Entries from April 2006

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Sunday, 30 April 2006 [23:16 CDT]

on the upswing

My hard drive was failing. It'd make this loud CLICK and then freeze. If I used Windows, a Blue Screen of Death would have happened, but Linux just hangs. Eventually (anywhere from ten seconds to five minutes later) the drive would sort-of COUGH and then start spinning again. It could read and write data just fine when the head wasn't stopped.

So yesterday morning I started working on it first thing in the morning and quit around 7pm. Copied all the important data off the bad hard drive. Put in the new hard drive, and a fresh video card while I was changing things up. Decided to also install Fedora Core 5. Got everything set up on the new hard drive. I've got Internet access and can send and receive email, but that's about it. All my old data is still in a backup file somewhere.

I've done other things in the past two weeks like get 96 friends on MySpace, sang at an open mic in a bar on 6th Street, administered TAKS, and tried to help my students cram for the Advanced Placement exam which is Tuesday morning. But this hard drive thing has made it hard for me to do much computery stuff.

Oh. For their End-of-the-Year project, my CS-3 kids are attempting to create a turn-based strategy game similar to (and inspired by) Advance Wars. It doesn't do much, yet, but everything has moved pretty quickly. They may actually have something playable before their time runs out.

Saturday, 15 April 2006 [19:58 CDT]

OCR and Ruby vs. digital hurdles

Last week was fairly exhausting. Spent Monday evening getting grades finalized, and Tuesday and Wednesday after school was judging Senior Project presentations. Tuesday night was also band practice, so by Wednesday evening I was just wiped.

We're a little more than two weeks away from the AP test in Computer Science, so I've been doing some of that this weekend. I found out that there are a few sample questions in the PDF course description you can get from the College Board. As you may know, PDF doesn't usually allow you to copy-and-paste text or save the file as a more text-friendly format. I just love it when file formats try to control what I can and can't do with the data they contain.

So, I used GhostScript to export renders of the appropriate pages on the PDF, saving them as PPM (image) files. Then I used the GNU OCR utility ocrad to pull plain text from them. I then hand-fixed any remaining OCR and formatting errors, so I now have those questions just in a simple text file, which I can (obviously) do what I like with.

The OCR step was the weakest link, I'd say. Exporting at 600dpi tended to create files where many of the symbols weren't handled correctly. But exporting at 1200dpi instead cleared up many of the symbols at the expense of the words themselves. So I did both, OCRing each into two different trials.

I then wrote my first ever Ruby program, which opened both files, pulled a single line from each, ran some simple heuristics on both lines to see if it could guess which one was most likely closest to correct.

If the lines were the same or if one contained more weirdness than the other then the program would automatically choose for me. Otherwise, it showed me both lines and I just had to choose (with a single keypress) which line was 'better' and it'd dump that line into the output file.

Not the most complicated program in the world, but it allowed me to get my feet wet with Ruby, at least. And so far, so good.

For Easter Mom got me a couple of silly CDs. The first is Rock Swings by Paul Anka, where he covers rock songs from the early 90s, mostly. Unlike Pat Boone's similar In a Metal Mood, Anka actually pull off an album that's legitimately worth listening to, on the whole. It's very good swing, I must admit.

The other album Mom got me is Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary Collection, a two-CD set of the weird radio songs I listened to as a pre-teen. I haven't had a chance to listen to more than the first few of this CD, but it should be a fun trip down memory lane.

Easter service is tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. And then Lakeline is starting a series on "Cracking the DaVinci Code", where we'll try to separate the truth from the fiction in the hugely popular book. And that one I'm really looking forward to. I picked the book up for less than $5 at Sam's Club the other day, and it reads well, to be sure.

I woke up this morning feeling a bit of a cold, so I slept as late as possible, have been pushing fluids all day, and am going to try to get to bed early tonight.

Sunday, 9 April 2006 [00:58 CDT]

fun with DOSBox

Actually late Saturday night....

So, I ran across a cool project. DOSBox is an x86 emulator with a DOS emulator built-in. It's designed to allow you to run old DOS games on newer machines. And, it runs on Windows, Linux, or OS X. Since it's an emulator, it runs much more slowly than the machine doing the emulating.

So, since I've been on a gradebook kick lately, I managed to dig up an old copy of InteGrade, the DOS-based gradebook program I used while student teaching at Bowie High School at then for my first couple of years at Leander. In fact, I used it up until my own gradebook became good enough to use. Turns out that DOSBox runs it flawlessly.

Here's a screenshot of the grades for a handful of students from my first period class from the First Six-Weeks of my first year teaching (1997). Hopefully I'm not running afoul of any privacy laws, as the youngest kid in that class would be 24 now.

InteGrade on DOSBox

This gradebook program is incredibly efficient to use, especially without a mouse. If I ever slap a user interface on top of my own gradebook engine, I want it to work like that.

Of course, merely running an old gradebook program is so far from the raison d'être of DOSBox that it's almost criminal. So I downloaded an old favorite shareware game of mine to see how it'd run:

Action SuperCross on DOSBox

The game is Action SuperCross, which has since been updated and renamed ElastoMania. This was a favorite game of those same students mentioned above. Action SuperCross requires a 486, so the emulation provided by DOSBox doesn't run it as smooth as glass or anything, but it's playable. But what kind of performance do you expect from a mere Athlon 2600+ trying to run a game from 1997?

So, other than messing with all that, I've had a pretty productive day. After sleeping in, I spent probably an hour in the front yard pulling up dandelions. Then since I was already out there, I decided to (gasp) wash my car.

Not wanting to overdose on vitamin D, I came back inside and spent a while shuffling papers and getting punchy, punchy on the calculator doing my tax return. Assuming I did everything correctly, it'll be my biggest return to date.

Friday was the last day of the Fifth Six-Weeks, so I need to head up to school at some point tomorrow to finish the little grading I have left. But now I need to get to bed; I've got church in the morning!

Sunday, 2 April 2006 [22:16 CDT]

gradebook redux, rez week, spending

Last Monday morning I had an unexpected email waiting for my arrival at school. One of the programmers working on GradeSpeed.NET (which I'd mentioned in a previous entry) emailed to correct my misconception that his (their) product would only work in Internet Explorer; in fact it works in any browser that supports HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

He also wanted my suggestions. Cool thing about having a forum like this, you know? Here's what he wrote:

I also wanted to ask for your input on how GradeSpeed could be easier for you to use. We are going to add a way to import grades from a text file so we can integrate with scanners and other grade programs. But, I'm sure it would be nice for you to not have to use two separate programs for grading.

So, I gave him a lengthy and detailed complaint list, and he promptly replied, promising to address some of the minor and easy-to-fix annoyances immediately. Not bad service for just mouthing off, I'd say.

Later that evening I drove the 15 miles to Border's Bookstore; they were having a 25-percent-off sale for public school teachers. So I picked up a copy of Programming Ruby (affectionately referred to as "The Pickaxe") at a nice discount. As luck would have it, I only later discovered that Amazon sells that same book for 37% off every day of the week. Oh, well.

Friday night I convinced our small group at the last minute to come down to UT campus with me to have some free barbecue and celebrate the last night of Resurrection Week. It turns out that when all 40 or 50 Christian student groups on campus join together with one purpose, they can really do some interesting things and promote some healthy discussion.

The guest speaker was Chris Seay (pronounced "C") and the music was done by his little brother in the Robbie Seay Band. It was cool and really nice to tool around campus for really the first time in nearly nine years.

I've also spent a lot of money in the last week or so. Besides the $36 book, I got 176 dollars' worth of stuff from Musician's Friend, including a gig bag for my new-ish 61-key keyboard, a little 8-channel mixer to run vocals into my keyboard amp, a footswitch for one of the guitar amps at church, and twelve sets of guitar strings. Oh, and two expandable mailing tubes at The Container Store to keep the strings in.

I probably should do my tax return pretty soon now.

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