This week's Free Software Application of the Week is LyX, a free LaTeX document editor.
LaTeX is a document preparation system. It's kind of like the markdown code we use to write comments on Raddle, but much more complex, and it governs not just the style of the text, but that of the entire document. LaTeX is also very useful for writing math formulas - if you've ever read a math textbook, or a Wikipeida page with a math formula on it, the math formula was probably made using LaTeX.
What LyX does is allow you to create documents with LaTeX, without having to actually know how LaTeX works. LyX works very differently from most document processors. Most document processors, like LibreOffice Writer, follow the "typewriter concept" - they leave it to the user to define the way text appears on the page. These are "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) editors. LyX, however, works very differently. Its philosophy is that computers are much better equipped than users to determine where things go on the page. In LyX, you tell the computer what you want, and it works out all the technical details. So, LyX is a "What You See Is What You Mean" (WYSIWYM) editor.
This takes a bit of getting used to, but I've found that I like this philosophy much better than WYSIWYG. No longer do I have to sweat over things like changing the font and size of pasted text, or making sure the numbering of section headers is consistent. LyX takes care of all of that for me.
The main use I have for LyX, though, is for writing math formulas. If you've ever tried to express a math formula in plaintext, you've probably found that it's difficult to do for anything slightly complex, especially if other people have to read it and understand what you mean. This is one area where LaTeX excels. It has its own markdown syntax for math formulas, which, when rendered, creates the pretty text you're used to seeing for formulas in math textbooks. But you don't even have to learn the LaTeX syntax, because LyX displays what it will render as. You can type into a math box normally, and when you need to use a special symbol or change the frame (like when you want to create a fraction), LyX has a special toolbar just for doing that. This makes it accessible to anyone who doesn't want to learn a whole new markdown syntax. Also, if you like keyboard shortcuts, LyX has lots of them.
LyX is incredibly useful for writing a paper containing lots of math, or just for writing a paper and having it look professional. But its uses aren't limited to just that. Since it has a system for title pages, chapters, and footnotes, it could be used to write a textbook, or even a regular book. It allows you to export the document to HTML, PDF, OpenDocument, and a few other formats (no epub yet, but they're working on it). I sometimes use it as a scratchpad for doing math, since it displays formulas very nicely, and I don't want to waste paper by writing the formulas out by hand.
I can't really think of anything bad to say about this program. It's just too damn good. I highly recommend that everyone give this a try - you might find that you like the WYSIWYM philosophy better than WYSIWYG. Just to give you an idea of the type of thing LyX is capable of, I wrote this short math paper with LyX. I also wrote this very review in LyX.
And that's it for this week's Free Software Application of the Week. Join me again next Monday, for a review of GnuCash!