Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Lucidity of LaTeX: An Introduction

Users of open source software are often plagued with the problem of text editors. For some reason, despite the marvellous efforts on the part of multiple developers, softwares like LibreOffice and OpenOffice haven't gained the popularity or the feel of a text editor people comfortable use on a daily basis. Many may hold this point in contention (and are welcome to do so in the comments!) but Microsoft Office still commands the world as the most used suite of business software products, despite being a paid application. Familiarity deters the majority from making the change, and certainly companies prefer products tried and tested, and providing official support unlike the help forums of the open source world.

An Bestowal not unlike Prometheus'
The FOSS community has tackled this problem, vanquishing the giant Microsoft almost entirely from the world of academics at least. By appealing to the nerdy, terminal-y and "absolute control" mindsets of coders and academicians alike, they have produced a software intelligent and structured, specifically to attack the problem of standard formatted, BEAUTIFUL documents (on par with Britney Spears wearing it) that the scientific community at large has yearned for.

Introducing LaTeX (LAY-tekh), the emperor of all document preparation systems. The philosophy radiates Jagger's swagger: write, and let the software worry about the formatting. It is designed utopian.

And the tool we shall wield?

For this review, I chose to use the TeXstudio as my editor as it is easily installed from the Ubuntu repository. There also is, among others, Texmaker; but it isn't available on the Ubuntu repos yet. These are available for Windows users too, but the advantage of TeXstudio is it supports a single location installation (like on a flash drive) which will run anywhere.

So why should I use it?

  1.  It automatically formats all the settings of your final output according to your choice of document entered the beginning. Whether article, report or presentations. (aka "beamer" class)
  2. You can easily input mathematical equations and all sorts of symbols within with absolute ease using the intuitive commands for each of them. Even equations and variables as part of the paragraph is supported.
  3. You may have often wrestled with nested indentation, alternating bullet points and numberings, headings, table of contents, figures and maybe even a table of tables. Using LaTeX, this entire process is automated. Since it is essentially code, you have absolute control over every aspect of the output.
  4. Learning the format is a one-time investment (much like Vim). The intuitive nature of the code makes it easier over time to get you more productive, and the use of autocomplete and hotkeys in text editors (like TeXstudio) allows you to blaze through the report at the speed of 218Mbps. Yes, you read that figure right.
  5. Special fonts, code sections, hyperlinks and urls, you name it, they've built. It's waiting for you to just get started.
  6. Arguably, it's so beautiful and aesthetically pleasing it could even get you to want to start writing your project. It has worked for me :D.
The LaTeX effect

The Starter Tips Section

After about a week of uncomfortable use, a familiarity set in. Subsequent experimentation with the hotkeys in TeXstudio absolutely blew my mind. Suddenly, the slow painful thought process of the right choice of section types slowly set in, and it was smooth sailing from here on out. A set of extremely useful hotkeys can be found here, but I'll list out a few of the most used here. In most cases, to apply a property to text, just highlight it and punch in your choice of attribute. Works well especially for bold, italics and inputting mathematical symbols and equations via the "Inline math mode" option.
  • Build & View : F5
  • Italics : Ctrl+I
  • Slanted text: Ctrl+Shift+S
  • Bold : Ctrl+B
  • Inline math mode : Ctrl+Shift+M
  • Numbered equations : Ctrl+Shift+N
  • Subscript : Ctrl+Shift+D
  • Superscript : Ctrl+Shift+U
  • Frac : Alt+Shift+F
  • Left : Ctrl+Shift+L
  • Right : Ctrl+Shift+R
These are pretty much the majority of the hotkeys frequently used, and as can be seen very intuitive and easy to remember. Further autocomplete can be called upon with the standard Ctrl+Space option.

Any Parting Words?

Although the software seems highly skewed towards scientific publishing, it's not too difficult to learn, and therefore can certainly be used by pretty much anyone wishing to produce documents or simple slideshow presentations too. The ease of just beginning right way (pun intended) is evident for short reports and stories, however not having to deal with complications in formatting is especially useful for long books and semester long work logs too.