February 2011


☛ Hey look!

How, you ask, did I do that?
No, I didn’t plunk in a small graphic of a pointing hand. I used unicode.

You need more explanation, you say?
Okay, here goes. Any time you type any of the keys on your keyboard, it is translated from your finger tap into a code. The specific code depends on two things:
1) The key you tapped (and whether you used the shift key or not)
2) The language your computer keyboard is set to emulate.

For most of us in the United States, the keyboard we get when we buy a computer is set to produce U.S. English. In fact, most of us never even think about it unless we are students taking a foreign language in high school (or their teachers). If I were a student taking Spanish, I would benefit if I could type my class assignments with the extra letters used regularly in Spanish. As a quick example, I’m supposed to write a dialog with a friend named José. Look closely at that final letter in the name. It has an accent mark above it.

é

I just made it bigger so you could see the letter with its accent. Even small, though the accented letter shows up to a person who speaks Spanish. After all, your friend, José, wouldn’t want to take a chance that his misspelled name would also be mispronounced “hose” because the accent wasn’t there.

Early computers used a keyboard code called American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) which had 256 different possible codes. The original 256 codes represented the basic letters, numbers and punctuation symbols on the keyboard, plus useful extras like the carriage return. 256 codes are enough to handle the English alphabet, and there was even room for some characters called “dingbats” such as the symbols for the four card suits heart ♥, diamond ♦, spade ♠ and club ♣. The world’s many other languages don’t all fit, though. There are letters in many different shapes needed, way beyond 256 codes. Now, 255 is the biggest number you can represent in a byte and that was all the early computers could handle at once. Along with a zero value, that gives 256 possible codes.

Technically a byte is a binary value between 00000000 and 11111111, eight electronic switches which are all off or all on at the same time. The code value of all those zeros is pretty obvious (I hope). The eight on switches represented by 11111111 is the value 255. 255 is what we call a decimal value which most of us just call a number because we are so used to counting with our ten fingers. Ten fingers: a decimal counting system. Computers use those binary codes, with the switches on or off. Codes in between like 00000001, 00000010, 00000011, … are 1, 2, 3 … and so on. You can only have a one or a zero, 1 or 0 when you work with binary numbers.

Whew, this is getting pretty technical, can’t you keep it simple?
Well, I’ll try, but don’t actually hold your breath. The post goes on for a while.

ASCII and its 256 codes doesn’t have enough room. We need more room!

UTF8 unicode gives us the code space we need.

Using LibreOffice 3.3 or OpenOffice 3.3, you get access to these fancy character codes with the Insert menu and the Special Character choice. In the illustration below, I’ve scrolled down far enough to choose the copyright symbol.

special characters tool

Now if you look at the bottom-right corner of the illustration, you will see the copyright symbol’s UTF8 value (and decimal value in parenthesis).

Now look back at the top of the illustration. The current font is shown. On my system, the font is “Liberation Serif” and you should also note the subset chooser. The basic subset is called “Latin Basic” and the screen you see is mainly part of that subset group. The row in which the copyright symbol is found is actually the beginning of the “Latin-1” subset. A little further right in that same row, you’ll see the ® registered trademark symbol which you will often see on product packages next to the pictures or fancy name symbols of the product. For example the design of the Coca Cola name is a registered trademark and you will typically see ® on the cardboard boxes with cans or bottles in “six packs” for example. I drink Dr. Pepper so I cannot check a Coke can right this minute.

The last possible Latin-1 character is number 255, the last of the ASCII codes, is the symbol shown in the next illustration.

The next character Ā is code 256, just beyond the ASCII limit. In the Special Character tool, the decimal value no longer even shows. (Anybody know where you’d use the Ā symbol; I don’t.)

The further down the list of characters you go, the more you need to be ready for what are called Hexadecimal codes.

Bah, I wanted this kept simple.
Sorry, I’m trying my best.

As you look in the bottom right of the last illustration, you see the hexadecimal code. There are four “digits” in the code. They run up from here in a base-16 counting method. Each “place” can be 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,A,B,C,D,E,F. That’s how we write hexadecimal digits. The A is next after 9…and has the same value as our typical decimal 10. B is 11, C is 12, D is 13, E is 14 and F is 15. Base-16 (hexadecimal) has 16 values from 0 to F. Hexadecimal works well as a binary (computer switches) representation. Typically you don’t need to type in capital letters to trigger the value “f” is the same as “F” in practice.

From code 0100 (256) up, the code is only shown with its unicode version. Keep looking down your Special Character tool list to find the characters you might want to use. The common ones will be there in one of the subsets along with many you won’t have a clue how to use any more that I do.

When you tire of the mousing around in the menus for the characters you use a lot, you’ll want the next technique.

Many programs allow you to directly enter the unicode values by a keyboard trick:
Hold down the shift and the ctrl keys and while holding them tap letter U on the keyboard (an underline u will usually show up on the line where you’ve typed. Now let all three go and type the unicode 0100 and finally tap the enter key. This trick works with WordPress.com, but you probably figured that out because I’m blogging on WordPress. Kompozer, my preferred tool for rapid Web page development works with the U-code method. Let me know what other tools you try also work.

That pointy hand is a unicode character (symbol), too. It has the code 261b (remember to use the ctrl-shift-u.)

Twitter lets you use unicode. If you are using the Web page to enter your tweets, give it a try.

I’ll know you succeeded if you send this tweet to me: @algotruneman “I ♥ unicode.”

The heart code is U-2665.

Don’t overdo the Twitter unicode. It might cost you followers the way all caps would.

I want more!
Okay. Don’t forget to get more technical background from the links in the text above. In addition to them, here are a couple for you to check, too.

http://home.tiscali.nl/t876506/utf8tbl.html
The column you want to look at is “U-hex” for the codes

http://www.utf8-chartable.de/
Look in the third row of the table and you’ll see the chooser for many more pages of codes than the one in LibreOffice or the tiscali.nl site.

Finally, I’ll link to a page I’ve made so I can look at the codes for the codes I expect to use most often. It may change over time as I juggle the list.
http://runeman.org/articles/unicode/utf8_codes.html

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Update: Worldwide response gave the Document Foundation its needed funding in 8 days! (I’m sure we can all thank the readers of this blog. [grin]) All further donations will provide the foundation support for its actual operations.

What did you pay for the last piece of software you bought?
Was it worth it?

How about if you didn’t have to buy the software, but could get it without cost?
Would that mean it wasn’t of value?

LibreOffice, the fork of OpenOffice is being developed under a model used by other major Free/Libre software groups, a foundation. LibreOffice and the Document Foundation will not be controlled by a single corporation.

The Document Foundation needs to incorporate in order to put LibreOffice on a sound footing.
Since you cannot buy LibreOffice, what about donating something to support the foundation?

Here’s your chance.
http://challenge.documentfoundation.org/

Oh, and spread the word. Let’s get this task done.

“There’s an App for That” (Trademark Apple, Inc.)

As a catch phrase, it has been successful.

Apps

Photo Credit: William Hook - Flikr cc-by-sa

It has also been successful in getting people to grab little tools for their mobile phones and probably soon, their tablets. The little apps might be useful or time wasting, but they are available in the tens of thousands for Apple iPhones, Android phones, Blackberries, etc.

Linux users can get their app “fix” through an Android phone or tablet where app stores make access convenient.

On the computer where I’m typing this post, I’m using Kubuntu, one of the many distributions of GNU/Linux. I don’t have an app “store”, but I’m not missing it.

Instead, I have thousands of “packages.” Each package is an application or, sometimes, a suite of them like OpenOffice, LibreOffice, etc. I choose which ones I want from the list and install them. The system on Kubuntu is called kpackagekit. If you are a user of the Fedora distribution, you’ll be using the RPM package manager. With OpenSuse, you’re using Yum.

No matter which distribution, getting software designed to run on your system is pretty easy.

I rely on recommendations from others, most of the time. The recommendations come from tweets, blogs, emails, etc. I want to thank all the people out there who have made those recommendations. Sometimes I try software and get hooked because it helps me do a job I need to do. Sometimes I try software and it sits unused on my computer. I don’t feel cheated, though. It was word of “mouth” which lead me to the package/software/app. I didn’t get tricked by advertising. The recommended app worked for the ones who recommended it. I just have differing needs from theirs.

I’m not under pressure to use the software somebody else adores. I’m not suffering from the “industry standard” argument used to justify paying high prices for software.

I’m a software freedom advocate. I prefer software which doesn’t lock me in to a standard dictated by a single vendor. I abhor the upgrade cycle demanding the purchase of a new software version which marginally upgrades its real base capabilities while modifying the file format it uses. I celebrate the open standards like the Open Document Format (ODF) which does change, but does not demand a costly upgrade of software. The apps which support the ODF are mainly produced by a dedicated group of programmers who want to provide tools for their own use, and simultaneously provide those tools for others. They share their skills. They develop apps which benefit others. They do these tasks for themselves, their employers, and the world at large.

Thank you, the developers of open Free/Libre software. I salute you. Your donation to my good, to the common good is widely unknown, but vastly appreciated. I use your work, and I cheer your creative, giving spirit.

I’m starting to watch a cross-distribution effort called AppStream.
http://distributions.freedesktop.org/wiki/AppStream
Blog Post/Article: http://mybroadband.co.za/news/software/18243-Open-source-app-store.html

AppStream is an effort to bridge/combine the tasks done by kpackagekit, Fedora RPM package manager, Yum, etc. The goal is to create a common meeting point for the various package systems, providing app listings and a system to allow users to combine their recommendations through a ratings system. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

Play is emulation, copying. It is natural for kids. Teach emulation. Teach copying. Teach attribution. End the cycle of plagiarism. Teach copyright through the lens of common culture.

Children copy routinely. I don’t just mean they copy from encyclopedia articles for class. I mean, they copy the behavior of others. They copy the clothes their friends wear. They copy the swear words they’ve heard their parents use. They smoke because it is “cool.” Cool is simply a term that says “I’ll do that, too, because that other dude does it.”

You should try to write so everyone will want to copy what you’ve said.

Get pdf of page: http://runeman.org/mosssig/fairuse.pdf (US Letter size poster)

It is natural to want to emulate our heroes. We crave to have at least their style.

I followed a Twitter link to this article by a teacher:
http://opensource.com/education/11/1/adventures-copyright
I recommend that every educator read it and think about the issue seriously.

“After school got out, I had to zip across the street to the public library. While I was there, I figured I’d ask some of the questions my kids had about copyright to the librarians. While they couldn’t provide much for answers besides “It’s education so you should be good to go,” they were extremely impressed that I’m digging into copyright with my kids and not just pretending like it doesn’t exist. Besides just feeling like it’s hard to “teach” my kids about copyright because I don’t know much about it and there seems to be so much gray involved, I hadn’t thought about how I would be doing them a disservice by ignoring it altogether.

Today really convinced me that I need to trudge on. Besides these two projects this quarter, we’re going to hit research really hard fourth quarter. I think by then, the kids will really be ready to embrace creator rights. My goal is for them to choose their own CC licenses for whatever it is they create.”

As a teacher, embrace copying, encourage emulation and attribution. Demonstrate to students that plagiarism isn’t the same thing as celebrating our culture through emulation.

Teachers, you are the path to success for your students, or you are the blockade against which they will beat their heads. Show your students how open sharing is good. Honorable collaboration and seeking advice should be what you present. Be honest. You don’t need to know all the answers, so be willing to admit “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

Then when you have the answer, credit the source.

If you create worksheets, study guides, classroom directions, any teaching tool, openly publish it with a liberal license. Creative Commons provides several. Let your students know you are doing it. Let the parents know you are doing it. Let your students learn to value their culture. Maybe some of them will copy what you do.