September 12 2009

Hindu Goddess as Betty Boop? It’s Personal

By Margy Rochlin |  Feb 13th, 2009

Originally posted in New York Times

Sita Sings the Blues

WHAT do a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic, a ’20s-era jazz singer and Indonesian shadow puppets have in common? They’re all part of the eclectic cultural tapestry that is “Sita Sings the Blues,” an 82-minute animated feature that combines autobiography with a retelling of the classic Indian myth the Ramayana, and that required its creator, the syndicated comic-strip artist Nina Paley, to spend three years transforming herself into a one-woman moving-picture studio.

“At some point everything went through my computer,” said Ms. Paley, who is self-taught and whose longest animated film before this — of a dog chasing a ball — clocked in at just over four minutes. Her decision to do it herself may have satisfied her creative urges, but it also put her more than $20,000 in debt. “That’s why not everyone does it,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine how Ms. Paley, 40, could have farmed out the writing, directing, editing, producing and animating of “Sita Sings the Blues.” As engaging as the film is, explaining it is tricky: along with traditional 2-D animation there are cutouts, collages, photographs and scenes with hand-painted watercolors as the backdrop. At certain points Ms. Paley mixes laughs with exposition by having three flat silhouette characters dispute the details of the Ramayana’s tragic saga of the Hindu goddess Sita, who is exiled by her husband, Rama, who fears she has been unfaithful after she is abducted by a demon king.

At other points Ms. Paley weaves in the story of her own collapsing marriage, and the time switches from ancient India to present-day San Francisco and Manhattan, the images hand-drawn and jittery. In between everything else are flash-animation musical numbers featuring Sita in voluptuous Betty Boop-like form — almond-shaped head, saucer eyes and swaying hips — accompanied by the warbling voice of a real-life flapper-era singer named Annette Hanshaw.

For fans of “Sita Sings the Blues” Ms. Paley’s imaginative leaps and blend of styles are part and parcel of the film’s visual and aural originality. “You can actually feel how much time went into it,” said Alison Dickey, a film producer and one of the jurors who nominated Ms. Paley for Film Independent’s Someone to Watch honor, to be announced at the Spirit Awards next Saturday. “We see so many films, and when you come across one like this, you just feel like you’ve stumbled upon a gem.”

In 2002 Ms. Paley followed her husband, an animator, from their home in San Francisco to a town in western India. It was there that she first learned of the tale of the Ramayana. When she reached the part when Sita kills herself to prove her fidelity, she said, she thought, “That’s just messed up and wrong.”

An idea for a postfeminist comic strip began brewing. In it her new ending would still have Rama rejecting Sita, but instead of committing suicide she would become empowered. “She says, ‘To hell with you. I’m going to go join a farming collective.’ ”

Before Ms. Paley could commit her I-will-survive strip to paper, though, life intervened. While she was on a business trip to New York, her husband sent her an e-mail message telling her not to return. In a state of “grief, agony and shock,” she remained in Manhattan, camping out on friends’ sofas.

One of her hosts, a collector of vintage records, played Annette Hanshaw’s shiny rendition of Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk’s bluesy lament “Mean to Me.” “A friend of mine joked, ‘That’s your theme song,’ ” Ms. Paley said. And while “Mean to Me” and Rama’s rejection of Sita made sense together, she didn’t have the money or the emotional energy to envision more than a short film.

That film, “Trial by Fire,” was so successful on the festival circuit that Ms. Paley kept expanding the project, using successive chapters of the Ramayana and Ms. Hanshaw’s songs as Sita’s sung narrative. “It sounds dumb, but the movie wanted to be made,” she said. “There was this music and this story. It was like: ‘Someone’s got to make this movie. I guess it’s going to be me.’ ”

When Ms. Paley recounted this, it was back in November and she was sitting in the dining room of a friend’s house in Oakland. That evening “Sita Sings the Blues” would open the San Francisco International Animation Festival. (It also opened the Museum of Modern Art’s annual series Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You in New York that month and went on to win a Gotham Award.)

After the final credits rolled, the gangly, curly-haired Ms. Paley bounded onstage and announced, “You’ve all just participated in an illegal act.’ ” Though Ms. Hanshaw’s recordings are not protected by federal copyright, those who own the rights to the songs themselves charge tens of thousands of dollars that Ms. Paley does not have to use them — which is also more than independent distributors have offered for a theatrical release.

Because of an exception in the copyright act, public television stations can broadcast music without having to clear individual licenses, and “Sita” will be shown on the New York PBS station WNET on March 7, after which it will be available on the station’s Web site. “My thing,” Ms. Paley said in November, sounding glum, “is that I just want people to see it.”

Recently, though, the licensing fee was negotiated down to approximately $50,000, and “Sita” is close to being sprung from what Ms. Paley calls “copyright jail.” Still, she hopes to release it in a manner as alternative as her film. Using the free software movement — dedicated to spreading information without copyright restrictions — as her model, she has decided to offer “Sita” at no charge online and let the public become her distributor. After all, it’s a movie that even one of the least sympathetic characters — her ex-husband — might endorse.

“He was relieved,” Ms. Paley reported. “He told a friend of mine he thought it was tactfully done.”

August 22 2009

A Free Education: Open-Of-Course

By Tim Cowlishaw |  Nov 19, 2006

Originally posted in Free Software Magazine

Think Dramatic Education by Jared Klett

Attempts to educate and evangelise to people about the benefits of free software are often frustrasted by the common perception that free software is made ‘by geeks, for geeks’ and is therefore of limited interest to a less ‘technical’ audience.

The Free Culture movement, Wikipedia, and, to a certain extent the Creative Commons (along with applications such as flickr that integrate their licenses) have helped dispel this myth, applying the principles of freedom that originated in Free Software to a wider variety of content, beginning an influx of these values into a wider cross-section of society. Open-Of-Course is another project that attempts to do the same thing, this time providing a repository for freely licensed and collaboratively produced learning materials for a variety of disciplines.

Unlike initiatives such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, Open-Of-Course intends to provide teaching and information for practical subjects and activities, rather than theoretical and academic disciplines. By providing courses in diverse, yet immediately relevant disciplines, Open-Of-Course showcases the possibilities that free licensing offers for education and dissemination of knowledge at a grass-roots level.

While it is true that OOC’s catalogue predominantly features computer related courses, other areas of study are beginning to be included in their offering. The first non-technical subjects to appear are various language courses – a natural candidate for such a project given that language is free by definition. However, the OOC platform (built upon the free course management system Moodle) can accommodate learning material for any subject with ease, and the scope of the site’s course catalogue is limited only by the number and diversity of it’s contributors. In addition, the Moodle platform provides more than just a repository for documentation – Its social and discussion features foster a genuine community based around the participants on a course.

This sort of initiative provides a fantastic opportunity to espouse the benefits that the principles of free software provide to a far greater community than many other free culture or free software projects. The practical emphasis of the site’s courses is fundamentally inclusive, to an extent that similar sites offering specialist or advanced-level knowledge cannot be. Being multilingual, Open-Of-Course ensures that language need not be a barrier to participation. In addition, the social features of the site are pivotal to its accessibility – the fact that users of the site can create new courses themselves ensures that the subject matter offered tracks the interests of those using the site.

Like Wikipedia, before it, OOC treats the transfer of knowledge as an open exchange of ideas which evolve and expand as a result of this exchange, rather than simply as the distribution of immutable ‘works’. By harnessing the power of the community that develops around the site’s users in order to develop and build upon a catalogue of interesting and relevant material, Open-Of-Course admirably showcases the benefits of free licensing for all.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

August 22 2009

Free Me: a DVD about free culture and free software

By Jonathan Roberts |  Dec 3, 2007

Originally posted in Free Software Magazine

Free Me DVD cover

A DVD that comes with lots of great examples of Free Culture which plays in your DVD player, with even more examples when you put it in your computer – including a GNU/Linux Live CD. The idea is simple: help to get the word out about Free Culture, including Free Software, by showing off what’s already been achieved.

Through the first few months of this year I’d been doing a lot of reading, mostly of books and essays like Free Software, Free Society by RMS and Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig: I was so inspired by these texts, and so concerned about some of the issues they presented, I wanted to let my MP know about them. Initially I was just going to forward him a copy of the texts, as is permitted by their licenses, but then I remembered a campaign I’d heard about quite a while ago called “iPods for Senators” where they’d sent iPods full of less restrictively licensed material (i.e. Creative Commons, Public Domain etc) to help raise awareness of the issues surrounding digital technology and copyright law.

I knew I didn’t have the money to send out iPods but I thought I could put together a DVD, which would even allow me to include a GNU/Linux Live CD! This is exactly what I’ve done. The DVD has a range of video content – including movies like Elephants Dream and the animated short Trusted Computing – which will play in your DVD player; a whole load of Creative Commons licensed music and photos which you can enjoy from your computer; books that are now in the public domain (including some real classics) and books which are released under some sort of permissive license, i.e. Verbatim or CC; the icing on the cake, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Knoppix with all of the media on the desktop for you to enjoy!

I plan to send this disc out to M.Ps, relevant journalists and friends at university; hopefully the content will be varied and interesting enough to grab their attention and lead them on to find out more about Free Culture. Thanks to Benjamin Stephan and Christoph Haag from Lafkon (Trusted Computing animation) the packaging will be so attractive it will grab people’s attention before they’ve even put the disc in the drive!

The DVD is now available for free download from The Internet Archive. The target audience is obviously people new to the idea of Free Culture, but who are likely from a wide range of backgrounds (as shown by M.Ps, journalists and students!). The range of the content on the site already reflects the topics I’d like it to cover but I believe it needs editing and refining, probably more links adding etc.

I’m aware that in the EU we’re pretty well off with respect to copyright and patent laws, certainly compared the USA, but I’d like to help keep it that way! Even here in Europe people are being sued for file sharing; neither are we safe from the threat of software patents (yes, that subject has come up again in the EU) so I feel these issues are definitely just as important here; I will be including a cover letter with the disc to M.Ps and journalists to explain how these issues apply to us. I’d also like to encourage more people to get involved with Free Culture, or even just raise people’s awareness of the subject, and I hope that this disc might have some success with this.

August 22 2009

Online Textbooks Lighten Students’ Load

[365-173] Politiks by Adam Smith By Marisa Peacock |  Sep 19, 2008

Originally posted at

Because many textbooks are becoming available for download online, there’s very little need to own the expensive, behemoth, hardbound textbooks anymore – subsequently, reducing the need to schlep them around.

A company called Connexions takes this approach many steps farther by not only publishing free textbooks, but also by allowing students and teachers to rewrite and edit material “as long as the originator is credited.”

Connexions allows teachers to post material, called “modules,” and then mix and match their work with others’ to create a collection of material for students using broader Creative Commons license.

A New York Times article likened textbook publishers to drug makers in the way that they offer incentives for professors to keep pushing for the print versions, which can cost upwards of US$ 200.

However, in the spirit of moral decision making, or, perhaps, because of an advanced understanding of web publishing, some professors are choosing to make their textbooks available online, either for free or through print-on-demand shops like Lulu or Flat World Knowledge.

In response to these open source savvy sites, textbook publishers have launched their own site called CourseSmart. Owned collectively by five publishers, the site allows students to subscribe to a textbook and read it online, with the ability to highlight and print as needed. Though there’s a subscription fee, it is half the traditional textbook price – approximately US$ 90 per book. Sounds like a good way for both the backpack and the wallet to be lighter.

With the ravenous revolution of web publishing, the print industry has struck yet another blow. Like its cousin the newspaper, textbooks have been found to be easily replaced by technological innovation and users’ general unwillingness to settle for inefficiency and irrelevancy.