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?