Toy Review: PlaSmart’s Watermelon Ball JR

This summer we played with PlaSmart’s Watermelon Ball JR, a water toy I thought the kids might play with for a couple minutes and then get bored. But we all found it really fun!

As you can see, it floats! Here the predator stalks its prey:

 

 

But it also moves underwater really well. Whether at the beach or (better) in a swimming pool, we had lots of fun passing it to each other and playing keep away by pushing it through the water. Even though it pops up to the surface to float, you can move it around pretty easily underwater.

The ball comes with a mechanism to easily fill it with water from a hose—we filled it to probably about 2/3 full, which ended up working just fine. It hasn’t leaked at all.

Here are a couple of more images from PlaSmart.

The Watermelon Ball is so named because it is:

Designed to look, feel, and behave like a watermelon in water. Real watermelons are nearly neutrally buoyant: first sinking to the bottom then slowly rising to the top, making them ideal for all kinds of water games.

It probably would have been pretty fun to be among the group of people testing out real watermelons to discover that they are “nearly neutrally buoyant” (probably a pool party accident). I didn’t cross-test this toy against a watermelon, so can’t speak to the similarities, but the toy definitely does what it promises.

Here is the product page. You can follow PlaSmart via Twitter and Facebook. And here’s the ball on Amazon.

They are also the makers of the “cool, cool car”! and this play mat that we reviewed a few years ago.

 


 

 

Thanks to the good folks at PlaSmart for the review sample, provided for review but with no expectation as to the content of this post.

 

Music Review: Indigo by Wild Nothing

Wild-Nothing-Indigo_FINAL.jpgI made the mistake of not checking the van stereo’s volume before pressing play on “Letting Go,” the first track on Wild Nothing’s new LP Indigo (released August 31 on Captured Tracks). The kids and I all nearly jumped out of our seats at the opening sixteenth note hits on the snare. The keyboard, bass, and interlocking guitars join in to make it a great opening track (the album’s first single).

“Oscillation” is next, which—without taking away from its originality—sounds something like if members of The Cure and James and Amusement Parks on Fire formed a supergroup… in 1982.

The rest of the album maintains a (glorious) 80s vibe, complete with ethereal keyboard riffs and attention-demanding lead guitar lines. I kept thinking: this is what Prince would sound like if he covered early 80s CCM classics! (That’s praise, not a complaint.) The album’s saxophones fit perfectly, even if their first entrance on the album was a surprise.

I took great pleasure in having a traveling companion/listening partner try to guess what year the album came out. “2018” was not the expected answer!

The production is excellent on the album, the melodies are catchy, and all the instrument parts are interesting. It’s got a sweet vibe. I still like 2012’s Nocturne better—it feels a little more effortless—but Indigo is still a great record.

Check out the artist site here, the label site here, and the album at Amazon here.

 


 

Thanks to Wild Nothing’s PR team for early access to the album so we could review it.

New Innocence Mission Album: Sun on the Square

Review by Brian Bayer-Larson and Abram K-J

The gap between the last two Innocence Mission albums was five years. Now, a mere three years after releasing Hello I Feel the Same (reviewed here), The Innocence Mission has put out Sun on the Square (Badman Recording Co).

 

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The Innocence Mission (image via Badman)

 

The album begins with two measures of a nylon string guitar arpeggiating a major chord, which quickly turns minor as the vocals enter, instantly evoking a yearning for connection. This first track, “Records from Your Room,” uses piano sparingly and gorgeously. The haunting high-register melody perfectly compliments the lyrics: “I meet you there out in the air // I’m listening.” It’s a compelling way to link this album to ones before it, setting the stage for something new but familiar.

The second track, “Green Bus,” offers an exquisite interplay of guitars—soft and understated, but precise and tight. “I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again,” Peris sings. The song’s strings are beautiful, expressing more ineffable longing.

In “Look Out From Your Window” (featuring a Peris kid on viola!) Peris still wants to listen: “All I cannot say I hope you know // All you cannot say I hope I can hear.” There is a theme of disconnect mingled with hope, acknowledging the reality that we cannot achieve ultimate communion with one another, even asbut that we hold out hope that one day we will. It is on this track that there is (at last!) some percussion.

“Shadow of the Pines” is an instant classic, and easily a top 10 Innocence Mission song. The muted piano is as if they decided to use toy instruments and coaxed all the beauty they could out them. The song is like stepping out of the Metro in Paris on a spring afternoon, encountering a fantasy made real. The instrumental closing of the track gives the listener layers of melodic, moving riffs, which—were this any other band—could have built for another five minutes. (The song is a modest 4:01.)

The spare use of electric guitar on “Buildings in Flower” is a nice touch. Don Peris’s guitar is tastefully employed and never over-shimmery (if that’s even possible!). More drums! (But only for the last quarter of the song.) If “And it’s hard to know, now, where we should go” is the call, the response (in question form) is, “Will the lifting of a window let the Spirit in, and then we begin to vividly live?”

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The sixth and title track, “Sun on the Square” is probably the most complex song on the album and maybe one of their most ambitious compositions ever. Loads of string swells as the rhythmic song goes on, which is a great sound for the band. “Let there be more kindness in the world,” Peris sings.

If the next track “Light of Winter” sounds familiar, it’s because a previous version (called “From the Trains”) appeared on a sweet EP called “the snow on pi day.” It could be a Radiohead song. The first version—which we like a little better—had a little more backbone to it—bass and drums where there is piano now. The songs are different enough that renaming it made sense. The new version is still great. The theme of light–and seeing it–continues.

Track 8, “Star of Land and Sea,” is practically brutal in its child-like expression of hope in a dark world. There are echoes of the same two-note, high-pitched guitar riff from the previous track, which ties them together nicely.

The second to last song is “An Idea of Canoeing,” the chords and mood of which are reminiscent of Lakes of Canada. Where else are you going to find a melodica? More wondering: “Will I cross the street to you / in the traffic breaks / in the light of this / in the light of this love / here and now?”

“Galvanic” is a nice way to end the album. She sings in hope, “I believe we are going to see, things will come right this time.”

Overall, this is a very good album (can the band create otherwise?) with a lot to dig into, both lyrically and aurally. The band seemed to write and record this album with a soft touch, not risking too much. But you’ll only find gratitude here for the ways this record returns to the lush notes and tones of My Room in the Trees and Befriended.

As with all their albums there is an undeniable authenticity that comes through in their music. Amazingly, the band’s songs could produce the same emotional response in the listener, whether or not they produce them with multiple instruments. Karen’s voice and heart-rending lyrics come through with every composition. Also amazing is her ability to write so skillfully (and for such a long time now) about such universally human themes as loneliness, disconnect, hope, light, and vision. The hope is uniquely Christian, or at least one that looks up. It’s this—and the unique and always moving music—that keeps us coming back to them.

Check out the album here at Badman or here at Bandcamp.

 


 

Thanks to Badman for early access to the album so we could review it.

App Review: You Need a Budget

Image via YNAB

 

Long gone are my days of reconciling expenses in the check register to a print bank statement at the end of the month. Instead, I’ve been tracking daily expenses in real time since May 2015 with the app You Need a Budget (YNAB).

YNAB is a philosophy (with newly released accompanying book) as much as it is an app. Here are the four tenets of YNAB, in their words:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Embrace your true expenses.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Age your money.

Their Website is as clean and clear and informative as any I’ve seen. You could easily (and productively!) get lost in their articles, tips, and sources of support for hours.

YNAB 4—which I received a few years ago for review and which has now been replaced by a yearly subscription model—consisted of a desktop app and mobile app that stayed in sync with each other via Dropbox. YNAB 4 is still fully functional, so you don’t have to upgrade to the subscription-as-service model if you don’t want to; you just can’t buy the stand-alone apps as a one-time purchase anymore. But what I’ve seen of the new Web app is an impressive step forward for an already great app.

The best thing about using YNAB is that even the act of tracking transactions has made me a more prudent spender. I’ve had months where I was still using an outdated budget, but tracking my spending was sufficient for not overdoing it. That’s perhaps the best contribution YNAB makes to one’s financial practice.

The four tenets are great, too. “Give every dollar a job” helps you avoid, as YNAB says, the scenario where you are feeling flush with cash after receiving a paycheck, so go out and buy all your friends drinks, only to realize 10 days later you needed that money for car repair. Their idea is that you decide what to do with your money before you spend it. It may not be novel, but it is also frequently ignored.

YNAB is a massive movement with a huge following. Using the app (and accompanying YNAB resources) these last 3.5 years has been immensely helpful.

Here are some pros and cons of the app (YNAB 4) itself:

PROS

  • Cross-platform integration means I can track an expense with the receipt still in my hand and everything stays current
  • You can carry the same budget over month to month with the click of a button, or easily modify as necessary
  • The support articles, forums, and Webinar options are some of the best of any app I’ve ever seen. In fact, in the middle of writing this blog post, I went to see what Webinars there were, found a 20-minute “Learn the Four Rules” session starting in a matter of minutes, signed up, and sat in on the 20-minute session
  • The app moves users away from the need to rely on complicated Excel spreadsheets (although I still use one for student loan tracking!)
  • Recurring expenses are super easy to set up; then you watch them populate into your register each month, with no need to manually repeat them
  • YNAB remembers your payees, so that I only have to start typing “Mar…” now to get “Market Basket” to pull up as an auto-complete option. It also learns what categories certain vendors fall into
  • Handling cash is easy—you have two options
  • There are some really nice spending graphs and charts you can pull up, to see where your money is going at a glance

CONS

  • I’ve occasionally had to reset my budget because sync didn’t pick up, although I’ve never lost data
  • Even though I’ve read and re-read the support articles on how to set up and manage credit cards in YNAB, I still find it less than intuitive

I typically include lots of screenshots in app reviews, but I’m not altogether sure how to do that in this case without disclosing sensitive info! There are a bunch of screenshots of YNAB 4 here, and of the newer subscription-based YNAB here.

All in all, working with YNAB principles has been a life-changing approach, at least in the area of finances. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

Feetures Plantar Fasciitis Sock: My New Favorite

One good turn deserves another. I’ve been enjoying my second pair of Feetures socks even more than the first.

You know how a lot of runners have that certain shirt or pair of socks that they are bummed about when it’s in the dirty laundry and not ready for their run? That’s how I’ve gotten to be with the Feetures PF Relief sock.

“PF” is plantar fasciitis, which, like so many other runners, I have unfortunately developed the last couple months.

I’ve tried just about everything. The kind of hideous-looking recovery sandal from OOFOS (but with good arch support), KT tape, rolling my foot out, physical therapy, a podiatrist, etc., etc. Especially since I am trying multiple things at once, it can be hard to say what all is working and what is not, but these socks with their intense compression have been a welcome companion on my runs.

There’s so much compression that they’re a little tricky to get on! In fact, when I first put them on I noticed some thread stretching/thinness where the heel goes in to the rest of the sock. Maybe an inevitability given the compression?

 

 

 

My contact at Feetures told me that seam stretch is normal. She said, “It’s a result of the Y-Heel construction of the sock and is more evident in the PF sock than some of our others!”

I worried about the sock unraveling, but after dozens of runs, everything is secure.

I generally prefer no-show socks, but I like the quarter sock I have here, since it gives me more sock to hold on to when I get it on. Here’s another view:

 

 

There are “L” and “R” socks in each pair, so you’re always putting the same one on each foot. I am a size 13, and the XL sock (12.5+) has been true to size—a perfect fit, in fact. The sock is 88% polyester and 12% spandex.

There are four different PF relief socks now, in black and white. Check them out here.

My only complaint about this sock is the price point: $29.99. Feetures is a great company and, from all I can tell, a worthy place to spend money, and these socks are my new favorites, but $30 for a pair of socks is tough to swallow.

I’m not sure if these socks will come down in price. I hope they do. At the same time, runners looking for PF relief are willing to try just about anything. The “lifetime guarantee” on this sock doesn’t hurt either.

And I just learned about an affiliate program Feetures has, so if you are a new, would-be customer and want $10 off—on that sock or any other—clicking here will give you a discount.

 


 

Thanks to the good folks at Feetures for the review sample, provided without any expectation as to the content of this review.

Book Review: Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up

Kathy Khang’s new book from InterVarsity Press addresses an important question:

You have a voice. And you have God’s permission to use it.

In some communities, certain voices are amplified and elevated while others are erased and suppressed. It can be hard to speak up, especially in the ugliness of social media. Power dynamics keep us silent and marginalized, especially when race, ethnicity, and gender are factors. What can we do about it?

In the introduction (“The Risk of Silence Versus the Risk of Raising Your Voice”) Khang gets right to it: “More often than not, raising my voice comes at some cost” (3). But not speaking up has a cost, too: “I learned that even when I chose to be silent and do nothing, I was still choosing to communicate something” (10). She says, “I want you to know that you have a voice. God wants you to use it, and the world needs to hear, see, and experience it” (10).

Khang roots our voice in the image of God and says, “Creation was not meant to be silent” (35). The God who spoke creation into being calls us to speak and even speaks through us.

This doesn’t mean raising our voice will be easy. Khang talks about fear, failure, and the risk of upsetting others. She shares experiences where speaking up for peace has been difficult for her—even times when trusted colleagues have (literally!) tried to silence her. Her sharing of her and her family’s life stories are a compelling part of her showing readers what finding our voice can look like.

I marked up quite a bit in this book. Here are some of the passages that especially helped me:

Rather than waiting for fear to pass, we must be willing to make small yet courageous steps toward the unfamiliar. We must simply be willing to “do it afraid.” (65, from a friend of Khangs that she interviews)

Speaking out is often labeled as rocking the boat or causing trouble, but silence is just as dangerous. (83)

Another thing to consider is what issue is pulling at your heart and soul so much that it might make you do something you never thought you’d do? (57-58)

I found the following idea especially compelling, and a great antidote to those who complain about “division” or “playing the race card” or whatever other reasons people give for avoiding difficult conversations:

Speaking up doesn’t increase division. It brings injustice and sin to the forefront. (66)

The book is not quite the step-by-step how-to guide I expected from the chapter titles, but Khang offers plenty of practical advice:

What issues do you care most deeply about? Identify what compels you to speak up. What people, problems, dreams, and values are near and dear to your heart? What things make you angry and question humanity? Where do you find hope? (57)

And her use of the Esther narrative as a lens through which to view using one’s voice is inspiring.

The book, by the way, is an excellent oceanside companion…

 

 

… and a good dinner partner:

 

 

It’s especially timely, given everything the current president does and says, as Christians try to navigate what to say and how to say it and in what venues.

 

 

Raise Your Voice releases July 31 and is available here (IVP) and here (Amazon).

 


 

Thanks to the good folks at IVP for the review copy, sent without expectations of the content of my review.