Sunday, October 23, 2011

In Search of Team USA

Occupy Wall Street: Day 14 -
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by Long Island Rose
Occupy Wall Street. The Tea Party. The Jobs bill. Job-killing regulation. The flat tax. The millionaire tax.

At work I'm part of a team of about a dozen people. We're a true team. Sometimes a team is just a group of people who sit near each other and have the same manager. My team isn't like that. We share a purpose and core values. And we look out for each other.

Because we're a real team, we want each other to succeed—up, down, and sideways. All of us want to see our manager get promoted, and we tackle our projects knowing that our results reflect on him. For his part, he gives us more responsibility each time we prove ourselves; he rewards us with bonuses; and he spreads the word about our accomplishments and capabilities.

Those of us who are managers do the same for our employees. We build their skills through trainings and increasingly complex activities. We assign projects to match their interests. And we give them credit for the work they do, making sure other teams know what they're capable of.

It works sideways as well. We work together to complete projects for the good of the team and our business partners. We warn each other if a business partner is unhappy with someone's work. And we tell each other—and our business partners—when someone on the team has done a great job.

All of this leaves me wondering—what happened to team USA?

My manager gets paid a lot more than I do, but I want him to succeed anyway. It's not a zero-sum game. Why can't Occupy Wall Street or the Democrats or whomever be in favor of the top 1% being successful at their business endeavors?

The temporary employee who works for me gets paid much less than I do, but I want her to be successful anyway. It's not a zero-sum game. Why can't the Tea Party or the Republicans or whomever be in favor of those on the bottom rungs being successful at finding work and supporting their families?

Maybe it comes down to vision. My manager, his VP, and our CEO have set a vision of growing a company, helping our customers succeed, and doing the right thing for employees. Building a team of 12 takes work, creating a team from a company of 70,000 takes a lot of work, so turning a country of 300 million into a team is...hard. Really hard. But not impossible.

Team USA can solve the unemployment catastrophe and the debt crisis. We need leaders with vision. Leaders who focus on our country's common purpose and core values, not petty differences. I'd like to see our President and leaders of Congress come together as a team that wants each other to succeed. For the good of the Nation. Only through vision, trust, and common purpose—starting at the top—will we see a true Team USA.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Language Hacking Success - Brazil

I'm back from Brazil now, and I have to say that Language Hacking really worked well for me. Kudos to Benny the Irish Polyglot. After two months of studying, I was able to have simple conversations and get complimented on how good my Portuguese was. In particular I was able to:

  • Order and pay at restaurants - including asking about an incorrect bill
  • Buy baked goods and other items at grocery stores
  • Ask for directions
  • Check into a hotel
  • Get help shopping for gifts
  • Ask people about themselves and their families
  • Ask to have my flight changed to the same itinerary as my wife's
  • Joke around
Brazilians make it very easy to practice Portuguese. They aren't uptight about the language and they love it if you smile and joke around. When I went into stores, very few people spoke English, which is really helpful. It avoids the situations where they feel the need to put you out of your language misery by speaking your native tongue. Instead, we would just smile and laugh while I used filler comments called connectors until I figured out another way to say what I wanted.

I was amused by the number of people who asked me if I used Rosetta Stone to learn Portuguese. They're definitely doing their marketing well - I even saw a kiosk in the airport.

Here are the learning techniques I used to prepare before the trip - mostly taken from Fluent in Three Months:
  • Studied a Lonely Planet phrasebook for Brazilian Portuguese
  • Found a co-worker who speaks Portuguese and had three conversation sessions with him
  • Practiced greetings and pronunciations with a Brazilian vendor at the local farmers market
  • Learned numbers, colors, food, phrases, and pronunciation from a language CD by Euro Talk Now
  • Watched Brazilian movies from Netflix, first with English subtitles, then with Portuguese subtitles
  • Used Anki Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) flashcard program and iPhone app to study connectors, phrasebook vocabulary, and finance-specific terms
  • Wrote emails in Portuguese to co-workers in Brazil using Google Translate as a supplement
  • Changed my iPhone, iTunes, and Facebook language settings to Portuguese
Once I arrived, I just kept in mind that I had to go out and speak in order to improve. And I had to replace the anxious look I get when I can't find the words or understand everything. Instead I focused on smiling, nodding, and using filler comments.

As an aside, some of my favorite words are "otimo" (o-chimo), meaning "great"; "legal" (lay-gow), meaning "cool", and "moleza" (mo-lay-zah), meaning "piece of cake". I also like that futebol (soccer) is pronounced "fu-tchy-bol" and PowerPoint is "powerpoin-tchy".

I can't write about a trip without a section on food, so here goes. I had amazing pizza there (who knew there was such a huge Italian influence?). I ate delicious cuts of meat at the Fogo de Chao churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue). Every lunch buffet was full of deliciously savory sauces and spreads. We went to a great sushi restaurant (who knew there was such a huge Japanese influence?).

The draft beers ("choppe") were heavenly smooth - with Devassa's Negra as my favorite. But the best was the Pao de Queijo - cheese bread. Not just lower-case cheese bread. More like a glorious merger of light francese rolls and melted longhorn cheddar cheese at perfect nacho consistency so that it pulls away in a long string and falls all the way down past your chin when it finally snaps. Good thing I have a ten-year visa, because I may have to buy another ticket soon.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning Portuguese, but it was even more fun to learn so many tips to learn any language. I plan to shift my focus from Portuguese, which means it will join my ever-fading traveler's knowledge of Italian. We're traveling to Zambia in two months, so I'm going to apply all the techniques I just learned to my study of Bemba. I want to see if I can accelerate my learning pace. At the same time, I'm going to start brushing up on Spanish, with a goal of being conversational by next summer.

What language would you like to learn?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Update on Brazil and Portuguese

Full disclosure - I wouldn't be writing this post if Benny the Irish Polyglot hadn't told me to. I'm reading his Language Hacking Guide and I reached the section where he said I had to start a log of my language journey. I resisted for about four hours. Since I paid money for the book, I might as well try what it says.

This morning I asked a few questions in Portuguese while taking to the guy working the hummus stand at the farmers market. His name is Gilbert ("Zhilbayr"), he's really friendly, and he's from Brazil. Those last two comments seem to always go together. Brazilians have a reputation as being very friendly. My extensive data sample of three supports this generalization. Gilbert loved the questions I had and completely ignored my mistakes. The whole interaction was a lot of fun and very encouraging.

The part I'm struggling with is around Benny's advice to have a few main goals, some mini-goals that will get me there, and a plan for how to do it. Articulating my main goals specifically is not turning out to be so easy. I'm just going to have to jot something down and refine it as I go. Vaguely, I want to be able to get around Sao Paulo on as little English as possible. That's three weeks from now. I'll have some business meetings with a few people who speak no English, so I want to be able to talk about accounting and processes as much as possible with them. Also - I want to know enough to win over the visa officer at the Brazil consulate in San Francisco next week so I can get our visas issued as quickly as possible. (Otherwise I can't even go on the trip.)

I like Benny's book and the advice on his blog. (I even wish I had thought of it years ago.) Finding the discipline and the time to follow his recommendations isn't easy. But the easy way - not having goals or a plan - won't result in any language progress at all. So I'll keep reading the book, resisting his advice because it requires effort, and then caving in and following it after all.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to Learn a Language in a Month (I Hope)

I’m headed to Brazil on a business trip next month. I love to travel, so I’m totally stoked. Most of all, I love going to countries with foreign languages. Every time, I dream of being fluent in the language. But it’s not that easy, is it?

Failure of Spanish Classes

I took Spanish in the eighth grade, and loved it. My suburban Houston neighborhood was not what you would call diverse. My Spanish class opened my eyes to the reality of a different culture and language. I had never realized how surreal it would be to express the same thought in two different languages. Doing so was like solving a cryptogram puzzle. And every day, every lesson, brought an exciting new technique for solving them. Every homework was a new set of cryptograms that we had just learned how to crack.

There’s a problem, though. After four years of classes, I couldn’t carry a conversation. I was – and am – intimidated by the awkwardness of trying the first clumsy sentence. So it’s easier to speak English, even around family members who are native Spanish speakers. Twenty years ago I had – or should have had – the keys to the language. But I could never get the lock to turn.

Now I want to learn Portuguese. I only have about three weeks. Four years of classes aren’t an option, even if I thought they would work this time. Should I spend a four hundred bucks on Rosetta Stone? Practice all 300 words and 20 phrases on the EuroTalk CD that came as part of a 33-disc set? Subscribe to a Portuguese podcast? I know, buy an app! Hmmm.

How I became fluent in French

I started learning French in the eleventh grade. I actually walked around the corner from my sixth-period Spanish III class directly to my seventh-period French I class. I spoke a lot of Spanish to my French teacher, much to her annoyance. Every lesson was just as revelatory and every homework just as much of a delightful puzzle as Spanish was. And after finishing French IV, I was…not fluent. Barely even conversational. I got college credit, read some cool stories by existential French authors, and was too intimidated to speak to French foreign exchange students. Same approach, same outcome.

But I am fluent now. I got there, but how? I know it happened in the Peace Corps, but why?. During training, they made us follow “immersion”. We couldn’t speak any English to anyone while we were on the campus. Only French. It was not fun. We hated it and complained. Of course, we were also hot, homesick, feverish from the vaccines, and cramping from intestinal revolts. So Mr. Immersion did not come along while we were at our best.

But we did speak French. We didn’t feel ready, and we weren’t. We still had more lessons to take, more grammar to learn, more vocabulary to remember. But we spoke it anyway. And everyone we spoke to would only speak French back to us. They didn’t even know English. (Or rather, they lied and said they didn’t.)
Immersion certainly worked. It succeeded at the task that an hour a day of exposure in a high-school classroom failed to achieve.

For the next three years I refused to speak English to my Beninese co-workers. I told them it would hinder the language mastery I needed in order to educate the students we shared. Every night I wrote out lesson plans in French. I read French translations of novels I enjoyed, like Jurassic Park. And I let my students correct my mistakes. Until by the end of the school year I was correcting their mistakes. (The class applauded the first time I did so.)

So how does this help me with Portuguese? My co-workers at the office certainly aren’t going to switch to speaking only Portuguese with me. Even if they did, I need something to study, and I need more time – at least six months.

A Different Approach

Right after I downloaded a few iPhone apps with Portuguese vocabulary – they were free – I ran across something useful on Twitter. (Yes – it happens. You don’t think the Library of Congress is archiving the whole thing for nothing, do you?) It was titled “The Learning Secrets of Polyglots and Savants.” It described someone who learned enough Icelandic to hold a conversation after just one week - with an interview to prove it. OK, it turns out the guy is a savant who memorized pi to a gajillion places. (Which I’m totally jealous of, by the way.) But the next guy mentioned was just a regular Irish guy who learned enough Dutch to hold a conversation after only two months - with an interview to prove it. That’s twice as much time as I have, but still gives me hope.

The article described some memory techniques I’ve read about in the last few years. Our brains are wired to be really, really good at recalling places and images, especially when they involve action. Spend an extra 60 seconds coming up with an action image that represents what you want to memorize, and it will stick with you for hours and days, not just a few minutes. Another technique is graduated-interval recall, which involves reviewing the material at ever-longer intervals in order to lock it into the next level of memory, with the least amount of repetition.

Even with these optimization techniques, I’m going to have to prioritize. That’s a dilemma on its own. What do I focus on? Vocabulary covers a lot of ground. Should it be verbs? Travel phrases? Food? Numbers?Days?Colors?Animals?Shopping?VerbTensesPronounsPrepositionsPartsofspeech?????

I googled the-Irish-guy-who-learned-Dutch-in-two-months. He calls himself the Irish Polyglot (a more concise title), and has a website titled Fluent in Three Months. He travels to a new country every three months to learn a new language. I’m even more jealous of him than of the gajillion-places-of-pi guy.

His website gave me one validation and two clues to resolving my dilemma. The validation is that you simply have to start speaking the language. From Day One. No waiting until you’re “ready.” The first clue is to memorize phrases and vocabulary from a phrasebook like the ones by Lonely Planet. The other clue will cause raucous laughter from friends who’ve heard me try karaoke: put the phrases to music, and sing them. For the good of society, I’ll just try that in my head, not out loud. Much.


So I’m totally stoked. I bought the Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese phrasebook. It totally reminded me of the LP Bengali phrasebook that some friends brought on a mission trip, from which we learned the phrase “Careful. The monkey is stealing your food.” I’m going to create action images, and set them to music (in my head). I’m even going to write my own dialogs and memorize them, the way I prepared my lessons in the Peace Corps. And I’m going to be mentally prepared to just start speaking the language. First with the hummus vendor at the farmer’s market; then with everyone I meet when I get off the plane in Sao Paulo. The only problem is that I’m much better at creating a plan than following through. And I need plane tickets.

Any ideas for how I can make a living by traveling and learning languages?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Favorite Apps

I've probably already mentioned that I'm pretty amazed at all the things a smartphone can do. We may not have transporters or warp drive yet, but we're darn close to tricorders. (I'm sure the iPhone 15 will come out with the ability to detect radiation and bone fractures.) In the meantime, here are some of the things of my favorite apps. (I've tried to note the ones that are iPhone only. And no, I'm not paid by Apple. Yet.)

Games: The Heist (iPhone only)
This puzzle game has been so much fun, I’m going to miss it when I’m done with the last 8 puzzles. It has 60 puzzles in four categories. The first type involves sliding Lincoln Logs out of the way to get a vacuum tube across a square to a connector. The second type is a colorful twist on Sudoku, with icons instead of numbers, and a grid that isn’t evenly arranged. These were my favorite. The next set involves a robot that you use to push diodes over to their connection slots. But you’re in a narrow maze and the robot can only push from behind, so you have to stay away from walls. The last group basically consists of picture puzzles, where you have to rearrange the tiles to put them in the correct order. Instead of pictures, the tiles contain snippets of wire that have to line up in the right way to complete one or more circuits. 

Runners up: 

Social Media: Instagram (iPhone only for now, Android in the works)
I think this is a pretty cool concept. It’s Twitter, but instead of 140-character status updates, you upload photos from your phone. If someone is following you on Instagram, they see your photos in their feed. You can “like” photos (by clicking on a heart) and add comments. When you load a photo, you can share it via Twitter or Facebook. You can pull up your photos on any browser at, and you can check out statistics at Oh yeah, you can also apply one of 15 different artsy filters. I almost never do; they pretty much all look terrible to me. 

Runners up: 

News: CNN Money
CNN Money does not have the best writing – that has to go to the runners up, New York Times and The Economist. However, the writing is catchy. And it’s light enough that I can read it in between sets when I’m doing bench press or squat workouts at the gym. That’s right, instead of listening to music when I work out, I read. Maybe if someone wrote songs about the news each day – that’s music I’d work out to. 

Runners up: 
  • NYTimes – especially since the speeded up the load time 
  • The Economist – best writing, ever. 

Reference: Google Maps
Seems like I’m always driving someplace new out here, so being able to call up a map at any time is a lot of help. The traffic feature is nice too, since I don’t know the traffic patterns out here either. I am a bit concerned that one day – when the machines decide to get rid of us pesky humans – Google maps is going to give me directions to drive off a cliff, and I’ll just do it. So I occasionally go a different route than the one it recommends. Of course, I always regret it and vow never to doubt Google again. 

Runners up: 
  • Wikipedia – Great for shutting down a conversation debating any fact 
  • Google Translate – I’m working on my Spanish vocabulary 
  • Stocks – To look at the markets more often than a long-term investor should. 

Productivity: Evernote
I’m a total note taker. I have several notebooks of notes I’ll never refer back to. Now I’m saving the trees and keeping that info in someone’s datacenter, where it can be tagged, indexed, and searched. Am I worried that someone is going to hack in and get my data? Only if there is a market for old rental car reservations, Christmas gift lists, and topics I’ve already written about, or no one would want to write about. Hmm…maybe I should be worried after all. 

Runners up: 
  • Notes – I keep my gym workouts on here, instead of carrying around a notebook 
  • Reminders – coming with iOS 5, I’m hoping this to-do list is as good as Apple says.
Those are the apps I like the best and use the most. I'm eager to see what will come out next, as well as anything good out there that I've missed. Let me 

What's your favorite smartphone app?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Six Books That Saved My Marriage

In college my girlfriend told me “marriage is work.” While that was a new idea, it also immediately made sense. One of the ways I have worked on my marriage is by studying books about having a successful marriage. Here are the six books that have been most helpful, in the order I read them.

Point Man by Steve Farrar

This book is about as subtle as a Marine drill sergeant, but that’s exactly what a lot of us men need. A point man is a soldier assigned to be a lookout ahead of his team, which is the role Farrar wants every husband to play. We are called to be the advance scout keeping an eye out for threats to our marriage and family.

The key lesson I learned from this book was to be a “one-woman kind of man.” Farrar laments that we take marital infidelity too lightly. Society refers to it as an “affair”, which sounds like a happy place with merry-go-rounds and cotton candy, rather than an act of cheating on a promise you made to someone.

Farrar recommended the radical notion of not touching women outside the family (e.g. no hugs) and not doing things one-on-one with them either. As a touchy-feely extrovert, I realized this would be a good idea for me, especially at the start of my marriage. After all, if I didn’t touch another woman and I was never alone with one, then it would be really hard to have an affair – I mean, commit adultery.

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

This book opened my eyes to a phenomenon I had never imagined, yet has proven itself over and over for a decade. Chapman explains that what makes you feel loved is likely to be different from what makes your spouse feel loved. But your tendency will be to show them love your way, not their way.

So my love language is physical touch, but my wife’s is quality time. My reaction to tension between the two of us is to reassure her by giving her a hug or back rub. But that means I’m speaking my language, not hers. What she needs is for me to spend some time with her, not with the computer or errands or phone calls.

Having a common vocabulary becomes hugely powerful as well. We can talk about why one of us is not feeling like we’ve been getting loving attention and what to do about it.

If Only He Knew by Gary Smalley

I studied this book with a group of men from my church after I’d only been married a year or two. The key message I took away was this: if a marriage relationship is suffering, it is the husband’s duty to do something about it. He’s not allowed to pretend it doesn't exist and hope it goes away. He’s not allowed to get defensive if his wife points out a problem area. He doesn't get to blame her if the relationship is not working. He has ultimate responsibility for taking every action possible to heal whatever is wounded in the marriage.

This can be a controversial idea if you believe that marriage is a 50-50 proposition. You might say that both spouses are responsible for fixing problems, and that’s true to an extent. But if both are hurting too much to do something about it, it’s the man’s job to overcome his pain and initiate efforts to repair the marriage.

There is a book of the Bible after Psalms and Ecclesiastes (“To everything…there is a season”) called Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). It’s a book about sex. In the bible. In ancient, poetic, sensual language it describes the love-making between a husband and wife, both physical and emotional. Basically, God created sex and wants husbands and wives to experience it in abundance in a healthy way where they focus on each other's enjoyment. And pastors almost never preach from it.

In the New Testament, Paul offers sound advice in his letters to various churches. In 1st Corinthians he describes how husbands and wives belong to each other and should not use sex as a bargaining chip. He also reminds us how true love does not boast and does not keep a record of someone’s failures. In the last section of Ephesians 5 he boils it down as “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but feeds and cares for it.”

Leman is a hilarious author and speaker, so this is a fun read. Guys, the message here is that you have to take care of your wife and be her partner. Yes, you’re tired from work. So is she. You can still do your fair share of the evening’s chores, like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids (as a leader, you can even do *more* than what’s fair, and treat your wife like a princess). On the other hand, if your wife is exhausted because she did all that by herself, where is she going to get the energy for lovemaking?

For Men Only by Jeff Feldhahn

Society says that women are complicated, and that dumb guys can never figure them out. The truth is that they’re not so complicated, just different. (And we’re not so dumb, either.) After his wife surveyed a bunch of men and wrote a book about what men need, Feldhahn surveyed women. He was shocked by what he found out. He was also glad, because it explained a lot of the frustration he had.

In particular, I learned that listening to my wife describe a problem is the only thing she needs. She doesn’t need me to tell her how I think she should solve it. Also, she is always, always, going to worry that we’ll be separated. And when she’s sad, she doesn’t need to be cheered up. She just needs a chance to be sad for a while.

As the son of an English instructor and a librarian (both with Ph.D.s) it’s not surprising that I’ve turned to books for advice. Maybe books aren’t your thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to read one of the ones above. Discuss it with your wife. If her love language is quality time, you’ll be a hit. Or talk about it with some of your guy friends. The ones who care about their marriages, not the macho or goofy ones. Because it’s kind of silly to have all this rich information at your fingertips and not use it to invest in a marriage that will last a lifetime.

What, or who, has taught you the most about marriage or relationships?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What I Miss About Austin

Having lived in Austin for ten years until just recently, I often get asked what I miss about it. I still think it’s weird that I hardly knew Austin existed until the University of Texas invited me to come visit as a Junior in high school. I went on to spend a total of 15 years there, with a break in the middle for Peace Corps and graduate school. I’ve got the traveling bug, so I don’t know if I’ll ever stay that long in one place again. Here’s what I miss about Austin.

College Buddies 
James and Derry are certainly at the top of the list of what I miss about Austin. We went through UT together, living in Jester Hall and working as Resident Assistants. We watched each other graduate, get married, and find “real” jobs. I went off and wandered around the globe for a bit, but when I came back, they were still there for me.

Each week I’d get together with one or the other of them for lunch. (It was more of a one-to-one setup than all three of us together.) I really miss those lunches.  They were always a great break from my day (and my desk). Sometimes we’d talk about important stuff like work, marriage, families, or dreams. Sometimes we’d just go on about goofy stuff.

Besides lunches, James was always up for finding the best beer Austin had to offer. Derry was more of the adventure type, including a kayak trip we took down Lake Austin. And either one was happy to catch a movie at Alamo Drafthouse.

Alamo Drafthouse 
This place gets its own section. What a great concept! Take out every other row of seats in the movie theater and add skinny tables and walkway for the staff. Serve food and beer before and during the movie. Compile a bunch of clips from movies and TV that are related to the feature being screened, and show them as pre-movie entertainment.

Once you’ve been to one of these, a regular AMC or Cinemark just feels mundane. I’m jealous I didn’t think of this first. I would totally want to start one of these somewhere, except I’m not willing to commit to one location for that long.

Fast Food 
That’s right. I miss Austin’s fast food. Not greasy burgers, greasy chicken, or greasy pizza. I miss Freebirds, Which Wich, and Taco Deli.

Freebirds was a hilarious find because it started in Santa Barbara, where my wife went to college. Boy was she surprised to see one in Austin. Why do I miss it? They had the amazing idea to offer barbecue sauce in their burritos. My favorite: spinach tortilla, half rice, black beans, steak, pico de gallo, guacamole, lots of barbecue sauce, and a few dashes of death sauce. Serve with Fat Tire.

Which Wich Superior Sandwiches took some time to grow on me. You design your own sandwich by selecting from different options for meat, cheese, spreads, and veggies. The toasty bread was what kept me coming back until I found my favorite combination. I call it “The Italian Burn”: Start with a Grinder (Salami, Pepperoni, and Capicola). Add cheese: Mozzarella or Provolone. Select Dijon mustard, but skip the mayos, spreads & sauces, and dressings. Onions: red. For veggies, pick: lettuce, tomato, olive salad, hot pepper mix. At this point, the oils and spices don’t matter much, but it doesn’t hurt to add some oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper.

You make your selection on a paper bag that you can watch make it’s way down the line. It helps to draw something on the back so you know which one is yours. Once it’s gone past all the stations, wait for them to call your name. Then enjoy your Burn.

Taco Deli didn’t become a hit with me until our last few months in Austin. That’s when I tried the original location, right next to the apartment we rented after selling our house. I was soon hooked on both the Mole Tacos and the Adobados tacos. Top them off with some hot green salsa and I was a happy camper. And you couldn’t beat the location next to the Barton Creek green belt.

Walnut Creek Park and Lifetime Fitness 
I never thought I’d miss a park. Maybe it’s because it was walking distance from our house for seven years. Maybe it’s just because I went there every week. Regardless, it was the best place to go for a run. Ever. Except during allergy season. When the weather was hot, the park was shady. The trails were dirt, so they were easy on the knees, but fun for the feet. There were butterflies and squirrels and rabbits, so I was always on the lookout. And the terrain never got boring.

I also never thought I’d miss a gym. Lifetime was pricey, but it was worth it. It was just down the street from my office, so I could go before work, at lunch, or after work. It had so many weight benches and treadmills that I almost never had to wait for anything. I loved the outdoor lap lanes in the summer time, and I appreciated the indoor lap pool the rest of the time. That made it really easy to train for my triathlons.

A couple of years before I left, I joined a really great Toastmasters group called Laughing Matters. Every Thursday I'd have blast telling jokes and laughing at hilarious speeches from a great group of friends. The Black & Browns were a great addition.

Laughing Matters was also a great place to practice the material I was working on for my showcases at Cap City Comedy Club. I began taking classes there in October 2009, and did three spots before I left. Each one was less than five minutes long. Getting big laughs from a few hundred audience members is a huge rush.

Small Groups 
Lastly, I miss the small groups of friends from church that we met with on a regular basis. I had a great bunch of guys to meet with for a season to talk about what it truly meant to be a man and a husband. Then we had some groups of couples where we focused on our marriage relationship. Our last group explored the meaning and practice of being Christ-followers and supporting each other. We haven’t yet found that kind of community here in our new home, but we’re still looking.

Austin wasn’t perfect (e.g. 100+ degree heat in the summers), but it had lots going for it. Even though I miss friends and food and even a park or two, I’m glad we came to California for a season, and I’m looking forward to the next place we call home for a bit. And I’ll be visiting Austin soon.

What would you miss if you moved from where you live?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Returning to Africa

For four years we’ve been talking about a trip to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. I blame my gym for publishing an article about the climb in their monthly magazine. After six months of serious discussions and research, we finally bought tickets to go to Zambia instead. Paying a team to babysit us up the mountain costs double the airfare just to get to Africa. Instead we’re going to relive our Peace Corps days by visiting a volunteer we know in Zambia. In the classic writing style of “threes”, here are the four things I love about traveling to Africa.

I love flying. Particularly long, international flights. I love the little tin-foil wrapped meals they serve, even in coach. Air France is the best – don’t get me started. I love buying the Economist magazine. I can almost read all the articles on an eight-hour flight. I love watching the in-flight movies, especially on those screens built into the seat in front of you. I love navigating new airports in foreign countries, where you never know which languages will be on their signs or if English will be one of them. Most of all, I love holding my wife’s hand on take-off and landing.

The Culture – Hospitality, Language, Food
Africans are friendly and inviting. People are friendly everywhere, but Africans tend to be less hurried, and more inclined to welcome you into their home. It’s fun to kick off your sandals and sit down to a conversation over a beer or shot of moonshine. They’re always eager to talk about American politics, European policies, or soccer.

Languages in Africa fascinate me as well. First there is the official language – usually English or French. Both are spoken with accents that are unique to Africa. I picked up such a distinct African accent to my French that a hotel clerk in Paris said I “spoke like a black man.” Then there are the idiomatic expressions from the indigenous languages that have been translated directly into French or English. For example “It’s been three days” which means “It’s been a while since we saw each other.” (The response is “And one more [day].”) I love picking up as much of the local language as I can. It’s like a puzzle, and I love the looks I get when no one expects the American visitor to know Fon, or Swahili, or Bemba.

I love trying new foods when I travel. I enjoy finding new tastes, textures, and combinations. I also love the customs that go with it, whether it means eating only with your right hand, or eating in a certain order, or sharing from one dish. When the food is completely unusual, like fried termites, I savor the challenge of overcoming my own culinary biases. And I enjoy the pleasure it gives my hosts when I show them that a visitor is willing to try their cuisine.

Peace Corps Volunteers
By Marcus Chance
All Rights Reserved

Volunteers, or PCVs, are an adventurous, idealistic bunch, and they know how to throw great parties on low budgets. They don’t have “happy hours”, they have “happy weekends”.  I know because I was a PCV in Benin, West Africa from 1994-1997. We can spend hours swapping stories about misguided host families, outrageous taxi rides, and confused country directors. It’s a joy watching volunteers converse in the local language with their neighbors, and they can always show you the best eatery, chill-out spot, and nature vista their village has to offer.

By Marcus Chance
All Rights Reserved
Nature Photography
I’m a sucker for sweeping vistas, and I always want to take them home with me. That’s what our Canon Powershot is for. Africa is full of bright colors: deep green forests, rust brown trails, shimmering blue skies, golden savannahs, and aqua rivers. Throw in some wildlife, like elephants, hippos, zebras, or chickens. Extra credit for photos from a rainforest canopy hike or a canoe trip across a lake.

Yes, I’m quite excited about our trip that’s just six months away. Really excited. Extremely excited. Airplanes, languages, food, photography, oh my. We get to spend time with an Austin friend in Zambia. I get to travel with my wife on her first trip to Africa. We’ll go to Victoria falls and either a walking or canoeing safari. And I’ll come back with tons of photos and stories for my blog.

Do you like traveling? Why or why not?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Workplace Myths

I’ve been in the corporate world for over a decade. I started late, so I knew I would have to learn the rules quickly. I soon discovered that many of the rules people took for granted were actually myths. Recognizing these myths has been key to my effectiveness and peace of mind.

Myth #1 – Emails require immediate attention

Truth – If it can’t wait, you’ll get a phone call or an instant message (IM). I’ve often found that by not replying, the sender figures things out on their own, or gets just as good a response from someone else. In fact, by responding immediately, you condition your co-workers to expect instant answers. 

What should you do? Pick 2 or 3 times a day to respond to emails; don’t even look at your inbox in between. (And turn off those pop-up notices.)

Myth #2 – People who work long hours are more productive

Truth – If you know you’re going to be at work for 12 hours, you have less incentive to use your time wisely. When I started on salary, I set boundaries for my work hours. I would arrive by 7:30 and leave at 4:30.  I didn’t want to be the absent husband who spent all night in the office.

I found that as the end of my day approached, I looked at my tasks more critically. Which ones were really important, and which could wait? Was it more important to socialize around the office, or finish a key task?

Every few months there would be something that required me to stay later than normal, which I counted as part of the give and take. But I noticed a lot more socializing took place after 5pm. I realized that people who stayed late weren’t being any more effective than I was.

What should you do? Set a schedule for yourself. Stick to it. Let your team know that you’re going to use the schedule to be more productive.

Myth #3 – Multitasking gets more accomplished

Truth – Multitasking is inherently less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time. You’re not focused on two things at once, like a conference call and a chat session, you’re really just switching back and forth. A lot. Maybe you can time it right and answer the chat questions when you’re not needed in the meeting. Or you’ll time it wrong, and you won’t hear the question that was directed at you, and you’ll waste everyone’s time by asking it to be repeated.

What should you do? Make a habit to focus on one task at a time. If someone interrupts, tell them you’re busy and ask if you can get back to them. If you’re in a meeting that you don’t need to be a part of, excuse yourself.  Most of all, be honest with yourself. If you’re not willing to focus on a single activity, then you’re going to short-change all the activities that you’re trying to multitask. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes it’s really frustrating to the people you’re meeting with or instant messaging.

Myth #4 – Instant Message is the most effective communication

Truth – Instant messages are only effective under very precise conditions. First, the question has to be very clear, and the answer has to be just as easy. Second, IMs have to be limited to times that are not dedicated for focused work. Third, the sender has to be able to type reasonably quickly. The perfect storm is when someone asks a vague question, while I’m trying to create a financial model, and then they’re either not focused on the chat session to begin with (i.e. they’re multi-tasking) or they only type 5 words per minute.

What should you do? Set your IM status to “Do Not Disturb” when you are doing tasks that require critical thinking. When you get an IM that is vague, ask the person if they can take a phone call.

Myth #5 – You get more accomplished if you work without breaks

Truth – You were built for sprinting, not marathons. After 45 minutes, your productivity drops off. You will get more done in two hours by taking a 15 minute break in the middle, than if you worked the full 120 minutes non-stop. Two factors contribute to this. One is the same “time-limit effect” that helps you be more efficient in a 9-hour day than a 12-hour day. The second is the “na├»ve observer effect.” By walking away from your desk for a break, your mind separates itself from your work, and you come up with new ways of looking at what you’re doing. You’ll see what’s important, what’s not, and what’s related.

What should you do? Set a reminder to stop after 30 or 45 minutes (use Outlook, your phone, or a cooking timer). Get up from your desk and walk around outside (or down the hall). Breathe deeply. Let your mind wander and then come back. Think about what the next steps should be.

This advice should reinforce what you already suspected. So pick one area to test out for a month or so. Don’t try them all at once, and don’t stop after just a few days or weeks. Give it enough time to see if it works for you. Either way, when you’re done, pick another area to try.

What workplace myth have you disproved?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Apple Addict

Apple IIe -
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 Some rights reserved
by secretagent007
My name is Marcus Chance, and I’m an Apple Addict. The seeds were planted in the ‘80s, when my parents came home with an Apple IIe; the kind with a monitor that showed green text on a black screen. I wrote programs in Apple Basic to help me study Spanish vocabulary.

I strayed when I got to college. My parents sent me off with a PC running MS DOS. It was convenient to have in my dorm room for late night work on my Pascal assignments. But when I dropped my plans to major Computer Science, the Macs in the computer labs did just fine. The environment was more social, and even the Macs seemed friendly.

Mac Powerbook -
AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works
 Some rights reserved
by calamity_hane
In the Peace Corps, I didn’t have a computer at my post at all. I did lesson plans by hand, graded tests by hand, and read books and magazines. Sometimes I counted ceiling tiles. On weekends I would use the Macs in the lab at the Peace Corps office in the capital, but the real attraction was the air conditioning in the lab. I tried bringing a Mac Powerbook to Africa for my 3rd year, but either the humidity or the power grid was too hard on it. Then another volunteer showed up with a Toshiba PC and the game “Civilization”.

Computer games nearly squashed my interest in Apple forever. At grad school I used student loan money to buy a Gateway Pentium PC with Windows ’98 (’98!). Then I bought Civilization II and sometimes spent the whole weekend playing it from start to finish. The Boston Acoustics speakers were a nice touch.

When I joined the corporate world, I truly entered the land of the PC. We just lived with the fact that they would crash all the time and occasionally get completely taken over by some random virus. Still, they were half the price of the candy-colored iMac, and even cheaper with my Dell discount. I replaced my Windows 98 machine with an XP box with more storage than I knew what to do with and a flat panel monitor for good measure. Now we could rent DVDs and basically have a home entertainment system.

iPhone 4 - Courtesy of Apple
But then Steve Jobs came back. And he brought the iPod Touch. And the iPhone 4. And the iPad. Who needs to check email on your PC when you can check it on the iPod? Who needs to play 72 hour Civilization games, when you can finish a game in 2 hours on the gorgeous Retina screen of the iPhone 4? Who needs to stream Netflix on your flat panel, when you can watch the movies from anywhere on your iPad? (Well, I need to, because I don’t have an iPad. Yet.)

iPad 2 - Courtesy of Apple
Now I’m in so deep I’m even watching the iOS release conferences. I’m reading the “live” blogging. I eagerly wait for the release date so I can…not buy anything. Because that would be really impulsive. Do I really need another device? How will my iPod touch feel if I abandon it for the iPad? I want to be an early adopter, but I don’t want to spend the money. Or deal with the stuff. But I’m still eying that iPad.

What technology are you addicted to?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dream Vacation

I recently responded to a question that Mensa Bulletin posed to its readers: What is Your Dream Vacation?

My submission:

I dream of a year-long vacation to make friends, learn new languages, and discover beautiful landscapes. I would start in Argentina in January, where it would be summer. I have friends there, and a head start on Spanish. In April I would continue to Italy. Cinque Terre is gorgeous, and I love the sound of Italian. In July I would leave the EU for a month in Turkey. I have heard so many great things about it. I would return to Germany for August, September, and Oktoberfest. German would be a challenging switch from the romance languages, but I’m sure the beer would help. When it got too cold or I overstayed my visa, I would zip down to Madagascar for the rain forests and the beach resorts. While I’m in the neighborhood, my final stop would be Tanzania, to climb Kilimanjaro. Three continents, three languages, and as many landscapes as I can fit on Flickr.

What would be your dream vacation?