l3build development picks up the pace

The LaTeX team have over the past three years created l3build, a ‘proper’ tool which takes our previous testing and release scripts and converts them into some that can be used more widely of LaTeX developers. I talked about the early work some time ago, and Frank Mittelbach and Will Robertson also wrote about it for TUGBoat.

Promoting l3build as a general tool means that new ideas come up, and we’ve been working on that (as well as other things) quite a bit. To keep developments clear, we’ve recently moved the l3build code to a new home on GitHub. This means it’s now separate from the main LaTeX3 repository, but that the history is clearer. This change has meant new ideas have come ‘out of the woodwork’, and have started accumulating in the issue tracker. It looks like an exciting time for l3build: I’m expecting more features to appear and for that to help new developers pick it up as their release technology. Hopefully the result will be more well-designed and tested LaTeX code.

Making custom loaders expl3-aware

The expl3 syntax used by the developing programming layer for LaTeX3 is rather different from ‘traditional’ TeX syntax, and therefore needs to be turned on and off using the command pair \ExplSyntaxOn/\ExplSyntaxOff. In package code making use of expl3, the structure

\ExplSyntaxOn % Or implicit from \ProvidesExplPackage
\ExplSyntaxOff % Or the end of the package

will switch off expl3 syntax for the loading of somepackage and so will work whether this dependency uses expl3 or not.

This is achieved by using the LaTeX2e kernel mechanism \@pushfilename/@popfilename, which exists to deal with the status of @ but which is extended by expl3 to cover the new syntax too. However, this only applies as standard to code loaded using \usepackage (or the lower-level kernel command \@onefilewithoptions). Some bundles, most notable TikZ, provide their own loader commands for specialised files. These can be made ‘expl3-aware’ by including the necessary kernel commands

  % Main loader, including \input or similar

For packages which also work with formats other than LaTeX, the push and pop steps can be set up using \csname

  \csname @pushfilename\endcsname
  \expandafter\xdef\csname @currname\endcsname{#1}%
  % Main loader, including \input or similar
  \csname @popfilename\endcsname

Of course, that will only work with LaTeX (the stack is not present in plain TeX or ConTeXt), but as the entire package idea is essentially a LaTeX one that should be a small problem.

Reworking and exposing siunitx internals

I’ve been talking for a while about working on a new major version of siunitx. I’ve got plans to add some new features which are difficult or impossible to deliver using the v2 set up, but here I want to look at perhaps what’s more important: the back end, programming set up and related matters.

I’ve now made a start on the new code, working first on what I always think of as the core of siunitx: the unit processor. If you take a look at the new material and compare it with the existing release the first thing that should be obvious is that I’ve finally made a start on splitting everything up into different sub-parts. There are at least a couple of reasons for this. First, the monolithic .dtx for v2 is simply too big to work with comfortably. More importantly, though, the package contains a lot of different ideas and some of them are quite useful beyond my own work. To ensure that these are available to other people, it would seem best to make the boundaries clear, and separate sources helps with that.

That leads onto the bigger picture change that I’m aiming for. As regular readers will know, I wrote the first version of siunitx somewhat by accident and in an ad hoc fashion. Working on v2, I decided to make things more organised and also to use expl3, which I’d not really looked at before. So the process of writing the second version was something of a learning experience. At the same time, expl3 itself has firmed up a lot over the time I’ve been working with it. As such, the current release of siunitx has rather a lot of rough edges. In the new code, I’m working from a much firmer foundation in terms of conventions, coding ideas and testing implementations. So for v3 I’m aiming to do several things. A key one for prospective expl3 programmers is the idea of defined interfaces. Rather than making everything internal, this time I’m documenting code-level access to the system. That means doing some work to have clearly defined paths for information to pass between sub-modules, but that’s overall a good thing. I’m also using the LaTeX3 teams new testing suite, l3build, to start setting up proper code tests: these are already proving handy.

The net result of the work should be a better package for end users but also extremely solid code that can be used by other people. I’m also hopeful that the ideas will be usable with little change in a ‘pure’ LaTeX3 context. Documenting how things work might even have a knock-on effect in emulating siunitx in say MathJax. Beyond that, I’ve viewed siunitx as something of a sales pitch for expl3, and providing a really top-class piece of code is an important part of that. If I can get the code level documentation and interfaces up to the standard of the user level ones, and improve the user experience at the same time, I think I’ll be doing my job there.

Case changing: solving the challenges in TeX

I wrote recently about handling UTF-8 input in Lua, and in particular the fact that doing text manipulation needs a bit of care. One area that I’ve been looking at recently is doing case changing operations. We’ve been looking at this for expl3, so I thought it would be worth looking at this in a bit of detail. I’m going to mainly focus on the results rather than implementation: the latter is important when it affects the output but not really otherwise (except for the team!).


The first thing to think about is what case changing is needed for. We’ll see in a bit that TeX uses ‘case changing’ for something very different from what we might think of as changing case in ‘text’. First, though, let’s look at what those ‘normal’ requirements are. The Unicode Consortium have looked in detail at this: take a look at the standard for all of the detail. The common situations are:

  • ‘Removing’ the case from text to allow ‘caseless’ comparisons (‘case-folding’). This is primarily used ‘internally’ by code, and tends traditionally to be handled by simply lower casing everything before some comparison. The Unicode approach has some slight differences between case-folding and lower-casing, but it’s relatively straight-forward.
  • Upper-casing ‘text’. Here, all characters that have a case mapping are changed to the upper-case versions. That’s a relatively simple concept, but there is a bit more to it (as we’ll see).
  • Title- or sentence-casing ‘text’. The concept here is usually implemented by upper-casing the first character of a phrase, or of each word, then to lower-case the rest. Again, the Unicode specs have a bit more to say on this: there are some character(s) that should not be upper-cased at the start of a word in this context but need a special ‘title-case’ character. (For example, in Dutch ‘IJ’ at the start of words should both be upper-cased.)

Just to make life a bit more fun, there are also some language-dependent rules for case changing, and some places where the outcome of a case change depends on the context (sigma at the end of words is the most obvious example). So there are a few challenges if we want to cover all of this in TeX. We’ve also got to think about the ‘TeX angle’: what does ‘text’ mean, how do we handle math mode, etc.

TeX primitives

TeX provides two primitives for changing case, \lowercase and \uppercase. These are powerful operations, and in particular are very often used for something that’s got very little to do with case at all: making characters with non-standard category codes. As that isn’t a ‘real’ case change at all, I won’t look at it further here, other than noting that it means we need those primitives for something even if we do case changing another way entirely!

Sticking with changing case of ‘text’, \uppercase and \lowercase rely on the fact that each character has a one-to-one mapping for upper- and lower-casing (defined by \uccode and \lccode). Assuming these are not ‘do nothing’ mappings, they allow a simple replacement of characters

\uppercase{hello} => HELLO
\lowercase{WORLD} => world

With XeTeX and LuaTeX, these mappings are set up for all sensible UTF-8 codepoints (‘characters’). However, the are one-to-one mapping with no context-awareness: that makes it impossible to cover some parts of the Unicode definitions I’ve mentioned (at least using the primitives directly). They also change everything in the input, which makes handling things like

\uppercase{Some text $y = mx + c$}

a bit tricky (there are ways, of course!).

Another TeX concern is ‘expandability’: \uppercase and \lowercase are not expandable. That means that while we can do

\uppercase{\def\foo{some text}}

and have \foo defined as SOME TEXT, the apparently ‘obvious’ alternative

\edef\foo{\uppercase{some text}}

doesn’t have the expected result (\foo here is defined as \uppercase{some text}). Moreover, it means we can’t use the primitives inside places where TeX requires expansion. As a result, things like


result in an error. Of course, there are always ways around the problem, but I think it looks a lot ‘nicer’ for the user if a way can be found to do these operations expandably. As we’ll see in a bit, that is doable if we accept a few restrictions.

Case folding

If we want to implement case changing without using \lowercase and \uppercase then we have to have some form of iterative mapping over the ‘text’ input. Doing that while keeping the code expandable is doable if we accept a few restrictions, which I’ll come to in a bit. One to mention now is that the code here assumes e-TeX is available and that we have the \pdfstrcmp primitive or equivalent functionality: pdfTeX, XeTeX and LuaTeX all cover these requirements.

For ‘case-folding’ we can make some simplifications which make this the most straight-forward situation to set up. First, case-folding is a one-to-one change with no context-dependence: nice and easy. Secondly, as this is needed only for ‘internal’ stuff and not for ‘text’ to be typeset we can assume that everything can be handled as a (TeX) string by applying \detokenize. That avoids issues with things like escaping math mode, brace groups and the like. Setting up an expandable mapping is then relatively straight-forward, and the issue becomes simply how do with actually change the case of each character.

With a list of over 1000 possible characters to case-fold, comparing each and every one to find a hit would get slow. Luckily, Bruno Le Floch spotted that we can divide up that long list into ‘bite sized’ chunks by using the last two digits of the character code of the input, giving 100 short lists, each of which is realistic just to look through. (For those interested in the internals, the final comparison is done using \str_case:nnF, which is an expandable string-based selection using \pdfstrcmp.)

Putting everything together lead to the documented interface

\str_fold_case:n { <input> }

which does exactly what it says: folds the case of the input, which is treated as a string. The only real point to note here is that with pdfTeX it doesn’t make sense to talk about UTF-8 as the engine doesn’t support it. Thus the changes here are restricted to ASCII (A-Z): for a string that’s clear, but life is a bit more murky for ‘text’ input. I’ll come back to that below.

Case changing

Real case changing provides a few more challenges. Looking first at the Unicode definitions, there are both context- and language-dependent rules to worry about. It turns out that there are relatively few of these, so a bit of work with some hard-coding seems to cover most of them. That does require a bit of ‘bending the rules’ to fit in with how TeX parses stuff, so there may yet be more work to do here!

As we are now looking at text which might have a variety of TeX tokens in it then doing the mapping raises issues. It turns out that we can do an expandable mapping provided we accept that any brace groups end up with { and } as the grouping tokens even if that wasn’t true to start with (a bit of an edge-case but we have to specify these things!). (Note that this does require both e-TeX and \pdfstrcmp, so it’s not true for ‘classical’ TeX.) However, that raises an interesting issue: should stuff inside braces be case changed or not? At the moment, we’ve gone for ‘no’, as that’s very much like the BibTeX approach

title = {Some text with including a {Proper-Name}}

which also makes the code a bit easier to write. However, it’s not quite clear if this is the best plan: I’ll point to one open question below.

Another question is what category codes should apply in the output. For the folding case, it was easy: everything is treated as a string so the output is too. That’s not the situation for general text, but at the same time it seems sensible to assume that you are case changing things that will be typeset (‘letters’). Again, this is rather more of a concepts than a technical question.

Answering these questions, or at least taking a documented position on them, it’s possible to define functions such as

\tl_lower_case:n { <text> }
\tl_upper_case:nn { <language> } { <text> }

that implement the case changing I’ve outlines. As this is very much a ‘work in progress’ those names are not fixed: there’s a feeling that perhaps \text_... might be more ‘sensible’ (the input should be ‘well-behaved’). What’s needed is some testing: we thing the idea is a good one, but at the moment it’s not clear we’ve got all of the ideas right!

Notice the versions that know about languages: the idea is that these will get things like Turkish dotted/dotless-i correct. Of course, that assumes you know the language the input is in, but hopefully that’s normally true!

One thing to note here is again the pdfTeX case. As we are dealing with ‘engine native’ input, it’s only set up to do changes for the ASCII range. That’s fine, but it leaves open the question of LICR text. For example,

 \tl_upper_case:n { \'{e} }

currently doesn’t do anything as there are braces around the e. I’m not sure what’s best: skipping brace groups is generally easier for the user, but they probably would be surprise by this outcome! (With XeTeX or LuaTeX, the input would hopefully be é so the problem doesn’t arise.)


Case changing is a tricky thing to get right. We’ve made some progress in providing a ‘clear’ interface in expl3 that can cover not only UTF-8 input but also language-dependence. What’ needed now is some testing and feedback: we hope these things are useful!

Testing TeX: Lua and TeX, and not just for LuaTeX

I wrote recently about the LaTeX3 build scripts, and that we are moving them to Lua for cross-platform work. One particular area the team are interested in is ‘unit testing’, something that’s common in ‘real’ programming but not so widespread for (La)TeX. The main reason for that is obvious: most people programming TeX aren’t professionals but instead do it as an add-on to their ‘real’ jobs (in my case, chemistry).

The LaTeX3 team have had unit tests for LaTeX for many years. The way these work is quite simple. First, set up a TeX run which does whatever tests are needed and write the output to the log file. The raw logs tend to be rather long, and have information in that varies from system to system, so the second stage is to run a script to extract out just the ‘important’ parts of the log (those get marked up by the TeX set up). The ‘processed’ log can then be compared to one prepared in a ‘reference’ run (where someone has checked the results by hand): if the two results match, the test passes.

Up to now, we’ve used Perl for that ‘log processing’ and have only run tests using pdfTeX. Moving to Lua for our scripting, we can drop Perl and do the post-processing in the build scripts themselves. That makes almost everything self-contained: other than needing Info-ZIP for making CTAN release zip files, all that is needed is a TeX system (featuring LuaTeX for texlua) and the operating system itself (basic file operations but also diff/fc). At the same time, we’re expanding our tests to run them with pdfTeX, XeTeX and LuaTeX. That’s already thrown up several bugs in LuaTeX: nothing most people will notice most of the time, but reported to the developers and to be fixed. (Most of these are about formatting in the log: if you test based on log changes, these are important!)

While the scripts aren’t fully ‘portable’ as they are designed around our development set up, the structures should be pretty clear. The LaTeX test script is also quite general. So we’d like to hope that other people can adopt and adapt them: feedback always very welcome!

Lua for LaTeX3 build scripts

Anyone who follows the LaTeX3 GitHub pages will have seen a lot of checkins recently, not only for the code itself but also for a new set of build scripts. The work should hopefully make us more efficient but also impact on others, directly or indirectly.

Once of the first things I did when I joined the LaTeX3 Project was to write a load of Windows batch scripts for building the code. At the time, most of the rest of the team were using Unix (Linux, Macs, …) but I was using Windows, so this was quite important. Since then, the team’s IT set up has varied a bit but so have the requirements for our scripts, so I’ve ended up working quite a bit with both the batch files and the Unix Makefiles.

The ‘two sets of scripts’ approach has a few problems. The most obvious is that we’ve had to keep the two in synch: not always entirely successful, and not always remembered! At the same time, the ‘standard’ facilities available on the two systems are different: we’ve had to require Perl on all platforms, and work out how best to make everything ‘looks the same’.

Some recent discussion prompted me to consider some new work on the scripts, but with Lua now available anywhere that has a TeX system (as texlua for script work), it seemed natural to move to an entirely new set up. The plan has been to have one ‘master’ script for the entire LaTeX3 repository, rather than the ‘copy-paste’ arrangement we’ve had to date, and to use very simple ‘configuration’ files for each separate module. That’s worked really well: we’ve now got one big file covering almost everything, no longer need Perl and have also addressed some of the things that prompted this in the first place! (More on those in another post soon.)

Even if you are not using LuaTeX for day-to-day TeX work, the scripting ability for supporting development is very handy. Lua doesn’t cover the OS-dependent stuff, but using our existing script code and a small amount of detection we’ve been able to work with that. The new scripts are hopefully nice and clear, more flexible than the old ones and most importantly only need changing in one place for each issue.

So how does this impact on others? First, it makes it easier for the team to work on LaTeX3, which should be a good thing all round. The scripts should also mean that we don’t have the odd strange change depending on which operating system is used to do a release. Second, we’d like to hope that other TeX developers can take ideas from our scripts for their own work. We’re particularly interested in testing TeX code, and I’ll come back to that in my next post. Last, and linked to testing, we are picking up some ‘interesting’ engine-based issues. Those are getting reported, and even if you never use LaTeX we’d hope that will be a benefit!

Programming LaTeX3: A summary so far

Use of the LaTeX3 programming layer ‘expl3’ in LaTeX2e packages is continuing to grow. Ideally, the team would have a nice easy-to-follow Programming LaTeX3 book to support this, but as the language is still developing and because writing such a guide is hard we are not in that position just at the moment. At the moment, the nearest we get is a series of posts I wrote here a little while ago now, trying to at least put some basics down. What I’d like to build up is a ‘self-contained’ story, based on the idea that the reader knows how to use LaTeX as an ‘end user’ (making documents), but with no particular assumptions about programming. I’m hoping to look again at some of these topics in the coming months, but for the moment it seems like a good idea to summarise what we have so far.

To date, the series covers:

The posts run basically in order, so if you are looking to learn then start with the first one and work your way down.

Of course, looking back I think some revision would be handy: for example, now we have an FPU it might be useful to cover that around the same point as integers. I guess what might be sensible is to look seriously at putting together something more structured which can be revised: perhaps it is time for that book!

A talk in Paris

Yesterday I was in Paris, giving a talk to GUTenberg about LaTeX3 as part of their user meeting. The event was very well attended, and ‘official’ video recording will be available of all of the presentations. People seem very keen to hear talk I was giving, so I recorded the audio and have put it together with the slides as a video (thanks to UK-TUG for use of their Vimeo account!). I do hope it all makes sense!

Registering expl3 module

Namespace management in TeX is a co-operative affair: we all share one space, so conventions such as \my@clever@macro are important. For LaTeX2e work, this has always been done on a very informal basis: look around and find a space! For LaTeX3, it seems like a good idea to make things a little bit more ordered. We’ve therefore set up a simple flat-file prefix register, which will track all of the prefixes in use in expl3 code (provided people tell us, of course).

Fixing problems the rapid way

The latest l3kernel update included a ‘breaking change’: something we know alters behaviour, but which is needed for the long term. Of course, despite the fact the team try to pick up what these things will break, we missed one, and there was an issue with lualatex-math as a result, which showed up for people using unicode-math (also reported on TeX-sx). Luckily, those packages all use GitHub, as does the LaTeX3 team, so it was easy to quickly fork the code and for me to create a fix. That’s the big advantage of having code available using one of the distributed version systems (GitHub and BitBucket are the two obvious places): sending in a fix is a two-minute job, even if it’s someone else’s project. So I’d encourage everyone developing open code to got to CTAN to consider using one of these services: it really does make fixing bugs easier. From report to fix and CTAN update in less than 24 h, which I’d say is pretty good!