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Comments Done, Done in LaTeX

FDA comments have finished, so a brief write-up about LaTeX.

Yesterday the comment period ended. So today I am not writing about ecigs. I’ll write briefly about LaTeX.

First, I write these posts in markdown. I’m a fan and enemy of document composition software. I don’t usually write in a word processor, as they tend to have lots of things I don’t use that get in my way. I’ve written in Docbook, an XML format, which was nice except it’s XML, which tends to get in the way. You could probably use a WYSIWYG frontend for it, but then you have two problems.

Markdown is nice and simple. But not very powerful for advanced purposes. So I’ve been dabbling in LaTeX, and wrote my comments to the FDA in it. There are packages for just about everything, and I only ran into minor hiccups. For the most part the TeX macros don’t clutter up too much, and it’s easy to write your macros own for repetitive phrases or words that would be otherwise distracting to the writing process.

And then there’s LuaLaTeX, which even lets you script things in Lua. I didn’t use that in my FDA comments, but have used it in some of the other documents I’ve written.

One of the really nice things about LaTeX is that you can easily break the document up into smaller chunks and edit them separately. One of the not-so-nice things re: documents in a legal context is the lack of a citations package that supports the American legal citation style. Luckily I avoided citing any cases and only a few laws.

As I understand it, the American legal citation style is too complex to be represented in software. Or rather, in the human mind that would need to turn it into software. Oh well.

LaTeX has other things going for it. It renders to PDF quite well, which makes it nicer to read, and automating that rendering gives you an effectively real-time view. You can specify custom hyphenations for words, and some professional journals spit out pre-formatted citations for it.

But my favorite thing is still that, from a document preparation standpoint, I don’t have to stare at XML. There’s just something inherently inelegant about the XML format. Maybe it’s all the pointy brackets. You feel like the imaginary gravity that holds characters on the surface of your monitor could shut off, and you would be assaulted by a thousand points of light.

What about HTML? Most of the editing is done away from the actual markup, and the markup comes in little chunks. Maybe that is an argument for editing Docbook through an editor or better automation of the markup similar to HTML.

Anyway, that’s what I have today. Glad to have the whole FDA thing off my plate. I clocked in at around 65 pages in total. Hope it helps.

The Great Gatsby: Copyright 1925

The public domain matters, damn it.

EFF: Why Isn’t Gatsby in the Public Domain? raises some good points about the dire need for copyright reform. I’m just going to throw some other ideas out here.

A growing public domain could have changed the 20th century. Small publishers could have subsidized the publication of works that did not meet the demand of the large publishers. That is, by publishing old, popular works, many new works could have been published.

One of the key things we must think about with copyright: why do we pay at all for any creative work? One reason is to support the artists and thinkers. Another is to avoid lawsuits, I suppose. But is not one of the reasons for us to pay for these works the expectation that we will one day have them in the public domain? We lose part of our payment to the wind, as it were. We see part of our payment be in vain.

Another thing to consider, what happens to the copyright of a work if everyone owned a copy? Would it be enforceable to take someone to court for giving a copy to someone that already had one? Or if there were no copy of a work, other than inside someone’s head (eg, The Book of Eli), could that person be held liable for making a copy where no tangible copy existed?

As for The Great Gatsby I find it inappropriate to consider that work to be copyrighted. With works like it, we certainly move toward a place where we as society should simply ignore the law. Take the opening of the book:


One advantage that Fitzgerald had in his life, which has dissipated since, was a bountiful public domain. How many works have been lost due to the lack of the inspiration and free-flow of information that the public domain should offer? How much drier would Wikipedia be without the public domain?

Should we continue to play the role of Gatsby, trying to our death to win the affection of the money-filled voices of the owners of fine art? That is the path we are on today.

How many pieces of art do you engage with per day? The music you listen to, the clothing you wear, the screens and frames in your life, movies, television, theater, all around you art is pervasive.

But what if the leaves never fell in the fall? How quickly these great trees would splinter and thrash to dust under their own weight.

The lack of a public domain is the societal equivalent to wearing earplugs and nose plugs and a coating of plastic on our tongues. Thick gloves and cataracts.

We deprive ourselves of the discoveries and connectedness, the intertext. How would religion be impacted if all of the variations of the various holy books survived intact? Would we find a version of the myths that contained humorous incidents long forgotten?

The minimal money being made off such old works pales the amounts to be made if the rest of the works enter the public domain before they are lost for good. We live in an world of information, our economies rely on it, and yet we do not embrace its spread, ever fearful of losing control.

We must stop being Jay Gatsby, or we will be floating before we know what hit us.

Language and Emotion

More thoughts of speech, communities, etc.

One trick candle on the Open Source/Tech community’s cake has always been inclusiveness vs. culture. Every few ticks it reignites, sending the partiers scurrying, trying to decide why that damn candle keeps combusting, what to do about it.

Let’s say you adopt an old sled dog, and it has this habit of running to the right every time you exclaim, “gee!” And you scold the dog, “dummy, why you do that?”

So let’s say you have a developer, and they’re trying to express themselves well for a presentation. They have some aesthetic philosophy for presentations, some learned directly and some by the experience of seeing things that seemed appealing to them.

They want to make their work humorous, knowing that humor helps people to learn and remember and pay attention. And they want to use strong language, because saying something like, “maybe, if you think you might possibly need your data at some potential future time, you could probably store it on a hard drive, thumb drive, or some other long-term storage medium, if you want to,” happens to be a poor use of language.

They want it direct, they want their words to punch the listener, to motivate real action and progress. “Wake up! Stop storing everything since 1970 in volatile memory! If our boxen crash, we won’t even know who won the last Supergame!”

Or they have a hard go of making some esoteric subject like How to Whitespace Your Cascading Style Sheets funny. They find that after their third “tab” pun, it’s sounding a bit stale and lame. They write code, manage coders. They aren’t pro comics. Most of the humor they’ve directly experienced in their lives have been in private conversations with other people of the same groups, and the major direction of that humor has been group solidarity and reinforcing group behavior.

You also run into outsiders of the culture, unfamiliar with the cultural context of some of the language and behaviors.

But willing these cultures out of existence will fail. Replace them, that’s the key.

The problem: replace them with what? You need roughly a one-to-one mapping of terms. And your terms have to be bolder, stronger somehow, than their inferiors.

Let’s say the word is butthead. The person chose a term offensive to people with butts for heads, or whatever. “Don’t be a butthead, have your editor make whitespace visible to ensure you don’t leave any excess.”

Butthead, a pretty rough word. The audience would look up, seeing the glint in the speaker’s eye as they said it. They would say, “I do not want to be a butthead, did you see that glint! I will always check if I’m leaving excess whitespace in my styles!” They will create plugins for their editors, to add an icon of a butthead in the corner if the “make whitespace visible” option is turned off. There will be a parade in the speaker’s honor.

But no, it is not to be, butthead is potentially offensive. Our hero requires a replacement, equally strong but without the cultural baggage attached. Where might such a word be found? A thesaurus?

ass, asshead, badaud, bakehead, beetlehead, block, blockhead, blubberhead, blunderhead, bonehead, boob, booby, bullhead, cabbagehead, calf, chowderhead, chucklehead, chump, clod, clodhopper, clodpate, clodpole, dizzard, dolt, domnoddy, donkey, doodle, dope, dotard, doughhead, duffer, dullard, dullhead, dully, dumb-bunny, dumbbell, dumbhead, dumby, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, flat, fool, foozle, gabby, gaby, galoot, gawk, git, goof, goon, gowk, idiot, ignoramus, imbecile, jackass, jerk, jobbernowl, jolthead, knucklehead, loggerhead, looby, loon, lout, lubber, lummox, lunkhead, mooncalf, mutt, muttonhead, nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nitwit, noddy, nonny, noodle, noodlehead, numbskull, numskull, oaf, pumpkinhead, put, rube, sap, saphead, sawney, schlemiel, shallowbrain, shallowpate, simpleton, soft, softhead, softy, sop, sot, squarehead, stick, stock, stupid, stupidhead, swab, thickhead, thickskull, thickwit, tomfool, tommy noddy, twit, wiseacre, witling, woodenhead, yokel, zany

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That list omits a lot of other terms, and doesn’t attempt to include modern terms like lamer or luser, some of which come specialized from specific fields and subcultures.

Maybe the speaker can find an appropriate replacement. That’s the challenge: a term that beats the most salient term the speaker had, while keeping in the realm of understanding of the audience. But the challenge goes further. If every time someone wants to use strong language they must wade through a sea of words, the cognitive cost for just composing a simple sentence becomes too dear.

Instead the challenge morphs into finding good replacements and using them. Akin to running a business to supplant the market leader, the new terminology must exceed the old terms’ cultural expectations and desired traits.

This challenge reminds me somewhat of the various online communities I have encountered over time with bars on swearing or use of explicit language. They implement this as a filter: the incoming text is scanned against a list of offending terms, and offending terms are replaced with placeholder characters. They never publish a list of terms, and the kids always find circumventions, either through unicode/encoding methods, or finding terms that are not censored but are just as explicit as those that are.

But ultimately this is a matter for an evolving culture to deal with. It’s entirely healthy for offended people to speak up. Calling for heads to roll doesn’t do much good unless the offense is particularly direct and dire (eg, they insulted someone directly without provocation and in a manner that constitutes an attack). But calling for more thoughtfulness is always in order. Calling for renewal of the community bonds is appropriate.

It’s not appropriate to seek to silence the critics of the critics. Devolving into a them versus us mentality in a motion that was predicated on increasing inclusiveness is ridiculous. Again, unless the circumstances were a very direct attack upon an individual or a class of people.

In general, people should be educated about the limitations of the First Amendment, as argued and decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (at least, for communities primarily located there), in order to understand some of the ideas that are essential to what constitutes the improper use of speech. These don’t apply directly to all speech, as communities have their own standards, but that itself is part of the Court’s calculus re: obscenity.