Friday, May 30, 2008

Vibram FiveFingers: Sprint

I love my Vibram FiveFingers Surge model shoes (read about them here and here) and ever since last autumn I have wanted to get a lighter pair of FF's for warmer weather, especially since the heat generated by my foot muscles (insulated by the Surge's neoprene) can make my feet pretty sweaty. This spring they actually did away with the old Surge model and added two new models, one of which replaced my previous desire for a pair of Sprints: the new KSO model (short for "Keep Stuff Out"), which is a lot like the Sprint except the whole foot is covered in order to, well, keep stuff out.

Unfortunately, the KSOs have proven to be so popular as to make them difficult to obtain so it was back to the Sprints. I decided this was fine since the Sprints come in more jovial colors anyhow. Maybe by the time I have money to get another pair of FFs next summer, new KSOs will be out in more vibrant color schemes. ;)

I ordered a pair of red Sprints. Now, let me tell you, the 'red' on the vibram site looks rather orange but in reality the shoes are cherry-hotrod RED. I was bummed about this, particularly since I tend to avoid wearing red but in the end said to heck with it and kept them. (Too much of a hassle to return things through the mail from Alaska). I also ordered a pair of Injini toe socks from the Vibrams site to help insulate my foot and keep grit out.

Whoa, this was a big surprise. Before I ever got a pair of FFs I recall reading about how all these people had all these problems getting their toes in the slots but I never have any such problems with my Surges. Of course, the Surge model was made of thicker stuff - these thinner Sprints are TOUGH to get your toes into! And my toes were prepared! Not a big deal - the time it takes to sort out my toes is time that would of been taken by tying the laces on my running shoes. The heel is much more spacious than on the Surge - and I don't need the extra room (who has heels this bulbous?) and some of the material in the inside back of the heel rubs a bit. I read about this; I may have to tape them (wearing the Injini socks takes care of this as well). Otherwise, the fit is great, the straps are well placed and I can't see the main top strap ever chafing.

Comparison to the Surge
I am blown away by the difference between these and the Surge model. The Sprints are SO much thinner than the Surges - and I already thought the Surges were thin and tactile. Gravel hurt more than 'usual' with these; textures and edges were even easier to feel and to grip than in the Surges. Enhanced gripping was particularly notable while walking the rails of a train track. There is much more flex for individual toes, too. The material itself is a great change; my feet actually breathe! Worn with the Injini socks, my feet still overheated on this, a cool day in the 50's, but they did not get clammy with sweat like in the Surges.

I haven't worn these in water yet or done any serious hiking but I look forward to putting them through the paces and temperature tests. Overall I am happy about the lighter, thinner, more flexible nature of these shoes, though there are some rough edges here and there that aren't existing in the Surges (the Surges envelop the foot like a perfect glove). Don't get me wrong - I still love my Surges but they simply either need to be worn in water or in cooler weather.

I see with the Sprints that FiveFingers are not for everyone. The KSOs may have taken out some of the rough edges, looking more shoe-like for one, and perhaps being a tad more comfortable. However, if you are at all interested, I highly recommend looking into trying out a pair of any model.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wii Pro Gamer's Case

As seen here at

I take my Wii around a bit and looked into the many different case and bag options for hauling the console around. I eventually went with Intec's Wii Pro Gamer Case for several reasons:
• Hard side case
• Inexpensive at $25
• Compartmentalized
• Built specifically for the Wii
• Looks good

Construction - In appearance, the case is a blank, metal suitcase that does not say "wii" anywhere, making it an anonymous container, which can be a pro for keeping would-be thieves second-guessing the contents. Every other case I saw was a soft case or bag emblazoned with "Wii" that, other than the material the enclosure was made of, offered little protection from crushing forces. The Pro Gamer Case is a hard-sided aluminum case. You can stand on it and your Wii is not going to get crushed, nor are any of the more fragile elements, like the thin sensor bar. The inside is lined with some sort of black suede-like materal that won't scratch anything and the partitions themselves are sturdy. I read somewhere a complaint about the hinges; they only open to 90°, much like a musical instrument case, but I find no problems with this. It would take a lot of force to break the hinges.

Compartments - To me, this is the next biggest selling point. No other case has quite the compartmentalization that the Pro Gamer Case has. The slot for the Wii itself includes velcro straps to hold the Wii down but these are barely needed. The console fits SO snugly it can actually be difficult to remove. Inside the lid are two elastic bands made especially for the sensor bar, holding it securely in probably the safest configuration of any setup thus far. The rest of the organization made possible by the case varies due to its one flaw, which is seen as a major flaw by many people: the lack of room for the power block.

In the main area of the box, there's a long, skinny compartment above the one for the Wii. This is the perfect size and shape for the Wii stand. The other, smaller compartments to the side are good for Nunchucks and for the audio/video cable, but none are wide enough to accommodate the cables protruding from the power block. The only way to do it is to put the block in at an angle in the largest of the side compartments and then carefully stuff the cables in around it, a far from ideal situation. However, the Wii does not need its stand to run properly, so if you are willing to leave the stand at home, the power block can be fitted into its slot comfortably, leaving ample room for up to 4 Nunchucks and the audio/video cable.

The lid not only has the slot for the sensor bar, but two more loops the perfect width for Wii game boxes, game manuals, or two Wiimotes side-by-side in each band for a total of 4 Wiimotes. If you place the Wiimotes so that the band runs between the buttons, then there isn't as much chance of the buttons being pushed by the lid partition and thus draining the batteries.

Price - at the time I bought my Pro Gamer Case, the next best choice, the G-Pak, was over $100 in price. The G-Pak is notable for its VERY spacious main compartment, game disc holders in the lid, and the ability to leave the Wii strapped in the case with its cables plugged in so that once you get where you are going, you simply unzip the bottom of the case to reveal the cables and then plug in the Wii without having to unpack it. The one flaw with this (other than initial price) is that, like most other cases and bags, there is no compartmentalizing. Everything gets tossed in, free to move about.

Conclusion - There are a lot of cool options for the Wii (including a cute bowling-ball bag style setup) but for the protection of the Wii and its components, despite the lack of forethought in designing room for the stand and the power block, this is by far the best way to go for the Wii.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Portal [game]

From Wikipedia: Portal* is is a single-player first-person action/puzzle video game developed by Valve that is often boasted by fans as being more popular than the main fare of the Orange Box (Half Life 2). It was released as part of "The Orange Box" for the XBox 360 and Windows but will be released on its own this April 2008. It is a short game consisting of 19 levels, taking anywhere from 3 to 5 hours for first-time players to finish (I took about 6, spending time exploring and experimenting with the portal gun).

*Note: be aware that the Wikipedia article is full of un-noted spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Setting: A sterile, white & grey walled "Enrichment Center" for "Aperture Science Laboratories".

Premise: You are a woman named Chell. You wake up in the Enrichment Center and are prompted by a female robotic voice (GLaDOS) to begin your training process by completing a series of puzzle tests, one per level. Generally, the test is to cross a room, overcoming various barriers, and/or manipulate a few buttons in order to gain access to the exit door. The puzzles are often very simple but require lateral thinking to discover the answer.

Early on, you obtain the "Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device" (portal gun) which, as you guessed, creates portals. Portals come in two colors: blue and orange - the color difference is there only to aid the player in telling the portals apart; they otherwise do the same thing. Go in one, come out the other. Once placed, a portal stays put until the player shoots to move it elsewhere. Only one portal of either color can exist at any given time.

I played this on an XBox, using a traditional XBox controller. Both control sticks are required for movement - one for forward and side-to-side movement and the other to aim the portal gun. It takes some getting used to (and a large screen helps) but with a little patience it becomes second nature. A friend of mine watching had previously played Portal on a PC with a mouse and decided that was the way to go - particularly for aiming.

I am a long-time MYST player and the more mechanical levels of Portal will be right up any MYST fan's alley. But the majority of Portal revolves around using the portals and physics to get across many of the more challenging levels, particularly with the "speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out" mantra. Because you cannot run or jump, you have to harness physics (usually the physics of gravity - i.e. falling) to create speed to accomplish some amazing feats. Because the game is in first-person perspective, these feats become truly stunning and kept me on the edge of my seat.

Also, for those of you who hate dying in games, its pretty hard to die in this game through most of it. Luckily you cannot fall to your death - you can only drown in sludgey water (where applicable), be crushed under heavy objects (again, not a common situation, or take too much sustained energy damage from lazers in two or three levels, but again - avoidable. You pretty much never have an opponent other than the puzzle itself.

Storyline: because this is ultimately a mini game, there is only a basic storyline. What really drives the game forward is the mystery of the facility, GLaDOS' motivations, and the amount of humor in the game. It uses lots of techno jargon in silly ways, is full of things that later become inside-jokes to Portal players - and heck, the supposed reward at the end of the game is cake. What is there not to like about that? :D

I almost wish I had my own XBox just so I can play Portal. Maybe on my next Mac I will break down and install Windows via Parallels *just* so I can play Portal. The creators at Valve intend on creating a full blown Portal game of some kind and I will be on the wagon to get it when it comes out.

I honestly can't find anything bad to say about Portal - even about its short length, simply because they used every level to its fullest (particularly the last two) to where any more would of felt tacked on. The visuals were clean and were never glitchy, the sounds were practical, the story was funny yet mysterious, and the controls were smooth and pretty easy to use. Portal is a very unique game can appeal to a varied audience and is worth at least a rental. Go try!

And for those of you who *have* played, here's two shirts I made:

Vibram FiveFingers Surge: winter update

Back in August, I made a post about my new Vibram FiveFingers shoes (I loved them). Last fall in the 50°F+ temperatures, my feet would completely sweat through the Neoprene lining, prompting me to plan on buying a pair of Sprints later this spring. Because the Surge model insulated so well I decided to test them out through an Alaskan winter and spring.

I tested them on ice, in snow, and down to temperatures as cold as 12°F (-11°C). I kept my feet dry and I got my feet damp. I tested them walking and jogging, on pavement and on rougher, natural surfaces. I never went further than a mile at a stretch, though, as I wasn't keen on risking frostbite.

If your feet get wet, you are screwed - your feet will get cold no matter what.

Now, as long as I kept my feet dry...
When I would first leave the house, the wind or cold would go right through the Neoprene making my feet cool, but not yet cold. About as cold as feet on wet grass on a summer morning. Standing around on a cold surface is no good at all, the cold seeping right through the soles. If I kept moving, my feet were fine - by the time I half-jogged, half-quick-walked to my destination a mile away, my feet were actually making their own heat and felt just fine.

It was a wonderful sensation to have my feet feel so light, not weighed down by heavy snow boots, and to still be warm, although it took some excercise for my feet to keep them warm. Better yet was the feel of snow, particularly frozen road grader leavings on sidewalks. It is one thing to run around barefoot in summer or to wear these shoes on dirt, woodchips, grass, and rocks and to know what it feels like barefoot, but a totally different thing with snow because most of us aren't crazy enough to go barefoot on snow. So we don't have a good idea of the true sensations of running around on crunchy snow. And let me tell you, it feels *good*. I felt sneaky, too, like a kid doing something they ought not to. I purposely left 'barefoot' prints in the snow on the sidewalks. I wonder if anyone ever saw. ;)

Ice. These shoes are no good on ice. Great on rocks, great on wood and grass and dirt, horrid on ice. Unless you like to skid a lot.

As far as temperatures go, and being mindful that I am a woman, I was comfortable anywhere above 22°F (-5°C) - the warmer, the better, of course, as long as my feet stayed dry. And keeping my feet dry was impossible in fluffy snow of any depth. Drifts and hard-pack were fine as long as I didn't sink into it at all. 18°F (-7°C) is about as cold as I will personally go if I am desperate to wear my FFs. Colder temps would probably be do-able if I went a longer distance to have more time to get my feet temperature up but it just wasn't for me.

Damp feet were fine above freezing (32/0) though I still have yet to try completely WET feet. I predict, however, that wet feet can stay comfortably warm in temperatures above 40°F (4°C) easily as long as they are kept moving.

Obviously I wouldn't wear these all winter but after growing to love them in the fall, I found any excuse to wear my FiveFingers in the winter. As soon as the thermometer got up above 22°F (-5°C), I had my FFs on to jog to work or to the store. Even though I only got to wear them every few weeks, my feet loved it and *I* loved it (wearing my FFs and running around makes me feel like a kid again and gets me out of most bad moods). Now that it is spring here, I am finding I wear them more often than not if I am going to be active outdoors. I still don't wear them if I am going to end up standing around a lot as they aren't warm enough for that. So:
• Keep DRY in colder temps
• temps as cold as 18°F (-7°C) bearable if staying in motion
• bad on ice
• snow feels fun on the feet

My final conclusion is that in dry conditions, these shoes excel in active motion in temperatures between 18° to 55°F (-7° to 12°C) - any colder is just plain cold, and any warmer my feet sweated through the shoes. I am constantly amazed by these shoes and look forward to really putting them to the test this summer. I hope to obtain a pair of Sprints to go along with my Surges and test them both in water. Keep an eye out for future posts. :)

Friday, October 5, 2007

"Dark Passion Play" by Nightwish

I recently obtained Nightwish's new album, "Dark Passion Play" (DPP for short). For those of you not in-the-know, Nightwish is a Finnish symphonic power metal band who on all previous albums was fronted by a female operatic vocalist, Tarja Turunen. If they aren't the first, they are definetly the most famous band of their kind to use such vocals.

Due to internal issues, the band replaced Turunen with a more 'traditional' sounding vocalist, Anette Olzon. Fans have been pretty divided over this, even before hearing Olzon sing. Originally I was put off Nightwish because I thought it strange to have opera singing with metal. But once I got beyond that, I fell in love with the music and came to like Turunen's voice just fine. Though I had no allegiance to Turunen I was worried that a non-operatic voice would not be able to withstand the power and bombast of Nightwish's sound.

I was wrong. Gleefully so.

Musically, the album is Nightwish. That is who it sounds like, no one else could of created this album. When put into their discography chronologically, I can see how it logically flows out of their previous album, "Once". DPP follows the heavier, more aggressive, crunchier sound of "Once" and one-ups it. "Once" also was the first album to try to utilize a full orchestra and choir but DPP multiplies that by 10. Where "Once" had an orchestra backing up the songs, the orchestra IS the songs on DPP, making the album a gigantic monstrosity of dynamic sound. Some versions of DPP come with a second CD of just instrumental/orchestral versions of the songs. I've heard a few of these and it is amazing how well they stand up without lyrics or lead guitars to carry the songs through, each song standing well on just the orchestra/choir.

Vocally I think Olzon's voice does just fine. Vocal duties are split evenly across this album between Olzon and bass guitarist/male vocalist Marco Hietala. Hietala previously primarily sung back-up/duets with Turunen but never really got to shine on his own. And shine he does - the man sings as well-if-not-better than the best of them. Aside from adding to the dynamic quality of the album, spreading the vocal load between the two voices helps to ease Olzon's new sound into the music and into the aural image of the band.

Comparitavely, Nightwish still does not sound like anyone else out there. Some fans accuse them of sounding more "pop-ish", likely due to Olzon's more traditional singing style and the 'catchiness' of a few of the tunes ("Amaranth" is the only one that comes to mind). I have to argue with this and point out that this is by far the heaviest, most aggressive album they've made. Furthermore, Nightwish is a symphonic power metal band - by definition power metal is epic and melodic, often more "positive" sounding. I can pick out a dozen pre-Anette Nightwish songs that could be considered "poppy" but aren't by diehard fans simply because the vocals are operatic (and in itself, operatic vocals are not traditionally "metal" either). So I think the argument is largely based on the fact that people just hate change.

Personally the album makes sense to me. There are songs on here Turunen could of sung but others I just don't think she would of worked out for. Olzon's voice adds an element of flexibility to Nightwish; there are just some songs that would be crushed under the weight of operatic vocals. And with enough attitude, a more traditional vocalist can fill the gap left by the missing "epicness" of operatic vocals. So I am perfectly happy with Olzon's voice. I also like that we get more of Marco's vocals on this album as well - and that's saying something for me, since I normally prefer female vocals.

Conclusion: I love this album. I don't have to stretch to accept it at all - it just makes sense in the flow of Nightwish's growth. The album works on a whole and most of the songs stand alone on their individual merits. We'll see how it stands the test of time but after a few days of listening to it, it is swiftly becoming my favorite Nightwish album.

Bye Bye Beautiful - obvious lyrics spitting with anger. I wish I could write songs this well for the people who have done me wrong.
Amaranth - catchy or not, this'll be one of those concert favorites like "Nemo", "Bless the Child", and "Wishmaster". This is the song people are judging the whole album on, which they shouldn't, but it's still a great song.
Sahara - I like the subtle nature of this song. The chorus has this understated power that love. I think Olzon's vocals shine best on this track.
The Islander - written by Hietala, an accoustic sea ballad. It gives me chills. There have been a few other accoustic songs in Nightwish's history and this is the best. My favorite track. Olzon's backing vocals are the cherry on top.
Last of the Wilds - instrumental Celtic influenced song with fiddles and pipes. A rousing song - something Runrig may of done if they were metal. Love it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Ciao, Baby" by theSTART

When my friend Trey and I were in Denver we hit a few Hot Topic stores. At one store they were not playing the usual thrashy, growly music and I was liking what I was hearing. It was a band called theSTART and it was their new album, Ciao, Baby!. I had to have it.

I ordered it from and got it yesterday and I listened to it 5 times in a row (this is unusual for me). I love it. For me it is instantly accessable and catchy without being trite, already-done, or simplistic. theSTART is neo-80's new-wave/punk. When I first heard them I immediately thought of electro-goth duo Collide (Collide is much darker and has an industrial, rather than new-wave, flavor, and they also utilize middle-eastern tones). After a few listens I now think that its better to describe theSTART as a mash of Garbage, No Doubt (for vocals and pep), Goldfrapp, and Siouxsie & the Banshees. Funny enough, theSTART has opened and toured with Garbage and the Birthday Massacre as well as Front Line Assembly, all bands I think they can relate to and all bands I like.

The use of digital bass, heavy and buzzing, is reminiscent of Goldfrapp and middle-era Garbage. The vocals and plucky guitars are punk influenced. Some of their atmospheric keyboards/guitar is reminiscent of 80's Blondie and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The vocalist, Aimee Echo, sounds similar to Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons, according to my musically encyclopedic sister. Or for you non-80's folks, reminiscent of a raspy Gwen Steffani (No Doubt), as far as vocal dynamics and range.

The whole album is a highlight but if I have to pick a few "must-listen" tracks, they'd be:
Wartime - Goldfrappish, modern beats, off-kilter catchyness
Runaway - catchy, singalong, frentic 80's punk
Blood On My Hands - attitude, catchy, definite early punk vein in the guitars/vocals, lovely rasp
Dance Revolution - dark, boiled down. Sounds like a Siouxsie & The Banshees song with Gwen Steffani lyrics/beats thrown in

Positive with attitude, light enough to be a great summer album with dark enough 80's threads to make it good for the turning seasons (if you find your music seasonal, which a lot of mine is - no B-52's in the winter, sorry). Love it. :D

Scrapped Princess

Here's the Wikipedia entry for Scrapped Princess. (if you read that Wikipedia article, don't read past the "Story" bit - the character profiles and everything below are rife with spoilers). I bought the boxed set (6 discs in one plastic box - the best deal for your money). In Japanese and English, though I always watch my anime in Japanese with subtitles.

Scrapped Princess is about this 15 year old girl, Pacifica, who was born to the royal family and then ordered to be killed as a baby when a prophecy from the Church of Mauser was made saying she would become "the poison that destroys the world" upon her 16th birthday. Well, she wasn't killed and was instead sneaked to a family who raised her as their own. Their parents now dead and the Church of Mauser aware that the princess lives, Pacifica and her two older adopted siblings, Shannon (a very awesome swordsman) and Raquel (a wizard), take to the roads to escape.

The story takes place in a high-fantasy type world, swords-and-horses kind of place with a *very* slight steampunk aesthetic, mostly in terms of clothing technology. As the tale wears on, though, sci-fi and high-technology creeps in as we discover more about this worlds past. It's pretty neat - I'm guessing this whole world and society is post-apocalyptic, only the sci-fi apocalypse happened 5000 years ago.

The characters are very three dimensional right from the start. And none of them are stereotypical - I honestly haven't seen characters like these in any other anime yet. Pacifica wears pink and acts the spoiled princess, but under it she's honestly a sweet person, very caring about others, and is SUCH a tomboy (reminds me of Aeryu from "Simoun"). Raquel is the tall "Sachiko/Sakaki" looking older sister - she's very quiet and can seem absent minded but as you learn more about her powers, you start to realize that she's just extremely understated and has WAY more awareness and power than anyone lets on. And Shannon, the older brother, is the biggest surprise - I thought I'd hate him. I thought he'd be the gruff, "dark horse" brooding swordsman. But he's not - he's the housekeeper, OCD, cynical, mother-bear of the group, quickly becoming my favorite. Side characters are just as interesting, too.

The story is neither dark and heavy nor silly and over-the-top. No high-pitched voices anywhere, no goofy faces. Humour is actually more realistic (often in the form of sarcastic comments between the siblings). The plot is detailed and complex and only halfway through I'm having fun guessing at what is around the corner.

The music is also very good, fitting the setting and era (i.e. no bubblegum pop or heavy metal or anything uncharactaristic of existing technologies for the most part) - and the animation itself is high quality stuff, from Studio BONES (the folks who brought us Wolf's Rain, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Cowboy Bebop). I'm starting to see a trend with BONES productions in that they're rock solid in all departments - characters, animation, story, music - everything. It's a whole package.

Conclusion: I'm only halfway through but I'm really fond of this anime already. It's solid: no single element is carrying the series on its own. I'm made to care about the characters and I'm interested in finding out about this world's past. Halfway through, it is worth watching. And heck, I even got my anime-hating sister to watch and even enjoy it thus far, so it must be good, right? :D