Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Case of the Too-Skinny Worksheet (Or, the Girl Who Can Barely Be Trusted with the Administrator Password)

The plan was to create the handout for Monday's in-class activity. And while carefully written directions and pedagogical impact could be seen as important goals for this process, I was much more interested in ensuring that it was a very lovely handout and that its typesetting was clean and elegant. As I decided not to clutter it with images, I took out the \usepackage{graphics} declaration and retypeset.

ACK! IT TRANSFORMED ITSELF TO TALL AND SKINNY!!!!

Yes, this explains all the strange margin problems I have in Preview: My LaTeX was stuck in A4 mode! (Almost three years stuck in A4 mode and I never noticed? Ack, how clueless. My feeble defense is that I usually recycle all the header crap, and \usepackage{graphics} forces the page to letter size.)

I spent way too long trying to change it through my \documentclass[]{} options; neither letter nor lettersize worked. Now, don't get me wrong, I am fascinated by metric paper sizes and am trying to design a classroom activity for the gen-ed class that is based on them (to answer the students' complaint, "What's the square root of two good for anyway?"), and I would use them all the time if they were the paper sizes in my office machines. But no A4 in the photocopier = no A4 worksheets. Sure, I could have put back in the \usepackage{graphics}, but that seemed so... kludgy. I mean, I hate using \setcounter{enumi}{} when I need to interupt a list with some text. To use a package when a documentclass option should work? Never.

I panicked and started clicking madly at random.* The internet told me that I needed to use the i-Installer. I logged on to the administrator account on my machine, poked through the applications folder, and came up empty. (I did not think to check in Utilities; I just wanted my paper size fixed NOW.) I installed the newest verison of TexShop, hoping that I'd get some options. (No.) Eventually, Spotlight** came to my rescue.

This is one of the dangerous things about OS X. All that Unix power is usually hidden behind its happy, colorful, well-designed user interface. Normally people like me can not break anything by clicking madly. Important files are INVISIBLE to keep me from accidentally deleting them. Irreversible commands require you to type scary incantations into a Terminal window. People like me who can barely tell a shell script from a seashell are kept a safe distance away from the operating system. This is where i-Installer comes in: it brings the power to seriously break the machine into a point-and-click interface where the sparse instructions were written by someone whose first language is not English. At one point the directions said something like, "If you're modifying this, then you probably know what you're doing, so you don't need directions."

There were errors with cryptic messages, but the machine assured me that they were not "fatal," and now the handout is 8.5" by 11". The whole process, start to finish, only took me 2 hours.*** I think that's plenty of work on the handout for one day.


*Yes, I was totally obsessed with fixing the paper size IMMEDIATELY. Yes, I am totally neurotic. Shut up!

**Spotlight is yet another incarnation of the problem that the Finder doesn't find very well; I hate Spotlight.

***This included assorted system updating that the machine guilted me into.