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Unicode Explained

Jukka K Korpela
Published by O'Reilly Media
704 pages
£ 42.50
Published: 28th June 2006
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the December 2006 issue (pdf), (html)

I don't claim any specific expertise which would qualify me as a reviewer of this book: unicode has always been something that I've found confusing. At times my lack of understanding has become an irritation when (for instance) I'm attempting to write code to process XML which contains ``illegal characters''. So this review is more about whether unicode really is ``explained'' by this book.

What this book does very well, I think, is explaining and clarifying the concepts: explaining what a character is, what a glyph is, what an encoding is, and so on. Clear definitions are essential, and it's confusion about these definitions and the logical differences between them which makes the subject tricky.

Moving to the more practical parts of the book, there is a lot of useful material. A lot of it is reference material that's only useful if you want (for instance) to know about the special form of the letter `e' that appears on food packets near the quantity in grammes. There is much more information of that general type, explaining for instance why a `K' representing the symbol for degrees Kelvin can and should be regarded as different from the standard letter K. This can all get a bit metaphysical: is the symbol for electrical resistance the same as the capital Greek letter Omega, or is it not?

There is of course some discussion of Far Eastern and Middle Eastern alphabets as well as mathematical and other symbols, but the detailed tables at the back of the book mostly cover what might be regarded as extensions and additions to Western character sets.

Unfortunately the book is rather Windows-centric, particularly in terms of describing input methods and the like. That's perhaps a reflection of the fact that in our world these things are less standardised and more complex.

The author is Finnish, and some of the screenshots have been taken on a Finnish-language version of Windows. This doesn't really matter, but came as a slight surprise when I first encountered it.

I'd like to have seen more about the handling of unicode in Perl, Python and other such languages, as in my experience that's been where the problems of the fact that one is dealing with unicode hits one.

But in general, this is a very good introduction to unicode and I shall certainly be revisiting it.

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