[texhax] [TeXhax] Latex: dumbing down ?

Philip TAYLOR P.Taylor at Rhul.Ac.Uk
Tue Aug 29 13:52:02 CEST 2006

Victor Ivrii wrote:

> Well, the absolute majority of people cannot reliably perform the task
> right out of the box. And majority is very reluctant to learn anything
> new. The majority of grad students use preamble of LaTeX files they
> found in their supervisor paper and this is the preamble which the
> latter got from his own supervisor :-(

This is my very point : to put it bluntly, the "average" LaTeX
user is simply lazy -- he/she wants to achieve a goal without
wishing to expend any effort on achieving that goal.  The typical
Plain TeX user is rather different : he/she /wants/ to expend
effort to  achieve the goal, because (a) it is pleasurable, and
(b) by so doing, they learn /infinitely/ more than they ever
will just by recycling someone else's work.

and Reinhard Kotucha wrote :

> There are two points:
>       1.  It is pretty counterproductive to try to convince a LaTeX
>           user who almost finished his work and has a question about a
>           minor formatting detail to throw away everything and start
>           from scratch using plain TeX.

In complete agreement.

>       2.  Even worse, convincing people to insert plain TeX code into
>           LaTeX files is misleading.  It simply doesn't work.  Did you
>           look at the definition of \@ifundefined?

It /does/ work, if you know what you are doing (I know no other way
of using LaTeX); and no, I don't recall ever looking into the innards
of \@undefined, but I /do/ look into the innards of anything/everything
I need to hack, and then base my Initex or Plain TeX additions on
what I have learned.

> 	  Let me say it again:  You can use plain TeX code in LaTeX
> 	  if, and only if you exactly know how LaTeX works.

I would put this as follows : "You can use plain TeX code in LaTeX,
and if it does what you want, then fine; if not, you will need
to investigate how LaTeX works /in the area in which you seek
to make changes/."  You rarely (I would say, never) need to know how
the whole of LaTeX works, and I doubt whether FMi, CAR, DC, or any
member of the LaTeX-3 team claims to know how the whole of
LaTeX works without first spending considerable time refreshing
their memories ...

> If people ask which system is best I would say that they should look
> into LaTeX and Context and find out which one is better for their
> needs.  But when people ask here the decision had alraedy been made.
> I cannot recommend plain TeX because so much is missing.  Phil, maybe
> you are not missing LaTeX's \usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}.  You
> certainly can live with 8-bit encodings like VISCII because ASCII is a
> subset of VISCII and English does not need more than ASCII.

But I typeset in many languages, even though I speak fluently only
one.  Yes, LaTeX has great strengths in this area, and my complain
is not that LaTeX is weak, or even that it is inadequate, but
simply that, being monolithic, I am forced to use it all or use
none of it.  What I sincerely wish is that LaTeX has been engineered
as a series of library modules, from which I could pick and choose
at will.  Volker Schaa will, I am sure, attest to the great strength
of the VAX/VMS operating system in this area : one had the basic hardware,
layered on which was the operating system, layered on which was the run-
tinme library.  (Ini)TeX is just like the hardware layer; Plain TeX
is a (rather poor) attempt at an operating system; and LaTeX /could have
been/ like the run-time library.  But LL chose not to work that way :
instead, he did his d at mndest to ensure that access to the hardware
was as risky as possible, seeking instead to cocoon everyone into
his safe, cotton-wool-like, environment.  For those who are happy
with cotton wool, fine; for those of us that like to get our fingers
dirty and play with the hardware which we know and love, LaTex is
a disaster, best avoided whenever possible !

> You said that plain TeX can do everything LaTeX can do, but do you
> really want to do everything yourself, 

Yes, if necessary, but if not then I'd like there to be a nice
clean library of solutions to difficult things, which I can mix
and match as I choose.

> also the very nasty things already solved by Frank Mittelbach?  

Again, if necessary yes, but see above.

> And do you expect that someone who writes his thesis is able to do 
 > this, at least in a reasonable amount of time?

Absolutely not : there /is/ a role for LaTeX, for those who simply
want to accomplish a fairly basic typesetting task, but equally
there is most certainly a role for raw TeX, when anything out
of the ordinary is required.

> And do you really think that there is really good literature about
> plain TeX?  The Texbook describes everything but I doubt that it is
> accepted by people who have no programming skills.  Even hardcore
> programmers might be shocked.

Yes : Victor Eijkhout's "TeX by Topic", and Stephan von Bechtolsheim's
"TeX in Practice".  I've never read Raymond's book (desolee, Raymond !)
but it is extremely well reviewed : whether it addresses the fundamental
issue of the need for complete separation of form from content I am less

> I'm happy that I got the last copy of
>     Raymond Seroul, Silvio Levy: A Beginners Book of TeX.
> That's really a great book for an end user.  And it's not only good
> for beginners.  It's a pity that it's not available any more.  It's a
> really good book about plain TeX.

I've never read Raymond's book (desolee, Raymond !) but it is extremely
  well reviewed : whether it addresses the fundamental issue of the need
for complete separation of form from content, I am less sure.

> Of course, plain TeX makes a lot of fun but you really don't want
> to re-invent everything yourself, or not?

Yes, I do :-)

** Phil.

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