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I started publishing books in 2020 and wrote 20 books in my first year. They are available at Amazon (USA, India, UK, Australia and Canada), Barnes & Noble (USA) and BooksWagon.com (India). BookDepository.com (UK) sources from Amazon UK, which has the cheapest prices, but does not charge for international shipping.

Novel cover: Unlikely Stories Book cover: How To Install Solar Book cover: Cool Electronic Projects Book cover: How To Invest In Stocks 2020 Fresh Clean Jokes For Everyone 2020 Fresh Clean Jokes For Kids World Of Word Ladders Ólafia L. Óla's Favourite Traditional Nursery Rhymes (Illustrated) Animalia Humorosum A Really Traditional Alphabet Book Vastu Shastra Explained Learn To Ride A Motorcycle In Five Minutes FFMPEG Quick Hacks Linux Command-Line Tips & Tricks CommonMark Quick Reference Email Newsletter Strategies For Profit Book cover: Dictionary Of Indian English

Unusual Unicode Tricks

You do not have to be a programmer to appreciate Unicode. If you use computers, then this article has quite a few neat tricks that you might like. If you are a programmer, then check if you are aware of all the tips and tricks in this article.

There are some things that nobody will teach you — you learn them the hard way. Did your computer course teach that you should acquire resources only as late as possible and release them as early as possible? Did any programming book tell you that you should not develop software using Visual Studio when it is running with Administrator privileges? Every software developer goes through a rite of passage where he/she learns new best-practices and unlearns old die-hard ones. The 2003 article The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) by Joel Spolsky (a StackOverFlow.com co-founder) would be an important stop on that journey. If you have not read the article, I suggest you read it before writing another line of code.

Unicode

Unicode is a unified text scheme for representing the characters of over 150 languages. The list of language also includes Braille, sign language, Esperanto, musical notation, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, chemical symbols, emojis/emoticons and dingbats. Microsoft used to have a big font named Arial Unicode MS that was supposed to support all of Unicode. They gave up, as Unicode continues to grow.

When learning programming for the first time with a language such as C, it is easy to assume that a character is same as a byte. Or, that a byte is only 8-bits wide. If your computer course rushed through such details, buy a good C book and spend some time on the basics. Spolsky's article mentions how the creators of PHP initially wrote that web-scripting language without support for Unicode! Do not feel bad. You are not alone.

ASCII

Unicode represents a paradigm shift from the days when I used to draw boxes in the headers of my C code using characters in the extended ASCII set (128 extra codes added to the 128-code ASCII).

Boxes in source code using extended ASCII

The uber way of beautifying comments in source code

Even today, it is better than traditional ASCII art:

Boxes in source code using ASCII art

The spartan way of highlighting comments in source code.

In Unicode table, the box-drawing characters (⊢ ⊣ ⊤ ⊥ ⊦ ⊧ ⊨ ⊩ ⊪ ⊫ ═ ║ ╒ ╓ ╔ ╕ ╖ ╗ ╘ ╙ ╚ ╛ ╜ ╝ ╞ ╟ ╠ ╡ ╢ ╣ ╤ ╥ ╦ ╧ ╨ ╩ ╪ ╫ ╬) were moved further up into the stratosphere. You will find it in the same place as in Extended ASCII.

In those ancient times, I used to work primarily on DOS. Windows was a GUI program that ran on DOS. On a DOS keyboard, you could type the copyright symbol (©) by holding down the Alt key and typing 0169 on the numeric keypad. On lab computers that did not have floppy drives, I created undeletable directories in the hard disk by suffixing the directory names with an undetectable space symbol (Alt+255). A more subversive trick was to use memory utilities and change the name of a directory to ‘CON’ in the File Allocation Table (FAT). Even Windows would not allow you to touch a file or directory named CON because CON is a reserved file descriptor for the console in DOS. For many years, Linux would to let you create a directory named CON in a Windows partition if you wanted to. Belatedly, they fixed it.

HTML entity references

When I started learning HTML, I found that the copyright symbol could be written as ©. Registered symbol (®) could be written as ®. Trademark symbol (™) could be written as ™. HTML has several such character entity references. However, any character can be written using its Unicode codepoint. It is known as a numeric entity reference. For the copyright symbol, it is ©. It can also be written as © with the x signifying that codepoint is hexadecimal. Similarly, the numeric entity reference for the registered symbol is written as ® or as ®.

Source code file encoding

If your OS is Windows, then it is likely that you save all your source code files in the default Windows encoding Latin-1 or Western European. It does not work well with non-English Unicode strings. (Ideally, you should be storing all UI strings in a resource file so that file encoding would never be a problem.) However, for maximum resilience and portability, save all your source files in UTF-8 encoding. If your file turns into gibberish, then you need to first select everything in the file to the system clipboard (Ctrl+A and Ctrl+C), then change the encoding and finally do a paste (Ctrl+V). If your editor allows you to change the encoding in the ‘Save as’ dialog box, then paste the text after saving the file. With UTF-8 encoding, you will eliminate a whole heap of trouble. Do not be a late bloomer.

HTML forms

If you have a web script that outputs HTML to a browser, then let the browser know the encoding of the output stream. In PHP, the first line could be:

<?php header('Content-type: text/html; charset=utf-8'); ?>

That is not enough. In the HTML, declare the encoding as early as possible:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
  <head>
    <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />
    <title>This page is Unicode-encoded</title>
    …

This is particularly important if you have HTML forms where you accept text data. If your HTML page is not Unicode-encoded or if the server-side script is not saved with Unicode encoding, then you may not be always able to correctly process non-English text input.

Fonts

If, despite the above, you still get the dreaded question marks (Unknown Unicode character as a question) or boxy characters (Unknown character as a box, it means you do not have the font to render the non-English text. The Unicode project only specifies numbered codepoints for its characters. The actual visual representation of the characters is left to the font engine and fonts installed in the output device. For example, in the Malayalam letter ‘Shree’, there are four Unicode characters — ശ (0D36) , ് (0D4D) , ര (OD30), and ീ (OD40). A font that supports Malayalam decides how to combine them as Malayalam letter Sree . You will not find the finally rendered ligature in Unicode. If you move the cursor across the letter, you will be able to split it into two ligatures Malayalam letter sh and Malayalam letter ree . Even these ligatures will not be found in Unicode. How they are formed is left to the font maker.

You will have to view a ligature in a hex editor to identify the individual codepoints. Then, you can search the codepoints in the Unicode list. That will tell you what language the character belongs to. You can then install a font that supports that language.

The full character list is published on the Unicode website at http://ftp.unicode.org/Public/UNIDATA/UnicodeData.txt. This file tips the scale at nearly 2 MB. It is in the form of a comma-separated file (CSV). With some Javascript, you can render it as a table. (The following code will tax the Javascript and HTML engines of a browser. DO NOT run it on a system that is light on resources.)

<!doctype html>
<html>
  <head>
    <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />
    <link href="universal.css" rel="stylesheet">

<script>

// Make a copy of the Unicode data text file in the 
// directory of this HTML file.
var sUnicodeURL = "UnicodeData.txt";
var sUnicode="";

var oXhr = new XMLHttpRequest();
oXhr.addEventListener("load", function() {
                                sUnicode = oXhr.responseText;
                                processUnicode();
                              });
oXhr.open("GET", sUnicodeURL);
oXhr.send();

function processUnicode() {
  var arLines = sUnicode.split('\n');
  var n = arLines.length-6;
  console.log("Lines = " + n);

  var oTable = document.getElementById("tbl_unicode");

  var sTableHTML = "<tr><th style=\"width: 6em; \">Codepoint</th><th  style=\"width: 6em; \">Hexadecimal</th><th>Description</th></tr>";
  for (var i = 0; i < n; i++) {
    var arUnicodeData = arLines[i].split(';');

    var sDescription = "";
    var sCode = arUnicodeData[0];

    if (arUnicodeData[1] == "<control>") {
      sDescription = "Control Character";
    } else {
      sDescription = "";
    }

    if (arUnicodeData[10]) {
      sDescription = sDescription + arUnicodeData[1] + ' (' + arUnicodeData[10] + ')';
    } else {
      sDescription = sDescription + arUnicodeData[1];
    }

    sTableHTML = sTableHTML + "<tr><th>&#x" + sCode + ";</th><td>" + sCode + "</td><td>" + sDescription + "</td></tr>";

  }
  oTable.innerHTML = sTableHTML;
}
</script>

  </head>
  <body>

<table id="tbl_unicode">
</table>

  </body>
</html>

This table is much easier to browse than the Character Map application in Linux.

Unicode table

This table shows part of the transformed Unicode data list.

With this table, I can easily write my name as ‘𝓥. 𝓢𝓾𝓫𝓱𝓪𝓼𝓱 ’ in my email. This name stands out in any email inbox. A disadvantage with this choice is that no one will find it by searching for ‘V. Subhash’. (Disclosure: I learned this from Youtube bootleggers who use the technique to escape filters. Interestingly, Youtube search understands them.) With Unicode and without any images, my name can also be written as:

Ⓥ. Ⓢⓤⓑⓗⓐⓢⓗ

Of course, Windows is always late to the game and may not have full font support for such Unicode strings. Linux has no such problem.

Twitter has been blamed by many for ruining the Internet for them. (Twitter was one of the first ones to withdraw RSS feeds. Can you really blame them? Even Firefox has removed RSS support!) It was a surprise when I learned that they really created a free and open-source emoticon-heavy font that anyone can download and use. Get it from https://github.com/twitter/twemoji. Their munificence is not without some downside. For the utter pussification of mankind, their pistol emoji has been made… you know… safe for the snowflakes… because it is less… triggering.

Pistol emoji from Twitter

The open-source Twitter font has lots of colour emoticons. This one though did not go down well with the thought police.

Universal fonts style sheet

When you have a website, the text in the pages will be displayed using the fonts on the end-user's device. The best approach is to use whatever fonts that are available. Ideally, merely mentioning serif, sans-serif and monospace in the CSS should be fine but browsers typically choose fonts from very ancient times for the default options. I suggest you use a universal font CSS (stylesheet) like this so that newer OS-optimized fonts will be chosen instead.

body {
  /* Order: Special,
   *        Android, iOS,
   *        Linux (Liberation, Free, DejaVu),
   *        Mac UI, Windows Vista UI, Windows XP UI,
   *        Mac Unicode fallback, Windows Unicode fallback,
   *        Adobe Standard Type 1, generic
   */
  font-family: "CMU Sans Serif",
               "Roboto", "San Francisco", "Helvetica Neue",
               "Liberation Sans", FreeSans, "DejaVu Sans",
               "Segoe UI", Tahoma, "Lucida Sans Unicode",
               "Last Resort", "Arial Unicode MS",
               Helvetica, sans-serif;
}

h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 {
  /* Order: Special,
   *        Android, iOS,
   *        Linux (Liberation, Free, DejaVu),
   *        Mac, Windows Vista Serif, Windows XP Serif, 
   *        Windows Unicode fallback, Mac Unicode Fallback,
   *        Adobe Standard Type 1, generic;
   */
  font-family: "CMU Serif", 
               "Roboto Slab",
               "Liberation Serif", "FreeSerif", "DejaVu Serif",
               Times, Constantia, "Trebuchet MS", "Times New Roman",
               "Lucida Sans Unicode", "Arial Unicode MS", "Last Resort", 
               Roman, serif;
}

code {
  /* Order:    Special,
   *          Android, iOS,
   *          Linux (Liberation, Free, DejaVu),
   *          Mac, Vista, XP,
   *          Adobe Standard Type 1, generic
   */
  font: normal 1em "Source Code Pro",
                   "Roboto Mono", Menlo,
                   "Liberation Mono", FreeMono, "DejaVu Mono",
                   Monaco, Consolas, "Lucida Console", "Courier New",
                   Courier, monospace;
}

The corporate control-freak approach is to use a proprietary font with a @font-face rule. (This approach forces the browser to redraw the text after the font file is downloaded.)

@font-face {
  font-family: 'CNN';
  font-style: normal;
  font-weight: 400;
  src: url(/fonts/cnn.ttf);
}

body { font-family: CNN, Helvetica, san-serif; }

The cheapo control-freak-approach is to use an obscure font from the Google fonts CDN with a LINK HTML tag. (This CDN is actually very slow and forces the browser to redraw the text after a long delay. Until then, large sections of the page will appear blank. Read my 2019 CodeProject article How to Make Your Website Serve Pages Faster for more information.)

<head>
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Gentium">
  <style>
    body {
      font-family: "Gentium", Roman, serif;
    }
  </style>
</head> 

The Linux Unicode way

In Windows, you can use Alt-and-numberpad key combinations to type Unicode characters. In Linux, you need to first press Ctrl+Shift+U. The cursor will temporarily transform to a underlined u. When you then type the codepoint number and press the Enter key, the corresponding Unicode character will be inserted at the text cursor. To type the copyright symbol (©), you need to type Ctrl+Shift+U, a9, and then Enter. For the Indian rupee symbol (₹), you need to type Cltrl+Shift+U, 20B9, and then Enter.

Linux offers an additional way of typing some characters using a ‘Compose’ key. This is a modifier key that you designate as such in your keyboard settings. On my computer, I have set the useless Windows key as its Compose key (Preferences » Keyboard » Layouts » Options » Compose key position » Left Win). Now, to type the copyright symbol, I type Windows+O (simultaneously) and then c (subsequently).

Linux compose keys

This table shows the Compose key as . You will find more comprehensive lists of Linux Compose-key combinations online. I have included a big one in my book Linux Command-Line Tips & Tricks.

Book cover

Type Unicode flag symbols

Table with Unicode region codes

Between 1F1E6 and 1F1FF, Unicode has special alphabets from Unicode region code letter A to Unicode region code letter Z. What is special about them? These codepoints are for dispaying the flag symbols of several countries. First, you need to identify the ISO country code for a country. For India, it is IN. For the USA, it is US. For Russia, it is RU. (As mentioned above, you need to hold down Ctrl+Shift and then press the 'u' key. An underlined 'u' character will appear at the text cursor waiting for you to type a Unicode codepoint.) You need to type the country codes of the individual letters in the country code. When you type u1F1EE (Unicode region code letter I) and u1F1F3 (Unicode region code letter N) one after another, they transform into the Indian flag Region code IN.

The trouble with space

Unicode spaces

In my first year in self-publishing (2020-21), I created 21 books. I wrote, edited, illustrated, designed and formatted them myself — all thanks to open-source software. For every book, I built a PDF file for the paperback (using a shell script) and an EPUB file for the ebook (manually). I wrote the manuscript in the text-only CommonMark format. (This is a new standardised dialect of the old MarkDown format. Incidentally, I wrote the first book on the subject — CommonMark Ready Reference.) I used the CommonMark executable convert the text manuscript to HTML. Then, I styled the HTML with some CSS. This stylized HTML was fed to KhtmlToPDF to create the paperback PDF file. (I used Calibre to create the ebook copy from the same HTML.) However, the PDF output had a few problems.

The current KhtmlToPDF was resurrected by an Indian from an almost-abandoned open-source project. KhtmlToPDF uses a headless Firefox browser of considerable vintage. It prints (not displays) the input HTML page. (KhtmlToPDF provides plenty of options for controlling the pagination and writing autotext (page numbers, headers and footers.) before it exports to the print output to PDF using iText.) The printing talents of the Firefox browser are good but not perfect. Randomly, the space after an italicized word would disappear. If I manually added an extra space, it would be too much and the blank space would stand out. Initially, a fix seemed hopeless. But, then Unicode came to my rescue.

Unicode offers several types of space characters. There is space about the size of an ‘n’ — the en space. Then, there is a space about the size of an ‘m’ — the em space. You might be already familiar with en and em if you know CSS. But, that is not all. I experimented with several other Unicode space characters and eventually I could hide KhtmlToPDF's deficiencies.

In some places, the last letter in a line would be partially displayed. The fix for that was to use the non-breaking space character (Compose + Space + Space) after the word and it would conveniently wrap to the next line. Sometimes, I did not want a line to break at a hyphen. Conveniently, Unicode has a non-breaking hyphen (Ctrl+Shift+u and 2011) as a fix.

That's not all

You can already see that I am now addicted to the long hyphen (—) but you may not have noticed that instead of three dots (...), I have used an ellipsis (…). It is just one Unicode character, instead of three. I do not use apostrophes for my quotations. There are dedicated Unicode characters for it. I type them with the Compose key. I type ‘Hi’ instead of 'Hi'. I write “Hello, World”, instead of "Hello, World". But, not when I write code. When other writers write source code in Microsoft Word, the annoying software will autocorrect all apostrophes and double quotation marks into Unicode quotation marks. Such a code listing would not compile in an IDE. It becomes a nightmare for the person who does the pagesetting. My manuscripts (including the code listings) are entirely in text (as CommonMark). What is written in text, stays in text. Whether it is exported to HTML, Word or PDF, the code will always compile.

Postscript

This article was originally written for the Open Source For You magazine. As luck would have it, I had some email problems and there was a gap in communication between me and the magazine. The pagesetter nightmare really occurred with this article. By the time, I re-established contact with the magazine, the article had been printed. The corrections could only be made in the online version.