Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Do the math? Redmond can't

Today's entertaining blog post from HuffPo is this one, by Margaret Heffernan, complaining about how Microsoft hates its users. Apparently the problem is they changed the way equations are handled in the equation editor of Word 2007. So: "Now, if you use send in your articles with equations, they turn, miraculously, into unreadable graphics - so Science and Nature can't print them."

Now, equations have always sucked in Microsoft Word's equation editor; but presumably they looked fine in Word 2007 when the authors submitted them. So the problem is not with Word, but with the conversion software that Science and Nature use. I haven't seen Word 2007's output, but it has to be an improvement on previous efforts: nothing could be worse.

in fact, an experienced user will immediately recognise that the the image of the equation at the top of that post was typeset not in Word, but in TeX. This program was written, single-handedly, by Donald Knuth in the 1970s, revised by him in the 1980s, and has scarcely been touched since then. It is about as bug-free as a program can be; and more to the point, it produces not only beautifully typeset mathematics, but beautifully typeset text -- far superior, in typographic terms, to any but the most expensive commercial typesetting programs. (None of which can come close in the quality of math typesetting.) And it's free, in every sense of the word.

In the form of LaTeX, a macro package that makes TeX easier to use, it has become the standard in the scientific typesetting world; the vast majority of preprints on are typeset with LaTeX.

Here are three examples of equations from the few Microsoft Word-typeset papers on today's cond-mat listing.

From here:

(click on all images for larger versions: the inline images are somewhat randomly resized.) Not particularly awful at first glance, but then you notice the disproportionately tiny integral sign, the inadequate spacing on either side of the "=" sign, and the fraction line that almost bumps into the subsequent "d". And the subscript on the left really ought to be in roman, not italic.

But Word can be much worse than that. Here are examples from from here:

Now, the subscript is quite the wrong size (perhaps you need to adjust the size manually in Equation Editor) and is still in italic, the exponent 2 in the first equation is too large, the integral sign in that equation is ridiculously small and the limits are disproportionately sized, the exponent 2 at the end of the second equation's denominator bumps against the preceding bracket, and (as before) the spacing everywhere is bumpy.

Here are the results of typesetting the same equations in LaTeX (with the default Computer Modern fonts, but one can also use Times Roman or other fonts).

Knuth nailed it a quarter century ago. Microsoft (and other vendors) still can't be bothered to get it right.

Contempt for users? This is what Ms Heffernan should be angry about.

(PS - in case it wasn't obvious, the clipped "L" and brackets in the first equation of the LaTeX output are my fault, not LaTeX's.)


km said...

Please. Don't get me started. I've got a very eloquent post queued up for MS consisting of just two words. I composed it after a BSOD (yes, BSOD on Vista) and three consecutive freezes.

I'm a step away from re-installing XP on my Vista machine.

Just how shoddy can a business get?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Weren't you planning to switch to Ubuntu? Didn't it work out?

I suppose BSOD on Vista is a pretty translucent blue.

km said...

Well, Ubuntu's a no-go for a corporate mofo like me. Not on the work machine, anyway.

and no, it was an ugly blue.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Well, how about Apple? Corporates should be happy with that (of course, it means getting a new computer...)

km said...

Sadly, Apple's even more out of question.