Tag Archives: travel

These Are a Few of My Favorite Apps


I’m old enough to remember when staying in touch while traveling demanded fervent prayer for a working pay phone at some filling station or greasy-spoon restaurant between here and there. Now I can carry enough communications and computer processing power to run a space shuttle (if we still had one of those) from the palm of my hand.


I’ve collected what I think is a pretty decent set of useful apps over a few years of trial and error and a whole lot of time on the road. They don’t offer raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but these smartphone and tablet apps help me manage my travel, reading, and devotions, provide some extra security when I’m away from my home network, and sprinkle in a little fun along the way—things I’ve added beyond the standard browsers, e-mail, and social-networking. I’m always looking for another gem in the Google Play sluice-box (yes, I’m an Android guy), so if you’ve got one that floats your boat, I’d love to hear about it.

These are a few of my favorite apps:


  • Currency Converter: User-friendly app that tracks exchange rates and allows me to easily compute how far my dollars will go in Europe, Korea, Japan, or anywhere else my company sends me.
  • Fly Delta: My company uses Delta for most of our air travel. The app helps me monitor my reservations and flight status (including weather delays, gate changes, and schedule updates), tracks my baggage, and prompts me for online check-ins.
  • Google Maps: Mobile-tailored interface for my favorite navigation and mapping service.
  • Google Hangouts: International phone charges are totally insane, and I’m not. To stay in touch with my family, I’ve used both Skype and Hangouts when traveling overseas, but Hangouts seems to provide the most reliable and stable connection, with minimal lag. Running Hotspot Shield VPN (see below) also helps circumvent most stability or connection issues that occur on foreign servers. Video, voice, or messaging, one conversation or a conference call, all free. You just need a WiFi connection.


  • Open Signal: Need a WiFi connection, you say? Open Signal finds nearby hotspots and navigates you there. It also links to a database of previously-identified hotspots, so you can plan ahead.
  • Hotspot Shield VPN: Routes your internet traffic through a secure server via an encrypted data channel, a good idea when you connect to an unsecured public network, like airport, hotel, or Starbuck’s WiFi. Also bypasses geographic media play restrictions when using services like Netflix or YouTube, because they see only the location of my secure server. I might be in Korea, but Netflix thinks I’m in Los Angeles, so I’m still able to watch all my subscribed content. There’s a nominal fee for the ad-free version, but it’s worth it.
  • Google Authenticator: Provides two-factor authentication for my blog and e-mail accounts. To log in from any device I haven’t designated requires a randomly-generated, time-limited numerical code from my Google Authenticator cell phone app. It’s an extra layer of security that isn’t cumbersome or intrusive.
  • AVG Antivirus: Everybody should have one, and this app works unobtrusively and efficiently for me. Scans software and memory automatically and on-demand, looks for other vulnerabilities in your device settings.


  • Olive Tree: The most user-friendly, resource-rich, and easily-tailorable Bible study app I’ve found.
  • Ancient Faith Radio: Streaming music and podcasts from the Orthodox Christian community. Good stuff.
  • Pocket Common Prayer: Daily Scripture readings, devotions, and prayers following the liturgical calendar from the Book of Common Prayer. Provides scheduled reminders for prayer time.


  • Nice interface for online chess that accesses a huge community of players and lots of chess news, events, and instruction. Friendly to the casual player, but Grandmasters hang out here too.
  • Quell: Moderately-addictive maze puzzle game with pretty graphics and soft music. I think it actually lowers my blood pressure when I play it.
  • Elder Sign – Omens: Guide an intrepid team of paranormal adventurers into combat against Lovecraftian abominations that threaten to destroy the world! An electronic version of the tabletop dice/card game, and a great solo game. Beware Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, or you might Become That Which You Fear Most…
  • Words With Friends: My brother-in-law and I have had six simultaneous games going on this Scrabble-clone app for about a year now. Enough said.
  • Ingress: Pursue exotic matter, decode hidden messages, locate portals to another dimension, and link everything together in a quest to determine the future of humanity. Google has poured tons of money and manpower into this detailed meta-game that turns your neighborhood into an invisible battlefield for enigmatic alien forces, a shadowy human resistance, and a host of agents and multinational corporations vying for control of Earth. There’s an extensive backstory, live events in cities around the world, and the haunting sense that this might all be something more than a game. Along the way, you get a lot of exercise and find all sorts of cool landmarks you never knew existed.


  • Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Crackle: I’m never lacking for movies or TV shows to watch during layovers with these three apps. Netflix provides a wide-ranging assortment of movies and shows, Crunchyroll focuses on anime and Asian TV, and Crackle is my go-to when I’m hankering for an oddball movie that’s not popular enough to make it onto Netflix. Netflix is a subscription service, but if you already have a home subscription, there’s no extra charge for using the app, and it lets you interact with your home account. Crunchyroll is free with the option to subscribe for faster access to new shows, and Crackle is free.
  • Pandora: There are plenty of good music apps out there, but I like this one, which is reliable, easy to navigate, and does a decent job of monitoring my favorites and tailoring the stream so I get the sort of music I enjoy.
  • Bluefire Reader: This app provides a nice platform for reading e-books in a variety of formats, links seamlessly to my county’s and state’s electronic libraries, and negotiates Adobe file protection protocols, which seem to be the currently preferred method for library management of e-book borrowing. It works especially well handling graphic novels on my Samsung tablet.

Posted by on February 27, 2014 in Technology, travel


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Back from Korea, Home for Christmas

747My work trip in Korea is over, and it feels nice to be home after a month on the road, though I’m still reestablishing my equilibrium. I’m shifting gears between two cultures, two daily routines, two very different time zones. Everything feels atilt and askew.

mokshawoodcutIt was a good trip, all things considered…the work went well, complicated travel itineraries executed without a hitch, I wasn’t injured or ill, and I was able to explore a few new corners in a familiar part of Korea.

koreamarketAs I look back over my blogs and photos, I’m realizing how much I didn’t notice. The closer I look, the more I see, and there are certain sights, angles, and perspectives I wish I’d taken a moment to consider. It’s the Uncertainty Principle on a macro scale. Observation impacts our ability to measure and quantify. The act of documenting an experience incurs a cost in detail, even as we strive to capture it all.

charliebrowncafeI’ve been 30+ days away from my family, another unquantifiable expense. Things happened while I was gone, nothing momentous in particular, but substantial in the aggregate. Bits of life I’ve missed and can’t recover, even with the help of instant trans-global communication in sound and video.

Our Christmas celebration is discombobulated, as has been the rule rather than the exception these past few years. The harder we try to build traditions and a familiar pattern for the season, the faster our efforts crumble into dust. The tree and outside decorations aren’t up yet, Advent is nearly over without the lighting of a single candle, and we see our children mostly in passing as they dash to and from schools and jobs. The feeling of rest and peace I crave at this time of year is overwhelmed by an oppressive sense of being two steps behind on just about everything.

detroit_ap_treeThings will settle back into their proper place soon enough, I know. Somehow, we’ll pull everyone back around the hearth by Christmas Eve, and all will again be right with the world, for a little while, as we pause to hear the angel’s words echo in the still of night, as cheering and powerful now as they were at the beginning.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

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Posted by on December 20, 2013 in Family, travel


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Soyosan Mountain: Soyosan in Snow

After reaching the top of Soyosan, or near enough, I figured I was finished with the mountain.

As it turned out, the mountain wasn’t finished with me.

soyosan_gate_snowThe day before Thanksgiving, there was a snowstorm in Dongducheon that dropped a couple of inches of white fluff across the countryside. My team had Thanksgiving Day off, and I was curious to see how the snow had changed the scenery along the Soyosan Mountain trail, so I bundled up and set off about 7 am on Thanksgiving morning to take a look.

I wasn’t foolish enough to even consider trying for the crest with wind chill and ice added to the challenge. Jajaeam Temple would be far enough.

soyosan_stream_snowThe sun rose into clearing skies, and I found the trail transformed by its dusting of snow. Everything looks better with a little frosting, and the mountains of Korea are no exception. The snow was wet enough to cling to the trees and feed a little more life into the stream that bordered the path uphill. Monuments looked more impressive, caves and grottos seemed more mysterious, and the temple itself felt more hushed and tranquil. Click on the photos for a better view.

It was a nice walk, and some consolation for a Thankgiving spent half a world away from my family. There were only a few other people on the trail, but everybody seemed extra cheery, even though Thanksgiving isn’t on the Korean holiday calendar.

jajaeam_steps_snowjajaeam_monorailAs I approached Jajaeam Temple, something interesting happened. I was passing by a metal framework I had thought was construction scaffolding when one of the monks came motoring along it in a little chair. The contraption was a one-man monorail train that ran from the temple along the mountainside to a waterfall and shrine further down the mountain. It was propelled by a tiny gasoline engine and, I suppose, a healthy ration of faith. I saw the monk again later, sweeping snow from the trail in a steep spot where he’d spread a cloth tarp to aid hikers’ traction on the ice.


As for the temple itself, and its adjoining waterfall, they were as enchanting as I expected. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.



Posted by on December 5, 2013 in travel


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Mount Soyosan: Onward and Upward

soyosan_stairsI returned to the Soyosan trail the day after my jaunt to Jajaeam Temple, taking advantage of the unseasonably balmy weather before a forecast snowstorm later in the week. I set a brisk pace to the temple grounds.

Beyond Jajaeam Temple, the trail up Mount Soyosan develops what I’ll call “attitude.” Soyosan isn’t a terribly tall mountain, but it’s rugged and steep. The stairs that were helpful negotiating the lower portions of the trail get longer and increase in pitch to the point where they become a daunting obstacle themselves. (Click on the pictures for full-size images)

soyosan_trailThen the stairs disappear, replaced by stone steps, which in turn dissipate into a dirt trail with nothing but a stout rope separating the hiker from a nasty fall.

Until the rope ends.

I’m embarrassed to admit how much huffing and puffing this trail brought on, and how many times I had to stop to catch my breath. Meanwhile, wizened Korean ladies and gentlemen, fitted out with sporty Alpine togs, boots, and backpacks, trotted past me from above and below. They were mostly cheerful and politely silent, but a few chuckled softly at the silly American staggering up their mountain. One nice young man with excellent command of English offered me a sip from his Gatorade bottle. There were families making a day of it too—one young couple with a 3- or 4-year-old in tow passed me on the trail. Having worked through some of the more challenging spots, I had to admire their courage, or wonder about their sanity.

soyosan_ridgeLight began to fade, and I still hadn’t reached the top. I considered turning back, an option that became more appealing with each step. I’m glad I pressed on. A few minutes later, I crested the ridge, not at the tip-top of Soyosan, but one of the parade of smaller peaks along its crest, at least. Good enough, and a prudent compromise, knowing I had to make it back down the trail while I could still see it. That was a different sort of challenge, perhaps not as difficult, but a bit more dangerous if I wasn’t careful.

soyosan_viewAs for the view…words fail me.

Yes, it was worth the climb.

I picked my way down the trail in the last glow of sunset, arriving at Jajaeam Temple without mishap. The doors to the shrine carved from the mountain were open, and a few of the monks were inside, chanting and prostrating and tapping on hollow gourds, the sound echoing from the stone, blended with the waterfall’s patter into its dark pool below.

soyosan_eveningThe rest of the trail was wide and well-lit. No reason to hurry now. I paused a few moments to listen.


Posted by on December 2, 2013 in travel


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Soyosan Mountain: Jajaeam Temple

monhyos_gateAfter passing Wonhyo’s Enlightenment Place, the trail changed from a broad, gently sloping, paved avenue to a narrow, winding path punctuated by steep flights of wooden stairs that hugged the mountainside. As my lack of conditioning began to make itself felt, I encountered Moksha’s Gate, which marked the entrance to the Jajaeam Temple precincts. A small brass bell hung from its apex, and the local folklore holds that sweethearts who stand within the gate and ring the bell will enjoy eternal love. Since my own sweetheart wasn’t along with me on this trip, I pressed on.

temple1After a few more ups and downs and a lot more stairs, I finally entered the temple plaza, a cluster of buildings that included two shrines, one freestanding, the other built into the mountain. Like the gentleman in this photo, I aligned my camera lens with a gap in the latticework of the outer shrine to capture the impressive altar within. Click on the photos for larger images.

temple2Jajaeam is a working temple with a resident community of monks. I didn’t see any of them around the temple this particular day, but several were engaged in maintenance and restoration of the trails and structures further down the mountain. You can see stacks of cushions and prayer books used by the monks in their daily rituals on the left. The door’s lattice was backed with plexiglas, which caused some reflections in the photo, but the focus on the altar itself is reasonably sharp in the full-size image.

temple3After viewing the remarkable collection of gilded buddhas in the first shrine, I turned my attention to the unobtrusive door set into the mountain a few steps beyond. It was flanked by a bank of candles, a pair of guardian statues, and a little niche with an assortment of buddha dolls, beads, and other knick-knacks.

temple4Like the other shrine, it was what lay beyond the door that was most striking. Instead of the dark grotto I expected, inside was a kaleidoscope of light and color, from the candlelit altar to the ceiling draped in glowing paper lanterns in rainbow hues.

templefallsTopping it all off was another pretty waterfall that fluttered down the mountainside into a pool below the temple. The burble of falling water formed a pleasant background to the scenery, and I spent a while just watching and listening. It was a place meant for lingering.

Dusk was approaching, and I had no more time to explore beyond Jajaeam Temple. I was determined to return the next day and try for the summit of Soyosan Mountain.


Posted by on December 2, 2013 in travel


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Soyosan Mountain: Wonhyo’s Vision

Wonhyo's Enlightenment Place

The view is quite inspiring.

Wonhyo’s romance with Princess Yoseok didn’t conclude his story on Soyosan Mountain. In similar fashion, my journey up the trail continued.

After another fifteen minutes of increasingly-steep climb, I found myself at the end of the broad, smooth portion of the trail at Wonhyo’s Enlightenment Place. The scenery looking down the trail toward the bottom of the mountain is magnificent, the sort of vista you might expect to accompany a moment of spiritual inspiration.

wonhyo signAfter his affair with Princess Yoseok, Wonhyo retreated to the mountains to seek enlightenment, living in a hut he built here. One night, a beautiful woman knocked on the door and asked to stay the night. Wonhyo told her he had dedicated himself to the pursuit of Buddhist teaching and had forsaken carnal desires. The woman vanished, and Wohhyo interpreted the visitation as an encounter with a Buddhist deity of compassion, Avolokitesvara Bodhisattva, who had appeared to test his resolve.

Encouraged by this experience, he established Jajaeam (Freedom) Temple to replace the hut and emphasize the struggle to obtain freedom through the extinction of selfish motivation and physical desire.

Jajaeam Temple was the next stop on my walk up Soyosan Mountain.


Posted by on November 29, 2013 in travel


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Other Side of the World


Like Korea itself, there’s much more happening on the inside.

I’m back in Korea on another work trip—I’ve actually been here for almost two weeks, with the usual delays in finding reliable internet connections and ironing out my work schedule, so that’s why the blog’s been silent for a while.

I’m in the northern part of South Korea this time, where life runs a little slower than Seoul’s frenetic pace, and there’s lots of natural and man-made beauty to be found if you know where to look.

In the next few days, I’ll post some stories and pictures of my adventures in the Land of the Morning Calm, and I plan to catch up on a few book reviews I’ve had stacked in my inbox far too long.

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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in travel


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The Cool Kids’ Table

Two things I enjoy about modern trans-oceanic air travel are the airline magazines and the multimedia entertainment system provided on many flights. These two pleasures intersected during my recent work trip to Germany. The October 2013 issue of Delta Airlines’ SKY magazine featured “The Big Idea Machine,” an article by senior writer Steve Marsh about his experience at a TED event in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, my seat-back media player offered a dozen TED talks. I had a passing familiarity with TED, but hadn’t thought about it much, other than a source of interesting lectures. Marsh’s article gave me some context and food for thought as I watched the videos.

TED_talkIf you’ve never heard of TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, it’s a system of conferences, among other things. Its mission statement reads, in part:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

According to Wikipedia, TED has grown from a one-time conference in 1984 into a global juggernaut of live and recorded events, divided into 15-minute-or-so talks about all manner of “ideas worth spreading.” Its free internet library includes more than 1500 of these talks, logging over a billion views by the end of 2012.

Chautauqua posterWhat I realized, after a bit of reflection, is that TED is an Information Age version of the Chautauqua. It seems more than a little ironic that an enterprise devoted to the promulgation of innovative ideas should itself be a very old idea in modern clothing. From the Wikipedia entry:

Chautauqua (shə-TAW-kwə) was an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Named after Chautauqua Lake where the first was held, Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

While TED does a commendable job of making its lectures and literature readily available to the public for free or cheap, there’s clearly a stratification among consumers. One difference between TED and the Chautauqua is that the elite get first dibs on TED’s “big ideas.” There are the folks who are wealthy, powerful, sophisticated, charismatic, or otherwise influential enough to qualify for first access and direct contact with the creators—and there’s everybody else. Only after the upper crust have their listen behind locked doors do the unwashed masses get a peep through the keyhole.

Marsh gained entry on a free press pass obtained via energetic string-pulling within his social and professional networks, but a ticket to a live TED conference costs upward of $6000, and there’s also a very selective application process to negotiate. Attendance is limited—depending on the venue, there might be between 900 and 1500 seats, total. TED also sells internet memberships that permit live viewing of TED events by individuals and organizations for $995 to $2500 or more, per year.

My favorite TED.

My favorite TED.

These barriers to access, and the delayed release of information to the general public, are significant. In the world of ideas and innovation, it’s the first to market who reap the greatest harvest of profit and plaudits.  And TED may be a nonprofit, but anyone who believes it’s a purely charitable enterprise can do the math. Even with a restricted guest list, after subtracting speaker fees, facility rental, and production costs, that’s still a bucketful of simoleons, and we haven’t even touched TEDLive memberships and the wider TED universe of locally-run “TEDx” events, publishing, and other revenue-generating activities. Networking powerful influencers also yields non-monetary value that may eclipse TED’s box-office income.

Yes, catering to the aristocracy pays the bills and makes the populist part of the initiative viable, but TED’s not shy about touting its exclusivity, and that whiff of elitism in the TED culture sours the whole enterprise, just a little. Marsh may have been blown away by the brainpower on parade at his TED conference, but he wasn’t so dazzled he missed the unspoken message. Some examples:

“…your head is swimming in information while you consider how all this 4-1-1 will be disseminated, in awe of the potential reach of the TEDGlobal hive. Attributing its success to a latter-day Ozymandias who kicks off every TED conference by blaring the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida (pretty much the ancient Egyptian army’s “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!” to the conquered Ethiopians in the opera) is an easy mental leap. It’s a cult . . . for really smart, really skeptical scientist people!”

“The first thing I learn about my fellow conference-goers is that they’re front-of-the-bus people. They were probably the ones who flirted with their professors throughout class in college. And while their ages range from twentysomething to fiftysomething, everybody here looks as if they would be comfortable on campus—what with their cool boots and rain gear. More than a couple of people are wearing enviable glasses.”

“It’s not too difficult to see TED as the cool kids, a bunch of 1 percenters throwing a party to congratulate themselves on their 15-minute solutions to the hoi polloi’s problems.”

Overall, though, Marsh had a good time and left impressed by the TED community, the content of the conference, and the potential global impact of what he witnessed.

Not the TED I'm talking about.

Not the TED I’m talking about.

There are practical problems with TED’s ambitious vision. TED exists, in theory, to inject the best new ideas into the global cloud so somebody can use them to change the world for the better. There’s no way to ensure they’re getting the idea maker together with the idea enabler who can make concept into reality. That’s not usually the same person. It’s the difference between science and engineering or between design and manufacture.  In Marsh’s words, “I guess we still have to bank on the right millionaire genius meeting the right billionaire genius at the right time.”

As Marsh notes in his article, the TED archives also suffer from selection bias—browsers gravitate toward speakers and topics that echo their own preferences and mindset. They’re not looking for new ideas so much as intellectual entertainment that reinforces what they already think. Some of the talks are more substantial than others—for every innovative, thought-provoking conversation, there’s a piece of fluff, a sales pitch, or a propaganda spot. That sense of smug assurance that all the world’s problems might be solvable with a few 15-minute chats hovers in the air, sometimes. Caveat emptor.

UPDATE: And here’s a recent TED talk that calls the entire TED philosophy into question, a surprising moment of introspection within an enterprise that at times resembles a college pep club more than a community of serious thinkers.

How viral are TED videos, really? The sheer volume of views is impressive, but are people circulating these “ideas worth spreading?” It’s difficult to assess. There are certainly some golden nuggets lurking in the TED library sluice box, and I’ve shared a few myself. I suppose my final assessment would be to keep both your mind and eyes open when meandering through TEDland, and hold your expectations in check. The library’s worth a browse, and I recommend that, but be prepared to lose a few hours once you begin. It’s nearly as addictive as TVTropes…or Oreos.

I’ll leave you with my favorite TED Talk from my flight across the pond, a little reminiscence by humorist John Hodgman, who begins with some speculations about aliens among us, and after a brief orbit, returns to a very familiar and very human place. Enjoy.

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Posted by on October 24, 2013 in General, Opinion, travel, Writing


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Random Randomness, 10/11/2013

weiden_michaelimarktDu, Du, Liegst Mir Im Herzen…I’m back in Bavaria for a few days on a work trip. Our US Army troops and their NATO allies need training, shutdown or no shutdown, so my team is on the job. The weather’s been pleasantly cool with an occasional drizzly day, not bad for this time of year. I’m lodging in the picturesque and historic city of Weiden in der Oberpfalz, and I arrived in time to catch Michaelimarkt, which turns the old town square into a blend of farmers’ market and flea market for a couple of days. Many random items were for sale, including an assortment of surgical instruments. Eek. Speaking of which…

Have I Got an Orthopedic Surgeon for You! My Lovely Wife took a tumble at work a few weeks ago, sustaining a hamstring tear that required surgery. Add this to knee surgeries on our three children over the past several years, and we now have four fine and decidedly non-random orthopedic surgeons in the Greater Kansas City Metro Area whom we can recommend should you ever find yourself in the neighborhood and in need of that particular medical treatment, heaven forbid. My wife’s doctor moonlights as a staff physician for the Miami Heat, so we have high hopes she’ll be able to dunk a basketball when she’s fully recovered.

kjkidsKatzenjammer – The German word for “caterwaul,” or other similarly discordant sound. It also provided the handle for a pair of classic comic strip characters, Hans und Fritz, The Katzenjammer Kids. According to Wikipedia, their strip is still running in a few random newspapers, somewhere, and is the longest-running comic strip ever.

I Heart My Publisher – The brave New Zealander who took a chance on a random fantasy novel manuscript by some middleaged balding guy from Kansas featured me on her blog this week with a few kind comments.

hasenpfefferHasenpfeffer – A traditional German stew made from rabbit marinated in wine and vinegar, then braised with onions and black pepper. Hase=hare, pfeffer=pepper. Not random at all. According to Looney Tunes, it tastes like carrots. No, I’ve never tried it, but I suppose I should, while I’m here. Ahem…Cook! Cook! Bring me my hasenpfeffer!

What I’m Watching on German Television - Random cartoons, mostly. I find programs written for children a good fit to my limited German vocabulary. Several shows featuring young equestriennes and their exquisitely-coiffed jumping horses seem to be popular, and the Disney franchise is running a lot of Kim Possible. More interesting is a German-dubbed BBC import called Tom. Somehow, I always knew giant orange dinosaurs who join the circus to see the world would speak German, though he probably sounds like a Welsh sheep farmer in the British edition. Anyhow, in a series of Tintin-esque adventures, Tom and his circus pals foil a standard collection of villains and villainesses who either want to exploit Tom for their own nefarious purposes or despoil the environment. Or both. They would have done it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their 30-foot-tall dinosaur.

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Posted by on October 11, 2013 in Family, General, Writing


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Ni Hao at The Y’all Come Back Saloon

Fun fact: There's a Segway racetrack at the base of the Branson water tower.

Fun fact: There’s a Segway racetrack at the base of the tower.

I returned from last week’s Hawaii work trip to a Lovely Wife in desperate need of a micro-vacation over Labor Day after two weeks of new kindergarteners. On top of that, the Darling Daughter’s birthday fell on the same weekend. There was only one thing to do…head to Branson!

There are few places in the U.S. more random than Branson, Missouri, which somehow manages to blend Bible Belt family values, Southern culture, heart-on-the-sleeve Americana, and Las Vegas kitsch into a hot mess spread across three or four ridgelines at the edge of the Ozarks. It’s the sort of place where you can ride an old Army amphibious landing craft across a nearby lake while honking on a duck call. You should try it sometime.

Speaking of Vegas, Branson is also noted as the place where Vegas headliners put themselves out to pasture when they realize that building their own theatre/shrine is a lot more profitable and easier on the joints than touring. If you build it, they will come, and they do.

Epic.After nearly draining our bank account at the Tanger Factory Outlet Center, we mulled the  evening’s entertainment opportunities, threw a dart at the wall, and landed on something called The Adventures of Marco Polo, which sounded suspiciously educational and un-Branson-ish. It was that or The Twelve Irish Tenors, whom the Daughter declared “easy on the eyes.” Their show didn’t include dinner, so I vetoed that immediately. Ahem. Besides, in a town founded on the comedy stylings of acts like the Baldknobbers Jamboree, part of the thrill is paying your money and taking your chances.

And, as it turned out, it wasn’t bad at all. After a tasty, if generic, Oriental meal, we were treated to an odd hybrid of ballet, Chinese and Mongolian folk dancing, and multimedia spectacle hung on a very thin narrative framework loosely based on Marco Polo’s account of his journey to the court of Kublai Khan. The show is produced, designed, staged, and performed entirely by a Chinese company, plus a couple of Ukrainian ballet dancers who play the Italian explorers.

Like Branson itself, this whole thing conglomerated, in utter defiance of highbrow tastes and a few laws of nature, into an entertaining show. The dancers were skilled and enthusiastic, the costumes were beautiful, and the video backdrops, provided by an LED screen that spanned the stage, were vivid and panoramic. The Daughter, a self-declared “dance geek,” had a wonderful time and filled out a feedback sheet after the show, including a pointed recommendation to give the Mongolian Bowl Dancers more time up front. That’s my girl.

They didn't mind at all.And, in true Branson fashion, the performers met the audience in the lobby afterwards and posed for pictures, including this one.

The next day, we took a winery tour (Branson resides in the heart of the Midwest’s wine country. Who knew?), had lunch at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, “where the servers sing for your supper,” then headed home. Make whatever jokes you care to about flyover country and corn pone, we had fun—a lot less expensively than most of the alternatives on either the left or right coasts. We’ll be back.

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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in Family, travel


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