Professor Vermeer argues against the notion that
word processing must be forever a species of finger painting voodoo
and the province of proprietary software developers. His principle
counter example is the TEX, LATEX,
LYX family of applications for structured document
A funny place, this world we live in. Everybody sends me MS Word
attachments and assumes I can read them. I've given up preaching
and just use Star Office. No luck this time though, not even with
genuine Word, until the sender exported to Word 6.0 format to match
my dusty old Windows partition. As you guessed, the document
contained only text.
The world is massively wasting resources attempting to exchange
documents in multiple incompatible closed formats, even from
different versions of the same software. Human adaptability as a
curse. Why this unquestioning acceptance of document exchange as
Compare this to the Internet; there things are so much better.
HTML is the standard language for Web pages; MIME the standard for
email; and so on. Of course, it all works well: Scientists designed
it for their own use!
Little could Tim Berners-Lee foresee that some day the turnover
of e-commerce would dwarf funds budgeted for high-energy physics
research, when at CERN, Geneva, he thought up the World Wide Web.
He just followed his scientific instincts for building something
that works for the community: a file format based on a pre-existing
specification, SGML (Standard General Mark-up Language); and a
text-based client-server protocol over TCP/IP. Open standards, text
based, legible, editable, portable. And doing what it should:
allowing timely worldwide publication of research results in
HTML has limitations. It allows too easy visual-only mark-up to
make pages just look good without concern for the document's
logical structure. Therefore, we see developments that separate
document creation and document layout style definition, like
Cascading Style Sheets and XML (Extensible Mark-up Language).
A lesser known, similar chain of events happened a decade before
the www. Don Knuth of Stanford designed TEX, a computer
typesetting language that garnered fame for the visual quality of
documents produced with it. Then Leslie Lamport (DEC) based a macro
library, LATEX, on it, to address the same
problem as with HTML: TEX is too visual a language. A
typesetting engine, not a document processor. With
LATEX, you can code and structure your
document without concern for the final layout; then you combine it
with a document definition or class file, and out comes
the printed version. Guaranteed pixel identical everywhere -- no
publisher complaining about a nine page doc when you sent him only
The importance of "structured document authoring" cannot be
overstated. LATEX encourages this practice.
While most modern word processors support it through "style
sheets", too few people use it. A colleague, a gifted professional,
sent me a Word document where section headers had been produced by
"finger paint": twice RETURN, section number, header text, painted
bold, and twice RETURN again... of course they didn't show up in
the table of contents, which had to be finger painted too... there
is much education needed here. But how to make people learn when
software appears so easy as to make learning superfluous?
For years, LATEX has been the Lingua
Franca of scientific document exchange. Journals accepted it.
As a plain text mark-up language like HTML, it is robust, portable,
"hackable" and compatible across platforms and versions. Scientists
are used to the programming-like activity of writing mark-up code.
However, general users are not. No problem in principle --
LATEX could be for scientists only. But a
colleague's experience tells me that the Huns are at the gate. He
got his article delayed by a year because a scientific
journal couldn't handle his LATEX
manuscript! So, if we want the open, structured document tradition
to survive, we'd better make it accessible for non-scientists
Fortunately, an excellent initiative along these lines, LYX, has been ongoing for three
years now. Most of the developers are scientists. LYX
should be seen to
be believed, especially the equation editor. If you thought MS
Word's equation editor was good -- think again. The rest of this
visual document processor is of similar excellence. Nearly
everything in LATEX is supported now:
sectioning headers, figures, tables, live links to numbered
objects; even BibTEX, the great bibliography database
manager by Oren Patashnik (Stanford). On-screen, the text looks
roughly like on paper, including sectioning, formulas, tables,
graphics etc., a bit like Word's "normal" mode. "View mode" means
clicking the xdvi or GhostScript renderer. Even "outline mode"
exists, the table-of-contents window containing live sectioning
With LYX, the pain of writing
LATEX mark-up is no more. Also,
LYX is ready for the Internet age with its SGML (i.e.
XML) DocBook export (only experimental for now). What is still
weak, and needed to make LYX competitive, is support for
easy setting up of document type definitions. Currently only basic,
document level properties are configurable, plus, surprisingly, the
choice of bullet list symbols. A nice selection of classes is
available: the base classes, those of the American Mathematical
Society, the beautiful Komascript classes, and more. It all has a
scientific slant. Besides business letters, there is one
nonscientific document format -- for film/movie scripts. If you
want nontrivial deviations from these provided classes, you may
browse for a suitable option or style file on the Internet. But at
some point you'll find yourself grinding out
LATEX code. For example, if you want to
change the indent of bullet lists, you'll be embedding
ERT (Evil Red Text,
LYX geekspeak for raw LATEX) into
your doc. A no-no for dummy users and a sales argument for
commercial word processors.
It has been argued that the open source development model is
suitable only for producing infrastructural, "plumbing" type
software, not end user friendly, high-useability applications. If
the validity of this argument interests you, you should closely
follow LYX, a great software that has been developing
at a spectacular pace. This could be a white raven disproving the
assumption. And again, scientists doing it!
Martin Vermeer is a research professor and department head at the
Finnish Geodetic Institute, as well as "docent" (probably something
like assistant professor) at Helsinki University, Department of
Geophysics. He uses Linux both at work and at home.