Herbert Voß

(completed 2010-08-31);

Herbert is best known for his work with PSTricks and his German language books documenting LaTeX, etc.

 

 

Dave Walden, interviewer:     Please tell me a bit about yourself independent of TeX.

Herbert Voß, interviewee:     I was born in 1949 in a very small village in Lower Saxony near Hannover. At the age of 4 my family moved to Wolfsburg, the city where the Volkswagen company is located. After 7 years the company built a new factory in Hannover, the reason why we moved into this city. When I left school I worked as an electrician at the local transportation company. After 3 years I began to study electrical engineering in Hannover. In 1970 I moved to the Technical University in Berlin and got a degree as a Diplom Ingenieur in power electronics. My main focus was the theory of power electronic circuits for cars driven by an electric motor. In my study and later in my institute where I got the Dr.-Ing., we always used HP pocket calculators and assembler language for programming the computers. For this reason I am very familiar with stack oriented languages like PostScript.

After the university I worked for one year in researching and developing traction systems for electrical railways. After that I moved into a German high school as a teacher for physics, mathematics and information science. I had a lot of experiences with languages: ASSEMBLER/BASIC/ALGOL/FORTRAN/PASCAL/JAVA.

DW:     How did you first come in contact with TeX?

HV:     In 1995 my neighbor, a medical doctor, showed me the German translation of Lamport's book and gave me 32 (if I remember well) floppy disks with the emTeX system. The first created documents looked very impressive. I tried to install it at school but I failed. Later, one of my fellows at school showed me LyX, running under Linux with the first teTeX. With this system I wrote the manuscript of a book. This was the time that I started in taking part in developing LyX, especially in supporting the graphic import of the program. To understand what exactly had to be done, I had to understand and to learn LaTeX. My fellow teacher then showed me the graphic of a mathematical function plotted with PSTricks, which he got from another colleague at the university...and the rest of this story is well known...

DW:     The rest of the story is not well known to me. What led you to start being the person who works on PSTricks, extending it so far beyond van Zandt's original? In other works, please tell me about the evolution of your work on PSTricks.

HV:     When I first had a look into the code of the PSTricks packages I saw that it was a combination of TeX and PostScript. The latter was no problem, but I had to learn the TeX code and to understand the interface between TeX and PostScript. At that time Timothy Van Zandt had already stopped his work on PSTricks as had Sebastian Rahtz who was another of the guys who kept PSTricks alive. The only person who really knew how all that worked was Denis Girou. He gave a lot of help to all the people who had problems with PSTricks, and he also started to update the documentation. My first package was pst-optic, which I need for my students for the lessons in basic optics. Then I helped Manuel Luque, who was the one who created the first 3D packages, to put it all in proper packages for TeX and LaTeX users. Together with Rolf Niepraschk we also created the LaTeX interface pstricks.sty.

One day Denis Girou was lost in “outer space” and nobody knew what happened. This is the negative part of the virtual world; you cannot go straight to your neighbor and ask what's going on. To let PSTricks to still be alive, I took over the maintainership. As a teacher for mathematics and physics, I needed a lot of images for my papers, which I collected in a private web site. The website was then made public and is now the main PSTricks web site hosted by tug.org: http://PSTricks.tug.org

In the next few years I made all packages compatible to the use of xkeyval. The basic PSTricks packages used its own key/value handling which was not compatible with other ones which use keyval or xkeyval.

In the meantime the PSTricks community grew and so did the number of package authors. Especially Manuel Luque created a lot of solutions for special problems. The latest packages are pst-solides3d (for creating 3D images including the possibility of hidden lines and hidden surfaces), pst-magneticfield, and pst-electricfield.

DW:     Please tell me about the beginning, evolution and scope of your involvement in DANTE. Among other things, you are involved with DANTE's journal, are you not?

HV:     I cannot really remember when I first heard of DANTE but it must be in the beginning of the 90s. I asked DANTE for help sponsoring the LyX project. At that time I became a member of DANTE. The former editor of the DANTE journal asked for help in reviewing and correcting articles. I have been interested in reading and writing since my youth so being a member of the editorial board was more fun than work for me. Some years later the current editor asked me to take over his work as an editor and I gave my ok. My wife always says that I have a problem with saying no... :-)

DW:     What are the packages hvfloat and hvindex for?

HV:     These packages were only a playground for me and they support only my own writing of books. The hvfloat package simplifies using floats with rotated or side-by-side captions; and hvindex allows one to write \Index{foo!bar} which is less work than writing bar\index{foo!bar}.

DW:     I've noticed recently three long articles by you: (1) your article in the first TUGboat issue of 2010, (2) your article presented at TUG 2010, and (3) your Math Mode article. I've also noticed on Amazon that you appear to have four English language books coming out soon. More generally, it seems that you are massively involved in documenting TeX, LaTeX, etc., in German and English — going beyond documenting your own developments. What is the background that has led to such significant efforts?

HV:     The main motivation is writing, which I've done since I learned it at school...  My first book (Chaos and Fractals) I wrote with WordStar, and it was then migrated into WinWord with better formatting but more pain. The next book (Cryptology with Java) was done with LyX with less pain but a lot of work in the end. And from then on I wrote all books with LaTeX, with much less pain and only some work in the end. My main goal in writing books is to understand how things happen and how I can explain it, to have my own manual.

It was Klaus Höppner, who asked me to write a book for PSTricks. Together with Lehmanns bookstore DANTE started its own series, the so-called DANTE Edition. The main purpose is to create books about the TeX family which are not expensive. The first book in this series was KOMA-Script. DANTE members get all these books for a lower price than nonmembers do in a book store. Nobody knows that more than 5,000 copies of the PSTricks book will have been printed from the first edition in 2004 to the upcoming 6th edition. PSTricks users asked for an English translation of the book. I asked Frank Mittelbach if Addison Wesley might be interested in publishing it. Frank said that it could be a good idea and that we should integrate it into a new edition of the Graphics Companion. And so we did, and the PSTricks chapter has about 250 pages. However, users are still asking for a translation of the nearly 1,000 pages of the German edition. Niall Manfield from UIT in Cambridge/UK was interested in translating all books of the DANTE Edition into English. It took more than a year to translate some books, which I could not do by myself, because reading and writing in a foreign language are two different things, at least for me... With big help from Lars Kotthoff, who is working at the University of Edinburgh, we translated the manuscript which will be printed in the next few months and available world wide from UIT.

DW:     That is an impressive story. I look forward to seeing the books in English.

Given the impressive list and variety of your activities that we have already touched upon, it occurs to me to ask, do you have a systematic plan for what you are going to work on and scheduling your work so it gets done?

HV:     Not really, it is more like a chaotic behaviour. It starts always with something I am interested in, e.g., using the ghostscript library for LuaTeX, such that we can use PostScript related code in the same way as using MetaPost with the metapost library from Taco Hoekwater (\begin{metapost} ... \end{metapost}). Another one is to use Biber as a replacement for BibTeX but in contrast to biblatex also using the style file as a Perl module, to make modifications of styles easier. Sometimes I can solve such interesting problems in a couple of days and sometimes in years and, of course, sometimes never... But as long as such a topic is in my brain, I'll try to solve it. Everybody knows that trying to find a solution to an existing problem also produces some new interesting questions. It is more like an endless loop without an exit function...

DW:     Can you give us a hint about what other interesting developments and documentation will be coming in the next year or two?

HV:     I hope to finish the English translation of all books from the DANTE Edition by next year and also the capability for using Biber with Perl style files. A manuscript for Bibliographies with LaTeX was already finished, but new versions of biblatex and also Biber changed their behaviour, and I had to rewrite a chapter. Another effort also in the pipe is Scientific Writing with LaTeX for Beginners. The main problem is more or less the unexpected success of the DANTE Edition. When I finished a new edition of one book, the next one is already waiting... However, this is more like a nice problem to have. In German we say, “If you do not have other problems, then you don't have a real problem.”

DW:     Thank you for participating in our interview series. With so much else that you do, I am very pleased that you could fit it in.

HV:     You're welcome and hope to see you in Cairo next year...


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