Stability is one thing, but don’t loose the source!

I’m currently doing a couple of maths courses with the Open University (OU), for which we get booklets containing the course material by post. In recent years, the OU have made the material available on-line as well, for current students. This is very handy if you need to access things while away from home. However, one of my current courses doesn’t have the material on-line at the moment.

What’s going on? The course has been presented for a number of years (the original copyright is 1993), and so there were originally no PDF files: everything was printed from film. This being a maths course, the original source was TeX-based. So you’d expect that the OU could just re-TeX the source using pdfTeX and all would be okay. That is, if they still had the source!

The moral: TeX may be stable, but you still need the source files.

Package support

I get a reasonable stream of e-mails about my LaTeX packages, mainly achemso and siunitx. As a rule, I try to answer queries within a day or two, especially if I can easily provide a solution. Minor bugs tend to get done in the same time frame, with bigger bugs and feature requests sometimes needing a couple of weeks. There is the occasional “big problem” that needs more work, such as the list of issues that siunitx version 2 will hopefully deal with; these don’t really have a timescale at all, except I let people know that! I tend to keep an eye out on comp.text.tex and the LaTeX Community for questions about my packages, although often other people manage to get in first with good answers.

All of this raises the question “why”: after all, this is a hobby for me. I guess that as I’ve put a lot of work into the packages I want them to work well. So bugs, unclear documentation and new ideas all drive me to improve.

Programming: Lua versus TeX

As LuaTeX progresses, the desire to use it in real documents increases. ConTeXt Mark IV is clearly the leading exponent of this, although it is still experimental and so perhaps not the best choice for day-to-day work. Karl Berry has said to me that he hopes that the inclusion of a “proper” programming language will bring new talent to (La)TeX. After all, some of the methods used to program TeX are complex to say the least.

This raises the question of how much to do in Lua and how much in TeX. Clearly, LuaTeX brings things to TeX that are impossible without it. So there it is simple: use Lua. However, what about things that can be done with either Lua or TeX? Part of this probably depends on the complexity of the different solutions (if it is easy in TeX, why do it in Lua, and vice versa). I’d also imagine that experiences TeX programmers will tend to stick to what they know, and favour TeX. On the other hand, new programmers coming to TeX because of Lua will favour the Lua route. I imagine that there will still be a lot more TeX than Lua code.

Coding in public

I see that the biblatex package has been updated to version 0.8c, and that there is now a SourceForge page for the package. The later is just holding bug and feature tracking for the package, and no actual code. Placing development code in a public place means that your commits (or lack of them) are there for all to see, so I can see why keeping things private is attractive. Of course, just because nothing happens in public doesn’t mean nothing is happening, and in any case these things are done as a “hobby”.

XeTeX and LuaTeX: Directions

The XeTeX and LuaTeX engines both offer exciting ideas to the TeX user and the (La)TeX programmer. Using XeTeX, UTF-8 input is easy: no more awkward escape sequences. Font handling in XeTeX also makes it trivial to use any font installed on your system. On the other side of the equation, LuaTeX is going to bring a lot of useful programming tools to the TeX world. This should make some things a lot easier (handling floating point manipulation seems an obvious one), and make other things possible that are not currently.

The issue for me is the gaps between the two. XeTeX doesn’t have things like microtypography (try loading the microtype package and doing a XeLaTeX run), and it’s not clear to me how LuaTeX will work out with font handling. There’s also the DVI versus PDF issue: will we see a system where EPS, PNG, JPEG and PDF graphics can all be included without worrying about the engine in use? In many ways, I suppose these questions are more for the LuaTeX team to address: XeTeX has essentially delivered what it set out to do (a Unicode TeX which can use system fonts natively).

Universal UTF-8

The existence of editors such as TeXworks make it very easy to work with UTF-8 source documents. However, there are still a number of issues to thing about before deciding to use UTF-8 for all of your work.

First, there is the issue of other users. If you are writing things that will not need to be edited by others, then the choice is down to you. The moment you have collaborators, you need to ensure that they are also okay with UTF-8. They might be using an editor where this is not going to work (WinEdt, for example). If you are preparing stuff for a publisher, you have to be even more careful, as they may have quite a “traditional” TeX system. I know that the American Chemical Society don’t even have the e-TeX extensions, for example.

Then there are more technical issues. If you are a LaTeX user, you might well also use BibTeX. BibTeX is old, and as yet there is no real UTF-8 aware replacement. So at least in a database of references you may have to stick with escape sequences or some other encoding.

There are also choices to make about the engine you use. XeTeX is the obvious choice for UTF-8 documents, but that means missing out on the pdfTeX extensions to TeX, for example micro-typography. LuaTeX might help here, but if you are a MiKTeX user this is still some way off being available.

All in all, UTF-8 input is not quite the universal standard for TeX, just yet. New editors and engines mean that things are almost there, but a few awkward issues remain.

Using LaTeX with WordPress

A meander around Google blogsearch took me to, which has some very interesting details about using LaTeX with WordPress. I’ll be looking at this myself (if nothing else, it would be cool), but it really looks useful for people running larger sites (most obviously the LaTeX Project itself). I’d not seen this blog before, so I wonder if others were aware of it.

TeX Questions

There are three main places to ask (La)TeX-related questions in English:

Each has a different mix of people, and I wonder how much cross-over there is. The LaTeX Community forums seem best for the newer user, as there is a lot less complex information than in the newgroup or on texhax. I’d say that the newgroup is the most active of the three, with texhax a relativity quite list. Of course, there are also ConTeXt-specific places to talk. I wonder how much regulars of each “place” know about the other ones?