Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wikibooks: Chicken and the Egg

I'm at the Wikiconference NYC today and just got out of a very interesting keynote speech, and Q+A session lead by Jimmy Wales. As can be expected in a room full of Wikipedians, lead by the man who founded Wikipedia there wasn't a whole lot of talk about the various sister projects such as Wikibooks. However, mention of Wikibooks was raised at one point during a question about textbooks and instruction.

Jimmy Wales stabbed on a point that I've known for a while but haven't really vocalized before. The problem with Wikibooks, he says, is an issue of K-12 adoption. To be adopted in a classroom a book must comply to a pre-set standard curricula. Without curriculum compliance, there is no hope whatsoever that the book will ever be used in an actual classroom. Without a target audience, it's hard for editors to be motivated to write books, and the cycle continues. This problem is compounded by the fact that many existing curricula are copyrighted and not available to us for free use.

Wikibooks has done pretty well so far in the area of college-level textbooks. Many of our editors are college students or college professors (or graduates who managed to retain some of their knowledge), and there has already been good feedback from college courses that are using our books as part of their programs. So, there's a feedback loop here that reinforces and encourages more development in these books. Our collection of college-level books therefore is of a much higher quality then our collection of K-12 books.

People have said in the past before that Wikibooks has a dearth of quality books for young children. People have also mentioned in the past that books on Wikibooks don't follow standard curricula. It's the interplay between these two items that is something I've never quite put my finger on before, but that Jimmy nailed. This doesn't necessarily explain why Wikijunior is so stagnant (since children younger than school age don't need to follow a curriculum), although Part of Wikijunior's target demographic does include school-aged children as well.

Luckily, I don't think that this problem is a hopeless one. I think that in time we will cross the hurdle and break the feedback cycle of stagnation. A big part of this is the license migration, so now Wikibooks is more compatible with CC-BY-SA content (which is how most other open-content textbooks are licensed). I also think that there are efforts that can be made to conform to existing (although admittedly not often used) free standard curriculums, and also to put pressure on governments to make more existing curriculums freely available.

I would love to hear more ideas on this topic, to try and start brainstorming ways we can improve our K-12 books.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Licensing Vote Results

The results of the Wikimedia licensing vote have been made public today. From Robert Rohde on foundation-l:

The licensing update poll has been tallied.

"Yes, I am in favor of this change" : 13242 (75.8%)
"No, I am opposed to this change" : 1829 (10.5%)
"I do not have an opinion on this change" : 2391 (13.7%)

Total ballots cast and certified: 17462

This is quite a good result, and one that I am happy to see. The WMF board has not made a final decision on the matter, but I sincerely hope that they pursue this license migration.

Update: The board moved pretty quickly on these results, and have already written and approved a resolution:

Whereas the Wikimedia community, in a project-wide vote, has expressed
very strong support for changing the licensing terms of Wikimedia sites,
and whereas the Board of Trustees has previously adopted a license
update resolution requesting that such a change be made possible, the
Board hereby declares its intent to implement these changes.
Accordingly, the Wikimedia Foundation exercises its option under Version
1.3 of the GNU Free Documentation License to relicense the Wikimedia
sites as Massive Multiauthor Collaborations under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license, effective June 15, 2009. The Board
of Trustees hereby instructs the Executive Director to have all
Wikimedia licensing terms updated and terms of use implemented
consistent with the proposal at

So it looks like Wikibooks (and all other GFDL WM projects) will be migrating to CC-BY-SA-3.0 dual-licensing by June 15th. Quite a cool thing to happen!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wikibooks First!

I got a great email today from Cbrown1023. He did a Google search and a result from Wikibooks appeared first, even before any results from Wikipedia! What's funny is that it's not on a topic that I would consider to be a particular strength of our collection. Part of me hopes this page is not being heavily linked to as an example of the worst parts of Wikibooks, but when you see the page in question you might have that thought too. Another reminder of how much more work we need in order to make a great library of free books!

My next point of interest is to wonder why Cbrown1023 was searching for information about nuclear war? Do the WP people know something us WB folks don't?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Categories Are Doing Great

Thanks to users like [[User:Adrignola]] and [[User:Darklama]] (and others, sorry for those I didn't mention), the Wikibooks category system is much cleaner and more usable now then it ever has been in my recollection. Also, if you active Darklamas new Color Coded Categories gadget (which is deceptively simple), you'll get a great category browsing experience.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wikimedia NY Meeting

Wikimedia is having a meeting at Columbia University on Sunday May 17. Here's the announcement that was sent out on the mailinglist:

Come one, come all!

Our next meeting for Wikimedia NYC is Sunday May 17 at Columbia University.

This is a meeting for volunteers to the projects of the non-profit
Wikimedia Foundation, and everyone else too, who has ever looked at
Wikipedia and wondered what's going on behind it.

One big topic of discussion, out of many, will be preparing for our
'Wiki-Conference New York' at NYU this summer.

Other topics will be recent experiences at the WMF Chapters meeting
and in cooperating with local groups in NYC, photography for Wikinews,
and discussing issues relevant to Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia

We welcome all guests. If you support open education and free
culture, we are your people. If you have a project you want to work
on with us, this is a great opportunity to get acquainted. If you want
someone to give a talk or teach a class with an inside view of
Wikipedia, meet your volunteers. And if you just have any questions,
we'd be glad to try to answer them.

Remember, the agenda here is up to you! I encourage anyone who is
interested to sign up to give a presentation or suggest a topic for
general discussion at our wikimeetup page (given below).

California Open Textbook Initiative

I don't know if other people have heard about this one yet: California is pursuing open textbooks to help cut costs. I've been saying for a long time that the traditional textbook pricing model isn't really scalable, especially not for money-strapped urban school districts. So, it makes good sense that California would be looking to use free alternatives instead of paying premium prices for texts.

The cynic in me obviously worries that government bureaucratic processes will miss the point and ruin the whole exercise. Crowd-sourcing and open culture only work if you let the people in and let them self-govern to a degree. If the state of California tries to impose all sorts of oversights and restrictions and controls on the process, they will spend more money and end up with lower-quality books then if they just stuck with proprietary books.

I would be interested to hear if anybody knows anything about this California textbook project, and if there is anything that the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikibooks can do to get involved. I think we have a great infrastructure set up and a great environment for developing quality books for a great price, and it's that infrastructure that places like California need if they want to succeed in lowering the cost of education.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Public Education Woes

This is a little bit off topic for this blog, but it's something I wanted to talk about anyway. I read a disheartening news story today about teachers and how it's ridiculously hard to get rid of the ones that are mistreating or simply failing their students.

I know that a major impetus for me to start working at Wikibooks was the textbooks that I was using for my various classes. In short, some of them were absolutely terrible and I was forced to search the internet for quality alternatives. I don't know if the situation is specific to engineering books, but I suspect that books in that subject area are some of th worst offenders. Since I've started writing engineering books on Wikibooks a few years ago, I can't even count how many thank-you emails I've received from students who were also desperately searching for quality books to replace the lousy ones they were forced to use (and pay huge prices for) in school.

So that's my short off-topic news post for today. I like to think that we can keep this kind of thing in mind as we do work on Wikibooks and elsewhere to create quality free educational materials. After all, the real issue of concern is the students, many of whom are children and won't have the foresight to pursue education if it isn't properly provided to them by teachers and parents.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thinking about project mergers

In idle conversation tonight we started talking about the idea of merging projects. I know it's certainly not a very popular topic, a lot of people have staked out their territories and don't like to think that their "home" project is going to get merged into a larger project and lose it's individual charm and character.

It's no secret that in the past I have strongly suggested that Simple English Wikibooks be merged into English Wikibooks. I'm still of that opinion, although recent activity levels at that project have been higher then they were when I first went on crusade.

The topic tonight was about a potential merger between Wikibooks and Wikisource. Before the knee-jerk "UR IDEAZ R TEH SUX!!" response that these kinds of suggestions tend to recive on these 'ere internets, consider what such a project would look like:

It would be a virtual library, but prepped for crowd-sourcing. We would have all sorts of static "historical" books, a la Wikisource, that are pre-published and are not editable. They would stand as the reference works in the library. Since this is a wiki, we would want an editable section too. These, the "community" books would be normal editable wiki pages, a la Wikibooks, that could evolve and improve over time.

Every "book" on this fanciful project could be composed of one or both of these parts: (1) a "base" version, which represents the pre-published static version, and (2) the "current" version, which represents the wiki editable community version of the book. At a click, you could instantly see both the original manuscript, or the updated community version as it evolves.

On WB we receive book donations on occasion, where we receive a completed manuscript, post it on the wiki, and ask our editors to update and maintain it. Unfortunately, without the use of a custom template, the original uploaded version gets lost in the sands of the history pages.

Now I know that this idea needs a lot of fleshing out. WS obviously contains lots of material that isn't "book-like", and the vast majority of WB's 3000+ books aren't derived from a pre-published base version. Plus, there's the consideration that it's nonsensical to try and update or maintain many of the books that are currently in the public domain. For instance, what will an editor today change about Principia Mathematica, or The Republic, or Beowulf? And speaking of Beowulf, what would become our policy on fictional works? Are we allowed to maintain and update them, and if so are we allowed to create new fiction works from scratch?

So the idea isn't perfect, but I think there are some gems hidden in there that are worthwhile to consider. I think it's more feasible to merge WB+WS then it would be to merge WB+WV (which is a suggestion I hear very often).

As a disclaimer, I doubt such a merger would ever happen, but it's a fun thing to think about and might lead to cool new ideas in the future.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Categorization Continues

I've taken a little bit of a break from book categorization myself, other things in life have been eating up a lot of my time. However, just because I've taken a break and have stopped blogging about it doesn't mean that categorization has stopped en masse. [[User:Adrignola]] specifically has been doing a lot of work getting our terrible category system cleaned up.

The Category: namespace at Wikibooks has been, to put it nicely, a trash heap. There are a lot of reasons for this, stemming pretty far back in the history of the project. A lack of a clear categorization policy resulted in a number of ad hoc categorization methods being implemented by various people. Early in the project we also had a series of "bookshelves" pages where books were organized into lists by subject manually. Certainly seems like a waste of effort now, but the bookshelves served us pretty well for a pretty long time.

A while back we decided to get rid of the bookshelves and replace them with a Category-based alternative. However, instead of using plain category pages, we decided to go with Dynamic Page Lists on our new Subject pages instead. So even though we are moving in a better direction, we still have plenty of excuse to keep sweeping problems in the Category: namespace under the rug. All that matters to us now is how well things appear on the subject pages.

That's not to say that organization of our category pages is unimportant, in fact it's very important since categories form the underbelly of our whole organizational structure. If they're messy, nothing above them will ever be as good as we need it to be.

So, I think it's very cool that people are working to make the category pages better, and I sincerely hope that the good work continues.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I'm pleased to be able to finally announce a pretty cool event. A group of education researchers from Old Dominion University have been awarded a grant from the MacArther Foundation to pursue usability enhancements to MediaWiki wikis especially as pertains to books and collaborative education.

A brief overview of the grant is available, I'm trying to get my hands on more information and will post it as I have it.

This group of researchers have been active on Wikibooks, which is where I met them and started working with them. Some of their books, Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education and Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment, have been highly successfully multi-semester class projects that serve as good archetypes of other such projects in the future.

This project, called "WITTIE", will not benefit Wikibooks directly, since some of the necessary controls on their experiments won't work in a large open site like Wikibooks. However, I am very hopeful that many of their results will be able to be implemented in Wikibooks, Wikiversity, or other education-based wiki projects after the grant period has concluded.

I'm working with this group as a sort of "expert" consultant and programmer. We're hopefully going to be either (a) finding and enhancing a set of existing usability extensions for MediaWiki, or (b) Developing some of our own usability extensions as needed. To that end, I am looking for interested coders to help out with the MediaWiki and PHP work that's bound to pop up. I am looking for people who are able not only to write decent code, but capable of mitigating the scalability, performance, and security concerns that come with public-facing collaborative websites. If you, or somebody you know fits the bill, I would love to get in touch. Please send me a comment here on this blog or an email if you are interested.

I will post more information, not only on the project itself but also on my hunt for a coder to help with it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wikimedia Licensing Vote

The Wikimedia Foundation has started a vote to enable a migration from GFDL licensing to dual-licensing GFDL and CC-BY-SA-3.0. All Wikibookians (in fact, all Wikimedians) are encouraged to vote on this issue, and it's my personal hope that they all vote YES! Here is the voting page. You must have at least 25 edits before you will be allowed to vote.

A number of members of the Wikibooks community have specifically requested some kind of dual-licensing scheme to make our books more interoperable with other open-education websites. Some authors have attempted to use different licensing schemes on a per-book basis, although those attempts were generally thought to be against Wikibooks' terms of use.

Dual licensing GFDL and CC-BY-SA-3.0 will keep our material compatible with all the GFDL stuff still, but will also open compatibility to other websites and organizations that are CC-BY-SA-3.0 only. A large number of organizations, especially open-education groups, use CC-BY-SA licenses for their content, and previously Wikibooks was not compatible with these. Now, if the vote is passed, we will be and licensing will no longer be a significant barrier to the free use of quality educational materials.

It is my personal opinion that this initiative will be immensely beneficial to the Wikibooks project, with no significant downsides. If people would like to explore other opinions, get in contact with me and I will be happy to send you links to other information that you can use to make a decision.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Next Wikibooks Community Meeting

Mike.lifeguard has taken the opportunity to schedule a new Wikibooks Community Meeting, since the last one was such a success. The next meeting will be at:

Thursday, 9 April 2009
21:00 UTC
#Wikibooks on

All are welcome to attend. Mike has set up a planning/agenda page at Meta, so everybody can see what kinds of things we want to talk about.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wikibookian Survey

Are you a Wikibookian? If so, there's an interesting survey in progress right now that's attempting to gather information about Wikibookians and the demographics of the Wikibooks project. If you're interested and have 10 spare minutes, your input would be much appreciated:

username: motivations
password: wikiproject

It will only take a few minutes, and will help everybody get a better understanding of who we are and what we do.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Updated Wikibooks Store

Did you know that Wikibooks has a store on CafePress? It has had one for a while, but the selection was relatively small and all the things there used the old logo.

Today I'm pleased to announce that, with help from Jay Walsh and Cary Bass, the Wikibooks store has been updated to use the new logo, and an expanded list of Wikibooks products! All the old products with the old logo are still there too, if you're into that vintage look. Proceeds benefit the WMF, of course.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wikijunior Colors

Wikijunior Colors is one of my favorite books at Wikibooks. It's such a simple concept, and such a fun example of how to quickly and easily create books for young children. It's also a good example for how Wikimedia projects can interoperate, with the majority of the books content being images from Commons.

Well, I saw today that there are at least three translated versions of this book: Romanian, French, and Polish. This makes good sense to me, there is very little text so very little effort is required to translate it into other languages.

If you haven't seen it yet, this is a very fun little book and almost rediculously simple in concept. A perfect way to spend a few minutes with your young children looking at colorful images.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Social Sciences book

I'm finally finished my work reorganizing the Social Sciences books today. I've received a few comments about some of my other work with the Humanities books or the Fine Arts books about how the work I'm doing isn't perfect. That's fine by me, I never was shooting for perfection anyway. One person getting things right the first time isn't what wikis are all about.

What I've been attempting to do is clean out clutter and get human eyes looking at every single book, even if only briefly. Also, I'm trying to turn large lists of books into smaller and more manageable lists, by categorizing and subcategorizing. The result is a series of pages that are more organized, cleaner, and easier to browse through. It's up to the rest of our authors and editors and organizers to fine tune the system to be more perfect. In fact, if somebody out there has an artistic flair and would like to make these subject pages a little prettier, that would be a great start!

So the Social Sciences books are basically finished being organized now. There are a few issues that I still need to tend to, but nothing serious. In my travels I've found a few very good books that I plan on showcasing here as time allows. I don't know where I am heading next. The biggest mess is in the Computing section, where our largest collection of books is jammed into the smallest number of meaningful subcategories. The Science section is looking pretty lousy now too, so I may head there instead. In either case, there's a lot of work to do getting all our thousands of books organized, and I could use lots of help doing it!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Concurrent Engineering

I've been following the work of a new class project here on Wikibooks: Concurrent Engineering. I'm an engineer myself by trade, so when I see books like this pop up I take a special interest in them.

This book is being written by Professor Burke and his ME518 class from Oregon State University. It's a very new endeavor for them, but they are making good progress. There's going to be some work needed to get it cleaned up according to Wikibooks' best practices, but those can wait till the end of the semester.

It's heartening to see that new institutions are using Wikibooks, not just the handful who have used it in the past. It makes me wonder if maybe we need a "Looking for a Class Project?" link on the main page wouldn't be a very useful addition to try to get more information to the students and teachers who browse through our site.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Community-Building Meeting Recap

There was a very cool, if small, community meeting in #wikibooks on Friday afternoon. Originally it was intended to be a live meeting for members from en.wikibooks to get together and work on a few issues and develop a few ideas. Very few members of en.wikibooks ended up attending (scheduling was a major hurdle in that regard, I think), however, but several members from other Wikibooks language projects did show up. I tried to log the meeting, but my IRC client apparently silently failed to save the file, so I didn't.

There was good representation from fr.wikibooks and de.wikibooks. We talked about several issues that seem to be affecting all Wikibooks projects, and didn't talk about issues that were restricted to en.wikibooks only. We all generally agreed that holding such meetings more regularly would be a good thing.

Some of the issues we talked about were:
  1. The problem of community non-involvement, where the vast majority of wikibookians are silent authors and do not participate in meta discussions with the larger community.
  2. The need for more multimedia. Science books need more diagrams. Language books need more audio clips. Several books need videos. Also, we talked about the idea of making screencasts about using Wikibooks to supplement our existing help documentation. We are looking for lots of help in this department from people willing to make and upload such videos.
  3. We talked about book donations and ways to pursue them
  4. We talked about finding ways to attract new contributors to Wikibooks, and how to retain them.
  5. We talked about a lot of small miscellaneous issues as well.
I would like to try to schedule a similar meeting for the en.wikibooks community only to talk about some of our specific issues, and I would also like to schedule a followup multilingual meeting for sometime next month to stay in touch with our international Wikibooks friends. Both of which, I'm sure, I will be writing about in the coming weeks.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Wikibooks Community Meeting Today

As I mentioned on this blog before, we are having a short community meeting today for Wikibooks. Earlier I mentioned that the time and date were not set in stone barring some objections, but there were very few objections to be seen. So, the meeting is:

Today (20th February 2009)
#wikibooks on
20:00 UTC

There is a short planning page and agenda at Meta. My sincere hope is that this meeting is the first in a regular series of meetings where we try to get more Wikibookians actively involved. I'll be sure to post notes from the meeting here on this blog afterwards.

I would invite all interested people, Wikibookians and well-wishers to attend the meeting and show some support for our little project. I don't suspect the meeting will be too large or too long, I envision that it will last about an hour or less. If you can't make it this time, don't worry: We are going to try to schedule another meeting in about a month or so to get more people involved.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Community-Building Meeting

Mike.lifeguard and I were talking about a few ideas we each had about community building and Wikibooks-specific outreach opportunities. Our little discussion turned into a complete online community-wide meeting for Wikibookians and other well-wishers. A planning page for this meeting and any other such events (I hope to have several this year) is located on Meta. The meeting will be at:

Friday 20 February

#wikibooks on

We know that this time and location is not going to be suitable for everybody. Of course, with worldwide membership we can't expect that any one time is going to be universally suitable for this meeting. I fully intend that other meetings we have in the future will be at all sorts of different times so other people can more easily attend.

On the agenda for this meeting (so far) is:
  1. Book donations, including the efficacy and benefit of donations, and like-minded organizations who might be willing to make some donations to us.
  2. Attracting more volunteers
  3. Discussing FlaggedRevs, and it's current implementation on en.wikibooks
I expect the meeting will last for about an hour.

I'll post more information here on this blog as I get it. I hope lots of people can attend!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Social Sciences

Continuing my organizational work, I hit the social sciences books pretty hard today. I noticed a few reoccuring problems in these books as pertains to categorization. Unlike the Humanities and Fine Arts books, which seemed to be characterized by category minimalism, the Social sciences books seemed to be in a constest to be in the most categories. Here is a line that was all too common in these books:

{{Subject|Social sciences|Sociology|Psychology|Cognition|Neuroscience}}

This shows several common problems that I've been cleaning up all day:
  1. People categorizing books in subcategories and their parent categories simultaneously.
  2. Mixing up subjects that are only peripherally related. The book in question was probably a sociology book or a psychology book, not both.
  3. Authors tend to get a little grandiose with their conceptions about a book. Just because a book deals with psychology, and a person's psychology is affected by their brains, that doesn't mean every psychology book is also a neuroscience book.
  4. "Cognition" really isn't a topic for a book, or is a very uncommon one if it is. People tend to treat a bunch of related-words as categories, and every book picks a different set of strange words to use. Categories are supposed to be a way to keep like books together, but that only works if books use a common set of subject names.
The sociology books are coming along nicely, but I could always use more people to double-check my work. Plus, if we could get somebody in here who actually is familiar with these subjects at a higher-then-gradeschool level, that would be good too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

10th Libre Software Meeting

I've received this notice from Sub, one of the users at Fr.Wikibooks. The 10th Libre Software Meeting is happening in Nantes France from July 7th to 11th. See this link for more information about the meeting.

The Libre Software Meeting is all about free and open source software, especially as it pertains to documentation and usability. It's the kind of thing that I really think a Wikibookian should attend, if anybody out there is willing and able.

Registration closes on 1st March, so anybody who is interested should definitely contact the organizers immediately.

Humanities Books Organized

I've undertaken a personal mission to fix the categorization system at Wikibooks. Last week I went through and recategorized all the Fine Arts books. Today, I've just finished going through the list of Humanities books. I had to create a number of new subject pages to hold the various books, although there are probably more that I could have created. I tried to weigh our need for precision against the number of books we had in various categories. The more books we had on a given subject, the more deeply I would subcategorize things.

Anybody who knows a thing or two about the Fine Arts or the Humanities subjects should go through and double-check my work. Also, anybody who is more aesthetically-minded then me could go through and make these pages look more pretty. If somebody wants to join in my organization crusade, I would love the help!

I don't know what subject area I will tackle next. I was thinking about doing Social Sciences, but I might also like to look at Mathematics. I was also thinking about moving the various Medicine and health related books out of the "Science/Life Science" subcategory into a top-level "Health and Wellness" category. I'd like feedback on that idea too.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Perl 6 Programming

I mentioned this issue on the wiki a while back, but haven't made any kind of public announcement about it until now. I was selected to receive a "Perl 6 Microgrant" to write a book on Wikibooks about the new programming language "Perl 6". The money involved isn't whoo-hoo fantastic, I'm not going to quit my day job over this. However, I'm not really in this for the money anyway. I work on Wikibooks because I genuinely want to do it and enjoy doing it.

There are two free-culture projects that I participate in regularly. One is Wikibooks. The other is an open-source software project called Parrot. Parrot is a virtual machine, similar in many respects to the Java virtual machine. However, instead of running Java, Parrot aims to support a wide variety of dynamic programming languages like Perl, Python, PHP, and Ruby. My work on that project has inspired my work on a related book: [[Parrot Virtual Machine]]. This also put me in touch with some of the people doing work on the compiler for Perl 6, a compiler which is targeting Parrot. They asked for people to submit grant proposals, I submitted one. Waited a while. Got the grant.

On one hand we have plenty of people who get paid to do their work on Wikibooks: The teachers, professors, and graduate students who are writing and organizing some of the class projects that we host, or the researchers to receive grant money to do research related to Wikibooks. On the other hand, I'm the first whose [publicly] been getting money specifically to just write books without being part of a larger job. It's an interesting situation, but one that hasn't drawn any level of controversy at all from my fellow Wikibookians. They've all been very supportive, making vague warnings on one hand about avoiding possible conflicts of interest, but being excited about all the possibilities that this opens up on the other hand. imagine if more people were making money to write good-quality books on our site? Imagine if there were more grant money available to fund people to work on books? This happens with some regularity in the open-source software world, so it's not a big stretch to think we could leverage the almighty dollar to make things happen at Wikibooks too.

As part of the grant, I'm writing regular updates (weekly or bi-weekly, depending) on my use.perl blog. I also post some technical updates about my programming work there too, so forgive me if it's not suitable for a general audience.

I would love to hear feedback about this project. What do people think about funding for writing books? What do people think of my work on this particular book? Do people think that maybe Wikibooks could be more proactive in this area?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

FlaggedRevs Review

I've seen a lot of blog posts today about how English Wikipedia is preparing to get the FlaggedRevs extension installed. I think that's a good idea, English Wikipedia is a project that could really use it to great effect to improve it's reliability and decrease it's spam volume.

At English Wikibooks we've had that tool for a while now, and some of us are starting to question whether it's suiting our needs appropriatey. There have been plenty of complaints about our autopromotion requirements for +Editor (I can't even tell you what the current requirements are, since they are so complex). I've advocated drastic reduction of the requirements (after 10 edits or so), although some people have said that we should just tack +Editor on at the same time members get autoconfirmed, which is a simple 4 day timer. I like that idea too, although I'm not sure it is going to perform the promotion quickly enough.

We've also been worrying that we don't quite have a large enough community to support this tool anyway. The list of pages that have been reviewed is certainly growing, but it's woefully small compared to the total number of pages we have at Wikibooks. We just aren't reviewing pages quickly enough, and I'm not even sure that we're reviewing pages as fast as we are creating them. Of course, if we have more +Editors who are automatically sighting pages with every edit, that number will increase pretty dramatically.

Also, as if we need more factors to worry about, we need to think about whether or not our current grading metrics are sufficient. We have three metrics now: Composition, Accuracy, and Coverage. These are nice, but they don't necessarily cover all the things that we might want to look at. Also, I find there are lots of areas of overlap: Accuracy tends to go up as we get more coverage, and the quality of writing goes up with volume too. Being more accurate also requires more precise and higher-quality writing. In short, it's rare to get a bad grade on one if you've gotten good grades on the other two.

We have questions to ask, and questions to answer. Plenty of things will definitely change, and maybe we as a community might decide to uninstall the extension entirely. We'll see how things play out.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Collections Podcast

Mike.lifeguard forwarded a link to me today, a YouTube screencast about how to create a collection and print a book:

If anybody has any other cool videos or links related to Wikibooks, I would love to see them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Logo!!!

It's finally official! It's officially final! All those haters out there who said we would never do it can eat their words: Wikibooks finally has a new logo!

Come on down to Wikibooks and take a look at the brand new logo. We're quite happy with it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Trades and Crafts

I created a new subject page today in my effort to try and rein in our jumbled miscellaneous section. The new subject, Trades and Crafts, is intended to hold information about various skills that don't quite fit into the hobbyist "How Tos" section, but don't really fit anywhere else either. Some of these books like [[Welding]] (which was listed under the Science and Engineering categories) was a perfect fit for this new section. Many such books are in the How-Tos section, but others are strewn about through the category system.

We still have a few other books strewn around that probably belong here as well. We could use some help finding and relocating them all!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

RFA Success

I was reading a blog post by Majorly about how broken the RFA process at Wikipedia has become. It seems to be a common topic of blogosphere ramblings, so I'll toss my own thoughts into the mix as well.

The success of an RFA system rests squarely with the bureaucrats. This needs to be a small group of people who are absolutely trusted by the community and who absolutely have the good of the project at heart. Anybody else elected to this position who does not have these traits should be removed immediately. Bureaucrats should be helpful, dedicated, inspiring. They should love the project so much that they would be willing to leave it voluntarily if they thought it would improve the project. Being a bureaucrat isn't some kind of trophy to put in the trophy case, or another badge of honor to place on the lapel: it's a promise to put the well-being of the project above any other concerns, above any personal relationships, and above any personal ambition.

That said, bureaucrats need to be both trusted and empowered to make processes like RFA Just Work. The question in an RFA is exactly this: "Is this nominee trusted enough to use the new tools to help the project?" During the process people from the community vote, optionally leaving rationales to support their votes, and then the job of bureaucrat begins. Bureaucrats need to look at each individual vote, and they need to look at the ebb and flow of overall community opinion as a whole to come up with a resolution. Here are some guidelines:
  1. Reasons to promote the candidate are listed in the nomination, and the user has a track record that should be self-explanatory. Any oppose vote needs to have an accompanying rationale. Why do you not agree with the nomination? What part of the nomination specifically do you disagree with? What other information do you have about the candidate that should be known and considered? The more information you give, the more powerful and persuasive your vote becomes. Without any information, an oppose vote really isn't anything.
  2. Votes should deal with the matter at hand: Is the nominee trusted to use the tools for the benefit of the project or not? Any voter whose voting rationale doesn't address this question directly isn't relevant and isn't counted. Saying "Oppose because user has only 423 edits and my algorithm requires 500" or "...because the user is a woman" or "...because the user is only 17", or "...because the user misuses commas sometimes" are all non-votes and really don't matter.
  3. Any votes that are unreasonable or irrational don't get counted. This counts votes from known Friends and Enemies of the nominee who obviously vote they way they do because they publicly like/hate the person in question. If your judgement on the topic is clouded by your personal feelings, you shouldn't vote. The question isn't "do I like this person?" it's "Do I trust this person to use new tools for the good of the project?" There have been several occasions where I promoted RFA candidates who I did not like or agree with personally, but who I knew to be good Wikibookians. Notice that "Good Wikibookian" is not the same as "Agrees with my opinions about Wikibooks".
Bureaucrats need to read through the list of votes, separate the thoughtful ones from the cruft and the craziness, and render a verdict based on the needs of the community and the project, not the whims of individual editors. On Wikibooks, bureaucrats and admins are empowered (although generally discouraged from) making decisions on behalf of the project even when such a decision is against the majority of voting community members. This isn't a frequent occurance, but when the chips are down the person making the decision needs to take the available evidence (in the form of votes and their rationales) into consideration. There have been a number of VFD discussions that come to mind where the majority of people voted to "keep" a book but an admin deleted it anyway because the "keep" votes didn't adequately address any of the policy violations that the book represented. Are these tough decisions to make? Of course they are. Do admins take some heat for this when it happens? Yes, they always do.

At the end of any discussion, the question has to be "which of these two alternatives will be best for the project as a whole?". Any decision-maker who doesn't take this question into account, or who willingly answers it incorrectly should be removed from their position immediately. Because it really doesn't matter what I want, or what you want, it's what the project needs that's important. Hopefully, all your bureaucrats know that.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Guest Blog: Mike.lifeguard

The following is a guest blog post sent in by our own Mike.lifeguard. I've been trying to solicit posts from him for a while, and am thrilled that he finally sent one in. The post he sent me was originally in wikitext and I tried to convert it for blogger but I might have missed some things. If anybody else wants to post some guest commentary here about Wikibooks or Books or Wikimedia, let me know. - WK

I've been considering writing a guest blog entry for Andrew for a while now. I happened upon [[w:Wikipedia:If you could re-write the rules]], which inspired me to re-read All I Want For Christmas again & consider what I would like to see happen in the next year in terms of re-writing how we do things on Wikibooks. I've limited myself to three suggestions, but they are all on a single theme: community, which has been an ongoing topic of conversation and consternation since Wikimania 2008 to present, in particular on [[mail:foundation-l]].

We need to recognize that the community is what makes or breaks the project. I've been in contact with Sue Gardner about this, and Andrew and I had a good conversation on IRC which led to What if we... As a small project, manpower is scarce, and we've not reached critical mass yet. We need to make outreach, marketing and retention an ongoing priority at the community level. The Foundation could certainly help by focusing more broadly on all the projects (yes, I know Wikipedia is the cash cow) - and a Wikibooks Chapter might be worth creating if that level of organization is required in the future. We need to ensure the project is viable in terms of new users coming in, and retention of existing users. As well, we need to think about how to get mid- to long-term users to help with administration - we need more admin powerhouses. This also ties in with the Stanton Usability Grant since there are technical things we could do to get more editors, and some are Wikibooks-specific.

  1. Keep being nice. This is what lead me from Wikipedia to Wikibooks. Since then, I've found a home on two other projects, neither of which are the English Wikipedia. Though Commons and Meta have their ups and downs (currently both experiencing a down IMO), they are full of nice people who do good work. We should learn from the mistakes of English Wikipedia, as well as the examples of Meta and Commons, which have tried to do the same, largely. In some respects they've done well, and we should emulate that. Some stuff they've tried hasn't worked; let that serve as an example for us. Instead of don't bite the newbies, we should simply not bite. I could spell out examples where this could be applied, but I think they're obvious enough already.
  2. Fix the documentation in both the Wikibooks and Help namespaces. The distinction is often muddled. As well, we should have a textbook on how to use Wikibooks. Some amazing work has been done on this recently by Whiteknight and Armchair, but more is needed. We should merge existing help documentation into the relevant textbooks, and move the texts into the help namespace. Wikibookians are good at writing textbooks, and especially technical textbooks or the sort which explain how to use Wikibooks and MediaWiki at various levels: end-user, community member, administrator, devloper, sysadmin.
  3. Explore alternative methods of documentation. Recently, one of Meta's best admins has essentially left the project - he was active in managing spam, so his departure dealth a huge blow to the tiny team of users who do that work. It's highly technical, difficult, thankless (actually, we get yelled at and harrassed more than we get thanked) and oft-invisible work. So, it's unsurprising that very few (read: none) wish to join us. However, I have been asked on multiple occasions to mentor people who wanted to learn about this area - I know what I'm doing and I know how to teach (having done so on both accounts for quite some time). We have lots of text documentation (and it's not even that out-of-date!), but almost nobody reads it. For those who do, it's dense reading - very easy to get lost & discouraged without someone helping you along as I had done with several users. I remembered Ben Yates' screencasts almost immediately. Despite losing my voice entirely earlier in the day, I made a ''huge'' 22-min screencast running through some basics. The 67.04 MB upload took about a half-hour - Brion was amazed it worked at all. The screencast had been downloaded from 100 times by the end of the day, and at least 4 times from Meta (which doesn't keep track, but I know because people told me).

Describe, Demonstrate, Do: This is a basic technique for instruction in lifeguarding (yes, I'm really a lifeguard), and other practical endeavours like using Wikibooks are little different. ''Demonstrate'' is the key that we're missing in all our attempts to teach people how to use Wikibooks so far. It should hardly be surprising, then, that users find the bar to contribute here higher than elsewhere and thus our community is not flourishing as it could otherwise.

Screencasts will be one of my ongoing projects for the year, I think. I hope to create a series of screencasts for starting your first textbook and other beginner stuff for Wikibooks, but also some of the more involved administrative areas (the spam blacklist will certainly be one). The first two suggestions require the community to be on-board, but this is one I can pursue alone and, critically, for free. Given reports from several users, I think this will be a very productive medium to experiment with. Hopefully we can work together on my other suggestions to strengthen the community for the long-term.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Organizers Needed

Wikibooks has tons of books (3000+ by some counts), but they're not all organized in a way that makes them easy to find. Last year we deprecated most of our old and unweildy organization methods: manual lists for things like alphabetical ordering, manually-maintained bookshelves, and dewey-decimal categorizations. We've switched over to a method of using categories and DPL lists to keep books organized in various ways.

The method is working very well, but is exposing some of the organizational problems that we have. Some of our books are miscategorized. Some parts of the category hierarchy are very messy or completely illogical.

We're looking for people with a good eye for consistency and a solid understanding of broad subject areas to help us organize a few places:

  1. Sciences. Our science hierarchy is completely messed up, and books throughout it are commonly miscategorized.
  2. Computing. The computing hierarchy is clearly one of those organizational systems that has grown organically in an unguided way over time. Some categories are very big, such as our generic "Programming" category. Computing books are the largest group in Wikibooks, and the one that needs the most attention
  3. Humanities. It's like a catch-all for the "soft sciences" books, and clearly isn't organized well.
  4. Miscellaneous. As it's name implies, it's like the de facto category for things that we just can't place otherwise. Most of the books in this category need to be moved to other places, and some new more-specific categories need to be created for these books

If you're interested in helping with some of these tasks, come on down to Wikibooks and take a look around. We'd be grateful for any help we could get.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Book In the New Year

Getting Wikijunior's catalog of books for children improved is a project that I'm highly interested in encouraging, even if I'm not always motivated to do the work myself. You can call me hypocritical if you like. To start off 2009, I wanted to post a link to a very cool book for young pre-readers that uses images from Commons to illustrate counting like objects. [[Numbers from 1 to 20]] is a cute little counting book that presents the ideas that numbers can be introduced through counting pictures. The book isn't perfect, as there is a lot of room for improvement on the general idea, and a lot of room to improve the implementation. However, it's a great example of the kinds of books we can be developing for children using little more then well-selected pictures from the huge library of Commons.

Want to do something like this yourself? Pick a category of cool images together and arrange them into a Wikijunior picture book for kids. The best part of this is that few words are needed so people who don't consider themselves to be great artists can still participate. We've already got picture books for Numbers, Colors, Jobs, and the Alphabet. What other cool picture book ideas can you come up with to teach basic subjects to our youngest students?