Welcome to the TeXtalk! For our first interview of the year, we have a special guest: our friend Werner, hi-rep user (31k+), 792+ answers, 162 badges, one of the most active users of our community. It was a great interview!
Paulo Cereda: Could you tell us a bit about you?
Werner: I grew up in South Africa, and have spent most of my life there. I only recently emigrated to Canada after finishing my PhD at the University of Stellenbosch (close to Cape Town) and teaching there for a couple of years.
Since moving to Canada, I was a sessional instructor at a local university for a while, and did some night-time teaching at a local college as well. However, the competition for teaching in North America is fierce, and I felt like I wasn’t getting much in terms of opportunity.
As such, I scouted for something different, and eventually landed a job with the BC Government as an analyst, where I now count people. The technical term is a demographer.
I still thoroughly enjoy teaching, and have been able to combine it with my full-time job, or even tutoring on occasion. However, when teaching a night-time course for a full semester, 13-hour days soon become pretty tiring. So I only do that when the moon is
Paulo: Do you have any hobbies?
lockstep: Your user profile page tells us “My first introduction to LaTeX was in 1997, and I’ve never looked back!” Please elaborate.
Werner: Hobbies… well, yes. There’s LaTeX. It all started when I was introduced to it in 1997 – my first year at university. A friend showed me a minimal document and that you actually “code your input” to produce some output. At that time, I was still mucking around in MS Word, and enjoyed typesetting things to perfection – always using the equation editor, even when I just wanted to typeset “x” in a sentence!
Shortly after that, when I started working with my supervisor in undergrad, I delved into LaTeX, but it was only during my post-grad years that I really got involved with it.
Now, one of my hobbies in LaTeX is typesetting a book for my former supervisor and a friend of his. They both teach post-grad courses in Graph Theory, and I am editing their notes into a +/- 20 chapter page book.
My involvement with TeX & Friends has given me large insights into tackling such a daunting venture, since their expertise in LaTeX is very minimal. I’m doing everything from scratch.
There’s so much to learn from the experts here. From basic nuances to “all those intricate
lockstep: Funny… I always thought you to be one of the experts.
Perhaps I’m up there, but the ladder is extremely tall, and the sky is the limit!
Paulo: How did you become aware of the TeX.sx community?
Werner: Honestly, whenever I didn’t know how to do something, Google predominantly pushed out TeX.sx posts, which I would read…
Paulo: it’s a plot.
and LaTeX User’s group, I thought this was “just another one”.
I did enjoy the fact that the Stack Exchange user interface allowed for formatting within the posts, and it had a clean presentation… so I joined, thinking that I could contribute.
Marco Daniel: You are one of the best generalists on TeX.sx. What do you think is the best way to become such a generalist? How did you learn the dark internals of LaTeX?
Werner: Great question! There have been many questions I’ve answered that I had no idea what to do when I first read the post. However, with all the code available on CTAN (or even on one’s local distribution), I soon found myself reading the code… typically just scanning… in an attempt to identify where problems might arise.
And, like many things, you become familiar with the trademarks of LaTeX programming. Some things are of course, and will probably be, still very “black box-ish” for me. But the tools available make accessing these black boxes a little easier. And, of course, community forums provide even more access to this. For example, Who are the package maintainers here? always gives me comfort when asking questions or reading answer by the maintainers.
I think you’ll find that many of my answer are package-oriented. That is, I rely on other’s who have done the investigative work. Whenever that doesn’t work, I resort to some of my own conjuring.
lockstep: Is there anything that bugs you about LaTeX? And if so, do you have a package in the works to correct it?
Werner: Not so much that bugs me about LaTeX, since it provides an upper-level interface to TeX. I sometimes find it hard learning about TeX primitives. I started working my way through The TeXbook, but I’m not yet finished, perhaps indicative of my occasional struggle.
Packages – that is on the horizon, but only recently.
It may include some graphical stuff, which will be done in
as a start, and perhaps later ported to
To elude a little more about “the graphical stuff”: I taught some introductory courses in discrete math, and it was filled with problems regarding card and combinations of them. However, there’s no neat card-typesetting package out there.
Paulo: 31k+ rep, 792 answers so far. What’s your secret?
Werner: I think I’m very investigative. I rarely just brush over a question. Instead, I’ll attempt to find a solution, or perhaps even just comment on something. However, if I don’t have anything positive to say/comment, I know someone else will.
One thing I must admit that I find a little annoying is when you answer a question to the best of your ability given the OP’s presentation, only to find that they’ve edited their question to reflect some other constraint. Thereby making all your effort worth niks.
I understand though that not everyone is familiar with the almost 2k view post: I’ve just been told to write a minimal example; what is that?
Marco: Do you prefer
Werner: My introduction to graphics in LaTeX was with
bronze badge may tell a different story). And, there are some thing that
can do very easily, while there are many things that
just does naturally.
With the migration more towards PDF, my
-fu will have to be improved upon, and that’s just that. There, Jake is the master…
Marco: Private question: Some time ago you wrote “I must work in the garden”. Is the garden your place for relaxing?
Werner: My garden? He he…
Marco: I remember these things
Werner: … that’s actually a funny note. Since I got involved with TeX.sx in May 2011 (over the summer in Canada), I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. As such, I’ve invested a large amount of time online, reading, commenting, answering, etc. My wife refers to this as an interaction with my “virtual friends”.
And yes, even though the web link on my profile points toward a journeytoshodan.blogspot.com, that is my wife’s forte, so I’d better not mess with her. So, the “relaxing” part of the garden is a “you should stop doing that and help me outside” request.
egreg: What do you think is better in TeX.sx than in
or other groups? And vice versa.
Werner: Many have mentioned this before, but I find the noise level of
to be a problem. With no moderation, there’s no filter and virtually no consequence. The SE interface provides posting rich content – something I enjoy and do for virtually every post I make.
Although I contribute to
, the lack of post a “thousand-word picture” is a drawback I miss. For me, providing such visual aid gives immediate context to whomever views it. You can easily see whether it solves a problem or not.
The community-based approach of voting and moderation makes one wary of just commenting noise or posting “what ifs”, since the feedback can be both positive and/or negative.
On the other hand,
is lively and there are some die-hards of that style of discussion, and it can also be handled using different interfaces (I think, for example, one can use email to respond to posts).
I enjoy seeing Guru new-comers like Frank Mittelbach join “the party” and reading his excellent post on figure placement, since it adds tremendous value.
Paulo: Amongst all your 792 answers, is there a favorite one?
Werner: Hard question, since answers typically deal with other people’s problems.
In terms of an answer to my own question(s) (yes, egreg cannot comment here), I would have to say Components of LaTeX’s memory usage. This question is perhaps of little use now, but may have been a number of years ago, when we didn’t want to load a TeX distribution on our iPads.
lockstep: You are doing a lot of “janitorial” work at TeX.sx (retagging, editing) right now. How intensive is your future involvement with the site likely to be?
Werner: As soon as I got engaged with the community through answers and comments, I knew I was in it for the long haul. Andrew made a comment once about “really enjoying the TeX.sx community”. I feel the same way. So you might see my “gravatar” around for a while still. That is, of course, if “garden work” doesn’t distract me.
Here is Andrew Stacey’s post on meta.
Paulo: Ready for LaTeX3?
Werner: Wow – it seems like it can do some really nice things. Wow, that statement seems pretty lame. But I haven’t done anything with LaTeX3 apart from reading answer posted by the LaTeX3 team. Some things just seem so clean compared to how LaTeX2e constructs are at the moment – I guess a large amount of legwork is being done in the background to provide the cleaner interface. This statement is very subjective. However, in answer to your question: “Yes!”
To expand on my “subjective”-ness: I’m sure there will come a divide with the release of LaTeX3, perhaps due to its slow release and the fact that many package authors and users are so familiar with LaTeX2e.
Paulo: What do you recommend for a newbie eager to learn TeX, LaTeX and friends?
Werner: Two things:
(1) Start small; by means of minimal examples. This way you can flush out the problems – something that probably deters many newbies. If you can isolate the problem, then you’ve done a large amount of work in terms of fixing things or making it work. Then you can (and should!) start digging…
(2) Ask questions; Echoed in Andrew Stacey’s post on meta, we are a nice group of people and helpful answer come fast! It’s okay to struggle with TeX & friends, since you have speak a language that TeX’s “stomach can digest”…
Other forums like
and LaTeX User’s Group are also helpful.
Paulo: Thanks for your time!
Werner: Thank you, and thanks also for your contribution to the site via blog contributions and more!
Stay tuned for the next episode of TeXtalk!