Covered In LaTeX

Although I haven't used LaTeX much in the past few years, it was one of the primary tools that hastened my shift to using GNU/Linux full time. Why? I'd grown sick of fighting with document preparation and publishing systems (e.g. Microsoft Word/Open Office), and had started using LaTeX on my Mac to produce all of my papers and documents that needed to be output to paper-formats. Why switch? Because after a certain point of having every tool you use be Free software (because it's better!), it becomes easier and more cost effective to just jump the gun and by commodity hardware and use a system that's designed to support this kind of software (managing a large selection lots of free software packages on OS X can become cumbersome).

So why LaTeX? What's the big deal? Why do I care now? Well...

LaTeX is a very usable front-end/set of macros for the TeX typesetting engine. Basically, you write text files in a particular way, and then run LaTeX (or pdflatex) and it generates the best looking PDF in the world of your document. You get full control over things that matter (layout, look and feel) and you don't have to worry about things that ought to be standard (titles, headlines, citations with BibTeX, page numbering, hyphenation). The best part, however, is that once you figure out how to generate a document correctly once, you never have to figure it out again. Once you realize that most of the things you need to output to paper are in the same format, you can use the same template and be able to generate consistently formated documents automatically. There's a "compile" step in the document production process, which means changes aren't often immediately recognizable, but I don't think this is a major obstacle.

Word processing and document preparation is a critical component of most common computer users. At least, I'd assume so, though I don't have good numbers on the subject. In any case, I think it might be an interesting project to see how teaching people how to use LaTeX might both improve the quality of their work, and also the way that they're able to work. It's advanced, and a bit confusing at first, but I'd suspect that once you got over the initial hump LaTeX presents a more simple and consistent interface: you only get what you tell it to give you and you only see the functionality that you know about. This might make the discovery of new features more difficult, but it doesn't limit functionality.

I'm not sure that this post is the right space to begin a lesson or series on getting started with LaTeX, but I think as a possible teaser (if there's interest) that the proper stack for getting started with LaTeX would consist of:

  • A TeXlive distribution. You need the basic tool kit including pdflatex, TeX, Metafont, LaTeX, and BibTeX.
  • A Text Editor with LaTeX support: emacs, TextMate, etc. Plain text can be difficult and cumbersome to edit unless you have the right tools for the job, which include a real text editor.
  • Some sort of macro or snippet expansion system. TeX is great. But it's also somewhat verbose, and having an easy way to insert text into your editing environment, both for templates but also for general operations (emphasis, notes, etc.) is incredibly useful, and reduces pain greatly.
  • A template management system. This probably needn't be a formal software system, but just something to organize and store the basic templates that you will use.

And the rest is just learning curve and practice. Onward and Upward!

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