Hidden Impact of Unicode

Sometime last week I half joked that I would only start a Unicode group only if “I wanted to eat lunch alone.” Brett asked if I was selling Unicode short, and the as with many things, the answer is both yes and no.

Actually, a lot of people at Penn State ARE interested in Unicode, but in what I would call a “just in time fashion” when they need to troubleshoot something so that they can type out what needs to be typed. This happens surprisingly frequently (see list below).

The Unicode site also receives a large number of hits with over 100,000 users hitting the Windows Alt Code (and the Mac Extended Keyboard Codes Pagee is popular as well).

The site also receives relatively heavy Penn State usage from students looking for “Spanish accent codes” (and also French). Clearly there are lots of desperate people who needs a reference to accent codes, and I am proud that Penn State provides one.

But as a topic people want to discuss in depth…not so much. I know because I’ve seen the low attendance of my local seminars just on “Accent codes” or “Unicode.” So low that when ITS Training ran a list of popular seminars they wanted to see continued…mine was not included (sniff).

All theatrics aside, I am actually OK with that scenario. Unicode should be such a low level tool that you should be taking the ability to type a ŵ granted (like picking up the phone or turning on the TV, pre-remote). We’re just not there yet, so we need troubleshooting resources.

I believe that it takes a slightly different set of cognitive wiring to love the tangled web of hex to decimal conversion, spelling rules, and dialect tagging. I just happen to be one of these people (and there are others like me here at Penn State).

And believe it or not, I think that my expertise in Unicode has afforded me some opportunities that I might not have gotten yet such as a reception in Adobe headquarters and a trip to an NSF workshop. Plus I get to consult (and ocassionally argue with) people from all over the world – something any Unicode junkie lives for.

But is Penn State being neglected? Obviously I do try to track other important technologies like blogs, RSS, Web 2.0 and pedagogical development like gaming and authentic learning. Again though, Unicode has cropped an amazing number of times in the darndest ways. Here’s that list I mentioned

Penn State Projects Involving Unicode Issues

  • Spanish Course Accent Codes (obviously)
  • Statistics course – why we COULDN’T use Unicode in 2000
  • Symbolic Logic Course, Symbol Codes
  • Presenting Chinese symbols in course lecture over Adobe Connect
  • Thermodynamics Course, More Symbol Codes
  • Etymologique French Etymology Quiz in PHP (that œ is a tricky devil)
  • ANGEL – broken accent codes
  • ANGEL – garbled display after visiting site in Korea
  • Why the Unicode page stopped working after a server upgrade (Apache issue)
  • Consult with University Libraries when they switched to a Unicode Catalog database
  • Set up of international utilities in CLC labs including QWERTY Russian keyboards

And every tool should be tested for Unicode (it’s amazing how much better Unicode implementation is these days).

So Unicode has been an a real opportunity for me to learn more about Penn State and multiple technology issues. It’s been fun really. Maybe I should find a way to spread the joy more (or not).

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