TeXtalk: an interview with Marc van Dongen

2013-02-26 by . 1 comments

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Dear friends, welcome to the TeXtalk! We have a special guest for today’s interview: our friend Marc van Dongen, author of an awesome book on LaTeX and friends, and a movie star! Get ready for this awesome interview!

Paulo Cereda

Dear friends, welcome to the TeXtalk! Our interviewee today is Marc van Dongen!

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? :)

Marc van Dongen

I am a lecturer in the Computer Science department at University College Cork, I’m the author of LaTeX and Friends, and I’m a movie star.

egreg

“LaTeX and Friends” is a very impressive job! When did you have the idea of writing it?

Marc

Coming from you that’s a big compliment. I’d have to look up the exact date I started but it was about 5-6 years ago.

Alan Munn

I agree with egreg. I love the book and have been recommending it to students ever since you started posting drafts on your website. It’s really the Kopka and Daly of its time.

Marc

Thanks for the compliment. The book is very popular with postgrad students in our department. Of course I was hoping for this to happen but actually seeing it was great. It shows the preparations was worth while.

Paulo

The movie was surely a milestone in the TeX community. Could you tell us a bit about the process (the idea, filming, the script)? :)

Marc

Our head of department suggested I make the film to promote the book. Writing the script took a while because I wanted to make a couple of points. The first time we shot the film it was a disaster. The second time it went well· Stephen Bean did the filming. Helena Flynn did the editing, which was a bit different from what she was used to because I wanted the slides to change when a certain point was made. It was a great learning experience.

In addition to the previous comment, I also had to make the slides for the film. This was (basically) done with beamer.

Paulo

Awesome! :)

How did you get in contact with TeX and friends for the first time? :)

Marc

I started using LaTeX around 1990. A friend and I were working on a joint assignment and he had access to a software called Ventura, which produced much nicer presentations than other software we knew. It turned out that Ventura stored its output in some LaTeX-like format files and we found it easier to directly edit these files. Later that year I saw a student giving a presentation and it looked like Ventura, but better. When I asked him about it, he told me it was LaTeX.

The next day I went to the library, got a copy of Lamport’s book, read it from cover to cover, and haven’t looked back since.

percusse

Speaking of production, how did the publisher respond to your book? Do you have any recommendations for our book-writing audience in terms of LaTeX practice?

Marc

I don’t know what the publisher thinks of it. In March I’m supposed to get the first information about global sales for the year 2012. (Hopefully, this includes a nice cheque.)

My main advice is to decide on a proper layout, implement the layout style (or use an existing one), and do things “the LaTeX way.” I lost a lot of time because I wanted a proper grid layout and the grid package didn’t work for me. It turned out a challenge. Perhaps I should have used ConTeXt, but I wanted to stick with pdflatex.

Alan

Does that mean there’s a van Dongen grid 2.0 package “coming to a CTAN mirror near you”?

Marc

I am not sure. I’d have to learn a bit more TeX first and I don’t have the time. When writing the book, I stopped doing research and I’m now catching up again.

Alan

What was your main motivation for starting the project? I know that many of us start writing such manuals out of frustration of seeing bad practice in students’ code or having to answer too many questions over and over again.

Harish Kumar

Hi Marc.

Marc

Howsagoin, glad you made it.

Harish

Going nice. Thank you. I too like your book. But wanted to ask always. Is there any economy edition for Asian countries? My students you know. We are afraid of dollars and euros. They are costly.

Marc

I’d have to look it up. IIRC there is a special deal for students. I just tried but I couldn’t find the information. I’m at home at the moment (with flu) and my machine is in an awkward state. When I’m at work I’ll do a proper search.

Harish

In a comment you wrote that you will not participate in answering questions here :-( . May I ask you WHY?, (Hope you don’t mind). We miss your expertise a lot.

Marc

I’m still answering but in the form of comments.

Harish

I was wondering why that limitation? We miss your full answers.

I can see that you are very fond of birds (your gravatar and a question of yours – I am searching but no avail). Please tell us about it. Which birds you like the most. For example – Paulo likes DUCKS.

Marc

I mainly like the bird because of its symmetry.

Harish

Nature loves symmetry. You should have been a physicist. Please read as: You are more like a physicist.

Paulo

Any hobbies, besides of course TeX? :)

Marc

I like listening to music. I go through phases. I’m a great Philip Glass fan. I also like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Bach, and Mahler. I recently started listening to Vadimir Martynov. His Lytanies and Iliad are beautiful. (to egreg) I also play Italian music every now and then, but I’m not a real fan :-( .

egreg

Sorry, but there’s only one musician in your list. ;-)

Alan

Ha. A fellow modernist. Don’t listen to egreg. :)

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?

Marc

I use vim on a Ubuntu box. I use LaTeX syntax highlighting and have recently started using vim folds, which works very nicely in LaTeX. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget creating the folds when I start writing a document.

Harish

Do you have any homepage/blog where you put useful things about LaTeX (like egreg’s home page)?

Marc

I don’t have a LaTeX blog. I do have an outdated metapost page. You may find some metapost for more birds there. I decided to take off the graphics when I was told by the Escher Foundation that nobody was allowed to reproduce Escher’s pictures. I also have a website for LaTeX and Friends. The site has some links to presentations but no examples/code I’m afraid.

Paulo

How did you become aware of the TeX.sx community?

Marc

I must have read a message on comp.text.tex. IIRC it was sent by Joseph Wright. Since then I came across TeX.SX answers when I was googling for answers, which is when I decided to join/lurk.

egreg

What do you like most in the community? And dislike, also.

Marc

What I like most is the ability to quickly get a couple of answers. Also the quality of the answers is usually good. I’d have to think a while about what I’d dislike (if anything).

Well, since nobody has asked me yet, I mainly use LaTeX for my lecture presentation and lecture notes, which I produce in combination with beamer. I also use LaTeX for academic publications and (of course) for LaTeX and Friends.

I’ve been teaching LaTeX for a couple of years as part of one another module. The module isn’t just about document preparation but about effective presentation, developing, managing, and maintaining the writing.

Recently I have also started teaching LaTeX to our own department. This February I’m starting a 10-12 * 2 hour tutorial/lectures. I have 40 people lined up, so it’s very popular.

Peter Flynn, who also works at UCC, and I are thinking of doing a Grand LaTeX Tour of Ireland. Basically we want to visit a couple of universities and give an introduction to LaTeX and Friends.

Just to be clear. The LaTeX teaching that start in February is on a voluntary basis. It’s not part of any regular module.

Paulo

This sounds awesome!

Any plans for a package? :)

Marc

I don’t have any plans for the near future but I’d love to implement a proper package for designing pages, with user-defined rules for figure/table/float placement.

When I started writing LaTeX and Friends there wasn’t a package that would let me implement a grid layout. Also I wasn’t happy with the packages for float placement. I ended up doing it myself. When I have more time I may start implementing it properly. Another package I’d like to write is a package for a user-defined typeface called Marcino (a pun on Zapfino). This also may take a while :-) .

egreg

Any other source of information/tricks/answers about TeX/LaTeX?

Marc

I’m sure no one can teach you any tricks about La(TeX). I don’t know enough TeX myself and I always keep saying I should put some time into learning more about it. For some reason it never happens. It seems I know enough about LaTeX to get by from day to day.

egreg

Are your lecture notes available? They would be very nice to study, I believe.

Marc

I have a page for the LaTeX lecture presentations. You find them at the bottom. Of course I also have notes online for the regular modules I teach.

One of the modules I teach is about programming in Java. I use a book called Head First Java that has a chapter with one guy making who’s doing everything wrong and another guy who’s doing everything right. I turned this idea into a cartoon-based lecture presentation and it worked very well. I am thinking of converting all my lectures into this format but obviously this requires some thinking.

Paulo

Can you name something you really like in LaTeX? And is there something you dislike?

Marc

I like the fact that LaTeX does a good job at typesetting but also that you can compute things which you can typeset (or use to control the typesetting). To computer scientists this is a natural idea and it helps if you want to make complex, incremental presentations such as this, which was done with MetaPost.

What I don’t like is that LaTeX is really a flat language with a global name space, without a proper modular structure, without encapsulation, without proper names for macro parameters, and so on.

Paulo

Ready for LaTeX3? :)

Marc

I have been keeping an eye on it but I don’t like learning from the source files. There is some documentation but the language is still changing.

I like the idea and I think LaTeX3 is much cleaner than LaTeX2e. I hope there will be more support for defining nice page styles with non-standard float placement. (I’m aware there’s an xcoffins package but I haven’t studied it yet.) Another problem is time, which reminds me I still have to put some time in learning plain TeX.

Paulo

Do you have a “favorite” answer of yours? :)

Marc

I suppose it has to be What are the Relative Strengths of TikZ and asymptote. For somebody who doesn’t know about the TikZ philosophy, asymptote may seem a better option because programming in asymptote is easier. However, TikZ is nicely integrated with TeX, which makes it possible to use styles that depend on package options, positioning relative to the page, and scaling pictures without scaling the text and line styles. These, in my opinion are the greatest advantages and asymptote cannot help you here.

Paulo

Any hints for teaching TeX and friends? :)

Marc

I suppose any LaTeX book will do but I think the apprentice should read the book before they start.

If the novice doesn’t have a favourite book, I recommend LaTeX and Friends :-) When I wrote the book, I wanted to present a collection of integrated techniques that can be used to present a book, thesis, article, and computer presentation. I also wanted to present techniques that are compatible: any combination should work. The book is very popular with graduate students in our department and I’m running a voluntary course that uses the book.

LaTeX and Friends has a different approach than other books. It starts by showing how to produce plain text, how to cross-reference, how to cite, how to create one or several bibliographies, how to create indices, and so on.

Next the book shows how to present basic text, math, diagrams, tables, and data plots. Rather than showing all possibilities it shows a minimal core and how to use it wisely. Most books show everything, including examples with tables with colour, tables with all possible combinations of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal rules. I think this is why many LaTeX-produced tables have double horizontal and vertical rules: it’s because such tables are in all LaTeX books and the reader thinks this is how tables should be presented. (Yes, I have also sinned.) Most books show what is possible, but they don’t spend any time on discussing the advantages and disadvantages.

LaTeX and Friends is different. It presents arguments in favour of simple, uncluttered, well-organised tables.The book also spends some time on explaining a little typography. The main reason for doing this is related to the table example. If the user isn’t familiar with the basic typography, they will resort to any form of presentation. Usually this results in a poor and ineffective presentation.

Finally, the book has some chapters for people who like programming, implementing class and style files, and OpenType fonts. I only decided to include the chapter about fonts at a later stage. The main reason for doing it is because I had learnt something that I thought could be of use to others.

As an aside, the book was written using beamerarticle so I could switch from book to presentation mode. The page design is my own and it’s inspired by some techniques presented by Robert Bringhurst, the author of Elements of Typographic Style. One of the most useful techniques I learnt was using a sans serif typeface for the captions. With a proper sans serif typeface this really lets you put more text in the captions. The page design was not for on line reading.

Paulo

What do you recommend for a newbie eager to learn TeX, LaTeX and friends? :)

Marc

Many novices start using LaTeX because they have to write a thesis. The dedicated users will read the Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e or a couple of chapters from a LaTeX book. When they get the hang of it they want to show off what they can do with the tool that is called LaTeX. What you end up with are documents with tables that look like sudoku grids and that are coloured in all colours of the rainbow, with pie charts, with non-letterspaced uppercase abbreviations, and mathematics that disrupt the interline spacing. (Say no to stretch!)

I think there’s a better way to learn writing documents with LaTeX. In my opinion each novice should start by reading a book on typography. I recommend Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style. (It’s a pitty I only started reading such books at a later stage.) Other books I liked are Will Hill’s The complete Typographer, and James Felici’s The complete Manual of Typography.

Once they know the typography, the novice should read their favourite LaTeX book. Doing it this way, they will recognise the commands are useful for presenting a good text. Also they will learn to recognise the bad ones. Only then should they start using LaTeX. If they haven’t got a favourite LaTeX book, I recommend LaTeX and Friends. Not because I wrote it, and because it provides some advice on typography, but also because all solutions are compatible. The last thing you need is learning about a package clash just before the submission deadline.

egreg

Shall we see other answers signed with the bird in the future?

Marc

You may see them but only when I feel a real urge.

Thanks to all for your interest/questions. I’m logging off. Happy TeXing.

egreg

Bye! Have a nice day (and nice lectures too)!

Paulo

Thanks Marc! :)

LordStryker

\o/ for vim! Thank you Marc! :)


Stay tuned for the next episode of the TeXtalk!

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  • karl says:

    i just wanted to mention that marc recently created a tex calendar for 2013 — links from http://tug.org/calendar.html. thanks marc!

    Oh, and also that there is a review (by Boris Veytsman) of LaTeX & Friends in TUGboat: http://tug.org/books/reviews/tb102reviews-ltxfriends.html

    Thanks Marc!

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