Finally an alternative to LaTeX for writing mathematical presentations

For some time now I have been looking for an alternative to LaTeX for presenting mathematics. With MathJax, a Javascript package for displaying mathematics on the web, LaTeX lost its monopoly on typesetting equations. And the combination of MathJax with slidy, a framework for authoring presentations in html, finally provides a real alternative to LaTeX.

Until now, I, like most mathematicians, used LaTeX beamer for writing presentations on my research. I had been somewhat unhappy with that solution for some time, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that it is hard to embed anything into a LaTeX presentation. In theory, images are easy to embed, but there is quite a bit of quirkiness associated to that. Movies are a different matter, and it is a familiar sight that speakers interrupt the flow of their slides to launch another application for playing a video. Something fancy like an interactive graph? I have never seen anyone do it in LaTeX. In fact, the only interactive features I ever see are page-up and page-down.

Another problem is that LaTeX doesn’t really work well for the task of making presentation designs, and as a result most designs look clumsy. If you compare the designs that are available for blogs and web pages with the designs in the beamer theme matrix (in particular the yellow one) you will see what I mean. The acceptance of those themes is limited, and I estimate that 30% of all beamer presentations use the default theme, which incidentally is the least decorated. Adding a truetype font, like those you can find here is possible, but difficult and error prone. Granted, maybe it actually is easy, but I haven’t succeeded.

In a quest for alternatives I stumbled upon slidy, and my first impression was that it is much more convenient for creating slides, and that it is easier to get good looking results. Since slidy presentations are web pages, theming is much better supported than with LaTeX. Inserting images and arranging them as desired is very easy, and I look forward to embedding a video using a plugin that works reliably. Typesetting mathematics, the most important reason for using LaTeX, is handled fantastically well by MathJax. MathJax is fully compatible with latex, which means that I can continue to use the very same notation for equations and formulas that I use everywhere else. And the rendering quality of MathJax is completely on par with that of LaTeX.

The main drawbacks are that the presentations do not look exactly the same everywhere, and that it is not as easy to print them to produce handouts. I very rarely see handouts, and I have never produced them myself from slides. Whether it is a problem that the look of presentations is slightly different from device to device is something that I intend to find out. My first impression, though, is that the differences are small enough not to matter. If you use percentages for image sizes then the worst that can happen is that you need to scroll a slide down, or change the font size, which amounts to pressing the ‘-‘ key. Thus, at the moment these drawbacks seem to me like a very small price to pay for something that in other respects definitively looks like a better alternative. I will continue to use latex to write articles, but I am glad that I finally will be able to move away from it for presentations.

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