Less is more — make TeX small again
- Date: 1 December 2022
- Time: 6:30 to 7:30pm (UK Time)
Large and small
Jonathan Fine: Large and small are in fact relative terms. This is well expressed by the phrase “a big fish in a small pond”, which means a person who is well known and important in a small group, but not in any larger group.
This TeX Hour is about taking advantage of the large lake, sea, ocean or cloud that now exist (and letting go of the false comfort and security that comes from holding on to the past).
For more information about the TeX Hour, including Zoom URL, see the About page.
My first and present PCs
When I bought my first PC, in 1989, TeX was a big piece of software. I payed extra to get a faster CPU and disk, and more RAM. Yes, I bought a 10Mhz 80286 with a 40MB disk (28 millisecond access time) and 2MB of RAM. I didn’t have enough money for an 80386. It was adequate for perhaps 10 years.
My current PC has a 12 core 4.9 GHz CPU with 72MB of cache, 2TB of NVMe memory and 64GB of RAM. I hope it remains adequate for another 10 years. Even my mobile phone dwarfs my original PC. And it downloads a 40MB app wirelessly in less than a minute.
The result of this big change, together with the growth in open source, is the TeX nows shares the ‘pond’ that is the PC with lots and lots of other software. Don Knuth and others worked hard to fit TeX’s marvellous typesetting into my first PC and similar machines. From 1989 I’ve been most grateful for this work, even though some of it is today obsolete.
LibreOffice and a modular TeX
This change in environment is both a threat and an opportunity. It took my browser a minute to download and launch the 300MB WASM version of LibreOffice. So why can’t we have a TeX, bigger than TeX in 1989 but smaller than LibreOffice, that downloads and launches in 10 seconds!
This would allow TeX to be a stable component readily available to be incorporated into larger systems. This is much closer to the Unix philosophy of modular and reusable components. SQLite is a lovely example of such a component, and is deservedly “the most widely deployed database engine”.
Don Knuth wrote TeX at a time when only a monolith would allow him to produce an archival and high quality typesetting system. That said, his original conception was that TeX would be “just a typesetting language”. In some sense he “put in many of TeX’s programming features only after kicking and screaming”.
This is the title of a talk I gave at the 2005 EuroTeX at Pont-à-Mousson, whose focus is “new ways of doing input to and output from TEX. These new ways bypass our current habits, and provide fresh opportunities”. Largely this article has been ignored, and much of it is more relevant now than it was then. See URLs for a link (PDF).
By the way, in 1951 the young and now eminent mathematician Alexander Grothendieck (1928–2014) took a cycling tour that included Pont-à-Mousson. The URLs give a nice photo of him with perhaps a steel works in the background. I owe a lot to his mathematical contributions. (Today a 1970s blast furnace in Redcar, Teeside, UK was demolished - see URLs.)
Perhaps by making TeX small again we can regain the excitement of innovation that existed in the 1980s when TeX emerged from the computer laboratory and into the world of STEM publishing and other areas. Some reinvention is required to retain relevance.
- The Register: https://www.theregister.com/2022/02/19/webassembly_port_libreoffice/
- Make Use Of: https://www.makeuseof.com/use-libreoffice-in-web-browser/
- Download link: https://lab.allotropia.de/wasm/ # 45 seconds
Fix for WebGL not supported
- Unix philosophy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy
- SQLite: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SQLite
- TeX Forever! (PDF): https://www.tug.org/TUGboat/tb27-0/fine.pdf
- Grothendieck (age 23): http://www.neverendingbooks.org/grothendiecks-haircut
- Redcar blast furnace demolished: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-tees-63731687