Printing Woes

(This is one of those entries that got stuck in draft limbo for a really, really, really, really long time. I’m posting it now. Whatever. Also, I seem to be using a lot of dashes now.)

I complain about homework all the time. Who doesn’t? But I know that in reality my homework load is blatantly far from being overwhelming. My math workload is basically as flexible as I need it to be, and I didn’t take APUSH because I couldn’t bear spending twenty-five hours per day on it. But I can still complain about pettier things like how hard it was to print a paper.

There are three steps in the process to produce a nicely printed body of text, be it an essay, a report, fragments of a larger project, or anything else. First, you have to produce the actual content. You string words and punctuation together to satisfy certain grading rubric criteria, and depending on the nature of the project, you might need to add some citations, statistics, pictures, and the like. I guess I’m pretty good at this. Step two is producing a printable document with your content formatted just the right way according to the teacher’s whims: one-inch margins, double-spacing, “five-space indent”, and so on. And finally you have to send your properly-formatted document to the printer and get it onto paper — the simplest step of all. Except when it’s not.

I know, normal people use Microsoft Office or Google Docs. I’m not normal — I try to go open-source. To some degree, I want to prove to myself I don’t need to depend on proprietary file formats, which could go through format rot. I also want to not suck at the command line that much. But of course for such simple Word-friendly formats, LaTeX takes effort to use, so the most important reason is that I’m only in high school and I can do whatever the heck I want in this regard. Yay.

I first got this idea in seventh grade and developed a bunch of LaTeX macros to generate equally-wide blanks that could optionally include the answers. Then I put a professional-looking copyunder sign at the start of all my worksheet assignments, for the lulz. It went on like this for a while. But inevitably I would type something stupid and break something at a really late time and have to stay up fixing it.

Then for a year or so I used HTML to get the formatting right. It worked startlingly well: CSS could do line spacing, indents, and page-breaks; I could still externalize the style file; there was no compilation or preprocessing delay. Brilliant. (One caveat was being aware of the margins and headers/footers that browsers add when printing. I set up a separate Firefox profile for that.)

Here is the CSS for no reason.

body {
    font-size: 12pt;
    font-family: "Times New Roman", serif;
    line-height: 200%;
    margin: 0;
ol {list-style: upper-roman;}
ol, ul {margin-top: 0;}
p {margin: 0; text-indent: 0.5in;}
p.ri {margin: 0 0 0 0.5in; text-indent: -0.5in;}
p.double {margin: 24pt 0 0 0;}
p.noindent {text-indent: 0;}
p.titlep {text-indent: 0; text-align: center;}
.break {page-break-before: always;}

All was well until I needed to add page numbers with a specific style and positioning, and decided that CSS wouldn’t help unless I bought a publishing-intended processor. So it was back to LaTeX.

Hooray, there’s an MLA style file written for humanities folks who don’t want to mess with the computer! I don’t need to do anything.

… Nope, it’s broken. A quick search immediately revealed that it was missing an ifpdf include statement since 2009 oh god why. Well, at least I can fix that. The really good thing to do would be to submit a patch to somebody, but I’m too wimpy to do anything like that.

… It forces my paper size to be US letter. And this isn’t even it invoking “letterpaper” somewhere in the code; it sets the page dimensions to exactly 8.5 in × 11 in. Meh, standard-rejecting countries. So now I had to make my own copy. (Okay, I guess this technically makes it “not MLA”, but I’m not about to explain that to my teachers.)

Where do I put my own global .sty files!? Why isn’t it working!?

And so on.

After an obviously disproportionate amount of time fiddling with the command line, I got something working. Now all I have to do is send it to the printer. Right?

I should explain how the printer is set up at home. There’s a somewhat old, extremely noisy desktop running Windows XP connected to it. I usually connect the just-barely-long-enough internet cable to it and wait for Dropbox to sync the document I want to print. A bit of a hassle, but survivable…

… the printer has run out of ink.

Actually, that’s not right, the printer appears to be attempting to print ink onto itself. I called for parental guidance because hardware is not my forte and it was nearly midnight on a Sunday. Plus, I didn’t decide to buy the apparently third-party cartridge. The result I got was seven or eight pages (for different subjects) of faint blue text, which I grudgingly turned in the next day.

Printers. How do they work?

I gave in and bought a card for the school printer. Getting enough time to print whatever I needed was no problem; buying the card itself was what took the most time.

The next day, I printed a long narrative essay and it was obvious that the margins were wrong. If this were last year the teacher would have gone nuts. Oh well.

Turns out .dvi files don’t contain the paper size in them, and my busy style file hacking was useless after I passed the files through latex and dvipdfm. Well of course all I needed to do was pdflatex. I tested this by dragging windows of the files around on the screen. Looked right. The reason I was using dvipdfm after latex instead of just pdflatex was an experiment a few years ago that showed that the pdf file produced this way was slightly smaller. But of course both of these files are absolutely minuscule by today’s standards and this is therefore premature-optimization evil that I probably deserve to suffer from, but I’m going to tell you how to fix it anyway; pass the option -p a4 to dvipdfm.

The day after this, while trying to print another paper, I realized that I had still forgotten to do either of these things.

Printing at home is still a risky gamble. Half the time, the printer will take in a second sheet of paper midway through printing one sheet, making both sheets useless. Also, there’s a blur on the scanner that infects every copy and every scan of everything.

I got into the habit of printing stuff at school whenever possible. Then one day I accidentally left my printer card in the printer and random people had used up all its quota when I got to it again. Then somebody reorganized the store and made it confusing to buy a card, and it took me three trips to buy my second one. Darn, so many people.

Suddenly we have group projects. I have an excuse to use Google Docs. The page breaks are screwed up to eleven on the school printer, but that’s okay for this one. It’s a script which nobody else needs to see. The next essay, on the other hand…

And so on ad nauseam.

I can have all the fun in the world messing with code and weird command-line settings, but it seems printing documents is never going to be fun. Sigh.


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