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Subversion and LyX for project writing

Ok, so a while ago I mentioned that I was going to try using a new way of working on my thesis using Subversion (a version control system predominantly used by computer programmers) and LyX (a document processor that uses LaTeX in an almost-WYSIWYG style to allow the author to focus on content alone rather than having to constantly worry about typesetting issues). And the result of the experiment? It’s been a resounding success. In this article I’m going to explain how to set up a working system so that you can work seamlessly across several computers, or collaborate with other authors without having to resort to fiddling around with USB disks or emailing yourself latest versions of documents. All using completely free software! How’s that?

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The Subversion/LyX project: something I hadn’t realised about Subversion

A few days ago, I mentioned that I was starting a project to manage my thesis using the Subversion (SVN) version control system. This was motivated by a) getting confused as to which version of a document I was working on at a given time, b) faffing about with USB disks or emailing myself copies of files to work on using a different computer, and c) having used a version controlling content management system for a publishing project at a previous job.

What I didn’t realise about SVN was the way it was set up to work by default. I’d thought it was one way; the way it is set up, however, is a bajillion times better.

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Writing a thesis on open-source software, across several platforms. An experiment.

Writing a thesis is a particularly difficult job. Writing a PhD thesis in Microsoft Word, particularly, is a difficult job. Writing a thesis in Microsoft Word, across several computers, running forms of Windows, Mac OS and Linux is an excruciatingly difficult job.

For one thing, standards vary across all platforms. Linux, for example, doesn’t have a native version of Microsoft Word – ok, so it is possible to get it to run, but it’s a) so bonkily unstable and b) if you’ve made the plunge and chosen to use Linux, you’ve probably done so with a long-term view to completely freeing yourself of Microsoft software so trying to run it defeats the object of installing Linux in the first place. Different platforms also have different fonts – how many presentations have you seen where some poor sod has prepared their Powerpoint presentation using the gorgeous looking Helveticus Roman Sans Grotesque font, only to discover that the font doesn’t exist on the projector computer, and the replacement font is some awful blocky thing resembling Ceefax that’s far larger than the original, pushing all the text either off the edge of the screen or over the top of a painstakingly created graph? Thought that might ring some bells.

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