Sunday, 28 December 2008

Using LaTeX for your dissertation - part 1 (On my soapbox)

Why use LaTeX?

I don't know whether I'll ever be able to finish my dissertation for my MSc, but even if I don't, I thought I'd document the LaTeX environment I set up for myself. It might just be of use to someone else and save them all the time I wasted to discover things.

I could thank the Open University (in England) for wasting all of this time since they have never heard of anything other than Microsoft Word. They do say that you can use Open Office, but off course tutors HAVE to mark assignments using Word and if you've seen what Word can do to a Word document formatted by itself you'll know it is a somewhat futile gesture trying to get it to sensibly display a Word doc created with Open Office.

The OU will let you know with great enthusiasm that you can buy Microsoft Office for about £35. But if I'm going to spend £35 it will be on shoes for my daughter and not to enrich Bill Gates any further, even if he is going to give the money away to some unfortunate soul somewhere else. The reality is that my daughter still needs school shoes. The OU folks, as sincere as they might be, seem to be as out of touch with reality as the judges in this country.

Since I discovered many years ago that many academics (not those from the OU though) use LaTeX, I thought it would be great if I could use it for my dissertation. I'm always game for learning something new and if there ever is an opportunity to rebel against the blind, numbskull use of Microsoft applications, I'll go for it!!

I have two main reasons for using LaTeX. Firstly, it can be used cross-platform. I like being able to freely switch between Windows and Linux. It allows me to work anywhere and at any time. Secondly I like not to be forced to work in a GUI environment. It is faster and it is much more stable and again it allows me to work anywhere and at any time. Even if I don’t have any LaTeX stuff installed where I happen to find myself, my work doesn’t have to stop because I can use a plain editor to carry on writing. I can generate a pdf or RTF document whenever I get to a computer with my LaTeX apps installed.

Forums for getting help

Firstly I have to mention the forums I only discovered a week ago. I can’t believe that I didn’t come across them at the beginning of the year. I have done searches on Google for LaTeX related information for hours and hours but I never came across these forums. If I did, it would have save me a tremendous amount of time. So the first thing to do is to bookmark this site:

Choosing the right applications

I did try MikTex, but in the end decided to use a Linux environment for assembling my documents. I just open a terminal onto one of my Linux servers and run my scripts to create my document. The drive is Samba shared so I can edit my tex files with my GUI applications too.

Vi is my favourite text editor. I chose to use Texmaker as my editor when I do work in a GUI environment for the same reasons as previously stated. Texmaker is available for both Windows and Linux.

For my bibliography I decided to use JabRef. JabRef is written in Java and thus offers the same portability. JabRef creates a BibTex file and thus, when not in a GUI I can use vi to carry on working.

To give an example how these choices served me right I can relate to you my holiday story of August 2008. It was probably not the best time to go in terms of finances and considering the fact that I desperately needed to work on my dissertation. But, I haven’t seen my family for 5 years and I was desperate to see them and for them to meet my children. It was the best holiday that my daughter, my son and I have ever had, so it was the right choice.

However, three days before we were due to leave I switched my laptop on and for no apparent reason, all Windows could give me was a blue screen of death. I honestly did not have the time, energy or inclination to figure out why. I was just not interested.

Fortunately I had a choice of three operating systems on my laptop. With Windows failing, I was left with Ubuntu and Puppy Linux. Ubuntu off course would work, but so would Puppy. My preference was Puppy, just because it is so much smaller and quicker to do things. The only thing I haven’t bothered to get working on Puppy is JabRef because I haven’t bothered trying to get Java installed. I’ll get around to that sometime.

While on holiday I thought I’d ask friends and family who have more interest in Windows than me whether they have any ideas how I could restore the broken system. A friend suggested a Linux based utility for recovering Windows systems. It didn’t work because apparently there was no space in the registry to set an administrators password and one needed to log in as administrator to do the recovery. Then three weeks later I was going to show my cousin what the installation was doing. At this point it decided to start working again - for no apparent reason. Just in case you think I was mistaken, I did boot into Windows a few times over the three weeks to try things people suggested and every time I got the blue screen of death.

In the next few posts, I’ll discuss the scripts I wrote, software applications and LaTeX packages I use in more detail.