February, 2009

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Windows Utilities I

Follow-up on my post on operating systems a while ago. I actually wrote this post and the next several days ago, but it got queued up behind the recent oratorio posts.

One of the nicest things about running on the various Windows operating systems over the years is the availability of software for it. In a word, it’s huge. Need a file compression utility? There’re dozens if not hundreds to choose from. The comparative and overpriced fruit OS that places a premium on aesthetics has improved in its software range over the last 8 years, but in terms of sheer variety is still a fraction compared to the at times bewildering and overwhelming range that exists for Windows.

A mite bit more of software these days is web-based (check out Google Docs below for instance) which makes them OS independent. You of course also have Boot Camp, but I’ve never quite liked the idea of dual booting. The way I look at it, it’s silly to have two operating systems on a single system when one of them is redundant vis-à-vis that one system already has both the office productivity suites and the entire range of utilities for it already.


What’s especially great is that with the advent of end-user computing and home programming from the 90s onwards, a lot of budding developers try writing their own programs using the plethora of visual tools and putting them up for the public to try. The Shareware model still exists, but there’s an equal amount of quality freeware too. Searching for what you want was a bit of a hassle previously: I remember bookmarking sites like Tucows and checking every few days for new software to try out. These days though I just Google for them using the appropriate keywords, usually with ‘freeware’ included in the search list.

Funnily, I’ve become less inclined to search for wild variations of a single utility, preferring instead to stick to just one or two for any particular task, and keeping them updated with newer versions when the authors get to them. Still, Matt and I routinely compare notes on free software. So, here’s a partial list of free stuff I use.

For system protection and maintenance: there’s AVG Antivirus and Comodo Internet Security for antiviral and firewall protection. I used to have the Norton Internet Security suite for a few years, then also the freeware Zonealarm, but have switched to AVG and Comodo. AVG updates pretty regularly and is configurable enough for my needs to let me set search heuristics and schedules. Comodo’s firewall is reputedly very secure, though I still haven’t figured out how to easily alter individual rules for specific applications. I used to also keep Spybot and Adaware around to sniff out malicious software, but Windows Defender + AVG seem to keep them out well enough already these days.

Continued in the next post.:)

Superhero Powers

As far as comicdom is concerned, there’s a long list of superhero powers. After all, if you’re going to keep things fresh in that creative industry, you need to get equally as creative when it comes to cooking up the next super ability for the character you’re writing or drawing about. Heck, there’s even a Wikipedia entry just on the list of superhero powers in fiction right here!

As these things go, in order to make those demi-Gods a bit more mortal (and believable), most superhero abilities need come with its own little flaw. Like…

Super-strength? All it takes is a kryptonite to make you go weak in yer knees!

An all powerful ring driven by willpower that can conjure up anything you can think of? Throw in an yellow impurity, or paint yourself yellow and beat the defenceless ring bearer to pulp.

Superspeed? That’s no good if your brain can’t keep up with that superspeed:


That said, there’s really only one superhero ability I care for. Heck, I wish for! And that’s Death Ray Eyes that I can explode things with.

How’s that? Well, just so I can stare and watch explode those !@#^$#@$@#$ Singaporean cars with drivers that have no manners. Like those guys who wind down their windows and spit their poo out. Or those drivers who don’t signal when they make a turn and make you wait wondering what their intentions are. Or those jokers who tail gate you and flash their high beams right into your rear-view mirror.

Ok that’s my moment of weakness – that I occasionally have a vengeful streak LOL.

Showing at a local home cinema III

I’m gonna do more frequent posts of Home Cinema with fewer movies but longer notes.:)

blog-eagle-eyeEagle Eye (2008). Techno thriller starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, and a whole bunch of military hardware, especially of the spy, surveillance and explosive sort. LaBeouf stars in the exact same role as he did in Transformers:  bewildered, getting caught in big huge explosions, and chased around while yelling “no no no” LOL.

There are a couple of interesting sequences: including one where a guy gets electrified by a few zillion bolts and explodes into a red mist, a chase through a airport baggage system, and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle battle on the streets of Washington DC.

It sure is a habberdash of bits you’ve seen before elsewhere: guided instructions via Matrix and The Game, loud and pulsating music from the Bourne Trilogy, imminent terrorist attack on American soil from The Sum of All Fears. It feels a little chaotic, unbelievable, and when the main protagonist and the puppet master shows up, outright creepy. Still well worth a watch though. But leave all common sense at the door, as once Evil Doofus tells us what the real mission objective is, you’d be wondering what was the point of the 90 minute chase scenes running all before it!

blog-mybestfriendsgirl My Best Friend’s Girl (2008). I thought this romantic drama starring the always yummy-to-look-at Kate Hudson, Jason Biggs and Dane Cook had promise. The premise is at least interesting: strike a deal with your best friend to play the world’s biggest a***hole to your hesitant girlfriend so that she’ll run screaming back into your arms. It’s profanity-ridden but yet hilariously funny in a couple of spots.

Unfortunately, Cook as the jerk and Hudson as the confused girlfriend has no chemistry, (Where’s Matthew McConaughey when you need him…?) and Biggs can’t decide if he’s playing a sad desperate puppy or a scary stalker. Biggs is even more dislikable as El Desperado that you’d be rooting for Cook from the getgo. And the profanity is, well… let’s just say that even the most salty sailor would blush.:)

The movie’s at its best in the first half with Cook’s boyfriend-from-hell stint, but when the movie switches to the usual romantic trappings it falls flat. At least Alec Baldwin steals every scene he’s in as the a***hole’s father, and an even bigger horndog and womanizer than Cook’s character. Worth a rental for the first half, and when the movie switches to the chick romantic portions after midway, you can always stop watching.

Lessons: Rationalizing

Taking a break from music posts and returning to an thread where I was writing about lessons in life.:) A groupie in our small group Salmon Run once remarked that the greatest threat to the Holy Spirit is our (human) ability to rationalize everything we do.

It certainly doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to contextualize the above. Just take a look at any of those controversial issue reported in the papers. E.g. the debate online and in media on homosexuality here in Singapore. Any biblical verse that’s supposed to be straight forward gets debated and argued upon by both sides of the issue.

It’s not my intention in this post to present on what I think about homosexuality, though I think my small groupies have heard what I’ve got to say about that LOL. I’ll say what works for me though; and it stems from another simple truth that I believe in, that…

“There isn’t any temptation that you have experienced which is unusual for humans. God, who faithfully keeps his promises, will not allow you to be tempted beyond your power to resist. But when you are tempted, he will also give you the ability to endure the temptation as your way of escape.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

This is the second of three ‘anchor’ verses that have helped me simplify many things in life. Like the first one, the full significance of this verse came from QT during my full-time NS days.

The context of the learning was based on a story told in the copy of Our Daily Bread I was using, and the author gave the classic story of if a murderer came to your home wanting to kill one of your family and wants to know if he is home, do you tell the truth or lie?

blog-lessons-3 If we were to take the verse literally, it’d mean that the right thing to do would be to tell the truth. Because God will never want us to break a commandment of his in order to keep another. OK, the verse uses the word ‘temptation’, but if I remember rightly, the author of the entry believed it means ‘in all situations’.

It’s easier said than done. I believe many of us would lie simply because in our minds, to tell the truth would mean the murderer would then step right in to kill our loved one. It’d be utter madness not to do everything to protect our family, including lie. But thinking aloud, doesn’t this stem ultimately from fear of what we can’t control?

Instead, what if we were to take that leap of faith and to trust in God… that if we were to completely trust Him in all things, whatever happens would be His will and it would be the best thing that can happen?

Yeah this all sounds hypothetical, and until someone comes into our home in The Rivervale and threatens to do the same, who knows what we’d really do or say.

But in a simpler context, I think there’s a lot of meaning and application from this verse to everyday life: that we should stop trying to project what we think to be the right and desired outcome, and instead strive to just obey God’s commandments, and trust Him in what happens in our lives.

Oratorios & Masses II

Handel: Israel in Egypt

If I had to select a single favorite single number from a large choral work, it’d have to be “Sing Ye to the Lord”, the finale from Handel’s Israel in Egypt. This oratorio isn’t as well-known as Messiah. I don’t think the morning choirs at Wesley have attempted numbers from this work for sure – I hear “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Hallelujah!” from Messiah often enough.

Handel wrote Israel in Egypt in 1738, and he composed off passages from Exodus and Psalms, with several songs drawn from verses recounting the plagues inflicted on Egypt. Unfortunately, the work was not well-received by the London audiences, who were apparently not used to hearing an oratorio that comprised so many choruses rather than arias.

Truth to tell, it’s this respect of Israel that draws me more to this work rather than Messiah. Moreover, the chorus numbers were scored not for one but a double chorus even.

I got into this work rather late I remember; about in the late-90s when I was starting to wind down my classical music acquisition. The CD album I picked up was released by Decca featuring the Choir of Christ Church Cambridge & English Chamber Orchestra under Simon Preston. Simon Preston is actually a pretty famous organist. He was in Singapore in 1988 to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Victoria Concert Hall, a concert I attended while as a JC1 student at Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

As it was, there weren’t many CD recordings of this work, compared to the gazillions I can find of Messiah. So, the ECO / Preston performance was the only one I had for years until this year when I had a revival in interest in choral music. Scouting around eMusic found me three recordings of the oratorio, and I bought two of them: by The Sixteen & The Symphony of Harmony conducted by Harry Christophers; and by the Aradia Ensemble and conducted by Kevin Mallon.

Between the latter two, I’d be hard press to choose a favorite! The Christophers’ ensemble reminds me the old Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; they were famed for perfect articulation of each note in each of their recordings. The Aradia Ensemble recording sounds a little smaller in size and the singing I thought didn’t have the same tight discipline as The Sixteen.

That said, there’s still an inexplicable charm in the Mallon recording, and the video below of a recording session for their interpretation of Israel in Egypt shows. The number they’re singing is “He gave them hailstones for rain” from Act II.


Both are greatly accomplished performances that I alternate listening to.:)

Oratorios & Masses I

As I remember it, the first oratorio I acquired in my classical music recollection wasn’t Handel’s Messiah, but Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten. The latter was a 1970s recording with the BBC Chorus & Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Colin Davis, and came on an old two cassette tape box set issued by the music division arm of Philips (reissued on CD here).

Between the large vocal type of works i.e. oratorios/masses/requiems vs operas, I still marginally prefer operas, if only because there’s significant theatrical elements, narrative and interaction between characters. And outside a couple of the most well-known of these vocal works of this type, most casual classical music listeners don’t really listen to these.

So, putting together a list of some of my favorite recordings of oratorios and masses, and starting with the most well-known of all oratorios…

Handel: Messiah

Recordings of Handel’s Messiah seem to fall into one of three types: the old big, bombastic performances with huge orchestras and choirs, like in the first recording of Messiah I got in the 80s was also a cassette box set performed by the the John Alldis Choir & London Philharmonic Orchestra and Karl Richter, which I picked up on CD reissue years later; and also another CD set I got with the London Symphony and Colin Davis again.

These big performances were gradually out of fashion from the mid-80s onwards, with performances moving towards the other two types: small, nimble orchestras either on modern, or on authentic instruments. Of the former, there’s the 1981 recording with Richard Westenburg and the Musica Sacra, but the audio quality on the CD was wretched that I didn’t listen to it more than a few times. And also, an early 80s recording with famed but late choir conductor Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus on Telarc Digital.

By far though, my favorite recording with a modern and small orchestra and chorus remains a 1970s Decca CD set with the Academy and the now 80-something Neville Marriner. Unfortunately, this recording was based on a rearrangement by Mozart and there are some differences between the rearrangement and the more widely performed original score, especially in the closing chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”.

But what an amazing and jubilant interpretation of this final chorus it is! Even though this recording was made more than 20 years ago, the whole 2 hour performance still sounds as though it is being performed right in front of you in your living room. Of all the choral recordings I have, the synergy between the Academy chorus and orchestra is just breathtaking. The chorus timing on each note with the accompaniment is impeccable, and each number is exhilarating.

I don’t enjoy the authentic-instruments performances as much, but most recent recordings are of this type now. Still, there are three such recordings in my collection: by the Boston Baroque with Martin Pearlman on an expensive Telarc Digital set years ago, with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood performing on instruments that are less knife-sharp sounding than the Boston Baroque, and finally my most recent acquisition last week: with the Cambridge Choir of Clare College & Freiburger Barockorchester and René Jacobs. The Jacobs performance has lots of nuances with plenty of dynamic markings that that actually perked me up, as jaded a listener of Messiah I am. The chorus and orchestra doesn’t have the powerful adrenaline of the Academy, but the because of those little changes in phrasing, the experience of listening to Jacobs’ recording is refreshing.

So, of the eight recordings of Messiah in my collection, René Jacobs’ is at the top of my list; followed closely by Neville Marriner’s performance with the Academy. Both are amazing performances though and it’s hard to go wrong with either. If one wants to go with the big traditional performances, then I’d suggest Robert Shaw’s recording.

Next post, other vocal works by Handel… when I get to it.:)

Choirs & Choruses

One of the interesting bits about Ling and me is that we were both choir conductors.:)


Even though I applied to join choirs during during week 0 of my first year studies in NTU 17 years ago, I had no vocal training whatsoever. My singing exposure was limited at that juncture only to the bathroom, with the repertoire comprising baritone arias from Mozart (especially Se vuol ballare from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) and selected numbers from Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas.

As it turned out, I had different experiences for the two choirs I applied. The Hall III choir was reputed to be one of the best hostel choirs around NTU, so I gave a shot at that. Though instead of qualifying as a singer, I was selected to be conductor instead even though I had zilch conducting experience. I tried out also for the NTU choir but the auditions were running immediately after a week long Hall Orientation Camp. I’d been shouting / yelling during the hall activities, and I ended up croaking during my round.

So it was the Hall III choir. I had to learn conducting from scratch, and with my choir coordinator in tow, we hit the old dusty Musical Scores section at the old National Library at Stamford Road to look for songs and choruses to sing.

It’s fun to think of it now, because 17 years later, I still conduct, but only in pseudo-fashion. As in when I hear inspiring music, my hands automatically start moving to beat to the music. In fact, I have a secret wish: to, one day, conduct a choir again singing one of these choral pieces:

“Dixit Dominus Domino meo” from Dixit Dominus by Handel. This is the opening number from a choral work, and based on Psalm 110.

“Die Himmel erzahlen die Ehre Gottes” from Die Schöpfung by Haydn. Haydn’s better known for his symphonies, but this oratorio (“The Creation” in English) is considered to be his best vocal work. The words of the song were originally in German, and it translates to ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’. You can imagine the grandeur of the piece if that’s what the song is about, and it doesn’t disappoint.

“Sing Ye To The Lord” from Israel in Egypt by Handel. From the finale of his oratorio, this is one of the most rousing choruses ever, and my favorite ahead any of the numbers from Messiah by the same composer. The text is from Exodus XV: 21 “Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.”, and has a short soprano section before the chorus and orchestra moves in. Very, very grand.

I don’t think I’ll ever conduct again of course, since I’ve forgotten just about everything conducting. But the music still excites and inspires.:)

Picture of Ling’s choir rehearsing at the VCH, and from an earlier post here. More posts on choral music to follow.:)

Music Collections

The 20th of the month came about again. I picked up a whole bunch of classics to listen to, most of it I haven’t heard before.

blog-cpebach C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concertos. I’ve always thought Mozart was the composer who wrote the largest number of Piano Concertos, but the lesser known Bach here has Mozart beat flat. Son of the more famous J. S. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (pictured here) wrote a whopping 54 concertos for the keyboard. This set came on 15 CDs, and recorded with the Concerto Armonico conducted by Peter Szuts with Miklos Spanyi on fortepiano. Gonna take a while to wade through them all.

Bucket load of Haydn’s Masses. I enjoyed Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis from last month’s collection that I picked up a collection of all thirteen of his masses, performed by Collegium Musicum 90 and conducted by Richard Hickox. This is a 6 CD collection. Unfortunately, the pieces are sung in Italian (I think), and without the libretto it’s hard figuring out the words, as enjoyable as the music listening is. Oh yeah, there’s always the Google search though.

Boccherini’s cello concertos. I haven’t heard a lot of Boccherini, but I love listening to the cello. I’ve got Vivaldi’s cello concertos and they weren’t terrifically inventive music though. Boccherini’s twelve concertos came on 3 CDs and were much more nuanced and complex music.

Clementi’s symphonies. Certainly not well-known music; Clementi is better-known for his piano sonatas which are widely practiced by piano learners here. I gave it a go because of the album’s performers which I like: the London Mozart Players. Clementi’s symphonies remind me of a cross between Haydn and Hummel’s bodies of work.

Handel’s Israel in Egypt. One of the somewhat better known oratorios though still not quite to the popularity of Messiah. The chorus numbers are AMAZING – using massive double choruses even!

Apart from these, there were also singular albums: more recordings Haydn’s Die Schopfung, Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Theodara, and of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and his very lovely Sinfonia Concertante for Wind instruments which I’ve blogged before here.

Not quite as varied a range compared to previous months, but only because the works this time are large collections instead.

Showing at a local home cinema II

A follow-up on my post on home movies viewing from earlier this year. Not as many movies as the last post – have been terrifically busy.:(

blog-babylon Babylon A.D (2008). Vin Diesel sure is getting typecast as the beefy action macho man. Unfortunately he has little of the charisma and comedic timing of say Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The French actress as the virginal save-the-world priestess goes about looking very lost and talks mumbo-jumbo, and Michelle Yeoh looks as though she’s straining from bursting out in giggles. At least the latter gets to punch and kung-fu her way through some disposable bad guys. No good.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008). Nicholas Cage as a hitman-assassin type character given a list of targets to off in Bangkok. The movie could had been just as easily ported over to any other South-East Asian country and not lost anything much. Universally panned on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it was still semi-watchable. Hong Kong actress Charlie Yeung plays a hottie but deaf and mute pharmacist and love interest. Too bad you’ll have to watch the Special Features  interview feature to hear here speak English LOL.

Mad About English! (2008) Amazing documentary that I’ve blogged before here. Gets a mite long, but still terrifically heartwarming. Recommended.

Æon Flux (2005). Semi-old show from a couple years back. Another utterly incredible – in the bad sense – show with a nice looking cast, this time in the form of Charlize Theron. She looks good with her hair all slicked back and in futuristic tights. Think Kate Beckinsale in Underworld LOL. Interesting premise though of Earth’s last survivors walled up in a city ruled by a bunch of domineering scientists. Marton Csokas aka Celeborn from Lord of the Rings looks sleepy, but so he does in every movie I’ve seen him in. No good.

blog-88minutes 88 Minutes (2007). Al Pacino is always fun to watch, even if the movie he’s in is utterly stupid or unbelievable (take yer pick) in its story. He plays a forensic psychiatrist though in the movie he really does very little in the way of forensics or psychiatry. He does run around though like a cop and a detective. Movie comes with a bevy of beautiful (if not frequently seen) actresses: including the Helen Hunt lookalike Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Kara Unger (most famously seen as Troy’s Helen), and the uber sex Leah Cairns (who plays Racetrack in Battlestar Galactica). Kinda cute to see those actresses run rings around Pacino. All the other male supporting cast is forgettable LOL.

Red Heat (1988). An even older show starring Ar-nuld. But this one’s a classic, and a favorite among NS boys in the early 90s. Ar-nuld stars as a Russian cop dispatched off to Chicago hot on the trail of a Georgian drug-dealer, gets paired up with James Belushi as a loudmouthed local detective. The two’s chemistry is just amazing. In subsequent movies starring Ar-nuld to come over the years, movie producers find ways to have Belushi show up as a cameo just to exchange lines with the former Austrian muscleman. Watching it on rental brings back great memories.

Armor Class = –10

Check this out: body armor for your expensive DSLR, or in the case below for the D300:


Niftly called ‘Camera Armor’, the manufacturer’s blib states that:

“Custom Engineered for the Nikon D300, Camera Armor is an always on, protection system consisting of 6 parts: An elastomeric silicone Body Armor and Baseplate, a tripod socket extender (to be used with the baseplate), a Lens Armor, a Lens Cap Lanyard and a Polycarbonate LCD Shield.”

No mention of the additional weight it’ll incur though. But it sure looks futuristic, though I think if I ever got something like this I’d be tempted to drop my D300 just to see if the armor protection is actually equivalent to the –10 (pre 3rd edition rules)! A pity though that the protection doesn’t seem for weather and rain.

Interesting discussion on camera protection here too.:)