Fixing PT Serif

Saturday 15 September 2018

When I redesigned this site last year, I chose PT Serif as the body typeface. It is narrow but readable, has character, but is not quirky. It wasn’t until I had finished the design and gotten it launched that I noticed something that bothered me. The curly quotes are designed so that the bulbs are at the same height, and the tails go up and down from there. It’s not that noticeable on a word, but on single characters they just look cockeyed to me:

Close-up of PT Serif curly quotes on a word and a character

I lived with it for a while, but I couldn’t stop seeing it, so I decided to fix it. All I had to do was to scooch the closing quotes up a little. This site is generated with Django, so I wrote some middleware that would find all of the closing curly quotes in the output, and wrap them with a span:

    ('&#8221;', '<span class="cq">&#8221;</span>'),
    ('&#8217;', '<span class="cq">&#8217;</span>'),

class TweakOutputMiddleware:
    def process_response(self, request, response):
        for before, after in REPLACEMENTS:
            response.content = response.content.replace(before, after)
        return response

Then I added a little CSS to move that span, and the quotes were fixed:

.cq {
    position: relative;
    top: -.1em;

But then I had lunch with David Jonathan Ross, an accomplished and acclaimed type designer. When I mentioned this tweak to him, he said, “Why not just fix the font?”

This was a stark illustration of different experts’ tool sets. I’m comfortable screwing around with Django, HTML, and CSS. Even though I am a huge fan of fonts and type technology, and know a lot about both, I have never modified a font. They have always been immutable to me. But David is a type designer. Typefaces are the clay in his hands, so his first reaction was to just change the font.

I was intrigued. We discussed how I might go about that. No shape changes were required. I just had to move some glyphs vertically.

First I retrieved the four TrueType font files for the four versions of PT Serif. My HTML pages had this line to get the fonts from Google:,400i,700,700i|Source+Sans+Pro:400,400i,700,700i

Retrieving that URL got me a small file of CSS @font declarations, with URLs for the individual font files that I could download.

There were two basic approaches I could try to changing the fonts: GUI font editors, or programmatically. There are a handful of GUI font editors available, some free, some not. They are a bit overwhelming, because you are suddenly confronted with a lot of fiddly Bézier curves, and it is very easy to make things look horrible.

Just adjusting the vertical height of a glyph isn’t hard. But the app might have other ideas. For example, I tried the Glyphs editor, and when I opened PT Serif, it immediately offered to fix four problems. I didn’t know there were problems! Do I want to change those things? I just wanted to move some quotes...

The programmatic option was looking more appealing, and I wanted to understand the possibilities there anyway. David had recommended fonttools, a suite of tools written in Python for manipulating fonts. This sounded like home!

I first tried using fonttools as a Python library that I could write code with to change the font. But the examples and docs were not immediately helpful in understanding the arcane internal details.

So I tried something that David had suggested to me: fonttools provides a ttx command that converts fonts to and from an XML format. You can then modify the XML, and convert it back into a font.

I converted PT Serif into a .ttx XML file, and opened it up. I found the definition of the right curly double-quote glyph:

<TTGlyph name="quotedblright" xMin="57" yMin="440" xMax="401" yMax="699">
  <component glyphName="quotesinglbase" x="182" y="585" flags="0x4"/>
  <component glyphName="quotesinglbase" x="0" y="585" flags="0x4"/>
      PUSHB[ ] /* 1 value pushed */
      CALL[ ] /* CallFunction */
      IF[ ] /* If */
        PUSHB[ ] /* 5 values pushed */
        63 6 79 6 2
        DELTAP1[ ] /* DeltaExceptionP1 */
        PUSHB[ ] /* 7 values pushed */

First, notice that there are instructions there that look a lot like a byte code of some kind. I had heard that font files had stuff like this in them, but had never dived into the details. A quick look at the instructions told me that the things I needed were not there.

The “component” pieces are the useful parts here. Fonts have repetitive elements. Rather than repeat those curves over and over, the font file can assemble a glyph from other parts. Here the quotedblright glyph is made with two copies of the quotesinglbase character, each with an x and y offset.

Could it be that just changing those offsets, and some other y-referencing values, will be enough? Based on my CSS tweaks, I knew that I wanted to raise the glyph by .1em. An “em” is a unit of measurement equal to the font size, so in a 10-point font, an em is 10 points. I knew that font designs usually are done on a grid with 1000 units to an em, so all I had to do was add 100 to the y values.

I changed those first three lines to:

<TTGlyph name="quotedblright" xMin="57" yMin="540" xMax="401" yMax="799">
  <component glyphName="quotesinglbase" x="182" y="685" flags="0x4"/>
  <component glyphName="quotesinglbase" x="0" y="685" flags="0x4"/>

After converting the .ttx to a .woff2 file, changing my CSS to refer to the new fonts, and uploading everything, it all works! Now my “quotes” are more balanced: “q”.

I’ve only just barely dipped my toe into these technologies. I’m afraid it’s a Pandora’s box of tempting traps. For example, the upper-case Q in PT Serif has a detached tail that I would rather were attached. But changing that is a whole other level of effort and skill, so probably best left as-is. 5.0a2: SQLite storage

Monday 3 September 2018

The next alpha of 5.0 is ready: 5.0a2. The big change is that instead of using a JSON-like file for storing the collected data, we now use a SQLite database. This is in preparation for new features down the road.

In theory, everything works as it did before. I need you to tell me whether that’s true or not. Please test this alpha release. Let me know what you find.

If you try it, and it works, let me know! Email is good.

If you see a problem, do this:

  • First create a reproducible scenario, something that I can recreate.
  • Try running that scenario with the environment variable COVERAGE_STORAGE=json defined, which will use the old JSON storage format. It will be very helpful to know if the results change.
  • Write up the issue on GitHub. Please provide as many details as you can.

The biggest change in behavior is that the data file is now created earlier than before. If you are running tests simultaneously, this might mean that you need parallel=true where you didn’t before. Keep an eye out for that.

Some other notes about these changes:

  • For now, the old JSON storage code is still in place. It can be enabled with a COVERAGE_STORAGE=json environment variable.
  • But I would rather not keep that code around forever. One of the things I’m trying to find out with this alpha is whether there’s any reason I will need to keep it around.
  • The database schema is still in flux, and will need to change to support future features. I’m not sure whether to make the schema part of the public interface to or not. I want people to be able to experiment with the collected data, but I also want to be able to change it in the future if I need to.

Please test the code, and let me know what you find.

A complicated weekend

Sunday 19 August 2018

My weekends often revolve around my son Nat. He’s 28, and autistic. We have a routine. Usually we walk somewhere around Boston, and we always get a sweet snack of some kind, usually ice cream at one of the dozen or so J.P. Licks stores around the city.

Last weekend was no different, but got complicated in a few ways. The weekend before, I had suggested that we drive a short distance, and then start walking from there. Nat loves his routines, and is deeply suspicious of changes (more on this later!), and so he didn’t want to do that. We’ve long known that advance notice can help with changes like this, so we said we would do it next weekend. We even wrote it on his weekly calendar, “Different walk.”

My idea was that we could drive to Back Bay, walk down the Esplanade along the river, to Charles St, where there is a J.P. Licks for ice cream. That would be about two miles of walking. I had a vague plan that we could take the T back to the car at that point, but I had not made this explicit.

The alert reader at this point will raise their eyebrows about “vague plan,” and you would not be wrong to be concerned...

The day of the different walk rolled around, and the weather called for some rain, but my weather app said it was a ways off, so we set out. Nat was fine with the plan to drive to a walk, because it had been on his calendar. I took a small umbrella to be prepared.

We drove to the Esplanade, and started walking, and a light rain began. No big deal. I gave Nat the umbrella to use. Nat usually walks ahead of me. I realized his shirt said “Greater Boston” on the back, and I thought of getting a picture of him in the rain and labelling it “Wetter Boston.” I took a few different pictures to entertain myself as we went.

Nat, walking in the rainNat, walking in the rainNat, walking in the rainNat, walking in the rain

Then the rain got heavier. We were about a mile in at this point. Ice cream was still ahead of us. We huddled under a shelter and waited. But the rain wasn’t stopping. The weather app now indicated that the rain was here to stay.

Should we push on, or turn back? I ask Nat about it, and of course, he wants to stick with the plan which by the way includes getting ice cream, so why even consider anything else?

Now we both need the umbrella, so I put my arm around his shoulder, and show him how to put his arm around my waist, and we head off. We try to avoid the deeper puddles, but some are inevitable. Nat is a fast walker with long legs, but in this tandem configuration, he’s taking smaller steps than I am. With my arm around him, I can feel how taut his body is. Is it always like that when he walks? Or because of the rain? Or my arm around his shoulder?

We take breaks under whatever shelters we can, and I finally get this “Wetter Boston” shot to commemorate the deluge:

Nat, in the rain, overlooking the Longfellow Bridge

We dodge the construction of the new pedestrian walkway over Storrow Drive, take the old pedestrian walkway over Storrow Drive, and finally make it to J.P. Licks. We get ice cream, we eat ice cream, mission accomplished?

It’s at this point that things start to go wrong...

Nat has been participating in this plan, but I think the difference in the plan, and the rain, have been slowly bothering him. And he knows that I am stressed out about the rain, and the impossible job of staying dry. As soon as he is done with his ice cream, he begins laughing really loudly in the J.P. Licks. Loud enough that everyone in the store looks at us.

This laughing is not a new thing. It is not him being really amused by some internal secret joke. It is an explicit attempt to aggravate me, to push a stressed situation even further. If it happens in private, sometimes we can just ignore it, or even join in, as a defense. But a public setting is a different matter. That laughing is very effective at pushing a stressed dad to a possible breaking point.

Some back story: on a previous ice cream trip a year ago, Nat had started laughing like this while in the middle of eating. I saw it for what it was, and knew that I had to react with a consequence that would get Nat’s attention. I picked up his half-eaten ice cream, threw it away, and walked out of the store. He followed me out, and was very upset. He made a lot of noise on the street, which was horrible and embarrassing, but at least I had shown him that there are consequences. I had won that battle.

That past incident is why this time he waited until after his ice cream was done. He’s autistic, he’s not stupid. I can’t throw away ice cream he’s already eaten. So now I have no leverage. The best thing I can think to do is to walk out of the store, and keep the umbrella, and maybe the rain will bother him.

It doesn’t. Now we are walking down Charles St (a busy tourist destination) in the rain, me with an umbrella, him trailing behind laughing as loud as he can. People look at us, I am used to that. He’s being loud enough that a workman comes out of a store and asks if everything is all right. Nat ignores him, I bark “Yes!” over my shoulder, and keep walking.

At this point I have to admit that I lost this laughing battle. We stop, and I get Nat under the umbrella. I point out that it is still raining, and a long way back to the car. I suggest that we can take Lyft back to the car. “No!” says Nat. We could take the T. “No!” Mom could come pick us up? “No!” I try talking about this for ten minutes while we huddle in a doorway. Nothing will budge him from the original plan.

It could have been that if I called a Lyft, he would have gotten in and been fine. Or he would have gotten in and been upset, but we would have gotten there. But he really seemed prepared to dig in and throw a fit about it. And to be fair, it was a surprise change in the plan. He wanted to walk back, and we were already wet. All we had to do was walk two more miles in the rain, huddled under a folding umbrella.

So we walked two more miles in the rain, huddled under a folding umbrella. I was tired, and wet. I was frustrated and dejected about the laughing incident. We were late for lunch, so in spite of the ice cream, I was hungry.

The afternoon weather was delightful and sunny, observed while resting indoors. Fun fact: two weeks earlier we had had another surprise torrential downpour that resulted in me getting completely soaked, so the novelty was wearing off. Another fun fact: Nat’s middle name is Isaac, which means, “He will laugh.” Choose names wisely.

Sunday we were going to get haircuts. Our hair cutter is in Brookline, right across the street from a J.P. Licks. As you have probably guessed, our routine is to get ice cream after the haircut. Before we went, I said to Nat, “We can’t get ice cream after the haircut, because you laughed too much in J.P. Licks yesterday.” My wife Susan was very worried that this would cause a scene later, but Nat accepted the news somberly.

Nat did great at the hair cutter, no problem at all. When we left the shop, Nat walked over to the crosswalk. I said, “Where are we going?” He said J.P. Licks. I said, “No, we can’t go there, do you know why?” He said, “Because you laughed.” (Nat still confuses me/you pronouns.) “Right, so we can’t go there.” Again, Nat dealt with this calmly and seriously. I hoped that the consequence connection would work to prevent future incidents.

At this point, hard-hearted behaviorist that I am, even I felt bad for Nat. Despite Saturday’s struggles, Sunday had been perfect. But the laughing is bad, and needs to be countered. I love Nat, and want to have fun with him and make him happy, but I also need to help him keep his behavior within acceptable bounds.

I compromised: “We can get a candy bar at CVS.” And so we did, Mounds for me, Milky Way for him, and a sunny drive home.

•    •    •

Update: Today is sunny and gorgeous, great for a walk. After posting this, I turned to Nat, and said, “How about we drive, then walk, then get ice cream, then take the T back to the car, then drive home?” He said, “OK,” and we did. Storrow Drive, Charles Street, the exact route I had tried last weekend.

He checked in with me a few times along the way to make sure he understood the plan (or was it to make sure that I understood the plan?) But there was no friction ever. Simple as that. You never quite know what you’re going to get.

SQLite data storage for

Tuesday 14 August 2018

I’m starting to make some progress on Who Tests What. The first task is to change how records the data it collects during execution. Currently, all of the data is held in memory, and then written to a JSON file at the end of the process.

But Who Tests What is going to increase the amount of data. If your test suite has N tests, you will have roughly N times as much data to store. Keeping it all in memory will become unwieldy. Also, since the data is more complicated, you’ll want a richer way to access the data.

To solve both these problems, I’m switching over to using SQLite to store the data. This will give us a way to write the data as it is collected, rather than buffering it all to write at the end. BTW, there’s a third side-benefit to this: we would be able to measure processes without having to control their ending.

When running with --parallel, coverage adds the process id and a random number to the name of the data file, so that many processes can be measured independently. With JSON storage, we didn’t need to decide on this filename until the end of the process. With SQLite, we need it at the beginning. This has required a surprising amount of refactoring. (You can follow the carnage on the data-sqlite branch.)

There’s one problem I don’t know how to solve: a process can start coverage measurement, then fork, and continue measurement in both of the child processes, as described in issue 56. With JSON storage, the in-memory data is naturally forked when the processes fork, and then each copy proceeds on its way. When each process ends, it writes its data to a file that includes the (new) process id, and all the data is recorded.

How can I support that use case with SQLite? The file name will be chosen before the fork, and data will be dribbled into the file as it happens. After the fork, both child processes will be trying to write to the same database file, which will not work (SQLite is not good at concurrent access).

Possible solutions:

  1. Even with SQLite, buffer all the data in memory. This imposes a memory penalty on everyone just for the rare case of measuring forking processes, and loses the extra benefit of measuring non-ending processes.
  2. Make buffer-it-all be an option. This adds to the complexity of the code, and will complicate testing. I don’t want to run every test twice, with buffering and not. Does pytest offer tools for conveniently doing this only for a subset of tests?
  3. Keep JSON storage as an option. This doesn’t have an advantage over #2, and has all the complications.
  4. Somehow detect that two processes are now writing to the same SQLite file, and separate them then?
  5. Use a new process just to own the SQLite database, with coverage talking to it over IPC. That sounds complicated.
  6. Monkeypatch os.fork so we can deal with the split? Yuck.
  7. Some other thing I haven’t thought of?

Expect to see an alpha of in the next few weeks with SQLite data storage, and please test it. I’m sure there are other use cases that might experience some turbulence...

Fighting spam on freenode

Sunday 5 August 2018

The Freenode IRC network (and I guess others) are under an aggressive spam attack these days. I’ve learned a lot more about Freenode modes in order to help defend against the spam. This is my understanding of the tools and techniques. Corrections welcomed!

IRC is a great way to connect with other people, but it is arcane and poorly documented. How IRC networks are configured and maintained is not standardized. The details here are for Freenode. I have no idea how much of this applies to other networks.

When a user connects to Freenode, they can use a registered nick (nickname), or an unregistered one. Registering is also called “identifying with services,” meaning you have presented your password to the IRC service. Here’s how to register your nick if you haven’t yet: Nickname Registration. The spam bot constantly changes nicks, but doesn’t use registered nicks, so the defense is all based on preventing what unregistered nicks can do.

The main concept for configuring IRC is “modes”. These are single-letter flags that can be applied to users and channels. The modes are different for each: User Modes, and Channel Modes.

The modes you can set depend on whether you are a channel operator, or just a regular user.

For regular users: the spam bot will send you private messages unless you give yourself the +R mode, which means that only registered nicks can send you private messages. To apply this to yourself, use this command in your IRC client (replace “your_nick” with your nick):

# Stop unregistered nicks from PMing me
/mode your_nick +R
# What are my current modes?
/mode your_nick

For channel operators: you have a few options for how to defend your channel. I think the first option is the best.

  • You can allow unregistered nicks to join, but prevent them from speaking with +q. This flag takes an argument which is the pattern of user to quiet. “$~a” means anyone who is unregistered:
  • # Unregistered nicks will be quieted in #your_channel
    /mode #your_channel +q $~a
    # See the list of quieted user patterns
    /mode #your_channel +q
  • If you use +q, but have unregistered bots that you want to be able to talk in your channel, you can exempt them with +e:
  • # Your bot will be able to talk
    /mode #your_channel +e $a:your_bot_nick
    # See the list of exempted user patterns
    /mode #your_channel +e
  • You can completely prevent unregistered nicks from joining your channel with +r:
  • # Only registered nicks can join #your_channel
    /mode #your_channel +r
    # See the list of channel modes
    /mode #your_channel
  • If for whatever reason you cannot stop unregistered nicks from talking in your channel, then you will get spam messages. You can still help defend by inviting freenode’s Sigyn bot into your channel. The bot kills spammers when they send their first message. Invite it like this:
  • # Invite the freenode spam fighting bot
    /invite Sigyn #your_channel

Favorite moths

Monday 30 July 2018

The Moth is a story-telling podcast. I’ve been listening to it for a long time. I don’t like all the stories, but when I hear one that I do, I really like sharing it with my family. Maybe more than they like me sharing it, but I still try to encourage them to listen to the ones I find for them.

I like stories that are funny but also touching. These are some of my favorites:

  • Empathetic Subway Screaming by Jeff Simmermon: Jeff Simmermon has a run in with a grouchy straphanger on the subway.
  • Father Figure by Steve Zimmer: Hoping to impress his girlfriend’s son with a glassblowing demonstration has disastrous repercussions.
  • Notes on an Exorcism by Andrew Solomon: While studying treatments for depression in rural Africa, Solomon has an overly intimate encounter with a ram.
  • Golf Clubbing by Ed Gavagan: The screwball tale of the child of a tough drill sergeant who is injured on a Texas military base in the early 1970s.
  • Eye Spy by Michaela Murphy: Michaela Murphy endures a family beach vacation.
  • War Games by Micaela Blei: A teacher discovers her playground has turned into a 3rd grade war zone.