Welcome to the TeXtalk! For the third episode of the series, we have a legendary guest: our friend Martin Scharrer, TeX.sx moderator, highest rep user (54k+) and package-writing machine! Martin is surely the TeX version of Jon Skeet. It was an awesome interview!
Paulo Cereda: Could you tell us a bit about you?
Martin Scharrer: I’m 32 years old (starting next Tuesday, I mean) and from Bavaria, Germany. I’m an electronic engineer and currently finishing up my PhD, which I did in Limerick, Ireland for the last couple of years. I’m using LaTeX since my final year project thesis (“Diplomarbeit”) and it’s one of my main hobbies since a few years.
Paulo: How did you feel in your first contact to TeX, LaTeX and friends?
Martin: You mean LaTeX or TeX.SX?
Paulo: LaTeX (first).
Martin: My very first contact with LaTeX was a little earlier than my first thesis, when a group of students I belongs to had to write a report about a project we did as part of a practical term. We had written most things as HTML, to post it on your website, but the professor wanted a PDF. So one of the other students which had heard about LaTeX used it to compile a PDF. I was very interested when he told me that it does the ToC by itself, what I found impressive. My programming spider-sense got tingled by it and I then started to use it for my final year thesis.
I liked the possibility of programming your own macros and use semantic markup, etc. However, some things confused me a little bit. I had to learn the concept of floats first, for example. Also I was surprised that you had to load a package just to use images and colors, something I thought should work directly.
egreg: Floats are a big problem for many people, particularly when used to “put my figure here and never mind if the pagination is horrible”.
Martin: I got a little confused at first what to use for images, because there were many different tutorials. Some told you to use
or something. It took me a while to figure that some packages are simply outdated.
Also at the beginning I tried to use as few packages as possible, because I thought they slow down in compiling much, but I stopped doing that very quickly. Some other things like
, etc. were a little funny at the beginning as well, but I got used to it.
In summary, I liked LaTeX a lot better than Word after a short while, but had the impression that it was a little strict, which has its drawbacks if you want to write a thesis, where the professor has a certain layout in mind.
About TeX.SX: I got here first because I was looking for some LaTeX macro or solution (can’t remember what exactly). I knew StackExchange a little before and was surprised in a nice way to find a TeX version of it. I liked the Q&A format and the fact that there is no much noise here, like in forums. I visited every day for the following week and read the new questions. After a few days something came up which I could answer. It felt very good to get up-votes for it, so I stayed
Joseph Wright: What prompted you to stand in the moderator election? Do you see it as ‘extra work’?
Martin: I wasn’t around for long (6 weeks or so?) until the elections came up. Because I started to answer a lot of questions my reputation was increasing steadily and I got some good feedback from other people to keep up the good work. At first I was holding back because I felt as kind of new user I didn’t know yet how the site fully worked, didn’t know the people for long, etc. But I got the feeling that people thought I was a good candidate and I liked the idea of the democratic election for a site moderator, so I decided to go for it.
It was very nice to get elected. I don’t see it much extra work. Most moderator duties can be handled in 10min or less every day and this time I’m here anyway.
Joseph: I’d agree there
Martin: And if you don’t have time, because you are busy, it isn’t a problem to keep some flags unmoderated for a day longer. After all, we are three moderators.
Joseph: Speaking of that, do you think that a moderator based outside of Europe is desirable?
Martin: Well, it would be good to have the moderators more spread across the time zones, but it isn’t a critical thing.
Paulo: 54.5k – highest rep on TeX.sx. What’s your secret?
Martin: It is from benefit to have some work with constant Internet access and some flexible working hours. I learned a lot about LaTeX programming and had a read of most chapters of The TeXBook, so I know my way around it. At this time I was more interested in the programming possibilities.
Joseph: Appendix D? The OR one – I think it’s 15?
Martin: Dirty Tricks, you mean? I didn’t went through it completely. Mostly I skipped the chapters about the output routine and the actual typesetting.
I also like programming a lot, so I don’t mind coding a solution for people here, while I have a Matlab or Verilog simulation for my PhD work running in the background.
Paulo: Speaking of which, you are also a Perl enthusiast.
What other tools do you use?
Well, I don’t use much other tools atm, I do most things in the command line window with either shell (bash) commands or Vim. Maybe I should mentioned SSH (which I love) and rsync which I use for back-ups and copying. I used Subversion a lot, but now switched to Mercurial. I like its flexibility.
Paulo: CTAN lists 24 of your packages. It’s an impressive number! Could you tell us a bit about your first package?
Paulo: There are 24 entries.
Martin: I think my first one was
. I wrote it because wanted to display the latest Subversion revision used for the document and there was no tool which did exactly that. Also I liked to program something at this time and thought it was time for my first LaTeX package.
I knew how parsing using parameter texts worked from The TeXBook, so I thought I shouldn’t be difficulty to parse the SVN keywords and then keep only the latest. I friend of mine, also a PhD Student in the same centre and LaTeX and Subversion user, started to use it as well and gave me some hints on how to improve it. It started to get bigger and bigger when I found features I needed for my thesis.
I really like LaTeX for this, because you write basically your own extensions. With MS Office you can define some own macros (which work completely different) in order to make your live easier, but with LaTeX you can do really a lot. Actually I can do too much, because on some weeks I programmed more LaTeX than I was writing on my thesis.
Most packages I wrote and write because I needed or wanted the features of it. Some things I only needed a little bit, but I decided that it would be very useful to other people so I made a full package out of it.
Paulo: Didier Verna mentioned you during his keynote in this year’s TUG. How did you feel? 🙂
Martin: Well, it felt nice. At the beginning of his story it wasn’t all that positive 😉
Paulo: Indeed. 🙂
Martin: I one wrote him an email with a feature request (I think with a patch) for
, which I needed for
. I thought the features / interfaces of this package should be more general in order to be more useful for other packages. So I started to write my own
packages for this purpose.
As he said he was initially surprised that someone wrote an almost identical package (which kind of happens more often than people think with LaTeX), but then saw that it was actually better and asked me if he should deprecate
in favor of
So it was nice to get mentioned by name on a LaTeX event! It really like to visit it next year myself.
Joseph: This seems like the plan for several people.
Martin: I hope it works out. It’s also a pity that most LaTeX regulars’ tables are not in my area in Germany. I would love to meet some other LaTeX people in person, especially the well known ones like Herbert or Heiko.
Joseph: I’ve seen before that there regular meetings in Germany, but then there are a lot of LaTeX users there. Are you in DANTE, and if so are you an ‘active’ member?
Martin: Are in DANTE, but not active. I think Munich would be the next one. Berlin is just too far away
Paulo: How do you see another year for TeX.sx? Will you reach 100k?
Martin: Well, I’m busy with wrapping up my PhD. Then I will find a job and move houses, so I won’t have as much time as before.
It depends also on the questions. Some days there are hardly interesting ones there and then the next day there are 3-4 and a lot of rep is caped
I’m not working actively towards 100k, so I don’t think it will happen next year, but maybe I come close.
Paulo: Ready for LaTeX3?
Martin: Aeh, no, not at all. I didn’t got around learning the new coding style so far. It looks kind of an investment, which I didn’t had time to make so far. Also, I think LaTeX2e will still be around for a while. Many packages should still work with LaTeX3.
Paulo: And how about Lua?
Martin: I didn’t do much with LuaTeX or Lua itself yet, but I think it is easy enough to learn once I need to. I like pdflatex I don’t have any reason to switch to XeLaTeX or LuaLaTeX yet, especially since they lack some PDFLaTeX features. I don’t need unicode or special font support myself, but I understand that this is a must for some people abroad.
Paulo: What do you recommend for a newbie eager to learn TeX, LaTeX and friends?
Martin: Well, LaTeX yes, TeX itself is for later. TeX.SX of course (I would give him my business card
I think you need a good tutorial to get started with LaTeX, unfortunately I’m too advanced to remember which one to use and didn’t read any for a good while.
Paulo: Thanks for your time! Tausend Dank!
Martin: Sure, thanks for having me!
Stay tuned for the next episode of TeXtalk!