Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Writing tools, silence & parenthood

Collaborative writing tools

I have been working on a paper recently with two co-authors.  It has been a bit of a challenge finding the right pieces of software that will allow us to track edits while remaining in LaTeX.  When I worked in the civil service, Word was the de facto software for producing written documents.  It was a lot better than I thought it would be, and I still think the Track Changes functionality beats everything else I have tried hands down when it comes to collaborative editing.  I also learnt that, using Word, you can produce documents with typesetting that looks professional, if you know what you are doing, and if someone has invested the time in creating a good template for your needs.  However in the last couple of years I have returned to LaTeX, because it is what mathematicians use, and because I find it better for equations, and for references.

In the last few weeks I have been trying out Overleaf.  This is one of a handful of platforms for LaTeX documents with collaboration tools.  As with a lot of good user-friendly pieces of software you have to pay to get the most useful features.  With Overleaf, the free service provides a workable solution.  Overleaf allows you to access your LaTeX documents through a web browser, and multiple people can edit the same online version.  In the free version there are some basic bells and whistles, like being able to archive your work.  I found this a bit confusing at first because I thought it was setting up multiple active versions with some kind of forking process.  However this is not the case.

By combining Overleaf with git I have been able to fork the development process: I can edit one branch on my local computer (using my preferred LaTeX editor and compiler), while another person edits a different branch in the online version, or potentially on another computer.  Using git also makes it easy to create a change log, and visualise differences between different versions, although this doesn't work quite as well for paragraphs of text as it does for code.   Unless you put lots of line breaks into your paragraphs, you can only see which paragraphs have changed, and not which individual sentences have changed.

In the news...

2016 is drawing to a close and it has been a pretty shocking year for a lot of people in terms of national and global news.  In the last few weeks, I have found an increasing tendency for people to be silent - to not want to talk about certain issues any more (you know what I mean - the T word and the B word).  I guess this is partly because some topics have been talked to death, and nothing new is emerging, while a lot of uncertainty remains.  However I also find it a bit worrying, that people may no longer be capable of meaningful engagement with people of different opinions and backgrounds.  One thing I have become more convinced of over the last year is that blogs and tweets etc. are not a particularly helpful way of sharing political views (a form of silent outrage!?)  So maybe the less I say here the better, even though I do remain passionately interested in current affairs and am fairly opinionated.

And in other news...

I have a baby boy!  Born 4 weeks ago - both him and my wife are doing well.  In the first 2 weeks I took a break from my PhD, and it was a bit like being on holiday, in that we had a lot of time, and a lot of meals cooked for us (by my wonderful mum).  It hasn't all been plain sailing, but I am now under oath not to share the dark side on parenthood - especially not with non-parents, in case it puts them off!  The last 2 weeks I have been getting back into my PhD.  It is quite hard finding a schedule that works.  We have a routine where he is supposed to be more active and awake between 5pm and 7pm, so that he sleeps well between 7pm and 7am.  I have been trying to do a bit of work after he is settled in the evening and found it fairly challenging to be motivated and focused at that time.  I have been wondering whether it would work better to try and get up before him in the mornings.  I guess it will probably be challenging either way.