Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Playing the piano at the hospice

I guess without the habit of practice, some things tend to fade away.

As I looked into the repository of draft blog entries in my Blogger, I felt disgusted at their quality and analytical limitations. The sharpness is lost, so they're deleted. Or perhaps there is no more rage that would have inspired another 1,500 to 2,000 word essay.

The past 12 months has made me an empty shell. I left my job, although it would seem an irrational decision since I believe it is possibly the best job I could ever have.

During the 3-week lull period, I got to do a 7-day stint as a volunteer pianist at a hospice. It was purely by chance in my first visit I noticed the existence of the instrument sitting outside the wards. Besides, I thought it would be fun to do something different, while at the same time recharge my batteries.

Despite having only touched the piano for a few minutes every 1 or 2 years in the last 20 years, I wrote to them and asked if I could play for the patients and staff. Thankfully, they thought I was neither crazy nor incompetent, despite the lack of practice and familiarity with the piano.

11 years of formal Electone organ training. Played the guitar since 1996. Been writing and recording songs since 1997. I quietly believed I could do pull it off, although I was initially disappointed at the quality of playing.

Being at the hospice was a sobering experience. I feel there's love, and there's also sadness.

It was a 1-hour shift. My first shift was a difficult 45 minutes.

The lack of practice and conditioning was felt almost immediately. The weighted keys and sustain pedal weren't totally alien, but I knew I needed years of playing to reach the level I desire. My left hand was sluggish and occasionally played the wrong keys, while my right was heavy and a little too ambitious (wanting to simultaneously play both melody and chords).

It wasn't only the fatigue in the forearms and wrists but the choice of songs and the environment that made the first time difficult. Maybe I thought too much of it.

To make things easier, I had transposed most songs to C major key signature, after having listened to them on YouTube to make sure I got the melodies and chords right. Of course, there were the hours of practice.

At every milestone of a song, I would tell myself I was talented and "it" would come back to me. But of course, that would have ignored the reality of 11 years of grind that sharpened my aural abilities. Fortunately, that compensated for my lack of conditioning on the piano, and of course, the use of the sustain pedal to patch over the weak playing of the left hand and the use of arpeggios on the right - a piano hack? I don't know.

Tomorrow's the last of the 7-day stint. Been clocking 1.5 hours in the last few sessions although the soreness is there.

It's still a hospice, and I always have a heavy heart walking into the premises and sitting myself down by the piano. But as a volunteer putting in a 1 to 1.5-hour shift, I knew my role was to do my best to make the environment relaxing and enjoyable for the patients, staff and other volunteers.

Looking forward to playing tomorrow again, and will probably miss doing it after that.

Here's the whole set (in no particular order):

Malay Songs:
Di Tanjong Katong
Chan Mali Chan
Burung Kakak Tua
Rasa Sayang
Bengawan Solo

Chinese Songs:
小人物的心生 (or is it 声?)

Miscellaneous Singaporean Songs:
Count on Me Singapore
Stand up for Singapore
Singapura, Oh Singapura

Beatles numbers:
The Long and Winding Road
Across the Universe
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
8 Days a Week
Let It Be
Hey Jude
You Won't See Me
Imagine (by Lennon, of course)

Other Rock/pop numbers:
We are the Champions (by Queen)
Don't Look Back in Anger (by Oasis)
Yellow (by Coldplay)
The Wild Ones (by Suede)
Leave a Light On (by Belinda Carlisle)
My Heart Will Go On (by Celine Dion)
Let It Go (from Frozen)
I Do I Do I Do I Do (by Abba)
Shanty (by The Quests)
Julie Tearjerky (by Eraserheads)
Sabai Sabai (by Bird Thongchai)
That Thing You Do (from the movie of the same name)

Moon River
Love Me Tender
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
You Belong to Me
When You Wish Upon a Star
Don't Know Why
Dream a Little Dream

Theme from New York New York
Mack the Knife

Doodles and Fillers:
Theme from Super Mario Brothers
Young Men (by Suede)
Strawberry Fields Forever (by The Beatles)
Champagne Supernova (by Oasis)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chord variations

I have only in the last two to three years started paying attention to the technique of "jazzing" up chords. As an amateur songwriter, I was always oriented towards the British influenced blues-tinted guitar-driven rock for a good 8 years before accommodating in my songs shoegazer's heavy layering of guitars for a couple of years.

Although I am probably not able to identify the names/terms of the chord variations, my early songwriting already used the following: Major7, Major Add9, Minor7, Minor6, Minor Add9, Aug4, 7 Sus4, 7 Add9, Major9. They are like people whose faces we recognise, but whose names we don't remember.

Examples in C and Am minor key signatures, and in ascending order of chords:

C Maj7 = C, E, G, B.
C Maj Add9 = C, E, G, D.

A Min7 = A, C, E, G.
A Min6 = A, C, E, F#.
A Min Add9 = A, B, C, E.

C Aug4 = C, F#, G; or C, E, F#, G.

(Fifth chord) G7 Sus4 = G, C, D, F.
(Or if I'm going to move from Am to D7, I'll use D7 Sus4) D7 Sus4 = D, F#, G, A, C. 

(Another variation of D7, following Am) D9 = D, F#, A, C, E.
(Fifth chord) G9 = G, B, D, F, A.

The variations in the chords (as opposed to your typical orthodox 1-3-5's/C-E-G's) allow more options for stringing chords together since the virtual counterline of notes that connect one chord with the next will be tighter. At least that was my take on it (and at least it explains why Canon in D "flows").

For instance, in the key of C major, let's use the example of C chord transitioning to F.

The constituent notes of C major are C, E and G, while F major is F, A and C. 

There are a handful of virtual counterlines that would connect these 2 chords:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. E to F (1 key)
3. G to F (2 keys)
4. G to A (2 keys)

For me, it is not the individual, but the collective set of counterline transitions that determine the extent to which one chord will "flow" to another chord. I religiously apply this principle to my songwriting because I always believe it makes the most sense for the style of guitar-driven pop-rock songs I like to make.

Now, when I "complicate" and "fuzzy up" the chords C and F to be, say Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B) and Fmaj add9 (F, A, C, G). I get this:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. G to G (0 key)
3. E to F (1 key)
4. B to C (1 key)
4. G to F (2 keys)
5. G to A (2 keys)
6. B to A (2 keys)

I would consider Cmaj7 moving to Fmaj add9 as something that's transits/flows well, because not only do you have a very small shift in keys (e.g. B to C and E to F), the second chord also retains components of its predecessor (e.g. notes C and G).

That explains the feeling some of us experience (well, music invokes different reactions) when we encounter the following chord sequence: C, Cmaj7, C7.

This is because each subsequent chord carries with it the essence of the previous chord, making the transition smooth-to-seamless, and in the case of C to Cmaj7 to C7, sounds like it's sliding smoothly downwards.

C = C, E, G.
Cmaj7 = B, E. G.
C7 = Bb, E, G.

You can get the above sequence in popular songs like Can't Take My Eyes Off You or Kiss Me.

So, for your orthodox pop song or old school rock and roll song, you can take a more direct approach by transitioning from C to C7 before you (very obviously) move to the fourth chord F major.

But if you're going indie rock or even jazz, Cmaj7 can be used in place of C. The major7 bunches up the notes in a chord, going against the grain when it comes to orthodox major and minor chord formation (i.e. your 1, 3, 5s), in which the notes in those latter chords have a somewhat comfortable separation from one another. The major7 compresses the notes, and serves to make the chord sound more like a "transition" chord, i.e. doesn't sound like the root chord, or sound quite like the equilibrium on which the entire song should be resting.

For example, in a pop song in C major key signature, we would know (and gladly take for granted) that all roads point back to C major because it is the root chord and equilibrium with which all chord sequences end. But when you use C Maj7 to open or close a line of chords or a movement in the song (e,g. verse, chorus), it doesn't immediately assure the listener that it is the main chord of the song and, I believe, would impress upon the listener that something is definitely coming up next, hence my labeling it as a transition chord.

Same case when moving from G back to C in C major key signature. Some use G7 (G, B, D, F), and others use G and transition it to G aug5 (G, B, D#). The destination is the same, i.e. C major (C, E, G), but it is all about finding the variation of the G chord that would make it a lot closer to its following chord.

In trying to return to C major chord, how am I going to make that journey back to the E note (which is part of C major chord)?

The closest the G major chord has to offer is D, which is 2 keys removed from E.

G7 has F, which is 1 key removed from E. So you could "fall back down" to C major from G7. Alternatively, G aug5 has D#, which is always 1 key removed from E. This allows you to "crawl back up" to C major from G aug5.

I don't know what's the accurate term that best captures the "jazzing up", "fuzzying" of chords, but depending on the effect you want to get out of the song, certain chord variations will help. This is especially useful for an amateur musician like me, who has in the earlier stages of songwriting, made chord sequences out of orthodox 1-3-5 chords, before adding variations.

Let's use "Count of Me Singapore" as an example. It's in the key of F. If you're an old school pop songwriter who loves clean and orthodox chords, this would be your chordwork.

You and (Fmaj) me
We'll do our (C) part
Stand to- (Gm) -gether (C)
Heart to (F) heart

We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (F) be
We can achi- (Bb) -eve (C)
We can achi- (F) -eve

The arrangement mostly relies of first (F), fourth (Bb) and fifth chords (C), comprising the clean and orthodox 135.

Now, let's do an extreme make-over with jazzed up chords to achieve a dreamier effect on the song, which it doesn't really need because it's already a very well-written song. That "Bb on C" chord in the original song alone, in my opinion, the genius stroke that at the same time holds together and defines the song.

(C7 sus4) You and (Fmaj7 add11) me (Fmaj7)
We'll do our (C7 sus4) part (C7)
Stand to- (Gm7 add9) -gether (C7)
Heart to (Fmaj7) heart

(F7) We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (Am7) be (Dm add9)
We can achi- (Gm7) -eve (C7 sus4) (C7)
We can achi- (F) -eve (F6) (F7)

For the heck of it, I'll put in the chorus:

(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me Singa- (Am7) -pore (Dm add9)
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (Fmaj7) -pore (F7)
(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me to give my (Am7) best and (Dm add9) more
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (F) -pore

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gift of Song/writing

Mediacorp’s songwriting competition “The Gift of Song” is now in its voting stage. They’ve shortlisted 3 songs written for Singapore’s 50th year of independence.

Since they’re “competition” songs, I thought it’ll be interesting to give them a listen, and provide some thoughts on what works and doesn’t work for each song, from an amateur songwriting perspective.

Being Here
In the context of Singapore songs, Electrico’s “What Do You See” come to mind. Same genre, same mood. Same low baritone voice to appeal to the little Pearl Jams in you.

My opinion is that as contrived as it is, Electrico’s  2009 song is musically better, and better arranged.

The song’s in E major, and I would assume it was written using the guitar first. To further the violence that is stereotyping, I would think most keyboardists would write songs in C or G key signatures. But that is some cock logic, like saying that performing some song in F major as opposed to other key signatures would make it sound grander (Majulah Singapura, any one?).

On the good side, Ciao Turtle have songwriting guts. With Singaporean efficiency, they cut off 2 beats in the second bar of the verse, because they’re unnecessary to the song in John Lennon’s view. You’re not going to add in more lyrics or drag certain words just to fill up the rest of the bar, so why not take away a beat or 2? That motif appears again in the last line of the chorus.

| C#m - - - | A - |
| E - - - | - - - - |

That’s one of 2 parts of the song that stuck out for me, the other being the second last line of the chorus when Eddie Vedder, I mean Shabir, climaxes with a falsetto.

A clever touch would be the woah-oh-oh bit – I wouldn’t call it a bridge, but you know what I mean. They’re trying to make it singalong-friendly.

The song is straightforward and repetitive, and for me, served only one purpose – to painstakingly build up to that Scott Stapp, I mean Shabir, falsetto in the chorus, before it returns to equilibrium. I personally do not like chord arrangement of the last line of the chorus, but it’s mostly obscured by the vocals of Gavin Rossdale, I mean Shabir. To each his own.

| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | C#m - - - | - - - - |
| A - B - | - - - - |

It is straightforward because it mostly comprises a verse and a chorus. The songwriting is very directly and efficient, cutting off the pre-chorus. The song is strung together using 4 notable chords. It probably works for this genre of music. The climax in the chorus doesn’t start in the first line any way, so you don’t need a pre-chorus for the build-up.

This song sounds more like a song belonging to the final third of a rock album. It sounds understated, too wound-down and mostly anticlimatic. And to put this anglicised rock number next to a rather sino monster “Home”, people will have a hard time remembering it.

Fans of guitar-driven music will appreciate the simplicity and wholeness of the song. But for folks whose tastes have been cultivated by dance-pop and R&B, they may be divided on “Being Here”. For me, the style and genre of music here is meant to either convey a sense of longing or a sense of helpless loneliness and alienation, so it’s a little difficult going the Electrico way for a song about loving Singapore. So what do you see?

We are stars
When I first heard this song, I didn’t think it would make a good competition song. Sounded clumsy and schizophrenic. But it grew on me.

Of the 3 songs, I’d say this is the songwriter’s song (you’ve a song, and then you have a songwriter’s song; like how you have a musician and then you’ve got a musician’s musician). A songwriter’s song, for me, would be something that forces you to analyse it and respect it for what it is, and when you finally have an opinion, it may be diametrically opposite of another person’s, like the way the verse is written. Just look at the chords.

| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |
| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |

Yes, this chord sequence is perfectly fine. The Beatles used it in “You won’t see me”. But for a much slower pop song with R&B vocals, it felt strange, but strange enough for me to want to listen to it over again to try to understand what on earth is going on. It transcends certain boundaries, and maybe it’s doing it defiantly. Any way, songwriter’s song, baby.

And… It’s written in the key of C. DEH DEH DEHHHHHHHH.

The song causes me a lot dissonance, because I had expected a simple pop-light R&B mix (essentially pop sounds with soulful singing and the occasional runs). But visions of R Kelly and Silverchair (specifically and strangely “The Greatest View”) filled my mind. Rather than entertain, the song made me think and put away all preconceived notions of songwriting.

The overlapping vocals are unique, dreamy and not a Bukit Batok rat-scampering clusterfuck like 2013’s “One Singapore” (with extra cheese).

The arrangement could have done without the aimlessly winding strings, but that probably adds to the dreamy mood of the song. Speaking of dreamy, the F2 chord (or F major with a G) is a nice touch.

| C - - - | C - - - | Am - G - | F - G - |

I especially like the melody for the chorus, partly because I am a sucker for the major7ish-ness toward the end of the first line (i.e. “comets…”).

Not being a fan of lyrics in general (and I don’t pay much attention to them), and even less so since it’s a song about a country like Singapore (where you’ll get really cheesy and contrived lyrics in most cases), I however feel the opening lyrics of the chorus are by a mile the most compelling set of words written across the 3 songs. They are written a way for a very smooth delivery.  The first bars of the chorus (while stuck on the C major chord) probably provide a good case study for songwriting. Plus, after listening to each of the 3 songs, I only remember the lyrics to the first line of the chorus of this song.

Another edge this song has over the other songs is the use of a simple prechorus and bridge. Not overused like the smoke machine in the video. These parts don’t take anything away from the song and respectively provide an efficient transition from verse to chorus (although it could have a bigger buildup) and chorus to chorus. Perhaps the last note of the prechorus could have been higher than the second last note, but that’s just a personal preference.

It is not as polished as “These are the days” or as tight as “Being here”. The song could do with a better verse that would help the build-up to the chorus. Maybe redoing the verse in A minor and playing with F2s (or F major 2s, sus2s, etc), Gmaj6s and C major7s and 2s will help – make them dreamy. Given the chorus has 2 full bars of the same C chord, it would provide the only instance of clarity from the dreaminess and smoke that nicely define the other parts of the song, and thus make it a good climatic component. While I respect the use of the D major chord, I would personally omit it and favour the major2s, 6s and 7s and build the entire song around the chorus’ first line.

These are the days
Oh hey look, a woman is finally involved in this. You have 3 finalists comprising men and 2 male performers. Okay, we’ll tackle Gender another day.

2 things stuck out in this song. No. I’m not talking about that.

(1) Transposition (from B major to G# major). And (2) the roles of chords D#7 and A#7.

On the first listen, I thought “what a cheapskate way of writing a song” – you get a bunch of chords and recycle them into another key. After a couple of listens (is that even grammatically correct), there are differences in the verse and chorus other than the key signatures they’re in.

| B - C#m - | G#m - F# - |
| B - C#m - | F# - - - |
| B - C#m - | D#7 - G#m - |
| C#m7 - E/F# F# | B - - - |

| G# - A#m - | Cm - C# - |
| Fm - - - | A#7 - - - |
| G# - A#m - | Cm - C7 - |
| Fm - A#7 - | C# - D# - |

The thing about having a verse and chorus in 2 different key signatures is that you need good transitions between them. The transition from the verse to chorus is weaker than the transition from the chorus back to the verse. Maybe there are more viable transitions from G# major to B major. Taking the shorter route, going “up” (G# to B) always feels and sound better than stepping down (B to G#). Still, it depends on how you craft the transition.

The song could definitely do with a prechorus, containing a couple of lines, stringing chords that probably figure their way to the 5th chord of the G# key, i.e. D#. It’s not too difficult, you could stuff 2 chords in the last line of the prechorus, like the 5th chord of the B major key (F#) and you get | F# - D# - |, where F# is the false 5th chord fooling listeners into thinking we’ll return to B when F# was just serving as the 7th chord in the G# major key.

Before I get to the nice D#7 and A#7, the ending of the chorus sounds like it’s modelled after Dick Lee’s Home. DEH DEH DEEEEHHHHH… You know, that “come down” after the climatic part of the chorus, then you’ll want to slowly sing “for this is where I know it’s home” a capella. It works for Lee Chee Sin’s song.

Like the other 2 songs, there’s a streak of unconventionality in songwriting. Most pop or pop-ish R&B numbers typically don’t get from a second chord back to the first chord, but the song chorus’ second line did just that – using the A#7 as the last chord before returning to G#.

To get to the 6th chord minor of the verse (G#m), the song uses D#7. In most pop songs that would use a range of chords that include B, C#m, D#m, E, F# and G#m, you would think D#7 or chords with G in them would be unnecessary, since most chords are separate by 2 keys. The separation of D#7 and G#m is 1 key (via G). Anyway, the songwriter knows his stuff – when to play the card of looser and tighter separation/transitions.

With reference to the last line of the chorus, most pop songwriters will want to drag out F minor for one whole bar, or maybe add a D# major in the last beat as a transition to C# major. Other songwriters may choose to make it | Fm - Fm7 - | since F minor7 contains the D# note. But keeping to the spirit of the verse, he uses A#7. I personally prefer F minor6, but since the second line already uses the 6-2 pattern (i.e. Fm to A#7). Still, good touch.

If there’s another I can change in the song, it would be the intro strings. It goes F# B A# B. I would choose the higher B A# B than the lower one. An intro with a climatic riff would be better than one that feels a little down – the kind of down you feel when you think of the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Guess “these are the days” might win the voting competition, and it’s also helped by a very talented Farisha and children. But if it does get performed live or recorded again, I’d strongly recommend including a prechorus. WOAHOHOHHHHHH *clenches and shakes fists* is NOT a prechorus.

All the best to all the songwriters.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Include gender identity, sexual orientation in Constitution

(Published - Today, Nov 1, 2014)

I read with disappointment the report “Apex court rejects constitutional challenges against Section 377A” (Oct 30). It appears that further discourse on Section 377A will now reside in Parliament, to consider the extralegal arguments.

It is sad that the rights of sexual minorities here are unable to be protected in the social, economic and legal domains, to the point constitutional challenges were made, when according to the courts, the decision is best left to Parliament.

A lot has been discussed since 2003, when then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong touched on non-discriminatory employment of homosexuals in the Civil Service.

It is now time for action, for us to codify non-discriminatory practices in our law and have the Constitution explicitly protect all, regardless of sexual identity and orientation.

Retaining Section 377A implies the continued legal discrimination against consenting homosexual males, even in their private lives. This surely cannot be supported, especially when weighed against the liberties of consenting heterosexual acts in private.

I had always believed that the Constitution served to protect minorities and the vulnerable among us, while capturing the aspirations of our society, one that is built on equality, among other pillars.

If we aspire to be non-discriminatory in all segments of life — professional, social, legal, personal — let us put gender identity and sexual orientation in the Constitution. From there, we change the laws slowly to be aligned with the Constitution’s values.

Ho Chi Sam

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gender stereotypes must be confronted

(Published - Today October 10, 2014)

I refer to the report “Ministries studying feedback on relationship workshop” (Oct 9). In her open letter to her principal, Agatha Tan wrote that the booklet distributed at the workshop perpetuated gender stereotypes.

Snapshots of its contents suggest that girls must make behavioural changes to accommodate the behaviour of hormonal boys.

Other content generalised and trivialised the decision-making capacity and communication styles of females, such as suggesting that they may say one thing and mean another. Such materials leverage gender stereotypes that are unhealthy, if not harmful.

It is through stereotypes that we trivialise and misjudge lived daily experiences, such as if people believe men cannot control themselves and women do not often mean what they say.

The implications are that stereotypes often go unquestioned and are normalised in culture, professional environments and the law. This disadvantages and marginalises people further.

Gender stereotypes perpetuate body image disorder and impose unrealistic perceptions on relationships. They are behind bullying in environments that demand “manly” males and “womanly” females. The stereotypical view that “it’s a man/woman’s job” is an unfair workplace impediment.

There may be a history or a long-lived paradigm that informs our current view of gender roles, but this does not make it morally justifiable or eternal.

The booklet’s content may resonate with some persons at some points in their lives, but it does not fully account for relationships in general. In fact, it is simplistic and reductionist.

The snapshots Ms Tan shared are a regression, from understanding gender as cultural and nuanced to accepting it as a rigid, dichotomous and mutually exclusive binary. These stereotypes thrive on sexism, and sexism hurts us all, regardless of gender.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Be more tolerant, regardless of gender, sexuality

(Published - Today June 28, 2014)

As a husband and father, I am supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Singaporeans.

Moreover, I cannot allow myself to be misrepresented by those who leverage the rhetoric of “family”, “marriage” and “children” to put down LGBT people.

I find it condescending and dehumanising to trivialise sexuality as a “lifestyle” and unnatural.

This issue has unnecessarily polarised Singapore.

I believe faith and religion can coexist with harmonious diversity and a respect for people, regardless of their persuasions and orientation. It is not a zero-sum game.

I doubt what Pink Dot stands for will affect our loyalty in friendships, faithfulness in marriage, love in parenthood and commitment to our religious communities.

While there may be different ideological persuasions, we share a common responsibility in this diverse and multicultural space for ensuring that others are not inconvenienced or made to feel small.

Singapore needs to be more tolerant, accepting and respectful of people, regardless of gender and sexuality.

Ho Chi Sam

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cross-site scripting, hacking and unauthorised access to server: Not the same

I read the news about one man who was fined $8,000 for "hacking" into the Istana website.

The report read:
Delson Moo Hiang Kng, 43, pleaded guilty to a charge of unauthorised access to the server hosting the Istana website, after admitting to carrying out a cross-site scripting attack on the Google search function embedded in the site.
The report later referred to the incident as "hacking of the Istana website".

I am puzzled.

What I understand from the reports is that the man did cross-site scripting on a Google search widget that was placed (embedded) on the Istana website.

As a result of this, the appearance of the Google widget changed, and displayed contents from another source, i.e. another website.

Ok. Unauthorised access. Hacking. These are very serious things, especially when it concerns government services. The government has a responsibility to its people to ensure that the public services provided online are accurate and secure. And as members of public using these services or accessing the contents, I believe we should stand with the government against activities that obstruct and disrupt these processes that only the government can provide.

Back to the case. When I first saw the screengrab of the defacement, I initially thought that the man put in some html code in the google search bar, and it created an iframe that pointed to the contents of another website. But more importantly, while as a layperson I did not understand what this IS, I probably knew what this ISN'T - it didn't look like hacking or server access to me. I am not siding with the man, because what he did was really inconsiderate. The issue I have is with how different computer activities get simplified and conflated.

Did the code of the Google widget change? I don't think so. Cross-scripting based on a vulnerability inherent in the widget at that point in time, I believe, does not have any material impact on the codes of the Google widget that is already embedded on the website.

In doing cross-scripting, the function of the search widget (i.e. allowing members of public to perform searches) may perhaps be hindered by the third party content that is displayed. This can then be really inconvenient for any one who intends to use the function that is available on this particular page.

Did the man use the third-party widget to access the Istana website? I seriously doubt it. The widget is just a line of code pasted in the css/html code of that particular webpage. In my layperson understanding, anything that happens to it will have no critical impact on other lines of code on the same webpage.

Did the code of the Istana website change? I don't think so. This will require access into the content management system serving the Istana website. Such access is only granted to those who (i) have administrator privileges, (ii) are accessing through secure computers, and (iii) are accessing through the secure network.

Did the man commit an unauthorised access into the government server? The verdict and the report said yes. If an unauthorised access was committed, it would have been a serious crime, because this can result in content being changed and members of public being misled. If there was unauthorised access, there would have been a log of it. I am not sure if the log was presented as evidence, but then again the act of cross-site scripting has almost nothing to do with logging into a server.

Unauthorised access to the server and backend will also result in the man accessing sensitive databases, but in most cases, sensitive databases do not normally point to public-facing corporate websites (c.f. secure intranet login access), unless the corporate website contains web services (e-services) which require members of public to submit sensitive information.

The whole incident says nothing about cyber security, because I honestly feel there is no breach - just some superficial mish-mash of content from different sources that resulted in what appears to be defacement.

I liken this to vandalism of a letterbox at the HDB void deck. When paint is splashed on your letterbox, here are the following realities:

1. Inconvenience: Your letterbox looks awful now.
2. Proprietary: Wait, you don't own the letterbox. But sure, it is part of your "home", but you don't own it.
3. Security: The security of your HDB flat is not compromised, and no one has entered it.
4. Security / Modification: Because of the letterbox defacement, NO ONE got into your HDB flat, NO ONE went into your kitchen and NO ONE cooked you a pot of fish porridge.
5. Security / Modification: The contents and structure of your letterbox do not change, despite paint being splashed on it.
6. Inconvenience: The postman/postwoman will have difficulty finding your letterbox because of the defacement.

Was the man's reported actions even "hacking"? Hacking involves access and possibly modification as a result of access. I doubt there was material modification (modification of code) of the Google search widget. There was no material modification of the Istana website. The only "modification" was the inclusion of another third-party website content in the (also third-party) Google search widget. This was and is a vulnerability that Google has to deal with. In short, it still didn't constitute a modification in the technical sense. This means it is quite difficult to use Part II Para 5 of the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act to explain the man's actions.

Even if he really did (which I doubt), I believe the man did not need to access the public server hosting the Istana website to commit the cross-scripting that he did because whatever is done at the server level (which hosts and serves content to the Istana website), does not have any material impact on the Google widget.

The responsibility of choosing third-party widgets used on any government website lies on the shoulders of the government, because the use of third-party widgets comes with the risk that there may be vulnerabilities that might affect the appearance or function of the widget.

Based on the report, I fear this may set a precedent which very simplistically conflates the activity of cross-site scripting into activities such as hacking and unauthorised accessed. It is puzzling as it is frightening. This means, it empowers the government to overestimate and misdiagnose a wider range of computer activities as criminal.

If there was a mischievous intent to inconvenience members of public using a government website and service, the man should be punished accordingly if found guilty. But somehow, he is found guilty of engaging in what I feel to be a dubiously described process that does not accurately depict the real action (i.e. cross-site scripting).

Perhaps, since there is inconvenience in the form of obstruction, Part II Para 7 of the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act could extend to cover "computer-based services" and "infrastructure". This way, we might have a stronger case to bring against folks who exploit vulnerabilities in third-party widgets (not owned by government) embedded on government websites with the intent to inconvenience members of public who would want to use the website and its services. I mean, it's already unlawful to obstruct a civil servant from performing his/her duties, and this can be extended to cover the digital domain.

The Act has to be updated to adequately cover the key processes and impact of unauthorised access, unauthorised modification (include the immateriality of ownership, and expand on modification - material, content, function, etc.), and obstruction of computer-based services.

Perhaps the more well-informed persons in the Infocomm Development Authority and the Ministry of Communications and Information could explain, with regard to the case, the fundamental differences between (i) cross-site scripting (in the Delson Moo's case), (ii) hacking and (iii) unauthorised access to the server. Some sense has to be made out of it.

In govt speak, pls clarify, we need to sync up everyone. then get their buy-in. fyna pls. tks.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Upbeat Uptown Girl by Billy Joel

Here's another post on music. Taking a break from the draining pieces on sociology and discourse analysis.

What I believe to be the barometer of upbeat songs is Billy Joel's Uptown Girl.

1. The verse keeps going "up", at least the counter-line does.
2. The beginning of every stanza of the song sounds like a climatic chorus.
3. The end of every stanza sounds like a pre-chorus build to another chorus.
4. (Studio version) Damn, those drums really took a pounding.
5. The song is always "moving" - it has 4 different key signatures, with well-written transitions (transposition).

Verse (E maj key)
E F#m G#m A-B
(upmoving counterline: E, F#, G#, A, B)

Chorus (C maj key)
C Am Dm G
C Am Bm E

Postchorus (A maj key)
A F#m D B

Bridge (D maj / B min key)
G A F#7/A# Bm
G A F#7/A# Esus4-E
(upmoving counterline: G, A, A#, B)

Friday, May 23, 2014

No Doubt's Too Late

Return Of Saturn, the 2000 follow-up album to No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom. It had less of that upbeat ska and reggae, and was for me, musically a better end-to-end album than Tragic Kingdom.

One song that immediately won me over was Too Late. Seems to have the same musical footprints of Don't Speak, or maybe it's that C minor key signature. Whatever the case, they're good songwriters.

I don't think I'll be able to articulate the many extents to which Too Late is such a great song, so here are just the chords:

Intro / Post-chorus
Gsus4 , G | Ab-5 , Ab

Fm7 , Bb-5 | Ebmaj7 , Cm7 | Gsus4 , G | Ab-5 , Ab

Ab , Cm | Bb , F9/A | Fm7 | G7aug5

Fm7 , Ddim | C | Ab | C
Fm7 , Ddim | C | Ab | Db

Cm | G7 | Eb | F7
Ab | G | G

By the way, Don't Speak's chords are:

Cm | Gm | Fm | Bb
Gm | Cm | Fm | Bb
Cm | Gm | Fm | Bb
Eb | Bb | C | C

Fm | Db | Eb | C
Bbm | C | Fm | Db , C

Db | Ab | B | F#
A | A | Ab

Belinda Carlisle's Leave A Light On and transposition

Belinda Carlisle will occasionally play on the radio (yes, I listen to the "oldies" station). Quite captivated by the song Leave A Light On.

There's so much to talk about in this song.

It isn't your typical pop/rock song, although it sounds like a pretty straightforward upbeat tune.

Instead of getting 4 bars in a line, you get an additional bar. Probably gives your fans enough time to compose themselves before singing the next line. Still... Wow.

The song has 2 key signatures, D and C. The transition between the 2 keys isn't too complicated, consider D's 4th chord is C's 5 chord. Double wow.

For me, the critical factor to this song is the E minor chord. The chord fits well into the D major key signature, providing a useful transition to G major and A major. It also belongs to the C major key signature, as the third chord minor, and also for the fact that it is only different from C major chord by a note.

I think the solo is a bit anti-climatic, but it's George Harrison, so that's ok. The pre-solo bridge too is a bit disorienting for the first few chords. Still, this is an excellent upbeat song

D | A | Em | Bm , A | x2

Verse + Pre-chorus
C | G | Dm | Am , G | x2
C | G | Bb | F
C | Em | A (could be Asus4) | A

Chorus + Post-chorus
D | D | Bm , F#m | Bm , F#m | G | A | x2
G | A | D | G | Gm
D | A | Em | Em

A, G, A, Em, Bm, G, G

So tuck your t-shirt into your pants, put on your shoulder-padded blazers, spray that thick hair, and enjoy.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Summer's Over: Rialto's songwriting clinic

This post is about Summer's Over by Rialto, one of my favourite bands.

Both their alums, Rialto and Night On Earth, are musical textbooks for any aspiring songwriter in the guitar-driven pop/rock genre. I'm not a lyrics guy, so am more into the chords and instrumentation.

Rialto has impeccable songwriting skills and musical craftsmanship. They keep their music simple, well arranged, and string their chords pretty tightly. The manner in which the chords are arranged depicts a feel of falling, because the counterline connecting the chords seem to be going lower and lower, i.e. "falling".


G | Bm/F# | G7/F | C
G | Bm/F# | G7/F | C | Cm

G , Em | Bm | Dm , E7 | Am
C , B7 | Em , D | C , Am | Em , D

The verse's chord sequence is quite typical of pop/rock songs. In the key of G, you begin with G chord. While keeping B (ti) and D (re) notes in the chord, the G (so) transits to F# (fa#) to become Bm, then to F (fa) to become G7, and sets up the final transition to the next chord C, in which all notes B+D+F jump "upwards" to C+E+G. In the second line of the verse, C major chord becomes C minor.

When it comes to pop/rock songwriting, counterlines determine how coherent or dynamic your song is. They are the invisible connections between chords. In the case of Summer's Over, the verse counterline is "falling": G-F#-F-E-Eb.

Well, sounds like Julian Lennon's Saltwater, huh?

The first line of the chorus is invokes a slightly different feeling, as the counterline moves up. Well, choruses have to be climatic, hence the difference in the first line in a song that mostly comprises "falling" counterlines. Here are the permutations, but you get the picture.
1. D-E-F#, A-B-C (climbing up, jump, climbing up)
2. D-E-F#, F-G#-A (climbing up, step down, climbing up)

For the chorus' second line, it goes back to "falling", to return the song to its equilibrium: G-F#-E-D-C, C-B-A (going down and down).

Another indicator on how "tightly" you like your chords to be bound together is the management of the variation between 2 consecutive chords.

In the verse's first three chords, there is only one variation and it moves one key at a time, i.e. G+B+D, F#+B+D, F+B+D. Most songwriters who experiment on the guitar or keyboard will be quite familiar with this, i.e. retaining more than 50% of a chord, while moving the rest of the notes in the chord to another key, either upwards or downwards, by a key or 2.

For instance, Sixpence None the Richer's Kiss Me's verse follows this convention, in Eb major key: Chords - Eb, Ebmaj7, Eb7, Ebmaj7; Counterline - Eb, D, Db, D. Nothing else in the three chords changes, except for those mentioned notes.

Well, Rialto still rocks. Maybe I'll cover Monday Morning 5:19 and Hard Candy next time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Take a chance on him?

Here's what's happening recently, along with some political imaginings of clean Singapore, in the tune of ABBA's 'Take a Chance on Me'.

If you heard the vine, it's Roy this time
He talked PM Lee and the C.H.C.
If you heard the news, you know, it's going 'round
It's Drew and Napier, no? Gahmen take him down

If he could have known of the gahmen's tone
Gahmen's so kiasi, it's on 'Factually'
It's all about C.P.F. and he said a "lie"
If you smelled his lawyers' breath, and you're gonna die

Well it's PM Lee
(In his tighty whitiessss)
Well he's PM Lee

We can lim kopi, we can go Whitley
Or we're gonna sue yer
Don't talk about Ho Chings, or Temasek Holdings
And we won't sue yer

'Cause you know he's got so much that he wanna do
When he dreams of him fixing you, it's tragic
Roy shouldn't have put the picture there; when you're sued, it's never fair
But I think you know Lee will knock you cold

Sunday, May 4, 2014

On AWARE and Military Service

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Singapore commented on an article on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) considering "recognising" NSmen in the form of "giving them a bigger stake in the country, such as in the areas of housing, healthcare and education".

AWARE said in a post on their Facebook page:
Every person deserves access to housing, education and healthcare, because these are basic requirements for human sustenance and social participation. AWARE disagrees strongly with any link between support for fundamental needs and an individual's status as an NSman, especially when the military may not be suitable for many people, regardless of their gender. AWARE has long maintained that military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging - an approach which this proposal threatens to intensify, creating different tiers of people with different social entitlements and worth.
As for the reactions, well, to sum up, the men weren't happy to learn of this.

First and foremost, we have yet to hear the details of this "recognition" that MINDEF is considering. So, it's good to wait and find out how much of a "stake" the government will be giving to those who serve.

Given National Service (and the majority of those who serve) is compulsory, I personally see this "recognition" as compensation in the context of 'choiceless-ness' as opposed to incentivisation in the context of 'choice'. This definition of compensation here sits in the context of a lack of choice, mainly (not entirely) for many Singaporean men. The action of one's commitment to National Service cannot mask the reality of compulsory conscription and the penalties that come should one choose not to serve.

Moving on another tangent, National Service discriminates. Not specifically referring to the disproportionate representation of Malay-Muslim Singaporeans in certain sectors within MINDEF, but the forms of discrimination are based on sex (not gender by the way) and physiology, among other things.

Having male sex organs will generally qualify (in a compulsory sense) you to be part of an organisation that leverages apparatuses of violence in the name of a flag. History is also used to further justify male participation in violence in the name of the nation. The absence of these sex organs exempts you from compulsory service, but you may choose to serve. In view of this, there are different contexts in which NS is done.

As for physiology, it is about finding the most desirable Singaporean body to perform various demanding tasks required across different segments of national defence.

That said, AWARE is right in saying that the military may not be suitable for many people, based on the above and other traits. There is discrimination based on things we mostly do not have control of - sex (I said "mostly"), physiology for instance.

I also agree with AWARE that "military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging". People of different bodies, persuasions, creeds, physical abilities, talents and opportunities, all deserve to claim a stake in defining citizenry. In addition, we have to put aside prejudices to create opportunities for different people to define citizenry - level the playing field a little.

One may argue that the many institutions that bring about the general stability and comfort most of us have enjoyed throughout the years could not have done so without National Service. But I believe that national defence is an interdependent unit as are all institutions supporting one another, rather than a super-set.

Now, let's look at housing, healthcare and education. These are the critical variables of social stratification in Singapore.

In giving a "bigger stake", it is implied NSmen will be given a slight advantage over non-NSmen when it comes to access to housing, healthcare and education. As an NSman, I'll gladly take this and say "thank you", since it directly benefits my family and its state-condoned family structure.

I believe the issue of contention is that the idea of compensation for compulsory (and discriminatory) conscription intersects that of what should be universally and equally accessible to all in Singapore.

Alternatively, it will be better if conscripts and NSmen are paid the same as regulars of the corresponding ranks. For reservist training, NSmen should be paid their rank pay, on top of their compensated salaries, regardless of where they work. This way, the compensation or incentive (however you see it) symbolically remains within the confines of the institution (NS), even though the monetary "advantages" have implications beyond it.

Again, this still does not address the issue of NS' position in Singaporean citizenry and defining it, simply because bigger compensation or incentives (however you see it, again) are still thrown in that direction. Since you can't put a price on the 2-2.5 years of lost youth, the state-imposed absence of husbands/fathers/brothers/sons, we'll probably not know what's the right amount and the right avenue through which it should be disseminated.

On every level, there's a lot of discrimination: The unquestionable sacred cow of the Singaporean male-ness being intricately tied to nationhood therefore justifying compulsory NS, tax "incentives" given to NSmen whose circumstances are in fact based on choiceless-ness, etc.

To stand up and say, "Shut up you women. Why don't you get conscripted first, then come and talk?" still does not address the issue of discrimination and the implications of (gender) discrimination on socio-economic stratification - since we're talking about housing, education and healthcare here.

Having women conscripted may solve some downstream grievances, but does that mean upstream problems are solved? NS then remains unquestioned.

I honestly have no idea how this can be best approached. I guess we have the capable leaders in the Cabinet (with disproportionate representation of men and women) to come up with the right solutions, huh? But you've got people in there who'll answer your questions with the same question "what do you think" hehe.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

HPB’s FAQ a step forward in sexual health governance

(Published - Today Feb 5, 2014)

I read with interest the report “Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on sexuality draws positive response online” (Feb 5).

While some laud this as a progressive step, I feel that the HPB, as the leading stakeholder in the governance of sexual health in Singapore, has simply made the right decision.

It has cut through contestations for moral superiority by addressing issues at the heart of sexual wellness. By presenting up-to-date information in an unbiased, transparent manner, the HPB provides the service of educating.

Questioning youths and adults remain, and they may neither be properly informed about sexuality nor aware of available resources such as counselling and social workers.

The topic of homosexuality aside, it is ideologically jarring for many to comprehend the differences between gender, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

The HPB has explained them in a simple manner, and persons who do not feel or embody the societal alignment of these identity characteristics can be informed without being judged and stigmatised. Sexual health affects everyone, regardless of orientation and persuasion.

Some are challenging the purpose and credibility of the FAQ, but are unaware that they are complicit in the denial of information for young persons unsure about their identity or at risk of self-harm or suicide.

I have encountered those who think they have nowhere to turn to because of the predominant, intolerant environment. I am no social worker or counsellor, and have directed them to relevant groups.

The HPB has unfortunately removed these links from the FAQ.

Persons who disagree with the HPB may play the moral, parental or religious card. As a father and one who believes that the family is an important institution, I am concerned about the implications of their disagreement.

I commend the HPB for taking steps to ensure that no Singaporean is left behind when it comes to the transparent dissemination of information on sexual health.

Ho Chi Sam