[texhax] Latex: dumbing down? (fwd)

John R. Culleton john at wexfordpress.com
Tue Aug 29 17:05:54 CEST 2006

On Monday 28 August 2006 20:26, Reinhard Kotucha wrote:
> >>>>> "Philip" == Philip TAYLOR <P.Taylor at rhul.ac.uk> writes:
>   >
>   > Indeed, if I may deliberately mis-quote Reinhard Kotucha :
>   >
>   > 	"No, there is absolutely nothing you can do in LaTeX that you
>   > can't do in Plain TeX."
> I dont't disagree.  But that's not the point.
> 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.
>       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?
> 	  Let me say it again:  You can use plain TeX code in LaTeX
> 	  if, and only if you exactly know how LaTeX works.
> 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.

Context users deal with UTF-8 on a frequent basis. 

> Everywhere else in the world things are not that easy:  We need UTF-8.
> You said that plain TeX can do everything LaTeX can do, but do you
> really want to do everything yourself, also the very nasty things
> already solved by Frank Mittelbach?  And do you expect that someone
> who writes his thesis is able to do this, at least in a reasonable
> amount of time?

If TeX is to be limited to thesis writing your point is well
taken. But I just got a book on Linux from the library set in TeX
and using Computer Modern. I set books all the time in some
flavor of TeX. LaTeX indeed can be viewed as a series of
templates, with academic papers as the primary audience. Some of
us however deal with interactive e-books, 5.5 x 8.5 print books,
saddle stitched pamphlets with pages arranged and so on. It is
just easier to do these tasks dealing directly with the necessary
commands, or looking them up in the Context manual. 

> 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.
LaTeX requires an in depth knowledge of the library of styles.
The _LaTeX Companion_ is rather expensive at $51 or so from
Amazon. Fortunately with pdftex or Context there is plenty of
free doucmentation.

For plain you start with gentle.tex as both tutorial and worked
example.  The pdftex manual will bring you up to date with the
newer features offered by that format. You move on to _TeX for
the Impatient_. Along the way  you study the excellent
"eplain.tex" manual. There is also _TeX by Topic_ for a more
thorough treatment. And of couse there is the TeXBook. All of
these except for the last are free downloads. 

For Context the original (2001) Context Manual is very readable and
pretty complete. Unfortunately improvements have been documented
in separate manuals. But all are well-written and all are free.
Context users depend heavily on the Contextgarden Wiki for the
latest developments.  

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

No. I am happy to crib code from gentle.tex, and use the
invaluable eplain macros. But I can operate at a high level in
Context or at a low level in plain or pretty much any level in
between. Since Context actually runs pdftex some at least of the 
tools of plain TeX can be used in Context. 

OTOH with LaTeX it is pretty much one way. You are correct:
dipping into plain or primitive commands in LaTeX can be tricky.
But Ropka (_A Guide to LaTeX_) does say:
"Plain TeX is the basis for every other format."

But fussing and fiddling with LaTeX styles to get them to  do
something for which they were never intended is just too time
consuming. For example with many books I like to use a versal
consisting of an enlarged and slanted initial capital, centered
on the first line, with the remainder of the line in small caps. 
There is no LaTeX style for that. No one in the academic
community uses that style. I have to build a macro. Building a
macro in plain is easier precisely becuase you don't have to
worry about hidden conflicts. 

In a sense we are talking past each other. You may view TeX as a
tool dedicated to academic publications, but the rest of us have
reached beyond that genre into many others. I see users
struggling to learn (and pay for) complex and tricky tools like
InDesign and I just know that they could do their book much easier
in TeX. But TeX has a bad rep in the commercial and
selfpublishing worlds.The reason for that bad rep is in large
part LaTeX, its complexity, its verboseness, its cryptic nature
and its inflexibility. 

John Culleton
Able Indexing and Typesetting
Precision typesetting (tm) at reasonable cost.
Satisfaction guaranteed. 

More information about the texhax mailing list