ChinaTeX’s Interview with Me

English Translation

(Original interview in Chinese completed 2011–9–25, translation completed 2011–10–17 by Lim Lian Tze)

Lian Tze is a frequent contributor to the Malaysian LaTeX User Group’s blog. She’s been using LaTeX for creating various materials, including (magazine-like) books, posters and thesis templates. She’s helped to spread the word about LaTeX through her blog and website. Throughout the interview, it’s easy to see and feel the enthusiasm and fun she get from using LaTeX.

Lian Tze’s Website:
Malaysian LaTeX User Group blog:
Interviewer: ChinaTeX

ChinaTeX: Hello, glad you could have this interview with us. When did you start using LaTeX? Was it on a recommendation from a friend or teacher/lecturer?

Lim: It was really out of necessity. While I was in my 2nd year at Warwick University, we had a course called Systematic Software Development, where we had to design and write software system specifications using the Z notation. And it was a requirement to use LaTeX for writing up the course assignment. Now the course lecturer didn’t teach us LaTeX in class, mind you; she just gave us a URL, and told us that the webpage it pointed to contained all we needed to know about LaTeX for the assignment. It’s the typical “fastest way to teach someone to swim, is to throw the fellow into the river” approach.

And such was our first contact with TeX. We were a young and naive bunch, and 2nd year at uni was always a hectic time, so we didn’t treat LaTeX any differently from other stuff that we “had to learn” to get an assignment out of the way. Most of us, for the rest of our undergraduate studies at least, didn’t give LaTeX another thought after that course. (Sure, it wasn’t a good attitude for learning, but like I said, we were young and naive…) I myself didn’t really appreciate the strengths of LaTeX at handling complex documents at that time, as we didn’t have to deal with bibliographic citations and floats in our report, just a simple hierarchy of sections and the Z specs. I just thought it was cool that one could get diagrams and maths symbols on paper so easily by just plain text markups/commands. And so I wrote my final year project dissertation with Word. Not a fun experience.

Much later, back in Malaysia, while I was doing my MSc, a friend asked me about LaTeX on behalf of his friend. Due to time constraints, I didn’t get round to help them out, but it did give me the chance to read up properly about LaTeX, especially Andy Robert’s easy-to-read essays and tutorials. I was sold, especially after my experience with Word while writing that FYP dissertation. Since then I’d always drag LaTeX into whatever I’m writing.

ChinaTeX: Many users went through that too. Assignments are a good way to spread LaTeX, though most people wouldn’t go in as deep as you did, hehe. What are the things about LaTeX are you most interested in?

Lim: Well it’s really a road of no return, a bottomless pit. I like the many different applications of LaTeX, more so the beauty and aesthetics of its output. I suppose any lover of books and the printed word would think alike: the professional typesetting quality of TeX’s output, especially of the mathetical material, is simply gratifying. I rather think writings recording the distilled knowledge of humankind deserve to be typeset with ultimate quality. That kinda led me on to read up a bit on book layout design, fonts and typography, and later on to HTML+CSS too.

2—3 years ago, a research project I was involved in wanted to publish the project reports as a book. So the job of compiling the reports and overall preparation of the book was given to me, with the instruction that the book should look “of professional quality”. (I was pointed to a PRAGMA report as the approximate goal.) I didn’t know InDesign (nor any other GUI-y design applications) and wasn’t keen on learning it all up, so I asked if I could use LaTeX. The project leader scratched his head and said, “Anything, as long as it looks professional.” So I experimented with some ideas, and I guess the book didn’t come out too badly. It did rather surprise some people, as I’m obviously not a designer person, and when people heard I used LaTeX, they usually went “Wha? Isn’t that just dry ol’ maths stuff?”

Hey c’mon, maths isn’t “just dry ol’ stuff”! Maths is beautiful! But that’s besides today’s point. Anyway, since then, I’d make special notes of the different types of materials that LaTeX is capable of producing: slides, posters, leaflets, brochures, etc., and all those packages capable of all sorts of bells and whistles.

I really like TikZ, too. I find drawing diagrams via text commands to be much more accurate and precise, compared to pointing, clicking and dragging in, say, Word and Powerpoint. And try as I might, I can’t get the hang of drawing in Inkscape. And the most fun part about using TikZ is, I can now auto-generate linguistic trees and structures from my database. No painstaking pointing-and-clicking involved. BTW I’m not saying TikZ is better than PSTricks, which is more powerful than the former, really. It’s just that when I first explored drawing in LaTeX, I got up to speed with TikZ first, and so I continued to use TikZ more, that’s all.

I’m also interested in exporting LaTeX documents to different outputs. TeX4ht is still my personal favorite in this respect, so I’d like to dedicate a special tribute to the late Prof Eitan Gurari, and say a resounding “Thanks!” to C.V. Radhakrishnan and Karl Barry, who took over the TeX4ht project. It’s thanks to you that we can generate HTML and ODT files with relative ease, to fend off collaborators who insist on Word files… In addition (although it isn’t usually considered part of TeX & friends) I’ve also recently started to draft my articles in markdown, then export to LaTeX using Pandoc, where I continue to add figures etc.

All that I’ve just mentioned are applications of (La)TeX & friends, but I’ve yet to really done anything on the TeX level of things (so I can’t help feeling that I’m not entirely worthy of your compliments). Hopefully I’ll have time to finish reading the TeXbook and TeX by Topoic eventually, though it’s a bit unlikely at the moment.

ChinaTeX: Your website and blog do rather a good job at spreading the use of LaTeX. I’ve seen your introductory LaTeX tutorial last year, and really liked the colours and themes. How do you feel beginners should start learning LaTeX?

Lim: I guess a lot of it comes down to an appropriate attitude. It helps to have a genuine interest in learning a new paradigm (as opposed to WYSIWYG), or it would hardly be enjoyable. After all, Word has features for auto-generation of tables of contents and list of figures/tables, as long as you’re disciplined enough to use styles. Factor in EndNote or Mendeley Desktop, and you’ll be able to handle citations and bibliographies. I’ve heard that recent versions of Word support OTF fonts, so ligatures are possible; also STIX is now available for typesetting maths. So it would seem that Word isn’t too badly off these days? And you do have to bear in mind, that not everyone cares about how the “fi” looks, which π symbol is more aesthetically pleasing and how far apart the “x dx” are.

(Of course, all these only if you can stand the high probablity of your long and complex documents getting corrupted after frequent crashes. And also when you open your Word doc on another computer with a different version number of Word — or even with the same version! — the layouts would still be distorted and much heartache ensues. Just these two factors prompted me to go the LaTeX way without regrets.)

So in the end, every one should get clear what tools and workflows are most suitable for their own style. But if you haven’t even tried and you go on to proclaim “LaTeX sounds too complicated, not for me, M$ is the absolute best!” Well then, don’t complain if you get some disparaging remarks. (╬^_^) (And please NO I’m trying to start yet another flame war…)

Another thing is that it helps to keep an inquisitive mind, and don’t hesitate to explore and experiment. Search engines are your friends! Though beware of obsolete information and tutorials: many, many improved packages and workflows have been made available in the last 5—6 years. I’d recommend that you search the top posts and guides at major LaTeX-related forums and blogs. TeX.SX is one good Q&A site; while ChinaTeX and CTeX are good discussion sites if you prefer a Chinese-speaking platform. If you can find someone who already knows and uses LaTeX a lot in your vicinity, that’d definitely help a lot. However! Please don’t be overdependent on your neighbourhood LaTeXpert. If you encounter problems, do try to think it through, do a bit of googling for the solution on your own first, before asking your LaTeXpert directly. It’d help you learn LaTeX faster.

So that’s about the mentality I think one should approach LaTeX with. I also have the following suggestion: If you want to learn LaTeX now so that you can prepare a paper that’s due in two weeks’ time, well, that might not be a good idea. There is a steep initial learning curve to LaTeX, and having to deal with that under the strain of a deadline, might put you off the entire business. Write your paper with Microsoft Word or (Open|Libre)Office for now. Try to find a time when you have about 1—3 months of relatively deadline-free period, and follow a beginner’s tutorial. Then take a paper you’ve written with Word in the past, and try to recreate it with LaTeX. That way you can quickly get a practical experience of how it’s like to author a complete paper in LaTeX, with all the essential components (including how to debug and look up solutions from the Web and TeX gurus). It’s also a good way of determining if LaTeX and you suit each other.

ChinaTeX I think your document/book layouts are really beautiful. Many users here in China are also developing document classes and packages, have you any experience to share in this respect?

Lim: Thanks for the praises! I’m not a designer nor artist by training. Arts was always my worst subject in school. If my attempt at book design appealed to anybody, it’s probably because of the colour combinations and illustrations? I guess I picked up some design-related tips from browsing lots of design blogs and showcases of excellent typography, which certainly helped a lot. Even paintings by the grand Masters can influence my colour scheme choices.

So basically it boiled down to the typography details (such as font choices and combinations) and colour schemes, which I learned a lot from Smashing Magazine. Though SmashMag does focus on Latin-script typography; perhaps you can refer to this site about Chinese typography. And it’s a great pity that there are so few open source Chinese fonts of high quality. Good choices of colour schemes do make a huge difference. I’m not very good at guessing and stabbing at RGB values, so I usually head to ColourLovers and pick out some nice colour palettes. As for the fancy stuff in the page headers and footers, I did them with TikZ, but they can be done with \rules and \colorboxes too.

After you’ve got the designs of the header, footer and sectional headings planned out, you can then implement them with the fancyhdr and titlesec packages. Or use the built-in commands in the excellent memoir or Koma-Script classes.

If they’re appropriate, consider using (stock) photos or illustrations, perhaps with the wallpaper package. I usually search for free photos and illustrations on stock.xchng. Perhaps there are similar websites in China, providing illustrations more relevant to Chinese content.

ChinaTeX Is LaTeX widely used among Malaysian students?

Lim: LaTeX is by no means the mainstream. But with the increasing publicity on the Internet in recent years, and also as TeX & Friends get easier to install and use, there are definitely more people using LaTeX now. I don’t have any figures, but if you do a quick search, you’re bound to find at least a few LaTeX enthusiasts in every university, who will organise intermittent workshops and seminars, or setting up online discussion groups. There is no trans-institutional organisations at the moment, though. The LaTeX-my blog is named the Malaysian LaTeX User Group, but currently it’s just a blogging platform, with a few bloggers from different universities. We haven’t yet organised any activities, so to speak. Also, I have the impression (but no hard figures!) that international students, and also Malaysians who’ve spent time studying overseas, seem to take to LaTeX more easily.

ChinaTeX Looking at the content on your blog, I think you’ve done some great designs in your LaTeX documents. How do you regard document design in LaTeX? Are you busy with your academic activities, and how do you find time for LaTeX?

Lim: The whole great thing about LaTeX document classes is that it frees authors from having to figure out how to implement all those formatting guidelines: these are defined in the document classes provided by the publishers. (Even if Word document templates do define the relevant styles, most authors just aren’t disciplined enough to use them consistently. In LaTeX OTOH it’s just a natural thing to invoke \section etc.) So dear publishers and conference organisers (especially Malaysian ones!), when we ask about the possibilities of LaTeX submissions, we’re not making things difficult for you, quite the opposite actually! “No experience handling LaTeX and PDF documents” isn’t really an excuse, you can always hire consultants for the short term, and train up your editors in the meantime.

A while ago, there was some questions on comp.text.tex about fancy page, header and footer designs. Not all the Great TeXmasters agreed on the need for such stuff. Some hold the opinion that, if your content is of quality, that by itself would attract people's attention, why would you need all the fancy decorations to do the attention grabbing? While I’d agree this is true enough as far as academic books are concerned, I’m afraid people nowadays do judge a book by its cover and bells-and-whistles decorations… But naturally, you’d always need to design according to the purpose at hand. There’s a time to be really serious, and there’s a time to be grungy and fun or otherwise. As for me, my instructions from the project leader was “make it look professional, colourful, snappy”. But whatever you do, don’t go against the basic rules of typography flippantly — don’t harm your readers’ eyes, ever.

As for how do I find time for LaTeX stuff, well whenever I have a presentation coming up or a paper to write, of course. Sometimes, if a fit of madness hits, I’d drop everything else, and tinker around with LaTeX for a few days in a row. (I spent the entirety of 2 weeks on the MOSC slides.) LaTeX is a sort of “productive procrastination” for me, almost therapeutic for releasing stress and boredom, etc. When I’m down in the dumps, I’d play around with newly released packages as a diversion, and make mental notes of their capabilities for future use. And on days when I’m unmotivated to do “real” work but still itching to touch a computer but not in the mood for games… I re-visit good articles I came across on the Web, and typeset them with LaTeX into PDF e-books.

I’m actually doing my PhD by part-time mode. And with my toddler daughter around, I’ve made arrangements with my supervisors, so that any project work I’m involved in will be directly related to my PhD work only. So these days most of my time is spent taking care of my child, followed by my PhD work. The LaTeX stuff sneaks itself in during the time splinters, i.e. when my child is asleep, when my programs are running and churning, while waiting for some great big download to complete. But so far my supervisors aren’t really complaining about me dabbling in LaTeX. My co-supervisor think it’s good to have interests outside my PhD and doing something to spread my knowledge around; she’s started using LaTeX again (since university) after sitting in a workshop I conducted. And then of course, I make sure I do have progress to report to my supervisors regularly; it makes it easier for them to let me indulge in other pursuits sometimes. ^_^

ChinaTeX What TeX distributions do you use? Any editors/IDEs?

Lim: I mainly use BasicTeX on the Mac. It’s actually MacTeX (which in turn is TeXLive packaged for the Mac) with a minimal number of packages; I install other packages I need via the TeX Live Utility. I also use MikTeX on Windows and TeXLive on GNU/Linux, for testing and training purposes. As for editors, I usually use TeXworks, and occasionally TeXmaker. I used to work on TeXnicCenter on Windows (circa 2004–5), but stopped after discovering it didn’t work with UTF–8. I know many people favor Kile on GNU/Linux systems, and it does look good, but I’m more of a GNOME person, so I don’t use it. (Apologies to KDE fans.)

ChinaTeX: There’s an alpha version of TeXnicCenter that does work with UTF–8, which I’d just installed, I suppose it’s only been released recently. Thank you very much for doing this interview with us, and we wish you all the best!

Lim: You’re welcome.