Months in the making, today I’m releasing Borked Unicode, a pop-up blog that aims to teach hacks (i.e., journalists) the minimum they need to know about Unicode. The goal is to make it possible for hacks to write clean copy.

The centrepiece is a 4,600-word tutorial that should have run in A List Apart today. Read that first. (I’ll break it up into smaller sections
maybe next week.) There’s also a Twitter.

Addressing the failings of Hacks & Hackers

The Hacks & Hackers “movement,” if you can call it that, is a loose network of social clubs that aim to put journalists and programmers together so they can learn from each other and collaborate. (I’m not going to use the unparsable, unpronounceable official orthography. It’s “Hacks & Hackers.”)

Let’s be real here: This is not about teaching programmers how to write, a skill they severely need. It is about teaching hacks how to program.

I went to the first two or three Hacks & Hackers Toronto events and was underwhelmed to the point of anger. Here is a town that cherishes and rewards mediocrity. Here, further, is a Canadian outpost of an American social club. And all they could manage to do is get together to drink and exchange kooky fun anecdotes, like the one about that cock shot that made it into the free newspaper that litters the subway.

Employed hacks already have enough excuses to get shitfaced. A club where you’re meant to be learning something shouldn’t be another one of them. I find this another offensive and egregious example of sinecured hacks drawing regular salaries getting together to reassure each other they’re winners. That they are, of course.

Now let’s talk about leadership.

  • I saw with my own eyes how Ivor Tossell is not merely the de facto leader of the group but the actual leader. (Only of the events mentioned below, he insists.)

    • At the Press Club on Dundas, I was chatting with a perfectly nice lady from the Globe when Tossell walked in. She instantly excused herself and ran over to join the crowd that had formed around Tossell in the blink of an eye.

    • In the same session that gave us that wacky wang story, Allison Martell at least attempted to train hacks on how to read and report on statistical results in scientific papers. Somebody asked for tips that Martell couldn’t give, and I put up my hand to help out. I pretty much had to overrule Tossell to actually speak for 30 seconds from the floor; he didn’t want to acknowledge me and rushed what was never going to be a lengthy answer.

    Of course Tossell is terribly amusing. I like his shit as much as anybody does. But that shouldn’t matter. It should be just as OK if I loathed his work. (Well, he did sign the Globe’s freelancer contract, something my friends and I fought for 16 years.)

  • Phillip Smith is quite a bit worse. My esteemed colleague and I offered to run a session for hacks and hackers on getting Unicode to work from start to finish in a print or online publishing environment. Over a period of months Smith was unable to book a simple room for us to use. He took a week to ten days to answer E-mail. This gainfully-employed Mozilla evangelist actually floated the idea of fundraising or charging admission to cover the $30 to $65 cost of booking a room at the Bloor-Gladstone Library, for example.

Eventually my esteemed colleague and I got fed up with the process and, after the Internet manner, decided to route around the problem.

The worst editorial decision Zeldman ever made

In June of this year, I pitched Zeldman a two-part article series for A List Apart. I’ll take out my esteemed colleague’s section, but the exact pitch for my half was as follows:

This article, a slight departure for ALA, addresses itself to digital journalists who write copy for the Web. That includes all digital journalists, as it turns out. Too often they screw things up at a basic technical level – that is, in the task of writing and serving up Unicode text that will work everywhere.

On the principle that digital journalists are people who make Web sites, we’re proposing one article in two sections (or, if you prefer, two articles in one Tuesday batch) that will:

  1. teach journalists and writers what correct copy is and how to produce it

  2. teach editors and back-end programmers how to set up their blogging platforms and CMSs to ensure copy stays correct throughout editing, posting, and reuse

Here, “correct copy” does not refer to spelling, grammar, or usage, but does include punctuation and the basic rendering of non-English text (even in English words like résumé).

This is a crossover episode with Hacks & Hackers

Hacks & Hackers (official orthography: Hacks/Hackers) is a network of small groups loosely joined in cities around the world. The idea is to unite writers (hacks) with programmers (hackers) so they can learn from each other and do things that exceed the sum of their parts.

In practice, H&H is about data visualization and sharing cutesy anecdotes about that time male genitalia made it not only into the print edition but online. Steve and I have seen little in the way of actual training or education or capacity-building inside H&H. We wish to rectify that.

And by doing so, we invite both hacks and hackers into the A List Apart fold. They don’t know you exist, but should. We’re all in the Web together, after all.

Part 1, for hacks:
How to write clean copy

  • Goal: Teaching writers who use real-world Web tools how to make every character they write show up correctly everywhere.
  • Characters are numbers. Only one set of numbers is important, that of Unicode.
    • Make everything UTF-8.
    • Never ever rely on a subsequent system to fix your characters.
  • It all boils down to one signal character: . If you can’t enter and edit that character, you can’t produce clean Unicode copy.
  • Lessons:
    • Learn to type – and not just the letters visible on your keyboard.
    • Don’t use smart quotes. Do not stupefy quotes.
    • Use real tools. Typing copy from scratch into a textarea isn’t a tool and you should never ever do it. (Minor edits in textareas can be done with care.)
    • Use a real editor. Even MS Word can be fine with minor precautions.
  • Advice on settings for common applications, and suggestions for applications hacks will never have heard of. Special treatment of non-English keyboards (typical problems: cannot easily type #; misuses ` for the signal character ).


  • We’ll have a whole section on why you do not need to use character entities and actually shouldn’t. This will upset the apple cart somewhat given that A List Apart has never been able to follow this advice and often screws up Unicode encoding itself.

  • This article will spend a lot of time teaching Windows users how to get things right, since they are the least likely to do so. The secret weapon is the US-International keyboard layout, which acts a lot like U.S. Macintosh keyboards (i.e., which works for Unicode entry).

My thinking was this: If a half-assed Hacks & Hackers group can’t get its act together to let one of its own teach its members, I’ll go over their heads and write a reference everyone can use.

Note well that I explicitly billed this piece as a departure for ALA and a means of inviting hacks into the fold. Zeldman approved the proposal wholesale. I filed copy this month. Zeldman spiked the article, one proposed and approved for a new readership, because it did not speak to the existing readership of developers and “content strategists.”

This is the stupidest editorial decision Zeldman ever made, and a dishonest one at that. It severs the ten-year relationship he has enjoyed with the only writer A List Apart has ever published. (Every other contributor is a technologist who is not illiterate.) Apart from one of Zeldman’s business partners, nobody has written more articles for ALA, and on the whole, mine were the best.

Thus, I had to rescue this project twice: From Smith’s dicking around and bad-faith negotiating and from Zeldman’s editorial mismanagement.

Journos need this training

Journalists badly need minimal knowledge of Unicode. Nobody has ever bothered to teach them that knowledge. This should be merely the beginning of a process of training journalists how to write, save, receive, and transmit clean copy. I suspect it will be the end of the process.

Of course this is all about groups that need help that pretty much only I can give them, but refuse because I’m the one giving it. If you’re a hack who can get yourself past the fact that I’m the one trying to teach you and if you need more in the way of training or education, you can contact me and we’ll figure something out. That didn’t work last time and I doubt it will this time.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.11.15 13:55. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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