Encoding Conversion With iconv
There's one last standard library we need to discuss for us to have completely covered Ruby 1.8's support for character encodings. The
iconvlibrary ships with Ruby and it can handle an impressive set of character encoding conversions.
This is an important piece of the puzzle. You may have accepted my advice that it's OK to just work with UTF-8 data whenever you have the choice, but the fact is that there's a lot of non-UTF-8 data in the world. Legacy systems may have produced data before UTF-8 was popular, some services may work in different encodings for any number of reasons, and not quite everyone has embraced Unicode fully yet. If you run into data like this, you will need a way to convert it to UTF-8 as you import it and possibly a way to convert it back when you export it. That's exactly what
Instead of jumping right into Ruby's
iconvlibrary, let's come at it with a slightly different approach.
iconvis actually a C library that performs these conversions and on most systems where it is installed you will have a command-line interface for it.
I'm sure everyone has noticed that my blog posting has dramatically fallen off from the rate I was getting articles out. Unfortunately, I've been spending my blog time fighting the endless war against spam. I've made some progress there and thought I would share some details that others might find useful.
As I've covered previously this blog now requires me to approve all comments. I'm super happy with this decision. I approve posts promptly, so there's pretty much no downside for users and this means you have not seen a single spam message on this site since I made the change. This was literally the perfect solution… on the viewer's side of the fence.
What it didn't fix was the hassle on my side. I don't mind approving messages at all, as long as I have a reasonable pile to go through. However, the spammers really ramped up their efforts against me lately and this blog received 11,134 comment posts in the month of November alone. Six of those were legitimate comments. That exceeds my definition of reasonable.
The $KCODE Variable and jcode Library
All of the Ruby files I create start with the same Shebang line:
#!/usr/bin/env ruby -wKU
It's not really needed for every file since it generally only matters if the file is executed. However, I tend to go ahead and add it to all Ruby files I build for several reasons:
- You never know when a file may be executed (
if __FILE__ == $PROGRAM_NAME; endsections are often added to libraries, for example)
- It makes it obvious the file is Ruby code
- It shows the rules this code expects
The rules I mention here, specified by command-line switches, are the main point of interest.
-wturns on Ruby's warnings which are very handy. I recommend doing that whenever you can. But that doesn't have anything to do with character encodings.
-KUsets a magic Ruby variable:
$KCODE. You can do the same in your code if you aren't in a position to control the command-line arguments:
$KCODE = "U"
You probably recognize the
Uas a name for Ruby 1.8's UTF-8 encoding, from my earlier list of encodings. It can also be set to
S. Modern versions of Rails do set
$KCODE = "U"for you.
- You never know when a file may be executed (
Bytes and Characters in Ruby 1.8
Gregory Brown said, in a training session at the Lone Star Rubyconf, "Ruby 1.8 works in bytes. Ruby 1.9 works in characters." The truth of Ruby 1.9 is maybe a little more complicated and we will discuss all of that eventually, but Greg is dead right about Ruby 1.8.
In Ruby 1.8, a
Stringis always just a collection of bytes.
The important question is, how does that one golden rule relate to all that we've learned about character encodings? Essentially, it puts all the responsibility on you as the developer. Ruby 1.8 leaves it to you to determine what to do with those bytes and it doesn't provide a lot of encoding savvy help. That's why knowing at least the basics of encodings is so important when working with Ruby 1.8.
There are plusses and minuses to every system and this one is no exception. On the side of plusses, Ruby 1.8 can pretty much support any encoding you can imagine. After all, a character encoding is just some bytes that somehow map to a set of characters and all Ruby 1.8
Strings are just some bytes. If you say a
Stringholds Latin-1 data and treat it as such, that's fine by Ruby.
General Encoding Strategies
Before we get into specifics, let's try to distill a few best practices for working with encodings. I'm sure you can tell that there's a lot that needs to be considered with encodings, so let's try to focus in on a few key points that will help us the most.
Use UTF-8 Everywhere You Can
We know UTF-8 isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn close to perfect. There is no other single encoding you could pick that has the potential to satisfy such a wide audience. It's our best bet. For these reasons, UTF-8 is quickly becoming the preferred encoding for the Web, email, and more.
If you have a say over what encoding or encodings your software will accept, support, and deliver, choose UTF-8 whenever you can. This is absolutely the best default.
Get in the Habit of Documenting Your Encodings
We learned that you must know a data's encoding to properly work with it. While there are tools to help you guess an encoding, you really want to try and avoid being in this position. Part of how to make that happen is to be a good citizen and make sure you are documenting your encodings at every step.
The Unicode Character Set and Encodings
Since the rise of the various character encodings, there has been a quest to find the one perfect encoding we could all use. It's hard to get everyone to agree about whether or not this has truly been accomplished, but most of us agree that Unicode is as close as it gets.
The goal of Unicode was literally to provide a character set that includes all characters in use today. That's letters and numbers for all languages, all the images needed by pictographic languages, and all symbols. As you can imagine that's quite a challenging task, but they've done very well. Take a moment to browse all the characters in the current Unicode specification to see for yourself. The Unicode Consortium often reminds us that they still have room for more characters as well, so we will be all set when we start meeting alien races.
Now in order to really understand what Unicode is, I need to clear up a point I've played pretty loose with so far: a character set and a character encoding aren't necessarily the same thing. Unicode is one character set, and has multiple character encodings. Allow me to explain.
What is a Character Encoding?
The first step to understanding character encodings is that we're going to need to talk a little about how computers store character data. I know we would love to believe that when we push the
akey on our keyboard, the computer records a little
asymbol somewhere, but that's just fantasy.
I imagine most of us know that deep in the heart of computers pretty much everything is eventually in terms of ones and zeros. That means that an
ahas to be stored as some number. In fact, it is. We can see what number using Ruby 1.8:
$ ruby -ve 'p ?a' ruby 1.8.6 (2008-08-11 patchlevel 287) [i686-darwin9.4.0] 97
?asyntax gives us a specific character, instead of a full
String. In Ruby 1.8 it does that by returning the code of that encoded character. You can also get this by indexing one character out of a
$ ruby -ve 'p "a"' ruby 1.8.6 (2008-08-11 patchlevel 287) [i686-darwin9.4.0] 97
Stringbehaviors were deemed confusing by the Ruby core team and have been changed in Ruby 1.9. They now return one character
Strings. If you want to see the character codes in Ruby 1.9 you can use
Understanding M17n (Multilingualization)
Big changes are coming to Ruby in version 1.9 with regard to character encodings. Ruby is going from a language with some of the weakest character encoding support to arguably some of the best support out there for working with different encodings. We're all grown up now.
The downside is that the new code comes with a good size learning curve. I would know because I recently battled through figuring it out so I could add support to the standard CSV library for nearly all of the encodings. It was a battle too. It's brave new territory and there's not a lot of help out there yet for understanding Ruby's new features.
I'm hoping to change that.
This posting will be the start of a new series of blog articles designed to explain the character encoding support in Ruby 1.9. I'm going to assume you know absolutely nothing about character encodings though and begin by explaining in detail what they are and why we have them.
After that, we're going to examine the character encoding support in Ruby 1.8. There's a lot less support there to examine, but it's not well understood and I'm hoping that seeing it in detail will help with understanding how and why Ruby 1.9 is changing.
The Secret Shell Helper
Someone pops onto the Ruby Talk mailing list fairly regularly asking how to break up content like:
one "two" "a longer three"
They expect to end with a three element
Array, where the third item will contain spaces. They generally expect the quotes will have been removed as well.
If your needs are very, very simple you may be able to handle this with a regular expression:
data = 'one "two" "a longer three"' p data.scan(/"([^"]*)"|(\S+)/).flatten.compact # >> ["one", "two", "a longer three"]
That just searches for either a set of quotes with some non-quote characters between them or a run of non-whitespace characters. Those are the two possibilities for the fields. Note that the two separate capture here mean
scan()will returns contents in the form:
[[nil, "one"], ["two", nil], ["a longer three", nil]]
That's why I added a
compact()to get down to the actual matches.
The regular expression approach can get pretty complex though if any kind of escaping for quotes is involved. When that happens, you may need to step up to a parser.
All About Struct
I build small little data classes all the time and there's a reason for that: Ruby makes it trivial to do so. That's a big win because we all know that what is a trivial data class today will be tomorrow's super object, right? If I start out using a simple
Hash, I'll probably end up redoing most of the logic at both ends eventually. Or I can start with the trivial class and grow it naturally.
The key to all this though is that I don't write those classes myself! That's what Ruby is for. More specifically, you need to learn to love
Struct. Allow me to show you what I mean.
Imagine I need a basic class to represent a
Contact. Ruby gives us so many shortcuts that the class could be very small even without
class Contact def initialize(first, last, email) @first = first @last = last @email = email end attr_accessor :first, :last, :email end
You could shorten that up more with some multiple assignment if you like, but that's the basics. Now using
Structis even easier: