In Praise of Audible.com

When we moved to St. Louis from the D.C. Suburbs in 2002, I drove my car out on Memorial Day weekend.  I left Gaithersburg, Maryland at about 6:30am and 13 hours later pulled into my temporary apartment complex in Chesterfield, Missouri.  Along the way, I listened to an audio version of The Hobbit on about 10 CDs.  I am not kidding when I write that I started the book a mile from my house in Maryland, and the book ended as I parked in Missouri.

This was the beginning of my love of audiobooks.  There is no place better and more cost-effective to get them than Audible.com.

If You Don't Listen to Books, You Should

I have been a subscriber at Audible.com since October, 2004 and in that time have downloaded 57 books and finished most of them.  I have listened to books as short as a few hours and as long as 33 hours (a biography of Walt Disney).

Audible is fantastic in its simplicity.  Log in.  Find a book.  Purchase it.  I then download directly to iTunes and sync with my iPhone.  However, Audible syncs with over 100 different MP3 players, phones, PDAs, and even Kindles.  (Kindle compatibility is not surprising, since Amazon bought Audible back in January, 2008.)

Pricing depends on your commitment.  Using the NY Times Best Seller List as a guide, audiobooks cost around $20 both on Audible and, for comparison, in the iTunes Store.  However, Audible offers subscriptions that cut the cost to $14.95 per book (1 book monthly) to as low as $9.56 per book (24 books, bought all at once).  In truth, you buy credits, but only once (that darn Disney bio!), have I used 2 credits on one book.  The subscriptions get charged automatically to your credit card, and Audible allows some rollover of credits.  Once you buy an audiobook, it remains in your library for future downloads forever.

If you haven’t listened to an audiobook, I urge you to do so.  I listen while driving, and I listen while running.  Books have gotten so engrossing that I’ve sat in the car in our garage or the parking lot at work waiting for a chapter or the book itself to end.  I have run four marathons and listened to books throughout my training.  I remember running 15 miles one day listening to a history of the transcontinental railroad.   I have listened enough that I have favorite narrators and search for them.  (Thanks Scott Brick for some great stuff.)

I primarily listen to non-fiction books that I know I wouldn’t read otherwise.  I mean, who has the patience to read a 33-hour biography of Walt Disney or a 15-hour history of the Island of Manhattan?  Listening I can handle.

I should note that many books come in abridged formats that, by definition, shorten the length.  However, these shorter versions cost only slightly less for cash customers and cost the same “one credit” for subscribers like me.  I have listened only to one abridged book and, that was by accident.

I find fiction books are best when there are multiple readers who turn the book into a play or when the narrator does the characters’ voices well.  An example of the former is The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, in which each of four narrators is read by a different person.  An example of the latter is the audiobook One Day, for which the narrator Anna Bentinck does an incredible job with male and female accents, both sober and drunk, from across the UK.

Audiobooks are not perfect.  You can’t see maps or diagrams.  You can’t page back to remember something.  Books that are very date dependent, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, can sometimes be confusing if you aren’t listening every time a date is mentioned.  For me, however, these are minor inconveniences.

As you can tell, I am a big fan of Audible.com.  I recommend, as a start, Bentinck’s reading of One Day, Brick’s narration of The Devil in the White City, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Help, and either of two books by Michael Lewis,  The Big Short or The Blind Side.

The Poetry of Air Travel from St. Louis

Regular readers know that I travel often for business and enjoy travel for pleasure.  I travel so much that I am more or less immune to things that frustrate others.  I handle delays with ease.  I prepare for no leg room, plan for no luggage room, and bring my own snacks.  I have trained myself to fall asleep while the plane is on the tarmac before take off.

But, I’m frustrated with air travel out of our home airport, Lambert-St. Louis.  Direct destinations are decreasing.  Is seems like most destinations on airlines other than Southwest require connections.  The number of routes, including those to airlines’ hubs, have decreased overall, meaning that every flight is full and uncomfortable.  Embraers and Canadair jets seem the norm, with some routes on the smaller planes now over three hours long.

For fun, I decided to express this frustration in verse, harking back to days of high school English class.  Call me a bit loopy.   Enjoy.

Lambert Airport St. Louis - A Frustrating Place to Be

Limerick

There once was a man from St. Louis
Who cursed every time that he flew us.
There was no room in the seat
Or for bags at his feet,
And the attendants were generally clueless.

There once was an airport best in show.
Airline execs were rolling in dough.
The economy hit a rut,
And routes were cut,
Leaving travelers with nowhere to go.

Haiku

Flights from St. Louis
Small planes and long connections
Car trips seem better

Boeing and Airbus
Full-sized jets rare in St. Louis
Embraers are the norm

Life spent in the air
Forced to fly indirectly
To where they must go

Sonnet

I fly for business out of Lambert St. Louis.
Connections have become the norm.
Other cities say “please come through us”
Acting the safe port in the storm.
We once flew from St. Louis across the globe.
30 million through in the year 2000.
Now only 12 million per year wear Lambert’s robe,
Far less than TWA once planned.
What can we do but bow to airlines decisions?
They reduce plane size and increase fees.
They put route maps through regular revisions.
Passengers are constantly put ill at ease.
Tourists call us the “Gateway to the West,”
But air travelers know we are really the “Many Gates of Southwest.”

Diet Week 8: +1 lb. Is a Wifi Scale the Way to Go?

Week eight saw me continue my battling a very seesaw diet.  I gained a pound to 192.4 and am down 5 pounds in eight weeks.  (Six pounds in seven weeks sounded a lot better!)  The momentum I had hoped for last week didn’t materialize.

I know from my eating decisions, that, after two months, I’m not yet in the zone.  That’s disappointing.  I’m just not making the best decisions.  I went for a Caesar salad with chicken at lunch yesterday, when I could have had a much lower-calorie salad from the salad bar.  On the other hand, I continue to be happy with my exercise regimen.  I started off slowly eight weeks ago and am progressing nicely, ramping up my speed on the treadmill and completing longer runs on Sundays.

I wrote a few weeks back about Brian Stelter and his use of tweeting as part of his diet process.  Proclaiming in public that you are going to lose weight and giving people a window into that process is a very interesting motivator.  It doesn’t work for everyone, but works for Brian and, I think, works for me.  The key is to open up a two-way dialog, where one person is sharing and others are supporting.  Multi-way dialogs are even better, where multiple people are trying to lose weight and helping each other.  This is the notion behind every diet site having a community aspect and behind the old-school weekly meetings at Weight Watchers.

The Wi-Fi Connected Withings Bathroom Scale

In Sunday’s New York Times, an article discusses the benefits of the Withings bathroom scale, which is Wifi-enabled, and pushes your weight to your computer, your iPhone app and, if desired, directly to Twitter.  This scale is not new. Googling uncovers articles from as far back as August, 2009.  There are 129 reviews on Amazon for the product, 90 of which are 5-star.  The product sells there for $145 plus shipping.

I’ve got a colleague who just bought one, but I don’t know yet if he set it up. $145 for a bathroom scale is not cheap. Wifi connectivity seems par for the course in 2010.  The auto-tracking to a smart phone is also logical and will no doubt expand to other scale brands at some point.  The connectivity to Twitter, Facebook and a range of other sites is the most intriguing aspect of all.

We know that off-line social impact weight gain, as per this 2007 study.  Brian Stelter has shown that using Twitter can make a difference with weight loss.  The automation of the Withings scale is just the next step.  Brian has to think about sending the Twitter each day.  The Withings scale requires only one decision – to turn on the sharing aspect of the software.  Then, off you go.  It makes sense to me.

Sports League Relegation in the U.S. – I Can Dream, Can’t I?

With seven games to go in the 2010 Major League Baseball season, fans of the American League are focused on the race between New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota for the best record in the league.  Just one game separates all three as we head into the last week of the season.  The team with the best record gets home field advantage for both the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series.

At the other end of the spectrum, just four game separate Baltimore, Seattle and Kansas City from having the worst record in the American League.  However, no one is really watching those teams.  There’s no interest there.

Should Durham Be Promoted to the Major League?

Imagine, however, if the team with the worst record in the league at the end of the season were demoted, or “relegated,” to AAA the following season?  That would make the “race” not to be last more interesting and more impactful on the teams involved.

Imagine, if, correspondingly, the team with the best record in the AAA International League was promoted to Major League Baseball the following year.  For 2011, we would welcome the Durham Bulls, who finished the season one game ahead of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Fans of European, South American, and Central American football experience such a system every year.  In English football, three teams in the top-tier Premier League are relegated each year to the Championship Level, and four are promoted.  The British system is so robust that this trickles down seven levels to regional leagues.  Similar systems exist in Italy, Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico and others.  This system is clearly designed to give smaller teams greater opportunity, although some leagues do have requirements for promotion in terms of financial stability, stadium capacity, and other factors.

The concept is not entirely foreign to the United States.  We take part in several sports world championships with relegation systems, where by only the top flight teams can really compete for the world championship.  For example, in the most recent ice hockey world championship, the United States team, based on its performance, was forced to win games to prevent relegation for 2011.  Tennis’ Davis Cup has a similar system.  The eight teams that lose in the first round of the 16-country tournament must then play the winners of regional competitions for the right to compete the following year for the Davis Cup.

So, why doesn’t this system work in the USA?  Baseball, hockey, and soccer have thriving leagues at lower levels.  Basketball has the NBDL.  Football has the Arena League, the United Football League, and other regional leagues.  Secondary leagues, therefore, aren’t a problem.

The problem lies in how the leagues are historically structured.  Owners buy teams, sign players, build stadiums, and operate based on expectations of revenue and prominence.  Correspondingly, players choose teams based on the team’s ability to compete for the championship and pay them commensurate salaries.  Baseball, basketball and hockey minor league teams are not independent competitors in a lesser league, but are fed teams by the big league clubs.  In soccer or football, the leagues are completely separate and owners are unwilling to consider demotion and relegation.  Based on the current system I don’t blame them.

Changing the system would be a multi-year process, and, in my opinion, is theoretically possible.  It would involve setting requirements and standards for each league level.  It would involve baseball and hockey teams dissociating themselves from the minor leagues, including player contracts.  Rules around developmental squads, drafts, free agents and signing from one league to another, including transfer fees, would be established.  Players associations/unions would have a say in the matter, for fear that salaries would diminish considerably.

Unfortunately for me and many other fans, there is no way that US sports team owners will ever agree to this system.  We can argue that relegation and promotion is more egalitarian and more capitalist and should be in America, the Land of Opportunity.  Unfortunately, sports leagues aren’t equal opportunity.  They are controlled by a tight group of owners who want to maintain their profit base.

Until that changes, we’ll never see the headline “The Hershey Bears win the Stanley Cup,” and we’ll continue our disinterest in the Orioles, Mariners and Royals the coming week.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier #10 – Dress the Part

I have written a lot in the first nine postings in this series about things I’ve learned not to do.  Now it’s time to turn to things to do.  I’m going to start with something that seems obvious but is violated all the time.

10. Dress the Part

It is so tempting at work these days to push the limits on dress and personal appearance to get comfortable.  I don’t limit this observation to the younger crowd.  Perhaps I’m old school on this, but I believe how someone dresses at work says a lot about them and can impact their future.

People get noticed for dressing below or beyond the office’s dress code.  That’s right.  You get noticed if you go beyond what’s necessary.  If your office is “business casual,” don’t wear a tie every day.  At first, it might be interesting.  Then it become “cute.”  After a while, you become “that guy who wears a tie everyday.”  No need.  (There are parallels here with women in business suits.)

Dressing below the dress code is a more obvious concern.  Over my 20+ years in the workplace I’ve seen some amazing things.  I’ve seen women wear shirts so low and skirts so high that I had to look away.  I’ve seen women wear heels so long that they could not even walk.  I’ve seen guys wear shirts and pants with obvious stains and holes and 10-year-old concert t-shirts with flip-flops on casual days.  I’ve seen people show up in t-shirts with marijuana leaves emblazoned on the front.  And, I have seen far too much men’s and women’s underwear exposed when they stretch or reach for something.  If you are wearing a black thong, I really don’t need to know.

It is important to remind ourselves that dress is relative to your workplace’s dress code norm or rules.  You need to make sure that you fit in with the people around you.  For example, folks here in St. Louis probably (certainly?) dress differently than folks in Manhattan.  I think we’re at least 12 months behind on fashion trends here.  If someone showed up at our offices right off the catwalks of New York City, they would probably catch some eyes.

Here are some more specific recommendations:

Short Sleeve Dress Shirt with Tie? NEVER!!

  1. At companies where meeting with senior executives is rare, put on a suit.  Show that respect, even if the senior execs aren’t in suits.
  2. When you travel for business, do not dress way down.  In other words, either dress as you do in the office or dress casually, but appropriately.  Don’t revert ever to shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops on business travel.  You never know whom you might meet along the way, including colleagues and customers.
  3. Follow the lead of the senior executives as regards casual days, if your office is not always casual.  In our company, the senior executives do not wear jeans on jeans days.  Right or wrong, they don’t.  I recommend following their lead.
  4. If your office is casual, take care as to how casual you get.  Beware of what your t-shirts say.  No pajama pants.  You might not get fired for dressing way down, but you won’t be appreciated either.
  5. Spend a little bit extra than you need to on clothes.  People can tell.
  6. Vary what you wear.  Don’t wear white shirts and khakis every day or a black dress every day.

The bottom line here is that you want to be viewed as professional, whether you work in a retail store, a small design firm, a factory, or a large corporation.  Your clothes should be clean, proper, tucked-in, and within the norms.

One last pet peeve.  Men – please, please, please don’t wear ties with short-sleeve dress shirts!  In fact, don’t wear short-sleeve dress shirts at all.

A Simple Investigation into Round The World Airfares

I was looking at some flights the other day for business trip where I might have to visit several countries in Asia.  The odds of the trip happening are less than 50%, but, given the multiple countries, it got me thinking about round the world fares.  Would it be cheaper to just continue going west from Asia through Europe and across the Atlantic to get home compared to booking a complex multiple-city routing that brings me over the Pacific and then back again?

I started investigating, knowing nothing about these fares.  I learned that the three major airline alliances (Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and OneWorld) offer round the world fares that are very similar in their rules and complexity:

  • Fares are based on mileage.  The longer your travel, the more it costs.  I should note that One World has two types of RTW fares:  based on mileage or based on # of continents visited, either four or six.
  • You can buy fares in all classes.
  • You can continue traveling on the same “ticket” for as long as 12 months, but you also can’t return home in fewer than 10 days.
  • There are minimum and maximum stop-overs (more than 24 hours), typically a minimum or 3 or 5 and a maximum of 15.
  • You can only cross the Pacific and the Atlantic once, but you can double-back within continents.  For example, you can travel east from New York to Frankfurt, back west to London (still within Europe) and then onward east to Tel-Aviv or Mumbai.  The only restriction is that you can’t ever backtrack to your point of origin.
  • The ticket has to be purchased in advance.  You can’t start out on a trip and then convert to an around-the-world ticket.  You don’t have to book all segments, just purchase the ticket and the first international leg.

There are, of course, all sorts of rules and limits.  The One World rules sheet take up 11 pages!!

In addition to round the world fares, each alliance also offers variants on intra-continental fares or discounts for residents of other continents.  For example, Europeans traveling to North America may be able to save money on travel by buying a North American pass or something equivalent.

The pricing is interesting and can create some options.  At a certain point,  it may be cheaper to continue around the world after completing business, rather than double back.  Your only limitation might be the requirements to spend a few days somewhere on the way back to qualify for the fare.  But, after two weeks in Asia, would you be opposed to spending two days in Rome, Paris or London on your way home?

I tried to price out a business class trip online for each of the three alliances.  In the end, I wasn’t completely successful.

The itinerary I used starts here in St. Louis on October 24, and goes to Tokyo, Manila, Beijing, Mumbai, Singapore, and then home via Geneva, arriving in St. Louis on November 7.   To compare with the three round the world fares, I used Kayak to price out the same itinerary and an itinerary without Geneva, selecting low-cost, reasonable length, business class itineraries.  Here’s what I found:

  1. Star Alliance = $11,316 (estimated without selecting flights)
  2. OneWorld = $10,685 (selected flights, but excluded Mumbai and Singapore, as I hit limits on stops within one continent)
  3. SkyTeam = $5,800 (based only on estimate on the SkyTeam web site – they do not have an online booking tool I could find)
  4. Kayak throug Geneva (series on one-way fares on any airline) = $12,772
  5. Kayak with return from Singapore direct to St. Louis = $10,702

The bottom line is that it would seem worthwhile, if you are traveling across either the Atlantic or Pacific to multiple cities on another continent to at least consider round the world fares.  The OneWorld limit on intra-continental stops was a limiting factor for me on this sample itinerary and could be for you.  No doubt adding back Mumbai and Singapore would have carried the OneWorld cost far above the Kayak estimate.

For reference:

OneWorld Round The World Fares

SkyTeam Round The World Fares

Star Alliance Round The World Fares

A Parent’s Review of Halo: Reach

One week ago, Microsoft released its sixth game in the Halo series, Halo: Reach.  This game is a prequel to the previous five Halo games.  The gist of Halo: Reach, according to my 15-year-old son, is that humans 500 years in the future battle a band of various alien species on Reach for control of “relics,” which are really weapons.  If you want to learn more about the plot, Wikipedia appears to have a good summary.

I Give It 9 out of 10 on the Gaming Family Impact Scale

From a parent’s perspective, I give Halo: Reach a strong 9 out of 10 on our Family Impact Scale, with 10 being the highest impact.

I base my rating not on graphics or story or game play.  You can get ratings based on those factors from GameSpot, from IGN, from PlanetXBox360 and many, many other locations.

I base my rating on a number of other factors:

  • Number of empty soda cans and water bottles left in our basement after game play and number of repeat requests to throw them away = 7 out of 10.
  • Pairs of socks left stranded in the basement after game play and number of repeat requests to remove them = 10 out of 10.
  • Level of protest game play is limited for child’s homework, piano practice, drum practice, etc. = 9 out of 10.
  • Ability of child to lie about homework or about finishing homework in order to play = 9 out of 10.
  • Impact of parents threatening a punishment that includes no game play = 9 out of 10.
  • Ability of child to play in the middle of the annual Yom Kippur fast = 10 out of 10.
  • Length of time multiple teenage boys stand over parent wondering when parent will give up the television so they can play = 7 out of 10.
  • Comfort level that when child says he’s “playing” the game, he really is = 10 out of 10.

In each of these instances, Halo: Reach has achieved levels at or higher than nearly all previous games.  The Call of Duty series games have come close, but didn’t have the same impact.

Mrs. Spidey and I thought taking away the iPhone was the best possible punishment until last Tuesday, when Halo: Reach came into our lives.  For that, I thank Microsoft and stand by my 9 out of 10 rating on the Family Impact Scale.

Kids – I think you should go buy it.

Parents – I think you should be prepared.