Gravity. It'll get ya everytime...

But it was worth it to see Kristin spit her toothpaste all over the mirror laughing so hard.

The King of Kong: Fistul of Quarters

Kristin and I were playing Scene-It on the Xbox 360 the other night and one of the questions showed a clip from the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. We were asked to name the movie -- duh -- and one of the options was "The King of Kong". I thought it was just made up to try and trick players away from answering correctly and thought nothing of it.

Then the next day I was browsing the available downloads on Xbox Live Marketplace and came across a movie called The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. It's a real movie title, after all. A real movie about the the competition that surrounds setting world records in classic arcade gaming. I couldn't tell from the description if it was a documentary, a mockumentary, or if it was entirely fictional.

Let me say that we were a good thirty minutes into the movie and I still couldn't tell if it was fake or serious. The main character, Billy Mitchell, comes across as such a total loser in the movie that the whole time you're watching it, common sense tells you that it has to be fake. Nobody would actually act and look like this clown. Nobody in real life, in the mid 2000's could allow themselves to be filmed looking this bad and while being this obnoxious. But then you realize that it's real and well, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

But let me back up and say that the movie centers around Billy because back in 1982, Billy was the recognized record holder for a bunch of video games. Games like Donkey Kong, Centipede, Pac-Man and so on. Well, as time went on each of Billy's records were broken except his Donkey Kong record. That is, until 2005 when a guy named Steve Weibe living right down the road here in Washington, in the Redmond Ridge development, broke his record. Needless to say Billy and his merry band of disciples who oversee the record keeping (and somehow manage to make Billy think anyone cares about his 'celebrity') try to find ways to invalidate Steve's new record.

To say anymore would give away too much of the story since it's a short movie (80 minutes) and relies heavily on the conflict that comes from an unknown (Steve), trying to crack a decades-old geeks-network of classic gaming enthusiasts lead by head-slimeball, Mitchell. Perhaps Mitchell is more likable in real life (unlikely), but you do sort of pity him for trying so desperately to hold onto his record.

Anyway, the movie did receive multiple awards from film festivals around the country for Best Documentary and it's definitely well made. Even if you have no interest in classic gaming (I don't), I still recommend watching the movie for the simple voyeuristic value it provides.

A Paused Time Record!

When I'm mountain biking, especially on group rides, I try to keep the amount of time spent standing around to a minimum. The Garmin Edge 305 I use to track my mileage and elevation gain (and to help get home sometimes) tracks this time separately and calls it "Paused Time". Soccer fans, ahem, I mean futbol fans, will recognize this concept as stoppage time. Anyway, I like to have less than 5:00 of paused time per hour when mountain biking and less than 1:00 per hour when on my road bike.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new record!

I just got done with my short Carnation loop, a route that hits Tolt Hill and Ames Lake roads and then comes back via Fish Hatchery Road and up past Snoqualmie Falls with no extras. It's 43.3 miles and 2090 feet of climbing.

Today's ride had just 0:00:35 of paused time. Less than 15 seconds of downtime per hour and it was only that high on account of a red light and having to stop and fix a dropped chain.

Nothing like a nonstop 2.5 hour bike ride on a nice semi-spring weather day to put a smile on your face.