Author Archives: Peter Krautzberger

#dotAstro FTW

[This is week 4 of the challenge. woohoo.]

Today I only have ~15 min. This week, I happen to be in Chicago for dotAstronomy 6. This might be odd since I’m not an astronomer (nowhere near in fact). It is actually an immense privilege, though, since I’m part of a small group of invited interdisciplinary participants (also including biologists, climate scientists and library scientists). So my perspective is that of an outsider and I hate to admit it: it’s what I suspected all along.

That is, ever since running into the dotAstronomy website a few years ago, I have been a little envious. I kept thinking “This sounds incredibly fantastic. How could we do something like this for mathematics?” Until today I could at least pretend that it couldn’t actually be as great as it appears. Because nothing is, right?

My two readers won’t be surprised to hear it: I was wrong. dotAstro is every bit as exciting, enlightening, creative, and savvy as I had hoped. A fantastic group of scientists from all walks of scientific life, including “recovering” researchers who have been led to non-standard careers while retaining a deep, nay fierce enthusiasm for their field as well as for the untapped potential offered to scientific communities by the web. This first day has been a perfect mix, starting with excellent talks, switching to amazing lightning talks, followed by an exhausting-because-engaging unconference sessions, and finally some great conversation at the pub (including perfectly greasy US bar food).

Luckily, I don’t have to bore you with my notes but can simply point you to the live-blogging of the first day by @vrooje. In case my notes go up in flames, I could probably reconstruct half of it from the Twitter hashtags of the unconference sessions I attended, i.e.,

Now I’m exhausted but excited for tomorrow’s hack day.

On reading and writing and silence

[week 4 of the challenge. It’s time for a quick post to catch up after last week’s delay.]

As you know, this blogging challenge of mine is based on the observation that I would like to write more. And then Jeff Atwood reminds me in this interesting piece that

we badly need to incentivize listening

which makes me wonder if my natural tendency to let things brew for ages might not be a good thing. This blogging challenge will invariably show if I’m actually able to write in decent quality under tighter constraints. (Right now, I’m not so sure.) So perhaps I will have to realize that silence is golden.

On a related note, in recent months, I was forced to think about my comment “policy”. This hadn’t really come up before since I get very few comments and even fewer from strangers. But I think I should point out that nobody leaving a comment should expect said comment to be posted. Similary, nobody should expect a comment that has been posted to stay up (especially if gets posted automatically after I’ve allowed a comment in the past). Finally, nobody should expect me to reply to a comment even if I’ve replied to other comments and even if that happened in the same thread.

This policy has very little to do with trolling, actually, but more with off-topic comments and comments on ancient posts documenting how things have changed (I’m so surprised! not). It’s also related to a different point: I’m probably switching off automated comments at some point next year (ooooooh, something will change, hint hint).

The number of worthwhile comments I get is roughly 1 per month (vs 5-10K of spam). So instead of a comment sytem, I’ll figure out some way you can quickly send me a comment and then I will add it manually. This move is not just laziness about dealing with spam (it will be slightly more work, I suspect) but also reflects the fact that I consider your comments to be additions to the content, not separate from it. This does not mean that a comment needs to be serious, of course — silly comments are just as (more?) (more!) relevant to me, so I hope people will keep’em coming.

LaTeX Something Something Darkside

[This is week 3 of the challenge. Ok, I’m stretching “every week” a bit here. I blame somebody’s first cold or alternatively Turkeys. Also, I cheated; this took longer than 30mins.]

Darth Vader/Stewie: Oh, come on, Luke, come join the Dark Side! It’s really cool!
Luke/Chris: Well I don’t know. Whose on it?
Darth Vader/Stewie: Well um… there’s me, the Emperor, this guy Scott. You’ll like him, he’s awesome…

Where my previous post was more about TeX-like syntax, this is about TeX/LaTeX proper. If you’re a TeX/LaTeX enthusiast, don’t go all crazy on me (I mean, have you seen my thesis?). This is about me feeling a growing awkwardness towards TeX/LaTeX. And this has little to do with TeX/LaTeX itself.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

TeX/LaTeX is a tool. It is a tool designed by Knuth to solve a problem in print layout. The trouble is: print is becoming less and less relevant and I think this holds for most TeX users (when was the last time you went to a library to look at the printed copy of a current journal issue?). What is not obsolete is PDF and TeX is, of course, very good when it comes to generating PDF.

However, this “Portable Document Format” is really quite useless in the one place where people consume more and more information: the web. (I admit I’m of the conviction that the web won’t go away; crazy talk, I know.) And for the web, TeX/LaTeX is the wrong tool. Yes, there are about a gazillion projects out there that try to bridge that gap, try to create HTML out of LaTeX. But if you try them out you’ll soon notice that you’ll have to restrict yourself quite a bit to make conversion work.

Turn this around and you’ll realize that the community as whole has a serious problem: almost nobody writes TeX/LaTeX that way which means almost all TeX/LaTeX will never convert to web formats well. To put it differently, there’s a reason for a large market of blackbox vendors that specialize in TeX to XML/HTML conversion for professional publishers (and this often involves re-keying).

This is, of course, in no way a fault of TeX/LaTeX itself which was designed for print, in 1978. But it is a problem we are facing today.

Everything is nothing

Now TeX is Turing complete and this means we can do everything with TeX (even toast). So a universal output for the web is theoretically possible. However, everything is nothing if we can’t make it practical. Perhaps one day, we’ll be lucky to find another Leslie Lamport who will give us “HTMLTeX”, i.e., a set of macros that work and rapidly become the de-facto standard for authors. I doubt it. (And not just because I know mathematicians who don’t upload to the arXiv because their ancient TeX template won’t compile there.)

I doubt it because there’s no problem to solve here. Where Knuth (and Lamport) solved imminent problems, there is no problem when it comes to authoring for the web — a gazillion tools do it, on every level of professionalism. TeX is neither needed for this nor does it help.

Waste of resources

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to write TeX packages.”
— not Jeff Hammerbacher.

Another part of my awkwardness towards TeX/LaTeX these days lies in the resources the community invests in it. It feels like every day, my filter bubble gives me a new post about somebody teaching their students LaTeX. These make me wonder. How many students will need LaTeX after leaving academia? How many would benefit from learning how to author for the web?

And then there’s actual development. How many packages on CTAN are younger than 1/2/5 years? How many of those imitate the web by using computational software in the background or proprietary features such as JS-in-PDF (and who on earth writes a package like that)?

To me, this seems like an unfortunate waste of resources because we need people to move the web forward. If we remain stuck in PDF-first LaTeX-land, we miss a chance to create a web where math & science are first class citizens, not just by name but by technology and adoption from its community.

If only a part of the TeX/LaTeX community would spend an effort on web technologies like IPython Notebook, BioJS (or even MathJax) it would make a huge impact.


This brings me to my last awkward feeling about LaTeX for today which comes on strongly whenever somebody points out that LaTeX output is typographically superior.

I understand why somebody would say it but once again LaTeX is a merely tool. The reality of publishing is that almost all LaTeX documents are poorly authored, leading to poor typesetting. In addition, actual typographers will easily point out that good typography is not limited to Knuth’s preferences enshrined in TeX.

So while I can understand why somebody would claim that their documents are well typeset, this is not very relevant. As long as we cannot enforce good practices (let alone best ones), the body of TeX/LaTeX documents will remain a barely usable mess (for anything but PDF generation).

On the other hand, publishers demonstrate every day that you can create beautiful print rendering out of XML workflows, no matter if you give them TeX or MS Word documents. Even MS Word has made huge progress in terms of rendering quality and nowadays ships with a very neat math input language, very decent handwriting recognition and other useful tools.

The web is typographically different. On the one hand, much of its standards (let alone browser implementations) is not on the level of established print practices. On the other hand, its typographic needs are very different from print for many reasons (reflow, reading on screens etc). And even though some of print’s advantages will eventually be integrated, I suspect we will develop a different form of communication for STEM content on the web than we have in print because we have a much more powerful platform.

Ultimately, PDFs have stopped looking professional to me. Instead, Felix’s recent slides, Mike Bostock’s “Visualizing Algorithms”, and Bret Victor’s Tangle are examples where you’ll see my face light up, thinking about how we can build authoring tools to turn these experiments into tools for the average user.

LaTeX The Phantom Menace

(Week 2 of the challenge.)

LaTeX is the path to the dark side. LaTeX leads to TeX. TeX leads to DVI. DVI leads to suffering.
— not Yoda.

Ever since joining MathJax, MathML has been a major part of my professional life. It’s a slightly unhealthy relationship: wide-eyed enthusiasm and bottomless despair are frequent companions (although, I think, I’m becoming slightly more stable). Among the web standards of the W3C, MathML is, I think, unique and this is both good and bad (and topic for another post).

One thing that comes up regularly in discussions is how the use of LaTeX notation on the web is somehow evil. I believe this is a phantom menace.

Five(-ish) reasons why TeX/LaTeX is no threat to MathML

  • Full TeX/LaTeX is so messy

You might say that comparing full TeX/LaTeX and MathML is comparing apples and orange — at most, I should be comparing math-mode TeX/LaTeX to MathML. But the problem is that the difference is tricky since mixing math and tex mode is all too common in the real world. Since TeX is a programming language and lacks enforceable best practices, there will never be a “good” subset of TeX/LaTeX that could provide reasonable markup constraints. The reality of how people use TeX/LaTeX is just too messy.

  • on the web, “LaTeX” doesn’t exist

Quite literally, there is no such thing as “LaTeX” on the web. What is really being compared is a bunch of TeX-like input languages. If you think Markdown is bad off (yay CommonMark!) take a look at the number of easily incompatible TeX-like input on the web. MathJax’s TeX-input vs Wikipedia’s texvc vs iTeXMML vs pandoc vs … — they are all different on some level.

And even if you think: oh well, one day there’ll be one standard LaTeX subset for the web (right?), then there’s still no threat here. Markdown, wikitext etc have never threatened HTML; raphaeljs, d3.js etc have never threatened SVG; threejs, pixi.js etc have never threatened WebGL. Instead, these tools pushed the use and thereby the standards forward. Pretending that TeX-like input (or asciimath or jqmath) has any other affect is a phantom.

  • in the DOM, LaTeX does not make sense

While you might still wish to speculate that LaTeX could somehow be coaxed into being playing nice with HTML, CSS etc, the story really ends at the DOM. LaTeX does not fit in the DOM; period.

  • MathML is TeX for the web

There is a reason why MathML is so damn good for mathematics — it was created by people with a huge amount of experience, in particular in TeX and CAS. So in many ways, MathML is the natural continuation of the insights gained from TeX, applied to the web.

  • MathML is better

While at first sight MathML appears verbose (just like HTML or SVG might appear), it ultimately has one huge advantage over TeX: it is clean, self-contained, and stable. MathML provides a clear-cut presentation of equational content. It is infinitely easier to understand someone else’s MathML than it is to understand someone else’s TeX. (And you also cannot redefine \relax in MathML…)

  • MathML has won already

Fun fact: for roughly a decade, almost all new mathematics has been stored as MathML. Mathematicians are usually surprised by this — doesn’t every math journal accept TeX submissions? That’s true and nobody would claim that the majority of mathematics is authored in MathML (come to think of it, that one probably goes to MS Word). But unless you publish with a very math-specific publisher (e.g., the AMS), your content is invariably converted into XML and your equational content into MathML. So even in pure math research (which is a miniscule amount of mathematics published compared to STEM in general) the authoritative format is MathML.

  • If MathML failed because of math-mode LaTeX, that would be pathetic

So LaTeX as a web standard is just not practical. Which brings me to my final point. If MathML fails because of a bunch math-mode LaTeX-like input thingies, then I think we deserve to fail. These are such a weak contender, MathML would have to be truly a miserable standard to loose out. By contraposition, the fact that MathML is far from miserable (as its success demonstrates every day) means it will not fail no matter how many web pages include TeX/LaTeX in their HTML.

Where is this phantom menace coming from?

The more interesting question for me is where this phantom originates from. I suspect this is really about the lack of browser implementations. It’s always easier to look for a scapegoat. Making up a phantom like TeX will distract us from the important discussion: what’s really holding back browser implementation? It’s definitely not the math end where MathML simply rocks. And then the really interesting question can be: what could MathML 4 and MathML 5 look like?

Welcome to Westdeutschland

(Week 1 of the challenge. Sorry for those looking for TeX/MathML related stuff. Sometimes, there are more urgent things, you know?)

25 years ago today, the wall fell in Berlin, opening up Germany, opening up Europe. Admittedly, I don’t remember much about that night; of course, I technically remember (and reconstructive memory is grand) but the event held little signficance to 10-year-old me. (Though arguably not zero signficance since I had actually visited Berlin for the first time that year, and I remember standing on a platform near the Brandenburger Tor, looking over the death strip to that iconic land mark and not really understanding things).

As you may have noticed, I recently moved back to Germany and most recently to Göttingen. This meant, after some 8+ years, I’m living in West Germany again. Admittedly, when I lived in Berlin while working on my PhD, I lived in a heavily gentrified (i.e., West-ernized) East Berlin quarter (fun fact 1: at the time, the percentage of foreign citizens in Prenzlauer Berg was precisely the city average, with the “slight” difference of almost all of those being from G8 countries…). Still, even that part of East Berlin (let alone other parts) remained structurally very different from, e.g., Bonn and Munich. A particular aspect for me was always the absence of the typical West German “infrastructure” of small shops and businesses (or ATMs for that matter). In any case, Prenzlberg still felt incredibly different from anything West German (though not as much as it did in the 90s or even early 2000s when I first fell in love with Berlin).

Gaussturm near Göttingen

Gauss did not build this when he was 9 years old

It has struck me how Göttingen, to me, seems like a perfect example of a West German city. I can’t quite pinpoint this particular feeling. Maybe it is the beautiful 18th century city center (fun fact 2: supposedly Laplace urged Napoleon to spare Göttingen because Gauss might get hurt), maybe the lovely ring of late 19th century quarters surrounding it, perhaps the 50s Karstadt, the 70s Neues Rathaus, and the 90s malls. Certainly all of that a little. The city has also seen the typical post-WWII re-design towards cars as primary mobility solutions, which makes it a mess for the large number of bikes, pushing them to the sidewalks to collide with pedestrians (fun fact 3: I couldn’t remember when I had last seen an atomkraft-nein-danke flag but I did see one on my first trip to Göttingen). Göttingen has this feel of wealthy-but-reluctant-to-admit-it (as so much of West Germany). It’s filled with students making it appear modern and young and yet it’s history weighs heavily in places (bizarro Bismarck adoration in the Bismarckturm does not compute). Göttingen is also surrounded by a beautiful countryside with a gazillion potential destinations for the weekend, many having been popular retreats at some point of the city’s long history. Of course, for a mathematician, Göttingen is a particular attraction and yet it’s hard to ignore the great purge in 1933.

Göttingen has this particular, everything-is-finished vibe (with a no-room-for-change beat) which I find so typical of West German cities. It’s oddly appealing (especially after returning from SoCal) and yet slightly suffocating. If you want to live in a perfect example of West Germany, come stay in Göttingen. At the very least, you can stop by Gauss’s grave and since it’s a 5 minute walk from my home I expect you to stop by for a coffee after.

Today, celebrations of the peaceful revolution of 1989 may be in focus. But on November 9 we always remember more. 1918, 1923, 1938, 1989; I can’t remember one without the other.