Monday, June 18, 2007

Relatively painless transitions (knocks wood)

I'm actually pretty excited about LaTeX. The output is simply beautiful and the first properly self-made documents were easy enough to do. My decision was sealed when I realised how simple it is to write equations that look perfect, and how well the system takes care of indexing. Both are sources of major pain when writing anything extensive with Word.

Sometimes you think that the tools don't really matter, as it is the content that counts. But here there is a real difference, as different tools focus your attention (and time) to different aspects of the document you are creating. In Word (and other word processors), your focus is constantly drawn to how the document looks, as you shape it as you go and the changes are in front of your eyes. And you need to spend a lot of time tweaking indentations, font sizes, margins, spacings, page changes, sizes and shapes of figures, floating the graphs in the text... LaTeX does all those for you, in my limited experience much better than any styles and templates in Word would. All you need to do is "ask". And the web is full of premade macros and packages that instantaneously make your doc meet the strict criteria different publishers have. APA (the American Psychology Association) for instance has a 100+ page style guide with meticulous instructions on how to structure and format articles intended for publication in their journals, including 30+ pages about references. In LaTeX you install a package and it then takes two lines of code to implement all that.

I find (and others say that as well) that LaTeX draws your attention to the logical structure of your document and away from tweaking the looks. With this I mean the hierarchical structure of chapters, sections, paragraphs etc. are highlighted, as this structure is the thing you see in front of you when you work, rather than the WYSIWYG-glimpse of the textsetting. And once the structure is there, the LaTeX system then takes care of implementing the looks of the document automatically, depending for instance which style package you choose. Once the structure and content are there, changing the looks for the whole document is easy, you just define a different style at the beginning, and you don't need to go through the whole document changing every page, every heading, every section... I find this a crucial difference and feel that an hour spent honing the structure is better use of my time than spending the same time tweaking the or style files to get the Heading 1 linespacing and indentation right, not to mention spending that time chasing orphan rows of text and preventing figures from overflowing to pages where they shouldn't be etc.

To any t*****-writer out there the tasks that tend to be the most tedious are the bibliography and the indexes of tables, figures and authors you need to have. In LaTeX those will be finished and perfectly formatted at the same instance as you stop writing the content (provided you've labelled the respective fields as you go, which is very easy to do and helps you organise the structure), and you don't need the extra hours you do with Word to get those done right. Finally, the end quality in a Word document is never as good as in a LaTeX-document, no matter how much time you spend with it. All in all, the transition from Word to LaTeX has been very smooth so far and I definitely recommend it to anyone. It's slightly more complicated to use than a word processor, and requires a slightly different set of skills, but it will be worth the time invested learning it. As mentioned, it is a different beast as it will do what professional typesetters do rather than just something to that direction.

The other transition I've gone through now that the term is ending here is the final shift from student to a real person. Last week saw the last May Bumps, the last Sports Dinner, and the last farewell to the last student cohort I was part of. Invigilations and supervisions will continue but somehow even with them it feels that they will be different next time. Somehow this transition seems to be going rather well as I've been fading out of the student life for a year now and it seems like a good time to move on. But being at the Sports dinner and at the college with friends last weekend made me a bit nostalgic, I must admit.

Packing up belongings and getting ready to move back to Finland also marks the transition from being a foreigner, an expat and a "special case" to being one of five million ordinary natives. I'm not at all sure how painless this transition will be, as I'm beginning to understand those who like to live "abroad" regardless of where that "abroad" might be - the looseness and freedom it brings to your identity is indeed liberating. You get the boost of being special when you need it, and can maintain a hold of your roots when that is needed. "At home" there is no option, you are one of them and firmly at your roots. This is of course also a good thing, but at the moment I'm not sure how that will feel like.

But now that I'm sure my t***** will look superb :-) , I can focus on putting together the content. No small task but I'm feeling much better about the whole project than in a while, and this also makes me feel more positive about moving back, and becoming a real person. Perhaps it is all linked.

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