Thursday, June 30, 2011

[title of show] @ Mountain View Center for Performing Arts

Watching [title of show], the musical by two guys about two guys writing a musical, can be compared to looking at reflections in a hall of mirrors. Because a hall of mirrors also contains panes of glass, you never know if you are seeing something that is real or something that is a reflection. This concept of reality versus reflection initially confuses the storyline but, as the 90 minute show (with no intermission) moves along, meatier themes and more memorable songs are introduced that ultimately make for a sweet but mostly benign evening.

The Mountain View Center for Performing Arts (MVCFPA) production opened on June 1, 2011, following (by years) its premiere at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, and subsequent runs off-Broadway and on. It is this journey that is performed by a first rate cast including New York based actors Jamison Stern, Laura Jordan and Farah Alvin and the Bay Area's Ian Leonard. The ladies, Jordan and Alvin, come off best - probably because there characters are written with more depth and they have the most memorable songs. What Kind Of Girl Is She? is a wonderfully funny duet placed in the middle of the show which on reflection (yea, pun intended) seems the turning point to real. Jordan's Die Vampire, Die!, even with its somewhat forced lyrical metaphors, is a clever number, universal in its theme of defeating the doubts in our own heads. Alvin's solo A Way Back To Then is a triumph of simplicity and power, arguably the best song in the show.

Stern and Leonard are good enough despite their characters seeming as cartoons rather then flesh and blood. They also get saddled with inferior songs like Untitled Opening Number, Two Nobodies In New York and An Original Musical - unfortunately, the first three songs in the show. All four actors perform the nicely staged Monkeys and Playbills (with its roll out of classic Playbill covers), the rhythmic Change It, Don't Change It/Awkward Photo Shoot, and Nine People's Favorite Things, the final song that closes out the evening on a high note. Also, worth his weight in gold is William Lieberatore, MVCFPA's Musical Director, who accompanies the cast on stage and actually has a few small yet pivotal lines!

The set, with its backdrop of brick and plaster emulating a New York studio apartment, is bare bones and fits the scenario. Each character is given their own chair (shades of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale?) and most of the numbers are staged using them. (I thought seeing Jordan's character, the only one with a full time job, rolling around in her $800 Herman Miller desk chair a nice touch.) Director Meredith McDonough has managed to create the whole of New York in this small apartment.

[title of show] is not a musical in the grand Broadway tradition. It does not use a full orchestra, there is no dancing and it has references that only theatre queens would recognize (the program includes a glossary for the uninformed). And, as directly quoted from the script, it often seems like obvious pandering and too self-indulgent. Still though composer Jeff Bowen and writer Hunter Bell have managed to do something that many other artists have not - get their work seen; that, in itself, makes [title of show] a triumph.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sharing Out-of-Print Content Using BitTorrent

This article assumes anyone following this procedure is sharing ONLY out-of-print content that can NOT be bought in your local mom-and-pop retail store or online vendor. Neither the article nor its writer advocates the downloading of copyrighted, in print media of any type because, simply, it is illegal and you can go to jail.
There's been a lot of outcry regarding the sharing community. It's illegal. Corporations are losing money. Artists aren't paid for their work. Now all may be true in regards to downloading current, in print works of art (term used loosely) but there is a side to the community that isn't often referred to: the side that shares older, out-of-print works of art to keep them alive. How many films have been made that are not available on DVD? How many vinyl records have never been digitized? How many books can no longer be found in vanishing libraries and book stores? Were it not for the sharing community, these works of art might become as extinct as the dodo bird.

Towards this end, I have been asked recently by a number of friends how to get some of these rare, out-of-print items. After spending two hours explaining how to use BitTorrent trackers to one friend, I decided to write this simple guide for the others - and anyone else that might be interested. This article contains the following sections.

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent Tracker Networks are peer-to-peer (computers like yours connected to computers like mine) networks that use the BitTorrent protocol to connect. In a nutshell, when you decide on content you want to share, you search for a small text file associated with the share called a torrent. A torrent file has the .torrent extension and allows for sharing, and tracking the multiple (and worldwide) locations of the specific content.

Because of its tracking feature, I will use the term tracker in this article (rather than torrent) to differentiate this small text file from any other uses of the word torrent.

When (and if) you find a tracker for content that is out-of-print, you open it in a BitTorrent application which then finds other computers (peers) that have this particular content, connects to them, and begins to share. The tracker essentially creates a network of personal computers solely dedicated to sharing this specific content. The BitTorrent Sharing Procedure delves into the details.

The BitTorrent Sharing Procedure

  1. Download and install a BitTorrent application.

    On the Mac, this application might be Transmission; on Windows, it might be uTorrent. There are many other BitTorrent applications and you may not find one you like until you've downloaded it, installed it and used it. I happened on Transmission after first trying something called Tomato Torrent. I will be using screen shots from Transmission. You can right-click on any of these screen shots to view the larger image.
  2. Ensure that the peer listening port set in your BitTorrent application preferences (or options) is open in your home network.

    I can't help with this as I don't know your internet service provider (ISP) or how your home network is configured or which application you have installed. You might not need to do anything. After installing the BitTorrent application, you can start sharing and see how fast the bits are transferred. If you want to investigate this step, try an internet search using terms that map to open port ISP application. For example, I searched open port uVerse transmission. Tweak the search terms based on your choices or add torrent or listening port to them and see what results are returned. It took a bit of work to find information on how to open my port but don't be discouraged - it's out there somewhere.
  3. Create a directory on your computer called Torrents.

    This is the directory in which you should put your downloaded trackers - assuming they are downloaded to a Downloads directory configured in your browser's settings.
  4. Set this Torrents directory in your BitTorrent application.

    I have set Transmission to download files into the same directory from which I will open the tracker. With this option, it does not require a specific directory but it does require that I (being the organized person that I am) move all my trackers into this one directory. I don't advise using more than one directory because you are allowing external access to whatever directory is defined. I'd rather my BitTorrent application only know about the one directory.
  5. Download a tracker and move it into your Torrents directory.

    This should take no time because the tracker, as mentioned, is just a small text file. Here is a link to a tracker page on btjunkie for Second Serve, a television film starring Vanessa Redgrave that was only released on Video Home System (yep, it's an acronym: VHS) tape in the United Kingdom.

    Be careful that you are clicking the correct download link. Tracker search engines make their money when people click on the ads not when they download a tracker. Even an inadvertent click is money so, of course, the tracker download button is usually the smallest on the page. Read everything before you click. In this screen shot, you can see the word DOWNLOAD four times. I use the first Download Torrent with the green icon next to it. Be sure to read everything and choose carefully before you click.

    NOTE: This screen shot I used is benign but be aware that many tracker search engines have pornographic advertisers with pee-pees and (mostly) va-jay-jays screaming hello. My suggestion is NOT to follow this procedure on a work computer or in a room where your mother might be sitting.

    Also, be aware that different tracker search engines might have different trackers for the same file or different trackers associated with different files for the same content. It is all dependent upon which search engine the person who is sharing the file has decided to use to disseminate the tracker.
  6. Start your BitTorrent application and open the tracker file from within it.

    In this screen shot, File -> Open Torrent File opens a dialog box from which you will search for your Torrents directory, select the tracker you downloaded (and moved to the directory) and click Open. Note the Second Serve tracker name selected in the screen shot - including the year, movie name, additional text and the .torrent extension - is somewhat atypical for a tracker name; often you might just see the name with (seemingly) random numbers and letters and the .torrent extension. An Add dialog will pop-up and display the name of the file being shared.
  7. Click Add to begin sharing this tracker.

    A dialogue is displayed in which we are finally seeing the actual name of the files: Second Serve.avi and a small text file inside a folder named Second Serve will be shared.

    Sometimes the file being shared will be a sole AVI file or content compressed into a ZIP or .rar archive. In the case of compressed files, you will need the proper software to decompress them.

    Once added to the queue, the interface for your application might look something like this:

    The slim blue line confirms that sharing has begun. You see other terms like All, Active, Downloading, Seeding, and Paused. These terms allow you to customize what you see. Do you want to see all trackers you have added whether they are currently being shared or not? Or do you want to see only those that are still in the queue but might be paused for one reason or another? Also note the terms Ratio and Seeding; these are very important terms which I will explain in a moment.

    As sharing continues, I opened the information panel (on your left) so you can see from which IP addresses (with last numbers removed) this file is being shared. The BitTorrent application being used is also listed. Note the blue line on the right has gotten longer as sharing continues. (You can follow progress with the Time Remaining and % properties above the blue line as well.)

    As sharing continues to continue, I opened the activity panel (on your left) so you can see how much of the file has already been shared. You see Downloaded, Uploaded and Ratio (again). Definitions coming up.

    When the file is complete, this same Downloading screen will be empty but when you click the Seeding link and the Seeding screen is displayed, you see that the line is green and other computers are still sharing from your directory. You will soon be able to close the tracker file from within the BitTorrent application. See Seeding and Leeching and Ratios, Oh My for information on when this should happen.

Seeding and Leeching and Ratios, Oh My

More important than this procedure is the sharing community itself and how your actions relate to it. Let's first define two terms you need to know.
  • A seeder is a computer that contains the file you want. The seeder may have 100% of the file or 1% of the file; the percentage of the file on the computer does not matter because someone somewhere will be able to share whatever portion is present. When you open a tracker in your BitTorrent application and you have some (or all) bits from the associated file, you are seeding. You will always be considered a seeder until you close the tracker file and are no longer tracked as part of the network for that specific file.
  • A leecher is a computer that wants the file you have. The leecher may have 99% of the file or 0% of the file. When you open a tracker in your BitTorrent application to share a file, you are a leecher UNTIL you have completely downloaded 100% of the file. Once you have obtained 100% of the file, you are no longer leeching. But you may not be ready to close the tracker file yet.
The concepts that keep the community alive are generosity and fair sharing. People who digitize out-of-print content and begin to seed it by creating a tracker are generously donating their time and bandwidth so others may enjoy. There is an expectation among those who create content that those who leech content will also donate their time and bandwidth so others may enjoy. That's where your personal ratio comes into play. It is expected, as a model member of the sharing community, that you will give, at the very least, what you take.

For example, Second Serve is a 789 MB file so when you complete your leech you have downloaded 789 MB. It is expected that over time you will keep that tracker alive until you have seeded to others a minimum of 789 MB. This would give you a personal ratio of 1:1 for the Second Serve tracker. Thus, as you can enjoy this content others who have leeched from you may enjoy it as well. These leechers will, in turn, seed to others and so on and so on and so on. Now you can imagine what would happen if everyone who leeched immediately removed the Second Serve tracker and did not seed - the tracker will die and with it the ability for others to see this out-of-print content.

When you open a tracker and begin to leech a file, you almost immediately become a seeder as well. (Remember a seeder may have 1% or 100% of a file.) You will continue to seed as long as the tracker is active in your BitTorrent application. You can seed at the same time as you leech but, most probably, the bulk of your seeding will occur AFTER you have downloaded 100% of your file and have stopped leeching. That's because we are discussing files that not many people want or are even aware exists. I would venture a guess that 99% of those who are reading this article have never even heard of the movie Second Serve, the true story of a transgender tennis player.

It is expected that you will continue to seed until you have reached a positive upload:download ratio. 1:1 (as in our example) is the minimum positive ratio. The higher the ratio, the more you have contributed. If you have a good ratio, you will be more appreciated by the torrent community. When I learned about the community, I decided to keep my personal ratio at (a minimum of) 2:1. This means that three people will enjoy this content because of me: first (and certainly foremost) myself and then the two others alluded to by my upload number.

NOTE: Seeding and the ratio number are not as cut and dried as the previous sentence leads you to believe. Your BitTorrent application keeps track of your seeding total and ratio. Somewhere in your application's window you will see this ratio; in the Transmission screen shots it is in the top left corner. Thus you can technically be seeding to eight people but all is good as long as you keep a positive ratio.

If you have a personal ratio below 1:1 (meaning you leech 789 MB but only seed 100 MB) you are JUST leeching and not interested in helping others complete their download. In this case, you are cheating the community and we don't like leechers. A positive personal ratio indicates that you have sent more data to other users than you have received. People like seeders so please seed at least as much as you leech for each specific tracker. If you have a negative ratio there are other consequences (besides karmic) as discussed in Sharing Speeds.

Sharing Speeds

The speed of your share is dependent on a number of things.
  1. Your personal ratio (see!)
  2. Seeders THAT ARE ONLINE
  3. Settings you have chosen for your BitTorrent application
  4. Settings others have chosen for their BitTorrent application
  5. Your personal network speed
#1 - Trackers keep track of your personal ratio as well as your BitTorrent application and will denigrate speed based on it. You want to download faster? Pump up your ratio. There are many seeders who keep to 4:1 or even 10:1 ratios. Even after completing a share with a personal ratio of (minimum) 2:1, I generally keep the tracker file and will open the tracker file to re-seed if I notice via comments in the tracker search engines that leechers are stalled at a certain percentage. It's karma, baby.

#2 - Now why did I capitalize THAT ARE ONLINE? Because many people shut down their computers when they are finished using it for the day. (I know I do.) So even though a tracker might know about a computer seeder, the owner might have shut the computer down for the evening. When that happens, the file ON THAT COMPUTER will only be available again when the owner turns the computer back on and starts their BitTorrent application. Because many out-of-print files might only have two or three seeders, the leech will undoubtedly take some time before the complete file has been downloaded to your computer. As you seed and turn your own computer off and back on, the leechers will find you again and the downloads can continue. This is expected by members of the community.

#3 - BitTorrent applications have options that you can set to limit downloads and uploads to specific numbers in KBs. These are your decisions to make. They are modified per specific tracker and I find I often change these options depending on how much desire I have to see something NOW.

#4 - Just as you can set download and upload limits so can everyone else.

#5 - This is a no-brainer - you can't get speeds faster than your ISP allows.

The End

Well, it's the end of this article anyway. There are more aspects of sharing out-of-print content using the BitTorrent protocol than I have documented but this should get you started. If you are interested in delving more deeply into other details, you can start with the BitTorrent entry at Wikipedia.

Now if you'll excuse me I am going to watch Second Serve and maybe after that I'll watch Isadora, both starring Vanessa Redgrave and both, at the time of this writing, hopelessly out-of-print.