Of Typewriters, Scribe, LaTeX, Org mode, Hugo and Paper

1 What is this and why was it written?

This is my personal history of putting words-on-page-or-screen-or-blog-entry covering the period from the late 1970s to present (2020-12-05).

It was written (partially) at the request of JTR from whom I borrowed a Hugo blog theme. Thanks JTR.

I was writing a post where I wanted to include the \(\TeX\) symbol in the post, which is perfectly possible in emacs org mode where \(\TeX\) and \(\LaTeX\) are first class citizens, but it wasn’t working.

The blog exports to markdown via the ox-hugo Org exporter back end (lost yet?) which Hugo then translates to HTML which can then be previewed locally with Hugo’s own web server and then pushed to the live site, in my case, this site using git push.

I pinged JTR who, it turns out had little experience with \(\LaTeX\) and so was not able to help. Along the way, he asked me

Is there more you can tell me about use case for it? In other words, can I get you to vent some more about this, it’s interesting.

So here is some venting. I can always vent. And, in case you were wondering, the solution is to put

      <script type="text/javascript"

at the bottom of layout/partials/head.html before </head> in the modified Hugo hyde theme I borrowed from JTR.

2 Some History

Marley was dead, to begin with…

No. No. No.

It was a dark and stormy night…


OK, how about this:

3 Dad - Typewriters

In high school I wrote out my paper assignments by hand and then my Dad typed them for me, at least until I took typing and got up to 30wpm. White-out can be your friend :-)


As high school progressed I and my friends started using the HP-2000E in the computer lab on ASR 33 Teletypes (/dev/tty anyone?) that printed your input and the computers responses on a role of paper. We may have printed a few stories or other prose, but mostly it was BASIC listings.

Towards the end of high school, I remember eyeing the school secretary’s IBM Selectric typewriter because we knew it could be converted to a printer…(Apple II’s were all the rage then …)

4 Brian Reid - Scribe

So, Scribe. So in the late 70’s at Carnegie-Mellon, Brian Reid stepped into the long tradition of Computer Science geeks scratching their own itch, developing one of the first mark-up languages that allowed the author to describe a document structurally (chapters, paragraph, et cetera.), and to target different output devices (text, laser printer, etc.), and to externalize styles, presaging the later CSS style sheets.

Reid killed several birds with one stone. Scribe was the subject of his PhD Thesis, it formatted his PhD thesis (and many others for a few years), and was sold to Unilogic sparking the first software copyright problems between CMU and students, wining Reid the ACM Grace Hopper Award, and, of course, criticism from Richard Stallman1 for not making it available for free…some people :-)

I wound up using Scribe on the Ohio State DECsystem-20 and then being the SCRIBE administrator for the department of Mechanical Engineering for a year or two. As I had access to then-world-class formatting and typesetting facilities, Dad was no longer typing my papers :-)

5 Donald Knuth - TeX

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country (on a dark and stormy night?), Donald Knuth was (and still is) engaged in writing his foundational series of Computer Science textbooks, The Art of Computer Programming 2. But he was not happy with the appearance of the typesetting from his publisher, so, being Donald Knuth, he set out to write his own formatting and type-setting program c.a. 1978. The result was \(\TeX\). Along with TeX he developed Metafont, a language for describing fonts from which we get the Computer Modern fonts.

The current \(\TeX\) release is 3.14159265. Each subsequent release adds a digit of \(\pi\). Metafont is at 2.7182818 and approaching e with each release.

I installed the Pascal based TeX82 on the DEC10’s at CompuServe sometime around 1986.

6 Donald Knuth - Literate Programming

Not content with having won the Turning award in 1974 (4 years prior), with creating a typesetting system that is used to this day for a large fraction of academic publishing, alongside \(\TeX\) he came up with the concept of Literate Programming, the basic idea of which is you are writing a program both for humans and machines. The language was called WEB3. The basic process is to run “weave” to generate output for humans (say, a volume of the The Art of Computer Programming) and to run “tangle” to generate output (code) for machines.

We see elements of this today in Jupyter and Zeppelin notebooks, and for those of the Emacs-Org-mode faith, as the mix of Org Mode and Org Babel. See the paper by Domnick, Shculte etc on reproducible research: https://www.jstatsoft.org/article/view/v046i03

Org directly supports a form “tangle” today.

7 Guy Steele - the 1 degree of separation

Guy Steele who later went on to have a lot to do with Java (and standardizing C) seems to have been the 1-degree-of-separation point for Emacs, TeX, and possibly SCRIBE. As recently as https://emacsconf.org/2020/, Stallman credits Steele with helping invent Emacs. Per Wikipedia, Steele spent the summer of 78 at Stanford and later implemented a back-end for TeX at MIT. By 1980 or so (per my wife who knew him there) he was at CMU and Tartan Labs as Reid was finishing off SCRIBE and his thesis. The Stanford-Berkeley-MIT-CMU crowed was (is?) a small world. James Gosling (Java, GosMacs 1981) was also kicking around CMU before moving off to Sun.

8 Leslie Lamport - Latex

So, \(\TeX\) was cool and all, but it was very low level, and in some ways difficult to work with. People had seen SCRIBE. So at some point in the mid-80s, as SCRIBE was on its way to proprietary-software-oblivion, Leslie Lamport created \(\LaTeX\).

\(\LaTeX\) is, from my point of view, a set of SCRIBE-like macros on top of \(\TeX\). Very useful.

And because creators gonna create….along the way Lamport and Oren Patashink created BibTeX which is to this day one of the most common ways to keep a list of bibliographic references that can be cited in your papers.

If you’re curious what all this looks like, I keep my resume in .tex format4. You can see it here http://www.port111.com/george/resume/ along with the .bib file for citations and .tex input.

9 Bill Gates and the nameless corporate droids5 - WYSIAYG Editors

What You See Is All You Get (WYSIAYG) also known as What You See Is What You Get (WISIWYG) editors let you move pixels around on the screen and print exactly what you see. With no training at all in printing, typesetting, aesthetics, or design you can make wildly inconsistent and incoherent decisions about the visual appearance of your document, in fact, you (and your boss and your marketing department) can focus on that from the start to the exclusion of stringing together coherent thoughts.

I’m pretty sure SCRIBE and \(\LaTeX\) form the basis of my antipathy to the WYSIWIG editors that started to come along (mass market). When writing documents you should think first about what you are saying, the structure of your document, your arguments and your story line before you worry (if all) about making a font just the right size and color so you can make your power point. Formatting should be the afterthought, and no more than choosing the right style sheet. Brian Reed got that right.

10 Sir “Almost not appearing in this blog post” - RUNOFF and nroff

A couple honorable mentions that I did in fact use a good bit along the way are DEC RUNOFF (DEC 10s, VMS) and nroff (unix).

nroff comes in handy when you want to write man(1) pages.

11 Tim Berners-Lee - The Web

There was a time before the web. There were things written and published before the web. But since the early 90s it’s been the 800-pound gorilla in the living room.

There were other hyptertext systems before it. Apple’s HyperCard. The GNU/Emacs info system. There was, in fact, a whole academic conference on hypertext systems at which early versions of HTML/HTTP were scorned.

But NCSA Mosaic happened, Netscape happened (Marc Andreessen). The NCSA, Netscape and Apache servers happened. For various reasons, the World Wide Web took off in ways that gopher never did and Gemini probably never will. Stodgy XML editors were rebranded as exciting new HTML editors.

I attended the 2nd International Conference on Mosaic and the Web, met Berners-Lee, and implemented a never-released web browser that worked through CompuServe’s WinCIM which would have allowed dial-up users without an IP stack such as SLIP or PPP (most users at that time) to access the web. But marketing people. They were not sure this web thing was going to catch on….

12 Carsten Dominick - Org Mode - “Your Life in Plain Text”

Your blog post is text. Your email it text. Your slack (IRC) messages are text. Your documents are text. Your calendar and agenda are text. Your shopping lists are text. You TODO lists are text. Musical scores are texts. Poems are text. ASCII art is text. Source code is text. Data is text (json). The web is text (once you strip out all the graphics, videos, java and javascript…) At different levels YOU are text. Your DNA sequence is a text. The story of your life is a text.

There was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s where Emacs (the text editor) kind of went into a lull. Then two things happened: package managers (ELPA, MELPA, basically “apps” for emacs) and org mode.

Org mode is a game changer. It’s going to take me to my grave or senility where I forget the meta-alt-control-shift-escape sequences needed to make the magic happen, whichever comes first. People are learning an arcane 44-year old editor just to use org mode (and the growing list of packages being built in/with round it).

Org started as a simple text outline tool. It enabled Abraham Lincoln to write a short, pithy, and memorable speech:

* Hook
  Four score and seven years ago our fathers
  - brought forth on this continent, a new nation,
    o conceived in Liberty,
    o and dedicated to the proposition
      + that all men are created equal.
** Body
   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that
   nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long
*** Conclusion
    ...that government of the people, by the people, for the people,
    shall not perish from the earth.

OK, maybe not.

Carsten Dominick, the creator of Org, is an academic (Astronomy professor), he built in support for \(\LaTeX\) from the beginning. To use \(\LaTeX\) in Org, you simply write latex and math equations exactly as you would for “normal” \(\LaTeX\). If the back-end exporter (e.g. the \(\LaTeX\) exporter or the HTML exporter) support \(\LaTeX\), you just get your nicely formatted output for free

\begin{multline*} p(x) = x^8+x^7+x^6+x^5 \end{multline*}

Org documents can be easily exported to text (of course), \(\LaTeX\), HTML, .ODF (Microsoft Word compatible) and scores of others. Same input. 2 or 3 keystrokes. Different output.

Org naively supports TODO lists, outlines, agendas, planning (GTD and similar systems), note taking/knowledge capture, contact management, calendaring, spreadsheet-like calculations, literate programming and the list goes on.

Same basic interface. Same commands. Not a mouse-over, click or graphical interface in sight (unless you want it) Just text, all the way down.

And since it’s just text, it can be handled with source code management tools (git) and of course your favorite text editor.

There are mobile clients (see Orgzly) so you can simply push org text files to your phone with Dropbox or Syncthing and use them for TODO lists, quick note taking and journal entries, shopping lists, contact management, schedules, etc.

Oh, and ASCII art is a thing…

                                         /  \ "I'll see you on __
                 /\                     /   /  the text side  /  \
                /  \                   /       of the moon"  /   /
 -------R------/    \                _/_____       _______  /
 -------G-----/    --\-----W------- /       \ / \ /       \/
 -------B----/        \            |   Org   |   |  Mode   |
            /          \            \_______/     \_______/
Code Snippet 1: Text Colored Glasses

13 Johnny Cash - “I’ve seen ‘em come and go, and I’ve seen ‘em die..”

14 Steve Francia - Hugo

One last entry in the things-I-have-used-to-write lineup. The Hugo static web site generator is bringing you this blog.

The production of this blog combines many of the technologies and processes already discussed:

org mode
The actual source for this blog is a “normal” emacs org mode buffer which is exported via the ox-hugo backend
The ox-hugo exporter deals seamlessly with almost all org features, including \(\LaTeX\)7, footnotes, emphasis, etc.
Once the markdown is produced, Hugo does what it does. It uses style sheets, templates, themes etc to render the blog as HTML served up via a local web server for texting and to be pushed to the “live” web serer for production.
Focus on the content
And all of this is in the “don’t worry what it looks like, just focus on the content” mode. With 4 keystrokes I exported a copy of this post to .ODT format so my son could review it in word. A different 4 keystokes exports to text or HTML. I let the back-ends “do the right thing” to make it “look good” in the target format.
Once the results are satisfactory, they are “pushed to production” via git push. Problems? Need to back out? It’s git. Multiple authors? It’s git.

I described this process in way too much detail already elsewhere in my blog post on publishing a blog on Github with Org and Hugo.

15 George Jones - OK, but did George actually write anything worth reading?

You’ve read this far on a long blog post :-)

I may have written some things, well, a lot of things. You can decide if they are worth reading.

RFC3871 was a starry-eyed attempt at getting large network equipment vendors to, you know, stop using telnet (with plain-text passwords in the clear) for management of inconsequential computers like the routers that make up the Internet backbone. It used yet another cool text formatting tool, xml2rfc. In my opinion we lost the war, e.g. getting security features in important devices … and well … IOT devices are here now, many using the same least-cost TCP/IP stacks that are full of the same problems, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ripple20 and not up-gradable. It looks like the IETF OPSEC Working Group that that document spawned is still going, pumping out documents, and, I’m sure, in the words of Marshall Rose, there have been “Many fine lunches and dinners
Links to a few pubs, talks, papers, etc
Because 20 year old index.html files never die http://www.port111.com/george/#pubs

16 Back to paper

I used to have a saying:

If it requires paper, it’s the wrong interface.

I’m backtracking on that. I journal, on paper, most mornings. I’m finding that there is a level of creativity, spontaneity and a kind of catharsis that happens when putting things on paper. I make non-linear connections that would never be made at a keyboard.

I’m not sure what that’s saying. Stay open? Be willing to re-consider things you’ve discarded? There will be no follows. No likes. No re-shares. No chance of going viral. But its where I find my thoughts. Things have come full circle.

17 Final thoughts

I hope this has been at least an in interesting read. I hope it has provided at least some idea of where we are and how we got here in terms of technology for putting thoughts on “paper”.

18 And now, a word from our sponsor…

\begin{array}{*{20}c} {x = \frac{{ - b \pm \sqrt {b^2 - 4ac} }}{{2a}}} & {{\rm{when}}} & {ax^2 + bx + c = 0} \\ \end{array}

  1. This was several years before the start of the GNU project. ↩︎

  2. Knuth’s The Art Of Computer Programming is available on github. I’m not going to provide a link because when I went there and tried to view the site it crashed my browser and nearly froze my computer. My guess is Knuth just did something that was perfectly sensible from a theoretical view (maybe creating a 50 gig PDF), but which mere software chokes on. Computer Science classic texts as DOS attacks? Another unintended side effect. I wonder if MITRE ATT&CK has mapped that threat yet? ↩︎

  3. And, yes, Tim Berners-Lee was in academic circles then and could not have helped knowing about Knuth’s WEB … score naming the Word Wide Web as a side effect of a side effect for Knuth? ↩︎

  4. Actually, it’s in in an .org format with custom elisp code that implements cpp style ifdef logic for producing different output for the short resume, the long resume, linkedin, etc. off the same source, that creates latex on export which is then run through tex and friends to produce a pdf, but shhh. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. ↩︎

  5. “Bill Gates and the Nameless Corporate Droids” sounds like a fine name for a band, right up there with “The Dead Kennedys” ↩︎

  6. Oppressive governments and various other not-so-friendly motivations fall here as well. ↩︎

  7. once the layout/partials/head.html was fixed

    Posts 39, 40 and 41 of #100DaysToOffload https://100daystooffload.com/. This one was a production. It counts for 3. ↩︎