eM Client: a prettier Gmail

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When Firefox 29 was released a month or so ago, it convinced me to abandon my browser of choice for a few years – Google Chrome. The latest version of Firefox looked modern and slick and it performed very fast, enough reasons for me to switch.

Google needn’t worry, however, because browsers aside, it is still running my life. I use Gmail for email, Google Calendar to organise my appointments, and Google Contacts to maintain my, well, contacts. All three Google applications perform flawlessly. The email is fast with plenty of storage, the calendar has all the features I need, and my contacts are always backed up. I particularly love not having to re-enter my contacts when I buy a new mobile phone – all I have to do is synchronise my Google account with my mobile phone and all my contacts magically appear.

Now, call me old fashioned but I still prefer to use a desktop email client or a Personal Information Manager (PIM) when I’m using my computers at home. It makes working with email, calendar and contacts a lot easier – and prettier, too. If there’s something negative I can say about the Google apps, it’s the fact that they look quite plain in the browser. A PIM adds a prettier shell which gives a little bit of life to what can be monotonous and mundane tasks.

The most well known PIM is perhaps MS Outlook. This is a great application but it is not free and it is not fully compatible with Gmail. The last time I tried it, I had problems synchronising it with my Google Calendar, and I could not synchronise my contacts at all.

Enter eM Client. Now in version 6, eM Client is described on its website as the “best email client for Windows” and I tend to agree. The free version is fully functional (without adverts) although if you want to use it with more than two email accounts, you will have to pay $50 for the “pro” version. I must admit that this is a rather a large amount to pay for an email software but most people will not need the pro version.

eM Client is compatible with Exchange and most email providers. It is particularly suited to Gmail which is the reason why I like it so much. eM Client fully synchronises my Google email, calendar and contacts – it even imports the photos on your contacts if you have them. It really is Gmail on a desktop: all three apps work smoothly, almost as though eM Client was made specially for Gmail.

Setting up accounts is as easy as entering your username and password and navigation is simple. If you’ve used Outlook, Thunderbird, or other email clients, you should have no problems getting to work straight away.

It is a shame that the free version allows you to set up only two accounts but if you love Gmail, you’ll love eM Client. There is no better email client available.

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Remembering my Amstrad PCW

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Amstrad PCW 8512: a complete computer system

My love affair with computing properly began when I was in the sixth form in the late 80s and took up word processing as one of my subjects. I fell in love with both the machine and the program called WordStar which allowed me to create, edit and print documents as though by magic. Before that, I had only used a humble typewriter.

It was no surprise that as soon as I had a job and could afford it, I bought my own word processor. It was an Amstrad PCW 8512 and to me it was the most marvellous piece of kit ever. The Amstrad PCW series was a range of personal computers produced by Amstrad. When first launched, the cost of a PCW system was under 25 per cent of the cost of almost all IBM-compatible PC systems in the UK. Because of this, PCWs became very popular in the home and small office markets and convinced even technophobes to use computers.

Many described the Amstrad PCW as “the bargain of the decade” and rightly so. For under £500, I had a complete computer system including a monitor which also housed the CPU, RAM, and floppy disk drives, and a printer was also bundled with it (my model had a dot matrix printer). On the software side, the package included the LocoScript word processing program, the CP/M Plus operating system, Mallard BASIC and the LOGO programming language.

MicroDesign 3: a powerful desktop publisher for the PCW

MicroDesign 3: a powerful desktop publisher for the PCW

I spent many happy hours creating beautiful word processed documents but I did not stop there. While some critics dismissed the PCW as “just a word processor”, it could do other things as well with third party software. Many applications were written for the PCW including spreadsheet, accounting, database, and other programs. My favourite was MicroDesign 2 (and later, MicroDesign 3), a powerful desktop publisher which produced results that I thought was only possible with an Apple. MicroDesign certainly fuelled my creative side: one of the things I produced with it was a monthly family newsletter which I sent to my relatives abroad.

My first inkjet printer

My first inkjet printer

Hardware manufactures also saw the potential of the PCW and produced add-ons for my beloved machine. Among other things, I bought an external hard drive, a hand-held scanner (called ProScan from the makers of MicroDesign), and I replaced the noisy dot matrix printer with an all-singing, all-dancing Hewlett Packard Deskjet 500. That was it – I was hooked on technology and there was no turning back.

To this day, I remember the Amstrad PCW 8512 with great fondness. I still miss it despite the fact that the computers that I have now are many times more powerful and sophisticated. The PCW was my first love in the computer world and I will never forget it. If The Chronicles of Narnia gave me hunger and passion for more fantasy novels, the PCW triggered my addiction and craving for gadgets.

Exam Thoughts

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For this academic year at least, our lectures at the Pontifical Gregorian University are over and the exam period has begun. I have mixed feelings about entering the exam period because, like most things, it has its pros and cons.

During the exams, the normal seminary timetable is abandoned to give us more flexibility. It’s the formation staff’s way of acknowledging that during the exams, we students face more pressure and a more relaxed timetable could make all the difference.

I think it would be fair to say that having to wake up early is one of the least popular aspects of being in a seminary. We normally have our morning prayer at 6:45 am and this is immediately followed by mass. Those who hate getting up early in particular welcome the exam period because the more flexible timetable eliminates the need for early starts: the exam timetable gives us a choice of two masses to attend – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and the communal morning prayer is also suspended (it is said in private instead).

Another great thing is that during the exam period, we are relieved of certain house duties such as setting up the refectory for breakfast – these are done by members of staff instead.

These are the pleasant things about the exam period. A less pleasant aspect is the sense of isolation it gives me. I live in a community and I am surrounded by people who are on the same boat, but ultimately I am on my own. Nobody can study for me and nobody can pass my exams for me. It is one of those occasions when only I can help myself. It feels that the tunnel that I have to journey under is long and dark, and that the light at the end of it takes a while to show.

How do I cope? By making time to still do the things I enjoy such as blogging and other creative pursuits. It goes without saying that taking time to pray is also important, as is doing something physical such as going out for a walk. I also constantly remind myself that exams do not last forever. The light at the end of the tunnel is there and it will eventually reveal itself.

Or, as one of my Theology professors would put it, there is no Resurrection without the Crucifixion.

Of Pride and Dragons

dragonlance

I first read the Dragonlance books soon after I left high school and just as I was about to start sixth form college. I had known about them before that: a few of my friends at school were big fans and it was only my childish pride that made me read them later than they did.

You see, I was something of a “fantasy pioneer” among my school friends. In most cases, I was the first to discover and read fantasy series such as The Lord of the Rings, the Shannara books, and The Belgariad. However, the Dragonlance books were first noticed by my best friend at the time and so I pretended to regard them with indifference and set out to discover “better” series instead.

Once we left school and my best friend and I parted ways, I guess I felt that I could then read the Dragonlance books without losing face. And so I finally bought the first book in the Dragonlance series. It was Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Book 1 of the first trilogy, Dragonlance Chronicles. I loved it and it wasn’t long before I was buying the second (Dragons of Winter Night) and third book (Dragons of Spring Dawning).

The Dragonlance Chronicles are written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The books are based on a series of Dungeons & Dragons game modules, and they were written because the designers wanted novels to tell the story of the game world they were creating. Although I was not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and never played the game, I thoroughly enjoyed the books. They follow the familiar formula of a band of heroes setting out on a quest to save the world: there was the heroic but reluctant leader, a warrior, a dwarf, a halfling, a mage, and a few other flawed but courageous human companions.

Yes, it was very Lord of the Rings-esque but the Dragonlance Chronicles were a fun journey with likeable characters.  I liked the fact that the Dragonlance books had many strong female characters (unlike The Lord of the Rings) and even the “Dark Lord” was a woman! I also liked the illustrations by Jeffrey Butler though I wasn’t too keen on the cover art of the British edition that I bought (I much preferred the covers of the US edition which my friends had).

Further trilogies followed the Chronicles, some also written by Weis and Hickman and some by other writers. For a few years, I religiously bought and read each new Dragonlance instalment but there came the time when I could not keep up – and when other fantasy series caught my attention and fought for my time and money!

The Chronicles are a complete trilogy in themselves, however, which can be read without further investment in the Dragonlance estate. If you love high fantasy and a good old fashioned quest, grab a set now and escape to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

The Belgariad

I discovered David Eddings’ The Belgariad fantasy series when I was 15 years old. It tells of the coming-of-age of a boy called Garion who learns that his destiny is tied to a prophecy made thousands of years ago and that the world’s fate rests on his young shoulders. It’s not the most original plot, I grant you, but while Eddings takes his readers on to a well-trodden path he also adds plenty of excitement and a few surprises along the way. The series comprises:

  1. Pawn of Prophecy
  2. Queen of Sorcery
  3. Magician’s Gambit
  4. Castle of Wizardry
  5. Enchanters’ End Game

I devoured all five books in the series and I was very sad indeed when I reached the final page of the final book. By that time, I felt so much a part of Eddings’ world that I did not want to leave it. The reading of the epic series was made all the more magical because it was a shared experience with my equally geeky friends at school. We read it at the same time and the animated and enthusiastic discussions we had are some of the fondest memories I have from my school days.

There are many reasons why I love The Belgariad: the books don’t take themselves seriously, they are easy to read, fast-paced, and altogether fun. The books also contain unforgettable characters that you wish you had as friends in the real world. The banter and interaction among the protagonists make you feel that you are part of their their quest. You feel that you are a member of their fellowship, so much so that you know exactly what the characters will do or say when facing new situations.

There was another feature of the series that made me fall in love with it. The enchanting cover art by fantasy artist Geoff Taylor graced the edition that I read. For me, the colourful illustrations evoked just the right emotion and atmosphere for the world of The Belgariad. I regret letting go of my original collection and that the current edition that you can buy does not feature the original cover art.

belgariad2

Original cover art by Geoff Taylor.

A sequel series The Malloreon was published a few years after The Belgariad ended. I also enjoyed it but it felt like a rewrite of The Belgariad with just different settings and added characters. Sadly, the same can be said of Eddings’ later series. All of them can be described as Belgariad clones with the same characters but with different names.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that The Belgariad is a highly enjoyable fantasy that I would heartily recommend.

Remembering The Wolf King

wolfkingI have always loved reading. It feels that I have always read fairy tales and other short stories. We did not have many books at home when I was a child but I loved going to the library to escape to enchanted realms and set off on grand adventures.

Today, I found myself wondering when I progressed from short stories to straight novels. I remember that it was when I was 11 years old when Mum bought me my first novel: The Wolf King by Ann Turnbull. The book is set in Bronze Age Britain. The protagonist is Coll of the Wolf Clan whose tribe is under attack by the Wolf King, a masked horseman dressed all in black, and his army of wolves. Coll’s brother Ruadh’s inadvertent killing of a wolf has fueled his tribe’s feud with the wolves and when Ruadh disappears, Coll sets out with friend Gayla to find him.

I don’t remember exactly how many pages The Wolf King had but it was certainly much longer than your average fairy tale. I worried that I might not be able to finish it. Would I find it difficult to understand? Would I know the meaning of all the words?

I did struggle in some parts. English wasn’t my first language and my English vocabulary wasn’t very extensive when I was 11. But I persevered and I felt very proud indeed when I reached the final page. Reading a whole novel was my biggest accomplishment to date!

The Wolf King is sadly now out of print but I credit it for giving me a thirst for more novels. I’ve now set myself a new mission: to find a copy and read it again.

Mgr. Francisco G. Tantoco, Jr. (1939–2014)

tantocoIf you were to ask me why I want to be a priest, one of my reasons would be Mgr. Francisco G. Tantoco, Jr.

I first met Mgr. Tantoco in 1993. I had just finished my degree in the UK and decided to spend a year in the Philippines to rediscover my roots. I thought that a good way of doing that was to do voluntary work in my country of birth. My Aunt Nila, a good friend of Mgr. Tantoco’s, took me to see him in his residence at the Arzobispado de Manila in the hope that he would be able to help me find a suitable placement.

My first impression of Mgr. Tantoco was that he looked very serious. But as soon as I heard him speak, I knew that behind that somber and piercing exterior was a kindness and gentleness that made him the great and inspiring leader that I had the fortune to work with for many years.

At that time in 1993, Mgr. Tantoco was the executive director of Caritas Manila, the social services and development arm of the Archdiocese of Manila. He did not hesitate to offer me a place as a volunteer there. I loved assisting for a fundraising campaign called Be A Friend For Life. I learned many things about myself, the Church and plight of the poor. Just as importantly, I made many lifelong friends.

Even so, I decided to go back to the UK once the year was up. I reasoned that I couldn’t have “fun” forever, and that I had to go back to the UK to get a “serious” job. But it seemed that God had other plans for me. Less than a year after my return to the UK, I heard that Mgr. Tantoco was visiting a friend in London. I grabbed the opportunity to see him. I still remember how happy I was to see him again: something felt very right about it, as though it was meant to be.

I was with my mum when I caught up with Mgr Tantoco. We were all happily chatting away when, just out of the blue, my former executive director casually told my mum, “Let Jun [my Filipino nickname] go back to Manila. That is where he is happiest.”

I couldn’t argue with that, and Mum also saw the truth in it. She said there and then that she would support my decision to go back to the Philippines, and I did not have to think long and hard to reach that decision.

And so, about four months later, I found myself back in Caritas. This time, I was a full-time employee, hired as the communications officer in charge of all the corporate publications. Once again, I worked with the poor, the parishes, and the benefactors who made it possible for Caritas to reach out to the needy. This time around, I worked even closer with Mgr. Tantoco and other members of the clergy from the Archdiocese of Manila, including Cardinal Jaime Sin himself. One of my fondest memories is following Mgr Tantoco and the Cardinal wherever they went to document their activities. I was there wherever they were, armed with my camera and notepad.

I left Caritas Manila for the second time in 1997. I went back to London, carved myself a career, and tried to settle down. But Caritas had left a mark that I could not shake off. It had sown a seed in me that I could not prevent from sprouting. I had a sense of what it was but I did not acknowledge it for a long time. But once again, Mgr Tantoco would steer me in the right direction and give me the courage to do what I had to do …

When I visited him in 2009, he asked me a very simple question: “Why don’t you become a priest?”. It was the question that I had for so long avoided, but when Mgr. Tantoco expressed it, I knew that the time had arrived for me to take another life-changing step. Once I was back in England, I contacted my vocations director and I formally started to discern for the priesthood.

When I heard that Mgr. Tantoco had passed away when I woke up this morning, it seemed that an era had ended. I cannot put into words what I felt. I was sad, certainly. A mentor, a teacher, a guide, and an inspiration was gone. A sense of loss engulfed me.

Mgr. Tantoco ruled Caritas Manila not with a fist but with a heart. He treated his subordinates not as employees but as members of his family. He was our father who cared for us as much as we cared for the poor people that we were helping. He never sacrificed his principles but he was always fair. He was our director but he was also our motivation.

I would not be where I am now if it wasn’t for him.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has lost a faithful and much-loved servant. But he will forever be in our hearts.

We love and thank you, Mgr. Tantoco. Rest in peace.