Thursday, June 14, 2007

Microsoft-free brave new life, step 1

I should have done this much earlier, but I feel it is still not too late. And it provides potentially hours of procrastination so I couldn't resist.

I decided to stop using Microsoft Word in writing my t*****. This isn't actually just a statement, it's a practical move, but it goes well with today's theme. I had contemplated moving to LaTeX earlier, but it was mainly this week when I was working on a chapter that would have a number of equations, graphs and figures in it when I realised that the probability of getting all that stuff readable in Word and in such a way that it will not change every time I reopen the document would be minuscule.

So, with some encouragement and promises of support from my LaTeX-savvy colleague I'm now switching to this system. It will have a learning curve, but I'm sure it will pay off. LaTeX is a text-setting system that works a bit like HTML-code, in that you just generate a txt-file with tags and commands and then you compile it and get the finished product, in the case of HTML it is a website with pictures and links, and in the case of LaTeX it is a "beautiful" PDF-document. I was encouraged by feedback people have given to it and I was especially swayed by those people at the PhDComics grad forum who said they switched to LaTeX relatively late in their writing-up process and haven't regretted it for a second. Also, my colleague showed me a couple of articles he had made and they not only looked totally professional and very impressive (with some very complicated equations, linguistic trees and tables that you simply wouldn't be able to do in Word) but the code and file structure also looked intuitive and easy to learn. To get an idea of the power of this thing, just take a look at how simply the equations are done in the example in Wikipedia.

So, I downloaded MiKTeX, which is a Windows distribution of LaTeX (this is the bit that does the compiling and produces the end product, so something like the web browser for HTML), TeXnicCenter for creating and editing the files (like the HTML editor, you could write it all in any text editor, but this has some nice features that make it easier) and also JabRef, for managing references. All are open source and free of charge under GNU/GPL licenses, and all have their user communities and developers providing new and useful stuff on a continuous basis.

Installing all was easy, the three components now talk to each other and I have also converted my references library from EndNote to JabRef. Just wanted to share these news, I'm now going to give the editor a try and make my first attempt to create a document...


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