Open source tools for multi-source and cross-format academic publishing

I’m working with Sasha Engelmann and Sophie Dyer on the Open Weather platform, an archive and learning resource related to NOAA satellite 🛰 imagery. Sasha just shared a few open source publication tools that were brought to her attention by a friend and fellow artist at her Akademie Schloss Solitude residency, wanted to add them here for further research and future reference.

Manifold: A platform for publishing academic texts online

Manifold is a free “intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing”. See their repo on GitHub.

Manifold powers the Fembot Collective including Ada, Fembot’s journal on gender, new media, and technology. Looks like Fembot has been working with Manifold since about a year ago when the platform launched their pilot. Read Ada 16: Emerging Gender, Media and Technology Scholarship in Africa.

It looks pretty cool (and so does Fembot + Ada!). Manifold can bring together a whole lot of different methods of writing such as Epub, Markdown, HTML, and Google Docs. Hence the name Manifold, I guess. This is incredibly useful when bringing the work of different researchers together. Also makes it clear to me that good markup in writing is so worth it.

Manifold wants to make a digital book much more than just a screen version of a physical book, something that can easily fold in explorations, supplements, and other resources that augment the main text. It also incorporates annotation and discussion settings to keep the conversation going.

I’d love to see a book that really heavily uses the platform’s unusual features. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames is a featured project that’s worth a look. The chapters are punctuated with metagames they’ve created that you can download and install.

As a reader, I feel that the typography lets it down a bit. I found it hard to read, particularly on larger screens. A slightly narrower maximum width to the main text column would help a lot. Losing the justification and greater paragraph indentations would help too. Manifold does have some theme options, but it doesn’t involve control over the typography.

If your priorities are bringing together content from a wide arrange of sources, incorporating the work of disparate researchers with varying levels of technical abilities, and relative ease of setup (the documentation seems comprehensive), then Manifold seems like an incredible tool. If you need to retain any control over the design though or if you also want print publishing tools, it might not be the right fit for the job.

And probably worth mentioning: I think you’d need at least a bit of technical know-how to get this set up safely and securely. Probably worth getting in touch with Manifold directly if you’re an org since they’re still in beta.

B-ber: A tool for single-source, cross-format, design-conscious publishing

Triple Canopy is a magazine that “resists the atomization of culture”. They’re responsible for b-ber, a tool for single-source, cross-format, design-conscious publishing. Here’s how they describe it in the b-ber GitHub repo:

b-ber is both a method and an application for producing publications in a variety of formats—EPUB 3, Mobi/KF8, static website, PDF, and XML file, which can be imported into InDesign for print layouts—from a single source that consists of plain-text files and other assets. b-ber also functions as a browser-based EPUB reader, which explains the name.

Their text introducing b-ber “Working on our thoughts”—title from the Nietzche quote “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts” according to the footnotes—is a good read, explains the impetus and a bit about the ups and downs of how it evolved.

B-ber can only consume one input, an extended form of Markdown. This makes it more limited than Manifold in that regard, but the output options are substantial. It’s particularly strong for the design-conscious, the fact that you can import to InDesign and easily theme the browser-based EPUB reader is pretty fantastic. This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for back when I was working at Occasional Papers!

The reading experience of the default b-ber theme (or whichever they use on their post) is nicer than Manifold in my opinion, it’s just a lot easier to read. There are some snags, but I imagine you could resolve these in a custom theme. Related to that, see their repository of b-ber demos and b-ber theme starter.

It’s definitely worth following the development of this project if you’re in to digital publishing. Their announcement post was published back in December, not very long ago! Excited to see how it develops.

As with Manifold, I think you’d need a reasonable amount of technical knowledge to get this set up. Since it seems to be more of an internal Triple Canopy tool that they’ve kindly made open source for wider use, they probably wouldn’t be able to provide as much support as Manifold might be able to. (This is just a guess though!)

My experience

Though I’ve been tempted, I’ve never built something that was meant to have a digital bookish-ness, everything I’ve developed has had online-first layouts and components in mind. Some sites have had fairly extensive print styles, but that’s usually as far as it goes.

The most common related problem I’ve run in to on sites with long-format academic writing is footnotes. I’ve never come across a CMS that handles footnotes well. Heck, even HTML doesn’t handle them all that well, there aren’t any appropriate semantic elements as far as I’m aware (though there were in HTML3?).

The only easily accessible markup system that works with footnotes AFAIK is extended Markdown syntax. To use extended Markdown on a client site though, A) I have to be sure that the client is on board with learning quite a bit of Markdown (they often are once they understand the benefit, but some are stubborn!), and B) it needs to be compatible with whatever layout system the designer has devised.

I used this approach a while ago on the Jock Kinneir Library site, as of right now they’re using footnotes on the Biography page.

This implementation wasn’t super straightforward since the site couldn’t use a single Markdown field for content, we needed more of a page builder to accomplish the layout. Because of that, I had to do some trickery to recompile the footnotes at the base of the page content as opposed to after each text section. Honestly I can’t 100% remember how I accomplished it… It’s on Craft so uses Twig templates, and I don’t think we had the time to make a custom module that would take advantage of server-side logic. I do remember that it was a bit hackier than I wanted, but it safely accomplished what needed to be done.

If I need to include footnotes or something similar in the future, I’ll probably refer to this comprehensive article on footnotes, endnotes, and sidenotes (via @s3ththompson).

Would be curious if others have come across similar free, open source tools, or if anyone knows of work being done on the HTML spec to get some progress with footnotes.

At any rate, all of the above just reinforces my opinion that anyone who writes, regardless of how tech-savvy, should learn how to write in Markdown at minimum, ideally the extended syntax. If your archive of writing is in a machine-readable format, you’re miles ahead should you ever wish to publish it somewhere remotely digital or want to convert it to an IDML file or something similar.

Edit 24 September 2020: Added link to article about sidenotes.


To read: “The Ego and Its Own” by Max Stirner

To read: The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner. Via a black-crowned night heron in a midnight pond:

stirner’s whole schtick was being against ideology in general. […] behaving a certain way in the name of an Idea is therefore completely illogical, because, it’s not real! what’s real is your own happiness and comfort in the world.


“A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container”

That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.

Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and the next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag of Fiction published by Ignota

GC gave me this book the other day, perfectly timed.

It can feel like the path to success, whatever on earth success actually is, takes some sort of aggro-ambition. What if it is gentler, more of a methodical and deliberate accumulation than a conquest?

SB has been playing Death Stranding and I’ve really enjoyed following along. The arc is definitely hero-centric, and of course the story is way out there in sci-fi land, but the main mechanic of accepting and delivering cargo is much more human than so many other supposedly more realistic video games.

I’d like to get and read Elizabeth Fisher’s Women’s Creation from 1975, but it might be tough to find in print. Thankfully the Internet Archive seems to offer it for borrowing. Pretty cool, I didn’t know that they had a lending library for scanned books.


More sci-fi

While I was away in France, I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. The contrast between good and bad is pretty b/w, a little less nuanced than in some of her other books, but I really enjoyed it. It had some Heart of Darkness and Planet of the Apes (2010s reboots) vibes.

Off the back of that, these are a few new sci-fi items for the reading and watching lists:

  • La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle published in 1963. I didn’t realise that the whole Planet of the Apes world started with this novel.
  • A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be, an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. It can be found in her essay collection Dancing At the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, can also be found bouncing around online. Recommended by GC. I need to get a better handle on Le Guin’s work in general actually, there’s just so much!
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer published in 2014. The movie was based on this book, apparently both are pretty good but the book is particularly strong. Recommended by FB and GC.
  • FB, GC, and I were talking about how the strength of so much great literary fiction lies in the fuzziness, the areas where the reader is trusted to fill in the gaps. This is so often lost when a book is adapted to film. David Lynch is good at hanging on to this stuff (see Mulholland Drive, for example), but I’m not a big film buff and couldn’t think of many others. FB suggested we check out some Andrei Tarkovsky films, particularly Solaris (1972).
  • Related to that read Solaris, the 1961 philosophical sci-fi novel by Stanisław Lem. I had no idea the movies were based on one of Lem’s books.


“Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are very polite. They are charming and highly intelligent. They have excellent dress-sense, and are kind to animals and small children.”

Just read the news that Susanna Clarke is due to publish her second book Piranesi in a year’s time. I’m pretty excited about this, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favourites. And I hope she’s feeling better, I didn’t realise that the long time between books was related to ill health (read interview) at least in part. Delightful news, particularly in contrast with the slimy state of current affairs.


“A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs…”

A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.

Elizabeth Holmes’s “comically vague” and high-school-esque description of Theranos’s blood testing “technology”.

Just finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carryrou. Carryrou traces the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes from the company’s beginnings at Stanford, to Holmes becoming the young female darling of Silicon Valley, to his own exposé and followup articles in the Journal.

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TODOs: automation, films, pens, reading, etc.

This week has been absolute chaos. Good though! A few things to remember, and to follow up on.

I keep coming across Automate the Boring Stuff, and keep forgetting to look in to it. Python was the first language I learned back in college with Prof. Maxwell, so would be nice to revisit it.

Same thing with films like Idiocracy and The Skeleton Twins. Made a mental note to see them years ago and then promptly forgot, so I’m noting them here as an ever-so-slightly more effective reminder. Idiocracy seems particularly weird, on paper it should have been a huge hit but it got absolutely sidelined by Fox and was screened in the bare-minimum of theaters. The reviews are crazy mixed. Still, I’d like to see it.

Something I *have* watched recently on SB’s recommendation is the BBC’s Ghosts. It’s hilarious and completely charming, a lot of the same faces as the original Horrible Histories but a completely different format. I’d watch the whole thing again, hope they do another series.

Last weekend was Offprint book fair in the Turbine Hall at the Tate, and probably my last event with OP. It was nice to see a few familiar faces including the guys at Here Press. Richard Hollis did a talk to a full house on his newest book about Henry van de Velde followed by a book signing at OP’s table. It was nice to see him again. He was using a blue Uni-ball Air for the signing. I’m going to keep my eye out for that one in the stationery shops, it’s a ball point that writes like a fountain pen (line thickness varies with pressure, but very little risk of leaks). The price seems super reasonable, the web’s retail giant offers a three-pack for just under £5.

GC recommended The Mushroom at the End of the World, and if there’s anyone I trust to give me great book recommendations, it’s her. I’m just hoping it leans towards the glass-half-full end of things, I’m not sure I can take more pessimism right now.

I might have a little bit of downtime while travelling over the next few weeks. If I do, I’m hoping to spend a little time looking in to Commotion, “a free, open-source communication tool that uses wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks”. Could use SiteSucker to grab all of the docs before I leave for offline reading. I came across Commotion for the first time via a link to Learn Networking Basics from Measurement Lab’s learning resources.

Big data? No thanks

Gandi published a long blog post titled “Mass manipulation and platform privacy: where we’re at”. It’s summarises some talks and Gandi’s perspective following a conference on “democracy in the face of cybersecurity threats”. I’d like to follow up on a few of the points from the post. I’d also like to find out what public educational efforts are under way. Surely someone is working on PSA-style messaging about the dangers of misinformation and how to identify it. It’s easy to be skeptical about that sort of thing, but it can stick. What’s the cyber-awareness version of “Only you can prevent forest fires” or “A slip of the lip will sink a ship”? James Bridle’s “Big data? No thanks” is related, but the version I’m talking about is more personal, about confronting your own confirmation bias. But not too ominous, also catchy and friendly? Tall order.

Every time I sit down on the tube I wonder about what other people see when they look at me, what they perceive about me precisely because they are *not* me. There is this slippery divide when it comes to understanding yourself. There are elements of yourself that you can never understand since it’s impossible to get outside your own head (one of the reasons that talking to someone else about a problem can be so helpful). There are other things about yourself that only you can ever understand, no matter how much time you spend attempting to express that thing. I have trouble articulating why this feels like a catch, but surely someone out there has tried. Just need to find them.


Richard Hollis’s book on Henry van de Velde, and a note on the index

Spread from book on Henry van de Velde by Richard Hollis

Richard Hollis’s Henry van de Velde: The Artist as Designer is out at long last. A lot of love, sweat, and tears has gone in to that book. It is absolutely jam packed, covering pretty much all of HvdV’s life with over 400 images. As part of Occasional Papers, I worked on the permissions, a bit of editing, and compiled the index.

Read about how the index was compiled


a little tired, but up and up

I’ve been behind. The past two months haven’t been great. But things are looking better, and the holidays couldn’t have come at a better time. We were in the US this time around, got to see more friends and family than I could have hoped. Here are some of the things we got up to.

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