Archive for July, 2006

John Norris – July 12th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

July 31st, 2006

This was the first of John Norris’ master-classes this year.

And, as usual (sadly), the hall was half-empty. He’s wonderful, does great work for the singers, and is also very entertaining and interesting for the audience. But he usually works with the singers on their acting and presentation, not on their singing.

And some of the regular people who come to the opera program seem to have a problem with this. It’s not that they just think it’s less interesting for them. It’s that they don’t think it matters. They hold the view that an opera singer just has to sing, and nothing else matters.

This view is very very wrong. Deciding whether they enjoy it themselves, that’s a matter of taste. But whether it matters or not, that isn’t. It’s a part of the show. Opera isn’t just a vocal art. The singers aren’t just singers, they’re also actors. And how they stand, pose, move, act, all this matters a great deal.

True, a great singer with mediocre acting skills can probably go along much better in the business than a great actor with mediocre singing skills. But that doesn’t make anything beyond singing less important.

And, somewhat ironically, all these things actually also affect the singing. When singers get more into the role, and act it properly, they also sing better and more appropriately. And this is sometimes very apparent in John’s classes, where he very rarely makes a direct comment about the actual singing, and yet the singers often improve in that as well during the repetitions.

Still, time after time, in his master-classes either almost half of the seats are empty, or they become empty during the break.

Their loss.

The singers themselves think so too. In the audience there are also a lot of the program’s singers who arrive to watch their colleagues being tortured tutored on stage, and to learn the general lessons explained. Sometimes I get to sit near some of them, and can often hear their discussions among themselves. And more then once, during John’s classes, I heard a few talk about how wonderful he is as a teacher (This time the exact word used was “brilliant”).

The first singer on-stage this evening was Moran Abouloff, a Soprano from Israel. She sang Monica’s Waltz from The Medium by Menotti.

She improved drastically from last year. Good voice, and lovely high notes. She sang a little too softly at times, and her acting wasn’t entirely fitting, but overall she was very good. I heard her once last year, and really didn’t like her, so I’m happy to see the improvement.

One thing John recommended that she do in this aria is avoid looking, and singing, directly to the audience. Part of the time her focus should be directed to where the Toby character is. To help her focus on a character which isn’t there he started by placing a chair on the floor, but quickly enough she managed to get the point and just pretend Toby is somewhere specific and focus on the same empty direction on stage.

In the other parts of the aria her focus shouldn’t be outward to the audience, but on the “fourth wall”. Monica and Toby are trapped, in a hard life, and her demeanour should reflect that. (The fourth wall is an acting term referring to an imaginary wall on stage between the actors and the audience)

Another recommendation he gave her for this aria was to imagine Toby’s responses when her character of Monica asks him questions. He told her to use the short pauses between the questions to whisper to herself appropriate answers. This did seem to help getting her into the proper mood, assisting her in connecting to what is happening in the aria.

A somewhat more complicated thing he also worked with her on was to try and act two roles to a degree. The aria is Monica’s song, but a part of what she is singing is what Monica supposes Toby would tell her in response. So for this she has to act differently, like she is trying to imitate Toby.

The second singer was Angel Ruz, a Tenor from Mexico. He sang Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola from Falstaff by Verdi.

He was alright, but his voice sounded a bit bland to me, and he sounded like he kept himself to a rather limited vocal range. I wasn’t very impressed with his singing last year, and he seemed pretty much the same now. On the other hand a large percentage of the crowd did seem to really like him (as did Joan Dornemann in a later master-class this year), so I guess it’s a matter of taste.

He also had a weak voice when speaking. A few times John had to lend Angel his mike when they discussed some point, since it wasn’t possible to hear him otherwise.

Mostly John worked with him on two ways to portray the character better during the aria. The first thing was to try and get him to actually look, and sound, like he’s telling a secret. John had Angel sit on a chair, hold his finger in front of his lips, and sing more quietly as if for himself and not to another person. The intent was to give him a sense of privacy, as if he’s speaking and telling the secret, not really singing.

The second attempt was to pretend he has two imaginary friends in front of him, and to tell them what he has to say, alternating between the friends.

All this work not only improved his acting for this aria, but also improved his singing. Part of it was a point many of the teachers in the master-classes raise, that often the singers concentrate too much on what they’re doing and how it sounds, and it interferes with their actual singing. In his case he tried too hard to make sure everyone will hear his song, and as John put it “When we worry about projecting we become more stiff”. When he managed to get into the role he both looked, and sounded, better.

The third singer was Anyz Volvovsky, a Soprano from the USA/Russia (If she gave more details on what that means I didn’t write it down, and don’t remember it. Her spoken English was good, though). She sang Signore, ascolta! from Turandot by Puccini.

She had a nice and clean voice, and sang quite well. But she didn’t really do the acting part. Her stature and movement were not appropriate.

And this is naturally what John worked with her on. Getting her to sing the aria looking less like someone important and more as a slave girl, more humble. She kept looking upward and out, with her chin up, in what John jokingly referred to as “The Soprano Disease”.

A bigger problem than just for this aria, since he also warned in general not to overdo it, and “not to let the energy disperse when looking up”.

The fourth singer was Jessica Bowers, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Cruda Sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini.

She sang very well, and has a beautiful voice. Her acting, however, was lacking (yes, that’s a recurring theme with most singers in these master-classes. Even when they know they’ll be with someone who is mainly concerned with their acting).

There were two main things he worked with her on this aria. The first was to look more like she was just shipwrecked, which is the condition the character she’s portraying is in. Someone just recovering from a wreck, finding themselves waking up alone on the beach, doesn’t look as well off as she did. John initially had her sitting lopsided on a chair, and told her to pretend she has an headache. When she still didn’t look suffering enough he encouraged her with calls of “Whine, whine”.

Later on the aria, when the character of Isabella seas the pirates approaching, she becomes more confident because they are just men, and she’s a manipulative beautiful and women who think she knows what men wants. So John had her act more appropriately for that, and show the correct expressions.

Here too, the acting helped her really get into the role, and the both looked more convincing and sounded even better. As John said “Don’t we love it when a singer forget themselves?”. As long, of course, as they don’t forget themselves too much and keep on singing right. Not a problem here at all.

The fifth singer was Rodrigo Garciarroyo (Or maybe it should be Garcia Arroyo? The English text on the page was Garciarroyo, but the Hebrew text would indicate this second spelling.), a Tenor from Mexico. I missed the aria he was singing, except that the composer was Verdi.

Overall he sang very well, and had a pretty, strong, and clear voice.

But he could sing better. John brought out a prop (a lot less of them this year, compared to some of the previous years), a large yellow rubber band. He had Rodrigo stand on one edge of it, and stretch it up with his hands, singing while he held the band tense.

With the band his singing was more tight, and stronger. More focused. John said that “When he relaxes, the energy drops”, which was true. The simple physical exercise of holding against a strong tension helped Rodrigo keep more energy in his singing.

The sixth, and last, singer was Deborah Berioli, a Soprano from the US. She sang Tu, tu piccolo Iddio from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.

She had a very beautiful and strong voice, and kept a pretty dramatic presentation (which was actually appropriate). But she didn’t sing clearly, and needs to improve her diction.

One thing John worked with her is on keeping the dramatic strength but being less outward with it. In the aria she sings to her son, but when she talks to her three years old son about her problems she isn’t really talking to him, but to herself.

He also let her stretch the rubber band some, as a way to help her focus herself differently. And, not less important, because she had a tendency to keep her knees slightly folded instead of straight. Something which she couldn’t do subconsciously when using her whole body to stretch a large rubber band.

All in all a good evening, the singers were very good, and John Norris himself was as excellent as usual. While just the second master-class I’ve been to this year I already started to get the feeling that on average the singers this year were better than last year. Though of course last year had a few exceptional singers as well.

How poisonous are peach seeds?

July 28th, 2006

This post was triggered by someone reaching here with the search “What is inside peach seeds that’s poison”. I almost decided to laugh about it like on all other silly search phrases leading here, but then figured I should at least check if maybe it’s not silly.

And it turns out that peach seeds actually contain Cyanide, in the form of Amygdalin.

Is that a problem? Well, theoretically yes, but not really.

The amounts aren’t very big, with “One hundred grams of moist peach seed contains 88 mg of cyanide,
while an equivalent amount of apricot seed holds 217 mg.”

A single peach fruit of course doesn’t have nearly as much as a hundred grams of seed. But how dangerous is that amount, as a high level reference?

If they’re not talking about pure cyanide, but about the Amygdalin, not at all. The thing is used in anti-cancer medications (doesn’t work, BTW) in higher amounts, and studies found no side-effects in taking 500mg three times a day. Which would be about 1.7Kg of just the peach’s seeds per day. Not realistic.

If they’re talking about the pure cyanide extracted from it, that’s more dangerous. But still not that big a deal. Research shows 10.8mg per Kg of body weight per day is NOAEL (i.e. known to be safe). So for a petite person weighing 50Kg this would be about 610g of peach seeds, per day. And that’s before any adverse effects of long-time usage appear, and still very far from chocking and instant death.

People rarely eat a peach seed by mistake, usually the pit/stone is too tough to open and expose the seeds. And it’s too large to be swallowed whole by a person. So a seed will only be eaten when the stone is cracked, and one accidentally slips out, and accidentally swallowed.

Compared with the massive amount of seeds a person will have to eat to get to the critical level, I’d say it’s not that big a concern. Heck, eating 600g of whole peaches a day would be a hard task. So that amount of just the seeds? The boredom and frustration, not to mention the horrible taste, will kill a person first.

Or am I missing something?

Referrer log roundup, the fifth

July 28th, 2006

It’s time for yet another post where I either mock (usually), or take seriously (rarely), search phrases people typed into search engines just in order to get to… well… here.

These are all real. People actually searched for these phrases I underline here, and for some reason one of the pages found were on this blog.

It so happens that I have a large amount of them lately, so I think I’ll split this batch. A few will come now, and the rest on another post in a few days.

before changing into another lane you should?
Signal. Actually, in your case, if you have to look for this on the Internet then you probably shouldn’t be driving, so it’s a trick question.

everybody is stupid
Yes.

INCONSIDERATE CO-WORKERS WITH LOUD RADIO
Buy earplugs. Otherwise you’re the inconsiderate co-worker who forces everyone to work without some music. Or, option two, find some music you like, and play it even louder. Or at least closer. Headphones work too.

friend loaned me their car i was arrested car was impounded how do i get a car out of impound
It’s the friend’s car. I’m afraid the friend will have to go to take it out of impound. Sorry, but if you hope to keep this a secret from your friend, well, life’s hard. On the bright side, maybe this will teach your friend that he, or she, needs a better taste in friends.

why eyelid flickers naturally
Normally for two reasons. The first is that it helps to keep the eye clean, and the second is that it keeps the eye moist. All important if you want to avoid serious eye damage.

LAPD recruit drug usage limit
I’m not sure, but I expect and hope that they put the limit at no usage at all. Yeah, bummer, I know. Looks like you won’t be accepted.

private viewing disqualifies my security clearance
Well, next time when you’re having a security clearance try not to view your privates in public.

what disqualifies you for a security clearance?
Private viewing, apparently. Possibly also drug-usage. Working for the other side is also a good disqualifier. Asking stupid questions usually doesn’t, though, so you may be in the clear.

“long hair” intelligence
Sorry, but so far there is no research indicating a relationship between intelligence and length of hair. Apart from the fact that subjectively many people feel pretty stupid when their hair is so long it drags on the floor and collects dirt, anyway. If you’re a bible reader, though, there is at least one anecdotal reference to a correlation between hair length and strength. But personally I believe muscles are a better indicator for that.

pregnant belly how they look like
Have you seriously never seen a pregnant woman before in your life? Seriously??

what does the acronym lol mean in webmail
I’m still Laughing Out Loud thinking about you getting an email with this and not understanding.

is it illegal to have homework in the summer?
No.

aria words
Your best bet would be to search in the Aria Database. They don’t have everything, but they do have quite a lot.

fully clothed porn links
Someone looking for porn with fully-clothed people… A little unclear on the concept.

REPUBLIC OF cHINA 2005+hotmail address
ways of making legistimate money on the internet
free emailer equipped bcc without any one notice another
+1 “email address of BUSINESS MEN”
Just three of these came from addresses in Nigeria. But we all know what they really want to do, right?

“how to send spam”
This came from Poland. At least they’re honest.

sure fire way to make my money grow
Sorry, dude. If I had one I would have used it myself. But a good one is to study hard, and then work hard. You don’t need me to tell you this, though.

how to annoy people online at aim with aim bots
You don’t have to annoy people with AIM bots. The AIM bots annoy people all by themselves.

I speak Hebrew/Latin to God, English to my friends, Italian to the ladies, Spanish to my maid, and German to my car
So Google is your friend, I take it, since you speak to it in English. Well, let me tell you, you’d get better results out of this friend if you’ll speak to it in a Language it can understand. For example, if you’re looking for a quotation, put the phrase in double-quotes. That will help immensely. Oh, yes, and speak to your therapist about speaking to your car, you need help.

quotes for idiots
quotes for idiotism
I have two right here.

marry is a lesbo
Thanks for sharing. And I was so looking to that date…

perfect women
You won’t find her on the Internet, you dork. You’re looking in the wrong place.

israeli salary in ILS
See, the surprising thing about Israel is that we have this really crazy economic system. Which includes some totally insane stuff like paying different salaries for different jobs in different places. Seriously. Not all Israelis earn the same. Amazing, eh?

killing cockroaches freezing
That will work. But if you already have the cockroach in a box, or a bag, it would be faster and easier to just squish it instead of putting it in the freezer. And there are some more hi-tech alternatives coming soon.

dark chocolate dangers
It tastes good. Which is a very dangerous thing if you’re trying to keep a diet.

secret phone code
The code is… No, wait, sorry, I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

causes for 2005 minivan engine not to start “after frontal collision”
This is just a wild guess, but I think the reason the engine doesn’t start has something to do with it being smashed in a frontal collision.

Accidental Insulin sprayed in eyes
How did you manage to do THAT? I’m totally flummoxed. Insulin doesn’t come in anything that accidentally sprays. You’ll have to put it into a syringe, and drip it into your eyes on purpose. Which is totally pointless since it doesn’t do much of anything like that. I think the most important thing for you will be to try injecting your insulin when you’re not totally stoned, OK?

unhealthy for eyes to wear sunglasses all the time
No, it isn’t. Not unless you get actual glass lenses, stretch that “all the time” to include when sleeping, and then manage to roll over and break the glass into your eyes. But apart from that you’re perfectly safe as long as the sunglasses are halfway decent. Oh, yes, and as long as it’s not so dark that with the sunglasses you’re blind, because that can cause accidents too.

besides drinking “red bull” other uses include
Funny, I never figured this stuff to be drinkable. You’re way ahead of me in uses of it already, can’t help you, sorry.

Sherrill Milnes – July 11th – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

July 26th, 2006

The first master-class of the program this year was actually on the previous day. But it being both the opening night, and by Joan Dornemann, there were no tickets available by the time I ordered. And I ordered relatively early.

So this second master-class of the series was the first master-class in the opera program I attended this year.

This is, I think, the first time Sherrill Milnes, a very well known American Baritone and coach, comes here as a part of the opera program. Or, if he was here before, I certainly didn’t get to see him.

Not surprisingly, he seems very much at ease on stage, and seems to really know his stuff. He was articulate, clear, and interesting, and I’ll be happy to go to his master-classes if he will come again next year.

This master class also had one aspect which was somewhat different than what I’m used to. In addition to instructing the singer, and explaining about the arias and singing, he gave recommendations to the piano player. Accompanied by explanations to the audience about various differences between notes for an orchestra (as opera scores are written) and for solo piano (which is what they have in the master-classes).

While not expected, this was interesting. The adaptation for piano is always a slight problem, since the music accompanying the aria isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be. The piano usually does a very adequate job at it, so it’s not a big problem, but it’s still often noticeable. But this evening Sherrill had explanations on various sections where the purpose and feel of the music could be better kept by altering the notes further, to compensate for the differences.

He also started the evening by mentioning that while normally singers prepare for work by not singing for a day, letting their throats and vocal chords rest, the students/singers here actually practised all day. Which isn’t really an excuse for anything, but does demand more understanding for slight slips.

Before I start to go over the singers and what happened, if you arrived here by searching for one of the singers, please read my short disclaimer on why these posts shouldn’t be taken as a serious review of individual singers here.

The first singer was Deridre Fulton, a Soprano from Canada. She sang Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Manon Lescaut by Puccini.

My own main problem with her was that she appeared too frozen, and didn’t really express emotions. Her singing was otherwise good, with a clear a deep voice, and good control.

Sherrill did comment that this is an aria that requires intensity, and worked with her on that a little.

He also had a general observations, after some small timing issues, saying that in aria songs consonants with duration usually occur before the beat, while vowels and consonants without duration, occur on the beat.

The nature of such master classes is that often the teacher stops the singer in mid-sentence to go over a point. And when the singer resumes the aria, sometimes they’re asked to resume mid-sentence as well. This is hard, since singers usually practice singing in a stream, or sections, and never start in such location. So even if they know the part very well, it can be difficult to pick up in the middle. This happened to Deridre a couple of times, and Sherrill mentioned that it’s a common problem, and that when it happens to singers “It makes them feel stupid. But they’re not” and it happens to everyone.

He also made a comment, when she sang too soft or strong than she had too, that singers tend to read strength in an exaggerated manner, too up or down, for example singing pianisimo instead of piano, or forte instead of mezzo-forte.

Another thing he said, and later repeated with a few of the other singers, is that breaths can be used for more than just taking in air. That’s the main purpose of course, and in most cases singers should do it inaudibly, but there are sections where it can add to the dramatic effect of the aria. “The reaction isn’t with the first syllable, it’s with the breath”.

The second singer was Pierre Etienne Bergeron, a Baritone, and also from Canada. He sang an aria whose name nobody (or almost nobody) was able to catch, despite several repetitions, from a German opera whose name nobody seemed to manage to catch as well. Sherrill has to step in and say it’s a version of Hamlet. [Update: Thanks to Hemdi from the program, the name of the aria is O vin dissipe la tristesse, and the opera is Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas]

If anyone who reads this can provide the proper names, I’d appreciate it…

He had a good voice, but sounded a little held back, like he’s not going as far as he can or should on some parts. His acting was more active, and more dramatic. But apparently that acting was not entirely appropriate to this aria, since this is the area Sherrill focused on when working with him.

The aria itself, and I may botch the explanation because Sherrill explained it like to an audience with some familiarity with this opera, was not originally intended as an aria, but more of an orchestra and choir piece. This resulted in a few discussions with the pianist, Rolando Garza, on modifications to the score to make the piano emulate the music better.

As for the presentation, a part of it was the usual point of paying attention to what is going on in the aria, and what the singer actually said. Not all the aria should have been with the same attitude, differentiating, for example, between the beginning where the singer tries to get himself wound up to perform a murder, or the middle where he’s there and events occur.

Sherrill also worked with him on acting better when mentioning God in this aria’s context. “When you say God at least make a little Awe”, as well as comments of finding something specific to focus about. He mentioned that singers sometimes tend not to pick locations and object to focus on, even when warranted.

Another point was on getting the details right when acting. If he pretends to hold a glass and drink, he should hold his hand as if he really has a glass in it, and move it towards him like he really drinks. Not like some do it, moving the hand towards the face fast, and then fast back down, in what would have caused a real glass of wine to actually splash the singer on the face.

On the other hand Sherrill also warned against taking the acting too far on these details. To continue the previous example, after doing the drinking, which is relevant, it is alright to go on ignoring the wine glass. No need to keep on pretending to hold it, and then pretending to put it someplace, when the song as already moved on anyway.

The third singer was Adam Marguelies, a Baritone from the US. He sang Resta immobile from Guglielmo Tell (William Tell) by Rossini.

He was nice, but his voice seemed a little weak and restrained (maybe because of overworking it that day, as Sherrill indicates some of the singers did?). He had a few diction problems, and he just sang the part without trying to act it.

This aria takes place just before the famous part of the William Tell story when he shoots the arrow into the apple standing on his son’s head. This requires, of course, that the singer pass some strong emotions. Which Adam didn’t do, eliciting a comment from Sherrill that “It was a little too little, I didn’t believe you were a father talking to your son”. Even beyond the special emotion of the scene, people sound different when talking to their sons, using a different infliction and tone.

Adam also held his fists clenched during almost the entire aria. It’s true that he should have expressed Tell’s tension and anxiety, but as Sherrill said “clenched fists looks like the singer is frustrated, not the character”, and this should be done in other ways.

By the end of the repeat song, after hearing the comments and recommendations, Adam’s singing and acting in this aria improved noticeably.

The fourth singer was Anya Fidelia, a Soprano from Russia and the US. She sang Vissi d’arte from Tosca by Puccini.

She had a strong voice, and very clear diction. The quality of her singing, her musical control, varied a little, with some parts being excellent, and some a little less good.

In a few places she made quick tempo changes that weren’t required by the notes. She should have picked a tempo in range and stuck with it. Sherrill said that in an actual opera there is a conductor that sets the exact tempo, but when just singing an aria like this she can have her own tempo, pick a pace that seems appropriate to her.

He also worked with her a little on the timing of her movements. She did made various movements and gestures when appropriate, but it was disconnected from the music, looking like she occasionally forgot to move and remembered she wanted to at the last moment.

Some of her gestures and postures were also not exactly appropriate, looking different than what she wanted them to. This is a common problem, since often people feel as if they look a certain way, while outside observers see something different. Shrerrill suggested the obvious way to practice on that, getting a mirror. Mirrors have a big advantage over getting another person such as a coach because “Singers, you don’t have to pay a mirror!”. And then it’s possible to practice the movements and see how it really looks like.

The fifth, and last, singer of the evening was Jose Adan Perez, a Baritone from Mexico. He sang La pietade in suo favore (or was it Cruda, funesta smania? My notes aren’t clear) from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

A very good singer, and quite likely the best one on this evening. About the only noticeable problem was that he sometimes had his stops a little too sharp.

He also apparently practised/studied with some well known figures, as Sherrill told him that “You worked with all the right people”.

One comment Sherrill made to him was regarding a part where he should have had a crescendo, but it was impossible to hear one because he was using a loud voice all the way. Sherrill explained that singing forte is a bad idea when going into a crescendo, since there’s nowhere to climb to. So even if the part is in forte, he should go down to piano so he could crescendo.

Another comment Sherrill made is was on showing the effort of singing. Singing an aria is hard, and takes a lot of effort. But what the audience sees shouldn’t be so transparent “Do all the effort you need, we don’t want to see it”.

It’s a balance, though. On the one hand the audience doesn’t want it to look like it takes no effort at all, and prefers to see that the singer is actually working, and that we get something for our time and money. On the other hand it shouldn’t look too hard, since the audience will get worried if it looks like the singer is about to get a heart attack and second.

Sherrill Milnes was very good this evening, and has a talent for explaining things in a way that the singers will understand him clearly. This isn’t as trivial as it sounds, since a lot of the terms, and especially whatever words can be used to try and explain exactly how to sing or move, are very subjective. It happens that an instructor tries to tell a singer something, and the singer understands and tries something different. Sherrill did not seem to have that problem, and expressed himself to the singers very clearly and with ease.

The singers themselves were also quite good, and it was a promising start for the season.

Why my International Opera Program posts should not be considered to be proper reviews of the singers

July 26th, 2006

One of the problems I’m having with the posts about this opera program is that they get a lot of hits by people searching for the singers by name .

Some searchers are probably just people considering whether to pay a ticket someplace to hear them sing. But some are possibly by people considering casting/hiring these singers, and some may be by the singers themselves or their family members.

Many of these may not be particularly happy with running the name and just getting a paragraph or two of very short and inexact personal opinion on the singer’s performance, followed by some details on what the teacher in the master-class said to them and worked with them.

So I figured I should give a short explanation on what am I trying to cover, and why nothing here should be taken too seriously by the people I’m writing about.

[Update: This paragraph is another very important reason, which just seemed to me to be too obvious to mention. But since it may not be, I'm stating it explicitly] Most of the posts I make in these opera program series are about master-classes. Where the singers practice an aria in front of a teacher/”master”, and receive comments, tips, and lessons. The singer will almost never choose an aria they know very well, and which they practised to perfection, for two main reasons. The first being that if the lecturer won’t have anything to add then it will be boring for the audience. And the second being that it will prevent them from learning something they maybe didn’t know before.

This means that on a master-class the singers will almost always, by definition and intentionally, not be at their best. So me perhaps stating some of their faults in this setting does not imply it will be a real fault when they actually sing on a concert or in an opera. It doesn’t mean they won’t, but it also doesn’t mean they will. It is just what impressions I received during the master-class, where they were more taking a lesson than performing for an audience.

Beyond that To start with, I am not a musician. I like classical music, and I like Opera. But I go to these things to watch and listen. I have no formal training. Nothing more beyond any regular member of the crowd in any similar performance.

I also don’t even try to provide a serious musical review. These posts are a combinations of personal notes, to help me remember what and who I heard, and recaps of the interesting parts of the master-classes.

And I mean interesting in the most basic ways, the things which are non-standard events, the crowd pleaser events, the highlights. I omit a lot of things that may have had a place in a musical review of the singer, or the aria, because they’re not interesting to a non-professional, and possibly not interesting to me.

I also lack the proper terminology. Or, more correctly, often I do know enough to understand the exact terms and descriptions if I hear them, but cannot recall them on my own without some time and effort. So I use the closest regular word I can find. Which is sometimes accurate, and sometimes not.

Things can also get repetitive, a few singers per evening, every evening. It may be important for each individual singer to hear about all the things they have done right, but a large part of it is very repetitive, so I don’t bother.

And, perhaps most importantly, I write these posts at least a few days after the master-class, based on very bad notes. During the show I just scribble a few reminders on a piece of paper. I go to these things because I enjoy them, so I mainly want to listen and pay attention, not write. This results in even worse handwriting than my usual, and in clipped and non-grammatical lines. Often I can’t use a lot of what I wrote, because I can’t recall whatever some obscure line was supposed to remind me of. And I often don’t manage take notes even on things I’d like to mention.

So, to make it short, if you’re a singer, doing ego-surfing, landing on one of my pages, and discovering all I had to say about you was “had a clear voice but a little screechy”, and that then I proceeded to detail the harshest things the teacher told about you in the maser-classes, don’t take it too seriously. I don’t hate you, I probably don’t even think you were really bad unless I explicitly said it. And even if I did, you really shouldn’t care. OK?

AOL’s Active Security Monitor has some big problems

July 25th, 2006

AOL released a new program called Active Security Monitor, which is supposed to help find problems with the security settings of computers. It scans the computer, provides scores in various categories, and suggests ways for improving the security where the score isn’t perfect.

A nice thing to have, if it works. Personally I’m quite good at dealing with my computers’ security by myself, but a tool like that can be useful to point less experienced people to, and for getting a quick baseline.

Except that it doesn’t work well at all. And yes, I know, it’s from AOL, what should I expect, right? It’s a shame that they really don’t do much to improve the reputation they have in these regards, and blew this great opportunity.

So far I ran it on one computer. The computer runs a fully patched and updated Windows 2000 professional, has a fully updated Avast! 4 Home as an anti-virus, no firewall since it’s connected to a small network protected by a properly configured external router, using Firefox 1.5 and Opera 9 for browsers, And with both Spybot S&D and Ad-Aware SE Personal installed.

I downloaded and installed the Active Security Monitor program, and let it scan the computer.

ASM comes with an option to register it for a home network, in order get status on multiple computers at the same time. I didn’t do this, and will run a comparison on a second computer separately later on. No need to create an account for a tool when I don’t know I’ll use it.

After a few seconds of scanning my computer received a total score of… 53. Out of 100. Not a pretty sight.

Let’s start with the good thing first. It detected both Ad-Aware SE Personal and Spybot S&D, and detected that their signature files were not updated. This was all true. I usually keep the computer clean to begin with, and so didn’t run or update any of them for well over a month.

So I run both, updated the data, and repeated the scan. My score in the “Spyware Protection” category jumped all the way to Excellent, and the total score climbed to 57. Still not very impressive.

I also suspect I would have gotten the Excellent score with only one of them installed. Which isn’t enough, since the overlap between what they catch isn’t complete. They’re better together.

On the “Firewall” category my computer is ranked as Poor. Which is totally justified, it doesn’t have a firewall installed. But I took a quick look in the details, and was surprised to see that “A firewall is detected but is not enabled on this PC”.

This is wrong. I don’t have a firewall installed. And since it’s not installed, there is obviously no way to turn it on. Worse, ASM is extremely unhelpful in that it didn’t tell me which firewall it thinks I have and how it thinks I can turn it on.

Instead, the recommendations page had links to pages with general firewall explanations, some marketing hype on how the AOL service comes with full firewall protection (This AOL marketing hype exists on all details pages, whenever there is any sort of a problem, as far as I could see), and a non-detailed “To enable a firewall: Click Start, point to All Programs, and select your firewall”.

Yep, that’s going to be real helpful for anyone who actually needs this tool to know if they have a firewall or not. All those people, the ones who aren’t even sure what a firewall is, would have no problem at all finding it by themselves and running it.

Especially if, like me here, they don’t even have one. That could be a long long search.

It did say that if I would enable my firewall (The one I don’t have installed) it will raise my overall score to 79 (That’s a 22 points improvement).

Next, on the “Virus Protection” category my computer is ranked as Fair. Why just Fair? Because according to it “The anti-virus (AV) program on this computer is not enabled”.

I double-checked just to be on the safe side, and I can assure you that my copy of Avast! was working perfectly. So if ASM did find Avast! (Though I can’t be sure, maybe it found some phantom AV program, like the firewall) it should also know it’s running.

ASM also claimed that the signature files for my AV program are out of date. Which also wasn’t true, they were updated almost just before running ASM.

The details page contained the same list of not so useful suggestions, such as saying what a great AV protection the AOL service gives, and providing an explanation on how to turn on my AV program. A generic explanation, that is, which was identical to the one on how to turn on my firewall. Nowhere did it say even the name of the AV program it found.

It stated that turning on the AV program would raise my score to 70 (That’s a 13 points improvement). Personally I’m more concerned about why it thinks my Anti Virus protection deserves a Fair score if it believes my AV program isn’t even enabled. A not-running AV program should be just as good as a totally non-existent one.

Next is the “Windows & Browser” category. On this one I received a Good score, with two complaints.

The first was that “The Windows System Restore feature is not turned on”. And it was potentially useful about it, giving detailed instructions on where to find it in order to turn it on… Except that, well, this computer is running Windows 2000, and not Windows XP. And System Restore is a feature of Windows XP. It does not exist on this computer, and so cannot possibly be turned on. And all the places it directs me to go to in order to turn it on, well, they just don’t exist here. Totally dumb, and very unprofessional.

The second complaint it had in this category was that “Internet Explorer (IE) is not configured with encryption”. First of all, I hardly use IE, and as I said the computer has both Firefox and Opera installed on it, something which didn’t interest ASM in the slightest. And second, well, I never disabled any encryption option in IE.

So I went to the recommendation to see how ASM thinks I can turn it back on. Seems like I needed to “Enable Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology on your browser”, and the way to do it is to go to IE‘s Internet Options, the Advanced tab, and there… to click on the Restore Defaults button.

Let me get this straight… In order to change an encryption setting, they want me to restore all the customizations I did there? Even ones entirely not related? Even ones that actually improve security beyond the defaults? Are they kidding me?

Plus, I checked my settings, and SSL was of course enabled. All settings that had something to do with encryption were right as they should be.

ASM stated that fixing the above two problems would increase my score to 63 (a 6 points increase).

On the “Wireless Security” it didn’t give a score, since the computer isn’t set for wireless access. That’s actually correct, so good job here on at least not thinking I have wireless access but need to turn it on, or something.

It also has a “P2P Software” category. On which I received an Excellent score. Why was it Excellent? Because “A peer to peer (P2P) file sharing program is not detected”. This is wrong on two entirely different levels.

The first one is conceptual. Having a P2P program installed is not a security risk by itself. Some of them are problematical, even very problematical, true. But not all, and not by the definition of being a P2P program. The risk is in what files are transferred with them.

But marking a P2P program as dangerous because you can pass bad programs in it is akin to saying having an email program, a web browser, or a CD drive, is bad for security. All true, but I didn’t see ASM complain about any of those.

The second one is that this computer actually had P2P programs installed. It’s not my main computer, so they’re old, and haven’t been used in many many months. But it has both KLT K++ and SoulSeek installed. Both are P2P programs.

I can forgive it for not finding SoulSeek, it’s not very mainstream. But missing a Kazaa Lite variation? Kazaa is one of the most problematical (from the security and privacy point) P2P programs out there.

And then it has the “PC Utilities” category, where I received an Unknown score because it didn’t find any PC Utility it cared about. Already questionable, since if not having them isn’t a cause for a bad security score, then they shouldn’t improve the security score when they’re there.

It had two points to mention here.

One item on the “PC Utilities” category was that “A PC optimization program is not detected on this PC”. What does that have to do with security? Actually, what is a PC optimization program supposed to do? There are tons of various optimization programs, doing totally different things, and many of them entirely not useful anyhow.

So I clicked their “Lean More” link to see what are they referring to. On the page they mentioned the built-in Windows utilities such as Disk Defragmenter, ScanDisk, and Disk Cleanup. All of which I have, of course, since they come with windows. And mentioned that there are better third-party tools for that.

True, but not relevant for security. This is supposed to be a security tool, so commenting on people not buying expensive programs (and programs most people usually don’t need) is out of place.

The second item in the category was that “A file backup program is not detected on this PC”. Here I can accept the security angle, since having backups is also good security. But the claim is nonsense. Especially considering their added explanation that they basically refer to anything used to backup files in a different location.

I have two different FTP programs installed on this computer, FileZilla and an older copy of SmartFTP. Both can be used, were and are used, for backups. I also have SyncBack installed on this computer, mostly for some test purposes, but it’s there and there’s no way for ASM to know what exactly is the usage pattern. So not finding any backup programs (Hey, ASM, listen up! Just copying files to a remote computer over the network is also a backup!) just indicates that it doesn’t pay attention. I do have backup programs installed.

Worse, one of their recommended solutions to the backup problem is to use “Xdrive: the most trusted provider of secure online storage”. Xdrive was acquired last year by AOL, so their incentive is clear. What’s also pretty clear is that Xdrive is far from being a trusted storage provider.

If I’ll add all the points I didn’t get the security score is an impressive 98 (57+6+13+22=98). Which is a good score. But, well, if I compensate for everything wrong, then why 98 and not a full 100?

I have two more general notes. One is that ASM decided I’m from a roaming location. I’m not. It’s a fixed desktop computer, with a fixed network, and a single active user. No roaming. At all. But since it doesn’t say what makes it believe I’m roaming, I can’t get it to change its mind.

If it can’t get this detail right, why should I trust it to get anything else network related right?

The second general note is that ASM uses IE to open all these additional information pages. It has them installed as HTML files on the hard drive, which is fine. But my default browser, and the program set to open these files by default, is Firefox. Which means ASM runs IE explicitly and on purpose.

Why would a security tool choose to intentionally run the least secure of my three installed browsers?

All in all I’m really not impressed.

I’ll run it again later on, using a second computer with Windows XP Pro, a different AV program, different P2P programs installed, and somewhat different settings. But I don’t count on being surprised by a sudden improvement.

On the bright side, the uninstall program seems to work perfectly…

Road repair

July 11th, 2006

There’s a strangely designed junction next to my office that confused drivers for quite some time now.

The way the junction design combined a few of the lanes is non-intuitive, and is different from the usual arrangement. This causes people driving from one of the directions to take the wrong lane for turning left, a lane which is not their turning lane but rather a lane going on the opposite directions.

An accident waiting to happen, as it is. It didn’t happen yet, as far as I know, only because most of the people driving in the area are “regulars”, and so know the junction. And because there are a lot of idiots parking where they shouldn’t by the side of the street, thereby forcing everyone to drive slower.

Several days ago I had a nice surprise, though. The city has repainted the road[1] again. The markings now go deeper into the junction than the remains of the previous ones, to remove any ambiguity for drivers. And they’re done in new clear white paint, instead of that hard to see orange/yellow the transportation authority seems so fond of these days.

Now there’s less chance of people killing themselves. And it has the added benefit of not getting me annoyed by seeing people overtake me to the left into the junction, when I’m in the single lane from which it should be possible to turn from.

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  1. All the original road markings have been eroded off, and dusted over, many years ago[back]

Glasses are for improving eyesight, not creating it

July 9th, 2006

A worker came to the office today to take some measurements for a modification we requested.

At some point he squinted at his measurement meter and complained that it’s hard to read.

Naturally enough, my boss suggested to him that maybe it’s time for him to get glasses. A rather obvious idea given that the guy is noticeably over 40, and doesn’t wear distance glasses. Statistically speaking he’s well past the stage when he began to need reading glasses.

But instead of saying it may indeed be time, he denied the need for reading glasses. Why? Because, as he said “I can still see. I just can’t see well”.

Which is very odd. If he couldn’t see at all, glasses would likely not help him a single bit. Glasses are supposed to help improve eyesight. His eyesight is, as he admitted, deteriorating. And this fits the job description of glasses perfectly.

Except that in his eyes (pun intended) the purpose of glasses is apparently different. With his attitude almost nobody would wear glasses at all. Even half-blind people would eschew them, since they can still see. Just the totally blind ones will consider glasses, but that will rarely do them any good.

Interesting attitude. But as long as he only makes himself suffer, that’s his own problem.

Just as lousy

July 6th, 2006

I don’t entirely understand a new wave of commercials that seem to be hitting us lately.

Ideally the purpose of a commercial is to try and convince customers that your product is good for them, and that it’s better for them than competing products.

Newer TV and radio commercials, for quite a few years now, often just try to work by pushing the brand name. These commercial don’t actually say anything about the product, but instead make a lot of noise in the hope that the name will stick to people’s memory.

But this latest batch are just plain odd. Oh, the basic premise is clear enough, they tell people that they’re cheaper than the competition. If you’re just as good as the competition, but cost less, it’s an advantage. It may not be suitable for all people, especially those more concerned with quality than with money, but it works.

These ones, though, don’t say they’re just as good as the competition. They say they’re just as bad as the competition. These commercials pick aspects of the quality of their product, or service, which are known to be bad, and which annoy and trouble customers. And they explicitly say that it’s a problem and it’s bad.

But instead of saying they’ll improve, they just say that it’s the same with the competition, but that they cost less than the competition. So why pay more to get the same lousy product?

It does make some sense, in the specific cases where all alternatives are indeed crappy. But is this really the sort of branding companies want? For people to think of them not only as the cheapest, but as bad, lousy, and crappy?

Do Not Freeze

July 6th, 2006

Shipped packages and crates can carry all sorts of warning labels on them. The most common ones seen being “Breakable”, “Do not fold”, and their ilk.

Today I noticed a new one on a large package delivered to our office.

In very large block letters, with a colour highlight, was the sentence “DO NOT FREEZE”, and beneath it, in slightly smaller font “Sensitive Against Freeze”.

I had no idea shipping companies had a tendency to freeze packages.

Very strange.

Not to mention pretty bad grammar on the smaller sentence, but that’s beside the point.

Opening beer bottles without a can opener

July 2nd, 2006

There’s this site, 1000 Arten ein Bier zu √∂ffnen (I believe a rough translation would be “1,000 ways to open beer” or something of the sort), that depicts lots of ways in which one can open a beer bottle.

So far the list merely goes to 984, but there’s noticeable progress.

It’s in German, but that doesn’t matter because they have pictures. Three for each method: before, during, and after.

Many are boring, just using various surfaces. But some are quite bizarre, and plenty are truly hilarious.

The most complex and expensive way of killing cockroaches yet

July 2nd, 2006

Researchers from Brussels, in a research funded by the EU (for a sum of 3 million Euro), have developed a small robot that smells like a cockroach.

OK, that was an overly simplistic way of presenting it.

The kick in the mandibles comes from a Belgian-led team who spent three years developing a mini robot that can convince cockroaches to creep out of dark holes and gather in light places. The InsBot looks more like a pencil sharpener than a household pest, but it smells like a cockroach.

The InsBot has a cocktail of pheromones and molecules painted on its body, allowing it to infiltrate the cockroach community.

Imagine, working for three years just to develop something that smells like a cockroach. Wouldn’t it have been better instead to work on something that can take away the smell of one once you crush it? These bugs stink.

Cockroaches, it turns out, are very social creatures. No, really. Yes, yes, I know that staying put even after you yell at someone to get the heck out of your house is usually considered a very asocial behaviour. They’re not social with people. Just with other cockroaches. Go figure.

And if there’s something they think is another cockroach, like a mini-robot with the right smell, they’ll tend to get friendly and stick around. So if the robot slowly wanders around near them, and then goes and stand outside on the floor, a bunch of them are likely to congregate around it.

Yes, that sounds strange to me too. Because I’ve seen many cockroaches in my life, but it was always one on one[1].

But the researches say that cockroaches tend to stick together in group. And they spent three years of intense study, not nearly thirty years of sporadic encounters. So maybe they do know better than me.

Now you must be wondering what is so exciting about being able to get the cockroaches to stick around the robot. Does it shoot them? Electrocute them? Spreads poisonous bug-spray on them? No. That won’t be fun. It won’t be sporting. And it won’t allow them to release that disgusting smell of squashed cockroaches.

The plan, the 3 million Euro plan, is far simpler, and much more direct. It could draw them all out into the middle of the floor, where a person could squash them with a shoe. Or, if there are enough of them around, maybe jump around in a marry little dance crunching and stomping cockroaches under heel with every step. How fun.

Can you imagine the cost of the extra software and electronics needed to allow the timing to be right? Because this is not automatic. Automatic means you’ll have cockroach parties in the middle of the living room when you’re sleeping, or out at work.

So there will need to be some signalling mechanism, or some pre-set timer. Letting the robot know when is it the right time to draw the little cockroaches in so you could step on them.

I wonder if it will take another research just to come out with the fact that the cockroaches, while highly social, are not entirely insane. When a person comes stomping in, do you think they’ll stay and keep the little robot company? Hell, no! They’ll scatter around, leaving the poor stomper in no better position than had he[2] just spotted a lone cockroach randomly.

Plus, how is one expected to go around stomping cockroaches when smack down in the middle of them there’s a complex, and expensive, electronic device, in the form of our erstwhile robot? You put down your leg too hard, you’ll break the robot. Unless the robot is very tough, in which case you’ll break the leg. None of the two options seems appealing.

So, given all the problems that I can think of[3], why are they still doing it? Are cockroaches really such a big problem?

In a breakthrough for the battle against mankind’s most diehard enemy – the cockroach – European scientists have hoodwinked a group of them into congregating in a place where they can be stamped on easily.

Aha! Cockroaches are mankind’s most diehard enemy.

Our greatest, and toughest, enemies. And all the EU invests in fighting them is a measly 3 million Euro fund?! And a small group of researchers from just one university?! All this with no assistance by other world countries and superpowers?!

Shocking. Truly shocking.

Plus, while fighting such a dangerous, tough, vicious, insidious, and diehard enemy, they put in the research team a traitor who sympathizes with the enemy. Seriously:

But, for now, Deneubourg is not taking his eye off cockroaches which he describes as ‘no dirtier than flies’ and victims of a ‘bad press’.

Bad press. Would that be the same press calling them “mankind’s most diehard enemy”, I wonder?

He believes it will soon be possible to develop an ‘intelligent roach nest’ in which robots are positioned to tease the creepy-crawlies into human stamping range.

Brr. Am I the only one getting odd vibes from the Terminator movies, with the robots designed to look like humans and infiltrate into their camps in order to betray them to the machines to be killed?

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  1. Me and the cockroach, Mano a mano. Two begin, but only one comes out alive. And it’s not the cockroach, let me tell you.[back]
  2. Women don’t squish cockroaches, they yell “Ewwww!” loudly, and wait for a man to come and do it.[back]
  3. And I did it with no funding, and hardly any time invested in research. So they, with the time and funding, probably came out with more.[back]

Teacher knows best

July 2nd, 2006

Recently a lecturer in the Open University here was caught taking an exam for a student (Sorry, article in Hebrew only).

He used a false ID, under the student’s name. And everything probably would have passed quietly except for a surprise inspection, done by someone who knew the lecturer.

He even came with borrowed clothes from the student. Though I’m not sure what that was supposed to accomplish, since anyone knowing the student should have spotted immediately he’s not him, and anyone not knowing the student wouldn’t recognize the clothes anyway.

The student paid him 5,000[1] ILS to take the test for him.

It may look like good business (financially, I mean) considering there’s a good reason to suspect he took the test for other students as well. But actually it’s not at all a good business, since the amount of exams in a course per semester is very limited, and he obviously can only pretend to be one student at a time.

So I don’t get why he did that. It’s a huge breach of professional ethics, and immoral. It could have, probably will now, cost him his career. And the expected gains are not that high.

The course in question was a math course which is considered to be extremely difficult. According to people I know who took this Open University course, it’s considered one of the, if not the single, toughest courses in degrees like Computer Science or Math.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Something I heard from a student who took this course, who told it to me to help illustrate how hard the exams for this course are.

His lecturer for this course, the one who was responsible for helping the entire class study and understand the material, tried to take the exam once. Just to see how it will go.

And according to my friend this was a good lecturer, one who knew his stuff, and was an intelligent person.

He passed, with a decent grade. But far from a full score. Around 80% of the grade. Meaning that the one checking his test obviously decided he got about 20% of his answers wrong.

The way I see it, if people who are supposed to be the authority on the material, and the ones responsible for teaching it to others, can’t get full grades, then something is very rotten at the core.

Teachers and lecturers are not some amazing prodigies, sure. There is a lot they don’t know, and don’t understand. I had some who weren’t able to provide even the most basic information on anything that went even slightly beyond the course material. But they should know the course material. And if the lecturer is a good one, rather than an obviously lousy one, then it’s a given that they do know the course material.

Exams, by definition, are supposed to be a way to measure how well someone knows the material. Never mind that it’s impossible to really do, so all they can attempt is a rough proxy. And never mind that most students then study for the test, instead of studying the material, which in practice does turn out to be two different things. The test should still represent at some level the knowledge of the person taking it.

So if someone who is the university’s model of a person knowing the material can’t pass the test with full grades, and make substantial mistakes, what does that tell the students?

If you know everything perfectly you should get a perfect score. But that’s obviously not the case here.

Yes, paying someone to take a test for you is bad. Personally I think all cheating in tests is bad, and have avoided doing even the more mundane/common stuff that many students do. But this is because tests should be passed, or not, based on knowledge and merit.

When a university has a test which doesn’t grade based on what the proper criteria should be, though, they not only invite serious cheating, they partially justify it.

The most basic thing you claim against a person cheating is that they should have studied, and passed the test based on their knowledge. And people aren’t required to know everything, just well enough, this is why a passing grade isn’t a full score.

But when students know that knowing everything very well, even so well that they’d be at a level suitable to teach the material to other people, still won’t get them full grades, they also know that the passing grade isn’t. The well enough becomes near perfect, when perfect is just slightly higher than passing.

Students are placed in a position where they can either know perfectly, and still get low grades[2], or they can fail the course. No middle ground, of partially knowing the material and so getting a low grade, is possible. If you know enough for a low grade on a fair exam, you’d fail on this one.

If the test is not fair, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in expecting the students to act fair. Proper academical ethics should be exercised by both sides. Not just by the students and faculty, but also by the university’s administration and processes.

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  1. about $1100 USD[back]
  2. Meaning they know that an additional very small mistake, one that otherwise would have allowed them to keep a high grade, may in this case be enough to flunk them[back]