Boris Veytsman

[completed 2011-01-19]

Boris Veytsman has written and maintains many LaTeX and font-related packages and recently joined the TUG Board of Directors.



Dave Walden, interviewer:     Please tell me a bit about yourself, your hobbies, and so forth.

Boris Veytsman, interviewee:     I was born in Odessa, then USSR, and later Ukraine. I got my undergraduate degree, and then PhD from the Odessa National University.

I am a theoretical physicist by training, and I owe a lot to my physics teachers, from grade school to graduate school. I did many things in my life, but they are more or less related to the general idea of understanding the world in mathematical terms — and then teaching others this understanding.

I worked in engineering companies, research institutes, universities and schools. Now I am employed by a high tech company, involved in air traffic modeling and management. I also do some part time research and occasional teaching in the local university — plus some TeX consulting. My research interests are really scattered around: from complex liquids to mathematical genetics to neurology.

I think I am incredibly lucky because I always have been enjoying what I did for a living. You ask about hobbies; sometimes I think that everything I do is a hobby. If you want a hobby in the strict sense of the word — I play Russian style trivia tournaments and support their web pages.

I am married; our son Max is finishing his undergraduate course in the University of Toronto. My wife Maria is a mathematician by training; she works as an engineer, and is an avid ballroom dancer. She plays trivia tournaments with me. Max chose computer science and mathematics.

DW:     How did you first become involved with TeX?

BV:     I started to write (and publish) scientific texts in the pre-computer era. My first paper (and my thesis) was typed on a typewriter with the equations inked in by my wife (my handwriting was never up to the task). Then I discovered Chiwriter and used it a lot — but the quality of output and the ease of use was not good. The same can be said about MS Word Equation Editor, which I also used for some time. In 1994 my colleague at Penn State, where I was a visiting professor, showed me TeX — and I immediately fell in love with its elegance and quality. I think it was OzTeX for Macintosh — a great distribution.

I found out that I can write TeX expressions very fast, almost with the same speed I write them in long hand. Thus I solved a problem that bugged me for a long time: my notes were unreadable even for me because of my awful handwriting. I started to store my calculations and notes in TeX, and now most of my work hours are spent in editing TeX files in an Emacs window.

I started to customize my environment and this led me to TeX programming. My first TeX package (envlab) was written because I wanted to address my envelopes automatically. Actually all my first packages were caused by some need — for example, a journal requirement to create an index of notation used in equations led to nomencl package, etc.

Our son took this love for TeX from me: at the age of eight he wrote his first book (a short novel) completely in LaTeX. He still sometimes calls me with TeX questions.

DW:     What brought you to the United States?

BV:     In the end of 1992, after I got my degree and published a couple of papers, I got an invitation from Penn State for a position of Visiting Professor — basically a glorified postdoc. We (my wife, our then four-year-old son and I) thought it would be a relatively short stay — one or two years. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union the new states found that they did not have resources or will to support science and technology on the same level as in the USSR. Many people changed their careers: for example, my Quantum Mechanics teacher became a very successful banker. Actually he told me he always wanted to be a banker, but under the Socialist regime there was much more fun in science than in banking. Unfortunately, I never wanted to become a banker or a full time businessman. Anyway, my position in Odessa was eliminated, and there was not much for me to do back there. We decided to stay.

By the way, to keep this interview somewhat TeX-related, I should mention that our applications for green cards were written in LaTeX, and contained some macrocode — these were among my first TeX macros. They were very simple: we ought to supply some evidence to support the applications, so I decided to automatically number the “exhibits”:

and then I could refer to the evidence in the main text using the usual \label-\ref mechanism.

Our petitions were granted (I do not want to claim that the beauty of TeX typesetting helped to convince the immigration officials, but it could be the case), and we have been here since then.

DW:     My memory is that you have an affiliation with George Mason University, but I also know you have some sort of consultancy? How does this all fit together?

BV:     After we came to the United States, I worked at Penn State for six years. Well, full-time university work is fun, but at some time I decided to try to do something completely different and moved to industry. I found that this work is also interesting and fun. However there is one big advantage of working in academia, which I really missed: an easy access to a good library. Someone said that a university is nothing more than a community of scholars around a collection of books and journals. I found that I needed this a lot, so I asked my friends in a university whether they could help. They told me that I could become affiliated with the university, but I must teach. Well, I love teaching, so it was not a problem — and the university was very accommodating, putting my class hours in the evenings. I have been teaching Introduction to Nanoscience — a mix of Quantum Mechanics, Statistics and Solid State customized for our Nanotechnology program. We now are redesigning this program, so I am not sure what will be next for me — but I am sure it will be interesting.

Besides access to the library, this affiliation allowed me to apply for grants, do collaborative research, etc. I still do some research, both in the theory of hydrogen bonded systems (this was the topic of my PhD thesis) and in many other fields. Usually it works this way: I talk to my friends, and they describe some interesting problem. If I can solve it, we publish it — and if this is both interesting and somewhat important, we try to get a grant for mode detailed study.

Consultancy started somewhat differently. Once I opened TUGboat and found that the advertisement fee there was ridiculously low — $35 for a year. I thought it might be interesting to try and put an ad there. Soon I got my first engagement: LaTeX lectures for helpdesk staff. I really love teaching, so it looked like a good idea. I did this, and then I started to get offers to do other things: writing LaTeX styles for publishers, helping to set up typesetting workflows, and, of course, more lectures and seminars. I learned a lot this way, and it has been a lot of fun.

Of course both university and consultancy require a lot of time, but I enjoy both.

DW:     Do you have any interesting stories to tell about package writing. You have written a bunch of them:

BV:     Well, each package has its own story. Let me tell you just a couple of them. When I wrote several packages for US Army Corps of Engineers, I found out that the tales of military exactitude and discipline are actually true. This package provides some decorative lines for the cover page, and the customer wanted them to exactly correspond to the specifications. I got e-mails like “Please move this line 0.1pt to the left and make it 0.1pt thinner.” I was impressed by this.

Another story is about a package I did not write. I got a request from an astrologer to create a style for customized horoscopes. This presented a dilemma for me: I do not believe in astrology and would not like to participate in such activity. On the other hand, I think a businessman has an implied obligation to try to serve all legal customers — you cannot be thrown out of a restaurant because the owner does not like your face. Fortunately, this customer did not like my rates.

Answering your question about the code not on CTAN. I believe in Free Software, and am a card-carrying member of FSF. Fortunately, most TeX code written for publishers is designed to be distributed: the publishers want the authors to use their styles. However, there are special cases: for example, a customized package to produce journal covers is not really useful for anybody but the people who actually print this journal. I usually put in my contracts the clause that the code is going to be released under LPPL or other free license, but I realize that in some cases it is not practical. Thus I wrote a small number of private packages. I guess RMS might consider this position too opportunistic.

DW:     Do you have a sense for whether usage of TeX is increasing or decreasing in the worlds in which you work?

BV:     I do not have statistics, and the plural of anecdote is not data. What I can say is that I have been feeling recently a lot of interest in TeX from quite different people and organizations, sometimes those that you would not normally mention in the same sentence with TeX. I had quite surprising customers, like the US Census Bureau or a dermatopathologist (he used TeX to format lab reports). I sometimes look at the properties of PDF documents I receive; in many cases the Creator field is set to TeX. So I would say (with a lot of caution) that there are plenty of TeX users around there.

DW:     You've also done a lot with fonts. Has that been a natural outgrowth of job need or was it an inherent interest?

BV:     Well, both. Many customers wanted some font effects, so I got to do this. On the other hand, I love book design and fonts: I have read some books on the subject and spent time studying letter forms. I am by no means an artist, and never designed fonts myself — but I appreciate the beauty of the work of others.

DW:     Tell me about the diversity of your TeX format and distribution use. And how is the evolution of TeX engines and distributions working out for you?

BV:     Almost all my work is in LaTeX; of course, serious LaTeX programming requires some knowledge of plain TeX. I would like to have a customer who needs ConTeXt work: this would provide me the incentive to learn this format. It seems that most publishers, at least here in the USA, work with LaTeX. Maybe the situation in Europe is different.

I started with OzTeX for Macintosh. I still fondly remember its features — even the ugly DVI previewer. Then I switched to Linux and teTeX, and later to TeX Live. I use more or less the usual setup for Linux: Emacs with AUCTeX as a front end, pdfetex as the engine. I use PSTricks for graphics and Gnuplot for most of my plots (I need to learn Asymptote, and I plan to do this at some point). Many of my plots and figures are automatically generated, so I developed over the years a complex set of Makefiles.

DW:     At at least three TUG conferences I remember, you have reported on work done jointly with Leila Akhmadeeva. How did that collaboration come about and where is it going?

BV:     I have known Leila for more than a decade now. Our common friend introduced us since she had an interesting mathematical problem, where I could help. She studied Myotonic Dystrophy, a genetic disease with an unusual mechanism of inheritance. We developed a theory for it and published it in biology and medical journals. Then I was asked to co-advise her thesis. Well, it was a medical thesis, so I had some misgivings — I know nothing about medicine. But I was told that the main advisor was a prominent physician, and I ought to consult with her about “just a couple of chapters with the equations”. I thought this might be interesting, so I took this offer, and everything went fine. I liked this experience, so we started to look for whether there were some other areas where we could do something interesting together.

Now Leila is a great practicing physician and a Neurology Professor with the Bashkir State Medical University (she was among the youngest full professors in Russia when she got this position). We continue to cooperate. We published some stuff about lower back pains, genetics, etc. The pedigree work is actually a spinoff of another project: we plan to write a textbook for medical students with problems about hereditary disorders and diagnosis, and I wanted the illustrations to look good. So I wrote an algorithm to draw pedigrees. It seems that we created a nice tool, and some people — including students and professionals — seem to find it useful. We have now got some interesting ideas about stabilometry and posture studies, so we plan to continue and extend this collaboration.

DW:     Many people gripe about the difficulty of writing packages in TeX. What is your take on this?

BV:     Macro programming is indeed quite hard. It is very different from the other styles of programming, and sometimes looks quite alien. Especially for people that got used to the other languages. When I code in this language, I am painfully reminded of the fact that DEK is a genius — and I am not. The LaTeX3 project tries to change the situation, making TeX programming easy for the rest of us. It will be interesting to see the results of this effort.

Having said this, I think that there is a good side in this strangeness. Computer languages are meant to express thoughts, much like natural languages are. However, it is virtually impossible to separate the thought from its expression. Thus when we are exposed to different languages — computer or natural ones — we extend the ways we can express our thoughts, and by this we expand our thoughts themselves. TeX programming is hard — but it is also rewarding.

DW:     Thank you, Boris, for taking the time to participate in this interview. I look forward to seeing you again in person at a future TUG conference.

Interview pages regenerated January 26, 2017;
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