Collaboration Tools: Instiki

A frequently-asked (but infrequently resolved) question is whether there is anything more effective than plain old e-mail for mathematicians to use for collaborative work – anything from simple systems for keeping ones ideas organized to fully-blown version control systems for papers and books. Browsing the relevant question on mathoverflow.net shows a wide variety of more-or-less effective systems in use. One of the major issues for mathematical collaboration is how to get around the problem of mathematical typesetting on the web.

During Chris Godsil’s recent visit to Perth, we investigated a number of possible systems, and it seems that while there is no single tool that does everything, there are some neat tools that in combination can be very handy. One of these tools is the very neat little Wiki engine called Instiki and I’ll let Chris take it from here in his role as guest blogger.

Why Use Instiki? (Guest Blogger – Chris Godsil)

Gordon and I wanted something online that we could use as a scratchpad/scrapbook for joint projects.  Almost any wiki type software would do for this but, for us, Instiki has two considerable advantages.  First, it is easy to set up.  Second, it allows us to use TeX easily and effectively.

For a real example of what can be done with Instiki, see the nLab site

One disdvantage is that the TeX will only render when viewed by a MathML aware browser.  Basically this means Firefox, not Safari.  There is a plugin for Internet Explorer, I’m told. Here’s a screenshot showing some simple TeX markup as rendered by Firefox.

How to get started

I offer a sketch of how to install instiki and get it running.  The main sources for information are http://www.instiki.org/show/HomePage and http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/wiki/instiki/show/HomePage.

  1. Go to http://www.instiki.org/show/HomePage and follow the installation
    instructions there.
  2. Download itex2MML – see Item 2 at http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/wiki/instiki/show/Installation, and install it according to the instructions there.

Now you most likely want to do something with your shiny new software. Open a terminal window, change into your instiki directory and type:

./instiki

(If you want it to keep running after you close the terminal window,

./instiki -d

The first version will do for now.)

The response to your command will be some text appearing and the terminal will no longer respond to your input.  No worries.  Your next step is to hide (but not close) the terminal window and direct your browser to

http://localhost:2500

The result will be your first Instiki page – a form you must complete.

First you must choose a name for your “web”.  Put ‘Wiki’ in the first box, ‘wiki’ in the second. (It’s easy to change the name later and I do not feel like waiting while you dither.) Choose a user password and a system password.  You may omit the user password, but I recommend strongly that you do not.   The security is more to protect you from stupidity than serious malice, so write the passwords down in lots of places. Finally, press the submit button and you will see your first real instiki page.

It will not be very impressive, since you have not provided any content.  To do so, click on the edit button.  In the edit box that appears, type

[[Page One]]

set your name by overwriting “Anonymous Coward”, and click the submit button. Your page, previously blank, now contains the text “Page One?” and the question mark is highlighted.  If you click on that, you will now be editing a new page. Write some stuff in it and submit.  The question mark has gone and the text “Page One” is a link to the second page you have just added.

From here on it’s recursive.  Anyone with the user password can add or alter your stuff.  They will find it by pointing their browser to your_url:2500.

Oh, and if you want your mother to see what you have done, go to your web home page and click the “Edit Web” tag.  Click the “Publish this web” box, type in the
system password and press the “Update Web” button.  Now tell Mum to direct her browser to ‘your_url:2500’ and behold.  (If you have not created a user password, she will be able to correct your grammar or upload some of your baby photos or…. I did recommend a user password.)

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