Sunday, April 24, 2011

Free music for Japan ('The Sun Will Rise')

Many people around the world were quick to react to the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and reach out to those affected, through donations of cash, goods or time. The immediacy of the needs combined with the platform of the internet also led to some innovative approaches to fundraising.

One such example is the crowd-sourced book '2:46 - Aftershocks' (previously written about here). Another project, which has received far less publicity than the book, is the new album release 'The Sun Will Rise'. I've got a track on it too, so have another reason to want to spread the word.

Started by ambient musician Kevin Stephens from Portland Oregon a few days after the first quake, the 'double disc' collection was released online on April 17th. With contributions, musical and otherwise, flooding in via tweets, blog posts and Facebook status updates, the entire project went from idea to realisation in a little over a month.

The compilation has its roots in the netlabel scene. Netlabels are online record labels that distribute music entirely over the internet via digital audio formats and typically give away the music for free under 'free to share' licences. With no physical product to contend with, the running costs of such a label are considerably lower than those of a traditional record label (if not non-existent). The element of curation that comes with a label means that there is also a level of quality control over the music. Although many netlabels deal mostly with electronic music, there are other genres of music also released in this way, as the tracks in the player on this page should show.

Despite this music generally being made available for free, 'The Sun Will Rise' is intended as a charity project with 100% of proceeds raised going directly to the Japanese Red Cross. This is why downloads are completely free and donations are requested via a separate page at The album itself is available from profiles at both Bandcamp and the Internet Archive.

I must admit that the first 'disc', an entirely ambient collection, isn't completely to my tastes. The tracks are glacially slow, somewhat meditative, and almost uniformly rather dark sounding. This is perhaps inevitable for music inspired by the worst natural disaster ever to hit the benefiting country and perhaps likely for a collection that has emerged from the ambient community, but it doesn't seem a natural candidate for taking the project to a wider audience. I'm a fan of ambient music myself in some cases, but I do prefer a slight sense of narrative to what I listen to. However, it will undoubtedly have an audience with the right set of ears.

The second collection is the more accessible one. It opens with Kristopher Fisher's 'Tsunami', an building orchestral swell with a sense of large pending waves. The punky 'Another way of living' leads on to the gorgeously spacious 'Essex' by Mark Preston.

'Going My Way' is a fairly jaunty acoustic romp, followed by 'My Heart Bleeps Noisy Beeps', a high school electro jaunt that in parts conjures up early 80's New Wave. Liam Stewart's 'German Army Coat' is up next, a thoughtful guitar-based piece reminiscent of an upbeat Joy Division after a bit of a lie down.

The next piece is the one that I was involved with. Now I am back in Brighton, I have started working again with an old band mate from The Zamora. The first fruits of this project (dubbed NASA Technical Station) is titled 'Stenographic Records' and was essentially put together in a night - specifically for this album. I sequenced the beats and other samples, Steve played guitar over the top plus added a bass line, then I topped it off with a vocal (a reading of a speech given by someone from Japan's 1960's space programme). We were a little surprised yet rather thrilled to have been selected to appear on the album - an encouraging sign for such a new project. If you like the track, you can comment on it over at SoundCloud.

Aeroshell's 'Lighthugger' comes after us, delivering up more ambience, but beaty enough to be a distant relative to the likes of Air. The pace drops a little with Dao Audio, then gets dramatically Wagnerian with the orchestral swells of 'Heaven's Gate'. The slightly paranoid beeps and swirls of IR's 'electric dragonfly' (great title) precede the thoughtful and spacious textural synthscapes of 'Light Splash Dream', which is the followed by 'Million Eyes Of Dew', the most 'Asian' sounding track on the collection. The album concludes with Cascadian's 'The Corinthian Sea', a track of pending darkness.

The player at the top of this post contains all the tracks on the second collection. This post also contains a badge to donate directly to the fund (go on - they're aiming to raise $1,000) and a mini player for the first collection. Click through onto the album profile pages, download 'em all or track by track and please drop some cash in the collection box on your way out. Spread the word too, while you're at it.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Teach English in Japan...

Having spent a lot of time re-engaging online with Japan again recently (following on from the earthquake and after-effects), I happened across plenty of other non-disaster-related stuff at the same time as keeping up with news from there. One such gem I discovered for the first time is the web series 'English Teachers'. The above video is the first in a series of eight short episodes that take a light-hearted look at the expatriate experience of teaching English in the country. 

Although some of the videos' YouTube commenters felt the series to be a little cheesy, having worked in a very similar environment, I found it to be both startlingly accurate and rather amusing. 'Teaching abroad' can attract such an odd mix of characters that these schools can end up being a really curious collection of people (guess I have to include myself in here too)!

Watch and smile if you've ever taught outside of your comfort zone in a land far, far away or take a peep to see what it can be like if you haven't. Links for the other episodes are given below:

Episode 2: (Un)equilibrium
Episode 3: Hail Mary
Episode 4: Not In Kansas
Episode 5: Showdown
Episode 6: Dun dun dun!
Episode 8: Moving Day

Post on IATEFL pending soon...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Creative Commons in the Classroom: Use, Share, Remix

On Tuesday 19 April, I will be speaking at IATEFL in Brighton - my first presentation at an international conference. I am due to present on the use of Creative Commons-licensed works (hereafter CC) in the classroom and other copyright-related issues. It was very fortunate that the first time I was able to present at this conference, it happened to be in my home town!

In many ways, it's an exciting prospect as get to stand up in front of professional peers from around the world and talk with them on a subject that I know a little something about (and which will hopefully be useful for them). On the other hand, it's also a fairly nerve-wracking idea, as I'll be standing up in front of professional peers from around the world and talk with them on a subject that I know a little about.

Partly because it's rather a big deal for me (I've organised a conference before, but never spoken at one), I've trialled the presentation at an in-house conference and a couple of workshops at work. It seems to have been mostly well received so far, with other teachers telling me that it was useful to know and interesting in parts. However, I'm aware that copyright is not the most thrilling subject to speak on and many people - teachers, students, others - pay little consideration to the idea beyond  possibly the occasional thought in the back of the mind ('I should probably think about this, but…'), so I really need to try and make the subject come alive and relate it directly to people's lives.

This post then is an attempt to introduce the subject and to call for testimonies from other teachers, in order to add some authentic voices to the topic. If you're already familiar with copyright and CC, please scroll down to the section 'A request for input'. If not, then firstly here's some context…

What is copyright, and where's the problem?

Copyright is 'a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work' (Wikipedia). In law, it is a form of intellectual property and while it is not possible to provide legal protection for an idea, copyright covers the expression of an idea. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, copyright exists 'to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public'. As we shall see, this is often not how things turn out in practice.

In most countries (including the UK), copyright is automatically conferred on a work once it has been created, enabling 'all rights reserved' to the creator without them having to register the work with an official body. Although copyright law initially applied only to the copying of books, it now covers a wide range of works, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Written articles
  • Maps
  • Charts
  • Musical compositions
  • Photographs
  • Paintings
  • Motion pictures
  • Sculptures
  • Computer programs
  • Databases
'But I'm a teacher, not a sculptor, a film-maker or a computer programmer. What does this have to do with me?' Teachers and students make use of copyrighted works all the time. Whenever we use a textbook. Whenever we screen or watch a film or video clip in class, or listen to a piece of music or other audio file. When a teacher makes a lesson plan. When a student creates an original piece of writing. This means that within even just one classroom, large numbers of copyrighted works are both being used and created every day.

Secker (2010) claims that there is a 'general perception that there exists some sort of blanket exception for educational or not-for-profit use prevails in education, particularly outside of higher education'. This 'educational exception' is often not the case. In the UK, educational institutions are required to purchase a licence from the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), in order to use copyrighted works. This licence generally permits the photocopying of 5% of a published edition (e.g. a textbook) or one complete chapter. I have yet to meet a teacher, even the most cautious of rule-followers, that will stand over a photocopier as the clock ticks for a fast-pending class and count the pages that they are copying to make sure they fall within their allocated page count.

Under British law, photocopying and scanning of published works when performed in education falls under the concept of 'fair dealing'. This is a legal defence rather than a legal right, as the UK does not have the concept of 'fair use' enshrined within its copyright laws (as the US does, being theoretically more lenient on the use of copyrighted works in a educational context). Fair dealing in the UK does not apply to electronic resources, meaning that copying pages from a textbook and making it available across a Virtual Leaning Environment (VLE) can be a risky business.

Plagiarism. Using 'Google Image Search' to source pictures for learning materials. Uploads to VLEs. Student work that builds on existing works. These are just some of the many other copyright-related issues that also arise in learning contexts, few easily solvable. Perhaps most importantly, if teaching is supposed to be about the spread of knowledge in order to facilitate learning, the greater the restriction on that knowledge, the more that learning opportunity is inhibited.

Creative Commons - towards a solution

There are some who claim that in the so-called Information Age, existing copyright regimes are in need of radical reform, in order for them to be more relevant in the reality of the Internet ('the world's greatest copy machine', as Cory Doctorow has described it). Under Britain's Copyright, Designs & Patents Act (1988), it was still technically illegal to view a website (Secker), until a 2003 amendment fixed this anomaly. This was because in order for a computer to display a web page, it has to download a copy of it from the server onto the client machine. The very tools that facilitate our modern times have copying built into their DNA.

Step forward, Creative Commons. This non-profit organisation was founded in 2001, to create 'a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws'. The licences they issue enable the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools, by allowing the user to communicate which rights they wish to reserve on their work. Their mission statement depicts a 'vision (that) is nothing less than realising the full potential of the Internet - universal access to research, education, full participation in culture, and driving a new era of development, growth, and productivity'. They are not an alternative to copyright, more a compliment to it - a case of 'some rights reserved'.

There are four key elements to these licences - Attribution ('give my name when you use my work'), Non-Commercial ('please don't use my work to make money for yourself from it'), No Derivatives ('you can use this as long as you don't make any changes to the original') and Share-Alike ('you can use this as long as you issue the resulting work under the same licence terms'). Works can be issued under any combination of these elements, from the least restrictive Attribution (CC-BY) to the most restrictive Attribution - Non-Commercial - No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND). Generally, these conditions are fixed into the digital file, either within the metadata or in some visual form (such as by using the CC symbols), which is then uploaded to the Internet. I believe that they are an essential of a modern Internet user's toolkit, teacher or not.

Barack Obama uses them. So does TED. So does Wikipedia, MIT, and the Open University. And so do many millions of individuals around the world that wish to share ether work as a contribution towards a global creative commons. By the end of 2009, there were approximately 350 million such licenced works available on the Internet. At the growth rate they have been showing, it is likely to now exceed 1 billion. That suggests that it's not so much 'are there any quality works I can find related to my subject?' but more a case of 'how do I filter through this mountain of free stuff?'

Here are a few good reasons for using CC in education:
  • Getting appropriate copyright clearance for certain materials can take too long for the material to remain relevant to the teaching objective
  • Academic staff often don't have time to absorb the complexities of a copyright licence
  • Institutional licences may not cover all student work, such as something which incorporates images and text from multiple sources that is then shared with others
  • As the traditional content industries lose more income in the face of challenges to their business models, there are greater risks of prosecution for copyright infringement
  • Cleared digital resources are easier to source, reuse and adapt than uncleared or non-digital resources
  • Not misusing copyright is good 'netiquette' and should be part of teaching today's younger people to become digitally literate
  • There's masses and masses of really high quality material available for use

A request for input

This post is meant more as a beginning than an end. Although many teachers I speak to often don't see how the copyright issue affects their daily work, the deeper I go into this issue, the more I hear of people that do have genuine concerns about copyright. On the other hand, while there are many examples of use of CC works in education around the world, I have so far come across very few examples within ELT (English Language Teaching). 

'Whodunit', the first free-to-share commercial ELT textbook, was only released last year. The eltpics project on Flickr (thanks to Phil Bird for alerting me to it), an image pool that collects CC resources in one place, was started only in October 2010. Further cursory Google searches bring up the odd few language teachers that use CC in the classroom but not a great deal.

I have two questions for readers - whether teachers or students. Please either add your responses in the comments section of this post, or for private communication please send an email using the icon in the sidebar:
  1. Have you ever had any negative experiences with copyright at work/school?
  2. Have you ever had any positive experiences with using Creative Commons in the classroom?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Black Water

Artistic communities around the world have been moved into action to help those in Japan affected by the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami on March 11th. This touching song with its well-put together video was written and recorded by fatblueman, at the request of ourmaninabiko (the founder of Quakebook - another fundraising effort).

I've also co-written/recorded a piece which has been selected for inclusion on the double compilation CD 'The Sun Will Rise'. The CD is released on Friday, so more to follow soon.

All monies raised from Quakebook sales go directly to the Japanese Red Cross.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Inside the Egyptian Revolution

Google executive Wael Ghonim was incarcerated by the Egyptian authorities during the uprisings in January and February of this year, having created a Facebook page in support of the protests. TED have wasted no time in getting him to give a talk on what he describes as 'Revolution 2.0' - a new form of leaderless uprising, facilitated by the internet and social networks.