Perfect Word Processing

My dad is the word processing expert at our university. Until a couple of years ago everybody there used Wordperfect, later they switched to Microsoft Word (’97 at that time). The whole university? No, there’s a little departement heroicly fighting against Microsoft domination: The Mathematics and Computing Science department (eek!). They use the technically superiour “LaTeX”:http://www.latex-project.org and have been for ages and ages.

The first week of my studies at the university we learned to work with LaTeX. And in a way it was kind of cool to use this geeky software package, which was rumoured to be totally bug free (that’s TeX to be precise, which LaTeX is a set of macros for, if I understand it correctly). For those that don’t know LaTeX at all, it’s a processor that reads simple ASCII files (with markup codes, like with HTML) and turns them into a .dvi file which you can then print (or convert to a postscript file, which in turn you can then convert to a PDF file). The file contains codes like section{My first section} and begin{verbatim} … end{verbatim}. It’s a amazing what you can do with it, everything is possible and the results look _very_ good (much better than for example Word). In particular the formula capabilities are the best you can get. Many scientific books are written using LaTeX.

But is LaTeX really that perfect? I used it for most of my papers in the first year, then quit using it as it was too much trouble. Writing LaTeX is error prone (like is HTML, if you forget the all-forgiving browsers like IE(Internet Explorer)). Beside that I always had problems inserting images, putting them in the right place, remembering the tag names and package names to do this. Sure, it’s all possible, but this is supposed to be a tool, not a study object of its own. I don’t use a word processor because it’s my job, the lay-out doesn’t have to be top of the notch, I just need it to get my work done. I could get a LaTeX book or something, but I really don’t feel like doing that. I tried “LyX”:http://www.lyx.org a year or two ago but didn’t really like it, maybe I should try again some time. That’s why I switched back to visual word processors (OpenOffice.org Writer and Word). When I want a title I just select the line that has to be a one, select the title style and that’s that. Not much can go wrong.

Ok, that’s not entirely true (or maybe, totally false). A lot can go wrong, ask my dad, I’ve heard the weirdest stories. The kind of research he has to do to find out what’s wrong with a certain document can very well be considered scientific. This is mostly due to the fact that you can no longer see what’s happening behind the scenes. You know there’s a lot going on back there, but you can’t see it. You can’t see it with Word, you can’t see it with OpenOffice.org writer (unless you read the XML files), you can see it with WordPerfect though. At least, you could. Back when I still used WordPerfect (which is quite a lot of years ago, WordPerfect 8 was the last one I used, I think now 11 just came out), we had this thing we called “the underwater screen” which showed exactly what was in the document in a tag-like fashion. It showed which styles were switched on and allowed you to just delete tags that you didn’t consider necessary or which messed things up. _It allowed you to see what was going on, if you had to._ If you didn’t want to know, you could switch it off. Of course, WordPerfect is not perfect (haha!), but in my opinion it brings you the best of both worlds.

Do I use WordPerfect? No. Why not? “Standards”. People send me documents in Word format, sure WordPerfect can open those, but will undoubtly mess up in a way when I export it again. Word and WordPerfect work so different internally.