1953: The History of Unicode
|The History of Unicode|
Title text: 2048: "Great news for Maine—we're once again an independent state!!! Thanks, @unicode, for ruling in our favor and sending troops to end New Hampshire's annexation. 🙏🚁🎖️"
An encoding of a character set is a mapping from characters to numbers. For example, the letter "A" might be represented by the value 65. A problem was that each script had its own character set. Different characters could be represented by the same value. Some languages, such as Japanese, had several inconsistent character encodings, so before people could send text, they would have to have agreed which character set to use. Unicode was planned as a way of solving this by providing for a single character encoding for all the various characters used in the world's languages.
Unicode is run by a consortium of major technology companies and stakeholders. The founders of Unicode include Joe Becker, who worked for Xerox in the 1980s. He has a beard and may be the character featured in the first and third panels.
New characters have continued to be added to Unicode, and recently many "emoji" (picture characters) have been added. Emoji were originally added to be compatible with text message encodings in Japan, but after devices in other countries started supporting them as part of Unicode, they caught on worldwide. Now emoji characters are added for their own sake, not just for compatibility.
One recently added emoji is the "Lobster emoji". It was approved as part of Unicode 11, for release in 2018.
This comic shows the creator of Unicode talking about how it would change the way we thought about managing text, which could help with incompatible binary text encoding. This seems to have derailed over the next 30 years, as shown in a real tweet from the junior Senator from Maine, Angus King. In the tweet, Sen. King writes that he is excited that the system is getting a new lobster emoji, showing that now the Unicode system is used for more frivolous reasons. He even signs using two emoji to form his name. There is a cattle breed called Angus cattle, so the cow emoji, 🐮, stands for "Angus", and the crown emoji, 👑, of course represents "King". Thus Angus King becomes 🐮👑. This is thus not part of the xkcd joke; it just uses the real tweet for comic effect. The tweet was released February 7th, only two days before this comic; the second comment on the tweet posted this comic and asked which came first, but of course the tweet did. A user comments that Senator King should see it as a badge of honor (🎖) to have his tweet included in an xkcd strip...
The title text imagines that Unicode will gain other unexpected roles in the next 30 years. In particular it acts as an armed force, capable of intervening in military disputes, such as an annexation of Maine by its neighbor, New Hampshire. The title text ends with three Unicode emoji: "🙏" code point 1F64F "PERSON WITH FOLDED HANDS", "🚁" code point 1F681 "HELICOPTER", and "🎖" code point 1F396 "MILITARY MEDAL", suggesting that they are thanking them for their effort in the war, sending helicopters and soldiers to aid them against New Hampshire. The phrase "we're once again an independent state" may also be a political pun, as 2048 should be an election year, and King is an Independent senator.
- [A bearded man holds a document labeled "Unicode". Most likely he represents Joe Becker.]
- Bearded man: My "Unicode" standard should help reduce problems caused by incompatible binary text encodings.
- [A tweet from Twitter is shown. To the left of Senator Angus King's name is his avatar (a face with a mustache) and to the right is the blue checkmark used by Twitter to signify a verified user.]
- Senator Angus King
- Great news for Maine - we're getting a lobster emoji!!! Thanks to @unicode for recognizing the impact of this critical crustacean, in Maine and across the country.
- Yours truly,
- Senator 🐮👑
- 2/7/18 3:12 PM
- [Cueball and the bearded man (the latter now grey-haired) are looking at a wall with the Unicode standard, labeled "1988", and Senator King's tweet, labeled "2018", posted on it.]
- Cueball: What... what happened in those thirty years?
- Bearded man: Things got a little weird, okay?
- Initial version of the comic had "1998" in panel 3 instead of "1988" as shown in panel 1. This was fixed later.
- Ironically, the first version of this article (automatically generated by a bot) had problems with emoji encoding.
- At one time the scenario in the title text wouldn't have been quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Maine and New Hampshire were for many years involved in border disputes, primarily over fishing rights and whether Seavey Island, located in the middle of the river that forms the border of the two states, was part of Maine or New Hampshire. The latter issue was not settled until 2002. Neither dispute ever quite rose to the level of a full-on shooting war but they got surprisingly close.
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