Why you should LaTeX your dissertation; or, why you don’t have to write your dissertation in Word.

If given the choice, I choose not to use Microsoft Word. My experience with the program over many decades now has been that, despite its almost complete dominance of the word-processing sphere, Word is a program that does not handle long-form scholarly writing well. It is, like its kin in the MS Office Suite family, a program designed with businesspeople in mind: people writing letters and reports, making presentations, processing financial data, and communicating within a rather narrow band of kinds of documents. While this is all well and good, and probably covers a significant proportion of the electronic documents out there, it has not met my needs as a reliable program for typesetting long papers, dealing with footnotes and bibliographic information, handling images, captions, tables, and cross-references, and doing this all in a flexible, intelligent, and, not least of all, aesthetically pleasing manner.

Most importantly, I hate wrangling with software that I am forced to use not because it is designed for what I am doing or is the best fit for my needs, but because it enjoys an inexplicably huge market share, and, also presumably, because people in the humanities are not, by and large, writing their own software to meet their needs. I watched many colleagues in graduate school pulling their hair out towards the end of their Ph.D.s because Word would continually crash while they were putting the finishing touches on a 60-page chapter, or as they tried to generate a table of contents, or when they finally were attempting to put all their completed chapters into one long document. I myself had moved away from Word before I began my postgrad; all of this, plus my continual frustration with Word while working a job, convinced me that I would only use it to typeset my dissertation if I absolutely had to.

Fortunately, one of the best and most useful things I learned in college was a markup language called LaTeX. LaTeX and its variants were designed with the needs of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers in mind — TeX is particularly excellent at handling mathematical expressions, equations, tables, figures, and the like — and was pretty much the unofficial standard mode of typesetting at MIT. Every problem set I ever received during my undergraduate years had been formatted in TeX (or a variant thereof), and, like pretty much anyone with some exposure to the hard sciences, I quickly began to be able to recognize TeXed documents when I encountered them. (The default Computer Modern font is the first dead giveaway; although TeX is highly customizable in the fonts department; read on.)

And, like many MIT undergrads (at least in the nineties), I learned to use LaTeX to typeset my own documents: at first particularly term papers, because of the powerful bibliographic-handling powers of its counterpart, BibTeX, but also letters, meeting agendas and lists, short writing assignments, and, eventually, my resume. Like HTML, TeX is a markup language that gives instructions for how to format text; it’s not coding per se, but style-guiding. It is incredibly powerful, highly customizable, pretty easy to get the hang of in its most basic form, and unsurpassed in creating documents of beauty and simplicity.

Over the years, I have tried to convince other humanists who may never have encountered LaTeX that they should consider learning it; and I have rejoiced when I have run across others in history and allied fields who also use TeX to do their writing and typesetting. (Philologists, linguists, and people who deal with a lot of non-Roman alphabets tend to be familiar with LaTeX. And, of course, apostate scientists and engineers like me and a few of my colleagues.) This post is an attempt to enumerate as well as understand in greater depth my reasons for doing my own work in LaTeX, and to perhaps convince others that learning an unfamiliar markup language is worth their while. In the process, I also want to consider some of the benefits and challenges of using TeX typesetting in the humanities, and discuss why it is that more of my colleagues in history remain unfamiliar with it, despite its enormous strengths for anyone working on long manuscripts with lots of complex bibliographic information.

Why LaTeX?

There are a host of reasons — technical, aesthetic, psychological, educational, and practical — for choosing LaTeX as your typesetting environment. Here are my main justifications for why I have chosen and stuck with TeX, and why I think it’s worth considering, even if you’ve never heard of such a thing before.

LaTeX is Open Source.

Because LaTeX is an open-source means of typesetting, it is both free to you, and supported by a vibrant community of users who are constantly improving and adding to its functionality. You do not have to buy LaTeX, or any programs associated with it. This is particularly good news for graduate students: no more having to shell out tons of money to Microsoft just to write your seminar papers, for LaTeX is free. It works on all the major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Unix/Linux), and, what is more, has very user-friendly standard installs of the TeX distribution for each of these environments. I run TeXLive on MacOS. If you’re working in Windows, you’ll probably want to get a perl interpreter (why perl does not come packaged with Windows is completely beyond me!); beyond that, a standard Windows install and package manager like MikTeX is all you’ll need.

The TeX user community at tug.org and beyond is an incredible resource as well. When you run into problems — and you will — you will almost always be able to solve them with a quick web search for your issue and a perusal of the bulletin boards and blogs devoted to LaTeX and fixing common problems. Chances are, someone else has run into the same problem you are having, and has posted how to solve it, or had their question answered by an expert on a message board. There is no LaTeX problem I have ever run into that I couldn’t solve in pretty short order by consulting the web. I have never even had to create a new posting about an issue — everything has always been solved before me, or I have found enough guidance out there to solve the problem myself.

LaTeX is designed for scholarly writing, and handles everything you can throw at it intelligently and with aplomb.

Whether you are producing a cover letter, a C.V., an article, a manual, a seminar paper, a dissertation, a book manuscript, or just about anything else you can think of, LaTeX has a package or a style for it. It is the original “there’s an app for that.” Need to change your style of page numbering midway through a document, or reset a counter for figures, notes, or pages? Easy. Want to play around with how all your headings are displayed? No problem. Want to product an incredibly long and complicated document with chapters, headings and subheadings, a title page, hundreds of footnotes, a bibliography, a list of archives consulted, a table of contents, and more? LaTeX was born to do it. As the woman who did the prechecks on my dissertation at the UW grad school said to me, “There’s nothing LaTeX can’t do.” “I agree!” I responded, knowing at that moment that everything was going to be just fine.

It is true: LaTeX has been able to handle everything I have thrown at it, and to do it in an elegant fashion, both technically and aesthetically. What is more, each time I have tried to do something new, I have learned something useful, enjoyed the process of figuring it out, and felt extremely proud of the results. Contrast this with how you tend to feel when you’re trying to get Word to stop forcing a page break when all the white space says it shouldn’t, or something else particularly frustrating that you’ve encountered in your tangles with that program. No contest there.

LaTeX allows you to write from your sources, and build highly modular documents.

When you’re working on a writing project that’s more than a couple of pages, you usually have bits and scraps that you want to hang on to, but that you’re not sure you want to appear in the final version. When you work in a word processor like Word, you usually have to cut and paste these onto a separate page at the end of the document, or into a new document altogether. This can be a huge pain in the butt, since it usually means scrolling around to different parts of your document, or switching back and forth between two documents, to find and grab the thoughts, ideas, notes, or other structuring information that you’re using as a writer, but which shouldn’t appear in the version the reader sees.

Separating editing and processing through a program like LaTeX means you can hang on to your work in the raw source, but have it not display in the typeset output. You can simply comment out the words by placing a “%” at the beginning of the line, sentence, paragraph, quotation, or note-to-self you don’t want to reader to see, and POOF! it’s gone, visible only to you as the source editor. This allows you to write in an incredibly modular way if you so desire, moving things around, commenting them out or putting them back in as your project evolves and as the argument demands. Everything is in one place: no more “excerpts” or “notes” files lying around, muddying the waters. It’s all in the source, ready to be brought to light.

This is particularly useful as a writing aid, especially when I am starting a new piece of writing. Often, I like to get all my quotes and sources in one place, and use them to build my argument. But, as I’m writing, I want to see how everything is displaying, and how long the finished document is, without those quotes and sources being included in the word or page count. If you input all your quotes and evidence, and comment it out, you can write around your sources and then add them in as you decide which ones are best for your argument. No more searching around for that quotation — it’s right there!

The ability to comment out parts of your source document is also quite useful when you’re playing with formatting. It means you can save one setting that you like on a commented-out line, replacing it with a line that calls for a different kind of formatting, but which you could always toggle-off and toggle back on if you want to switch back to the way it was before. Handy for the document preamble, especially if you write good comments about what each different setting will do.

The separation of editing and processing is also good if you want to collaborate on documents using a versioning control system. Google Docs can do this to some extent, but there’s nothing like a good old reliable CVS for really making sure that you’re not overwriting someone else’s work. Of course, the chances of finding someone in the humanities who knows what the heck I’m taking about here is so small that this point is pretty unimportant in the whole scheme of things. Still. It’s the truth.

BibTeX is the most powerful, customizable, and robust bibliographic management tool out there.

Probably the main reason I have stuck with LaTeX throughout graduate school, despite at least one professor’s complaints about not being able to “track changes” in a Word document to give me feedback, is not LaTeX itself, but its allied bibliographic management protocol, BibTeX. I have used many kinds of bibliographic software that are standard in academia — EndNote, RefWorks, and the honestly pretty awesome Zotero — but I have yet to find one that would make me switch from BibTeX. BibTeX is incredibly robust and flexible, handles cross-references and other complicated aspects of your database queries impeccably, and integrates seamlessly with LaTeX. It has at least one great GUI frontend, BibDesk, and the option of letting you really fool around in the raw DB text if you so desire. What should convince historians that LaTeX/BibTeX is for them is actually a slightly newer implementation of BibTeX called biblatex and its counterpart engine biber, particularly the historian style, which hews to Chicago/Turabian and — the thing I’ve not found in any other bibliography management system — handles archival sources absolutely perfectly. You can generate bibliographies that automatically separate unpublished and published sources, that generate a list of archival abbreviations for your reader, and that exclude certain types of sources you might not want to appear in your final list of references. Its power is unmatched in my experience, and it was completely critical in making my footnotes and bibliography a relative breeze when it came down to the wire.

LaTeX is a thing of beauty, and produces things of beauty.

Using LaTeX is an aesthetic experience on two levels. It is an elegant program in its design, implementation, and functionality; and the documents it produces are themselves extremely aesthetically pleasing. If you care about fonts, kerning, and proper text handling, LaTeX is definitely for you. But LaTeX is also for you if you like your software to work reliably and intelligently. It is not bloated or over-engineered. It is infinitely customizable with packages, styles, fonts, and other add-ons. It works beautifully; and when it doesn’t work, you as a user are able to fix it.

The difference again stems from the separation of editing and processing. Word is processing your text on the fly as you edit: it can’t see the whole you imagine, and it is making its adjustments based on the immediate surroundings, and what it can imagine you want to do is limited by that (hence its often hideous output). Because in LaTeX you edit your text, then process it, the compiler has a look at everything before it decides how it’s going to lay everything out. As a result, its “instincts” about how to format text, images, references, notes, and everything else are usually more correct (or better designed) than Word’s, which are situational, rather than holistic.

Why not Word?

My reasons for sticking to LaTeX have almost as much to do with my dissatisfactions with Word as they do the joys of working to master LaTeX. This is not to say that I will never use Word, or that I don’t know how to do all the things I’ve described above using Word — Word can do them, and will, albeit in an incredibly glitchy and frustrating way which drives me bonkers — it’s just that, if given the choice, I prefer to work in a typesetting environment that makes me feel like I am mastering something useful and well designed, rather than banging my head against a wall repeatedly for little reward. Does this sound familiar to you? It doesn’t have to be that way.

You are not a cubicle drone: you have a choice in how you typeset your work, and you can choose to use software that was designed for you, rather than without your needs in mind.

My main complaint about Word is that it’s a program designed almost entirely for business people: writers of reports, memoranda, letters, and other short-form documents that do not require the kind of complicated typesetting that scholarly writing consistently demands. And when you work in Word, you feel this constantly: this program was not designed for me and my needs. It makes you feel like you’re at war with your software, constantly trying to force it to do things they way you want it to, and constantly being stymied by its endless layers of supposedly helpful settings that put abstraction barrier after abstraction barrier between you and your work. It is technically true that Word can do all the stuff we as historians want it to do; but I ask you, does it do all of this smoothly, uncomplainingly, and with minimal frustration to you? If your experience has been anything like mine, the answer is a resounding “no.” Oh, you want that text to flow around this image in a sensible manner? Oh, you’d like me to position this page break in a place that doesn’t create enormous amounts of white space? Oh, you’d like to play with your styles and formatting without screwing up the whole document? Sorry, that will cost you several hours of annoyance. Please, read on.

When you work in LaTeX, you are working in an environment that was designed with the needs of scholars in mind. Once you get the hang of TeX, you will understand just how poor a fit Word is for the kind of work you do. You will realize that you can do more, more easily, more robustly, more powerfully, and with a smaller kilobyte footprint than you could possibly do in Word. And when things break, you’ll learn how to fix them.

Wrangling with LaTeX is more rewarding than wrangling with Word.

Okay, I’ve been painting TeX as this masterpiece, when the reality is that nothing is perfect: you will definitely experience frustrations with LaTeX, just as you will with any software. (I promise you that at some point you will have a serious breakdown over margins or document layout, something you think about almost never in Word.) But I want to suggest that your experiences wrangling with LaTeX to get something to display the way you want it to will be rewarding to you in ways that they can never be in Word. (And I promise you also that you will solve your margin problem, possibly with something as simple as a quick web search or a helpful message-board posting or, more involvedly, learning a bit about a new package, and you will feel so good about having done so that you will take yourself out for ice cream thereafter and try to explain to your friends why you’re so happy. Finally, I promise you that they will think you are insane.)

As I’ve been writing this post, wanting to make this argument about the comparative rewards of troubleshooting in TeX versus Word, I have been asking myself, is this really true? Don’t you learn things when you figure out how to do something in Word too? Aren’t those tricks useful later on? To be sure, the more you use any software or tool, the more familiar you are with its workings, and the better you get at bending them to your will as a user. You asymptotically approach mastery. This happens in Word, just as it does in LaTeX.

The difference is something I haven’t been able to articulate well thus far, partly because I don’t want to simply fall back on an argument that is in form equivalent to “it’s better to know how your car works at least on some level than to treat it as a black box.” (I believe this, but I’m not sure it’s sufficient, and I don’t think everyone feels this way.) But it has something to do with the level at which you’re interacting with the program: in the case of Word, the surface, where what is possible is limited by what the software designers imagined you might want to do, and is therefore premised on assumptions about who users are, which I think is pretty clear (businesspeople, admin assistants, writers of reports and memos). When you work in LaTeX, you are working more on the inside of things, and what you can change and modify to meet your needs is enlarged. More options are open to you because you participate in the design of the program, in a way.

I’m still not satisfied with this answer, and I hope commenters will help me sort out what I am trying to get at here; but I will say this: When I get something to work in Word, I feel frustration at the existence of the problem, anger and my inability to find out what is causing it, exhaustion with my inability to solve it elegantly, boredom at my attempts to work around it, and relief when it’s finally sorted. When I get something to work in LaTeX, I feel confusion, a desire to know what’s happening, interest and a desire to solve the problem, enlarged knowledge once I’ve figured it out, and pride in my resulting handiwork. Two very different experiences. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Why not LaTeX?

To be fair, there are plenty of arguments for not journeying too far down the rabbit hole. The first and most important one is publication: I have not thus far run across a major journal in my field that proclaims on its web site that it will accept manuscripts in TeX. I find this a bit sad, since many journals in the sciences expect to receive documents in LaTeX, and provide TeX stylesheets or templates for those submitting manuscripts, which I think would make the whole process easier for everyone, not least of all the editors and typesetters at those journals. But I have the sinking feeling that most history journals would be a bit befuddled, or annoyed, if I tried to get them to accept my TeX source. There are some okay LaTeX-to-RTF converters, but it is true that this is one major problem that stands in the way of wider adoption of TeX outside the sciences. The DOC’s dominance in the humanities remains unchallenged, and individuals are not going to do it. This is a big structural roadblock that should be an enormous caveat for people considering following my advice in the above paragraphs, and I won’t try to deny its importance.

Alongside the issue of publication is that of collaboration: as I am embarking on a couple of article projects with colleagues, I am realizing that a lot of time with Word is in my future. That’s okay — articles are short, and Word can handle them pretty well — but there’s a nerdy part of me that wishes I could just collaborate with people using a versioning system and the raw TeX source. That is a dream that will certainly remain unfulfilled.

There are other obvious reasons not to move to LaTeX as well: having to learn a markup language that most people in the field have never encountered, working in a text-based environment rather than a GUI (although people who like to work WYSIWYG should consider LyX), having a steep learning curve before you become comfortable with the vagaries of LaTeX, and having people complain when you don’t send them DOCs to track changes on. But, despite these cons, I remain convinced that, for scholars working on large complex manuscripts, LaTeX really is the gold standard.

I harbor no illusions about this, though: the pressures to hew to Word are enormous, and the rewards of doing work in LaTeX are largely personal rather than social. No one in the humanities will pat you on the back for TeXing your dissertation, and there aren’t any prizes to be had for “best TeX source” or “most beautiful manuscript.” (It’s too bad — that’s an award I could really compete for in my field.) Your labors will be largely invisible to your colleagues, and only your friends in the sciences or from back in college will look at the finished product as a masterpiece of markup as well as of scholarship. You will have to be content with the knowledge that you really did a good job, and the satisfaction that comes from that job well done. (And you may impress some scientists down the road at some point. If you tell them, they will be impressed.)

I also will say that I do not think that TeX is good for everything. But what it is good for — typesetting complex and/or lengthy manuscripts, dealing with references, notes, and counters, and other allied challenges of word processing — it really is best for, I think. Even just knowing such things are possible and out there should be enough to get any scholar who works in Word to ask herself whether she really is working in the best possible way.

The rewards of making something.

For me, in the end, the issue comes down to temperament and disposition. I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem when I know that doing so will teach me something that I will use in the future. I also enjoy feeling like the products of my labors are just that, not solely in terms of their intellectual content, but in terms of how they are presented, formatted, and laid out. I want to produce something I can be proud of as both a work of scholarship and a work of the printed word. LaTeX allows me to do that all the time; with Word, those rewards are harder-won.

If you do not garner any satisfaction from making something from scratch, from tinkering and getting something right, from learning a bit about what’s going on inside the black box of your word-processing, LaTeX is probably not for you. But if you like to do things right, and elegantly, and beautifully; if it matters to you how your document is produced; if you take a certain amount of perhaps unspoken pride in the process of crafting your document alongside your words; then you should consider learning LaTeX. It’s one of the most valuable skills I have ever taught myself, and it involves me in a continuous process of learning and developing those skills while I practice my scholarship. Doing the two together is enormously rewarding for me, and I hope others find reasons to do so as well. (I know that I am not alone here!) I hope that this post at the very least opens more people’s eyes to the options that are available to them, so that they do not assume that they have to do everything in Word if they’d prefer not to. Perhaps most importantly, the more humanists who use LaTeX, the more and better tools there will be for us to do our work well.

Ask, and ye shall receive.

A few weekends ago, while hanging out with several MIT friends, we got to reminiscing about the good old days of athena (which I’m discovering is now debathena — lord knows what a cluster looks like these days or if undergrads have ever heard of a quickstation), and of text-based email clients, such as Pine, Elm, and, my personal favorite, mutt. I was speaking — nay, boasting — of my former mutt prowess, and inquired of folks whether they had every seen an integration of mutt with gmail. We all assumed that, google being google, someone had to have done it at some point; and, lo and behold, a quick search reveals that, yes, someone has.

This is definitely going on my list of things to try. Man! Those keystrokes. Motor memory being what it is, I can only assume it would all come back to me, in the same way and with the same feeling I get when I hear a phrase like blanche yourself onto or Bartholomew Squeak or hope alls well with you or find myself trying to explain cons to someone or remember not to break the abstraction barrier. Oh man. That’s a complicated feeling.

q:Quit  d:Del  u:Undel  s:Save  m:Mail  r:Reply  g:Group  ?:Help                
  59 r + Apr 20 Steve Carson    (   0) Re: name that server!
  60   + Apr 20 eBay            (   0) A Big Thanks From eBay!
  61 r T Apr 21 David Kaiser    (   0) Re: STS.310 OCW site ready for review.
  62 r + Apr 21 Margaret Hart   (   0) Re: house of leaves, coffee?
  63   T Apr 21 Adrian Bischoff (   0) sox, july 2, 3?
  64 r C Apr 21 Mike Tarkanian  (   0) Re: sox, july 2, 3?
  65   T Apr 21 Adrian Bischoff (   0) Re: sox, july 2, 3?
  66   + Apr 22 Mariano Alvira  (   0) Re: perl stuff
  67   T Apr 22 Alice Cox       (   0) today
  68     Apr 22 Anne H. Marguli (   0) Fwd: Invitation to President Hockfield's
  69     Apr 22 Scott Johnston  (   0) France Telecom
  70   C Apr 22 Peter Mueller   (   0) Re: 5.068 OCW web site ready for your rev
  71     Apr 22 Conor Lenahan   (   0) Who says engineers jobs are boring
  72   F Apr 22 To Amrys O Will (   0) pepys & lexicon
  73   + Apr 22 Christina Matta (   0) Re: Housing in Madison?
  74     Apr 22 Aaron D. Mihali (   0) cropcircles.
  75 r + Apr 22 Alice Cox       (   0) Re: off early.
  76   T Apr 22 Mary C Potter   (   0) Re: 9.65 edits and approval for OCW.
  77   + Apr 23 Laura Iverson   (   0) Re: haymarket?
  78   F Apr 23 To a-side@MIT.E (   0) PARTY TONIGHT - Frogstar World B
  79   + Apr 23 Scott Johnston  (   0) wow
  80   + Apr 23 Will DelHagen   (   0) RE: PARTY TONIGHT - Frogstar World B
  81     Apr 23 Shervin Fatehi  (   0) Professors love to bluff
  82     Apr 23 Ian Martin      (   0) Re: Professors love to bluff
  83     Apr 24 Niko Matsakis   (   0) Re: Professors love to bluff
  84   + Apr 23 Karen Robinson  (   0) Re: saturday night!
  85     Apr 24 Amal K Dorai    (   0) best spam subject line ever
  86     Apr 24 melisande       (   0) The sweepers on May 1st
  87 r T Apr 24 Adrian Bischoff (   0) Re: sox, july 2, 3? tell me now if you wa
  88 ND  Apr 24 Jacqueline R Be (   0) DanceTroupe needs Ushers, House Managers,
  89   + Apr 24 Ehren Foss      (   8) scottosphere
  90  D  Apr 24 Laura A Daher   (  16) PIGS!
  91   T Apr 24 Scott Johnston  (   7) the blogger site.                        
-*-Mutt: imap://amrys@po14.mit.edu/INBOX [Msgs:91 New:1 Del:2 Post:24]---(mailbo


For the Second West folks, I snapped this photo of a maintenance room sign at Tegel airport when we arrived last week:

According to Google Translate, this means “plaster room” — not necessarily an illuminating translation, but other web searches reveal it to be what it looked like: a janitorial closet of some kind. Actually very PTZ-appropriate!

Click, Clack, Killian.

For me, there’s always something supremely comforting about listening to Car Talk. I don’t always remember to tune in (Saturday mornings at 9 here on WHA), but when I do I always find myself grinning like a madman, reveling in the unfettered glee and unmistakable voices of Tom and Ray. It takes me back to Boston, and to the times when I lived around people who took things apart and built things, and all of the hard work and good, dirty-knuckled fun that went along with it. It reminds me of the amazing commencement address the brothers gave at MIT back in 1999 — I had just finished my freshman year, and watched the webcast from my brand-new summer job for the MIT Webmasters (now Web Communications Services, then known as CWIS, Campus Wide Information Systems, and, in my opinion, much better back in those days) in the basement of N42. I knew as I listened that there wouldn’t be a commencement speech this good for the next several decades, and was terrifically sad that I wasn’t graduating right then so that I could receive their message firsthand, on what I remember was a beautiful June day. (I was, recall, stuck in the basement of N42.)
Our commencement speaker turned out to be James Wolfensohn of the World Bank; there were protesters (a handful, because of the weather), and riot cops (a ton, because they were being paid to turn out); and it rained, and was about sixty degrees. I had a great time in my own way, though, because of course the weather would be crappy, of course we would have to suffer to get our diplomas in hand, and of course there would be hundreds of girls who had looked out their windows that morning and decided that it was still a good idea to wear that little white dress (soon stained by the sopping-wet non-colorfast black gown covering it) and strappy high heels (doing a better job of aerating the lawn of Killian Court than of supporting their person). Of course there would be people leaving as soon as they got their diplomas, and of course I would be among the last people to walk across the stage, degree-granting proceeding alphabetically by school (Architecture; Engineering; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Management; Science) and then in numerical order of Course within each school. (The effect: the only department that followed mine was Math.) By the time I returned to my seat, at least half of the students and spectators had gone. Those of us who were left were wet and grinning maniacally, and figured we might as well stick it out to the end.
As soon as the last statements were made (and this, let me tell you, was amazing and miraculous — not the statements, but what followed), the rain let up, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and it was the most perfect June day I had ever seen. I exchanged hugs with what friends of mine remained (fortunately there were several of my closest in neighboring Course VIII), and we found our families and tromped through the muck to the athletic fields for refreshments. By then, it really was gorgeous out; we were beginning to dry off; and we were finally able to take our diplomas out of their plastic bags (handed to us immediately after the diploma itself in a positively staggering logistical coup — the whole ceremony is like that, you understand: how they get 10,000 degrees to the right people in the right order like clockwork, and are also able to have bottles of water and ponchos and seat-drying towels for every guest as well as plastic bags for every diploma is really quite astonishing, and makes you believe that there really is something after all to having this MIT degree — it just works) and look at them, and smile to ourselves and to one another.
In the end, I think, it really was a perfect day.

Metasyntactical evaluator, but I just…

Anand is in town this week, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go over to Liz’s place tonight to enjoy the fruits of some of Anand’s cooking along with Liz and her housemates. What a treat! The menu included fresh figs with feta, some wonderful Indian chicken dish whose mane now escapes me, brown rice, and some delectably spicy green beans with coconut and black mustard seeds. To top it all off, we had Manhattans, pumpkin muffins, and dark chocolate.
Of course, over drinks Anand and I stumbled across a copy of SICP, which for some reason was nestled between plays and performance theory texts on Liz’s shelf. We flipped through and had a good laugh about the adventures of Alyssa P. Hacker, Ben Bitdiddle, and that shady character Louis Reasoner. We were also able to remember what the cadr actually refers to (there was some uncertainty at first as to whether it was the car of the cdr or the cdr of the car), and experienced a weird sort of delight looking at box-and-pointer and environment diagrams. Remember the double bubble? Yes, the double bubble.
Which is all very funny, because in today’s film class we ended up on the subject of silly jokes, and I was talking about “-er” jokes, which, to my surprise, no one was familiar with. So I tried to explain, but for some reason I couldn’t remember my favorite “-er” joke phrase, and ended up only being able to think of two examples: poker; and metasyntactical evaluator. This latter one was a little difficult to explain, for obvious reasons.
Fortunately, my footage went over better than my jokes.
The other nerdy happening of the evening was the wasting of about twenty minutes here. I guess that would be the other end of the linguistic spectrum…

Revenge of the drunken robots.

The ‘Tute is suing Frank Gehry for design and construction flaws in Building 32. I can’t say I’m surprised, and I can’t say that I have much sympathy for the defendant: it’s a cool building, sure, but, like so many high-profile architectural projects, it is ridden with problems that render its price tag completely preposterous. Of course, MIT should have known from his track record that Gehry generally cares more about concept than about little problems like drainage, leaking, ice formation, specularity and albedo, and the cumulative effects of what we folks outside of Los Angeles like to call “weather” and “the seasons.” Conceptually and spatially, Building 32 largely works (though it has hardly been without problems — major and minor — as well as complaints from its residents). In the bricks-and-mortar sense, though, there have been clear and obvious issues right from the beginning. When it was being built, I would wonder every day that I walked past just what the construction workers thought about what they were making. I always figured there was a lot of eye-rolling and head-scratching, and I have to say that they had a great deal of empathy from me. When it was completed, I was pleasantly surprised: it didn’t totally suck, as I thought it was going to, though it did have a fair number of detrimental effects on the east side of campus due to the Institute’s slavish promotion of the building to the neglect of other facilities that were more important to, say, students who actually lived over there. But we’ll just set that aside for now.
The thing that makes me laugh this rather dark laugh is knowledge of what “The Stata Center” replaced: a complex of shoddily constructed, hastily put together (it was war, after all), downright ugly interconnected four-story shacks called Building 20, which doubtless cost a very meager fraction of what stands there now. A stranger passing by these structures would hardly have guessed that video games, radar, and a host of other important technologies were conceived and created there, amidst an environment of unfettered creativity that had little to do with how the building looked (it looked atrocious) but almost everything to do with its residents’ ability to freely modify their environment as they saw fit, precisely because nobody at the top cared about what they did to that crappy complex of buildings: it was always just about to be torn down anyway. When they did finally slate 20 for demolition, there was a huge outpouring of protest from current and former residents, who came back to reminisce about the time they spent at what had come to be known as the Magical Incubator.
Gehry’s architectural task was to design something that would emulate — and, ideally, recreate — the no-holds-barred creative environment that had germinated and thrived in Building 20, combined with the sense of activity and connectivity embodied by the Infinite Corridor of the Main Group — and to make it all look nice. But, frankly, there are just some things you can’t design into a building, especially when aesthetic considerations start to take precedence over the ability of individuals to do their work. For instance, when one of my friends and the lab he worked for moved their operations from a tiny office underneath 35-225 (literally underneath — you could see the tiers of the lecture hall in the tapering ceiling) where they built autonomous helicopters into Building 32, they received a memo telling them that CRT monitors were not allowed into the building because of the architect’s specifications. Now, seriously: who on earth would be so idiotic as to ask a bunch of MIT engineers to get rid of their old equipment? Had Gehry ever ventured into any MIT basement corridor? Had he actually been inside a lab?
Don’t get me wrong: I care a great deal for good architecture, and there are spaces in Building 32 that really do make the spirit soar, and that made me very excited to be at a place that could afford to construct such a building. But there are problems that arise when the focus is directed more towards the name on the cornerstone than it is on the people who will be living and working in the building — just look at The Sponge. I think there’s some middle ground, and I hope that MIT is able to find it. Perhaps they did with Building 46 — it did look pretty cool — but I haven’t been there and I just don’t know what the response has been.
And of course Rod Brooks is the one defending Stata and Gehry. He makes those drunken robots.

How to lift one’s own spirits.

It’s been rather a frustrating week. It opened with a lot of work to do by Wednesday, which resulting stress was compounded by being slightly ill and not feeling very much in the working mood, and further augmented by worry about a possible problem with the exhaust system of my car (not to mention my lack of a paycheck this month, and the attendant financial concerns). By Wednesday, things were looking up: I was feeling better, my meeting with my advisor (the reason for the work-stress) was over, the car was in the shop, I had received my state tax return (finally!), and I was beginning to look forward to the weekend’s trip to Cincinnati for a wedding. But when it took the garage a day longer to look at my car than I’d hoped, and when they called this morning saying I might need to replace some parts (but they couldn’t really say, exactly), all the week’s frustration resurfaced, and I worried that I might not be able to either afford the repairs or make the trip as planned.
So I did laundry and bummed about the house and tried to pack, and tried to stomach the possibility of spending something like $300 on my car. It wasn’t the best day ever.
When the garage called this afternoon to tell me that my car was ready and that they hadn’t had to replace anything after all, my mood mildly improved, though I was still a bit worried; and then when I took the bus in to pick it up, there was construction at the stop I wanted, and I ended up getting dropped off five blocks from where I wanted to be. I cursed all the way to the garage, picked up my car, and drove home.
But the good news on the car front was that the mechanics had been able to unseat my stereo, something I’d wanted to have done for a while (and which I had been told on an earlier occasion they didn’t have to tools to do). Less than a month after I bought the car, the radio antenna had stopped going up and down, which meant that I effectively had no radio. I thought I knew how to fix it myself, but I wasn’t able to do it because when I had work done on it before moving to Madison my mechanics had (very courteously, I am sure) reseated the stereo, which until that point had been sticking out in such a way that one could remove it and fiddle with the wires behind the dash. (It had been my plan to fix a little problem with the antenna connection, but I was never able to do that. The antenna stopped working, and I couldn’t get at it.)
So when I parked the car by my house, I got a screwdriver, my 6.002 wire cutters, some needlenosed pliers, and some electrical tape and proceeded to look for the problem. I found it very quickly: it wasn’t the antenna fuse, as I had surmised (why anyone would put a fuse behind the stereo is beyond me, but there it is), it was the fact that the wire that controls the antenna up/down fucntion had come disconnected. (There was a speaker wire that had come disconnected as well.) I reconnected them, plugged the stereo back in, turned on the car, and tried the radio… It worked! The antenna went up, and I had reception for the first time in years.
I was elated. I fixed it, I did it myself, I knew how to do it, and I had all the tools on hand.
As I got out of the car, a fellow in a car waiting at the light called out to me. “Did you go to MIT?” he asked, pointing to the sticker on my rear windshield. “Yep!” I told him. “Me too,” he said. “I graduated in the eighties.” “2002,” I told him. We grinned, the light turned green, and he drove off.
Cincinnati, here we come!

From the Putz archives…

In honor of JCB’s visit, TFazio’s NSF, and the fact that this has been stuck in my head all day, I give you a TFazio classic: The Jeffrey C. Barrett Song, to the tune of “David Duchovny.”

It’s Sunday night
I am tooling in the lounge
Correct analysis for the junior lab I’m trying to scrounge
I wander up and down the hall
Knowing eventually I’ll fall
Into his room, where he’s there punting our next oral
And I can’t wait anymore for him to prepare it
I need this lab from Jeffrey C. Barrett
Jeffrey C. Barrett, why won’t you prepare it, why won’t you prepare it?
I ask him questions
As I’m trying not to spaz
But all he says to me
is “fux quux mux” and “foo bar baz”
In the cluster, dark and dull
Out of my ass I try to pull
The answers, but all I get are his metasyntactic variables
And I can’t wait anymore for him to prepare it
I need this lab from Jeffrey C. Barrett
Jeffrey C. Barrett, why won’t you prepare it, why won’t you prepare it?
He’s not really hot
But he hangs out with Scott
Together they build robots
And log onto Walker-Tray
And when they’re hosed they play
Grand Theft Auto all day
‘Cause they’re ambiguously gaaayyyyy…
My backpack’s packed
We’ve latexed our entire oral exam
After a frustrating night
Our brains feel like leftover spam
But I’m not complaining; all in all,
Jeff’s a good lab partner, and when I feel small,
He cheers me up and then he gives me lots of alcohol
And I appreciate that he’s willing to share it
‘Cause I need it bad from Jeffrey C. Barrett
Jeffrey C. Barrett, nice of you to share it, nice of you to share it
Jeffrey C. Barrett, don’t wanna stare at it
I won’t bug you, I swear it,
Why won’t you prepare it?
Jeffrey C. Barrett, please simply prepare it,
And while you’re still at it,
Jeffrey C. Barrett, why won’t you prepare it?
Why won’t you prepare it?
Why won’t you prepare it?
I’ll be waiting…
In the cluster…