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TEX history Ⅴ: Mac OS X

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This text is the fifth part of my TEX history series: Read parts , , and first.


At some stage Mac OS X dawned upon us. And while you could run your old TEX installations in Classic mode, it was clear that this was rather far from ideal. The Mac had gained a Unixy underbelly and thus it seemed natural to let it run a Unixy TEX as well. Luckily the Unix-wise people thought the same and TEX systems that could run in Mac OS X’s shell were available pretty soon. And using the right installers those pretty much ‘just worked’ as well.

In addition, Mac OS X’s PDF savvy display system and pdfTEX just seemed to be made for one another: Where Mac TEX developers had to spend ages writing DVI previews in Classic times, they could just use pdfTEX instead of traditional TEX now and let the OS do the hard drawing work. Brilliant.

Which suggests that people had plenty of time at their hands for creating great environments to actually use TEX in. And, sure enough, at least two such environments exist today: TEXShop and iTEXMac. Both essentially do the job (text window, syntax colouring, TEX button, BibTEX button, preview window), both could be considered posterboy open source projects (somewhat technical application, somewhat buggy, somewhat byzantine, somewhat hard to understand code aggravated by the many collaborators, somewhat lacking polish) and neither of them is really good. Personally I prefer TEXShop because there’s less clutter in it.

So while we have an excellent starting point for using TEX in OS X these days from a technical point of view, actually using TEX hasn’t improved that much. (All right it has, but only because previewers can [try to] jump back to the matching place in source code when you click there) UI-wise I keep thinking that working on projects with several files things still haven’t surpassed my old TEX shell on the Atari. And that shell being particularly powerful isn’t the reason for that. And -  another trend on Mac OS X - the stuff beneath the UI can be quite advanced and hard to understand. Hard enough to be considered unusable if you don’t want to devote a lot of time to it. In a way I find this quite frustrating because it always suggests that you can ‘in principle’ solve the problem if only you try hard enough whereas in Classic Mac OS if things didn’t work they didn’t work. No need to blame yourself, the programmers just didn’t want you to do it.

One thing that regularly drives me nuts in terms of low-level TEX on OS X is that TEX seems determined to write all its output files in the same folder that your input file lives in. I don’t appreciate that and I’d much rather have my log, and toc and possibly even PDF files stowed away in different folders than cluttering up the folder with the actually valuable source file. My study of kpathsea stuff (manual pages, argh!) suggests that this just isn’t possible. Or that my Unix-fu isn’t strong enough to bend the computer’s will. So I have given up on this, but I invite you tell me how to solve this.

I could go on for a while, writing about how TEXShop seems to be even better at stashing or leaking memory than Safari, how it degrades when run for a long time, how it manages to frequently have just the wrong ‘key’ window and thus you have to switch windows (possibly with OS X’s far-from-ideal window cycling, argh!) or even use the mouse before being able to continue.

I could also highlight other things about TEX on the Mac like BibDesk which takes the pain out of using BibTEX, like the nice services there are to magically turn a typed TEX command into a formula that will be inserted into another document as a graphic. Or I could go on raving about exciting new developments like the microtypography we see in pdftex or the path to better support for Unicode and fonts that is done by XƎTEX. TEX is very much alive and kicking on OS X but it doesn’t ‘feel’ as good as I think it should in day-to-day usage.

September 20, 2007, 0:20

Tagged as os x, tex, TeX.

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