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You Need A Budget

About a month ago I stumbled across an online budgeting software called You Need A Budget (YNAB). Some Facebook friends had a little discussion online about it and it intrigued me so I downloaded the one-week free trial. Turns out it was pretty sweet. So I bought it. Here’s how it works.

The core principle that the program is based on is this: your budget for next month is funded by the money you make this month. This way, you know exactly how much money you have to budget and you can give every dollar a job. All too often people make their budget paycheck to paycheck (we did before we started using this program). Not that everybody that does this is scraping every last penny to get by, but it’s most common for people to budget the money they get in each paycheck for that upcoming two weeks until their paycheck. What is awesome about this finance strategy is that it eliminates any ambiguity of how much money you have to budget; what you made in November will fund your budget for December. It also allows you to assign every single dollar to a specific budget category: bills, rent/mortgage, groceries, etc. That way you see exactly where your money goes and where you overspend and underspend and you can adjust accordingly. Super great.

At this point, you might be asking, “If the money that you make this month goes towards next month’s budget, how are you supposed to start this program? Just not spend money for one month?” I asked the same question when I first researched this program. Obviously the answer is no. What is done is that you can enter in all the assets and debts you have to your name: checking/savings accounts, credit cards and lines of credit, mortgages, etc., and choose off of accounts you want to have your budget based. SCREEN SHOT TIME:

If you enlarge this picture, you can see how the main budget screen is set up. On the left column you’ve got all your accounts and assets listed, and then the main portion is your budget for November, December and January. I have no totals listed in any of these categories yet, but we’ll get there. So if you’re just starting the program, the goal is to take all the money you have in your checking account currently and budget it. Put every last dollar towards a category, so that your Available to Budget total is $0.00. The point of giving every dollar a job or a category is that it makes it easier to spend only what you actually need to spend rather than making impulse purchases, going out to eat every meal, so on and so on. And as you go through the month of November, all your paychecks will be put towards December’s budget rather than getting spent right away.

What’s great about this software and this financial strategy in general is that it accounts for real life. Not many people have one month’s salary just lying around so odds are you’ll probably overspend for the month you start. That’s alright, because the program will automatically take what you overspend out of next month’s budget, automatically adjusting your total buffer amount. Nifty huh?

Here is what the account screen looks like:

Enlarged, you can see it’s very flexible, and looks very much like most online banking applications provided by banks. You can add/edit dates, payee names, and you can put memo notes on transactions. Super important as well, you can do split transactions. So you go to Wal-Mart, spend $75 on groceries and then realize your vacuum cleaner is broken and you need to get a new bottle of Ibuprofin. No problem, when you enter the transactions, you can actually split it up so $75 goes towards groceries, the vacuum amount goes towards misc or whatever, and the meds can go towards meds. This allows you to really see where your money is being spent.

Back to the budget. Much like the overspending function, if you underspend in a category, the program carries that remaining balance over to next month’s budget. This way, if you have $50 budgeted towards car repairs each month, but you don’t have any car repairs, your amount in that category will grow each month. If five months down the line you have car trouble (and you haven’t readjusted that category’s balance to another category), you can use the $250 you have saved up to put towards the car. That’s what I love about this program. It encourages us to ease spending as much as possible so that when unexpected things crop up, we’ve got money to cover it.

So here is the budget screen again but with categories filled in. A few cool things to notice. Up in the top center, under the November ’11 tab, you can see that it shows how much income we had for this month, and how much we budgeted below. I budgeted all of it except $10, which the program will put towards next month’s buffer total unless I budget it somewhere. If I don’t, it will be there for me to budget for next month. Another thing to note is that I underspent in both the groceries and restaurants categories, and the remaining $20 in each category has been carried over to the corresponding category for next month. For December, you can see that our starting buffer is the $500 I made in November plus the $10 I didn’t budget from November, and I have $510 available to budget that I haven’t put into any categories. Good stuff.

So that’s the program. There are a lot of features I haven’t really touched yet, like credit accounts or investment accounts, and the ability to download transaction history from your bank. There is also a great online community for users who want tips on how to get the most out of the software, how to budget intelligently, how to handle debt, etc. Lots of great resources that I haven’t checked out.

Criticisms? The main critique I have is that it is pretty labor-intensive. I read some reviews that said the transaction downloading feature from your bank website didn’t not work as well as desired, so it was important to double check things or just add them in manually. For me personally, I enjoy the time I spend entering in totals and making sure everything balances correctly. I would also say, personal finance is important enough in our human life that people shouldn’t complain about it being too much work to balance their checkbook. It’s not as hard as it might seem. Just yesterday my boss at the bank gave me an update on my balance sheet: for the last three months, my drawer has balanced perfectly every day I’ve worked. Toot, toot.

So check it the program out at their website. You can download a week-long trial version of the software, and at the end of the week they offer you a trial extension. You actually get to choose how long your trial extension is; I asked for two weeks and they said no problem. You should try for longer!

-Jon

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The Voice Recap: SPOILER ALERT

Disclaimer: All thoughts, statements and proclamations contained within are the sole opinion of the writer. And they are opinions only. And I disagree with lots of people and most news articles I’ve read about the show so be forewarned… I despise Dia.

The Voice ended it’s first season run last night and I certainly have some conflicting emotions. Ultimately, the show was a success for me because despite its many flaws, I kept coming back for each new episode because I was invested. I must say, I am very pleased with the winner. Javier obviously had the best technical voice of the whole crew, and while it might not have been the most unique voice, nobody deserved the title more than him. But let me back up a bit.

I’ve been unsure during the whole run of the show whether or not it seems like an effective structure. The whole coach votes and audience votes seemed confusing and ineffective, and especially since the voting system changed every week. It was hard to keep up with how things were actually getting tallied. And since each coach became emotionally invested in their particular team, they seemed to get less and less helpful as the show went on and offered less criticism. By the end, not a single coach said anything negative about any performance, other than “Didn’t like the setting.” Far too complimentary for a group of amateurish singers who all faced serious missteps in any given performance. I stopped caring what the coaches were going to say because they all basically said the same thing, “You have a fantastic voice, you’re such a star, such great presence, I’m a fan of you!” Watered-down mumbo-jumbo if you ask me.

Which begs the question, how important is a contestant’s actual vocal ability in this show? How soon does it become more about presence and spectacle than talent? Biggest case of this is with Team Cee Lo’s final two members, Vicci vs. Nakia. Nakia’s final performance was Whataya Want From Me (that’s actually how the song title is spelled, and it makes me sick.) Nakia did a fine job with the tune, but forget it as soon as Vicci comes out and does a (vocally) average rendition of Dog Days Are Over, but who had an entire fleet of Japanese Taiko drummers to back up her own fiery drumming. Who sang better? Nakia. Who performed better? Vicci. Vicci wins. Of course you’re going to win if you’re the last performer and you have a grand show-stopping tune to cap off the night. So is it fair? Who the heck knows.

This also leads me to believe that the coaches stopped doing anything worthwhile except for choosing songs to sing. With one glaring exception (DIA), the finalists all had great voices. And they all faltered on certain songs because of poor song choice. But did the coaches EVER give them any real vocal critique past the semifinals? Of course not. When really, what could’ve been said were things like this:

“Javier, the original song you sang actually seemed a bit off for you. You didn’t seem comfortable, you sounded out of breath the whole time, and your voice didn’t ever seem to find its power through the song. Nerves maybe?”

“Vicci, rather than turning every song into a contest with yourself to see how much air you can push out of your mouth by hitting as high of a note as you can, try scaling back a little and showing some variety in your voice.”

“Beverly, stop falling back on hitting that one wavery high note you hit in every single song when you’re not sure where to go with a vocal run.”

“Dia, you’re awful in general. Go back to the anime cartoon you came from.”

The last one is a little harsh, but you get the idea. Nobody was flawless all the way through, but the show just got so freakin’ feel-good by the end.

In terms of the four finalists, I wasn’t totally on board with all of them. My ideal final four would’ve been Xenia, Bev/Frenchie (didn’t care, liked them both), Nakia, and Javier. There was no way Xenia was going to make it to the final four, and I’m surprised she even made it as far as she did. The girl had the voice most noticeably different than everyone else on the show, but gosh did she lack some stage presence. Her performance of Price Tag was clearly uncomfortable to watch, even if her voice was fun to hear. Nakia just had more flair for me than Vicci. Vicci has a decent voice, but I wasn’t buying into her whole war-dance/primal scream persona. Who could seriously listen to an entire album of her taxing her lungs that way? It’d be exhausting. And Casey Weston’s weak Dolly Parton impression was absolutely no match for Javier’s range and technical skill.

And then there’s Dia. Where do I begin? From the very beginning, she has played this show like a game. Granted, it is a reality show vocal contest game, but the fact that she is playing it so obviously makes me hate her. She is without a doubt the most disingenuous person on the show. Looking back, she started out harmless, singing some breezy song with her innocuous voice that got Cee Lo and Blake to turn their chairs. Whatever, not a big deal. She came across as this super shy girl with an interesting voice, but oh if only she could break out of her shell! said everyone. Fast forward to the battle round, still a bit stronger, but boy Dia you really need to break out of your shell if you’re going to get further! And everytime she’s on camera up to this point, she’s blinking her little mousey eyelashes at everyone and giving off this “Are these big celebrities telling little ol’ me that I have a good voice? It couldn’t be!” vibe. Then comes her performance of an acousticey Heartless, which sorry, has already been done by another reality show singing competition. Go get a more original cover, Dia. But oh my gosh! Dia finally came out of her shell! Nobody saw that one coming! Where did this little on-stage firecracker come from?! And then in the coaches remarks, she’s back to blinking at them like she didn’t know what just happened and she’s just so thankful for all their kind words, blah blah blah. Awful. This girl knew exactly what she was doing the entire show, and she apparently fooled Blake and all of voting America with her snake-like behaviors. So from then on, she just kept the strong performances coming, and not strong vocally, just strong in that everybody thinks she’s doing so well by singing confidently when really she’s had that in her the whole time. She played it so well, she started with a problem that was very easy to fix, no confidence/no stage presence, and when she did fix it, America freaked out and started buying her crappy Kanye cover on iTunes. Annoyed me to no end. How could you have released FOUR albums without any confidence in your vocal ability? Does not add up. If you look at her and you look at Xenia, obviously Xenia was being real because she actually did look uncomfortable and was not good on stage. She’s sixteen! She wasn’t faking anything. Dia was faking all the way.

And here’s the worst part: her voice is not that great. Sure, she can carry a melody just fine, but her voice sounded basically like this to me. I can’t really explain it much better than blaaaah-blaaaah, blaaah-blaaaah. Like she pushed her tongue out all the time and the sounds came from the back of her throat. Just awful to listen to.

Ironically, the only person that seemed to ever point out that she was playing the game well and putting up a front was the show’s fakest asset, coach Christina. There were actually two or three times where Christina’s comments were less than flattering and came just short of calling her out on her game-playing and Dia’s little cat-like demeanor changed from this:

to this:

Kudos, Christina.

Here’s the most frustrating part about Dia for me too, she nailed her duet with Blake. They chose the best possible song, it sounded great, Blake’s country voice fit just perfectly into that Tom Petty song. If she had made her Voice debut with that song and not played her manipulative game, I would’ve liked her far more. I’m so glad she didn’t win.

So overall, did the show succeed? Did it find The Voice? I’m saying definitely. Javier has a great voice, and deserves the accolades he’s receiving. Should it be up to America to choose The Voice? Definitely not, as based on the finalists original song performance, Javier just barely beat out Dia. Neither of their originals were that great. Javier had a good song, he just did not deliver a good performance. Based strictly on original performance, you know who I thought was going to win? Beverly all the way. Yeah her original song was a little cheesy bland vanilla (“lovesick…lovesick…I’m sick of love!”), but gosh did she deliver a great performance, and not only spectacle and stage presence, but she nailed her vocal part. She had the best original performance without a doubt. Yet Javier still wins. Did America choose right? Yes, but I wouldn’t trust them to do it again.

One last thing before I wrap; the show needs to ease off the product placement. Yes I know the finale needs to be exactly that, a finale, with grandiosity and flourish and big names, but I don’t consider Pitbull and Ne-Yo to be big names. Stevie Nicks was a good draw with some legit credibility (even if she has the most nasal voice ever), but the Train singer? Even worse, the OneRepublic singer? American Idol alum Katherine McPhee? Do we need a Social Media Correspondent? Or a “chance” run in with Gym Class Heroes in the next door studio which allows Adam to perform their upcoming hit single on which he is featured? All this stuff seemed SO contrived and I’d love to see less of it and more actually performing by the contestants (and the coaches for that matter). And now a few favorites:

Favorite Voice: Probably Xenia. While she wasn’t technically the best, nor certainly not the best on stage, she had a super unique tone for a 16 year old and was really fun to listen to.

Favorite Performance by a Contestant or Coach: Team Cee Lo’s cover of Everyday People by Sly & The Family Stone. Cee Lo’s afro wig was unforgettable.

Top 3 Season 1 Moments:

3. What song does Christina choose to duet with her protege? HER OWN SONG. This was the icing on the cake for how inflated her ego could actually get.

2. Brad Paisley asking Blake a question mid-song and Blake responding in kind by singing while sitting down then getting up and joining Brad on stage. So cheesy.

1. “If The Voice should be delayed for anyone, it should be…for the President. LET’S, GET, TOIT!” – Carson Daly, possibly the blandest and cheesiest human being alive. Can’t wait for what gems he’s got in store for us during Season 2.

-Jon

P.S. Was Cee Lo and Vicci’s Pat Benetar cover inspired by Hook? Cee Lo made a great Rufio.

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Old clothes.

EDITED 10/19/11: I have to give recognition to one of my best friends Luke Glasoe for giving the Cards shirt to me. I’m not sure what possessed him to pick it out for me but I still have it and I am forever grateful for it. One of the best gifts I’ve ever received, bud. Thanks a million.

A few weeks ago I raided my dresser and got rid of lots of old stuff that didn’t fit. It’s a mildly depressing thing that some of my absolute favorite t-shirts didn’t fit anymore, (1) because it means I’m gaining more mass than I burn off and (2) because it means I had to part with some of the most character-defining articles of clothing I’ve ever worn. Before I dropped everything off at Goodwill, I took a few pictures of the most important shirts. Here they are.

Iowa Soccer Baseball Tee:

Not that significant of a shirt other than it was one of the first where I could tell Colleen really loved how I looked in it. I had never really noticed that before with any of my clothes, and I remember walking into youth group wearing this shirt (the first baseball tee I’d ever worn where the arms are a different color than the torso, makes your shoulders look huge) and seeing Colleen raise her eyebrows like “Hmm!” It was a special thing. On the other hand, one time I got called out on wearing this shirt and I started to talk about how I liked the Iowa men’s soccer team. It’s only club. So that was embarrassing.

Rhea Central Super Jacket’s Tee:

This one was a bummer to dump. I found this scrunched tight in a rack of crappy old t-shirts at a thrift store in Dayton, Tennessee. It was a local thrift store, not a Goodwill or Salvation Army, so the opportunity to find cool vintage clothes is upped quite a bit. This is the only really great thing I found that day, and I didn’t immediately think it was great but thought I’d get it since I hadn’t found anything else. It fit perfectly and was super comfortable, enough to wear to run or to play frisbee in or go to youth group or hang out or whatever. Versatility can make a pretty good piece of clothing absolutely essential in a wardrobe. The shirt was plain white, with a weird dragonfly/insect/man on it with flitting wings and a pretty phallic stinger right between his legs. What I found funny is that he’s saying “Feel the sting!” with gritted teeth and he’s finger wagging at you. Framing the insect-man were the words Rhea Central Super Jackets. Pretty simple, but I ended up wearing that shirt possibly more than any other in my wardrobe over the course of the next four to five years. Yikes. It was getting pretty gross by the end. But there are loads of cool pictures from high school with me in this shirt. More on why that’s important to me later.

The Benes #41 Cardinals Jersey Tee:

This was definitely the hardest to even think about parting with, so I didn’t. This one is the only one I kept, tucked away in an obscure corner of my dresser. I’m not sure exactly why I got so attached to this shirt. I purchased it years and years ago at a thrift store with Luke; I think it was the Salvation Army in Marion. This was the first jersey t-shirt I’d ever found and I immediately fell in love with it.

I was probably 15 years old, and the silliness and irony of a t-shirt made to look like a jersey suited the style I was looking for perfectly. I didn’t know who Benes was, as I was a Cardinals fan in name only and not in practice, but my oh my was I the biggest name-only Cardinal fan you’d ever meet. Around this same time I purchased my first Cardinals ball cap which was permanently attached to my head for the next few years. So just the mere fact that I had found a cheap Cardinals shirt endeared it to me. That it was a jersey tee made it a must-have. I wore this shirt probably not as much as the Rhea County tee, but this one was worn during some of the most indelible memories of my teenage years. Two of my absolutely favorite pictures of Colleen and me feature the Cardinals tee.

I love these pictures. These, and the Cardinals shirt, bring me back to the super fun first years of our relationship, and at an even more basic level, they bring me back to the fun years of being young. As uncomfortable, awkward, depressing, zitty, drama-filled, “whatever other miserable adjective you can think of” as teenage years are for everyone, they are so much fun. Those are the years you really begin to figure out who you are, what your identity is. You start learning how you relate to the opposite sex, what sorts of things you find funny, what things you really enjoy doing, what kinds of music you like to listen to. I really enjoyed my teenage years, and occasionally being reminded of them is fun.

The Cardinals shirt was with me through some of the most important days of those years, and I just didn’t want to get rid of that one. So I kept it. It’s odd, maybe this is just me trying to wax philisophical about getting a little older, our culture, or whatever, but I feel like my generation (and even less so the ones coming after us) have fewer and fewer relics or mementos from their childhood. I think we all have toys we played with or books we read, but it’s so rare to actually still have the items that define our realities as young kids. Every time Colleen and I visit my family in Kansas City, I love looking through the bookshelf down in the basement that has the huge collection of completely random books that Mom and Dad had collected over the years. For some reason, those flimsy paperback books about Sesame Street characters still resonate with me and bring to me this overwhelming nostalgia. And I feel like the older I get, the less I have keepsakes like that. Fifty years from now, no grandparent is going to show their Facebook account to their grandkid and say “When I was your age this is what we spent our time on, look how many friends I’ve amassed over the years!” How lame is that? It’s an old-fashioned ideal, but I want tangible items I can give my kids to touch and feel and smell and read and play with and wear.

So while it certainly doesn’t fit anymore though, I am saving the Cardinals shirt for my kids. Who knows whether or not we’ll raise Cardinals fans or if they will like dumb clothes like jersey shirts, but I would like it to be kept in a basement closet of some kind to be discovered by my child. It managed to catch the eye of a pretty young blonde girl a long time ago, who says it couldn’t happen again?

-Jon

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The Voice

NBC finally pulled it off. They got Colleen and me hooked on a reality music contest show. We first saw the ads for The Voice about a month and a half before the premiere, and usually when a show is overhyped I immediately write it off. A reality music contest judged/coached by Christina Aguilera, the girl-voiced Maroon 5 guy and a country singer, hosted by Carson Daly? Thankfully Carson managed to pull in the artist who released one of the Top Three Best Albums last year and who has the soul to match his wardrobe, Cee Lo Green. I’d seen Cee Lo do some featured spots on some rap albums prior to the Gnarls Barkley album “St. Elsewhere”, but his name actually solidified in my brain after he and Danger Mouse released the single “Crazy” in 2006. I definitely wouldn’t ever have expected him to do a reality music contest show so I figured this one was worth tuning in for.

Oh so right. The first two weeks were blind auditions, where the four coaches get to pick 8 singers for their team based only on their vocal performance. After the blind auditions, the coaches then have pairs of singers off their teams perform duets and then they decide which singer they keep on the team and which one gets booted off the show. After each team is whittled down to four people, then show will go live for I guess audience voting rounds? I’m not sure past that but for now, the show is riveting reality TV.

What is the draw here? I’m confused as to why I like the show but I think it has to do with a combination of good singers and good coaches. With American Idol, you have to sit through the first few shows of crappy auditions to finally get to the actual contestants. With The Voice, I’m not sure where they got the contestants, but most have had some kind of experience with singing, whether it’s on broadway, releasing actual studio albums, back-up singers for famous singers, etc.

And the coaches! Cee Lo is obviously awesome, and it’s so great to see him talk about music and singers and goof off with the other coaches. His outfits are outrageous. With Adam, I used to be a huge Maroon 5 fan (they’ve got pretty redundant to me the last few years but whatever), and he’s got some pop music credibility so I’m fine with him. Christina has singer cred all over the music industry, so while I’m not a huge fan of her, I appreciate her being a coach as she’s got some pretty impressive, albeit often gaudy, pipes. Then there is Blake Shelton. Started off not liking this guy because he’s country, what is he going to have to offer? He won us over on the first episode. Not only is he a pretty funny dude, he might be the one coach who has the most legitimate pieces of advice for the contestants. So while I will never listen to his music, I definitely think he adds a lot to the show. And that’s why, you don’t judge*.

After the blind audition weeks, the coaches pick two singers off their individual teams and have them practice up (with the help of a celebrity coach aid) on the same song which they then perform as a duet, then the coach picks one to stay and one to go. I wasn’t sure this change in the show’s format was going to work but holy cow it definitely does. It immediately draws out some fierce competition having two singers singing the same song at the same time. I will say though, in terms of the coaches actually coaching their singers before going out into the battle round seems a little pointless. The coaches don’t actually seem to offer much technical advice and their celebrity friends offer even less. The aids were Reba McEntire, Adam Blackstone, Sia, and Monica. I don’t care much about any of them other than Adam Blackstone (producer on many great records, he’s playing the sickest bass with ?uest and James Poyser right here), and he just wasn’t featured much. They could be done with the celebrity cameos and it wouldn’t hurt the show at all.

So the battle round went off like crazy, super fun to watch and listen and root for a certain team and singers within teams. The only thing I’m torn about is the finality of the coaches decisions. This was demonstrated better by Blake than anyone during the first battle round. He had two guys singing against each other, the country guy (Patrick) and the soulful guy (Tyler). Blake ended up going with (SPOILER ALERT) country boy Patrick, which was severely disappointing. As good of a voice as Patrick had, Tyler had pipes that blew his competitor out of the water. He was so much more entertaining to listen to, he had real range and emotion in his voice versus the one-note stylings of Patrick. The better singer was robbed. And there’s no second chance, no comeback or anything. We’re just left with a singer who is less entertaining than another one. Disappointing.

So the show rocks, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s still early enough on to catch up with it and keep watching. Good reality competition TV, which I think is hard to find.

-Jon

*-J. Walter Weatherman

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"I don’t make home videos, I make home films."

I’ve been wanting to write about this for three months. Colleen and I finally gave our Christmas present to her family; the (nearly) comprehensive collection of their VHS home videos on DVD.

First, the how. Here’s what you need:

  • Computer (I used my Mac)
  • VCR
  • Adapter with audio/video cable ports and USB ports (and included software for capturing video) (Elgato Video Capture Device for Mac users)
  • DVD burner
  • Blank DVDs
  • Video editing software (iMovie for Mac users)
  • DVD burning software (iDVD for Mac users)
  • Photoshop software
  • VHS tapes

In a nutshell, here’s what we did. Recorded all the VHS tapes using the VCR and adapter software, loaded the raw video files into iMovie, edited all unwanted portions out, placed chapter markers on the files, grabbed still frames to use for menu screens and the DVD covers, transferred edited video files to iDVD, picked the specific menu template, formatted the menu and chapter selection screens so they would fit a normal television screen, loaded stills into the menus, double-double-checked everything and then burned the DVD. Time-intensive parts were capturing the raw footage from the tapes onto the computer and burning the actual DVDs because capturing the video required just starting a tape and letting it play the whole way through in real time and burning the DVDs took like 6 hours a piece. Thankfully they were time-intensive and not labor-intensive; I could get one started and go do homework or something. The labor-intensive part was the editing. The most frustrating part was making sure everything worked. The worst portion of this entire project was the afternoon I got a video down to the final edit and tried to burn it. For some reason, the software kept saying I wasn’t putting in a recordable DVD in the drive when clearly I was putting in a recordable DVD. I couldn’t find an answer anywhere, online, I called Best Buy, Staples, everybody’s gave me the same answer, “Huh. Weird, it should be working.” Thanks a lot everybody. So I ended up having Staples send in the drive and get me a replacement drive, which worked perfectly. But for that afternoon…yikes. I was not a pleasant person to be around. But for the most part, the editing went fairly smooth, the biggest hiccup was trying to find a version of iMovie that had a chapter marker functionality. For some insane reason, Apple removed that tool from the previous version of iMovie when they upgraded to the version I have on my Mac (iMovie ’09). Thankfully, Colleen’s Mac is still kicking four years in and that had the older version of iMovie so we used that. The only problem is that hers is wicked slow so the process was slowed down a bit, but we still managed to get it done.

The covers were easier; Colleen and I went to the UIowa Main Library and used Photoshop to create the covers. I found a free cover template online that I loaded into Photoshop and changed around to feature our chapter titles, DVD titles, and stills from each video. We also made the backgrounds of each a different pastel color so put together the set of eight DVDs looks awesome. We just had them printed at Copyworks after their graphic designers resized the file so it would print to fit an actual DVD case.

Now a bit of the why: this is very possibly the biggest gift I’ve ever given or been involved in. Not physically big but more in the emotional attachment Colleen and I have to it. I’ve given some gifts in the past to Colleen that I was excited about, but this one was different, because it was really a joint effort between the two of us. It connected me to her and her family in a way that I hadn’t really expected. We spent many hours recording the raw video, figuring out chronological orders, adding clips together, editing out the many unwatchable, damaged parts of the VHS tape or random stuff like the 1988 Iowa/Iowa State basketball game Jim had preserved. In the past, when the girls would get out the old VHS tapes and watch them, I would usually watch and enjoy them to a certain extent, not as much as the girls but still laughing at seeing how they were when they were young. But working on this project connected me to this videos more deeply because the end result is ultimately ours. I wouldn’t label us “creative” types, and I don’t mean in the sense of being a unique personality (we are both pretty odd), but more in the sense of doing actual creating. We don’t paint, never had many drawing skills, never been much for creative writing, and we both are very musical but we don’t exactly create it. However, this project was an act of creation for the two of us. We took raw materials in an untouched form and turned them into something beautiful and creative. And finishing it up to give away is an emotional thing because it’s like your baby.

What made this gift especially meaningful for me to give away is that it’s exactly what I want to do with my career. At the core, librarianship is about getting information into the hands of people who want it and can’t find it. It’s about preservation of information and extending access to anyone who needs it. Colleen and I had a lot of raw information and a specific user set and we’ve connected the two beautifully. It was a very rewarding experience and I hope to do it again soon. The best part about it is that next time I do this type of a project, it will be so much more efficient because I’ve worked out 75% of the kinks and can visualize each piece of the process so much better than before. That being said, anybody who’s interested in hiring me, I’ll do a better job than Walgreens and for an insanely lower price. Just let me know. Seriously, I am itching to start another project.

But after all is said and done, can you really put a price on this?

That’s what our kids will look like.

-Jon

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Battle Studies.

Well, that’s an embarrassing way to start this review.
Quite an event last Tuesday. John Mayer finally released his fourth studio album, Battle Studies, and I got to experience hearing brand new, non-live, studio-made, John Mayer-written music for the first time in three years. Pretty exciting stuff for me. And admittedly, I was a bit nervous, as John’s become quite the douche in the last three years, but it turns out my fears were unwarranted.

JM hasn’t branched too far out here. If nothing else, he’s taken a few steps backwards in regards to his other music. But this isn’t a bad thing. His pre-Continuum music is great, so these new songs are really just a nice addition to his body of work. Most of them are anyway. As a whole, Battle Studies isn’t as cohesive as Continuum, in terms of musical style and song quality. The only thing that really does bind most of the record together is a general (I use that term loosely, see Crossroads, Who Says, War Of My Life, none really pertain to the ->) theme of breaking up. Musically, he definitely dabbles in quite a few areas, but as a whole he’s stepping back towards the pop scene. Continuum was just so soulful; soul emanated from every part of that album. Not so here. Overall it’s much more of a pop music, radio-ready type of feel.
OK the songs. If I had my way, I would cut three songs off the record, completely retool one song, and leave the other seven exactly how they are. That’s not the best percentage, but still alright. It’s the middle stretch that is just plain bad. The triumvirate of Who Says, Perfectly Lonely, and War Of My Life really pains me, and Crossroads might be one of the most disappointing covers I’ve ever heard. Who Says sounds like an extension of his a-hole lifestyle set to a pretty little acoustic ditty, which is catchy enough that it’s annoying how bad the song is. Sorry John, but very few of your fans relate to planning trips to Japan by themselves and canceling them at will. Perfectly Lonely is one of those empowerment songs that I find so inane. It’ll be the one at concerts that all the lonely people pump their fists to and sing along too loudly with, trying to fool themselves and everybody around them that they’re so happy they’re alone. Annoying. I know this might seem like a dumb thing to say since I’m married but why can’t he write one song about actually finding love or being in love where there aren’t any negative little asides, or “this is great BUT…”? Just one John. I only want one.
Crossroads is a real bummer for me too. When I saw this on the track list I was psyched because of how great his Hendrix cover was on Continuum. This cover sounds like he pulled it directly from Guitar Hero. I seriously think Steve Jordan sat down to a drum kit with four parts, each a different color. And the guitar tone is so awful, which only makes the solo worse than it already is. This is just a really uninspired cover, which bums me out because usually JM does covers so well (see Free Fallin’, Bold As Love, Kid A from the old days). He chooses awesome tunes, not always the most well-known, and makes them even better, injects them with something unique. This is just sonic mush. Wish you could have a re-do on this one John.
But if you listen to the good parts of this record, he really starts to shine again. The strongest element of this whole album is his voice, but only when it’s bolstered by the melody lines he sings. He has seemed to hit on really quality melody lines, that are not only gorgeous, but fit his voice perfectly. Assassin and Heartbreak Warfare are the two I’m thinking of most here, but also listen to All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye, Edge Of Desire (anybody else think this song sounds like Jimmy Eat World circa 2004?). All beautiful melodies.
Assassin is shaping up to be my favorite song off the album, and thank goodness it’s smack dab in the middle to break up all those crap tunes. This one really demonstrates the little things that put John Mayer above most pop artists recording today. Just like 95% of popular music, the first chorus of this tune is underlined by some pretty simple power chords. It’s at 3:41 when the second chorus starts right after his guitar solo, holy cow he adds just the second note of each chord to each chord he plays and it elevates the foundation of the song to a whole new level. It’s a subtle addition but it really distinguishes it from the humdrum music that we hear so often.
And I have to note the bass playing here. Bassist Pino Palladino is out of this world. To get the full effect of his playing, throw on some headphones, turn them up just a bit more than you normally would, and listen to the introduction up through the first chorus. Listen to the bass. Pino is the most controlled bass player I’ve ever heard. No matter how many notes he seems to bounce over, every single one fits within each chord and leads the listener along without them knowing where we’re going. Listening to this song for the first few times, I could never predict what was coming next in the bass line. So great. Pino kills it here.
One quick note about Half Of My Heart, almost certainly coming to a radio near you very soon. The song is fine, nothing too special, but the back-up vocals are sung by freakin’ Taylor Swift. Alright JM, I’ve got beef with this. She’s got a fine voice, clear and pretty, but she’s hardly even in this song, and the only reason I can really see that you added her in this is to grab a few new country music fans and tween fans who weren’t at music-purchasing age when Mayer released Wonderland eight years ago. At the writing of this, Half Of My Heart was at #7 on the iTunes Singles chart. And I guarantee it’s only because the title is followed by (with Taylor Swift). And with all of his clout, all of his street cred in the music community, he gets Taylor Swift to guest on his record? The man has worked with Billy Preston, B.B. King, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, is friends with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and he gets pop-tween-queen Taylor Swift to guest on his record. Just kind of a bummer to me.
Other random thoughts: War Of My Life wins the award for gayest John Mayer song title, while Friends, Lovers Or Nothing is definitely a great track and it will be a great show/encore closer. In very much the same vein as I’m Gonna Find Another You, just more Beatles-ish. Bold move too, leaving out that ol’ oxford comma.
So I don’t think it’s not his best work, but overall it fits well into his canon. And now that I’ve had a week with it, I can say that it’s worn well already. The first two days I gave the songs I didn’t like five or six listens to give them a chance and then started skipping them, the last few days they’ve all definitely grown on me. So go buy it. Support good music, because the month of November will have seen album releases from Weezer, 50 Cent, Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy (a greatest hits compilation, are you kidding me?), Lady GaGa, Adam Lambert, Rihanna, and Lil’ Jon. When the music scene is that bleak, you’ve got to stand up for what’s right and good in this world. John Mayer might not completely fit those two adjectives, but he’s far better than all of the other stuff I just listed.
-Jon

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update.

edited to say: forgot to mention earlier that i am nearing my 100th blog, so when that happens i will update this mug just a bit. change fonts, maybe even a color or two. my buddy adam did it and it looks awesome and it will also look like i am copying him now. dang.
remember when i used to blog? the good ol’ days.
since it’s been over a month, here’s some stuff that’s happening as of late.
been listening to ben folds as much as i can. everything too, old/new/stuff with the five. smoke is still one of the most incredibly well-written songs i’ve ever heard. mulling over a possible Top 5 list of favorite songs. we’ll see.
my bachelor party was thrown last night. super great time. might put up pictures recap the night a bit. i want to give a tip o’ the cap to my best bud joel and the boys for putting on one hell of a party for me. thanks guys.
and along those lines, it is two weeks until i am married. in exactly two weeks time i will be shaking my tookus on the dance floor at my reception with my beautiful new bride and a bunch of our friends. i am super nervous but even more excited.
started reading a book now that my summer class finished and i’ve got a tad bit more free time. it’s called a severe mercy by sheldon vanauken. it’s a walk through of this guy’s relationship with his wife and has a lot of letters from his good friend c.s. lewis. pretty good so far.
while making the slideshow for the wedding, i got a glimpse of how cool i was in high school. seeing all the cool clothes i wore made me want to try and reclaim a bit of that former glory so i went out and bought a cards cap. holler.

and that little raspberry on my hand is from the bachelor party. i was a 1st-time kayaker.
consider yourself updated. i’m off to work.
-jon

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