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    Ludovico Magnocavallo
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The master's humour

31 agosto 2003

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The TeXBook

I’ve started experiencing withdrawal symptoms from new (for me) concepts. So tonight I started reading D.Knuth’s The TeXbook, and I found myself laughing after just a few pages. Usually this does not happen with technical books….

Insiders pronounce the X of TeX as a Greek *chi*, not as an ‘x’, so that TeX rhymes with the word blecchhh. It’s the ‘ch’ sound in Scottish words like loch or German words like ach; it’s a Spanish ‘j’ and a Russian ‘kh’. When you say it correctly to your computer, the terminal may become slightly moist.

Donald Ervin Knuth, The TeXbook, page 1

And the citations are great too. And I’ve been reading only about 5 or 6 pages. =)

LaTeX has been on my to be learned list for a long time, but somehow I never got around to anything more than reading a few pages of Tobias Oetiker’s (you may know him as MRTG’s author) The not so Short Introduction to LaTeX2e. Then I started using LaTeX a few weeks ago as an intermediate format to output pdf from RestructuredText (the same format used to write this blog), and was immediately fascinated by its printed quality, and its versatility.

So when a few days later I was asked to produce printed copies of our (>50k) users directory, I decided to write a simple python script to extract info from our Directory Server and produce a LaTeX file (actually, a few files, as we generate more than one type of directory, and I did not write it alone but together with a colleague, and we copied most of the LaTeX stuff from Rich Lafferty, and as usual the request was to ask the consultants I more or less supervise to do it not do it myself).

I have been looking for quite a long time for a more structured way of writing documents. My first attempts where to use the Microsoft Word outliner (its best and most underrated feature imho), which works well enough for writing simple, one-shot documents. Then I tried using Docbook, but I soon discovered that writing XML directly is a pain, reading it on screen is worse, producing good quality output from Docbook + FOP is a frustrating experience, and double validation (once as XML once printed/on screen) is too much. Then I switched to RestructuredText, and you already know what happened. =)

Now I write my documents in RestructuredText with the same editor I use to write code, and with the added bonus of being able to use CVS for versioning. When I have a sufficiently complete version I convert it to LaTeX, and from then on I make corrections etc to the LaTeX source. For complex documents I use Kile, a very nice LaTeX IDE for KDE that gives me syntax coloring and allows me to jump to sections, preview the output from the IDE, etc.

Since I started using LaTeX, I not only get easily manageable documents and excellent quality output, but I also get small satisfactions, like having one of our Avanade consultants come see me with my last report in hand, and ask me with longing eyes if I used LaTeX to write it. They standardise on Word. =)