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Going back to something that works

Last week I had a bad experience with several pieces of office software.

It started with a simple enough task: I had some existing documentation, and I needed to extend the “How to perform common tasks” section. There were two sub-headings to add, each of which needed a few bulleted paragraphs of instructions.

I fired up LibreOffice, opened the document, and started typing — but something was wrong. When I clicked to turn my instructions into a bulleted list, the indentation was wrong. It didn’t match the similar bulleted lists above or below in the document.

I assumed I had mixed up the styles somehow, perhaps applying bullets to the wrong paragraph styles, so I checked the style of the correct paragraphs, then applied that style to the new ones. Still wrong.

Perhaps my correct paragraphs had somehow been modified? I selected both the correct and incorrect ones, and applied the style they were supposed to be in. They stayed determinedly different.

I tried fiddling with the rules manually, then re-applying the styles. The rulers reset to the tabbing defined in the styles, but the text continued to be indented incorrectly. I even tried creating a whole new style, in case the style definition had somehow become corrupt. Still the newly-type text would not match indents with the existing paragraphs.

Finally, I pondered the possibility that LibreOffice had a pretty severe formatting bug. I opened the document in IBM Lotus Symphony, which was forked from OpenOffice 1.x and (of course) reads and writes standard ODF documents. Hurrah! My paragraphs were all indented correctly!

I thought I was done. I made a few last edits, went to the top of the document, and refreshed the table of contents.

Oh dear.

Now my table of contents had garbage in, entries with a page number and no text, pointing at pages that had no headings on (including the front cover).

I cussed, saved the document, and quit Symphony. I opened the document in LibreOffice again, and refreshed the table of contents — now it looked right once more. I nervously scrolled down, and was somewhat surprised to discover that my paragraphs were all indented correctly. I hurriedly saved out a PDF before anything else went wrong.

So it was that I was forcibly reminded of how much I hate office suites, and WYSIWYG word processing in general. That well-known commercial office suite from Redmond is no better than the ODF gang; a few quick searches will unearth countless tales of horror involving corrupt files, misnumbered pages, font problems, and so on.

Meanwhile, I had another piece of documentation to start writing, and the thought of doing so in LibreOffice now filled me with a mixture of rage and dread.

I’m not a luddite, I quite like GUI software when it works. On the Mac, Apple’s iWork suite does a good job, at least with the kind of short document I find myself writing. However, I don’t have a Mac at work, so that wasn’t an option. So I returned to a piece of software I hadn’t used in 20 years: TeX.

Madness? Perhaps. I appreciate that TeX is perhaps not a tool for everyone; though it’s really no worse than word processors of the 80s, which ordinary people nevertheless learned to use. I suspect that most people just don’t have the patience any more. They don’t want to sit down and learn something, which is why we have Microsoft Word, and why hardly any office documents even use the style system properly. Which, I suppose, is how a major formatting bug gets into released code without being noticed.

It turns out that quite a lot has happened in the TeX world in the last couple of decades. Obviously computers have gotten a lot faster; I remember watching my 8MHz Atari ST grinding away at my dissertation. As I recall, it took about a second per page to typeset my text to DVI; I would then wait about 2 seconds per page to flip through and inspect the pages in the DVI viewer.

These days the console output scrolls past too quickly to read. TeX dumps its output directly to PDF, which loads instantly into an integrated PDF viewer, which of course supports antialiased text. Plus, my screen has four times the resolution. So even before considering software features, it’s a very different experience these days.

So what of the software? Modern TeX supports OpenType fonts, and accepts diagrams in PDF or bitmap format. It handles Unicode, so you don’t need to use escapes for accented letters and other special characters. It can place hypertext links in your PDF documents, and use color and other effects. And yet, TeX documents written in 1980 are not merely readable today; they can still be typeset into beautiful documents.

So from my point of view TeX has a lot of advantages:

  • The source files are plain text, so I can stick them in bzr for version control.
  • I can edit my documents with vim, meaning I can easily do things like searching and replacing control sequences and styles.
  • The output is of higher quality than any office suite. CTAN has a sample of text typeset by Microsoft Office, next to the same text typeset by TeX. While the differences are subtle, the overall effect is that the well-typeset text is simply less fatiguing to read.
  • Web page captures look a lot better in TeX than in a word processor. I can render a web page to PDF using wkhtmltopdf, crop out the bit I want, and pull it into my document — and because all the text stays as vectors, it’s searchable and looks good at any resolution. Much better than using a bitmap screen capture, and good luck pulling SVG or PDF into Office.
  • Similarly, I can draw diagrams in Inkscape, save as PDF, and pull straight into my document. Much better than trying to draw anything with the tools provided in an office suite.
  • I can be confident that what I write today will be readable, editable and printable for years to come, by anyone willing to put in the time to learn how to install and run TeX and edit a text file in a markup language that’s really no worse than HTML.
  • TeX stays out of the way. It’s like writing HTML or wiki pages; you don’t need to mess with menus and mice to start a new section, you just type section{My new section} and carry on.
  • I can write my own macros. For example, I quickly built a macro for web site references. I provide the URL and title; the macro handles formatting the title to show that it’s a link, making it clickable, pointing it at the URL, adding a footnote, and placing the URL in the footnote in monospaced font for people who have printed the document.
  • It scales. While office suites can start to crap out at a hundred pages, TeX can easily deal with thousand page reference manuals.
  • It’s bug-free. Core TeX hasn’t had a significant bug found in it in years, and the length of the complete known bug list for the TeX Live DVD speaks for itself.
  • It’s free software, it runs anywhere, and on today’s computers it’s fast.

If necessary, I can always turn my TeX into HTML, RTF, ODF, or whatever. But for now, I’m going to try writing new documents in TeX.

Want to see what TeX can do these days? Try some pages from a German chess book typeset with it, or take a look at sample spreads from humanities books typeset with TeX.