Monthly Archives: September 2005

Spell Checking for Web Forms

Something that I recently found a need for was adding spell checking to web input forms. With a WordPress installation on another server, I found a spell checker plugin. I wouldn’t say that this plugin was easy to install (the instructions don’t necessarily resolve all the issues with where components are expected to be), but I persevered and it is now working on that site. I plan to implement it for this WordPress installation once I transfer this domain to the new server machine.

The basic idea is that the “aspell” program is used on the server side to provide the spell checking and suggested alternatives for misspelled words. A Javascript function permits the user to have his or her input into text and textarea elements of forms checked.

It turns out that the plugin is based upon a general-purpose spell checker for web forms, SpellerPages. When installing this for general use, you can simply drop the “speller” directory of files into your site’s document root and then utilize it for any page on your site. Each page you add spell checking to will need to have a Javascript function added to it, as well as a button on the form to be checked. The Javascript function has to be modified to reflect the form and field names of interest in each case. But these modifications should take only a few minutes per page.

Earlier today, I implemented this for the Panda’s Thumb web site, allowing users to spell check their comments in the “preview” of comments.

Is This Your Support Chat?

I needed to have a change made to add a CNAME alias in the DNS for a domain, where the DNS is handled by a web hosting company. So I go to their web site, and under “support” they have a “live chat” option. After entering the specifics of my DNS change request, here is the remainder of the transaction:

Wesley R. Elsberry: OK, I got someone on the phone. Never mind.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 19:42 by the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 18:36 on the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 18:17 on the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 18:05 on the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 17:30 on the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 17:20 on the clock.
Wesley R. Elsberry: Hello? 17:07 on the clock.

It is counterproductive to list a service that is not actually provided. If there aren’t agents around to serve the chat facility, it should be turned off.

Where Are They Now?

I had a letter to the editor printed in my hometown paper, and one of my high school classmates took the opportunity to email me.

Today, I came across this photo:

and I wonder where these people are now, and if they have any interest in saying, “Hi!”. This is a picture of a birthday gathering at the place I worked in early 1983, Media Image Photography and Gallery 21 (for 21 Main Street, Gainesville, Florida). From left to right, we have Michelle Gant (or at least, soon-to-be Gant), Randy Batista, Laurie Hitzig, and Scruffy. Since the Media Image web site is active, that gives me a good guess as to Randy’s whereabouts, although he seems too busy to respond to a feedback left via the site. I haven’t had word from Michelle or Laurie since then. Maybe Michelle is the listed participant in the 2005 Madeira Beach Triathlon, giving a residence of Wesley Chapel, Florida. Or maybe not. Laurie Hitzig comes up in various Google searches, obviously still working as an artist and gallery owner, but I’m not sure exactly where. Unfortunately, when I last spoke with Randy in 1996, Scruffy had died sometime earlier. Scruffy was just an absolutely cool dog, and had been a family member in Randy and Laurie’s home, having his own room, TV, and remote control (he did channel-surf).

“I’m Not Darwin-Only” T-shirt

“I’m Not Darwin-Only; I’m Science-Only” T-shirt now available.

Evolutionary biologists haven’t been “Darwin-only” since…, well, actually, they’ve never been that way. Even when “On the Origin of Species” was first published, there were Lamarckians and folks who took Chambers’s “Vestiges” seriously. Reading Peter Bowler’s “Evolution: The History of an Idea” might help people who mouth “Darwin-only” as an erroneous imprecation. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t help them, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Being science-only means supporting the teaching of science in science classes, and keeping the non-science (such as the many labels for antievolution: SciCre, “intelligent design”, “evidence against evolution”, “teach the controversy”, etc.) out of science classes.

Thanks to Skip Evans for the CafePress shop.

Of Pandas and People

I’m going through the textbook produced by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, “Of Pandas and People” (OPAP). I’m not going to say a lot here about it, at least not for another month or so.

But I thought that I should say something about my state of thought about it.

This has to be one of the most snidely mendacious books that it has been my misfortune to read. It’s one thing to be snidely supercilious, if one has the right of things. But OPAP is, in my opinion, deeply clueless about the most basic parts of biology. It gets things wrong that an AP biology student would get right, and then sneers at the biological research community.

Enough said, for the moment.

For more information on OPAP, go here.

Prairie Chickens

Back in 1994, Diane and I were taking an animal behavior course from Dr. Jane Packard. Part of the course involved doing a project concerning observation of Greater Prairie Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) at the SURF facility in College Station. The males put on lekking displays, even in captive facilities like SURF. The official project had something to do with photoperiod or something, but what got our attention was a project that came out of another class we were taking, which was bioacoustics with Dr. Robert Benson.

Dr. Benson assigned us to use some of the recording gear at the Center for Bioacoustics, make some recordings of organisms, and report on it. He wasn’t particular. So, we decided to multi-task a bit and set up the recorder while we were at the SURF facility, capturing the sounds of the male prairie chickens doing their thing.

The first day that we recorded there were two males who made the preponderance of sounds, with a third male making occasional contributions. So we had 45 minutes of prairie chicken sounds to somehow analyze. Not really wishing to get much, much more familiar with the Kay Sona-Graph, I wrote a simple event recorder program, worked out a set of keys for the acoustic events on tape, and set about keying in event values based on closely listening to the tape. At the end, I had a bunch of timestamps and event codes. I wrote another program, this one in Perl, to make a report of the three call types. Then we ran some statistics… and everything was clearly significant. I’ve never had a another dataset like that, before or since.

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Still More on Yecke

What was seen in Minnesota with Dr. Yecke was a strange reliance on “Santorum” language.

Science Issues

The last time we went through this process, we learned some important lessons that I hope will make your job easier. Perhaps the best lesson that we learned is that controversial issues can stymie the work of a committee.

For example, last spring, the high school math committee came to a standstill over the issue of calculator use. A great deal of time was spent debating the pros and cons of the issue, when the use of calculators was and was not appropriate – and the group could not reach consensus. Only after the issue was removed from discussion by making it an issue for local school boards was the group able to proceed with its work.

This time, we are faced with some controversial issues in the area of science. Scientific theories such as biological evolution can be the basis for a lot of emotional debate, as strong feelings are held by good people on both sides of such issues.

To prevent such issues from becoming a stumbling block to the science committee, I am suggesting that some congressional language be inserted somewhere in the science document. It might be appropriate, for example, to place this language in the first part of the conceptual framework where the history and nature of science is discussed. In this way, we make it clear that decisions on the issue can be discussed and decided at the local level.

This language is part of the conference report that articulated congressional intent and accompanied the No Child Left Behind Act. It had wide bipartisan support in Congress, having passed the Senate by a vote of 91-8. It reads as follows:

The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

Contrary to some reports, nowhere does this language mention intelligent design or creationism. Instead, it simply states the idea that children should understand that there is diversity of opinions and beliefs.

In my desire to learn more about the discussion that surrounded this language I went to the primary source – the Congressional Record (June 13, 2001), which records the statements of members of Congress during floor discussions. Here are the words of Senator Ted Kennedy:

…the language itself is completely consistent with what represents the central values of this body. We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them so they can talk about different concepts intelligently with the best information that is before them. I think the Senator has expressed his views in support of the amendment and the reasons for it. I think they make eminently good sense. I intend to support the proposal (p. S6150).

Clearly, this language has widespread bipartisan support. So, since it is important that no committee gets sidetracked or bogged down with controversial issues, I am asking members of the Science Committee to give consideration to this language.

(Remarks by Cheri Pierson Yecke, Ph.D., July 31, 2003)

NCSE has a good resource on the failed Santorum amendment.

And in another resource, NCSE notes that Yecke’s invocation of Senator Kennedy as a concurring authority is incomplete:

Sen. Edward Kennedy, co-chair of the conference committee, also has weighed in on the Santorum language and its meaning for evolution education. In a March 21, 2002, letter to the editors of the Washington Times, Sen. Kennedy wrote:

The March 14 Commentary piece, ‘Illiberal education in Ohio schools,’ written by my colleague Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, erroneously suggested that I support the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to biological evolution. That simply is not true.

Rather, I believe that public school science classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, ‘intelligent design’ is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation’s public school science classes.

The bottom line is that the “Santorum” language in the conference report does not have a simple role as “guidance” as to legislative intent, as most text in the conference report may be interpreted. The “Santorum” language was itself specifically considered for inclusion in the No Child Left Behind Act, and was specifically rejected. Its presence in the conference report cannot properly be given the status that Yecke seeks to impart to it.

This is the sort of thing that people on the ground in Florida need to watch for.

Katrina: Did Scientists Not Do Enough?

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority has an intriguing post concerning blame for the lack of preparedness in dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Where many people are now attempting to single out some handy scapegoat for blame, Dunford argues that we should distribute the blame instead, and that one of the groups that must take a share of the responsibility are scientists in general.

Scientists did not do enough, Dunford argues, to press the case that the available data plainly made concerning the vulnerability of the Louisiana coast to damage from storms. Faced with recalcitrant politicians of every affiliation, the few scientists who did take a stand given that their expertise was directly relevant to the issue were not joined and backed up by the remainder of the scientific community. Dunford’s post is a call to scientists to get involved in the political process to assure that whenever a scientific finding is clearly at odds with some non-reality-based policy, that the entire scientific community helps press the case for application of scientific knowledge to the public benefit.

My friend Dave Horn is helping out on the ground in the disaster area. Most of us have no business taking up space there, so we can do things like donate to the Red Cross instead.

Interesting Times on a Friday Evening

When I got home from work this evening, there were three police cars with lights flashing in front of my house. Diane was talking with a policeman as I came up. There was a helicopter circling overhead. Apparently, a car-jacking came to an abrupt stop in our little cul-de-sac, and one of the people ran for it, going past Diane as she was working in the side yard and over our neighbor’s fence. The driver, though, was apprehended almost immediately. A canine unit arrived to track down the fellow, and Diane assisted the police in handling our next-door neighbor’s dogs while the search went on. About an hour later, the police caught up with the suspect, who had joined a group watching a soccer game going on in the high school schoolyard behind our house. He didn’t really fit in, the dog had his scent, and another neighbor of ours gave a positive visual identification on him. An officer came by to let us know that everything was now resolved.

This officer had noticed the hawks while doing a search of our backyard, and expressed an interest in seeing them up close. We got some food out, and the officer was able to feed the two hawks on the glove. He said this was the closest he had been to a raptor, and we explained a bit about Harris hawk cooperative hunting and how that behavior distinguished them from other raptors.

Update: News story on the chase and capture.

Nature Publishes Chimp Genome

The draft of the complete chimp genome has been published in the journal, Nature.

I got email today from Nature this morning offering the chimp genome issue for free. Go to this page, answer some survey questions, and the following screen says the issue will arrive in four to six weeks. update: Nature now says that they’ve given away as many free copies as they planned to. They do offer a 20% off subscription rate, though.