Miscellany № 85: you only have one *

Trail sign at Asterisk Pass.
Trail sign at Asterisk Pass. (Image courtesy of at Travis Kochel at Trail Type.)

We’ve visited Ampersand Mountain, with its eponymous creek and hotel, and we’ve heard tell of mythical San Seriffe Island; now, welcome to scenic Asterisk Pass in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park! This excellent image was taken by Travis Kochel of Trail Type. Many thanks to him for permission to republish it.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much information out there on why Asterisk Pass was named as such. 1859 magazine suggest that the pass was given its name in the 1950s by a pair of brothers, Jim and Jerry Ramsey, and their friend Jack Watts,1 but why they chose that name isn’t recorded. Looking at pictures of the pass (such as the one below, taken by Kelle Cruz), however, I can’t help but wonder if the precariously balanced rock in the centre of the pass might just about be thought of as an asterisk* poking its starry head up above the letters surrounding it in a sentence. If you know more, please let us know in the comments below!

Asterisk Pass, by Kelle Cruz
Asterisk Pass. (CC BY-NC 2.0 image courtesy of Kelle Cruz.)

Whatever the story behind Asterisk Pass, if you should ever visit then take heed of the sign at the trailhead: this is a route for climbers, not for walkers. Remember, you only have one *.


A few links this week:

  • The Economist presents an entertaining read on the history of typesetting competitions.
  • The New York Times reports on a long-running legal case whose resolution hinged on an Oxford comma — or rather, on the lack thereof. Without going too far into the details, the case amounted to an argument over the meaning of the following sentence:

    The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of […] produce.

    The plaintiffs, a trio of truck drivers suing for more overtime pay, argued that the final clause should be interpreted as referring to “packing for shipment” and to “packing for distribution of […] produce” — that is, that “distribution of […] produce”, without the “packing” part, is not referred to as a discrete activity. Their employer, a dairy in Maine, asserted instead that the sentence referred to “packing for shipment” and, separately, to “distribution of […] produce” with no attendant packing. The absence of a clarifying comma makes all the difference.

    I won’t spoil the ending — have a read of the article itself to find out which interpretation won the day.

  • Also in the NYT is a illuminating article about Kazakhstan’s attempts to move from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. It has everything: an authoritarian leader; an ex-Soviet state striving to recover its own identity; and a reactionary church resisting the change. Oh, and apostrophes. Lots of apostrophes.
  • Lastly, a tweet by @ampersandconf (the Twitter account of Brighton’s annual Ampersand typography Conference) took me to the endlessly fascinating Archive of Styles maintained by the Alberto Tallone Editore press of Torino, Italy. It’s a photographic archive of everything from fonts to typesetting tools, and it is quite the rabbit-hole for typophiles and punctuation enthusiasts. Of special note for readers of Shady Characters are the archive’s collections of manicules, asterisks and crosses, and related miscellany.
1.
“Pioneers of Climbing at Smith Rock”, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, 2012. 
*
Like this one. 

Housekeeping № 2: citations at Shady Characters

Giving credit where it’s due has been an important part of writing for Shady Characters since I started back in 2010. Where I use an image that I don’t own myself, for instance, I try my best to find the owner, obtain their permission and then credit them in the caption for their work. Equally as important, I try to link to or cite all of the sources I use when writing about a given subject. That last part has given me no end of grief, and that’s what I’m going to write about today.

What follows is more than a little bit technical, so if you aren’t interested in the mechanics of how scholarly references work online you might want to find some alternative reading material. Might I suggest Glenn Fleishman’s introduction to his new book,1 London Kerning, in which he gets under the skin of London’s long history of type, typography and printing? It’s a great read.

For the rest of you: here we go!


In the beginning

The Shady Characters website runs on a piece of open source software2 called WordPress.3 WordPress is a content management system, or CMS, that stores and displays text and images and takes care of a host of related organisational tasks into the bargain. Like most other CMSes, WordPress is both bare-bones and open-ended at the same time: out of the box, it can’t do much other than manage a simple, blog-style website, but it can be extended by means of additional software packages, called “plugins”, that are designed to hook into the core WordPress software and provide extra services ranging from footnotes4 to spam filters.5

Given all this, one of the challenges when I first started the site was to find a plugin I could use to insert references into posts in a simple, consistent way. Actually, that’s not quite true. What I wanted was a system that could make use of my existing library of references, managed by a Windows program called Mendeley6, in as few steps as possible. In the end, I settled on the following Heath Robinson scheme:

  1. I configured Mendeley to periodically save my library to a BibTeX file on my local drive. (BibTeX7 is a standard, more or less, that describes references in a machine-readable way so that they can be exchanged between computer programs. It isn’t the only such standard and nor, arguably, is it the best, but it is the one that Mendeley supports.)
  2. I configured Dropbox,8 a service that synchronises files across multiple computers, to make my BibTeX library available online. (You can view it here).
  3. I installed a WordPress plugin called Papercite,9 designed specifically to load and render BibTeX references, and pointed it towards my online library of references.

Dropbox gymnastics aside, it was Benjamin Piwowarski’s Papercite plugin that made the whole thing work. It read the BibTeX file at my Dropbox URL, teased it apart into individual references and, when I asked it to, it turned those references into nicely formatted HTML to be embedded within my blog posts.

So far, so good.

The problem was that Papercite never quite worked as I would have liked it to. Its formatting was a little too rigid, for instance, and it would occasionally refuse to pick up new references in my library. To encounter problems like these isn’t unusual, of course; whether it’s a piece of software or a screwdriver, no tool can ever be the right one for all users all of the time. Fortunately, Benjamin continued to improve Papercite month on month — right up until the middle of 2015, when the previously steady stream of new versions and bug fixes dried up.

Partly because active development on Papercite had come to a halt and partly because I wanted to learn more about PHP, the programming language in which it was written, in November 2015 I took a copy of Papercite and started to iron out its kinks. I modified it so that it would run on Windows, when previously it worked only on Unix-like operating systems; I made the formatting of its references more malleable, so as to fit in better with Shady Characters’ visual appearance; I fixed its handling of special characters (rather a necessity for a site about unusual marks of punctuation); I made it a little faster here and there; I made it more forgiving when it encountered unfamiliar types of reference; and, finally, I upgraded it to work with the most recent version of PHP.

All this and Papercite would still occasionally refuse to work, whether in terms of finding, parsing or rendering references. I have no doubt that some of the problems were due to my own ham-fisted modifications, but other were inherent in the plugin itself. It was time for a change.


Bibcite: a new citation plugin

And so here we are. For the past few months I’ve been working on a new citation plugin for WordPress — one that is inspired by Benjamin’s approach to Papercite, but also one that takes advantage of some of the innovations that have been made in the eight years since I started Shady Characters. It’s called Bibcite and you can find it here, on Github, the software hosting site.

In writing Bibcite I decided to mimic Papercite’s mode of operation as closely as I could. As such, it does much the same set of things:

  • It loads a library of BibTeX references from a defined URL
  • It stores those references in WordPress’s internal database
  • When asked to process a blog post or a page of text, it looks for “shortcodes” — that is, textual tags like [bibcite] and [bibtex] — to decide where to insert references and how to format them. For the most part, Bibcite understands the same set of shortcodes as Papercite and will treat them in the same way.

It’s worth mentioning that none of this is especially big or clever. Bibcite is deliberately constructed to be a mundane piece of software that does predictable things.

The one thing that I have changed is how Bibcite converts computer-friendly BibTeX references into human-readable citations. A BibTeX reference looks something like this:

@misc{Suarez2010,
	author = {Harris, N.},
	booktitle = {The Oxford companion to the book},
	editor = {Suarez, Michael F. and Woudhuysen, H. R.},
	isbn = {9780198606536},
	mendeley-groups = {A Book about Books},
	pages = {807--808},
	publisher = {Oxford University Press},
	title = {{Hypnerotomachia Poliphili}},
	year = {2010}
}

Somewhat mechanical, no? We, as humans, would rather see something like this:

  • N Harris, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, ed. Michael Suarez F and H R Woudhuysen, The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

There are already a number of software tools that can perform this conversion. Papercite employs one called OSBiB,10 for example, dating back to 2005, that comes with its own special file format to describe how a BibTeX reference should be converted into a formatted citation. The set of such conversions available to end users like myself has always been relatively limited (I had to modify one of OSBiB’s built-in styles for use here at Shady Characters, for instance), which can be a problem in a world where every academic journal defines its own citation style.

Enter the Citation Style Language (CSL) project.11 This is a huge endeavour that takes in a number of related subject areas:

  1. It provides a formal schema for representing machine-readable citations
  2. It provides a formal schema for describing conversions from machine-readable reference to human-readable citation
  3. It makes available an enormous library of conversions covering the house styles of thousands of different journals
  4. It provides software tools for various programming languages (PHP included) that tie all this together

These last two parts are what makes CSL so useful. These days, no sensible software developer starts a program from scratch and, as such, to find a project that has already cracked the hardest problems you would otherwise have faced is incredibly heartening.

In particular, Bibcite could not work without Sebastian Böttger’s citeproc-php12 library, one of the many pieces of software that make CSL available in different programming languages. It also contains the thousands of citation styles defined in CSL’s official repository,13 making them available to plugin users with no further configuration steps. (Notably, the one thing that the CSL project does not help with is converting from hoary old BibTeX references to shiny, modern CSL references, but that too is already taken care of by Benjamin Geißler’s helpful reference converter project.14)

In the end, Bibcite is isn’t so much as a complete software product as the glue between a number of different software libraries, which is exactly what a modern program should be.*


What’s next?

By design, very little should change here at Shady Characters. Posts that contain references will still display them as footnotes in the text and as a bibliography down at the end of each post. Formatting will be a little different, but not significantly. It should be business as usual, more or less, with the exception that you should see fewer error messages referring to Dropbox URLs or other referencing issues. If you come across anything that looks broken or is otherwise unhelpful, please let me know either here in the comments or via the Contact page.

If you’re interested in having a look at the source code behind the plugin or in learning how to use it, Bibcite is now available at Github. For the moment, it’s most suited to experienced WordPress users: the plugin is not yet available via the official WordPress plugin repository and some PHP knowledge is required to build it. It’s still very much a work in progress and I expect it to stay that way for some time.

If you do happen to try out Bibcite, please let me know what you think either in the comments or over at Github, where you can raise an issue or propose changes to the code itself via a pull request.


And that’s it! Thanks for reading and for indulging me in this technical digression. And now, back to your regular programme.

1.
Glenn Fleishman, “London Kerning”, Medium, 2018. 
2.
“The Open Source Definition (Annotated)”, Open Source Initiative
3.
“About”, WordPress.Org
4.
Defomicron, “Civil Footnotes”, WordPress Plugins, 2014. 
5.
“Akismet Anti-Spam”, WordPress Plugins, 2018. 
6.
“Mendeley.Com”
7.
Alexander Feder, “BibTeX”, 2006. 
8.
“Dropbox”
9.
Benjamin Piwowarski, “Papercite”, Benjamin Piwowarski’s Website
10.
Mark Grimshaw et al., “OSBiB v3.0”, Bibliophile, 2005. 
11.
Bruce D’Arcus et al., “Citation Style Language”
12.
Sebastian Böttger, “Citeproc-Php”, 2018. 
13.
“Styles”, Citation Style Language, 2018. 
14.
Benjamin Geißler, “Converter”, 2018. 
*
In addition to the libraries mentioned above, Bibcite is built on Devin Vinson’s WordPress Plugin Boilerplate and uses code from the following projects:

A big thank-you to all of the respective project owners, contributors and maintainers! 

The Book at the BBC: Book of the Week

Some exciting news! The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time is BBC Radio 4’s next Book of the Week! The first 15-minute episode will be broadcast on Radio 4 tomorrow, Monday 14th May, at 09:45 BST (it will be repeated again tomorrow night at 00:30) and will be followed by four more daily episodes to be broadcast and repeated at the same times for the rest of the week.

I must thank Caroline Raphael of Dora Productions for getting the ball rolling and Peter Hoare and Celia de Wolff of Pier Productions for producing the programme itself. Libby Spurrier did a great job in selectively abridging what is not exactly a short book (my fault!) into manageable 15-minute chunks. Lastly, the extracts will be read by Deborah Findlay — I’d love to say she has done an excellent job (and based on her past work, I’m sure she has) but I haven’t even heard it yet myself. I’ll be as excited as anyone else to listen to the first episode tomorrow.

So: I hope you’ll tune in! If you can’t make it to a radio or a computer at 09:45 tomorrow,* the programme will be available shortly afterwards on BBC iPlayer. If you enjoy it (or if you don’t!), please drop by here to let me know what you think in the comments section.

*
As an aside, if you can’t wait that long for some Book-related audio content, I recently found out that all of the sessions at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017 (including my own) are now available on SoundCloud. You can listen to my chat with Michael Williams here

Housekeeping: your data at Shady Characters

Readers in the EU may have heard about something called the GDPR, or “General Data Protection Regulation”. This is an upcoming change to EU law that clarifies and expands on prior rules relating to how organisations (even one-man-bands such as Shady Characters) obtain personal data such as email addresses and how they manage that data once obtained. As such, I’ve updated my page on Privacy, Cookies & Personal Data to make it clear how I handle personal data. I’d encourage you to take a moment to read the new wording, but in brief:

  • If you have ever commented here and provided a valid email address, I will have your email address on file. I will delete or amend that email address, or any of your comments, on request.
  • If you have ever signed up to the Shady Characters mailing list,* your email address is held by Google’s Feedburner service. To stop receiving email notifications of new posts, either click the “unsubscribe” link in an email newsletter or contact me directly.
  • Shady Characters uses Google Analytics to anonymously track visitor numbers. This requires the use of small pieces of data called “cookies”. Google promises to comply with all relevant privacy legislation (such as the GDPR) but, if you prefer, you can disable cookies for this site entirely.

If you have any questions about what data is held here at Shady Characters or you wish to have any or all of your own personal data amended or deleted as described above, please get in touch.

*
Conversely, if you haven’t signed up but you’d like to do so, please head down to the bottom of this page and enter your email in the sign-up box. After confirming your subscription you’ll receive email notifications of all new articles, which is rarely more than once every couple of weeks or so. 

Miscellany № 84: zut alors!

Happy new year! Here’s a post that I certainly did not expect to crest 1,400 words.


There have been a rash of recent news stories from Brittany, the westernmost region of mainland France, concerning parents wishing to give their children traditional Breton names. In September 2017, for example, Agence France-Presse published an account of a baby boy named “Fañch”1 whose parents were told that per government rules their son could not have a tilde in his name. As the French government’s website explains,

L’alphabet utilisé doit être celui qui sert à l’écriture du français. Les caractères alphabétiques qui ne sont pas utilisés dans la langue française ne sont donc pas autorisés (par exemple le « ñ »).2

[The alphabet used must be the one used for writing French. Alphabetic characters that are not used in the French language are therefore not allowed (e.g. “ñ”).]

“Fañch” is the regional equivalent of the French “François” or the English “Francis”, and although it is a Breton name rather than a French one, it is by no means unusual. There are prominent Breton writers named Fañch Peru and Fañch Broudig, for example, and so the parents of young Fañch Bernard were understandably upset when their choice of name was rejected. The boy’s father, Jean-Christophe, vowed that “He will have his tilde, that’s for sure”, and AFP reported that he plans to appeal the ruling.

Then, only a week or so ago, I came across a similar report from thelocal.fr, this time claiming that a different Breton couple has been told that they cannot christen their son “Derc’hen”3 — again, another traditional Breton name — for the same reason. First tildes, now apostrophes: does Brittany have a problem with its native tongue? Does France have a problem with the Breton language? Now, I’m no more than an armchair Francophile, but if I was to hazard a guess then I’d say the answer to both questions is yes. And also no. It’s complicated.


France’s passionate and sporadically vexed relationship with its mother tongue is best seen in the existence of the Académie française. Founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu,4 this state-sponsored body is emblematic of the French establishment’s fiercely protective attitude towards its, well, lingua franca, and, as such, it has held firmly to the tiller of French grammar and usage for more than three centuries. Fittingly for such a durable institution, its members are called les immortels after the Académie’s motto, ‎À l’immortalité, or “to immortality”. The larger part of the Académie’s duty to defend the French language takes the form of a dictionary that attempts to replace commonly-used foreign terms such as “weekend”, “email” and “podcast” with neologisms such as fin de semaine, courriel and diffusion pour baladeur. This last term translates directly as “broadcast for walkman”; little wonder the Académie is sometimes accused of being behind the times.5

Beyond its lexicographic work, the Académie issues official statements whenever linguistic evolution takes a notable turn — which, more often than not, is in a direction that les immortels do not especially like. Given that its membership is and has always been conspicuously male, pale and stale, this happens rather a lot these days. As an example, when, in 1998, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin directed that women serving on his cabinet should be referred to as the feminine la ministre rather than the more conventional le ministre, the Académie’s president called an emergency meeting to discuss this assault on the French language.6 More recently, the proposed use of bullets to formulate gender-inclusive terms such as étudiant·e·s to mean a group of students with both male and female members, where ordinarily the masculine étudiants would take precedence over the feminine étudiantes, led the Académie to brand the move a “mortal danger” to the French language.7 With immortality comes a certain ossification of viewpoint, it would seem.

France’s hands-on approach to its language extends far beyond the Académie’s ivory towers. In 1990, a different quango called the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (the CSLF, or Superior Council on the French Language) published guidelines for a spelling reform affecting about 2,400 words such as oignon (onion), now to be spelled ognon to better match its pronunciation; paraître (to appear),* which was to be shorn of its silent circumflex; porte-monnaie (wallet), whose hyphen was to be dropped, and so on.9 The reforms attracted little notice at the time but in 2016, when the changes were finally adopted by educational publishers, there was a general and predictable outcry.10 Ironically, by this time the CSLF had been abolished11 and so the French media turned its accusatory gaze on the Académie française. For once entirely innocent, the Académie found itself in the unique position of having to tamp down a linguistic controversy rather than fan its flames.12

Then there are France’s naming laws.

From the French Revolution on, under choix du prénom (choice of first name) rules parents had to choose from a list of prescribed names when christening their children. The law was not always perfectly applied (Le Parisien reports that a “Sue Ellen” sneaked through the net in 1986, when American soap opera Dallas was at its height), but it nevertheless placed considerable constraints on how children could be named. Having finally been struck off the books in 1993, parents can now choose essentially any name they like as long as the registrar is happy that it will not unduly harm the child.2

And yet, there remains one final consideration: that the only alphabetic characters allowed in names are those used in the French language itself. In Brittany, this is a problem.


The Breton language is emphatically not French. It’s a Celtic language, related closely to Cornish and more distantly to Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and was first exported to the northwest coast of France by Britons who emigrated there in the 5th and 6th centuries.13 As with those other languages, Breton has not always had a smooth relationship with its host country; notably, it was only in 2008 that France’s constitution was amended to give equal status to regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton, and Corsican. Naturally, the Académie française bemoaned the announcement even as Breton cultural leaders rejoiced. British newspaper The Telegraph quoted one Per Vari Kerloc’h, a Breton druid, who took the opportunity to twist the knife a little:

Kerloc’h, the leader of the Gorsedd of Breton Druids, which champions Breton and Cornish culture, insisted the changes were fully compatible with the nation’s distinguished past. […] “Unlike today’s members of the L’Académie Française [sic], many great French writers admitted that regional languages and cultures were part of France’s heritage,” he said.15

The Telegraph did not mention whether Kerloc’h’s apostrophe exists in the officially-recorded version of his name, but it must have given les immortels palpitations all the same.

All this brings us back to 2018 and to Fañch and Derc’hen — and it explains, to a degree, why their names caused the local registrars such consternation. Those who read, write or speak minority languages often do not have the easiest of times using government services, and France’s naming rules, still adrift from the constitution’s more equitable position, are a case in point.

At last, though, things may be changing for the better. Just a few days ago, the public prosecutor of Rennes, where Derc’hen’s parents registered his birth, announced that the boy will be allowed to keep his apostrophe. Referring to the 2014 Ministry of Justice bulletin that had codified the ban on non-French characters,16 Jean-François Thony explained that although the standard French accents (é, è and ê), the diaeresis (ë) and the cedilla (ç) were definitively allowed, nowhere were marks of punctuation explicitly banned.17

For the parents of Fañch Bernard, however, things are as yet unresolved. The same 2014 circular that lets Derc’hen’s apostrophe slip through the net is quite clear on the status of other marks:

Tout autre signe diacritique attaché à une lettre ou ligature ne peut être retenu pour l’établissement d’un acte de l’état civil.

[Any other diacritical sign attached to a letter or ligature cannot be used for the establishment of a civil status document.]

As far as the French state is concerned, the Breton ñ is still forbidden. Fañch’s parents will get their day in court — Le Monde reports that their appeal will be heard at some point in 2018 — but for now, it seems that France is not quite ready to embrace all its languages equally.

1.
AFP, “French Baby Boy Banned from Having Name Containing Tilde”, The Guardian, 2017. 
2.
“Choix Du prénom De l’enfant”, Service-public.Fr, 2017. 
3.
“France Bars Breton Baby Name over an Apostrophe”, The Local, 2018. 
4.
“L’histoire”, www.academie-francaise.Fr
5.
Kim Willsher, “French Must Drop ’ineffective barriers’ Against Other Languages – Minister”, The Guardian, 2015. 
6.
“Feminising French”, BBC News, 1998. 
7.
David Chazan, “Gender-Inclusive French Is a ‘mortal danger’ to the Language, Académie Française Warns”, The Telegraph, 2017. 
8.
Keith Houston, “Hats Off to the Circumflex”, New York Times, February–2016. 
9.
Conseil supérieur de la langue supérieur de la langue française, “Les Rectifications De l’orthographie”, 1990. 
10.
Kim Willsher, “Not the Oignon: Fury As France Changes 2,000 Spellings and Drops Some Accents”, The Guardian, 2016. 
11.
“Historique - Langue française Et Langues De France”, Ministère De La Culture
12.
Mohammed Aïssaoui, “Réforme De l’orthographe : L’Académie française réagit Enfin”, lefigaro.Fr, 2016. 
13.
“Breton Language”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998. 
14.
“Welsh National Anthem”, wales.Com
15.
Peter Allen, “France’s L’Académie Française Upset by Rule to Recognise Regional Tongues”, The Telegraph, 2008. 
16.
“Circulaire Du 23 Juillet 2014 Relative à l’état Civil”, 2014. 
17.
“La Justice Autorise l’apostrophe Dans Le prénom Derc’hen”, lemonde.Fr, 2018. 
*
I wrote an article about the threat to the circumflex for the New York Times.8 
None of this will come as a surprise to natives of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden or certain other countries that have similar laws, but I was taken aback! 
Not coincidentally, Brittany’s anthem, Bro Gozh ma Zadoù, is sung to the same tune as the national anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, and that of Cornwall.14