Problems with LyX #1

This is the first article in a possibly ongoing series documenting the problems in LyX that I’ve had to debug for people in my department. If you’re not a LyX or LaTeX user, there won’t be much to interest you here.

I’m a LaTeX guy through and through, and while I would never think of writing in LyX myself, I can totally appreciate that “normal” people find LyX much more approachable (and easier!) than LaTeX. Nonetheless, LyX is a rather leaky abstraction, and most errors that people have are due to their complete lack of understanding of the underlying LaTeX layer. In my limited experience.

That’s okay; LyX is free software and they can’t afford to test on beginners. I’m sure heavy LyX users (and the developers) don’t run into the same problems that I have to solve, because they know what they’re doing and don’t make the same mistakes. At the same time, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that sometimes their knowledge of LaTeX isn’t as comprehensive as someone like me who actually writes documents and programs packages in it.

Now, the errors I report here are necessarily vague and don’t pin down problems very well. That’s because I can’t afford to spend any more time on this at all. That said, if contacted directly I’ll do my best to reply quickly and in as much detail as I can. Here we go:

  • Please make it much easier to insert a floating graphic; it’s the 99% case and should be a single action in the GUI. New users see “Insert graphic” (or whatever it says) and paste it inline in their document. If it were wrapped in a float, they’d get what they actually wanted.

  • Especially in maths mode, if non-existent macros are typed they shouldn’t be displayed in a pretty way. For example, I had a user who was used to typing “\alpha” to get greek type slashes before all roman characters in maths (e.g., “\x”). The visual display in this case (simply an italic “x”) implied that this was legal when it in fact produced sometimes complicated errors (in the case that an accent macro was typed such as, say, \i).

  • The prettyref package for automatically formatted cross-references is basically the worst choice from a variety of packages that do this function. Use the refstyle package instead.

  • If there is no bibliography inserted in the document, please prompt for one (with explanation) if a citation is attempted. It’s not obvious that you have to insert a bibliography before you’re allowed to reference citations (the logical flow is the other way around: I cite a paper and a bibliography is created from that). Adopting the biblatex package and putting the \bibliography{} into the preamble would help things in this regard.

  • File paths seem to continue to be a big problem. Yes, it offends my sensibilities when people use analphabetic characters in the directory names (not to mention spaces), but these damn users are just doing what the OS allows. If putting a LyX file inside the folder “# New Stuff/” causes the compilation to fail, then it should either protect the path better or just tell the user straight up to rename the folder.

  • This may no longer even be a problem, but a while back it was fiendishly annoying debugging a problem where something like “vector $[a,b,c]$” was put inside a subfigure caption. The reason? Subfigure captions are input in LaTeX in square brackets, so any square brackets in the caption need to be hidden from the parsing. LyX should automatically wrap the subfigure caption with curly braces behind the scenes.

That’s all for now. That these are only minor details, which is a testament to the highly useable state the LyX team have brought their program over the years. Here’s to a brighter future yet.

Naming in a bibliography

So, how should it look? The bibliography, I mean. Is it the author or the work that is the most important aspect of the citation? In other words, how much emphasis should be placed on the name? Here are (most of) the possibilities for representing people’s names, let alone the rest of the citation information. Enumerating the types has helped me decide on a style for my thesis.

The default for the biblatex package is to place the first author’s last name first, which makes the bibliography look more obviously alphabetised:

Robertson, Will S., Ben S. Cazzolato, and Anthony C. Zander

This is a nice example but I don’t think it’s helpful for displaying the names more clearly. All last names first removes the inconsistency of reversing the name order of the first author only:

Robertson, Will S., Cazzolato, Ben S., and Zander, Anthony C.

In all of these “full name” cases, I’d prefer to use the European tradition of printing the last names in small caps for emphasis.

Will S. Robertson, Ben S. Cazzolato, and Anthony C. Zander

But maybe first names don’t matter, and should be normalised away to single initials:

Robertson, W. S., Cazzolato, B. S., and Zander, A. C. (*)


W. S. Robertson, B. S. Cazzolato, and A. C. Zander

With names in initialised form, it just doesn’t work to have mixed name orders: (The possibility of too many adjacent initials.)

Robertson, W. S., B. S. Cazzolato, and A. C. Zander

I’m inclined to favour the starred example above. Mostly because full first names aren’t always supplied by authors (or the references to them), so without the “initialisation” you’d get a mix of full first names and initials between different entries in the bibliography.

The counter-argument here is that bibliographic databases should always provide first names to avoid problems of author ambiguity, but this is a printed bibliography we’re talking about, not a bibliographic database. Nice to be concise.

And really, it is the work that’s important. The authors of the paper provide, perhaps, a taste of the authority the paper might hold, but whether it’s interesting to chase up should rest entirely on how it’s being referenced in the work in which it is cited.


Improving iTunes’ “Podcast Information” window

Open a playlist that contains podcasts and turn on the “Description” column in the “View Options”. Each item in this column contains a circled “i” icon that opens up the “Podcast Information” window.

I have two small suggestions to improve this window:

  • There should be a way to open/show this window with a keyboard shortcut, and (optionally) a menu item as well. Shift+Cmd+I is a suitable candidate (and this shortcut could also toggle the visibility; that is, hide the window when it is already visible).

  • Only the selected row should display the icon to minimise the visual clutter of displaying this icon on every row. This is analogous to the “iTunes Store” links that are displayed in the respective name/artist/album rows when viewing music listings.

This is Apple “bug” #6075588.


The New Yorker’s (now) curly quotes

Say, whaddya know?


Now that’s much more attractive.


Expensive connectivity

Okay, look. I know that Australia is a technological wasteland and it is damned expensive to have us connected to the global grid because we’re so far away from everywhere. Download limits on our internet, and all that (I’m currently allowed 11GB per month for which I pay AUS$45). Read Neil Stephenson’s ridiculously long and entertaining article on undersea data cables (“Mother Earth Mother Board”) for some insight on why it’s expensive to get internet down under.

It’s always been expensive to access the internet in Australia. Our first plan when I was a teenager cost $5 per hour at 14.4 kbps. These crazy prices were always initiated by our national carrier, Telstra, who charges through the roof and caters only to those who don’t have the time or energy to shop around to the cheaper alternatives. Or who live in regional areas.

Yes, Telstra does a lot of infrastructure work, including having to cater to this regional population that’s not huge in number but spread over an enormous area — think trying to economically provide internet to every resident of New York City but spread them over the entire land mass of America. Not an easy, or cheap, problem.

Nonetheless, there are competitors to Telstra (in the civilised parts of the country) that manage not to charge ludicrous amounts for their services. To use the example above of how much I pay for internet at the moment, the equivalent Telstra plan by price is $40/month which gives me paltry 400MB and 15¢ per MB after that. OUCH.

To be fair, paying $90/month is pretty much the same as my current $45 plan, so it’s only twice as expensive at the higher end of the scale.

On that note, let’s look at Telstra’s new rates for iPhone 3G. There’s a story in The Australian that compares the different carriers in more detail. Well, here’s the simplified look:

Carrier   Cost      Calls    Data
Telstra   $80/mth   $ 70      5 MB
Optus     $79/mth   $550    700 MB

What. The. Fuck. That’s orders of magnitude difference, even after considering that the per-minute rate for calls is about 30% cheaper on Telstra. The article is bang on the money as to the reasons behind this huge pricing chasm:

… the low data capacity has been included to protect Telstra’s walled garden of online content.

The day that big telcos get out of the services game and realise that their purpose in life should be to make money in connectivity, and that’s it, will be a happier day for everyone. Just let me pay for bits from where-ever, and compete doing that the cheapest and fastest and most agnostic way possible. We don’t want to buy goods from an ISP.