Two font mysteries solved (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 02 May 2008

Two font mysteries solved

This has been a good week for fonts: two longstanding mysteries solved.

The first concerns the bitstream vera sans mono I've been using as a terminal font in apps like rxvt and xterm. I'd been specifying it in ~/.Xdefaults like this:
XTerm*font: -bitstream-bitstream vera sans mono-bold-r-normal-*-12-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1

The mystery is that I'd noticed that in xterm, the font looked slightly different -- slightly uglier -- than in rxvt (both apps use the same X class name of XTerm). It was hard to put my finger on what was different -- the shape of all the letters looked the same, but it just seemed a little more ragged, and a little less compact, in xterm. I figured it was just a minor difference in their drawing code, or something.

Well, I was fiddling with fonts (trying to get the new-to-me "Inconsolata" font working) and I noticed that iso10646 bit. I didn't know what 10646 was, but shouldn't it be 8859-1 or 8859-15, the codes for the Latin-1 alphabet? After finishing up my Inconsolata experiments, when I set the font back to Vera I changed the line to XTerm*font: -bitstream-bitstream vera sans mono-bold-r-normal-*-12-*-*-*-*-*-iso8859-15 and moved on to other things.

Until the next morning, when I booted up to a surprise: my main terminal window no longer fit on the screen. It seems it had reverted to the other (uglier) version of Vera Sans Mono, which is also very slightly taller, so instead of being a couple of lines shorter than the screen height, it was a couple of lines too tall to fit.

I checked .Xdefaults -- yes, it was still Vera. What was going on? I finally remembered the one thing I had changed: the language setting on the font, from 10646-1 to 8858-15. I changed it back: sure enough, now the font was pretty again and the terminal was short enough to fit.

I fired up xfontsel and did some experimenting. It turned out the difference between the two almost-identical Vera sans mono bold roman fonts is a field xfontsel calls "spc". It can be either 'c' or 'm'. The 'c' version is the pretty, compact font; the 'm' is the uglier, taller one. For some reason, specifying 10646-1 makes "spc" default to 'c', while 8859-15 makes it default to 'm'. But specifying 'c' in the font specifier gets the good version regardless of which language is specified.

So this would work: XTerm*font: -bitstream-bitstream vera sans mono-bold-r-normal-*-12-*-*-*-c-*-*-*

But then I read up on 10646-1 and it turns out to mean "the whole unicode character set". That sounds like a good idea, so I kept it in my font specifier after all: XTerm*font: -bitstream-bitstream vera sans mono-bold-r-normal-*-12-*-*-*-c-*-iso10646-1

(For the moment I still didn't know what spc, c or n meant; read on if you're curious.)

The second insight concerned a longstanding mystery of Dave's. He has been complaining for quite a while about the way Ubuntu's modern pango-based apps all refuse to see bitmapped fonts. (It bothered me too, but less so, because the terminal and editor apps I use can see X fonts.)

Dave has an Ubuntu install on one machine that he's been upgrading release after release, which does see his bitmapped fonts. But any fresh Ubuntu installation fails to see the fonts. What was the difference?

We knew about the trick of going into /etc/fonts/conf.d, removing the symbolic link 70-yes-bitmaps.conf and replacing it with a link to /etc/fonts/conf.avail/70-yes-bitmaps.conf ... But doing that doesn't actually change anything, and bitmap fonts still don't show up.

The secret turned out to be that you need to run fc-cache -fv after changing the font/conf.d links. This apparently never happens on its own -- not on a reboot, not on installing or uninstalling font packages. Somehow it had happened once on Dave's good install, and that's why it worked there but nowhere else.

I'm not sure how anyone is supposed to find out about fc-cache -- there's no man fontconfig, and the /etc/fonts/conf.avail/README offers no clue, just misleadingly says "Fontconfig scans this directory". man fc-cache mentions /usr/share/doc/fontconfig/fontconfig-user.html, which doesn't exist; it turns out on Ubuntu it's actually /usr/share/doc/fontconfig-config/fontconfig-user.html. But wait, that's just an html-ized manual page for fonts-conf, so actually you could just run man fonts-conf ... your guess is as good as mine why the fc-cache man page sends you on a hunt for html files instead.

man fonts-conf is good reading -- it even solves the mystery of that spc parameter. It stands for spacing and can be proportional, dual-width, monospace or charcell. Aha! And there's lots more useful-looking information in that manual page as well.

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[ 14:58 May 02, 2008    More linux | permalink to this entry ]