Books for schools, colleges, and cooks, other facts and some fiction

As with Linux manuals and encyclopedias, the content of school and university textbooks tends to be relatively easy to divide into sections, which makes them ideal candidates for being written by a variety of authors using the Open Source method. Schoolbooks are also an enticing field because teachers often produce their own material to use alongside the official textbook for the course they're teaching, particularly at universities. For some university courses a suitable book may not even exist, which makes the students entirely reliant on their lecturer's transparencies. Some courses also cover subjects that simply aren't found altogether in any one book, but rely on a variety of material being brought together from several different books.

What could be better suited to Open Source than that? If the books were free for teachers to use - and by "free' I mean precisely the Open Source kind of freedom, free right to copy anything or change things - a teacher or lecturer could easily combine them to create a book perfectly suited to the curriculum being taught. The most relevant parts of each available book could be brought together, leaving out all unnecessary chapters, and if any chapters do not adequately cover what is necessary for a particular course the teacher could add to or even write their own versions of them. In fact, teachers already often do this, but instead of having a confusing hodgepodge of antiquated books, photocopies and handwritten notes, an Open Source system which allowed copying would enable teachers to compile a properly relevant course book, which could continually evolve and improve, and be updated whenever developments or newly acquired knowledge required new additions to be made.

Open Source course books would also be a good option for students. Towards the end of university studies, it's not impossible for a text book on some elevated technical subject to cost up to €200. An Open Source course book would naturally be cheaper for a publisher to print, just as Linux is cheaper than Windows. In the case of an Open Source course book, students could also elect to print the book themselves, or only the pages they actually needed, which would further bring down the cost of materials - not to mention save trees! In extreme cases a poor student could even read the whole book on the computer screen, for free.

With such compelling arguments for Open Source books, it would be odd if there were not already some on the Internet. But rest assured, they are there to be found. In the past few years the Internet has practically exploded with projects to write Open Source course books. Some projects are only at the idea stage, but others already have material on offer. There are projects that follow a given country's national curriculum, and others that are international, such as for English language teaching. For some reason even the State of California has its own project to produce schoolbooks for junior high school.

It's not easy to get a real overview of this embarrassment of riches for future schoolbooks, but it does seem that the wiki philosophy has once again proved its worth, because one of the most well-developed projects is Wikibooks, which is based on the Wikipedia code.1 At least in its early stages, the project has so far focused on the production of textbooks, although it also includes a number of guides. At the time of writing, Wikibooks is only six months old but there are already dozens of more or less finished books in English, totalling more than a thousand individual chapters; and among the Finnish Wikibooks one book has already reached the complete status. It was a book under the heading Social Sciences entitled Työoikeus (Labour Legislation).2 (Of course, in a wiki nothing is ever completed for ever; the complete status is more like the version number "1.0' of a computer program.)

And while we're on the subject, by the summer of 2003 Wikipedia had spawned quite a number of new projects. In addition to the Wiktionary and other Wikibooks projects already mentioned, there are also: Wikisource, a collection of open texts not originally produced through the wiki method (such as, the Bible, Greek philosophers, the US Declaration of Independence, etc.); Wikitravel, an open travel guide; Wikiquote, a collection of famous quotes3; and Wikiversity, a collection of university-level textbooks that uses Wikibooks.

But Wikibooks is by no means the only site for Open Source textbooks; the Internet is simply bursting with high-quality books. One of the most comprehensive directories in this area is The Assayer, which is maintained by Benjamin Crowell.4 The Assayer is not a wiki, it's simply a link directory of open books available elsewhere on the Internet. In addition to the directory itself, the site also offers users a chance to assess and grade the books they've read.

Although in principle The Assayer lists any type of literature, it would seem that most open books are available in the fields we've covered. There are Linux manuals and textbooks. Among the textbooks, mathematics, physics and chemistry are by far the most represented, probably because of their close connection to information technology and therefore to Linux. The next largest group is actually fiction, which is pleasing in itself because it's not something we have to learn for school.

Benjamin Crowell also made his mark as a writer of Open Source course books by writing two series of university textbooks: Light and Matter and Simple Nature. Already Light and Matter - his series on introductory physics - is used as the course books in at least 17 universities. Everything suggests that Open Source literature really has something to give to future generations of students.

And because education really is for life, and not the other way around, it's time to move on to everybody's favourite subject - food. The perfect companion to all the open Linux manuals is Matthew Balmer's The Open Source Cookbook: Fuel for Geeks.5

The book is probably of great use to young nerds who have recently moved into a place of their own and who are about to wake up to the reality of there no longer being a parent around to disturb their long coding sessions with calls to dinner. Because this cookbook really is aimed at nerds, there's a section before the actual recipes that lists what is needed before one starts to cook, which explains the need for basic equipment such as a pot, a microwave oven and a cutting board. After this, there's a run-through of the basic foodstuffs that should be found in every kitchen, even a nerd's; this is the list that takes you beyond coke and frozen pizza. There's also a brief glossary of techniques and terms, which explains the mysteries of having to julienne, knead or marinate.

After "Cooking 101', the recipes are good enough even for a visit from mother. Members of the international hacker community really do share their best with you in the cookbook they have collaborated on at the Slashdot website.6 So, what do you think of a gastronomic adventure that involves deep-fried kangaroo? Naturally, the recipe begins with information on which web stores non-Australians can turn to for kangaroo meat. Oh yes, nerds have the know-how!

Incidentally, Wikibooks also offers a cookbook, so the health of nerds should improve from here on. That is, if they remember to leave their computers every once in a while.7

  1. 1. http://wikibooks.org/
  2. 2. http://wikibooks.org/wiki/Työoikeus
  3. 3. For example: "I live', Finnish author Aleksis Kivi; or "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance...', General John Sedgwick, Union commander in the US Civil War. Both quotes are among the Famous Last Words listed at Wikiquote, http://quote.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famous_last_words
  4. 4. http://www.theassayer.org/
  5. 5. http://www.ibiblio.org/oscookbook/
  6. 6. http://slashdot.org/
  7. 7. http://wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook

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