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Drupal book progress (or lack thereof)

Writing a book is hard.It's been about six months since Elijah Meeks and I kicked off our plan to write a book on Drupal for an audience of humanists, librarians, and higher-ed IT folks who support humanities research and teaching. Since then, I've repeatedly found myself explaining key things about Drupal, and wishing that I'd finished the book so I could hand it to people as a resource. Unfortunately, feeling dedicated to the project in an abstract way has not meant that at any given moment what I want to do is sit down, focus and just write it. I'd hoped that spending nearly two months in Tempe, AZ this summer (where I don't have internet at home, and the heat is hellish) would leave me with nothing else to do in my spare time besides writing this book, but somehow three weeks have slipped by without much to show for it. Moreover, the new Civilization V expansion pack has not helped the situation any.

A few recent developments have opened the door to new avenues for making myself make steadier progress. Elijah and I have decided not to look for a commercial publisher for the book. Instead, we'll publish it online, for free. Since there's people in our intended audience who like having a physical book to refer to, we'll self-publish a printed version and list it on Amazon. What we'll be sacrificing in riches (what few there might be) and the extra credibility of a publisher's endorsement we'll make up for in not having to give up control over how and where our work can be published. We'll use a Creative Commons license in hopes of encouraging people to share, remix, and use our work in whatever way makes sense to further the cause of Drupal as a tool for digital humanities.

So that I have an incentive to stop slyly nudging forward the due date for all my book-related tasks in Toodledo, I hereby promise to post whatever I've managed to write each week, until this project is done. Any feedback would be much appreciated, and I hope that people find some of these pieces useful, even before all the sections have been written.

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Scav hunt or Art? (a guessing game)

When spring comes to the University of Chicago campus, there are two annual events that inject a certain whimsical randomness into my work week: Scav Hunt and FOTA (Festival of the Arts). In the last few years, these events have occurred one after the other-- an ordering that helps people like myself who found a kindred spirit in the author of the blog post I'm Sick of Pretending: I Don't "Get" Art. My rule of thumb has been: "If it's still there on Tuesday, it's probably FOTA, not Scav leftovers."

Not that FOTA hasn't graced the campus with some rather lovely, and unambiguously artistic, things. I still fondly remember Weiling Lu's paintings depicting UChicago's different seasons. Last year there was a charming spirit by Botany Pond, and the year before there was a series of paintings on the main quad that I found quite striking.

Still, there's also been no shortage of... "installations"... that have given me pause on the Monday after Scav Hunt. Conveniently, in past years FOTA has had a website with information about what Arts have been placed around campus, and where, which allowed me to confirm whether I was looking at the remnants of lazy Scavvies, or a Work of Art. Alas, not only has the FOTA website not been updated this year, the art event has been scheduled the same week as Scav Hunt. Presumably, anything peculiar spotted on the quads between now and when Scav starts on Thursday morning should be interpreted as Art, but later in the week, this appreciator of odd out-of-place things will almost certainly be rendered unable to differentiate Scav-sourced weirdness from Art.

I've been assured by the creator of the FOTA Village art (both a FOTA artist and a Scav Hunt judge!) that I'll be able to tell the difference. But I'm highly skeptical. To make clear my concerns, I present to you a guessing game: Scav or FOTA. Answers at the bottom, but no peeking.

Exhibit A: Moai Statue or Commentary on Work/Life Balance?

Meow-i statue?

Exhibit B: Shopping Cart Monster or the Dangers of Consumerism?

Shopping cart monster

Exhibit C: Illustrate your Physics Problem Set or Nostalgia for Cat's Cradle?

Really, now?

Exhibit D: Googly Eyes or Concerns About University Surveillance?

The University of Chicago is watching you

Exhibit E: Fountain Protector or Stuff You Can Do With Bedsheets?

Day 135: Who Let Matthew Redecorate?

Exhibit F: Ball Gown for a Giant or ... Commentary on Unrealistic Body Expectations for Women?

Scav Hunt remnants

Exhibit G: GargoyleNutz or Criticism of the Male-Dominated Administration at the University of Chicago?

Item #83: Gargoyle NutzTM: The Ultimate Gargoyle Accessory.

Answers: A) Scav, B) Scav, C) FOTA, D) Scav, E) FOTA, F) FOTA, G) Scav

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Please don't ask me for permission

Creative Commons Attribution-Share AlikeA few weeks ago I stumbled upon a blog post by Nina Paley, the cartoonist perhaps most famous for Sita Sings the Blues, that emphatically made the point that, with Creative Commons licenses, yes means yes. I don't think I could put it better myself.

Seeing as I'm not famous, I don't interpret these permission requests as a cry for attention, and I recognize that people do it with the best intentions, but I hate seeing people waiting on replies from me before using photos I've already given them permission to use. The fact is, dealing with permission requests is extremely low on my priority list, when I've got myriad projects for my job, and outside my job, also waiting on replies for me. Unlike requests for permission I've already granted, those projects are legitimately stalled until I reply. (I won't even get into the number of personal emails that sit unanswered for days, weeks or months, for lack of energy at the end of the day.)

I love getting emails that say "hi, I used your stuff in this way, come take a look/can I send you a copy?" It means the system has worked, the things I've made have found another life somewhere without being encumbered by legal barriers, and I can read/reply to those whenever I've got the bandwidth. Nothing is stalled until I reply.

I have these additional caveats (which make reuse even more free) on my Flickr profiles, but to reiterate here for the record:

Even though all of my licenses use "Share Alike" (which technically restricts you to using that very same license), you have permission to use any other Creative Commons license so long as it includes either "No Derivatives" or "Share Alike". For the sake of clarity, this means any of the following licenses:

I'm not comfortable with the possibility of a derivative of a derivative work being locked down by full copyright (please don't contact me to ask, the answer will almost certainly be "no"), but you have permission to use any of the licenses above for derivative works, instead of my Attribution-Share Alike license, if you prefer.

So please don't ask and wait for me to reply. I want you to use my creations for anything, that's why I used a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license (and if I used a more restrictive non-commercial license, it's because of restrictions beyond my control, like the San Diego Zoo prohibiting commercial use of photographs taken on their premises). Happy remixing, with the permission I've already granted you.

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"Drupal for Humanists"

One question I continue to hear from digital humanists and higher ed IT folks is "what book should I pick up to learn Drupal?" I never have a particularly good answer-- not because there aren't any good books out there (I assume there are), but because I've never used one. I learned Drupal 4 through trial and error, while not paying attention in a biology class I needed to fulfill a distribution requirement that I'd put off until my last year of college. I figured out Drupal 5 and 6 (much like Drupal 4, but greatly improved) because I needed a CMS for a project and I ended up learning a lot in the process. Every time I need to do something new with Drupal, I Google until I figure it out, and then I know one more thing.

Not the most helpful response for people who prefer to have a book on hand as they're learning.

NotesWhat's surprised me is that when I shrug and tell people there's stuff out there but I can't recommend any titles from personal experience, the reply has often enough been, "Why don't you write one?" I was pretty dismissive of the idea at first-- I'm generally inclined towards just posting things online-- but after enough repetitions of this conversation, I started to consider it. There's something to be said for a book with a clear presentation of Drupal, arranged in a coherent and logical way, covering "why Drupal?" and when to not use Drupal, and everything from installation to Display Suite magic for the adventurous. I really do think that anyone can build sites in Drupal, even the tech-hesitant, if someone does a good enough job walking through the process. Unlike WordPress, Drupal isn't inclined to hold your hand, but maybe a book on Drupal geared towards humanists (digital or not) and the techies who work with them could bridge that gap.

I consulted with fellow Drupal guru Elijah Meeks (whose work on spatial Drupal blows my mind), and we decided we're going to co-author "Drupal for Humanists" and get it published. The first part of the book will cover how to build Drupal sites in general (including modules, content types, site design, etc.), and the second part of the book will be case studies, looking at what modules and configuration settings go into the kinds of sites that are particularly relevant for humanists. Each case study will conclude with a section about how that kind of site might evolve, based on our experience building them.

We're looking for feedback on the case studies (especially the one on multimedia) and suggestions for anything we missed, so if you have a moment, please check out the Google Doc with the case study outlines and leave some comments.

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