The Vorkosigan Saga

Since committing to a regular update schedule of normal blog posts and photos, my reviews seem to have fallen by the wayside. I've actually managed to read seven books in the two months since my last review, but somehow I just haven't had the time or motivation to write about any of them. To those three or four of you who enjoy reading these reviews: I apologize.

In the interests of speeding things along, rather than reviewing each of the six remaining Vorkosigan novels and omnibuses separately, I'm going to do all of them at once in a single giant-sized, no-holds-barred mega-review. Except, you know, it won't actually be any longer than a normal review and there will be no wrestling or any other form of physical combat involved.

One of the great strengths of this series, I think, is in how each new episode both maintains and extends the overall world and narrative while still remaining relatively self-contained. For people who like to take breaks in between books, this means that you have convenient stopping points along the way. If, on the other hand, you prefer to charge straight through (as I did), you have the effect of a very long story that rewards you with extremely satisfying milestones along the way.

Of course, there's a danger with open-ended, episodic series in that they can get either repetitive or suffer from a sort of "Superman syndrome," wherein the writers have to go to increasingly absurd lengths to continue to challenge the central characters. In this respect, writing open-ended series well can be more challenging than single novels or closed series. I'm happy to report, though, that Bujold has enough skill and imagination to keep her Vorkosigan novels fresh all the way through.

Part of this lies in the way that science fiction lends itself so well to new ideas. So, for example, in Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, Bujold can give us a look at new civilizations and cultures, and explore the differences from and similarities to what we're used to, while in Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, she can tackle topics like identity and brotherhood. As it progresses, the series twists and turns through different concepts and angles, all the while maintaining the same central "feel." It takes a pretty skilled writer to accomplish something like that, I think.

If I had to pick a favorite episode it would probably be either Cetaganda or "The Mountains of Mourning"--the former for the fascinating construction of a civilization both utterly alien and distinctly human, and the latter for the strong characterization and emotional content. My least favorite is probably A Civil Campaign. Really, though, even at its worst, this series is still at the very least a lot of fun to read, and at its best it's grown to be among my favorite works of "light" science fiction.

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem:

Started: 6/21/2010 | Finished: 6/25/2010

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Miles Errant:

Started: 6/26/2010 | Finished: 6/30/2010

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Started: 7/1/2010 | Finished: 7/4/2010

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Miles in Love:

Started: 7/5/2010 | Finished: 7/14/2010

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Diplomatic Immunity:

Started: 7/15/2010 | Finished: 7/20/2010

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Falling Free:

Started: 7/21/2010 | Finished: 7/24/2010

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Bunny Towel

Bunny Towel

For whatever reason, Juliette and I decided not to bring Jason's bathing suit and towel with us when we went to his friend's birthday party the weekend before last. We knew the party was going to be held in a pool area, but we figured we'd just keep him out of it, since neither of us wanted to get in. Of course, we didn't factor in the inflatable kiddie pool or the water table, so he got soaked and then needed to borrow a towel.

Now, Jason has hooded towels, but his hooded towels are worn more like capes. This towel was more like a hooded poncho. I thought it made him look kind of like a monk, or maybe a Jedi. That is, if Jedi wore hoods with bunny ears on them.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, in aperture priority mode. Aperture f/2.8, shutter 1/125, ISO 360. (I've been finding that it's best, when shooting kids, to set my auto ISO to a minimum shutter of 1/125 and max ISO of 1600 if I'm going to use any of the automatic exposure modes. That way I can be sure to freeze motion without too much blur, but still not underexpose the image too much. I'm trying to learn to shoot manually, but it's hard to keep up in manual mode when kids are running in and out of buildings and shade in bright, early afternoon sun.) Here again, I spot metered on his face, since I didn't care if I blew out the background. I further upped the exposure in post, as well as upping the vibrancy a touch, adding some sharpening, and using curves to recover highlights, set the black point, and add some contrast. (All post-processing in Aperture 3.)

Thoughts for improvement: I'm pretty happy with the color and lighting in this image, but the composition could be better. In particular, there's a door frame that's right behind his head that I would prefer weren't there.

Heard During Tonight's Bath

Jason: I have a owie.

Me: I know, but it's almost all better.

Jason: Bite it.

Me: What?

Jason: I bite the owie.

Me: Don't bite it. You're going to hurt yourself.

Jason: Lick it?

Me: Uh, OK, I guess you can lick it if you want.

Jason: [licks the scab on his knee]

Jason: I licked it!

Me: That was an extremely weird thing to do, Jason.

Golden Boy

Golden Boy

I'm working on developing my technique in family and lifestyle photography, and this is an example of one type of lighting that can work well. When I took this shot, I was facing directly into the sun. Normally, shooting into the sun produces a bright background and dark subject, but here the sun was relatively high in the sky, and the grill in the background was both relatively close (to block out the bright sky) but also slightly shadowed. I set the camera to spot meter and set the exposure for his face, which, with the strong backlighting, created the nice halo effect in his hair while maintaining the tones in his face and chest.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 VR DX lens, in aperture priority mode. Focal length 150 mm, aperture f/5.3, shutter 1/200 sec, ISO 200. Exposure adjustment and recovery, vibrancy, sharpening, and curves applied in Aperture 3.

Thoughts for improvement: There's a little bit of lens flare that you can see in his chest and arm, which resulted from shooting directly into the sun. I could probably have avoided that by either removing the UV filter or using a lens hood. The hair lighting is also a bit hotter than I would ideally like, but I think it still looks pretty good nonetheless.

The Perils of Office Toothbrushing

Are you a work toothbrusher? OK, so that's not a particularly elegant turn of phrase, but you know what I mean. Are you one of those people who make sure to get in a good brushing after lunch every day, even at the office?

Well, I'm not. I happen to be blessed with particularly strong tooth enamel, such that even though I only brush once a day (in the mornings), I'm still always lauded by my dentist for my good oral hygiene at my semi-annual checkups. So, I don't have a lot of motivation to brush more often.

I'll tell you what, though: I do kind of admire those mid-day toothbrushers. It seems like it must take a fair amount of dedication not to just remember to brush so often, but to be willing to put up with bad office toothbrushing conditions in order to do so.

I mean, at your typical office you've got one of two choices: the kitchen/break room or the public bathroom. The kitchen offers no privacy at all, since office kitchens tend to receive some of the heaviest traffic of the entire company. I don't know about you, but I prefer to be alone while I'm fighting plaque. It's bad enough that my son always seems to want to strike up a conversation in the middle of my morning routine. Having a grown up start talking to me when I've got a mouthful of toothpaste seems more awkward than I'm willing to deal with.

On the other hand, unless you happen to be blessed with a workplace with single-occupant restrooms, if you opt to brush your teeth in the office bathroom, you run a serious risk of having someone come in and start pooping while you're brushing. The idea of having to deal with someone else's bathroom stink while trying to clean my mouth just completely grosses me out.

I just don't have the fortitude of stomach or strength of self-confidence to cope with work toothbrushing, but I know a lot of others do. So here's to you, work toothbrushers of the world. You are better folk than I.

Setting the Mood

Setting the Mood

It's funny how serendipitous photography can be. You expect that when you're out on the streets shooting buildings or weather or candids of strangers, but it happens in the studio, too. This was just a test shot I took to try to get the exposure and framing right for the picture I posted yesterday, but I think it may actually have turned out even better than the shot I planned for. The dark background, negative space, and warm lighting combined with the curves of the glass make for a romantic feeling, I think.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, in aperture priority exposure mode. Aperture f/1.8, shutter 1/125 sec, ISO 200. In Aperture 3, I pushed exposure recovery to the max to tone down the candle light, bumped vibrancy a touch, added a little bit of sharpening, and used a lot of vignetting to get the background completely dark.

Thoughts for improvement: I'm actually pretty happy with this one. I suppose some of the candles could be placed a little bit more purposefully, but other than that, the only thing I'd wish for this image is for it to have been taken with a higher resolution camera.

Jason Michael Jasongawa

The teachers at Jason's day care have been focusing on getting the kids to learn their full names lately. Jason is a pretty bright kid, but in this he's at a bit of a disadvantage. After all, a five-syllable name is too much for most adults to handle gracefully, and to be saddled with it at the age of two, well, it ain't a cake walk is all I'm saying.

Fortunately, though, Jason loves new words and loves to talk, so he seems to be having fun trying out his last name. Combined with his recent discovery of birthdays and the birthday song, it's made for some pretty cute scenes:

Refraction in Blue

Refraction in Blue

I noticed these little glass vases in our china cabinet the other day and thought they might work well with this series of glassware shots I seem to be doing. Juliette used to keep these on her windowsill when she was in college, but I haven't seen them in what seems like a long time.

In thinking about what I wanted to do with this shot, I knew I wanted to do something with reflections. A lot of the close-up stuff I've been liking on Flickr and from various stock agencies seems to be shot using a glass or plexi table surface, which makes for great reflections. I, unfortunately, don't have anything like that around the house, so I improvised a little by putting the candles and vases into a cookie sheet that was filled to about a quarter inch with water. In order not to have the pan show up too noticeably in the shot, I had to go with more low-key lighting, but I think it worked out pretty well.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Aperture f/1.8, shutter 1/50 sec, ISO 200. Background is lit with a flashlight through an inverted pilsner glass and the bottom of a brandy snifter. Slight vibrancy tweak, sharpening, and vignetting added in Aperture 3.

Thoughts for improvement: I'm not really thrilled with how the background is lit. I think it would probably be better if I could either have more glow on the wall or just leave it completely dark. There are also a few streaks on the glass that I couldn't quite get rid of since we were out of Windex. Finally, since the cookie sheet I used is one that has been in and out of the oven a lot, the bottom has gotten a little warped from the heat. That's why the right-hand vase is a little tilted. Ideally, I'd like to use something to contain the water that was both completely flat and also much wider and longer so that it didn't appear in the frame at all.

Sorry We Are Leaving

Sorry We Are Leaving

This is one of my favorite recent photos, because there's a whole story encapsulated in it, one that I just happened to stumble across and be lucky enough to capture. I think that's the goal with most types of photography--telling a story--but especially with documentary and street photography. It's not the most technically perfect or artistically composed picture--though I think it does well enough in those regards--but even so, I think it's one of the most expressive, evocative images I've ever made. You know, as long as I'm tooting my own horn and all.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, in aperture priority mode. Aperture f/1.8, shutter 1/125 sec, ISO 1600. Slight curve applied in Aperture 3 to deepen the blacks, recover the highlights, and hold the midtones.

Thoughts for improvement: The main thing that detracts from this image, in my opinion, are the chairs and trash in the foreground. There wasn't time to pull them out of the shot--aside from which, the guys working there probably wouldn't have wanted me moving their furniture--but in a perfect world, they wouldn't be there.

Our Unreasonable Little Irishman

It's been interesting to see how Jason's speech has been developing lately, especially the way he pronounces words. Over the past month or two, his pronunciation has become much easier to understand, and generally much closer to adult speech. "Elephant," for example, used to be "eppy-tee" and is now "effant." "Octopus" was "ah-pa-pa" and is now "ottopus." And "fork" is now "ferk," whereas it used to be something unprintable.

On the other hand, a couple of words have drifted away from a standard Western American pronunciation, including one of his favorites: "mine." "Mine" was a word that Jason picked up quite a while ago, and like most toddlers, he applies it to just about everything. In the past few weeks, though, it's morphed into "moine," making him sound like nothing so much as a petulant Irish boy.

The unfortunate thing is that it's so cute that it's hard to keep a straight face when he says it. The other night during his bath his refusal to give up the washcloth had me dropping into a full-on brogue (hearkening back to my role as an Irish detective in a college production of Guys and Dolls), which then devolved into the two of us collapsing in laughter. Fun, but not all that instructive.