Canon G10: A Review of Sorts

I was going to try my hand at writing a detailed review of the G10 and attempt to analyze some comparison shots I had taken with a borrowed G9. I set up the tripod, I jotted down settings, and I arranged some bookshelf clutter to pose as my still-life subjects. The photos are still on the memory cards, likely to be deleted. This is not that comparison review. That review is not coming.

It dawned on me as I was wrapping up the test shoot that what I was doing was completely unnecessary. There are extremely detailed technical reviews of the G10 available here and here as well as on many other photography websites. But not only was it unnecessary from a reinventing-the-wheel standpoint -- and also because the person I had borrowed the G9 from already had the G10 and had simply forgotten he purchased it (I hope to one day be able to forget $400 purchases) -- but because that level of criticism and analysis isn't for me to give.

You see, I had to come to a conclusion about myself as a photographer before I was willing to shell out $400+ for a glorified "point-and-shoot" camera. That conclusion was that I am not ever going to be more than an amateur photographer. Like a lot of people, I used to romanticize the notion of being a photographer. I have some nice equipment, I've studied books, taken a class, and even tried selling my photos at a festival once. And though I do believe I have an eye for composition and possess a better-than-average understanding of the technical aspects of the craft, I can finally admit that I lack the patience and the desire to go out specifically looking to take photos. I let the photos come to me and, when they do, I can take some nice ones. But it's been years since I lugged my tripod and SLR down into a rocky creekbed for a waterfall shot; it's been just as long since I've attached the macro lens and gone to the gardens or tulip farms looking for colorful close-ups. And while it was fun to stake out my area an hour before sunset at Delicate Arch and wait for the best light, it was also a bit boring. And ultimately disappointing since the light never truly matched that of my imagination.

But ultimately, it was travel that sealed the deal. I couldn't stand filling up my limited amount of luggage space with camera gear. I hated being that guy with the big fancy camera hanging off his neck. I hated having to constantly keep an eye on my equipment and being insulated from the places I was visiting because of the camera. That said, I've gone through a bevy of cameras in the Canon Powershot series, from the chunky-but-adequate A-series cameras to the slim-but-disappointing Elph line.

Enter the G10.

Every review on the G10 points out two flaws: it produces a lot of noise at high ISO speeds and, for a compact camera, it's not terribly compact. It's also as pricey as some entry-level Digital SLRs (it actually fetches the equivalent of $600 in some stores I visited in Osaka and Kyoto). I took a chance anyway because though larger than the A630 I was using on biking trips, it was still much smaller than my Canon 20D, especially with my workhorse Tamron f2.8 28-75 lens on it. And as for the whole ISO thing, I seldom shoot above ISO 400 anyway and the camera has a hotshoe that works with my Speedlite 420EX flash. I was apprehensive, I was positive this G10 would let me down in Japan and that I would kick myself for not bringing the 20D, but I bought it, travelled with it, and came back loving it.

Before I begin salivating all over the G10, let me first say that I am not ignorant. The 20D does obviously have a better sensor and that Canon's decision to cram nearly 15 mega-pixels onto the G10's tiny sensor has moved far beyond the point of diminishing returns. The 20D also has a better auto-exposure meter, or so it would seem. And the fact that the G10 can only be stopped down to f8.0 is a bit, shall we say, absurd. Despite these nitpicks, this camera has convinced me to sell my 20D.

The G10 has a number of bells and whistles on it that the G9 doesn't have, and neither does my 20D. I truly came to love having a top-mounted dial for ISO speeds and another for exposure compensation. No more fumbling through menus, just an instantaneous spin of the wheel. I also love the metal case and ergonomics of the camera -- the A630 looks like a toy next to it and even the 20D looks cheap and plasticky in its presence -- and the ability to put it in a coat pocket was a nice surprise. Also, the dial and buttons on the back of the camera are far more user-friendly than on the G9, particularly if you have bigger fingers.

Anyone who is familiar with Canon's controls will feel at home right away with the G10. Though there are a seemingly endless array of settings and options, the camera is very intuitive to use and not the least bit cumbersome in my opinion. There are sure to be features that I don't scratch the surface of for some time, but I've already found myself using some of the whizz-bang technology I previously thought superfluous an unnecessary. A few examples: for starters, the face-detection auto-timer is fantastic. No more sprinting to get into the shot before the timer goes off. The camera counts faces and starts firing once a new one is detected. You can set it to auto-fire as many times as you want before stopping. Another great addition to the camera was the built-in image editing. Normally I wouldn't think to use these too-good-to-be-true features, but the after-the-fact red-eye removal is absolutely fantastic, as is the ability to trim, crop, and adjust the color and saturation. You can save any changes you make as a new file too, so you need not risk destroying the original.

Another feature I never expected to use was the built-in sound recorder. I used it to record notes for certain files, but also to record the full 90 minutes of interviews I had with the developers I was meeting with in Osaka. It sure beats spending a ton of money on a digital recorder! The camera also has a built-in neutral density filter and HDR capability.

Ultimately, a laundry list of features doesn't mean a whole lot if the image quality isn't up to snuff. I've come home from too many trips with far too many disappointing results. For example, nobody has seen any of the shots I had taken on our weeklong trip to Leadville last year because I was shooting the Canon SD750, a camera whose lousy image quality is only matched in crapitude by its abysmal ergonomics. Your mileage may vary.

Everything looks great on the G10's incredibly large and bright LCD, but I was still a bit nervous when it came to actually sorting through the shots and seeing how they fared. I'm happy to say I was more than pleased. I took the camera with me everywhere I went during my week in Japan and not once did I wish I had my 20D with me. The built-in image stabilization allowed me to shoot at lower shutter speeds and still keep the ISO at a noise-less 200 or relatively noise-free 400. The 28mm wide-angle was plenty wide enough for most subjects and I rarely needed to use the flash. I didn't even bring my 420EX.

I actually found myself taking better exposed shots with the G10 than I have in the past with other cameras simply because of the accessibility of the exposure compensation dial and the real-time histogram on the display in combination with the spot-metering button. It's just all so easy to use that if you have the least bit of understanding how the features work, there's really no excuse for not taking great shots. I did switch to fully manual mode a few times, but I left the G10 in shutter-priority mode for the majority of the trip and was very pleased with the results.

As an added bonus, the size of the camera and relatively old-school looks helps it to blend into the crowd. It's not an attention-getter and, as a result, I was able to sneak a number of shots in work settings without anyone noticing. These are two of my favorites from the whole trip, shots I probably couldn't have gotten with a bulky SLR.

I had taken a total of 1100 photos during the week I was in Japan and of those, I put 107 on my Flick'r site. Naturally, being a critical wannabe photographer, I only truly like 6 or 7 of them. But I like them all enough to say with confidence that the G10 is so much more than a "compact" camera and that I hope Canon never stops doing what they're doing with the G-series. I have a number of trips lined up for this year and the G10 will be with me on every one of them. Yes, it'd be nice if the aperture could be set to smaller than f8.0 and I have no idea why the camera even has such a tiny, pointless viewfinder with no interior indicators -- they should do away with it altogether. Yet, aside from those two complaints, I am thrilled with the purchase and would highly recommend it to anyone in the market for a high-end compact camera. It's not for the people who shoot on the green setting or who don't know what shutter-priority means. And if you're unfamiliar with Canon cameras, particularly their SLRs then you should expect a steep learning curve, but it's an effort worth making.

Click here to view the Japan photos, all shot with the Canon G10 in jpeg mode at 15M, Superfine. I didn't shoot in RAW since Photoshop and ACDSee hadn't yet supported RAW for the G10. As of this writing, they now do.

On the other hand, if anyone is in the market for a lightly used Canon 20D with lenses and bag, please contact me with an offer.

About Capcom's Special Announcement...

Yesterday, Capcom posted a special video announcement on Xbox Live that contained the Director and Producer for Lost Planet 2 showing off footage of their new game. This is a great way to unveil a game that hasn't been confirmed previously, and it's also a great way for the Japanese developers to bridge the gap to Western audiences in attempt to reach them on a more personal level. Nobody had heard a whisper previously about Lost Planet 2 (although one can always assume sequels are in the works these days, particularly when it comes to Capcom) and I suspect many other developers will follow suit in the future.

Showing trailers of games over Xbox Live is not new. Downloadable trailers have been around for years at this point. What was new, however, was the decision to show video of a man speaking to the audience and to have him introduce the "big secret"... as a streaming video.

I'm afraid Capcom may have actually did themselves some disservice in this respect: the gameplay footage was so heavily compressed for the streaming process that it looked awful. Large chunky pixels and artifacts were prevalent throughout the footage and I only hope that the millions of viewers the announcement potentially reached all understand it was due to the video compression. After all, Lost Planet was a very good looking game and this utilizes an enhanced graphics engine, so it should look as good if not better.

As for the gameplay itself, the sequel takes place ten years after the events in the first game. The frozen wastes of E.D.N. III have begun to thaw and a massive jungle has sprouted up. I understand climate change can happen quickly in a science-fiction setting, but this was a bit absurd. There is no way an environment can go from Greenland to the Amazon in just ten years. Then again, I never did think much of the "science" in science-fiction made any sense. The gameplay looked solid. Enormous species of Acrid, co-op campaign gameplay and some pretty impressive-looking setpieces. Not to mention players can now utilize a deployable retractable shield that was obviously influenced by the Boomshield in Gears of War 2.

I wrote the guidebook for the first Lost Planet and would love to do the follow-up. Either way, I know I'll be playing this when it releases, hopefully in 2009.

Guidebook Giveaway: Blue Dragon Plus

I spotted copies of my guidebook to Blue Dragon Plus (Nintendo DS) in the store over the weekend and that could only mean one thing: my box of author's copies should be arriving any day now. That, and it means it's time for the first Guidebook Giveaway of 2009!

Blue Dragon Plus is a combination tactics-style RPG and real-time strategy game that makes excellent use of the Nintendo DS's capabilities. You needn't know anything about the previous Blue Dragon  game in order to enjoy this one (I didn't, and I wrote the guidebook), though it certainly couldn't hurt. There is a bit of a learning curve to understanding how the game functions between the Route Map and the Battle Screens, an aspect of the game I tried to cover extensively in the book.

I'm giving away three signed copies of the book to the first three people who email me about it. Please include your name, address, and the lead character Shu's famous catchphrase. The first three to send me the correct catchphrase will receive the books as soon as my copies arrive.

Sausage Fingers

I've learned a slew of new terms over the past ten days. Words like bump, match, stemming, smear, and dyno have somehow worked their way into my vocabulary, even if only while describing what I'm seeing rather than doing. 

Another term that's new to me is sausage fingers: I apparently have them. I also now have an annual membership to Stone Gardens, a rock-climbing gym in Seattle. I expected neither.

Kristin's friend Kari had been trying to talk us into going climbing with her for the better part of two years and although Kristin had gone once and I was sure I'd enjoy it, I held back. I didn't want to risk getting hooked on yet another sport, and I was also spending too much time training for endurance racing. That was then and this is now. We finally agreed to go last Friday with Kari and a large group of her friends and we were hooked at once. We went back the following Wednesday and then again this weekend. There aren't many things that can get me to drive into the city three times in eight days, but apparently this is one of them.

When Kari first told us of all the time she spent bouldering (climbing without ropes at lower heights) I admittedly didn't think it would be much fun, or that difficult. My ignorance knew no bounds and when I saw that Stone Gardens had bouldering routes rated from V-0 to V-12, I assumed that I'd probably be able to quickly move up to at least V-4 or V-5. It didn't occur to me that I was back in grade-school and couldn't just skip from kindergarten to middle-school.

Though our new gaggle of climbing friends occasionally massage our egos by saying what "a really hard V-0 that is", or feigning some momentary difficulty with a tricky V-1, the truth is that this this bouldering thing is far more difficult than I ever could have imagined. All of the thousands of miles I've run and biked over the years matter very little. The beach volleyball, the pick-up games of basketball, and the occasional flag-football games matter even less. Surfing. That might have helped, had my surfing not lessened to a once-every-two-years trip to Costa Rica or Hawaii.

Rock climbing, as I'm quickly learning, is about finger strength, core strength, and flexibility. Mountain bikers who want to believe their sport-of-choice helps foster these traits are kidding themselves. If anything, wrapping my tender fingers around the handlebars on Thursday night -- a day after my second trip to the climbing gym -- only made it tougher. This is a good thing, though. I've always weight-training and plyometrics work and I absolutely loathe working out indoors. This is strength-training at play. Sure, it's indoors, and if all goes well the weight I'll be lifting will actually go down (both due to smarter technique and lower body weight), but I can already feel my upper body taking the first steps towards increased conditioning.

The extreme difficulty of bouldering wasn't the only thing I didn't expect; the brain-twister puzzle-solving element caught me completely by surprise as well. And this is what will ultimately keep me coming back. Each of the routes are color-coded and you're only allowed to put your hands and feet on holds that are taped a certain color. For some reason I thought this would be all very straightforward and we would just climb straight up the wall.  Ha! So many of the routes -- yes, even the lowly V-1 routes -- have a wonderful puzzle element to them that begs contemplation and study. Those routes that simply challenge your strength and flexibility and fear-of-heights are fun, but so many more challenge your mind and I can only look forward to progressing to more difficult puzzles. But even if that should take a while, the gym changes all of the routes every month or so, thus giving everyone a whole new set of routes to solve at whatever level they're stuck at.

And I do mean stuck. I don't foresee Kristin and I progressing past V-0 and V-1 for quite some time. For now, we're both limited by our meager finger and core strength (though her core strength probably far exceeds mine these days). I suppose we each have additional matters we have to work out as well, not least of which is the fear of falling. Or, more specifically, falling awkwardly. The highest handhold on the bouldering walls is probably 20 feet up and though that's not very high at all -- and the combination of the crash mats and cushiony floors all but guarantees you'll land safely -- making a strong, hard move (i.e. a "dyno" move) to the uppermost holds is still scary to us. I suppose it's like surfing and mountain biking though in that I just need to go ahead and have that one scary wipeout happen just to prove to myself that I'll bounce back up. Though it is a bit weird to feel somewhat "safer" riding my bike along the edge of a cliff, as in this photo, than I do lunging for a hold just 18 feet off the ground.

But unlike mountain biking, it's something that Kristin and I can do together and not have to worry about pace or difficulty. It's something that doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment, just shoes and  a chalk bag, and perhaps best of all, it's another reason to go out for beers with friends more often.

And one can never have too many excuses to do that.

Do My Ears Deceive Me?

I was out going grocery shopping yesterday and picking up the box set of "Jericho" DVDs for my mom to watch while she's out on disability and went into the REI in Issaquah to see what their selection of rock climbing shoes was like. It's one of their smaller locations, but I lucked out snagging shoes for both Kristin and I that were normally $125 on sale for $40 (Five-Ten Gambits).

There was a small line at the register, just one or two people. It's soon my turn to pay and as the woman is scanning the boxes, a guy approaches the clerk to my right and inquires about a job.

"I saw on your website that people looking for employment should contact the stores nearest them, so are you hiring?" The guy was a hard looking guy. Pretty monotone voice, perhaps with a touch of the South in him. A bit grayed and in his late forties if I had to guess.

"Well, sir, you can take home an application and fill it out. We're not hiring at the moment, but we usually bring on a few extra people in April when the weather starts getting nice."

"Any chance you can just fire someone now?"

Again, monotone. Deadpan. No smirk. My eyes got big and met the equally bulging pair of the woman ringing up my big score on the shoes. I could tell we were thinking the same thing: is this guy joking?

"Well," the clerk began, then chuckled a bit to break the awkwardness, "I suppose you could fill out some complaint cards, that might help."

"Alright. I see. I might do that, I really need a job."

I couldn't take it anymore, I had to say something. It was all too surreal. So I turned to the guy and said, "Don't forget to write on that application that you're a real team player. You know, in case the getting someone fired route doesn't pan out."


I did the grocery shopping at Safeway and was treating myself to a Jamba Juice on the way out. I ordered a 16oz Mega-Mango all-fruit smoothie and, since they always ask if you want the free boost (vitamin powder), I went ahead and requested the "Energy Boost" ahead of time. I don't really expect to feel extra energy, but some extra vitamins and nutrients never hurt.

"Okay, that's one Mega-Mango with a shot of manatee." The clerk was a teenage boy with a thick Asian accent. Very polite, hard-working (he was running the shop by himself with little trouble) but he was a bit hard to understand.

"Did you say a shot of manatee?" I was completely confused and straining to not start laughing.

"Yes, sir. Manatee boost."

"You mean the fish-animal thing from Florida?"

At this point he was probably beginning to think the same about me that I was thinking about him: this guy's bat-shit crazy. He simply smiled and nodded.

"Did you just ask if I wanted a shot of endangered species in my smoothie?" By now I was laughing. I couldn't help it.

"What, sir?" He smiled at me. It was the smile you give a kid as you watch him shove pencils up his nose and eat paste. "You ordered sixteen ounce Mega-Mango with ehmennaty boost, right?"

My ears picked up something different that last time. I looked at the list of available boosts and realized he must have been saying immunity not manatee.

"Ohhh... no, the energy boost, or the immunity, or the fish-mammal thing. I don't care anymore, I really just want the mangoes."

The one freaking time I actually ask for a vitamin boosts... never again.

2009: Certain to Exhaust Me

Kristin and I were discussing the next few months on the way home from the climbing gym last night (more about that in a separate post) and came to the realization that this year is going to be a bit difficult. That was sarcasm. The sheer volume of trips, events, and known-struggles on the calendar for 2009 is astonishing. Rather than wait till December to post a top ten things of 2009, I'm going to go ahead and plop that list down right now in February... I may not get the chance again.

Well, let's see... I wrote two books in January, travelled to Japan for a week, hosted a student from South Korea, and found out my mom had something going seriously wrong with her left breast. There's a lot of good there, professionally and personally, but also a major cause for concern. We just didn't know how serious yet.

I finished the second book in the early days of the month and I'm about to start my third. Our exchange student went home, and my mom went in for a rather urgent mastectomy. We know the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, but we don't yet know to what extent. We're very scared, but I can already tell my role as oldest son will be to "be the rock." My mother and sister will need it. Kristin works round the clock on schoolwork and work stuff.

We booked a three-night ski trip to Whistler for early March with friends and my brother and his girlfriend are flying out to come with us. The trip was booked before we knew about my mom, and I'm not sure I want to go anymore. The lack of snow could be a perfect excuse to cancel the trip. I'm going to buy a one-way ticket back east to spend time with my mom as soon as I finish this book I'm about to start.

It's barely even on my radar right now, but we're tentatively going to South Korea in mid April for 10 days. This is heavily dependent on how far along my mother's cancer is, though in reality unless her condition is far more dire than anyone dares imagine at this point, I don't see us skipping the trip. After all, if we can't be with her in NJ all the time, what difference does it make if we're in WA or Korea?

May has a lot of good and bad, all dependent on my mom. Kristin will be crunching like crazy to finish her Capstone project (think thesis study) for business school. There's a slight chance (fingers crossed, sort-of) that I go back to Japan for a few days, though I'm not sure how likely that is. I'll likely be returning to visit my mom again in May. Also, there's a group of us planning to ride the 100+ mile Maah-Daah-Hey Trail in North Dakota over Memorial Day Weekend. Kristin has another biz school retreat and I'll no doubt be getting busy on one of my major titles of the year.

Kristin graduates from Seattle University's Executive MBA program in the middle of the month. Her parents and grandmother will be flying in, as will my sister who will be coming in for the graduation, but to also go on a pilgrimage to Forks... she's a bit Twilight-crazy. I love when family comes to visit us out here and hope my sister can make it, but her trip is obviously tentative. The Test of Metal is the weekend after Kristin's graduation, which I'll be doing with a bunch of friends. We'll be flying back east again at the end of June for a fun combo-anniversary & birthday party Kristin's parents are having at their beach house in NJ. Oh, and then there's E3... though even if I get invited this year, I'll probably decline.

Another possible trip back east to visit family and to join my friends on the annual baseball trip. I've missed the past two years due to TransRockies and the Leadville 100 and don't want to lose my "veteran" status so will likely make every effort to join them this year for a trip down I-95 to the mid-Atlantic ballparks.

Nothing for me, mercifully, but I expect Kristin to need to fly east for bridesmaid stuff. Her sister is getting married in October.

Ha! I can rarely take a day off from mid-August through the end of October so my butt will be firmly planted in my desk chair. Unless I'm needed in NJ.

Kristin's sister is getting married in Long Island. I'm sure Kristin will be going back for several days. I'll probably have to limit my time to a fly-by appearance, staying at most for a night or two, depending on workload. October is the absolute worst of all the crunch periods -- I haven't even gotten a chance to celebrate my birthday in the 9 years I've been doing this.

Well, fortunately, I don't have anything in mind for November (other than sleep and Seahawks games) and December (more of the same). There's a lot of potential in the coming year. Some great trips, great memories, and memorable events and milestones. It's just hard to get excited about any of it right now, as our minds are on my mom. Today she begins scheduling the various imaging tests that will tell the doctors how far the cancer has spread (if at all) then she'll have to begin chemotherapy and radiology treatments.

Waiting for the answers might be the hardest part.

Demo Daze

I spent a good chunk of today wading through the demos that had piled up recently on my Xbox. I don't typically make a habit of playing a lot of the demos that come out -- usually I let them sit for months before shrugging my shoulders and deleting them to make room for other demos I won't play -- but today was different. I played, deleted, downloaded, and played some more.

Yes, I'm still nursing that initial 20-gig hard drive along.

So, without further ado, here's some thoughts on five of the higher profile demos to be unveiled recently on Xbox Live.

Resident Evil 5
There's little I can say that hasn't been said countless times on other sites, but I'll try anyway. In short, this is the sequel to what I consider one of the best games I've ever played. Despite hating (see also: detesting, loathing, and despising) the first three games in the series, RE4 really captured my attention and didn't let go. RE5 looks to be more of the same, although set in a different locale, with improved graphics, and a new co-op mode that seems to allow for more intense fire-fights that still retain some semblance of winnability. I didn't check out any of the online co-op with the demo. Instead, I played through the two scenes included in the demo, smiled, and deleted it. There's really no reason to ruin the surprise for later. If you liked RE4, you'll want to pick this one up. It's a day-one purchase for me. Release date: 3/13/09.

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X
Now here is a surprise. Despite still having an unopened copy of Ace Combat 6 on my shelf and generally avoiding any of the games with Tom Clancy's name in the title on account of not liking my games too simmy, but this flight-combat game really impressed me. For the most part, it's typical near-future Tom Clancy military drama but unlike the other games, this one is set in the skies across real-world locales (the demo takes place above Rio de Janeiro) and is loaded with exquisitely detailed aircraft. Naturally, the story appears to be complex and the dialogue has that Clancy authenticity that all his games share. Best of all, the game was easy to pick up and play, looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, and I positively love the challenge and XP system that is built into the game. Not sure if I'm going to rush out and buy this, but it's definitely making me consider renewing my Gamefly membership. Release date: 3/03/09.

Halo Wars
As a one-time huge fan of the Age of Empires series, I have a deep respect for the work Ensemble Studios (R.I.P.) has done with the RTS genre, and judging by this demo, their final game is another excellent addition to their portfolio. That said, I have no interest in picking this up. Never mind my complete lack of interest in the Halo mythos, I simply don't have the time and the desire necessary to really get into titles like this anymore. To be honest, I stopped playing halfway through the advanced tutorial and deleted it. The game looks great, the interface has been masterfully built around the console controller (not a small feat), and I have no doubt that all of the RTS staples are there. But I just don't care. It's not you, Halo Wars, it's me. Well, actually it is you. It's your story, your unit names, your sci-fi powers, and abilities, and your too-serious Covenant references. I just don't care. It's really too bad Ensemble couldn't just make a console version of their wonderful decade-old Rise of Rome expansion for AoE. That I would have loved. Release date: 3/03/09.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
I was about five minutes into this demo before remembering that I not only played the original F.E.A.R. but actually liked it quite a bit. I wondered how I could have forgotten playing a game of this popularity, then remembered it was probably because I had put the annoyance known as PC gaming firmly behind me. And this demo only helps lock that memory away for good. Imagine, a hi-res FPS that looks and sounds fantastic, controls exceptionally well, is filled with cutting-edge effects and gameplay elements... and you don't have to spend a week tweaking your system to get it to run. The thought puts a smile on my face. While it's hard to get too much of a feel for the game from the demo alone, other than to say it's a semi-futuristic first-person shooter with excellent bullet-time usage, plenty of blood, and a lot of fright, it seems clear that the sequel has the fantastic enemy A.I. of the original and added to it better weaponry, some very cool mecha sections, and even more creepy horror elements. But really, the best thing to say about F.E.A.R 2 is that it makes you realize just how brain-dead the enemy intelligence is in all of those other shooters we like to play. I'm going to pick this up and hopefully be able to convince some of my friends to put down COD4 and L4D to play this. Release date: Now available.

Afro Samurai
Now here was the surprise of the day. I wasn't sure why I downloaded this game. I certainly didn't expect any more than for it to be yet another cheesey videogame adaptation of a movie adapted from a comic book. Or something. Wow, was I wrong. Let it be known that, of the five demos I played today, this was the only one I didn't delete after playing. The style, the gameplay, the presentation, it's all fantastic. And it doesn't help to have Samuel L. Jackson over your shoulder narrating the story in some sort of wild real-time flashback storytelling mechanism. The game pits you as Afro, the title character, and you hack and slash your way through enemy-filled areas in search of, well I don't know what yet. The action shifts between real-time, high-speed combat, to an in-focus bullet-time, and then to a lengthier in-focus mode when Afro is really outnumbered. Jackson's script and voice-acting work is mother f&#%ing superb, as you'd hope, and the graphic-novel style graphics and excellent music compliment the action and story perfectly. The game actually looks quite a bit like Sly Cooper, which is a good thing in my book. I really enjoyed the lack of a HUD and the use of the "meters" being built into Afro's pendant and only came away with a minor gripe about the camera and a concern that it could become a bit repetitive. Sadly, the video review below bears this out. Release date: Now available.

Saying Goodbye

If I was to receive one of those Facebook memes that ask when the last time I cried was, I'd have to say that I indeed got a bit teary-eyed last Thursday night. At a Starbucks, of all places.

It was there where the twelve host families and our South Korean exchange students had gathered to bid one another goodbye, and as the ten minute farewell turned into a 40 minute so-long-forever, there was hardly a dry eye in the store. Hyeon Ju never got emotional. She's not that type of kid. She was the one going around telling the other kids everything was going to be okay, and that they shouldn't get upset. She hugged us goodbye and we took a final farewell photo, then she was gone. Darting back and forth from one forlorn kid to the next. She was the mother hen to a half-dozen heart-broken teenage girls. And, to be honest, her lack of emotion or tears actually made us feel a little sad. Why is she not crying like the other kids? We wondered briefly if she ultimately didn't really like us or if it's just not her nature to get emotional. Looking back on the 5 weeks she spent with us reveals a bit of the latter. She always seemed far more businesslike than the other kids. She would laugh and smile and man did she love playing Rock Band 2 every night with me, but she never expressed any sense of homesickness. Even at the parties we would attend, when all of the girls were in one room doing little teenage-girl gossipy things, she was in the other room, drumming some steady beats on Rock Band. She never acknowledged missing her family, her brothers, her dog. Never mentioned her father. She is a sweet girl who we really enjoyed sharing our home with, but she had her defenses up and, even if only on a subconscious level, probably knew that it was best to not get too attached.

Kristin and I wondered if because we didn't have kids made it easier for her to keep a distance between us. The families that had teenage kids were certainly much more emotional at the goodbye; their students were almost inconsolable and many all but refused to go. The teenage daughters of the families were clearly upset at losing a friend. It was very, very somber. Nobody likes saying goodbye, and the sadness in the room was suffocating.

On the other hand, Hyeon Ju was smiling. She was happy for the experience, happy to meet friends, and was very much looking forward to seeing Disney Land and the Grand Canyon, where they were headed before flying home to South Korea. She seemed to see these 5 weeks not as a display of a life she'll never get to lead, but as a simple experiment in travel. She made some good friends -- numerous Mt. Si High School students signed a tee-shirt she was given and included email addresses and very nice messages -- and took tons of photos, but rather than dwell on not ever playing Rock Band again or going home to parents who don't play games or to a place where the choices are fewer and the schoolwork never-ending, she seemed to enjoy it for what it was.

I mention the differences between her life in Gangjin and the life she saw here only because it was something Kristin and I tried hard to not flaunt while she was here. Some of it was unavoidable -- like my willingness to play Xbox with her or Kristin's desire to take her to the zoo and movies and just the sheer volume of choices of food in our pantry and at our grocers -- but we didn't want to go overboard regarding how great we have it here. And we really do have it great, her wide-eyed astonishment at things we consider trivial proved this. This isn't to say that she's going home to some horrible land and will be left wanting for what we showed her, but more that we all know how different things are there. For example, even though she attended school here every day and did plenty of Korean homework at night, this was a vacation. Back home they are in school from 8am till 10pm five days a week and every other Saturday. They have it harder there, as simple as that. Back home she has two brothers and parents who love her, but I get the impression she lives in a house without much laughter and with little play. It's just a difference in our societies and perhaps even just our two homes.

Some of the students were keenly aware of this and cried and sobbed and pleaded with their host families to let them stay. A few of the students took turns standing on a chair in the Starbucks and made passionate, heart-felt speeches about the great time they had here, the love they had for their host families, and their desire to return again. One boy swore he would return to Snoqualmie to visit as soon as he could and anyone who could see the look in his eyes and hear the quiver in his voice knew that this was not an empty promise.

My eyes swell with tears even now as I type this just remembering the emotion of the goodbyes on display all around the room. Five weeks, as it turns out, is a magical amount of time. The first two to three weeks allowed the students to get over the culture shock, the homesickness, and for them and their families to get to know one another. The final two weeks forged friendships, bonds, and a closeness you wouldn't anticipate during those first couple weeks. Hyeon Ju really seemed to enjoy herself those final two weeks. She'd watch television with us in the evening, she'd help clean up from dinner, she'd play Rock Band with me every night. Instead of retreating to her room after dinner every night like she did the first couple weeks, she actually stayed downstairs until well past eleven each night. She became a member of the family. Five weeks was just enough time to really start to feel attached. And then she had to go. They all did.

Kristin and I will be headed to Gangjin in April and, as it turns out, I'll be speaking to Hyeon Ju's class about America and what it's like to be an American. I hope to meet her family when we get there and to tell her parents what a wonderful daughter they have and to reinforce our invitation to her that anytime she ever wants to return to the United States she has a place to stay.

The house has gotten a bit quieter since she left. I no longer turn on the television and find it set to Cartoon Network. I can use the bathroom nearest my office again. It no longer smells like exotic shampoos and perfume. The dogs miss her. We have an abundance of left-over Korean food in the pantry, food she brought with her in case she hated American cuisine, but never ate. We just finished the last of the ice cream she picked out and tomorrow I'll eat the last of the chili we made together last weekend.

I hope she remembers us.

The Great Wave

Though I walked by countless souvenir shops lining the streets of Kyoto near the temples, I resisted the call of the wooden shoes and candies filled with red-bean paste; I gave nary a sideways glance at the parasols and fans; and though the sake sets and chopsticks were quite attractive, their pull could not pry the precious yen from the depths of my pockets. Damn you, faltering exchange rate! But global economic catastrophes aside, I was on a mission. A mission for woodblock.

For as long as I can remember, I've always been drawn to woodblock paintings or, more correctly, woodblock printings. I was able to recognize the style at an early age, then truly felt its pull upon reading "Everett Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty", about a boy who had disappeared from his aristocratic life in California to explore the canyon country of the American southwest. He paid for his travels by making and selling woodblock prints of the landscapes he traversed (as an aside, anyone who enjoys the story/movie "Into the Wild" should really read this book). There was something about being able to paint an image by carving it from wood that instantly captured my imagination. The images he created were simple yet detailed and, above all, they were powerful. Hard lines, black ink, white paper. You can see and purchase reproductions of Ruess's work right here.

The woodblock artform originated in China but much of its current popularity can be attributed to the Japanese who really came to perfect the techniques used during the seventeenth century. Though there are plenty of westerners practicing woodblock prints, I wanted to bring one home from Japan. I even had one particular print in mind, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa". It's arguably the most famous print from this art style in the world and one that I've always admired. It was created by an artist named Katsushika Hokusai in the early seventeenth century.

Tim and I entered a gallery in one of the shopping arcades near Kyoto's Nishiki Market. It was filled with hundreds of the most incredible woodblock work I had ever seen. I could have spent hours -- and millions of yen -- in the gallery if I was so fortunate as to have an abundance of either. Though I didn't, I was intent on getting something. I decided on a pair of prints of cranes that were pre-framed and simple, yet elegant.

I wasn't completely satisfied with the choice and on my way to pay for them, wandered down another aisle and started picking through the stacks of matted prints on the floor, beneath one of the display shelves. And there I found it... "The Great Wave off Kanagawa".

The reproduction print was made in 1921 during the Taisho period. The paper has browned a bit, but other than a faint crease that can only be seen in certain lighting conditions, the print is in exceptional condition. The sandwich-style matting has a nice description on the back that explains Hokusai's works and how this was but one image from his "Thirty Six Views" book that showcased three dozen images of Mt. Fuji. Though its 12,000 yen price-tag was a bit more than I budgeted for, it was exactly what I had hoped to find. My inability to speak the language left me with no choice of haggling the price down, so I paid up. No sooner than leaving the store did I begin to worry about getting it home without damage. The security folks at the airport wouldn't let me carry it through the metal detectors so I had to lay it on the belt and send it through. It was sandwiched between two thin sheets of cardboard and made it through okay. At least at Kansai International, not so much in San Francisco where it got caught and started to bow. I caught it just in time before the conveyor belt completely folded it over. It survived without damage. Barely.

I'm going to take it to get framed tomorrow, a process that will no doubt take a week or two and cost as much as the print itself. I'll post a photo once I get it on the wall. I also have more to say about woodblock printing, but that's for another post at another time.

Goin' the Distance at the DMZ

In all likelihood, Kristin and I will be visiting South Korea in April, as the guests of Mayor Hwang-Ju of Gangjin. We started looking at the Korean travel site tonight with Hyeon Ju about the places she recommends we go (though her mayor would like us to stay 3-4 days in Gangjin, she says that we'll be bored after 1 day... LOL!).

She gave us a few suggestions and I've stumbled on some others -- there doesn't seem to be a shortage of places to trip through in South Korea. Though we're drawn more to rural Korea and are considering doing some backpacking on Jedudo Island and visiting the tea plantations and temple sites that remain, there is one place that I very much want to see first-hand: The Demilitarized Zone. I blame this desire to see the DMZ on having suffered through far too many Alan Alda monologues during my childhood years, as my parents became increasingly addicted to M*A*S*H.

I came across this bewildering paragraph on the Official Korean Tourism website and I'm afraid this may only be the tip of the commercialism iceberg we need to brace for (my emphasis).

This DMZ tour includes a visit to Odusan Unification Observatory, where visitors can experience the sadness of the division, a Korean art and culture tour to Heyri Art Valley, and the thrill of driving go-karts at Kartland, located at the Unification Hill parking lot.

Earlier today I was going to post a short, snarky mini-rant about the NBA's pathetic money-grubbing decision to play "GEICO" at the NBA All-Star Game instead of the playground classic, "HORSE". Though as embarrassing a decision that may be, I can't help but think putting a go-kart track at the site commemorating the peace agreement to end the Korean War is something so absurdly inappropriate that not even a sleezeball like David Stern would dare consider it.

Though I wouldn't be surprised if he's at this very moment trying to find a sponsor willing to work some slogans into the national anthem.

Random FEZ Notes

It's hard to believe our 5 weeks with Hyeon Ju will be coming to an end in just 9 days. It really flew by, partly because I spent a week on the other side of the world, but also because she's really been a joy to host. Her confidence with English, our house, our dogs, and food grows with each passing day. Here's a few of the more notable moments from the past week or two, and proof that, once comfortable, all teenagers are the same.

- The high school students were taking final exams last Wednesday so, rather than sit and be bored all day, the Korean exchange students went to Olympia for a tour of the state capital and got to sit on a legislature meeting. They then returned to the high school by 2:30 for a party the Key Club (Student Council) was throwing for them. I was told to pick HJ up at 3:30, but this was faulty information. Nevertheless, I arrived at 3:30, found my way to the party and... was promptly ignored. She smiled, said hi, then went back to talking to her Korean friends. Finally one of them looked at me and said, "She'll call you when the party is over." HJ gave me a look like, "Gosh, dad, leave me and my friends alone, you're embarrassing me!"

- We took HJ to the Chinese New Year feast we attend each year in Seattle's International District (yes, Seattle is too PC to simply call it "Chinatown" like everywhere else in the world) and, before leaving, I asked Kristin to have HJ change out of the windbreaker she was wearing all day. It wasn't cause to wear a dress or for me to wear a jacket & tie, but we thought it'd be nice if she at least put on the nice sweater she had with her. She told Kristin no. So Kristin tells me this and was prepared to let her do what she wanted. I was having none of that, so I went and talked to her. She seemed agitated, but she put the sweater on. Clearly, "don't make me tell your dad" is universal the world over.

- Kristin invited a couple of HJ's girlfriends over for our Super Bowl Party on Sunday, expecting their own respective host families to want them with them on the weekend. Oh, were we mistaken. All three showed up over an hour before kickoff and wouldn't leave until the game was over. They didn't watch the game. Not a second of it. Instead, they spent the first hour or so in the kitchen woofing down more food than you'd ever think four 80-pound girls could possibly consume. One of our friends brought over a couple dozen red velvet cupcakes and they weren't on the table for more than five minutes before HJ and her friends were going back for seconds. They sampled everything. Including one of each flavor of the Thomas Kemper sodas I had in the non-alcoholic cooler. Ginger Ale may as well have been the devil's piss judging by their reaction to it, but they promptly ran upstairs to Kristin's laptop and started emailing HJ's older brother back in South Korea about how great the soda was. She came downstairs and asked me if she could bring a bottle of "American Soda" home for her brother, "he really wants it".

- The girls spent the entire first half of the Super Bowl upstairs in HJ's room talking and doodling and surfing online Korean comic books and cartoons with Kristin's laptop. Kristin is afraid she'll never get her laptop to work in English again but, hey, at least the girl knew to leave my setup alone. They came back down at the start of the third quarter, as if summoned by a dinner bell, and promptly put a serious dent into the various salads and sausage & peppers that were available. I have no idea where they put this food.

- HJ was a bit too anxious to help us clean up after the party. Perhaps she had something on her mind? Perhaps she was trying to score points before asking a favor of me? Could it be? Why yes, that was exactly what she was doing. We were just about done cleaning up when she asked me if I can drive her and a friend to the outlet stores on Tuesday after school. I right away thought of my workload and having no time to spend at the outlet stores, so I asked what stores she wanted to go to. "No stores, just you drop us off and we call when we're done." I would have been annoyed at being reduced to a taxi service, if not for the fact that this worked out much better for me.

- Kristin took her to the aquarium on Saturday and (again) to the outlet stores where HJ bought Gap shirts for her siblings. The shirts are plain tee-shirts with a giant Gap logo on them. I imagine for a small town five hours south of Seoul, having some western branding splashed across your chest will indeed be a big time status booster for a teenager, but I couldn't imagine why anyone would ever wear these shirts -- who are these stores selling them to? Are they surviving on exchange students from the Far East to get by? Then I remembered how willingly the teenagers here seem to embrace being billboards as well. Gap may be a bit long in the tooth at this point, but the thought is still there. Probably why HJ passed on the much-nicer workout pants we offered to get her (for gym class) in favor of the ones with the big ol' Adidas logo.

That's all for now, more to come next week. I'm sure this Saturday's Rock Band party with all the students and host families will provide plenty of material...