Using Latex for college papers

A few months ago I posted about how I was tired of Microsoft Word and was looking for an alternative. I had decided on Latex as a substitute because it was a plain-text format that easily translated to PDF. It also has great tools including Mactex for OS X and the Auctex package for Emacs. This semester in college has been the most writing intensive so far. I have an Engineering Professionalism and Ethics course that has regular memos, reading summaries and four longer papers (and planning sheets for most of the above). My digital circuits course also requires regular lab memos. I’m glad to say that I’ve been using Latex full time for all my writing.

During the past few months using Latex full-time, I’ve learned a few lessons which might be useful for anyone starting to use it for full time writing. Here’s a quick guide to get you on your feet with Latex for daily college life.

1. Get Latex.

First order of business: head over to the Latex website and find yourself a package that you like. If you’re on a Mac I highly recommend the Mactex distribution. It’s somewhat heavy, but certainly worth it as it will have you all set to get going. For Linux, it’s best to find a package for your distribution, but if you’re an Emacs user, the Auctex package will come in handy.

2. Find a good tutorial

I’ll admit, Latex can be a bit overwhelming for beginners. So it’s important to find a good tutorial. The official documentation page is a good starting point. I also found Getting to Grips with Latex to be a very good jump start guide. Once you start feeling comfortable, be sure to use Google to find tips and tricks to achieve what you want. With its long history, chances are someone has solved the problem you are facing. On the same note, you probably want to just learn as you go along instead of reading one of the tutorials chapter by chapter.

3. Build some templates

Latex can be a bit of a pain for quick documents, but it can become very effective once you start using it for larger projects. If you’re writing a lot of memos or a number of papers with the same general format, it would be best to spend some time and create a Latex format that you’re comfortable with. I’m currently using two such templates: One for memos which is set up with To:/From: fields and all the usual trappings of a memo, and another for longer papers set up with proper spacing, title page, table of contents, bibliographies, the works. Making these templates might take some work, especially if you need custom packages like I do, but believe me, they’re worth the trouble later.

4. Keep focused on the content

Coming from the WYSIWYG world of Word, it’s very tempting to continually typeset your work to see what it looks like. Here’s a suggestion: don’t. Latex is designed to handle the looks for you so that you can focus on content. Take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to worry about how your paper looks and what it says at the same time. I find it helpful to do at least two passes on my paper. One is where I just write, without seeing what it looks like. I focus 100% on content. I care about nothing besides getting my point across. I don’t even bother about page limits at this point. Once I’ve put down everything that I need saying, I start pruning. I do a typeset to check basic things like length and to make sure that I don’t have huge solid blocks of text. I’ll then start shortening (or lengthening) to get to the limit and then alter paragraph and section boundaries to make sure that the text flows properly. However, none of this done at the cost of the quality of my writing.

5. Look over the result

One of the consequences of using a system like Latex instead of Word is that it harder to edit on the fly. So make sure that the result (probably in PDF form) is what you want it to be, (typos, formatting errors etc). I generally go through everything two to three times to make sure that everything is how it should be.

Like many powerful tools, Latex will take you some time to get used to. But once you get used to the powerful and clean efficiency that it offers, you won’t want to go back to WYSIWYG again.

Google and Wikipedia as the gatekeepers of the Internet

In January of last year, I read a post on Coding Horror about how Google was gradually becoming the starting point of the Internet. Though Jeff Atwood’s points were certainly well made and valid, I really didn’t think much of it at the time. In the year and half since then, some things have changed. Google has been moving away from pure search but still using its position as a focal point on the Internet. Chrome and Android both increase Google’s prominence in the computing world. However, I hadn’t quite realized that riding on Google’s pre-eminence is another Internet powerhouse: Wikipedia.

My story begins like this. I was doing research on IBM’s original Personal Computer and how its BIOS was reverse engineered by Compaq to produce clones. I was focusing on the ethical issues of reverse engineering and of course, I turned to Google to find online information sources. Here are some of the search queries I typed in:

  • IBM PC
  • Reverse Engineering
  • Utilitarianism
  • Kant
  • Categorical Imperative
  • Social Contract
  • Compaq

In all but the last search, the first search result was the corresponding Wikipedia article. I found it interesting and somewhat unnerving that even IBM’s own website is the second result when searching for IBM’s most famous product.

The duopoly that is beginning to form is quite interesting. Google is gradually placing itself as the chief filter and navigator for the web. Competitors like Yahoo! and MSN would require a massive, perhaps combined effort to take on Google Search in any serious way. Newcomers like the much-hyped Cuil are simply not good enough.  With Google’s multipronged effort to cut into both business computing (Google Apps) and the common man’s net experience (Chrome and Android), it’s unlikely that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.

Wikipedia is taking the form of the most easily accessible content provider for an increasing range of not-too-specific information (and a fair amount of specific information too). How many school or college projects today don’t involve Wikipedia in some way? Even though professors and teachers might wholeheartedly (and maybe with good reason) insist that Wikipedia cannot be cited as a reputable source, the fact remains that for many students (and for many other people) research about a topic begins (and in many cases ends) with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is becoming the Wal-Mart of the Internet. Their information may not be great, but it’s good enough and it’s cheap, in terms of money, time and effort.

So What?

Well, perhaps nothing at all. After all Google hasn’t shown any signs of taking over yet. I trust Google enough to give Gmail all my email. Even my college email is routed through Gmail because it’s the most efficient solution out there. I use Google Reader to gather information from around the web. I’m a fairly regular user of Google Calendar and Google Docs. I trust that no human eyes are viewing my information or reading my documents and the software machines running on Google’s server farms do their jobs wells. Their ads are discreet and unobtrusive.

Google makes money. Lot’s of it. Billions of dollars every year. And not just for itself. There are thousands of businesses that make millions off Google Ads and many popular businesses get some 70% of their business via Google search. A lot of Google’s money goes to paying for various open source projects in a number of ways as well as funding university research. I would rather have Google in control of that cash flow than not have it at all.

However, it cannot be denied that Google is quickly and surely becoming the internet. As Jeff Atwood tells us, if your website is not on Google, it might as well not exist. Rich Skrenta, possibly the creator of the first internet virus, is not exaggerating by much when he tells us that the internet is essentially a single point marked G connected to 10 billion destination pages. If we were to follow the more conventional analysis of the Internet as a weighted graph, the weights given to Google’s outgoing links, far outnumber those given to any other (with the possible exception, in some cases, of outgoing links from Wikipedia).

And into this, Wikipedia fits perfectly. In the free world of the Internet, it’s hard for businesses to make money by selling pure information. But pure information is the heart-blood of the internet, it’s first cause for existence. And it’s this information need that is served by Wikipedia. What you can’t buy, you can get for free on Wikipedia (mostly). Wikipedia cannot surive alone. It needs efficient search to make proper use of all its information. In exchange, it acts as a sort of secondary filter: after Google’s search filters away the cruft and deadwood that litters in the internet in the form of spam, porn and obsolete webpages, Wikipedia steps in to provide a mostly reliable core from which to branch off to other points or from which to draw inspiration for more searches. Sure you can decide to not use Wikipedia. And pay the consequent price of having to sort through the mass of knowledge by yourself (though perhaps with Google search by yourself). But would you really want to?

If you want to fight Goliath …

You’ll need more than a slingshot. Google and Wikipedia are both fairly well entrenched in their respective areas. And the tasks you’ll have to accomplish to shake them are certainly Herculean, if not harder. To beat Google, you’ll have to start with an equally good algorithm. New competitors like Cuil aren’t all that bad, but they’re not good enough. With the rise of rich media, your search engine will have to be able to get to pictures, videos perhaps even Internet radio stations. Of course, now that Google has branched away from search, you’ll have to take that into account, or at least team with someone who can. People are more comfortable using a unified interface and a single way of doing things than a bunch of smaller ones. Google still has some work to do in that area. After that you need to have a way to get people money. Breaking into Google’s Ad empire might be harder than making a dent in the search market.

As for Wikipedia, you would need to find a way to collect a vast amount of information on a variety and also keep it up to date. That’s hard to do and expensive with a proprietary model and with an open system, there are problems with abusing the system. Then there’s the question of actually getting people to use your resource. Giving it away for free is no longer good enough. You’ll have to offer something that Wikipedia doesn’t. And Wikipedia offers a lot.

Neither task is for small players. So who could do it? Someone with deep pockets for one thing. The battle for the internet isn’t going to be over in a flash, it’ll be a long protracted war lasting years (if it’s ever fought, that is). Talking about Flash, Adobe and the Flash platform are also another strong player in the arena, though in a slightly different way. Adobe and Google have mostly non-overlapping interests. However a partnership between Adobe and another strong player, such as Yahoo!, Microsoft or Amazon might just tip the balance. A combination of online software built with Flash running on backends from Yahoo! or Microsoft would be a serious contender to Google’s AJAX web platforms. At the same time, it might be more beneficial for Adobe to join hands with Google, especially since Flash is already YouTube’s backbone. Tightly integrating Flash with Chrome might cement Flash’s position as the rich content platform of the Internet (with Google Ads thrown in the mix).

Of course, I’m probably getting far ahead of myself. Any serious competition to Google would involve a concerted effort by a number of interests over an extended period. That seems unlikely to happen with the current mess of competing interests, standards and technologies. For the time being at least, the Internet is still a point labeled G. The 10 billion connections are purely coincidental.