The Casual Blog

Tag: open source

Visiting New York friends, and some new (to me) art and opera

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I got up to New York City last week for the IP Counsel conference where I did a presentation on open source software legal issues. After the conference, I spent a long weekend in the city. It was great to see my sweet Jocelyn and some old friends, and to take in some new art and opera.

Jocelyn got a promotion at Macmillan this week, and was very excited. That’s three promotions in a year! She’s now a manager, titled Ebook Production Manager. She likes the company, likes the work, and is looking forward to the new role. We talked about the being a manager, among other things, as we tried some fun bars and restaurants.

Although opera is not Jocelyn’s most favorite thing, she agreed to come with me to the Met to see L’elisir d’amore (The Elixor of Love) on Saturday, and we both loved it. It’s a delightful confection of melody and feeling. The subject — romantic love — is forever young, and in Donizetti’s deft hands funny, painful, and touching. In this production, the bel canto style was alive and well, with astonishing vocal agility and sweet subtlety. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was a saucy and savvy Adina, very musical, and tenor Vittorio Grilolo was ardent, goofy, and then transcendent. As the doctor, Adam Plachetka was sublimely funny. Kudos to maestro Enrique Mazzola, who had great rhythmic flexibility and propulsive drive, and of course, to the fabulous Met orchestra.
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Another night Jocelyn and I had a lovely dinner with my old friend Ben Brantley at Niu Noodle House in the Village. Ben and I met in junior high school and started out in NYC together, and with a happy combination of brilliance and hard work became head theater critic of the New York Times. It was good to catch up and hear his views on current shows, being a vegetarian, and other matters.

As to art, I saw several things worth mentioning. I recommend the exhibit at the Whitney by Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who made Citizen Four and other interesting works questioning the War on Terror. This exhibit is political in the sense that it puts in issue the programs of invasion, imprisonment, interrogation, assassination, and mass surveillance that grew out of the great panic following 9/11. It consists mostly of video clips, many of which must be viewed through slits in the wall that remind us of slits through prison doors. It invites us to engage with some disturbing issues, including the possibility of our being monitored at all times.

I also found enriching, if not exactly enjoyable, the exhibit at the Neue Gallery of the works of Edward Munch and German Expressionists. Munch appears to have been a tortured soul, and his works powerfully express alienation, melancholy, and angst. These are feelings that we generally try to avoid or suppress, and seldom discuss with anything but disapproval. But there’s truth in these works that we could benefit from facing. There were strong paintings of several other Expressionists who built on Munch’s bold early works, including Beckmann, Kirschner, Nolde, Kokoschka and Schiele, who were themselves iconoclasts, with energetic new psychological insights into some of our darker recesses.
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At the Edwynn Houk Gallery I saw a photography exhibit by Nick Brandt. On display were ten enormous (6-8 feet wide) black-and-white images of Africa, each with a billboard size photo of an African animal, such as a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros. The billboards were positioned where the animals used to roam, but have been replaced by human activity– factories, roads, and waste dumps. There are people in the images trying to make a living, including by picking through the waste dumps. I found the pictures very powerful, and tragic.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Jocelyn, Pam Tinnen, and I saw This Place, an exhibit of photographs about Israel and the West Bank. It included work of twelve photographers, some of whom did very large images of the people, cities, and stark landscapes. There was little direct reference to anger and armed struggle, but instead humanitarian efforts to comprehend the multiple facets of this complex situation. We also looked at the Assyrian and Egyptian art.
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Finally, I checked out the new Met Breuer, which is what the Met has done with the former Whitney museum. The main current exhibit is about unfinished works of famous artists starting in the Renaissance and coming up to now. It was interesting from a process perspective (seeing how paintings of various periods were assembled). I was surprised to learn that there were few answers on why artists chose not to finish particular works, or even how they determined what was a point of completion. But I enjoyed a lot of the art, particularly works of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Turner.

Discussing open source ballet with Robert Weiss

Do open source software and ballet have anything in common? Sure, they have some obvious differences. But they share an imperative to collaborate and a creative spirit. Anyhow, I’m a big fan of both, and I’ve been thinking about whether some of the lessons of open source could be applied to ballet. Last week got a chance to kick ideas on this around with a great choreographer, Robert Weiss.

Weiss, who goes by Ricky, is artistic director of the Carolina Ballet, which plays out of Raleigh, N.C. He spent the early part of his career as a dancer at the New York City Ballet with its famous director, George Balanchine. In more than a decade with the Carolina Ballet, he has been a prolific choreographer, producing dozens of ballets. He’s also recruited superbly talented dancers from around the world and melded them into an outstanding company. When we met last week, along with my friend CB Board Chair Melanie Dubis, at Buku for lunch, I thought, this must be close to the world’s greatest job — working every day with beautiful, talented, dedicated people to create art for the ages. What could be more wonderful?

When we met for lunch last week, it quickly became clear that it would be more wonderful to not be constantly worried about money. If only, he said, he had better funding, he could spend more time thinking about dance and less about fund raising. Ballet is an art form that entails numbers of dancers, all requiring paychecks, and the same for musicians, costume designers and costumers, set designers and sets, lighting designers and lights, stage management and crew, and of course, choreographers. As an art, it is capital intensive. There are inherent barriers to reaching a wide audience, including lack of exposure to the form and its traditions.

As Ricky described the process of creating a new work, it was plain that it was highly collaborative. When he choreographs a new work, it is created on specific dancers, and the work is shaped in view of their individual qualities. The work draws on a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance, with a large vocabulary of movements that are available for re-use. (As Ricky warmed to the subject, he stood up from the table and showed a couple of classical gestures, and his sudden transformation from regular person to dancer was electrifying.) And of course, there’s collaboration with the aforementioned costume designers, set designers, and many others. It is in general an art of great idealism and unselfishness, at least in the sense that almost no one expects to get rich from it, and many are prepared to subsist on a shoestring budget.

But in ballet as in most of our endeavors, there is an unexamined assumption that intellectual property protection is important. Thus copying of videoed performances is subject to the draconian penalties of copyright law. The dances are kept locked down, on the assumption that making them freely available could result in lost value. I raised the question with Rocky and Melanie whether this really makes sense. Is copyright protection actually increasing the value proposition of ballet, or is it lessening it?

As I explained, the open source software community has learned some lessons about this that the rest of the world is starting to apply. Open source innovators, whose projects are based on freely sharing their code, realized that the traditional approach to intellectual property would not work for them, and so they created new licensing models, such as the GPL, that encouraged sharing and re-use. That approach has led to incredible growth in open source software. The model is spreading outward to other creative endeavors with such tools as Creative Commons licensing.

Could it be that less IP protectiveness could expand the audience for ballet and bring in new funding? What if, instead of protecting ballet as carefully as possible with copyright, the product was unlocked and made available under a Creative Commons license? For example, if well-produced video of the Carolina Ballet was readily available on the internet without charge, couldn’t that introduce many more people to ballet, with some of them eventually becoming balletomanes?

Ricky noted that even the best video of ballet is only a pale reflection of the experience of live performance. But he also admitted that he knew of people who had had transformative personal experience through a recorded performance. He also noted that it would require funding to make video recordings of a quality that he’d be comfortable presenting in public. (Footnote: a couple of days after our meeting, I saw a documentary on the choreographer Jerome Robbins called Something to Dance About, which is great, and illustrates how video can communicate something meaningful about dance.)

Open source innovation generally involves experimentation. I noted that there could be approaches to video and to funding that none of us has thought of yet. We agreed to talk more about what might be possible. It may be that you have ideas or experience in applying open source methods to artistic endeavors. If you have ideas, please share them.

Open source ballet

A good conversation over a fine dinner is one of life’s true pleasures. Sally and I went out with our ballerina, Lola Cooper, for dinner at Solas last night and had a great time. By virtue of our donations to Carolina Ballet, we’ve become the sponsors of Lola’s pointe shoes, an essential tool for classical dance. We’ve talked with her several times, but hadn’t had a chance to break bread together before. Happily, Solas has a special menu for vegetarians, which they will produce if you ask.

Lola, it turns out, in addition to being a rising star, is a lively and interesting young woman. Ballet dancers are almost by definition highly focused individuals. The form demands a lot from its embodiers: years of rigorous training, physical stress, competitive pressure, performance anxieties, and unremitting discipline. In exchange, dancers get a shot at transcendence. It’s hard to be a great dancer and a scholar, for example. Not impossible, certainly, as I’ve been reminded recently in reading Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans, a former dancer. But challenging.

Anyway, Lola’s pursuing a bachelor’s at N.C. State and keeping her intellectual side engaged. We talked about travelling in South America, organic food, painting, yoga, and families. All interesting and fun. And dance, of course. She told us about some of her personal challenges with a grueling rehearsal and performance schedule. I told her the short version of my idea for open source ballet.

The idea is to adapt some of the concepts of open source software to dance. Open source software developers hold that the best way to make great software is to freely share code and ideas in a collaborative way. They use internet tools to leap over barriers of geography. Instead of holding onto the copyright in their work, they use open source licenses to encourage use of the code by others. As this methodology has spread through the tech world in the last three decades, it has resulted in an astonishing amount of creativity and innovation in software development.

How does this apply to dance? Dance is in part a collaborative art that draws on the creativity of others. Choreography uses a vocabulary of movement that has been developed by prior generations and that continues to be enriched by artists today. Although the sharing of movement ideas is not always acknowledged, it is a fundamental part of how ballet is made. Of course, each real artist makes work that is also in important ways original. But it is hard to conceive of a new ballet that owes nothing to ballets that came before.

So there’s an aspect of ballet that is already collaborative. In general, though, there’s a concern in ballet with trying to protect the intellectual property rights associated with a new dance work by limiting recording and forbidding copying of recordings. The background assumption is that the creative work could be stolen to the detriment of the owner. But is that likely? It might well be that videos of a ballet would proliferate, but this would only be bad if it hurt the market for recordings (which is negligible), or the market for live performance of the work. In fact, it would probably expand the audience for the work and enhance the reputation of the choreographer and performers.

This open source approach flies into the face of conventional intellectual property ideas. Those ideas are so familiar that they seem natural, and it seems unnatural to give up certain intellectual property rights and encourage free use. But open source has worked for software, and it’s being adopted in science, education, and the arts.

The ballet application could be tried as an experiment on a limited basis, even with a single DVD of a single performance. A license that allowed free copying and a marketing campaign that encouraged such activity could put the work into the hands of new potential dance fans and supporters. It could help ticket sales and budget challenges. And it would let the artists do more of what they’re good at: transcendence, and sharing transcendence.

Ebooks and charity ideas

This week I went to Dallas and back twice. I will not complain, except to note that long periods confined in small seats do not get easier as the hours pass. I sat next to a fifteen year old kid on the way back, who, by the end of the flight, was writhing in discomfort, and I remembered how this was even tougher when I was younger.

I spent some of the seat time reading my first ebooks on my iPad. As a confirmed bibliophile, I doubted I would really like ebooks, but my compulsion to have handy several books when I travel has created problems with weight limits, and pushed me towards trying this lightweight solution. Using the Kindle software, it took me just a few minutes to fall in love with the format. I like the typeface and type size, the ability to highlight and annotate, and the light weight.

My first ebook was Against Intellectual Monopoly, by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, an against-the-grain discussion of the problems with our patent and copyright systems. I was gratified to see a discussion of Red Hat as a primary example of why patents don’t achieve anything close to their intended purpose in the software area.

It’s interesting how ideas can seem particularly interesting during cross-country flights, and how frequently new ones pop up. I found myself thinking about an NPR story from last week about individuals who commission new pieces of music or plays. The point of the story was that the cost could be shared with others and spread over time, so that being a patron and bringing a new piece of art into the world could be more affordable than you’d think.

I really liked the idea of contributing in a direct and immediate way to new art. If I can’t be a composer, perhaps I could help in the creation of music by funding one. So, how about a web site to allow composers, choreographers, or others to propose commission-worthy projects, and donors likewise to seek suitable artists? Sort of an arts-funding Craigslist. Sure, it could be there’s just not sufficient interest, but then, not so long ago Craigslist sounded like a fantasy.

The web today is a big part of my life, and of the lives of most people I know. In almost no time it’s gone from a novelty to a utility, and now I take it for granted much like the interstate highway system. Yet we may have just begun to scratch the surface of what it can do — things that go way beyond shopping and entertainment. Facebook and Twitter haven’t really inspired me, but they point in the direction of more immediate and wide-ranging connections that have more human meaning. It could reduce the barriers to charitable giving by making needs and resources easier to see and connect.

For example, it’s hard for me to visualize the enormous suffering from the current flooding in Pakistan, and hard to feel like there’s much I can personally do about it. But if I could connect with a person who’s lost everything and understand their story using web multimedia, it could help me, and I suspect others to open their hearts and wallets. People who’ve lost everything can’t easily get online, of course, but the tools that could get them there already exist. It would take some thought and energy. This could be an open source project.

Ballet class and open source

This week Sally and I went over to the Carolina Ballet studio at lunch time and sat in on a class taught by Ricky Weiss.  We needed to return a borrowed DVD, and also to meet Lola Cooper, a dancer whose shoes we’d decided to pay for.  We sat in front of the class close to the first line of dancers, which felt awkward at first.  I wondered if we would be a distraction or otherwise be inhibiting.  I would certainly feel ill at ease practicing the piano in front of strangers.

I gradually realized that our presence mattered little if at all.  The dancers were deeply focused on their work.  Their dress was varied, with some in leotards, some in sweats, some in shorts.  It was, of course, an attractive group — youthful and graceful.  Also remarkably strong and powerful.

Weiss didn’t have to say very much to direct the dancers.  A couple of comments, a couple of gestures, and he’d have the dozens of dancers moving in a new complex pattern in unison.  There is, of course, a ballet vocabulary of movement that has a long history, in which all these  professionals have long been schooled.  But the complex combinations of movements were demanding.  There were, not surprisingly, struggle and mistakes.

Practice makes perfect.  This aspect of ballet is very like classical music.  The musician’s performance is the net of hours and years of diligent practice, considering each tiny detail, shoring up each possible point of failure, developing the mind and body to serve a particular musical message.  It takes repetition, with the challenge of somehow avoiding mindless repetition.  I think of practicing the piano as a tool for exploring something inside that is otherwise unreachable, for connecting with both the deeper self and something greater than the self.  But it also is a discipline that looks toward the future, and the possibility of greater transcendence, paid for by hard, diligent effort.

One important difference from music was the social aspect of ballet class.  The dancers worked very hard, but there was also laughter.    A few times, they applauded for the extraordinary sequences of their colleagues.  At one point, Weiss directed the dancers to spin and do enormous hurdling leaps towards the corner where we sat.  Teams of three dancers at a time came flying at a high rate of speed directly towards us.  I tried to stay cool, but I was aware that  a small miscalculation by one of them could result in serious injury — to us!  They came close.  Ballet is more dangerous than you normally think.

After the class, we met Lola.  In the class, she showed grace and powerful technique, and in conversation, she was poised and confident.  She told us about her early enthusiasm for horses, her six years as a student at the American Ballet school, and her time in Seattle.   Along with seeking her pursuit of artistic excellence, she’s also a communications major at N.C. State.

She asked what we did, and I told her a little about my work with open source software.  I tried out on her my idea that open source methods are actually close to how a ballet is made.  A choreographer borrows freely, taking preexisting ideas from all available sources, and modifies those materials to make something new.  It’s very similar to the method of open source software developers.  Lola didn’t appear to buy it, but I still think the idea has merit.  She invited us to see her do a solo in a couple of weeks, which should be fun.

Travel, randomness, and good fortune

Last week I spent a couple of days in San Jose and Palo Alto at meetings of the Linux Foundation counsel group.  I did three presentations myself and heard talks on virtualization, open source license enforcement, trademarks and open source, patent troll lawsuits, and other topics of professional interest.  I had a chance to socialize with some very bright and knowledgeable open source legal people and catch up on industry news and gossip.  The days were lively, but long, starting with a working breakfast and ending with a working dinner, and I was ready to head home on Thursday.

The flight from San Jose took me to Dallas.  As chance would have it, Dallas experienced its heaviest snowfall in history that day.  Across the eastern U.S., tens of thousands of flights were cancelled in what was described as the worst travel day since 9/11.  My flight into DFW landed on time, but sat on the runway for almost an hour.  By the time I made it to the gate for the connecting flight, which was due to leave at 3, it was 3 sharp, and too late.  The next flight was in 5 hours.  I claimed a spot at stall with a bar stool and free electricity, plugged in my laptop, and got some work done.

Eventually I came to a stopping place, gave up my precious electrical connection, and looked about for coffee and something to eat.  For some reason, people were more than usually chatty.  I normally keep chats with strangers during air travel to a minimum, primarily because I’m trying to get other things done. Also, with a tendency toward the introvert side of the personality scale, I tend to see the cost-benefit analysis of a one-time talk as more on the cost side.  But in the various lines and pauses on Thursday, I met a photographer from Dallas, a defense department weapons system specialist from Dayton, and a salesperson for highway building equipment from San Diego, all interesting and pleasant.

The snow continued to come down throughout the afternoon, and I kept expecting to hear that the Raleigh flight was cancelled.  Instead, AA loaded up in a timely manner, and closed the door.  My seatmate had the Wall Street Journal, and agreed to share it.  Things were looking good, and then they froze.  We eventually spent more than 4 hours on the runway waiting for de-icing, being de-iced, and taking off.  I finally got home about 4:15 am.  The total travel time was 17.5 hours.   Happy as I was to be home, it took me another couple of hours to get to sleep.  I was late for my 9 am interview with a prospective intern.

On the trip I finished The Drunkard’s Walk:  How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow.  It is an account for non-mathematicians of the history and meaning of the great ideas of probability and statistics.  Mlodinow explains that without an appreciation for probability and statistics, people have an overwhelming tendency to find patterns and meaning where there is none, and greatly overestimate the amount of control they have over their own fate.  This is almost certainly true, but it’s a bit depressing.  It’s therefore possible that people who understand it generally don’t care to talk about it.  One positive point Mlodinow makes late in the book:  success and happiness are more likely if we take more chances.  That is, you can’t win the coin toss if you don’t toss the coin.