Great Things #1

Do you have that thing that you always come back to, that you never seem to tire of, that always seems to have hidden depths and complexities that await exploring, that just makes you feel good? No, I ‘m not talking about your spouse (but if you were thinking about yours, congratulations). And no, not your Ferrari 599 either (you lucky bastard). Nor your HP 15C. Okay, maybe the 15 comes close.

I know, this is totally subjective and the answers are as varied as we all are. But for me, at least most of the time, it is \LaTeX. No not the shiny black stuff worn by the nubile young things on the Internet (which isn’t too bad in itself… smooth curves catching the light just so, hints of smooth…) sorry, seemed to have drifted off there for a second. Where was I? Oh, yeah, \LaTeX. The document preparation system. (Pronounced lah-tech or lay-tech).

\LaTeX is essentially a set of macros sitting on top of the venerable typesetting system, \TeX, invented by that computer master, Donald E. Knuth. No, it isn’t a word processor, and it shows its age by being almost GUI-free, but it is the thing to use to produce documents you can be proud of. All with a simple text editor and some markup commands that can be simple enough for a school child or complicated enough to keep the most nerdy of PhDs happy for years.

I’ve prepared three books and many papers and reports with \LaTeX and it was a pleasure to use and produced beautiful documents with little need for me to fiddle with margins, headers, page and section breaks, tables of contents, indexes, citations, etc., since most of these jobs are done automatically. You can, of course, customize the document to the nth degree, but most of the time the default settings are fine. And all the time you know what the program is doing, unlike M$ Word which I have to say drives me crazy.

And all you need is a decent text editing program and you’re in business. You’re source file is in plain old ASCII which means you can edit the file on virtually any computer and compile it there too–and get the same output whether you happen to be using a PC, a Mac, Linux, or pretty much any other system. And no worries about corrupted files. The source file isn’t touched during compilation, and when was the last time your text editor screwed up your ASCII file? Probably never.

Yes, the learning curve for \LaTeX can be steep–depending on what you’re trying to do–but it is so satisfying to learn and use. Especially compared to that pinacle of mediocrity that is Word. Better words than I can write about that comparison can be found here:

And the following link discusses the beauty of \LaTeX:

And I almost forgot one feature that stands above most others, the ability to typeset beautiful equations.  Though I gather the M$ equation editor is getting better, imagine just being able to write something like this:

\int_{0}^{1} x dx = \left[ \frac{1}{2}x^2 \right]_{0}^{1}
= \frac{1}{2}

and get something like this:

\int_{0}^{1} x dx = \left[ \frac{1}{2}x^2 \right]_{0}^{1} =\frac{1}{2}

or this:

\gamma \equiv \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}}

and get this:

\Large{\gamma \equiv \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}}}

Even WordPress here and WikiPedia use \LaTeX for formula setting.  So much easier than futzing with the M$ equation editor.

Am I being archaic and anachronistic? Sure. But it is better, a better way, and just more satisfying than almost any other thing on my computer. As a matter of fact, \LaTeX and R (see previous post) are the only things I need on my computer. Okay, a browser too. With these I can do anything I want. And all for free, I might add, though I do support the users group ( and its talented membership who make all this possible. I’d much rather give them my money rather than Micro$oft. I think they have enough.

So if you’re up to a challenge, give it a try and let us know what you think.

Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 10:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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