TeXtalk: an interview with Ulrike Fischer

2012-12-16 by . 1 comments

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Welcome to the TeXtalk! We have a very special guest for today: our friend Ulrike Fischer, 41k+ rep, 181+ badges, and our font expert. Get ready for this awesome interview!

Paulo Cereda
Dear friends, welcome to the TeXtalk! Our interviewee today is Ulrike Fischer!Could you tell us a bit about you? :)
Ulrike Fischer
I’m copying this mostly from an interview I gave Dave Walden some years ago: I was born 1961 in Stuttgart in Germany as the oldest of three children. As child I moved with my parents first to Geneva in Switzerland (my father worked for IBM at this time) and later to Bonn in Germany. There I finished school and then studied mathematics at the University of Bonn until I got my “Diplom” (don’t ask me how you say this in English).With my husband I then moved to Siegburg (a town about 20 km away from Bonn) where we lived about 20 years. Since nearly three years ago, we are living in Mönchengladbach. Until May I was working for two members of the parliament of Nordrhein-Westfalen. After the elections my hours were reduced as one had to quit the parliament and so I started a part-time LaTeX support “enterprise”.
egreg
When and how did you meet TeX?
Ulrike
I didn’t use TeX at the university or for my thesis. I saw sometime in the second half of the 1980s in a magazine for the Atari a description of an Atari implementation of TeX together with a small introduction to LaTeX and ordered the discs.
Paulo
What was your first TeX document? :)
Ulrike
I have no idea. Probably a hello-World-document – I always start with simple examples when I try to learn something new.
egreg
And the first “serious” document? Did you use Plain, AMS-TeX or LaTeX?
Ulrike
I have always used LaTeX for every “real” document, plain only for tests. As I had already finished my thesis I wrote mostly short private documents: letters, reports about the results of chess tournaments that I had managed and things like that. I also wrote all documents in my job with LaTeX.
lockstep
From the various support functions you offer at Troubleshooting TeX, what are the ones most in demand?
Ulrike
I can’t really tell yet. I’m only doing it for some month ;-). Currently it splits between people wanting tikz-graphics, biblatex styles and “general help” to correct various problems in partly finished large documents.
Paulo
Out of curiosity, why is your website named troubleshooting TeX? :)
Ulrike
Because I think that there is a support gab: “Minimal-examples-problems” are easily solved in the various groups like TeX.sx. But they are also e.g. students who gets told “use LaTeX and you will have no troubles and can concentrate on the content”, who gets a large template and starts and runs in a lot of troubles. So I didn’t put the focus on “making beautiful document” but on “help people out of trouble”. I used “TeX” and not “LaTeX” for fear to be found in the “gummi”-corner.
ricmarques
Hi! :) What is your (usual) working environment for LaTeX? I mean what Operating System, Editor, (La)TeX distribution and other tools do you normally use for your LaTeX documents?
Ulrike
I’m using Windows (XP and 7 currently), MiKTeX 2.9, WinEdt 7 and as PDF reader mostly Adobe Reader. But I also have a Tex Live 2012 installation which I use for tests.
Jörg
Based on some of the answers you gave here on TeX.sx I guess that fonts, font selection etc. are an interest of yours. Could you tell us a bit about that and also about your other interests regarding TeX?
Ulrike
I got interested in fonts because of chess: I wanted to use some other fonts than the standard skak fonts. So I tried to find out how it works. And this meant that I often could answer questions about fonts which increased my knowledge. Regarding my other interests: quite varied. I like to investigate problems and it doesn’t matter much what is the actual content.
lockstep
You’re quite active at TeX.sx (at the moment 674 answers, 86 “Nice Answer” badges), yet you hardly ever vote (4 votes cast). Why is that?
Ulrike
I’m a unvoting person. I don’t click on “I like it” buttons, don’t twitter, don’t sent comments everywhere. Actually I’m a bit reserved regarding the voting system. The badges remind me my time as “boy scout” as a child: Every time we completed a task we got a badge to sew on our shirt. But I don’t think that adults should be rewarded in this ways.And while I do find it quite useful if people can discern between “regulars” and “newbies” and see some statistic I do find the voting system a bit too “playful” and some discussions about it a bit absurd. IMHO it would be quite enough to simply count the number of (accepted) answers.
tohecz
That would IMHO be even more “playful” but that’s another story and probably not a part of an interview ;)
lockstep
I just checked egreg’s no. of accepted answers (2,004, out of 3,407 answers), so I guess he’d still be our top user. ;-)
egreg
For anybody interested in fonts, Xe(La)TeX and Lua(La)TeX are very welcome tools. Do you use them?
Ulrike
Yes I’m using them (and I have written an introduction to XeLaTeX some years ago). But as most of my texts are in German or English and don’t use other scripts there is no pressing to drop PDFLaTeX.
tohecz
And one more that may be related to fonts: would you like to participate in the new Typography.SE site?
Ulrike
Probably not. I’m already involved in too much, also my interest is more on the side “how to use fonts in (La)TeX”.
Harish Kumar
You are very active here as well as in WinEdt mailing list too. I was wondering how would you manage to get that much time (keeping in mind the family business and the work!). May we know the secret behind it please?
Ulrike
I’m not very active on the WinEdt list. And regarding my time: For most of my answers I don’t need much time. If you look at my answers, you probably will see that I ask quite often for minimal examples and seldom send long answers with a lot of code. And for the ones which needed some thinking I use the time when I do my shopping.
tohecz
You’re able to do think of LaTeX when you do shopping? And which version of the package brain do you use? :D
Ulrike
We are living in the middle of the town and I can do almost all my shopping on foot (or at foot or by foot or whatever). A lot of people think best when walking.
Paulo
I do the same. :)
tohecz
Yeah, but this doesn’t work when dealing with computers, does it?
Ulrike
Certainly it does. There are certainly a lot of problems – eg. when you have to create a picture – where you have to sit before the computer and test code. But in many cases you have to understand the structure of a problem and such cases it helps a lot if are away and have to concentrate on the main points. It helps you to develop simple and clear solutions.
Paulo
Could you tell us a bit about your first package? :)
Ulrike
My first package was chessfss which enables users (and packages like skak and xskak) to switch between chess fonts instead of using a hard coded font.
percusse
Did you ever think of designing a font (apologies if I’ve missed it/them)? And given your knowledge about fonts, what are the distinct challenges between the regular fonts which are relatively easy to design (beauty/comprehensiveness is another story) and a font which specifically designed to be used via (La)TeX?
Ulrike
No. I’m not a designer. I can handle the technical side of fonts in LaTeX, but I’m not good in beautiful curves and colors and so on. There is nothing special in fonts meant for LaTeX apart perhaps the character set: some accented chars from T1-encoding are often missing.
Paulo
What’s your favourite chess grandmaster? :)
Ulrike
I don’t have a favourite chess grandmaster. I also don’t have (and never had) a favourite singer or actor or boy group. But my favourite piece of music is Bach’s “Air”.
percusse
With Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma or without? :P
Ulrike
I don’t have an special interpretation as a favourite.
Alan Munn
Hi Ulrike. Thanks for all your work over the years on the XeTeX mailing list and c.t.t. I’ve learned a lot from reading your posts. I’m so surprised you don’t have a favourite boy group. :)
egreg
Most of your solutions are very compact and “simple”. Have you a secret to share? What do you like to do in your spare time (assuming you have)?
Ulrike
My solutions are mostly simple because I’m not very good (and too lazy) in handling complicated solutions. Also I’m a mathematician and my interest has always been in structure and logic and so I always try to put some clear plan behind my solutions. In my spare time I like to answer questions about TeX ;-)
Andrew Stacey
I’m quite curious as to your motivation for participating here. You seem to be something of an answer machine (if that doesn’t sound too offensive!) in that your modus operandi seems to be simply to answer things. So what keeps you coming back here to answer more questions?
Ulrike
I like to investigate and solve problems. I like to learn and to understand things. I also like to teach people. When I answer (La)TeX questions I often get all three together: An interesting puzzle, something new to learn and the opportunity to explain this to someone else. So it is better than crosswords.
egreg
What do you think of Altbier, which I believe is typical of Mönchengladbach and surroundings?
Ulrike
I don’t drink beer, I prefer wine. Altbier is typical but as far as I know iother beer type (Kölsch and Pils) are slowly taking over.
tohecz
Speaking of drinks: coffee or tea? :)
Ulrike
Tea.
Paulo
How did you become aware of the TeX.sx community? :)
Ulrike
I think someone mentioned tex.sx in comp.text.tex.
Faheem Mitha
If I might, a (boring) computer question. What version control do you use?
Ulrike
Mercurial but only for my packages (which wait that I find time for some updates). The rest of my document are not long (and important) enough for version control.
Paulo
Do you have a favorite answer of yours? :)
Ulrike
I have to many answers to be able to name a favourite. One I like is this one: Can citation numbers be stored as variables, then used in my tex file? I like it because it changed the focus of Phineas. If I remember correctly I thought about it while walking to get bread and I think I got the structure right.
egreg
Wow! That’s an answer of the kind I was thinking before! (An August answer I didn’t see, so I took the necessary step just now.)
texenthusiast
Which one is your favourite TeX or LaTeX books?
Ulrike
The LaTeX Companion.
lockstep
Besides the voting system, there’s another feature that distinguishes tex.sx from traditional forums: the ability (for high-rep users) to edit other user’s posts. What’s your stance on that?
Ulrike
I don’t mind if some corrects my typos or my English or errors in my code. (Until now I reverted only one edit as it changed the meaning of my text). I do find it quite convenient that some “Heinzelmännchen” make the postings of others more readable or more beautiful.
texenthusiast
Are you involved in teaching at Universities/forums or introducing LaTeX and interacting with TeX community activities on any level?
Ulrike
I’m not teaching LaTeX (apart from all the teaching I do in the usenet/internet/mailing lists). But in next summer I will perhaps give a training course at the “Volkshochschule” – if there are enough interessents.
Paulo
Can you name something you really like in TeX/LaTeX? And is there something you dislike?
Ulrike
IMHO it is difficult to answer such a question without something to compare to. I like LaTeX compared to Word for other reasons than LaTeX compared to ConTeXt or Plain TeX.
Paulo
Do you think Word is a worthy opponent to LaTeX? :)
Ulrike
To my eyes Word is simply boring. Learning Word means learn “find this menu, open this dialog”. Using Word means “klick here, change this dialog”. Teaching Word is similar: books consist mainly of screenshots which shows where to klick. Word isn’t so bad for a lot of documents if you use it well, but it is no fun to create a good document. It is no fun to learn something about word – you only train your mouse hand.
Paulo
Ready for LaTeX3? :)
Ulrike
Yes ;-) I actually have a mostly finished update of chessfss written with expl3. There are quite a lot goodies in LaTeX3 (like e.g. the list handling) and the documentation is really good. One only has to get used to all the : and _ and the naming convention.
Paulo
Indeed. :)
egreg
Nice to know that you joined the group of LaTeX3 package writers!
Paulo
Any plans for a new package? :)
Ulrike
I plan a replacement for xskak. The new package will not use the skak package to parse chess notation but its own parsing code. The main problem is the printing of the chess notation: It is difficult to design a powerful, flexible yet usable interface. In xskak there is a sort of style management but imho it is too complicated. Even me who has written the code can’t use it properly ;-).
Paulo
:)
Bruno Le Floch recently wrote reverxii.tex, an implementation of the Reversi game in plain TeX (heavily inspired by David’s xii.tex). Perhaps we can teach TeX how to play chess too? :)
Ulrike
Well a friend of mine wrote once a simple chess game: The computer simply made a random legal move. It shouldn’t be too difficult to implement this in TeX ;-). But beside this: Already the parsing of chess games is quite slow, a good engine would probably need month for a move.
Paulo
Indeed. :)What do you recommend for a newbie eager to learn TeX, LaTeX and friends? :)
Ulrike
Don’t use a large template. Start with small documents. Run (in a test folder) as many “minimal examples” as you can and play around with them. If you use a new package read the first pages (after the installation instructions) of its documentation and try out some of the commands so that you have at least a vage clue what the package is doing.If you have a problem: Don’t google around for hours but set you a time after which you should try to get sensible external help: This can – depending on the type of problem – be a forum, a friend, a local TeX group or professional help.
texenthusiast
very patient like TeX.
Paulo
Thanks a million for this awesome interview! :)
egreg
A big thank to Ulrike!

Stay tuned for the next episode of the TeXtalk!

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One Comment

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  • hsmyers says:

    Ulrike,

    Thanks very much for your work in Chess over the years. You’ve done an incredible job to insure that Chess writers have the best tools imaginable. We won’t talk about the problem of people like Eric Schiller learning LaTeX :) Take care…

    Hugh S. Myers

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