Sunday, January 3, 2021

LaTex, a curse and a blessing

I've been making teaching materials on computers for over 25 years. Maybe 15 years ago, I was introduced to MathType, and it made my equations so much nicer. Now it doesn't work with Word, and you have to pay a yearly fee. No thanks. It seems crazy to me that MS Word doesn't have a better equation editor. (I don't really remember what I don't like about it, but I think it has annoyed me lots over the years.)

I got a new computer in the Spring, and since then, whenever I need to make a formula, I've been using my old computer with an old version of Word, and my very old copy of MathType. Today I wondered if it was time to bite the bullet, and make a quiz using LaTex.

I've tried to learn a bit of Latex a number of times before, and it just felt overwhelmingly weird. I especially hated that I couldn't see what I was doing. This time was better in a number of ways. First, my colleague showed me overleaf, where I can see what I'm doing. You can choose split screen, and hit recompile after every little change.

The next thing that helped was that I got a bunch of materials from the author of the book I'll be using. (Oscar Levin, Discrete Mathematics: An Open Introduction.) I used those as templates for my own work. I deleted what I didn't want, and began to add what I did want. (If you want to learn LaTEx (or TEx), and you don't have a bunch of materials someone else made that you can modify, this quiz template might be helpful.)

The reason I was using LaTex was the equations, but that was one of the things I didn't know how to do. This site, codecogs, came to the rescue!

I also needed to include an image of a Venn diagram. I read up (googled latex image), tried to do what they said, and my image ended up in a weird place, next to the questions. I guessed, and added a line that I saw in other places in my documents from Levin (\vskip 1em). I figure that's a vertical skip. I have no idea what the 1em is. (I tried 5em for more space. Nope.) It worked!

But the image was still too big. Read up again, use [scale=0.5], put it in the wrong place, so it doesn't work. Figure out the right position, it works! And now the image doesn't look right hanging out on the left. I read up, use "the centered environment," and it is all just prefect!

Here's the centering:


That took me over an hour. (Maybe two.) I made a second version of that quiz in ten minutes.


I'm learning...


Does LaTex seem way too complicated, but it still might be the answer to your problems?

  • Use a simple environment like overleaf where the split screen lets you see what you've done.
  • Start with a template you can modify.
  • Use something simple like codecogs to build your equations.
  • google your questions.

Good luck!


  1. LaTeX has a bit of a startup curve, but it is amazingly valuable for anything that includes math. It should be required of all math majors. (I didn't learn it as a math major, but that was before TeX existed—I did learn TeX as soon as it existed around 1978.) I require all my engineering students to do all their design reports in LaTeX—it is much, much better than Word for anything technical.

    One nice thing about TeX is that the underlying language was frozen decades ago and put in the public domain, so you don't have to worry about the stuff you do in it becoming unusable because some company decides to give up on it.

    The overleaf documentation is pretty good, and Googling most LaTeX questions will get good answers. I recommend the tutorial for middle-school students at

    1. Dear GSWP, It is so good to hear from you! A tutorial for Middle School students sounds like just my speed (when it comes to LaTex). I will check that out. Thanks.

  2. Codecogs is such a handy tool! I haven't tried to make a whole quiz, but when I need an equation on my blog, I can make it on the website and export a nice image.

  3. Yeah, I've used codecogs a few times before. But it wasn't really solidly in my memory as a tool I'd use on a regular basis. Now maybe it will be.

  4. It's been a while since I commented to you Sue. Until this day You were my 1st and only Instructor/Professor that made me want to engage in Math, or Maths. Sincerely, the former student guy from the Hotel in Miskegon. I still miss the Spinach Calzones from "Natures Bakery" in Wisconsin across the Lake. Never forget Susan You have a Magnificent Impact of Positivity to others.

  5. I sure wish you would send me email. My email is suevanhattum on the hotmail system. (I have to write it that way so bots don't get it. But you know how to fix that, right?) Please email me, so we can chat. I'd like to hear how you're doing.

  6. (evil) guest:

    I remember being pushed to mess with latex twenty years ago. I blew it off. Word did all I needed. And I saw the new language people always taking several hours to fiddle with format, while I just cranked papers. I did use the MS equation editor though. But chemistry is less demanding than math. Higher text to equation ratio.

    There seemed something oddly cultish about the Tex pushers then. And still does!

    Conversely, I picked up Fortran very quickly. It's very similar to Basic, really. And I only dealt with it when I needed to. Legacy code for science apps.


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