If you don’t want to send plain text email, don’t include a text/plain part

I received an email from American Express, which read:

INTUNIRCUPD0007

Yep, that was it. Upon further inspection, the email was multi-part which started as follows:


This is a multi-part MIME message.

--CQVGJcnHtdDpdAC6J2fqf8Hxwe10nXgbL49ikw==
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="UTF-8"
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit
Content-Disposition: inline

INTUNIRCUPD0007
--CQVGJcnHtdDpdAC6J2fqf8Hxwe10nXgbL49ikw==
Content-Type: text/html; charset="UTF-8"
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit
Content-Disposition: inline

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?> 
... [100 odd lines omitted] ....

So, American Express wants to send me an HTML formatted email. Fine. But why include the one line plain text blurb? Just omit it and let me, and others like me who prefer plain text email deal with it. Had I not been expected this email, I might have just deleted it without looking at the HTML version of it. Sigh!

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Those who know history find new ways to err

It is part of typesetting folklore that Donald Knuth was so upset on seeing the galley proofs of The Art of Computer Programming that he decided to write a computer program that followed the traditions of computer typesetting. And, hence, TeX was born.

For anyone who has to typeset math, TeX is the next best thing to sliced bread. I have been using TeX (in fact, LaTeX exclusively) to submit journal articles to IEEE journals. But it appears that in the race to become more adapted to online publishing, many journals are changing their publishing tools. And, in the case of IEEE, it appears that TeX is no longer in their tool chain.

I first noticed that something was amiss, when I was proof reading the galley proofs of a paper that was to appear in IEEE Transactions of Information Theory. I used \mathscr from the rsfs package to denote sets (as it is more ornate than \mathcal). The paper had an expression

\sum_{q \in \mathscr Q} ...

In the galley proof, the script Q in the subscript was of normalsize, rather than scriptsize. So, I pointed that out in my corrections. In the corrected version, the script Q was of a size between normalsize and scriptsize, which a comment from the typesetter that “we cannot make it smaller”. It is at that time that I realized that they were not using TeX. In fact, all mathematical symbols were inserted as images, which has two consequences:

  1. It throws accessibility out of the window. These days I read most papers on my iPad. It is a pain to annonate images (normal tools like highlight, underline, do not work with images).
  2. It increases the file size by a factor of 10. Just take a look at the average filesize for papers in the current issue (where the filesize is 2MB to 10MB) and early access papers (which are author preprints before they have been processed by the journal; for these the average filesize is 500-600kB).

Last month I went through another round of painful proof reading of galley proofs for a paper that is to appear in IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control. Again, all the math was converted to images, and the niceties of TeX, like the correct vertical location of : in \coloneqq were lost.

As an author, publishing in IEEE has become more painful for me (due to the typographic errors introduced by whatever software IEEE is using). As a reader, reading IEEE papers has become more painful for me (as I have to download papers that are 5x times bigger in size, and have math typeset as embedded images). Oh well, the irony of IEEE not accepting documents with Type 3 (bitmap) fonts is not lost on me.

This whole process makes me wonder, do we still need big publishers in this day and age of online publishing. Why should we, the authors that generate the content; the reviewers who verify it; the editors who carefully curtail it, offer our voluntary services to a big publisher like IEEE when we get nothing in return (no copy editing, no free open access). I wish I were in a field where I could publish exclusively with good publishers like SIAM and ACM (I have published once with SIAM; they actually copy edited the content and gave me the final TeX files when they were done), or in online journals like JMLR.

Some thoughts on lowering the learning curve for using TeX (part I)

TeX has a steep learning curve. Often times, steeper than it needs to be. Take, for example, the special characters in TeX. Almost every introduction to plain TeX, eplain, LaTeX, or ConTeXt has a section on these special characters

\ { } $ & # ^ _ & ~

A good introduction then goes on to explain why these special characters are important; sometimes dropping a hint about category codes. I feel that these details are useless and, at the user level, we should get rid of them.

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Chasing a moving target

The CDC 2010 deadline has been extended again, this time to April 2nd. First it was March 15th (the call for papers still says March 15th), then it got extended to March 30th (today), and now it has been extended to April 2nd. Seriously, why do conference organizers have to extend the submission deadline? I have heard that sometimes small conferences extend the submission deadline if they fail to receive sufficient papers. But surely a mammoth like CDC (last time I checked it had 1500 participants; my submitted paper has a submission number in late 900s) cannot have that problem. And this is not the first time that CDC has done this. I think that last year the deadline got extended by a month. Why?

I suspect that such extensions are requested by some big and powerful people who could not submit their papers on time. I cannot figure any other logical explanation 😦