Thursday, April 13, 2006
I was going to title this post "kids and LaTeX a good match" but thought that the it might get unwanted attention of several varieties from Charlottetown police who might not be familiar with computerized typesetting systems.
I came across this classic article last night: Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient. It argues that when you combine the visual formatting task with the content creation task you end up with a muddled mess, which makes things ugly and inconsistent-looking and also kills the train of thought of the writer.
What I realized was that kids these days are being taught, completely by accident, to write in a much better way. Because of the ubiquity of HTML in email and LiveJournals and MySpace pages and blogs and comments and message boards, kids are intimately familiar with marking up text with different attributes, and learning to work in a simpler view than what the final published version will look like.
I would bet that if you sat a kid down at a computer and told him or her to write a story and use formatting to make it look good, that the kid who is told to do it in HTML will work much more efficiently than the one plopped down in front of Microsoft Word and made to navigate the toolbars and menus and dialog boxes to find the different options, and praying to God all the while that he doesn't click the one wrong option that might casue the whole program to start acting completely weirdly.
Using markup (or markdown as it were) forces the user to start from nothing and only learn the things that he or she needs to do. Throwing a whole screen full of tweakable options at them when the start makes for an ugly interface and the feeling of not knowing where to start. It would be like giving a kid in grade one a graphic calculator and telling them to use it to add a series of numbers.
So there's room now, I think, for an enterprising individual to make a word processing program designed to meet the sensibilities and mindset of the MySpace generation, with 'preview' and 'publish' functions, and actually using style sheets to their full potential. There are many editors now that separate the content from the look and feel, but they're all targed at crusty old Unix geezers.