An evening of open source entertainment

Written by Piers Cawley on

Over on Twitter, Allison Randal said: Open source isn’t just a licensing/business strategy, it’s a better way of producing software and a better way of training developers. The driving principle of the academic model is to make students fail. The bell curve rules, if all students pass something is “wrong". The driving principle of open source is to help each developer reach their own greatest potential. Good developers are good for the project.

Over on Twitter, Allison Randal said:

Open source isn't just a licensing/business strategy, it's a better way of producing software and a better way of training developers.

The driving principle of the academic model is to make students fail. The bell curve rules, if all students pass something is "wrong".

The driving principle of open source is to help each developer reach their own greatest potential. Good developers are good for the project.

The goal affects the path. A goal of measuring leads to a very different teaching style than a goal of building contributors.

This chimes with both the programmer and the traditional singer in me. Traditional songs are open source culture. The rules are different - folk song is all about inclusion. The default setting of many British folk clubs is the singaround - a circle of chairs and we go around the room with each person taking a turn to sing or play. Everyone's free to pass, but they will be strongly encouraged to perform in some way or another.

I'm not sure there's a folk club left with the rules of the Blaxhall Ship in Suffolk where

They got Wicketts Richardson to keep order and he'd say "Sing, say, or pay for a gallon of beer" - and you could go round that pub and every one would have a go - not many paid1

but the ghost of sing, say or pay lingers in the ticket prices with one price for musicians and another, higher one, for audience members.

The traditional songs and tunes of the British Isles were made in a time when there was no music industry in the way we understand it now. Music was a verb more than it was a noun; a communal activity and if you didn't perform, you'd join in with the chorus.

Programming may be a little harder than singing. It's not as if we're born with embedded Linux boxes like we're born with everything we'll ever need to sing, but the capability belongs to everyone who has the equipment and the only way to get really good is to practice. Open source communities live or die by their ability to attract and keep programmers in exactly the same way as musical traditions survive or flourish.

Programs like The X Factor, Pop Idol and their American equivalents both thrill and repel me. It's affirming to see so many people entering auditions but, as Allison points out, goals matter. Those shows aren't about inclusion or developing the talents of everyone, they're about selection - the crueller the better. The message of a Cowell production is that music is hard, not everyone can do it. You're much better off sitting in judgement on the tone deaf and stupid. Leave it to the professionals; music making is only possible with years of training and vast amounts of technology. Don't you worry your pretty little head about a thing, just make sure to buy the single at Christmas.

Bollocks to that![](/p>

The music industry is peddling a big lie. You don't have to be a good enough singer to entertain the nation, it's enough that you entertain yourself and your friends. You might well be terrible2, but here come the others in the room to join in the chorus and it's all good. If you're singing something everyone knows, you'll likely get supported though the verse too.

The closes source software industry does something similar. In a world of apps and no source, we're reduced to consumers again. Obviously much of the software we consume is enabling us to make other forms of culture, but an important and enriching avenue appears closed to us. When you learn to program, computing takes on a whole other meaning. It stops being a box with a few saws, hammers and drills inside. Now you have the tools to make other tools. Your limitations are your imagination and skill. Again, you don't have to make anything that the world may want to share, so long as it suits your purpose, but you'll get much better if you make the attempt. You'll get better by reading other people's code too.

Open Source is a state of mind

We gain so much by sharing. I may be a good singer. I may be a good programmer. I am not harmed in any way if you are as good or better than me, I am helped. If I am harmed as a practitioner, it's when you choose not to sing or code - we lose because our culture loses. The more people who participate, the stronger the culture and the more fulfilment we get from it.

When I was travelling as a contractor, I'd always seek out the folk clubs in the area where I was working. Sometimes, there weren't any. Sometimes they were moribund. I've been going to folk clubs for 20 years now, and for 20 years I've been the youngest person there.3 If I find myself in a club where everyone's better than me, it's wonderful. There's so much to learn) If I'm in a club of more mixed ability, it's great fun too, just another kind of fun4. Every opportunity to sing, or to hear other singers is an opportunity to learn, which means I get better at singing, which makes me happy.

It's the places where there's no clubs that are heartbreaking5

The more people who can program, the stronger that ecosystem is. There's any amount of open source software that I'm grateful to be using, but which is either beyond my talents or outside of my 'giving enough of a shit about it to actually implement it' range. More good open source software means more good code to read, which means more opportunities to learn, which means I get better at my craft, which makes me happy.

An evening of open source entertainment at OSCON?

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my title. I'm speaking at OSCON this year, which will mean I'm sharing knowledge of programming with a huge bunch of talented developers and my programmer self will get a huge amount from it. But what about my singer self? What's that going to do with itself?

So, going to try to arrange an evening of open source entertainment. Ideally I'd like to run a singaround somewhere in a big room with nice acoustics and no need for amplification. Or, if there aren't enough people who'd like to lead a song or two, I can fill an evening with chorus songs and the odd ballad, I just don't know how many people would want to come and listen to me for a whole evening.

It doesn't help that I don't know Portland all that well. I wouldn't have a clue about where to find a venue and how to promote the damned thing, I just think it'd fun to try and do. So, Portlanders, suggestions about where and when I could do this will be gratefully received. If you'll be in Portland for OSCON and you're interested in coming along, either as a performer or just to listen, please chip in here too.

Who knows, maybe we can make this happen.


1 From Sing, Say or Pay!, a fantastic article about the singing pubs of East Suffolk

2 You probably aren't though. If you are, the more you rehearse, perform and listen, the better you'll get. Practicing is hard, but sucking is harder.

3 This is changing, and not just because I'm getting older. However, quite a few of the new clubs seem much more about the paid guest than about the audience as a group of musicians. I may just be turning into an old fart though.

4 And I don't mean I have fun in the X Factor laughing at the talentless style of fun. A dreadful singer may be singing a wonderful song that I haven't heard. Or maybe I'll nail one of my own performances.

5 There's a tipping point where the absence of clubs becomes something positive - if music making is so embedded in a culture that everyone does it, then there would be no need for clubs. Ian A. Anderson, the editor of fROOTS told me that when the Malagasy band Tarika started touring in the West, the band's families couldn't understand how they'd make a living. They asked questions like "Why would they pay you to make music? Don't they make their own?"

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