Friday, July 23, 2010

Dawn of the LaTeX

As you might be aware, I decided to give the LaTeX typesetting system a try last month. After a brief trial, I wrote about how I wasn't sure about it, but the ensuing conversation made me think that it was worth giving it a serious try. So I'v been giving it a serious try. Since Anon 7:31 asks for an update, here's an update.

There are things I like about it. I like the way the resulting documents look. I really, really like the way it handles bibliographies. I like using BibDesk to manage my references--I had been using a spreadsheet before, and this is way better. I don't mind the text-editor feel of the text editor. I set the thing to display in the same typeface I set the completed documents in, so it doesn't look particularly ugly.

I have a number of teaching- and research-related projects going right now, and I'm finding that the process of converting an existing document to LaTeX affords a nice opportunity to rethink my way through the paper in a deep and comprehensive way. There is so much nuts-and-bolts-type stuff you have to do in terms of retyping quotation marks and hyphens and reemphasizing and italicizing text that every sentence requires at least a little scrutiny.

Another of my projects is a first draft. So far drafting in LaTeX is not that different from drafting in Word.

I still kind of don't like the footnotes. I find it hard to see where they end, since it's just a relatively small green curly bracket. Using percentage signs, as was suggested in the previous thread, to interrupt the text makes them stand out more, but at the cost of breaking up the paragraph, which should be thought of as a single continuous unit.

It's still slightly weird that you read one document but edit another. Noticing a typo in your reading copy means you must open up another document, edit it, and then convert it to pdf. Of course, you have to do that in order to make a pdf out of a word document, too. But since the TeX documents are laid out in very different ways--one of them has lots of commands and stuff while the other one sort of obeys those commands--finding the place in the TeX file that corresponds to the same place in the PDF can be hard to do.

I also miss one thing about MS Word, and that is the easy insertion of comments into word documents and the way that these comments can be anchored to the editable bits of text they are about. I can do this to PDFs because I have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, but last I checked, the free version of the reader does not support the creation or the reading of this kind of comment. And not everybody has access to the full versions of Adobe. I'm sure that there's some free PDF reader that works almost as well, but not everybody has that, too, neither.

But I guess the main reason I'm likely to stick with LaTeX is that it is not MS Word. I did not and will not buy the "new" '07 and '08 version of Word, and my obsolete and outdated version is becoming more so. But as we transition from "Yeah, the new version is expensive and has a counterintuitive user interface" to "Really? You're still using that????!!?" I'll probably need to stop using Word altogether, or using it only in a very limited capacity.

--Mr. Zero


Kevin Klement said...

As for finding the corresponding parts of the source as compared to the result, you need to use an editor that supports so-called "SyncTeX" forward search from the text editor to the PDF viewer, and a PDF viewer that supports reverse search from the PDF viewer to the source. That way, clicking a spot in the PDF will automatically jump your editor to the corresponding part of the source file, and vice-versa.

Both TeXworks and TeXshop support this will almost no effort at all to set up. Setting it up with other editors can be more work, depending on what you're using, but it is possible with almost all of them. (Though it does mean not using Acrobat or even Adobe Reader view, but that's good, since those are horribly bloated wastes of disk space, to be honest.)

If you want to know how to get this working with another editor, ask over at the new PhilTeX forums, or google it.

There's a LaTeX package called pdfcomment you can use to insert comments into PDFs. But if the PDF in question doesn't come from LaTeX source -- while you can still do it with LaTeX, it can be a bit of a pain. The free version of PDF X-ChangeViewer for Windows can do this too.

Anonymous said...

I use Mellel as my primary word processor with Bookends as my bibliography/resource manager and I have been really very happy with it.

Mellel gives you a huge amount of command over the formatting of the document. You can change basically everything very quickly and very easily. You write using different style sets and, once they're set up, the resulting document can look quite nice. Moreover, you don't have to worry about formatting each block quote or footnote that comes your way. Just click on the relevant style and start typing. (It's like an uber-powerful Pages, if you're familiar with iWork.)

In addition, you can create sections and subsections using their 'auto-title' function that will let you auto generate a table of contents. Its cross-referencing feature is both intuitive and easy. And it's integrated with Bookends, which means that I don't have to worry about manually typing up my bibliography, because with the click of a mouse it will generate it for me in whatever formatting I choose. And I can easily change the formatting of the bibliography with another couple of clicks of the mouse. (Indeed, in Bookends I have the formatting of several different journals. All I have to do is select that the bibliography is created using the formatting of Journal X and, presto chango, out pops the bibliography with precisely the formatting I need.)

Footnotes were really the thing that made me turn away from LaTeX. I do history of philosophy and routinely have 60+ footnotes for a 30 page paper. I disliked having them as part of the text of the paragraph and when I tried to set them apart from the paragraph it made my paragraphs look (and feel) disjointed. I realize this is just a personal preference, though, and that many people don't have nearly the number of footnotes and/or aren't bothered by the way that they're in the document in LaTeX.

I get why people like LaTeX. The resulting product looks fantastic and you get a great deal of control in the formatting of the document while, at the same time, not having to worry about formatting until you have to. But I don't understand why some people think that it's heads and shoulders better than other options out there. There are some really fantastic WYSIWYG, non-LaTeX word processors that are really quite fantastic to work with and produce documents that look perfectly fine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update, Mr. Zero.

One emerging free option for working with Word documents is Microsoft's new Office Web Apps. It's Microsoft's answer to Google Docs. You need to sign up for a free WindowsLive account to use it.

I've spent all of three minutes playing with it, so I don't know how good it is. The big problem for me is that it doesn't allow you to work with documents that have comments or tracked changes. Since one big reason to work with Word, in my opinion, is that collaborators, advisors, friends offering comments, etc. are likely to be using Word, in which case the ability to track changes and make comments is very important.

At the very least, Office Web Apps would make it easy to open and read student papers submitted in Word. But then again, you could use OpenOffice (Windows) or NeoOffice (Mac) for that.

As for commenting on PDFs, Apple's built-in Preview application has a reasonably good set of tools for commenting on and highlighting PDFs.

Andrew Bailey said...

Re: paragraph six.

If you're editing in textshop for the Mac, you can find the corresponding bit in the PDF by command-clicking ("Apple-clicking") on an expression in the source file. You can also find the relevant bit of the source file by command-clicking in the PDF...

Anonymous said...

"It's still slightly weird that you read one document but edit another. Noticing a typo in your reading copy means you must open up another document, edit it, and then convert it to pdf."

SyncTeX helps. Not sure if there is something similar for PC.

Anonymous said...

I've started using LyX. I don't have a lot of formulas in my work, though I sometimes have a few; the main appeal of LaTeX for me are the pretty and the bibliography. LyX seems to not make me change a lot of my WYSIWYG habits in order to get those things.

Anyway, I like the way LyX handles footnotes. There's a little highlighted box that says "foot 1" or whatever. When you click it, the footnote text appears for you to edit; click again and it goes away. The main paragraph is still there, largely uninterrupted.

The thing you edit isn't exactly the thing you read, but it's pretty close. And, really, you almost could read the thing you edit--you'd just miss things like cross-references & the full bibliography (if you're using BibTeX).

I'm sure there are lots of LaTeX editors that do similar things, but I'm really keen on LyX at the moment. And I don't have to type in any markup codes.

MacJ said...

Anon 12:59,
I use Open Office on my MacBook. Is there some reason to prefer NeoOffice?

Also, I'm not pleased with Google Apps, but I'm reluctant to buy into another MicroSoft scheme. Anyone want to make a pitch for Office Web Apps?

Anonymous said...

With LaTex, you can use \footnotemark and \footnotetext commands. You put the \footnotemark[optional number] wherever the little number is supposed to go, and then at the end of the paragraph, you can go:


That might be a bit less jarring than the \footnote{blahblahblah} command.

Anonymous said...

I just started using LyX this morning and I was wondering if anyone knew where to get logical symbols. I want to use this to type up notes for the kids.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to make two points, both based on my own experience with LaTeX (I've been using it for about 10 years now):

(1) About "moving back and forth" between files and programs: I spend most of my time in my text editor and only check the PDF occasionally (usually for formatting errors). Like most, I started out going back-and-forth a lot, but now I'm just as happy reading LaTeX mark up. So, the back and forth problem might go away. (Also, using a text editor with good regex support makes it really easy to find one's place.)

(2) One (perhaps suboptimal) option for comments on documents is to share the docs as RTF -- latex2rtf does a decent job of converting LaTeX docs. Then you can use any word processor that has the comment function.

Usually, I offer my comments in another file (usually plain text); I just indicate the page & paragraph that I'm discussing. This means that I can use the tools I already have and like (i.e., vim) to make comments -- rather than have to use yet another tool, let alone one which is full of compromises (e.g., in terms of quality or UI).

(By way of full disclosure: I've never found the inline commenting function in word processors or PDF editors to be particularly useful as either a commenter or, erm, commentee.)

Anon 12:59 said...


No, I know of no particular reason to prefer NeoOffice over OpenOffice. I had been under the impression that OpenOffice wasn't available for Mac.

I'm only moderately happy with NeoOffice, although -- and this is potentially important for those considering LaTeX -- I find NeoOffice to be great for editing equations. OpenOffice is probably just as good. It's much better than Word.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't sure if your remark about comments referred to comments to others or comments to self. I'm just learning LaTeX myself, but one feature I've discovered that I like a lot is the % for comments to myself. What's handy about this is that I can ship off PDF or printed versions of whatever I'm working on without sharing (or having to remove) the notes to myself.

Your remark about having to flip between LaTex file and PDF file made me this that this might be a useful way to break us of the habit of worrying about typos when we should be focusing on the content. I'm not saying that fixing typos isn't important, but it should be the last step before sending the file to a journal (or whatever the final step is). I know I've spent too much time fixing text that I ultimately discard.

BunnyHugger said...

NeoOffice is more Mac integrated than the Mac version of OpenOffice. It uses the Mac menu system, for instance. But if you're using OpenOffice and are happy with it there's probably no reason to switch. I have used both and prefer NeoOffice.

Daniel von Wachter said...

For making footnotes clearer:
Bla bla%
\footnote{Text of the footnote}
bla bla.

For comments I just use % in the source text or I make comments in the PDF. PDF Xchange viewer is a free PDF reader that allows making comments. But I agree that Writer (OpenOffice or LibreOffice) (I don't use Microsoft, and ODT documents are easily converted to LaTeX) is handy for comments and corrections.