Managing my Library

A few days ago, I decided to take down the Library pages on my blog. Formerly, I was using the Now Reading plug-in to power the library aspect of my site. Ultimately, the plug-in was more work than it was worth – it didn’t have the greatest interface in the world, adding books was a pain, and every time I changed my theme I needed to tweak the templates to match the style of the new theme. I ended up spending more time messing with the library page layouts than I did reading.

I figured using a separate site to tracks my books would be easier, so I played with LivingSocial for a while after I joined FaceBook, since it was there. It was ok, but didn’t offer a way to note when you finished a book, which I liked about Now Reading. Being able to see how many books I read in a given year, or the order I finished them in, was nice.

That’s when I turned to Goodreads. Like LibraryThing, Shelfari and many other sites, Goodreads is a social cataloging site where users can track books they’ve read, are currently reading, or would like to read, and can share that information with other users. Each book is added to one of three “shelves” (to-read, read, or currently-reading), and can be added to any number of other shelves of the user’s creation. Additionally, users can record the date they read the book, the number of times they’ve read it, who they would recommend it to, who recommended it to them, and their rating and review of the book. Those features alone make Goodreads quite handy, but there are a few more ways to extend it that I like. You can display your Goodreads library on Facebook or a blog via apps and widgets, and there’s a bookmarklet for adding books to Goodreads directly from Amazon.

Hopefully now I can actually spend more time reading, rather than just queueing up books that look interesting.

Following the Herd

Yes, I have finally jumped on the social networking bandwagon; I joined FaceBook. After getting like 5 requests from friends with FaceBook to view their profile or be their friend in one day, I finally caved. Honestly, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be, although I can see where I could get way too wrapped up with it if I’m not careful.

I’ve already set it up to pull posts from my blog, and if I can figure out a way to get it to pull photos from the photo gallery, I would be extremely happy. I don’t really want to maintain the same content at multiple blogs and galleries, so anyway I can automate that will make my life easier.

So yeah, that’s about it. If you’re on FaceBook, my profile is here.

Photo Gallery Showdown

When I decided to go with Gallery2 rather that Zenphoto to power my photo gallery, I promised to go into more detail later, but “later” never really happened. I figured with the recent updates to both Gallery2 and Zenphoto, it might be beneficial to revisit my decision and follow my thought process, starting with what I personally want from a photo gallery, and re-evaluating the list of photo gallery options I compiled. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Joy of Digital Photography

While browsing the library for a good book on photography, I stumbled upon The Joy of Digital Photography. It was one of the newest books the library had on digital photography, so I figured it was worth a try.

The Joy of Digital Photography can be divided into 3 main sections; general orientation & the basics of photography, composition & design, and finally digital editing. The first few chapters cover the basics of photography. The book starts off with the obligatory “digital camera orientation” chapter, explaining about megapixel count, resolution, different types of digital cameras, and various camera accessories like tripods, monopods, external flashes and bags. The next few sections address the basics of photography; exposure, depth of field, shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance.

After the basics of photography, the focus of the book shifts to design and composition. Some of the design basics include horizon placement within the photo, how to frame the image, and how to add depth to an image.  An entire chapter is dedicated to light, explaining how the direction and quality of light will affect images. The next two chapters cover two broad photographic subjects; people (weddings, children, groups, sports, travel, etc.)  and nature (mainly landscapes, animals and weather).

Finally, the last chapters focus on the digital aspect of digital photography. Two chapters explain the basics on digital photo editing (cropping, leveling, sharpening, cleaning up scanned images). The final chapter focuses on how to set up your digital darkroom; discussing computer options, organizing your digital library, what to look for in a scanner, and how to decide on photo paper.

As a whole, I really liked this book. I found it to be accessible to those just starting out in digital photography, while still being relevant to those with some digital photography experience. One thing that I really liked was that the author made no assumptions about the reader or the gear they might be using. While Tom Ang’s How to Photograph Absolutely Everything covered a broad range of photographic subjects,  Ang assumes the reader is using a simple point and shoot digital camera. The recommended camera settings for various subjects are generally given in terms of which semi-automatic camera scene mode to use, with little explanation of why one setting was chosen over another. If the reader has a more advanced camera, or hopes to delve into anything beyond automatic or a pre-selected camera scene mode, they are pretty much on their own. With The Joy of Digital Photography, there is perhaps a slightly smaller range of photographic subjects covered, but the depth of information on design, composition and digital editing more than makes up for that. Overall, I think this is an excellent digital photgraphy reference book; it covers a full spectrum of topics without confusing new photographers or speaking down to more experienced photographers.

Last Minute Details

With Faith’s wedding just 3 weeks away, it’s time for me to get the last of the wedding photography prep work done. The main thing I need to do still is a timeline/checklist for photos. Of course, with the wedding at 11am and the reception following immediately after, I have no idea when I’m supposed to do the family portraits. I doubt that everyone will be photo ready before the ceremony, and it doesn’t look like there will be much time between the ceremony and reception.

I’ve already checked out the ceremony location, as it’s the same church Matt & I were married at last year. There’s a little chapel with beautiful stained glass windows that I’m hoping I’ll be able to use; I’m not really sure what kind of light to expect in the middle of the day, though. I’ve not checked out the reception hall yet, and I’m not sure I’ll have the chance to before the wedding. Hopefully there are photos on their website, so I can get a rough idea of the layout, and possibly the lighting situation.

As far as camera gear goes, I’m thinking I’ll want to get an external flash before the wedding. My main issue is deciding if I want the Speedlite 430EX ($235) or the 580EX ($390). The 430EX is probably all I need at this point; the 580EX has more features and such, but I can’t justify spending that much more on a flash right now. Where lenses are concerned, I’m hoping my 50mm prime should suffice for most of the shots. Of course, if I get the flash then I should be able to use my 18mm-55mm indoors as well. I’ll probably need another memory card; I’ve got a 1gig CF and a 4gig CF, but since I plan to shoot in RAW I’ll need all the space I can get.

Overall, things seem to be shaping up well. I’d like to finish tagging and editing my backlog of photos before the wedding, so that I can have a clean slate when I get the influx of photos from the wedding. I’m up to March of 2008, so I should be able to finish tagging the photos, at least. Hopefully when I’m done editing and tagging all the photos, I can start uploading them to the gallery again; for various reasons I think I’ll be sticking with Gallery2 rather than Zenphoto, but that is for another post.

Review: How to Photograph Absolutely Everything

In preparation for Faith’s June wedding, and in a general attempt to improve my photographic skill, I decided to start borrowing books on photography from the library. With a title like How to Photograph Absolutely Everything, I figured Tom Ang’s book was a decent place to start.

For a new photographer, this book is extremely helpful. It gives tips on a broad variety of photographic subjects; pointers for weddings, portraits, children, vacation photos, and more. At the beginning of each section, Ang also gives some suggestions for camera settings to capture a given subject type. What’s more, the book is filled with large, full color photos to reinforce the tips.

However, if you’re anything other than a new photographer, this book might not be as helpful. It becomes clear rather quickly that this book is geared towards users with little experience, as the suggested camera settings at the beginning of each new section are often as simple as “use landscape mode on your camera.” As far as content goes, it gives a few pointers for each topic, but due to the broad nature of the book, lacks depth on any given subject. And while the book seems aimed at the newer, less experienced photographer, it doesn’t really cover the basics of photography.

What I would have loved to have seen was something a bit more informative as far as settings go. Perhaps including the EXIF data on sample pictures, so the reader has a better starting point. Or ignore the “camera mode” and stick to suggestions for aperture, shutter, focal length and sensitivity.

Overall, I think this book would make a lovely coffee table book, as the photos are quite lovely, and make up the bulk of the book. I might recommend it to a new digital photographer, or a film photographer just making the switch to digital. If you’re looking for a general reference book that is more inspiration than reference, this is probably the book for you. However, if you want more in depth information on any given subject matter, I’d keep looking.

Gallery2 vs. Zenphoto

While I’ve been tagging and organizing my backlog of photos, I’ve been thinking about what to do with them when I’m finally ready to start displaying them. Currently the photo gallery is powered by Gallery2, which is ok, but probably does a bit more than I need. My plan is to eventually move everything over to denherder.net, including this blog, the (potential) “family” blog and the photo gallery. Since I’ll be setting up a new gallery, I’ll have a clean slate and so I’ve been investigating options to find the software that best matches what I want and need. At the moment, the main contenders are the old standby, Gallery2, and a relatively newer solution, Zenphoto.

The biggest criteria to start with is IPTC metadata support. I use Lightroom to tag and organize my photos, including such information as location, title, names of people, photo description and more, all of which is stored in the IPTC headers of each image. I don’t want to have to replicate all that data, so photo software that can parse and display IPTC headers is essential. Both Gallery2 and Zenphoto manage IPTC data with no problem; Zenphoto actually appears to parse out the location information as well as title, description and tags, while Gallery2 only parses out title, description and tags.

I’d love to have software that can manage dynamic or relational albums, so that one image can appear in multiple albums. Unfortunately, Flickr is the only solution I’ve seen that will keep the original photo in multiple locations, with all the comments. Gallery2′s best solution is to make a copy of the image and place a copy in each album, which is less than ideal. Zenphoto has a solution I’m still investigating, which is “saved searchs;” a search can be saved, and will appear as a gallery that can be browsed. Not exactly what I was hoping for, but a definite step in the right direction and the closest I’ve seen any other gallery option come to Flickr.

Zenphoto, for all it’s good points, is not without bugs. The first issue I came across is the inability to create empty galleries. Not a huge issue – you can make albums via FTP, and upload images that way. But using the admin interface, I couldn’t create an album without putting at least one image in it. A little frustrating if you want to create a top level album to hold sub-albums. Another issue is the inability to move photos or albums; apparently there is not yet a way to move things while retaining the comments and such. There are also a few features I’d like to see implemented in future versions of Zenphoto – the ability to re-upload a photo (to replace a photo with a touched up version, while preserving the comments), and the ability to choose what portion of the photo is used for the thumbnail.

Between the two gallery options, it’s a tough choice. Gallery does almost everything I want, plus a lot more that I don’t really want or need. It’s a bit larger, and more difficult for me to maintain on my own. On the other hand, Zenphoto does the basics, without some of the extras. It doesn’t do as much as Gallery, but I prefer the way it does some things. Zenphoto was easy to install, and looks to be easier to maintain. In the end, I’ll probably go with Zenphoto – it doesn’t do everything I want, but it does everything I NEED, and it’s prettier.

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Ever have one of those days when you just have nothing to do? Or in my case, I have so many different things that I SHOULD be doing, that I can’t decide what to do, and end up doing nothing of value. I have so many projects in various states of completeness; too many, really. The current list stands as such (in order of priority);

  • Cross stitch birth sampler for my niece (who just turned 3)
  • Tag and organize the backlog of digital photos (currently I’m up to December of 2007)
  • Prepare for sister-in-law’s June wedding (I’m the photographer)
  • Update the online photo gallery, investigate other software options
  • Create digital address book (plans for software to generate reports and Christmas card labels)
  • Convert recipes to digital, add recently tested recipes
  • Work on denherder.net (blog up, but no content)
  • Knit baby blanket (also for my niece)

Of course, there are other projects to be added to the list. Once I finish Laurel’s birth sampler, I need to see about making a Peter Rabbit birth sampler for Marin. After I get all my photos tagged and organized, I was thinking about starting a photoblog, to give myself a reason to practice. I’d like to have my consolidated address book ready to go by this fall, so the mail merge labels are ready for Christmas cards.

Another project that has been floating around in the back of my mind has been a recipe blog. Once I get my recipes typed up into MasterCook, a cooking blog wouldn’t be too difficult. Each recipe would become a post; categories would be for recipe classification – beverages, cookies, breads, desserts, main dishes, etc. The tags could be used for ingredients, or perhaps other criteria (Bread Machine, Crock Pot, ethnicity of the dish, etc.). Of course, if the full text of the recipe is in the body of the post, you wouldn’t NEED ingredients as tags – you could simply search the blog to find a recipe that used buttermilk, for example. Pictures to accompany the recipe would be nice, too. Matt had a suggestion to rate the recipes on various criteria, as well; difficulty, tastiness, and how well it reheats. I do like the idea of giving some honest opinions on how a recipe keeps or reheats – some recipes are great, but don’t reheat terribly well in the microwave. And with any luck, I may have some friends willing to contribute to a recipe blog, so I wouldn’t bear the full weight of upkeep and posting.

Review: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

I got Professor Layton and the Curious Village a few weeks ago, in my Easter basket from Mom & Dad. I was surprised, as Mom doesn’t always have the best track record when it comes to picking out games and movies as gifts, unless she’s working from a list. Professor Layton and the Curious Village seemed like it was perfect for me; a puzzle game with an story and plot, for the Nintendo DS.

The game centers on Professor Layton and his apprentice, Luke. As the game starts, the pair are en route to a village named St. Mystere by invitation of Lady Dahlia, widow of the late Baron Reinhold. In his will, Baron Reinhold stated that whoever solved the mystery of the Golden Apple would inherit his entire estate. Unfortunately, no one in the village has a clue what the Golden Apple is.

The gameplay is fairly simple; using the shoe icon in the corner of the touchscreen, you move about the village. To talk to villagers or inspect your surroundings, touch them with the stylus. Villagers normally have a puzzle for you to solve, or information to help in your investigation. Inspecting the scenery can turn up hidden puzzles or hint coins, which are used to unlock hints on more difficult puzzles.

I was pleasantly surprised by the cut scenes in the game; the voice acting and animation were some of the best I’ve seen on the Nintendo DS, and I was not expecting that from a puzzle game. Some of the puzzles were rather obscure – not difficult, just rather vague and a bit more lateral than logical. The hidden puzzles and hint coins were a bit difficult to find, at times; I explored one shop countless times, missing the one object I had to inspect in order to unlock a puzzle.

As a whole, I enjoyed the game, and was happy to learn that after you finish the game, there is still more. There are 120 puzzles in the game proper, 15 bonus puzzles unlocked for completing sub-quests within the game, and then weekly downloadable puzzles via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. There are also sequels in the Professor Layton series – Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box has already been released in Japan and Professor Layton and the Last Time Travel is currently in the works.

Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of Chiyo, a young girl who lives in a small fishing village called Yoroido in 1930′s Japan. There she lives with her older sister Satsu, her elderly father and her terminally ill mother. Her father is unable to care for both his girls and his wife, and so gives both daughters to Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Tanaka promptly takes the girls to Kyoto, where Chiyo is sold to an okiya (geisha house) in Gion, where she is to be trained as a geisha. At the okiya she meets Mrs. Nitta (“Mother”) and Granny, mistresses of the okiya, a fellow trainee whom Chiyo nicknames “Pumpkin”, and Hatsumomo, the resident geisha and sole source of income for the okiya.

At first Chiyo wishes for nothing more than to escape the okiya, find her sister Satsu (who was sold to a brothel), and return to her family in Yoroido. After a failed escape attempt results in a broken arm, she is met with more bad news; her sister escaped without her, and both of her parents have passed away. With no place for her but the Nitta okiya, her lot in life becomes a lifetime of servitude as a maid; Mother refuses to invest more money in Chiyo’s training, seeing her now as a bad investment.

A chance encounter with the wealthy and kind Chairman gives Chiyo hope; she sees the encounter as a sign that she wasn’t meant to become a geisha as a goal unto itself, but as a means toward the Chairman. The rest of the novel follows Chiyo through her eventual geisha training, her debut and early life as a geisha, the closing of the geisha districts due to World War II, her life during World War II, and the post-war re-opening of the geisha districts, with her ultimate goal always being the Chairman.

Despite being a work of fiction, Memoirs of a Geisha was a well researched and relatively detailed novel. In fact, the author, Arthur Golden, was sued in 2001 for breach of contract and defamation of character after publicly acknowledging Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he interviewed for background information while writing the novel. Apparently Iwasaki had agreed to speak with Golden, and violate the geisha “code of silence”, only if the interview was kept confidential.

Of course, part of the reason he was sued also has to do with some artistic liberties he took. The most controversial liberty was with “mizuage”, the coming of age ceremony where the transition from maiko (apprentice geisha) to full fledged geisha is made. In Memoirs of a Geisha it is a portrayed as a financial arrangement, where the maiko’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. As Memoirs of a Geisha was based heavily on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, and parallels her career as a geisha, readers would incorrectly assume that Iwasaki had prostituted herself as a young woman.

I found some aspects of the novel lacking, however. For instance, Chiyo’s lifetime dream of being with the Chairman is a little creepy, if you think about it. She spends her entire life plotting to be with a man that she met for maybe 15 minutes, when she was 12? That goes a little beyond infatuation, if you ask me. About halfway through, the novel begins to lose some steam; from World War II on, the story seems a bit more bland and distant. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be an intentional reflection of life after World War II, or if the author started losing interest and was simply trying to wrap up the story.

Overall, I think Memoirs of a Geisha is a decent novel, despite some flaws. While it does take liberties with aspects of the life of geisha, it IS a novel; I would recommend Iwasaki’s autobiography, published as Geisha, A Life in the US and Geisha of Gion in the UK for those interested in a more accurate version.

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