The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

September 25, 2009

Didn’t Mom Say Not to Do This?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 6:54 pm

In addition to the chance to go see some auto racing, last weekend also provided a chance to spend a few days with my Dad and my brothers, including my younger brother Jason who lives down in Provo, and who I don’t really get to see too often these days.  As you might know if you’ve seen some of the posts I’ve made here in the past couple of months, he’s the one who got the whole RC car thing started, and since is the first time we’ve all been in the same place at once since we all got started on this, it was inevitable that RC cars would figure into the weekend’s activities.  Although a perusal of the relevant TSA regulations suggested that if we were so inclined we could probably manage to bring our cars in checked baggage, ultimately we all decided it was going to be too much of a hassle.  This didn’t stop us from spending some time wandering around to some of the various RC stores in the area though, and since my other brother (Jared) had been giving some consideration to picking up another one already, we soon found ourselves leaving one of the shops with a new 1/16th scale E-Revo VXL

Basically, this one is a smaller electric version of the nitro-powered Revo 3.3 that I have, and with the right batteries this thing can apparently push 60 miles per hour, and do other tricks like do a backflip from a dead stop.  As seems to be the case with most RC stuff, we managed to find a way to break it within the first ten minutes (broke one of the rear suspension arms reversing into a pallet at speed while messing with it behind a vacant warehouse near the hotel) but since it was still for the most part usable with a wire and electrical tape repair, we continued messing with it later on.

Aside from a general lack of noxious nitro fumes, this one also has a “training mode” that will limit the power output to a much more manageable speed than the normal settins would allow, which actually makes this one reasonable for indoor use.  When we got back to the hotel after a dinner at Pat’s BBQ in Salt Lake (it’s definitely a dive, but the food was quite good and reasonably priced,) we ended up setting up a little trials course out of whatever objects happened to be available in the hotel room, and took turns driving the E-Revo around it.  Here we see a number of the pillows and blankets arranged into a ramp up to the couch, which comes around to a couple of end tables and the ironing board.  This lead over to one of the two beds, which were bridged by my brother’s longboard, then finally over to a number of other pillows arranged as a ramp down to the floor and back to the start/finish line.

I’m not quite sure how the maid was going to figure this one out (it’s not actually one of the hotel’s blankets though, so it wasn’t going to be an issue for them.  As long as there isn’t any dirt on the tires they won’t leave any permanent marks  mark though.  It’s certainly not as easy as it looks to get around this though.  I suspect if we had tried it at home we might have found ourselves grounded for life (or a not insignificant portion thereof,)  That’s not to say we wouldn’t have done it though…  I figure the fact that my Dad was participating, I’m probably safe (for now…)  Just don’t tell the people at the hotel, OK?

September 24, 2009

Just Another Day at the Races

Filed under: Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 12:26 am

Up here in the Seattle area, auto racing is something of a rarity, especially at the professional level.  That’s not to say that it’s completely nonexistent, but most of the major racing series in the US don’t come anywhere near here.  The biggest annual motorsports related event in the Seattle area is, of course, the hydro races at Seafair, but I don’t see a whole lot of interest in hydro racing during the 51 weeks of the year when Seafair isn’t happening.  Aside from that, the NHRA usually makes it up to Pacific Raceways in Kent for an annual drag racing event, the Monster Jam usually shows up at the Tacoma Dome once a year or so, and… well, that’s about it.  To be honest, I find it difficult to get all that excited about either of those though.  Sure you can get a drag racer up to more than 300 miles per hour in a quarter mile, but the inherent “five seconds of action followed by three minutes of waiting around” pace of the stuff makes even baseball look fast paced in comparison.  Monster truck “races” (if you could call them that, most of it seems to be there mostly to give Grave Digger something to “win” for the benefit of that truck’s fans, and some of the other events that comprise a Monster Jam show are about as convincing as a WWE  match.)  The Tacoma Dome is a pretty lousy place for that type of event anyway, so it’s been years since I’ve been to one (even the not-so-dearly departed Kingdome was a much better place for a monster truck show.)  A few years ago, there was an ill-fated attempt at building a NASCAR track somewhere on the west side of Puget Sound, but it was made pretty clear at the time that the state government wanted nothing to do with such a thing.

To make a long story short, if you want to go see professional racing, chances are you’re going to have to go somewhere.  This past weekend, “Somewhere” turned out to be Miller Motorsports Park, located near Tooele, Utah.  With the Oquirrh mountains providing a dramatic backdrop, the twisty 4.5 mile track has already become a favorite destination for a number of racing series, the most notable being the American Le Mans Series and the AMA Superbikes.  Last weekend, it was the Rolex Sports Car Series that was paying a visit to Miller, along with a number of support series, and I was there, along with my Dad and my two brothers.  After the jump, some of the highlights from the trip.


September 17, 2009

PAX 2009: Putting the “Arcade” in the Penny Arcade Expo

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 8:31 pm
Hi Mom!

Hi Mom!

As you’ve probably saw if you read that particular post, the “In Search of the Lost Arcade” post below is the one that was originally intended to be my PAX roundup post, but instead it went off in a completely different direction, and became a separate post.  Although I’m probably a bit late to get this finished up as usual (just don’t ask me how I’m doing on getting that Disney World trip report from last December done, OK?) I’ve been meaning to write this since I attended PAX about a week and a half ago.  I’m not going to bother going into much detail on the games being shown or any of the panels (I actually only attended one panel, and  I figure there’s probably about a half zillion Blogs or so that have covered the games.)  Since I accidentally ended up with two days to attend this year instead of my usual one, it also gave me a chance to spend more time away from the show floor, and go explore some of the areas I haven’t ever had much time for.  Sure, I might have missed out on a couple of the latest in trendy communicable diseases going around the place, but I’d still say I got a reasonably good opportunity to get everything in that I came for (I did miss one panel I wanted to see, but that was my own fault, and the panel eventually ended up on the Web anyway.)

Even though I’ve managed to attend every PAX so far, I think that this one ended up being a completely different experience, largely because I had more time to attend this year.  Especially in more recent years, there have been a fair number of people from all over the country who have been flying into Seattle to attend PAX (in fact, due to popular demand, there will be a second PAX held over in Boston next year,) yet I’ve practically got the show here in my backyard.  On one hand, this makes it really easy to get there (even if the parking in downtown Seattle can get horrifically expensive, especially on weekdays) but on the other hand, it also tends to make it a bit too easy to just gloss over the whole thing, spend a few hours there and call it good.  The fact that for a number of years I’ve had schedule conflicts ranging from family get-togethers to wedding receptions on the day I had chosen to go to the show hasn’t helped much.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights and other observations from this year’s PAX.


September 12, 2009

A Taste of the Old Country

Filed under: Food — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 9:34 pm

Although there’s no way you’d be able to tell it from looking at me, I am, by something of an accident of birth, a native of the (sometimes) great state of New Mexico.  Being of Germanic heritage on my father’s side of the family (where the Lutz name comes from) and just two generations removed from Dutch immigrant grandparents on my Mother’s side, I certainly don’t look the part, but I made my mortal debut during the time that my dad was serving in the Air Force stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, and after he was discharged when I was two years old, the family moved to Los Alamos, where we would spend the next fourteen years before moving to Redmond, where I now reside.  To be honest, I wasn’t really a big fan of the place.  Sure, it was a nice place to grow up (at least when it’s not on fire) but to be honest, in hindsight I’m glad we left when we did.  Sure, I would like to have at least been able to graduate from high school there, but when you have to travel five miles to do your grocery shopping (and 35 miles to Santa Fe in order to do much else beyond that,)  you get a sense you’re out in the middle of nowhere.  The town also has its quirks (I grew up thinking that everyone had unexploded ordnance and radioactive forests near their houses) but to be honest, I much prefer being in a town where I don’t have to make an all-day trip of grocery shopping.  That said, there are some things I do miss about the place, the most notable being the food.  

Although based heavily on the Mexican cooking most people would be familiar with, New Mexico (and yes, it is a part of the United States, although some people still seem to think otherwise) has a style all its own.  In particular, the ingredient which sets New Mexican food apart from other Mexican food is the New Mexico chile.  Although genetically similar to the relatively mild Anaheim peppers that are common in many supermarkets, a combination of climate (in particular, the area around the small town of Hatch in southwestern New Mexico is especially favorable for the growing of these chiles) and cultivation makes these chiles quite a bit hotter than the typical Anaheim chile.  This makes them especially prized, and although they are used mostly in traditional New Mexican dishes, they also quite often manage to find their way into a lot of other things that aren’t native to New Mexico, such as hamburgers and pizza.  Given the fact that most of the chiles grown in New Mexico never make it out of the state, this makes them especially difficult to find around here.  Every so often some of the frozen or canned green chiles manage to make it up here, but usually there’s none to be found anywhere, and most of the supplies we have here are brought back from Arizona when someone travels down there.  Because of this scarcity, it was a big deal when fresh Hatch chiles unexpectedly showed up at one of the local supermarkets. 

In New Mexico, at the end of the Summer when the chile harvest begins, it is a common sight to see roadside stands and other businesses in Santa Fe and throughout the state roasting these chiles over an open flame, and selling them by the bushel.  All throughout Santa Fe in September, you can smell the chiles being roasted, and it’s a smell that nobody who has ever lived in New Mexico can ever forget, no matter how long they have been away from the state.  Given the fact that the local supply of these prized chiles is unlikely to be around for too long (it’s a wonder the chiles even made it here in the first place) my parents bought two whole boxes (which has to be at least 40 pounds of the stuff) and spent most of this morning roasting them on the grill to freeze and store.

When youre dealing with that much chile, it can be quite a bit of work to go through it all, but believe me, it’s all worth it.  Earlier this week, I went through and roasted a much smaller batch of these peppers on my own grill, which I plan to use tomorrow to make enchiladas here. 

Here is the result of this, flame-roasted chiles from which the skins can be easily removed, and enough green chile to last us quite a while.  It’s a flavor that’s not for everyone (believe me, these things can be a lot spicier than they look, at times approaching or even exceeding the spiciness of jalapenos)  but it’s a flavor that you just can’t get anywhere else.  This, right here, is the flavor of New Mexico.

September 9, 2009

In Search of the Lost Arcade

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:57 am



Image credit:  Flickr user goodrob13

Image credit: Flickr user goodrob13







(Note:  This was going to be my PAX roundup post, but my introduction got a little bit long, so I split it off into its own post.  Another post on PAX will be forthcoming soon.)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been something of a video game junkie.  For much of my childhood, there was one form of video game system or another in the house, although most of the time we seemed to end up with the really obscure ones like the Odyssey 2, the TI99/4A and the now incredibly obscure Emerson Arcadia 2001.  Eventually we moved on to somewhat less obscure games, starting with an Atari 2600 in the post-crash era when crummy shovelware games could be had for pretty dang close to a dime a dozen, then finally moving on to an NES, which hung around the house for quite a few years before finally disappearing in a move.  By that time, our family had acquired its first PC, and my interests quickly turned to computers as a result.  Without much in the way of income at the time most of my gaming was limited to unregistered shareware games.    In turn, I discovered the local BBSes, shareware downloads, CompuServe , the Internet and online gaming, then Subspace, then Asheron’s Call, and a brief (compared to some people at least) stint in World of Warcraft.   The pursuit of most of these met with varying amounts of parental disapproval.  In particular, the CompuServe one came to an especially ignominious end when I managed to run up an $85 bill in one month, mostly as a result of downloading stuff off the Epic Megagames forum.  This was when I was in high school without much of an allowance or much in the way of other income, so that was a fair bit of money to me at the time.  This was also back in the days when Epic was a shareware company known mostly for a DOS-based pinball game they had made and some shoot-em-up they seemed to perpetually be working on known as Unreal.  Last time I heard, it worked out pretty well for them.

On the other hand, no matter what consoles or PC games I might have had at my disposal around here, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the good old-fashioned arcade.  Although it is now virtually extinct, I can recall that I misspent as much of my youth as I could manage to get away with hanging out in arcades, occasionally playing games when I could manage to scrounge up a quarter or two, but mostly just watching.  The small middle-of-nowhere town I grew up in had virtually no arcade games to be found (a couple in a dark corner of the Pizza Hut, a small gameroom at Big Cheese Pizza on the other side of town, a couple in the high school cafeteria and eventually a small arcade that I was instructed in no uncertain terms to not go anywhere near by my mother) so for the most part, arcades were something I only had access to when I was on vacation.  In particular, the two gamerooms at the Cherry Hill campground in Kaysville Utah were ones I spent a fair amount of time loitering.  It was here that I was introduced to such classics as Bubble Bobble, Raiden, Shinobi and Outrun (the full-motion version, no less) as well as the Neo-Ge0 (which was, in the relatively short period between the time it was released and the time when 3D graphics started taking over, pretty much the most amazing thing I had ever seen in the arcade.) 

Eventually, as I grew up, graduated high school and moved into the working world, I could actually afford some of the stuff.  It was about this time that the Gameworks in downtown Seattle opened, which happened to coincide with the year that I worked in the area.  With little else to do between the time I got off work at 3pm and the time that the bus back to Redmond arrived, I probably spent far more time than I should have in here, paying way too much to play the latest and greatest in video games (or so it seemed at the time.)  To be honest I’m not entirely sure how the place still stays in business these days, but it’s still around.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of other arcades left around here.  One by one, the once ubiquitous mall arcades have closed up shop…  The little hole-in-the-wall arcade in the back of some long forgotten game shop on Redmond Way, Quarters in Kirkland, Casey’s in the Everett Mall, Silver Coin at Southcenter, Games ‘n Stuff at Alderwood, the Command Center in Renton, some little arcade I only ever made it to once at Northgate…  In fact, the only ones I know of which may still be around are a couple in the Sea-Tac Mall (they call it the Commons at Federal Way now, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses that name) and the SuperMall in Auburn.  The local bowling alleys usually still maintain some semblance of an arcade (mostly because they’d have nothing else to do with the space if they got rid of the games) but beyond those, an amusement center or two  and a few scattered pizza places, there are few signs of life in the once vibrant arcade.

To be honest, even before the arcades began disappearing en masse around here, most of the remaining ones were pretty mediocre.  Most of them were filled with all sorts of indistinct racing games in sit-down cabinets that took up almost as much space as a real car (and, if you’ve ever seen the prices on the stuff, cost almost as much too,) with a wall of fighting games.  a few gun games (usually Area 51 and Time Crisis, I think the arcades were required by law to have those two,) the quarter-gobbling ticket machines,  and shoved in some dark corner, maybe a half-broken pinball machine or two.  Places like that I could take or leave, but there one arcade in particular that I wish was still around:  The Game Plays arcade that once occupied a spot in Factoria Mall where the Jamba Juice resides now. 

From the outside it looked like any other dark, slightly dingy arcade, but the selection of games in that particular arcade was unlike any to be found anywhere else.  I spent quite a bit of time ar this particular arcade while I was attending evening classes at BCC and had time to kill before class (I usually tried to get to the area early to avoid the traffic),  and it had by far the biggest collection of shmups (2D shoot-em-ups such as Gradius, Raiden, R-Type and similar games) I had seen in any arcade.  They also (for a time anyway) had some of the nicest looking, best maintained pinball machines to be found anywhere around here, including a Twilight Zone machine with everything working (much more the exception than the rule with pinball around here), the volume on the machine cranked so you could practically hear it from the Old Country Buffet, and all this for just a quarter a play.  I have not found a Twilight Zone in that condition since then.  Other highlights included a Gauntlet Legends machine without the standard life-drain (which kind of makes the game a bit too easy, but you could play for a lot longer that way,) the only Radiant Silvergun machine I ever saw in the wild (that was the game I eventually bought a Japanese Sega Saturn  for, but never got around to actually buying, but that’s another story) and a lot more.  If my memory serves me correctly, the place hung on until 2006 or so before finally shutting down.

By that time, I had finished up my AA degree at BCC, began working full-time (mostly anyway) in my chosen profession, and was in the process of establishing my own household.  Having finally managed to move out of my parents’ house (and no, I was NOT living in the basement, nor does their house even have a basement) and gotten an apartment of my own, I made my one reckless, ill-advised, nobody-can-tell-me-what-to-do-anymore purchase:  An arcade game of my own.   For the price of $250 I bought an old (and somewhat decrepit)  arcade cabinet which had originally been a dedicated cabinet for some now obscure 80s football game, but had later been converted to JAMMA (a standardized connector used for practically all arcade boards made after 1985 or so, to allow easy conversions from one game to another) and came with Strikers 1945, a mid-Nineties WWII-themed shmup that wasn’t all that high on the list of games I was buying one of these things for, but it was cheap so I had it included.  Eventually I began to accumulate a collection of various arcade boards, and I now have about 7 or 8 (depending on what you’re counting.)  To be honest, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I thought I would when I got it, and I haven’t ever gotten around to doing the major control panel overhaul I’ve been meaning to do almost since I bought the thing, but it’s kind of nice to have one around for the occasions when I just feel like playing some obscure manic Japanese shooters.  It also makes a nice little conversation piece, assuming the den is clean enough to allow visitors into (which probably isn’t the case right now as I’m writing this.)  I also haven’t given much thought to what I’m supposed to do with the thing when I move out of this place, but on the off-chance that I happen to end up married at that time, I suspect that my wife would be the one making the decision for me.  I also suspect that the thing would be the very first thing to go as well.  Might as well enjoy it while I can, right?

In general, the playing of video games isn’t generally considered to be much of a social affair.  Sure, just about everything seems to come with online multiplayer in some form or another these days, but it seems that we rarely see many enduring friendships being built by people while exchanging virtual machine gun fire and assorted four-letter words unprintable on this Blog with each other.  There seems to be a lot of stereotypes of gamers out there, and I have to say that not all of them are completely unfounded (in fact, at times I’ve probably fallen into a few of them myself.)  On the other hand, maybe this has happened at least in part because of the decline of arcades in general.  After all, if you’ve got all the cool new games available from the comfort of your living room couch, who needs to bother actually going somewhere and paying money to go play their games?  Then again, after spending the last weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo, I’m starting to wonder if we could benefit from a return to the arcades of yore (or at least something resembling them.)  More on this in the next post, as I discuss this year’s PAX and some of the things that I observed while I was there..

September 5, 2009

Well, Let’s Be Realistic Here…

Filed under: Random Stuff, Seattle — Brian Lutz @ 2:08 am

After nine hours, five long lines, three swag t-shirts (two surprisingly nice looking ones and one that nobody in their right mind would be EVER caught dead wearing) and $23 in parking, The first day of PAX 09 is in the books.  Although I plan to go into more detail on it later on, I’ll say that this year’s show is well put together, and even with the show completely sold out (at least it was until they found a couple thousand more tickets to sell) the crowds were surprisingly manageable, and I got chances to play quite a few of the games I was looking forward to trying here on day 1.  There will be plenty more on PAX to come (after all, I’ve still got another day to go to) but in the meantime I thought I’d put up something a bit less nerdy.

Sure, to someone who enjoys playing video games PAX is quite the experience, but I think that even the most avid of gamers is going to need to get away from the convention center and take a break every once in a while.  For one thing, the food choices inside the convention center are a tad lacking (to put it nicely) and it’s always a good idea to take a break every once in a while anyway.  As such, I managed to wander over to Westlake Center for a bit to eat a slightly late lunch (well OK, 4:30 might be pushing it a bit as far as the whole lunch thing goes) and recharge a bit.  In front of the center, there are a number of “ads” for Group Health, Seattle’s friendly neighborhood humungous faceless HMO which is trying to encourage people to be more healthy (after all, it’s not like they need the business or anything.)  On the sidewalk in front of the mall was this:

Aside from the fact that getting to the nearest forest and/or mountain from here is going to involve a fair bit  of hiking and/or a nice little ten-mile swim through waters infested with who-knows-what, who’s got time for any of that stuff anyway?  After all, this is the middle of Downtown Seattle, and everyone’s got places to go, people to see and deep-seated sociopolitical grievances to share loudly with everyone in sight.

That’s OK, because it seems that this particular excursion in the Great Outdoors (or a not particularly reasonable facsimile thereof is going to last all of six steps anyway, and burn all of maybe a tenth of a calorie in the process.  Not only that, but about the only way you’re going to manage to find anything even resembling a forest in this maze (such as it is) is to take a wrong turn and somehow manage to end up there (I suppose the part about getting eaten by a bear is probably optional though.)  I guess we do all have to start somewhere, but this doesn’t exactly seem to be setting the bar all that high.

September 3, 2009

It’s The Most Nerdiest Time of the Year

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:51 pm

I’d like to think that I’m somewhat of a casual video game player, but I suspect that anyone who entered my apartment would progbably disagree with me.  If  the big pile of Rock Band instruments sitting in the corner of the living room or the closet full of assorted retro consoles (well, sort of retro anyway, I don’t have anything that really goes much further back than 16-bit era at this point) here in the den aren’t enough to make that argument sound thoroughly unconvincing, then I suspect the full size arcade game in the den here would have no trouble doing so on its own.  Yes, I have to admit that I’ve got a fair bit of video game stuff around here, even if most of it doesn’t get played much these days.  I suppose that also, by default at least, makes me something of a video game junkie.  Those who know me would not be surprised by this. 

That said, up here in the Seattle area we’re lucky to have the Penny Arcade Expo, which is just about the largest gaming-related show in America that isn’t E3 (and E3 isn’t open to the general public either.)  It’s not just a bunch of people sitting around playing video games for three days either (although there’s plenty of that.)  There’s also significant representation of tabletop and pen-and-paper gaming, and a lot of stuff related to the general culture (such as it is) which has developed around these things.    The expo, now in its sixth year, continues to grow, and has this year completely sold out of tickets  nearly a week before the actual show.  I have been lucky enough to have been able to attend all of them so far.  I’ve had the chance to watch the show grow From the first one which took up about half of Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue where about 4,000 people showed up, (I actually managed to get in to that one for free by letting the organizers borrow my copy of SoulCalibur 2 for the tournament,) up to the 2009 show that begins today at the Convention Center in Seattle, taking up the whole place with 75,000 people expected to attend over the course of the next three days.  With attendance continuing to increase, and greater demand, there will also be an East Coast PAX next year in Boston.  This is an event people literally travel halfway across the country to attend, and here in the Seattle area we’re lucky enough to have it in our backyard.

For all of the PAXes I have been to previously, I have gone only for one day, which is the Saturday of the weekend that PAX takes place on.  On one hand, I generally think that one day is plenty to see everything there, but on the other hand, there’s also plenty you could do to fill another day up if you were so inclined.  This year, I will be attending for two days, and it was pretty much by accident that it happened.  About a week ago, I went to get my tickets (at all of the ones I’ve attended in the past tickets have generally been available up until the day of the show, and usually at the door) and found that Saturday tickets had sold out.  Having not expected this, I decided to get a Friday ticket as a plan B (those ended up selling out a day later) and put out a couple of requests to see if I could come up with a Saturday ticket.  I didn’t have much expectation of actually being able to come up with one (after all, the “tickets wanted” requests on Craigslist were showing some rather high prices,) but I happened to luck into one from someone I knew who wasn’t going to be  able to attend.  Thus I ended up with tickets for two days.  The timing works out well too, because after the way this last week at work has gone, I could use a good excuse to flee screaming from the building (I do have to go to work for a few hours in the morning but get to take the afternoon off.)

There’s plenty to see here, and I’m sure there will be plenty to Blog about at the show as well.  Unfortunately, I’m not exactly well equipped for moblogging these days, so most of the stuff will be showing up here after the show is over.  I will also be twittering (see the sidebar for that), and will probably post some grainy cameraphone pictures as well.  Now to go check the drawers to figure out where my geek shirt collection went…

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