Is LaTeX worth learning?

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about learning LaTeX (or any of its brethren like Overleaf or Lyx) for ages now. I like the markup approach, but it is not user friendly. The latex jokes are tired. And ye gods I hate that font, first thing I learnt to change. For the purpose of this post I lump the ‘prettier’ helpers like Lyx, Overleaf, TeXStudio, KILE with LaTeX. From a websearch, the most promising potential alternatives are Scribus and SILE. And there is the option to fall back on LibreOffice Writer …. So, is LaTeX worth it?

TL;DR

No, I don’t think LaTeX or any of that family is worth learning. It is a valuable software and still has it’s place today. I think SILE should be a good replacement and I look forward to seeing where it goes. In the mean time I am investing my time in Scribus.

Objective

What do I want (to do)Why is a word processor not good enough
Full control (text placement, image placement, size of columns, font selection etc)
General documents (not science research publications)
Light filesizes, images in separate folder
No hidden code that surprises you later
FLOSS (free, libre, open source software)
Example MS Word Or LibreOffice Writer
You have full control only in small simple files. Larger files turn into a hot mess.
File sizes get large for no real reason
Not very transferable across OSs
Not web adaptable

I want a typesetting software that gives me full control (text placement, image placement, size of columns, font selection etc), for use in general documents, but I might want to use it for scientific writing too. I want a light filesize, and I like that the images are in a separate folder, because for editing and sending things over on slow internet I can focus on the text. I am willing to put in the time and effort to learn the proper use. I want it as FLOSS (free, libre, open source software) as possible. I don’t need fancy things for mathematical formulas though, at this stage, at least. And I guess I’m a weirdo for not really minding the markup code in the text, and enjoying the treasure hunt that is the code-compile-debug cycle.

I’m not a science researcher anymore but I’m more geeky and less arty than the average graphic designer. Does LaTeX meet me in this weird halfway spot? This post by Daniel Allington was the death knell after I struggled for two days, unsuccessfully, to change the font of the title (not the whole document). And I realised that I was, sigh, yes, fetishising LaTeX because it made me feel smart.

TeX and LaTeX were already-existing, already-working examples of free software at exactly the time that the free software movement started to kick off and evangelise.

Daniel Allington http://www.danielallington.net/2016/09/the-latex-fetish/

But as one of the comments mention, as compared to word processors (looking at you, MS Word) “LaTeX does not make me angry and I always know exactly why and what is happening.” Another post by Robert Spotswood says LaTeX (via Lyx) is the weirdo in-betweener I seek:

While Lyx does have many word processor­like features, such as a spell checker and styles, it does not fit neatly into either the word processor or DTP category. It is a somewhat strange blend of both but closer to a word processor than a DTP application.

Robert Spotswood “OpenOffice, Lyx, and Scribus” http://www.spotswood-computer.net/articles/trio.pdf

LaTeX and its ‘helpers’ e.g. TexStudio, Lyx, Overleaf

I think the problem I have is fundamentally within LaTeX, so all the stuff based on it will have the same issues. I need to change the font and have a multi-column layout, for starters, and that is difficult with any of the flavours. The problem is that I don’t necessarily need a better GUI (graphic user interface). I am fine with the code. The code must just make sense to me. Like, changing that stupid font, and making the title in another, decorative font. A pretty skin doesn’t fix bad code.

SILE

SILE seems to attempt to address the reason I wrote this post: LaTeX does seem the best option for me, the weird in-betweener between a word processor and a desktop publishing tool (DPT), but it sucks. SILE attempts to take the best of both. It’s still new, at version 0.10.7 (17 July 2020). “SILE is a free, open source typesetting tool which is entirely text-based; you enter commands in a separate editing tool, save those commands into a file, and hand it to SILE for typesetting.”

“SILE 3 takes some textual instructions and turns them into PDF output. It has features inspired by TeX and InDesign, but seeks to be more flexible, extensible and programmable than either of them. It’s useful both for typesetting documents (such as this very documentation) written in the SILE language, and as a processing system for styling and outputting structured data.”

Side-track: SILE is pronounced to rhyme with ‘trial’, probably some Simon – Le something contraction, after the person developing it, Simon Cozens. Simon is religious which made me scoff at first. But part of SILE’s existence is due to the bible: “For instance, one of the things that TeX can’t do particularly well is typesetting on a grid. This is something of a must-have feature for anyone typesetting bibles. Typesetting on a grid means that each line of text will line up between the front and back of each piece of paper producing much less visual bleed-through when printed on thin paper.” Fascinating. And the dude looks really cool too, judging from the well written SILE manual, his blogposts, and a book on shame.

Scribus

It could work. It’s like Inkscape but with several pages. On the graphical side of the spectrum, rather than code, so not sure if it’s suited for my particular objective currently, but there’s a definite argument for getting to know this. Side-note: Adobe irritates me in the same way Microsoft products do: complicated yet broken, and expensive if you get it legitimately (which I did for a year or so, truthfully, I really tried). Scribus and Inkscape and Blender are better alternatives to Adobe. But hang on, Spotswood’s article highlights some fabulous characteristics:

  • “The native Scribus file format is XML based, meaning even badly damaged files can be at least partially recovered with a simple text editor.”
  • “The file specification is open and fully documented”
  • “The format is also very resistant to corruption in the first place”
  • “Scribus also supports python based scripting.”

This could work for me, I think! I was about to say it’s like when I discovered I can Python in Blender, but I can Python in Scribus too! Opening the very basic Scribus .sla file template for a newspaper in a text editor (like Geany that colour codes the coding bits) gave 2000+ lines of code, which in retrospect makes sense, but the fact that it exists is amazing. I’m suitably impressed.

Notes on my ways of working, thus far:

If I just want to write something, I choose a text editor – the default one in Ubuntu. Even if it will bloom into a bigger document, I start there. It is the simplest thing to start with, and it has text, nothing else. No hidden code to surprise you later. I can just blurt out whatever I’m thinking. Then from there I can copy sections into whatever I choose to use once I’m ready to typeset. In this way I also have a nifty back-up with all the half-shapen thoughts I can come back to later. And I can spawn millions of little .txt files because they’re so small.

I hate Microsoft products with a passion that precedes my FLOSS interest. From day one in my early undergraduate I developed an intense, visceral dislike for anything Microsoft. I just thought they made kak products, nevermind the ideological stuff. I don’t like LibreOffice because to me it feels like an adaptation of the Microsoft Office products, which still duplicate a sub-optimal way of working. They have their place for quick ‘back of the envelope’ stuff, sure.

I enjoyed playing around with html in the early 2000’s, and coded my first website from scratch. I recently tried out reveal.js for a presentation and loved it. So if markup is a reasonable way forward, I would prefer it. If this is the case I would need to understand how to do it best, what the current standards are, to, for example, make most use of getting it web-compatible.

This post also helped me figure out why I’m heading this way:

I am obsessed with data driven documentation (‘d3‘), interactive infographics, data visualisation and the like. I would love paper (e.g. a community newspaper), to complement online in unique beautiful ways. Things like treasure hunts with a real map and AR goggles. Miniature paper cities with fantasy realities jumping out from them, education pop ups… the possibilities are endless!

P.S. On that godawful font in LaTeX:

Also, if you want to do anything really wild and crazy – like using a typeface other than Computer Modern – then plain vanilla TeX and LaTeX won’t do. (Please: you do want to use typefaces other than Computer Modern. Computer Modern is not some sort of universal, all-purpose typeface. It’s just the digital version of the typeface that happened to have been used for the first edition of the book whose second edition Knuth created TeX in order to typeset, and it really isn’t suited to some of the uses to which I’ve seen it put, especially in slide presentations.) And anything other than vanilla TeX and LaTeX is really, really difficult to install. So difficult that most people seem to give up on installing individual packages and instead install the whole of something called TeX Live. [Ha! I just did this, And it didn’t solve any problems] Tex Live wraps up almost everything that a TeX or LaTeX user could ever possibly want into a single, handy download. A single, handy unbelievably large download that takes up over two gigabytes on disk: to be exact, 2.4 gigabytes for the Mac version, MacTeX. For comparison, LibreOffice takes up about one and a half gigabytes of disk space on a Windows or Linux machine, and less than one gigabyte on a Mac. And LibreOffice is a word processor, a spreadsheet, a slideshow presentation program, a drawing package, and a database, all in one. LaTeX is just a typesetting program. This is nuts – especially if you’re using old or cheap hardware. And even if you decide to weigh your hard drive down with TeX Live, you still have a lot of work to do in getting things to work properly, and almost nothing ever seems to be clearly explained. Sometimes it feels as if getting LaTeX to work has become a sort of hazing ritual through which the pledge must suffer alone.

Daniel Allington http://www.danielallington.net/2016/09/the-latex-fetish/

One Reply to “Is LaTeX worth learning?”

  1. After twitter convo’s some more reasoning why I want something different than a word processor:
    I guess I want the elegance and control of code to create the beautiful brochures. Having opened a few graphic designers’ files and see the utter mess of layers and no real organisation, I think this is important.
    Sortof how web design was before the appy people got hold if it, maybe. But with better graphic design. Things don’t have to be ugly when they’re clean (as some old school devs seem to believe) and they don’t have to be huge files to be pretty. Just, well done.

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